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A Healthy Debate


“Christians don’t think. They get all their beliefs handed to them, and they’ve been taught never to ask questions.”

Spend any time at all on atheists’ or thoughtful Christians’ websites, and you’re bound to see someone saying that, or something like it. The most recent version I encountered was, “Tee-hee! Thinking Christian—now, that’s an oxymoron!”

Unfortunately, it is not only skeptics and atheists who question Christian thinking. I’ve encountered a related sentiment among Christians, which goes like this: “All we need to do is believe the Bible and not ask questions.”

If only it were that simple! But apparently God did not intend it that way. Think of any doctrine you or your church holds to strongly—the deity of Christ, the Trinity, Christ’s dual nature as God and man, salvation through Christ alone—and chances are the form in which you know it today grew out of a historical process of challenge, dispute, and resolution.

The history of Christian doctrine has been a story of one controversy after another. It has not always been very pretty in action. Many of the major creeds of the faith, such as the Nicene Creed, were formed out of sharp disagreement and often quite heated personal attacks. Whether this represents the ideal way for Christians to get along with one another is moot. As a matter of historical fact, apparently it has needed to go this way—and it has not all been bad. Some of the most heroic stories in Christian history have been of men like Athanasius, who stood courageously for biblical truth.

The fruit of it all has been strong unity on important matters such as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the New Testament canon . . . and yes, also, continuing dispute over other matters, reflected in denominational differences.

If nothing else, this history puts the lie to the stereotype that says Christians always unthinkingly accept whatever beliefs are handed to us—or that we should. Good thinking, even when informed by authoritative biblical revelation, has not come to us automatically or easily down through the centuries. And so it continues even to our day. Witness the book God and Evolution, edited by Jay W. Richards, published in 2010 by Discovery Institute Press. It is the most recent book-length foray into a current episode of the same challenge and dispute process, an episode whose resolution is yet to come.

The book’s central question is whether Darwinian evolution can be compatible with Christian or Judaic doctrine. There are strong believers in Christ who say the answer is yes. The most prominent of them is Francis Collins, formerly head of the Human Genome Project and currently head of the National Institutes of Health. (He is also—not incidentally—a physician who treated one of my own siblings for a rare disease years ago, for which our whole family owes him a considerable debt of gratitude.)

In 2007 Collins published The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. He is a strongly committed believer in biblical Christianity, yet at the same time he is convinced that nature’s evidences point to evolution, which he concludes therefore is the method God used to bring about all the diversity of species in the world today. Collins founded and heads up the BioLogos Foundation, dedicated to promoting that viewpoint.

God and Evolution begs to differ. In thirteen chapters contributed by nine different authors, it argues that Darwinism fits poorly with Judeo-Christian theory, especially as compared with Intelligent Design theory. It is a nuanced discussion in a field often muddied by careless use of terminology.

What, for example, does evolution mean? Is it change over time? Common descent from one ancestral organism? Variations within species (as in bacterial antibiotic resistance)? Or the core Darwinian theory that all life on earth is the product of random variation and unguided natural selection?

The difference is crucial, for by most of these definitions, evolution is totally uncontroversial. Many Christians disagree with common descent, but it is the last definition that’s the real kicker. Most of Jay Richards’s introductory chapter is devoted to defining terms, so that it’s clear exactly where the dispute is or is not. It provides the kind of clarity that is unfortunately lacking in most of the evolution/creation/Intelligent Design debate.

In fact, Richards aims squarely at the heart of the issue. He quotes the late giant of evolutionary studies Ernst Mayr, who said,

"The real core of Darwinism, however, is the theory of natural selection. This theory is so important for the Darwinian because it permits the explanation of adaptation, the 'design' of the natural theologian, by natural means, instead of by divine intervention."

And then Richards adds,

Notice that he says “instead of.” Darwinists almost always insist that their theory serves as a designer substitute. That’s the whole point of the theory.

The point of Darwinism, by this view, is to rid us of the necessity for God as designer. Richard Dawkins spoke famously of the “Blind Watchmaker” providing the appearance of design in nature, but none of the reality. For Dawkins and many others it is nothing other than a godless world that Darwin has provided them.

But what if evolution were true in a world under God? Jay Richards describes that view in this way:

If we peel away … confusions and look for a straightforward, coherent position, … we usually end up with the idea of God-guided common ancestry. This is probably what most people think theistic evolution means.

How well, though, does that reflect reality? Richards continues:

But they would be wrong, at least when it comes to describing the views of many who describe themselves as theistic evolutionists…. Though it’s not always easy to understand what they’re saying, many theistic evolutionists want to integrate the blind watchmaker thesis into their theology.

Clearly God and the Blind Watchmaker thesis are a complete mismatch.

There are theological and scientific factors involved in this debate, addressed by several of the book’s contributors. Additionally (maybe even dominantly), there seems to be a strong sociological component as well. For whatever reason—and social pressure in the community of scientists may be a part of it—Christians who believe in evolution seem to be prone to drifting away from belief in God’s guiding providence over the process, and toward the “Blind Watchmaker” party line.

That’s the view presented in God and Evolution, and the book makes a solid case, in my opinion. Obviously Francis Collins and his BioLogos colleagues are bound to disagree, and do so with sometimes heated rejoinders at websites like BioLogos. It is in any event a dispute among believers. (God and Evolution also examines disagreements some Catholic theologians have with Intelligent Design theory; this, too, is a debate among believers. Two closing chapters also address Judaism’s relative indifference to evolution and Intelligent Design and the “moral message of Darwinism.”)

And I think that despite the disagreements, something healthy is going on here. Our origins—and especially God’s part in them—are crucial to our entire understanding of the world we live in. So these are questions that have to be asked. The answers are not all obvious. It takes work to get to the bottom of them. Some of that work is done by way of strong disagreement and intense debate. Christianity is not, as the stereotype would have it, a matter of thinking just what we’re told to think.

One could wish there was an obvious path we could easily follow from hard questions to easy answers. But that would be to wish for a world that called for hardly any thought at all. The God of wisdom intended instead that we would love him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love one another even in our differences.


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Comments:

Excellent Article, Tom
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Obviously, I'm a little late getting around to it -- but there's so much good material on this site, it takes awhile to get to all of it. ;-)