“An Evolving Creation: Oxymoron or Fruitful Insight?” by Keith Miller
In the first in a series of posts going through the book “Perspectives on an Evolving Creation” (Keith Miller, ed.), we look at the Scientific and Theological justifications for the very idea of an “Evolving Creation”.
As the title of this essay suggests, it sets the tone for the rest of the book by laying out what exactly the authors mean by an “evolving creation”. Miller begins by defining terms. “Evolution,” as he uses it, “refers to the descent with modification of all living things from a common ancestor. Miller talks of “Creation” as a noun meaning anything “to which God has given being” and as a verb meaning God’s past and present action of bringing things into existence and sustaining them there (closely related to the idea of Providence). In light of these seemingly innocuous, uncontroversial definitions, can we really say that an idea of an “Evolving Creation” is inherently antithetical and contradictory? Miller, nor I, believe this is the case.
Historically speaking, at the time of Darwin and The Origin of Species, a good percentage of theologians and scientists saw no contradiction between the ideas of Darwin and accepted theology. Many of the earliest Christian interpretations of Genesis had already allowed room for at least an old earth idea if not outright allegorical or poetic views of the book (Augustine and Origen, anyone?). Darwin’s strongest American defenders were all Orthodox evangelical Christians (including Asa Gray, George Frederick Wright, and James Dana). Famously, B.B. Warfield, a primary defender of Biblical inerrancy and authority was also an outspoken believer in the validity of evolution. Also, shockingly, “several authors of the ‘Fundamentals’ (the set of volumes that gave us the term ‘fundamentalist’) accepted some form of evolutionary theory.”
Miller writes that those that claim Darwinian evolution is “inherently antitheistic and inseparably wedded to a worldview that denies God and objective morality” do so by equating this scientific understanding to a philosophy called “metaphysical naturalism”. Miller says this conflation of the two ideas is wrong and should be rejected. “The equation of evolutionary theory with a philosophy that denies the reality of anything beyond matter and energy not only is false but is an impediment to quality scientific and theological thinking.”
Interpreting Scripture and Nature
In this next section, Miller questions a prevailing presupposition of many evangelicals that says that fully and scientifically explaining any natural phenomena necessarily means that you are removing God from the equation (ergo, Science and God are at odds with one another). This idea usually comes from how one views Scripture. Concerning this, Miller says:
“Conflicts are bound to result if Scripture and science are understood to be addressing the same issues in the same way. Appeals to the “plain meaning” of Scripture and an emphasis on personal interpretation divorced from its historical, cultural, and literary context encourage Scripture to be read from a modern Western scientific outlook. However, does this way of reading Scripture do it justice?” (Perspectives, p. 5)
What this means is that there is no such thing as purely “objectively” reading Scripture, so we must always be reevaluating the filters through which we read and interpret it. But the same goes for Science. Science is not an objective body of knowledge, but a body of tested theories that have proved reliable over time. This means that there is a healthy amount of mystery and diversity of thought within the Scientific community. This is what makes science exciting and fresh. What makes evolutionary theory so powerful is that it has been used as a predictive tool in so many areas of research and has yielded so many insights.
But science can only answer questions concerning natural causes, not supernatural causes. “Science restricts itself to proximate causes, and the confirmation or denial of ultimate causes is beyond its capacity…The scientific enterprise is no more based on a philosophy that denies God than is plumbing or auto mechanics. Science works, it is productive and fruitful, because it is religiously neutral” But while this is true, we are able to (and as Christians have the responsibility to) let these different areas of our humanity inform one another in order to be whole intellectually.
Important Theological and Scientific Issues
Miller then goes goes through many of the theological and scientific concerns people have raised against the idea of an “Evolving Creation.” First, theologically speaking, some people act as if God’s role in this world is restricted to things that we don’t have scientific explanations for. What this would mean, then, is that with each new discovery, God’s active place in the universe shrinks. This certainly isn’t true. Instead, we should meet each new advance “with excitement and praise at the revelation of God’s creative hand.” Secondly, many don’t like the idea of chance and randomness inherent in an evolutionary framework. “However, scientifically, change events are simply those whose occurrence cannot be predicted based on initial conditions and known natural laws…God is thus seen [in light of His Sovereignty] as affecting events both at the [random] quantum level and at the level of large chaotic systems.”
In the science section, Miler goes through a litany of “scientific” ideas Christians have used to try and disprove evolution. I honestly can’t go through all of what he says. If you really want to read it, here are the relevant pages in Google Books. Long story short, he talks about the “lack of transitionary fossils”, “irreducible complexity”, “amino acid sequences”, “obvious intelligent design”, and others. To all the Christians out there: I don’t care what you’ve heard, I promise, all these arguments are false. There are transitionary fossils, they have been able to reproduce transitionary structures that were supposedly “irreducible”, they have been able to account for the amino acids necessary to create life. All these popular arguments of creationists were formulated in the 80s, and since then have all been debunked. But we Christians keep saying these things because we are so disconnected from the scientific research. We are so firmly in our bubble, we keep wrong twenty year old arguments thinking they still have validity.
Miller ends this essay by saying:
“[B]iological evolution is an extremely well-supported and fruitful theory that provides a basis for understanding and synthesizing an amazing range of observations of our natural world. There is no other conceptual framework that has been proposed that provides anything like the explanatory and predictive power of evolutionary theory. The evangelical Christian community must thus pursue the integration of an evolutionary understanding of Earth and life history with theological understandings of God’s creative and redemptive activity if we wish to effectively impact our increasingly technological and scientific society.”
For those that agree with this statement — those Christians that may have accepted the validity of Darwinian evolution; those that read my previous post and became so excited that this series was going to happen — there is perhaps a joy and anticipation growing within you at the realization that you are not alone and things might change. But, there is a model firmly entrenched in the American evangelical mind that has created a war between the two books of God’s revelation. This is wrong, unbiblical, and actually does harm to both our theology and our Scripture. This war must end. This “conflict model” has run its course and it has wreaked havoc on our society, our science, and our Church.
The Bible, taken on its merits, only tells that God created: that all things find their source and sustenance in Him. It does not say how He created. He instead gives us the privilege of worshipping Him with our whole selves by endeavoring to slowly discover how this story took place from beginning until now. This is the role, realm, and purpose of Science. In the next post I’ll write, we’ll look at the next essay in the book which looks at the Genesis text itself to see what it has to say to us when accepted on its own terms from within in its own context.