By Charles Kunert
The question of origins is central to our understanding of who we are and what we can know about ourselves. The developers of the biblical canon recognized this fact in placing the book of Genesis and the biblical account of origins at the very beginning of Scriptures. Secular philosophers and scientists have posited theories of origins for as long as history has been recorded. In fact, nearly every culture which has been extensively studied has some form of accounting for the origins of the universe, the world and, more importantly, humans.
Because the answer to the question of origins is intimately related to our whole view of the purpose of life, it is understandable that considerable conflict arises when the issue of origins is discussed. The question of origins immediately presents the potential for polar thinking: either there was a supernatural power behind the origin or the universe and the beings within it originated through natural forces alone. The diametrically opposed philosophical positions provide the impetus to the friction that generates the heat witnessed in discussions of these matters. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the collegiate classroom.
Over the past thirty-five years of my teaching ministry in Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod schools, no topic has been the cause of more consternation in my biology classrooms than the discussion of the origins of living creatures. Students become erupting volcanoes of rage in defense of one position or another. Classroom discussions spill over into dormitory rooms and late-night Starbucks runs. Letters from concerned parents or pastors of students invariably follow. Administrators seek anonymity. While this level of passion may be perceived as detrimental to the educational process, it also provides an exciting potential for educational growth, intellectual stimulation, and spiritual maturation.
As a teacher I can ask for nothing greater from my classroom. The liberal arts, including the sciences, are designed to liberate the mind from preconceived notions and rigid thinking. Teachers of the liberal arts should be judged by the extent to which they have been able to challenge their students to scrutinize all of the paradigms they have assumed to be valid in the light of knowledge they gain by the use of their God-given brains.
Some would contend, however, that this interpretation of my task as a Concordia University faculty member is faulty. The professors of Concordia University have voluntarily made a pledge to abide by the rules of limited academic freedom required by the LCMS. Encouraging students to wrestle with the paradigms many of them were taught as youth could be considered as counter to the very doctrinal standards we are pledged to uphold. Some might even consider such an approach to education to be heretical. In fact, I have been charged as such by several different individuals over my years of teaching in the LCMS.
In this essay I will attempt to illustrate why fostering a discussion of the origins of the universe, world and humanity that includes a clear presentation of scientific theories, including evolutionary theories, is in fact not heretical but rather essential in a Lutheran university that claims to be preparing leaders for church and society.
Please permit me two final thoughts before laying out the essence of my thesis. The first is a suggestion that anyone who undertakes such a venture as this is bound to fail on some level. I am fully aware of the auspicious nature of attempting to encompass thousands of years of theological insight and the massive amount of data that has emanated from the scientific community over the past several hundred years. I have attended conferences in the past couple of decades populated by authorities in both realms and realize that I am a fledgling by comparison. There is simply so much to know that I am bound to make mistakes of commission and omission. I am necessarily limited also by the space allocated to such a literary undertaking.
The second observation must be said in as gentle a manner as possible but I suspect it is impossible to make without giving some offense somewhere. Let me ask for forgiveness in advance if you feel offended by this observation. It is not my intent to hurt others’ feelings but rather to seek the truth and to state it in the only way I know how: boldly. I witnessed discussions concerning origins within the LCMS more than 40 years ago. I was taught under Paul Zimmermann, Wilbert Rusch Sr., and Eugene Korthals at Concordia, Ann Arbor in the 60s and was originally a member of the Creation Research Society. Since that time there has been no meaningful discussion of these issues at the synodical level even within the science faculty community. There has been a chilling effect of attacks on anyone who even dared to attempt to discuss these issues meaningfully in public. Such attacks have been made by such entities as Herman Otten’s Christian News and the very publications of the Creation Research Society. (See Carl Krekeler’s essay elsewhere in this journal for verification of this.) This has prevented meaningful dialogue. When coupled with the nearly total lack of scientific education of our clergy in their seminary training these attacks have been powerful tools to suppress debate.
These are extremely complex issues that require an inordinate amount of study of both theology and science before one is competent to begin a meaningful dialogue. The delegates to our synodical conventions are undoubtedly ill-prepared to discuss these issues. Resolution 2-08A of the 2004 LCMS Synodical Convention is a classic case in point. Brought to the convention floor at the last minute, it was passed by a significant majority without meaningful debate. No expert witnesses were called to discuss either the content or the potential impact of the resolution. It is akin to asking the delegates to vote on the proper type of brain surgery to undertake to cure a cancerous tumor. They simply do not have the tools to undertake this type of discussion. These matters are so critical that they should not be subject to political maneuverings. That is why, I believe, the framers of Synod’s constitution wisely put forward the following statement in Article VIII, Section C.: “All matters of doctrine and of conscience shall be decided only by the Word of God. All other matters shall be decided by majority vote.” Clearly the matters at hand are to be decided by the Word of God and not by majority vote. Anyone who has studied the history of the LCMS realizes that political alliances come and go. Votes of 52% in favor to 48% opposed should tell us that there is little unanimity of opinion about these matters. In that case we should be patient and utilize the gifts God has given the church to explore these matters more fully.
The most recent meeting of all the science faculty members of synod was held at Concordia University, Austin, Texas in February of 2004. Many of those attending supported a resolution that asks President Kieschnick to formulate an advisory board comprised of theologians, scientists, and bioethicists to discuss and make recommendations to synod when issues at the intersection of faith and science arise. Four of the science departments have endorsed this proposal to date. We are still awaiting word from the other campuses.
As our society becomes more and more technologically and scientifically savvy, the formation of such an advisory board would seem a prudent course of action. These types of entities are present in most of the main-line denominations of Christianity. The LCMS is conspicuous by its lack of such a body. Currently the Commission on Theology and Church Relations would be the body to address such issues but it has little or no representation from the scientific community. This places an unfortunate burden on the members of this commission as they attempt to wrestle with these complex issues.
We as a church body have been arguing over the issues of origins for decades now. It is time we actually spent some effort to understand what actually is understood by the scientific community and learn from our sisters and brothers in other Christian denominations as they wrestle with these same complex issues.
Education, in its finest form, assists individuals to gain the skills and techniques necessary for an authentic search for truth. In a Christian college, such as those of the Concordia University System, that search can take many of the forms that occur within the secular setting, such as science or history, but a Christian college has an additional dimension that is unique. Students in these educational institutions should also be encouraged to seek the truth through spiritual avenues as well. Finally, all truth is united in the God who defines truth. Ultimately then, the truth of science, the truth of history, and the truth of religion are the same truth spoken in different dialects.
The fact that controversies arise over the definition of truth, even within a Christian college, is testimony not to the failure of any specific way of knowing but rather to the shortcomings and frailties of the seekers after truth. The human condition precludes perfection in any activity this side of heaven. It should be little wonder that the human condition often clouds our own perceptions and the conclusions we draw concerning our observations.
In an attempt to focus the discussion of the teaching of origins within a framework that might foster reconciliation and the “unity of the Spirit” that Paul talks about, I am proposing five thesis statements that define truths upon which most Lutherans and, indeed, most Christians might agree. The theses here presented then serve to under gird the remaining discussion of the teaching of theories of origins within a Lutheran university.
Thesis I: God the Father Almighty is the maker of heaven and earth.
Derived directly from the first article of the Apostle’s Creed, this statement serves as the fundamental prerequisite to any other discussion within the Christian community concerning the origins of the universe, the Earth, and humanity. There can be absolutely no quibbling on this point. The Scriptures are totally clear on this point of Christian doctrine:
Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
Psalm 102:25 “In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.”
Hebrews 1:1,2 “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.”
God is, by definition, supernatural: above and beyond the natural. The natural proceeds from the supernatural in order for our faith to have any meaning. Therefore God must be the creative force that brought into being the universe and all it contains.
Thesis II: God reveals Himself to humans in Scripture
It is clear from Scripture that God uses Scripture as an instrument of communication with humans. As Lutherans, we have a clear definition of what is meant by the term “Scripture:” the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. Within the canon we find ample evidence of God’s revelation of Himself to humans. True theology is the attempt by humans to understand the nature of God through His revelation to us.
Luke 24:27 “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he (Jesus) explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
John 5:39 “These are the Scriptures that testify about me…”
Acts 18:28 “For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.”
Thesis III: God reveals Himself to humans in nature
It is also clear from Scripture that God reveals Himself to us in the wonders of nature that are about us. There is a major caveat with the natural revelation of God, however. Natural revelation of God provides an insufficient basis for salvation. We must carefully avoid equating the two types of revelations although both serve important purposes in providing a greater understanding of the nature of God.
The LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations, in its recent publication Biblical Revelation and Inclusive Language, offers the following statement concerning the revelation of God:
Although God is known through the things he has made and through his continuing providential work (natural revelation), Christian faith is based upon special revelation. Natural revelation is given to all and to all equally. It is given in creation and in the life and life circumstances which God gives to each human being. (CTCR Report, February, 1998, p. 6)
The following Scriptural references speak of the manner in which nature is a revelation of God:
Psalm 19:1 “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”
Isaiah 40:26 “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.”
Romans 1:20 “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”
Thesis IV: God does not lie.
Our God is a God of truth, not subterfuge and deception. His revelations in both Scripture and nature can be depended upon to be intrinsically honest. As such, they may be trusted as guides for the philosophical basis and expression of our lives.
I Samuel 15:29 “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind.”
Psalm 33:4 “For the word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does.”
Psalm 146:5,6 “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them – the Lord, who remains faithful forever.”
Thesis V: Apparent conflicts between God’s revelation in Scripture and God’s revelation in nature are due to humanity’s inability to interpret perfectly either Scripture or nature or both.
The central issue concerning the appropriateness of teaching theories of origins in the classroom of a Christian university is whether the tenets of those theories are consonant with a proper interpretation of Scripture.
If it is agreed that God provides us glimpses of Himself both in nature and in Scripture, and it is agreed that God is truthful, then it follows that the actual revelation of God in nature cannot be in conflict with His revelation in Scripture.
The caveat in this bit of logic is the assumption that we can know perfectly God’s revelation of Himself in nature or Scripture. Paul dismisses this notion in his first letter to the Corinthians:
I Corinthians 13:12 “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
While it is certainly true that the revelation of God in Scripture is sufficient and efficacious in bringing about salvation, it is not true that we, as humans, can truly know God completely. While confined to this earth we must be content with knowing “in part.”
It is therefore wise to humbly ponder Scriptural references to the creative activity of God or natural phenomena that seem to reveal something of life’s history on this earth.
The function of a Christian university
Some years ago, while scanning Martin Luther’s essays concerning the nature of education and schools, I was interrupted by a junior transfer from a public institution in her first year at our fair university. When I confided who I was reading, this bright student corrected me. “Martin Luther King, you mean?” No, I assured her, I was reading the works of Martin Luther King’s namesake, one of the main authors of the Protestant Reformation.
While it was somewhat disturbing that a junior in college had no knowledge of Martin Luther or his vast writings, I have a feeling that many in our church body are unaware of the major contribution that Luther and his companion, Philip Melanchthon, had on the establishment of schools in general and public schools in particular. In addition, most are probably only vaguely familiar with the notion that Luther was by trade a university professor.
Two of Luther’s works touching on this subject are To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools (1524) and A Sermon on Keeping Children in School (1530). It is not widely appreciated by our laypeople that Luther, in addition to providing the underpinnings of the Protestant Reformation, also was a major force in establishing the responsibility of the state to provide education for all the young.
In particular, Luther was a strong proponent of an education rich in the liberal arts, including sciences and math, provided within the framework of the Christian faith. He even supported the notion of education of the masses by secular governments even if they were not led by Christian rulers:
So it was done in ancient Rome. There boys were taught that by the time they reached their fifteenth, eighteenth, or twentieth year they were well versed in Latin, Greek, and all the liberal arts1 (as they are called), and then immediately entered upon a political or military career. Their system produced intelligent, wise, and competent men, so skilled in every art and rich in experience that if all the bishops, priests, and monks in the whole of Germany today were rolled into one, you would not have the equal of a single Roman soldier.2
Luther saw liberal arts education as the primary focus of schooling:
For my part, if I had children and could manage it, I would have them study not only languages and history, but also singing and music, together with the whole of mathematics. For what is all this but mere child’s play? The ancient Greeks trained their children in these disciplines; yet they grew up to be people of wondrous ability, subsequently fit for everything. How I regret now that I did not read more poets and historians, and that no one taught me them! Instead, I was obliged to read at great cost, toil, and detriment to myself, that devil’s dung, the philosophers and sophists, from which I have all I can do to purge myself. (Ibid. p. 369-370)
Luther additionally saw the gift of reason and intellectual pursuit as great benefits of a gracious God:
Alas! We have lain idle and rotting in the darkness long enough; we have been German beasts all too long. Let us for once make use of our reason, that God may perceive our thankfulness for his benefits, and other nations see that we too are human beings, able either to learn something useful from others or to teach them in order that even through us the world may be made better.” (Ibid, p. 372)
By the time of the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, Luther had become so frustrated by the lack of support of education by parents and clergy that he wrote his Sermon on Keeping Children in School. This sermon is a strident and persuasive argument by Luther that one of the greatest tools of the devil is to keep the people ignorant of both spiritual and worldly knowledge.
This seems to me to be a real masterpiece of the devil’s art. He sees that in our time he cannot do what he would like to do; therefore he intends to have his own way without offspring. Before our very eyes he is preparing them so that they will learn nothing and know nothing. Then when we are dead, he will have before him naked, bare, and defenseless people with whom he can do as he pleases. For if the Scriptures and learning disappear, what will remain in the German lands but a disorderly and wild crowd of Tartars and Turks, indeed, a pigsty and mob of wild beasts?3
Interestingly, while Luther claimed that the office of the pastor was the highest calling a human could have, he concluded that the training of individuals for work in the worldly, temporal fields of endeavor was much more challenging and important than training for the ministry:
Indeed, there is need in this office (the temporal office) for abler people than are needed in the office of preaching, so it is necessary to get the best boys for this work; for in the preaching office Christ does the whole thing, by his Spirit, but in the worldly kingdom men must act on the basis of reason – wherein the laws also have their origin – for God has subjected temporal rule and all of physical life to reason (Genesis 2:15). (Ibid, p. 242)
Luther also was a proponent of the study of science among the liberal arts. It is noteworthy that the University of Wittenberg, where Luther stood as professor, was, during Luther’s day, the first university to publish the works of Copernicus despite the controversy surrounding them and Luther’s evident distaste for them.
At this point I should also mention how many educated men are needed in the fields of medicine and the other liberal arts. Of these two needs one could write a huge book and preach for half a year. (Ibid, p. 252)
A major function of a Christian university, in Luther’s view, was to liberate the populace from the tyranny of ignorance that was being perpetuated by the lack of proper schools and universities. And the liberal arts were seen by Luther as foundational to the university.
In Luther’s day, the term “liberal arts” was applied to those studies that specifically provided the few people able to avail themselves of such education the opportunity to escape the shackles of narrowly defined trades. As more and more of the populous gained access to education, the liberal arts have taken on a slightly different, but equally important, connotation. As John Reist put it,
… liberal arts has become an opportunity for the demos, or all persons, to pursue wisdom which comes down from on high which enables them to escape various isms. An ism turns wisdom, or truth, into an ideology, in which the pursuit of genuine and universal knowledge is reduced to the pursuit of a career, or careerism; and only such knowledge (or what is most likely, such information) as will produce a job is considered relevant and worthy.4
Within the context of this discussion, a significant purpose of the Christian university then becomes the pursuit of all forms of knowledge, understandings, and wisdom that precludes adherence to any of the multitude of isms with which we are confronted, including both evolutionism and creationism in their various forms. The honest pursuit of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom is the calling of the Christian professor or teacher and, therefore, the task of the student. Within the context of the Christian faith, that pursuit of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom becomes a potent force for counteracting the work of the devil and for making our temporal lives more fully enriched.
The nature and limitations of the scientific enterprise
In order to explore more specifically whether it is proper to teach evolution within a Lutheran university, it is important to recognize that the topic of evolution and the various theories of how it occurs have arisen within the context of the liberal art known as science. As such it is helpful to understand a bit of both the nature and limitations of science as a way of knowing.
Prior to that pursuit, however, it is essential that I make clear to the reader what I mean by the term evolution as I will be defining it in this essay. While the term is sometimes used to describe cosmological phenomena, such as the evolution of a galaxy, in this essay I will be defining evolution as it applies to organismic change as, very simply, change in living organisms through time. Evolution in that sense is a phenomenon recognized by nearly everyone on all sides of this issue. Even young earth creationists allow that organisms that we see on the face of the earth today are not the same as ones that were here earlier. It is in this sense that many will call evolution a “fact” while debating the manner and speed with which this change has occurred and the limits to such change. It is within this latter arena that various camps differ: creationists differ on whether the changes have occurred over longer periods (“old earth creationists”) or shorter periods (“young earth creationists”); intelligent design proponents differ on whether our Christian God or some other “intelligent designer” is responsible for making possible the changes through time and to what extent changes can be accounted for by more traditional theories such as natural selection; evolutionists differ on whether changes occur gradually (“Darwinian gradualists”) or in spurts (“punctuated equilibrists”), or whether the prime cause is natural selection (“selectionists”) or neutral changes in genome (“neutral theorists”). It is important to note that all of the above-named groups refer to science to support their proposals.
Within a Christian university it must be recognized that science is one approach to discovering the truth, in this case the truth of God’s revelation in nature. It is, however, only one way among at least several that offer themselves within academia. Theological, artistic, and historical approaches to truth provide alternative methodologies. And while the truth they pursue is one and the same truth, the approaches may provide different insights, much like the various blind Hindus describing the elephant by their respective perceptions of the parts.
As an approach to the truth, science has a very specific and rigorous set of rules which must be followed in order for the approach to be truly scientific. One of the major rules of the game of science is that science deals with natural phenomena. Ascribing to supernatural forces the causes of various phenomena is clearly playing a different game that is not science. Frankly, this is a major criticism of the Intelligent Design movement and its predecessor Scientific Creationism (as well as atheistic evolution) that I believe to be quite valid. Whether the particular theory holds that a supernatural power acted in creation and still acts in changing organisms over time or whether the theory holds that, based on observations of natural phenomena, there is no god, the leap between natural and supernatural cannot be made using the game of science played properly.
But at this point I must make my intentions completely clear. I am not saying that Scientific Creationism and Intelligent Design are wrong in their assumption that there is a supernatural being or force that has been and still is involved in the development of life on this earth. In fact one can clearly see in Thesis I stated above that I categorically support this notion. What I am saying is that science is limited in the scope of the problems it may address and the solutions it may offer. It simply cannot address whether there is a god or not.
For example, when the AIDS epidemic raged through the United States two decades ago, some persons of a religious bent were heard to proclaim that this scourge was God’s punishment for the evil behavior of homosexuals. Science simply has no way of addressing this conclusion. God is, by definition, supernatural…above nature. Science may only address the natural reality of the epidemic itself: the nature of the virus that causes it, the body’s reaction to the infection, the rate of spread of the disease, or the possible agents that might effect a cure. The truth may be that it was God’s wrath called down upon our Sodom-like earth (although I am personally distressed at that possibility…particularly because we “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and, therefore, should all suffer such a fate). We simply have no way of knowing whether this is true by using the discipline of science.
I have sometimes described the truth attainable through science as a circle within a much larger circle known as “Truth.” In other words, the totality of all truth encompasses a much broader area than can be approached through science or, for that matter, any of the other ways of knowing open to humans. In that sense science is quite limited in its power.
On the other hand, what can be known within this smaller circle called science should not be minimized or ignored. I have found many, particularly in the church, who are willing to simply assume that science is irrelevant to them. One often hears “Oh, it’s just a theory!” as a retort to the efforts of scientists to understand the natural phenomena surrounding us all. Make no mistake about it. Within its sphere of understanding, science is one of God’s greatest and most powerful tools given to humanity to explore His creation.
The power of science is that it allows us to make predictions about our world because it is based on the premise that the natural world operates under principles of order and regularity that may be understood. And it works! Science has allowed us to find drugs that have extensively lengthened the lives of AIDS victims and reduced their suffering. It has helped us understand the form and function of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus that causes the disease. It has tracked the epidemic and predicted correctly emerging patterns of infection.
Because of the great power of science, however, many lay people and some scientists have begun to attribute to science capacities that it simply does not possess. The age of Enlightenment, with its belief in the power of reason and science to ultimately provide all the answers, has continued to dominate the thinking of many popular writers and the press. More and more, however, the intrinsic limitations of science and its resultant technology are being understood. Nowhere is this clearer than in the rapidly escalating problems associated with pollution and resource utilization. The pendulum has begun to swing in the opposite direction. Science is seen by some as the enemy of the people and not the answer to all questions.
Both views are inherently wrong. Science is, in and of itself, a process. It does not and cannot answer the most important questions of life: values questions. It may make us ask those questions more quickly than we would like, or in more vivid detail than we care to assimilate, but it cannot answer them.
The cloning of the sheep, Dolly, is a case in point. Science allowed us to understand the nature of reproduction and biological development well enough to predict that if certain steps were taken, a new individual identical genetically to one parent could be produced. Within a few short days we were all dragged kicking and screaming in the brave new world of cloning. What science did was allow the clone to be made. What science did not do, nor can it do, is tell us whether we should clone or not.
Another important feature of science is that it deals with empirical data. This data may come from a variety of sources, including data that is predicated on the basis of patterns observed in nature, but it is empirical in the sense that it is dependent upon actual observations or logical inference from other observations. Theological observations may have an element of empirical observation in them but also rely on revelation as a source of data. Revelation is not a permissible data source if one is playing the game of science.
To point out the difference, it is perhaps instructive to examine the Lutheran doctrine of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine found in Lord’s Supper. Scientifically one can establish by empirical techniques the content of the wafer and fluid in the chalice. If one were to perform the experiment (I cannot attest to anyone having actually done so!) the prediction would be that one would find various molecules of starches, sugars, and inorganic chemicals in the wafers along with water, alcohol, some sugar, and some yeast cell residues in the wine. Scientifically one must conclude that the wafer and the wine are just that…wafer and wine. Yet theologically we know by revelation that they are also truly the body and blood of Christ.
In this case the scientific process cannot refute the revelatory truth, despite the empirical evidence to the contrary. Science simply has no way to deal with the supernatural or miraculous event. It is limited in this sense also.
On the other hand, this in no way diminishes the importance or power of science. For the science that “only” allows us to see bread and wine where we also believe the body and blood of Christ to be truly present is the same process that allows us to make the wafer and the wine in the first place. We are not called upon to forsake science because it is inherently limited in its scope. God has given science to us as a gift to help us understand and properly use the creation He has provided for our enjoyment and utilization. Science has a very important and rightful place in the different ways of knowing that allow us to approach and attempt to understand the universe about us.
One final note about the nature of science is in order. The process by which science takes place is essentially the development of hypotheses about various aspects of the natural world, exploration of data that could support or refute the hypothesis, and arrival at consensus over longer periods of time. This we observed earlier in the story of Galileo. Prior to Galileo’s confirmation of Copernicus’ model of the universe, there had been several dominant hypotheses that became ever more refined as more and more data was collected. The Ptolemaic model which Copernicus and Galileo replaced was a very solid model and explained many aspects of the motion of heavenly bodies.
Scientists themselves are anxious to attack models because the scientist’s fame is related to how well they can destroy someone else’s model and improve it with their own version. This is the goal of the game of science.
Recently I had a guest speaker address one of my classes. This person suggested that there was a conspiracy by those supporting evolutionary theory to detect and eliminate any data that would undermine it. Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, scientists since Darwin have continuously challenged various aspects of Darwin’s concepts and, in fact, almost none of his original ideas are retained in current models of how evolution works other than the broad strokes of natural selection. For example, Darwin had no knowledge of genetics as it is known today. As a result his model of natural selection failed to account for some of the aspects of evolutionary theory such as population genetics and haplotype selection. Secondly, the general public is simply not aware of the extent of research that is carried on routinely in evolutionary processes and related fields. Literally hundreds of journals publish thousands of research papers annually across the world on this topic. The idea that all of these researchers have been taken in by some huge conspiracy is simply unfathomable. One of the greatest strengths of science is the vast array of scientists who toil at this trade routinely.
The requirement of academic integrity
If we agree that science is a gift from God for understanding His natural revelation to us, then we must also conclude that it is incumbent upon every practicing scientist to practice his or her art with the greatest integrity. Scientists need to put forth their best efforts to obtain the finest and most accurate empirical data possible. They must reflect the highest standards of honesty, integrity, and truth in their communications. Keeping in mind our earlier comments about the inherent imperfections of our search for the truth, it is totally unacceptable to falsify, modify, or ignore data simply because the data does not fit our model of what the world is like…even if that model is built on revelatory information. The reason is, of course, because revelation never comes without the filter of human experience and interpretation. And that human filter is as flawed in the examination of revelatory data as it is in the examination of empirical data.
Notice that the claim is not being made here that scientific truth is absolute truth. While the analogy of the empirical and revelatory manifestation of the real presence points out that revelatory truth may take precedence in our understanding of the important spiritual truths, it would be inconsistent with the nature of God who is truth to suggest that scientists alter or ignore their empirical data on the nature of the bread and wine. That would lead to lousy bakers and bad vintners, not to mention conscience-stricken Christians.
Within the academic setting, science, including concepts such as that provided for in the various theories associated with evolutionary processes, must be taught and examined in a free and unfettered manner. And within science classes, the game of science must be played by the accepted rules of the game. Preconceived notions of what is acceptable to observe and explore must not bias this discussion.
The record of the church through the ages has been an interesting paradox in this regard, for it is the church that provided much of the intellectual genius behind the development of the various sciences within the Western world and it is also the church that has provided the greatest challenges to the free pursuit of science.
The entire history of the development of the various evolutionary theories and models is littered with the names of dedicated, fervent Christian clergy and lay people. Carl Linnaé, for example, was actually the son of a Lutheran clergyman. It was his zeal for understanding the relationship between plants and animals of various stripes that provided much of the observational data that was foundational to noting that organisms form natural groupings. This was critical in recognizing that those relationships might be due to descent with modification, one of Charles Darwin’s fundamental principles. (Darwin himself had studied for the Anglican ministry.) John Ray was a clergyman who gave rise to some of the first guides to evolutionary relationships between plants, although he did not use the term at that time. Charles Doolittle Walcott was a tremendously devout Christian layman who discovered the phenomenal “Burgess Shale” deposits of Cambrian fossils in eastern British Columbia. These fossils provided a wonderful insight into the nature of life on the very young earth.
One must also note, however, that well-intentioned religious zealots, who failed to see the liberating power of science, have attacked its pursuit. The leaders of the Vatican hounded Galileo into recanting his observations that the earth traveled about the sun and not vice-versa. At least some church leaders refused, it is said, to look through the telescope Galileo utilized to make his observations because they were afraid they might learn something that differed from their preconceived opinion.
To be fair to them, they were, I am convinced, earnestly concerned over the proper interpretation of the revelation of God in Scripture. They had read the passage in which Joshua is given the power to command the sun to stand still and concluded that this meant the sun must be moving about the earth. Therefore to deny this truth was to challenge the revelation of God. Today one is hard pressed to find anyone in any church who believes that the interpretation of this passage in Scripture demands that the solar system is geocentric rather than heliocentric. (It is interesting to note that this is not totally true. There are actually several web sites supporting geocentrism and claiming that any other interpretation of Scripture is apostasy. Marshall Hall, for example, sponsors a web site at www.fixedearth.com that complains that the sponsors of Scientific Creationism are heretics for not taking the Bible literally on the question of geocentrism!)
And what was it that eventually convinced the church leaders and members that the sun and not the earth was the center of the solar system? It was, in fact, the evidence provided by continuing free inquiry into the nature of the solar system by the science of astronomy. After sufficient numbers of scientists had watched sufficient numbers of star movements, carefully recording them, it was possible to make predictions using the heliocentric model that were confirmed by later actual events. It is interested to note that while the world of science had concluded by the end of the 17th century that the earth orbited the sun, it was not until the middle of the 19th century that the church officially recognized this fact and not until almost our current century that they had pardoned Galileo and released his books from the ban imposed while he was alive. Ironically, our own LCMS theologian, Franz Pieper, insisted on a geocentric solar system well into the 20th century.5
The power of the concept of evolution
Within the scientific community, the idea that organisms have changed through time and that they have done so as a result, at least to some extent, of the process of natural selection is nearly universally accepted. That was not true one hundred and fifty years ago at the time Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, outlining his arguments in favor of natural selection as the primary force driving the change in organisms through time. The fact that this transformation has occurred is testimony to the broad and pervasive support for the idea of evolution from an enormous variety of data sources including paleontology, geology, anatomy, physiology, embryology, cellular biology, genetics, ecology, and molecular biology. As time has moved forward, more and more data supporting the model has arisen. J. B. S. Haldane once was asked what it would take to disprove the theory of evolution and he responded that finding a rabbit in pre-Cambrian rock would do. The fact is, no such rabbit has ever been found. It is this massive amount of interrelated and corroborating data that is so easily misunderstood because it is so broad that most lay persons fail to grasp the depth of the data.
A scientific model gains credibility, however, when it is demonstrated to be useful in making predictions. Evolution is extremely popular as an idea within science because of its power to predict and to provide an over-arching synthetic framework for understanding life. Theodozius Dobzhansky, one of the past century’s most famous geneticists, once proclaimed, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” The biology of the present day is filled with examples of how evolution gives structure and form to phenomena from biodiversity to the emergence of new bacterial strains resistant to multiple forms of antibiotics. If, for example, we examine one of the newest of the biological sciences, ecology, many of its theoretical models are based on evolutionary foundations. The idea that organisms change through time as they encounter differing environmental conditions is a fundamental premise of evolution and serves as the driving force behind the ecological concepts of succession and community structure.
Eugene Dubois, a Dutch physician, used evolutionary concepts to predict that a transition form between apes and humans would be found in Indonesia. He gave up a lucrative profession to search the wilds of Sumatra and Java for fossils in support of his prediction. He was rewarded when, in 1891, he discovered the skull of what is now thought to be a form of Homo erectus (he originally called it Pithecanthropus erectus) at Trinil in Java. This “Java Man” possessed many of the intermediate characteristics that one would predict to be the case if there were, indeed, evolutionary processes at work giving rise to modern humans from pre-human forms. Other similar finds have now been confirmed from many locations throughout Africa, Europe, and Asia. Not only are the skeletal features similar to what one might predict, the fossils are found in strata that correspond to a time period that would be consistent with what would be expected if changes in organisms occur through time.
The success of the American agricultural system can be attributed in significant ways to the Darwinian prediction that recombination of genetic traits can give rise to different strains of plants and animals that are better suited to take advantage of a particular environment or produce greater amounts of a specific product. Because Soviet block countries failed to adopt this evolutionary concept and instead relied on a less substantiated model (Lamarckianism), their crop yields were significantly reduced over those of the West, a major factor in the unrest that led to the downfall of the Soviet system.
The power of evolution to predict is so powerful that even very conservative creationists will accede to evolutionary change on the earth. In fact, the earth itself seems to be in the process of changing. John Klotz, one of the Missouri Synod’s greatest proponents of the creationist viewpoint, stated in a 1966 essay (“An Evaluation of the Evidence for Evolution”) that “It is obvious that change has taken place in the past and is taking place today. Organisms become extinct; new species develop. I am not suggesting a static world in which the species on our time level have existed unchanged since creation, nor does Scripture teach this.”
Recent discoveries in the field of molecular biology and the new ability to actually determine the sequence of the bases that comprise the genes and provide the genetic code support the idea that organisms are related to each other through descent with modification. Evolution uses the raw material of genetic mutation (changes in the sequence of bases) to provide for the variety of form and structure that allows natural selection to work at all.
The fact of the matter is, given the massive amounts of empirical data available from many different forms of scientific observation, evolutionary theory is the only viable scientific concept that makes sense of all the data.
It is important to note at this point that a common objection provided by lay people to the notion of evolution is the fact that scientists often do not agree on the process by which evolution takes place. Therefore they conclude that if scientists themselves cannot agree, lay persons should certainly not put much credence in such a flimsy theory. This criticism is partially valid. Scientists do not always agree on the process or processes by which evolution occurs. In fact, there are several main processes that may be involved in evolutionary change. This does not infer that the scientists therefore believe that evolution has not occurred, nor does it diminish the power of the evolutionary theory to make predictions. The process of science normally requires that models be subjected to critical testing, and continued questioning is to be expected. The fact that evolutionary theory has been continuously reshaped by 150 years of such testing and has remained essentially intact is a tremendous witness to its power.
The National Science Teachers Association statement on The Teaching of Evolution contains the following quote:
There is no longer a debate among scientists about whether evolution has taken place. There is considerable debate about how evolution has taken place: What are the processes and mechanisms producing change, and what has happened specifically during the history of the universe? Scientists often disagree about their explanations. In any science, disagreements are subject to rules of evaluation. Scientific conclusions are tested by experiment and observation, and evolution, as with any aspect of theoretical science, is continually open to and subject to experimental and observational testing.6
The question then becomes how any institution of higher education could teach science without reference to the theory of evolution and still expect its graduates to be able to perform well in the professional realm of a teacher or scientist. It is clear that evolutionary theory provides such a useful tool for many and widely disparate scientific and technological applications from medicine to agriculture to searching for petroleum resources that a Christian university must teach evolution to its students. To deprive our students of that instruction places them at a distinct disadvantage in attempting to make sense of the world around them.
The scientific theory of evolution cannot diminish the creative power of God
The controversy over the question of origins within the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and how to deal with it in our churches is quite interesting if one examines what is not at stake in the discussion. It is extremely interesting to note that no one has ever brought forth any kind of resolution at any synodical convention at which this issue has been discussed that would suggest God is not the Creator of the universe, the world, and all of life. God is and always has been recognized as the all-powerful Creator by all sides in the conversation. The question that has been the focus of the debate rather is how God accomplished this task. Did God create in a brief period of time or over longer periods of time? Did God create once and then stop creating, or is creation an on-going process that continues to this day? Are secondary forces involved in the creative process or must we assume creation, unlike almost all other activities of God with humans, was carried out entirely by God himself without secondary agents?
Several documents have been received or adopted at various synodical conventions through the years on this topic beginning in 1932 with A Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod: Of Creation and most recently Resolution 2—08A adopted at the 2004 synodical convention. Significant Commission on Theology and Church Relations reports on this topic have been accepted as well, including the 1967 Creation in Biblical Perspective and the 1972 A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles. What is of great significance in this context is the fact that the adoption or receipt of these resolutions was always a contentious matter with significant minorities expressing dissent in each case. Equally significant is the reality that the 1967 CTCR report and the 1972 CTCR report differ from each other in terms of their focus and content. In other words, a shift in political power between 1967 and 1972 caused a flip-flop in which group constituted the majority.
Again, however, none of the losing groups ever attempted to deny the creative power of God. All parties accept this fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith. And that provides a tremendous opportunity for developing unity in the future. Just as Galileo’s model of the universe eventually became acceptable to the church community at large when the data supporting it was widely understood by church leaders, so it is my prediction that this issue, which is so divisive at this point in our history, will become a non-issue some time in the future.
Some hope for this perhaps naïve view comes from our general agreement about another creation text from Scripture, Psalm 139:13-14:
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
The psalmist is here describing the creative activity of God in the formation of an individual human being. Each of us, in fact, is being called into a relationship of wonder and awe at the power of God’s creative activity in making our wonderful bodies.
And yet science has made significant progress in understanding how and egg and a sperm come together to form the one-celled zygote and how that union triggers and avalanche of chemical signals across the egg that results in the zygote beginning the process of development from zygote to adult. We now understand, for example, that calcium ions play a critical part in determining the line along which our body is divided into head end and tail end. We know many of the signals that differentiate left from right, dorsal from ventral. We know that if we apply a certain chemical to the stub of a developing limb a second set of fingers will be produced. We know that if certain genes are mutated, the heart develops a hole between its chambers that does not close at birth as it should. In other words, science is making rapid progress in understanding the forces that allow the body to become knit together in our mother’s womb.
When the psalmist says “you knit me together in my mother’s womb,” is he demanding that we believe God actually uses a pair of knitting needles to create each of us? Obviously not. Instead the psalmist is recognizing God as the primary mover who is acting through totally natural processes to create each and every human life.
So what is the effect of this scientific knowledge on our understanding of God’s creative power and might? I would contend that, if anything, it strengthens our appreciation of God’s creative power. As the psalmist declares, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” In over three decades of studying the natural processes that allow life to exist I never ceased to be amazed and marvel at the creative power of God.
If this is true in the creation of an individual from egg and sperm, why should it be any different as we seek to understand the creation of all life on earth? When we read in Genesis 1:27 “So God created man in his own image,” what does that actually tell us about the manner in which God accomplished his creation? It, in fact, tells us nothing about the how of creation. That, I would contend, is exactly what the role of science is as a gift from God: the ability to explore the how of creation.
Taken within this context, the teaching of the theories of evolution within the Christian university does not and, in fact, cannot diminish or undermine the creative power of God. As scientific processes, they cannot comment on the supernatural or primary agency involved in the process. I would contend, on the other hand, that evolutionary processes point to a wonderfully innovative God who had the foresight to understand that in order for the earth to contain living creatures it would need to be a dynamic and not static environment. And if the environment changed, organisms would need to be able to change with it in order to make use of the resources that were available. How much wiser is this God than the god of the fixed-species creationists who contend that species are static and organisms have not changed significantly through time?
I would do a disservice to the world of science if I completed this discussion without reiterating a point that was inferred earlier. There is reason to be concerned about the teaching of evolutionary theory without a clear understanding of the limitations of science. There are, in fact, quite a few scientists who transgress this boundary by making the ill-advised and illogical leap from evolutionary theory to the conclusion that natural forces are all that exist. As Christians, of course, this is totally unacceptable. But more importantly for purposes of this discussion, it is also unacceptable scientifically. Critics are correct when they conclude that this type of atheistic evolution is a belief system that requires as much or more faith as to believe in an omnipotent Creator God.
On the other hand, we also have something to fear from those who would distort science and data to suit their preconceived notions of what must be based on their interpretations of Scripture. We have a most unfortunate history of this within the Missouri Synod that continues to this day. Many have the belief that they must believe in a young earth, for example, to be true to the belief systems of the LCMS. This is actually a false statement. The LCMS has no official position on the age of the earth, a wise decision by church leaders through the years to steer clear of this contentious point. Scriptures simply do not address this issue. Yet our own LCMS President, Dr. Gerald Kieschnick, felt it so important to address this issue that he claimed in his inaugural address of 2001 to believe that the earth is 6000 to 10,000 years old. This is an unfortunate statement, I believe, and quite interesting in light of the fact that a display cabinet in the entrance to the new Beto Science Center on the Concordia University, Austin, Texas (Kieschnick’s home state) contains the remains of a mammoth that roamed Texas some 28,000 years ago.
The evidence that the world is much older than 6,000 to 10,000 years is so overwhelming that even young-earth creationists such as Wilbert Rusch Sr. of Concordia College, Ann Arbor, Michigan thought the world to be at least 100,000 to 150,000 years old (Personal communication). It is obvious that some are not willing to allow science to do its job and use that information to inform their world view.
It is also my opinion that much of the motivation behind the belief in a young earth or the attacks upon evolutionary theory is based on fear: fear that God is being displaced by science and that if we allow science to function unfettered it will lead some away from the faith. As I mentioned above, parts of this fear are realistic if we misunderstand and fail to communicate the true limitations of science. On the other hand, it is my contention that science is a gift from God in the first place and, properly utilized, will bring glory and honor to the Creator who has made us and continues to support us.
One of the glories of the Lutheran view of faith is that God interacts with humans primarily through the redemptive act of his Son, Jesus Christ. It is He who is identified as the true manifestation of the Word. He comes to us not with a series of laws we must obey but rather with unconditional, perfect love that frees us to respond with joy to His call to us to become family members with Him. That perfect love, as John says, “casts out fear.” There is nothing in the revelation of God in nature that can destroy that faith relationship with Christ. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). Whether organisms have changed through time, or how they might have done so, is not relevant to our relationship with God. God does not change. We can, because of this fact, freely explore all of nature without fear.
What, then, is the proper approach to the teaching of a subject as rife with potential conflict as evolution? Should controversial subjects be taught at all within the curriculum of a Lutheran university? If so, what safeguards must be put into place to avoid the potential for leading students astray?
The following points are offered in an attempt to provide answers to the questions raised above and offer the necessary safeguards to prevent abuse.
(1) As Christians, we are not called to a world of black-and-white but rather to an arena in which our faith is to guide the difficult choices we often must make. We live in two kingdoms simultaneously, according to Luther: the civil kingdom endowed with its authority from God and the spiritual kingdom comprised of the communion of saints. God does not ask us to avoid the world, just not to be overtaken by worldly philosophies. We are to retain our dual citizenship for as long as we inhabit the earth. Therefore it is important, as citizens of both kingdoms, that we become educated and wise both in the knowledge of the world and the knowledge of the spirit. Evolutionary theory is a very powerful concept that has shaped many aspects of the temporal world. As such, it should be studies and understood to the best of our ability.
(2) At the same time, it should be recognized that many students have been raised in a tradition that calls into question the validity of evolutionary models and equates the study of evolution with the support of evolutionism (the notion that God is precluded from the origins of the universe, the world, and life). Some, on the other hand, have been raised in an environment in which no thought is given to an ultimate source of power behind the formation and sustenance of the universe and all life. Often these individuals are searching for spiritual foundations. Clearly the Christian teacher must be sensitive to both groups of students and not “quench the smoldering wick” (Matthew 12:20), but rather provide the student with the necessary context in order to differentiate between the study of the science and the leap to metaphysical implications. At the same time the Christian faculty member is called upon to witness to his or her own faith in the creative power of God. This must be done, as always, with care for the soul of the student and with the great humility that is rightfully attendant to our human condition.
(3) The study of controversial issues in general is often one of the more effective tools to get students excited about a field of study. If used properly, “discrepant event” teaching is widely accepted as effective methodology. This methodology has potential for abuse if it is confused with sensationalism (the discussion of a difficult of controversial topic simply to be sensational) or if it is undertaken in a developmentally inappropriate format. Students at 18 years of age may be quite different developmentally from 30 year old adults. The teaching of evolutionary theory in a sensitive yet engaging manner has the potential to engage students in wrestling with essential concepts of the relationship between faith and science, as well as the inherent limitations and strengths of science and theology.
(4) There are two diametrically opposed abuses concerning the teaching of evolution that must be avoided. The first is the claim that evolution precludes the necessity of God’s hand in creation. The second is the use of incomplete data, half truths, or deceptions in the presentation and interpretation of empirical data, whether in support of creationism or various evolutionary theories. Honesty and integrity are standards that the Christian faculty member must not compromise. God is truth. If we are followers of God, we can settle for no less.
Evolution is not only a topic that is interesting from an historical perspective, it is one that is important for anyone wishing to wrestle with the intersection of faith and science. What better place to teach evolutionary concepts than within the conceptual framework of a Christian university? There the issues raised may be discussed openly and frankly without fear of either loss of faith or loss of scientific credibility. The proper teaching of evolution exemplifies the best of the Christian university: the honest pursuit of knowledge, understandings, and wisdom in the freedom of the Gospel.
1. The liberal arts of Luther’s time included grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. At the time, astronomy was the only highly developed science. Physics, chemistry, geology, and biology were added later to the sciences included in the liberal arts.
2. Martin Luther, “To the Councilmen of all Cities in Germany that they Establish and Maintain Christian Schools,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 45, Helmut T. Lehmann, ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1962), p. 356.
3. Martin Luther, A Sermon on Keeping Children in School, Vol. 46, Helmut T. Lehmann, ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), p. 217.
4. John S. Reist, “The Knife That Cuts Better Than Another: Luther and Liberal Arts Education,” Perspectives in Religious Studies: Journal of the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion, Vol. 21, No. 2 (summer 1994), p 93ff.
5. Franz Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, trans. Theodore Engelder et al. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950), 1:473. For additional LCMS materials along this line, see the essay in this journal by my former colleague, Dr. Matthew Becker.