Posts Tagged ‘Darwin’

Darwinism

December 24, 2009

A lot of my friends are writing an essay on whether science in general, and darwinism in particular, are compatible with Christian belief. It’s got me – someone who’s tempted to be a bit of a fence-sitter on the whole issue – thinking a bit about the issues involved.

A lot of Christians have strong opinions on the issue – depending on who you talk to, the mainstream scientific opinion on the origins of life is either anti-Christian and contradictory, or not in the slightest bit of conflict with Christianity. I’m not going to try and put forward a particular view of origins as being the correct one here – there are plenty of books I can suggest for those interested that do precisely that – but I do think it’s a bit more complex than those two options.

I’m not happy with the assumptions that Christians who have strong views often make about those who have the opposite views: Creationists often think evolutionists are theological liberals or commiting apostasy; evolutionists often think creationists are backwards and fundamentalist. Actually there are educated, non-fundamentalist Christians who don’t believe in evolution, and faithful, orthodox, even conservative, ones who do. Wayne Grudem does us all a favour in his Systematic Theology by pointing out that the test of whether we’ve really grasped the message of the Bible’s statements on creation is how we treat those Christians who disagree with the interpretation we hold. And there are a lot of different, nuanced, positions taken by Christians. Alister McGrath, in a lecture a while ago when he visited Nottingham, said he’s heard of at least 20 Christian positions on origins. Adrian Warnock lists 6 (+1 Atheist perspective) on his blog, with some good links to further resources. So let’s not pretend it’s obvious to all Christians (or even all “real” Christians – whatever content we want to put into that loaded phrase) that any one view is right.

I’m also not happy with presentations of the issue that make it seem like there are no problems with a particular view of origins. A problem for young-earth creationism is why God created a world that appears to be much older than it is on numerous different indicators of age; or why there are two accounts of creation in Genesis. There are some explantions which creationists offer for these phenomena, but also a lot of them are honest enough to admit that there are “difficulties” or problems that remain unresolved. I think it is the same for Darwinism and Christian belief.

Even if we separate “Darwinism” from “naturalism” and say that we’re only talking about evolution within a Christian framework, it’s good to be aware of the potential areas of tension. I think a few of the difficulties for reconciling Darwinism and (evangelical – though some problems also apply to nonevangelicals) Christian faith might be:

  • Biblical difficulties – are there texts which are hard to interpret in a Darwinian framework? How are (e.g.) Genesis 1 and 2 to be understood? Romans 5:12? Were Adam and Eve the first people? Was there a “historical” (in the sense of an actual event, whether or not investigable by historians) Adam and “Fall”?
  • Theological difficulties – the problem of evil being a big one. If we want to adopt an “Augustinian Theodicy” which ascribes suffering, death and evil to judgement upon humanity’s sin then there doesn’t appear to be room for natural selection – at least not without extensive modifications of the traditional theodicy. Augustinian theodicy and Darwinism seem very hard to reconcile – so which one do we abandon, modify or reconsider?
  • Philosophical problems – is a God who creates by seemingly natural processes the same God as the one who seems personal and interventionist in the Bible? Isn’t he rather the God of Deism who winds up the universe and then sits back? And is there any real basis for an ontological distinction between humans and animals such as the gospel might suggest to us?

I’m aware that some, and I’m I’m sure that all, of these questions can be answered by Christians who believe in evolution – and I look forward to reading some of the essays people are writing on this question at the moment. But I don’t think I could say there was no conflict between Darwinism and Christian faith. These kinds of points remain points of tension just as much as the Biblical and Scientific problems for Christians who reject evolution. At the current point in the debate, do we have to say that no one option is entirely satisfactory for Christians? I think that we might. While still professing faith in the gospel and a confidence in the Scriptures, it is possible to admit that there are some things we just don’t understand – and how precisely the world and human beings were created might be one of them.

Creationism: All Luther and Calvin’s fault?

April 10, 2009

I managed to catch “Did Darwin Kill God” on iPlayer before it disappeared into the digital ether.  One of the members of staff in the Theology Department at Nottingham, Conor Cunningham, presented perhaps the most interesting (to me!) parts of the BBC’s Darwin season. Essentially, Cunningham was arguing for the “no conflict” position – belief in some form of evolution is compatible with the orthodox Christian belief in the Bible as the Word of God. In fact, the programme shared remarkable affinity with the argument of the evangelical scientist Denis Alexander’s recent book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have To Choose?, both even quoting Augustine’s On the Literal Meaning of Genesis. What was especially interesting was how modern the Young-Earth Creationist position is.

However, one thing that stuck out as odd in the programme was how Conor Cunningham introduced the idiosyncratic views of Bishop Ussher with a sideswipe at Protestantism:

“The Reformation saw some Christians reject the authority of the Catholic Church in Rome, embracing instead the Bible as the sole source of authority. Scripture, not the Pope, was now their master. The decision of Luther and Calvin to question Papal authority opened the floodgates for anyone to read the Bible as they wished.”

To be sure, Protestantism’s sola Scriptura has been at least partly responsible for its “genius for fission” (A.E. McGrath) and denominalization. But I doubt either Luther or Calvin would recognize themselves in the description as encouragers of “anyone reading the Bible as they wished”. Such a way of phrasing it implies that the authority lies with the interpreter, not with the Bible. But for Luther and his followers, “Scripture is its own interpreter” (Scriptura ipsius interpres) and questions of interpretation cannot be resolved by an authority above the Bible (since no such authority exists) but by the Bible itself, as J.I. Packer argues:

“Scripture yields two basic principles for its own interpretation. The first is that the proper, natural sense of each passage (i.e., the intended sense of the writer) is to be taken as fundamental; the meaning of texts in their own contexts, and for their original readers, is the necessary starting-point for enquiry into their wider significance… The second basic principle of interpretation is that Scripture must interpret Scripture; the scope and significance of one passage is to be brought out by relating it to others.”

With an issue like Evolution and Genesis 1-2, different interpretations are bound to arise – but the Reformers would insist that any proffered interpretation be subject to the authority of the Bible, and weighed on its intrinsic merits – including its plausibility (“Unless I am convinced by Scripture or by plain reason… I cannot and will not recant” – Luther). This is completely different to the idea that sola Scriptura and private interpretation amount to letting anyone make the Bible say just what they want it to say. Private interpretation of the text does not mean that the reader gets to interpret the Bible however they wish, but that they are to seek out the true meaning whether they like it or not. (In fact, it may well be that the Roman Catholic approach of resolving differences of interpretation by an authoritative judgement by the Church’s magisterial authority is more vulnerable to an accusation of placing the interpreter above the Bible)

Perhaps the problem is that so much of Protestantism believes the myth that private interpretation means exactly what Cunningham suggests it does – and so in practice actually reject the authority not only of the Pope but also of the Bible – the classic error of liberalism.