PCRT Seminar: Major Approaches to Creation, Part 1 (Derek Thomas)

(Posted by Paige)

[I owe this to Lane in return for a delicious Italian meal, good company, and the privilege of hearing him sing “And Can It Be” – just amazing. Sorry this one wasn’t live; I still don’t know how he does that, even after watching!]

I chose Derek Thomas’s seminar because I’d just finished reading his Job commentary with my 14-year-old, and I only belatedly realized I’d assigned myself to write up what Thomas dubbed a particularly “complex, difficult, divisive issue.” (That is a short “i” in the middle there; he’s Welsh.) So, here goes. Please don’t shoot the messenger. Please do read everything with a Welsh accent.

There was a lot of content in this presentation, so this will take two parts.

To begin with his endpoint: as the PCA study committee also affirmed, there are several views of creation that can be held without threat to inerrancy. While Thomas would personally subscribe to about 1.5 of the views he presented (on which see part two), he acknowledged that several other views were the convictions of scholars he respects. That said, there are lines in the sand past which inerrancy is no longer viable. The three non-negotiables he mentioned were creation ex nihilo, the special creation of man, and the historical, biblical individual named Adam. (I suspect there may have been more examples in his mind, but he didn’t get to them before Q&A time.)

Before describing any particular views of creation, Thomas dwelt on the tension that exists between biblical and scientific worldviews regarding the nature of the universe. He noted that evolution was not really a scientific theory, but rather “a philosophy, a worldview, an epistemology that affects ethics, morals, and standards.” Even the Big Bang theory moves beyond science and into theology when it tries to address origins (i.e., what happened before this singularity?). “Theologians should get antsy when scientists do theology – generally they do it pretty badly.”

Still, as the church we don’t want to commit another embarrassing error along the lines of geocentrism; it may be healthy to be skeptical of science, but “not to the extent we look foolish.” Thomas acknowledges that we trust science for many things (e.g., “If they’re going to cut me open and remove bits of me, I am going to have to trust the science”). Yet there is no way to reconcile even a generous 7-Day-Creation age of the universe (50,000 years ago? 200,000?) with scientific claims – 13.77 billion years – without doing something radical to the biblical account. And this we may not do.

In any case, “we need a degree of modesty when talking about these issues.” Science may be wrong; it is changing, not a constant. And theology may be wrong – the Bible is inerrant, but its interpreters are not.

Thomas also cautioned us to remember that there is a distinction between the Neo-Darwinian viewpoint (represented by Richard Dawkins) and the worldview of Darwin himself. Darwin’s deism was “ungodly, he had no gospel”; and yet he posited that God creates a few primal forms and always assumed a fixity of species (i.e., he did not advocate trans-species evolution). “That is 13.77 billion years away from Neo-Darwinism,” which has no fixed point of origin and traces “an unbroken line from mollusk to man.” This view is now the most dominant philosophy in modern thought…and it introduces the absorbing question, What might man ultimately become??

Speaking of evolution, we must remember that any so-called Christian view of creation that calls into question the historical, biblical Adam has dropped away from inerrancy. Thomas stresses the adjective biblical here because there are those who suggest that “there was a [historical] dude called Adam that God singled out from other hominids” to endow with the divine image. He referenced Dennis Alexander [dates??] who believed that hominids were around for a couple hundred thousand years (and had acquired language!) before any one of them was singled out by God for homo divinus status. John Stott unfortunately adopted this view. It introduces the conundrum of whether Adam & Eve’s parents were human – or a source of food. (And what happened to all those other hominids? What did they become? Hmmm.)

Closer to home we have Peter Enns asserting that Paul’s endorsement of the historical, biblical Adam can be disregarded because Paul was an ancient man, a product of his times…and we know so much better now about human origins. In Derek Thomas’ wry assessment, “That isn’t just a slippery slope – that’s an Alpine slope!”

Stay tuned for part two…

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15 Comments

  1. Mark G said,

    April 23, 2013 at 11:11 am

    It’s kind of funny that he would argue evolution is not a theory without qualification. First off, what is “evolution”? Did he mean stellar evolution? biological evolution? Origins? Origins of man? I presume he meant biological evolution since the review goes on to discuss this. Second, what is “theory”? He must have an odd understanding of scientific theory since he claims evolution is not theory, which organismic diversity resulting from natural selection and sexual selection, etc. certainly is. One of the hallmarks of theory is that it should produce testable hypotheses. The power of the theory of biological evolution is its tremendous value in terms of suggesting testable hypotheses which is in a large part the basis of modern biology, including much of the molecular genetic revolution in which we now find ourselves.

    Perhaps he should take his own advice: Scientists should get antsy when theologians do science – generally they do it pretty badly.

  2. paigebritton said,

    April 23, 2013 at 11:37 am

    Ha — he DID say that, about the theologians. I just didn’t write that half!

    Yes, biological evolution of the macro sort was in view. I think his emphasis was on the word “scientific,” not “theory” — because that was when he was noting that evolutionary thinking had gone beyond scientific discussion and had entered into the realm of worldview or theology, having influence now on much more than just, say, the fields of anthropology and zoology.

    Great clarifying questions. Remember I’m trying to reproduce ideas that went by very quickly! :)

  3. Mark G said,

    April 23, 2013 at 11:57 am

    One of the common moves of certain “creationists” is to define science and theory in a way that allows evolution to be easily dismissed, or so they think. However, science and theory need to be defined in ways that practicianers actually work.

    I have a Ph.D. in Zoology and read (reformed) theology for a hobby. I’ve been a member of OPC and currently PCA churches. I think it is important to make distinctions between the science conducted by scientists, or scientific theories, (including evolutionary biology) and their philosphical views, such as naturalism or materialism. It is also important to distinguish between theories; e.g., origins vs. speciation, expanding universe vs. from where did that original stuff come? Atheists can do very good work in physics, cosmology, astronomy, and modern biology. Their atheism should not necessarily lead us to reject electricity, gravity, or biological evolution critically and carefully considered.

  4. Steve Drake said,

    April 23, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    Still, as the church we don’t want to commit another embarrassing error along the lines of geocentrism;

    I take it that Thomas is referring to the seventeenth century condemnation of Galileo?

    The “error” is not quite as clear-cut as most people think it is. The issue revolved around the question of absolute motion which cannot be answered through scientific investigation. All we can ever observe is relative motion. Of interest may be astronomer Dr. John Byl’s post HERE.

    The “error” may have been hanging on to the cosmology of Claudius Ptolemy (c.150 AD) following Aristotle consisting of forty epicycles but gave no physical explanation of planetary motion. Galileo promoted the Copernican theory that the earth was moving about a fixed sun. At issue was relative or absolute motion. Interestingly, it was Galileo’s insistence on an absolute view of the earth’s motion that precipitated his troubles.

    Of note, the Ptolemaic system was the scientific consensus of the day.

  5. Mark G said,

    April 23, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    I think the real “Alpine slope” in the historical Adam issue is not so much inerrancy as it is concerns related to the substitutionary atonement & imputation in terms of Paul’s two-Adams construction upon which is based historic Covenant Theology (i.e., federal); Covenant of Works / Covenant of Grace.

    Did D. Thomas explain how it is H. sapiens populations contain Neanderthal DNA?? ;)

    By the way Paige, thanks for your summary of the presentation!

  6. Steve Drake said,

    April 23, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    Mark G.,

    Did D. Thomas explain how it is H. sapiens populations contain Neanderthal DNA?? ;)

    Taking the authority of the Biblical record as written that the global, universal and cataclysmic judgment of God in the Flood of Noah wiped out all flesh (Gen. 6:13), all flesh in which is the breath of life (Gen. 6:17), all flesh that moved on the earth…and all mankind (Gen.. 6:21), save eight (1 Pet. 3:20), they were post-flood descendants of Noah. Do you have any Biblical evidence to show otherwise?

  7. Mark G said,

    April 23, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    Steve, I’m not sure of your point and how that relates to humans having some neanderthal DNA. There’s no evidence of Neanderthals in the Bible, but then there’s no evidence of protons, cells, bacteria, the Americas and myriad galaxies either. There are plenty of things you take for granted for which you have no Biblical evidence; like accessing the internet on your computer.

    I was half being facetious … thus the smiley face.

  8. paigebritton said,

    April 23, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    No mention of the DNA in Thomas’ talk. He covered a LOT of ground in a kind of informal way, so you wouldn’t expect him to be delivering a treatise with all points covered with caution and precision. (He said so himself, in fact!)

    I see your point, I think, about the theological significance of the first and second Adam — that’s the focus of Joel Beeke’s talk #4 (see Lane’s summary here). I think the punch to inerrancy that Thomas is identifying in Enns’ statement is simply that we don’t have to accept that ancient fellow Paul’s conception of Adam as a real person; that idea was just a product of his cultural milieu. Ohhhhkay…so where do we stop, given this rule of thumb? As a matter of fact, I don’t like his doctrine of universal human sinfulness either…

  9. April 24, 2013 at 6:36 am

    Mark G said One of the common moves of certain “creationists” is to define science and theory in a way that allows evolution to be easily dismissed, or so they think. However, science and theory need to be defined in ways that practicianers actually work.

    Why is this the case? I find most scientists to be incredibly philosophically naive, with little self-reflection regarding basic issues of philosophy of science.

    Atheists can do very good work in physics, cosmology, astronomy, and modern biology. Their atheism should not necessarily lead us to reject electricity, gravity, or biological evolution critically and carefully considered.

    These disciplines cannot simply be lumped together. Biological evolution, insofar as it describes events in the past, is a reconstructive endeavour, and is in fundamental ways different from analyzing the repeatable, testable laws of physics such as gravity. As an engineer I make inferences about the future based on these laws, and it carries far more certitude than projecting inferences into the past.

    The power of the theory of biological evolution is its tremendous value in terms of suggesting testable hypotheses which is in a large part the basis of modern biology, including much of the molecular genetic revolution in which we now find ourselves.

    The vast majority of the “tremendous value” is not premised on the reality of common decent, so we would expect that microevolutionary reality might underwrite a good deal of sound science being conducted today.

  10. April 24, 2013 at 7:00 am

    Steve, you are jumping to conclusions about Neanderthals. There are a handful of logical possibilities. If they were descendants of Adam, then they were human beings, made in God’s image yet in various ways different from the line of men that modern humans descended from. There was a genetic fork in the road and that line died out, whether pre or post-deluvian.

    The other possibility is that Neanderthals were not descendants of Adam, and thus were not human beings made in God’s image. If we were to interact with one, they would perhaps strike us as simply very advanced apes. Likely they would not have a true, propositional language.

    I don’t know what relevance there is inherent in any DNA similarity. Any similarity between our DNA and Neanderthal DNA is no more significant than similarities between our DNA and chimpanzee DNA.

  11. Mark G said,

    April 24, 2013 at 9:19 am

    Hi David,

    I’m not going to address all your comments as I think this requires more than a blog-tweet. I’ll just make a couple observations.

    Evolutionary biology is not restricted to studying only history; e.g., molecular genetics.

    The greater certitude of inferences into the future is something of an illusion. If Christ returns this afternoon none of the projections will not happen. The certainty is based on the assumption that the world will continue to operate as we know it. However, we know at some point this will not be true. Apparently it is also not true at the edge of black holes.

    There is a sense in which historical inference is more certain than future inference. Just as an illustration, if I see someone walking through the snow I can see (infer) from their tracks where they have been (history) with good certainty. However, there is very little certainty as to where they might go. I’m pretty certain that George Washington was a general in the continental army around 250 years ago. I don’t know anything about whomever 250 years from now.

    The study of physics is relatively simple compared to the study of living things. For example, whether or not a particular smoker will develop lung cancer cannot be known with certainty. We do know that smoking will lead to an increased incidence of cancer based on inferential statistical models. Science isn’t defined by the repeatability of certain physical laws, except by physicists maybe. That’s more along the lines of the old “soft” science versus “hard” science debate.

    You probably realize from the philosophy of science that even the simplest experiment intended to test a particular hypothesis depends on multiple assumptions about the validity of ancillary theories. If those assumptions are incorrect they may invalidate our outcomes and interpretation of our experiment. One can pretty easily show that nothing is “verifiable,” “falsifiable” a la Popper, or “certain.”

    At least some anthropoligists / molecular geneticists claim that humans carry actual Neanderthal DNA, not just that there is similarity. The results are open to dispute, one of the beauties of science.

  12. Mark G said,

    April 24, 2013 at 9:35 am

    Geeze, sorry for the double negative there. nothing will not happen … that’s bad

  13. Steve Drake said,

    April 24, 2013 at 10:09 am

    David @ 10,

    Steve, you are jumping to conclusions about Neanderthals.

    No, but perhaps you are incorrectly buying into the secular assumption of a lengthy prehuman prehistory as conclusion.

    If they were descendants of Adam, then they were human beings,…

    Neanderthals were definitely human, descended from the line of Adam just like every other human who has ever lived or died.They painted on cave walls and created other objects of art, constructed graves and buried their dead with identifiable mortuary practices, butchered and quartered their prey animals from the hunt for food, made and used tools of stone and bone (compare the Tierra del Fuegans or Tasmanian Aborginals of the 1800’s), and made musical instruments from the thighbone of a cave bear.

    The other possibility is that Neanderthals were not descendants of Adam, and thus were not human beings made in God’s image.If we were to interact with one, they would perhaps strike us as simply very advanced apes. Likely they would not have a true, propositional language.

    No, you are again accepting uncritically the false secular premise of prehuman prehistory. As Christians, we need to stop doing this. We keep looking for compromises to save the secular premises rather than wresting them back to their legitimate theological home. Yes, there is a distinct Neanderthal morphology. He does differ somewhat from the typical modern human. But the two also overlap. He should never have been placed in a separate taxonomic category. Even Thomas Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog” recognized that Neanderthal was fully human and not an evolutionary ancestor (see Don Johanson’s book Lucy’s Child, William and Morrow & Co., New York, 1989, 49).

    I don’t know what relevance there is inherent in any DNA similarity. Any similarity between our DNA and Neanderthal DNA is no more significant than similarities between our DNA and chimpanzee DNA.

    A bit of conjecture, perhaps? There are quite a number of individuals who are very interested in the similarities and differences. You may or may not find THIS of interest. I offer it for your perusal.

  14. April 25, 2013 at 8:16 am

    Evolutionary biology is not restricted to studying only history; e.g., molecular genetics.

    Right, but then it is dealing with territory that even, say, a YEC-er would agree with. Normal variations within species or kinds that we observe in the present rather than project into the past.

    The greater certitude of inferences into the future is something of an illusion. If Christ returns this afternoon none of the projections will not happen.

    Sure, supernatural intervention invalidates both mechanistic projections into the future and into the past. But I don’t see how that provides proof of your first assertion here.

    There is a sense in which historical inference is more certain than future inference. Just as an illustration, if I see someone walking through the snow I can see (infer) from their tracks where they have been (history) with good certainty.

    The challenge of reconstruction is not so much in deducing the effects of known causes, but of determining the causes behind observed phenomena (i.e. “effects”). You can observe the tracks in the snow, but it is ambiguously shaped and might belong to a handful of different animals, and perhaps it is difficult to pinpoint the time the tracks were made.

    I’m pretty certain that George Washington was a general in the continental army around 250 years ago. I don’t know anything about whomever 250 years from now.

    Historical reconstruction during the time frame that humans have left propositional testimony of events is a fundamentally different task from the physical reconstructions of the past conducted by geologists, paleontologists, and astronomers. A DA would much rather have eyewitness testimony to a crime rather than relying on forensics to solve the matter.

    The study of physics is relatively simple compared to the study of living things. For example, whether or not a particular smoker will develop lung cancer cannot be known with certainty. We do know that smoking will lead to an increased incidence of cancer based on inferential statistical models. Science isn’t defined by the repeatability of certain physical laws, except by physicists maybe. That’s more along the lines of the old “soft” science versus “hard” science debate.

    My point was that we can’t accord the same level of certitude to disciplines that purport to reconstruct the distant past as we do to engineers who design our airplanes, pharmaceutical researchers who give us medicines, computer wizzes who give us Ipads, or civil engineers who give us bridges and skyscrapers. The former simply does not enjoy the epistemic advantages of the latter. This goes beyond the basic issue of simple vs. complex.

    And even the more predictive disciplines such as climate science are demonstrating how difficult it is to make projections into the future involving highly-complex, chaotic systems. Even our most complex computer models are gross simplifications of the factors that feed into our climate, and this means they often give garbage results. All of this is just to say that we ought to be cognizant of the limitations of science. I’m not YEC, but I do believe that the Bible is a more certain account of events of the distant past than science can possibly provide.

  15. Mark G said,

    April 25, 2013 at 8:50 am

    “but I do believe that the Bible is a more certain account of events of the distant past than science can possibly provide.”

    I would go even farther. The Bible provides and absolutely certain account. However, a problem arises when folks fail to recognize that the Biblical account is an account with an agenda, i.e., intentionally selective redemptive history with a purpose, and then try to impose views upon it for which it was never intended; for example, equating kinds with species which is a modern biogical concept. There is a passage in the OT referring to bats as birds. Our modern biological classification recognizes that bats are flying mammals. However, to conclude that either is in error would be wrong headed.

    Hmmm? I wonder if the American continents existed during the time of Moses. I guess since it is not in the Bible we can not really be certain. ;)


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