On more than one occasion teachers have spoken with me about the way we are to teach evolution at our Reformed schools. The ministry of education makes evolution an obligatory subject, but there is more than one way of complying with the demand. Evolution can be taught and evaluated in a straightforward manner as a well-established biological theory that has weaknesses as well as strengths. It can also be taught and then explained away – and I am afraid this is done at some of our schools – as lie and deception, the devil’s own work. Related to this second approach is enlisting the help of certain videos and other material provided by young-earth-creationism. As one principal told me, these “creation-science” products are quite popular in our schools. Indeed, young-earth creationism is widely upheld as “Reformed doctrine.” Often, the principal wrote, schools use the material to make evolution look “stupid,” something we can chuckle about; which of course does little, he added, to prepare our students for what they will meet in their studies at secular institutions.
So far there had been little public discussion of the matter. On October 29, however, it was the topic of a workshop I gave at the annual convention of the Canadian Reformed Teachers Association Ontario, held in Fergus on October 29, 2009. In this workshop I recommended the first of the three approaches mentioned above. I made clear that I am not a Darwinist; that for me there are not only theological, but also scientific reasons to question the theory, and that I would give these reasons. At the same time I pointed out that there is strong evidence in favour of evolution and common descent and that we have to deal honestly with that evidence. It is the only way not only to understand the theory, but also to be able to criticize it (wherever such criticism is called for) in an honest, intelligent, and convincing manner.
The paper on which I based my workshop presentation can be found on this blog under “Collected Papers” (see side bar; direct link here). After a brief introduction as to WHY we should teach evolution in the manner suggested and after some remarks about the way we should read Genesis 1, I deal with the question HOW evolution should be taught. I begin here with an account of the scientific evidence for neo-Darwinism and then proceed with some of the questions that can be raised in connection with that evidence. Some final remarks deal with the nature of science, the subjective element in science, but also with the fact of science’s impressive track record.
In both the introduction and the conclusion of my paper I make clear that evolution ought to be taught only in the senior grades, but that in all grades we should cease condemning modern science (which indeed has had negative consequences but which in God’s providence has also brought us very many blessings) as the work of the powers of darkness. Instead our students should, from grade 1 onward, hear from us the central message of Genesis 1, namely that God is the all-powerful creator, that He was and is involved in every aspect of creation, and that His handiwork proclaims his glory. I further emphasize that our task is not completed by teaching the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinism. We must also give attention to the use that is being made of this theory as a basis for an overall evolutionist and anti-Christian worldview. This implies, among other things, the urgent need to organize courses in apologetics or philosophy for our older students. Here they must be taught about ‘scientific’ atheism, about the social and economic abuse of evolutionary theories, and about the reductionism to which materialistic science has led.
I am well aware of the challenge we as Christians face is in connection with the theory of evolution. As again became clear during the discussion at the workshop, Christian teachers, pastors, and parents must make time to discuss the implications and repercussions of teaching evolution, and do so in a serious manner, in much detail, and with a willingness to listen to each other. I hope and pray that the workshop and the accompanying paper may initiate such discussions. In my opinion it is high time.
I should add that the paper is followed by a lengthy glossary, which should enable also those who are not acquainted with some of the scientific terms related to evolution and evolutionism to participate in the discussion.
While Dr. Oosterhoff states that she does not embrace evolutionary theory, she does not seem to actively oppose it. At most, she has "reasons to question the theory." I would be much happier if she found reason to not merely question but to instead reject the Darwinian theory of origins. When Biblically-grounded rejection of evolution gives way to respect and tolerance for it as a credible alternative to a robust doctrine of creation, full-blown acceptance and promotion of it won't be far behind, even in our Christian schools. Thereafter, the day will come when those in the church who reject evolution will be regarded as obscurantists in the same category as members of the flat earth society.
If Christian school teachers link Darwin's alternative to the doctrine of creation to the deceitful influence of the devil, I say that's a good thing. To be sure, Christians should be well-informed about the theory of evolution. We won't have much credibility if we reject that of which we are ignorant. At the end of the day, though, there is a devil and he does affect people's intellectual capacities and philosophical orientation and this does make them prone to accept that which is false. If the powers of evil were at work in the thinking of Freud, Marx and Nietzche(which I'm hoping every Christian school teacher would be ready to point out), why is it far-fetched to assume the same can be true of scientific theories?
Rather than "chuckling" about evolutionism as if it were some unbelievably ignorant mistake, I think some sacred derision is appropriate. Whenever the human mind is not in submission to God's Word, it inclines to foolishness. There is amazing folly in the realm of historiography, literature, philosophy and also in the realm of science. I think Christian young people should be educated to understand that the manner in which scientists analyze data relating to theory of evolution is not gloriously neutral but reflects the religious direction of their hearts.
OK. I'll take the plunge. If, as a minister and catechism teacher, I shouldn't just be telling my students that "the theory of evolution is unbiblical", what should I be telling them? Kids think in terms of absolutes. They want to know. What should I tell them if they ask whether the Word of God allows for the ideas of evolution, theistic or otherwise? It seems to me that Frederika's paper leaves everything in the middle. Is that what we should be doing? If that arming our young people well for college and university?
Thank you, Rev. Schouten, for your comment. I understand your concern, which has long been my own (and up to a point still is). But as my paper tries to show, there is so much evidence for evolution that it is impossible to reject it as make-belief. Darwinism indeed constitutes a serious challenge for us all, but I don’t believe that this challenge will go away if we simply declare the evidence to be spurious, for it isn’t. Nor do I believe that, as you seem to suggest, the rise and influence of the theory can be explained simply by hatred of religion. That element has played a part. Scientific theories often arise when the times are ready for them, and Darwinism arose in an age of ongoing secularization. Scientific theories certainly do not originate, exist, or thrive in a cultural vacuum, and they are often co-opted by people with various agendas, some of which are anti-Christian. This also happened with Darwin’s theory, much to his dismay (his wife, after all, was an orthodox Christian). And hatred of religion certainly plays a role in the defence of the theory today. Our task is to distinguish between the ideologies that have been attached to the theory and the theory itself, and evaluate it on its scientific merits. (Please keep also in mind that hatred of religion has not inspired the many Christians who have accepted a version of Darwinism, nor does it inspire me in admitting its strengths.)
The reasons why I believe it should be taught I have given in my paper and do not need to repeat here. I do want to draw your attention, however, to the fact that there was a time when believers adopted a more relaxed attitude in dealing with scientific theories that they were uncomfortable with. Both Calvin and Luther were unhappy with the idea of a sun-centred solar system, but they did not in the end reject it. The Roman Catholic church did. It is only a few decades ago that it withdrew its condemnation of Galileo. I have often wondered if its rejection of Copernicanism and the subsequent embarrassment is the reason why John Paul II declared that neo-Darwinism is more than a theory.
Reformed theologians have tended to be less dogmatic, then and later. As I have shown on more than one occasion, after the rise of Darwinism few if any Reformed thinkers insisted on a young earth. In some cases they even admitted that evolution contained elements of truth (for references see my present paper on evolution as well as the one on the history of young-earth creationism, which is also published on this blog). In the latter paper, which I urge you to read, I have further shown that young-earth creationism was the brainchild of a North-American Seventh-Day Adventist prophetess. The idea that evolutionism is the devil’s own work has been most strongly propagated by her followers. Most of us, including I myself, were taught these North-American ideas and I believe that they still influence our reaction. I admit that it took me a long time before I rejected young-earth-creationism, but reject it I did, and that not just for scientific but also for solid theological reasons. This does not mean, as I made very clear in my paper, that I accept neo-Darwinism. My intention was to show that only if we and our students really know what the theory is all about are we able to evaluate it properly, and indicate its weaknesses.
I realize the steep difference between our positions, but I sincerely hope, first of all for the sake of our students, that as pastors and teachers and parents we continue the discussion. At some point we should also deal with the nature of science and of scientific theories. Because of the overriding influence of young-earth-creationism during the past four or five decades we have given far too little attention to this type of study. Thanks again for your interest, which I very much appreciate.
Rob Schouten writes: "If Christian school teachers link Darwin's alternative to the doctrine of creation to the deceitful influence of the devil, I say that's a good thing. To be sure, Christians should be well-informed about the theory of evolution. We won't have much credibility if we reject that of which we are ignorant. At the end of the day, though, there is a devil and he does affect people's intellectual capacities and philosophical orientation and this does make them prone to accept that which is false. If the powers of evil were at work in the thinking of Freud, Marx and Nietzche(which I'm hoping every Christian school teacher would be ready to point out), why is it far-fetched to assume the same can be true of scientific theories?"
My response: It is true that we are involved in a struggle with the devil on all fronts including scholarship. Scripture instructs us to test the spirits to see if they are of God or not. This is what we are trying to do. We believe you want to see this done as well, at least this is what is suggested when you write: "We won't have much credibility if we reject that of which we are ignorant." But it seems that you have already decided beforehand that nothing good can be learned from Darwin. That would be a mistake as it is in the case of Freud, Marx etc. The Christian calling is one of critical engagement, not of rejection out of fear or ignorance because that would make fools of us and of Christ as Augustine pointed out.
Rob Schouten writes: "There is amazing folly in the realm of historiography, literature, philosophy and also in the realm of science. I think Christian young people should be educated to understand that the manner in which scientists analyze data relating to theory of evolution is not gloriously neutral but reflects the religious direction of their hearts."
My response: Folly abounds everywhere. I agree, therefore, that it is important to include in our teaching the role of background beliefs presuppositions) in scholarship. Background beliefs are an integral part of any serious scholarly endeavour. What we find is that people arrive at truth about God's world by means of various background beliefs. We also find that people with very different background beliefs arrive at the same truth. That is, presuppositions are not irrevocably attached to theories. This means two things. (1) We cannot dismiss scientific knowledge just because it is arrived at by means of presuppositions – a common mistake made by people in the Reformed tradition who have picked up the teaching about presuppositions. (2) We need to distinguish between theories and their presuppositions so that the theories can be assessed on their own merits. So, yes Christian teachers should include the role of presuppositions in their teaching and make them part of discerning the spirits, but not in the dismissive way you suggest. There is an objective reality created by God. The calling of Christian scholars is to understand that reality.
Jitse van der Meer
George van Popta writes: OK. I'll take the plunge. If, as a minister and catechism teacher, I shouldn't just be telling my students that "the theory of evolution is unbiblical", what should I be telling them? Kids think in terms of absolutes. They want to know. What should I tell them if they ask whether the Word of God allows for the ideas of evolution, theistic or otherwise? It seems to me that Frederika's paper leaves everything in the middle. Is that what we should be doing? Is that arming our young people well for college and university?
Thanks for taking the plunge, pastor George. Your questions are to the point. As to the first one, I don’t think we should state that evolution is unbiblical, and certainly not in the elementary grades. If we do, we have to justify the statement, and that would imply the discussion of a lot of scientific information for which these students not ready. In fact, I don’t believe the matter should be addressed in the elementary grades at all. Let’s just teach Genesis 1 as we read it in the Bible. If the question of evolution does arise, then evolutionism should be mentioned and criticized. For the rest, there is too much to show and tell in science and Bible classes about the greatness and majesty of God’s creation to bother these students with issues Christians are still debating today, as they have done in the past.
It is different with the senior grades. Here it must be discussed. But we can’t really ask students for an answer before they have been acquainted with the arguments for and against the theory and have learned to evaluate these arguments. Only then can we discuss the matter honestly and intelligently. I myself have always told my students (1) that I do not think the scientific evidence is absolutely convincing, and certainly not in the case of human evolution, and (2) that I find much of the theory (though not all of it) impossible to reconcile with the biblical message. I have also drawn attention to the nature of science, pointing out that scientific theories are always provisional, so that one should not build one’s faith on it. At the same time I have stressed the undoubted progress and increasing exactitude of science.
I agree with you that youngsters, also teenagers, “think in terms of absolutes.” Not only that, in most cases they want teachers to say outright that evolution is evil. Science teachers at our schools have told me this as well. I think, though, that in part this “absoluteness” is a result of the desire for easy answers. Young people want “rules” to remember, rather than having to think things through and understanding subtleties. That’s not the way, however, you would teach theology, nor is it the way we should teach science.
With respect to the second question, as I already pointed out, I do not believe that neo-Darwinism is compatible with belief in the historicity of Genesis 1-11. I know of sincere Christians, however, who accept theistic evolution. Some do so for scientific reasons, some primarily, I think, in order not to cut off discussions with unbelievers, scholars and others. C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, can serve as examples, and there are many more, also Reformed theologians and philosophers. It is a pity that for almost half a century we as Reformed people have been so preoccupied with the promotion and defence of young-earth creationism that we have given little attention to the question how to deal with the matter in a biblical manner (which young-earth creationism most decidedly does not). Perhaps that is another issue to be discussed. In any case, in order to be “arming our young people well for college and university” we ought to give renewed attention to both the history and the philosophy of science.
I think it's worth acknowledging that the great majority of the originators and current proponents of evolutionary thinking are not believers in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. They don't believe the universe has a Creator. They don't accept that all life is dependent on the Spirit of God. They are convinced that human beings are a cosmic fluke. The idea that God has actually spoken in Scripture is regarded as a fantastic delusion. According to the apostle Paul, they suppress the truth which ought to be plain to them (Romans 1:18-19. The unregenerated mind, says the Spirit, is hostile to God and cannot submit to him (Rom. 8:7). It seems likely that people with such an orientation are prone to misinterpret the work of God. Their worldview demands that all life forms came into existence without any divine agency. Whatever they discover in their scientific research, it cannot be allowed as evidence for a divine Creator or for the discrete origin of various life forms. For these reasons, evolution is not taught in schools and universities as a theory but as an established fact and dissenters are dealt with by the Inquisition. To summarize, I would argue that in the case of theorizing about the origin and development of life, presuppositions and outcomes of research and analysis are more closely linked than they would be in discussing, for example, the best way to deal with the H1N1 virus (though it might be argued that also in the latter case, there is an "establishment" way of responding which deals harshly with those who question prevailing wisdom.
Thanks, Rev. Van Popta, for your question. In your role as pastor and catechism teacher, I would recommend turning your students to what Scripture and the confessions actually say about creation, while refraining from attaching any particular scientific notion to this. I would note that Genesis 1 is one of several creation stories in Scripture: Genesis 2, Job 38-40, Psalm 74:13-17, Psalm 104, John 1 can also be seen as creation stories, each emphasizing different things in different contexts. It can be particularly instructive to tell students to imagine they’ve never heard anything from Scripture before, and then reading Psalm 104.
We don’t know exactly how God created all things, but we certainly know that He did so as the omnipotent, omniscient, loving, providential, creative, heavenly Father of us and of all things. The structure of Genesis 1 clearly shows how God forms and fills all the different types of life habitats. None of the creation stories can answer our questions of what the order of events at creation was, though; one good clue that this isn’t the point can be seen in the fact that Genesis 1 has plants before humans, and Genesis 2 has humans before plants. In fact, we have to be careful in assuming what kinds of questions any creation story will answer. Instead of using our modern notions of what’s important, we should try to find out what the original intent of Scripture was for its original audience, in their cultural background, etc. Then it becomes clear that the theological message of Scripture is not dependent upon any particular scientific answers to life or earth or cosmic history.
However it was that God created, humans are specially created in God’s image, and nothing which scientists ever discover can contradict the amazing uniqueness of humankind.
Regarding the specific question of “whether the Word of God allows for the ideas of evolution”, I would note that though “evolution” is a word filled with various levels of meaning, the basic idea is that there is change. And clearly God’s creation is dynamic, not static, and Scripture does not answer our scientific questions about what kinds of changes to mountains or species may have occurred in the past.
Thanks Dr. Oosterhoff for your balanced discussion. Your irenic style is commendable—an example we all should follow in debating such sensitive and provocative topics.
Context is important. It may be helpful for the CanRC to consider their sister churches, the OPC. There is much more freedom in the OPC on Gen 1. I was having a conversation with a Chicago-area pastor who said that he had the entire gamut of perspectives in his congregation, from theistic evolutionists to 6 24-day YECs. This, obviously, is due to the influence of Meredith Kline and the Framework Hypothesis. Whatever we may think of this theory—and I think it clearly bears the marks of struggling between faith and science and resolving the discrepancies in a way that is ultimately unsatisfactory—it has had positive effects in the OPC; namely, it has forced Christians to accept each other despite some strong differences of opinion over the interpretation of Gen 1 (think of Augustine’s plea in On Christian Teaching). There are some fascinating if somewhat strange results of this openness. Think of RS Clark's recent book, Recovering the Reformed Confession. The book is highly idiosyncratic; what is interesting is that he both advocates a strict conservatism (e.g. in liturgy) but considers a literal interpretation of Gen 1 to be part of a Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty. Kline has had a profound effect indeed.
I don’t think there’s the same diversity of opinion on evolution in the CanRC; I think most still have a knee-jerk reaction against any suggestion that there is something to the theory. But this of course is related to the fact that, to my knowledge, no ministers or theologians in the CanRC have advocated the approach to faith and science that is largely being taken on this blog and was taken by M. Kline.
The history of the OPC suggests, however, that a balanced approach is possible, and that such an approach is not necessarily the precursor to a slide into liberalism. Moreover, I agree with Dr. Oosterhoff that such an approach is desirable. I was trained at a CanRC high school to believe that the end of the 19th century marked a radical departure from truth in all disciplines. God was pushed out of science by Darwin, out of history and economics by Marx, and out of morality by Freud. There is some truth to this, and the theories advocated by these men are anti-God insofar as they are deterministic and naturalistic, presupposing closed systems that do not allow for supernatural influence. But does anyone think Freud cannot teach Christians something about psychology? Should we not take a more balanced approach to the paradigm shift of the end of the nineteenth century?
University of Notre Dame
South Bend, IN
I think we should, and I think there are serious dangers to following the unbalanced approach advocated by many. For mainly one reason: I have become increasingly concerned in recent years that there are entire fields of study that CanRC youth simply avoid. When confronted with the array of disciplinary choices in university, few will go into paleontology or evolutionary biology, etc. On the one hand this is understandable: it is hard to survive in a discipline that continually challenges your presuppositions. On the other hand this is regrettable: are we as Christians not supposed to be passionate about truth? Are we not supposed to seek truth in all things? Should we not reclaim the academy for the lordship of Christ?
This does not only manifest itself in the sciences; it is, I would argue, particularly acute in my own discipline, theology. Wellhausen was also a leading 19th-century intellectual who provoked a paradigm shift; study of the OT today still must grapple with the results. I would be curious, Dr. Oosterhoff, at how you as a historian evaluate the rise of biblical criticism. Wellhausen published in 1887, and his theory is clearly “evolutionist” in philosophical orientation. Nevertheless, what you have said about evolution applies to Wellhausen: there is an impressive cogency to his theory, it has a certain “explanatory power.” It is not because all biblical scholars are anti-God that the majority have accepted forms of the documentary hypothesis. It is because there is strong evidence for the theory.
This leads me to a curious conclusion. If the ascendancy of evolution and the rise of biblical criticism are related (and I think there is no question about that), one could equally argue that we need to take a more “balanced” approach to our study of scripture scholarship than we do. I’m not sure what to think of that conclusion, but it would seem to be the logical consequence of the pedagogical approach you are taking with respect to evolution.
University of Notre Dame
South Bend, IN
Rev. Rob Schouten writes that the majority of today’s evolutionary scientists are unbelievers, adding, “It seems likely that people with such an orientation are prone to misinterpret the work of God.” I appreciate this comment, for it expresses a conviction that is common among us and that deserves our attention.
I admit that there is truth in it. Without the guidance of the Holy Spirit we cannot properly interpret the work of God in salvation and sanctification. But is the Spirit’s work in other areas to be denied? If we answer this question in the affirmative, then the question arises how we are to explain the great benefits we receive from modern science. We all enjoy these benefits, and I think that we receive them as God’s gifts and give thanks for them.
In attempting to deal with this difficulty I have found John Calvin’s words on the issue helpful. In his Institutes, Book II, Chapter II, par. 16, Calvin writes that human competence in science is indeed God’s gift and that it derives from the Spirit of God. In the previous paragraph he had written: “Whenever we come upon these matters [i.e., the gifts of science and of other scholarship] in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonour the Spirit of God.”
I know that Rev. Schouten will admit all this, but I draw attention to Calvin’s words as a reminder to all of us that while we must indeed reject the atheism expressed by so many scientists, we may and must give thanks for the beneficial results of science as such (while admitting that, in a fallen world, not nearly all result are beneficial). To reject modern, secular science as the work of darkness won’t do. To reject the ideologies based on science as the work of darkness is a different matter.
There is a related point. It concerns our attitude as Christians to unbelieving and atheistic scholars. Do we have a task with respect to them, in addition to the task of a reasoned dismissal of their unbelief and atheism? The other day I reread David Robertson, The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths (Christian Focus, 2007). As the title indicates, this booklet (of just over 140 pages), written by a Reformed pastor in Scotland, analyzes the arguments of today’s leading atheist, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. The book is very readable, very much to the point, serious but also funny, and always charitable. I mention it because I want to draw attention to a statement that I think we should all consider, namely the question whether we should not pray for our atheist neighbours. Robertson addresses Richard Dawkins as follows (42):
One thing that really annoys some atheists is when Christians promise to pray for them. Why do we pray for you? It is not the kind of “smite the Amalekites” prayer (although sometimes the temptation is enormous!). Rather we pray that God will work in your life, reveal himself to you and draw you to himself... Therefore, to pray for you is a supreme act of love because it asks for the best for you. And Jesus tells us that we are to love our enemies. So I pray for you and for all those who have been deluded into thinking that there is only the material, and that their Creator does not exist. Forgive me.
I am not dealing with Rev. Schouten’s remark “that in the case of theorizing about the origin and development of life, presuppositions and outcomes of research and analysis are more closely linked than they would be in discussing, for example, the best way to deal with the H1N1 virus…” I think this is addressed to Jitse van der Meer, in response to a comment by the latter, and he may want to respond.
P.S. Further to my quotation from John Calvin’s Institutes, I point out that the Canons of Dort also addresses the subject, namely in Heads of Doctrine III/IV, Article 4, which reads: To be sure, there is left in man after the fall, some light of nature, whereby he retains some notions about God, about natural things, and about the difference between what is honourable and shameful, and shows some regard for virtue and outward order… (I thank Tony Jelsma for drawing my attention to this article.)
Thanks, Arnold, for your interaction with what I wrote. You mentioned that Genesis 1 is one of several creation stories. Then you mentioned others: Genesis 2, Job 38-40, Psalm 74:13-17, Psalm 104, John 1. Would you say, though, that the story of Genesis 1 & 2 is of a different genre from those we read in the Psalms, Job and John? I would think it is. The Book of Genesis relates history. That fact should determine how we read its creation story. Psalms and Job are wisdom literature. That will inform our reading of the creation poems in those passages. John 1 has its own character determined by how the Evangelist John presents the Christ in his gospel.
You wrote: “However it was that God created, humans are specially created in God’s image, and nothing which scientists ever discover can contradict the amazing uniqueness of humankind.” I’d say “Amen” to that. I would add that God’s special creation of humans excludes the notion of animal ancestry.
Arnold, you also wrote: “Regarding the specific question of ‘whether the Word of God allows for the ideas of evolution’, I would note that though ‘evolution’ is a word filled with various levels of meaning, the basic idea is that there is change. And clearly God’s creation is dynamic, not static, and Scripture does not answer our scientific questions about what kinds of changes to mountains or species may have occurred in the past.” Of course. Change clearly happens within species, but there is no variety of species emerging from a prior species (please pardon my layman’s language).
George van Popta
You are asking a fair question. Let me try to respond to your question about teaching biological evolution specifically with respect to catechism teaching. The single most important thing for students at all levels is to inspire them to admire the beauty of creation and the almighty power of its Creator. An optional, but attractive approach would be to discuss a series of OT passages in which God as saviour is closely connected with God as creator. God is saying as it were that he has the power to save because he has the power to create. This theme continues in the NT with Jesus doing a miracle to show that he has the authority to forgive sins.
Elementary school-age children should not be bothered at all with scientific questions. They will of course come up with their own questions. Simple answers that convey the essential truth will suffice. For instance, my granddaughter once asked me why Cain was afraid of other people and where his wife came from? The crucial point to get across was that Adam and Eve are the first parents of all humanity. So I told her that Adam and Eve may have had other children and that the Bible did not tell us much about them except that they existed. The point of the story of Cain and Able was not to tell us everything that could be known about that time. Rather it was to show that the disobedience of Adam and Eve had become the disobedience of their children and so also of us. She was perfectly satisfied.
Another matter is how to deal with questions regarding creation in a more senior catechism class. The circumstances are different than highschool because you cannot build on a basis on biological knowledge. I would follow Tony's suggestion, look at all texts about creation and discuss the following:
1. There is one God.
2. God existed before creation.
3. God brought creation into existence.
4. The creation exists for God's glory.
5. God does not depend on creatures, but has complete power over them.
6. God made everything good.
7. Humans are created in God's image.
8. Humans are fallen creatures.
9. God cares for us and saves us from our sin.
10. God cares about his creatures.
11. God has told us to care for his creation.
These points are taught throughout Scripture and do not depend on disagreements surrounding the interpretation of Genesis 1-4. Continued below.
Jitse van der Meer
Negatively, I would warn for the following abuses of Scripture and of science:
1. One cannot satisfy scientific curiosity with Scripture passages because they were written for all people in all eras including people with and without scientific knowledge.
2. One cannot satisfy historical curiosity with Scripture passages because they were written for people without historical knowledge in the modern sense. This does not mean that there is no history in Scripture. Nor does this mean that the things described in historical books or passages did not happen in reality. It merely means that Scripture does not satisfy the requirements of modern history writing.
3. Some scientists claim that biological evolution implies that all creatures came about by accident and that there is no purpose in the process. Such claims are unscientific and belong to the realm of beliefs.
4. Some scientists claim that religious beliefs in general and the idea of the existence of God in particular are illusions, and that people have them because they give us an advantage in the process of evolution. Other scientists have shown that such claims are inspired by other beliefs such as atheism or materialism that serve as pseudo-religions. Yet other scientists have shown that morality and religion are out of reach of natural selection and adaptation (I am referring to the nature - nurture debate).
5. A careful distinction needs to be made between the theory of biological evolution and the philosophy or religion of evolutionism. The latter is unbiblical. Christians are divided over whether the former is Biblical.
6. At this point a brief survey of the main interpretations of Genesis 1-4 may be appropriate.
7. There are people including biblical scholars and theologians who believe that all knowledge of God is the result of human religious experience. While such a belief comes in varieties the common denominator is that it excludes divine revelation by intervention and must, therefore, be rejected as in conflict with Scripture.
George, the above was assembled in haste. I am sure more can be said, but this is a skeleton one could begin with. Does the Bible allow 'evolution'? It does not allow evolutionism and its implications mentioned under the negative points above. If you interpret Genesis 1-4 literalistically, then it does not allow biological evolution either. But students need to be told that there are various orthodox non-literalistic interpretations of genesis 1-4, and that many Christians have, therefore, concluded that the Bible does allow biological evolution.
Jitse van der Meer
Yes, pastor George, each of these creation stories is of a different form (genre). I would even say that Genesis 1 and 2 are of different genres from each other and from the others. The observant reader of Genesis 1 is struck by its significant poetic form as well, and while we need not dichotomize between history and poetry, this will (in part) inform us of what the content of Genesis 1 is.
Your statement, “there is no variety of species emerging from a prior species”, is something which Scripture does not address. I will attempt not to invade the territory of the biologist, but there is little reason to identify the “kinds” of Genesis 1 with the “species” of Aristotle (unchanging forms, c.f. Plato) or of modern biology. But, if I understand my biology colleagues correctly, there is plenty of scientific evidence against your statement. For these reasons, perhaps this notion ought not be a plank in pastoral or catechetical instruction, which, as I understand it, was your original question.
Finally, not everything which is “special” (as in the creation of humanity) must be special and unique in every imaginable sense. There is remarkable continuity (and that is an understatement, again, as I learn from my biology friends) in tension with remarkable discontinuity, a tension which we must at least acknowledge as a mystery and at most make baby-steps in grappling with, but which the Christian biologist (and neuroscientist) is privileged and charged to delve into with awe and reverence before the Creator.
With that, I ought to resume my lowly physicist’s back seat on this bio-theo-logical foray.
Dr. Oosterhoff referred to Article 4 of Chapter III/IV of the Canons of Dort because it acknowledges that in fallen humanity, there is "some light of nature." If Dr. Oosterhoff is wanting to remind us that Christians should not demonize those who are not believers, I think this is a wholesome corrective. Fallen man remains fully human, wondrously gifted, deserving utmost respect as the image of God, shattered though it may be. All of God's people benefit enormously from the cultural advances of those who don't know the Lord (Genesis 4) and we ought to be thankful for that. Nonetheless, we can't get around the truth that fallen humanity employs its remarkable gifts and powers in hostility to the Lord. This hostility is usually not overt but it does prod people to follow a certain path in their intellectual explorations. In the ebb and flow of cultural history, when push comes to shove, the enmity of the human heart toward God becomes more blatant. A little further in the Article cited by Dr. Oosterhoff, we read: "But so far is he from arriving at saving knowledge of God and true conversion through this light of nature that he does not even use it properly in natural and civil matters. Rather, whatever this light may be, man wholly pollutes it in various ways and suppresses it by his wickedness" (emphasis added). I wonder in what way Reformed Academic acknowledges this pollution and suppression in the realm of science.
I think Dave's segue into the field of Old Testament criticism is interesting. How should believing scholars present the theories of Old Testament criticism at a Reformed seminary? If I'm understanding the direction of this discussion, some here would argue that the documentary hypothesis ought to be taught as a fully credible theory, just as plausible as the "theory" of Mosaic authorship. Or should it be presented (and it is taught at the CanRC seminary) as a dangerous error which is deeply corrosive of faith? It's a matter of record that churches which embrace the documentary hypothesis have a short shelf-life.
David DeJong concludes: "This leads me to a curious conclusion. If the ascendancy of evolution and the rise of biblical criticism are related (and I think there is no question about that), ... etc."
The work of higher biblical critics is often traced to the undue influence on biblical interpretation of science or historical scholarship. Historically speaking this is incorrect. The rise of historical awareness began independently in various disciplines and for different reasons. Chronologically, biblical scholarship took the lead. The roots of historical biblical criticism go back to the work of 17th century scripture interpreters such as Richard Simon (1638-1712). The book of Genesis had been taken to imply that Adam and Eve were the first humans. But where did the wife of Cain come from, Simon wondered. Who did Cain fear would kill him when he was punished by God for killing Abel? The answer was that there were other humans besides Cain’s brother and his parents – the so-called pre-Adamites. The implication was that Scripture was not intended to provide specialized information about nature and history suitable for use in the natural sciences.
The history of geology shows that the Bible was at first taken to contain a complete history of creation. In the 17th century Steno (1638-86) explained geological stratification as the result of deposition from Noah’s flood. But for 19th c Cuvier, Noah’s flood was only the last in a series of catastrophes required to explain those features as well as fossil succession. Likewise, study of the history of civilizations started by taking the Bible as offering a complete record of civilizations starting with the most ancient ones. But Cuvier, among others, learned that there were ancient civilizations such as those of India and China that predated the biblical history. As a result, questions were raised about the relationship between biblical history, the history of civilizations and earth history. By the 18th century we are in the heyday of the development of historical biblical criticism. So it is not surprising that these different strands engaged in a mutual exchange and this is what most people see today. To be continued.
Jitse van der Meer
Response to David DeJong cont'd
The idea that biblical criticism originated in the scientific study of nature began in the 18th century. According to this new view Copernicanism and Cartesianism were assessed on their implications for scripture interpretation and lumped together with critical scripture interpreters. The difference is important for it exposes as myth the view that revolutions in the earth sciences and in biology (evolutionary thought) brought about higher biblical criticism. In reality the rise of historical awareness transformed both biblical scholarship and the natural sciences simultaneously.
If the initial development of historical biblical criticism was not motivated by developments in the scientific study of nature and history, its 19th century classical form did appeal both to their methods and to their results. Only this late do we begin to see the link between historical biblical criticism and science that David DeJong is referring to. Liberal theologians have dismissed parts or all of Scripture as historically unreliable. Looking back, it is difficult to untangle these strands because the independent transformations eventually led to the interactions we see today. But we can say that they came to that conclusion by mistaking Scripture for a book intended to satisfy the requirements of modern historical and scientific scholarship.
With the advantage of hindsight it is obvious that the Bible does not satisfy the requirements of the scholarly study of nature and history. This is the truth contained in the slogan that the Bible is not a textbook of science or of history. But we also conclude that the Bible offers historical truth even though it does not fulfil the demands of modern scholarship.
The take home point is that historical biblical criticism did not originate in the natural sciences nor in the theory of biological evolution more specifically.
Jitse van der Meer
Good to hear again from you, Dave, and thanks for your thought-provoking comments. We indeed ask for a more balanced approach, the sort of approach that you show exists in the O.P.C. Among us here in Canada and also in our Dutch “mother church,” there has been an arrested development. The framework hypothesis as worked out by Meredith Kline was first promoted, I believe, in Reformed Holland, namely by A. Noordtzij, followed by N. H. Ridderbos. At that time, in the first half of the 20th century, it did not cause much of a controversy. It was only in the 1960s and ’70s that young-earth creationism became the “orthodox” position in the Dutch churches and the framework hypothesis was rejected as heretical. Among the Dutch there is now, however, a return to the more tolerant approach of the past, but this indeed has not happened yet among us in the CanRC. Far too often rejection of young-earth and “scientific” creationism is still equated with theological apostasy.
You are also right in advocating a more balanced approach in our study not only of Darwin, but also of other cultural movers and shakers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For close to a century too many of our Reformed scholars have been preoccupied with in-house controversies and dismissed outsiders as for all practical purposes irredeemable. I think one of the most potent motives has been fear. We see it very clearly in the reaction to Darwin, but it is indeed noticeable also in that against Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud and their contemporaries. In a previous comment I mentioned John Calvin’s willingness to acknowledge the work of the Spirit in unbelieving scholarship, and his warning that we ought to give thanks to whatever is true in such scholarship. May all Calvinists remember these words in this Calvin year!
Mentioning Calvin brings me also to our very limited involvement in modern theological and biblical studies. One example is hermeneutics. I am always amazed at Calvin’s daring in this field, for example in his theory of divine accommodation, but also in other areas. How we have regressed! Here again, however, there is a turnabout noticeable among the Dutch. As you many know, Dr. Ad de Bruijne, ethicist at the Theological University in Kampen, caused a stir some years ago with a number of essays on hermeneutics. He received positive attention in his own church environment, but he has also been accused of following a Bible-critical approach. In the CanRC little mention has been made of his work, which I thought was unfortunate, since I believe it has relevance also for us. I therefore wrote a series of articles summarizing the essays for Clarion. The first of that six-part series is now posted also on this blog under the title “How Do We Read the Bible?” (see Collected Papers), and I intend to add the other five shortly. DeBruijne, who gives much attention to Anglo-Saxon theological scholarship (a growing trend in the Dutch churches), deals, inter alia, with biblical inspiration (and has relevant things to say on the matter of Inerrancy as we are discussing it on this blog), with the role of metaphor in the Bible, with Old and New Testament historiography, and with his own specialty, biblical ethics.
And that at last leads me to your remark on the relationship between the rise of evolution and of historical criticism, specifically as promoted by Julius Wellhausen. That relationship undoubtedly exists. Which does not mean, of course, that historical criticism arose as a result of Darwin’s work: it is much older than Darwin. But as you say, it is certainly in agreement with the evolutionary, developmental worldview that facilitated Darwin’s work and was at the same time strengthened by it. In the late 19th century just about everything on earth was explained in evolutionary terms. I have never made an in-depth study of Wellhausen’s thesis and I may well misunderstand him (in which case I look forward to a correction), but I have always felt that his evolutionist, historicist worldview played far too strong a role in his biblical studies. This is how I understand him: With his documentary hypothesis Wellhausen sought to confirm a theory that had already been defended before him that the Pentateuch (the Five Books of Moses) consisted of records derived from four major sources, namely J, E, D, and P (priestly). He chose, again following the ideas of his predecessors, the priestly code as the most recent of the four. His conclusions were in conformity with evolutionary theory, according to which ideas, institutions, and beliefs are subject to a law of progressive development, so that the earlier stages are necessarily the most primitive ones. He taught, for example, that Israel’s religion had begun with a primitive, polytheistic stage but had culminated, via the period of the Prophets, into the elaborate and ritualistic religion of the Law, which was fully monotheistic. These conclusions made necessary a redating of O.T. history, which according to Wellhausen began not with Abraham (the Bible portrayed the patriarchs as monotheists but such a belief was too advanced for the period in which they were supposed to have lived), but with Moses and the Exodus. And so on.
I think Wellhausen failed in his redating. That theory has in any event been seriously weakened as a result of the work of modern archaeologists, a better knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern (especially Babylonian) culture in the days of the patriarchs, and also by the insights of newer histories of religion. The documentary hypothesis itself, on the other hand, may have value, but I don’t know enough about it to evaluate it properly. Interestingly, Ad de Bruijne writes in the essays I mentioned that while Reformed theologians like Kuyper and Bavinck sharply rejected the conclusions of biblical criticism, they at the same time admitted that critical scholars had come with important new knowledge and insights and that Reformed theology must not ignore their work. De Bruijne further states that it was the insights gained by the work of historical critics that led Kuyper and Bavinck to propose the theory of organic inspiration. With you I am looking forward to an informed discussion on these matters. Perhaps some of our pastors and theologians will join?
Jitse van der Meer’s comments are of course correct; I was not intending to imply that biblical criticism was a product of scientific developments. Reimarus wrote long before Darwin, and he questioned the historicity of the four gospels and began the so-called “quest for the historical Jesus.” My point was not to suggest the dependence of biblical scholarship on science; rather, it was simply to point out that these are parallel developments, and therefore the pedagogical reform advanced in Dr. Oosterhoff’s paper may have far-reaching implications, which we need to carefully consider.
Dr. Oosterhoff gives a very good summary of Wellhausen, with quite a fine critique. It is true that he did not invent the documentary hypothesis—earlier scholars like De Wette had formulated the theory—but he gave the theory the form in which it commanded (near) universal consent. I might add that the key for Wellhausen was the late dating of P, but this has come under heavy scrutiny even in critical scholarship (e.g., Milgrom). What I wonder is: why was De Wette ostracized while Wellhausen won the day? Surely this is related to a readiness to accept at the end of the nineteenth century what was unacceptable at the beginning? Presuppositions are the key here.
Nevertheless, there is more to be said. As with Darwin, so with Wellhausen: perhaps we need to distinguish between the anti-God naturalistic presuppositions and the actual evidence for the theories. If we need to respect the latter in the case of Darwin, we must do the same in the case of Wellhausen. We would then not operate with a monolithic notion of what the “documentary hypothesis” is and reject it in toto; rather, we would ask ourselves what we can gain from critical scholarship. And there is much to be gained. Arnold referred to the fact that Gen 1 and Gen 2 are different genres: this I consider to be an indisputable gain, first introduced by higher critics who noted the different names for God in the passages. There is an element of “plundering the Egyptians” here: critical scripture scholarship actually in many cases gives believers resources for rich theological reflection on Scripture, resources that can challenge our world’s “scientific disdain” for the Bible.
Finally, Rev. Schouten is correct to observe that churches which have embraced liberal scripture scholarship are now quite literally dying off; they have no relevant message for the world. The exception is the Roman Catholic Church, which since approx. 1950 has been open to critical scholarship but is not going away any time soon (J. Fitzmyer, a prominent Catholic commentator, says of historical problems in the Bible: “The Church has never asserted that historicity is a formal effect of inspiration.”) It is rather liberal Protestant churches that are going extinct. It is important to keep this in mind in evaluating the historical significance of this phenomenon. Actually, the hermeneutical approach of mainstream liberal Protestantism and YEC-evangelicalism is quite similar; they represent two sides of the same coin. In the former case science has caused them to reject faith, in the latter faith has caused them to reject science. The Reformed tradition, I believe, has the intellectual and spiritual resources to question the false dilemma posed by the Enlightenment which has had such varied and destructive consequences in Protestantism as a whole.
South Bend, IN
Rob Schouten summarizes his comment: "I would argue that in the case of theorizing about the origin and development of life, presuppositions and outcomes of research and analysis are more closely linked than they would be in discussing, for example, the best way to deal with the H1N1 virus (though it might be argued that also in the latter case, there is an "establishment" way of responding which deals harshly with those who question prevailing wisdom.
(I) A great deal is implied in this summary. First, an argument of this kind needs evidence. So I invite Rob Schouten to provide it. Others who have investigated the relationships between presuppositions on the one hand and observation and theorizing in great detail would point out that the evidence does not support his thesis. For sources see:
Brooke, John Hedley. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Brooke, J.H., Osler, M.J. Van der Meer, J.M. (Eds.) Science in Theistic Contexts: Cognitive Dimensions. Osiris 16 (2001). University of Chicago Press. Chicago.
Van der Meer, J.M. Editor (1996) Facets of Faith and Science. Volume 1: Historiography and Modes of Interaction. The Pascal Centre for Advanced Studies in Faith and Science / University Press of America. Lanham. 1996.
Van der Meer, J.M. Editor (1996) Facets of Faith and Science. Volume 2: The Role of Beliefs in Mathematics and the Natural Sciences: An Augustinian Perspective. The Pascal Centre for Advanced Studies in Faith and Science / University Press of America. Lanham. 1996.
Van der Meer, J.M. Editor (1996) Facets of Faith and Science. Volume 3: The Role of Beliefs in the Natural Sciences. The Pascal Centre for Advanced Studies in Faith and Science / University Press of America. Lanham. 1996.
Van der Meer, J.M. Editor (1996) Facets of Faith and Science. Volume 4: Interpreting God's Action in the World. The Pascal Centre for Advanced Studies in Faith and Science / University Press of America. Lanham. 1996.
Jitse van der Meer
(II). Rob Schouten argues his thesis for the special case of theorizing about the origin and development of life. Perhaps this case of theorizing is exceptional in that the content of the theory is fully determined by people's presuppositions so that the existence of an objective created reality makes no difference to the theory. Here I have two comments.
(IIA) Presuppositions never determine the outcome of observation, experimentation and theorizing in the strong sense of fully determining their content. This deterministic view of the role of presuppositions is a rationalistic misinterpretation of Abraham Kuyper who may not be entirely without blame in this respect. Presuppositions do not fully determine the content of a theory or of an observation because created reality resists incorrect theorizing and because presuppositions always involve additional assumptions that can be changed. To clarify the second reason, there is never a single presupposition from which theoretical or observational implications can be deduced with logical necessity. Presuppositions are always accompanied by additional assumptions. Presuppositions and additional assumptions together may logical entail a theory, but as soon as one of the additional assumptions changes the implications change as well. This explains why people holding different world views can accept the same theory such as the theory of biological evolution.
It may be that an incorrect theory lasts for a century or so and this may create the impression that the only game in town is the neo-Darwinian theory of biological evolution. But the history of this theory does not support this thesis because there have been and currently are signs of vigorous questioning among professional biologists irrespective of their religious background. In the early 1900s Darwinian evolution was nearly dead among professional biologists for various technical reasons until it was replaced with the neo-Darwinian theory in the 1940s. Currently, my own field of developmental biology gives plenty of reason to reconsider the neo-Darwinian version of this theory. In sum, the history of science does not support Rob Schouten's thesis. Cont'd
Jitse van der Meer
Response to Rob Schouten cont'd-2
(IIB). There is an aspect to the issue that remains unresolved in my mind. It is to do with scientific method. Specifically, with what is referred to as 'methodological naturalism', or 'methodological materialism' or 'methodological atheism.' This is a methodological rule prescribing that natural phenomena can be explained only by natural causes. Or, material phenomena can be explained only by material causes. In the form of methodological atheism the rule highlights that in science natural or material phenomena cannot be explained by saying that God did it. It is important not to confuse methodological naturalism/materialism with ontological naturalism/materialism. The latter is the philosophical and pseudo-religious position that nature/matter is all that exists. This view must be rejected by Christians.
But there are solid theological reasons for the methodological rule. It would be impossible and highly inappropriate to involve God in a scientific explanation because it would entail that God conceived as a 'cause' could be controlled and manipulated by a human experimenter. Further, we do not know God's plan for this world and, therefore, we cannot infer knowledge from it and use it in scientific explanations.
There are also good scientific reasons for this rule. Without the rule science would derange into superstition with explanations ranging from extraterrestrial beings to demonic forces and everything in between. Historically, these are among the reasons for this rule. But there is a serious problem with the rule that I am not sure I have solved to my satisfaction. If in exploring the development of the universe one were to arrive at a point where God acted in some miraculous, i.e., non-natural way, the rule prescribes that we find a natural explanation. As a result one may end up constructing a virtual theoretical reality that has all the causes that brought our current reality into being, but that never really existed. I have described this problem in an unpublished paper that may be found at: 1995. Van der Meer, J. M. "The Struggle Between Christian Theism, Metaphysical Naturalism and Relativism: How To Proceed in Science?"
Here's the link: http://www.jitsevandermeer.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=73&Itemid=53
It would be easy to use this difficulty as an excuse to declare all scientific theorizing a virtual reality. That is what bishop Berkeley did. Very few took him seriously. Pushed to its extreme one would end up taking one's entire past as unreal up to a second ago. This problem applies to the origin of life which is the subject of Rob Schouten's thesis.
I think the way to avoid constructing virtual realities is to rely on what the nineteenth century British Christian philosopher of science William Whewell referred to as the 'consilience of inductions.' This means that a law of nature or a theory may be considered to describe reality provided there is evidence from many different and independent sources. If a natural law or theory were only virtually true, then it would be confirmed by some evidence, but not by other. In such cases accepting or rejecting the theory or law requires careful weighing of evidence and people will inevitably end up on different sides of the issue. Over time, however, the issue will resolve itself one way or another. This applies to the theory of biological evolution.
Jitse van der Meer
Pastor Rob Schouten stated: “If Christian school teachers link Darwin's alternative to the doctrine of creation to the deceitful influence of the devil, I say that's a good thing.”
I respectfully disagree. A problem with spiritual interpretations of ideas or activities is that they are very subjective. Of course, we have the Scriptures to support our spiritual interpretations or judgments on things of this world. If someone is dishonest, God clearly reveals to us that this is a sin. I think Dr. Oosterhoff has argued well that evolution is not such a simple issue.
As far as I know, when scientists publish their findings they typically present an interpretation of the data they have collected from experiments and will also make available all the experimental data, even if some of data is detrimental to their proposed interpretation. This allows others in their field to review their work and determine if the interpretation is valid. This allows for a certain standard of honesty and integrity. (Scientists on the blog, please correct me if I am misrepresenting the process).
Having read a bit of YEC literature, I do not find the same standard of honesty and integrity. Often they will attach great significance to a few pieces of data that seem to contradict the prevailing view and then neglect to mention the far greater amount of data that would discredit their interpretation. Should teachers then declare that Creation Scientists are under the influence of the devil because they are being dishonest, whether willfully or not? I would rather not do that.
It may be a little to easy for non-scientists to toss into the trash bin large components of modern biology, cosmology and geology. But the scientist must honestly struggle with the apparent contradictions between Biblical interpretation and modern science. I commend Dr. van der Meer for his honesty in this regard, as presented in his series of papers. In his latest paper entitled “God, Natural Evil and Biological Evolution” he presents one of many significant problems that any YEC proponent must deal with.
Dr. van der Meer states: “Adam and Eve brought biological death upon themselves as punishment for disobedience. Many believe that this death spread to the death of plants and animals. This would imply that God so thoroughly revamped all of creation that one might say that he made another creation after the fall, namely the one we are familiar with. Two problems arise as a result of this view. First, the Bible does not so much as hint that God made a different creation as a response to the fall. Second, biological death is fundamental in the current order of nature. To think of a creation that was without biological death before the fall would not just be to think of a different order of nature. It would be an unimaginable order of nature. The pre-fall world would have essentially no continuity with the post-fall world. The fall would then mark the making of a different creation with a different order of nature than before the fall.”
Issues like this should be honestly and sincerely dealt with in the safe environment our schools provide.
Thanks, Rev. Schouten, for your further explanation. It is good to find that some of our apparent disagreements are just that, apparent. We are also agreed on the fact that the “light of nature” does not lead to a saving knowledge of God. Calvin, of course, made that clear as well in the chapter of the Institutes from which I quoted.
At the end of your comment you ask how we at Reformed Academic acknowledge the abuse of this “light of nature” in the realm of evolutionary science. Specifically, I would say, by distinguishing between a scientific theory and the way people use such a theory for ideological purposes – in other words, between evolution and evolutionism, or evolution as an all-encompassing worldview. It is in that area that we and our students face the real enemy. It is no doubt true that religious motives (including atheistic ones) play their role in the rise and acceptance of scientific theories, but somehow this does not disqualify these theories as such. The history of science makes that clear. God evidently allows it. We already learn that from Genesis 4, which you mentioned as well. Calvin also knew it and wrote (in the paragraph I referred to), that “we ought not to forget those most excellent benefits of the divine Spirit, which he distributes to whomever he wills.” I do not say that this answers every question we may have in connection with secular science, but I do think that this is where we must start, as we are indeed attempting to do at Reformed Academic.
There is no reason to claim that Genesis 2 is another creation story and that it portrays a different order of creation. Note that it begins with, “This is the account (or “generations” – Hebrew toledoth) of the heavens and the earth when they were created” (NIV). Here we have one specific aspect of creation (the story of man) elaborated upon. God had made the earth and the heavens, everything was “good,” and now he will tell us the specific story of humankind.
Arnold Sikkema wrote that Genesis 2 is “one of several creation stories,” and also that, “Genesis 2 has humans before plants.” This is not necessarily true. It is only true if an assumption is made concerning the meaning of Gen. 2:5 – “and no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up.” If we take this to mean that no vegetation whatsoever had appeared on the earth then, yes, we might have a chronological problem. However, if we see this instead as a description of two specific kinds of plants that had not yet appeared then we can read this story chronologically with no problems. Professor Umberto Cassuto, in his commentary on Genesis (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1961), makes this argument quite strongly. We need to first note that reasons are given for these plants not appearing: “for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no man to work the ground…” These were specific plants that needed specific conditions to grow, namely rain, and a tilled ground. Note also Gen. 3:18b-19a: “…and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food.” The plants of the field are what will now provide food for Adam and Eve. Cassuto concludes that, “to this category belonged, on the one hand, all species of corn, which, even though isolated specimens might have existed here and there from the very beginning, were not found in the form of fields of grain until man began to till the ground” (as quoted on page 125 in Douglas Kelly. Creation and Change. Christian Focus Publications, 1997). He also explains that the other category of plant which had not yet sprung up were thorns and thistles, “whose seeds are unable to propagate and grow fresh plants until it rains” (Kelly, 125).
Cassuto’s argument, while slightly more complex than I have just presented, provides us with a solid alternative to seeing Genesis 2:4-25 as another, chronologically different, creation account. In addition, they are not the only scholars who make a distinction between the shrubs and plants of the field in Gen. 2:5 and the entire plant kingdom in Gen. 1:11. Hebrew scholars Keil and Delitzsch explain: “Moreover, the shrub and herb of the field do not embrace the whole of the vegetable productions of the earth. It is not a fact that the field is used in the second section in the same sense as the earth in the first” (Old Testament Commentary: Pentateuch, 49. Hendrickson Pub. Inc., 2006).
I also note, in response to Dr. Sikkema’s claim that Gen. 2:4-25 is a separate creation story, these words of Keil and Delitzsch:
“The account in vv. 5-25 is not a second, complete and independent history of creation, nor does it contain mere appendices to the account in ch. 1; but it describes the commencement of the history of the human race. This commencement includes not only a complete account of the creation of the first human pair, but a description of the place which God prepared for their abode, the latter being of highest importance to the self-determination of man, with its momentous consequences to both earth and heaven. Even in the history of creation man takes precedence of all other creatures, as being created in the image of God and appointed lord of all the earth, though he is simply mentioned there as the last and highest link in the creation. To this our present account is attached, describing with greater minuteness the position of man in creation, and explaining the circumstances which exerted the greatest influence upon his subsequent career” (Pp. 47-48. Italics mine.)
Ben Vandergugten wrote: "As far as I know, when scientists publish their findings they typically present an interpretation of the data they have collected from experiments and will also make available all the experimental data, even if some of data is detrimental to their proposed interpretation. This allows others in their field to review their work and determine if the interpretation is valid. This allows for a certain standard of honesty and integrity. (Scientists on the blog, please correct me if I am misrepresenting the process)."
Response: There is nothing wrong with this description of peer review except that it may be too idealized. The article in the link below reviews peer review. The discussion is not perfect, but it points to some defects in peer review. I would add one observation: peer review USUALLY occurs only within a small group of experts. They may or may not share a paradigm within which they practice their work. If the paper to be reviewed falls outside the paradigm it may encounter problems in getting accepted. The reviewers are supposed to be open-minded. If they are not, the editor will signal the problem, ignore the review and / or ask for an additional review. So, there are ways of dealing with bias, but once in a while a paper may not pass review despite all these safety valves. In the long run these problems iron themselves out.
Jitse van der Meer
In relation to my last comments, I believe that there is something important missing in Dr. Oosterhoff’s paper. I don’t see any concrete evidence to demonstrate that evolution can fit within the first chapters of Genesis. This is foundational, and until it happens, I don’t think we should entertain any ideas of teaching evolution as a legitimate “option” in our schools.
Dr. Oosterhoff mentions that God accommodates himself to his people. Yet this really has nothing to say about the creation account. God accommodates himself to his people in the entirety of Scripture, not just in the first chapters of Genesis. I wonder, then, why we are given the impression that the first chapters of Genesis are a special case of God accommodating himself to his people?
Perhaps someone might say that God wanted to give an extra-accommodating creation account; but then why would he have given the account that he does here? I don’t think, looking around at the majesty in this world, that it is a simple matter to understand a literal six-day creation. All this, in six days? It is difficult to believe. It doesn’t seem very accommodating to my limited and sinful mind.
In the same paragraph as her mention of accommodation, (2.1) Dr. Oosterhoff writes, “Genesis 1 assumes the worldview and world picture of the first readers and hearers, who lived thousands of years ago.” Again, we need to be careful with this. Genesis 1-3 was written by someone who was “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21) and these chapters are “God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16). The Bible was essentially written by God (of course, he used men with different personalities etc.) and transcends time. While it is helpful to understand the original audience, it is not essential. When God had Genesis composed, he also had us in mind. We are also part of the intended audience of the Word of God. So we have to be careful not to see it as time bound. We don’t need scholars to tell us about the “worldview and world picture of the first readers and hearers.” The scholars could just as well be wrong. It is almost all conjecture.
Dr. Oosterhoff also mentions phenomenological language. Again, I don’t think this has anything to say specifically about Genesis 1-3. Phenomenological language is used throughout the whole Bible, and as Dr. Oosterhoff mentions herself, we still use it today. It is not specific to Genesis 1-3, nor is it even prominent in these chapters. If we want to make phenomenological language impact the nature of the historical narrative of Genesis, then we also must let it impact the historical nature of the rest of the historical narrative in the Old Testament.
The theory of evolution, as Dr. Oosterhoff also pointed out, is full of holes. There are even more holes than she mentioned, such as the basic assumptions behind dating techniques. When I put this theory up against the first three chapters of Genesis I see no reason to accept the theory. Nor do I see any reason to teach it in our schools as legitimate. If Dr. Oosterhoff wants us to be more balanced and nuanced in our presentation of Darwinism, fine. But when it comes to presenting it as a real option for Christians, then I think the burden of proof is on her to demonstrate that it can mesh with Genesis 1-3.
One final comment: it is often said that we shouldn’t read Genesis 1-3 as a science textbook. I can agree with that, but that doesn’t help our discussion, because that is not where the problem lies. The problem is not that science per se conflicts with these chapters. The problem is that the historical claims made by evolutionists are in direct conflict with the historical claims of Genesis 1-3. The problem is in the history of the theory of evolution, not in the science.
One more comment, if you will permit me, concerning Calvin's principle of accommodation. It is interesting that Dr. Oosterhoff mentions this, for it seems that Calvin himself uses this principle to defend literal six-day creation. In his commentary on Genesis, he states: "Here the error of those is manifestly refuted, who maintain that the world was made in a moment. For it is too violent a cavil to contend that Moses distributes the work which God perfected at once into six days, for the mere purpose of conveying instruction. Let us rather conclude that God himself took the space of six days, for the purpose of accommodating his works to the capacity of men." (Michigan, Baker Books, 2009)
I'm wondering what Dr. Oosterhoff makes of this comment?
David DeJong writes: "As with Darwin, so with Wellhausen: perhaps we need to distinguish between the anti-God naturalistic presuppositions and the actual evidence for the theories. If we need to respect the latter in the case of Darwin, we must do the same in the case of Wellhausen. We would then not operate with a monolithic notion of what the "documentary hypothesis" is and reject it in toto; rather, we would ask ourselves what we can gain from critical scholarship. "
Response: David is hitting the nail on the head. We are homing in on a fundamental issue that affects our understanding both of the history of revelation and of the history of creation. The key notion as i see it is that God works by using 'instruments' both in the history of revelation and in the history of creation. In the case of his revelation in Scripture these instruments are people, and by using people God often accommodates himself to their limitations.
Beginning with the church fathers and perhaps earlier God was seen as the great pedagogue accommodating himself to the child-like capacities of the Israelites. This principle of accommodation has been universally accepted up until our time, but with modifications. The originators of historical biblical criticism still were orthodox bible scholars using the same principle as the church fathers. But their successors transformed the principle by taking accommodation to apply to stages in the evolution of the Hebrew religion. Now, if God is taken to reveal himself ONLY by natural means, i.e., the natural abilities of his human instruments, then the step to a naturalistic view of Scripture is easily made. For instance, the notion that a human author of a bible book would use various document sources under God's guidance is just as acceptable as God guiding the author by infusing the intended content into his mind.
The problem begins when revelation is reduced to a naturalistic process because it leaves God out of the picture. This is what happened in the development of historical biblical criticism. Wellhausen is an example as David DeJong points out. I see this reduction as one of the fatal transitions in the development of historical biblical criticism. I believe the way to avoid this reduction is to recognize God's presence in the text -- signs of transcendence if you will -- and that requires the illumination by the Holy Spirit. In principle God's presence may be seen in non-natural events such as God speaking or performing miraculous signs. Since these are not recognized for what they are by bible critics working within the philosophy of naturalism another approach is required in debate with them. One might call this approach internal criticism. This can be done (1) by looking for the way a theory or paradigm distorts reality and (2) by looking for disagreements within the field of historical biblical criticism. Approach (1) will eventually lead to disagreement about what that reality is. Critics working with a naturalistic perspective will deny the reality of God's presence. We have closed the hermeneutical circle. Nevertheless, the case has been made for a credible Christian view of Scripture based on a scripturally informed view of reality. As for approach (2) disagreements among higher biblical critics are extensive. When a field of scholarship suffers in that way you have reason to look for the distorting effects of beliefs in the background (presuppositions). Continued.
Jitse van der Meer
As Alvin Plantinga suggested, few orthodox Christians are bothered by higher biblical criticism because higher biblical critics not only disagree amongst each other, but their arguments are far from convincing. See: Plantinga, Alvin. "Two (or More) Kinds of Scripture Scholarship." In: Bartholomew, C, Evans, C. S., Healy, M., Rae, M. Behind The Text: History and Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids, Zondervan / UK, Paternoster Press. pp. 19-57, see p. 41. I would be interested to hear whether there are such studies of the role of presuppositions in historical biblical criticism.
In the case of biological evolution, God's instruments are not people, but natural processes. Something like the fatal transition in biblical scholarship occurred in the natural sciences. This is the transition from explanation of natural phenomena in terms of natural causes to an interpretation of the book of nature in terms of a philosophical naturalism. Both in biblical scholarship and in the natural sciences we need to distinguish between evidence and its distortion by people with various agendas. In biology as in biblical scholarship this can be done by an analysis of the role of background beliefs in the development and evaluation of theories. For examples see:
Van der Meer, J.M. (2000) "The Engagement of Religion and Biology: A Case Study in the Mediating Role of Metaphor in the Sociobiology of Lumsden and Wilson." Biology and Philosophy 15: 759-772.
Van der Meer, J. M. (2007) "Theodosius Dobzhansky: Nothing in Evolution Makes Sense Except in the Light of Religion." In: Nicolaas Rupke (ed.), Eminent Lives in Twentieth-Century Science and Religion. Franfurt. Berlin. Brussels. New York. Oxford. Vienna: Peter Lang, 2007, pp. 79-101.
In sum, distortion of observation, theory and explanation by ideologies can be identified and distinguished from true versions. This is an important task for Christian scholars.
Jitse van der Meer
Hello again, Tim, and thanks! I appreciate your perseverance. But I am not sure if in your comment on accommodation and world picture we are on the same wave length. I wrote on that topic in connection with a different post, the one on Biblical Inerrancy. And I don’t recall that at that time (or at any other time) I used the arguments of accommodation and world picture “to demonstrate that evolution can fit within the chapters of Genesis.” I have never claimed that evolution does fit these chapters, no matter what arguments one uses. Please believe me when I say, as I have said many a time before, that I am not a neo-Darwinist, for it is the honest truth. I will now try to answer your letter, using point form.
1. I dealt with the arguments of different cosmologies and of accommodation (in the Inerrancy discussion, not in the one on Teaching Evolution,) to explain certain aspects of the creation account that perhaps come across as strange. I think I mentioned especially the idea of a hard firmament (I gave reasons for that translation) and of the water above the sky, suggesting that this picture was in accordance with the prevailing (ANE or Ancient Near-Eastern) cosmology. I have heard a preacher say that the firmament was just the sky and the water above the firmament was just clouds. That’s a way out, but in my opinion the explanation with reference to the prevailing cosmology is more to the point. More honest, in fact, and therefore more convincing. As I have mentioned somewhere on this blog, Calvin already said that Moses did not intend to teach that there is “water above the sky.”
2. I admit the difficulty of reconciling evolution and Genesis 1, but then, I am not trying to do so. Nor do I have to, since I am not an evolutionist.
3. I dealt with Genesis 1 and therefore drew attention to God’s accommodating himself to his people in that specific account. I did not say that God does not accommodate himself to us elsewhere in the Bible, for he most certainly does. Nor do I believe or suggest that he is accommodating himself “extra” in the creation account.
4. Yes, God did accommodate himself to the first audience, which lived thousands of years ago. This does not in the least detract from the truth that the Holy Spirit guided Moses. The theory of accommodation and the argument of the differences in cosmology are generally accepted and used, also in orthodox Reformed biblical scholarship. We can’t ignore them! I therefore must disagree with you and insist that we DO need scholars who tell us about the worldview of the first readers and hearers. I am convinced that you will be taught this at the Theological College.
5. I don’t recall that I used the fact of God’s using phenomenological language as an argument in favour of neo-Darwinism. I couldn’t have done so, for I don’t believe in the latter.
6. I agree that the theory of neo-Darwinism is not foolproof. As I pointed out in my paper on “Teaching Evolution” it has weaknesses as well as strengths. In my paper I listed the weaknesses in much detail. I also made mention of the arguments that young-earth creationists level against radiometric dating, but added that in general the different dating devices cohere. I referred to astronomy, geology, paleontology, as well as physics. As to the matter of radiometric dating I refer you to an evaluation of the Creation Research Society’s RATE project [Randy Isaac, “Assessing the RATE Project,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, v. 59, n. 2 (June 2007), pp. 143-6, available online here]. It shows the serious weakness of YEC attacks on the general reliability of radiometric dating.
7. Lastly but not in the last place: I am NOT proposing the teaching of evolution “as a real option for Christians” (in the sense, I take it, of an alternative “religious” belief). If you will read my paper carefully, you will notice that I argue that it must be taught not because it is foolproof, but, inter alia, because it teaches us about creation, because students must learn to differentiate between evolution and evolutionism, because they must have weapons in the fight against a very influential materialistic worldview, because they must learn to interact with their culture, because they must be prepared for further studies, and also because of the potent scientific evidence. In short, the choice is NOT between Genesis 1 and Darwin. Nor ought it to be presented as such.
In conclusion: a modest proposal. I admire your courage and stamina in struggling with these difficult issues, and that you do so, as I understand, in conversation with other students at our Theological College. Please keep up the good work. I don’t think it should be done in writing only, however. An oral debate should be quite helpful. So this is my proposal: Why don’t you ask Dr. van Dam (who knows me well) to invite me to present my paper and to answer any questions? This is not unusual. It is customary for the College regularly to invite someone to speak on the issue. Traditionally this has been a scientific creationist, but hasn’t the time come to invite someone from a different side? After all, you are graduate students who can deal with opposing arguments. Iron sharpens iron. I could present the paper in one of your O.T. studies classes, or we could make it a bit more formal and invite others as well. Again, that too has been done at the College in the past. I am looking forward to your reply.
In answer to your next comment, Tim: Yes, Calvin held to a young earth. Most of his contemporaries did; Darwin had not been around yet, nor had modern geologists or astronomers or physicists. Calvin did have a bit of a problem with science, namely with the Copernican theory of a sun-centred solar system, which seemed to go against the Bible and which apparently he did not like. He never asked his followers, however, to consider it as the work of darkness. Unlike the R.C. Church, Reformed churches have not made acceptance of Copernicanism a shibboleth, nor have they officially done so, I should add, in the case of a YEC explanation of Genesis 1.
I have mentioned and explained these things in an earlier paper, also posted on this blog, and titled “Young-Earth Creationism: A History.” I have submitted it to Clarion, but it was refused by the editorial committee. (Clarion has instituted a moratorium on anything dealing even remotely with the Genesis 1 controversy, although a few pieces favouring the more literalistic approach have slipped through.) Perhaps I will have a chance to get it in print next year, when and if the moratorium is lifted. But of course, you don’t have to wait for that.
Tim Schouten said,
"There is no reason to claim that Genesis 2 is another creation story and that it portrays a different order of creation."
Tim, I would urge to look at the occurrences of phrase "YHWH Elohim" (“LORD God” in translation) in narrative in the OT. I ran the search on BibleWorks and got 31 hits; 20 of the occurrences were in Gen 2-3. Of the other 11 occurrences, only 2 use the phrase in narrative (Exod 9:30, Jon 4:6). 7 of the occurrences are vocative ("O LORD God").
Theologically, this is significant data. The name "YHWH Elohim" is only scarcely used through the rest of scripture; however, Gen 2-3 is replete with the title (it doesn’t occur again in Genesis). Obviously, this stresses that the God (Elohim) of Gen 1 is identified with the LORD (YHWH) of Gen 2-3. I don't shy from the theological importance of this connection: the Almighty Creator of the universe is also the covenant God of Israel. But I also wouldn't shy from the critical conclusion that these were originally separate creation accounts, and that the final (inspired) editor of Genesis added the name Elohim in Gen 2-3 precisely to make this true theological point. Nothing in the doctrine of inspiration would make me conclude that only an original author could be inspired and not a final editor.
You refer to the "toledot" or generations formula in Gen 2:4. This, by the way, also argues that Gen 1 and Gen 2 are separate creation accounts, and even separate genres. The "generations" formula is used 10 times in Genesis, 5 times before the flood and 5 times afterward. It functions as a heading, and indicates that the following material is historical narrative; that is, this formula is an indicator of genre. Now, the key question for me is this: why doesn't Genesis begin with a generations formula? Why doesn't it subsume Gen 1 under the overall structure of the book? There is only possible conclusion for me: the Word of God itself teaches that we are dealing here with a separate creation account, written in a different genre! For me it is submission to God's Word that leads to the conclusion that Gen 1 and 2 are clearly different creation accounts. This allows for a sensitive reading of both Gen 1-2:3 and Gen 2-3, without forcing harmonizations between the two. Note for example the order of creation on day 6. In Gen 1, it is clearly intended to be animals then humanity (male and female) as the pinnacle of creation. In Gen 2, however, the order of creation is man-animals-woman. The NIV doesn’t help here, as it mistranslates Gen 2:19 with a pluperfect (“had formed”); in the Hebrew this is simply a part of the narrative sequence, indicating that the LORD God formed the animals after making man and before making woman (cf. NRSV). A sensitivity to genre, I submit, would not make such forced harmonizations necessary.
South Bend, IN
On Nov. 3rd, Dave de Jong wrote:
BOQ-This leads me to a curious conclusion. If the ascendancy of evolution and the rise of biblical criticism are related (and I think there is no question about that), one could equally argue that we need to take a more “balanced” approach to our study of scripture scholarship than we do. I’m not sure what to think of that conclusion, but it would seem to be the logical consequence of the pedagogical approach you are taking with respect to evolution.
Earlier Dave had mentioned “… Wellhausen … a leading 19th-century intellectual who provoked a paradigm shift [in text-critical studies].”
I know that Freda has already commented on this, but I’d like to raise it again. I think Dave is correct when he said that the teaching of theistic evolution and (higher) biblical criticism are related. As worldviews, ideas, thought, etc., are usually of whole cloth, shifts in approach tend to occur paradigmatically across the board. I think one could expect a theistic evolutionist to hold to a form of documentary hypothesis of the scriptures (JEDP for the Pentateuch; Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah for the “Isaianic literature,” etc.) and vice versa. Is this a paradigm shift that we should welcome in the Canadian Reformed Churches? I think not. I would suggest it is a shift into naturalism that will not do our churches much of a favour in the long run.
George van Popta
Your comment is probably a misunderstanding. (1) As I indicated in my response to David DeJong (Nov. 6), historical biblical criticism preceded Darwin by two centuries and is driven by questions raised within biblical scholarship. The fact that it was used in conjunction with Darwin's theory much later does not negate the fact that there is no necessary relationship between the two. (2) One can be a theistic evolutionist and not hold to a documentary hypothesis. To mention an example, just by looking at the content on the two creation narratives, not knowing anything about the documentary hypothesis, one can hold that the two narratives deal with the same events, but from different points of view held by the same author. (3) The documentary hypothesis may have acquired a bad name because of its association with naturalistic and historicistic approaches to Scripture, but again we have to separate the wheat and the chaff. If God uses human authors to reveal himself why could he not use human editors to reveal himself? (4) I speak for all of us at Reformed Academic when I say that we draw the line at naturalism and other -isms and we do so unequivocally. Like yourself we consider these movements as forms of idolatry.
Jitse van der Meer
George van Popta wrote: "As worldviews, ideas, thought, etc., are usually of whole cloth, shifts in approach tend to occur paradigmatically across the
On further thought I would like to make an addition to my previous response that comes much closer to George's point of worldviews being made of 'whole cloth.' Sometimes, someone's worldview has parts that do not fit well together and sometimes even contradict each other. But worldviews are not
merely cognitive constructions. They are often driven by various passions including anti-Christian passions.
Such passions explain why theories are abused for various non-scholarly agendas including anti-Christian ones. Thus the documentary hypothesis in biblical scholarship has been abused to make it look as if the Bible is 'just like any other book' without unity because thrown together by different editors. Likewise, the biological theory of evolution is being abused by someone like Richard Dawkins to preach that science has proven that God does not and cannot exist, that religion is an evil human construct, and that human existence is a chance occurrence. The superficiality is transparent.
Passions also explain that worldviews can be made of 'whole cloth.' An anti-Christian passion can underlie a consistent anti-Christian pattern according to which different parts are bound together in a single cloth
(worldview). Nevertheless, it remains the case that the different parts are a grab bag of items that do not belong together. Specifically, with respect to our discussion, it is not the biological theory of evolution that has triggered the development of the documentary hypothesis or vice versa.
Jitse van der Meer
Should we teach evolution in our Canadian Reformed high schools? Many of our teachers are not convinced, and several of them have recounted to me the difficulties and dangers of such an approach. Sure, I myself and others on the blog have also received messages expressing sympathetic understanding and outright agreement, for which we are grateful. In the present comment, however, I focus on readers who are critical. They tell me of their concerns mainly in oral conversations and in private letters, rarely by means of comments on the blog. I usually recommend the latter. After all, this blog is the only public medium available in our churches to exchange ideas on the topic, since even Clarion has instituted a moratorium on discussions on origins.
Usually my correspondents shy away, however, from a public discussion. To cut down on the number of separate answers I have to give, and also to keep a wider discussion going, I have decided to answer some of the more common questions by means of this blog. I will not deal with every point that is being raised. Many of the questions and objections have already been discussed on the blog, and although I will occasionally refer to these earlier discussions, this will not be done in every case. I therefore continue to urge all those who have questions to acquaint themselves with what has been said before on the topic.
Here are some of the comments I have received:
1. “There is little difference between evolution as a biological theory and evolutionISM as an ideology. One will lead to the other.”
My answer: It may, but if we draw people’s attention to this ideological abuse of a biological theory, it doesn’t have to. To give an example of such evolutionism: Evolution is said to explain everything, even our spirituality and our religious faith, which is the work of a “god-gene” and therefore a delusion. Our students have to learn that science does not and indeed cannot teach this; that it is the teaching of atheistic ideologues; and students can learn to see this only if we teach them science proper. That is more convincing than telling them that scientists are liars and deceivers. Students know better and should not be forced into an impossible position.
2. “You say that there is increased verisimilitude in science. I disagree.”
My answer: When we compare the accomplishments of science and technology today with that of a century ago, it will be impossible to maintain that science does not make progress. And how often do not we ourselves encourage one another with the remark that science may come up with a cure for serious diseases like cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer’s, and so on? How often, also, don’t we gratefully acquire another instrument or gadget made available by an ever-progressing science-based technology?
3. “You wrongly refer to the use of phenomenological language to explain away the literal truth and historicity of Genesis 1.”
My answer: There is a profound misunderstanding here which you share with others. I have discussed it on the blog in conversation with Tim Schouten and ask you to turn to that discussion.
4. “Do you believe that God created the universe, do you believe in a literal Adam, the first of all mankind, and in the historical fall into sin, yes or no?”
My answer: Yes. Even though I did not deal with it in my paper in any detail, I indicated at the start that I have not only scientific but also religious objections to human evolution. Not everyone seems to have noticed this, so I will say it again: I hold to the historicity of Adam, of the fall into sin, of Genesis 1 - 11. You will probably wonder how I then can promote the teaching of evolution? Simply because teaching evolution as a biological theory does not imply, and should not imply in our schools, that we accept it as established beyond any doubt. For the actual reasons why I believe evolution should be taught (and also how it should be taught) I refer you to my paper.
5. “Your site questions the validity of our common understanding of origins.”
My answer: We indeed do not see eye to eye on some issues. But I have made clear, time and again, that I personally do reject human evolution, while at the same time admitting that (a) many sincere Christians accept theistic evolution, and (b) the evidence for common descent is strong, although in my opinion not conclusive. All this is worked out in my paper. Please note also the honest confession of the YEC scientists Todd Wood, whom I quoted, about the strength of the scientific evidence.
6. “You are just creating problems and causing unrest. If we want to continue accepting Scripture then we can and must expose secular science as erroneous and evil, and teach our students the same.”
My answer: I believe it is better that we honestly prepare students in our own schools for what they will encounter at the university than to send them on with the idea that science is all make-belief, the work of darkness. That won’t help them once they have left the safety of our schools. It is true, the approach you recommend has long been followed by strict Anabaptists groups. But unlike us, these people are consistent. They refuse to use the technology received through modern science, and they do not send their children to secondary schools and university, where they would be exposed to secular science and other branches of secular scholarship. We, however, do both, and we must accept the consequences. Are secular science and secular scholarship in general then not dangerous? Yes, they often are; but hiding our heads in the sand does not frighten the enemy away.
7. “You should not have broached the subject publicly. What will happen if teachers take the issue to their classrooms, all unprepared and without further ado?”
My answer: I have insisted on prolonged, serious discussions on the issue. In these discussions not only teachers should be involved but also education committees, parents, and hopefully even pastors. I am confident that principals and education committees have both the authority and the clout to prevent the problem you envisage.
In conclusion: The above is not to suggest that I don’t understand your concerns. I share them. The topic is unsettling, and I wish with all my heart that the problem did not exist. But it does, and ignoring it is, I have argued, both dishonest and ultimately dangerous. Unfortunately, little attention has been given to the issue in our magazines and by our spiritual leaders. Instead, an undiluted young-earth creationism has often been promoted among us as the only orthodox approach. We all have been taught the “easy” solutions of YEC and “scientific” creationism. It is very difficult to move away from that safe environment, as I myself have experienced. I wrote the paper (and similar ones) and gave the workshop in the conviction that we must start thinking about the unintended but potentially serious consequences of persevering in that attitude. Thank you all for giving me the opportunity to explain my position further. As I said, I share your concerns and hope and pray that “together with all the saints” we may find a way of dealing with the difficulties confronting us in this area.
Freda's point # 2 was:
"When we compare the accomplishments of science and technology today with that of a century ago, it will be impossible to maintain that science does not make progress. And how often do not we ourselves encourage one another with the remark that science may come up with a cure for serious diseases like cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer’s, and so on? How often, also, don’t we gratefully acquire another instrument or gadget made available by an ever-progressing science-based technology?"
If I understand well, the point is that since we thankfully receive the benefits of science's advances, we should give it credence when it speaks on the topic of human origins. I cannot quite connect these dots. Why is that so? Why, if I rejoice at a cure for a devastating disease (or thankfully make use of a new computer), must I also be open to the thought that man and chimps might well have a common ancestor?
George van Popta
Dr. Oosterhoff, if it seemed that I was accusing you of being a neo-Darwinist, then I am sorry. It was not my intention to do so. I take you at your word.
These comments come a few days late, but I would like to respond nonetheless. In your response to my last comments you have not really assuaged my concerns. I still get the impression from your paper that biological evolution is a legitimate option for Christians. In your introduction you say, “[t]he scientific evidence for an ancient earth and for continuing natural development is very strong. The same, indeed is true for macro-evolution and common descent or common ancestry, even of humans.” Later, in section 3.2, you write, “[p]romoting young-earth creationism as the only acceptable way of reading Genesis is not only dangerous for our students but also for our missionary and evangelistic efforts.”
My concern, as I tried to make clear in my comments, is that you haven’t demonstrated in any way in your paper that Genesis 1-3 allows for anything other than Young Earth Creationism.
You have interacted with me in point form, so I will respond directly to these comments as you have numbered them.
1 (and 3). Perhaps, as you say, we are not on the same wavelength, but when I read section 2.1 of your essay, it seems you are using the principle of accommodation to cast doubt on the nature of Genesis 1-3. Section 2 is titled, “Why we should teach evolution,” and section 2.1 is titled “Modern science tells us about creation.” Within this section you write, “[t]his means that we may have to reconsider the question whether we are reading the creation account properly when we think that it must be harmonized with modern science. As Calvin already pointed out, God always accommodates himself to the capacity of his people…” You use the principle of accommodation in your discussion of whether or not we are reading the creation account properly. In other words (as I read it), accommodation has something to say about whether or not we are going to read the creation account literally. That is what I have taken issue with.
In point 1 of your comments you also mention ANE cosmology, which is mentioned in 3.1 of your paper. I also don’t think that this has anything to say about the nature of the creation account. While learning about this cosmology, and other aspects of ANE history, is helpful for understanding the implications of the creation account, they are not the cause, or even the motivating factor of the account. The creation account is just as much a “polemic” today as it was 5000 years ago. It was not written “in opposition to pagan creation myths” (3.1 in your paper). Rather, I think the pagan creation myths were more likely a depraved rip-off of the real creation story.
4. Here you say, “I therefore must disagree with you and insist that we DO need scholars who tell us about the worldview of the first readers and hearers. I am convinced that you will be taught this at the Theological College.” I disagree strongly with your disagreement. We do not need scholars to understand God’s word. It is plain and understandable for all men, and that is why all men are without excuse. Scholars can help us better understand certain aspects of God’s Word, and they may bring out its meaning with more color, but our understanding of God’s Word does not depend on them. I feel very strongly about this, and so I will say it strongly, again: we do not NEED scholars to understand God’s Word. This is a very important issue, so I’m wondering if Dr. Oosterhoff could expand upon what she means with this statement.
One final comment regarding your “Modest Proposal”: I want to make it clear that I am not a representative of the Theological College, nor do I write any of this as its representative. For all I know, the students and professors are embarrassed by my interaction. If you want to have a discussion there, it would probably be better to talk to Dr. van Dam directly.
George wrote, “If I understand well, the point is that since we thankfully receive the benefits of science's advances, we should give it credence when it speaks on the topic of human origins. I cannot quite connect these dots. Why is that so? Why, if I rejoice at a cure for a devastating disease (or thankfully make use of a new computer), must I also be open to the thought that man and chimps might well have a common ancestor?”
Thanks for your response, which illustrates what I face when teaching and doing research in molecular biology.
First off, I think the connection between a new computer and common ancestry doesn’t hold, but the connection between common ancestry and devastating diseases is certainly relevant.
Many diseases and other human conditions have either a partial or complete genetic basis. Further, (micro)evolutionary theory and population genetics have tremendous relevance in medicine and society today.
To use just a few examples, evolutionary theory is used to predict which flu strains should be used to prepare the next year’s vaccine. Comparative DNA sequencing is used to diagnose specific defects in people suffering from mitochondrial disease. The emerging field of pharmacogenomics allows doctors to predict a patient’s response and sensitivity to different drugs.
Even the research we do at Dordt uses evolutionary theory. Two of my students are using population genetics theory to study genetic variability in prairie plants so that such knowledge could be used for responsible prairie restoration. Another one of my students is looking at sequence mutations in vaccine development in his internship with a local biotech company, and the list goes on.
These are exactly the same techniques that are used to argue for chimp-human common ancestry and, for that matter, an African origin of humans. See here for a huge phylogeny of humans, based on mitochondrial DNA sequences. The root of this tree is in Africa. The similarities are there. The challenge for me is how to reconcile this similarity with my understanding of Genesis 1-3.
I might add that while these examples of evolutionary theory are straightforward and clearly observable, I am much less convinced that they can account for macroevolutionary changes which involve large increases in information. Whether these mechanisms are enough to account for an evolution of humans from an ape-like ancestor is something about which I am still agnostic.
One final comment. As Freda has pointed out, some of this work is unsettling. But any work we do in a fallen world will have aspects that are unsettling. Why should science, in this case molecular biology, be any more “safe” than other fields of endeavor?
I will be brief this time, for it seems to me that we have dealt quite exhaustively with the issues you mention, either in my answers to you or in other comments. To keep writing about them may therefore become a “wearying of the flesh” for both of us. (An oral discussion would perhaps have done the trick, but alas, as I now realize this may be difficult to arrange.)
In my reply I’ll again use point-form:
1. I indeed argue that evolution should be taught, but to advocate the teaching of evolution is not to imply that evolution is a legitimate (religious? philosophical?) “option for Christians.” Nor does it imply the need or duty to “demonstrate” that Gen. 1-3 allows for anything other than young-earth creationism.
2. With his theory of “accommodation” Calvin, who believed in a young earth and who certainly wanted to read the creation account properly, explained why we must not take certain aspects of that account literally. As I have written before, he made special mention of Gen. 1:6, which speaks of the waters above the firmament, and pointed out that from the words “to divide the waters from the waters…great difficulty” arises. Calvin continued, “For it appears opposed to common sense, and quite incredible, that there should be waters above the heaven. Hence some resort to allegory…but quite beside the purpose. For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing here is treated but of the visible form of the world.” And then follow s the well-known advice, “He who would learn astronomy…let him go elsewhere.” According to Calvin, then, we must not try to explain Genesis 1 in modern-scientific terms; but clearly this does not adversely affect belief in the historicity of the account. (The quote is from Calvin’s Commentaries on Genesis.)
3. It seems that we disagree on whether knowledge of ANE cultures and religions will give a better understanding of the creation account. Since both our positions appear to be firm, I think we will have to agree to disagree. You are absolutely right, though, in stating that the account is as much of a “polemic” today as it was in the days of Moses.
4. We also seem to disagree about the use exegetes can make of extra-biblical evidence in general, and here again I believe that we are trying in vain to convince each other.
5. I have enjoyed the discussions with you. Thanks. Perhaps some day we can resume the conversation in connection with a different topic. Blessings for now.
This is a follow up on Tony's response (Nov. 11/09) in which he explains why some pieces of scientific knowledge are woven of one cloth. This may not be easy to see so your question is a perfectly legitimate one. Tony's argument runs along the same line as that for an old earth. Why trust the radiologist when your X-ray shows clean lungs, but not when the same laws of nature are used to establish the age of the earth? Just like in the case of physical phenomena, in biology the argument is based on regular patterns of behaviour in nature and that, I suggest, is a stronger point than the techniques used in detecting these regularities.
I think there are two general reasons, why it is inconsistent to trust techniques that reveal hereditary patterns in populations or -- on a smaller scale -- families, but to deny this trust when the same techniques are applied to questions of common ancestry: First, at a very general level the scientific method is the same. Second, the techniques Tony mentions reveal the same underlying genetic mechanisms of hereditary transmission. The hereditary mechanisms that make the diagnosis of genetic disease possible are more fundamental than the particular techniques used because the latter depend on the former.
You might ask precisely how the scientific method applies in this specific case of heredity. Here are some examples highlighting the role of observation, generalization of observations into laws of nature, predicting new observations based on these laws and testing the predictions. Observation is one source of evidence. For centuries plant and animal breeders have known that traits are transmitted in predictable ways from parents to offspring. This lasted until Mendel in the 1860s submitted these observations to experimental testing and generalized the results into his two laws. The latter have become the basis of all subsequent genetic research by means of prediction and testing.
The conclusion of common ancestry too is based on observation of currently living organisms, not fossils. This is a point that is generally overlooked. For instance, currently living chimpanzees and humans share the very details of defects in their genes. Medical geneticists have reconstructed the family tree for the inheritance of a low-cholesterol gene based on similarities of the same kind evolutionary geneticists use to reconstruct the family tree of primates.
Jitse van der Meer
I think pastor George vanPopta has rightly pointed to the weakest element of Dr. Oosterhoff’s paper: this notion that, because Christians accept the blessings of modern science and technology, they are hypocritical in ascribing evolutionary theory to anti-God orientation. In a more recent comment, Dr. Oosterhoff has reaffirmed this position with an interesting analogy to Anabaptist groups such as the Amish, going so far as to say: “unlike us, these people are consistent.”
I see two problems with this position.
1) It is open to the same charge Dr. Oosterhoff makes to YECers, namely, the failure to distinguish between what is scientifically evident and an –ism or ideology. Dr. Oosterhoff is asking us all to exercise discernment, but this position uncritically lumps together a wide variety of the “sciences,” including engineering.
2) The problem many (YE)-creationists have with evolution is that it is based on logical inferences about the past, not, strictly speaking, on observable data. (YE)-Creationists love nothing more than when science does what it was created to do, which is work with and in the world we can observe. A new computer and a new cure for a disease are blessings to the Christian precisely because science is operating within its appropriate bounds.
Notice that Tony Jelsma’s response to pastor vanPopta does not answer his question. The only examples Tony gives have to do with microevolution which I’m quite sure pastor vanPopta affirms. Then Tony says, “Whether these mechanisms are enough to account for an evolution of humans from an ape-like ancestor is something about which I am still agnostic”; i.e. he acknowledges that these techniques and “macroevolutionary changes” are not seamlessly related. But this was the question! [To quote pastor vanPopta: “Why, if I rejoice at a cure for a devastating disease (or thankfully make use of a new computer), must I also be open to the thought that man and chimps might well have a common ancestor?”]
Jitse van der Meer recently submitted a comment that challenges my point (2) above. He says: “The conclusion of common ancestry too is based on observation of currently living organisms, not fossils.” But to make common ancestry purely a matter of observation is to be a little too positivistic with regard to the capabilities of science. Jitse, would you agree that the most that can be said is that macro-evolution is a logical inference based on observable data? It is an interpretation, not simply unmediated data. It may very well be the most logical explanation; nevertheless, creationists could also argue that various similarities and even defects in genomes are a part of God’s (incomprehensible) design.
In conclusion: I see no reason to think that those who reject macro-evolution as anti-God at its very basis, ought, in order to be consistent, to sell their cars and go back to the horse and buggy. The comparison to the Amish, and the general assertion that YECers are disingenuous in accepting technology, is a weak argument in an otherwise strong paper. (And I do re-affirm my overall appreciation for Dr. Oosterhoff’s balanced paper.)
South Bend, IN
I also have a question on the relationship between technology (broadly construed) and evolutionary theory.
What clear advances (if any) in modern technology can be ascribed to evolutionary theory? Other theories developed at around the turn of the twentieth century (e.g. quantum mechanics) have had marvelous impacts in engineering and have been used to revolutionize the world we live in (our ability to have this discussion is completely dependent on modern technology!).
It seems that the biologists here want to ascribe the advances that have come with the discovery of DNA and the mapping of genomes to evolutionary theory. But was the discovery of DNA related to or a consequence of the theory of (macro)-evolution? I don’t dispute the valuable medical advances being made in our time. I’m just pointing out that evolutionary theory was around long before scientists knew about DNA. If all the major technological advances are dependent on the discovery of DNA, it is hard to know why evolutionary theory should get the credit. Perhaps the biologists on the forum can clarify this for me.
South Bend, IN
Jitse wrote: “The conclusion of common ancestry too is based on observation of currently living organisms….” My question is quite simple: Is common ancestry, then, conclusive? In your view, is it a theory or has it been proven?
George van Popta
George, this is a belated response to your comment. Sorry for the delay. Let me begin by giving the context of the remark you refer to. In my original paper I had “relativized” science – mentioning that demonstrative proof can’t be had, that there is a subjective element in science, and that scientific theories are provisional. I added that nevertheless we must admit modern science’s ever-increasing verisimilitude. That characteristic is in my opinion self-evident, but I mentioned it because some of us are in the habit of describing secular science as little more than deception. (I have given evidence of this habit in earlier posts.) It has always seemed inconsistent to me to demonize science while at the same time making an eager use of the benefits that this same science, also modern biological science, brings. Because a recent correspondent (in a private letter) again denied scientific verisimilitude and progress, I gave the example of science-based technology. I did not (then or at any other time) use it as “proof” for common ancestry. As I have indicated more than once (and please, friends, do take my word for it!) in my opinion common ancestry and human evolution have NOT been “proven.” My intent was simply to point out that if we take modern technology seriously, then we must take modern science seriously as well, or else we should indeed consider following the example of the Anabaptists.
There is no doubt a problem here. It is widely held, also by unbelieving historians, that a major element in the rise of modern science was the Christian religion. This also helps to explain why it arose not in the advanced civilizations of China or India or the Muslim world, but in Christian Europe. But if most early scientists were Christians, many scientists today are unbelievers, some are militant atheists , and modern science comes with theories with which Christians have genuine problems, but which nevertheless “work.” So the question for many believers is: How can we consider the work of unbelieving scientists as a gift of God; indeed, how do we explain that this work is apparently blessed? As I mentioned in a different comment (in a response to Rev. Rob Schouten), Calvin answered the question by remarking that human achievements in the sciences – also the achievements of the “impious” – derive from the Spirit of God. Can we say the same of today’s scientists qua scientists? Or is the situation today too different from Calvin’s days? Perhaps we should do some thinking about this question.
Hello Dave, It is good to hear from you again. You make some interesting comments. I will leave the second half of your letter to Tony and Jitse. I admit that I, too, am looking forward to their answer.
With respect to the remarks directed at me, I refer you first of all to my answer to George van Popta. Here I give the context of my statement and also explain that I was speaking of modern science in general, not simply of evolutionary biology. And no, I was not confusing scientific theories with an ideology like evolutionism or materialism; as I state in my letter to George, there is among us a questioning of the validity of modern science itself. Nor was I calling engineering a science. The technological advances I referred to were possible, I implied, because of scientific advances; i.e., they were based on the accomplishments of a science that “is operating within its appropriate bounds.” And finally, I was not suggesting that those who reject macro-evolution as unbiblical ought to sell their cars. I am not planning to do so myself, although I too reject macro-evolution. (At the same time, as I have also made clear, I don’t dismiss the theory as mere ideology.)
I may be partly to blame for the misconception; the fact that both George and you draw similar conclusions suggests that I failed to make myself absolutely clear. I think I assumed that my “beef” was familiar. I was in fact continuing an argument I have made before and that is based in part on an observation by Scott Hoezee in his Proclaim the Wonder: Engaging Science on Sunday. My review of that book was published in Clarion, March 27, 2009, and has also been posted on this blog (see under Helpful Links, “For Science and Math Teachers”). If you have read it, you will have noticed how closely I follow Hoezee’s argument, which, again, was about believers’ discomfort with modern science in general, not just with evolutionary theories. Anyway, I thank both you and George for forcing me to correct a wrong impression. As a colleague on the blog remarked the other day, every writer needs an editor.
George van Popta (in his comment dated November 12) wrote, “In your view, is it a theory or has it been proven?” There are two important concepts here which are used very differently in science than in the general public, namely “theory” and “proof”. I offer below a brief discussion on the points (slightly expanded from an earlier comment).
THEORY: In everyday speech, theories are a dime a dozen. Every individual person is entitled to come up with their own personal reasons for any minor observation or trend. In this sense, theories can easily be random wild guesses. However, in their use in science, theories are well-developed and internally-consistent frameworks or networks of generally applicable ideas proposed after significant effort by (usually) many people to classify, explain, predict, and control things and processes found in the real world. I am not saying that Pastor George does so, but saying something is “just a theory” is a rhetorical device which depends upon the popular sense of “theory”, meaning “guess” or “hypothesis” or “conjecture”.
PROOF: People look to science to prove things, in the sense of establishing beyond any doubt utter truthfulness and reliability. The general public wants scientists to prove their theories. After all, science is the source of certain knowledge, they say, thus demonstrating their adherence to the religion of scientism. (Some scientists, like Dawkins, present themselves as high priests of this religion, but do not do so qua scientists.) Christians (and most scientists) rightly object to claims of science’s epistemic uniqueness and certainty, for there are other ways of knowing besides science (music, literature, faith, love, e.g.) and certainty is not achievable for humans since we’re both fallen and finite.
So what does science offer, if not proof? Science operates by way of considering observations, finding patterns, proposing theories, judging theories in a community of practitioners on the basis of corroborating evidence, of naturalness, fruitfulness, internal consistency. So science offers a judgment of verisimilitude, that is, an acknowledgment that the entities and relationships present in a theory bear close resemblance to what is experienced in reality.
Proof can be had in mathematics, but not in empirical science. (Even in mathematics, proof is limited, but that’s another topic.) No one can even prove that the world exists; there is nothing logically demonstrable against the notion that I am a brain in a vat being fed appearances of sensory perceptions.
For a good description of the scientific process, consider the following from (theoretical physicist and Anglican priest) John Polkinghorne, “What was happening?”, Ch. 21 (pp. 158-176) of Rochester Roundabout: The Story of High Energy Physics (New York, Freeman, 1989), pp. 173f:
“Science is an activity of judgment, involving tacit skills. In [Michael] Polanyi’s oft-repeated phrase, ‘we know more than we can tell’. Science is a convivial activity, pursued in a community to whose judgment the individual scientist offers his efforts as a corrective to merely individual idiosyncrasy, but controlled and determined by the stubborn facticity of the physical world whose understanding is being sought… [O]ne can recognise rational characteristics which are to be demanded of a scientific theory if it is to be accorded the epithet ‘good’. Kuhn suggested five: (i) accuracy; (ii) consistency; (iii) wide scope; (iv) simplicity; and (v) fruitfulness. Clearly a criterion such as simplicity involves in its application an act of personal judgment.”
In response to David DeJong's question (Nov. 12/09) about technological applications of evolutionary theory please consult the following links:
This is a link to a survey of applications of evolutionary theory. At the bottom is a reference to another such paper. At the end of the paper in section 4 the author refers to the Industrial Production of Biochemicals and other agents. For an example of this application, see:
This link reports the use of random variation and selection in the artificial production of an enzyme with a specific function.
This discussion began with the argument that if there were technological applications of the theory of evolution, and if people relied on these technologies, then it would be inconsistent to reject the theory while relying on the applications. The links offer good examples of applications that people rely on in everyday life. Please remember, however, that this kind of argument says nothing about the value or truth of a theory. That depends on other criteria as Arnold has described in his post on the difference between theory and proof.
Finally, evolutionary theory did not lead to the discovery of DNA, but it supplied one of the requirements the theoretical structure of DNA had to satisfy. This was that DNA should be mutable to generate the variation necessary for natural selection. This prediction was confirmed.
Jitse van der Meer
David DeJong (Nov. 12/09) wrote:
Jitse van der Meer recently submitted a comment that challenges my point (2) above. He says: "The conclusion of common ancestry too is based on observation of currently living organisms, not fossils." But to make common ancestry purely a matter of observation is to be a little too positivistic with regard to the capabilities of science. Jitse, would you agree that the most that can be said is that macro-evolution is a logical inference based on observable data? It is an interpretation, not simply unmediated data. It may very well be the most logical explanation; nevertheless, creationists could also argue that various similarities and even defects in genomes are a part of God's (incomprehensible) design.
Response: By writing that "The conclusion of common ancestry too is BASED ON observation of currently living organisms, not fossils," I did not intend to convey that this conclusion is exclusively based on observation. I was focusing on the contrast between observation of living organisms as opposed to fossils. I fully agree with Arnold's description of the role of theory and proof and I would be the last one to deny the role of background beliefs and judgement in the interpretation of observations in science. In writing what I did I wanted merely to remove a common misunderstanding namely that theories of human evolution are speculative because they are based only on interpretations of fossil remains and are, therefore, not reliable. In my view, theories of human evolution are speculative if they were based only on fossil studies and I would not be prepared to accept them.
Further, I would not say that macro-evolution is a logical inference based on observation because it is too simple. Logical inference plays an important role, but there is more. Arnold describes this 'more' in his post on the difference between theory and proof. I view macro-evolution not as a standard theory, but as an interpretation of natural phenomena. It is supported by many mutually independent lines of evidence and, therefore, requires very heavy critique to be dislodged. In philosophy of science it is referred to as a research tradition or program within which a number of different theories and explanation are subsumed. A research tradition exists at a higher and more encompassing level of generality than a theory, but at a lower level of generality than a metaphysical principle. All of them are empirically testable, but the testing of higher-level entities takes much longer than that of lower-level entities.
Jitse van der Meer
David DeJong wrote (Nov. 13/09):
“Is it the case that the discovery of DNA and the remarkable progress in genetics has completely confirmed Darwin's theory? Or has it also raised problems? I raise this because I recall reading a National Geographic article, which suggested that a "family tree" of organisms based on genomes looked very different than both what Darwin proposed and what would seem logical (i.e. animals that seem similar to the naked eye are not always as closely connected on the genomic level; some are very closely connected on the DNA-level without obviously being in the same "family tree"). Is this correct? I'm no biologist, and would appreciate some insight here.”
Response: Let me begin with the first half of the question. The discovery of DNA has confirmed Darwin’s theory in important ways. For one, the theory of natural selection requires random variation. Darwin could see that random variation existed in organisms, but he could not explain it. Random variation has been confirmed in DNA mutation experiments. Secondly, the chemical structure of DNA is just the kind of structure that provides enough stability to explain the stable transmission of heritable traits to offspring and also the possibility of mutations to produce the variability required for natural selection to work. Thirdly, the quantum physical behaviour of electrons in the ring structures of DNA (known as resonance structures in organic chemistry) connects the emergence of mutations to the fundamental quantum structure of the cosmos. To the human understanding such mutations appear to be undirected and this corresponds to Darwin’s observation that hereditary variation is undirected. The evolution of new species of fruitfly in the Hawaiian Islands can be reconstructed using sequences of duplication mutations in the DNA and this sequence correspond with geological and radiochronological evidence for the sequence of island formation by volcanoes. Note that two independent lines of evidence – one geological and the other biological -- converge on the same conclusion. I am sure there is more, but this suffices to show that on balance the discovery of DNA strongly supports the theory of biological evolution. Cont'd.
Jitse van der Meer
The second half of David DeJong's question (Nov. 13/09) is difficult to answer because the field of classification is undergoing a paradigm shift. The traditional classification developed by Carolus Linnaeus is still in use because its rejection would throw the field into chaos. Since Darwin the ideal has been to replace the Linnean classification with one that shows evolutionary relationships. But since the 1950s a more logical method of classification has been developed in an attempt to reduce the subjectivity of evolutionary classification. This newest method is known as ‘cladism.’ Cladists classify animals using class inclusion as the main criterion with common descent functioning as a hypothesis. Common adaptation is rejected as a criterion. This results in differences of classification between cladistic and traditional evolutionary taxonomy. A cladistic classification is a strictly logical classification that subsequently requires an evolutionary interpretation. It is a very technical business and so I will spare you the details. In sum, there are currently three systems of classification used concurrently (and I have to teach this stuff !). The short answer to your question is to wait until the dust has settled. The somewhat longer answer is (1) that in some cases the cladistic and the evolutionary classifications coincide, (2) in other cases the evolutionary classification has had to be replaced with a different evolutionary interpretation of the cladistic classification, (3) and in yet other cases the original (non-cladistic) evolutionary classification has been retained for now as a working hypothesis. For instance, most people would place crocodiles and tortoises in a group called reptiles and the birds into a different group. After all tortoises and crocs are more similar to each other than they are to birds. Moreover, tortoises and crocs are adapted to the same kind of environment. But DNA sequence analysis has revealed that crocs and birds appear to have had a more recent common ancestor than they have with tortoises. This has resulted in two different classifications within evolutionary taxonomy. The one that divides between reptiles and birds uses morphology and adaptation to the same environment as criteria. The cladistic one uses nucleotide similarities as criteria. It is currently unclear how this dilemma will be resolved since both approaches have good grounds in their support. A major source of frustration is that all traditional names would have to be changed. For instance, the name ‘reptiles’ would now also refer to birds and mammals. In conclusion, the discovery of DNA is not directly relevant for DNA comparison except that it made DNA comparison possible. DNA comparison and comparison of other characteristics sometimes agree and sometimes disagree. Seen from that angle, the jury is out.
Jitse van der Meer
George van Popta wrote (Nov. 12 / 09): “My question is quite simple: Is common ancestry, then, conclusive? In your view, is it a theory or has it been proven?”
Response: I can refer to Arnold’s description of proof and theory in science (Nov. 14 / 09). The choice between theory and proof is a false dilemma. In science the final word is never said, not even after a thousand years. Human knowledge is not only limited, but also fallible. Whether or not one accepts common ancestry for chimpanzees and humans is always a matter of carefully weighing not only the scientific evidence, but also its philosophical and theological dimensions. This weighing can be difficult and lengthy. I have taught biology for over forty years. During most of that time I have skipped the chapter about human evolution because I did not know what to do with it. Until a few years ago the only evidence for common ancestry consisted of fossil remains. After carefully weighing the fossil evidence I concluded that the fossils were either ape-like or human-like and I rejected common ancestry because I considered it as too speculative. At that stage, I still did not deal with the topic in lectures, but now because I did not want to bother my students with eternally changing reconstructions of primate evolution merely to conclude that it was all speculation. Cont'd.
Jitse van der Meer
Response to George van Popta (Nov. 12/09), Cont'd.
When extensive similarities in the DNA of humans and chimps were discovered, I explained it in terms of ‘common design’, an explanation that is standard among scientific creationists. The problem with this account was that it is not scientific. In my comments on methodological naturalism in this thread (Nov. 4 / 09), I have given theological reasons why you cannot explain things in science by saying that God did it. I addressed this problem with a two-pronged strategy to try and escape the increasing weight of the evidence for common ancestry. (1) I asserted that the similarities in the DNA of chimps and humans could be accepted as a ‘given’ in nature that does not need explanation. My example here was taken from physics, namely Newton’s first law which states that every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it. In this law, motion is considered a state of being (a ‘given’) that does not need explanation. If this is possible in physics, I reasoned, why not in biology? (2) I suggested that these ‘given’ similarities could be interpreted as the work of God who created the similarities because the bodies of chimpanzees and humans must perform similar functions. In this approach I used a distinction between explanation which occurs in terms of causes and interpretation which refers to reasons. In that way I tried to move the understanding of similarities from science to theology.
The final stage in this weighing process was prompted by two developments. The first development concerns the history of the cosmos. Newton first law provides a baseline for explaining how the moon and the planets change motion, not for the origin of these motions. But as Arnold Sikkema pointed out to me, contemporary astrophysics also explains the origin of these motions as part of the origin of the solar system and in terms of the conservation of angular momentum leading to the amplification of tiny original rotation in the proto-solar system. This meant that I could not consider motion as a ‘given’ state of being without considering its origin.
The second development concerns the history of life. It was the discovery of defective genes that are shared by humans and chimps (See my paper “Primate Evolution and Biology” posted on the blog). Defective genes do not function. The interpretation of functioning genes shared by chimps and humans was that God had created them for the purpose of fulfilling the same function in chimps and humans. But this interpretation fails if there is no function. That is why I now explain the similarities as the result of common ancestry, but always with the qualifications that human knowledge is limited and fallible.
I thought I would tell you this story unless you or others think that the limitations and fallibility of human knowledge are an excuse not to take the results of weighing scientific evidence seriously. I don’t for a moment imagine that this story will convince you of my conclusions. This would be unreasonable on my part because, after all, this process took decades of study in my case. What I do hope is that you will begin to see that Christian biologists such as myself and others have an obligation to take these matters seriously and address them not only for ourselves, but also for others in the church.
Jitse van der Meer
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