In his book A short history of nearly everything Bill Bryson writes ‘It seems impossible that you could get something from nothing, but the fact that once there was nothing and now there is a universe is evident proof that you can.’
Yet we must all answer the question first asked by Leibniz ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ or to put it in more scientific language ‘why is the universe here?’. There are only three options open to us;
1) The universe has always existed
2) Someone or something caused the universe – that which some people call ‘god’
3) The universe came to be literally from nothing (without a cause)
Now what I find striking and very revealing is that most atheists opt, like Bryson, for option 3.
It’s striking because in doing so it’s hard not to accuse them of thinking irrationally. After all there is nothing in science and nothing in our known experience to suggest that something comes from nothing. It’s striking because atheists enjoy nothing more than mocking Christians for believing in something without evidence or proof, namely god and yet do exactly the same when it comes to the origins of the universe.
After all what could be more improbable than believing that the universe simply came out of nowhere. Is it not in fact the most counter-intuitive and illogical option of the three available to us. It is to go against everything that we know and everything that science teaches. When something happens we ALWAYS look for a cause. We seek a reasonable explanation. We ask where does it come from. We never shrug our shoulders and say things just happen. If we did we’d give up scientific endeavour.
Atheism’s article of faith
Belief in the god of the Bible is dismissed as being as fanciful as belief in pink unicorns or the flying spaghetti monster. But Atheists don’t enjoy being reminded that their whole worldview rests on believing an extremely unlikely idea – a self-creating universe – and believing it as an article of faith.
It’s why I not only ask atheists ‘why does this universe exist?’ but most importantly ‘what reason do you have for holding the answer that you do?’
So when an atheist such as Quentin Smith concludes ‘the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing’ he is not speaking from reason but against reason for there is no reason at all to believe that things come into being from absolutely nothing. An atheist who believes in an uncaused universe is not being reasonable at all. In reality they are doing what the theist is accused of doing all the time – playing the faith card! They are saying ‘I believe because I believe and I may not have a reason to believe it but it’s what I want to believe and that is enough for me.’ Maybe they think that one day we will find reason to believe it but we all know that at present there is none and by any other name that is religion. Belief not based on what you know to be true but what you want to be true.
What is the conclusion?
Atheists are as much people of faith, belief, maybe even superstition, as the rest of humanity. We believe things because we choose to believe them and we believe things not because they are scientifically based, logical or likely but we believe because the one thing we know is that we don’t want to believe the alternative.
We are all of us believers and believers in something that we cannot prove. Welcome to the club my atheist friend.
So runs the headline in a surprising article in today’s Sunday Times.
An evangelical Christian who is one of the world’s top scientists is trying to save the life of Christopher Hitchens, the cancer-stricken writer who told him at their first meeting that God does not exist.
Francis Collins, who led the projec to map human genes, contacted the atheist when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer last year.
Hitchens was sent to Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where scientists sequenced the 6 billion letters of his DNA. Using computers in a process that takes several weeks, they also sequenced the 6 billion letters in his his tumours, Then they looked at the two sets for differences.
‘Over these last few months, we have not talked directly about faith,’ Collins said, ‘But I would like to think that Christopher’s sharp intellect has challenged my own defence of the rationality of faith to be more consistent and compelling.’
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
- Medical ethics
- Social media
- Suffering Church
- The Christian Life
- Transforming Society
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