Thursday, December 8, 2011

Evolution and the Bible

In connection with my recent post “Church and Modern Science,” Pastor Rob Schouten complained (in a public discussion on Facebook) that Reformed Academic “gives no evidence of grappling with the extraordinary problems of the theory of evolution,” and expressed the wish that we would “spend some time analyzing the manifest weaknesses” of that theory. This is a fair request, and in what follows I will attempt to respond to it.

I would like to begin by slightly reformulating the question. Rev. Schouten, if I understand him correctly, asks us especially to be diligent in exposing scientific weaknesses of evolutionary theories. Generally, however, we (and no doubt Rev. Schouten himself) look for these and bring them to the fore because of the religious
difficulties we as Bible-believing Christians have with evolution. Pinpointing scientific weaknesses will not, I am convinced, remove all these difficulties. Therefore, although not ignoring the existence of scientific problems, I will focus on the religious ones. The urgency of the topic was brought home to me once more by a recent publication by Reformed theologian C. John Collins (professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis), which he titled Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were And Why You Should Care (Crossway, 2011).

In this blog posting I will follow that book quite closely.

Scientific weaknesses: are they conclusive?

But first a few remarks on possible scientific weaknesses of the theory of evolution. I can be brief here because, as it happens, I have earlier dealt with this issue. I did so in an essay titled “Teaching Evolution at Our Schools – Why and How,” which was posted on this blog on 30 October 2009, and can be found under my name under “Collected Papers.” Therein I listed a number of questions that must be considered in connection with evolutionary theories (see especially section 5, “How we should teach evolution (II),” and section 6, “Let’s keep in mind the nature of science”).

Since the information is available on the blog, I will not repeat my arguments, but I do want to point out, as I did in the paper, that the questions I raised are among the reasons why I personally have difficulties accepting the naturalistic, macro-evolutionary picture of development “from molecules to man.” (Other reasons are of a religious nature.) At the same time I made clear in my paper that the scientific evidence for evolution is very strong and that in all honesty we should admit this. In this connection I referred to the very pointed admission of young-earth biochemist Todd Charles Wood (who rejects evolution not on scientific but on religious grounds) that denying the very significant scientific evidence simply won’t do.

I realize that most of his fellow young-earth creationists will disagree with Wood’s estimate of the theory’s strength and will refer to the work of young-earth scientists, and perhaps even to that of “creation science.” I understand their concern. It points to the route I myself once followed. My intensive reading of both young-earth and old-earth creationists as well as that of evolutionary scientists, Christians and non-Christians (and also my recognition of the practical applications of scientific theories), convinced me that modern science, including evolutionary science, must be taken far more seriously than often happens in our circles, and that our habit of denying the evidence and replacing it with pseudo-scientific alternatives is not only wrong but also dangerous. The reasons I have given in previous posts. They include the evidence provided not just by biology but by the majority of the modern sciences, the urgent need to interact with our culture, the fact that our attitude can form a serious stumbling block for our own people, not least for ill-prepared students among us, and that it is bound to cause problems in our evangelistic efforts. The last-mentioned factor, I have suggested, is probably among the reasons why a number of outstanding orthodox theologians have publicly accepted one version or another of evolutionary creationism.

Denying the historicity of Adam and Eve

Although other religious difficulties can be mentioned, the most serious challenge Christians have to deal with are scientific findings that are claimed by scientists to make it impossible any longer to believe in the historicity of Adam and Eve (and all that this implies for our understanding of Scripture). The denial of their historicity is not a novel development. Originally it was based on the study of fossils, which appeared to give evidence of the existence of pre-Adamites and of a much earlier appearance of the human species than the biblical record seems to allow. More recently, of course, the position has been greatly strengthened by the striking advances in modern genomics.

These scientific findings, and especially the ones in genomics, have convinced even many Christians that belief in the existence of Adam and Eve can no longer be defended. Among them is well-known geneticist Francis S. Collins, one-time leader of the Human Genome Project, author of the best-selling autobiography The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006), and one of the founders of the blog BioLogos. The idea is being propagated even in the Reformed camp. There was much consternation a few years ago when two Calvin College theologians, at a meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation, professed their adherence to the view held by Francis Collins. At that same meeting C. John Collins presented a paper, later published under the title “Adam and Eve as Historical People, and Why It Matters,” wherein he outlined “the other side” of the issue. (For the relevant papers see Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, v. 62, n. 3, September 2010.) Collins’ newly published book is an extension of the paper he gave at the ASA meeting. (Note: In the present blog posting, “Collins” refers to C. John Collins, not to Francis Collins.)

Biblical evidence

Dr. C. John Collins
Professor of Old Testament
Covenant Seminary
How does Collins deal with the challenge? He begins (in chapter 2) by describing the “shape of the biblical story,” noting that the Bible consists not of unconnected episodes dealing with topics like morality, spiritual guidance, theology, devotion, and so on (although these matters are indeed being taught), but that it takes the form of a coherent, overarching, worldview-shaping narrative. Genesis 1 forms the beginning of that redemptive-historical narrative and sets the stage for all that is to follow: Eden, the fall, the need for redemption, Christ’s position as the “second Adam,” his sacrifice, resurrection and ascension, the judgment to come, and the ultimate restoration of all things. The historicity of this narrative, which assures us that our beliefs are not the stuff of dreams but are based on reality, is of utmost importance, and Collins makes a point of affirming it, giving special attention to the historicity of the first chapters of Genesis. These chapters, he writes, are historical in the sense “that the author wanted his audience to believe that the events recorded really happened” (p. 34). This does not mean that Genesis 1 and following chapters are written according to modern historiographical standards, or in precise chronological order, or in complete detail. Nor does it mean that no figurative language has been used. It does mean that Genesis 1 speaks of events that actually happened.

The historicity of the first chapters of the Bible implies the historicity of Adam and Eve as the first humans. Although, as we will see, Collins is willing to go quite a distance in considering the conclusions of modern science, the historicity of Adam and Eve (or at least of “an” Adam and Eve) is for him nonnegotiable. The rest of the Bible requires it. As he points out, their actual existence as the ancestors of all humans – the fact that they were at the “headwaters” of human history – also accounts for the unity of the human race. The same historicity shows that the presence of sin in our world was not a natural “given” (which in fact would mean that God should be held responsible for it), but that it was the result of the disobedience of the first human couple, a disobedience that affects all their descendants. Only by accepting the story of a good creation which was marred by human disobedience, Collins will argue at greater length in a later chapter, are we able not only to understand the rest of the Bible but also make sense of the world in which we live.

Before turning to the latter point, he gives (in chapter 3) biblical evidence for the historicity of the first humans, listing texts in both the Old and New Testament that refer, directly or indirectly, to creation and to the existence of Adam and Eve as humanity’s first parents through whom sin entered the world. Many of these references are familiar – especially those we find in the Gospels, the Pauline Letters, and Revelation – but it is good to be given what looks like a fairly inclusive list. It affirms what we already knew, namely that the historicity of Adam and Eve – and of the record of creation in its entirety – does inform the biblical message and that questioning it raises very serious problems.

Here a difficult issue must be raised: Does such questioning necessarily imply a denial of the Bible’s authority as such, and must it therefore be qualified as unbelief? The issue is difficult because there are Christians who, while questioning the historicity of Adam and Eve, yet appear to believe with all their heart in the reality of sin and the need for salvation in Christ. Among those who have struggled with this question is Tim Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York, who accepts a version of evolutionary creationism but, like Collins, insists on the historicity of Adam and Eve. He answers as follows: “When you refuse to take a Biblical author [like Paul] literally when he clearly wants you to do so, you have moved away from the traditional understanding of the Biblical authority.... That doesn’t mean you can’t have a strong, vital faith yourself, but I believe such a move can be bad for the church as a whole, and it certainly can lead to confusion on the part of laypeople.” Collins, more briefly, describes any such questioning as an alternative that is “less satisfactory, and possibly even disastrous” (p. 133).

Common human experience

In the introduction to his book Collins announced as one of his goals “to argue that the traditional position on Adam and Eve, or some variation of it, does the best job of accounting not only for the Biblical materials but also for our everyday experience as human beings....” (p. 13). And therefore, he added, possible difficulties we encounter may mean that we should try making some adjustments to the traditional view, rather than discarding it altogether. Showing the link between the biblical narrative and everyday human experience is the topic of Chapter 4, which I think contains some of the most helpful material in the book, especially by arguing that science does not necessarily have the last word in determining what is true and real.

Collins begins with the biblical teaching that God made humankind in his image. That image can be interpreted in three ways, namely as resemblance (humans resemble God in some ways, such as the possession of intelligence, the ability to communicate by means of language, a sense of morality, a sense of beauty, and so on), as representation (Adam and Eve were appointed God’s vice-regents and given dominion), and as relational (humans were made to live in community with God and with their fellows). Collins admits the validity of all three explanations but focuses on the resemblance aspect, pointing out that the specific characteristics and capacities associated with the divine image are unique to humans and also that they are universal. Unless they can be proven to be the result of natural selection alone – a possibility which Collins says even some evolutionists question – the image serves as an argument for both humankind’s special creation and for the unity of the human race, a unity that various scientists are questioning. (Collins does believe, I should add, that scientific evidence points to an early date for the creation of Adam and Eve – he suggests a date before 40,000 B.C. – p. 117).

For a scientific theory to be acceptable, Collins writes, it must account “for the whole range of evidence,” and therefore also for the whole range of human experience, including the deep-seated desires, fears, and intuitions that all humans, both Christians and non-Christians, share. For example, there is, and there always has been, also in ancient pagan societies, a craving for human community governed by love and justice, just as there has always been a yearning for God, for redemption, forgiveness, moral transformation, for immortality and a blessed afterlife. These human cravings and experiences point to a dissonance between life as we experience it and as we feel it should be, and they help explain the profound sense of loss which is felt by all humans, and to which poets throughout the ages have borne witness. The universality of these experiences and longings, Collins writes, was traditionally held as stemming from a common origin. Its only satisfactory explanation is found in the story of Genesis 1 to 3.

In short, Collins reminds us here that there are “non-scientific,” historical, experiential, and even common sense reasons to believe in the uniqueness of humanity, its special creation, its unity, and also in the biblical message of its fall. While reading the chapter I thought that reference could also be made to Art. 5 of the Belgic Confession, which states that we believe in the divine origin of the books of the Bible first and foremost “because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they contain the evidence of this in themselves; for even the blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled.” This type of argument is applicable when we are resisting other assaults upon the faith, such as the denial of God’s very existence. I was reminded of C.S. Lewis’s fine essay “On Obstinacy in Belief,” wherein he speaks of knowledge of God “by acquaintance”: God is willing to make himself known to his people, also through the experiences of their lives as believers, as “the increasingly knowable Lord” (emphasis added).

Scientific aspects

Finally, in chapter 5, Collins gives some attention to the relevant science. I have to admit that I did not find this the clearest part of the book and I hope that I present his arguments fairly. In any case, he questions the widely accepted scientific claim that DNA evidence necessarily points to a population of several thousand from which humanity descended. He adds, however, that even if there should have been more than two ancestors, we still don’t “necessarily have to ditch all traditional views of Adam and Eve” (p. 120). One possibility is that Adam was the chieftain of a tribe, serving as its “federal” head and representative, and that therefore his trespass affected all those connected with him. While not, as far as I can tell, openly challenging the widely accepted idea of a transition from pre-Adamite hominid to human, Collins makes a point of rejecting the idea that such a transition could have taken place by natural means. If it indeed happened, then a special divine “refurbishing” of the pre-existing hominid must have taken place. That is, the image of God must have been bestowed on him. Humans are a special creation and, alone among all creatures, are made in God’s image, an image that was bestowed on them at creation.

What are we to do?

I expect that many among us will question Collins’ suggestions on a number of these points, insisting that he goes “way too far” in his willingness to consider scientific theories. It is possible that he does. He is, however, not alone among believers to take scientific findings seriously: there are other Christian thinkers who have drawn similar conclusions. Among them are apologist C.S. Lewis, Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner, and theologian John Stott. Collins in fact discusses the position of these men. Another well-known theologian who could have been mentioned in this connection is Tim Keller, who a few years ago published a paper explaining his position (similar, on various points, to that of Collins, Lewis, Kidner, and Stott) in considerable detail. That paper, which he titled “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople” can be found on this blog under Collected Papers.

I expect that some readers will also ask why we even pay attention to a book whose author, although affirming the historicity of the first chapters of the Bible, is nevertheless willing to consider the feasibility of scientific theories that are in conflict with the way in which we have traditionally interpreted these chapters. In answering this question I repeat what I have argued before, which is that the only responsible way of dealing with the religious difficulties posed by modern science is to face these difficulties squarely, study the issues carefully and honestly, and (not in the last place) acquaint ourselves with the way in which orthodox, well-informed Christian thinkers – scientists, theologians, and others – are attempting to meet them. For this, surely, is one of the matters that must be tackled “together with all the saints.” Ignoring the problems, while understandable, will not resolve them. Nor is it (if I take our tradition as at all normative) the course we ought to follow as Christians. Where would we be today if our ancestors had simply ignored/denied scientific challenges and forced us to live with unnecessary disconnects between the Bible and a universally accepted scientific conclusion, such as, for example, the heliocentric theory?

By saying this I am not attempting to diminish the difficulties we are facing today. They are daunting. Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck wrote a century ago that not even “a generation or an age” may be able to resolve all the questions that arise in connection with modern learning; it is God who in the course of history must bring light into the darkness. We may have no choice but to live for now with a disconnect – as many a faithful Christian is in fact doing. (In this vein, it may be that some “evolutionary creationists” are too confident about their resolution of the problems, and Todd Wood’s request of them to say “I don’t know” is worth affirming.) But thanks to God and the work of his Spirit, there is no reason for despair. As Art. 5 of the Belgic Confession teaches, and as Collins reminded us, our confidence in the truth of Scripture and of all it reveals does not depend on our ability to reconcile modern science with the Bible. I believe that if we keep this in mind we can be far less fearful when continuing to deal (as indeed we must) with the challenges raised by modern science.