February 25, 2013
[UPDATE: I have added an addendum at the end.]
It is refreshing to read a scientist’s perspective on the evolution/creationism debate: An Insider’s View of the Academy (ht: Vincent Torley). The author is James Tour, the Chao Professor of Chemistry at Rice University.
Tour is questioning the scientific academy’s confidence in macro-evolution. To be clear, this is not an apologia for either the Intelligent Design community, much less the Young Earth Creationism folks. He expressly rejects both. Rather, it is an honest assessment of the academy’s willingness to recognize certain weaknesses in the evolutionary theory. Here is a snippet:
Although most scientists leave few stones unturned in their quest to discern mechanisms before wholeheartedly accepting them, when it comes to the often gross extrapolations between observations and conclusions on macroevolution, scientists, it seems to me, permit unhealthy leeway.
…It is not a matter of politics. I simply do not understand, chemically, how macroevolution could have happened. Hence, am I not free to join the ranks of the skeptical and to sign such a statement without reprisals from those that disagree with me? Furthermore, when I, a non-conformist, ask proponents for clarification, they get flustered in public and confessional in private wherein they sheepishly confess that they really don’t understand either. Well, that is all I am saying: I do not understand.
He goes on to offer warnings to his younger colleagues and students who share his concerns about the integrity of the scientific academy on matters pertaining to macro-evolution. This unwillingness to challenge the mechanics of macro-evolution is, it seems to me, a mirror image of the fear and protectionism in certain segments of evangelicalism. There are strengths, to be sure, in the overall evolutionary paradigm, namely the evidence for an old earth. Yet, the mechanics of the evolution itself between species, and especially the emergence of life, is notably weaker. John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford, touches upon this in his excellent (and highly accessible) book, Seven Days that Divide the World. With scientists like Tour and Lennox, the dialogue between science and theology can be far healthier than is found, especially at certain seminaries. It will also bolster the credibility (both scientific and theological) of those of us who refuse to be pushed into either the strict Darwinian Evolution camp or the Young Earth camp.
Addendum – Just to be clear, I am not offering this as any sort of proof against macro-evolution or against the viability of a theistic evolutionary framework. Much less would I argue for a “God of the gaps,” which is the danger of offering these sort of questions about macro-evolution. In the spectrum from YEC to Theistic Evolution, I have always leaned heavily toward the latter but not uncritically, and I find the mediating positions to be fascinating (OEC and Progressive Creationism). As a theology student and seminarian, I just want to see a more productive dialogue between evangelicals and the scientific establishment. I’ve criticized the former several times on this blog (e.g., here and here and here); now I am offering a criticism of the latter.
May 17, 2012
In light of Sarah Coakley’s recent Gifford Lectures, I’ve been reflecting once again on the proper way to formulate the relation between natural and revealed theology. In particular, I am rather committed to Barth’s project of subsisting the doctrine of creation within the doctrine of the covenant (which is to say, within the doctrine of God). Thus, as Barth formulates this in the beginning of his doctrine of creation (CD III.1), creation is the external basis of the covenant, and the covenant is the internal basis of creation.
This means that there is such a thing as a natural theology, just not the sort that dominated either classical Christian theism or Protestant liberalism. The importance of this (and the importance of CD III) is that we are able to move beyond a merely existential theologia crucis that overly emphasizes the eschatological side of the creation-redemption dialectic.
Moreover, in regard to the concerns of Professor Coakley, this means that theology can give proper attention to creation as it presents itself to us (and to scientists). The natural world is a legitimate material field for theological formulations. Revealed theology provides the structure in which natural theology is given the right terms and conditions for its advancement, and (in turn) natural theology provides the material for those terms. There is a correlation in this reciprocity between revealed and natural theology, not a crude accommodation of one to the other. T. F. Torrance aptly expresses this correlation for how “we must advance through and beyond Barth” (not against Barth):
If we are to take as seriously as Barth himself did the relation between the incarnation and the creation in God’s creative and redemptive interaction with the world, then a closer relation must be established between natural theology and revealed theology. Karl Barth rightly attacked traditional natural theology as constituting an independent conceptual system on its own, and therefore as constituting the prior and prescriptive framework within which revealed theology could only be distorted and misinterpreted. He attacked it on a double ground:
(1) from the actual content of positive knowledge of God which called in question prescriptive forms derived from ground on which actual knowledge of God did not arise — the effect of that he held, was to split the concept of God into two, evidenced by the sharp division in mediaeval theology between the tractate on the one God and the tractate on the triune God;
(2) and also from the side of rigorous scientific method which will not allow such a bifurcation between prior epistemological structure and empirical content.
But for these same reasons, which presuppose a rejection of deistic and epistemological dualism, the theoretic and empirical components of our knowledge of God in and through the space-time structures of the creation must be brought together. There is a close parallel here to the advance of physics in its relation to geometry, as Einstein has expounded it. Euclidean geometry was pursued as an independent theoretic system, antecedent to physics, but that has proved an idealisation which falsifies our understanding of the real world when applied to it. But with the discovery of the four-dimensional geometries of space and time, geometry is brought into the heart of physics and pursued in indissoluble union with it. There it becomes, as Einstein said, a kind of natural science, for its structure changes, but it remains geometry and constituted in that organic relation with physics its epistemological structure. Similarly, I would argue, natural theology must be brought within the heart of positive theology, where of course its structure will change, for then physical statements and theological statement will be intimately correlated. This means that positive theology will change also, for it will have to be pursued in indissoluble relation with the space-time structures of the creation, which in a different way are explored by natural science.
[Thomas F. Torrance, "Newton, Einstein, and Scientific Theology," in Transformation & Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1998), 281-282.]
May 16, 2012
I happily discovered today that Aberdeen has posted the video for Sarah Coakley’s Gifford Lectures. They are immensely stimulating, as usual with Professor Coakley. Here are the links:
If you would like to download the videos, keepvid.com is an easy way to do so.
April 26, 2012
James K.A. Smith (Calvin College professor and blogger) has written an excellent review of Peter Enns’ latest book. This review is one of the all too few instances where light is shed on the exegesis involved in the historical Adam debate. There is no attempt to resolve the issue at hand, but Smith asks the right questions about Enns’ method, with its curious lack of theological grounding. I haven’t read The Evolution of Adam yet, but the problems which Smith detects can be found in Enns’ articles at the Biologos webpage. This goes to show that even those of us who are sympathetic to Enns can and should work toward better formulations of a complicated issue, the complexities of which go back at least to Augustine on original sin. As Smith rightly notes, there is a lot of hard theological work still to do.
Also, C. John Collins has his review up at TGC. Collins is an Old Earth guy who, along with John C. Lennox, is among the better defenders of Adam’s historicity.
November 9, 2011
Alight, I can’t put this topic to rest. It’s not my fault; Dr. Mohler really enjoys discussing this, with “urgency,” and I can’t help responding. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Seminary, hosts a panel discussion at said seminary on the historicity of Adam (which I don’t deny necessarily, so that’s not my concern). My concern, once more, is his articulation of how knowledge works. Here we go again:
…Scientists by their very nature, by the very nature of their work, are doing the best they can with the data that’s accessible to them. They’re not looking to the Scriptures for that data; they’re looking at the natural data coming from the world. But what does Scripture tell us? Scripture tells us that that world is not going to tell us the truth. I mean, Genesis 3 tells us that that world is showing all the effects of the Fall. That world is showing all the effects of the flood. That world is showing all the effects of the ravages of human sin and God’s judgment upon that sin.
[emphasis mine; 43 minute mark in the video]
He continues with the qualification that the scientists are not lying to us, because the scientists are just following “as best they can” what nature is telling them. Yet, the scientists cannot be believed. Why? Nature itself is not trustworthy; we really can’t believe the empirical data…because of the Fall.
What does this amount to? It’s an overthrow of the whole scientific process — a fundamental dissolution of the basic epistemic foundation required to do empirical research. What is that basic epistemic foundation? That the natural world is not lying to us. We can actually trust our senses. We have access to the real world. I don’t exist in a dream state. I’m not subservient to mental representations of a reality I can’t know. Oddly enough, Mohler is more extreme than Kant.
May 27, 2011
Move over Hell, the historicity of Adam is back as the du jour controversy in evangelicalism. At least, I hope so. The next issue of Christianity Today features an excellent cover article by Richard Ostling, “The Search for the Historical Adam.” If you subscribe to CT, like I do, then you can read the article online; everyone else will have to wait until CT decides to post it for free, which usually doesn’t take too long. In the meantime, yours truly will provide an overview:
Ostling does a fine job summarizing the current state of the debate, which has shifted from geology, astronomy, and biology, to genetics. In the past, the debate over evolution was largely focused on the massive demonstrative evidence for an ancient and evolving creation. In particular, the age of the universe is settled in favor of an old earth. The details of evolution have been more difficult to assimilate, but many evangelicals have been happy to affirm some measure of evolution, so long as the historicity of Adam and Eve remains intact. Well, now that’s getting harder to do. With the huge advances in genetic research, including the complete map of the human genome, the historicity of Adam is on very shaky grounds, if there’s even any ground remaining. Ostling surveys the key players bringing this evidence to light within the evangelical community, including Dennis Venema’s articles published in the journal, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. In particular, you should check out this article by Venema on the genetic evidence for ancestral population sizes. The September 2010 issue of PSCF is dedicated to the topic. The second portion of Ostling’s article covers the exegetical debate: since the biblical authors assume a historical Adam, what are we to do as evangelicals committed to inerrancy or, at the least, infallibility of Scripture? Isn’t Romans 5 meaningless without a historical Adam? Ostling rightly recognizes that we need both players in this debate — the exegetes/theologians and the scientists — to come to the table and hear each other out.
As for myself, I don’t want to make a decisive judgment, one way or the other, at least not yet. The dogmatic questions and concerns are indeed important and not easily dismissible, yet we can’t take the position of Al Mohler, who judges empirical research altogether as inadmissible (as I discuss here and here). If the genetic evidence (against the historicity of Adam) is as strong as the astronomical and geological evidence (against a young earth), then we could see a rather large shift in evangelical intellectual opinion on the question of Adam. However, the age of the earth does not share in the importance of Adam to the biblical story line.
My last post on Dr. Mohler’s article on evolution needs further clarification. Thanks for the feedback on that post. Mohler’s framework should be roundly rejected, and here’s why:
Dr. Mohler wants to frame the issue as a matter of naturalistic presuppositions in a systematic worldview: “The entire intellectual enterprise of evolution is based on naturalistic assumptions, and I do not share those presuppositions.” This is one of the most careless — and surely one of the most harmful — statements I’ve ever read on this issue. When geneticists discovered the cell degeneration in cancer victims, did they do this on “naturalistic assumptions”? Of course. When physicists discovered the speed of light and applied it in astronomy to gauge the distance of galaxies, did they do this on naturalistic assumptions? Of course. So, when these same geneticists measure the variations in the genetic code and determine enough variables that point toward hominid origins of millions of years past, are they working on naturalistic assumptions? Of course. When the astronomers measure the time it takes for light to reach us from distant stars (billions of years), are they using naturalistic assumptions? Of course. When geologists measure the substrata of the earth and create models (billions of years) to account for the accumulation, are they using naturalistic assumptions? YES!
I trust that you see where I’m going with this. Mohler discredits evolution because evolutionary conclusions arise from naturalistic assumptions, but Mohler would have to discredit all of natural science. The work of the scientist always follows upon naturalistic assumptions: that’s the whole point of what they’re doing — discerning properties and effects in nature. This has absolutely nothing to do with a belief in the reality of supernatural occurrences or divine governance: some scientists believe, some don’t. Whether they believe or not has nothing to do with their calculations as geneticists, astronomers, and geologists. Every example I provided in the previous paragraph stands regardless of whether you believe in supernatural agency.
Mohler’s epistemology of science is the quintessence of what we call “fundamentalist,” “sectarian,” or “anti-intellectual.” It is deeply harmful to the church. It creates suspicious and closed minds in the pews, and it forces any congregant, who wishes to pursue the great calling of being a scientist, to reject his or her faith. More importantly, the lordship of Christ in our lives does not require an Ancient Near-Eastern cosmology, nor does a modern cosmology harm our witness to his mighty works in Israel and the Church.
January 11, 2011
I keep on promising myself that I’ll just let this topic go, but Al Mohler keeps on stupefying me. There is so much wrong with this paragraph from his latest article attacking Biologos:
As I have stated repeatedly, I accept without hesitation the fact that the world indeed looks old. Armed with naturalistic assumptions, I would almost assuredly come to the same conclusions as BioLogos and the evolutionary establishment, or I would at least find evolutionary arguments credible. But the most basic issue is, and has always been, that of worldview and basic presuppositions. The entire intellectual enterprise of evolution is based on naturalistic assumptions, and I do not share those presuppositions. Indeed, the entire enterprise of Christianity is based on supernaturalistic, rather than merely naturalistic, assumptions. There is absolutely no reason that a Christian theologian should accept the uniformitarian assumptions of evolution. In fact, given a plain reading of Scripture, there is every reason that Christians should reject a uniformitarian presupposition. The Bible itself offers a very different understanding of natural phenomena, with explanations that should be compelling to believers. In sum, there is every reason for Christians to view the appearance of the cosmos as graphic evidence of the ravages of sin and the catastrophic nature of God’s judgment upon sin.
Oh my! He really thinks the issue is as neat and tidy as choosing “supernaturalism” or “naturalism.” In case you missed it, here’s the thesis statement: “Indeed, the entire enterprise of Christianity is based on supernaturalistic, rather than merely naturalistic, assumptions.”
No, Christianity is not “based upon” the flow or suspension of physical properties and laws. Christianity is based upon the love of God in Jesus Christ. This love was revealed in covenants and promise-keeping which involved a new creation. I don’t deny that God’s self-revelation from Abraham to Pentecost, before and after, involves a series of supernatural occurrences. But, this hardly requires some “supernatural” criteria for understanding biblical cosmology as normative for revelation and, thereby, for dogmatics. That’s an assumption which Mohler never proves and can’t prove. It’s an all-or-nothing “worldview” game for Mohler, requiring massive intellectual blinders.
Also, what the heck does the last sentence mean? “In sum, there is every reason for Christians to view the appearance of the cosmos as graphic evidence of the ravages of sin and the catastrophic nature of God’s judgment upon sin.” That’s how Mohler accounts for the incontrovertible evidence for an old earth? Really? How on earth does the “ravages of sin” have anything to do with the light-year span of distant galaxies or the decay of radioactive uranium?
Books & Culture has a review of an interesting book, The Word and the World: Biblical Exegesis and Early Modern Science, edited by Kevin Killeen (University of Reading) and Peter Forshaw (University of London). The first essay, by Peter Harrison (author of The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science), sets forth the argument that:
“‘the Protestant call for a return to literal interpretation provided the intellectual conditions and the hermeneutic mode conducive to the development of science.’ By eschewing the elaborate, often abstract modes of allegory common in Roman Catholic discourse, Protestantism fostered a kind of scientific consciousness, one given to reading God’s other book, nature, as attentively as it did the Bible.”
Other essays supplement, refine, or challange this thesis.
February 12, 2009
It is Darwin’s 200th birthday, and you can celebrate by buying, for the Creationist(s) in your life, this book:
The authors, Young and Stearley, are professors of geology at Calvin College. The purpose of the book is to give a long (500 pages) and decisive (based on evidence) geological account for why evolution is unavoidable if you wish to keep your intellectual sanity. Biblical exegesis is also dealt with, including the obvious ANE (ancient Near East) weltanschauung utilized in the Hebrew revelation.