In my teens I struggled a lot with questions about faith and science. The spiritual environment in which I was nurtured as a Christian made much of “taking the Bible at its word.” What my spiritual mentors meant by this was what I later came to recognize as a “proof-texting” way of treating important topics. Did my high school biology teacher tell us that human beings had evolved from lower forms of animal life? Well, she simply had it wrong. The Bible says in Genesis that God created various animal “kinds” on the sixth day of creation, and then after that, a little later on the same day, God created a man and a woman as fully formed human beings.
But then, still in my high school years, I came across a wonderful book, Christian View of Science and Scripture, by an evangelical theologian, Bernard Ramm. I heard it condemned by preachers and Bible teachers as “evolutionistic,” but I was secretly intrigued. A friend of mine, a college student, lent me his copy and I read it with great interest, and it helped me to think in new ways about the relationship between faith and science. Ramm distinguished between two big-picture perspectives: Evolution, in the capital E sense, he said, is a perspective on reality that insisted that everything happens by a chance process of adaptation and change, from “lower” to “higher.” Creation—with a capital C, on the other hand, is the view that all of reality unfolds according a plan that is established and guided by a sovereign God. These two big-picture perspectives are different from evolution and creation (no capital letters) that we can observe as specific mechanisms of change in the world.
That way of viewing things still—over a half century later—strikes me as the right way of understanding the basics of a Christian approach to the natural sciences. And as I moved on in my intellectual journey I came to see that Ramm had been illustrating a “world-view” approach as an alternative to the “proof-texting” perspective that I had been taught in my younger years. It should not trouble us that the prophet Ezekial refers to “the four corners of the earth.” That was an image that the prophet used—and he may have believed to be literally true—about an important truth concerning God’s working in history. While he used that image in what he actually said, it—that the earth has “corners”—is not what God was teaching us by means of the prophet’s utterance. This is the kind of distinction that shaped the view of the Bible’s supreme authority set forth in the Lausanne Covenant, a manifesto issued by several thousand evangelical leaders from around the world, meeting in Switzerland in 1974. The Bible, Covenant said, “is without error in all that it affirms.” I can say that “I have a ton of work to do right now” without meaning to affirm that I have actually used a scale to weigh my list of work assignments.
I have spent a good part of my academic career promoting that kind of world-view approach. What is the overall view of reality that the Bible is affirming? In recent years, though, I have switched from noun to gerund. I have come to emphasize the need to engage in world-viewing rather than the idea of “having” a worldview. I have come to rely much on the Psalmist’s confession that the Word of God “is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”1 When, say, a new discovery is made by geologists or a new challenge emerges for medical technology, we can’t just type the question into our worldview system and wait for the answer to come. We are on a journey, and often we have no idea what we will come upon around the next bend in the pathway. But we can shine the light of God’s Word on what we see, and pray for the kind of discernment that comes from what God has revealed in the Scriptures.
Many of the students whom I teach come from the same kind of spiritual environment in which I was raised. They have been shaped by a “proof-texting” approach to applying the Bible to questions that emerge in the life of the mind. Even though my academic specialty is not in the natural sciences, one of them will frequently pose a question to me in these terms: “You say that you believe the Bible to be the supreme authority but you also say that you believe in evolution. How do you reconcile the two beliefs?”
The first thing that I want to make clear in my response is that my belief in the truth of God’s Word is not of the same order as my belief in many of the things that I have come to accept in evolutionary thought. As the Reformed philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff has argued, what we must bring to our intellectual pursuits are certain “control beliefs” that guide us in our efforts to engage in the kind of scholarly investigations that are faithful to the Word. These control beliefs are biblically-based convictions that we have come to see as our non-negotiable reference points for our intellectual explorations. There should be no question that the belief in (capital C) Creation is a fundamental control belief for the Christian. For other matters to which I give my intellectual assent–beliefs based on carbon dating of bones, the study of geological strata, evidence produced by archeological digs, studies of ancient cave drawings, ultra-sound recordings of the human fetus—my theories and assessments of such things must be guided by my firm confidence in the reality of a creation that is called into being and sustained by the sovereign will of the God of the Scriptures. To maintain this approach faithfully requires constant and prayerful attention to the ways in which persons whose intellectual efforts are guided by an Evolutionary (capital E) set of control beliefs often say quite different things than the believer about the significance of the specific beliefs derived from scientific investigation.
What I want my students to come to see is that there is no need to fret about “reconciling” our beliefs based on the non-negotiable convictions grounded in the truth of God’s Word and our scientific pursuits. Thoughtful Christians in the past have pictured the created order as an arena in which the Lord gives powerful evidence of his honor and glory.
My comments here are meant serve to kick off a series of more focused reflections on this site by some folks in the sciences who are gifted “world-viewers.” They know from experience that thinking biblically about the pressing issues of contemporary life—in this case issues of science and technology—is a dynamic process. We have much to learn from them as they tell us what they have discovered as they have shined the lamp of God’s Word on the path of scientific exploration.
Psalm 119: 105 ↩