Wednesday, April 29, 2009

On Theistic Evolution

Concerns have been raised about an article on this blog which appears to promote theistic evolution, i.e., an evolutionary process which took place under God’s guidance. We want our readers to know that the contributors to this blog are by no means in agreement on the scientific and theological validity of theistic evolution, and we further assure them that its promotion is not a “hidden agenda” of this blog.

Theistic evolution is accepted, however, among an increasing number of Bible-believing, orthodox Christians. For that reason we believe that we must discuss the theological and scientific issues surrounding the theory among ourselves and also on the blog. It is an issue that we may not be able to resolve adequately but that we also do not, for that reason, want to censor or “run away from.” Informed readers will be able to appreciate the difficulties faced by biologists who encounter what appears to be scientific evidence for evolution but wish to remain faithful to Scripture and the Reformed confession. We do not want to ignore this difficulty and we hope that on our blog the matter can be discussed publicly, in a brotherly way, without acrimony.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Is Scientific Knowledge Abstract?

As I read writings by ministers and theologians who have minimal scientific training, yet confidently assure us that they know the Bible teaches a literal six day creation, I wonder how they can ignore what the creation is telling us through the evidences of the stars, the rocks, radioactivity etc., that the earth is vastly older than ten thousand years old.

I can understand someone who recognizes their weakness in understanding science, and thus their impressions about what science claims to say are tentative. I can also understand someone whose understanding of science leads to a conflict with how they in good faith interpret Scripture. Indeed, that was my position for a couple of years, and doubtless the same for my colleagues. At least such people recognize a conflict and they regard the scientific findings with a healthy skepticism. But that’s different from someone who holds to a particular interpretation of Scripture and cares not a whit what God reveals in creation. God clearly reveals himself in the creation (Isaiah 28:23-29, Proverbs 6:6-8, BC Art. 2) so why is this ignored?

Perhaps people think science is a fundamentally different way of thinking than “regular” thinking or that scientific knowledge is somehow different from "regular" knowledge. Once concepts become difficult, do they become abstract and can thus be ignored?

When time permits (and Dordt’s semester extends well into May) I would like to post short articles explaining some of the concepts that address issues like evolution, age of the earth/universe etc., hopefully in an accessible way. Stay tuned.

Posting Comments Now Fixed

Today we fixed a problem (thanks, John!) which may have affected you. (We know it affects Mac Firefox users, for example.)

If you have submitted a comment, but it hasn't appeared, be assured it's not because of censorship. Please re-submit your comments (remembering to use your real first and last name of course). We want to encourage an open and honest discussion. We welcome all feedback, although we can't promise to answer all questions immediately. We will post questions and comments even if we can't answer them. You may also E-mail questions to us if you don't want to post a specific comment on an existing post. (Maybe you have a question about a topic we haven't covered, like philosophy of education, or mass communication.)

Three of us are currently busy marking papers and exams as the semester wraps up. Thanks for your feedback and your patience!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Reformed Views On Creation And Flood

In various Reformed churches, including the CanRC, it is widely held that the first chapters of Genesis are best explained by the teachings of Young-Earth Creationism, according to which the earth is 6-10,000 years old, the days of creation were literal 24-hours days, and the layers of the earth's crust with the fossils they contain were deposited by a universal flood.

Although it is by now almost universally accepted among us, the idea that the interpretation of Young-Earth Creationism is the only acceptable one is comparatively recent. It owes much to the influence of North-American Evangelicalism but differs from the view held on the issue by well-known Reformed theologians of the fairly recent past, both in North America and the Netherlands.  I gave a brief description of this Reformed tradition in my two-part series "Klaas Schilder on Creation and Flood" (see sidebar, "collected papers"; a direct link is here). In that series I do not attempt to "prove" the correctness or incorrectness of either interpretation. My concern is, rather, to remind Reformed readers of their history, and to invite them to compare the two views.

As it happens, Schilder himself also refrained from taking a position on the issue. In fact, he relativized it, concluding that it was not really worth fighting over. But in view of the fact that already in his day young-earth advocates accused Reformed scholars promoting an older earth of "assailing the authority of Scripture," he defended the opinion of these scholars. He further marshaled a variety of biblical arguments in defence of Abraham Kuyper's suggestion that the Flood may well have been a regional one.

Genesis 1 In Context

How do we read the first chapter of Genesis? First of all as a scientific treatise, one that may help us reconcile the claims of modern science with Scripture?  This is frequently the position Christians take in our days, and in a sense it is understandable, given the cultural situation wherein we find ourselves.  But if understandable, it is also regrettable. Reading the first book of Scripture primarily for what is considered its scientific information threatens to hide from us the fact that the book is part of God's redemptive-historical revelation, his message of his dealings with his people and with the world; indeed, his message of salvation. As one Reformed theologian rightly said, Genesis 1 is ultimately a revelation of Jesus Christ. A single-minded concentration on the age of the earth and the length of the days of creation has very little to do with this central message. We must learn again to read Genesis 1 from the proper perspective.

I have suggested one way of doing so in the three-part series "Genesis 1 in Context" (see under "collected papers" in the sidebar, direct link here). Herein we look at Moses' account as the divine proclamation that the God who redeemed Israel from Egypt is also the all-powerful Creator of heaven and earth. Israel, which is ready to enter the promised land, must learn to trust in Him alone and to ignore the gods of the surrounding nations. These gods are in focus, however. In the series I argue that Genesis 1 is at least in part a polemic against the religions of Babylonia, Egypt, and Canaan.  The first of these is described in some detail in Part 1. Part 2 focuses on such elements as the symbolic meaning of the number seven (in Genesis 1 and throughout Scripture) and the principle of separation (which again we frequently meet in both Genesis 1 and elsewhere in the Bible). Part 3 returns to the Babylonian creation story and provides further evidence of the polemic nature of Genesis 1. It focuses, among other things, on the creation of sun, moon, and stars, the role of the "creatures of the deep," and the differences between the nature of humanity according to Genesis 1 and the Babylonian account of creation respectively.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

History of nature

On April 17, 2009 Herman van Barneveld included this question in a comment on Tony's article:

"Is it within the realm of science to speak authoritatively on historical matters? (especially when it contradicts the Word through which God "...makes Himself more clearly and fully known as far as neccessary His glory (Belgic Confession Art. 2)) Science can try to speak on history, but it can't do so without saying 'maybe' or 'we think' and make numerous assumptions."

Thank you, Herman, for your question. You do not explain what you mean by history. I shall take you to ask whether science can speak authoritatively on the history of nature because that is what science deals with. I know that some natural scientists include religion and morality under their conception of nature. This would make the history of religion and morality part of the natural sciences - a very controversial move indeed. For now I shall answer the former question.

First, three areas of the natural sciences that deal with history are the history of the cosmos in astronomy, the history of the earth in geology, and the history of life in biology. All can speak on history. Since I am a biologist, I will give you a biological example. Perhaps someone else can contribute one from astronomy.

One of the implications of continental drift is that South America, the Antarctic and Australia were once connected. Fossil studies show that pouched mammals (Marsupials) lived in both Australia and S. America before these three continents broke up. The prediction was made that there should be fossils of pouched mammals in the Antarctic. They were found in 1982. For the original publication, see . For a recent confirmation, see . For a popular rendition, see . This shows that in biology theories about historical events (continental drift, biogeographical distribution) can be used to make predictions which can be tested and accepted or rejected. For an animation of continental drift showing the distribution of fossils see .

A second example concerns cladograms (binary phylogenetic trees). The procedure of making a cladogram works exclusively with extant animals or plants. Specific DNA sequences are compared say between living fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, and the number of differences in nucleotides counted. The more differences the longer the organisms concerned have been separately accumulating mutations. That is, the longer ago it is that they had a common ancestor. This information is used to construct a cladogram which shows the theoretical sequence in which the various groups compared separated from the ancestral line. In other words, this cladogram is a hypothesis which is then used to predict the sequence in which fossil representatives should be found. Again this shows that a theory (the tree) leads to predictions which can be empirically tested and rejected or accepted. For more background see .

Assumptions are made as you say. The assumptions of scientific knowledge do not set it apart because all human knowledge makes assumptions. This compels us to be humble about knowledge claims.

Made from the dust of the ground

We received the following question from George van Popta on 15 April.

I have a question about Jitse's CC interview. [Here George refers to Bick (2009) in our 'collected papers'; direct link here.] If I understand it well, Jitse is reported as having suggested that man and chimpanzees may have had a common ancestor. My question is: How does that square with Article 14 of the Belgic Confession where we say, 'We believe that God created man of dust from the ground'?

Here is my response:

Article 14 of the Belgic Confession reads: “We believe that God created man of dust from the ground and He made and formed him after His own image and likeness, etc.” Commentaries reveal that the meaning of ‘dust’ ranges from dust to earth, to clay. As a minimum the meaning for the original audience as well as for us includes (1) and (2):

(1) Plants, animals and man are made of the same stuff because all of them are said to have been created from the ‘dust’ or from the ‘earth.’

Gen. 1:11: “Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees”

Gen. 1:24: “Let the earth bring forth living creatures”

Gen. 2:7: “then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life”

Gen. 3:19: “So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air”

To be sure, one cannot appeal to the fact that plants, animals and people were made from the same stuff in support of any form of biological evolution. That would be a clear distortion of the meaning of the text and, therefore, out of line with the intent of the Author not to give scientific information.

(2) Plants, animals and man are not divine as surrounding pagan creation stories had it.

Comparison with creation stories from the surrounding pagan cultures reveals the polemical intent of the creation story in Genesis. Whereas in pagan stories man is made from something divine, in the biblical story man is made of dust from the ground, meaning that man is not divine. That is, in Genesis 1 and 2 the fundamental distinction between Creator and creature is revealed.

I am not sure why you think there is something to square between Article 14 and the idea of a common ancestor for chimpanzees and humans, but let me make a guess. Some have taken Gen. 2:7 to mean that God acted like a potter. If you take that literally you might see a contradiction with the idea that chimpanzees and humans have a common ancestor. But other biblical scholars reject the literal ‘potter’ interpretation because they see this as coming close to disrespect: Did God fashion the liver, the lungs of clay? My conclusion is that the text neither justifies nor excludes the possibility that humans and chimpanzees had a common ancestor for the obvious reason that it is not a scientific text. Therefore, there is no need to square it with Article 14 of the Belgic Confession.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Laws of Nature and God's Word for Creation

The "laws of nature" were mentioned in Tony's post regarding the meaning of the word "evolution".  Since I have written on that in a paper entitled "Laws of Nature and God's Word for Creation" (see Sikkema 2007 under "collected papers" in the sidebar; a direct link is here), let me present a few quotes here.  I invite you to read the entire piece and give me your feedback on it.

"It is important to develop a Christian perspective or worldview on how the world 'works' and about how God relates to the creation. Without such grounding, we join in some of the fallacies plaguing today's culture, such as philosophical materialism, naturalism, and the dualisms between science and religion and between the natural and the supernatural. In this article, I will discuss what we --- both scientists and members of the general public --- mean when we speak about natural scientific laws, or laws of nature, as well as what the Bible says about God's ordinances for creation, particularly in terms of his showing covenant faithfulness toward his creation." (p. 27)

"From a Christian point of view, science would not be possible were it not for the fact that its foundation is in God's covenant faithfulness to his creation, for there can be no consistent naturalistic explanation for the regularities of the world which are explored within the natural sciences." (p. 36)

"One of the main things we've inherited in the scientific enterprise is the concept that the laws of nature, and nature itself, are mechanical. This conception, however, is not consistent with a Christian understanding of the world or of how God relates to the world. God doesn't 'simply' set up a mechanism and have that mechanism carry on over time.  That would be a world of deism, a world where God is not personally, intimately, covenantally, faithfully relating but simply has set it up in a certain way and then no longer engages it." (p. 38)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Is "Creation Science" Reformed?

Recently, the Clarion editors have rejected this article by Tony Jelsma (listed in our "collected papers" in the sidebar, along with other background papers relevant to the topic). It discusses the history of "creation science" as a movement, and points out a number of serious issues with its approach to Biblical hermeneutics. It is important to remember that the Canadian Reformed churches have not taken a particular position on young earth creationism, and that there is a rich tradition within our background which allows for serious thought in which many of the results of mainstream science regarding historical astronomy, geology, biology need not be considered opposed to Scripture. Over the past few decades, young earth creationism has been understood by many to be the default position of our church members. However, this article suggests we ought to oppose young earth creationism on both theological and scientific grounds. We invite your comments on this article, and in some of the upcoming blog entries we will be highlighting some its main arguments.

What is meant by the word “Evolution”?

A major challenge to Christians studying the biological sciences is the concept of evolution and how it is presented to them. Part of this challenge is that the word “evolution” means different things to different people. Further, sometimes these different meanings are conflated, intentionally or unintentionally, which adds to the confusion.

One meaning of evolution is “change over time.” In population genetics terms the change that is meant is in allele frequencies in a population. In time I hope to write a separate post describing population genetics but the incidence of a particular allele or gene variant in a population changes from generation to generation for various reasons, including natural selection and random variation. In this sense you evolved from your parents because your allele frequencies differ from those of your parents. While this may be an attractive concept for teenagers :-), its relevance to the grand evolutionary scenario is limited.

A second meaning of evolution is this grand evolutionary scenario, “From Monad (single celled bacterium) to Man” as the Darwinist philosopher Michael Ruse coined the phrase. This is also commonly called macroevolution. The distinction between microevolution and macroevolution is not straightforward and probably deserves another blog post. This is the evolution which Charles Darwin proposed in his Origin of Species and later evolutionary theory has expanded to include the origin of life (yet another post?).

Finally, the word evolution can be used to describe a naturalistic worldview, one that denies the existence of a Creator who plays any role in the evolution of life. It is this worldview held by the atheist Richard Dawkins, who stated that evolution allowed him to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist.” In a naturalistic worldview, the “laws of nature” is the only game in town, regardless of the evidence.

As Reformed Christians in science we have an obligation to listen to what the creation tells us, recognize God’s hand in creation (Romans 1:20) and strive to honor him in our study of the creation. When it comes to evolutionary biology, what the creation tells us may not be straightforward and the evidences might not always be what we “want” them to be. But that will have to be the subject of future posts.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Introducing "Reformed Academic"

This blog is, in the first instance, for post-secondary students and other academics within the federation of Canadian Reformed churches. We also, however, invite the participation of our non-academic church members who are interested in discussing academic issues on the basis of Scripture and the Reformed confessions. We of course realize that there other Reformed churches, and we welcome participation by their members, but many of the topics we intend to address in this forum arise out of particularities of our Canadian Reformed historical-cultural context.

Of those seeking post-secondary education in our circles, few attend Christian institutions of higher learning. As a result they only rarely encounter the concept of worldview, despite the fact that across North America the teaching of worldview (and therefore also of the way the Reformed tradition has engaged various kinds of scholarship) is gaining ground in many Christian colleges. Originating with Calvin and Luther, the tradition has been advanced in the Netherlands by men like Kuyper, Bavinck, Dooyeweerd, Vollenhoven, Schilder, and their successors. The importance of worldview in theories of knowledge and scientific paradigms is evident, and our students should know about its role. Worldview analysis, and the relationship between worldview and academic theories, will therefore have our attention.

It is well-known that students attending post-secondary education, including those at Christian universities, routinely experience varying degrees of conflict between faith and academics. One could argue that such conflict is indispensable to academic and personal maturation. Nevertheless, it can cause serious difficulties. In attempting to resolve such conflicts, our students often look to the most educated in their church circles for advice and resources and also turn to specifically Canadian Reformed publications. However, these publications, Clarion and Reformed Perspective (neither of which is an official church magazine), address themselves to the general church member. They rarely reserve space for significant scholarly debate. Moreover, like anyone else, ministers cannot be expected to be informed about all issues related to faith and culture and help the students in their flock deal with specific faith-related academic questions. Thus many of our students feel isolated in their struggles and have difficulty feeling at home both in their academic and their ecclesiastical world.

Our blog intends to address these difficulties. It is our hope that it will allow our academically-inclined church members find valuable discussion partners within the Reformed tradition. We propose to tackle technical issues in any academic discipline and aim to do so in a nuanced way, drawing on Scripture and confessions, and on various Reformed and other Christian resources. If this matches your quest, we invite you to join us in this journey!