A major challenge in origins-related discussions is that there are usually a variety of interrelated “forces” at work “underneath” any position one specifies. In the face of debate it is often a difficult task to narrate one’s rationale because the interactions of these convictions may not be linear or even clearly definable. Our underlying judgments have web-like connections and the various components are rarely individually decisive, though they may vary in strength and negotiability.
Taken all together, though, I believe the messy interactions of these components can still lead to coherent answers to questions like the one posed here. In what follows, I will attempt to give a succinct account of the convictions that shape my answer to this particular question. To begin, a few preliminaries are in order to help locate my basic approach here.Further explication and nuance for many of the points raised below can be found in Tim Morris and Don Petcher, Science and Grace (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006).
Decades ago, Francis Schaeffer’s little book No Final Conflict convinced me that origins issues could be fruitfully approached by considering that Scripture often helpfully provides “limitations” for our science theorizing as believers, while also leaving open a variety of issues for our own creative investigation and theory-building.Francis A. Schaeffer, No Final Conflict (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1979). Filling in these areas of freedom requires what Middleton and Walsh, in their helpful book Truth is Stranger Than It Used To Be, call “faithful improvisation.”J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used To Be (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1995). In their analysis, modernist instincts tend toward idolizing the human calling to identify objective features of reality, “order as given,” while postmodern instincts tend toward idolizing the human calling of bringing order, “ordering as task.” Human rebellion, then, can be exhibited by refusing to recognize or acknowledge order as it is given, whether by the word of God or by the works of God (e.g., Genesis 3; Romans 1). But human rebellion can also be exhibited by refusing the human creaturely task of ordering according to the gifts God provides (e.g., Matt. 25:14-30), that is, refusing the task of faithful improvisation.The Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30) seems to indicate that refusing to work at something like faithful improvisation may lead to harsh judgment. Faithful cultural endeavors (like science) will require a mix of both kinds of tasks (e.g., Gen. 2:19-20).See discussion of the Adam naming the animals narrative in Morris and Petcher, Science and Grace, 213-214.
Furthermore, we Christians are called to accept our identity in Christ as his gift to redeemed image bearers, but we are also called to work out that identity by following his incarnate example as the second Adam and our true elder brother. As he is the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of the whole cosmos, so we are to take on the tasks of creating, redeeming, and sustaining in his name in our appropriate creaturely stations and in suitable creaturely ways. Our new identity in Christ is what propels us to involvement in the science and technology of our day, to admire scientific work in basic and applied areas and to embrace scientific conventions that enable science to flourish as a common enterprise. At the same time, our new identity leads us to own our creaturely limits, to recognize our own propensity to make idols, and to be on the alert for the idols that inevitably arise in all human cultural endeavors.Many of these themes are developed more fully in Morris and Petcher, Science and Grace, chps. 7-10.
With those preliminaries in mind, my current position on the question posed arises, as best I can tell, from the interactions of a mix of judgments made in six different categories which I’ll take up briefly below.
1) Judgments about the nature of scriptural authority:
I find myself in a Christian tradition that is comfortable using the description of “verbal plenary inspiration” to describe its position on the authority of Scripture. Though the phrase certainly doesn’t capture all that needs to be said about that tradition’s view of scriptural authority, it gives the basic sense that though the words of Scripture come through human authors and reflect their own capacities and times, they are also God’s words and through them he’s revealing truths such that whatever Scripture affirms we are obliged to obey and to use to shape our own thoughts. This formulation also highlights the obligation of interpreters of the word to take the actual words (verbal), the narratives as a whole, the arguments of books and the broad doctrinal teachings of the canon as a whole (plenary), seriously as together providing God’s word to us. This approach means that in considering any natural history story, I must take into account (among other things) the words of the early chapters of Genesis as well as the major trajectories from these chapters as they impact (for example) the doctrines of grace exhibited in the work of the Son.
2) Hermeneutical judgments about relevant scriptural passages:
Determining what Scripture affirms or intends to teach is of course the purview of hermeneutics. Here I have come to appreciate an analogical day view of the creation week narrated in Genesis 1 and 2.A good description of the analogical day view along with discussion of its strengths and weaknesses can be found in “PCA Report of the Creation Study Committee,” p. 2348, found at http://www.pcahistory.org/creation/report.html This bears directly on where I come down on the question at hand: An analogical days view leaves the overall time frame wide open (a freedom), and though it leaves the exact mix of “regular” and “extraordinary” means of God’s creative work somewhat fuzzy, the view does lean strongly against a “not much extraordinary happened” natural history view. I suppose some would say that this judgement classifies me as a “soft concordist” of some kind and a progressive creationist of some sort.
3) Doctrinal judgments concerning related teachings:
In my view, the doctrinal trajectory of the gospel in Scripture fits best with a historical fall by a historical couple such that Christ as the second Adam accomplishes what the first Adam did not. I have a great appreciation for Jack Collins’s way of trying to get at this by setting forth a “criteria for good stories” in relation to natural history stories of human origins. I agree heartily with his basic sentiment that we are within our rational rights (and our responsibilities as believers) to reject any natural history proposal that appears to alter the basic features of the gospel story.C. John Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011). So much more should be said here.
4) Judgments about ecclesiology—the Church as an institution and its responsibility to draw distinct doctrinal boundaries and to wield appropriate authority:
I take very seriously the fact that when I joined my church, I put myself under the authority of the church as an institution and agreed to submit to its authority in life and doctrine. To make this point with a bit of hyperbole, on some issues I will simply look to my church to provide me with the specific content of my beliefs.For more extensive discussion on scientists and church authority, see Morris and Petcher, Science and Grace, 186-192; 272-275. While I don’t think my elders or my denomination would be wise to weigh in forcefully on the relative contributions of exercise and microbiomes to human health, I do believe that on certain doctrinal issues tied to origins, I should heed my church’s proper exercise of authority.I’m very thankful for the Report of the Creation Study committee, which basically takes the freedoms and limitations approach referred to above: http://www.pcahistory.org/creation/report.html
5) “Christ and culture” related judgments as to how God’s people are to be faithfully “in the scientific world, but not of it”:
As described above, I take science to be an amazing cultural institution that, like all worthy cultural institutions, is raised up by God to carry out his purposes to exalt Jesus Christ the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of all things (Col. 1:15-20). The idea is that in a real sense scientists of our day are called to their work and enabled to flourish in it by God himself and thus wield a kind of God-given authority. At the same time, the spiritual rebellion of humanity initiated at the fall is being played out in the sciences as it is in all human institutions and endeavors. Thus, we are also called to be circumspect about the power and trajectories of the science of our day. In my view then, though the default mode for Christians should be an embrace and respect for science and its conventions, we are also called to work as needed to turn scientific disciplines away from destructive paths that may tend to normalize unbelief or injustice. Further, there may be rare occasions in which we as believers find that we must opt out of specific consensus views or practices. In this case, I believe that I must for now “opt out” of the consensus view of universal common ancestry and human origins by “ordinary means” only.
6) Judgments about the plausibility of current evolutionary mechanisms to account for a universal common ancestry interpretation of biological natural history:
Finally, given what I’ve said above, there will be (for me at least) an extremely high bar for the kind of work needed to establish a “regular” rather than an extraordinary view of human origins. As I am fond of reminding my students, data doesn’t come with tags affixed telling us what theory they provide evidence for. Interpreting data and assessing the plausibility of theories on offer are holistic human activities that require a variety of judgments to be made and these judgments always have complex contributors. Not just anything goes, but underdetermination by data and the lack of a definitive theory confirmation logic are realities for all of us. However compelling the circumstantial case for universal common ancestry might seem in the context of a strong methodological naturalism program, in my judgment the mechanisms currently on offer do not come close to providing plausible means for the standard story. It seems to me that the lack of a plausible mechanism or group of mechanisms is particularly noteworthy in the case of humans, for whom exceptionalism (i.e., many differences that are more qualitative than quantitative) among the creatures has long been a Christian conviction and now seems to be increasingly recognized in the sciences.A recent special section in an issue of Scientific American gives a nice review. There are some mechanisms offered for various aspects of human exceptionalism, but most are self-admittedly quite speculative. The title of the cover page was, “Humans: Why We’re Unlike Any Species on the Planet”—see Scientific American 319.3 (September 2018).
My Current View . . . To Answer the Question Directly
Given the combination of judgments I have attempted to describe above, I consider my provisional acceptance of the consensus views on the age of the cosmos and standard cosmology as freedoms afforded me. I certainly have no basic theological issue with God’s use of regular providence as he wishes and thus no major objection to the Big Bang story as a possible description of how God’s creative work unfolded in the phases before life on earth. Given the combination of judgements I have attempted to describe above, I propose that at a minimum, the origin of life, the basic diversity of living organisms, and human origination are rooted in extraordinary works/special providence of God. So it is that I “accept the scientific consensus on the age of the cosmos” and I “reject the consensus regarding human evolution.”