Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Revelation Cannot Resolve the Creation/Evolution Debate

Unlike  the atheistic religiosity of Romantic conservatives like Roger Scruton, the theistic religiosity of evangelical Christians is grounded in their faith in the supreme authority of God's revelation--the special revelation of the Bible and the general revelation of nature, the "two books" in which God's revelation can be read by human beings.  Remarkably, however, neither biblical revelation nor natural revelation provides a clear teaching to resolve the debate among evangelical Christians over creation and evolution. 

This becomes evident if one reads the new book edited by J. B. Stump--Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Zondervan, 2017).  Four positions in the creation/evolution debate are represented by four leading proponents: Young Earth creationism (Ken Ham), Old Earth creationism (Hugh Ross), evolutionary creation (Deborah Haarsma), and intelligent design (Stephen Meyer).  This is the first time that these four people have engaged one another directly.  Each of the four has written a chapter, followed by responses from the other three, and then a rejoinder by the chapter's author.

In John 17, Jesus prays to God that all believers will be as one, that they will come to complete unity, "so that the world may believe that you have sent me."  It seems that Christians give witness to the truth of revelation by showing their agreement about that revelation.  In Stump's "Introduction" to Four Views, he says that a primary purpose of this book was to pursue unity in what revelation teaches about origins (16).  But in his "Conclusion" to the book, he laments that this has not been achieved: "I doubt that readers will come away from this book with the feeling that we are any closer to the goal of Christian unity on the topic of origins" (232).

There are three possible explanations for this.  Either there has been no revelation (through the Bible or through nature) of God's teaching about origins. Or there has been such a revelation, but it's so obscure that it conveys no clear message. Or the revelation does convey a clear message, but human beings have a stubborn bias that blinds them to that clear message.  Hugh Ross says that "since most humans will choose autonomy over submission to God," most humans will refuse to see the clear evidence of God's creative activity in nature (166).  But this atheistic bias cannot explain why faithful Christians--like the four authors in this book--would refuse to recognize the clear teaching of revelation.  So we are left with the first two explanations for why these Christians cannot come to agreement about origins: either there has been no revelation about origins, or the revelation is not clear enough to be understood.  All four of the authors believe that God has sent the Holy Spirit "to guide us persistently to truth" (71, 76, 107), but here the Holy Spirit has failed to guide them to agreement about the revealed teaching concerning origins.

Like the other three authors, Ken Ham (the young earth creationist) sees God's revelation both in Scripture and in nature.  But he thinks the biblical revelation is clearer and more truthful than natural revelation, because after Adam's Fall, God cursed creation, and so "the creation gives a confusing message about the Creator" (19).  The creation reveals the Creator to all people, but it does not teach us how and when God created.  For that, we must go to the Bible (101).

Ham insists that the "clear teaching" of the Bible, particularly in the first 11 chapters of Genesis, is that God created everything over six literal days about 6,000 years ago; and therefore the claim of evolutionary science that life and the universe evolved naturally over billions of years is false.  But Ham is silent about the fact that the dating of Creation at 6,000 years ago is not in the Bible.  This date was inferred by Bishop James Ussher, who relied not just on the Bible but also on non-biblical documents.  So this is not a "clear teaching" of the Bible.  Moreover, Ham admits that "most Christians" or "many Christians" do not agree with his interpretation (24, 28, 31, 34, 38, 44, 46).

Ham also claims that the Bible is clear in declaring that God created all the forms of plant and animal life by creating distinct "kinds" (Hebrew min), and that these created kinds correspond to what in modern taxonomic classification would be called the family (not species or genus) (41, 105).  Thus, new species can arise by natural evolution, but this evolutionary change is within the boundary of a "kind" or "family."  Ham is silent, however, about how, prior to Darwin, "kinds" were interpreted as species.  Once Darwin had shown how species can emerge by natural evolution, some creationists, beginning with Frank Marsh in 1941, began to argue that the Hebrew min was an "imprecise term," and that it should be interpreted not as species but as family.  (I have written about this here.)  Ham has adopted this interpretation without acknowledging that it is an interpretation that is not a "clear teaching" of the Bible.  (I have written a post on Ham's debate with Bill Nye in 2014.)

Thus, Ham is silent about there being a fifth form of biblical creationism--the creationist theory of God's special creation of fixed species that Darwin refuted in The Origin of Species.  This form of creationism is not represented in Stump's book, although it was the most common form of biblical creationism before the publication of Darwin's Origin in 1859.

Against Ham, Hugh Ross (the old earth creationist) insists that the Bible clearly teaches that the six days of creation in Genesis 1 are not literal 24-hour days but "ages"--long expanses of time that correspond to the billions of years for the creation of the universe, the earth, and life that has been confirmed by modern science.  And yet, while disagreeing with Ham about dating, Ross agrees with Ham in reading the Genesis story literally.  So, for example, he agrees with Ham that the human species was originally created with God's creation of Adam and Eve; and he predicts that genetic models will eventually show an initial human ancestral population of 2.  The creation narrative in Genesis is "in perfect accord--both descriptively and chronologically--with the established scientific record" (83).  The Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature are in concord.

Ross believes that the evolutionary history of the universe and life show gaps that cannot be explained by purely natural evolutionary processes, because these gaps arise from God's miraculous intervention. For example, there is an unbridgeable gap between human beings and all other animals, because the creation of Adam and Eve was a miraculous work of the Creator.  Similarly, mass extinction and mass speciation events show God's interventions into natural history.

Unlike both Ham and Ross, Deborah Haarsma (the evolutionary creationist) does not see the creation story in Genesis as a literal history of nature's origins, and she does not see gaps in evolutionary history that require miraculous interventions by God to create what cannot arise by natural evolution.  She writes: "Evolutionary creation is the view that God created the universe, earth, and life over billions of years, and that the gradual process of evolution was crafted and governed by God to create the diversity of all life on earth. Thus, evolution is not a worldview in opposition to God but a natural mechanism by which God providentially achieves his purposes" (125).

Compared with the other three positions, Haarsma's evolutionary creation is closest to Darwin's idea of "dual causality": Darwin speaks of the laws of nature as manifested in evolution as "secondary causes," which leaves open the possibility of God's creative power acting through "primary causes" to create the original order of nature itself.  I have written about this here and here.

Haarsma has carefully chosen the term "evolutionary creation" as an alternative to the term "theistic evolution," because the later term often suggests a deism in which the divine First Cause lacks the personal and providential traits of the Biblical God.  Haarsma's Creator chooses to act through the evolutionary laws of nature rather than miraculous interventions, which distinguishes her position from that of Ham and Ross.  But her Creator does engage in those miraculous acts that are necessary for human salvation--such as the incarnation and resurrection of Christ.  Her Creator hears and answers prayers.  Her Creator really is the Biblical God and not just Meyer's Intelligent Designer.  (As I have indicated in another post, Darwin would have disagreed with Haarsma on this point, because he did not see any clear evidence that the Bible was a divine revelation.)

According to Haarsma, Genesis does not answer the how and when questions of science, but it does answer the who and why questions (131).  Much of the Genesis story repeats the creation stories of the ancient Near East that the Israelites would have known.  God accommodated his teaching to these beliefs.  He could have corrected this cosmology, Haarsma observes, but he chose not to do that.  God's only concern was to teach that there is only one God who is the sovereign creator of all, which departed from the ancient origin stories (128-30).  In this interpretation, Haarsma follows the lead of John Walton, who argues that the Bible was written first to the peoples living in the ancient Near East, and therefore we should not expect that the cosmological teachings should correspond with a modern scientific understanding. (I have written about this here.)

But as Ham points out, this "accuses God of using error to teach truth" (156).  If God had corrected the errors of ancient Near Eastern cosmology, wouldn't this have confirmed God's revelation as truth that was beyond human understanding prior to modern science?  If there is no correction of ancient cosmology, does this imply that this is not really a revelation of a truth beyond the human beliefs of that time?

Haarsma might respond that we can see this was a true revelation because it corrects ancient theology in teaching a monotheistic religion of a creator God that was new.  But if we're going to read the Bible within its cultural setting, then we might notice that parts of the Bible seem to accept the polytheistic idea that different peoples have different gods (for example Judges 11:24).  We might then wonder whether Yahweh was originally one of many gods who at some point was elevated to be the one universal and transcendent god of Israel, which is the argument of Thomas Romer in The Invention of God (Harvard, 2015).  So why isn't God a cultural invention?  To deny this, it would help to have a revelation in the Bible of cosmological truths that correct traditional cosmologies in ways that people of the ancient Near East could not have understood, but which might be confirmed by modern science.

To all of this, Stephen Meyer (the intelligent design theorist) responds by arguing that although he personally believes in biblical revelation, he sees that the case for an intelligent designer as an alternative to materialist natural science is best made on purely scientific grounds without any appeal to biblical authority.  He claims that the evidence of science based on our natural observations of the world point to the existence of an intelligent designer to explain the appearance of design in the natural world that cannot be explained plausibly by Darwinian evolutionary science.

There are, however, as I will indicate in my next post, some serious problems with Meyer's argument.

Here, I only want to make the point that the disagreement over origins among these four faithful Christians who have carefully studied both the Bible and science suggests that there has been no divine revelation that clearly resolves the debate among evangelical Christians over creation and evolution.

So what?  What difference does this make for orthodox believing Christians?  Sometimes the authors in this book say the debate over origins is only a "secondary issue" for Christians, because one can be a believing Christian without resolving this debate (44-45, 60).  But then Ham contends that the literal truth of Genesis 1-11 is the "foundation" of all the other doctrines of Christianity--it is "the foundation of the whole rest of the Bible" (18).  If this is so, then those who disagree with Ham's interpretation of Genesis are destroying Christianity.

Ham refers to the famous case of Anthony Flew, the British philosopher who argued for philosophic atheism until he was persuaded to accept the argument for intelligent  design, and he became a deist.  Ham observes that since Flew never accepted the clear revelation in the Bible of God as Creator and Jesus as Savior, he died "as a Christ-rejecting sinner who sadly will spend eternity in Hell" (210).  So those who fail to receive the correct revelation of Biblical creationism will go to Hell!  (My posts on Flew can be found herehere, and here.)

Even if they don't go to Hell, professors at Christian schools who don't receive the correct revelation of creationism might lose their jobs.  For example, the editor of Four Views--Jim Stump--was for many years a respected professor of philosophy at Bethel College in Indiana.  But then the College adopted this declaration as part of their statement of  faith: "We believe that the first man, Adam, was created by an immediate act of God and not by a process of evolution."  Since Stump is a proponent of evolutionary creation, who works for Haarsma's BioLogos, the organization promoting evolutionary creation, he believes that Adam was indeed created by God through a natural process of evolution.  Consequently, he was forced to resign from Bethel College.  (I have written about the Adam controversy here.)

So why are faithful Christians unable to reach any agreement about this question of creation, evolution, and ultimate origins?  If the revelation of God's teaching in the Bible or in nature about origins is untrustworthy or unclear, why should we believe that there has been any revelation at all?

Has the Holy Spirit failed us, because the obscurity of revelation makes it impossible for us to agree on the meaning of that revelation?

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