Perspectives on an Evolving Creation
Keith B. Miller, ed. Perspectives on an Evolving Creation. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003.
The evangelical world has not handled evolution well. Furthermore, this sad condition need not have been, and it can be corrected. This is the message that motivates all the contributors to Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, a collection of essays skillfully selected by Keith B. Miller to effect a much-needed reconciliation between evolutionary biology and evangelical Christian theology. Especially worrisome to the contributors, all of whom are professing evangelicals, is the influence of young-earth creationism within the evangelical community. Hence each essay is specifically directed toward those who are in any way inclined to respond to perceived tensions by attacking the merits of evolutionary theory.
Every potential source of tension receives its due regard in Miller's collection. We are supplied with essays on biblical hermeneutics, the problem of animal suffering and death, original sin, cognitive neuroscience and its implications for our conception of the human soul (though Warren Brown's paper on this topic creates a misleading impression that "non-reductive physicalism" (the view he defends) is the only intellectually viable option for evangelicals), environmental ethics, the aims and methods of the natural sciences, and any other topic that has ever led an evangelical Christian to raise questions about evolutionary biology. Apparent conflicts are treated forthrightly, but also with a pastoral sensitivity that reflects the authors' own intellectual struggles. It is frequently acknowledged that there are many areas where a fully satisfying solution must wait until a great deal of further research (both biological and theological) is completed.
An especially welcome touch are several brief devotional reflections interspersed throughout the book, all designed to invite the reader to view the evolutionary history of the universe as an awesome and praiseworthy display of the wisdom and power of God as Creator. These devotionals also serve the purpose of assuring evangelical readers that the contributors' acceptance of evolutionary theory has not led to any diminution in their ability to relate to God on a personal level, nor has it tended to stunt their growth in Christian character. Creation, understood as the doctrine that every aspect of the universe was intentionally given to it by its Creator, is strongly affirmed by all the contributors, yet the work of creation is regarded as having been carried out via the method of a gradual evolutionary development.
Several essays make it clear that this less antagonistic (or "concordist") approach to the natural sciences has deep historical roots. Conrad Hyers and Edward B. Davis both cite John Calvin as a hermeneutical authority in support of the view that Scripture (and Genesis in particular) was never intended to teach the historical details of creation, but rather to present a framework within which we are taught general truths about God's nature and character, and our relation to Him. It is somewhat curious that Augustine is seldom cited in this volume (perhaps because he seems further removed from the evangelical community), but in fact he makes this very point as forcefully as anyone and therefore supplies us with an even deeper historical precedent for it. Davis does attempt to place the point of departure from this traditional view somewhere in the late nineteenth century, shortly after Darwin. Yet Mark Noll and David Livingstone show that, even after Darwin, there was significant support for a concordist approach within the evangelical community. The concordist view is clearly exemplified in the thought of such figures as Asa Gray, Charles Hodge, and especially Benjamin B. Warfield. Noll and Livingstone then issue a clarion call to evangelicals to return to the legacy of Warfield, et al., and reclaim the intellectual ground that was forfeited (they say) in the early twentieth century.
If there is a point at which evangelical readers might sense that Miller and his contributors are pressing their point beyond what is strictly necessary for the reconciliation they seek, it must be their nearly unanimous aversion to any sort of "intervention" in the course of natural history. It is important to note that this aversion is not a rejection of miracles. A willingness to affirm the historicity of the biblical miracles is usually regarded as a mark of evangelicalism, and most of the authors bear that mark as willingly as anyone. Thus they do not descend into deism. But when it comes to natural history (as opposed to salvation history), the attitude changes dramatically. An anti-interventionist attitude is clearly discernible in almost every article, and it is not merely a concern that evangelicals have tended to put too much stock in our current inability to connect all the evolutionary dots. That concern is present too, and Miller himself contributes two papers (the second co-authored with David Campbell) that throw cold water on any attempt to argue for divine intervention on the basis of either a present lack of transitional forms in the fossil record or the remarkable "explosion" of life forms in the Cambrian period (Miller makes a strong case that the alleged lack of transitional forms is often grossly exaggerated). These have often been cited, mostly by evangelicals, as evidence that seems to require some sort of supernatural intervention as the only plausible explanation. But such "gappy" arguments are exceedingly perishable in any case (i.e., they "perish" as soon as someone does enough research to close the "gap" in our understanding), and so the authors are wise to counsel against any reliance upon them as a basis for natural theology. At most, evangelicals should take a "wait-and-see" attitude regarding the outcome of attempts to construct a fully naturalistic path through natural history, and that attitude is explicitly endorsed by several of the contributors.
Nevertheless, several authors make the much stronger claim that historical Christian theology (within which evangelical theologians surely wish to place themselves) should lead one to expect that the development of life on earth occurred naturalistically. In other words, evangelicals should not only lower their expectations for a natural theology derived from apparent gaps in natural history, but they should positively desire, for theological reasons, that there be no such gaps. The idea is that a creation that must be tinkered with is less praiseworthy and impressive than a creation that does not require occasional adjustments. Furthermore, we should expect the God revealed in the Christian Scriptures to create in the most praiseworthy way. Therefore, we should expect Him to create without any "untidy" interventions.
This argument is presented most clearly and forcefully by Howard J. Van Till. Van Till claims that the creation possesses a "robust formational economy." This is his technical way of saying that the creation contains within itself all the resources necessary to form all the life forms we actually observe. After making the non-problematic (to evangelicals) point that non-theists have no business citing the "robust formational economy" of the creation as evidence against theism or in favor of any claims of purposelessness or randomness in the universe, Van Till goes on to claim that anything less than a robust formational economy would reflect badly on the Creator.
Needless to say, such a view makes one positively eager to see all "gaps" closed, and indeed that eagerness is found in many of the contributors. This eagerness is sometimes reflected in their tendency to lump young-earth creationism together with the more recent "intelligent design" movement as the target of their critique. Some authors occasionally suggest that both views are equally destructive of the intellectual development of the evangelical community. This suggestion is unfair, however, since many intelligent design theorists are perfectly comfortable with the common ancestry of all life on earth (this fact is occasionally acknowledged), and some are amenable even to Van Till's robust formational economy (though this fact is never acknowledged), although those who insist on special creation can tolerate neither.
Loren Haarsma, in a paper devoted to the compatibility of theistic belief and scientific method, presents this very issue in the form of a question about an historical case study, and (perhaps more modestly) leaves the answer up to the reader without explicitly weighing in on it himself. He describes a very similar situation to ours that confronted our eighteenth-century forbears. In those days it was not clear whether Newton's laws of motion entail that the orbits of the planets are stable over very long spans of time. Newton himself assumed that the orbits are unstable, and therefore suggested that God occasionally sends comets (or other natural phenomena) into the solar system in order to prevent the planets from careening off into space. If he had been correct about this, it would have constituted powerful evidence for a special, active, and (in some sense) interventionist view of God's governance of the creation. But if Van Till is correct, it would also have looked like an inferior work of design. As it turned out, Newtonian mechanics does yield stable orbits. But Haarsma asks us to consider what our reaction would have been if things had turned out differently. Suppose that the planetary orbits were unstable. "Would Christians consider that a good thing, or a bad thing?" he asks. The answer we give will reveal the theological presuppositions we have before we even take up the case of biological evolution, and which will surely be reflected in our response to "gap closures." Haarsma concludes with a simple and well-directed admonition to reflect on our theological presuppositions. We may at least acknowledge that the situation is puzzling, and not easily settled by quick appeals to Scripture or tradition. Yet if a cautious "wait-and-see" attitude is indeed the most proper attitude to take, then Haarsma's admonition is just as applicable to those who expect all gaps to be closed as it is for those who are too inclined to cite gaps as evidence of divine intervention.
Perspectives on an Evolving Creation will be extremely valuable for anyone who is concerned about how Christians in general (not just evangelicals) should think about the relationship between science and theology. Every article is thoughtful, spiritually sensitive, and very well-informed. One can earnestly hope that it will bear the fruit of reconciliation that Miller and his contributors intend it to bear.