Friday, June 07, 2013

Science and Faith, Science or Faith?

A friend asked if I might comment on Peter Enns’ blog post concerning Episcopalians on Science and Faith. In it Enns highly recommends the Episcopalian view – as supported in a resolution of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church “Affirming the Compatibility of Science and the Christian Faith” – and suggests that evangelicals might be able to learn something from them. No doubt evangelicals, as all of us, need to learn something, but we might first wonder just who they are. The Episcopalians we know, but who are the evangelicals?

Michael Luo tells us that even Evangelicals Debate the Meaning of 'Evangelical'. According to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals,* “The term 'Evangelicalism' is a wide-reaching definitional 'canopy' that covers a diverse number of Protestant traditions, denominations, organizations, and churches.” They apply it to “the religious movements and denominations which sprung forth from a series of revivals that swept the North Atlantic Anglo-American world in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.” Merriam-Webster gives one meaning of evangelical as "Protestant" while another is "of, adhering to, or marked by fundamentalism." Now that is a wide enough range to have little clarity! Considering the context of Enns' piece, I have to think that what he refers to as evangelical leans toward fundamentalism, at least holding the classic fundamentals of the faith and certainly inerrancy of the Bible. Wikipedia claims, “Evangelicalism may sometimes be perceived as the middle ground between the theological liberalism of the mainline denominations and the cultural separatism of fundamentalism.”

Peter Enns is a religious instructor on the liberal end of the theological spectrum. He is an Affiliate Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, PA.** Enns is author of The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, a book that "offers a way forward by explaining how this tension is caused not by the discoveries of science but by false expectations about the biblical texts" and "helps readers reconcile the teachings of the Bible with the widely held evolutionary view of beginnings..." A focus of Enns is "re-educating" people on the Bible so they can reconcile it with "scientific truth."

Evangelicals, fundamentalists, and biblicists might not strongly object to the many of the things said in this Episcopalian resolution, but would strenuously object to its intent. For example, the archives research report found this resolution was "directly related" to a 2006 resolution which stated: “That the theory of evolution provides a fruitful and unifying scientific explanation for the emergence of life on earth, that many theological interpretations of origins can readily embrace an evolutionary outlook, and that an acceptance of evolution is entirely compatible with an authentic and living Christian faith...”

First, a few statements from Enns' piece, whether his or from the Episcopal catechism, with some brief comments

This Catechism is a breath of fresh air compared to the handwringing and fear that dominates the evangelical discussion.
I am not sure what "handwringing and fear...dominates the evangelical discussion." No doubt Enns has something in mind, but he does not explain. There may be some who are wringing their hands in fear of the discoveries of science, but the rest of us do not fear that God-given revelation will be overturned by man-driven specialization. Skeptics will come and skeptics will go. Heaven and earth -- the very textbook of the scientists -- shall pass away, but God's Word shall stand. It is forever settled in heaven.

The Bible, including Genesis, is not a divinely dictated scientific textbook. We discover scientific knowledge about God’s universe in nature not Scripture.
All but the most rigid fundamentalists would agree with both of these statements. But this is the wrong question. It is not, "Did God give us a science textbook," rather "Did God get some of His information wrong in His revelation to man?" Science as we understand it in this discussion is in its very essence a study of nature and not Scripture. The real dividing line is between those who believe that the Bible is the accurate revelation of God through inspiration to men of God to write the Scriptures, or a hodge-podge of information from various ancient sources which are variably reliable and unreliable. What can we believe?

The Bible’s theological declarations about God and creation remain true because they are not dependent upon the ancient world-picture in which they appear.
It seems useful to many to separate the "theological declarations" of the Bible from the extraneous historical and scientific material within which they appear. But this is pipe dream. Why should anyone believe that the theological declarations are any more valid than the “ancient world-view” within which they appear?  Why believe what the Bible says about God if we can't even believe it about the subjects we can "test"? Whom will we trust to divide the true from the false? If the Bible is not an inspired book, why should we expect it to have true theological declarations about God and creation? Why not the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita or the Zend Avesta? Might they not serve just as well?

Until evangelicals find a way to get to these points–quickly–there will be no true conversation on science and faith.
Maybe a simpler (and more honest) statement would be for Enns to write that if evangelicals don’t give up what they believe and acquiesce to the view held forth by scientists, then we have nothing to contribute to the conversation. Sounds like the “true conversation” mainly agrees with him!

Three observations about Peter Enns’ post and the religion vs. science debate

Peter Enns and the General Convention of the Episcopal Church prefer science above religion. No, they would not say it that way. That might say that they are compatible, each valid in its own sphere. But the preference is seen in that religion – particularly the statements of the Bible – are a priori excluded from informing us on nature, creation and evolution. They are not valid because they do not complement, and sometimes contradict, what they think they observe in nature. And, of course, we could not be wrong about what we observe in nature. Obviously, “we understand the physical world more accurately than ancient people.”

Peter Enns and the General Convention of the Episcopal Church exude arrogance toward those with whom they disagree (not that there is no arrogance among evangelicals). Obviously, “we understand the physical world more accurately than ancient people.” Truthfully, we understand some things about the physical world more accurately than ancient people, we think we understand all things about the physical world more accurately than ancient people, and in some cases we do not understand the physical world as accurately as ancient people. Before you write that statement off as an exercise in ignorance, search out some scientific or academic research that tells about not understanding how something was accomplished by some ancient civilization – or how the same thing could be accomplished by modern civilization. In what we know, we stand on the shoulders of the people who went before us. We have also lost some of the knowledge of those who went before us. And maybe, just maybe, Moses, Paul, and the 21st century believers who accept them at face value aren’t quite the Neanderthals you perceive us to be. But if we are, hey, we’re just too stupid to know it.

Peter Enns and the General Convention of the Episcopal Church are not the final authority. Well, Enns probably is the final authority in his classroom when he’s grading papers. And the General Convention of the Episcopal Church does exercise a degree of authority over the church in the United States. But if I were to search for a final authority above all authorities, I would settle my search for that authority in Jesus Christ. If He is who He says He is, we know He understands the physical world more accurately than all ancient people and all modern people combined. He understands it absolutely accurately. Speaking to the Pharisees concerning marriage, Jesus said “...from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. (Mark 10:6).” Jesus credits the creation of man to God, Who made them from the beginning and not through billions of years of evolution. He also places their son Abel as an historical person in the beginning of time (Luke 11:50-51).*** Could Jesus be a credible Saviour and Son of God and not know these things more accurately than any people?


I find myself on opposite sides of the river from Peter Enns on the subject of the compatibility of science and religion. I don’t identify myself as an evangelical, though the world may thus label me. I don’t refer to myself as an evangelical, but I probably fit Enns’ description of those who need to learn something. But I resolutely refuse to learn his “something” represented in “Episcopalians on Science and Faith: gettin’ it done.” I freely own that Enns is more intelligent than I. I don’t doubt he is sincere. But on the subject of creation and evolution, faith and science, I self-consciously submit to the wisdom of Jesus Christ, who knows all things, both in the physical world and the spiritual world, more accurately than Peter Enns or I, more accurately than the General Convention of the Episcopal Church or the National Association of Evangelicals, more accurately that all the scientists and all the theologians. 

Is our Saviour credible? Can we believe what He said about creation? Or look we for another?

* The Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals is a research center and a program of Wheaton College.
** Eastern is affiliated with the American Baptist Churches USA. One might expect the university's Doctrinal Statement to be understood as "evangelical" and that the statement "We believe that God created human beings, male and female" should be taken in its simplest meaning to the exclusion of evolution. It apparently is not necessary, though, since every teacher is to subscribe to the Doctrinal Statement or "withdraw from all connections with the University" if they are not in accord with it.
*** Jesus matter-of-factly spoke of the events recorded in Genesis (and elsewhere in the Old Testament) as historical facts and did not allegorize them. He described them in the manner they were recorded. For examples: Adam and Eve as the first marriage, Abel their son as the first person murdered, that God made the Sabbath, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the serpent in the wilderness, the manna from heaven to feed the Israelites, Lot and his wife, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the clear essay, Robert. I hope to comment soon, either here or on my blog.

Unknown said...

Let’s take the smallest piece of this and ask if Jesus was ever wrong about anything. First, let’s be sure we understand what someone being wrong means. Most modern(ist) statements of epistemology this means this someone believes a proposition, p, to be true, but which is not true; or believes some proposition p to be not true, but which is true. Statements are either true or false; beliefs about statements are either right or wrong. For example, Jesus first recorded saying is that he must be about his Father’s business (he said this to explain his absence to his earthly parents). The proposition is “Jesus must be about his father’s business,” and we can easily believe that Jesus was right.

So, let’s take a statement that Jesus made in argument with some Sadducees. He said, “Now that the dead are raised, even Moses shewed cat the bush, when he calleth the Lord the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Before examining this, I would like to consider that I was wrong in my previous statement, as least in one sense. The fact is, Jesus never said the English words, “Now that the dead are raised, even Moses shewed cat the bush, when he calleth the Lord the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” for the obvious reason that Jesus didn’t speak English; in fact, English did not yet exist. Before you excoriate me for casuistry, please note that I don’t think I was very wrong; just a tiny little bit wrong, wrong in a basically uninformative and uninteresting way. But the fact remains that I was wrong, if only in a small and uninteresting way.
I’m sure you see where I am going — Jesus said that Moses called the Lord “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” In a very similar (and trivial and uninteresting way), Jesus was wrong; Moses did not call the Lord “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” for Moses did not speak the language that Jesus was speaking, whether it was Aramaic or Koine Greek. Again, I must emphasize Jesus’s intent was not literal quotation, and to insist on that would be a little bit mad. But in this (insignificant) way Jesus was wrong.

The problem, though, is adopting an all-or-nothing stance — Jesus can never be wrong about anything — leads us into this corner. One way out of the corner is to admit that statements can be wrong in varying degrees (I was a little bit wrong) and from varying perspectives (Jesus was right in arguing his case, but wrong from the insignificant perspective of quotation). The biblicist will rightly note that this view of truth is a harder job, because we have to ask about not only about propositional content, but propositional intent, and propositional quantification (and that’s just the fallout from this short discussion). But I hope I have shown, in a small way, that this is the world as it is, as God has given it to us, and so we have to discern truth the way God reveals it.

Does not the existence of the four gospels point this more complicated view of truth? Three Gospels that more or less go over the same ground, sometimes with the very same words, sometimes not, and one in which the language and tenor differ? I don’t think our job is (as I use to think) to put the jigsaw together and come up with a perfectly consistent (in the modernist sense) narrative, but to enjoy and be converted by the enhanced, four-dimensional view of the life and teachings of Jesus, to say nothing of the additional perspective of Paul.

This brings us nowhere close to accepting natural selection as the best explanation for evolution, or denying a historical Adam directly created by God. But I hope it opens the window a bit to let in some light in how a faithful Christian can also believe in natural selection and a non-historical Adam.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Will, I've exhausted my powers of thought and concentration replying to your other comments! So I'll take a break on this one for now, except to say two things quickly.

1. My theology does not incline me to consider any scenario in which God is wrong. That is not intended to be insulting or to say that I won't think about what you've written, but to say that your argument proceeds from grounds that almost will not register on my radar, regardless of how skillfully you present it.

2. I am not sure we can prove "Moses did not speak the language that Jesus was speaking" -- just that he did not write in the language Luke was writing. But I don't think it is necessary for you to "prove" this one way or another for me to understand the illustration you are presenting.

I will try to return to this when I can give it more thought.

Unknown said...

Just to be clear, my comments are not meant to say anything about God, but about our conceptions about rightness and wrongness.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Thanks for the clarification, Will. Still I am having trouble with understanding it. Wouldn't the whole point of accepting the scenario of our conceptions about right or wrong vis-a-vis Jesus being wrong in his statement about what Moses said imply that God is wrong, if Jesus is God?

I guess on the other hand you may be saying that some things that are perceived by us as wrong are not really wrong? In that case Jesus quoting a Hebrew statement in Greek or Aramaic would not be wrong though someone might parse it to be so.

I guess ultimately I am having a disconnect with this helping understand whether Jesus was wrong or right & perceived wrongly in crediting Adam's creation to God (whom Jesus is).

Perhaps you can clarify further so I can better understand. Thanks.

Unknown said...

I more or less went off the rails there. It was a weak argument. I continue to have this internal dialog about Biblical literalism that doesn't quiesce. It's like I'm constantly citing Proverbs 26:4-5 to myself (just to be clear, this is an internal dialog where I am both the speaker and the fool) and never quite landing on one side or the other or a reasonable synthesis.

I've spent a good deal of time today rereading material from the modernist/fundamentalist controversies of the previous centuries. I believe that all sides in these controversies had a common understanding of what it meant to be 'right' — a kind of populist logical positivism that I do not share. And I believe that many of the discussions of science and the Bible continue to use these truth criteria.

Matthew 13:52 comes to mind — Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old. — but I fear I am falling short.