These are all good questions and I will direct my additional comments toward three basic issues Hans raises: 1) the role that current scientific understandings do or should play in shaping biblical exegesis; 2) how biblical understandings might shape interpretations of data and natural history proposals; and 3) regulations for scientific community and navigating the interactions of scientific authority and ecclesiastical authority.
But before getting to those issues, just two brief clarifying comments about titles: The title for this OEC conversation Old But Not Evolving illustrates one of the significant semantic challenges of the origins discussions, because I’m sure that all participants in this OEC conversation as well as all those in the other categories (YEC and ID) do not hold to a fixity of the species position. The disputes about “evolving” are mostly matters of degreeThe disputes about “evolving” are mostly matters of degree (micro to macro) or the relative contribution of “evolving” by “ordinary” means to the overall natural history story. (micro to macro) or the relative contribution of “evolving” by “ordinary” means to the overall natural history story. “Not evolving” in this context may invite a variety of misdirected critiques. In a minor vein, the title given to the piece I’ve written—“Improvising Within a Nonlinear Storyline”—can be easily misunderstood to indicate that I’m proposing a nonlinear natural history story that somehow plays loose with time sequences. The points I’m trying to make are simply 1) that the rationale for the positions we take is not often straightforwardly linear, and 2) within biblical limits, we are free to—even called to—creatively interpret currently available data as best we can in constructing our natural histories. I’m not complaining here (I’m glad I’m not in charge of coming up with pithy titles!), just wanted to head off any potential misunderstanding.
So now on to addressing the three major areas that the Redirect points to for more treatment. Certainly, it isn’t possible here to follow all the threads connected to the three areas (kind of my point with the nonlinear descriptor, it’s always difficult to know where to jump in and where to let it go). It should also be noted that, as in the original piece, I’m placing more emphasis on explaining where I’m coming from and offering it for consideration than on trying to make a formal, defensive argument.
Science Shaping Biblical Exegesis?
As Hans suggests, I don’t think it is a question of if our current understandings of science (and a variety of other things) impact exegesis, but a matter of our being self-conscious and self-critical about how the extra-biblical understandings are impacting exegesis. I like how my colleague at Covenant Dan MacDougall recommends approaching these issues in a lecture he gives each year to incoming freshman at Covenant.So the discussion is always about what extrabiblical concerns properly act in the feedback loop process and which don’t. Hans focused on this dynamic as it relates to my analogical days view allegiance. He first points out that the basic tools we have for understanding language itself come from general/creational revelation. The Christian confession “Jesus died on a cross” requires concepts and objects we have learned from our general experience in the world (cross, death, etc). Thus an “exclusive complementary” view, in which creational revelation is purported to have nothing to do with understanding special revelation can’t be the complete picture. He also recommends against a “parallel view” in which creational and special revelation are thought of as providing the same kind of information about a variety of things. He then recommends the foundational view with feedback loops. Special revelation provides the foundation for our understanding of creational revelation, much like a book of vocabulary and grammar provides a foundation for reading a novel or a textbook even while the way words and grammar are used in practice in the novel or textbook may help us better understand some of the rules of grammar or definition made in the foundational book. So the discussion is always about what extrabiblical concerns properly act in the feedback loop process and which don’t. Hans focused on this dynamic as it relates to my analogical days view allegiance. While I believe internal scriptural arguments for the analogical day view of Genesis 1 and 2 can be made (e.g., in connection with Exodus 20: 8-11), I think it does also helpfully provide “freedoms” that help us engage with creational data in our own times while owning the “limitations” Scripture graciously provides. Distinguishing between creational “data” and contemporary consensus interpretations of that data isn’t always itself a clean issue, and as I’ve indicated I’m convinced that we Christians are called to work within the cultural mores and consensus views of our times except when we must clearly opt out. So the freedoms afforded can be seen as a good thing, not just an excuse for accommodation to our culture. As I see it, the analogical days view is a win/win on this account.
Scripture Shaping Natural History Stories?
I actually wouldn’t normally use “soft concordism” to describe my views. I used the term in the original piece to signal that I do think there are elements from Scripture more specific than simply “God created” that shape my judgments about natural history stories on offer. One example (that Hans also expressed curiosity about) has to do with thorny issues around the nature of God’s activities in creation, sustenance, and bringing his purposes in history to fullness (e.g., ordinary providence, special providence, natural and supernatural).I think a significant distinction is being affirmed when Scripture tells us that God worked for a time and then rested from that work. Having thrown my lot in with the analogical days view, there are decisions to be made about the way the analogy works and its implications. One decision has to do with the analogy between God’s working and human working and God’s rest and the pattern of human rest. This is one source of the “limit” I see in constructing a natural history regarding the extent to which God’s “ordinary providence” can be envisioned as the exclusive mode of his work in creating. I think a significant distinction is being affirmed when Scripture tells us that God worked for a time and then rested from that work. He certainly did not rest from his works of “ordinary providence,” thus any natural history story that I will seriously consider should have elements of extraordinary works of God, e.g., the creation of humans. Hans asks what the primary driver for this “extraordinary works somewhere” conviction might be, and I will appeal to Scripture laying the foundational track with feedback loops playing a subsidiary role (see above). There are areas in the consensus natural history story in which the explanatory power of an “ordinary” means mechanism seems to be limited. And it should be noted that these are “gaps” in the natural story (and I resist the caricature that recognition of these gaps is prima facie a God of the gaps fallacy)—it seems that “naturalism of the gaps” or what some have termed “promissory naturalism” deserves more discussion. Finally, I like Del Ratzsch’s advice here, that we should avoid too quickly “overestimating science,” by which he means overestimating human ability to find and describe ordinary mechanisms, but also that we should avoid assumptions that too quickly “underestimate nature,” by which I take him to mean underestimating the extent of God’s work in and through ordinary providence.Del Ratzsch, Science and Its Limits: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 131.
Hans also asks about my take on the impact of some of the newer genetics data on these issues. As for the impact of genomics on sorting out some points in natural history, I often tell my students I feel blessed to be alive and have a front row seat in the establishment of a new biological discipline in my lifetime. It is fun to see the birth of a discipline and the kinds of data and approaches it is capable of. In my classes, this gives me a chance to talk about where academic disciplines come from (they arise as God unfolds human cultural development) and the “natural history” of scientific disciplines.As I mentioned in my previous piece, from my perspective the bar for reconsidering traditional understandings of Adam and Eve as the first image-bearing humans and the ultimate progenitors of all humankind is high. New technologies are often instrumental in initiating a new discipline as novel techniques open fresh areas of the created order for analysis. Then we enter a “wild west” period in which lots of people flock to exploit the new frontiers, new data accumulates rapidly, often raising pointed questions about older paradigms and stimulating an explosion of new ideas and new ways of seeing the data. Eventually, more mature reflection brings together a consensus and more settled paradigms emerge.
In my judgment, genomics is still in the earlier stages and has yet to settle into a mature reflection stage. So while I’m happy for believers with different origins perspectives than my own to try out a variety of “what if” scenarios in regard to how all this might best cash out in a faithful natural history of human origins, for now I’m happy to receive the flood of data and interpretations as information to be received. As I mentioned in my previous piece, from my perspective the bar for reconsidering traditional understandings of Adam and Eve as the first image-bearing humans and the ultimate progenitors of all humankind is high. As far as some of Hans’s other questions along these lines about how exactly we might elaborate the “how” of God’s creating humans, I’m not sure we have the resolution (to use a microscopy analogy)—exegetically, theologically, or scientifically—to draw any firm lines about the exact how of extraordinary means. Maybe from our creaturely point of view we don’t even have the categories for resolving this question. I do like Jack Collins’s point here though, that if one runs with some kind of “soul supernaturally placed in an evolved body” scenario, then to do justice to the theological anthropology of embodied image-bearers, we should envision a significantly “refurbished” body in the process.C. John Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011). 105-131. The bottom line, however, is that I’m happy to leave the “how” at “special creation” and not sweat the details too much.
Finally, Hans presses in a bit on the role I think methodological naturalism should play in these issues and the interplay of ecclesiastical authority with scientific authority (and Christian scientists in particular). So first, I accept a regulatory role for some kind of methodological naturalism in keeping the common enterprise of science on track and preventing chaos in scientific meetings. I see methodological naturalism as more of a pragmatic rule of thumb, certainly not a “hard” rule or a rigid philosophical principle that defines science itself or provides the only epistemological path for scientific knowledge claims. (The intractability of demarcation issues would be a fruitful for discussion here.)Larry Laudan, “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem,” Physics, Philosophy, and Psychoanalysis, ed. R. S. Cohen and L. Laudan (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1983); reprinted in But Is It Science?, ed. Michael Ruse (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1996), 338. Methodological naturalism is especially limited for those areas of investigation in which the more direct constraints of our data experiences of the created order are more difficult to discern (e.g., the very large, the very small, the very fast, and the very old).In all this I think it is key is to take the issues very seriously but ourselves not so much. I’m not sure exactly how to encourage an appropriately “soft” methodological naturalism that steers clear of the chaos that might result from no regulation of explanatory tools, but is relaxed enough to allow pursuit of wider, more comprehensive discussions of the meaning of data. I think science would be the better for it if we could find such a path.
On a final note, let me briefly address the “competing authorities” question. I find Abraham Kuyper’s conception of “sphere sovereignty” helpful here. The basic idea of sphere sovereignty as I understand it, is that God himself assigns authority in various areas of human experience and endeavor, some explicitly in Scripture, say family, government and church, others more implicitly in the pattern of cultural unfolding, say businesses, education, and scientific disciplines. Thus elders at my church have the responsibility to wield their God-given authority wisely and within its bounds and I am committed to respect that authority legitimately exercised. God has also raised up those who dedicate their energies to scientific thinking and discovery and has gathered them into communities that wield their own kind of authority—e.g., figuring out the features of cellular physiology, the functioning of ecosystems—and I am committed to respect that authority. But of course, given the amazing interconnectedness of areas of human calling, endeavor, and life, the spheres are not isolated and though there are central features of each sphere about which no one disputes who to look to for authority (e.g. theories of atonement; chemical reaction principles), there will be areas of overlapping or disputed authority that will need discernment and humility to work out. My point, then, is that at some level, the church has legitimate authority in some cases to provide limits on scientific theorizing and that Christian scientists should be ready to receive that guidance when appropriate. On the other hand, overreach by church authority is a real danger and should be avoided primarily by appropriate self-restraint by those wielding the authority of the church. Lord have mercy!
In all this I think it is key is to take the issues very seriously but ourselves not so much.
Areopagite: Old but Not Evolving