The seemingly endless debates over creation, evolution, science and faith are being renewed again of late with several new books contending for some form of theistic evolution (the view that God created the world and human life using the processes of evolutionary development) as well as others contending that evolution disproves faith altogether. When I was a young Christian, it seemed to me that there was no real contradiction between some form of evolution and the creation story of Genesis 1, but I changed my mind partly under the influence of Francis Schaeffer’s “Genesis in Space and Time”, which argues that Genesis 1-11 had to be considered real history in the light of parallels elsewhere in the Bible. So is this view still valid? Is it reasonable and biblically necessary to reject evolution in favour of some kind of creationist theology?

Let’s make a few things clear from the start. I want to do this because this debate has often generated far more heat than light: creationists have been overly strident, anti-creationists have frequently been patronizing and dogmatic. Too often both sides have talked past each other. I want to avoid doing that if possible. But I also need to acknowledge up front that I am not a scientist, more an interested lay person who comes to this debate (so far as professional qualifications are concerned) from a perspective of theology and philosophy. So some initial introductory thoughts:

1. What do we mean by evolution? It seems that the process of biological evolutionary change is a given: we can observe it happening and the ideas of natural selection have proven explanatory power in biology. But more problematic is the effort to explain everything on the basis of evolution. So when I criticize evolution, it is this macro-explanation I am sceptical of.

2. What do we mean by creation? All Christians (just about) believe in creation; that is, that the ultimate reason why the universe exists comes back to God as Creator. We need to insist on this because some creationists act as if Christians who doubt their version of things do not believe in creation at all. We also need to note that there are varieties of creationism around: the young earth, literal seven days view espoused by “Answers in Genesis” is not the only Christian alternative to macro-evolution. For instance, one creationist view (held by theologian Millard Erickson, for instance) suggests that there were six creative interventions by God followed by slower periods of natural development that may have been millions of years long. Christians have come up with many explanations that have tried to reconcile old earth geology with Genesis, starting even before Darwin.

3. There can be no ultimate contradiction between science and Christian theology if both are true. “All truth is God’s truth.” Any attempt to rule out one on the basis of the other is making some kind of category mistake, Christians insist. There is at least some truth to the idea that science and theology have different territories and these must be respected: science helps us understand how and theology why. Some of the debate comes from people on both sides invading the other’s turf.

So then, on whose turf is the question of origins? Some creationists argue that science cannot comment on the first origins of the universe, the world or life because there was no human observer of these events and we cannot run experiments on them in the nature of things. All views on origins come down to faith. In other words, origins is part of theology’s turf, science has to keep off. This idea is asking for trouble. Scientists are invariably curious, that’s one reason for scientific progress, and asking them to keep out of certain seemingly legitimate questions as “How did it all begin?” (especially when they legitimately ask, “How did some things begin?”) is unreasonable. So, for example, scientists may or may not be right about the “Big Bang”, but this is a perfectly reasonable scientific position to advance and theologians have no right to rule it out on purely biblical grounds.

However, theologians and philosophers also have the right to comment on origins from their perspectives. They have the right to ask questions like, “What happened before the Big Bang?” and “What does the Big Bang model imply about a universe with a beginning?” At the least, such a model makes room for the possibility of a creator. They can also legitimately ask other “Why?” type questions: such as, “Why did the universe happen?” (as opposed to how). More controversially, they also have the right to investigate the philosophical (that is, epistemological) assumptions that, say, cosmologists are working with and question whether or not these are valid.

In other words, Origins is common turf in one respect and divided in another. The distinction is not so much in subject matter as in methodology. Neither science nor theology or philosophy has a monopoly on truth, a point often forgotten.

At this point I want to make some philosophical-theological comments on science. As several protagonists in these debates have pointed out, science (as we have understood it since the 17th century) is inherently or methodologically atheistic, or more accurately agnostic, or more accurately still, naturalistic. Scientists look for natural causes, not supernatural. To put it another way, supernatural causes are outside science’s turf. Scientists have to assume that no supernatural causes are necessary to explain how things work or how they came to be as they are now; at least in their work as scientists they have to make this assumption.

Therefore, it is no part of science to draw supernatural or faith-type conclusions from natural investigation. Thus, for example, Intelligent Design is not science. That doesn’t make it wrong; it just puts in in the realm of philosophy or theology. In other words, it invites us to draw theological conclusions from natural facts, which is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, but something that science as such is forbidden to do on pain of becoming something else than science.

However, the other corollary of this is that science has limits. It can’t investigate the possibility of supernatural activity in our world, but nor can it rule such supernatural actions out. Science can’t, therefore, say that the universe was not created by God. It can’t rule out the possibility that God has intervened in all kinds of ways in history; it just can’t rule it in either.

We all know that science has limits, by the way. In spite of some people trying to come up with “scientific” views of ethics or beauty or justice (for example), we all know that this is just spin, an attempt to trade on the prestige of science in the modern world in the interests of other agendas. Thus, for example, there is nothing anti-scientific about dictatorship or warfare; we have to argue about these things on philosophical or theological grounds. This I think is partly what is wrong with Dawkins’ anti-Christian arguments. Science as science cannot prove or negate theology.

Let me crystallize this by looking at a central question of Christian apologetics: the resurrection of Jesus. What can science say about that? Absolutely nothing. Or rather, all it can say is that there is no natural reason why someone could come back to life after being dead for three days (or at least no natural reason we know of; it is perfectly legitimate for critics of Christianity to pose the possibility that such a natural explanation may be found). But does that mean the question of the resurrection is just a matter of faith? Well, if by that you mean that you have to believe it because the Bible says so, without any questioning or looking at evidence, no! No one should believe such an extraordinary assertion as that Jesus rose bodily from the dead without carefully sifting through the historical evidence. But all the historical evidence may show is that there is no natural explanation for the events of Easter. This then allows the apologist to conclude that supernatural forces must have been at work. Which is a perfectly reasonable conclusion to draw, especially in the light of Jesus’ own words, the apparently eye-witness reports and the growth of the early church, but it does not amount to saying that the evidence proves the resurrection.

Seemingly then we are at a stalemate. Evolutionists and creationists can’t debate each other. And in one sense this is so; they cannot prove each other wrong. However, they can perhaps contribute to a debate that cannot be resolved definitively by science.

Let’s see how this might play out in a particularly controversial question: the age of the earth. Evolutionists (indeed, scientists generally for the most part) argue from scientific investigation into agreed evidence (such as fossils) using accepted methods (such as potassium-argon dating) to draw scientifically plausible conclusions, such as that the earth is billions of years old. What else can they do? Unless other evidence comes to light, or unless someone comes up with a better natural explanation for the data we have, they are entitled, even compelled, to draw such conclusions.

But can they then insist, this is how it happened, so theologians and believers are wrong? Not so fast. They cannot rule out supernatural intervention that might have speeded up the natural processes or redirected them in some way. It may be compatible with the natural evidence to believe that supernatural causes played a part, though it is never required and scientists must keep looking for natural causes in their work as scientists, whatever they may be convinced of as believers in Christ.

So let’s now think about the biblical side of the subject. Here I think we have to keep two things in view if we are going to be faithful to the Bible’s overall story-line and teachings.

First, it is clear that the early chapters of Genesis are not a scientific dissertation, let alone a comprehensive explanation of origins. This is evident from their structure and from their genre: that is, comparing them with other ancient literature. Rikk Watts’ article brings this out clearly. There is mythical language used, for example: talking snakes and the like. Therefore it is wrong to insist on taking everything in Genesis 1-11 literally, if by that we mean reading them like today’s newspaper, for example.

But on the other hand, to read Genesis 1-11 purely as legend or allegory is equally a wrong strategy. In the context of Scripture as a whole, Genesis 1-11 demands to be treated as real history, even if sometimes expressed in a pre-modern thought form. This is the point that Francis Schaeffer made, convincingly to my mind. Other parts of the Bible, including the New Testament, refer back to the creation stories as historical and authoritative. So if we throw out any historicity in Genesis, we are throwing it out of the Bible as a whole, and if we start doing that, where do we finish? Christianity is a historical faith in the sense that it is based on real historical events: creation, fall, flood, exodus, exile, cross, resurrection and so on. If any of these events are reduced to myth, the basis for faith in Jesus is undermined and Christianity becomes indeed a matter of “blind faith.”

So then I have major problems with macro-evolution: that is, with accepting even a Christianized version of evolution as an overall explanation for origins:

  • it has yet to be shown scientifically; that is, we still have no evidence, for example, for a purely chemical origin to life.
  • it depends on a series of (I think) unprovable presuppositions, for example, that natural processes have always operated in the same way and at the same speed as they do now: uniformitarianism as opposed to catastrophism. And yet there seems to be evidence that the earth’s history has included major catastrophes.
  • it fails to explain central realities of human experience, such as the power of love or the existence of human sin.
  • it is ultimately inconsistent with any historical reading of Genesis.
  • it causes major difficulties with a range of major Christian doctrines; not just creation as such, but the whole idea of a personal “interventionist” God, our common descent from Adam, the idea of humankind being created “in the image of God” and the historical fall of humanity, which is the Bible’s main explanation for the evil in the world and for our need of a Saviour.

This last point needs a bit more development. One of the major questions we all ask is, “Why is there evil in the world?” Not so much natural disasters (which may be explicable by natural means alone) as humanly caused evil- sin, to use the biblical word for it- cruelty, injustice, betrayal, deception, etc. Many explanations have been adopted, but to my mind the weakest is the explanation based on some kind of incomplete evolution, because it is both historically unbelievable and morally disempowering. That is, it makes nonsense of any attempt to struggle against sin in ourselves or in the world. To take up a current issue, why fight against pollution or global warming if all this is the result of natural evolutionary processes?

To me the Christian explanation for sin makes a lot more sense: that it comes from a historical rebellion by our first ancestors against God’s good laws for them, a rebellion that has since been entrenched in human behaviour. This explanation cannot (of course) be proved historically or scientifically. But it is perfectly consistent with the course human history has taken (for instance, it helps explain the universality of human sin) and it encourages us to turn against sin and take action against it. Combined with other Christian doctrines (such as creation and our being made in God’s image and placed in charge of his earth, based in Genesis 1) it gives us a reason to do something about global warming, for instance.

And most importantly, it shows why the life and death of Jesus make sense, not only as a kind of protest against that primal and ongoing rebellion, but as the God-given answer to that problem.

In conclusion, a strong doctrine of creation and the historical origin of sin is an essential part of the Christian gospel and this is difficult to reconcile with any form of macro-evolution.

Meditations on a New Era

December 3, 2007

We have a new government. Whether we wanted it or not, whether we prayed for it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we voted for it or not- and most people obviously did.

Politics is a cruel game, and even though Mr Rudd was very well mannered in victory, the summary political execution of John Howard was distressing, as was the loss of some other fine people.

I worry about many of the ministers in the new government and their policies, I grieve at the loss of some fine pro-Christian politicians, I am very concerned at 9 ALP governments and their union backers and their ties with the gay lobby, etc. Nevertheless, life has got to go on and God is still in power! Politics is not the main game!

Brian Pickering of the Australian Prayer Network wrote a very perceptive piece after the election. It showed how we became out of touch with our fellow citizens on a number of issues. People want God but not moralism! I can forward the full article to you on request.

But meanwhile here are some thoughts from me:

  1. God is still in power and Jesus is still Lord and we are still to pray “Your kingdom come, Your will be done…” and be Christ’s witnesses wherever. The main things never change.
  2. We are expected to pray for our leaders, not just for the Liberals. Ouch! And by the way, the Libs especially need prayer just now, I think.
  3. There are good ideas on all sides of politics (even the Greens are not the beast!!) and good people too. I’m not sure what to make of Kevin Rudd himself, but I was impressed by news of his 3 visits to homeless shelters and the very gracious way he has taken over the reins of power.  Let’s give credit where credit is due.
  4. Let’s also pray for and encourage all the Christians in parliament and politics, it is a tough game. We in Cook have a new Pentecostal MP, Scott Morrison, and I need to meet him and encourage him asap.
  5. We need however to stand up for what is right, whatever the cost. There will be some challenges ahead!
  6. Let’s keep praying for our nation to be truly the “Southland of the Holy Spirit”
  7. Let’s see this as a wake up call for the church. We did get comfortable under the Howard years. It’s time to get real about Jesus and his love for men and women. It’s time for us to stop squabbling about minor disagreements , even politics, and show some leadership in our local communities and nation. By that I mean, not telling everyone else how to behave, but showing our love in a spirit of service. Maybe Mr Rudd has set us an example here!

Easy to say, not so easy to do!

Never thought I’d write a headline like that. After all, Christians are against idols, aren’t they? But on Channel 7 tonight, we heard the ultimate conspiracy theory: Christians (namely Hillsong) have infiltrated Australian Idol (shame!) and maybe half of the remaining contestants are Christians who get voted in because of some kind of organized campaign (as if the others don’t have organized supporters).

Now of course, this somewhat light-weight piece was designed more to rubbish Idol (7 against 10) than Christians, but Hillsong-bashing is a great sport too!!!

Let’s have a few facts:

1. the two ‘idols’ most featured (Matt and Tarisai) actually go to my church, Shirelive//, which is a friend of Hillsong but not a branch.  And yes, we vote for them! I think Tarisai has the best voice on any Idol I’ve ever seen.

2. Guy Sebastian was not part of Hillsong when he won Idol; he came from Adelaide.

3. It’s the judges who seem to love Matt Corby and keep backing him, and I don’t think any of them go to Hillsong.

4. The Idol set up encourages organized voting, after all its helps ratings!

So when Christians organize, it’s wrong, a violation of church/state separation, the religious right are coming!, etc. Right?

At least one commentator on 7’s program had it right: Hillsong (and similar churches) train singers, musos , etc so you have to expect them to do well.

Now let’s get serious: we don’t want to turn great young Christian singers into idols! We need to pray for them to keep a sense of proportion and follow Jesus, not fame. May they be credible and vocal witnesses for Jesus in the Spirit’s power!

I teach at a charismatic Bible school that embraces all denominations. This semester I have been teaching a course called “Ministry of the Spirit”. This involves discussing all the issues involved with experiencing the Holy Spirit’s power and life today. Clearly there are many perspectives on all this, from cessationism on one end (the idea that gifts of the Spirit, especially supernatural ones, are not on offer today) to hyper-Pentecostalism at the other (the idea that if you don’t speak in tongues, you aren’t saved). For a comparative study of leading positions, go to <www.barrychant.com>

As I told my class, I don’t mind what theology on this you believe provided you have the experience! Which sounds very postmodern, but I am actually a “moderate” Pentecostal. I believe that all the supernatural gifts and experiences of the Spirit related in the NT are available to those who will dare to ask and to step out in faith, following the Spirit’s leading, today. I believe in the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” as an experience that all Christians should seek and that it normally causes you to speak in tongues, amonst other things. Several of my students have received this baptism over the last few weeks as we prayed together in class.

This week I am attending a class on Pentecostal and Charismatic History with Dr Barry Chant, the founder of Tabor and the world’s leading expert on Australian P and C history. This class has reminded me that:

  1. God is faithful to His promises and will endue us with power if we ask Him to.
  2. God will use even the most fallible and imperfect people who make themselves available to Him, e.g. Aimee Semple McPerson who built the famous “Angelus Temple” in LA though she was separated and then divorced and surrounded by all sorts of controversies and accusations.
  3. Having the power of God does not guarantee right doctrine or good practices, but Pentecostals need develop good theology to help safeguard the experience without suppressing it.
  4. Many people God has used powerfully have burned out later (or even had moral falls). We need accountability, balance and wisdom to pace ourselves!
  5. Having the power of God does not guarantee unity: quite the opposite. Pentecostals split and divided over personalities, doctrines, racial and gender divides, etc.
  6. But we need the power! Yes, Pentecostal and charismatic churches are growing, but we in Oz are in danger of being respectable and relying too much on music, leadership, organisation, etc instead on the Spirit’s power. Some of the earlier Pentecostals saw huge amounts of healing, for example! God, do it again!

For all the faults we can find among Pentecostals, charismatic and the like, what they (we) stand for and experience (at least to a degree; we are mostly still well short of NT reality!) is the hope of the church and of the world today!

Pastor Bobby Houston (Hillsong) spoke at my church this morning.  She said that Australia has become an oasis of encouragement to the worldwide church.

She identified certain distinctives of Australian Christianity (obviously based on her experience with Hillsong):

  • simplicity of approach to God and His kingdom, a refreshing release.
  • true mateship without agendas.
  • permission to be real, honest, relevant, forgiving and embracive.
  • honouring old wineskins but taking on new forms for the 21st cent.
  • not dismissing youth, but harnessing their energy and their wisdom.
  • singing a new song from the heart.
  • not ignoring women, but releasing and empowering them (the main point of her message).  e.g. Ps 68:11.

What do you think? I’d like some responses to these points.

One of the things I most remember about Lord of the Rings is the need to get rid of the Ring! Seems to me to stand for Power, power over other people.

When Jesus said, “You will receive power” (Acts 1:8), I don’t think he meant the Ring. Rather he was releasing us from intimidation so we could bear witness to the Truth which is Jesus himself., even when the powers were opposing and persecuting us!

But today we are still locked into power struggles, even in churches. And this makes us religious rather than relational, if you can allow some alliteration. It drives people away from churches and often towards some kind of “new spirituality” (new age) where they feel free from control, church politics, abuse etc.

Abuse is a power act by one human being over another and many of us have been guilty of it.  We can see it clearly when someone is doing it to us (though not always, even then) or when someone else is doing it to another person we care about. But can we see it when we are doing the Power thing?

Power is inevitable, but how do we use it? The Bible calls for justice and mercy and a humble walk with God (Mic.6:8).  It speaks of God overturning the power relations in the world (Luke 1:51-53; Mary said that!!). God judges us by how we treat those who are dependent on us, those we have power over. Hence the blockages to prayer when we mistreat them (cf 1 Pet.3:7; Is.58:3). (sorry about all those Scriptures, but they’re good!)

God deliver us from church politics or, for that matter, family politics, school politics, company politics!

Religion and Christianity

August 27, 2007

Is Christianity a religion? What is religion anyway? Did Jesus come to start a new religion? Is a Christian a religious person? Time I came back to these sorts of issues.

I think it’s pretty obvious Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion (and perhaps the same could be said of Buddha and even Mohammed).  According to John 10:10, he came that we might have abundant life, not abundant religion.

Unfortunately we ended up with “the Christian religion” doing much the same as any other religion: bonding societies, keeping everyone under control, providing meaning to life, celebrating the stages of life (birth-marriage-death), legitimizing the state or the church, providing a basis for law.

Nothing wrong with those things- we need some of them at least- but religion inevitably ends up getting mixed up with power, control, ideology, tradition and boundaries: i.e. us v them, as we can see with the current Islamophobia in the west. So it starts to function like the 2nd beast in Rev.13, supporting the big beast of the imperial state.

How can we get free from this? Here’s a few thoughts.

1. See religion as an infected area, part of the “elementary principles” of the world system (cf Gal.4:3,9; Col.2:8) that Jesus came to set us free from.  Do read those passages, by the way!!

2. Get a new idea of “conversion”. It’s not changing my religion but  turning back to God and being changed by Jesus Christ, becoming his disciple. This applies equally to “Christians” and “Muslims”, “Buddhists”, etc.

3. Refuse to draw unnecessary boundaries around non-Christians. They don’t need to join something called Christianity to be accepted by God. More radically, they need to fall in love with Jesus and follow him 100%.  And so do you and I. Maybe the very word “Christian” is past its use by date.

Last night I watched a great doco on Tehran. All these wonderful people, not my enemy, just people God loves, who are looking for their way in life, but locked into Religion! May they find Life instead.

Faith and Politics

August 20, 2007

Two things have sparked this blog off: the movie “Amazing Grace” and Kevin Rudd’s “fall from grace” with the exposure of his night club adventure. Both Wilberforce and Rudd were politicians, ambitious, professing Christians, good speakers, imperfect but committed. The difference (so far; Kevin’s story isn’t finished yet) is that Wilberforce’s campaign was born out of his conversion and his membership of a group of committed Christians called the “Clapham sect”.  The key emphasis of the evangelical revival in 18th century England (spearheaded by Wesley, Whitefield and others like John Newton) was on personal conversion or the new birth.  Their political campaigns on a number of fronts were born out of a strong emphasis on personal faith in Jesus. And arguably Wilberforce gave up his ambitions of cabinet rank to follow the slave trade campaign.

Christians should be involved in politics if they feel so called. I have friends on all sides of politics whose faith moves them on: Greens, Family First, Liberal, non-party. But I think we should be wary of anyone using Christianity to promote themselves. It’s great to see Christians of varying allegiances praying with each other in parliament but too often party allegiance and ambition come first, it seems.  Yet it’s hard for us outside parliament to judge as we are not experiencing the pressure MPs face. They need our prayers.

Unfortunately the new birth has itself become a religious party slogan in many places. Many talk about being “born again” who seem to show no evidence of having experienced it.  We need to recapture the fervour and clarity expressed in Newton’s hymn.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.

‘Twas grace that caused my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved, how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”

Not belonging to the right church or believing the right things but believing in the Saviour!

So who’s right then?

August 14, 2007

The second episode of Compass on Fundamentalists was chilling. Here we have Muslims, Jews, Christians all saying we’ve got the truth that everyone must follow- just because we say so? Or because we’re prepared to die or kill for it? No wonder secular people are saying, there’s something wrong here. After all, they (followers of religions) can’t all be right when they oppose and deny each other. Maybe a kind of postmodern relativist tolerance is called for. Trouble is, that’s in danger of going under in the face of militant Islam.

Somehow or other, as a Christian I’ve got to find a way to affirm the uniqueness of Christ as the Saviour of the whole world (Muslims, Buddhists, whoever) while reaching out to and accepting everyone in His name. After all, Jesus loves Muslims, Jews, Hindus, even atheists; He’s not interested in “control” or forcing absolute truth on them. Too often in the past Christian evangelism has been over-aggressive, intolerant, arrogant and very unChristlike. not at all like Paul who said “the love of Christ controls us..” (2 Cor.5:14).

Jesus is the answer but too often Christians have been the problem.

Am I a Fundamentalist?

August 6, 2007

Sunday night’s Compass program on Fundamentalism (1st of 2) was quite balanced and illuminating. It showed that religious militancy is not restricted to Muslims and Christians by showing examples of Indian Hindus and Sri Lankan Buddhist monks getting very intolerant and violent. In contrast the US Christians interviewed were only violent by proxy, i.e. supporting the Iraq war.

The presenter, an English Catholic,  correctly explained the roots of the word “fundamentalism”: it came out of the publication (early twentieth century) of a series of booklets outlining the “fundamentals” of Christianity that are non-negotiable, in response to higher criticism and liberal theology: doctrines such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the virgin birth.  This was an honest and forthright attempt to concentrate the argument on the key areas that really matter, rather than getting lost on arguments between Christians about (say) predestination or baptism. In terms of the original debate, I would be a fundamentalist (just).

Unfortunately the term has been repeatedly hi-jacked. First, by the more extreme “fundamentalists” who insisted on narrowing the definition so that, for instance, you had to support  a “seven day young earth creation” position on Genesis and a dispensationalist view of eschatology to be accepted as a true fundamentalist.  Then, by the media, who found “fundamentalism” to be a useful “catch all” phrase to cover all kinds of militant religion, especially the so-called “Christian right” who were emerging as a political force to be reckoned with. Now it has even worse connotations, as Islamist violent militants become seen as the paradigmatic “fundamentalists”.

Certainly in all these terms, I am not a fundamentalist.

The issue raises again the question of boundaries, which I discussed in an earlier blog. This is an important question. How “black and white” should we be about issues? My answer to that would be, as black-and-white as the issue demands but no more.

So, for example, I believe the second coming is a non-negotiable belief. Jesus is coming again literally and we will all see it. But the details that surround this are very ambiguous and grey! People get all shook up about a pre-trib rapture, for example, or the mark of the beast. These are issues we should not be dogmatic about.

So let’s not be Fundamentalist but by all means hold to the fundamentals!