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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Can a Christian Be an Evolutionist?

The theory of biological evolution is widely acknowledged in the scientific community as the great unifying theory in biology. Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr writes:

The theory of evolution is quite rightly called the greatest unifying theory in biology. The diversity of organisms, similarities and differences between kinds of organisms, patterns of distribution and behavior, adaptation and interaction, all this was merely a bewildering chaos of facts until given meaning by the evolutionary theory. There is no area of biology in which that theory has not served as an ordering principle (Animal Species and Evolution).

The neo-Darwinian synthesis, the version of evolutionary theory that arose in the 1940’s, brought together taxonomists, ecologists, and geneticists with the recognition of the importance of geography and population biology in evolutionary change. Consequently, among all branches of biology evolutionary theory commands nearly universal acceptance. Not only does evolutionary theory organize the various branches of biology, but each of them contribute somewhat independently to a unified coherent theory. Paleontology, classical and molecular genetics, population biology, sociobiology, taxonomy, developmental biology and biochemistry have joined together to contribute to the grand universally accepted synthesis. This is not to say that these contributors do not argue among themselves concerning the relative weight and interpretation of their respective contributions, but these are in-house discussions. Among professional biologists evolutionary theory is considered not only the best explanation of the available data, but a very good explanation of that data.

Of course, universal acceptance of a theory does not necessarily mean that it is correct or even that those who accept it accept it on the basis of the empirical evidence. Critics of evolutionary theory often claim that a deeply rooted religious commitment to atheistic naturalism drives most of the scientific community to accept evolution. In other words, evolution (together with big bang theory, chemical evolution, plate tectonics and other geological theories) is part of a “religious” origins account for the atheistic naturalist. Recent criticisms along these lines include those by Phillip Johnson (Darwin on Trial) and Alvin Plantinga (Christian Scholar’s Review, Special Issue: Creation/Evolution and Faith, “When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible” and responses). There is no doubt that some evolutionists, especially those who write for a more general audience, have used evolutionary theory to support their atheistic views. Perhaps the most celebrated example of this is the widely quoted statement of Richard Dawkins (author of The Blind Watchmaker) “Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Plantinga claims that given atheism, evolution is a warranted theory, but that given theism (which all Christian would admit), the empirical evidence for evolution is not compelling and that some sort of special creationism seems more likely. Plantinga seems ready to admit to some of the evolutionary claims, but believes that at key junctures in the theory (e.g. origin of life, the pre-Cambrian explosion, origin of human beings, and perhaps other sudden appearances of new forms) that a more warranted explanation, given theism, is to call upon some act of special creation.

In principle, I sympathize with the claims of Plantinga and Johnson. Certainly, some evolutionists use this biological theory to buttress their atheistic worldview and Christian scholars are called upon to point out this use of evolutionary theory. Also, the atheist, who has no origins alternative, has much at stake, morally and existentially, in denying God a role in creation. Christian scientists must be cognizant of these non-scientific factors at work in the theorizing that occurs in the professional community. However, having said this, I do not agree with Plantinga in his claim that, given theism, the warrant for evolution is weak. It is my judgment, as a biologist and as a theist, that the evidence for evolution is strong and that it something that the Christian community needs to wrestle with. It is interesting to note, without getting into all the historical nuances, that Darwin left England on the Beagleas a theist with special creationist leanings (like most of his contemporaries) and that it was his observations of the natural world, especially in the tropics, that led him to his evolutionary views.

The theory of biological evolution does not necessarily imply the atheistic worldview described above. In fact at several key junctures I must disagree with many of the advocates of evolution. In doing so they may even claim that I am not an evolutionist at all, but that is a conclusion that they and not one that I make. The heart of this disavowal has to do with the claim that although I accept evolution as a biological theory, I am still a Creationist. The biological theory is our human formulation (subject to on-going refinement) of God-governed “natural” processes whereby God created the vast array of living things. The word “natural” is used not in the sense of “autonomous” but in the sense of “regular” or “ordinary”. The notion of secondary cause captures the idea. God is the ultimate governor, yet He choose to govern process via regular cause and effect relations that can be understood as we observe the world. This can and should be said of every natural occurring process that can be described by science.

There are several implications of this theistic view of evolution. Since the term “theistic evolution” seems to be suspect for some reason, perhaps we should call it an “evolutionary creation”. This semantic shift makes creation the noun rather than evolution, perhaps for the better. The evolution that I hold to is not random in any ultimate sense, nor is it purposeless, nor is it without design. These are all claims that some evolutionists make. But these are metaphysical and theological claims, not scientific claims. There is a certain sense in which I believe that chance or random processes are involved in mutation or chromosome rearrangements or in recombination or chromosome pairing during meiosis or gamete fusion. These processes are empirically known to follow the laws of statistics, just as coin flipping, card drawing, or sex determination does. But this is not to say that these processes are chance or random in any ultimate sense. Since God is the ultimate governor of whatsoever comes to pass, each coin flip, card draw, or mutation is determined by his all-wise and all-holy counsel. There is even a Proverb (16:33) that says “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Design and purpose can be discussed in the same way. Just because adaptations (the excellent fit between an organism’s structure and function or environment) can be accounted for by natural selection, does not mean that there is not a divine design or purpose. That claim is fundamentally religious and atheistic. There is no necessary incompatibility between evolution by natural selection and divine design and purpose.

I can think of no better way to support my point here than by quoting from A.A. Hodge, the Old Princeton theologian whose commitment to the inerrancy and authority of Scripture and to the Reformed faith is beyond question. Hodge wrote the following in the Introduction to Theism and Evolution by Joseph S. Van Dyke and reprinted in The Princeton Theology 1812-1921 edited and compiled by Mark Noll (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1983):

Evolution considered as the plan of an infinitely wise Person and executed under the control of His everywhere present energies can never be irreligious; can never exclude design, providence, grace, or miracles. Hence we repeat that what Christians have cause to consider with apprehension is not evolution as a working hypothesis of science dealing with facts, but evolution as a philosophical speculation professing to account for the origin, causes, and end of all things.

Hodge’s colleague and contemporary at Princeton, B. B. Warfield, wrote the following in his unpublished “Lectures on Anthropology” (Dec. 1888) (cited in Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders, p. 119):

The upshot of the whole matter is that there is no necessary antagonism of Christianity to evolution, provided that we do not hold to too extreme a form of evolution. To adopt any form that does not permit God freely to work apart from law and which does not allow miraculous intervention (in the giving of the soul, in creating Eve, etc.) will entail a great reconstruction of Christian doctrine, and a very great lowering of the detailed authority of the Bible. But if we condition the theory by allowing the constant oversight of God in the whole process, and his occasional supernatural interference for the production of new beginnings by an actual output of creative force, producing something new i.e., something not included even in posse in the preceding conditions, we may hold to the modified theory of evolution and be Christians in the ordinary orthodox sense.

The lengthy citation of Abraham Kuyper (cited in Creation and Evolution by Jan Lever) is worth repeating here to express the notion that evolutionary theory is not necessarily antagonistic to the Christian faith if design and
purpose are not excluded.

An entirely different problem is that so often discussed in England whether religion permits, as such, the spontaneous evolvement of the species in the organic world from one single primary cell. That question, of course, without reservation, must be answered in the affirmative. We should not impose our style upon the Chief Architect of the universe. (emphasis mine) Provided he remains, not in appearance, but in essence, the Architect, he is also in the choice of his style of architecture the Omnipotent. If it thus had pleased the Lord not to create the species as such, but to have one species arise from the other, by designing the preceding species in such a way that it could produce the next higher, the creation would have been just as wonderful. But this never would have been the evolution of Darwinism because the predetermined plan would not then have been excluded, but would have been all predominating, and not the world had then built itself up mechanically, but God by means of elements which He himself prepared for that purpose. The contrast shows itself most clearly from an illustration selected by Haeckel. In order to remove the objection that is inherent in the mechanical explanation of a complex organism, he asks whether a Zulu Negro, who at Lorenzo Marquez sees an English armored battleship enter, would not certainly view this colossus as an organic monster, while we, of course, know very well that it has been riveted together mechanically. Everyone naturally agrees with this. But Haeckel overlooked the fact that in the shipyard the steel plates did not place themselves in the proper position, but that they have been put together by a skillful architect according to a previously prepared plan. And that same difference would differentiate such a divine evolutionistic creation from the system of the Darwinists. Evolutionistic creation presupposes a God who has first made the plan and then executes it omnipotently. Darwinism teaches the mechanical origin of things that excludes all plan or purpose or draft. The acceptance of evolutionary theory by Christians must be seen as mediate Creation, whereby God called some things into existence using pre-existing materials and ordinary means. As indicated by the above citations, these orthodox Presbyterian and Reformed theologians, found no reason to disagree with evolutionary theory as long as the certain essential characteristics were not disregarded: the dependence of the Creation on God, His design and purpose, the Creation of human beings in God’s image, and God’s freedom to act miraculously in his Creation.

An additional issue is whether or not evolutionary theory comports with specific teachings of scripture concerning the creation of all things. The days of Genesis 1 and the specific account of the creation of Adam and Eve have been particular sources of difficulty. In the orthodox Reformed tradition dating from at least the middle of the 19th century, the days of Genesis 1 have been regarded as long periods of time or as a literary framework for the execution of God’s creative decrees. My own view is the latter. Reconciling evolutionary theory with the specifics of the Genesis 2 account of the creation of Adam and Eve is much more difficult. The text of Genesis 2:7 does not appear to allow for the view that the body of Adam derived from animal ancestors. How this squares away with evidence from the created world suggesting others is still an unanswered question in my mind. Clearly, the creation of Adam as a whole human being, body and soul, in the image of God, was the result of a special miraculous act. Also, the creation of Eve as derivative from Adam was the result of a special miraculous act. This conclusion about the origin of man derives primarily from the text itself. If the text were silent on this matter, I would have no problems with a Divinely guided evolutionary origin of the first human beings.