Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, 3 - Theological Issues Related to Evolution

#5 in an ongoing series on Perspectives on an Evolving Creation edited by Keith B. Miller. Previous post in this series: Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, 2c - Evolution and Creation - Excursus 2: Science. First post in the series: Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, 1 - Introduction.

In his introductory chapter, "An Evolving Creation: Oxymoron or Fruitful Insight?," Keith Miller notes three primary theological issues that Christian evolutionists have to address if they are to be taken seriously by evangelical Christians.
  1. The idea of the "God of the gaps."
  2. The concepts of chance, randomness, or "accident."
  3. The role of what we might call "natural evil"--the problem raised by young-earth creationists in such passages as this from Answers in Genesis:
    [Interpreting the Bible in terms of an old earth] means having to accept that there were billions of years of death, disease, and bloodshed before Adam, thus eroding the creation/Called/restoration framework within which the Gospel is presented in the Bible.
With respect to the "God of the Gaps," Miller writes (p. 8):
[The perspective] that God's action or involvement in creation is confined to those events the lack of scientific explanation [or that m]eaningful divine action is equated with breaks in chains of cause-and-effect processes . . . has been called a "God-of-the-gaps" theology. God's creative action is seen only, or primarily, in the gaps of human knowledge where scientific description fails.

With this perspective, each advance in scientific understanding results in a corresponding diminution of divine action, and conflict between science and faith is assured. However, this is a totally unnecessary state of affairs. God's creative activity is clearly identified in Scripture as including natural processes. According to Scripture, God is providentially active in all natural processes, and all of creation declares the glory of God.

The evidence for God's presence in creation, for the existence of a creator God, is declared to be precisely those everyday "natural events" experienced by us all. Thus Christians should not fear causal natural explanations. Complete scientific descriptions of events or processes should pose no threat to Christian theism. Rather, each new advance in our scientific understanding can be matched with excitement and praise at the revelation of God's creative hand.
With respect to Chance, etc. (pp. 8-9):
Chance or random processes are often seen as antithetical to God's action. Many people understand "chance" as implying a purposeless, meaningless, and accidental event. However, scientifically, chance events are simply those whose occurrence cannot be predicted based on initial conditions and known natural laws. Such events are describable by probabilistic equations. . . .

The Bible . . . describes a God who is sovereign over all natural events, even those we attribute to chance such as the casting of lots [see Proverbs 16:33: "The lot is cast into the lap, But its every decision is from the LORD." --JAH] or tomorrow's weather [the broad mechanisms of which are understood and explained by modern science as related to heat from the Sun interacting with Earth's atmosphere and land formations, its oceans, and so forth . . . causing air and sea currents, certain patterns of evaporation and condensation, etc. . . . But yet see Psalm 147:16--"He gives snow like wool; He scatters the frost like ashes." Psalm 148:7-8--"Praise the LORD . . . Fire and hail, snow and clouds; Stormy wind, fulfilling His word." And so forth. Obviously, God is in control of the events and conditions that modern science describes--rightly--in terms of "chance" and "probability." --JAH] . . .

Regardless of how one understands the manner in which God exercises sovereignty over natural process[es], [once one understands God's intimate involvement in these processes,] chance events certainly [ought to] pose no theological barrier to God's action in and through [an] evolutionary process.
And then, finally, with respect to what may be called "natural evil," but is, actually, primarily a question of animal death before the Fall, I would like to to quote from Edward B. Davis' essay (the third in the book) titled, "The Word and the Works: Concordism and American Evangelicals."

Davis writes (pp. 43-45) about the work of several leading late 18th and early 19th century American scientists who sought to bring their understanding of science into line with their conservative interpretations of Scripture. Among them:
Both [Benjamin] Silliman1 and [Edward] Hitchcock2, like Galileo before them, believed that theologians simply could not interpret the Bible correctly without input from scientists, and many theologians shared their view. As Charles Hodge (1797-1878) saw it three decades later, "we only interpret the Word of God by the Word of God when we interpret the Bible by science." [I should note: Charles Hodge was one of the leading conservative American theologians of the 19th century.--JAH] For concordists the principal point of contact between geology in the biblical story of creation was the fact that the Earth was much older than 6,000 years; thus they had to confront the crucial theological problem of explaining the existence of animal death before the fall of Adam. This very issue is still at the heart of young-Earth creationism in our own day, motivating its adherents perhaps more than any other issue to reject old-Earth interpretations of Genesis.

Hitchcock dealt with this forthrightly. . . . "Not only geology," he noted, "but zoology and comparative anatomy, teach us that death among the inferior animals did not result from the fall of man, but from the original Constitution given them by their Creator. One large class of animals, the carnivores, have organs expressly intended for destroying other classes for food." Even herbivores "must have destroyed a multitude of insects, of which several species inhabit almost every species of plant," not to mention the destruction of "millions of animalcula [microscopic organisms], which abound in many of the fluids which animals drink, and even in the air which they breathe."

"In short," he added . . ., "death could not excluded from the world, without an entire change the constitution and course of nature; and such a change we have no reason to suppose, from the Mosaic account, to place one man fell." Furthermore, on biblical grounds alone one might have to allow animal death before the fall. Not only does Romans 5:12 explicitly limit the scope of death to humanity; unless Adam himself had seen death, how could the threat of death for disobedience have real force? [Edward Hitchcock, Elementary Geology,8th ed. (New York: Newman, 1847), pp. 299-300.] Therefore Hitchcock believed . . . the fall introduced humans to spiritual death, not animals to physical death.
For what it's worth, this is the theological view with which I was raised. And I see no Scriptures--Old or New Testament--that require a different view. I can see how or why a young earth view can be brought into line with the idea that every form of death of man and animal was brought about as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve, but, frankly, I sense there may be stronger reasons--both biblical and scientific--for limiting the implications of Adam's and Eve's sin to humans and the spiritual realm than to suggest their sin produced both spiritual and physical death for human beings and the entire physical realm.

--To be continued. Of course!

1 Look up the standard encyclopedic references, and you'll find nothing about Silliman's Christian commitment or, even, his involvement in geology or "natural history." Davis, however, urges us to read John C. Greene's "Protestantism, Science, and American Enterprise: Benjamin Silliman's Moral Universe" in Benjamin Silliman and His Circle: Studies in the Influence of Benjamin Silliman on Science in America, ed. Leonard G. Wilson (New York: Science History Publications, 1979), pp. 11-27.

Davis summarizes Silliman's life:

[O]ne morning in July 1801, Silliman happened upon his father's friend Timothy Dwight, the evangelical president of Yale College, who asked him on the spot to become Yale's first professor of chemistry and natural history, a post he assumed in September 1802. Although some other scientific subjects had been taught at Yale in the 18th century, Dwight recognized the importance of natural history and desire to fill the position with a person of solid Christian. Or, who would use science as an ally of faith.

To prepare himself for the job, Silliman studied chemistry and medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and attended lectures and chemistry at Edinburgh University, where he met Robert Darwin (father of Charles Darwin). In later years he was influenced by the "concordists" approach to Genesis and geology advocated by Edinburgh geologist Robert Jameson.

At Yale, Silliman enjoyed a long, distinguished career as a highly influential teacher (many leading American scientists were his former pupils), founding editor of the American Journal of Science and the Arts (known in its early years as "Silliman's Journal"), and president of the Association of American Geologists, which in 1848 became the American Association for the Advancement of Science. . . .

He was perhaps best known to the general public . . . as a popular lecturer throughout the length and breadth of the early republic, in which connection he captivated audiences with his love of science coupled with his obvious love of God.

"Admiring as we do the perfection of science exhibited continually by the lecturer," commented a Boston reporter who had heard him give a lecture in 1843, "we have yet a higher love and reverence for that beautiful exhibition of divine truth which Mr. Silliman constantly alludes." This, he added, "is the source of our respect for this accomplished Professor, in comparison with which our admiration for his scientific attainments sinks into insignificance."

2 Hitchcock's religious views are somewhat more readily recognized. Wikipedia, for example, notes that "His chief project . . . was natural theology, which attempted to unify and reconcile science and religion, focusing on geology."

Davis writes:
From 1821 to 1825 [Hitchcock] was pastor of a Congregational Church in Conway, Massachusetts, before ill health forced his dismissal. The following four months studying with Silliman, he became professor of chemistry and natural history--later professor of geology and natural theology as well as president--at Amherst College, where he remained until his death.

Appointed geologist for the states of Massachusetts and Vermont, his Report on the Geology, Mineralogy, Botany, and Zoology of Massachusetts (1833) is the first of its kind. Soon afterward, Hitchcock reported on the first dinosaur tracks ever found, though he and others (including Silliman) words.

Hitchcock served as first president of the Association of American Geologists and was a founding member of the National Academy of Sciences. This text book, Elementary Geology, was reprinted at least 30 times after the first edition of 1840, and The Religion of Geology (1851), is most complete statement of natural theology--the subject closest to his heart--was widely read on both sides of the Atlantic.
Question that bothers me: Why have I never heard of these men before?

I see the need for some new directions in scientific education for Christians!
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