39 Fishing in the Middle of the Lake

In an earlier post, I (Christopher Smith) described how I reached the conclusion that there was nothing disloyal to God about deciding that the most reasonable interpretation of the observations biologists had made to date was that later, more complex life forms had developed from earlier, simpler ones in a process extending over time. To return to an analogy drawn in that same post, this conclusion has to do with the side of the “lake” on which science fishes, looking for answers to questions of what and when and how. But can such a conclusion ultimately be squared with what religion, and biblical Christianity in particular, has been pulling out of the other side of the lake for thousands of years, as it has offered answers to questions of why and who?

If it’s the same lake, that is, the work of the same God being viewed through different faculties (reason and faith), there ought not to be any essential differences in what the nature of this work implies about the character and actions of that God. This is an issue that must, however, be taken up in the “middle of the lake.” Science, on its own terms, can not validly entertain any discussion of what its findings might imply in a realm inaccessible to it. And faith cannot, by its own resources alone, determine that natural processes and natural history have been correctly understood.

Nevertheless, to the extent that it has understood them, faith has always held this natural evidence to disclose something about its own purpose, design and Designer. It has been doing so at least since David sang, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows forth his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1), and no doubt long before that. So it is appropriate to ask this same question based on our current understanding of the natural world. We must simply be mindful of the wisdom of not spending too much time in the middle of the lake before swimming back to one side or the other.

What are the issues, then, that we must take up as we consider whether natural history, as sketched by biological science today, is theologically compatible with the history of creation and redemption, as narrated in the Bible? I have heard many intriguing and stimulating questions posed along these lines over the years, but they all seem to me to fall into two large categories:

(1) The character of God: Could a God who might have used a process such as evolution in creating the world be the same God revealed to us in the Bible?

(2) The position of humans within creation: On what basis can it be said that they enjoy an elevated status, and how could their actions in relation to God have affected all other life on earth?

The questions in this latter category are numerous and significant. They include the following: (a) If humans developed from the same source as all other species, by the same process, on what basis can it be said that they enjoy a special status within creation, as the Bible teaches? (b) If the evolutionary process is “ateleological,” that is, not pursuing any particular goal, doesn’t this allow for the development of species beyond humankind? How would this square with the Bible’s teaching that humans are the goal and culmination of God’s creation? (c) If, as the Bible teaches, death entered the world first through the disobedience of humans, how could death have been active within the evolutionary process for billions of years before there were any people? (d) How are we to understand the Bible’s teaching that because of this disobedience the created world has “fallen” from a formerly pristine state, if it has rather come about through an uninterrupted process that has led to greater and greater complexity?

In the following posts, I will take up each of these issues in turn. While it may not be possible to resolve all of the questions definitively, we will certainly pursue them. Much can be done to show that the scientific and biblical accounts are not as incompatible as they are sometimes thought to be.

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