I often write posts arguing that it is difficult to reconcile evolution and Christianity. When you consider that evolution challenges certain claims of the Bible, refutes the traditional design argument, exacerbates the problem of evil, and suggests that humanity does not play any central role in creation, you have a pretty strong cumulative case. But I always stop short of saying bluntly that you cannot accept both evolution and Christianity. That is not for political reasons or out of fear of offending anyone. It is simply that I do not believe that the question “Can a Darwinian be a Christian?” is the sort of query to which a definitive answer can be given. Your answer to it depends, at a minimum, on what you believe is essential to Christian faith and on what you consider it plausible to believe.
As it happens, the YEC’s generally take a similar line. They argue passionately that theirs is the only interpretation of the Bible that makes sense, and they believe that once you start “compromising” on scripture its a steep, slippery slope leading you to outright apostasy. But for all of that they are generally clear that your status as a Christian does not ride on whether you get it right about the age of the Earth.
Writing at HuffPo, Jonathan Dudley takes a different view. He argues that Christians are actually required to accept evolution. I’m sure that will come as a surprise to large numbers of conservative Christians. Let’s consider his argument.
In the evangelical community, the year 2011 has brought a resurgence of debate over evolution. The current issue of Christianity Today asks if genetic discoveries preclude an historical Adam. While BioLogos, the brainchild of NIH director Francis Collins, is seeking to promote theistic evolution among evangelicals, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary recently argued that true Christians should believe the Earth is only a few thousand years old.
As someone raised evangelical, I realize anti-evolutionists believe they are defending the Christian tradition. But as a seminary graduate now training to be a medical scientist, I can say that, in reality, they’ve abandoned it.
Really? How so?
In theory, if not always in practice, past Christian theologians valued science out of the belief that God created the world scientists study. Augustine castigated those who made the Bible teach bad science, John Calvin argued that Genesis reflects a commoner’s view of the physical world, and the Belgic confession likened scripture and nature to two books written by the same author.
These beliefs encouraged past Christians to accept the best science of their day, and these beliefs persisted even into the evangelical tradition. As Princeton Seminary’s Charles Hodge, widely considered the father of modern evangelical theology, put it in 1859: “Nature is as truly a revelation of God as the Bible; and we only interpret the Word of God by the Word of God when we interpret the Bible by science.”
Even taking this at face value I’m not sure how helpful it is. Creationists, after all, are adamant that they love science and quite agree that we come closer to God by studying His creation. They just don’t agree that evolution represents the best science of our day.
More to the point, however, the creationists can make a strong argument that their views regarding the relationship between science and religion is actually far more in keeping with tradition than Dudley would have us believe. For example, there was more to Augustine’s view than the claim that the Bible should not be made to teach bad science. His basic view has been ably summarized by theologian Edmund Hill:
In the course of his commentary Augustine repeatedly tells the reader his principles on the relationship between faith and science. … If there are scientific positions justified by sure arguments, the exegete has the task of showing that these positions do not in any way contradict the sacred scriptures. If, on the contrary, there are unambiguous truths of faith that contradict the theses of science, the exegete must, as far as he can, show the falsity of such theses or at least be convinced of their falsity.
In arguments on this topic, it is common to note that Augustine did not believe the days in Genesis 1 were twenty-four hour periods of time. Indeed, but his interpretation of Genesis 2 and Genesis 3 was far more literal. Hill writes:
Whereas Augustine gave a strictly figurative interpretation of the first account (while regarding this as the literal sense), his exegesis of the second account sticks very close to the meaning of the letter. … For him, paradise was a real garden, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge were real trees, the rivers were real rivers. He thought that by maintaining the reality of the spatio-temporal framework of the paradise story he could best safeguard the truths of faith implied in the story. In his view, sticking to the literal meaning of external details also made other points certain: the state of spiritual and bodily integrity in which human beings were originally created; the reality of the first sin; finally, the punishment that followed the sin and that explains the present state of humanity.
Those spiritual truths given by Hill as being so important to Augustine are precisely the ones that are challenged by evolution (and its related sciences). It would seem, then, that this is an example of science contradicting central tenets of the faith. And we have seen what Augustine thought about that
Furthermore, the traditional view among theologians certainly was not that science had carte blanche to explain the natural world, with religion left to accept passively what the scientists said. Historian David Lindberg summarizes the common view:
In Augustine’s influential view, then, knowledge of the things of this world is not a legitimate end in itself, but as a means to other ends it is indispensable. The classical sciences must accept a subordinate position as the handmaiden of theology and religion — the temporal serving the eternal. The knowledge contained in classical sciences is not to be loved, but it may legitimately be used. This attitude toward scientific knowledge came to prevail throughout the Middle Ages and survived well into the modern period.
That is a near perfect summary of how modern creationists view things. Dudley will have to work much harder if he is to convince us that it is the creationists who have abandoned the Christian tradition.
Incidentally, I would add that Dudley has a lot of nerve quoting Hodge in this context without mentioning that it was Hodge who famously titled his final book What is Darwinism?, and answered It is atheism. In Hodge’s time, there were legitimate scientific objections to Darwin’s theory. It was clear, though, that Hodge found it utterly contrary to Christianity as he understood it.
Most of what Dudley now writes looks pretty good to me.
But beyond a certain point, this reasoning breaks down. Because no amount of talk about “worldviews” and “presuppositions” can change a simple fact: creationism has failed to provide an alternative explanation for the vast majority of evidence explained by evolution.
It has failed to explain why birds still carry genes to make teeth, whales to make legs, and humans to make tails.
It has failed to explain why the fossil record proposed by modern scientists can be used to make precise and accurate predictions about the location of transition fossils.
It has failed to explain why the fossil record demonstrates a precise order, with simple organisms in the deepest rocks and more complex ones toward the surface.
It has failed to explain why today’s animals live in the same geographical area as fossils of similar species.
It has failed to explain why, if carnivorous dinosaurs lived at the same time as modern animals, we don’t find the fossils of modern animals in the stomachs of fossilized dinosaurs.
It has failed to explain the broken genes that litter the DNA of humans and apes but are functional in lower vertebrates.
It has failed to explain how the genetic diversity we observe among humans could have arisen in a few thousand years from two biological ancestors.
A pretty good list! Of course, its length could be multiplied easily.
I also liked this:
But the belief that scientists can discover truth, and that, once sufficiently debated, challenged and modified, it should be accepted even if it creates tensions for familiar belief systems, has an obvious impact on decisions that are made everyday. And it is that belief Christians reject when they reject evolution.
Again, hard to argue with that.
I see that Dudley has a book out arguing that the majorities of evangelical Christians who reject evolution, gay marriage, abortion and environmentalism are wrong for specifically religious reasons. I look forward to reading it. I wish him luck making his case, since it certainly would be a great advance in our civil life if more evangelicals could be persuaded to take reasonable positions on these issue. But Dudley is not playing a strong hand. The creationists can make a persuasive case that it is he, not they, who have abandoned orthodoxy.