Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Theistic evolution - what's at stake

In some questions which concern Bible-believing Christians, it's often possible to get a big hint by noticing that opinions can often split up into three:
  • Those who assert that the Bible says X, and that we should believe and obey it
  • Those who assert that it doesn't say X, and therefore they don't
  • Those who point out that the Bible really does say X, but frankly they have no intention of believing or obeying it
This is often in discussions where X is something controversial and/or intolerable in a secularist society - something that will cause friction for a Christian when dealing with outsiders.

Theistic evolution is a classic case in point. The Bible actually really does teach that God made the world in six days through an immediate word - not through long ages of providential superintendence of natural processes. But most Christians who've considered the questions have felt the pressure at some time to accept an alternative explanation - one that won't mean they have to be at variance with the contemporary mainstream scientific consensus. One that means they can say "both are true; there's no problem; move along please!"

Those who come into the third category are normally the theological liberals. Cunning fudges to make the Bible both say X but also be compatible with something that is basically "not X" aren't something they need to bother with. They don't accept the premise that the Bible is God's word and needs to be believed as a matter of obedience to our Maker and Judge; they feel free to say "yes, of course the Bible says X - and it's not true, and we've moved on from it."

Which brings us to the infamous John Selby Spong, the American Episcopalian Bishop well-known for denying just about every article of Christian belief one way or the other - but normally simply by flat and frank contradiction. Here he is on the impact of Charles Darwin. As I am sure Darwin's theory is wrong, Spong's conclusion doesn't follow for me; but Spong's logic in following the implications if Darwin wasn't wrong are in my opinion unarguable:
“And Charles Darwin not only made us Christians face the fact that the literal creation story cannot be quite so literal, but he also destroyed the primary myth by which we had told the Jesus story for centuries. That myth suggested that there was a finished creation from which we human beings had fallen into sin, and therefore needed a rescuing divine presence to lift us back to what God had originally created us to be. … And so the story of Jesus who comes to rescue us from the Fall becomes a nonsensical story. So how can we tell the Jesus story with integrity and with power, against the background of a humanity that is not fallen but is simply unfinished?”
Notice that the cunning fudge, promoted by theistic evolutions such as Denis Alexander, is flatly exposed by the Bishop here. The historic Christian gospel only makes sense against the background of a space-time Fall that happened at the beginning of a pristine creation. Against any other backdrop it is simply incoherent and can't be rescued. The attempt to merge the Bible with Darwinism without butchering the latter inevitably means you have to butcher the former. Spong doesn't have any spiritual currency invested in the Bible's truthfulness as Alexander does, and makes no bones about simply declaring it false. And that lack of a cognitive bias forcing him - in this area - to argue that black is white enables him, even though an outright heretic, to state the reality of the issue with crisp clarity.


Paul Pavao said...

You and I won't be able to agree in general because I think evolution is scientifically undeniable and that it's good and right to use our reason to acknowledge that as true.

Spong is a scoffer and mocker. He in no way speaks for those who believe evolution to be true.

It is not true that Christianity requires a fall in space-time. God calls us to overcome our "fallen" nature, that is true. Our bodies evolved to survive. Food, comfort, and reproduction are what they long for. We are called by God to live in a way that enables people of every tongue, tribe, and nation to live as family, loving one another in Christ, and that means throwing off the desires of our lower nature and bringing our bodies into subjection.

Yes, the Bible makes this a "fallen" nature with a clearly allegorical story where a man named "Man" and a woman named "Life" live in a garden, planted by God with talking animals, a "tree of the knowledge of good and evil," and where God actually walks in the garden and can't find Adam when he hides.

Taking this story as allegory--some 1800 years after Origen taught it as allegory, long before Darwin was born--does not destroy Christianity.

Today, even with the knowledge science brings, there is a need for the power of Christ, given to disciples and won by Jesus' death, that overthrows the power of the flesh and causes us to be able to live in love. The "free" society that our modern knowledge has produced is filled with depression, suicide, and fear.

The fact is, though, that strict Bible-believers are for the most part unable to walk in that power, either. They don't get along. They divide over everything from evolution to whether churches can sponsor orphanages.

A proper focus--that Jesus Christ delivers from sin, whether that sin is produced from a fall or from "the selfish gene"--is needed to return us to the power of Jesus to deliver from sin. It is not going to come from being more literal or closing our eyes to what's scientifically obvious. It's going to come by paying attention to what we're missing, which is a Gospel that effectively teaches us that Jesus Christ died to create a people zealous for good works and a grace that teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts.

David Anderson said...

Hi Paul,

You've written off Spong by labelling him a scoffer and mocker, but the de-physicalised view of Christianity that you then offer puts you in the same camp as him - do you have a better refutation than just ad hominem?

Anyway, rather than me responding at length (you've already indicated you don't think that'll go anywhere), let me commend to you the newly published Should Christians Embrace Evolution? to which I contributed a chapter and which IMO exposes the Gnosticism inherent in your view of a Darwin-compatible Christianity.

Best wishes,

Ned Kelly said...

I think I understand where you are coming from, and while I would not here attempt to dissuade you from your views, there is a line of reasoning that you might take to perhaps reconsider your position.
Christianity starts with Jesus Christ, what He believed, what He taught, and consequently what His apostles and disciples believed, taught, and wrote down for us to understand. The Gospels and Epistles are replete with evidence that Jesus and the apostles, particularly Paul, did not view Genesis as allegory. Thus to take the allegorical view, one has to either discard a plain reading of the New Testament and justify some more convoluted interpretation, or contend with the accuracy of the writings as passed down to us. Either way, you will find it very difficult to argue with any validity that Jesus and Paul took the allegorical view. In all of the writings of the theistic evolutionists, or evolutionary creationists as Francis Collins like to refer to his position, I have yet to encounter any who make a genuine attempt to address this issue.
It is easy to understand why.
There is substantial evidence that the New Testament we have today is an accurate version of the original writings, save for some minor wording difficulties; this is the consensus of biblical scholars of all persuasions apart from some well known objectors. Even the conspiracy theorists, particularly those who favour the idea that Paul originated the general theology we have today, are unable to construct a convincing scenario that explains how or why a devout Pharisee who admits to persecuting early Christians would do an about turn, abase himself, develop and preach an incredibly coherent theology, and be willing in turn to be persecuted and die for what he knew to be a lie.
Similarly, those who accept the accuracy of the gospels and epistles struggle to justify an allegorical interpretation by Jesus, Paul, and the other writers. While one may make a case with a particular verse, it becomes increasingly difficult to build a coherent case across all of the references. This challenge has been posed to Francis Collins, Denis Alexander, and other TE proponents with little in the way of a substantive response.
As a Christian, it seems to me that I should start with what Jesus believed and taught and go from there, accepting that there will be some things that I do not understand, there will be apparent contradictions with what I perceive in the world, but nonetheless Jesus being God would not get it wrong and I should place my faith in Him.
Unless one can cogently contend with the New Testament writers, we must accept their version of events, as difficult as I understand that can be.