Happy birthday, Charles Darwin! (Thoughts on the dialogue between science and Christianity)

February 12 was the two-hundredth anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and 2009 marks the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the publication of his seminal work, On the Origin of Species.  Perhaps no-one has influenced science more in the past century than has Darwin with his theory of evolution by natural selection.  Perhaps no-one since has been as misunderstood or maligned, or to such a degree been both hailed as a hero and condemned as a heretic.

But i don’t intend to discuss Darwin or evolutionary biology per se at any length.  i have long been concerned, frustrated, and angered at the attitude many Christians adopt among themselves and in public when discussing apparent conflicts between science and Christianity, especially in the area of creation and evolution.  i do not mean to say that Christians should not stand for truth – we must! – yet it does seem that so little debate in in this area has been edifying or served the gospel; indeed, much of the debate has been characteristically un-Christian: unloving, disrespectful, and antithetical to the gospel.

There have been wars of words; indeed, the creation-evolution controversy has been a focal point of the “culture wars” of recent years.  There have been character assassinations and insinuations.  There have been manipulations.  None of this behooves a Christian, and i like to think that, as is often the case, the sample of voices that speak the loudest and harshest is not representative of the Christian population.  “My brothers, these things ought not to be so.

i fear that much of this debate has served simply to perpetuate what has become a red herring, a distraction: an unnecessary obstacle to faith, and an unnecessary stumbling block to believers.

i am not qualified to discuss the scientific merit of Darwin’s theories or their modern developments, although i have a high regard for them, based on the work of others, as scientific theories.  Neither do i have expert knowledge of the passages in the Bible that deal with creation, though i hold them to be one with the true truth revealed by God.  i do not believe that fundamentally there is any conflict between science and the Bible, for all truth is God’s truth.  Benjamin Warfield, who was a staunch defender of Biblical inerrancy, principal of Princeton Seminary, and an amateur scientist, had the following to say near the close of the nineteenth century:

We must not, then, as Christians, assume an attitude of antagonism toward the truths of reason, or the truths of philosophy, or the truths of science, or the truths of history, or the truths of criticism. As children of the light, we must be careful to keep ourselves open to every ray of light. If it is light, its source must be sought in him who is the true Light; if it is truth, it belongs of right to him who is the plenitude of truth. All natural truths must be – in varying degrees indeed, but all truly – in some sense commentaries on the supernaturally revealed truth; and by them we may be led to fuller and more accurate comprehension of it. Nature is the handiwork of God in space; history marks his pathway through time. And both nature and history are as infallible teachers as revelation itself, could we but skill to read their message aright. It is distressingly easy to misinterpret them; but their employment in the elucidation of Scripture is, in principle, closely analogous to the interpretation of one Scripture by another, though written by another human hand and at an interval of an age of time. God speaks through his instruments. Prediction interprets prediction; doctrine, doctrine; and fact, fact. Wherever a gleam of light is caught, it illuminates. The true Light, from whatsoever reflected, lighteth.

Let us, then, cultivate an attitude of courage as over against the investigations of the day. None should be more zealous in them than we. None should be more quick to discern truth in every field, more hospitable to receive it, more loyal to follow it whithersoever it leads.

(Warfield, “Incarnate Truth”, originally published in Princeton Sermons, 1893)

If all truth is God’s truth, then the works of God (which are the study of science) and the words of God (the Bible) cannot be in conflict.  Nature and Scripture cannot be in conflict, but our interpretations of them may be in conflict because our interpretation of one or the other may be imperfect in some particular.  i try to be humble and true to God’s revelation of Himself by admitting i have an imperfect understanding of both Nature and Scripture.  Where i see an apparently irreconcilable conflict between my understanding of the observable created universe and my understanding of the Bible, and where honest searching does not appear to lead to any definitive explanation – or appears to lead to several possibilities – i eventually conclude that it is probably my understanding which is at fault.

i am not going to argue here either for or against evolution as an explanation for speciation and the descent of humankind. Rather, my concern is for an intellectually honest, explicitly humble approach that seeks to remain faithful to the sublime truth of the Bible but acknowledges our limited understanding and our fallibility in its interpretation; that acknowledges what we are able to understand through science (however tenuously or tentatively that may be), and what science cannot tell us; and that seeks to edify all Christians and to shine God’s light among all people.  God’s glory must be the ultimate quest of our scientific and theological inquiry, and both are possible only because of Him.

i must humbly admit imperfect understanding of the Bible and of Nature, yet accept that both reveal God and that all truth is God’s truth.  This is not to elevate the truths revealed to some degree by science to a level above the truths revealed in the Bible, but to accept that both, rightly interpreted, point to God.  Upon examining the interface between science and Christianity, and finding that wise Christians who have sought to remain faithful to the Bible have arrived at different and even contradictory models of creation, i choose to remain practically agnostic concerning the exact method of creation beyond “God said”: it may be that, with several Biblically plausible positions sincerely and intelligently defended, a correct and comprehensive mechanistic interpretation of creation is unknowable to us.  Is this a cop out?  i do not believe so.  My reluctance to adopt unreservedly and dogmatically a single one of the explanations on offer is necessitated by, and the result of, what i hope is an honest and humble consideration and desire for truth that is presently beyond our understanding.  i don’t think i’m alone in this.  Here is the great theologian Augstine, writing in the early fifth century in the first of several volumes on Genesis, The literal meaning of Genesis:

In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.

Here, Augustine clearly expressed what is my great fear for Christian believers caught in the crossfire of the culture wars, and particularly for those young believers whose faith has to some extent been the result of a strident apologetic challenge to their former scientific beliefs.  My fear is this: that so dogmatically sticking to particulars which might allow Biblically legitimate alternative interpretations may ultimately pose a stumbling block to those believers when they are presented with considerable evidence yielding contrary interpretations and denying the dogmatic explanations which first challenged them and brought them to faith.

Many Christians with whom i have enjoyed fellowship have been very zealous for God, and it is truly wonderful to see them compelled by the love of Christ – and i thank God for that zeal.  Yet i do fear that at times we as Christians can be quite undiscerning and immoderate in our zeal to share the light of God’s love in Christ with the rest of the world.  i see this particularly in how we handle apologetics, especially in the areas of cosmogony and the origin and development of life.  In a culture where “science” is highly prized, the immediate appeal of apologetics that seeks to justify (especially on scientific grounds) the faith we hold so dearly sometimes overwhelms individuals with a burden of greater responsibility or exaggerated confidence in such knowledge.  But this limited knowledge often is not matched with as much wisdom as zeal.  The same zealous individuals often find themselves engaged in debate they may have initiated or responded to with this knowledge, but which has grown beyond their reach and understanding.

i have witnessed two very dangerous outcomes of this – first, that the individual may fall with his argument, as Augustine warned; and second, that the heart of the interlocutor may be further hardened against the gospel.  We do need to be aware of the attitudes of people who, on faint or firm scientific grounds, have set themselves against the gospel.  We need to be aware of those who, likewise, are quietly agnostic but might perhaps be receptive.  i fear greatly that an impassioned but insufficiently knowledgeable or tactful presentation of the gospel based primarily, or resorting to, uncertain scientific apologetics runs a terrible risk of turning the latter into the former.  In our eagerness to share the gospel by all means possible, we sometimes overestimate those means, we sometimes overestimate ourselves, and we sometimes drive away the very people we sought to draw to God.

How should we then proceed?  It certainly appears to me that the creation passages in the Bible “can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received,” and that consideration of such interpretations in the light of science is necessary if we are to be intellectually honest in our pursuit of God’s truth.  Where such varied interpretations might legitimately exist, i believe we as Christians should rather not marshal them specifically in our witness and defence of the gospel.  i believe that in these circumstances the most intellectually honest and Biblically faithful position is that of practical agnosticism with respect to the manner of creation beyond “God said”, while remaining committed to the Bible’s own interpretation of the meaning of creation.

Mark Twain, who was not a Christian and was in fact quite critical of Christianity and of faith in general, once said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”  Why do we obscure the simple and plain truths of the gospel by quarrelling over differing interpretations of other truths we do not and perhaps cannot fully understand?  We should not deny the difficulties we do face in interpreting some portions of Scripture, but we cannot escape the clarity with which the gospel is proclaimed, nor the demands it makes of us.  Let us then be humble and irenic in acknowledging those difficulties, and, holding firmly to the faith we profess, confident in the truth of the Bible despite our limited understanding of it in some particulars, and with lives dedicated to Christ as Lord, be ready to defend “with gentleness and respect” that faith and the hope we have because of it.

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One Response to Happy birthday, Charles Darwin! (Thoughts on the dialogue between science and Christianity)

  1. afrankangle says:

    Creation and evolution are a problem with two groups: the literalists and the ignorant.

    The literalists are the fundamental Christians basing creation on the literal words of Geneis. The organization Answers in Genesis, supporters of the Creation Museum, is a prime example.

    The ignorant are the Christians attending many congregations of denominations that don’t have issues with evolution. I call them the ignorant because many (if not most) of these churches are NOT educating their members.

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