Worldview and the Question of Origins

At a recent meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Dr. Bruce Waltke made a striking statement.  After presenting a paper in which he argued for a way of reading the Bible that is compatible with evolutionary theory, Waltke said that, according to geneticist Francis Collins, a famous Christian scientist and founder of Biologos (an organization devoted to reconciling the Christian faith with evolutionary theory), within one-hundred years evolutionary theory will be as solidly grounded in empirical science and as widely affirmed as heliocentrism (the view that the earth rotates around the sun).  In other words, we are only a few generations away from the time when all civilized people will agree that all species originated from a common ancestor.

Of course, it has been more than a hundred years since certain intellectuals in Western society started making claims like that one, and to their chagrin the vast cultural embrace of Darwinian theory has still not yet materialized (except in the academy and in the media).  I have my doubts about Collins’s prediction, and I think Waltke, a Christian scholar who specializes, not in science but in Old Testament studies, is taking a misguided step by investing energy into the accommodation of the Christian faith to evolutionary theory.  Such an approach betrays an inability to recognize the pivotal worldview questions in which all scientific investigation are rooted.  The prior assumptions that scientists bring to the table inevitably color their interpretation of the scientific evidence.

The more I have thought about the question of the origin of species, the more I have become convinced that the scientific community is so robustly committed to the Darwinian idea because it has adopted an understanding of science that is methodologically atheistic, which in turn leaves scientists with no alternative to evolution.  In other words, it is not that the evidence for evolution is so incredibly compelling that any rational person who views it will bow immediately in submission to its demonstrable truth.  It is, rather, that naturalistic assumptions leave one in a position where no other alternative can possibly be contemplated.  In effect, scientists have already written the rules of the game in such a way that only evolutionary theory can play, and then they turn around and proclaim how overwhelmingly evolutionary theory has dominated all of its (disqualified) opponents.  Allow me to explain.

Modern science operates on the assumption that only naturalistic explanations are permitted in the realm of “science.”  Anything that involves an appeal to a supernatural cause or intervention into the natural world is ruled out of court from the beginning as religious ideology, which cannot have any connection whatsoever with scientific investigation.  You do not have to be an atheist to be a scientist, but the rules of the game of science as it has been set up in the modern world dictate that you must check your religious convictions at the door, or else you cannot play the game.  Whatever conclusions you draw from the observing scientific evidence, they are only truly “scientific” if they remove God from consideration.  A plethora of debates and court cases over the intelligent design movement have made it clear that the scientific establishment works in precisely this way.

Well, if these are the rules of the game, then evolutionary theory wins because all other views have to forfeit from the beginning.  Follow how this works: we all know that non-life does not give rise to life (Louis Pasteur made this abundantly clear in the nineteenth century).  And yet we live on a planet that teems with countless forms of life.  Whence came all of these diverse forms of life?  They could not have come from something that is non-life.  They had to come from life.  Therefore, every species that exists today must have arisen from a living species that preexisted it.  And that species must have come from a species that preexisted it.  Trace this line all the way back, and eventually you come to the single-celled ancestor of all life forms.

This is evolution.  There have been different ways of explaining how it worked, and the dominant understanding of today was the one first proposed by Charles Darwin, namely, that it occurs by a process of natural selection (a process that is undeniably observable in nature).  But whether it is conceived as operating through natural selection or by some other process, evolution is the only naturalistic way to explain the diversity of life forms.  If you cannot appeal to the supernatural, then in order to maintain the scientific principle that life only comes from life, you have to say that all forms of life, as they exist today, are descendants of earlier, different forms of life, all the way back to the beginning.  Now, when you finally get to the bottom of that evolutionary tree, you are still left with the problem of explaining where the first life form came from.  Darwinian theory does not purport to explain this, and there is no widespread agreement among scientists about how it came about.  It is a gaping hole in the predominant theory of origins.  But it is only one gaping hole, as opposed to thousands, or millions, that would result of we were to believe that the species arose by any means other than by common descent from the first life form.

Our naturalistic presuppositions drive us to this conclusion by foreclosing on any other option before the investigation of the evidence even begins.  But what happens if we remove naturalistic presuppositions and allow the intervention of the supernatural into this question?  The result is a wider scope of options.

I agree completely with the undeniable scientific conclusion that life does not arise from non-life.  If God exists, then this is plainly evident.  All life has its origin in him, and he is a being whose life exists in fullness from eternity past to eternity future.  Granted, the vast majority of created living beings in existence come into being through natural processes of reproduction.  But does this reproductive process extend into the creation of new species from prior species to such an extent that all life therefore exists on a continuum?  Are we all the product of a common ancestor?

The Christian worldview, unlike the naturalistic worldview, does not force us to accept that conclusion from the outset, for if God is the living source from which all life comes, then he could just as easily have created directly a single-celled organism or a plethora of diverse kinds of life.  Whatever he chose to do, we are not violating the principle that life comes only from life (as naturalistic theory must do to explain the first life).

And so here we find a continental divide between theistic and naturalistic ways of thinking.  For the theist, life preexists matter.  The living God, who was, is, and is to come, created the material world and all that it contains.  But for the naturalist, matter precedes life.  By some inexplicable event, non-living matter came together in such a way as to give rise to life.  Life is ultimately reducible to a certain combination of reactions between material particles.  According to the rules of the game as it is played today, true “science” cannot admit any other option to the table.

The reason evolutionary theory is dominant in the scientific community today is because the scientific community adopts naturalistic presuppositions that render any other explanation “unscientific.”  The evidence has not led to this conclusion; a naturalistic worldview has demanded it, and the evidence has been interpreted accordingly.

That is why I believe it is foolish to seek to accommodate the Christian faith to a theory that is driven by a worldview that stands at odds with the Christian faith itself.  If the supernatural is ruled out of science from the start, then the question of the origin of species is not a scientific question.  It is a theological question, pure and simple, and the scientists should leave off giving their authoritative pronouncements on it.  But if the scientific community will acknowledge that it has stacked the deck in naturalism’s favor and will open itself up to a wider pool of explanations, then perhaps we could have a true, scientific discussion on the question of origins, integrating the bigger, philosophical questions that scientists pretend not to care about but simply cannot ignore if they are going to do science at all.  Science is never done from the neutral perspective of an intellectual vacuum.  Prior assumptions drive everything about methodology, interpretation of evidence, and conclusions drawn from it.  It is high time for scientists–and a good number of theologians–to begin to recognize this.

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8 Responses to Worldview and the Question of Origins

  1. Douglas E says:

    As one who tries to follow the teachings of Jesus, and as one who is a scientist who accepts the theory of evolution as one that has great explanatory power regarding the diversity of life, I believe that you err in considering science as atheistic. Granted, there are prominent scientists who have taken that stand, but by definition, science is agnostic. It has no role in determining whether or not God exists or has a hand in the natural world. As soon as any scientist from Dawkins to Behe claim that scientific findings speak to the absence or presence of God, they are beyond the limits of science. Christians can see the hand of God in the natural world, and atheists can see the absence of God in the same natural world, but that is theology, not science

  2. Thanks for your comment, Douglas. Here is my response:

    (1) I gladly affirm that many scientists are believers in God, and a number of them are Christian believers. As I said, scientists don’t have to be atheists. In fact, I think Christians often make the best scientists.

    (2) But my point was that the methodology of “true science” as it has been defined by the scientific establishment today is, in fact, atheistic. You prefer the term “agnostic,” but if it were truly agnostic it would at least be open to following evidence to conclusions that entail admission of supernatural intervention into the discussion. As it stands, I will quote your own words: “As soon as any scientist from Dawkins to Behe claim that scientific findings speak to the absence or presence of God, they are beyond the limits of science.” What that means is that special creation of the species or any form of intelligent design is ruled out from the start. In other words, science is only real when we ignore God.

    I appreciate your claim that Dawkins cannot disprove God using science, and I agree with you. But I am not talking about proving or disproving God’s existence (I don’t look to science to answer those questions). I am talking about allowing religious beliefs to inform our scientific methodology. If this really is God’s world, then the only way we can investigate it properly is to do so in light of what God has already told us about his work of creation. Scripture, the foundational book of Western society and its scientific tradition, must be the starting point for all of our thought, including our scientific thought.

    (3) Who made up the “no religious views permitted” rule of modern science? Who determined that we would seal off our religious convictions from our scientific pursuits, assigning each one to a tidy compartment, so that nary the twain shall meet? Who has given the authoritative pronouncement defining science as an autonomous human discipline that cannot appeal to supernatural considerations? To me that kind of approach smacks of a secularist agenda, itself the product of a post-Enlightenment, humanistic worldview that stands in rebellion against God, refusing to bow to his Word as the authoritative foundation for all knowledge and instead pursuing a man-centered path to knowledge.

    (4) What if God really did create animals “according to their kinds” as Genesis 1 says? I realize there are disagreements over the interpretation of Genesis 1, but at the very least we should be open to the possibility that the literal interpretation is correct (it has a long pedigree and should at least be admitted to the table for discussion). If God created the species more or less directly, then modern science, acting on its agnostic presupposition, would have no way to arrive at a truthful conclusion on this question. It would end up chasing its tail to find some other, non-theistic explanation for an event that only theism can explain.

    (5) The last comment inclines me to think that scientists should stop hypothesizing about the question of origins altogether. The Bible is clear that God’s work of creation was a miracle. It is not something that can be explained by natural processes alone. There are many events that can be explained that way, but the creation of the world is a unique, unrepeatable event. Perhaps the whole question of the origin of the cosmos, the origin of life, and the origin of species belongs outside the realm of science (at least as science is practiced today).

  3. Douglas E says:

    I believe that you have a bit of misunderstanding of science and also of scientists who are Christian. Points 2 through 5 are based on the premise that science would not go where the evidence would lead if indeed there was evidence for special creation, for extraordinary [supernatural] events, etc. If there is truly evidence for intelligent design, it will be verified by science and perhaps even make our theology more robust. However, I completely disagree with your assertation that scripture is foundational to science. For me, scripture has virtually nothing to say about science, but rather is a profound discussion of the ‘evolving’ relationship between humans and God and a guide to understanding the many faces of God that we see throughout the texts. The only time that Jesus clearly spoke of how “all of the nations” will be judged, he did not speak of “this is what you should believe” but rather spoke of “this is how you should live.” For me Matthew 25 is the foundation upon which all other scripture needs to be understood.

  4. I appreciate your ongoing interest in this dialogue, Douglas. Allow me to show you where I see problems with what you have said:

    “If there is truly evidence for intelligent design, it will be verified by science and perhaps even make our theology more robust.”

    There is plenty of evidence for it. That is not the issue. The issue is that the establishment says ID is not “science,” and therefore, it must be ruled out as an option before the evidence is even considered.

    Regarding Scripture, I do not mean that it is a science textbook. Clearly, it is not. But it is a book that tells us who we are and what is the nature of the world in which we live from a theological perspective, and that in turn must be the foundation for all of our knowledge. We must have a theological framework in which to make sense of everything. That is why the issue of worldview matters so much. You notice that Hinduism and Buddhism did not produce a rich heritage of scientific discovery the way the Christian West did. The reason is because the Hindu and Buddhist worldviews do not lend themselves in the direction of science. Christianity does. The only reason science is possible is because we make certain assumptions about ourselves, about our abilities to observe and reason, and about the world in which we live (namely, that it exhibits some measure of regularity), and all of these assumptions come from a biblical way of thinking. The Bible is not a science textbook, but it is foundational to all human knowledge.

    Regarding Matthew 25, note specifically what Jesus says to the righteous in verse 40, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Who are Jesus’ “brothers”? Within the context of Matthew, Jesus’ “brothers” are clearly his disciples (see Matthew 12:46-50). The point of the sheep and the goats parable is not, as is so often said, that whatever we do for the poor in general, we do for Jesus. There are other places in the Bible where helping the poor is commanded, but Matthew 25 is not one of them. The criterion for final judgment in Matthew 25 is specifically how one has responded to Jesus himself, as evidenced by how one responds to his “brothers” (his followers, with whom he identifies) when they are in need. In a context where Jesus has just told his disciples that they will suffer for their identification with him (Matthew 24:9-14), Jesus is aware that a number of his “brothers” will be in positions as they are facing persecution and opposition for their adherence to the gospel. Those who minister to them in their time of need indicate their identification with the gospel message that Jesus’ “brothers” proclaim and for which they suffer.

    So Matthew 25 is not a passage where you can play off what one believes against what one does. Both are included in the passage. Actions that identify a person with the suffering church will only proceed from a heart that has first embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Douglas, have you embraced this gospel? Have you found forgiveness of sins in the death and resurrection of Christ for you? And do you live that out with “the least of these” brothers of Jesus by sharing life together with believers in a local church? Do you love Jesus by loving those with whom he identifies, namely, the believers in a local church to which you belong? I hope that you are doing these things, and I rejoice with you if you are. But if not, let me counsel you now that this is how you obey Matthew 25, and this is what will determine your destiny on the final day.

  5. Douglas E says:

    Aaron – thanks for your concern. I believe that there are many ways to follow Jesus, and you are comfortable with your hermeneutic and conservative Southern Baptist perspectives and I am comfortable with my liberal anabaptist perspectives. I disagree with much of what Al Mohler has to say about science and faith, and am more aligned with the folks at BioLogos and at and recommend to you Stuart Murray’s book “The Naked Anabaptist – The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith.” We will have to agree to disagree about how we live the gospel.

  6. Douglas,

    Thanks for the book recommendation.

    I can agree to disagree, but in doing so I must say in response that my interpretation of Matthew 25 is not the product of a parochial Southern Baptist interpretive grid (nor do I believe there is such a thing, for Southern Baptists have widespread disagreements with one another about how to interpret the Bible). I have offered exegetical observations based on the context of Matthew itself. I have read the text in accordance with the way it presents itself. When Jesus speaks of “the least of these my brothers,” we have to take those words seriously and ask what “my brothers” means. In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, where the phrase comes up in other places, it is clear that it refers to Jesus’ followers.

    I have taught math before, and as any math teacher knows, when you give a test, you are going to get different answers to the same question. The mere existence of different proposed answers does not prove that the problem in question has multiple solutions. I think the same is true with the Bible and interpretation. Yes, there are different interpretations, but we cannot for that reason suppose that any given interpretation will do. There is still a correct way to read the Bible and a multitude of incorrect ways to do so. And although interpretation is not an exact science (as mathematics is), it is nevertheless a science where knowledge of authorial intent is what is being sought and, I believe, can be obtained to a sufficient degree.

    If you say, “You read the Bible your way, and I read it mine; you follow Jesus your way, and I follow him my way,” what you have left out of this equation is what Jesus himself thinks about all this. And the only way to know the mind of Christ is to see it revealed to us in the Scripture, interpreted according to the intention of its authors, who wrote under divine inspiration and so produced the written Word of God. If you decide, a priori, that liberal social action is your modus operandi for following Jesus, and then you cherry-pick phrases out of the biblical text to legitimatize that approach, you have not heard the biblical authors speak at all. You have done violence to them by forcing them to say what you already want to hear. (By the way, this can happen with any number of positions on the left and the right, and I will be the first to admit that it is a major problem among conservative Southern Baptists these days, who often times use the Bible to support a pro-American political agenda rather than to hear what the Bible is actually saying).

    So my point in all of this is that we don’t get pick how we want to follow Jesus. To be a “follower” is, by definition, to follow the lead of another. If we decide for ourselves what it means to be a follower, we are not really following anyone at all; we are wandering off on our own. So we must ask ourselves where Jesus leads us. And the answer, if we read the Scripture humbly and fairly, is that he leads us to faith in him as the crucified and risen one, who died in our place and who summons us to become part of a renewed humanity, his church.

    I am not saying in all of this that I believe you have to be a young-earth creationist to follow Christ (there are a number of Southern Baptists, including many who taught my classes in seminary, who are not young-earth creationists). At this point I am really speaking of more fundamental issues. I have my concerns about those who seek to accommodate the Christian faith to evolutionary theory, but for me the real question to address right here and right now is what it means to be a sheep or a goat on the last day. That question is much more urgent. If you want to carry on this conversation any further, I am happy to oblige, but I ask for your patience as I will be out of town from tomorrow until Saturday.

    In the meantime, have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

  7. Chris says:

    I wish Mr. Collins would stay away from such speculation. My understanding of science is that it is built on fact and not assumption.

    I admit to being baffled by the statements of Theistic Evolutionists who claim the “wonder” of it all. As a Genesis 1 literalist, I would argue that my view holds the greater wonder.

    Here’s the opinion of a man, much smarter than I, who discusses the wonder of a literal creation:

    I don’t have a problem with men like Waltke peering into the scientific realm and taking a position on the issue although he holds no science degree. I have done the same thing.

    What I object to is the attitude of many evolutionists. When men of faith who happen to be scientists present facts that back creationism, they are not always treated so well. Here is one of my favorite examples:

    I know that many who hold the creationist view have the same attitude problem. If both sides presented their positions as well and as courteously as Dr. Gentry does in the above links, we would be able to have a better discussion of this issue.

    Evolution hasn’t become generally accepted in spite of the one-sided presentation of the “theory” in public education.

    I think there is a good reason that half of Americans don’t believe in evolution. The evidence has not been presented to the general public. The “overwhelming evidence” described by those in certain scientific circles must only exist there. The great teachers in our Universities have not been able to communicate that evidence successfully to the public.

    I think the lack of evidence presented to the public shows how weak the evolutionary view is.

  8. Pingback: 2010 in review | Crux Christi Salus Mea

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