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.