catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 48, Num 1 :: 2008.10.01 — 2008.12.15


Why I teach evolution

Last fall I taught Grade 11 Ancient History. Not surprisingly, the textbook for the course begins with the earliest evidence of human existence on earth. That, of course, involves a discussion of evolutionary theory. And that, of course, led to a parent writing me to ask how I dealt with the conflict between the Genesis 1 and 2 story of the creation of the world and the evolutionary hypothesis that is commonly accepted in our society and in our textbooks. I’m sure many of you have struggled with how to teach this to your students as well. I responded to this parent and carried on an interesting email exchange with him for a while. I’d like to share with CEJ readers what I think about this issue in the hope that it will spark some further dialogue among Christian teachers and parents and school boards.

I believe with all my heart, soul, and mind that God created the universe and all that is in it, and that he created it out of nothing. I believe that God’s creative acts are intentional and display the orderliness of his lawgiving Word. I think that this is the core doctrine of creation, revealed in Scripture and proclaimed by orthodox Christianity throughout the past two thousand years. I hope, and I trust, that I make this abundantly clear in my teaching.


Ongoing creativity

It is not uncommon, even among Christians, to think that God created the world out of some chaotic, pre-existent stuff. I categorically reject any belief in such a pre-existing “matter” to which God merely gave “form”. This was actually Plato’s view of creation. I believe that such a view compromises our belief in the sovereignty of God. I also reject any belief that the creation is the product of some kind of cosmic accident or accidental chain of events. In this regard, I completely reject the idolatry of evolution.

However, I do not believe in a static creation either: God did not finalize his work of creation on Day Six and then go on vacation. (That’s the deist heresy.) Whatever is implied by the Genesis 1 account of God resting on the seventh day, I do not think that it means that God’s creative acts were finished. The ongoing movement of the earth’s tectonic plates is evidence that God is not done shaping this world yet. The obvious evolutionary connection between the various creatures that are related within any given species also points to God’s ongoing creative work: new varieties of plants and new sub-species of animals are continually coming along even as old ones are going extinct. I believe that creation and providence are the dynamic, ongoing activity of God in his world.

An example I often use to describe to my students the relation between God’s work in the world and natural processes is this. When a Christian couple has a child, they usually send out a birth announcement card to their friends and relatives. Typically, they say something like “Rejoice with us. God has given us a child!” Now, such an announcement does not in any way deny the very real mechanics of human reproduction. Insemination, fertilization, conception, implantation, gestation, and birth are scientifically demonstrable phases in the production of a child. And yet, a profound miracle has also taken place: the miracle of a gift from God. These facts do not contradict each other. (The example is not originally mine: I remember ICS professor Jim Olthuis using this example already 30 years ago.)

It seems to me that if God wants to use sperm and eggs and hormones and whatever else to produce a new person, that’s entirely within his right. And if he uses some of the things he made earlier to produce something else later (continents as well as children), that’s entirely within his right to do. God even formed Adam “out of the dust of the ground”, according to Scripture.


Legitimate scientific task

Science has the task of discerning the order-liness, the law-fulness of God’s creative products. So, science can legitimately examine and hypothesize about the relationship between things such as hydrogen and helium as well as between things such as red pines and white pines, or between lions and tigers, or even between monkeys and men. Science does so by examining the things and phenomena we encounter in the creation, postulating hypotheses about these relationships and testing these hypotheses under rigorous and clinical conditions. I believe it pleases God when scientists praise him for his marvellous handiwork; I believe it pains him when an idol is given the credit for it.

Christian faith should not restrain science from its legitimate pursuit. Christians should not turn a blind eye to the marvellous realities of the creation. It seems apparent from the numerous very ancient bones that we have discovered all over the world that a variety of non-human creatures lived on the earth well before human beings were created. Dinosaur bones as well as Neanderthal bones were not, I suppose, planted by God (or the devil) to deceive us: they are the remaining tissues of real creatures that seem to have lived many years before human beings were created. Much of the science of palaeontology is, of necessity, speculative and tendentious. (Of course, this is also true of sciences such as psychology or jurisprudence, or economics.) Any good palaeontologist concedes this. That doesn’t in the least invalidate the science: it only underscores what science is all about – educated guesswork about the underlying laws by which God keeps order in his creation. To the extent that any science does this, we need not fear nor shun it, but applaud it. A scientist doing science is simply a case of Adam fulfilling his cultural mandate. To the extent that any science goes beyond its legitimate bounds and begins to advocate false answers to the ultimate questions about the origin and destination of all things, it reflects the fallen tendency of our race to confuse the creature for the creator (Romans 1).


No contradiction

So, in my worldview, there is room for the likelihood of biological evolution. There is room for the probability that the earth is millions, even billions of years old. There is room for the possibility that the big bang theory is substantially correct. I know that these things give some Christians serious problems. They fear that, if they allow such possibilities, they are denying the authority of the Scriptures. I think that pitting the scriptural account of creation against legitimate scientific investigation is a doomed endeavour. In my opinion, the phrase “creation science” is an oxymoron. The first chapters of the Bible do not presume to give a scientific account of the origin of the world. They give us a definitive description of the relationship between humans, the world and God. They tell us why things are so often messed up, but also why things are also so often lovely, delightful, awesome, engaging, and wonderful. God is easily powerful enough to use whatever means he chose to bring the world into being and to direct its development toward the end he always intended.

I did stress to my Grade 11 students that, while I am no scientist, I have heard little convincing evidence in favour of a theory of evolution across species. Even our secular history textbook honestly acknowledges that the human race seems to have spread out and populated the earth from a single location, probably in Africa. I suspect that “micro-evolution” (evolution within a species or between closely related species) is strongly supported by the evidence; while “macro-evolution” (evolution across species) is largely an inference from the former, an inference that supports the secular belief that we are not answerable to God for what we do but only to ourselves. That, of course, was the original temptation that Satan offered to Adam and Eve. For this reason I am rather sceptical of macro-evolution. However, I think we should be reluctant to categorically disqualify it as a means whereby God could have created the world.


Necessary preparation

I believe that we should exercise pedagogic prudence in deciding when it’s appropriate to challenge our students with some of these issues. I also recognize that this is a potential “hot-button” issue among various people in our communities and so we need to be sensitive to how we broach them. But I am convinced that we must prepare our students for lives of service in our world.  Many of them will be in the world of the secular university in a few years time. I believe that I would not be giving them the tools to cope with that world if I were constrained to tell them that they must ignore the artefacts and phenomena that are found all over the world. Nor do I think that I would help them stand firm in the Christian faith if I didn’t try to alert them to the spiritual apostasy and heresy that lurks behind so much of what is passed off as “scientific knowledge.” 

Have I spent enough time on this subject? Perhaps not. Have I done an adequate job of it? Probably not. Have I confused my students? I hope not. I do hope that I have modelled for my students a Christian attempt to be faithful to the God of the Scriptures, to recognize and endorse humanity’s quest to fulfill the cultural mandate, and to be open to the grandeur and wonder of the world.

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