Why can’t evangelical scientists agree?
The camera moves gracefully through a brilliant cloud of stars. Classical music swells, providing a majestic audio carpet for the journey. The voice of the astronomer purrs reverently, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”
Carl Sagan’s vision of an eternal material universe wins a large audience, but does not correspond to the current scientific picture of a universe that began, will end, and likely not recur. Sagan’s is a vision more religious than scientific.
Is There Room For God In The Scientific Enterprise?
“There is a kind of religion in science,” declares astrophysicist and self-styled agnostic Robert Jastrow. “It is the religion of a person who believes there is order and harmony in the universe. Every event can be explained in a rational way as the product of some previous event; every effect must have its cause; there is no First Cause.”
Christians can surely account for belief in an orderly universe, but presupposing an eternal machine of cause and effect cut off from God is clearly opposed to belief in Creation. Jastrow’s point, however, is that twentieth-century science has shaken faith in an eternal mechanism. “The religious faith of the scientist is violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning in which known laws of physics are not valid, and as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover.”
“Here is evidence,” says astronomer Allan Sandage about the big bang*, “for what can only be described as a supernatural event. There is no way to predict this in physics as we know it.” And “as for the first cause of the universe,” British theorist E. A. Milne adds in his book on relativity, “that is left for the reader to insert, but our picture is incomplete without Him.”
Since scientists are “possessed by the sense of universal causation” (Einstein), the search continues for the “mechanism of creation,” for a scientific explanation of the “initial conditions.” But in that search, science appears to open several doors to the Creator.
• Alexander Viliken of Tufts University, for example, constructs a model of the world emerging from “nothing.” He notes that “the idea is very old in the context of theology.”
• In addition to the question “Why is there something and not nothing?” scientists now wonder, “Why this particular something?” “The present arrangement of matter,” says physicist Paul Davies, “indicates a very special choice of initial conditions.” “In fact,” adds leading theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, whose latest theory pictures a finite universe of no beginning, “if one considers the possible constants and laws that could have emerged, the odds against a universe that has produced life like ours are immense.”
• Life epitomizes this wonderfully precise combination of constants that makes our particular world possible. British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle, who once postulated a “Steady State” or continuous creation model for the physical universe to avoid the implications of a beginning, now leads the effort to explain evidence of intelligent design in the world. “A common sense interpretation of the facts,” he says, “suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.”
• Biologist Dean Kenyon once assumed that molecules had some “built-in” tendency to form the special complexity of life. He is now convinced that life originated from “an intelligence capable of generating an enormous amount of complex information rather quickly.”
• When it comes to intelligence, neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Sir John Eccles sees the “interaction” between mind and brain as leading “to the extraordinary doctrine that this world of matter-energy is not completely sealed, which is a fundamental tenet of physics, but that there are small ‘apertures’ in what is otherwise a completely closed world.”
Sagan’s vision of a self-contained material cosmos blurs as science itself begins to fine-tune a new image. The universe we inhabit is not completely necessary or self-explanatory—it could have been something else. It could not have happened by accident. The special design of its internal structures—from vast galaxies to microscopic proteins—indicate a “createdness,” to use historian of science Stanley Jaki’s word. Our world appears dependent upon a context beyond itself.
It seems ironic that at the same time that scientists in general are increasingly open to the idea of a Creative Intelligence, evangelical Christian scientists seem to be unable to speak with a unified voice on the relationship between faith in a loving Creator involved in the world and an understanding of his orderly creation; between acceptance of revelation and confidence in cause and effect; between the biblical truth of Creation and the scientific account of nature.
As a step toward unity, the Christianity Today Institute sponsored a forum on origins, bringing together Christians of contrasting viewpoints and different scholarly perspectives to discuss divine revelation and scientific understanding. The participants were:
John Meyer, professor of science at Baptist Bible College, Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, who stresses the need for evangelical scientists to read the Genesis account as providing reliable historical and scientific information. Meyer received his doctorate in zoology from the University of Iowa. His current research interests include computer simulation of putative evolutionary processes.
Howard J. Van Till, professor of physics and astronomy at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, who stresses the theological truth of Genesis, the source and meaning of the creation. But he believes science can and should ask questions about the mechanics of origins independent of the Genesis account. Van Till is coauthor of Science Held Hostage and author of The FourthDay, as well as several articles that offer a biblical understanding of the evolutionary process.
Pattle Pun, associate professor of biology at Wheaton College, who looks for a middle ground in which science and biblical interpretation inform each other. Pun has written Evolution: Nature and Scripture in Conflict.
Two theologians were present to critique and help clarify the scientists’ ideas: John Woodbridge, professor of church history and history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois; and Kenneth S. Kantzer, dean of the Christianity Today Institute and professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Meyer: Separating The Routine From The Unrepeatable
“I started out,” says John Meyer, “as a person who was very interested in science and who came from a very conservative theological background. I went off to graduate school, and, in the zoology department, I found that every course I was taking was taught from a macroevolutionary perspective.”
Meyer, whose present work on squirrel populations in the Grand Canyon confirms for him a scientific model of recent and sudden creation, explained how his youthful adjustment to evolutionary teaching was particularly distressing. He toyed with “theistic evolution,” but finally returned to his initial position.
“As I began to think my way carefully through what was being said, I became more and more convinced that I could accept anything from a scientific standpoint that could be demonstrated in the laboratory. The molecule-to-man type evolutionary scenario is simply not possible scientifically, and it violates everything I understand about a clear, straightforward evaluation of the Book of Genesis.”
To clarify what he means by “possible scientifically,” Meyer distinguishes between two types of science: a science of origins and a science of operations. Theories of origin-science describe unique or rare natural phenomena that occurred in the past. Such events Meyer lists as the origin of the universe, the Earth, life in all its various forms, and human beings. These events happened only once, and are no longer observable in the field, nor are they repeatable in the lab.
Operation-science, on the other hand, investigates the regular and repeatable processes of nature. Theories about these recurring processes can be tested and either verified or falsified. Theories about origin events, however, are not susceptible to the same kind of verification.
The distinction between origin-science and operation-science is gaining some favor, and stirring some controversy, in Christian circles. Theologian Norman Geisler, coauthor of the book Origin Science, explains that “there is no observational evidence in the present that can adequately account for the cause of the origin of the universe by operational laws alone.” Likewise, to accept the “genesis of life” as a product of random processes and natural law does not coincide with the facts and is rather a matter of faith. His conclusion: “It is arbitrary and unscientific to limit the quest for causes to only natural ones.”
“All we can do,” says Meyer, “is look at the products [of origin events], and on our presuppositional basis make inferences back into the past about how we think that came about. And I believe that is all any view of origins can do—except in cases where I would claim we have divine revelation from the Creator himself as to what he did.”
Meyer is forthright about his own presuppositions regarding the processes of origins. A “straightforward” (that is, “historical, grammatical, literal”) view of Genesis provides him an authoritative “theoretical framework” for the study of nature’s “singularities.” Such a framework incorporates supernatural cause into scientific description.
That framework of “scientific creationism” includes “special creation (by a Creator)” of the universe and life; the stability of “original kinds” of living organisms with limited variation over time; no common ancestry between apes and man; an application of the law of entropy, or increasing disorder in the universe, to indicate both the deterioration of the natural world as predicted by the Fall and the requirement of supernatural intervention to attain the special order of living organisms; a catastrophic flood to account for many significant features of the “geological column”; and a recent creation of Earth and life.
Meyer is convinced his approach gives a “fresh perspective” on the data. And given the apparent evidence of a Designer at work in our remarkable universe, it is the evolutionist who appears closed-minded.
There is also a profound sense in recent-creationism that questions about origins are not fundamentally scientific or secular questions at all.
“The problem of origins,” Meyer writes, “is primarily a spiritual problem, as suggested by 1 Corinthians 2:14. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that unregenerate man, looking at a sincursed nature, will not come to a correct conclusion regarding its supernatural origin.”
Professor Meyer lays on the table, then, a philosophy of science that admittedly “limits” the authority of science as it deals with origins while allowing for “divine cause.” He also employs a certain view of Scripture, which anchors the authority of Genesis in the literal truth of its account of natural history. It is clear as well that, from Meyer’s point of view, the theory of macroevolution—that all of life’s great diversity developed in a continuous line of natural causes from a common ancestor—is scientifically suspect and a fundamental threat to biblical authority.
Such are the dimensions of this zoologist’s resolution to dilemmas first encountered in graduate school. Howard Van Till, the astronomer from Calvin College, is wont to criticize such an adjustment on nearly every level, except one.
“I think we owe a great debt to the creation-science movement,” Van Till concedes, “for calling attention to the abuse of public education and public media by evolutionary naturalists.” The ideology or “religious world view” of naturalism, Van Till explains, presupposes that Nature, with a capital N, is an autonomous system of cause and effect for which a Creator is irrelevant.
Evolution here becomes more than a scientific model of population changes over time. Darwin’s natural selection is no longer a metaphor or an analogy but is mistaken for the reality it only represents. As historian of science David Livingstone writes, the process of evolution has come to be regarded “as a fully creative agency comparable to divine creativity.” Evolution takes on the qualities of “cosmic myth … an all-encompassing system of belief which provides an explanation for the structure of reality and gives meaning to human existence”—in this case, the meaninglessness of survival of whatever happens to survive. The world view of evolutionary naturalism replaces the God of creation with the god of happenstance, just as Darwin sought to replace special creation with a theory of organic evolution.
Van Till: Distinguishing Meaning From Mechanism
While Meyer seeks to reassert direct divine intervention into the mechanism as the only proper biblical response to naturalism, Van Till proposes to distinguish the religious quest for purpose from the limited scientific effort to understanding natural processes at work over time.
He does not draw a boundary between two types of science, but rather between two types of questions about origins. Questions of “formative origins” are properly scientific questions and involve how the physical world was formed over time. They deal with the properties, patterns of behavior, and history of material systems—processes subject to the Creator’s constant governance. These scientific matters involve the “internal affairs” of creation.
Questions of “ontological origins” are properly religious questions. They deal with the “external relationship” of the cosmos, with why we are here, with the cause of the world’s beginning and its continuation in existence, with its “source of being.” Answers to both sets of questions—those of mechanism and process and those of purpose and meaning—complement each other, together providing a “richer understanding of reality.”
For Van Till, presupposing that answers to questions about the world’s “formative origins” can be explained in terms of an unbroken chain of natural causes does not exclude the Creator, nor deny the truth of Genesis. On the contrary, the doctrine of Creation calls for such completeness and continuity. Biblical revelation provides the “basis of belief” that science is possible, that a coherent picture of the natural world can be drawn, from start to finish. Creation gives the reason for the harmony that the scientist holds as the hallmark of his professional faith.
It is not surprising, then, that Van Till sees no threat to the Christian faith if scientists should discover the “mechanism of creation.” Nor would he be concerned with Stephen Hawking’s theoretical model of a finite universe of no beginning and no end: “What place then, for a creator?” Hawking asks.
Since the doctrine of creation describes a relationship rather than a process, says Van Till, “the natural scientist may be able to reconstruct much of the formative history of the physical universe and describe the processes and events that that history comprises, but neither the existence of any universe at all nor its governance according to a pattern is self-explanatory.”
To Hawking’s lament after a lifetime of work, “Now I have some idea of how the universe works, but I still do not really understand why,” Van Till replies: “Science has no hold on purpose. The transcendent Creator is just as necessary now as ever.”
To understand Genesis properly, then, says Van Till, is not to read it as a “chronicle of creative acts,” but as the “preamble to the covenantal canon,” specifying the participants in the relationship that the Creator has established with his creation. “The essence of the doctrine of creation is found not in mechanisms or timetables, but in specifying the identities of, and interrelationships among, God, humanity, and the universe.” Throughout the discussion, Van Till stresses this “covenant view” of Genesis.
From Meyer’s biblical starting point, “the mechanism of creation was ‘and God said,’ which was a decree rather than a process, thus ruling out any macroevolutionary scenario.” Van Till, on the other hand, stresses that “the creation is functionally complete.” Theologically, “God need not act as if he were a component within creation; rather the Creator is the one on whom rests the existence and governance of all phenomena.” Scientifically, introducing supernatural cause is a “god-of-the-gaps” approach, says Van Till, a Christian apologetic that “has failed thoroughly. I resist it with full vigor.”
By the same biblical and scientific perspectives, Van Till sees that the hyphenating of science into origin and operation types “drives a wedge between the character of the present and the character of past,” both in terms of natural processes we see today and scientifically infer for the past, and in terms of “the way in which God operates.… I hope the Christian concept of God as Creator and the whole world as his creation does not depend upon a certain sort of functional incompleteness in the economy of the created order.”
Finally, in sharp contrast to Meyer’s view of unregenerate man incapable of coming to the truth about origins, Van Till says that scientists have gained considerable skill in “reconstructing formative histories.” Evidence drawn “from independent concerns and a multiplicity of disciplines,” including his own field of astrophysics, provides the theory of macroevolution with a “degree of certainty beyond a reasonable doubt.” Furthermore, he says, the Christian community ought to “respect the good, honest job that is being done by the natural scientists.” It is a point of view at least partially grounded in the influence of his own father, who, though he only had a sixth-grade education, was “a person who valued curiosity and candor and integrity in seeking answers.”
In general, Van Till agrees with Meyer that the presumption that the universe is a closed, self-explanatory, self-regulating system of material cause and effect is a philosophical presupposition that must be challenged. He disagrees with the recent-creationist’s strategy, however, because he disagrees with its low view of the credibility of professional science, with its assumptions concerning the agenda of early Genesis, and with its concept of the way God works to form his creation and his creatures.
“ ‘Creation-science’,” he concludes, “which reduces the wholly theological concept of Creation to a particular picture of recent instantaneous inceptions, is, in my judgment, a tragic blunder.”
Pun: Providential Involvement With Natural Selection
“In the evangelical spectrum of this discussion,” says Wheaton College biologist Pattle Pun, “I’m right in the middle.”
Professor Pun became a Christian in college, he says, “not through a whole lot of intellectual searching, just through the love of Christians.”
“The first challenge I faced was from my anatomy professor. He was talking about evolution, and challenged what he called old-time religion that talked about a Creator. I asked him, ‘Why are you so sure that man was an evolutionary descendant of apes?’ He said, ‘Wait till you get into biochemistry.’ ”
Pun took the challenge, intent upon addressing the difficult questions of special creation and organic evolution from the inside. He is now a molecular biologist whose perspective is critical of both scientific creationism and theistic evolutionism.
Pun begins by distinguishing origin and operational science, like Meyer. But he does so in order to stress the limitations of the scientist’s understanding rather than to uphold a literal interpretation of Genesis that specifies recent Creation by divine fiat. He accepts scientific conclusions about an ancient Earth, for example, and regards Meyer’s approach as “imposing” on science a “narrowly defined view of the Scriptures not necessarily exegetically sound,” akin to the medieval defense of an Earth-centered universe.
Operational or empirical science, he says, is a precise, though limited, method of understanding the natural world. At its core is the testable hypothesis. By observation, theory, experiment and verification, science establishes “explanations of natural phenomena strictly in terms of other natural phenomena.” Here is Jastrow’s “religion of a person” who presumes natural cause and effect; what Owen Gingerich of Harvard means when he says that “science is, by its very nature, godless.” Even the atheist, says Pun, can discover “valid information about God’s creation.”
When practiced by the “moral scientist,” says Pun, this approach to knowledge “is self-corrective,” judging its conclusions by its own criteria. “The rigor followed by practicing scientists in establishing reproducible results and verifiable hypotheses is one of the highest human virtues.” At the crux of his disagreement with Meyer, then, Pun sees that “although carnal man does not perceive the truth of God, God’s common grace allows sinners and saints alike to perceive certain truths of his world.”
Given the nature of the scientific method, scientific theories about origin events, whether they come from creationist or evolutionist perspectives, are “more metaphysical than methodological.” Hypotheses here are “often colored by one’s outlook on life.” There is a tendency to fit the facts to the theory—theories that are not subject to the kind of “seeing is believing” test of truth characteristic of operational science.
Pun tends to discount the implication, for example, that some of his colleagues in molecular biology are “on the trail of Eve,” as the press would have it. In this case, researchers are using probability and the DNA of the mitochondrion—the compartment of the human cell that produces its life-sustaining energy—to trace the lineage of the human race back to the common primeval mother, or, more accurately, a particular group of mothers. As a gene specialist, Pun feels the theory assumes too much about the interpretive power of this one section of the cell. The guesswork quality of this type of historical scientific investigation keeps it continually speculative, he says.
From Pun’s viewpoint, the prevailing neo-Darwinian evolutionary scenario requires “a leap of faith.” Similarities between the anatomy of a chimpanzee and a human being, or between the DNA of a bacterium and an amoeba, offer only “circumstantial evidence” that macroevolutionary transitions occurred. In fact, the observational data cannot rule out an interpretation allowing for special creation of fixed “Genesis kinds,” to use Meyer’s term. There is no experiment, Pun notes, that can verify or falsify the macroevolutionary scenario. Observable processes of microevolution—limited genetic changes at the species or subspecies level—cannot account for the enormously complex transmutations involved in going from lower to higher levels of living organisms.
“The fact is that the evolution of life,” Pun concludes, “from a single origin, an assertion adamantly maintained by most evolutionists, is more an a priori assumption than an empirically falsifiable theory.” It is more a presumption that transitions occurred, because such a presumption effectively renders intelligible a vast array of data, and because, as one scientist put it, the alternative is unbelievable.
Nevertheless, as Pun points out, Darwin’s concept of natural selection in the struggle for survival “is being gradually abandoned by the more radical biologists as the major mechanism that can account for the evolution of the major groups of organisms (for example, from ape to man).” Macroevolution is in desperate need of a “holistic mechanism,” he says, an explanation for the apparent discontinuities among the diverse groups of organisms. “The stage may be set for a paradigm shift in future biological thinking.”
But he does not see creation-science as providing an alternative paradigm. Agreeing with Van Till, he sees Creation “as primarily a theological principle,” describing the truth of the world’s origin from nothing. “Creation cannot serve as a scientific hypthothesis because it is not amenable to experimental testing.” In fact, Creation is an even weaker scientific model than evolution since the latter has a testable mechanism of natural selection of random genetic mutations, which, in turn, has proved inadequate.
As a way of reconciling the revelations of Scripture and science about the natural world, and to see properly the relationship of Creator to his creation, as well as the unity of supernatural activity with natural cause and effect, Pun offers what he calls the “middle ground” of progressive creationism.
“God is involved in his creation in a dynamic way,” he says, “by shaping the variation of the biological world through mechanisms such as natural selection.” This continual, providential involvement neither precludes “methodological naturalism”—the natural scientist’s working assumption that all phenomena can be described purely in terms of natural causes—nor does it eliminate the Creator’s direct involvement in “extraordinary” cases.
In particular, this molecular biologist’s progressive creationism holds firm to the Creator’s special involvement in the mechanism when it came to making human beings in his image. The special creation of the historical couple of Adam and Eve was an “extraordinary act of God that is not explainable by known natural causes,” says Pun, and the vagaries of the macroevolutionary model of origins cannot dissuade him from this conviction.
Kantzer: Was Adam A Miracle?
It is precisely at the point of human origins that the dialogue over biblical theology and natural science becomes most delicate and most telling.
Theologian Kenneth Kantzer questions the validity of that unbroken chain of proximate cause-and-effect relationships, the regular sequence of material events that Van Till says we should expect of a functionally complete creation. Does this continual sequence “rule out divinely caused breaks?” asks Kantzer, especially where natural causes cannot apparently explain the phenomena we observe?
“No,” Van Till replies. “I don’t think we ought to rule out anything. Certainly not miracles.”
“I was hoping you would say that,” Kantzer observes. “Man, you’re saying, then, was not produced just by a series of cause-and-effect relationships within matter.”
But now Van Till “hedges,” he admits, on the difficult matter of how man’s spiritual and physical being could have united under a theory of organic evolution. The creation of humankind, he allows, surely was a “special act of God.” But, in light of what the current scientific picture envisions about the continuity of physical causes, and in light of what we would expect of a complete and lawful created order, that special act can be understood as the providential moment when the creaturely person meets his Personal Creator.
In the course of divinely directed cosmic history, Van Till suggests, “there appears a form of creature that has certain capacities”: the capacity to know right from wrong, the capacity for self-awareness, the capacity for God-awareness. “The kind of capacities that are necessary in order that God can now say: I call you to be aware of my presence. I call you to use these capacities, and put you in a position of responsibility that no other creature has ever had before.”
Meyer pointedly interjects: “Was there, in space-time history, one individual, by the name of Adam, who is the father of the entire human race? And did God historically in space-time history make woman from him?”
Citing the conflicting views among evangelical Bible scholars, Van Till expresses a willingness to give serious consideration to a variety of answers, including some nontraditional ones.
Meyer retorts: “I just find it incomprehensible that a person could possibly hedge on the issue of the historicity of the origin of the human race as indicated in Genesis.”
From Meyer’s standpoint, the credibility of the Christian revelation demands that the Bible, when it speaks of events in history, speaks authoritatively and truthfully. “Isn’t it critical,” he asks, referring to Genesis 1, “that it does deal with events that are considered historical?” The Second Adam demands the first. To accept Van Till’s distinction between biblical and scientific statements, between religious and scientific perspectives, between the spiritual and physical aspects of man’s origins, “is to drive a wedge between” the Bible and science, Meyer insists. “They are not complementary; they overlap.” Van Till’s approach promotes a “weakened view of the Book of Genesis,” he says, which threatens to “completely cut the heart out of the gospel.”
Historian of theology John Woodbridge tends to agree. Darwinism succeeded in the first place, he says, partly because it succeeded in “kicking our religious questions upstairs”—which was part of a larger cultural effort to “overthrow the divine” by “cutting the nexus between Genesis 1 and 2 and the real world.” But some doctrines are “anchored in statements about the natural world”; and “what kind of history is [Genesis 1–11] if it doesn’t deal with events that took place? How do you distinguish whatever it is from myth?”
Van Till’s response stresses again the complementary nature of the scientific story of physical processes and a biblical revelation of divine purpose. Van Till maintains that, far from producing a “weakened view” of Scripture, allowing honest science to enhance our understanding of revelation helps “recover the original meaning of Genesis.” Focusing on the covenant, and not on the mechanics of the world’s beginnings, dramatizes man’s special role and responsibility in Creation. Genesis 1 is “primeval history,” says Van Till. “It provides us with the theological basis for coming to know the meaning of all history.”
Van Till specifically suggests that the “special event” that established a creature of moral judgment on Earth is analogous to the mystery of human reproduction itself in which the moral and spiritual individual emerges from the union of ovum and sperm.
“I don’t believe,” Kantzer observes, “that the capacity to reproduce a human body with an immortal substantial spirit connected with it was purely a cause-and-effect relationship.”
“Are you saying,” Van Till asks, “that God could not have formed creatures known as the human race in that way?”
“Inside the womb of something that wasn’t human? I’m not saying that at all,” Kantzer assures him.
Separating Truth From History?
Meyer regards Van Till’s distinguishing of scriptural truth from scientific models as insidious compromise, allowing “nature to overwhelm grace.” Quoting Francis Schaeffer, Meyer wonders whether “the next generation of Christians will have the ground completely swept out from under them” in the loss of a clear-cut, “common sense” correspondence between Genesis and scientific descriptions. “For there is no reason to keep what the Bible says religiously if we have put it in an upper story and throw away that which the Bible speaks of when it speaks of history and the cosmos.”
In effect, from Meyer’s perspective, Van Till may be fighting on the same side, but he has lost the wherewithal to engage the foe. And the foe, it is generally agreed, occupies the campuses of public universities and high schools.
A case in point comes from Cornell University.
A recent alumni newsletter touts the formation of a new “broadly based general education course on evolution and its implications.” The fundamental principle is, as Prof. William Provine writes, that “evolution is the most central concept in all biology.” And this principle needs to be taught to everyone, biology students and liberal arts majors alike. It is here that we perceive what most concerns John Meyer: evidence of a trend that makes evolution the “integrative principle” or interpretive vision for all of biology.
It is not a concern for Van Till in the sense that the theory of macroevolution is a prime example of the best in scientific thinking about a complete and coherent Creation. However, Provine goes on to say that by whatever “mechanisms” this process of transition occurred—and these are admittedly the subject of intense controversy—the fact of evolution remains, and the mechanisms are “utterly devoid of purpose or design, including, of course, guidance by God.” One student comes away from the course maintaining her faith, she says, but only by “compartmentalizing.” “I have no problem believing in God,” she confesses, “although I suppose if you took evolution to its inevitable conclusion, you have atheism.”
Certainly, nature overwhelms grace here. And it is difficult to distinguish the physics from the metaphysics. If Van Till persists in his position, says Woodbridge, his challenge is to “decouple” the theory from an atheistic agenda that exploits it, to sort out the ideology from the methodology—both functioning as if nature is all there is—and to clarify for the believer how complementarity is not compartmentalization.
Taking Up The Challenge
As for strategy, each Christian teacher involved in our discussion sees Provine’s challenge as an illegitimate extension of scientific understanding. Each adamantly defends the sustaining, providential involvement of the Creator in creation. But each devises a distinct approach to relate biblical revelation to scientific reasoning based on his distinct view of what it takes to defend the truth of Scripture and uphold the integrity of science.
Van Till wants to keep science and science classrooms clear of the battleground he sees occupied by competing religions. To Provine he would reply: “Science is incapable of dealing with questions of value, questions of purpose, questions of goals, questions of destiny, questions of ultimate origin—why is there something and not nothing. Those are all fundamentally questions of great religious import. And those questions ought to be identified in the public school classroom, but not answered.”
As a specific tactic, Van Till suggests that evangelicals provide teachers with materials distinguishing scientific questions of mechanism from religious questions of purpose (or purposelessness, as the case may be). Actually, the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), of which Van Till is currently secretary-treasurer, takes precisely this approach in a booklet called “Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy” (CT, Sept. 19, 1986, p. 50). It recommends that discussions of origins seek to clarify how questions that arise in science can take the investigator beyond science.
Meyer would prefer to go head-to-head, to fight fire with fire, admitting the religious inspiration of his scientific framework, proclaiming its clear-cut authority. Although he has reservations about teaching Genesis in public schools, and intimates that court battles will take a back seat now in favor of improving research on the “Creation model,” he insists that if the supernatural account of origins is to be excluded, then the evolutionary scenario ought at least to come with question marks. In fact, he criticizes the ASA booklet for an illustration that shows harmony returning to a science class after the Bible is removed while a poster of the evolutionary tree remains. (In some versions of the booklet, the word evolution on the poster comes with a question mark.)
From Meyer’s standpoint, biology teachers ought to get materials (like Norman Geisler’s book) distinguishing between origin-and operation-science. Such a distinction would clarify the “tentativeness” of scientific theories about “singularities” (apparently excepting those taken from God’s Word), highlight the uncertainties in the macroevolutionary picture, and stipulate the naturalistic or supernatural presuppositions involved. Meyer’s course on origins at Baptist Bible College adopts such a critical approach.
He is led, therefore, to the separatist posture of creation-science: a self-conscious squaring off against the majority of origin scientists whose interpretations of the data are perceived as fundamentally flawed. “Since I am a scientist,” he says, “committed to the inerrancy and historical accuracy of the Genesis account of Creation and Deluge, and since these critical issues have come under increasing pressure and attack from many directions, I have come to the conclusion that the most important contribution I can make with my life is the study of origins research from a recent-creationist perspective.”
Both Pun and Van Till regard this separatism as self-defeating at best and, at worst, historically disastrous for science and Christianity. Both see this strategy as playing into the hands of evolutionary naturalists, ignoring both the limits and the integrity of scientific explanations. Both see fiat-creationism confining God to the gaps created by deficiencies in the scientific picture of the mechanism, failing to account for the Creator’s continuous sustaining involvement in creation. “Interventionists,” says Van Till “must be challenged to enlarge their concept of the Creator.”
Pun actually reproves “fiat-creationists” for “ignoring” data that do not conform to their biblical model of origins. He criticizes his separatist colleagues for imposing their Christian view on their science and then guarding everything they do in their scientific world by their presuppositions. In fact, he says, “I hate to hear the name [creationist] because I am a creationist, but I don’t want to be treated by my colleagues as a cultic person. I’m open-minded. I’m supposed to be following the rules of the profession.”
Pun, because of his own experience, proposes that Christians take up the challenge and jump into the mainstream. Setting up separate scientific societies and publications is fighting on the wrong front, he says. If new scientific insight about origins is to emerge, it will come from within the larger scientific community, not from “outside the scientific circle where you try to impose an idea.” As a teacher, he emphasizes “the need to make our young people realize that science is not everything, and that it’s not nothing either. We are to look at science as a way of glorifying God instead of the perversity of man dominating science.”
Van Till’s approach is also based on this deeply felt “respect”—a term he uses often—for the methods and conclusions of “the majority opinion within the professional scientific community.” He admits to a bias toward an evolutionary model of origins because it has proved an effective tool in interpreting a wide range of data left by the Creator. This posture is especially evident if the alternative model includes flood geology and a young Earth, ideas long ago discredited by the methods of science, he says.
Woodbridge: Evolution Is Not The Last Word.
John Woodbridge, in sympathy with Meyer, regards the assignment of a “hermeneutical” or interpretive role for evolutionary theory—“such that it can even contradict Scripture”—as premature at best. He calls attention to the sociological factors that keep a reigning scientific paradigm in favor, despite the empirical evidence. He notes the contribution that metaphysics necessarily plays in the formation of interpretive frameworks. Citing several non-Christian nonevolutionists, he stresses the current uncertainty over even the central tenet of macroevolution, namely, that all life forms are genealogically related, what is usually meant by the “fact” of evolution. Given the complications prevalent in neo-Darwinist theory that Pun describes, and indications of some kind of “superintelligence” at work in the mechanism, why not assert some form of creationism? A theory to account for evidence of the abrupt appearance of life on Earth? Perhaps Pun’s “holistic mechanism”? And, again, ought not the Christian to expect some concrete correspondence between scientific understanding and descriptions in the biblical revelation of the same cosmos?
As an example of the relevance of some form of “creationism”—to use the term broadly—consider chemist Charles Thaxton’s suggestion that the “specified complexity,” or very particular order, of the DNA molecule indicates that “an intelligent agent made it.” Using the scientific principle of uniform experience, Thaxton concludes that an “intelligent cause” acted in the origin of life, just as intelligence brings about a clear English sentence, or creates a Mount Rushmore. Disagreeing with Geisler’s point of view, Thaxton maintains that the scientist cannot describe this intelligent source as “supernatural” since this assertion is more apologetics than science. But the biochemist can clearly infer that matter and energy are not the only forces at work in the cosmos.
“We have not seen the creator, nor observed the act of creation,” Thaxton writes. “However, we recognize the kind of order that only comes from an intelligent being.… We cannot supply a name for the intelligent cause [though we] may be able to identify that agent in great detail by other arguments. We may, for example, gain insight from historical, philosophical or theological argument.”
Like Van Till, Thaxton distinguishes sources of answers to fundamentally religious questions from sources of scientific knowledge. Unlike Van Till, however, he would apparently dispute Provine more concretely, providing scientific inferences of transcendence and design, perceiving how the methods and principles of science point to the Creator more directly.
In this discussion over strategy, Kenneth Kantzer concludes: “If naturalistic scientists would just say that the evidence is not sufficient to show there is a uniform process that explains things, then the whole battle would be over. They could say it’s inconclusive and we make a commitment to agnosticism or materialism—a commitment not based on science, but a religious commitment—and the war would shift to where it belongs.”
As it is, Kantzer implies, more must be done to keep science clear of atheism than Van Till suggests. The theologian infers an appropriate role for an aggressive scientific-creationism intent on exposing the uncertainties and unscientific presuppositions of macroevolution, a kind of quality control implicit in creationism. There appears to be a legitimate role for separatist tactics forced by a society intent upon excluding biblical faith completely from public life.
Though Kantzer has come to accept models of a multibillion year-old universe, he supports the efforts of young Earth-creationists as a valuable service to the Christian community. Still, he says, “an interpretation of the Bible that is fair” need not necessarily push one into those positions. He indicates that issues raised by creationists may not be paramount “in a troubled world.” He recommends directing more energy into “the kind of penetration and interaction” recommended by Pattle Pun, while holding to the full truth of Scripture in all it states.
Major Differences—And A Point Of Agreement
Disagreements over strategy reflect deep divisions over central issues:
• The integrity of our scientific knowledge about the natural world and the authority of that knowledge to modify our understanding of revelation;
• The degree to which religious belief and scientific thinking should inform each other;
• The unassailable infallibility (and even the intent) of what Scripture seems to say about natural history;
• The degree of intimacy of the Creator’s personal involvement in his creation;
• The proper place for the Christian in the scientific community.
So basic are the differences that a “unified evangelical position,” though desirable, even urgent, seems particularly elusive. Woodbridge, for example, believes that “what we’re dealing with goes to the heart of the gospel, … the truthfulness of Scripture.” He concludes: “We may end up with tremendous differences that I don’t think we could paper over. They are real differences.”
Still, the need for a unified front is one of the profound agreements to emerge from this forum on origins—from teachers who see similar threats to both science and the Christian faith. There is also a strong awareness of the vocation of the scientist, that studying the handiwork of God magnifies his attributes, and that descriptions of the physical world are incomplete without reference to its Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer. Participants agree on the need for more dialogue between scientists and biblical scholars.
“The three views,” says Kenneth Kantzer, “with minor variations along the side, are rampant in what I would call evangelicalism.” And though a “harmonizing” of these views would be impossible, “there ought to be more places for interaction.”
From this particular discussion, it is clear that such interaction would thrive on shared love for a personal Creator present in his creation and active in the life of the individual scientist. Emerging from this conversation among Christians who are scientists is an abiding respect for God’s truth revealed in Scripture and in nature, and a desire to bring to light the strict limits of scientific understanding.
Underlying these common convictions, on a deeper plane, appears a bedrock humility—the prerequisite virtue, it would seem, for both scientific and biblical understanding. In Pun’s words: “Science can be used as a ministerial servant to bring us to a humble realization that we are only finite beings in this universe. We cannot answer all questions.”
Back To The Cosmos
Proceeding from such humble knowledge, believer and agnostic alike face a remarkable cosmos not of their making, unexpected yet understandable. The scientist in us all may seize the opportunity to find the reason for such comprehensible mystery. “Curiously,” said Albert Einstein, confronted with the dilemma of an evidently created order, “we have to be resigned to recognizing the ‘miracle’ without having any legitimate way of getting any further.”
The Christian can, of course, offer a way of getting further. And, in the dialogue among Christians who are scholars, the perspective of faith born of humility appears not as a leap between separate compartments of reason and faith. Instead, it is a reasonable commitment to a relationship—offering a transcendent perspective on origins that accounts for both purpose and mechanism, for humanity’s greatness and its fallenness, for the reach and the limits of our knowledge, for our nature which is neither are nor angel.
“Created in the image of God,” writes Owen Gingerich, who, as a consultant on Sagan’s Cosmos series admonished the producers about its metaphysical overtones, “we are called not to power or personal justice, but to sacrificial love. I confess that this is not the logical conclusion of my line of argument; indeed, it is the beginning, the point of departure for a way of perceiving science and the universe. But unless we can see the universe in those terms, I believe we are headed with the rest of the fallen human race to nuclear suicide.”
This perspective of childlike faith in search of understanding and a way to live emerges as the essential, redeeming Christian contribution to the give-and-take between religion and science. It is the same perspective gained by author and diplomat Claire Booth Luce, who described her conversion to the Christian faith in 1945 as involving the rejection of “ ‘evolution’ as an explanation rather than a process of life.”
“The glow of conviction,” she wrote, “can only be formed in the fire of Faith by the breath of God’s grace, as one opens one’s heart as well as mind to it. It is not that you abandon your reason at this point, but rather that having gone as far as your reason will carry you, God, at your prayerful request carries it into the realms of Faith.”
Science And Semantics
Coming to terms with the vocabulary of origins.
anthropomorphismn.A form of speech ascribing human characteristics to God, angels, or animals.
big bangn. According to one cosmological theory, the violent cosmic explosion at an infinitesimally small point from which the universe originated billions of years ago.
colophonn. An inscription at the end of a book or literary passage giving the name of the author or scribe or commenting on its contents.
cosmogonyn. A theory or story about the origin of the universe or the solar system. Like our own civilization, ancient cultures had cosmogonies, or explanations of how the physical universe began.
divine fiatn. God’s effective and creative decree. From the Latin word for “Let it be done,” as in the Latin version of Genesis 1:3, “Fiat lux” (“Let there be light”).
entropyn. A measure of the disorder in a system. Since the law of entropy states that a closed system evolves toward a state of maximum entropy, critics of evolutionary theory point out that the increasing order and complexity involved in evolution would require some kind of outside influence or intelligence.
evolutionary naturalismn. The belief that the world can be understood only through the application of evolutionary science and that no account need be taken of supernatural or spiritual forces.
flood geologyn. An attempt to explain major aspects of the fossil record and the geological column by reference to the violent upheavals that would have accompanied a worldwide deluge (Gen. 7). Conventional science posits long periods of time necessary for laying down various geological layers, while flood geologists assert that the rapidly receding flood waters could accomplish the same end in a reasonably brief time.
fossil recordn. The fossilized remains of various organisms arranged in the geological column in a manner that conventional science asserts broadly reflects the evolution of species. Creationist critics of conventional science claim that the fossil record is inconsistent and not complete enough to warrant this conclusion.
geological columnn. Strata of different varieties of rock that are thought by evolutionists to reflect the various periods of Earth’s history. Long ages are generally considered necessary to account for these strata.
hypothesisn. A provisional explanation for natural phenomena. For a hypothesis to have scientific value, it must account for most of the relevant data and, at least in theory, must be subject to disproof.
macroevolutionn. Large-scale biological changes involving transitions between species and large groups of organisms.
microevolutionn. Limited genetic changes at the species or subspecies level.
mythn. Commonly, a legendary story not to be trusted; properly, a legendary story, true or false, that has powerfully influenced a civilization.
natural selectionn. The process, according to evolutionary theory, by which organisms with traits that better enable them to adapt to environmental factors, such as predators or scarcity of food, will survive and reproduce in greater numbers.
operation-sciencen. The study of regular and repeatable phenomena associated with nature as we know it.
origin-sciencen. The study of unique or rare phenomena associated with the origins of life or the physical universe.
paradigm shiftn. A fundamental change in the way scientists understand the natural order, such as the changes that accompanied the acceptance of theories of organic evolution or Einsteinian physics.
progressive creationismn. The belief that, at key periods interspersed by long ages, God intervened directly in the natural order to create Earth and its life forms. This model attempts to take seriously both the Genesis account and the conclusions of conventional science.
recent creationn. The belief that the origins of life and the physical universe occurred relatively recently, compared to the estimates of conventional science that the cooling of the Earth’s crust and the earliest primitive life forms occurred several billion years ago.
scientific creationismn. An attempt to read the scientific data about origins in harmony with a literal reading of the Genesis creation story. Most scientific creationists hold to recent creationism and the influence of a universal flood while denying the existence of macroevolution.
special creationn. The belief that God intervened directly in the natural order to bring about the Earth and its life forms.
sudden creationn. The belief that the formation of the Earth and the creation of most life forms took place in a relatively brief period of time. Conventional science estimates the history of the development of Earth’s life forms at about 2.5 billion years.
theistic evolutionismn. The belief that accepts the general account of organic evolution while positing the guiding providence of God at key points in that process.
young Earthn. The belief that the Earth came into existence only thousands of years ago, as opposed to the conventional belief that the Earth is over 4 billion years old.
Science writer Bill Durbin, Jr., is a doctoral student in religious studies at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Formerly an associate producer of CBN News, Durbin has a book in progress on the dialogue between scientific and religious understanding.
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