Evangelical Evolutionists … and an Opportunity (RJS)

Evangelical Evolutionists … and an Opportunity (RJS) April 12, 2012

Tim Stafford wrote a short, but nice, piece for the web-only edition of Christianity Today Evangelical Evolutionists Meet in New York on the recent BioLogos Theology of Celebration III Workshop in New York City. I don’t really like the phrase “Evangelical Evolutionists”  or the term evolutionist in general but the phrase has a certain headline ring … so perhaps we can let it slide. I had the opportunity to attend this workshop and found it both encouraging and challenging. Although most of the people in attendance support the idea of evolutionary creation – it is important to note that at least a few of those who were there are open to the possibility of evolutionary creation, but uncertain whether this is the right understanding of creation.

In his CT article Stafford suggests that the most sobering point in the meeting was the report by David Kinnaman of Barna Research that  more than half of protestant pastors in the US support young earth creationism or lean strongly toward that position. The poll includes the entire range of protestants, so we can safely assume that well over half of evangelical pastors lean toward the young earth view.

The most sobering point for me though, was not this particular finding (which was not unexpected), but the realization that the vast majority of this “more than half” of evangelical pastors, more than three-quarters of them, believe that they understand both the theological issues and the scientific issues involved in the creation/evolution discussion very well.  This is sobering because as a practicing scientist I find the general level of understanding of the science rather low.  As a result I see a mountain range resembling the Grand Tetons (if not the Himalayas) looming ahead as we try to find ways to communicate in the church.

In the rest of this post I would like to reflect on a few of the peaks in that mountain range that hinder progress and perhaps a few of the the passes that may take us through the range.

What do you see as the important peaks in the mountain range?

How do you think these issues can be effectively addressed?  Where might we find the passes?

My post a couple of weeks ago, What Do We Have To Offer, was inspired by the insight offered by Tim Keller at the workshop. This is summarized nicely by Stafford in his article.

Few Christian colleges or seminaries teach young earth creationism (YEC), participants noted during discussion groups. But less formal, grassroots educational initiatives, often centered on homeschooling, have won over the majority of evangelicals. “We have arguments, but they have a narrative,” noted Tim Keller. Both young earth creationists and atheistic evolutionists tell a story tapping into an existing cultural narrative of decline. To develop a Biologos narrative is “the job of pastors,” Keller said.

I think Keller is dead on right here – we need a narrative, a way of casting the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ, that takes science seriously, with the respect that knowledge of God’s creation deserves, and can catch the imagination and interest of broad groups of Christians.  This is, if not the job of pastors alone, certainly a job that requires the leadership and active engagement of pastors.  Powerful preaching and the ability to communicate the vision to large groups of people is an important part of the calling of pastors.

I am encouraged that people like Tim Keller, John Ortberg, Joel Hunter, N. T. Wright, and others are engaged in this effort. But we need more. And here Stafford is right – it is sobering that more than half of the pastors surveyed lean to the young earth view. This points to a need that extends beyond the narrative and must involve more than pastors alone.

We need biblical scholars and theologians as well – and I am encouraged that people like Scot McKnight, John Walton, Alister McGrath, N. T. Wright, Peter Enns and others are actively thinking about these issues. No one person in any area of biblical studies or theology will arrive at all the right answers alone. Again we need more. The biblical and theological issues arising from the interaction of  Christian faith with evolutionary biology are significant peaks in the mountain range.

We need scientists; those who can explain the science carefully and clearly for a lay audience. Here I find Dennis Venema’s articles on the BioLogos site to be excellent examples and provide a valuable resource.

But we need more than just scientists who know science. I had a conversation with a younger colleague a few weeks ago who was frustrated that when he tried to discuss these issues (science, faith, and evolution) with his pastor he was told to first read and study a large, dense book on systematic theology and then return and they could have a discussion. This seemed a bit much.

I agree with his pastor though … to an extent at least. Some rather unfortunate things have been said by scientists, even Christian scientists, confident in their understanding of the science, who seem to think that settles it and others should simply accept the truth. Arrogance is a rather common trait and this is another significant, but avoidable, peak in the mountain range.

Although assignment of this particular large dense book on systematic theology may not have been the best approach, we need scientists who have a general understanding of the theological questions engaging in the conversation. This doesn’t require attending seminary (or learning Greek and Hebrew) but it does require serious and scholarly engagement with doctrines of our faith. We need Christians with expertise in science who take the same professional attitude toward their understanding of Christian faith. I have spent a great deal of time over the last eight years or so studying and writing in an ongoing effort to come up to speed and move forward on many of these issues.

There is a corollary of course – and this returns to the sobering observation I opened the post with. Most pastors understand rather little science, but many feel they have a firm grasp on the scientific issues. Unless willing to study the science seriously they should respect the expertise of those who do understand and practice science. The need for humility and a willingness to learn must go both ways. Arrogance is not a vice restricted to scientists.

Beyond science, theology, and biblical studies – we need Christian scholars in other disciplines, philosophy, history, psychology, and sociology for example, who are willing to engage and bring their expertise to the church as well.

An Opportunity. The task of finding passes through the mountain range of issues involved in the discussion of science, evolution, and Christian faith is a job for the church as a whole and requires the gifts of many. Pastors alone, scholars alone, scientists alone will have little impact. There are no fast and easy solutions. As a start to help facilitate this process the BioLogos Foundation, with funding support from The John Templeton Foundation, has announced a grants program, “Evolution and Christian Faith,” for 2012-2015. Awards will range from $30,000 to $300,000 for 34 months with the larger number of awards at the lower end of this range. Preproposals are due June 15th, full proposals October 1.

The program is described more completely through the link above. It targets both Christian scholars and pastors or parachurch leaders. Examples of topics of interest include intra-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary scholarship in biblical theology, philosophical theology and biology, history and sociology, psychology and neuroscience. The program will also provide funds for translational projects involving pastors, churches, or parachurch ministries, that encourage Christians to engage in meaningful and productive dialogue to reduce tensions between Christian faith and mainstream science.

Questions about the program can be addressed to BioLogos staff at ecf@biologos.org.

It is a small step – but a step in the right direction.

Where do you see the greatest needs in the discussion of science and faith?

What kinds of teams are needed to make an impact?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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  • mike h

    Thank you for this blog post. Both the Church and science have been largely marginalized by each other. This creates an either/or mentality that is becoming less and less tenable in our global community where information is disseminated at the speed of light.
    In addition to the discussions that you have mentioned, there is a need for Christ followers on the ground to gain an understanding of the place and purpose of the Scriptures. As long as sola scriptura and biblical literalism are allowed to thrive unquestioned, discussions between various disciplines of science, theology, philosophy, etc. will find another mountain peak to be traversed.
    Again, thanx for your insights.

  • AHH

    I agree with mike h @1 that the common naive Biblicism in evangelical churches is another big obstacle.

    I also agree with RJS about the humility in all directions. I need to remember that, while an expert in some areas of science, in other areas I am mostly trusting experts, and I am an amateur (I hope an informed amateur) in theology.
    Like RJS, I find it frightening that so many pastors think they have a firm grasp on the science, when their grasp is really more like my grasp of Biblical Greek. I remember about 15 years ago sitting in a church and hearing the Pastor confidently declare that evolution could not have happened due to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. And there I was with my Ph.D. in chemical thermodynamics, cringing. I don’t know if he got that nugget from some ignorant person in the congregation, or some lame apologetics book, or what. But as bad as the ignorant statement was the confidence with which it was proclaimed, as though there were some simple argument that the whole scientific community had missed but that he understood. It would be like me claiming to know a special meaning in OT Hebrew that all the commentary writers had missed, and confidently proclaiming that, despite not knowing Hebrew, I was right and the OT scholars were wrong.
    Of course this particular pastor had a general problem with showing humility and humanness from the pulpit anyway …

  • MD

    i’m a retired business person with a background of strong christian training and christian education, supplemented with five years of campus ministry. my “aha” moment came when i faced the question of the cultural contexts of the writers of scripture. before that, all of my education/training had been through the eyes of a 20th century person reading 20th century writings.

  • You nailed what is, in my view, one of the biggest problems when anyone tries to have a reasonable discussion about this matter. I’ll put it this way: Too much talking, not enough listening.

  • Joe Canner

    This is a very important topic, as I can attest based on discussions with the pastor (and others) at my church.

    Most pastors don’t have time to keep up with the latest theological reading, let alone the latest in science, so they rely on someone else’s synthesis. For whatever reason, many people are more likely to rely on those with theological rather than scientific qualifications. (Or, in the case of AiG, neither.) As has been discussed here several times, it seems to be a matter of trust. Having scientists who are evangelical Christians is a good start, and having someone like Tim Keller on board is a step in the right direction, but we need more respected evangelicals who are willing to take the plunge.

  • John

    Thanks to both Scot and RJS for this valuable report, especially because the BioLogos workshops have not been hugely advertised. It is important for people to know that work is being done to better inform pastors, and by extension churches, on science.

    Another project, which also is not well known, is Scientists in Congregations, organized by Greg Cootsona at Bidwell Presbyterian Church in Chico, California.

    40 plus churches received grants in this project, spread across the US and also in Paris, France. [Scroll down]

    This is the kind of work which needs to be vastly multiplied, and so I encourage people to contact Greg Cootsona and encourage him and the Templeton Foundation to repeat this venture several more times and multiply this work.

    This is not a magic solution, as I can attest, since our church won one of the grants. But, it is an important step in a long process.

  • I agree that Tim Keller raises a vital question. As a character says in the film Amistad, it’s the position that tells the best story that wins the day.

    To my mind, Brian McLaren’s identifying of the Greco-Roman narrative has rendered us a huge service (in A New Kind of Christianity). Until we become aware of the narrative that we presuppose, we are unable to change it.

    In the same book McLaren makes an initial effort at teasing out the Bible’s own implicit grand narrative threads in Genesis, Exodus and Isaiah.

    I would love to read your thoughts some day, RJS, on the work of the mathematician and physicist Alfred North Whitehead and its implications for theology. John Cobb and others use it to develop an Emergent narrative in which science and Christian theology fully embrace each other. Harold Morowitz’s The Emergence of Everything heads in the same direction as Cobb, McLaren, et al.

    Prior to any narrative is a philosophy, a metaphysics and an epistemology, that will shape any ensuing narrative and theology. Because of Evangelicals’ desire to uphold the primacy of the Bible, we shy away from exploring our philosophical assumptions. But until we boldly face our own assumed philosophy(-ies), reworking our narrative will be mere tinkering. Nancey Murphy’s Beyond Fundamentalism and Liberalism has been helpful to me in this respect.

  • TJJ

    I was rather surprised by the results of the pastor survey, but I think the results would be different for people in the pews ( congregation). Many lay leaders in churches may not publically buck the issue, but fewer and fewer buy into young earth creationism. So I do see changes coming on the horizon. Pastors can be the last to adopt new ways of seeing things regarding origins b/c many denominations would not credential them if they did, such as my church the EFCA.

  • Amory Ewerdt

    I think it was your “What Do We Have to Offer” post that got me thinking about a book or book series that could be written with a broad overview of prehistoric history, a prehistorical fiction of sorts. I think that Tim Keller’s comments about having a narrative is quite insightful. I would be really interested to see a well researched book or series that was true to science and that also incorporated the story of God creating this cosmos. Maybe someone on this blog can write it.

  • Yes. I see the story in Genesis as pointing to God’s goal in creation in the first place: the new creation. Humanity fell in the sense of showing that it could not live up to that ideal. Or would not so that now we cannot in ourselves.

    Science has to be taken seriously on its own terms, and if scripture is taken seriously on its own terms, there really won’t be any actual conflict.

    I’ll be interested to see what the years bring on this from people like Keller, Enns, etc.

  • Thanks for this article. I was having a coffee and discussion with my pastor just a couple of days ago and we were discussing many of the issues that you raise here!

    I think as well as confidence in science too many pastors can be too confident with their theology as well. I intend no offence to many of them but a pastor is not the same as a trained active theologian. Pastor have a dizzying amount of roles to fulfil (teacher, preacher, comforter, leader, carer, etc) so it would be unfair to expect their theology to be completely perfect as well in many cases.

    My own pastor definitely leans towards the YEC position but openly admits this is partly based on a lack of fully understanding the science involved. However he was quite adamant about his understandings of things like the lack of death before the Fall etc and was genuinely surprised when I pointed out that there were a range of thoughts on the Fall and also how off putting a hard core literalistic take on it would be for non-Christian scientists enquiring about our faith.

  • AT

    It is a complex question. I don’t think anyone transforms from YEC to Evolutionary Creationist in one step. There are a bunch of theological shifts that need to take place first.

    In my journey I think ‘resting places’ were extremely important. I think sometimes Intelligent design and Reasons to believe are seen as enemies of EC but the reality is that Christians don’t change from YEC to TE they change from OEC/Progressive Creationism to TE. These authors. opinions are NECESSARY resting places.

    Here is my progression (over a decade) with some resting places (authors. websites/ resources that guided me)

    Grew up YEC/ Ken Ham

    Had crisis of faith one of the questions was the mounting scientific evidence for old earth

    Read Case for Faith

    Left the question on the shelf but knew there were other theological options (like OEC)

    Started reading -Hugh Ross/ Reasons to Believe

    I embraced OEC.

    Felt that the OEC and YEC models were in serious error but questioned whether TE was a serious theological option for me. I grew up believing that it was completely unbiblical and liberal.

    Started reading Biologos,Tim Keller etc.

    slowly embraced TE but with Adam and Eve as sole progenitors of humanity.

    Read Francis Collins

    Realised that genetic evidence prevents A and E from being sole progenitors. I also really explored the textual evidence.

    Started Reading Enns, Jesus Creed

    Explored a range of perspectives around the historicity of Adam and Eve. I am still considering these viewpoints and open to different perspectives.

  • Bev Mitchell


    Great topic and comments, virtually everything suggested is important. The task is, unfortunately even bigger than expressed here.  With the politicization of many church people, change in the direction proposed by Bio-Logos, Peter Enns, etc. would represent capitulation on a human level. Massive power structures, not to mention financial structures, depend on the status quo (what else is new?). 

    As a biologist, years ago, I suggested that Christian students who wanted to come to better place in their understanding of these issues should take some good courses in biology. I therefore sympathize with the pastor and his systematic theology book suggestion. However, if we don’t develop a seriously improved level of trust, in both directions, we will be left with only two choices: become experts in both areas or argue from positions of mistrust for nearly forever.

    On a different tack, how difficult will it be to convince believers that it is possible to ask the wrong questions of Scripture? In fact, the “How?” questions are often not answered there, yet we insist on asking. Many of the folk who major in this wrongheadedness also follow much of Saint Augustine’s thinking. Yet wasn’t it he who said something like “the Bible does not tells us how the heavens go, but how to go to heaven?”

    A church that truly “gets with the program” revealed in Scripture could revolutionize this entire debate with its awful false dichotomies. There are many books that show us how to do this, but a particularly inspired one was written by James M. Houston over 31 years ago. It was a great help to me, back in the day (though I find it hard to accept that that day was over three decades ago). His call to the evangelical world was largely ignored. Had it been taken up, we would be much further ahead in this stubborn area.

    I went through my copy today, looking at the highlights made when I first read it. Below is a selection of quotes from Houston’s book, arranged to try to illustrate my point. Unless otherwise noted, quotes are from Houston himself. The others were quoted by Houston in the book.

    On creation and our view of the Creator.

    “Unlike Greek man, who is above all a rational being, biblical man is a being of whom demands are made. His central problem is not, “What is Being?”, but rather: “What is required of me?” 

    “…. the ultimate truth about creation is not discovered by the exercise of the intelligence, but by submission to the will of God.” 

    “…… the book of Job teaches that to live in a meaningful world one needs to cultivate proper attitudes rather than depend on simple answers. Relating to God is more profound than knowing about God.” 

    “The biblical claim is, therefore, that Jesus Christ Himself is what the creation is all about.” 

    “This seeks (John 1:3 ) to convey the trinitarian affirmation that the whole counsel of God……..was accomplished in creation by the Son. God the Father (God in essence), through the Holy Spirit (God in exercise), has been manifested in God the Son (God in expression), to create (in origin) and to love (in continuance) the world. 

    “Nature never taught me that there exists a God of glory and of infinite majesty. I had to learn that in other ways. But nature gave the word “glory” meaning for me…..” C.S. Lewis

    “Earth’s crammed with heaven,
    And every common bush afire with God;
    But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
    The rest sit around and pluck blackberries.”
    Elizabeth Barrett Browning

    On our, not always effective, response to those who don’t accept the Creator

    “If creation is only about origins, it comes into conflict with natural science……..This is a tragic misunderstanding, for it tends to fragment the faith of the believer into three pieces: creation, which deals with the past; redemption, which is one’s major preoccupation in the present; and the eschaton in the future, about which wild speculations may be encouraged………..Creation is, not merely was.” 

    “His name signifies, ‘I cause to be what comes into existance, – all things, all the time.”

    “……… the secularism of science has sentenced the Creator to be exiled from His creation, and has left the world without God. That, too, is why today we have theology that is largely a-cosmic, soteriology without creation.” 

    “Lacking an adequate biblical synthesis that takes Creator-Redeemer-man seriously, the church has been very vulnerable in the last one hundred years to alternative syntheses.” 

    “Our little games of churchmanship, of pietism, of much activity, are as nothing compared with the cultural and personal task yet before us, to see God once more as the Creator-Reedemer. Our world is to be seen then, not as the area of rejection, but the arena of task, where God may be affirmed in everything.”

    “………. process-theology is not Christian theology, in spite of its appearance. It is a reaction against classical theism and an Aristotelian god, the immovable, static, absolute, necessary Being, not against the dynamic, merciful Yahweh who is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

    “If we analyze in order to look through everything, instead of looking at something, we see nothing. So much boredom is the consequence of the analytical spirit that forgets that there is vision as well as reason, faith as well as pragmatism.”

    “Humour is needed to enjoy grace, because it is in the realm where wholly reigns, while the religious bureaucracy operates on the basis of self-endeavour and self-interest.” 

    “There is a sense in which the Bible ‘out-Darwins’ Darwin concerning the origin of man. Darwin said man came from monkeys: the Bible says man came from dust.” 

  • Bev Mitchell

    The name of Houston’s book is “I Believe in the Creator”

  • tom r

    RJS This is an important topic thanks for bringing it up. As attendant to the workshop you might be able to answer a question I have. John #6 noted that the workshops had not been advertised. I read the CT story and it said ” About 60 participants came by special invitation, with the proviso that their names would not be publicized without permission”. Did BioLogos not want to draw attention to the workshop to protect the participants for fear they may loose their positions.

  • Thanks for the encouragement, RJS. I’m glad you (and others) find those posts useful. You’re absolutely right that this needs to be a team effort.

    For me the “most sobering moment” was the realization that younger pastors were embracing YEC in large numbers.

  • RJS

    tom r,

    These first three workshops were intentionally small in order to allow discussion (very large groups are not good for this). The ability to hold a real conversation requires trust and a sense of safety. Names are only public for those who gave permission because it could give rise to conflict and in rare cases loss of a job. Bruce Waltke’s involvement in the first one along with a video interview he gave did, in fact, lead to the loss of a job.

    I think there will be some workshops and meetings in the next few years that will be open to broader groups. The intention isn’t to continue with small private workshops alone for much longer. Although there may also continue to be some smaller invitation only workshops for a few more years because these do facilitate discussion.

  • Holdon

    By RJS:
    “Some rather unfortunate things have been said by scientists, even Christian scientists, confident in their understanding of the science, who seem to think that settles it and others should simply accept the truth.”

    And then I read a link provided by one of the Biologos articles:
    “Protocetidae are middle Eocene (49–37 Ma) archaeocete predators ancestral to later whales.”
    And: “Discovery of a near-term fetus positioned for head-first delivery provides important evidence that early protocetid whales gave birth on land.”

    And they call that “evidence”? They already “know” protocetidae are ancestors to whales. Why do they need “evidence”?

    Then Biologos says:
    “The discovery of one early whale, Maicetus, has provided evidence that early amphibious whales retained land-based birthing, though this interpretation has be challenged by other experts in the field. The evidence comes from one fossil specimen that appears to have a near-term fetus positioned for head-first birth inside it. While the evidence is suggestive and intriguing, other interpretations have been put forward (such as the possibility that the second, smaller skeleton was actually a recent meal, and not a fetus). Future work, with additional specimens, will hopefully shed more light on this issue.”

    Ah, the “evidence” is not really evidence and we must rely on “hopefully” and “future light shedding”.
    So, what is the “truth” in evolution theory (in 3 parts)? You better believe it……..

  • Perhaps we could start that discussion with you explaining to us why the Grand Tetons and the Himalayas are still standing there after *only* tens of millions of years (50 million for Everest).

    2.7 mm * 50,000,000 yrs = 135 km (83 miles) of erosion.
    * (2.7mm: erosion rate per year at Mt Everest)

    Mt. Everest is 5.5 miles high, so has it really been completely eroded 15 times over? And where are those 83 miles worth of disposed sediment? No uplift can solve this problem, because sedimentary layers, filled with sea-life fossils, *still* form the top layers of Everest.

    Maybe some of those young-earth influenced people you spoke of are so open-minded and rationally inclined that they actually allow themselves to listen to scientific evidence, even when it runs contrary to the direction of the herd.


  • RJS


    There are so many wrong numbers in that estimate it is hard to formulate a reply. Everest is a young mountain (geologically speaking) and continues to grow a fraction of an inch a year and to move a few inches northeast each year according to the best measurements to-date. More accurate measurements are being made by placing GPS instruments on or near the summit – I think more even this last year.

    Neither the fossils nor erosion cause any problem for the models for formation of Everest over the last 50 million years or so (although I don’t think it would be accurate to call Everest a mountain 50 million years ago as that is roughly the time when the plate collision that eventually gave rise to Everest began).

  • As a Christ-follower and as a physical scientist for decades, I have lived with the tension of faith and reason. And there is indeed a near critical failure tension between a naive reading of the Bible and the “evidence on the ground” we find in science.

    But over the years I have been humbled repeated both in my science, where I found reality was more complex than my initial simple-minded hypotheses, and in my equally naive view of God. I have discovered that God is indeed smarter than I . . . and more subtle. To quote Albert Einstein (definitely not a Christ-follower but one who saw a measure of truth), “Subtle is the Lord, malicious He is not.”

    This is an echo of the Paul the Apostle “O depth of riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable his judgments, and untraceable his ways!” Romans 11:13

    In the Bible and in our experience we do not learn everything God has done (or how He did it), but what we do see is sufficient to find Him and glory in His majesty. As I a professor I attempt to share both the facts as we apprehend them and the sense of wonder that Creation reveals: that God is always bigger than my former small imaginings.

  • ft

    Speaking of rising mountains, not just the Himalayas but the Tetons too are apparently rising (an assertion with a long history of geologists trying to come to terms with the complexity of the Yellowstone area – see for example http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/article/3469 .) And thus, overextending your analogy, the difficulty of traversing a Teton-ic divide between evangelical Christianity and science will grow over time.

    As for the Biologos meeting (ToC III) and the write-up in the online CT, I used it as a starting point in a blog entry in which my conclusions included:

    Therein is the clue to the ultimate double hubris of these creationists: not only to they write extensively about science, a subject about which they so demonstrably know little, but they also take on the authority of the very God they claim wrote those books!

    In other words, these otherwise highly educated creationists are no different than any other religious loon who claims some sort of special revelation and assignment from “God”.

    I am very skeptical that you (or others) will be able to bridge the divide between the “conservative” Christian sects and the modernist world of Science. The former will simply reject you as being a “liberal denomination”, as they have the older mainline denominations which have issued statements about accepting science (among accepting other elements of modernity.)

    As for being able to more academically bridge the difference between some (future) “evangelical” Christian systematic theology and the universe that scientific inquiry has revealed – that sounds like a near impossible task to me. I suspect it could be done if one is willing to release a hold on some elements of what has been labeled orthodox Christian beliefs, but that is probably too big of a step for most people who self-label as Evangelical Christians.

  • RJS: If it is true that “Few Christian colleges or seminaries teach young earth creationism (YEC), participants noted during discussion groups.”, then why do “more than half of protestant pastors in the US support young earth creationism or lean strongly toward that position,” ? It doesn’t compute.

    The situation is not going to change until Christian home schooling curricula and the several hundred colleges and seminaries that still teach
    young earth creationism (http://www.icr.org/article/creationist-colleges/, http://www.christiananswers.net/q-eden/creationist-schools.html) get exposed to the current discussion around inerrancy and inspiration through books like Kenton L. Sparks’ “God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship”, Christian Smith’s “The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture,” Carlos Bovell’s “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture,” Peter Enns’ “Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament,” and Scot McKnight’s “The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible.”

    As long as young earth creationists claim that the Bible trumps science every time and can be interpreted only one way, focusing on the issue of inerrancy and inspiration
    may be the only pass through the mountains.

  • Here’s a general question set of questions that I think need to be answered first:

    Is it possible or desirable for a theologian to criticize a scientific idea theologically? Is it possible or desirable for a scientists to criticize a theological idea scientifically? What about other fields as well? Sociology? Economics? Politics? Can a theological criticize a political idea theologically?

    The issue that I see is that people tend to get upset when pastors and theologians criticize scientific ideas on theological grounds, but they are perfectly willing to do the reverse. Theologians want to criticize politics, economics, and sociology, but stand back from offering critical perspectives of science. The only reason for that which I can think of is that they find that human expertise is more valuable than the wisdom of God.

    Why should theologians be de facto water carriers for particular scientific theories? Why evolution and not general relativity or QM or string theory?

    On top of that, which theory of evolution should be the one they carry water for? Natural selection? Serial endosymbiosis? Biological self-organization? Front-loaded evolution? Evo-devo? These are all radically different pictures of life-history, but for some reason people all bake them together under the single term “evolution”, but the differences are stark and their implications are quite diverse. Which one should theologians be fronting as the “official” “scientific” view?

    What I’m getting at (if it isn’t obvious already) is that this seems to be less about science, evidence, and theology, and much more about a power play to make sure that theologians are subservient to scientists, that they recognize their lower status in the modern world, and that the scientists are properly recognized as the real priesthood of the modern age.

  • RJS


    There is a problem with this argument – if all truth is God’s truth, then it is in essence God and truth we seek. Theologians seek this truth, Christians who are scientists seek this truth, it is a conversation not a power play. All power is God’s not ours, all wisdom is God’s. Theologians, like everyone else, are always seeking God’s truth and need to have an openness in this search.

    Of course I also noted in the post that it is important for the scientist to understand the theological questions and to avoid the arrogance so many spout (even as Christians). In fact I said that I agreed for the most part with the pastor who asked the scientist to read a systematic theology book before they began the conversation.

    My basic premise is rather simple…
    Pastors and theologians shouldn’t criticize scientific ideas without understanding them.
    Scientists shouldn’t criticize theological ideas without understanding them.
    Experts in biblical studies and ANE cultures also need to be brought into the conversation and neither scientists nor pastors/theologians should criticize these ideas without understanding them.

  • RJS –

    I agree almost completely with that! One thing to note, however, is that while all truth is God’s truth, the fact is that every discipline only has partial truths (or even untruths, or merely practical truths masquerading as truth), every discipline needs to be open in conversation to comments from other disciplines. While theology should be open to input from other disciplines, ultimately it is the queen of them all.

    Along those lines, you might be interested in knowing about a conference this summer at ORU – Engineering and Metaphysics 2012. The conference assumes neither the priority of science, engineering, or theology, but has each engaging with each other. Several are giving talks on how theology can impact the technicalities of the engineering discipline, others are talking about the moral requirements of engineering, still others are talking about how engineering can influence theology, and others are attempting to demarcate the differences between the ways theology and engineering engage questions.

    Going back to the original piece, though, there is an implicit assumption that those who agree with you are those who understand science, and those who hold differing views must not understand the science yet.

    Take for instance the Intelligent Design movement. It has done wonders for getting people interested in science, and digging deeper into what the science is and what it means and how to understand ourselves in the context of ongoing science. It includes people with diverse views, from theistic evolutionist Michael Behe to young earth creationist Paul Nelson. What do they do continually? Educate people on the amazing new advances in biology! Yet BioLogos seems at all times to try to oppose themselves to the ID movement.

    In addition, some of the people you are referring positively to (i.e. NT Wright) actually know very little about the science, except to say “I believe in evolution”. And, as I said, you are viewing the fact that so many people are young earth creationists as de facto evidence that they don’t know the science. I agree that there are many, many YECs who don’t know the science – just as there are many evolutionists who don’t know the science. I don’t disagree that more people should know the science especially if they are going to either criticize or endorse it. However, I think that it is problematic when we classify people as “knowing the science” or “not knowing the science” based on their yes/no agreement with a given idea. If NT Wright knew exactly the same amount that he does now, but he endorsed YEC or OEC, would you consider him someone who “knows the science” or “doesn’t know the science”?

  • RJS


    I don’t think NT Wright knows science at all. In fact he admits this freely – and did so in conversation with me. For that matter I don’t think Scot knows much science. Something he also freely admits. But Francis Collins does, and I do, and AHH does, and Dennis Venema does, and Darrel Falk does, and Jeffrey Schloss does, and Ard Louis does, and Denis Alexander does, and Jennifer Wiseman does, and Deborah Haarsma does, and I could continue on here.

    On the other hand I rely on experts (read and heard with critical thinking skills) for information on Greek, Hebrew, ANE culture, 1st century Judaism, and so forth. Here I listen intently to people like Scot, and Wright, and John Walton, and many more.

    I wrote a post a year ago or so about how we might be discerning when determining which authorities to trust and which to take with a bit more of a grain of salt. No one should be taken as “authority” without critically thinking about how and why they are to be believed. This is probably something we should put up for discussion again.

  • DRT

    I hope Jonathan and RJS don’t mind me sticking my 2 cents in here…

    Jonathan, RJS did not explicitly say it, but I find it useful to consider science as a rather large and varied continuum, just as you probably consider theology. It is definitely not monolithic.

    When I, at least, would state that someone does not understand the science, that means to me that the person is questioning the vastly consensus opinion. There is a significant difference between theology and science, and that is that in science the investigators can always develop new evidence that has as much weight to it as the old evidence. In theology, the evidence with agreed upon weight seems to be fixed to the evidence given a couple thousand years ago.

    So when you go against the science, and “don’t understand the science”, it is not that you don’t understand the book of science written 2k ago, it is that you have not kept up with the evidence that has been deemed to be credible, and the resulting theories that account for the evidence.

    Yes, there is some new evidence in theology, dead sea scrolls etc. But not a lot.

    In science there is an exponentially increasing amount of evidence that is used to corroborate extant theories and derive new ones. It is a quite different animal than theology.

    And lastly, you said that theology is the queen of them all. Why do you say that? Do you feel that the evidence gathered about our world and existence is somehow lesser quality that the evidence from books inter mediated by humans? I am curious about that because it seems to me that reproduced experimentation provides corroboration to single views. And whether we like it or not, the bible text is not written with corroborating evidence for every passage.

  • “When I, at least, would state that someone does not understand the science, that means to me that the person is questioning the vastly consensus opinion.”

    I would think that science is the *last* place where understanding=agreement.

    “In theology, the evidence with agreed upon weight seems to be fixed to the evidence given a couple thousand years ago.”

    It really depends. I graduated from a far-left-wing seminary, and you can be certain that no one there would agree with that statement 🙂 It’s certainly *more* true for evangelicals, but even there is not fixed.

    “So when you go against the science, and “don’t understand the science”, it is not that you don’t understand the book of science written 2k ago, it is that you have not kept up with the evidence that has been deemed to be credible, and the resulting theories that account for the evidence.”

    I agree partially, except for your equation that understanding=agreement. Science does not work by vote-counting. It never has.

    In addition, most scientists are usually really bad philosophers. In fact, few of them even realize the extent to which philosophy and theology plays a role in their reasoning. That’s probably the simplest thing to point to that theologians can add – they can point out when scientific ideas are based on bad reasoning, bad philosophy, or bad theology. An excellent book which I recommend to all is the book “The Myth of Religious Neutrality” which covers different viewpoints in Math, Physics, and Psychology, and shows how the disagreements are actually profoundly religious in nature. In Hunter’s “Darwin’s God” he shows that much of evolutionary reasoning is based on a Victorian picture of a deistic God that we just can’t seem to shake. My own work (very limited) shows that behind different evolutionary theories (natural selection, serial endosymbiosis, structuralism, biological self-organization) there are very different theologies at play. I don’t know enough to know if the evidence was first or the theory was first, but it is certain that, once established, they influence each other. If you’re interested, a talk I gave a long time ago on this subject here:


    “And lastly, you said that theology is the queen of them all. Why do you say that?”

    Theology establishes the metaphysics through which everything else is understood.

    “Do you feel that the evidence gathered about our world and existence is somehow lesser quality that the evidence from books inter mediated by humans?”

    First of all, now that I read back through your post, I think your view of theology is horribly limited – it seems like you think that only the Bible is relevant to theological discussions. I don’t think anyone holds that view (even when such things are said, it usually just means that the Bible trumps things authoritatively, not that it is the only source of evidence). Theology provides the framework by which people understand the evidence, it guides the weighting that people give to different evidences, and it points to likely areas of beneficial inquiry. For instance, genetics was developed by Mendel as an apologetic for Aristotelian/Catholic metaphysics, as was The Big Bang theory.

    You should check out Michael Polanyi’s work on epistemology (and Plantinga, too, though you have to work harder to relate his work to science – Polanyi, as a scientist, does it for you).

    “I am curious about that because it seems to me that reproduced experimentation provides corroboration to single views.”

    Just to point out, this is not the entirety of science. This is only one of the methods used in science. Natural history, for instance, doesn’t work by the experimental method, as Ernst Mayr has pointed out. In fact, any extrapolation of local truths to global truths is by necessity non-experimental.

    Likewise, methodological naturalism, to the extent that it is practiced, *prevents* science from attaining possible knowledge by *forbidding* the search for it. How could someone say that this is creating a more accurate picture of life by explicitly leaving out its most important parts? Personally, I don’t think that science *must* be methodologically naturalistic, as some have claimed, and some of my studies are on establishing methodologies and mathematics that allow investigation of non-material causes within science using some ideas developed by Alan Turing for dealing with non-computable functions (I’m presenting some of these ideas in the before-mentioned Engineering and Metaphysics conference. This is yet another area where theology can inform and improve science.

  • DRT

    Jonathan “I would think that science is the *last* place where understanding=agreement.”

    You are taking me out of context. You said:

    However, I think that it is problematic when we classify people as “knowing the science” or “not knowing the science” based on their yes/no agreement with a given idea. If NT Wright knew exactly the same amount that he does now, but he endorsed YEC or OEC, would you consider him someone who “knows the science” or “doesn’t know the science”?>

    What I am saying is that someone must confront the scientific evindence and refute it for their pet hypothesis to hold ground. The scientific consensus, is, by definition, the most logical and well supported hypothesis. So you you do need to show that you understand the current view of scientific evidence before you can spout off with a new theory.

    you said

    “It really depends. I graduated from a far-left-wing seminary, and you can be certain that no one there would agree with that statement It’s certainly *more* true for evangelicals, but even there is not fixed”

    In response to my assertion the evidence is fixed.

    You need to read what I said more closely. I am saying the evidence is fixed. Do you really feel there is more evidence that has been brought to light? What I am saying is that science continues to put forth more and more evidence, that is factual evidence, findings, things that we can see, experiments, data. Theology is not so prolific.

    you said “In addition, most scientists are usually really bad philosophers. In fact, few of them even realize the extent to which philosophy and theology plays a role in their reasoning. That’s probably the simplest thing to point to that theologians can add – they can point out when scientific ideas are based on bad reasoning, bad philosophy, or bad theology”

    You again miss the point. I am saying that you cannot go by individual scientists. It is the consensus that is important in science. If you want to look at the musings of an individual scientist and make a conclusion, then that is your own problem. My argument is that the consensus view factors out the bias naturally present in the individual views.

    you said

    it seems like you think that only the Bible is relevant to theological discussions

    I think it is painfully obvious, don’t you?, that the bible is ill equipted to handle discussions about causal physics. The earth was not built in 6 days, the sun and moon don’t revolve around the earth etc. Likewise the bible is ill equipted to convey history in the modern sense. There likely was no Jonah, multiple Isaihs, what about the incongruity in the gospels and others texts…. The bible’s primary relevancy is to theology. what else do you think it is the authority on?

    Your last point relating to some sort of obtuse refutation of my assertion that reproduced experimentation provides corroboration is simply uncomprehensible to me. While I agree that science can work in non (strictly speaking) experimental areas, it pretty much largely does use experimentation to prove its hypothesis. It makes predictions and testst them, that is experimentation.

    And I am a Bayesian, so I can understand that our theories have a roll in our views and oru predicitons. But if you are going to go off the map and propose non-material and nonsubstantiated (or more accurately unable to be substantiated) mechanism, then you are on your own along with every other flake out there.

    You cannot just claim that science as some monolith is wrong and then theorize whatever you want. You need to show why the existing theories are not right

  • “You need to show why the existing theories are not right”

    No disagreement there.

    “It makes predictions and testst them, that is experimentation.”

    Simply “testing predictions” is not experimentation. The point of experiments, and why they are epistemically important, is that you can adjust any of the variables and see what happens. Then, those who think you are full of it can adjust other variables and see what happens to show you’re wrong. Then you can adjust even more variables and see. You can reproduce the experiment 1000x for every person who wants to see it, calculate the anticipated results, show the actual results, for every skeptic who wants to modify the parameters of the experiment. *That* is why experimentation is so epistemically powerful.

    The problem is that non-experimental fields (such as natural history) try to take the epistemic weight of experiments, but without the methodology. Natural history is “testable” in a sense (you may find X or Y which is consistent or inconsistent with your theory), but that, epistemically, is nowhere near the value of actually running experiments. To take the quality of knowledge from one and impart it to the other uncritically is wholly unjustified.

    “The bible’s primary relevancy is to theology. what else do you think it is the authority on?”

    I think it is much more historically accurate than you portray, but that was not my point. My point is that there are any number of *other* sources of data which play into theology. For example, take cessationism. This is a doctrine that is held to by many inerrantists, but which relies on Church history for the main weight of its argument. There is a lot of theology that is based on the history and experiences of the Church, and, as such, new evidence is coming continually.

    “What I am saying is that someone must confront the scientific evindence and refute it for their pet hypothesis to hold ground”

    I don’t disagree.

    “The scientific consensus, is, by definition, the most logical and well supported hypothesis”

    I disagree totally.

    “My argument is that the consensus view factors out the bias naturally present in the individual views.”

    I think this points to another great area where theology is needed in the sciences. Why should groupthink trump well-considered opinions? This is a bad view of human nature – in other words, bad theology.

    There was once a book titled “One Hundred Authors Against Einstein”. Einstein replied that if their criticism was correct, they would not need one hundred authors, just one fact. My personal favorite diatribe against the idea of a consensus view is Crichton’s Aliens Cause Global Warming speech. It’s a great study in the way that “consensus” crowds out real science.