Science in Christian Perspective



Christian Commitment and Evolutionary Concepts

From: JASA 15 (September 1963):

Some readers may be tempted to ask, "Why bring up the issue of evolution again?" The answer is obvious: The subject raises important issues which are of continuing interest and concern to many members of the American Scientific Affiliation. New members have not had the benefit of earlier discussions. Old members may hope for some movement toward increased clarity of thought and resolution of tensions.

The articles in this issue form a symposium only in the sense that they all relate to the central topic of evolution. There has been no opportunity for the writers to share their ideas in face-to-face conversation. Neither has there been any attempt to make a survey of ASA fellows or other members in order to discover the consensus of their opinions. Rather, it is our hope that a fresh look at some of the issues will help to put relevant questions into a form that will stimulate meaningful and fruitful discussion and enrich our understanding of Christian doctrine and commitment.

The word "evolution" is encrusted with emotional overtones and a variety of meanings. We sometimes speak of the evolution of human culture, of a scientific theory, of a philosophical school of thought, of rock formations, of the forms of life, or of the universe as a whole. The "ground rules" for fruitful scholarly discussion of evolution may be quite different for each of these topics.

Meaningful discussion is possible only when we ·clearly define our terms. Let us consider, for example, the labels "creationist" and "theistic evolutionist." In a very real sense, all ASA members, as evidenced by their agreement to the basic statement of faith required for membership, can be considered creationists. But unfortunately much current usage of "creationist" is not equivalent to "believer in God as the Creator." In a similar manner, "theistic evolution" has many meanings and is seldom clearly defined either when it serves as a label of one's own point of view or as an expression, either complimentary or derogatory, applied to the views of another. Perhaps we would be better off if both terms were discarded and we were forced to start afresh with a new vocabulary.

The spirit with which we treat each other in discussions such as this is important. We have a tendency to say, "I disagree with him!", when we ought to say, "I don't understand what he means." We may state, "I don't like him," when we ought to say, "I don't like his opinion about evolution." We are tempted to judge another's salvation-his basic Christian faith-by his views on evolution when we ought to evaluate it on the basis of his relationships with Jesus Christ. We are inclined to arouse a spirit of suspicion which walls us off from those with whom we disagree instead of charitably reaching out to them in an attempt to share our experience of God's grace. Saving grace is found neither in evolution nor in anti-evolution. The negative reaction is significantly different from the positive thrust of Christian outreach that characterized the early church.

As Christians we reflect the dominant world view more clearly and more completely than we usually realize. If the data and interpretations of science produce in us a sense of panic, that experience may reveal some confusion about the nature or the degree of correspondence to be expected between research and faith. We may be tempted on the one hand to deny the validity of the scientific method, but on the other hand we may expect science to bolster our faith. We may inconsistently condemn science and at the same time attempt to support our own world view by selected gleanings from scientific research reports. We may conclude that, because some scientific theories have later been proven false, science must always be untrustworthy. Such a conclusion is just as incorrect as the related error of those opponents of Christianity who assume that, because some Christian interpretations have later been recognized as incorrect, no Christian perspectives are worthy of confidence. A frame of mind that is sensitive to both science and the claims of Christ is committed to a continual reappraisal of scientific data and of Biblical interpretations as they appear. For the Christian who is caught in the spirit of his age and expects much more of science than it can justifiably produce, the reappraisal will usually be an agonizing experience.

It is difficult also to realize how great a part religious traditions play in our own systems of belief. Even as we decry the dependence of others upon tradition, we reflect and continue to absorb traditions ourselves. As a result, a major task of teachers in church-related colleges is to help students understand what aspects of their religious systems are not really a part of their faith in God. This type of negative witness is essential lest we construct new and unnecessary barriers to Christian faith. Yet this posture carries the danger of leaving us with little energy or effort in the area of positive witness. In our attempts to avoid misinterpretation of scientific data, we leave ourselves open to the uninviting possibility of having merely a negative faith. We ought rather to encourage each other to develop a clear formulation of what we do believe.

Some of the tensions which divide evangelical Christians on this subject may arise from a failure to distinguish between evolution as a focus for scientific research and evolution as a comprehensive world view. As a focus for research, the term "evolution" refers to methodological postulates and procedures, a theoretical frame of reference, and collections of empirical data. The area of study may include the principles which govern changes in gene frequencies, the results of comparative research on various forms of life, recurrent patterns of development in the history of social institutions, and the processes of change in structure or function. In this sense, "evolution" has provided powerful tools for study and a framework for organizing data which have been amazingly productive in the development of modern science.

It is the extrapolations from research data to world view (including certain scientific-philosophical theories) that justifiably cause concern on the part of persons committed to faith in God as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Do the research data provide evidence that there is no God? Of course not, but neither can one find God solely through scientific research. The source of Christian doctrine is revelation, so sensory data cannot disprove it. Yet we often say that the natural world also is a revelation of God and that our conclusions based upon observation of it therefore must correspond with the revelation in the written Word of God. Tension is inevitable as we check our interpretations of the written revelation against interpretations of observations of the world, and vice versa. The system of values or world view of a Christian may be open to modification as a result of the findings of science, but it is not based upon scientific data alone.

The most distressing result of confusing evolution-as-research with evolution-as-world-view is that the energies of Christians may become so devoted to attacking scientific methodology that there is little time left for a positive testimony about the Christian way of life. Few evangelical Christians have presented the concept of God as Creator in terms which are able to strike the scientific imagination as an option worthy of consideration to replace contemporary beliefs.

What really is God's message for our age? What are the “idols” of our generation, the predominant change-producing forces, the decision-making criteria? "Evolution" certainly is a dominant philosophical orientation for many educated people, although its influence among the general population is less certain. One task of the ASA is to discover how we as individuals and as a group can help our contemporaries see the relevance of the Bible and of Jesus Christ for their lives.

The membership of the ASA represents an unusual combination of Christian commitment and scientific knowledge. The ASA brings together persons with enough common understanding in science and in faith that meaningful discussion at significant levels is possible. We must keep the lines of communication between members open, and we must recognize the special competencies of both scientists and theologians. If in addition we wish to convince non-Christian scientists of the relevance of the doctrine of creation, we must engage in continuing conversation with them, both to learn their point of view and to share with them the meaning of Christ for our own lives.

That there is no one Christian view held by all evangelical Christians pertinent to the interpretation of evolution-as-research is obvious from the differences of opinion evident in the pages of this issue of the JASA. On the other hand, a positive stand on the doctrine of God as Creator and on the inadequacy of science in general (or, more specifically, of evolution) as an exclusive or comprehensive world view seems to us to be a common platform and a desirable meeting ground for all Christians. We can be open enthusiastically to new scientific data and interpretations, but we must be cautiously critical of value judgments based upon scientism. We must try to avoid over-simplification of the issues, semantic confusion, false dichotomies, and other logical pitfalls in our discussions of this and related subjects. Through our positive witness we must provide the necessary antidote against certain tendencies on the part of some scientists and philosophers. Such a framework of opinion can be expected to encourage critical thought, perceptive research, illuminating writing, incisive testimony, and other modes of effective Christian witness.