Friday, August 5, 2016

Prof.van Bruggen on Creation and Evolution

How should Christians deal with evolution? 

Last year Lux Mundi published an article by Prof. Dr. Jakob van Bruggen, entitled "The Blind Man Sat by the Road and Cried: about seeing and not seeing." His prime goal is to help students handle questions about creation and evolution (Lux Mundi, March 2015, 4-7).

Lux Mundi is an English quarterly published by the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (Vrijgemaakt); Prof. van Bruggen is Professor Emeritus of the Theological University of the GKN(V) in Kampen, the Netherlands.

Prof. van Bruggen argues that scientific research should be constrained by ethical considerations.  We should be virtuous observers: we should be careful how we look, and what we look at. Further, he notes that we can see less than half of reality. We can't, for example, see the invisible world of angels. Hence we should also be modest observers. 

These are certainly valid points.

But how should we resolve the tension between creation and evolution? (By evolution, we are here referring to large-scale macro-evolution, not to non-controversial micro-evolution.)

Prof. van Bruggen discusses, and dismisses, three possible escape routes:

1. The Bible and science deal with different topics. This escape route is illusionary because the Bible and science are concerned about the exact same created world.

2. Science comes before the Bible. Here science trims the Bible down, rejecting that which contradicts science. This escape is rejected since it makes the Bible subservient to human insight.

3. The Bible comes before science. Here one tries to fit scientific observations into the structure of the Biblical revelation about creation, flood, etc. Prof. van Bruggen deems this escape to be "a dead end, because the Bible is far too limited and incidental to use as a scientific handbook."

Instead, Prof. van Bruggen advises that we should not seek an escape. Rather, we should remember that science is tentative and incomplete (e.g., no one knows the effects of angels and demons). Prof. van Bruggen suggests that all scientific conclusions should be accompanied with the disclaimer "As far as we can see now, with the incomplete information at our disposal, we come to the following preliminary conclusions."

Moreover, according to Prof. van Bruggen, a theory of evolution may provide useful computational models for exploratory drilling, or for organizing fossils, without having to be deemed historically accurate.


What are we to make of this?

Prof. van Bruggen makes a number of excellent points regarding the limits of science. In particular, he is to be commended for rejecting the "science before Bible" approach. Here he differs from Dr. Albert Noordegraaf, who in a more recent article "Creation" (Lux Mundi, May 2016, 18-19), avoids conflict with science by taking this escape route, thereby reducing Genesis 1 to a mere artistic poem.

1. Evolution as a useful computational model?
Nevertheless, Prof. van Bruggen's view of scientific theories as merely useful calculating devices seems to be a form of the first escape, where science (e.g., evolution) is concerned only with practical results, whereas the Bible (e.g., creation, flood) deals with history.

Such an instrumentalist view of evolution will not satisfy many people. Certainly not atheists, for whom evolution provides a necessary historical account of how things came to be without need of divine intervention. Mainstream science textbooks--and secular media--invariably present evolution as true history.

Moreover, it is doubtful whether macro-evolution yields much in the way of useful application. Most biologists do their work without referring to macro-evolution, which provides no substantial guidance for experimental biology (see my post Is Evolution Unfalsified?).

2. Evolution as tentative truth?
Prof. van Bruggen suggests we accept scientific conclusions, including evolution, as tentative, preliminary results. He notes that it is based on incomplete information and limited to natural causes. 

There is, however, a deeper problem. The science that he discusses is mainstream science, which is committed to explaining everything in purely natural terms. This entails rejecting not only supernatural causes, but also the supernatural revelation that we have in the Bible. Given the anti-supernatural bias of mainstream science, why should Christians accept its evolutionary account of history as truth, however tentative? 

3. No Bible-based historical science?
Not all scientists agree with the evolutionary theories of mainstream science. It has been shown that the observational data can be interpreted in ways that are consistent with Biblical history. Shouldn't Christians then promote their own science, based on Biblical truths? 

Prof. van Bruggen rejects the notion that the Bible should guide science. He deems the Bible to be too limited to function as a "scientific handbook". 

Although the Bible clearly does not tell us much about practical science, the issue of creation versus evolution is primarily a question of history rather than of science. At stake is which description of the past is correct. Clearly, the Bible is very much concerned with historical matters. History is, after all, the unfolding of the Divine Plan, centered on the historical reality of creation-fall-redemption-renewal. Indeed, history makes sense only in the light of the Bible.

As a finite book, the Bible's description of the past is necessarily incomplete. But that is no reason to doubt what it says. Historical and scientific data are always incomplete. 

Since scientific theories are constructed to explain the data, theories are always trumped by reliable data, however incomplete that data may be. Scientific reconstructions of the past should thus conform to reliable historical records of past events.

The Bible, as God's inerrant word, is surely authoritative on all that it speaks, which encompasses many historical events. Hence, Christians should base their history--and historical science-- on those historical truths revealed in God's Word.  

As a matter of consistency, Christians cannot accept the revealed truths of the Bible (e.g., creation, Adam, Flood, etc.), and at the same time also accept, however tentatively, evolutionary theory that rejects such notions (see my post Dr. Jelsma proposes Adam AND Evolution).

Hence, although I hold Prof. van Bruggen in high regard, I am disappointed that he did not adopt a firmer stance for Biblical truth, and against evolution. Christian university students need to be well-equipped to defend their Christian worldview against worldly attacks. 

In sum, Christians should be not only virtuous and modest observers, as Prof. van Bruggen rightly stresses, but they should also be observers who profess that reality can be truly seen only in the light of Scripture. "In thy light shall we see light" (Psalm 36:9).

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