Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Big Debate: Evolution vs. Creation

Well, tonight was the night of the big debate:  Bill Nye "the Science Guy" vs. Ken Ham of The Creation Museum!  Like a lot of people, I would imagine, we watched the live stream.  Some might think that this debate would be of special interest for our family, seeing that I am a pastor and my wife is a licensed Science teacher.  -  Well, it is, but unlike the "divided household" in our neighborhood with the split U.K./U. of L. flag in their yard, we are not flying a divided flag in the Stepp household.

I think that it has often been assumed that the (general) debate is a debate between Science and the Bible, or Science and Religion.  The assumption is that only atheists believe in evolution and that Christians must only believe in a young earth and a six literal 24-hour, solar days for creation.  Science, in this view is "God-less," and Religion is . . . irrational.  And, there is the assumption that all Christians must agree with Ken Ham and The Creation Museum; they must have all been rooting for him, tonight.

However, the truth is Mr. Ham's position is held by a minority of evangelical Christians who usually self-identify as "fundamentalists."  (And I would suggest that those who agree with his understanding of Scripture and Science, who do not self-identify as such, nevertheless take on such fundamentalist understandings of Scripture at this point.  That is not, in and of itself a negative term, but rather a term of clear categorization.)

My own denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, certainly makes room for those who share Mr. Ham's understanding of Scripture, though, as a denomination, it is not the Nazarene position.  -  Our Article of Faith on Scripture makes clear that "We believe in the plenary inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, . . . given by divine inspiration, inerrantly revealing the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation . . ."  That is to say, unlike Mr. Ham, our understanding of the nature of Scripture's inerrancy is a soteriological understanding (i.e., having to do with salvation, broadly understood).  Again, there are those among us whose understanding goes beyond this, but such an understanding diverges from the traditional way that Wesleyan Christians view Scripture.

Likewise, the denomination allows for those who hold Mr. Ham's understanding of how God created, but it does not require such an understanding, and as I will demonstrate, such an understanding does not seem to be the dominant view among Nazarene (and other Wesleyan) scholars.

Our Manual statement on creation says, "The Church of the Nazarene believes in the biblical account of creation ("In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth . . ." - Genesis 1:1).  We oppose any godless interpretation of the origin of the universe and of humankind (Hebrews 11:3)."  -  The key words concerning what we oppose is "godless interpretation."  That means, of course, that we believe that God created.  We state, in our Manual, that we own the classical, ecumenical creeds as expressions of our own faith.  Thus, every Sunday, where I lead worship, we confess our faith in God the Father Almighty, maker (i.e., Creator) of heaven and earth, using either the Apostles' or the Nicene Creed.  On this point, we are explicitly in agreement with Ken Ham, over against Bill Nye.

Further, our view of creation does leave open the possibility of Mr. Ham's view.  However, it also leaves open the possibility for our people to embrace some form of theistic evolution; that God, to some degree, used the means of evolution to bring about the creation.

What is interesting, when one looks at Nazarene scholars throughout the history of the denomination, most seem to view the Genesis' creation account(s) soteriologically and theologically, rather than as a scientific account, and most seem to be at least open to some form of theistic evolution.  -  In fact, Dr. Dan Boone, current president of Trevecca Nazarene University, in his book, A Charitable Discourse, identifies five different positions that could be held by (Nazarene/Wesleyan) Christians:

     1.  Genesis 1-3 is a myth containing eternal truth that God created the world and that humans are sinful.
     2.  Genesis 1-3 is a mythological version of a historical reality in which humanity turned away from God.
     3.  Homo sapiens evolved as suggested by Darwin, and at a specific point in human history, God chose Neolithic Adam and Eve to know him, revealed himself to them, and established covenant with them.  They became the first humans aware of God and were made capable of living in relationship with God.  They sinned and their sin affected all humanity.
     4.  Old-earth creationism suggests that some evolution has occurred, but that God created life and the major species, especially Adam and Eve.
     5.  Young-earth creation (Ken Ham's position) suggests that the earth was created ten thousand years ago (I think Mr. Ham says six thousand) in six days and that Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day out of dust (p. 104-5).

However, says Boone, of all of these, the last one "requires a total denial not only of biology and cosmology but also of physics, chemistry, and the entire family of scientific inquiry. . . it is a denial of science as we know it" (p. 105).  -  Now, for those who watched the debate, you can judge for yourself whether Ken Ham's position denies all of this or not.

The first thing, however, that we discover among Nazarene scholars is that none of our major theologians have held Ken Ham's position.  Now, if a fellow Nazarene wants to challenge this, I am open to their proving me wrong.  For my part, I have simply looked at the three theologians who have produced systematic theologies, two of which have held a position of being "official" systematic theologies to some degree for the denomination, along with two biblical theology books, among others.

The first official systematic theology for the denomination was produced by H. Orton Wiley, a younger contemporary of Nazarene founder, Phineas Bresee.  Unlike Ken Ham, Wiley described the Genesis creation account(s) as "The Hymn of Creation," or "The Poem of the Dawn" (Christian Theology 1:449-54).  He says that "The Genesis account of creation is primarily a religious document.  It cannot be considered a scientific statement" (1:454-5).  In fact, Wiley states that, unlike Ken Ham, "The best Hebrew exegesis has never regarded the days of Genesis as solar days, but as day-periods of indefinite duration . . .," and he sites Augustine among other Church Fathers who held this same understanding (1:455).  "Origin, Irenaeus, Basil and Gregory Nazianzen taught the same doctrine during the patristic period, as did also many of the learned Jewish doctors outside the Christian Church" (1:455-6).

W.T. Purkiser in God Man, & Salvation: A Biblical Theology, which was a standard work for Nazarenes, agrees with Wiley.  Concerning our understanding of Scripture, he says "The theme of salvation . . . is the central theme of the Bible" (9).  And he affirms that "While the account of creation in the Bible is not mythological, neither is it intended to be cosmological or scientific" (56).  Further, Purkiser insists that "Debate between 'science' and 'the Bible' often loses sight of the fact that the interest in Scripture is theological, not cosmological.  The doctrine of creation is not an effort to explain the universe.  Its purpose is to lay the basis for the history of salvation that follows" (60).

In Grace, Faith & Holiness (the next systematic theology, following Wiley's, to be commissioned by the Board of General Superintendents), Ray Dunning affirms Wiley and Purkiser's views.  He says, "Being of the nature of poetry, it cannot be treated as a technical scientific treatise, although we must emphasize, as Wiley does, that it is historical in nature" (236).

Kenneth Grider, who also wrote a systematic theology for the church (viz., A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology), though not an officially commissioned one, rejects the young earth theory as "a naively literal interpretation of Genesis" (173).  He affirms that "On a number of bases, Wesleyan-holiness evangelicals hold the confidence that Scripture is inerrant on doctrine and practice but that it might contain error on matters relating to mathematics, science, geography, or such like" (75).  However, unlike most of the others surveyed, here, Grider seems to prefer an old-earth creation position (cf., #4, above).

Again, in Michael Lodahl's The Story of God: Wesleyan Theology & Biblical Narrative, he states, Genesis' creation account ". . . is not science, and to read it as such is to do violence to its intentions; it is, rather, poetic theology, a 'hymn of creation' (H. Orton Wiley) that points us to God as our Creator.  It is concerned with who creates, and why - not particularly with when or how" (64).

So, with this ever so brief survey, where does that leave Nazarene and other Wesleyan Christians?  It leaves us firmly affirming God the Creator.  It also leaves us with quite a bit of elbow room concerning the "how" question of creation.  One cannot say that a particular scientific explanation is "Wesleyan."  To do so is to move beyond theology into the arena of Science.  Thus, the elbow room within the denomination.  However, it does leave us with a view of Scripture that is different from that of Ken Ham's; a view of Scripture that has led most of our major scholars from the beginning of the denomination until the present to a very different conclusion than Ken Ham.  It is a view of Scripture that sees no incompatibility with the prevailing Scientific theory. 

One can certainly agree with Ken Ham concerning the how of creation, . . . and one could end up being correct about the how of creation, after all!  But to require others to agree with Ham involves insisting on an interpretation of Genesis that is different from the way Wesleyan Christians have traditionally viewed Scripture (viz., soteriologically and theologically). 

So, what about me?  When I preach, how do I treat Genesis 1-3?  Do I promote a young-earth creationist position similar to Ken Ham?  Or do I promote a theistic evolutionary position similar to Bill Nye with God inserted into it?  -  No.  No, on both counts.

Oh, those questions are good questions, worthy of study, but, as a traditional Wesleyan I do not think that such questions are what Genesis 1-3 are about.  Rather, it is about God creating us, not by accident, but on purpose, in God's very own image.  It is about our fall from grace through our first parents' rebellion, and consequently it is about our separation from God.  But it is also about God's plan to rescue, redeem and restore us to God's image, once again.  This, God does through Christ Jesus who entered into human history, lived among us, and died on the cross on our behalf to take away our sin, whom God raised from the dead in order to give to us newness of life.  Of course, there is more to say, but in a nutshell, that's the point of Genesis 1-3, isn't it?  That's what I preach.  And frankly, beyond that, I don't care a whole lot about what one may believe concerning "how" God created.  That's the scientific question, and while I may be interested in it, I'm not a scientist.  Instead, I am a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and our relationship to God is of utmost importance to me and (as I understand it) to the Bible.


Nate Stults said...

Very good blog post!

Nate Stults said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PoppyC said...

Great Todd. You give a wonderful survey of possible responses with accuracy and with grace. I have quoted for so long I have forgotten the source, "Do not let the Bible say any less than it does but do not make it say more than it does."

david said...

Outstanding overview! Grateful for your scholarship and articulation of important issues.

Christopher Watkins said...

It's sad that the Nazarene Church doesn't take a stance. An "open" view just breeds confusion.

The problem I have with Theistic Evolution is what it states about the character of God himself.

The problem of evil get completely turned around on God and Christ dying for our sins makes almost no sense at all since death, disease, famines, thorns, cancers, rape, incest, war (tribal or animalistic), murder, theft, etc all take place before man sinned.

God waited billions of years to take a pre-adomite and make him aware of his spiritual lostness and the injustice of the world. That's almost as cruel as a doctor waking a patient who would otherwise be in extreme pain. But sedated is not aware of their pain. God takes pre-adomite man and says here have a conscience and see just how cruel this world is. Oh by the way it'll be a really long time before I act bringing the law, forming Israel, and then even longer before bringing my Son to initiate the New Covenant. Then 2,000 years later you'll still deal with death, disease, famine, war, murder, genocide, rape, incest, cancer, suffering, etc. But don't worry someday I'll make all things new and there will be no more of it. There never was a time in which these things were but I promise you after all these billions of years someday I'll bring all this to an end.

Todd Stepp said...

Thank you, Nate, PoppyC, David, & Christopher for taking time to read the blog post and for your comments. The encouragement and affirmation is always nice.

Christopher, I have to admit, I'm not sure where you are coming from. I thought I knew, at first. I thought you were simply arguing against a theistic evolution position, until you started talking about the length of time before the law, forming Israel, the New Covenant, etc. At that point, it just started sounding like you have a huge issue with the Bible.

That being said, I'm not sure how to respond.

I will say a couple of things that may address a couple issues I think you are raising, but again, I don't understand what your overall point is.

The first thing I would say is that the Church of the Nazarene does take a very clear position concerning our understanding of the nature of Scripture. Based on the schools you have attended, I think that our position would be different than yours (though the schools one attend doesn't always allow for such an assumption). - Our traditional, Wesleyan understanding (consistent with our Methodist and Anglican heritage) is that Scripture reveals to us all things necessary to our salvation. We view it through a soteriological/theological lense: what is God saying to us about God's self, ourselves, our relationship with God, etc. - We do not understand the purpose of Scripture to be "scientific."

And, since our focus is on salvation (broadly understood), we are not, as a church, so concerned about scientific positions. - That doesn't mean that we don't have scientists or others who delve into such things in our ranks. We do. It just means that we do not think it is necessary for the Church to deal with such scientific issues, as such.

I, too, do have some issues with a theistic evolutionary position, which I am trying to understand. I think that the strongest argument against evolution is not a scientific one, but a theological one. It is the issue of the relationship between sin and death, along with the Scriptural portrayal as death being the last great enemy. On the one hand, the primary reference is a spiritual one, but the physical is not left out. Otherwise Jesus' bodily resurrection, our hope for bodily resurrection and the promise of death being no more makes little sense.

I do not think that this is an issue that cannot be overcome. For example, it seems clear that the nature of Adam and Eve's immortality in the garden is not an ontologically created one. It is based upon their relationship with God and their ability to eat of the tree of life. That goes a long way in answering some of these questions, but it does not satisfy all of them.

Anyway, since I'm not sure what your point is, I will stop, here.

Thank you, again, for the comments!


Ron A said...

I watched the Nye - Hamm debate with interest. Perhaps Nye should have made it more clear that science does not discuss the supernatural while Religion oftentimes does. Evangelical faith tradition makes room and embraces the supernatural elements of Jesus as fully man and God, His resurrection as well as other elements of theology. In the Science classroom we must be devoted to understanding the physical aspects of our world that can be theorized, tested, and as Nye said have predictive qualities that can then be proved or disproved with a continuous cycle of learning. In the classroom we use the scientific method. That method cannot deal with supernatural that can't be tested. That is where ones faith comes in and that should not be a discussion in the science classroom. It should be a discussion among family, friends, and in our communities of faith.