Monday, January 23, 2023

The Incoherence of Deborah Haarsma's Christian Astrophysics in the Reason/Revelation Debate


What do you see in these pictures?  

The first picture is from the Hubble Space Telescope.  It's a tiny area of the sky (about one thirty-two millionth of the sky) visible only in the Earth's Southern Hemisphere.  It's centered on SMAC 0723, a galaxy cluster in the constellation of Volans.  As many as 10,000 galaxies are visible in this picture, and each of those galaxies probably have an average of 100 million stars.  The picture includes light from galaxies as they existed about 13 billion years ago, only about 400 to 800 million years after the Big Bang.

The second picture of this same area of the sky is from the James Webb Space Telescope.  A few weeks ago I wrote a post on the James Webb Telescope.  This picture was first revealed to the public at an event at the White House with President Joe Biden on July 11, 2022.  The picture from the Webb Telescope is clearer and more detailed than the Hubble picture.

Christian astrophysicist Deborah Haarsma sees in these pictures confirmation of what the Bible says in Psalms 19:1 (King James Version)--"The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork."  

Is she right?  You might agree with her if you take the side of Revelation in the Reason/Revelation debate.  But you will probably disagree with her if you take the side of Reason.  Is there any way to decide which side is right?  Or can the two sides be reconciled?  Would most human beings be inclined to agree with her religious interpretation of these pictures?  If so, does this express a natural propensity of our evolved human mind?

Some Christians have reported that looking at these pictures from the Webb Telescope made them "feel very small."  One Christian journalist observed: "It's hard and uncomfortable to comprehend being a tiny speck on a tiny speck in a universe full of tiny, beautiful specks," which sent her into "a sort of existential crisis."  But when she asked Haarsma about this, Haarsma told her: "You don't have to look at the vastness of the universe and feel insignificant.  You can look at it and see how great God's power and love are."

Haarsma said that on the Sunday after the Webb Telescope images were released, she went to services at her church where the images were projected on a screen, and the congregation sang hymns about nature.  "They created an opportunity to thank God for the wonders of the natural world."


Haarsma received her Ph.D. in astrophysics from MIT.  She became a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College (now Calvin University).  She is now President of BioLogos, an organization founded by Francis Collins to promote the idea of theistic evolution among evangelical Christians who otherwise might reject evolutionary science as contrary to the Bible.  As suggested by name "BioLogos," the idea is that biology and natural science generally are "the language of God": "In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God" (John 1:1).  Christians should see the modern scientific study of nature as the natural revelation of God's creative activity.

In a recent lecture, Haarsma explained "Why I Never Had a Faith Crisis Over Science." She noted that of the many young people today who are losing their religious beliefs, many say that "the church seems to reject much of what science tells us about the world."  She said that it doesn't have to be this way if Christians understand that faith and science are not in conflict, and then she explained how she had reached this conclusion in her own life.

She grew up in a Calvinist evangelical church that "grounded me in the faith."  "When it came to Genesis and the age of the Earth, my church knew of only two options.  One was godless evolution, with a godless Big Bang billions of years ago.  The other option was a Creator God who made the universe in 6 days following the text in Genesis.  Given those two choices, of course we picked the one with the Creator!"

At the same time, however, as a schoolgirl, Haarsma had a love of math and science.  As an undergraduate at Bethel University, a Christian school, she majored in physics and music.  Then, as a graduate student in physics at MIT, she developed an interest in astronomy and astrophysics.  At that point, she was forced to reconsider whether astronomy and the Genesis account of creation were compatible or contradictory.

She came across the book Portraits of Creation, with chapters by Christian geologists and Christian astronomers who explained how the scientific account of the evolution of the Earth could be reconciled with their faith.  There was also a chapter by Old Testament scholar John Stek, who explained the ancient Egyptian and Babylonian accounts of how many gods created the universe so that there was a flat Earth with a solid dome sky with water above it, called a "firmament."  This interpretation of the Old Testament as shaped by its ancient Near Eastern cultural context has been deepened by scholars like John Walton who is on the BioLogos Advisory Council.

Haarsma observes:

"I realized that in Genesis chapter 1, on the second day of creation, God takes credit for making this firmament.  That means God didn't try to correct their misconceptions about the natural world; it would have distracted them from the larger message.  God had other goals in mind.  I concluded that if God didn't put modern science into Genesis, I shouldn't be trying to get modern science out of Genesis.  Instead I should focus on God's primary message: that there is one sovereign Creator (not a pantheon of gods), that creation is good, and that humans are made in God's image."

In this way, she could accept the modern scientific account of the evolution of the universe while also accepting the revelation of God's "primary message" in the Bible.  Science and Christian faith are therefore compatible.  The mission of BioLogos is to convey that message to her fellow evangelical Christians.

Notice that Haarsma's conclusion that "God didn't try to correct their misconceptions about the natural world," because this "would have distracted them from the larger message," comes not from her reading of the Bible but from her reading of Old Testament scholars like John Stack and John Walton.  Why did she have to go outside the Bible for this?  Does that mean that God's revelation in the Bible does not guide the reader to its correct interpretation?  Does that mean that the Bible by itself is not a clear revelation of God's teaching?  A Christian reader of the Bible like Ken Ham would deny this, because he would say that the clear teaching of the Bible about the six days of Creation must be true, and it should not be distorted by scholarly commentary on the Bible that denies its literal teaching. 

In contrast to the Young Earth Creationism of Christians like Ham, the fundamental intellectual framework for Haarsma's project is what is often called "theistic evolution" or what Haarsma calls "evolutionary creation."  God is the omnipotent Creator of everything, but God has chosen to exercise his creative activity by establishing the laws of nature that allow for the natural history of the universe to emerge through a natural evolutionary process that can be studied by natural science.

As I have indicated previously, theistic evolution depends upon the principle of dual causality that was developed by medieval Islamic and Christian thinkers as a way of defending natural science or natural philosophy against the charge of being irreligious: God's supernatural power as primary cause can be understood as compatible with the natural laws of secondary causes as studied by natural science.


I have written a series of posts on the reason/revelation debate, in which I have agreed with Leo Strauss that there is no way of reconciling reason and revelation by synthesizing them, and that a Socratic philosopher or a Darwinian scientist is justified in adopting a zetetic position:  The zetetics believe that while philosophy or science cannot refute revelation, it is rational for those with the natural desire and capacity for philosophy or science to choose the philosophic life, when this is rightly understood as a Socratic or Darwinian quest for knowledge that never attains the full knowledge of the whole that would refute revelation by denying the possibility of supernatural miracles.

Against this position, Haarsma assumes that the debate between reason and revelation can be resolved through a synthesis of the two in the idea that there is one truth revealed in "two books"--the Bible and nature.  As a student at Bethel College, Haarsma reports:  "I was excited to discover that a science career didn't mean pushing God out of the picture.  I was introduced to John Calvin's phrase 'All truth is God's truth'; even if some truth in nature is discovered by an atheist, it could still be from God.  By studying science, I would be investigating God's world as well as God's word, both nature and scripture.  Science could be a Christian vocation; I didn't have to be a missionary to serve God, but could serve God with my mind, as well as my heart and soul."

This attempt to reconcile reason and revelation through the two books of one truth fails, however, because Haarsma fails to show how the clearly revealed truth of the Bible (particularly, in the first chapters of Genesis) concerning the divinely created origins of the universe and of human beings is consistent with the natural science of the evolutionary origins of everything.  I have already made this argument in some previous posts about how revelation fails to resolve the creation/evolution debate among evangelical Christians because the Holy Spirit has failed to guide them to agreement about the Biblically revealed teaching concerning origins.

Haarsma first confronted this problem while she was studying astrophysics in graduate school at MIT: "studying astronomy meant that all of my questions about Genesis were back on the table.  I believed, and still believe, that the entire Bible is God's authoritative word for our lives.  I didn't want to just pick and choose which verses to accept, or let science dictate that some verses weren't true."

But as we have already seen, Haarsma really does "let science dictate that some verses weren't true."  When she learned that the Bible's account of God's creating the "firmament" (the King James translation of the Hebrew word raqia) was using the language of ancient Egyptian and Babylonian creation myths that were contradicted by modern astronomy, she decided that this Biblical teaching about the "firmament" as a solid heavenly dome needed to be rejected as false.

In Egyptian iconography, the starry sky is represented by the goddess Nut, whose body arched over the land.  This was the boundary between heaven and earth, and it held back the water above.  The concept of heavenly waters was a natural deduction from the experience of precipitation from the sky.

The Bible echoes this image in the Genesis account of the "firmament" in the second day of creation.  "And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.  And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.  And God called the firmament Heaven.  And the evening and the morning were the second day" (Gen. 1:6-8).  This is the same Hebrew word for firmament that appears in Psalms 19:1--"and the firmament shewth his handywork."

But when we look at the Hubble and Webb pictures of deep space, we know that this is not a picture of a solid starry "firmament," because we know that astronomy shows the falsity of the Egyptian image of the sky.

As we have seen, according to Haarsma, in God's revelation in Genesis, "God didn't try to correct their misconceptions about the natural world; it would have distracted them from the larger message."  

But in response to Haarsma on this point, Ken Ham (a young Earth creationist) has complained that this "accuses God of using error to teach truth."   As far as I know, Haarsma has never replied to this criticism.

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, as she does, 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.

This illustrates the impossibility of rationally proving that a claim of supernatural revelation really is a miraculous revelation from God rather than the invention of human imagination.

This also illustrates how Haarsma's attempt to synthesize reason and revelation forces her into heresy in denying some of the fundamental theological tenets of the evangelical Christian Reformed Church (CRC) to which she belongs.  It is common for CRC schools like Bethel University and Calvin University to have a "Statement of Faith" that all the students and faculty must accept, and faculty members can be fired if they disagree with any article of that faith.  A fundamental tenet is that the Bible is "inerrant" or "without any error."  Haarsma denies that when she says that the Bible did not correct the "misconceptions about nature" in the Egyptian understanding of the sky as a "firmament" dividing the waters above from the waters below.

She also assumes that the Biblical account of all humanity originating in Adam and Eve is an error because the evolutionary science of human evolution from ancestral primate species does not recognize the origin of all humans in two individuals.  As I have written in some previous posts, this debate over the historical reality of Adam and Eve has led many evangelical Christians to identify theistic evolution as heresy, and some faculty members at Christian schools (including Calvin University and Bethel College) have been fired for denying the Bible's claim that human history began with Adam and Eve.  When Howard Van Till, a professor of physics at Calvin University, identified himself as a theistic evolutionist, he was charged with heresy; and eventually he was forced to retire from the University in 1999.  His position was filled by Loren Haarsma, Deborah's husband.

What we see here is that rather than achieving a reconciliation of reason and revelation, Haarsma has fallen into an incoherent position in which she vacillates between appealing to revelation to correct the claims of reason and appealing to reason to correct the claims of revelation.  So, for example, as we have seen, she will appeal to modern astronomy to correct what the Bible says about the heavenly "firmament."  But, then, when she writes about the "fine-tuning" of the universe, she corrects those scientists who deny that this is evidence for God, and she says that "from the perspective of biblical faith, science merely investigates the physical world that God created and sustains."

This debate over how to understand the First Cause of everything, including the laws of nature, points to the deepest problem for human understanding--the problem of ultimate explanation. All explanation depends on some ultimate reality that is unexplained. To the question of why nature has the kind of order that it has, we might answer that we must just accept this as a brute fact of our experience. That's just the way it is!

The response of the biblical creationist is that it is very unlikely that the Universe would exist uncaused, and it is more likely that God would exist as the uncaused cause of everything.

In our search for ultimate explanations, we must appeal either to nature or to God as the unexplained ground of all explanation. Thus does the natural desire to understand leads us to this most fundamental of choices--nature or God, reason or revelation. Philosophy cannot refute revelation, and theology cannot refute philosophy, because any attempted refutation would have to beg the question at issue. As Leo Strauss observed: "All alleged refutations of revelation presuppose unbelief in revelation, and all alleged refutations of philosophy presuppose already faith in revelation. There seems to be no ground common to both, and therefore superior to both."


In a previous post, I have written about Haarsma's contribution to the edited book Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design.  As indicated by the editor Jim Stump, the purpose of bringing together the four authors in this book--Haarsma, Hugh Ross, Ken Ham, and Stephen Meyer--was to see if evangelical Christians who have studied the creation/evolution debate could come to some agreement in this debate as guided by God's revelation through nature and through the Bible.  But they failed to reach any agreement.  Why?

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.   

It would strengthen Haarsma's position if she could explain this failure of the Bible and the Holy Spirit to lead Christians to some agreement about the origins of the Universe and human beings.

No comments: