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Christians Believing in Evolution: My Response to Larry Arnhart

I’ve gotten to the point where I find debating anything in an American context inherently discouraging, but Larry Arnhart’s piece Nature’s God: Why Christians Should Accept the Theory of Evolution caught my attention as an interesting presentation of a point of view. It is not my intent to produce a blow-by-blow refutation or commentary of his piece because his frame and reference and mine are so different that such would doubtless be unfruitful. But he does make some interesting points that need to be addressed.

One thing I’d like to say at the start is that framing the issue around evolution doesn’t quite give the full picture. There are three parts to this: 1) the raw age of the universe and the earth, 2) the geological changes that have taken place, and 3) the changes in carbon-based life forms, which is generally referred to as evolution. The three are not unrelated but they’re not identical either, and emphasising the third at the expense of the first two is a mistake.

“Believing” in Evolution

Right at the start of his exposition on the effects of American fundamentalism (and I’ve sparred on this subject before) Arnhart titles the section as follows: “Why People Do Not Believe in Evolution.” I think it is highly unscientific to expect people to do this because that’s not how science works. Ultimately science is, among other things, about making a hypothesis, gathering evidence, and coming to a conclusion about the hypothesis based on that evidence. It’s a pet peeve of mine, but saying that people should “believe in evolution” basically turns it into a religion.

The way out of this is to shift the centre of education from a humanities based one to a scientifically based one. This simply has not happened in this country. Many countries which oppose us for world hegemony (China tops the list, Russia is up there) have done this; even Islamic countries like Iran and Turkey (which comes into view in his article for rejecting evolution) have educational systems more centred on the sciences than we do. Making this transition would give people the tools to make a more informed decision on this, and there are signs that this is happening. But change is slow.

The Hermeneutic Issue

One thing that Arnhart has allowed himself is to be led into is the idea that American “fundamentalist” (and that’s a broad term) methods of Biblical interpretation are the “standard” ones. This is simply not the case. In my view, the whole issue of how to understand the interaction of the Bible and science of any kind is to go back to the start of Christianity and even a little earlier, before science as we understand it even got into the picture. To borrow a term from my seminary academic colleagues, it is the hermeneutic issue, the whole problem boils down to that.

Problems with a six 24-hour day interpretation of Genesis 1 go back a long way, as I discuss in my first piece on Philo Judaeus. Coupled with other difficulties, some of which still surface, the solution of the Patristic Church was to adopt (with variations) an allegorical, typological method of interpretation which persisted until the Reformation. Buttressing the credibility of this type of hermeneutic is the idea that the ultimate reality of the universe is beyond the material, which has always seemed to me to be a necessary prerequisite to being a Christian. That being the case, Ken Ham’s fanatical insistence on a 6 24-hour day creation as an essential article of faith can only be described in New Testament terms as carnal. It puts the existence of God as dependent upon material circumstances when in fact it is the opposite.

It’s interesting to note that the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, whose climax was the Scopes trial a few kilometres from me in Dayton, was the conflict of two hermeneutics, neither of which had any use for the aforementioned Patristic or any neo-Patristic (sensus plenior) method. (And there’s a good reason, by the way, why I don’t teach at Bryan College.) The fundamentalists adopted one which Arnhart details at length and the modernists adopted the critical methods developed in Germany which, to use Paul’s expressive phrase, had the form of a scientific method but denied the power thereof.

The Uniqueness Problem

In computational mathematics, we have what is most simply described as the uniqueness problem. Arnhart, like many conservatives, mentions 2+2 = 5, and I discuss that topic here. But that’s not the issue. In many problems, because of the number of variables relative to the unknowns, there is no unique solution to the problem. There may be a “best” solution to the problem (that’s the basis of statistics, with all of the problems that go with that) but there is not a unique one. Conversely, if the problem is run in reverse, the original state will not be the only one that results.

Arnhart’s heavy reliance on Darwin carries with it two problems. The first is that biology has advanced since Darwin’s time. The second is that Darwin lived in a world governed (in the minds of men) by Newtonian physics, where certain actions led to certain definite results. The ability to model systems and predict results were limited by the computational power of the time, but the idea was there all the same. A philosophical expression of that was Marx’ historical determinism, a concept which has come back with a vengeance in current political discourse.

While Newton’s (and others) laws have gotten us far, they’re not the whole story, and in the last century that became evident with the emergence of quantum mechanics. Especially in the long time frames we now deal with, we realise that the course of the universe, if we had the opportunity to do it over again, would not be the same. That suggests the possibility (I believe it is so) of divine guidance for the process in a way that most combatants in this battle haven’t considered, but it is an example of how an old earth concept (see, I’ve laid aside the evolution question for the moment) is actually stronger from a theistic standpoint.

Those Inalienable Rights

Arnhart quotes the statement from the Declaration of Independence that the rights people have are unalienable and endowed by their creator. He then proceeds to refute this idea in a roundabout way. But this is a mistake: unless the rights we have come from a higher external agency, they’re dependent upon either the taste of those who run a society or the general consensus of that society, subject to change, addition or revocation.

I am one of those few people in this country who doesn’t believe that the United States is either a perpetual motion machine or eternal. One of these days this Republic is going to come to a halt. Our Founding Fathers, educated as they were in classical antiquity, were well aware of this. Over time, the success of the country has obscured this basic truth, but when reality arrives the truth of the previous paragraph will become apparent.

In bringing up the source of rights, we also have to deal with the idea that “all men are created equal.” Equality is a concept that is ingrained in the American psyche; even if Christianity were to disappear from the public discourse, we would still have it and on top of that the whole business of “equity.” As an academic, Arnhart should know that absolute equality is problematic, something I discuss in Mirroring Our Creator. While true equality before God is a Biblical concept, Christians have lived and do live in societies where inequality is the norm, and if we look at our Gini Coefficient we will see that this is not just something from the distant past.

The Way Forward

In his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII states the following:

For these reasons the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter – for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God…

Just as in the biological and anthropological sciences, so also in the historical sciences there are those who boldly transgress the limits and safeguards established by the Church. In a particular way must be deplored a certain too free interpretation of the historical books of the Old Testament. Those who favor this system, in order to defend their cause, wrongly refer to the Letter which was sent not long ago to the Archbishop of Paris by the Pontifical Commission on Biblical Studies.[13] This letter, in fact, clearly points out that the first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes; the same chapters, (the Letter points out), in simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation, and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people. If, however, the ancient sacred writers have taken anything from popular narrations (and this may be conceded), it must never be forgotten that they did so with the help of divine inspiration, through which they were rendered immune from any error in selecting and evaluating those documents.

If American Christianity would adopt this idea (and some of the others outlined in the encyclical,) this whole business would be further down the road than it is. But that hasn’t happened; American Christianity in general and Evangelical in particular spends half its time denying the authority that exists and the other half assuming to themselves authority that does not.

The love of authority, however, is not restricted to Christians. Presenting evolution as an object of belief leads one to suspect that the objectives of this quest are not entirely transparent. A more truly scientific approach would move things forward, and I outlined my thoughts on the subject many years ago. But, as with so many things about this country, I’m not holding my breath.


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