I’ll Be a Monkey’s Cousin (RJS)

I’ll Be a Monkey’s Cousin (RJS) April 4, 2013

I am often asked for book recommendations – accessible resources on evolution and the Christian faith, especially books for those without extensive scientific education; books useful for pastors, campus ministry workers, Christian parents, and such. About five years ago Daniel Harrell, then at Park Street Church Boston, now Senior Minister at The Colonial Church in Edina Minnesota, published a book, Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, that provides a useful resource. This is not a technical treatise on evolution and the Christian faith. Rather it is a pleasant stroll through many of the important issues raised by evolutionary biology.  It is a book that would make a useful center for discussion in a small group or Sunday School forum from high school on up through octogenarian.

Scot wrote a post on the book back when it was new, Evolution and Fundamentalism, (perhaps the first Scot wrote on the question of science and Christian faith). Scot introduced the book, but didn’t interact with it. I have never posted on Nature’s Witness, but it is worth a look and a shout out. I am going to start a short series that looks at a some of the major ideas introduced by Harrell in this book.

First some background … Daniel Harrell is a Southerner by birth, has a bachelor’s degree from UNC, an MDiv from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Boston College. He has been a minister for something like 25+ year, with over 20 years as an associate at Park Street Church Boston before moving to Minnesota. His book comes out of his experience as a pastor, his experience interacting with students and other scholars from Harvard, MIT and other schools in the Boston area, and his experience interacting with Christians wary of the idea of evolution.

In this short video Harrell reflects on the scientific method as a way of knowing about the  world and about embracing science for what it can tell us, while questioning the overarching claims made by some people concerning the scope of scientific knowledge.

Science is a persuasive explanation for the development of life, the workings of an airplane, or the life-cycle of a star, but it is not a persuasive explanation for the theological reality or psychological behavior or for morality and ethics.

In the first couple of chapters of Nature’s Witness Harrell introduces some of the scientific and cultural impetus for this discussion. He opens the book by recounting an experience where, as a minister at Park Street Church with a Ph.D. in a somewhat relevant field, he was asked to be the “religious voice” at a student organized conference on genetic technology and society at MIT and Harvard. The response was … ah… mixed. An interaction with a bioethicist angry to be made to share the stage with a minister had him longing for the days of Elijah (See 1 Kgs 18). And it convinced Harrell to study up on the issues more carefully. Key to his approach is the idea, commonly expressed, that all truth is God’s truth. But if we really mean this, we have to take science seriously.

Granted “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7), but that only means that there’s more to reality than what we see. It doesn’t mean we ignore what we can see. Faith is not fantasy. If faith is going to matter, it too must correspond with the way things are rather than with the way we believers want things to be.  … Clinging to false notions about how God operates in nature only forfeits the opportunity to praise God for how he truly operates. If “all truth is God’s truth,” faith needs to work with science. Otherwise, as I was beginning to realize myself, theology becomes not only irrelevant but boring too. (p. 10-11)

And theology has much to bring to the table, angry bioethicists aside.

In the second chapter Harrell gives a very broad brush view (the chapter is only 23 pages after all) of the science behind evolution, including the big bang, the age of the universe and the age of the earth – sufficient to provide time and material for evolution to occur. He introduces Aunt Bernice, who provides a voice for the questions so often raised by Christians against the concept of evolution. Mere mention of the E-word made Aunt Bernice through up her arms in vexation. “So you think we came from Monkeys?” It was more of an accusation than a question. Evolution was a fightin’ word. I assured her I didn’t think people came from monkeys. More likely we came from fish. (p. 17) Modern monkeys are distant cousins, very distant cousins, not ancestors.

More interesting than Harrell’s description of the science though, or even than Aunt Bernice, is the theological perspective he brings to the questions raised by modern cosmology and evolutionary biology.  This is where I’ll turn in the next post on the book.

What does it mean to say that all truth is God’s truth?

Is it always bad when science threatens faith?

Or let me put it this way…

Is it possible that at times we need our faith to be threatened?

If all truth is God’s truth, are there times when our faith should be reshaped in response to what we learn about God’s creation?

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

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  • RJS,

    Wow, you’re asking really difficult epistemological questions.

    “All truth is God’s truth” firstly suggests that there are different sources of truth. (1) God’s written word, i.e. scriptural truth, and (2) human observations/experiences of the natural world, i.e. scientific truth.

    It’s important to note that deriving (1) scriptural truth from God’s written word requires a process of human interpretation, just as (2) scientific truth requires human interpretation of real-life observations/experiences of the natural world.

    We refer to accepted human interpretations of scripture as (1) “doctrines”, while accepted human interpretations of the natural world are called (2) “scientific theories”.

    Generally speaking, these are the two kinds of truth we want to deal with: (1) Theology, and (2) Science.

    “All truth is God’s truth” means that legitimate epistemological approaches like (1)Theology and (2)Science are both legitimate ways of knowing the truth about God and the natural world which He creates. Moreover, theology and science both point us to “the truth”. In fact, allowing them to complement each other leads us to a far better understanding of “the truth” than what each can do on its own!

    We can confidently say this, because to the best (along with the majority of) theologians and scientists, there are no necessary contradictions between theology and science. If there were such contradictions, we perhaps have to give up one of them. The beauty of it all is that not only do the two not contradict, but theology can also inform our science, and likewise science can inform our theology.

    Whenever Science appears to threaten Theology, and vice versa, it’s a good sign for us to reconsider both our science and theology, and figure out if both can be improved upon to give a better picture of the truth.

    Of course, there are deeper questions like why (or how much) we should trust theology and science; these are questions for which there seems to be no definitive crowd-pleasing answer, though generations of theologians/philosophers surely have given it their best shot. This is where faith comes into the picture.

  • Tim Atwater

    Just to say Danny Harrell’s book is very good and I’ve mined it for sermon illustrations (esp in a sermon series on creation and new creation parallels)

    He’s also an excellent preacher. When he and we were in Boston we’d sometimes get to catch his Sunday late afternoon or evening preaching.

    blessings on this series.

  • Andrew

    If our faith is not “reshaped in response to what we learn about God’s creation,” then we will likely lose our ability to dialogue fruitfully with those who study God’s creation for a living (i.e., scientists).

    I’m looking forward to this series. Danny probably wouldn’t remember me but he was actually my youth pastor at Park Street in the mid-90s. Glad to see him in this context.

  • Rick

    Looking forward to this series as well.

  • John W. Frye

    With so many interpretations of the same biblical texts (e.g. Genesis 6:1ff and 1 Tim 2:11-12) it might be good to call human interpretations of the Bible “doctrinal theories.”

  • RJS


    Genesis 6:1 ff is a really good example. It is not too threatening and makes us think. John Calvin had to do some interesting exegetical gymnastics, and use “accommodation” rather heavily, to make this passage fit his theology – no scripture dismissing liberal he.


    Good analysis. These are important questions – and they will come up more in the next post or so on the book. One additional point that Harrell makes in his initial chapter is the need for discernment to determine whether a given conclusion is from science, or is an over-extension of science.

  • Rob F.

    YES! Our faith can and should be challenged by what we learn from creation (i.e., science) and vice versa when appopriate. Faith (beliefs and practices based on revelation and/or tradition) should be in conversation with science(knowledge based on scientific method). If it really is all God’s Truth, then the two (faith and science) can’t ultimately contradict each other.However, human interpretation and application are involved in both!…so both science AND faith can be compromised, mis-applied or misused. In my experience fundamentalists (on both sides) believe their epistemology (faith or science) is pristine and the other corrupt.

  • Andrew

    Hydroxonium #1: Agree with your general point, but theology and science have a major difference in that science can be adjusted/disproved based on proven results/data received. It can be tested and validated. Theology is practically always in the eye of the beholder, it can’t be objectively verified or debunked (although one could argue that certain theological strains definitely prove themselves more “fruitful” in the real world than others :).

  • RJS


    But isn’t this major difference also a difference in scope that restricts science?

    Science is truly valid only as it provides an impersonal description of the mechanics of the material world.

    Any metaphysical statement of any sort and most value statements – from scientific materialism to any kind of theology, to a cry out against child abuse, child sacrifice, or the “right” of a widow to not be burned alive on the funeral pyre of her husband – are in the eye of the beholder. They are statements that of necessity fall outside the realm of science.

    Perhaps this cries out for us to recognize that there is some other form of “knowing” … that there is an “ascientific” truth we should pursue.

  • Andrew

    To the contrary, I’d argue that certain theological assertions (or ethical assertions) can be backed up by scientific study; they don’t have to be thought as forces naturally divided. Reports that those who give in dire circumstances are more likely to live; that children who aren’t abused lead better, well adjusted lives, that torture is not only cruel but largely produces false information. I feel that I see more and more studies everyday that pretty much validate the Jesus worldview.

  • Andrew, RJS,

    The epistemology underlying Science is called Critical Rationalism (defined by Karl Popper).
    Interestingly, the same epistemology can be applied to all areas of knowledge, even theology. James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright call it Critical Realism. I believe that’s what makes their scholarship so solid.

    This is based on an overarching principle of logical consistency: i.e. every valid system, whether scientific or theological (or a combination of both), must be logically consistent. Scientists formulate scientific hypotheses and repeatedly test them against observations by attempting to falsify them. Those hypotheses that withstand such rigorous testing acquire the status of “accepted scientific theory”. Likewise, Dunn and Wright, through their approach of Critical Realism, continually test their theological hypotheses against scripture, history, etc. (To some extent, it’s even possible to test theology against science.) I think the best theologians tend towards such a “critical” approach (even if they are not conscious of it).

    To me, all this is faithful to the principle in 1 Thes 5:19-22, which says: “Do not extinguish the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt. But examine all things; hold fast to what is good. Stay away from every form of evil.”

    For more information, you may refer to “N. T. Wright’s Hermeneutic” (parts 1 and 2):

    PS. Could someone please teach me how to make use of bold/italic formatting, etc. ? Thanks!!

  • RJS


    Critical realism and logical consistency, absolutely. Have you read any of Polkinghorne? He makes this point as well. He uses the phrase “motivated belief.”

    But this isn’t really the same as the kind of results, data, designed experiments (even in evolution) and mathematical theoretical underpinnings that are so convincing in science.

    So I think theological or metaphysical reasoning is similar but not identical to scientific reasoning.

    You can do bold and italic and blockquotes using html: <b> turns on the bold formatting. You can use i for italics, blockquote to separate the text as a quote. The formatting is turned off with the slash </b > for example. So I can bold one word and make another italics. The system also supports <a href=”your link here”> word or phrase </a> for hyperlinks. It may support a few other tags in comments, but these are the big ones.

  • RJS

    You can even do subscript and superscripts: H3O+ for example.

  • AHH

    RJS @13,
    You win the prize for subtle science nerd humor of the day.
    I wonder what would happen if Hydroxonium tried to put that HTML coding in the “Name” field?

  • RJS


    Subtle perhaps, but not too subtle I hope (freshman chemistry after all) … alas I don’t think the HTML works in the name field.

  • (ROFL @ AHH #14)

    RJS (#12),

    I keep seeing Polkinghorne’s name everywhere, but have yet to read his works. Thanks for the recommendation!

    Agreed. In Science, there are well-established standards that are easy (relative to the skill of its practitioners) to adhere to. This is why practitioners of pseudoscience are easily identified and dismissed by the scientific community.

    But in the realm of Theology, somehow everyone seems free to pursue their own agendas. Theologians are usually not even required to undertake the kind of rigorous training that philosophers go through, such as courses in logic. (It’s strangely ironic that when I google “rigorous training”, an article by John Piper is the #2 search result …)

    Where truth is concerned, epistemology (and the closely related hermeneutics) is a big deal. Much of the disagreement amongst theologians is due to fundamental differences in epistemology. It is very possible to differentiate theological/hermeneutical approaches based on their epistemological underpinnings. Furthermore, theologians are not always consistent! The denominational nature of modern-day Christianity means that theologians are often dogmatic with regards to particular “essential” doctrines (and forcibly interpret scripture to fit those doctrines), whilst being more open-minded vis-à-vis so-called “non-essential” doctrines.

    There are countless examples of laypeople being mislead by pseudoscience (e.g. young-earth creationism), despite the existence of clearly defined scientific standards. The situation is more dire in Theology, where standards are not as well-established. Laypeople generally only manage to see different sides condemning each other. And if laypeople already have difficulty distinguishing science from pseudoscience, imagine how much harder it is to distinguish the differences between the different forms of theology! (Many would-be theologians are themselves guilty of such ignorance.)

    PS. Thanks for explaining!! I’m actually decently knowledgeable of HTML, but was kinda hesitant to try it.

  • “… alas I don’t think the HTML works in the name field.” Indeed, it didn’t work haha.