Scripture and science

The next big challenge for the Christian community appears to be how to integrate the recent claims of the human genome project, which published its findings in 2004.  This month’s issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (published by the American Scientific Affiliation) is devoted to this question, and three of its four essays conclude that we must dramatically revise the Christian faith in light of genetic research.

Specifically, the authors claim that the human genome project has demonstrated that humans not only evolved from lower life forms but that we came on the scene by the thousands rather than from an original, historical Adam.  I will lay out their arguments in the near future (it’s a lot of science to digest), but first I want to observe what even the authors suggest is at stake.

Two of the contributors are Bible and Theology professors at Calvin College, Daniel Harlow and John Schneider, so I immediately wondered how their views mesh with their positions at this denominational school.  Schneider concedes that his Christian Reformed Church “prohibits ‘espousal of theories that posit the reality of evolutionary forebears of human beings’ as ‘ruled out by Scripture and the Reformed confessions,’ yet oddly does not intend this prohibition to ‘limit further investigation and discussion on this topic’” (209).  Schneider wisely suggests that his proposals are merely “exploratory,” which may protect him by placing his views in the “further investigation” category (197).

Harlow clearly does not believe in a historical Adam or a historical Fall (Schneider doesn’t seem to either, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that his entire essay is merely a trial balloon).  Both agree that the Apostle Paul believed in an actual Adam and a real Fall, but he did not have the benefit of the human genome project.  Harlow explains that “Paul, like Luke, no doubt regarded Adam as a historical person…  Paul had little reason not to regard Adam as a historical figure, whereas today we have many reasons for recognizing him as a strictly literary one” (190). 

Schneider acknowledges that skepticism about a historical Adam means giving up the inerrancy of Scripture, for “it seems unlikely that Paul (or Luke) in the New Testament understood biblical Adam in this symbolic way” (200).

I appreciate the tension between our readings of science and Scripture, and I affirm that we must use the findings of one to interpret the other.  But why do I feel like Scripture is being asked to do all of the accommodating?  If you think that the discoveries of science are contradicting the clear teaching of Scripture, you might consider pushing back on the claims of science. 

Besides biblical inerrancy, there are obviously huge theological problems with denying an original Adam and a historical Fall.  I plan on discussing these in the near future, but after spending most of my day reading these essays, I had to say at least this for now.    

The next few months and years may be a bumpy ride.  When professors at Christian colleges are willing to throw Paul and the inerrancy of Scripture under the bus of the human genome project, you know that the debate is about to become ugly and very, very important.

19 Comments

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  1. I think there is a significant difference between ‘science’ that seeks to explain the world God created and ‘Science’ that seeks to exclude or explain away the Creator. Sadly, many confuse the one for the other.

  2. My first thought is such claims of diversity of origen go beyond the rigour of the scientific method. Who was there to see it happen? Just because someone claims the results of the genome project “demonstrates” thus and so begs the question of how does it “demonstrate” thus and so. I think we are to quick to give “scientific” pronouncments more credit then they deserve in light of a properly rigourous applicatin of the scientifc method.

    Cheers…

  3. I think you’ll get heat for suggesting that science (ie fact) should be pushed back on because of faith (belief). That’s how I keep seeing the discussion cast any way.

    I found Schaffer insightful on this:

    The…more terrifying way, I think, is the headlong rush toward sociological science. Because men have lost the objective basis of certainty of knowledge of the thing in which they are working, more and more I fear we are going to find them manipulating science according to their own sociological or political desire rather than standing upon concrete objectivity. I think we are going to find more and more what I call sociological science, where we find men manipulating the scientific facts…What does science mean any more–once you are no longer sure of the objectivity of the thing, or you are no longer on an epistemological base that gives the certainty of a correlation between the subject and the object? – Francis A. Schaffer, He Is There and He Is Not Silent, 70

    The question is which presupposition you read the science with. Atheistic Materialism with a closed universe or Christianity with an opened universe. They will yield different answers from the same data.

  4. The ASA has always leaned toward “theistic evolution.” For this reason, I have never been able to give my support to them. They, in fact, are so committed to theistic evolution that other old earth creationism views are rarely if ever explored in their publications.

    There are groups like Reasons to Believe (http://www.reasons.org/) that fully embrace biblical inerrancy, special creation, literal Adam and more, but are rarely acknowledged by theologians. These groups routinely point out that evolution is not the only way to interpret the data from the human genome project.

  5. I’m reading an excellent book called “The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind” by Alister McGrath. It doesn’t deal with a literal or literary Adam specifically but it talks about ways of thinking about theology and engaging with scientists and modern culture that is true to God’s Word. Rather than pitting faith against science, there is a way of thinking about God’s Word and God’s world that allows a harmonization even if not every question is answered. I believe in a historical Adam and I was under the impression that science had proved we did come from a common ancestor. I’m interested to hear more about this!

  6. So, the Word of God has it all wrong – and of course, the Apostle Paul did not have benefit of the human genome project – pride sure has a recognizable odor! My thinking must be considered oh so childlike, and certainly not academic – if analysis of data conflicted with Scripture I would assume the error to be on my end and that there must be another interpretation of the data. But then again Al Gore and his polar bears come to mind as well.

  7. Dave:

    I read 1 Cor. 1:18-25 this morning, and thought it was particularly relevant here. To paraphrase Jesus, “If you’ve got ears, use ’em!”

  8. Dr. Wittmer,

    Thank you so much for entering this discussion. I just finished the book by Francis Collins, The Language of God, in which he makes his case for theistic evolution. Some of it was a good case, and it was all very interesting. But I had the gnawing feeling that scripture was getting the short end of the stick… other possible interpretations of the data, both scripture and science may be available that he was not even considering.

    I am an evangelical, strongly committed to the authority of scripture and it’s inerrancy. Yet I do struggle with some modern findings of science in light of our faith and would very much appreciate further posts from you on these topics. For your information, there is a new website called “Biologos” that was started by Collins and has as its contributors video clips from guys like John Walton, Tremper Longman, N.T. Wright… It is an interesting and informative sight, though still I wonder if the whole story (biblically) is being set forth there.

    Especially interesting is the concept of Genesis 1-2 as “mythical” as presented on that sight. They would be quick to say that myth does not need to mean “untrue” or “unhistorical”, but that Adam represents mankind, the story of the forbidden fruit is the human experience rather than just speaking of Adam and Eve. I think I can buy a lot of this, if we still insist that there was an historical Adam and Eve, and tree, etc… Thoughts?

  9. Apologies for the misspelling of “site” with “sight”…my bad!

  10. Tom, consider spending some quality time at the web site of Reasons to Believe (http://reasons.org/). They are evangelical, old earth creationists. They have been openly critical of Collins, while not being hostile. They adhere to a high view of scripture including a literal Adam.

    Something to think about.

  11. Mike – Biologos was brought up. They have an interesting series of short videos with NT Wright. In the latest, he deals with the role Adam plays in the theology of the fall (see http://biologos.org/blog/pauls-perspective-on-adam/). I find two things interesting: 1) he never answers the question about the historicity of Adam and the fall but 2) given his explanation I can’t imagine he can deny the historicity of Adam and the fall…Wrights entire theology depends upon it. See what you think.

  12. I need to get the publication they put our on their findings. I like how you pointed out that it seems Scripture always has to accommodate to scientific findings or conclusions. It is true.

  13. Brian:

    I agree with your assessment. I hope that I’m not being overly critical here, but it felt to me that the entire video was a sleight of hand. Peter Enns asked Wright about the historical Adam, Wright spent three minutes without even attempting to answer the question (perhaps he missed its significance?), and yet it’s on the Biologos site as a statement about the historical Adam. Which it’s not. Especially given Biologos’ obvious awareness of the interest in the important question of a historical Adam, it seems fishy that they would advertise a non-answer answer on this question.

  14. Mike, As I imagine you know this is well worn on Scot McKnight’s blog, Jesus Creed, with RJS a scientist and professor working on it through many posts over months now. But a difficult subject indeed.

    My own stance at this point is that a reading of scripture in light of its ANE context casts serious doubt on YEC. And that the scientific basis for evolution from what I understand second hand, does seem to be strong.

    And that YEC understanding struggles with the Genesis account, as well as any theistic evolutionary understanding. And that the point of scripture is indeed that humanity made in God’s image, sinned, and that Christ’s redemptive work which ends up new creation, seems inherently woven into the fabric of the entire Story.

    That is my take at this point, but it will be interesting to see how this falls out over time. I just can’t see it ending up as a litmus test for soundness of faith, yet there is much involved in it, as you say. View of scripture, how it is the word of God, etc.

  15. Let’s see where the evidence takes us.

    To suggest that the entire human race at some point in time sprang from one mating couple would seem to be common sense.

    To posit that said couple would be the first to display knowledge of good and evil isn’t unreasonable either.

    Okay, maybe their literal names weren’t Adam and Eve. Maybe they were the result of some evolutionary process, maybe not.

    Let’s take a good look at the article and it’s assumptions and see if it *really* leads in a new direction or is just more of the same stuff dressed up like a new revelation.

  16. As a college professor at a state university (but not in the natural sciences), I can attest to the hostility that typical faculty members have toward Christianity, and especially that Christianity that holds to an evangelical faith and the inerrancy of Scripture. I also believe that a lot of Christian colleges (and especially those faculty members in the natural sciences) do wish to be seen as “respectable” in circles where people might naturally hold some hostility toward them.

    Now, when I attend conferences, I generally don’t have to defend a Christian view of things in the sessions, but my area of study (economics) does not concern itself with evolution, theistic or natural. I’m not going to face hostility for my faith, and even if I were to say that I was in favor of creation, my colleagues might think me strange, but nonetheless my ability as an academic would depend upon the quality of my work in economics, not in biology or chemistry.

    However, the Christian professor in the natural sciences is faced with the choice either of being considered a fraud and a poseur (i.e. Guillermo Gonzalez being denied tenure at Iowa State despite an excellent academic record because other faculty did not like his views), or being “one of the crowd.” Those are not trivial matters, and no one likes to go to a conference and be labeled a “religious kook,” and that is what happens.

    (I chair the university committee on promotions and tenure and am quite familiar with how these procedures work. I don’t buy the spin coming out of Iowa State. Furthermore, I cannot help but wonder if the supposed dearth of grant money also was tied to Gonzalez’s belief in “Intelligent Design,” given that those in charge of awarding large grants — usually from government sources — generally are hostile to anything but hardcore natural evolution.)

    Furthermore, it is nearly impossible today for anyone who believes in Intelligent Design or outright Creation to be hired at a secular university faculty and also to receive tenure. That is not necessarily the case for economics, and no one asked me for my preferences on evolution when I was interviewed for this job.

    Thus, Christians in these fields generally find themselves either going into another line of work or teaching at Christian colleges where research opportunities are very, very limited. That is the hard reality that they face.

    On top of that, places like Calvin want to be thought of as high-quality institutions that produce both good teachers AND good researchers. Given that, theologically speaking, Calvin has moved toward liberalism for a long time (and it really has, people, no joke), I’m not surprised to see Calvin professors claiming “theistic evolution,” which supposedly lets them have their Christian cake and eat it, too.

  17. For those interested, the entire journal is available online for free and offers perspectives (such as that by C. John Collins) that differs greatly from that of the Calvin profs.

    http://ezrss.it/search/index.php?show_name=Outsourced&show_name_exact=true&mode=rss

  18. Thanks for this, Kyle. I didn’t realize that this was available on-line. I second your recommendation of Collins’ article, which counters the other three.

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