Righting America

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Respectful Discussion | Righting America

by Terry Defoe

The Ptolemaic and Copernican Models of orbit in Earth's solar system.
Ptolemaic and Copernican Models of orbit. Image via tofspot.blogspot.com.

Pastor Terry Defoe is an emeritus member of the clergy who served congregations in Western Canada from 1982 to 2016, and who ministered to students on the campuses of the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University. He is the author of Evolving Certainties: Resolving Conflict at the Intersection of Faith and Science, a book which, among other things, chronicles his transition from Young Earth Creationism to evolutionary creation. Evolving Certainties is endorsed by scientists in biology, geology and physics, with a foreword written by Darrel Falk, former president of BioLogos, an organization that has as its goal the facilitating of respectful discussion of science / faith issues. Defoe has been educated at: Simon Fraser University (BA Soc); Lutheran Theological Seminary, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (M.Div.); and, Open Learning University, Burnaby, British Columbia (BA Psyc).

Disturbing the Peace

In the sixteenth century, the Christian church experienced serious conflict over issues of Biblical interpretation. Martin Luther rejected a system of doctrine that, in his opinion, allowed unscriptural teachings to contradict and obscure the gospel. Luther’s desire was that these issues be discussed without fear of retribution. 

That did not happen. Since then, contentious issues have multiplied. This post deals with scientific discoveries that continue to challenge traditional interpretations of the Bible’s creation accounts. 

A little historical context may be helpful. Around 1514, a Catholic priest by the name of Nicolaus Copernicus proposed the radically counter-intuitive idea that the earth orbits the sun, not vice versa. After considering an idea which seemed to contradict the plain reading of scripture, which said that the earth does not move (in keeping with the sun’s passage across the sky each day), the Church came to acknowledge this cosmological reality. 

For the last 150 years, the theory of evolution has been an even greater challenge to orthodoxy. The findings of evolutionary biology do not align well with a traditional interpretation of the Genesis creation accounts. To many, scientific concordism, the argument that the Bible’s statements about the natural realm are always accurate, fails as a defense against those who argue that the “science” in the Bible is, in fact, that of Iron Age Semites, and bears little resemblance to a modern understanding of the natural realm.

A growing number of evangelicals seek re-engagement with mainstream science, convinced that Christians can take mainstream science seriously while upholding historic Christian doctrines such as the incarnation, the substitutionary death of Christ, and his resurrection from the dead. These individuals assert, for example, that mainstream science can make a positive contribution to the Church’s understanding of scripture’s creation accounts. A great deal was at stake 500 years ago as the church grappled with heliocentrism. Issues related to the biological sciences and the theory of evolution, with even more serious implications for evangelicalism, are generating a great deal of less-than-respectful discussion today. 

The Power of the Paradigm 

All of us have mental filters – paradigms – that organize and interpret the constant stream of data that comes our way. To a surprising extent, these mental filters determine what we can or cannot perceive. In his influential book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn defines a paradigm as 

universally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions for a community of practitioners. Paradigms define or suggest problems to investigate; they rule out others, they light the way, simultaneously restricting and enhancing the view.

A paradigm shift can be compared to installing a new operating system on a computer. An individual’s understanding shifts from “It can’t be so,” to “That’s the way it is!” Physicist Tom McLeish compares the process to a light being switched on. Things suddenly makes sense. A paradigm shift is often preceded by what Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger called cognitive dissonance — mental discomfort caused by holding two or more contradictory beliefs simultaneously, or encountering new information that conflicts with existing beliefs. In order to reduce that dissonance, individuals seek mental consistency, which may lead them to reject valid information. 

Many evangelicals are surprised to discover that, for the majority of Christians worldwide, including mainline Protestants as well as the Roman Catholic Church, mainstream science and faith are compatible. Ambrose of Milan (337-397 A.D.) once said that all truth, regardless of its source, comes from the Holy Spirit. Benjamin Warfield, evangelical champion of biblical inerrancy, once said: 

We must not, then, as Christians, assume an attitude of antagonism toward the truths of reason, or the truths of philosophy, or the truths of science, or the truths of history, or the truths of criticism. As children of light, we must be careful to keep ourselves open to every ray of light. Let us then cultivate an attitude of courage over against the investigations of the day. None should be more zealous in them then we. None should be more quick to discern the truth in every field, or hospitable to receive it, or loyal to follow it, whithersoever it leads. (In Fugle, Laying Down Arms to Heal the Creation-Evolution Divide, 62),


Theologian John Schneider claims that evangelical Protestantism is on “the brink of crisis” with regard to evolutionary theory. What Schneider portrays as a serious problem, paradoxically, could also be seen as an opportunity. Evangelicals are called upon to clarify which aspects of their faith are non-negotiable and which may be appropriately updated. When seen in the context of the broad sweep of church history, the theological enterprise has always been a work in progress. As Nathan Hale observes:

I’m not attempting to cast doubt on the authority of scripture; it is simply a plea to better understand the complexity and richness of the text. The Bible is a complex library of history, law, poetry, wisdom, Gospels, epistles, and apocalyptic literature. But it was written in a time, place, culture, and language that is not ours.

A key evangelical doctrine is inerrancy, the view that the Bible, in its original manuscripts, is without error of any kind. That foundational doctrine is being revisited. Christian biologist Gary Fugle says in Laying Down Arms to Heal the Creation-Evolution Divide

For most evangelicals, the concept of inerrancy is supported by a modern scientific understanding of the world applied to the scriptures. But in light of modern science, some assertions in the scriptures are inaccurate (233).

David Dockery offers these preliminary thoughts as to the kinds of concerns being raised — 

The Bible, properly interpreted in the light of the culture and communication developed by the time of its composition, will be shown to be completely true… in all that it affirms, to the degree of precision intended by the author, in all matters pertaining to God and his creation. (As quoted in Walton and Sandy, The Lost World of Scripture, 275).

Just before paradigms are abandoned, new facts no longer fit old frameworks. Pesky anomalies accumulate and refuse to be dismissed. A major paradigm shift has been compared to rebuilding a ship while it is still floating on the water. The notion of a paradigm shift is at the heart of the scientific enterprise. It is what scientists win Nobel prizes for. Major paradigm shifts have occurred with regularity since the sixteenth century advent of the scientific revolution — Copernicus and heliocentrism, Darwin and evolution, Wegener and plate tectonics, Einstein and relativity. 

A requirement to modify one’s views when presented with better data is one of the hallmarks of the scientific method. Scientific methodology has a built-in accountability system that strongly discourages scientists from clinging to a discredited theory. A paradigm shift has been compared to snow melting on a metal roof. All of a sudden, without warning, the snow slides off and hits the ground with a thud.  

Splendid Isolation

In self-referential cultures, everything makes sense as long as individuals remain within their cultural boundaries. Out-of-the-box thinking makes group members nervous. Psychologist John Jost of New York University describes partisans (religious or political), those whose primary motivation is defending the status quo, as system justifiers. In the scientific world, challenges to a conventional view are to be expected, but in evangelicalism, challenges to theological norms are typically viewed with suspicion. Many evangelical denominations practice what is known as confessional subscription, a public affirmation of confessional statements typically formulated during the Reformation in the sixteenth century. 

In practice, confessional subscription means that denominational leaders, educational facilities, and clergy affirm and teach a fixed body of doctrines and articles of faith. Those confessions were designed to protect a theological heritage, an admirable goal. Paradoxically, the same confessional safeguards which guarded evangelical faith in years past may hinder the enrichment of that same faith today. John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy put it this way in The Lost World of Scripture: “… the foundations of our fortresses are nearly immovable. But we need to make our best efforts to reconsider the evidence and the possibilities.” 

It’s not surprising that administrators and board members of evangelical denominations, as well as educators in evangelical colleges and seminaries, are suspicious of change; it is, as it were, in their theological DNA. They look askance at what they perceive as unnecessary changes to long-standing doctrines and teachings. It’s not difficult to understand why Christian leaders would resist changes that, in their opinion, would adversely affect basic doctrines and, in addition, cause confusion among the people in the pews.

Confessional subscription may lead church administrators and educators to believe there is no need for any revisiting – let alone revision – of their creation-related doctrines. Scientists, on the other hand, are trained to follow the truth wherever it leads. When the evidence piles up and becomes overwhelming, they know that they must adjust (or replace!) their old model and move on. 

In this regard evangelicals need safe places where contentious issues can be discussed respectfully. They too often lack an open and collegial atmosphere where dialogue replaces debate. Without these things, genuine rapprochement is unlikely. Groups of all kinds are vulnerable to a psychological phenomenon called groupthink, where the desire for group harmony overrides good decision-making. Groupthink encourages individuals to suppress their own views on the subject at hand so as to support each other and minimize conflict. An artificial consensus is achieved. Alternative viewpoints are not critically evaluated. An all-too-human failing is to allow ourselves to be lulled to sleep under the comfortable quilt of group conformity rather than courageously facing uncomfortable truths. 

I distinctly remember the metal ring-puzzles I used to play with as a child. It didn’t take long to realize there was only one way to correctly align the rings. But experience also taught, as I experimented a little, that I could cheat. I could force the rings to fit. But my conscience stepped in to remind me that I hadn’t found the correct solution should I do that. Christians who steadfastly refuse to allow mainstream science to speak to their faith find themselves forcing scripture’s statements about the natural realm to fit with its spiritual truths. In so doing, they are missing an important opportunity to improve the accuracy of their Bible interpretation. 

So what does mainstream science want? A rethinking of the early chapters of Genesis would be helpful – a willingness to view the text figuratively rather than literalistically. That’s it. 

Christians who avoid mainstream science, or unfairly criticize it, are missing a great opportunity to build a bridge of understanding to the wider secular society, especially its younger cohort. The majority of Christians who have adopted an evolutionary viewpoint indicate that the change resulted in a significant enrichment of their faith. Protecting and defending the authority of scripture need not be accomplished by rejecting mainstream science. 

One Sunday, on the advice of friends, a geology student attended worship in a church he had never visited before. The pastor’s sermon strongly criticized the theory of evolution, not on the basis of the scientific evidence, but under the presupposition that should science and faith disagree, science must be in the wrong. 

An opportunity for dialogue was missed that day. Nothing really changed. And nothing will, unless respectful conversations are encouraged and individuals are willing to let down their guard and enter an ongoing process of dialogue. Christian leaders are duty-bound to speak the truth and to do that in love (Ephesians 4:15). They are required to deal with others with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). Respectful conversation is a critically important factor in resolving conflict at the intersection of faith and science.