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.