In a recent debate with a number of atheists we’ve been discussing whether or not William Lane Craig (the man the New Stateman described as having a reputation for ‘eating atheists for breakfast‘) is a worthy opponent for Richard Dawkins who until now has refused to debate him.
One key issue is whether Lane Craig’s concerns over evolution discredit him. Lewis Wolpert said of Lane Craig on this issue, “Oh Boy! Are you ignorant!”
The question I want to address in this post is simply this, is it reasonable for an intelligent mind to doubt the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution or MUST doubt over the theory be regarded as a display of culpable ignorance?
A. Evangelical Christians who are evolutionists
Some, like Dawkins, argue that atheism is a logical consequence and necessary deduction of evolutionary theory.
Stephen Jay Gould profoundly disagrees and writes:
To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth millionth time (from college bull sessions to learned treatises): science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue fo God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.
Gould recognises the category mistake that Dawkins is making. It really shouldn’t surprise us therefore to find that there are eminent evangelical Christians who are full-blown evolutionists. For example;
Francis Collins: A physician and geneticist who was appointed Director of the National Institutes of Health (US) by President Obama. He is a winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian honour given by the President, for revolutionizing genetic research) and has also received the National Medal of Science. He is the author of The Language of God and founder of the Biologos Forum.
Dennis Alexander: The Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where he is a Fellow. For many years he was Chairman of the Molecular Immunology Programme in Cambridge. Since 1992 he has been Editor of the journal Science & Christian Belief. He is the author of Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose?
Alexander has written:
The ‘Darwinian theory of evolution, whatever may have been the various ideological uses to which it has been put since 1859, is essentially devoid of either religious or moral significance, and those who try to derive such significance from it are mistaken.’
B. What exactly is William Lane Craig’s own position?
1. WLC has no theological issue with evolutionary theory
He comments on his own website:
I think, for the reasons explained in the podcast, that an evolutionary theory is compatible with the biblical account in Genesis 1.
2. For WLC it is a scientific not a theological question
The question of biological origins is for me a straightforward scientific question: what does the evidence indicate about the means by which God brought about life and biological complexity?
3. It would therefore be inaccurate to describe WLC as ‘a creationist’ in any meaningful sense of the word
As far as the literature is concerned ‘creationism’ is a term reserved for those who reject the theory of evolution preferring either a literal reading of Genesis 1 or adopting ‘Intelligent Design’.
In other words to label WLC a creationist is to redefine the term and effectively to render it meaningless. If ‘creationism’ means only ‘God is involved’ well ALL theists from 7-day young-earthers through to full-blown evolutionists should be called ‘creationists’ which is a bit of a pointless exercise.
4. WLC has not rejected Darwinian evolution.
WLC regards his own position as ‘agnostic’ on the issue. He remains unpersuaded but argues he is persuadable.
C. Is it intellectual suicide to be unpersuaded by current theories of evolution as Lewis Wolpert suggests?
Given that Lewis Wolpert regards the evidence to be excellent and to doubt it as an admission of the ‘ignorant’ it is surely inconceivable that any in the scientific community would be anything other than neo-Darwinian?
Are there any atheists and/or agnostics who are sceptical or at least remain to be persuaded with regards current theories of evolution?
1. 1 in 11 atheists in the US are sceptical of evolution
Michael Gerson notes in the Washington Post:
The latest findings of the Pew Forum’s massive and indispensable U.S. Religious Landscape Survey reveal some intriguing confusion among Americans on cosmic issues. About 13 percent of evangelicals, it turns out, don’t believe in a personal God, leading to a shameful waste of golf time on Sunday mornings. And 9 percent of atheists report that they are skeptical of evolution. Are there atheist creationists?
One wonders why 1 in 11 atheists are sceptical?
2. Why can’t evolutionary biologists agree amongst themselves as to the mechanism of evolution if the evidence is that strong?
Which theory of evolution is so obviously true that we should without doubt accept it? The gradualism of Dawkins & Dennett or the punctuated equilibrium of Stephen Jay Gould?
If micro-evolution over time becomes macroevolution why isn’t it obvious to Gould?
Darwin himself said in The Origin of Species
‘geology assuredly does not reveal any such graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory’
Does the fossil record offer the strength of support that the neo-Darwinian theory claims?
The Palaeontologist Steven Stanley in his book Macroevolution: Pattern and Process writes:
The known fossil record fails to document a single example of phyletic evolution accomplishing a major morphologic transition and hence offers no evidence that the gradualistic model can be valid.
John Lennox marshals the evidence from palaeontologists sceptical of the gradualist model in his book God’s Undertaker including these two quite extraordinary quotes
Stephen Jay Gould:
The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of palaeontology.
We palaeontologists have said that the history of life supports [the story of gradual adaptive change] knowing all the while that it does not.
No wonder Dawkins, John Maynard Smith and others were so hostile in their attacks on Gould, et al. In what became known as the ‘Darwin wars’ Maynard Smith said Gould ‘is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory.’
3. Why are a number of leading writers on science questioning the scientific consensus if the evidence is overwhelming?
a) Evolution: A theory in crisis – Dr. Michael Denton
Denton writes on his own website:
I have never accepted the mainstream ‘Darwinian view’ that life on earth and particularly mankind are the products of blind unintelligent processes. I have always been convinced and argued throughout my academic career that our existence is ultimately a matter of design. My primary intellectual aim has always been to show that the findings of science support the traditional teleological and anthropocentric view of the world.
b) What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor & Massimo Piattelli Palmorini
Here we find materialist atheists quite at odds with Dawkins. Here’s an extract from p.153,
“OK; so if Darwin got it wrong, what do you guys think is the mechanism of evolution?” Short answer: we don’t know what the mechanism of evolution is. As far as we can make out, nobody knows exactly how phenotypes evolve.
Mary Midgley in her review of the book in the Guardian newspaper writes
There is not – and does not have to be – any single, central mechanism of evolution. There are many such mechanisms, which all need to be investigated on their own terms. If one finds this kind of position reasonable, the interesting next question is, what has made it so hard to accept? What has kept this kind of dogmatic “Darwinism” – largely independent of its founder – afloat for so long, given that much of the material given here is by no means new?
The explanation for this might be the seductive myth that underlies it. That myth had its roots in Victorian social Darwinism but today it flows largely from two books – Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity(1971) and Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (1976)
c) Why US? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves - Dr. James Le Fanu
AN Wilson interviewed in the New Stateman reflects;
I think the jury is out about whether the theory of natural selection as defined by neo-Darwinians is true, and whether serious scientific doubts, as expressed in a new book Why Us? by James Le Fanu, deserve to be taken seriously. For example, does the discovery of the complex structure of DNA and the growth in knowledge in genetics require a rethink of Darwinian “gradualism”? But these are scientific rather than religious questions.
d) Shattering the Myths of Darwinism – Richard Milton
One Amazon reviewer comments:
Milton DOES NOT support creationism, he doesn’t even discount evolution as a scientific reality – he merely asks WHY the self-styled Darwinists and neo-Darwinists don’t stop mouthing off at anyone who disagrees with them and start finding some answers to these unanswered questions.
Alternatively, if Darwinism, in all its variations, CANNOT provide the answers, for goodness’ sake let’s move on and find a bigger and better theory.
4. Why have over 500 scientists expressed their concerns over the evidence for neo-Darwinian theories of evolution?
There is a myth circulating that a good knowledge of science and a careful consideration of the facts will compel any reasonable mind to accept Darwinian evolution.
If this is so why have over 500 scientists signed a statement which reads as follows;
‘We are sceptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.’
A list of all names is available and prominent signatories include U.S. National Academy of Sciences member Philip Skell, American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow Lyle Jensen, evolutionary biologist and textbook author Stanley Salthe; Smithsonian Institution evolutionary biologist and researcher at the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Biotechnology Information Richard von Sternberg, editor of Rivista di Biologia/Biology Forum – the oldest still published biology journal in the world – Giuseppe Sermonti and Russian Academy of Natural Sciences embryologist Lev Beloussov.
All I have sort to demonstrate is
1. There are a significant, if relatively small, number of sceptics within the scientific community. There remain some who are yet to be convinced of Darwinian evolution as an all-encompassing theory.
2. The vast majority of sources I’ve considered are atheists. This is a scientific argument on which atheists and theists alike are divide.
3. It is inconceivable that such a number should be regarded as simply ‘wrong’ and dismissed as simply demonstrating a culpable ignorance of the evidence.
4. There exists still room for doubt and for someone such as William Lane Craig to declare himself agnostic ( and NOT opposed) towards evolution is intellectually credible.
Post-script: The limits to our understanding
Dr. James Le Fanu in ‘Why Us? How Science rediscovered the mystery of ourselves’ concludes:
The greatest obstacle to scientific progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge
If the history of science teaches us anything it is that we are wise not to presume to know too much not least as certain scientific ‘facts’ have to in some instances be modified and in others have to give way to new theories based on a better understanding.
If you’re anything like me you probably think that the history of the church in the last 150 years or so has been one in which Christians have made a strong and concerted case against Darwin’s theory of evolution only to find that in recent years a number of Christians have perhaps lost their nerve and jumped ship – much to the dismay and confusion of the general Christian public.
What I’m discovering is that church history tells quite a different story. As we will see below the picture is one in which a number of intelligent, in fact brilliant, godly, prominent Christian leaders from the middle to late 19th century have found a place for evolution within a Christian worldview.
Why does any of this matter?
Well quite simply because if it can be shown that there have always been evangelicals able to accommodate evolutionary ideas then why should we be surprised or even shocked to find the same today?
And if it is the case that significant voices in the church have from Darwin’s day through to the present been able to reconcile evolution with the Bible why do some insist that it is THE issue on which to test the orthodoxy of Christian faith?
And importantly what arguments have been presented in the past 150 years by these believers and have they remained consistent or changed over time?
In an earlier post we briefly considered three leading scientists who believe exactly that and three leading theologians (Stott, Keller, and Packer).
Today I want to take a look at three leading evangelical thinkers of the late 19th and early 20th century who defended the idea of evolution as compatible with the Bible. We start with the most important and influential theologian of the period.
B.B. Warfield (1851-1921)
Warfield was professor of theology at Princeton Seminary from 1887 to 1921. So great is his reputation that JI Packer lists him along with John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards and Abraham Kuyper, as the fourth member of ‘Reformed theology’s Fabulous Four’.
In a journal article Mark Noll and David N. Livingstone begin:
One of the best-kept secrets in American intellectual history is that B.B. Warfield, the foremost modern defenders of the theologically conservative doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible, was also an evolutionist.
Early on in his career Warfield decribed himself as a ‘darwinian of the purest water’ and in 1888 in his Lectures on Anthropology at Princeton University he wrote;
The upshot of the whole matter is that there is no necessary antagonism of Christianity to evolution, provided that we do not hold to too extreme a form of evolution. To adopt any form that does not permit God freely to work apart from law & which does not allow miraculous intervention (in the giving of the soul, in creating Eve etc.) will entail a great reconstruction of Christian doctrine, and a very lowering of the detailed authority of the Bible. But if we condition the theory by allowing the constant oversight of God in the whole process, and his occasional supernatural interference for the production of new beginnings by an actual outpur of creative force, producing something new we may hold to the modified theory of evolution and be Christians in the ordinary orthodox sense.
In a new book The Theology of BB Warfield Fred Zaspel and Sinclair Ferguson question whether it is a fair conclusion to draw that Warfield was a dyed-in-the-wool evolutionist. Zaspel argues against that view in a recent themelios article but he does concede that David N. Livingstone is surely right when he comments:
It is clear that Warfield believed he was perpetuating orthodox Calvinism even while conceding the possibility of a human evolutionary history.
James McCosh (1811-1894)
McCosh was a Scot who was appointed Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at Queen’s College, Belfast (now Queen’s University Belfast)before becoming President of Princeton University between 1866-1888. He was a mentor of BB Warfield’s and was the first leading evangelical thinker to endorse an evangelical Christianity compatible with evolution.
Writing in 1871 he comments:
There is proof of Plan in the Organic Unity and Growth of the World. As there is evidence of purpose, not only in every organ of the plant, but in the whole plant…so there are proofs of design, not merely in the individual plant and individual animal, but in the whole structure of the Cosmos and in the manner in which it makes progress from age to age. The persistence of force may be one of the elements conspiring to this end; the law of Natural Selection may be another; or it may be a modification of the same.
For our third example we turn to the Baptist tradition where we too find voices in support of evolution.
AH Strong (1836-1921)
Strong was president of Rochester Theological Seminary between 1872 and 1912 where he served as professor of systematic theology. In discussing the possibility of evolution as God’s means of creation he writes;
It has to do with the how not the why of the phenomena, and therefore is not inconsistent with design, but rather is a new and higher illustration of design.
In his Systematic Theology Strong writes:
Since we believe in a dynamic universe, of which the personal and living God is the inner source of energy, evolution is but the basis, foundation and background of Christianity, the silent and regular working of him who, in the fullness of time, utters his voice in Christ and the cross.
We’ve taken just three examples from the time of Darwin and haven’t even considered the leading scientists of the day who were firm believers in the Bible whilst adopting the new scientific views such as Asa Gray, George Frederick Wright and james Dwight Dana.
What difference does any of this make?
If men such as Wayne Grudem insist that ‘Christians cannot accept modern evolutionary theory without also compromising essential teachings of the Bible‘ then one has to wonder why (as we saw in the previous post)
1) Leading theologians such as JI Packer, John Stott and Tim Keller disagree
2) Leading scientists such as Francis Collins, Denis Alexander and R. Berry come to a different conclusion
And now we add a third historical argument
3) why eminent theologians living at the time of Darwin, and having to deal with the fall-out of his ideas, were willing to accept some form of evolutionary theory as compatible with evangelical belief.
None of this makes evolution true and I for one find a whole host of questions for which I have yet to find a satisfactory answer but as David N. Livingstone concludes:
There was no clear consensus about what constituted the orthodox Calvinist line. Some such as McCosh, Warfield and Strong, were willing supporters; others such as A.A. Hodge, Patton, and Shedd, were more tentative; still others, including Dabney and Charles Hodge, remained unconvinced if not hostile…Nevertheless, a general picture clearly emerges: American evangelicals in the Reformed mold absorbed the Darwinian shock waves fairly easily.
Wouldn’t life be simple if before Darwin came along all Christians interpreted Genesis 1-3 as literal history. The following quote from Origen, written around 231 AD, shows how far from the truth such a view of church history would be.
Now who is there, pray, possessed of understanding, that will regard the statement as appropriate, that the first day, and the second, and the third, in which also both evening and morning are mentioned, existed without sun, and moon, and stars— the first day even without a sky? And who is found so ignorant as to suppose that God, as if He had been a husbandman, planted trees in paradise, in Eden towards the east, and a tree of life in it, i.e., a visible and palpable tree of wood, so that anyone eating of it with bodily teeth should obtain life, and, eating again of another tree, should come to the knowledge of good and evil? No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the afternoon in paradise, and that Adam lay hid under a tree, is related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it.
What Origen, one of the great church Fathers, makes apparent is that as long as there has been a church there have existed a whole variety of views on how to handle the early chapters of Genesis. All held with a passion by Bible-believing Christians.
Luther writes in the introduction to this Commentary on Genesis of chapter one:
There has not been anyone in the church who has explained everything in the chapter with adequate skill.
And so it is then that in our own day a growing number of Christians both eminent scientists and leading churchmen who are making a case for the compatibility of the early chapters of Genesis with the theory of evolution. I want today to draw attention to three leading Christian Biologists and three world-renowned Christian Pastors and theologians by way of a sample. At this stage I’m not seeking to comment on their views.
Leading evangelical scientists who have written in support of theistic evolution include:
Dr. Francis Collins – A physician and geneticist who was appointed Director of the National Institutes of Health (US) by President Obama. He is a winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian honour given by the president, for revolutionizing genetic research) and has also received the National Medal of Science. He is the author of The Language of God and founder of the Biologos Forum.
Dr. Dennis Alexander – The Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where he is a Fellow. For many years he was Chairman of the Molecular Immunology Programme in Cambridge. Since 1992 he has been Editor of the journal Science & Christian Belief. He is the author of Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose?
Professor R.J. Berry – Professor of Genetics at Univeristy College London between 1974-2000 and winner of the Templeton UK Individual Award for progress in religion. He has written God and the Biologist: Faith at the Frontiers of Science.
We might not be surprised to find scientists who believe endorsing an evolutionary model of creation but what may be surprising to us are the growing number of high-profile, well respected pastors and theologians who are ready to recognize evolution as a model compatible with the Genesis account.
Tim Keller – Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York. In his New York Times Top 10 book The Reason for God he writes:
For the record I think God guided some kind of process of natural selection, and yet I reject the concept of evolution as All-encompassing Theory. (p.94)
For a fuller statement from Keller visit here.
John Stott – Rector Emeritus of All Souls Church, London. Time magazine, as recently as 2005, voted John Stott as one of the 100 most influencial people in the world.
Stott writes in his BST commentary on Romans:
The evidence of Genesis 2-4 is that Adam was a Neolithic farmer. The New Stone Age ran from about 10,000 to 6,000 BC.
When considering the human fossil record and skeleton record he concludes by suggesting that homo habilis and homo erectus were:
All pre-Adamic hominids, still homo sapiens and not yet homo divines, if we may so style Adam .
JI Packer – British born theologian and author. In 2005 Time magazine voted him one of the 25 most influencial evangelicals in North America.
The following is taken from Wikipedia entry on Packer and evolution:
In 2008 Packer wrote an endorsement for a book called ‘Creation or Evolution: Do We have to Choose?’ by Denis Alexander. The book advocates theistic evolution and is critical of Intelligent Design. Packer said of the book: ‘Surely the best informed, clearest and most judicious treatment of the question in its title that you can find anywhere today.’ This perhaps reveals Packer’s current position in the evolution/intelligent design debate.
However, he has also expressed caution as to whether the theory of evolution is actually true, ‘its only a hypothesis… its only a guess… so as science, in terms of philosophy of science… evolution is by no means proven and as a guess it is very strange and contrary to all analogies…‘ He also said, ‘the biblical narratives of creation… don’t obviously say anything that bears one way or another on the question of whether the evolutionary hypothesis might be true or not…‘
The most recent information on Packer’s position on evolution comes from his foreword to Reclaiming Genesis by Melvin Tinker. Reclaiming Genesis is a ‘pro-evolution’ book with the subtitle ‘The Theatre of God’s Glory – Or a Scientific Story?’ in it Packer writes “Melvin Tinker is fully on wavelength in this lively and enlivening series of expositions. His book is wise, popular, and powerful. I heartily commend it.”
There are a growing number of evangelical Christians including eminent theologians and scientists who are ready to embrace evolution as the divine mechanism through which God created the world and human beings. See Creation & Evolution: Do we have to choose by Denis Alexander the director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, a molecular biologist and an author on science and religion for one example.
In his foreward to the book Should Christians Embrace Evolution Wayne Grudem summarises at least eight reasons for rejecting theistic evolution.
If evolution was the mechanism through which God created then;
1) Adam and Eve were not the first human beings, but they were just two Neolithic farmers among about ten million other human beings on earth at that time, and God just chose to reveal himself to them in a personal way.
2) Those other human beings had already been seeking to worship and serve God or gods in their own ways
3) Adam was not specially formed by God or ‘dust from the ground’ (Gen. 2:7) but had two human parents.
4) Eve was not directly made by God out of a ‘rib that the Lord God had taken from the man’ (Gen. 2:22), but she also had two human parents.
5) Many human beings both then and now are not descended from Adam and Eve.
6) Adam and Eve’s sin was not the first sin.
7) Human physical death had occurred for thousands of years before Adam and Eve’s sin – it was part of the way living things had always existed.
8) God did not impose any alteration in the natural world when he cursed the ground because of Adam’s sin.
I’m meeting with a number of ministers today and tomorrow to assess these eight claims that evolution and biblical account of creation are irreconcilable.
If you’re interested in a summary of some of Denis Alexander’s views you might be interested in the following.
- Church Planting
- Global Church
- Jesus Christ
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- The Christian Life
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