Guest Post: The Bible and Books About Dinosaurs

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Today’s guest post comes to us from one of my favorite bloggers. Mason Slater is an MA student at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, a freelance writer, and a publishing consultant. I had the pleasure of meeting Mason and his lovely wife Melinda when I was in Grand Rapids for the Festival of Faith and Writing. I love how this guy thinks! He’s smart, thoughtful, humble, and wise. 

Mason blogs at MasonSlater.com, where he writes about the latest news in theology, Christian living, and publishing. I’ve been following for several years now, and am always interested in the conversation there. Mason recently moved his blog, so be sure to re-subscribe! 

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The Bible and Books About Dinosaurs
by Mason Slater 

After years of research, and quite a bit of agonizing, I’m finally able to offer this small pronouncement.

I no longer believe that there is any inherent conflict between the Scriptures and the scientific account of human origins, by which of course I mean evolution.

Admittedly, that someone you’ve probably never met is able to affirm a scientific theory which most of the Western world takes for granted may not seem like that big of a deal.

But it is for me, and I imagine my story is not all that unlike many of yours.

I grew up in a conservative evangelical home. As best I can remember my parents never made a point to bring up Creationism or Evolution, but they didn’t have to – the subculture did it for them.

Over time a young boy who loved dinosaurs and fossils began to sense those things were dirty, that the books he was reading were looked on with suspicion. At first I wasn’t sure why, but soon I learned that these books taught things about the world that disagreed with the Bible. 

Because I loved the Bible more than my books about dinosaurs, it wasn’t long before those books found themselves gathering dust on my bookshelf.

That evolutionary science and Christian faith were incompatible seemed as apparent as that every autumn would lead to another cold Michigan winter. With that assumption firmly implanted, my young self was one day faced with a crisis. While talking with my mom she made some passing mention that my father believed in evolution. 

I was shocked, terrified even.

Terrified because I thought this meant dad might not be saved. So, after arriving home from a long day at work, my father was confronted by his twelve-year-old son who proceeded to try and convince him how important it was that he believed what the Bible said about God making the world. 

I’m sure I was not a terribly convincing young theologian at that point, but I’m also sure dad could see what it meant to me, so he agreed with me and the issue was never raised again.

Though it wasn’t long before I made my peace with Evolution not being an issue of salvation, these crisis moments ensured that I would wrestle for many years with the ways my faith seemed to clash with science.

By the time I graduated from high school I had read many Creationist books and had the debates time after time, and was no doubt obnoxiously sure of myself.

Then college hit, and the more widely I read the less sure I became of my easy answers. 

A Biblical Studies major as an undergrad, I expected to find theologians offering a thorough repudiation of godless Darwinism, what I found was quite the opposite. There were of course theologians who were outspoken Creationists, but plenty of theologians who I had come to deeply respect saw absolutely no contradiction between biblical faithfulness and the science of evolution.

This was exciting, freeing even, but also deeply frustrating.

See, I still cared more for the Bible than my books about dinosaurs. And, try as I might, I just couldn’t see how to make the two compatible without doing violence to the Scriptures I valued so highly.

As I continued to research I could see more and more massive holes in the Young Earth Creationism I had grown up on, but with no better option I became essentially agnostic. I knew I was no long a traditional Creationist, but I couldn’t really bring myself to throw in with any other position either.

Enter John Walton.

Last winter I read Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One and it changed everything. Or, rather, I knew that it could. I also knew I wanted to believe what he was saying, so I was a bit suspicious of my motives for embracing his argument. It made perfect sense, but did I just think that because of all sorts of subconscious motivations?

So I took some time to ponder it, and this summer I re-read The Lost World of Genesis One and had the chance to hear Walton speak about his argument in the book. This led to this post, and a follow up.

Walton’s suggestion? In the ancient world the idea of creation was not about material but function. So that, in all the ancient creation myths, the thing that is created is order, things are named and given roles and a place in the world. How the “stuff” that things are made of came into existence was simply not a concern to the ancients.

If that’s true, and Walton makes a very good case for it, here is the way it cashes out: Genesis 1 is about functional origins not material, the original audience would have understood it as being about how order was created out of chaos, not how matter came from non-matter. 

So the Bible takes no particular side in the debates we have about Evolution or the age of the earth, that Story is about something else entirely.

And suddenly I don’t have to choose between the Bible and those books about dinosaurs.

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Ask an Evolutionary Creationist ...(Response)

Transient

Today I’m thrilled to share biologist Dennis Venema’s responses to your questions for “Ask an Evolutionary Creationist.”

Dennis has a PhD in genetics/developmental biology from the University of British Columbia. He teaches at Trinity Western University, and his research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signaling. Dennis is part of the BioLogos Foundation, an organization committed to promoting a perspective on the origins of life that is both theologically and scientifically sound. He blogs at Biologos.org.

I’ve always found Dennis’ perspective to be challenging, accessible, and full of grace. I hope you learn as much from him as I have!

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1. From Scot: Could you explain the difference between creationism, intelligent design, and "evolutionary creationism"? 

“Creationism” is one of those words that almost always needs clarification. For many, “creationism” is synonymous with Young-Earth Creationism, the view that the Genesis narratives are to be taken literally. This view holds that the entire cosmos is around 6,000 years old, that the fossil record was laid down almost in its entirety during a literal, global worldwide flood, that God created humans directly out of dust, and that Adam and Eve are the progenitors of the entire human race. The organization Answers in Genesis is probably the best-known proponent of this view. 

Old-Earth Creationism typically holds to a local flood, and accepts Big Bang cosmology. Despite agreeing with mainstream science on these issues, they deny evolution: they believe that the vast majority of species (and especially humans) were independently created by God during earth’s long history. Old-earthers also hold to a literal Adam and Eve as the progenitors of our entire species. Reasons to Believe is the best-known organization that promotes this view. You can read one of my (somewhat technical) critiques of their anti-evolutionary genetics arguments here.

Intelligent Design (ID) is a view that many feel is a form of creationism, though the ID Movement itself often rejects the label, claiming that it is strictly an alternative scientific view. The ID Movement is a “Big Tent” approach for all and sundry who reject at least some part of evolutionary biology. As such, there are Young-Earth Creationists, Old-Earth Creationists, and others within the movement. The main ID view is that some features of life are too complex to be the result of evolution, thus indicating that they were “designed” – a word that functions as the equivalent of “created” within this group. The Discovery Institute is the best-known organization for promoting ID. I’ve spent a lot of time critiquing the ID movement, and you can find  much of that material on the BioLogos web site (do an author search there using my name). 

Despite their (large) differences, all of the above positions deny some aspect of modern science. The only Christian perspective on origins that fully accepts mainstream science is the Evolutionary Creation / Theistic Evolution view. This view holds that science is not an enemy to be fought, but rather a means of understanding some of the mechanisms God has used to bring about biodiversity on earth. This view accepts that humans share ancestry with all other forms of life, and that our species arose as a population, not through a single primal pair. There are different views within the EC community on whether there was a historical couple named Adam and Eve – some hold that there was, and that they were selected by God from a larger population as representatives. Other folks in the EC community feel that Adam and Eve are typological figures,  such as a representation of the failure of Israel to keep the covenant. The science (human population genetics) is clear that our species arose as a population, and that is what I have focused on (since that is my area of expertise). I try to leave the theology to others, but often folks want to talk theology on these points, not science. 

2.  From Paige: What has been the most compelling evidence for you personally that has solidified your position as an evolutionary creationist?

'Green Plant' photo (c) 2009, Corey Harmon - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

Well, the evidence is everywhere. It’s not just that a piece here and there fits evolution: it’s the fact that virtually none of the evidence we have suggests anything else. What you see presented as “problems for evolution” by Christian anti-evolutionary groups are typically issues that are taken out of context or (intentionally or not) misrepresented to their non-specialist audiences. For me personally (as a geneticist) comparative genomics (comparing DNA sequences between different species) has really sealed the deal on evolution. Even if Darwin had never lived and no one else had come up with the idea of common ancestry, modern genomics would have forced us to that conclusion even if there was no other evidence available (which of course manifestly isn’t the case).

For example, we see the genes for air-based olfaction (smelling) in whales that no longer even have olfactory organs. Humans have the remains of a gene devoted to egg yolk production in our DNA in exactly the place that evolution would predict. Our genome is nearly identical to the chimpanzee genome, a little less identical to the gorilla genome, a little less identical to the orangutan genome, and so on – and this correspondence is present in ways that are not needed for function (such as the location of shared genetic defects, the order of genes on chromosomes, and on and on). If you’re interested in this research, you might find this (again, somewhat technical) lecture I gave a few years ago helpful. You can also see a less technical, but longer version here where I do my best to explain these lines of evidence to members of my church. For those wanting even more info, a few years ago I recorded a series of lectures given to my non-majors, intro biology class that explored evolution and Christian responses to it in depth. 

3.  From Rob:  I have trouble with randomness in natural selection.  Why is it essential in scientific terms that evolutionary development is random?  How does that fit with the notion of a God who is involved in the world? …Random evolution would not be theism (or it wouldn't Biblical Christianity).  It would be deism; the Great Clockmaker who set everything in motion and then kept hands off.  Why is randomness essential scientifically, and how does a Christian accept it theologically?

'DNA' photo (c) 2010, Keith Ramsey - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

I think you mean randomness in mutation: natural selection is anything but random (it’s a process whereby certain variants in a population reproduce more successfully than others). Evolution has a random component (mutations arise that may be detrimental, neutral or beneficial) and an emphatically non-random component (the different variants within a population do not all reproduce at the same frequency, meaning that the next generation will not be exactly like the previous one). So, as a whole, evolution is not random since it has a strongly non-random component. Evolution is actually remarkably good at producing similar results over and over again: consider how similar ichthyosaurs (descended from terrestrial reptiles) and dolphins (descended from terrestrial mammals) are. That’s the non-randomness of evolution at work. Some evolutionary creationists have argued that this non-randomness of evolution is a way that God uses evolution to shape His creation (the best work on this topic is Life’s Solution by noted Cambrian paleontologist Simon Conway Morris). 

4.  From HMV: I agree with you that the evidence seems to point to evolution being true. I've read Biologos and the old Evolution and Evangelicals blog.  I've read books where people try to rework theology in light of this scientific knowledge.  And yet, I'm left feeling confused and unsatisfied about doctrines like sin, the Fall, salvation, etc.  What about you--have you found a satisfying way to maintain your evangelical theology in light of evolution?

This is a tricky question, because it hinges on the inherently subjective term “satisfying.” What I might find satisfying you might not – and in order to answer the question I have to guess at what you mean by it. 

Personally, the concept of Divine accommodation has been helpful to me. This is a theology that has a long heritage in Protestant circles (e.g. Calvin).  In a nutshell, it’s the idea that God, in his grace, brings himself down to the level of the audience he is communicating with. For Genesis, that audience is an ancient near-eastern culture, not our modern scientific one. For Genesis, my view is that God wants to communicate that he is the Creator of all that there is, that he has given humanity a special image-bearing role within it, but our sinfulness has broken that relationship, et cetera – but that he doesn’t see a need to give them a science lesson first. I would recommend Denis Lamoureux’s book I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolutionand, though not directly related to science, Peter Enns’ book Incarnation and Inspiration may also be helpful to you (it certainly was to me). 

5.  From Chris: From the perspective of an evolutionary creationist, what meaning and value do you extract from the creation accounts in Genesis and why would they be important for the Christian faith if they can't be taken literally?

See the answer above – I see the Genesis narratives as God graciously reaching down to an ancient culture in order to communicate to them that he is their creator, that they are alienated from him, and that he desires that they be restored to fellowship through his offer of covenant with him (ultimately pointing to the need for God to step into history himself as the One who can keep the covenant on our behalf). 

6.  From Paige:  I'll never forget sitting in one of Dr. Charlie Liebert’s classes several years ago and hearing him ask the question: "What came first, death or sin?" If we believe that there was no death before sin, it causes a wrinkle in our ability to hold to the theory of evolution. As a scientist, this question caused him to reexamine the evidence. How have you personally dealt with this "wrinkle?"

Yes, if you believe that no death of any kind (plant, animal, bacterial) occurred before human sinfulness, then this precludes an evolutionary view, since the fossil record is (obviously) a record of things, well, dying. If you hold that no human death came before sinfulness, then it depends on what you call human (there is a gradation of forms leading up to the modern human skeleton in the fossil record, as well as the overwhelming genetic evidence that we arose through an evolutionary process) and what you consider sin (i.e. when did we become accountable to God for our actions?). There is also the long-standing observation that God decrees that Adam and Eve will surely die the day they eat of the fruit – and then they live for several hundred years after the fact. I’d also recommend reading through Romans 5:12 – 8:17 (which, as you know, is all about Adam, sin and Christ as the second Adam) and making a mental checklist of how Paul uses the term death in this passage. References to physical human death are in the minority – suggesting that Paul’s understanding of what is going on in Genesis has a lot more nuance than a simple literal reading would imply. 

7.  From Jane (from her husband, an atheist): All of the questions posted so far approach the topic from the viewpoint of assuming belief in a god.  As an atheist, I don’t share that assumption.  (For those who might not appreciate it, evolution offers a mechanism for understanding the existence of living organisms that doesn’t require the existence of a god.)  If you transitioned from an anti-evolutionary/pro-intelligent design view to an evolutionary creationist view a few years ago,” why didn’t you keep going and just embrace evolution and drop the theistic aspect?

'Stained glass' photo (c) 2007, Börkur Sigurbjörnsson - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Your question implies that there is a natural trajectory from accepting evolution to rejecting God. As a theist, specifically an evangelical Christian, I don’t agree with this point, though I understand where you are coming from. Let me explain.

Your assumption, that “evolution offers a mechanism for understanding the existence of living organisms that doesn’t require the existence of a god” holds weight only if one has the view that “natural explanations” and “theistic explanations” are a zero-sum game. This is a God-of-the-gaps approach, where God has less and less to do as we understand more and more how nature works (and a view I reject). Logically, if I held this view I would view science as an inherently evil activity, since any natural explanation diminishes the activity of God from this viewpoint. Your view is also one that science cannot establish as correct, since science cannot speak to the absence of divine action in an observed phenomenon. 

If, on the other hand, one believes that “natural explanations” reveal the means by which God ordains and sustains his creation, then “natural explanations” are not a threat to theism at all, but rather a window into the ways God acts in the world. This is the view I hold, and it too is a view that science cannot establish. Both theistic evolution and atheistic evolution are philosophical / theological interpretations of what science can establish: evolution. 

As for “drop(ping) the theistic aspect” – this would imply that my faith was based on a particular understanding of creation such that I would question my faith when I questioned the mechanism of creation and/or my interpretation of Genesis. This wasn’t really an issue for me, since my faith was, and is, based on believing that Jesus of Nazareth is in fact the resurrected Lord of the entire world (to roughly paraphrase how N.T. Wright puts it) and that the resurrection is God the Father’s vindication of Jesus’ messiahship (as a sinless, suffering servant that, mystery of mysteries, turns out to be God Himself, incarnate). None of that belief was ever predicated on a specific interpretation of Genesis with respect to scientific details, and as such, accepting evolution as a mechanism by which God creates did not alter those beliefs. (If you’d like to see a rational, historically-rooted investigation of the credibility of the resurrection, N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God is the standard by which others are judged.)

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Interview Series:

Ask an Atheist 
Ask a Catholic 
Ask an Orthodox Jew 
Ask a Humanitarian 
Ask a Mormon 
Ask a Mennonite  

And look for Justin Taylor’s responses to “Ask a Calvinist” on Thursday.

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A Response to Ken Ham: Let’s Make Peace

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Evolving in Monkey Town made national news last week when it was featured in a Nashville Tennessean story that was picked up by USA Today.  The story described various views regarding the evolution-creationism debate and included my perspective that young Christians long for a more nuanced, constructive approach to this issue.  

“My generation of evangelicals is ready to call a truce on the culture wars,” I said. “We are ready to move on."

This quote caught the attention of Ken Ham—president and CEO of Answers in Genesis, the organization behind the famous Creation Museum in Cincinnati.   In a blog post, Ham wrote:

“Well, Rachel, I have news for you.  Your generation is not ready to call a truce in this battle in the culture wars; in fact, we are finding more and more people are getting enthusiastically involved in fighting the culture war by standing uncompromisingly and unashamedly on God’s authoritative Word.” 

According to Ken, the fact that thousands of young people visit the creation museum each year proves that this army is growing. But if you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, the numbers tell a different story. Young adults are leaving the church, with some studies suggesting that up to seventy percent of Protestants age 18-30 drop out of church before they turn 23. (In fact, Ken himself has observed this phenomenon.) 

While the factors behind the trend are complex, I think I speak for a lot of young Christians when I say that you can’t argue us back. We are tired of fighting. We are tired of drawing lines in the sand. We are tired of Christianity being cast as a position in a debate when it is supposed to be a way of life.  

What we are searching for is a community of faith in which it is safe to ask tough questions, to think critically, and to be honest with ourselves. Unfortunately, a lot of young evangelicals grew up with the assumption that Christianity and evolution cannot mix, that we have to choose between our faith in Jesus and accepted science. I’ve watched in growing frustration as this false dichotomy has convinced my friends to leave the faith altogether when they examine the science and find it incompatible with a 6,000-year-old earth.  Sensing that Christianity required abandoning their intellectual integrity, some of the best and brightest of the next generation made a choice they didn’t have to make.

The reason I speak out about this issue is not because I am passionately committed to the theory of evolution; it’s because I am passionately committed to the fact that it’s not worth leaving the faith over! And it's certainly not worth breaking fellowship over either. 

Ken likes to frame his position as an unwavering commitment to the authority of Scripture, but in reality his is an unwavering commitment to one interpretation of Scripture.  Young earth creationists seem unbothered by abandoning other elements of biblical cosmology— like a stationary earth (Ps. 93:1; Prov. 8:28; Job 38:4) and a solid firmament (Genesis 1:6; Job 38:22; Ezekiel 1:22; Daniel 8:10)—but they tend to cast a literal seven-day creation as such a fundamental element of the Christianity that one’s faith cannot survive without it. 

But I am a living breathing example of the fact that it can.  I am a follower of Jesus Christ, and I believe that the earth is old.

I am not asking Ken to change his interpretation of Genesis or even his devotion to it.  If he believes it is the best interpretation, then he should continue to commit his outstanding energy, creativity, and resourcefulness to promoting it. I respect his conviction and I count him as a brother in Christ because, at the end of the day, Ken and I agree on what’s most important —that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.

All I am asking is that he honor this common bond and join me in making peace, in acknowledging that there is enough room in Christianity for both of us and that we can talk about this issue without our weapons drawn. We don’t need a Church in which everyone agrees on the age of the earth. We need a Church that is committed to the Apostle Paul’s instructions that “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18).

How are we ever going to be at peace with all men if we can’t even be at peace with one another? 

I am ready to call a truce, and I hope that Ken Ham will join me.

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Review: "The Lost World of Genesis One"

[Quick note completely unrelated to the post: There are a couple of Evolving in Monkey Town giveaways happening in the blogosphere today, so if you would like to enter for a chance to win a  free copy, hop on over to Jason Boyett’s interview or Big Mama’s review and leave a comment.]

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So a book about biblical interpretation in the context of ancient cosmological paradigms might not strike you as summer reading material, but please don’t let that stop you from picking up a copy of The Lost World of Genesis One by Old Testament scholar John Walton.

I loved this book.

It’s accessible. It’s well-written. It’s profound. It’s practical. It’s exhaustively researched. It’s short.

In just 190 pages, Walton explains that the most “literal” interpretation of Genesis 1-2 is one that takes the Hebrew language and Israelite culture seriously rather than imposing modern scientific paradigms onto the text.  

Writes Walton, “The Old Testament does communicate to us and it was written for us, and for all humankind. But it was not written to us. It was written to Israel.” Consequently, we must “translate the culture as well as the language if we hope to understand the text fully.” (p. 11)

With this in mind, Walton argues that Genesis 1 is reflective of ancient cosmology and that ancient cosmology is typically function-oriented rather than material-oriented.

“If we accept Genesis 1 as ancient cosmology, then we need to interpret it as ancient cosmology rather than translate it into modern cosmology," he explains.  "If we try to turn into modern cosmology, we are making the text say something that it never said. It is not just a case of adding meaning (as more information has become available) it is a case of changing meaning.” (17)

In other words, God used ancient near Eastern language and culture to communicate directly to his people, not modern scientific language and assumptions to communicate directly to us.

According to Walton, attempts to mine the ancient text for answers to today's scientific questions amounts to what is called concordism, which holds that the Bible must agree—(be in concord with)—all the findings of contemporary science. While concordism leaves the reader scratching her head as she attempts to figure out how there could have been waters above the sky (Genesis 1:7), Walton’s approach “maintains that this terminology is simply describing cosmic geography in Israelite terms to make a totally different point.” (p. 18)  (He also notes that concordism is often selective, as you don’t see a lot of folks trying to come up with a physiology for our times that explains how people think with their entrails, as was assumed by ancient people and referenced in multiple biblical passages.)

Notes Walton, “Through the entire Bible, there is not a single instance in which God revealed to Israel a science beyond their own culture.” (p. 19)

“We must take the text on its own terms—it is not written to us,” he says. “Much to our dismay then, we will find that the text is impervious to many of the questions that consume us in today’s dialogues. Though we long for the Bible to weigh in on these issues and give us biblical perspectives or answers, we dare not impose such an obligation on the text. God has chosen the agenda of the text, and  we must be content with the wisdom of these choices…The Bible’s message must not be subjected to cultural imperialism.” (p. 21)

I underlined that paragraph…and drew little stars around it…and wrote a note beside it that said,“Scripture doesn’t answer every question.”

There is a certain relief that comes with the realization that as much as I wish the Bible weighed in on evolutionary theory….or modern physics….or the level at which God is creatively involved in natural processes…these were not questions that Israel was asking, and so we are simply not privy to the answers. 

Instead, (according to Walton), Genesis One concerns functionality,  and the seven days relate to what he calls the “Cosmic Temple Inauguration”…ancient concepts that are a bit too complicated for me to tackle here, but which are clearly and concisely articulated in the rest of  The Lost World of Genesis One.

So if you love the Bible, but struggle with how to embrace it in light of modern science, please consider reading this book...now.  Besides, people will think you’re really smart when they see you reading it by the pool with your pina colada!

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What is your reaction to my statement that “Scripture doesn’t answer every question”?

Relief? Disappointment? Outrage?

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