A Missionary Evaluation of the Creation-Science Controversy


San Jose Christian College
790 South 12th St.
San Jose, CA 95108

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 43 (September 1991): 186-
If the late Donald McGavran were with us today he might well say, "Look at the world science community through `church growth eyes.' Are not men and women of science more responsive to religion than they have been for a century? What is being done to win men and women of the science community for the cause of Jesus Christ?1 Indeed, the insights of missiology, a science of cross-cultural communication, can be helpful in the current creation-science controversy. The mosaic which represents the world science community should be looked upon as consisting of sub-cultures that are winnable to Jesus Christ.2

Biblical Models

Biblical models of cross cultural communication are not lacking. The positive approach of our Lord to the Samaritan woman by Jacob's well demonstrated the effectiveness of his use of the analogy of "living water" in making a point of contact. Paul's careful observation in Athens gave him his opening as he explained to the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers gathered in the Areopagus the nature of the "Unknown God." He went on to establish a degree of "common ground" as he described how the Creator had so made us that we all have a religious propensity - a need to seek after him and find him. The Apostle even quoted Cleanthes, one of their Stoic poets, to reinforce his point that God was not far from us (Acts 17:28). In both rural Samaria and sophisticated urban Athens there were receptive responses.

Numerous mission analysts, reacting to the ethnocentric approaches of western missionaries in the past have pointed out that some of their lack of success may have been due to over-looking biblical models. Roland Allen initiated the modern missionary dialogue with his classic, Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours?3 Donald McGavran began the Church Growth Movement with his searching volume, The Bridges of God.4 He was affirming that God had providentially placed communication causeways leading to responsive people groups for the missionary's benefit. Those who found those bridges were reaping the "spontaneous growth" of which Roland Allen wrote.5

Approaching Diverse World Views

Don Richardson's breakthrough with the Sawi tribe of Irian Jaya came when he learned of their custom of presenting a "peace child" to end tribal warfare. Satiated with killing, a family from each of the warring factions would exchange an infant to be raised by the opposing tribe. As long as the child was cared for safely there would be no war. Richardson now had a match for scripture, a "redemption analogy," understandable to Sawi culture, and he could explain the gift of God's Son to bring peace.6 The supracultural nature of the gospel lends itself to analogies that make the message relevant to vastly different cultures. 

Missionary approaches to animistic cultures have met with failure when overly influenced by western rationalism. The attempt to teach such primitive tribes that many of the spirits they feared did not exist at all was bound to fail. The daily life of many tribal peoples is dominated by spirits - both good and evil. Their rationale for all misfortune is that the evil spirits have been at work. The legitimation for their Shaman is the belief that they, in some measure, have been able to control the demons.7 Highly successful communication resulted when missionaries accepted their world view and countered it by telling them the good news of the Holy Spirit, who could overcome all of the evil spirits.
The early encounters of Protestant missionaries with world religions were also negative. Tension exists to this day between anthropologists and missionaries partly because of the overstatements of the latter.8 The compulsion to emphasize the dark side of Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam, reflected what appeared to be an uninformed bias. Such judgmental encounters failed because of a lack of balanced information about these traditional religions. William Carey was an exception when he initiated the work of "the Serampore trio" in translating the Bhagavad Gita into English in order to gain better insights about this popular form of theistic Hinduism.

August Reischauer's insights are helpful.10 He distinguishes between "value" and "truth." While not accepting as ultimate truth many of the claims of the world religions he can credit them with values. There are numerous examples of what can be called "wisdom literature" in non-Christian belief systems. Rather than attacking the religion in a hostile manner it proves more effective to find positive points of contact to begin communication. In this process there is the danger of syncretism but compromise is not necessary.    

Bridge Burning 

Similar to those of the missionary enterprise have been the communication oversights in the current creation/science controversy. Among some there appears to be an unwillingness to distinguish between "value" and "truth." In their earnest desire to uphold what they believe to be the ultimate truth they refuse to recognize the genuine values in the science community. Their approach is hostile and argumentative and as a result defensive reactions close the doors to effective communication. The cause of this attitude is apparently an inflexible biblical hermeneutic that equates their interpretation with the Word of God. They feel compelled to attack all efforts at accommodation to scientific world views.11 

"Big Bang Bashing" is one example of this bridge burning. Failing to see that the Big Bang cosmologies are a welcome change from the "steady state theory" of the universe, certain creationists attack it out of hand. Here is a paradox. Since the time of Plato western science has held that the universe has always existed. A 20th century view has come along that affirms evidence that the universe had a beginning and will apparently have an end.12 Creation purists pass up the opportunity to bridge into the science world view with this handy analogy to biblical statement. 

The rejection of the time dimension of modern science on the assumption that it contradicted scripture has closed many doors to communication. From the viewpoint of the science community the approximations of the geolgists of a 4.5 billion year-old earth are quite plausible. The processes of sedimentation and erosion appear to work within the time frame clocked by the measurement of radioactive decay. The case for "continental drift" alone is convincing to unbiased observers that our earth has undergone many changes over a very long period of time.13 When the "young earth" creationist insists that the biblical evidence indicates an earth of only six to ten thousand years old, all communication bridges to the secular science community break down. The communication gap widens and such reactionary creationist views are labeled "folk science."14 The scriptures and the gospel are consequently dismissed as meaningless. 

 The Rejection of Options 

Since the l9th century conservative theologians have worked out accommodation theories to reconcile the first chapters of Genesis with the discoveries of science. A "gap theory" allowed for a long period of time prior to the ordering of life in six creative days. The "age day theory" attempted to match the order of creation with the geological column. "Progressive creationism" perceived God creating distinctive life forms progressively over time without the necessity of evolutionary links between. Bernard Ramm points out that some of the finest Christian scholars of the l9th century were theistic evolutionists.15 All of these were sincere efforts to establish concord between the special revelation of the Bible and natural revelation as discovered by science. 

The above viewpoints arose out of three major frameworks for interpreting Genesis One. There is (l) the concordant view, (2) the literal view, and (3) the literary view. The first seeks to reconcile special and natural revelation; the second desires to uphold the integrity of Scripture, and the third appeals to Hebrew writing style to alleviate the tension between science and religion. There are sincere conservative Biblical scholars aligned with each of these positions. All of them consider themselves creationists and all of them, including many who accept a literal view, have found ways to accommodate their position to the science world view's perspective on the age of the earth.16 

The responsibility for communication breakdown falls upon those who reject the possibility of options and insist that their position alone is the correct one

The Necessity of Contextualizing the Message 

The latest buzz word in missions is "contextualization." At first it was looked upon as a mere synonym for indigeneity - he goal of cross cultural church planters. Now it is understood to be more inclusive in meaning. It implies the attempt of the missionary to bring the culturally transcendent gospel message into the cultural context of the target community. It conveys the new awareness, not only of our ethnocentric biases, but of our culturally conditioned modes of biblical interpretation. It implies a new honesty on the part of the western missionary. He now more fully acknowledges his past role in bringing a growth-inhibiting form of western Christianity to many parts of the third world. The present focus is to so contextualize the message that the receptor culture receives Jesus Christ as their very own Savior and Lord.17 

It is of utmost importance that we contextualize the gospel message to our science communities. This can be done and has been done without the loss of a high view of scripture.18 The God who left his signature on the pages of the Bible is the same God who is Architect of the universe. The admirable flexibility that has been bringing fruitful response on distant mission fields and among ethnic peoples of our inner cities must also be expressed to the men and women of our worldwide science communities. To stereotype scientists and approach them in a hostile manner is to repeat the communication errors that led to past missionary failures.


1This is a paraphrase of a typical McGavran response. Similar wording is found in, "Ten Prominent Elements in the Church Growth Point of View," Christian Mission Today, Vol. 11, No 3, 1970. 
2Tim Stafford shatters stereotypes as he ably describes the problems and needs of working scientists. "Cease-fire in the Laboratory," Christianity Today, April 3, 1987. 
3Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours? (London: World Dominion Press, 1930). 
4Donald Anderson McGavran, The Bridges of God, (New York: Friendship Press, 1955). 
5Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, (London: World Dominion Press, 2nd ed., 1949). 
6Don Richardson, Peace Child, (Glendale: Regal Books, 1974). 
7Eugene A. Nida, Customs and Cultures, (New York: Harper Brothers, 1954) pp. 136-180. 
8Don Richardson discusses the role of anthropologists in contributing to the tension: Eternity in Their Hearts, (Ventura: Regal Books, 1981), pp. 43-53. 
9David J. Hesselgrave, Today's Choices For Tomorrow's Mission, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), p. 151. 
10August Karl Reischauer, The Nature and Truth of the Great Religions, (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1966) pp. 176-290. 
11The wording of one bulletin defines "creationists" as only those who espouse the literalist interpretation of Genesis. Those accepting the gap theory or theistic evolution are placed outside of this category. Acts and Facts Vol. 18, No. 8, August 1989. 
12Robert M. Augros and George N. Stanciu, The New Story of Science, (New York: Bantam Books, 1986) pp. 53-82. 
13Davis A. Young, Christianity and the Age of the Earth, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982). 
14Both Christian and secular scientists have placed beliefs in a 10,000 year old earth in the "folk science" category. Howard J. Van Till; Davis A. Young; Clarence Menninga, Science Held Hostage, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988). Francis B. Harrold and Raymond A. Eve, Eds., Cult Archaeology and Creationism, (University of Iowa Press, 1987)
15Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), pp. 284-288.
16Henri Blocher mentions the reconstructionist theory, (which allows for six literal days), in addition to the literal, concordant, and literary views in his book, In The Beginning, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1984) pp. 39 59.
17David J. Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen, Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989).
18The American Scientific Affiliation and InterVaristy Press have done much to contextualize the gospel to the needs of the science community, in my opinion.