Review of Denis O. Lamoureux’s Evolution: Scripture and Nature Say Yes! and Some Thoughts Inspired by It

Lamoureux_CoverDenis O. Lamoureux’s argument in Evolution: Scripture and Nature Say Yes!  can be summarized in three points:

1. The end of either/or. We do not have to choose between creation and evolution. God could have created the universe, the earth, and life on earth using evolutionary processes.

2. The Bible is not a textbook of science. The Bible is concerned primarily with salvation history and is written to an ancient people in everyday language not in modern scientific language.

3. Embracing mainstream science. The arguments for evolution as a scientific theory explaining the diversity of life on earth are quite credible.

These three points, if grasped, put an end to the conflict between faith and science. Interestingly, the history of the American Scientific Affiliation, a network of Christians in the science, can be summarized by its recognition of these three points over the first several decades of its history. This is not to say that the rest of the book is unnecessary or a waste of time to read. Lamoureux elaborates each of these three points using a pedagogical approach that he has developed and perfected in over two decades of teaching about faith-science controversies in the college classroom. Interspersed, often at the end of each chapter, are glimpses of Lamoureux’s own journey from young-earth creationism to evolutionary creationism and comments that betray his vibrant evangelical Christian faith. Having known Denis for over 20 years it is a delight to hear his unapologetic testimony to his faith and his Lord.

Lamoureux calls “the end of either/or” the metaphysical-physical principle. Creation is a theological notion. Evolution is a scientific notion. That “the Bible is not a textbook of science” is captured in his message-incident principle. The inspired Scriptures are given to an ancient audience who share much of the view of the world that the rest of the ancient world had. God accommodated their ancient science, as Lamoureux calls it, and revealed his spiritual and saving truths to them using language and concepts that they used. The ancient science is incidental (and perhaps even false) compared to the eternally true and inerrant message of faith. Lamoureux presents some of the evidences for evolution from his own expertise as an evolutionary developmental biologist and as a dentist.

In Chapter 2 Lamoureux introduces the “two book metaphor” (the Bible and Nature as ways God reveals truth to us) and uses it ably throughout the book. Chapter 4 is an intriguing discussion of Intelligent Design where Lamoureux fully embraces intelligent design as an implication of God being the Creator, but he distances himself from the Intelligent Design Movement and sees the entire evolutionary creation process to be a most marvelous display of God’s intelligent design. Chapter 6 is a good typology of the range of origins perspectives: Young Earth Creation; Progressive Creative; Evolutionary Creation; Deistic Evolution; Dysteleological Evolution. Chapter 7 is a summary of the Galileo affair, which Lamoureux sees as the working out in astronomy 400 years ago the principles he is now applying to biology. Chapter 8 is a discussion of some of Darwin’s wrestling with theological matters surrounding his theory of biological evolution. Lamoureux clearly stops short of calling Darwin a Christian, but counters the anachronistic claims of the New Atheists that Darwin was one of them. Lamoureux seems to like some aspects of Darwin’s theology. More on that below. Chapter 9 is a wonderful sharing of some of his students’ responses to his guiding them through their faith-science struggles.

Quibbles

Although I agree with the substance of the book, think it reflects the right approach to faith-science conflicts, and will gladly recommend it to those wrestling with these issues, I have three minor quibbles. I will freely admit that my next comments are in the category of thoughts inspired by Lamoureux’s book rather than a review of the book itself. Nevertheless, the first two especially are integral to his general approach.

1) We say that the Bible is written in phenomenological language–the language of everyday appearances. The most famous example of this is the idea of the rising and setting of the sun. Indeed, in terms of every day experience this is how we perceive the world. We think of ourselves (and the earth) as stationary and the things in the sky as moving. This is how the world appeared to the ancients, and this is how the world appears to us. There is no difference between ancient phenomenological language and modern phenomenological language. This is how the world appears to a casual observer. It doesn’t matter that the ancients (up until Copernicus and Galileo) actually believed in geocentricism–which they did. It doesn’t matter that we don’t–most of us who are scientifically minded don’t. But the world appears this way to all people of all time.

This issue of phenomenological (or phenomenal) language is one in which I think we have gotten off track a bit. We see the idea in John Calvin in the 16th century, Charles Hodge in the 19th century, and many others since the church began to wrestle with faith-science questions. However, it was Bernhard Ramm’s The Christian View of Science and Scripture (1954) that brought the idea front and center to 20th century fundamentalists and evangelicals. I would encourage a re-reading of Section III, I entitled “The Language of the Bible in Reference to Natural Things” in Ramm’s book. It is a clear statement of the view that most of the Bible’s statements concerning the natural world are in the non-technical, common everyday language of appearances. Many of the faith-science problems disappear if we see the Bible as not speaking scientifically, but phenomenologically.

Recent discussions of this idea, including Lamoureux in this book, distinguish between ancient phenomenological language (the ancients believed what they saw was true) and modern phenomenological language (we know that things aren’t necessarily as they appear). In my opnion, this distinction guts the idea of its usefulness. Paul Seely in “Does the Bible Use Phenomenal Language?” (ASA 2009 Annual Meeting at Baylor University, http://www.asa3.org/ASAradio/ASA2009Seely.mp3) answers “there is probably no phenomenal language in the Bible” simply because he defines phenomenal language to be the language of appearance when we know it’s not really true. His answer really becomes question begging. By his definition, if the ancients believed what they saw was true then for them it was literal language and not phenomenal language. I say that this is an unnecessary and unhelpful restriction of the definition. Phenomenal language is the language of appearances. Period. It doesn’t matter whether it’s believed to be true or not. It is a description of what the world looks like. It doesn’t matter what cosmogony or scientific view the appearance is embedded in. What I see is the same thing that Moses saw.

Seely argues that even if the moving sun, moon, and stars is appearance, surely what the sun did at night is not an appearance since you can’t see it. But I disagree. The sun getting to its western setting (exiting) point back to its eastern rising point is an appearance. That traversing is an experienced phenomenon even though only the beginning and end points were observed. The underworld is that which is below the earth’s surface. The sun appears to go there at sunset and return from there the next morning. Note that it’s an appearance. Seely also complains that we are are not being faithful to historical-grammatical method of Biblical exegesis if we don’t use words the way they did. I don’t see how this is a problem. Their words are describing appearances, not what they believed about those appearances. It is irrelevant if they believed something different about them than what we believe. The intended message of the text is embedded in the common, everyday language of appearance. If we take the words in that sense then we are being true to the historical-grammatical method.

You can’t call phenomenological language true or false. It’s simply how the world appears. Lamoureux, Seely, and others seem too quick to find “false” things in the Bible. Their motive to relieve the tension between the Biblical view of the world and our modern scientific view of the world is laudable. But there’s no tension here if we understand how God is communicating to us in the Bible. The Bible isn’t making scientific claims and is merely communicating appearances in everyday language. There is no error here. Using everyday language is God’s accommodation. Consequently, his Word speaks to every time and place. I, for one, don’t want to be counted among those who rush to find false things in the Bible.

Less famous examples serve to illustrate. The ends of the earth. From the Oregon beach looking out toward the Pacific Ocean, it sure looks like I’ve reached the end of the earth. Only because of technical knowledge brought about by explorers, mapmakers, and the handful of humans who have been to outer space do I know otherwise. Both the ancients and we moderns experience that appearance.

After their own kinds. I’ve never once seen a hippopotamus give birth to a whale or vice versa. A hippo always gives birth to a hippo. Whales always give birth to whales. Everyday appearances tell me the same thing they told the ancients. I do not know about descent with modification because of every day appearances–it’s the result of a diligent and often counterintuitive process that we come to our scientific conclusions.

The bat as a bird. Birds are flying creatures. Bats fly like birds. We might even say they look like (appear to be) birds.

What about the firmament? (I’ll leave to the Hebrew scholars and the translators to decide between “solid dome” and “expanse”, but for now we’ll follow Lamoureux and Seely that it is a “solid dome”.) The sky is a solid dome across which the heavenly objects move. Is that ancient science or is that an appearance (phenomenological language). The sky looks like a dome to me, a modern. The sun, moon, and stars all move across that dome every day and night. Modern planetarium operators seem to think that there is a solid dome. They model the night sky with a miniature version of the solid dome. I would even go so far as to say that I only know that it’s not a dome because somebody told me in a science class. My everyday experience says it’s dome.

“1 In 4 Americans Thinks The Sun Goes Around The Earth, Survey Says” was the headline of an National Public Radio web article in 2014 (http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/02/14/277058739/1-in-4-americans-think-the-sun-goes-around-the-earth-survey-says) based on a National Science Foundation report about science literacy and public attitudes about science. Aside from the massive failure of science education that this statistic suggests, it also suggests that the common sense view (the phenomenological view) is that the sun goes around the earth. In other words apart from technical knowledge obtained from a science education (most often from authority rather than from personal experience), many modern people (along with the ancients) believe what they see with their own eyes about geocentrism.

The point of it all is that the notion of phenomenological language (language of appearances) really does help us here. We can’t call it “wrong” or “erroneous” if it is an appearance. As for whether the ancients believed it or not, I only say that things aren’t always what they appear to be, but unless I have reason to say that things aren’t as they appear I have no real reason to think otherwise. My quibble is that I wish Lamoureux would stop using the term “ancient science” and simply use the term “phenomenological language”. There is no such thing as “ancient phenomenology”–appearances are appearances). The Bible is written in everyday language so that it works (mostly) for all people from a variety of times and places. We don’t need to rescue the Bible from errors that are only errors because we press the language to be scientific. In pressing the Bible to be speaking of “wrong” ancient science Lamoureux commits the very mistake he is urging us to avoid.

2) It is difficult for me to see the difference between Lamoureux’s theism and deism with respect to Nature. I have no doubt that Lamoureux is a theist. He believes that God is personally involved with and has a relationship with people. But he explicitly refers to two types of divine action: one that applies to God’s relationship with humans and one that applies to Nature. It’s the latter that is the source of my quibble. He uses “ordained and sustained” to described God’s works of origination and on-going involvement. But it seems to me that that’s not too far from the fabrication of and winding up of a deist’s designed clock and then letting it tick away. He seems to agree with Darwin’s deism with respect to Nature. God’s letting Nature take its course is an explanation for the problem of the Ichneumonidae wasp and the “suffering” of the caterpillar whose live body was food for the wasp larvae. Darwin used his distancing deism to solve what he perceived to be a moral problem if God was intimately involved (or micromanaged as Lamoureux derisively claims). The whole point of a reference to a fully gifted creation in this discussion is to say that God has equipped Nature to do what it does without interference from God. This view, as in the case of Darwin’s discussion of Ichneumonidae, allows God to be somewhat removed from the perceived nasty events functions as our answer to the problem of evil. Lamoureux seems to approve of Darwin’s move here. For Lamoureux it seems that the Nature operates deistically but God intervenes and is involved with the more personal touches: salvation history, personal salvation, revelation, miracles, and answers to prayer. It seems to me that a more direct providential involvement is necessitated even by the more personal touches because God often answers prayer and does miraculous things using quite ordinary means. Also, the Bible itself attributes much of the natural order to God’s direct activity. Divine governance needs to be added to ordaining and sustaining. God governs all his creatures and all their actions. Indeed, there is a sense in which God is a micromanager because he is actively involved in governing all things. I tell my students that God is as actively involved in turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana as he is in turning water into hydrogen gas and oxygen gas in a water electrolysis experiment. God’s micromanagement is personal and purposeful. It’s hard to understand why this is difficult to grasp if God is omnipotent, omniscience, and omnipresent. God is related to his Creation in a completely different manner than we are related to our “creations”. We tend to think analogically about God’s operations in the world based on how we interact with the world. But we’re not omnipotent, omniscience, or omnipresent. No aspect of Creation is autonomous. Even created agents need to be upheld in their being and in their ability to act. Theologians refer to a concurrence between the animating agency of God and the agency of the Creature. In my mind, the only way evolution produces the Creation God willed is because of this detailed active governance at every step of the way.

3) The final quibble is about the title: Evolution: Scripture and Nature Say Yes! I realize that this is a playful poke at Duane Gish’s Evolution: The Fossils Say No! and that it is possible that Lamoureux didn’t even have a choice in the matter. Lamoureux does explain in the last chapter how it takes both to understand reality. We need both books to understand the truth. They complement each other. No quibble with that. However, this title does some damage to one of the major theses of the book. Lamoureux rightly argues quite strongly that the Bible isn’t a textbook of science. Yet the title suggests that the Bible says “Yes!” to evolution. Perhaps it is meant simply to say that the Bible allows evolution as a scientific theory. No quibble with that either. But at face value I took it as a stronger claim that is confusing to the average reader. I have often been asked “Where does the Bible teach evolution?” My answer is always “It doesn’t!” The Bible teaches us a view of God, human beings, Creation, and God’s interaction with Creation that allows us to do science. When we study the Creation we conclude that evolution happened. Nothing in the Bible would lead us to that conclusion and, in fact, the Bible or its original audience isn’t really interested in whether or not evolution happened.

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