Programmer Thoughts

By John Dickinson

Darwin and Church History

October 22, 2008

I’m currently writing a paper on Charles Darwin and his influence on church history. What is your perspective on the relation of science and theology? If I get some interesting responses, I’ll follow up with my thoughts.

Questions, in no particular order, to spur your thinking:

  1. Must one choose between young-earth creationism and an atheistic interpretation of evolution by natural selection? Is there a middle ground?
  2. Is your view consistent with as-yet-undiscovered scientific facts? In other words, is your argument based on a current unknown remaining unknown?
  3. Supposing that the modern understanding of evolution is true, life, even sentient life, may have developed some other place in the universe. How does your theology handle this possibility?
  4. What is the definition of science? How does one determine if darwinian evolution or intelligent design (or any other theory) is a valid scientific theory?
  5. What is to be done about the science upon which evolution is based (chiefly geology and paleontology)?
  6. How does your viewpoint account for the problem of evil in the world?

Update: Part 2 and Part 3

Update: Due to migrating my blog to a commentless system, original comments on this discussion are reproduced below.

Jon Norvell

I’ve tried to answer your questions as best I could on my blog. I needed something to jumpstart my own writing/thinking.


I will be pretty busy for the next few days, but I will try to respond as soon as possible. I admit that question 3 is a little biased, sorry about that. If one takes the premise that sentient life only exists as a special act of God here on earth, the question makes no sense. As a quick follow-up question (until I have time to post more), by which method do you see science progressing: inductive reasoning or deductive reasoning?

Lydia Norvell

Before I read Jon’s answers, I’ll give my very short answers here:

  1. I do not believe there is a middle ground. I would not have answered this way even 6 months ago, but I can’t take pieces out of the Bible and still believe in the rest of the Bible; therefore I must believe in young-earth creationism. I do believe in evolution within a species, but not cross-species, which is what Darwin proposes.

  2. No. God can work miracles without and within science.

  3. Hm…I think that God has a redeeming plan for all, and if that includes Martians, then so be it.

  4. Science needs to be replicable. However, both theories are as improbable as the other in regards to replication. So, a theory needs to be supported by scientific facts.

  5. I’d question the presuppositions that these sciences have. Science is a lot more a belief system than we’d like to admit.

  6. Unlike Darwinianism, the Christian worldview actually considers morality. The problem of evil is very real, and God redeems us individually, and will redeem the world at the end.

Justin Allison

I think that there is a sort of middle ground. For me, the creation stories came about as a response to several different things. First, I think that they express the truth that God is the creator. My view of inspiration allows for God to give this truth to humankind and allow them to write this in their own fashion. In Genesis this takes the shape of 2 creation stories, both of which I believe are polemical against the Babylonian understanding of the time. They are also highly stylized writings, which show a unique thought and way of expressing that thought. So, I believe the creation stories because I believe that their point is that God created the world (universe) and everything in it.

  1. I don’t really understand this question… I think that creation stories are an un-scientific way of expressing something that has been divinely revealed, namely that God is the creator of what we see/experience. Scientific explanations utilize another form of speech/rhetoric and even worldview which results in its own story of origins based upon it’s implied ideology.

  2. My theology would not be changed by a discovery of life somewhere else in the universe. As stated, I believe God created all that exists, and has created life in general. So, any form of life or matter was created by God.

  3. I think science has to do with observing things which happen repeatedly and making deductive conclusions about that behavior. As such, I believe science to be limited, and even inaccurate in regard to it’s theories of the past. After all, theories of the past are not repeatable or deductive. They are instead conjecture and inductive – which is not the realm of science in my understanding.

  4. Based upon my answer to #4, you can see where I’m going. “science of the past” is much less authoritative than something like physics. It involves a lot of inductive reasoning, which can only prove plausibility at best. Geology, Archeology, etc., can only recommend scenarios of the past. They cannot PROVE something without doubt. For more info on this view check out the beginning section Ian Provan’s book: A Biblical History of Israel. The beginning is the best part.

  5. I’m still working on a reasoned judgment of evil in the world. I don’t want to incriminate myself by making a statement I’ll regret later or merely give an opinion. “I don’t know” is the best I can do.

Tim Dolch

John: Margie saw your blog and suggested I post a response. I’ve tried to limit it, and I would be open to further discussion of my claims. You say you paper is on Darwin and the church, but your questions concern science, theology and philosophy, not church history. Even if you’ve already written your paper, I hope my answers are helpful to you.

  1. One can be a theistic evolutionist. Some Christians, especially Catholics, link evolution to the neoplatontic and stoic ideas incorporated into theology by Augustine, Aquinas and others. (God as the One, or highest being, from whom the world emanates and develops according to the potencies of being.) However, I think Biblical Christianity and evolution are inconsistent in at least 3 major ways.

    First, the uniquely Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo, and its corollary, the distinction between God and the world, conflict with evolution’s requirement that natural forces can explain the origin of the universe, life from nonliving matter, intelligence from unintelligent life, etc.

    Second, the Bible presents the creation and flood narratives as history. Many people read the Biblical narratives as teaching general ideas rather than historical facts as such (i.e. Gen. 1-2 teaches that God created, but not how). I think it can be shown that that such readings a) are basically Gnostic, b) prevent us from seeing many elements of the texts, or the richness of Biblical theology, c) post-date evolutionary theory and thus seem to be merely easy ways to avoid dealing with the conflict of histories rather than serious attempts at exegesis, and d) actually undermine the general ideas that are supposed to be the real teachings. James Jordan’s In Six Days is excellent on these issues.

    Third, the doctrines of the fall of man and the atonement conflict with evolutionary history. The Bible presents the death of man and the higher (breathing) animals as the result of Adam’s sin, and the death of the sinless Christ as bearing the consequences of sin, so that believers gain eternal life because Christ has died for them. Evolution, on the other hand, treats death as a consequence of a struggle for existence and as the instrument of natural selection, so that new forms evolve in part through the death of inferior forms. If evolutionary history is true, then the death of Christ loses its meaning because then death is not an enemy and not the consequence of sin. Thomas Huxley’s essay, “Lights of the Church and the Light of Science,” presses this point nicely.

  2. There are two kinds of unknowns in science: causes and facts. In regard to causes, unknowns are sometimes covered by “gap” arguments. “God of the gaps” arguments propose God as a supernatural cause when the efficient cause is unknown. “God of the gaps” thinking is not only unscientific, in that it tempts us to give up on seeking natural explanations, but it is also bad theology, because it severely limits God’s role in the universe, and makes God less and less significant as science progresses. I take the view of the Westminster Confession of Faith 3.1, that “God from all eternity did…freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby…the liberty or contingency of second causes [is not] taken away, but rather established.” In other words, God co-causes everything, and even establishes all of the natural laws that science investigates. “God did it” is not an alternative to scientific explanation, but rather is a different level of explanation.

    There is also “nature of the gaps” thinking, where a label or story is applied to a phenomena as if it explains it, when in fact the label explains nothing or the story fails to establish its own possibility in terms of known mechanisms. The strong nuclear force in physics, abiogenesis, and Aristotelian natures are labels that explain nothing. Most macro-evolutionary theory (e.g. birds from dinosaurs) is simply imaginative storytelling, no less unscientific than “God did it.”

    By unknown facts I mean things a theory predicts will not exist or happen. “Undiscoverables,” if you will. Undiscoverables based on known causes and patterns, are of the essence of science, because understanding what is not possible is the flip-side of understanding how something works. Consider conservation laws, or any equation for that matter: they are informative precisely insofar as they limit what we can expect to observe.

    Young-earth creation predicts we won’t find transitional forms or constructive mutations, based to some extent on Genesis, but more technically on what we know about the fossil record, genetics and information theory. By contrast, Darwin put forward his theory in spite of the “imperfection of the geologic record” and ignorance of genetics. A century after Darwin the evidence still had not materialized, and so “punctuated equilibrium” was proposed to explain why we shouldn’t expect to find the evidence. Evolutionary theory has also predicted undiscoverables, e.g. “living fossils,” rapid formation of geological and paleontological artifacts (strata, fossils, petroleum), and functions for vestigial organs and “junk DNA”—all of which have been discovered. Evolution is so broad that it can change to accommodate these unexpected finds, but this is not a virtue, because the more a concept explains the less useful it is scientifically. Repeatedly, belief in evolution has led to inaccurate assumptions, futile paths of inquiry, and counterproductive medical practice. Biblical creation and evolution are both large-scale frameworks for science and both involve unknowns and “undiscoverables,” but I think creation, because it has a category for the omnipotent supernatural, disposes us to more sober expectations and assessment of the natural.

  3. I think intelligent alien life is another “undiscoverable” predicted by Christianity, so I suppose I would give up Christianity if it were discovered. It is worth noting that the search for intelligent alien life presupposes that we will be able to recognize the effects of intelligence when we find them. ID is certainly not any less scientific than the search for intelligent alien life.

  4. I think science involves 2 things: theoretical explanation in terms of efficient causes, and a rigorous method. Ideally the method is controlled experimentation, but where this is not possible, rigorous induction can approximate the certainty provided by controlled experiment. Historical sciences like geology, where theories cannot be directly tested, rely on induction.

    Are ID or evolution valid scientific theories? Sort of. Both are historical in nature. ID uses forensic methods to infer design; molecules-to-man evolution theorizes concerning historical relationships of descent. ID is sort of scientific because it uses an established, inductive method; evolution is sort of scientific because it pursues explanation in terms of efficient causes. Neither, it seems to me, contributes much to scientific progress in terms of laboratory results. Evolution in the sense of the common descent of all living forms from non-living matter has nothing to do with laboratory progress in biochemistry or physiology, or even with practical work in population biology.

    Science implies a degree of functional naturalism, because we search for natural (efficient) causes and in experiments we can only control natural causes. However, experimental design and interpretation requires speculation or presupposition as to what natural causes exist and how they might function. So science always operates in a super-scientific framework. The claim that evolution is central to science because evolution is naturalistic is wrong, because the functional naturalism of experimentation neither presupposes nor implies real, universal naturalism. Functional naturalism fits better in the framework of Christian theism, as I mentioned at the end of answer #2.

  5. Creation scientists have done a lot of interesting work in geology, e.g. John Baumgardner’s modeling of catastrophic plate techtonics, Steve Austin’s work on the Western U.S. including Mt. St. Helens and Grand Canyon, Michael Oard’s An Ice Age Caused by the Genesis Flood, and the Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth (RATE) project. But as to the evidence typically claimed for evolution:

    First, geology and paleontology really point to the world-wide flood more than to long periods of time: there are billions of dead things buried in rock layers laid down by water all over the earth. Some strata are continuous for hundreds of square miles. Only something on scale of the global flood and its aftermath can explain that.

    Second, Darwin’s theory relied on Lyell’s uniformitarian geology, with its principle that all geological formations can be explained by the slow, gradual operation of present phenomena over long ages. From 20th century observations of the power of floods and volcanoes to produce rapid, catastrophic geologic changes we know that long ages are neither necessary nor likely explanations of geologic phenomena.

    Third, there is a problem of circular reason between these fields. Rock strata are dated by the fossils in them, and fossils are dated by the rock strata in which they are found. There is an established outline, the evolutionary geologic column, into which all new discoveries are fit by means of this circular reasoning without any serious questioning of the outline—despite the fact that the established column cannot be found complete anywhere in the world.

    Fourth, there are several problems with radioactive dating methods: they require a) assuming the amount of starting material, and b) assuming the lack of any external influences (e.g. loss or gain of starting material or products) over the supposed thousands or millions of years. Also, c) in practice they give conflicting results and they conflict with other dating methods.

    Fifth, fame and grant money (particularly in the hominid subfield) have driven some paleontologists to propose interpretations that exaggerate the evolutionary significance of their empirical findings, or even to create frauds. Over time some of these things have been cleaned up—almost none of the evidence presented at the Scopes Trial is still accepted today—but some dubious interpretations remain part of the popular understanding of evolution. Creationists argue, for instance, that Cro-Magnon man, Neanderthal, and most homo erectus are humans with anatomical variations that are within the known range today’s population.

  6. Evil is a moral category because God is good, God defines what is good, and God judges between good and its opposite, evil. Evil originated in the rebellion of Satan, and it entered the world and human experience through Adam’s fall. It is because of Adam’s fall that we experience death, disease and suffering, and see these things in the natural world. Evil is an enemy; it does not in itself ultimately serve a good purpose. But evil is not omnipotent; God makes all evil serve good purposes for those who love him, as seen most clearly in Christ’s atoning death on the cross. Through the redemption of man God is working to eradicate evil from the universe.

    In Darwin’s God Cornelius Hunter shows that evolutionists from Darwin to the present have always relied on the argument that a good God would not make the world as it is, therefore evolution is a better explanation than divine design for how the world came to be. This Darwinist argument is based on the radically benevolent God (RBG) of Paley and other natural theologians, whose goodness is supposed to be evident throughout the natural world. But the RBG is not the God of the Bible who judges his enemies, and natural theology does not reckon with Paul’s description of the fallenness of the natural world in Romans 1 and 8. Therefore, the “God wouldn’t have made things this way” argument of evolutionists is a straw man argument against Biblical creation.

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