Examining the origins debate, part 2

This is part 2 in a series exploring Gerald Rau's book Mapping the Origins Debate. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1, 345678.

Six origins models

In this post we'll overview Rau's six origins models. They fall into two groups: evolutionary models (of which there are four) and creationary models (of which there are two). We'll note points of agreement and disagreement, due to multiple factors that will become more evident as we proceed through the series.

photo credit: https://www.maynoothuniversity.ie

Evolutionary models

If the origins debate is to be productive, a key issue has to do with agreeing on what is meant by key terms. One such term is "evolution," which is used in various ways, sometimes referring to a philosophy as much as a process. That philosophy is naturalism, "the conviction that everything can be explained by natural causes" alone, an idea closely related to materialism, "the idea that there is no reality apart from the material world" (p42).

Rau points out that not all proponents of evolution accept naturalism/materialism--a fact often overlooked by proponents of the creationary models (described below). Rau's analysis also points out that many Christians (who embrace theism and reject naturalism) accept evolution as a process that God used in creating/developing the universe. These nuances of meaning are often overlooked (quite unhelpfully) in origins debates. The parties in the debate would be well served by reading Rau's book, as he is careful to note how the term "evolution" is used in different ways in the four evolutionary models. Here is a summary of each:

1. Naturalistic evolution (NE)

NE is the model most closely aligned with what many people think of when they say "evolution," having in mind the philosophy of naturalism/materialism. The NE model, being fully grounded in that philosophy, propounds these key ideas/ideals:
  • There is no supernatural (the atheistic position promoted by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett) or, there is nothing that can be known about the supernatural (the agnostic position promoted by Stephen Jay Gould).
  • Therefore, evidence from the natural world (empirical evidence) is the only basis for knowledge. Anything else is either pure falsehood (the atheistic view) or mere speculation that cannot be confirmed by evidence in nature (the agnostic position).

2. Nonteleological evolution (NTE)

NTE allows for the supernatural, but "posits that there is no intervention of the supernatural after the foundation of the universe" (p43). This is a fundamentally deistic viewpoint as reflected in the term nonteleological, which conveys the idea "that although the universe was created with the ability to evolve, there was no specific end or direction (telos) in mind at the beginning" (p44). Thus NTE is essentially identical to NE in how it interprets scientific evidence with the exception of the origin of the universe. NTE seeks only naturalistic causes for the development of the universe after the point of beginning. NTE is grounded in these key ideas:
  • The supernatural exists but whatever that force is, it has no plan for the universe and thus does not intervene in its development.
  • Only natural forces have brought about the universe's development since its supernatural beginning, thus naturalistic explanations are sufficient to explain that development.

3. Planned evolution (PE)

According to PE, "God had a definite plan in mind, which was set into motion at the moment of creation." Proponents of this view "typically employ an interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis in which the creation story is treated as an ancient genre wherein the emphasis is placed on the actor rather than the action, on God as Creator rather than on the process of creation" (p45).

PE acknowledges that "God has the capacity to intervene in nature but does not need to do so because of the perfection of the original creation" (p45). Proponents of this veiws believe that a "fully gifted creation" was able to bring forth through natural, evolutionary processes, all that we see in the universe today, including humankind. PE has gained prominence as a form of "theistic evolution" through the work of Francis Collins and his BioLogos Foundation.

Scientifically, PE is essentially equivalent to NE and NTE, "since God does not regularly intervene in the development of life or species, and therefore natural processes are thought to be sufficient to explain the evidence. The difference lies in the fact that PE asserts the mechanisms for change were built into creation and established for the specific purpose of bringing about God's plan of creating a sentient being who could worship him (p46).

PE is grounded in these key ideas:
  • God created the universe with a plan and created it perfectly to bring that plan to fruition without further intervention.
  • The natural laws and processes created by God are sufficient to account for all natural events since the moment of creation. Therefore, science can always find natural explanations for natural phenomena.

4. Directed evolution (DE)

DE and PE have a shared perspective on interpreting Genesis, though "proponents of DE are more likely to view Adam and Eve as single individuals who are the progenitors of the entire human race. [DE] asserts that God not only brought the universe into being but continues to act in it, not only in the lives of individuals in response to prayer but also in creative events, to bring about his plans. In many cases this does not involve superseding natural law as much as direction of low probability events, hence the name of the model" (pp46-47). 

DE views science and religion as "interacting domains of knowledge," therefore "at least some questions [concerning the origin and development of the universe] are best addressed  using evidence from both domains" (p47). The evidence that is found in Scripture has to do with the existence of a deity who intervenes from time to time in miraculous ways. The evidence for all other aspects of development is to be found through science, in natural mechanisms. 

Proponents of DE include Michael Behe, the well-known advocate of "Intelligent Design" (ID)--a philosophy that seeks to harmonize the ideas of creation and evolution. For more about ID, see The Discovery Institute website.

The DE model is grounded in these key ideas:
  • God has a predetermined purpose for the world, and the Bible shows that he intervenes in the natural world as necessary to advance that purpose.
  • Noting the miracles recorded in the Bible where God intervenes occasionally in redemptive history, it's reasonable to think that he has (and is) intervening in natural history. This would be true particularly with respect to low-probability events that seem to be directed toward a particular goal.

Creationary models

Rau also presents two "creationary" origins models: old-earth creation (OEC) and young-earth creation (YEC). Both assert that "empirical evidence of direct creative acts" can be found in the natural world (the book of nature). They also assert that "the Bible explains not only the purpose of creation but also something about its mechanism" (p48).

As we explore the creationary models we should remember that two of the evolutionary models (PE and DE) share with OEC and YEC the belief that the Bible and the book of nature are both important revelations of God and his creative activity. Moreover, these revelations, when properly interpreted, will not conflict. But why then the differences between PE, DE, OEC and YEC? The answer has largely to do with how the Bible (particularly the first chapters of Genesis) is interpreted. Those who reply, "well, I don't interpret the Bible, I take it literally" are ducking this issue, for the very act of reading Scripture is an interpretive act as the reader assigns meaning to the words (for more about this issue, click here to read an earlier Surprising God post).

1. Old-earth creation (OEC)

OEC agrees with DE "that science and religion are interacting domains of knowledge" though OEC asserts that the Genesis account has "explicit scientific value" (p49). Over the years, several OEC models have been advanced, including progressive creation, day-age creation and various "gap theories." The most well-known defender of OEC today is Hugh Ross and his Reasons to Believe organization.

The OEC model is grounded in these key ideas:
  • God chooses to reveal himself through the Bible and creation, both clearly disclosing his existence, identity and creative activity.
  • In harmonizing the evidence of science with the testimony of Scripture, we must find the most straightforward interpretations. That includes harmonizing the biblical statement that God created in six days with the empirical evidence that the universe and earth appear to be billions of years old. 

2. Young-earth creation (YEC)

Advocates of YEC refer to it as "scientific creation." Its detractors tend to refer to it (rather mockingly) as "creationism." According to YEC, "where evidence from another domain, particularly natural science, appears to conflict with what the Bible says, it is the latter that comes out on top" (p50). This idea is based on a particular way of interpreting Scripture, the first chapters of Genesis in particular. This approach to the subject, of course, creates strong animosity between YEC and NE and thus the current "creation vs. evolution" debate, which is mostly a debate between atheistic or agnostic proponents of NE and conservative Christian proponents of YEC. In short, YEC and NE are polar opposites, "the former claiming that the Bible overrules scientific evidence, the latter that scientific evidence disproves the Bible." 

Christian YEC advocates believe that the Bible teaches that God created the world and everything in it in six literal 24-hour days about six (some say ten) thousand years ago. For them, any other idea is tantamount to "reinterpreting the Word of God on the basis of the fallible theories of sinful people" (p51, quoting Ken Ham, perhaps the most well-known proponent of YEC through his Answers in Genesis organization with its creation museum in Ohio). 

The YEC model is grounded in these key ideas:
  • Each word of the Bible, as the inerrant Word of God, must be understood in accord with its normal, common meaning, unless there is clear evidence to the contrary from within the Bible itself.
  • When the Bible says that God created everything in six days, it means six sequential 24-hour days. When it says he created each kind of animal, or that he created man (male and female), it means each was created separately and fully formed. That being so, all scientific evidence must be interpreted in a way that is consistent with these presuppositions which are grounded in a particular interpretation of Scripture.
Next time we'll look at what each model has to say concerning the origin of the universe.