God’s Plan for Creation: Biological Evolution Revisited

As people of faith, how are we to understand the topic of biological evolution? This topic has been raised in the pages of The Banner and elsewhere in Reformed circles. As Edwin Walhout suggests in his article “Tomorrow’s Theology” (June 2013), there is convincing evidence to support the thesis that biological evolution has occurred. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that opinions on the topic vary widely, as indicated by the responses to that article. I believe more needs to be said. So in the spirit of engaging the church in an open and continuing conversation, here are some suggestions for broadening the discussion.

Many Christian biologists—and I include myself in this group—accept the findings of biological science as a feature of creation that we have to account for. The combined evidence from fossils and from scientific comparisons of the anatomy, physiology, and DNA of various organisms is so strong that it can no longer be ignored. As a result, most Christian biologists I know accept some form of evolutionary development. In its refereed journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, the American Scientific Affiliation has published many helpful articles that support this viewpoint (see sidebar on p. **).
However, I do have some reservations about the standard evolution accounts. So as we consider the theory of evolution, I suggest that we keep several key points in mind.

Evolution: Biological Theory or Worldview?
Charles Darwin’s religious doubts and his views of God’s way with the world continue to be topics of much debate. Darwin had doubts about a God who interacts with this world and who allows the cruelty that we observe in ecosystems and in natural selection. Some authors suggest that his faith was particularly challenged by the pain of losing his beloved daughter, Annie, who died at the age of 10. Can we separate Darwin’s religious views from the biological theories that are the result of his work?

In our attempt to understand the discussions on evolution, it is important for us to keep in mind the distinction between evolution as a legitimate biological theory and evolutionism as a godless worldview that we as Christians cannot accept. I need only mention the title of the book The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins to indicate what I mean about the latter. Dawkins has expressed his criticism of the Christian faith in language the genteel Darwin would never have used (we will ignore the amateurish theologizing of Dawkins for now). Nevertheless, we need to acknowledge that a large body of literature presents the theory of biological evolution dispassionately and, in some cases, with respect for the Christian tradition.

Acknowledging Complexity
A second feature of creation that our faith would have us recognize is complexity in the world of nature. Whether we are walking in a rainforest or examining a muscle cell through an electron microscope, we can’t help but be struck by the beauty and complexity of creation. People experience this beauty and complexity in their everyday experience and, as scientists, in the biology lab. In both cases we feel a sense of wonder, even exhilaration.

Not all scientists are of a mind to acknowledge this complexity. James Watson, co-discoverer of the helical structure of DNA, states: “There is only one science, physics: all else is social work.” It’s true that physics is important. Even within our bodies, structures and processes obey physical laws. Nevertheless, many scientists—both Christian and agnostic—disagree with Watson’s statement. They hold that biological organisms and processes cannot be described in purely physical terms, for they obey biological laws as well.

One way of getting at what “creation” means is to recognize that biological structures and processes have integrity and descriptive frameworks all their own. There is a level of biological complexity within the creation. Such an understanding of biological organisms and processes enhances our ability to appreciate God’s design for creation.

Of course, when it comes to human beings and their culture, there are multiple levels of complexity that need to be recognized: language, logic, and religion, among others. All of these levels reflect the wisdom of the Creator, and they are the embodiment of God’s plan for human life.

A Process with Purpose
In the third place, let us notice that there is purpose in the evolutionary process—it accomplishes God’s intent for creation. We know from Scriptures that human beings, and in fact all biological organisms, are meant to be here. This is stressed by biologist and theologian Denis Lamoureux and by philosopher Jacob Klapwijk (see sidebar on p. **). There is purpose in the living world, even if we acknowledge that evolutionary processes imply moments of chance and randomness.

Recognizing that some of the processes that drive biological evolution depend on chance does indeed raise difficult questions. However, what is true for evolution also holds for human reproduction: Even though we know that the determination of gender in a baby is an apparently random process, expectant parents who are Christians might sometimes pray for a girl or a boy. Similarly, we trust that the course of history, chaotic though it is, is ultimately in God’s hands. Even the outcome of a toss of the dice, according to Scripture, is determined by God: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Prov. 16:33). God’s rule enters everywhere, even if we do not always understand God’s way with the world.

Selfish Genes
In his big book Sociobiology, E.O. Wilson proposes that animals behave in such a way that their own genes are passed on to successive generations. And because animal behaviour is thought to be determined or influenced by genes, a particular behavior can be selected for and thus made part of the evolutionary grand scheme. Richard Dawkins supported this view in his book The Selfish Gene. Genes are “selfish” in that they favor their own survival and the behavior patterns of the parent. Unselfish or “altruistic” behavior, a puzzle even for Darwin, can be explained in some cases by suggesting that it favors the passing on of the individual’s own genes through relatives (who will have some of the same genes). In other cases scientists suggest that animals practice reciprocal altruism in turns: “I scratch your back, you scratch mine.” In either case, we will defer to specialists in animal behavior to sort out this problem.

The theory becomes objectionable, certainly to Christians, when it is extended to human behavior, as Wilson does. Certainly human beings can rise above their biological past to lead unselfish lives and to do unselfish acts, regardless of the role of genes in animals. In fact, I see this as part of our being created in the image of God. Christians hold that unselfish behavior is not some puzzling anomaly to be somehow explained. Rather such behavior is part of the new life we have in Christ, who calls us to love others as we love ourselves. For Christians, such behaviors as donating blood or adopting a child, helping a stranded motorist or serving a cup of water to a stranger, are not a puzzle but a rewarding task. Here too our faith shapes our understanding of an aspect of evolution theory.

Needed: A Positive Debate
Contributions to the discussion on origins range from the simplistic to the profound. Unfortunately, too often the former predominate. Yet it is vital that we engage in a positive, worthwhile, and worthy debate. I say that for two reasons. First, when people, particularly students, are exposed to simplistic reasons for rejecting evolution, and then encounter sophisticated arguments for the process in the literature or in the classroom, they often reject the church or begin to question their faith. Instead, I suggest that members of the church read and talk about Scriptures, about biological origins, about evolution, and about natural selection, its supporting process. A good place to begin is with the literature written by Christians in the “Digging Deeper” sidebar (see p. **). Old Testament professors at Reformed seminaries could and should help advance the conversation by offering to participate in public forums and debates on religion and science.

Second, as Reformed Christians, we have always trusted that the “books” of creation and Scripture both testify to their Author. As those who, through Christ, have come to know the Creator as our Father, we must continue to read both books together and allow them to lead us into the truth about God and creation.

God’s creation praises its maker. That God’s creating work is an essential Christian doctrine, and that God’s creation praises him and deserves our loving care, is beyond doubt for the Christian believer. Along with the psalmist we proclaim, “Lord my God, you are very great” (Ps. 104:1).
Sidebar

 

Digging Deeper

The authors of these resources enthusiastically profess that God is the creator. They treasure the message of Scriptures, particularly as it is found in Genesis 1 and 2-3, Psalm 104, and Colossians 1:15-20. Nothing they write, or, indeed, in this article, contradicts that God created everything from nothing. Yes, there are implications in all of this for theology, and we will need to consider them thoughtfully and faithfully. The challenge to consider is that the interpretation of the Genesis accounts does not come solely from the evolution debate; there are other good reasons to continue the work on this fascinating topic. Clarence Vos has written about how we read biblical accounts (“How Should We Read the Bible?” November 2011); theologians are challenged to continue the discussion.

  • Deborah Haarsma and Loren Haarsma, professors in the physics and astronomy department at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., have co-authored a helpful introduction to the origins debate. Their book Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design is written from the viewpoint that God used processes of evolution to bring biological organisms into being.
  • Denis Lamoureux, who has a Ph.D. in theology and another in biology, has written two books on the topic of origins: Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution and I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolution.
  • Reformed philosopher Jacob Klapwijk’s book makes the case for purpose in biological evolution in Purpose in the Living World: Creation and Emergent Evolution.

 

Two Websites for Further Exploration

  • The BioLogos website biologos.org was started by Francis Collins; it gives access to many informative authors and articles. Look for thoughtful essays, particularly the incisive article “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople” by theologian Tim Keller. Articles on this website in “The Forum” by Dennis Venema on “Evolution Basics” and the essays by Andy Crouch and Ted Davis can help us understand current debates about religion and evolution.
  • American Scientific Affiliation: Science and Faith website, asa3.org, is a starting point for many helpful articles on science and the Christian faith. Click on “Resources,” then “For Churches and Groups,” and then “God and Nature Magazine.”

Web Questions:

  1. How does Cook’s article either open doors for more discussion on the topic of evolution and theology or shut them?
  2. Do you agree with Cook that “we need to keep in mind the distinction between evolution as a legitimate biological theory and evolutionism as a godless worldview that we as Christians cannot accept”? How do you understand the difference?
  3. Is it is necessary to have a “positive, worthwhile, and worthy debate” about origins? Why or why not?
  4. What groundwork would need to exist in order for us to receive conflicting positions and participate in a civil discussion?
  5. Cook says that “God’s rule enters everywhere, even if we do not always understand God’s way with the world.” If that is true, how do we handle our fear and doubt?
  6. How do both “books” (creation and Scripture) contribute to the truth about God and creation?

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Harry Cook is a biologist who has taught biology at Christian colleges for many years, most recently at The King’s University College in Edmonton, Alberta. He’s a member of Covenant Christian Reformed Church in Edmonton, Alberta.

See comments (12)

Comments

A very interesting comment, Jim!   It opened a new way of thinking about mechanisms or lack of mechanisms for me.  It seems when evolutionists use the term "random chance", they are ultimately using circular reasoning, and are saying "it just happened".   Never thought of that before. 

To be fair to the evolutionists, I thought I would postulate their likely position on chance and probability, and then I would show how it is lacking.   They would likely argue that what they mean by "chance" is probability of something happening, which is sometimes hard to determine.  Usually they would use the uniformity theory (present is key to the past) and assume that whatever rate we see mutations happening presently, would be similar to mutation rates in the past.  This would determine the potential for new successful species and new selection and adaptations to occur (according to them). 

The problem with that of course is that the rate we see this in the present is only observed over very few decades, although they will argue they can determine changes and rates in older buried specimens, but that depends again on how well they can delimit the changes.  In other words, although they can observe a change in a specimen, they cannot with certainty determine when it entered the general population, since it is quite likely that specimens with and without the mutations would have existed at the same time.  So most of the deductions about the rate of change (probability of change happening) is merely speculation when it comes to the supposed long periods of time.  Furthermore, the observed mutational changes, which are almost completely deleterious in present observations, do not prove or demonstrate an actual transition of members of one species changing to members of another species. 

The other problem is that probabilities of change based on present rates, would mean that most large changes of the sort that constitute successful adaptations, would not be likely or probable at all, due to the complexity of the change required, with no intermediate advantages for selection.  Under scientific method therefore, the improbable would have to be rejected, and a different pathway or mechanism selected. 

What's at stake here is the authority of God's word.  Does science line up with and bow the knee to the Bible or is it the other way around?  

The curse brought on by Adam and Eve's disobedince introduced death into the world...  how could there have been millions and billions of years of "survival of the fittest"?

God spoke this universe into existence in six twenty four hour days...

Get over it.

 

Recommend John Macarthur's book The Battle for the Beginning

 

I read with interest Rev. Walhout’s profoundly important essay in the Banner and the above response. I also downloaded one of his books, Theological Dominoes , from www.smashwords.com to understand further what he was saying. Although I disagree rather strongly with most of what he says, I think he raises questions that are important enough to discuss on an ongoing basis.  I think that the above article misses Walhout’s main point. 

Most of the discussion about evolution involves the length of the day’s and the date that the universe began. There doesn’t seem to be any problem with the fact that God that started it all. The discussion often involves the age of rocks and other geological and astronomical evidence.

The issue that Rev. Walhout raises that I have not seen dealt with before is the theological implications of a belief in evolution. Darwin’s theory would suggest that, given enough time, man will evolve to be perfect without any divine intervention.

I think this issue needs an ongoing discussion. I believe in the Bible is the literal word of God. I question evolution, not on any 24 hour versus million year time period, but on its altering of the relationship between God and man.  Evolution and historic Christian theology are incompatible.  One or the other needs to be changed.  I am solidly on the side of a literal Bible, but I am aware that the two beliefs cannot coexist.

It has been my experience that the less literally we read the Bible, the more abstract and distant God becomes.  The more abstract and distant God is the less space He occupies in our lives.

This must shape our response to Darwinism. Our identity as Christians would be profoundly altered if the character of sin and the necessity of the atonement were denied.

My sister asked me what I would do if Darwinism was the correct one.  I must admit at the age of seventy, I cannot live by any other faith than the one I have lived by all of my life.  God help me.

I remain the servant of God and his church,

 

Ted DeRose

tederose@gmail.com

 

The “universal consensus” of scientists over the history has been erected from the debris of the collapsed consensus of the previous generation.  Would a consensus of the scientists in the past have established the truth of a flat earth, an earth centered solar system, or the nature of disease?  TRUTH is never subject to consensus. I am always rather amused by the frustration of the press when the church fails to reshape doctrine on the basis of poll results.

I was just reading the Oct-Dec Creation.com magazine(55 pages) which had some fascinating articles;  I was overwhelmed almost by how "undead" their science is.  Articles include one on missing index fossils, different embryonic development of digits, the problem with convergent evolution, giant compound eyes in evolutionary history, compounds in the planet Mercury that don't seem to make sense with the age ascribed to that planet, formation of granite, quantum mechanics (quantum field theory) etc.,  etc.   If you wonder about any of this, you might want to check it out.  The magazine is published in Australia with authors from around the globe. 

Thank you.  I would and will.  As I think and read about this debate, there seems to be a lot of ad hominem reasoning and false confidence among the combatants.  I often feel that the problem is, not in our church, but generally, between people who are questioning the existence of God through the question of evolution and those who are attacking it without really knowing how fragile the theory is.  If we have a secondary agenda, such as the existence of God, it is hard to focus on the  subject that is before us on the table.  

Incidently, the latest issue of Popular Science had an article on Dark Matter which seemed to say that if they could find a dozen particles of Dark Matter, the field of physics would be turned upside down.  If any field was stable, I would have thought that it was physics.

Understand that although I believe in the historic interpretation of the Bible, I will not judge the evidence on the basis of that belief.  Also, I wonder if the unquestioning defence of evolution does not interfere with the search for another explanation.

Ted

I think it is important to look at it carefully within out tradition so that we can respond logically to questions and challenges.

I am reading a lot of books on evolutionary science and find that there is a lot of disagreement except that what the writer is saying is obvious and undeniably correct.  I find that each generation of scientists seem to feel that they have the answer, at least to the next generation.  The problem with certainty is that it discourages the free investigation and exchange of ideas. 

I do not believe in evolution as it is currently stated, but I think that the free exchange of ideas is important.  In the Bible, from the first, God seems to ask questions.  Questions are the well of learning.   

Just got Popular Science from library.  Huge header on page 41 says," ALL AROUND US, A SECOND REALITY BINDS THE UNIVERSE AND GIVES IT ORDER."  Made my morning.  One of the editors selected this exerpt from the article.  Closet Christian?

I am disappointed that you would provide a link to Biologos and not to Answers in Genesis and/or Creation.com. 

I also wonder which definition of evolution you are using, since it appears that you are confusing natural selection, (which has ample evidence supporting it), and abiogenesis, (which has not and cannot ever be proven).

 

http://creation.com/has-evolution-really-been-observed-summary-article

http://creation.com/is-the-evolutionary-tree-changing-into-a-creationist-orchard

Your comment is really inspiring, thank you. I began to realize and more aware of the term "chance". I think that it is hard to determine the term "chance", especially engage it with the term evolution. I think the term chance itself already seems hard to understand because no matter this term is used for, whether it is for physical different or non physical different, there is this "unknown" feeling on it. the unknown of what has happened what happens and what will happen. especially when this term added and engaged with the term evolution in which still a mystery for people. as you mentioned, and I agree, that when people explain the term evolution, they will follow it up with a long period of time term. it is a mystery that no one knows because no one has ever live long enough to understand the whole system of macro-evolution. 

Thus, I think that this notion of evolution is still a mystery. People can try hard and find a way to solve and explain anything, but at some point, I think it is good to realize how great is our God that He is beyond our knowledge. there are somethings that He might wants to keep it as a mystery. I think that it is important to dig into God's creation, but it is also important to stay back and realize how big God is and give all the glory back to Him.

Thank you for the comment you post, ^.^

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