Thursday, January 05, 2006

"In The Beginning" by Daniel Harrell

The opening verses of Genesis are among the most powerful of all Scripture: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” They provide the core of our faith and hope. Of course Genesis doesn’t spell out specifically how God created, at least not in any scientific fashion, which has led to ongoing debates over evolution, creationism and intelligent design. Regrettably, as Fuller Seminary’s Nancey Murphy observes, “Vast numbers of young people are taught that evolution and Christianity can’t both be true. They get a good science education in college, recognize the truth of the evolutionary picture, and then believe that they have to reject their faith.” I spent the Christmas holiday reading Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, a persuasive tome on the interrelatedness of faith and evolution by a Christian and cell biologist from Brown University. He makes the case that quantum indeterminacy and the anthropic principle provide plain scientific space for the plausibility of God and that evolution itself should be viewed as evidence of God’s own competent creative power. “If God exists,” Miller writes, “He acts in the world today in concert with natural laws and works his will in the present through contingent events of human and natural history. All that evolution does is point out that the workings of natural processes are sufficient to explain the contingent events of natural history in the past, including the origin and extinction of species. There is neither logical nor theological basis for excluding God’s use of natural processes to originate species, ourselves included. There is therefore no reason for believers to draw a line in the sand between God and Darwin.” As to miracles, they are just that: miracles. If all truth ultimately resides with God who was “in the beginning,” then theology need not be pitted against science nor accommodated to science. “If we can see the hand of God in the unpredictable events of history and we can see meaning and purpose in the challenges and trials of our daily lives,” Miller argues, “then we can certainly see God’s will in the grand and improbable tree of life.” What do you think?


jeff schuliger said...

i agree--God acts and works in and through natural processes. But i want to maintain creation (and re-creation/ new birth for that matter) as a miraculous event! Otherwise people may get the idea that eventually everyone will 'evole' into new creations...

On another note, i saw an intriguing PBS special on the genetic markers that show how the human species migrated from southern Africa and spread throughout the world... Does this call into question our own creation 'myth' (as the researcher would call it) of human species originating in the Middle East (Garden of Eden)?

Lori said...

Unless you're Mormon, in which case the Garden of Eden is actually in Missouri.--- Everyone has a "myth"...and as soon as we apply human "geography" or "time" to it, we have issues.

Anonymous said...

It may be good though to redefine terms. The majority of secular scientists would define "evolution" as a process involving completely random chances toward a God-less purpose - survival of the fittest; thereby humans would simply be a byproduct of random biological chances. As Christians we would probably all agree that God's intent in creation of human kind was more than just another species and more than just random chances - afterall we were made in His image, probably not by chance. So, while I agree that Christian faith and evolution can coexist, the "christian" definition of evolution is slightly different from the "secular" one.

Tom Baskett said...

All literalist Christians already believe in evolution, whether they admit it or not. If you believe that the entire human race "evolved" from Noah, his three sons and their wives, then it seems you have to hold to some sort of evolution (throw in natural selection, genetic mutations, whatever). Was Noah black, his sons white, yellow and brown and red? (Uh-oh, wait, that's five colors...) This is especially true if you believe in a very young earth. (Of course, if God wanted, Ivory Mom could just give birth to Chocolate Child, but I don't remember hearing about that...)

So I agree: Much of this fighting is the unnecessary phallic breastbeating of two outdated tribes, with Truth and seekers thereof the cross-fired loser. Christians might usefully turn the other cheek and duck out of it: I love public schools, but they can't do everything (they're limited to truth not Truth), so maybe let them be. God certainly needs no embarrassing defenders.

Thank God for all good work done by honest thinkers and scientists.

Simon Fowler said...

Late to this posting but I'll still say it...
Definitely need to clarify terms, agreed. The term that needs clarification though is "random", not "evolution". Essentially, random does not mean, nor does it need to mean unguided or unplanned, as many anti-theistic scientists assume, and as do most believers unfortunately, as Nancy Murphy indicates. Random simply means events which are is not correlated (like quantum events), it doesn't mean they're without purpose or guidance. This is not my idea, it comes from Stephen Barr in Oct 2005 issue of First Things. There's an ongoing debate in the follwing issues, which is great reading.

It seems then that scientists who declare random events prove there is no God are committing the same mistake they accuse Intelligent Design advocates of: after conflating "random" and "unguided' they then argue from absence (in this case, of correlation, rather than inexplicability in the case of ID).

I read Kenneth Miller's book last year too and it changed my view on evolution and also made ID look rather silly when used to explain the appearance and disappearance of thousands of strangely similar but increasingly complex creatures. It was a "doh!" moment when I realized how illogical it is to have no problem accepting that God used a natural, "random" process to create me, but to take issue with him used that same process earlier.

There is, though, I think a major scientific-theological issue that still remains and stops me accepting evolution, and that is death. The biblical view seems to be that death is a result of "something gone wrong", a specific punishment for sin of human beings. Romans 5 takes Adam's individual life, sin and consequent death as a matter of fact in explaining Jesus' substitutionary and salvific death. Biblically, it seems death (and decay) was NOT a creation ordnance. But evolution necessitates death, natural selection also requires death of the weakest; without it humans wouldn't have existed. So, unless the Bible is speaking metaphorically, I can't square the two. The only explanation I've heard is that Adam's sin and death worked backwards as well as forwards in the same way that Jesus' death does, but that doesn't convince me. Any ideas?

Daniel said...

On death, interesting theological ideas are emerging around Jurgen Moltmann's notion of a "Crucified God." Very basically, the thought is that suffering is an integral part of the character of God's interaction with his creation; a characteristic we see woven throughout creation for reasons both good (evolution for instance, redemption through Christ and a gateway to eternity) and evil (as punishment for sin in that we die in sin). Some think that God never intended humans not to die, only that they not die in broken relationship with him (and thus miss out on eternal relationship). Abraham Heschel refers to God as "dipolar," perfect yet empathetic. The suffering aspect is part of God's empathetic connection to his creation. Don't know how satisfying this is, but it's a shot.

Vera said...

At the risk of displaying my ignorance...does Scripture actually say that the Garden of Eden was in the Middle East?

sbyler said...

Regarding the location of the garden of eden: If I am not mistaken, the Rivers noted in Genesis would locate it in the middle east. See Genesis 2:10-14.

Vera said...

Thanks. I see what you mean. The Tigris and the Euphrates are definitely in the Middle East. You’re correct.

Those are most likely the same actual rivers cited in Scripture. Consider, though, the possibility that our ancestors named those two rivers after the ones in Eden...much like towns and cities in the U. S. were named after places in Europe. Additionally, we don't know where the other two rivers were or what the geography of the Earth was in those days and how the flood affected that geography. Furthermore, we don’t actually know how far Adam and Eve wandered when they left Eden -- Or where the children of Adam and Eve ended up in any specific sense -- obviously, they ended up all over the world…LOL

I’m a firm believer in Scripture as historical fact; however, to respond to Jeff’s question, my opinion is that DNA and the chain of descent outlined in that PBS special doesn’t debunk Scripture at all. It supports it.

Kristina Fontanez said...

As a Christian evolutionary biologist I find myself bridging this gap between science and religion. A gap I didn't even know was there until this whole intelligent design debate came up. It's good to know there are other Christians out there who recognize the reality of evolution and that it DOES NOT conflict with faith in God. I think people don't take the time to read up on both sides of the debate. Part of it is our fault as scientists for not educating the public, but part of it is also the public's fault for being to lazy to investigate the science for themselves. Now we have this ID/evolution contraversy as if there are two sides that can never agree. Where does that leave someone like me?

I think we need to have a christian formation class on evolution and the bible. Now THAT would be cool. We never hear about debates like this in church, I would like to.

Anonymous said...

I think it would be a great idea to have a Christian Formation class on evolution and the Bible. It would bring many people up to speed on this matter. More importantly, it would be an effective way to bring non-Christians to the church. Boston is such an intellectual city that I think many people, particularly students, would be interested in attending such a class. Removing intellectual obstacles to the Gospel is an extremely important endeavour, as it helps us love God "with all our minds".

Perhaps you'd like to teach it, Kristina? I'll come if it's after the 4pm service. :)

Simon Fowler said...

Bless you Kristina in your discoveries of what God has made! What a fascinating world to be in!

I agree, we need some open informed discussion on this. I suspect though that "Bible and Evolution" as a title would draw a lot of nut-jobs who would drag the event into an unhelpful fight, especially since opposing sides often seem unable to admit weaknesses or gaps in their own arguments. Unless there's at least a sense of humility in what we do or don't really know there's just going to be the tired old grandstanding and ignorant generalizing.

I think before we engage in that debate what we need is something like a session on epistemology (though we'd need a much funkier title!). It seems to me (and I'm not a philosopher or theologian so I may get unclear as I think aloud here) that there is historical knowledge, scientific knowledge and moral/spiritual knowledge (to think of three) and even though there are overlaps, we often don't make clear what the limits are of how they interelate.

For example; we wrongly (in my opinion) extrapolate moral or theological conclusions from scientific data: apparently, the existence of "random mutation and natural selection" shows there is no God and we live in a meaningless, amoral universe; also, apparently, a gap in our scientific knowledge shows that there IS a God. I don't think those moral/spiritual conclusions can or should be drawn from the data. But because both sides tend to believe these connections so strongly, the possibility of their positions being challenged is terrifying (for the unbeliever as much as for the believer), so reasoned debate comes to an end.

We also wrongly think that if there is no "scientific" evidence then the "historical" event can't have happened. We can't repeat the resurrection so apparently it didn't happen. Of course forensics can verify if something DID happen, but it's limited in its ability to say something DIDN'T happen.

I think we also need (ok, I need) a better understanding of the place of "revelation" (would that be spiritual/moral knowledge?) in how we know things. I suspect we're not bold enough in stating quite simply, "I was blind, and now I see, and you know what, I can't really account for it!".

I think our biggest problem as Christians is that we compartmentalize our knowledge - keeping Scripture and the world so far apart we don't know how to really and truly relate the two. We're potentially great at the study, but so weak on the application.

All in all, I think "scientific" knowledge is overrated, and way up on it's high horse, and it needs to know it's limits. At the same time we need to love and respect the wonders and benefits of the world that the scientific enterprise has given us.

kristina fontanez said...

I appreciate the vote of confidence about teaching a class on evolution. I might have to wait until I have my PhD in evolutionary biology before I do that, right now I'm still just a lowly graduate student. At this point, I'm still trying to figure out my exact position, as I am with a lot of my theological positions. Of course, I am always open to discussion because I think it is in defending and thinking through my position that I grow the most.

As for what Simon said, I agree completely that science and faith have non-overlapping areas of inquiry, though people often draw conclusions from them as if they do.

For instance, science can't do such a thing as prove there is no faith or there is no God. The scientific method itself relies on physical constructs that can be replicated by other scientists in order to corroborate the evidence. Faith and God aren't things you can put into a box and ship to your colleague in Australia so he can do experiments with them. It is very important that people begin to see the very real limitations of science and the inherent danger of saying that all the things we don't know about in the world are due to God. For example, we can't continue to say that because we have an incomplete understanding of how humans spread across the world to end up in a myriad of races that it is due to God. What happens when 50 years from now science advances to the point that we can explain that? Is God smaller now?

Of course not! It's also not an excuse to just disbelieve everything science says because you feel it disagrees with your faith without considering the real evidence for and against it.

So we should incorporate some of the ideas that Simon talked about (epistomology) into any possible evolution/ID debate.

Simon Fowler said...

Hey, Kristina and Anonymous, if you're checking back into this posting I just wanted to let you know I've just started reading "Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity" by Nancy Pearcey. It's a big book essentially on apologetics (in the line of Francis Shaeffer et al). Anyway, I'm hoping it might help with some of these questions we're grappling with regarding application of our faith to the 'real world'. I'm going to post my thoughts on my blog so if you're interested in reading the book and discussing it with me let me know.

Hugh Rutledge said...

I am interested specifically in the question of whether our lives are determined by God's plan or by materialistic forces which work apart from any ethical considerations. I find too many people are basing the meaning of their lives on the competition between genes.

On the other hand, if my life has its meaning based on God's personal involvement in my story; then the questions of ancient history and biology aren't particularly relevant to me.

In other words, evolution as science doesn't matter to me. Evolution as MYTH has been quite deadly, and I think that's why so many Americans still state that they don't believe in it.

Anonymous said...

I am not a scientist nor a historian. I am a son of a priest. But I wanted to respond to what Jeff Schuliger and Tom Basket and others have said regarding the diversity of people and the location of the Garden of Eden. I remember we Ethiopians have always held that atleast one of the rivers (Ghion) was in located in our land. And we know that the land masses that we see now were divided much later therefore the location rivers may have been much longer than we see it today. Besides, I think, it was the migration of Cain that started the civilization that we read about in and around Babylon.

As far as diversity of colors, that is not a change of essence but a variation in color. The question of the African American Negro "Am I not human?" is rightly stated to the whites who were Darwinists in practice.

I am usually worried about details that I forget the big picture. If there is no creator then we are left to believe that something comes out of nothing, which is absurdity? Neither can we get a computer by the random acts of the computer scientist and the manufacturer of computers. They both work hard day and night to produce a master-piece.

Steven said...

I am in the scientific world (currently a grad student), and although I don't study evolution in depth, I understand it much better than I used to. Evolution handles a lot of data that can't be dismissed out of hand. And my own current opinion about ID is that it doesn't have much of a leg to stand on compared to evolution. Still, there are things (both scientific and theological) that make it hard for me to "take the plunge", so if pressed I would still say that evolution can't be quite right. Some discussion of these issues with other Christians at Park Street would be very much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Sir I respect your open outlook on creation and evolution. I would like to respectably add that if you believe in the God of the Bible then you must believe that the Bible is true. If you believe that the Bible is truth then We Did not Evolve through a tree of life. God created each species. Evolution and creation have nothing to do with each other except the fact of micro-evolution which I'm sure you know is adaptation within a species. Please hear me out, I'm speaking the truth that I know, and Jesus affirmed the accuracy of genesis Himself when he quoted from it.

Anonymous said...

Those who are further interested in science-faith discussions should view the American Scientific Affiliation Web Site.
It contains a link to a discussion group along with many resources from an evangelical perspective.

dopderbeck said...

Pastor Harrell,

Here is my biggest problem: "who was Adam?" The Bible seems to take Adam as the real biological progenitor of the human race. Human evolution leaves no room for a monogenetic origin of modern humans (unless perhaps we get back to the most recent common ancestor of humans and chimps, about 4 million years ago). Is orthodox Christian theology capable of either making "Adam" symbolic or making "Adam and Eve" a representative couple among a population of early humans?

Dick said...

Jeff wrote:

"Does this call into question our own creation 'myth' (as the researcher would call it) of human species originating in the Middle East (Garden of Eden)?"

A funny thing happened in the early years of Christianity. The beginning history of the Israelite nation outlined in Genesis 2-11 that Moses had handed down to the children of Israel, began being interpreted by early Christians as the history of the beginning of the entire human race. Then a funnier thing happened. Nearly two thousand years later, and this mistake in interpretation still persists!

One might think that theologians today could reason out that a man whom the Bible describes as having lived 7,000 years ago in Mesopotamia could not be ancestral to modern humans who emerged from Africa 100,000 years ago, but this glaring incongruity has largely escaped detection.

This early period of the history of the Jews is indeed fascinating, all occurring in southern Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq, starting with Adam around 7,000 years ago until Abraham left for the land of Canaan 3,000 years later. For more information and a picture of what I believe to have been Adam’s altar at Eridu, please visit my web site at