Monday, 21 October 2013

Why Wrested Scriptures is wrong on evolution - Part 1

Ron Abel’s classic book Wrested Scriptures, which looks at parts of the Bible that are often used as proof texts for mainstream theological doctrines such as the Trinity, a supernatural devil and the immortality of the soul has considerable currency in our community. In addition to providing a Christadelphian explanation of these verses, it also strays outside its theological remit and attempts a rebuttal of radiometric dating and evolution. Its attempted rebuttal of these subjects suffers from an uncritical reliance on special creationist material and a flawed understanding of the subject it attempts to criticise. Unfortunately, even though it was written over 40 years ago, and is therefore utterly dated in its attacks on evolution, these attacks still enjoy currency in our community. A detailed critique of the anti-evolutionary arguments of Wrested Scriptures is long overdue.

Over the next few posts, I will take apart the anti-evolution arguments. In so doing, I will be mirroring the section titles of the book.

Abel begins by immediately linking the decline in belief in Biblical inspiration with an acceptance of evolution, and cites the YEC Henry Morris, one of the authors of The Genesis Flood which, given Morris’ poor reputation in the scientific community did not bode well for the rigour of Abels’ arguments.[1] Abel’s attempt to blame evolution for a loss of faith is flat out wrong, as up until the first quarter of the 20th century, theologically conservative Christians had no problem with reconciling evolution and a high view of Scripture. Historian of science David Livingstone observes:

Darwin’s cause in America was championed by the thoroughgoing Congregationalist evangelical Asa Gray, who set himself the task of making sure that Darwin would have “fair play” in the New World. Let us be clear right away that this cannot be dismissed as capitulation to the social pressure of academic peers. To the contrary, Gray had to take on one of the most influential naturalists in America at the time to maintain his viewpoint – none other than Louis Agassiz, a Harvard colleague who vitriolically scorned Darwin’s theory. But Gray was not alone. Many of his countrymen, associates in science and brothers in religion took the same stand. And indeed even those who ultimately remained unimpressed with if not hostile to Darwin were quite prepared to admit that evolution had occurred. It is surely not without significance that Christian botanists, geologists, and biologists – that is to say, those best placed to see with clarity the substance of what Darwin had proposed – believed the evidence supported an evolutionary natural history.[2]

In fact, some of the original authors of The Fundamentals, a collection of books written during the early 20th century to defend orthodox Protestant belief from which the term Fundamentalism is derived, accepted evolution. B.B. Warfield argued that belief in evolution and conservative Christianity were not mutually exclusive, observed that evolution undercut racialist views on polygenism[3] and stated that

“I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either as given in Genesis 1 and 2 or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution.”[4]

James Orr was even more explicit in his support of evolution. Historian Michael Keas, in a 2010 essay on the role R.A. Torrey played in the relationship between evangelicalism and Darwinism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries notes: 

In his “Science and Christian Faith” essay, Orr also proposed a resolution to the apparent conflict between biological evolution and the Bible. Significant evidence points to “some form of evolutionary origin of species—that is some genetic connection of higher with lower forms,” but he thought that this change was limited (without specifying how limited). 102 He also argued that God directs the mechanisms of evolution toward purposeful ends. “Evolution,” he concludes, “is coming to be recognized as but a new name for ‘creation’ …”[5]

It is simply wrong to claim that acceptance of evolution is directly correlated to a rejection of belief in an inspired Bible. The fact that Warfield, a theological conservative whose work on inspiration is still influential today saw no essential problem with evolution alone shows the fallacious nature of Abel’s assertion.

After beginning with this demonstrably false claim, Abel attempted to reassure the reader that his or her lack of specialist knowledge would not disqualify them from attempting a definitive rebuttal of evolution:

Many Christians feel an uneasiness about tackling an evolutionist on his own ground. There is usually good reason for this, since one may lack familiarity with the specialized language and data of a particular area of science…Amateur though he may be, there is no monopoly on logic. Every believer should equip himself with sufficient knowledge to clearly formulate the kind of evidence which would be required to reasonably support evolution. Any evidence which may be raised (even if previously unknown) may then be considered in discussion on evolution to avoid the wrangling which can occur over insignificant or even irrelevant considerations. The ground can then be cleared for constructive Biblical teaching to follow.[6]

While a lack of formal scientific education does not disqualify someone from understanding evolutionary biology, or even contributing to the discipline, it is something else altogether for a layperson to think that he is in a position to overturn evolutionary biology if he has not studied or worked in the field. Evolutionary biologist T.R. Gregory points out that:

Over the past 150 years, [Darwin’s initial list of evidence] has been supplemented by countless observations in paleontology, comparative anatomy, developmental biology, molecular biology, and (most recently) comparative genomics, and through direct observations of evolutionary change in both natural and experimental populations. Each of thousands of peer-reviewed articles published every year in scientific journals provides further confirmation (though, as Futuyma notes, no biologist today would think of publishing a paper on new evidence for evolution... it simply hasnt been an issue in scientific circles for more than a century). Conversely, no reliable observation has ever been found to contradict the general notion of common descent. It should come as no surprise, then, that the scientific community at large has accepted evolutionary descent as a historical reality since Darwins time and considers it among the most reliably established and fundamentally important facts in all of science. [7]

The folly of Abel’s argument can be readily seen if we replace ‘evolution’ with atomic theory, the germ theory of disease, heliocentrism or any other well-attested scientific theory. Any Christadelphian who had no professional background in those areas would be laughed to scorn if they announced that microbial organisms did not cause disease, the universe revolved around the earth or atoms were mythical. Yet, we do not think it equally risible when a biologically illiterate Christadelphian proudly announces that evolution is false based on nothing more than ‘logic’ and a cursory examination of a popular distillation of the evidence. As Gregory states, evolution is one of the best-attested facts in science, one which is held by the overwhelming majority of professional biologists[8] This is not an appeal to authority, but rather pointing out that if over 99% of professional biologists have examined the evidence in detail (as one would expect given their education and profession) and have concluded that it supports evolution, it is ridiculous to blame the acceptance of evolution on some atheistic conspiracy, particularly given that many of Darwin’s earliest and most ardent supporters were theologically conservative Christians.

What is particularly disturbing about the approach advocated in Wrested Scriptures is the immediate polarising of the discussion created by linking evolution and a decline in Christian belief. By making Christianity and evolution mutually exclusive, this approach is guaranteed to create ex-believers when they examine the evidence for evolution and find it compelling. This alone is reason enough for a takedown of the attempted dismissal of evolution in Wrested Scriptures.

[1] Old Earth Creationist Alan Hayward warned against the growing influence of Henry Morris and John Whitcomb – authors of The Genesis Flood – over 35 years ago. See Hayward A “Flood Geology: A Note of Caution” The Christadelphian (1977) 114:268
[2] Livingstone D.N. “Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders” (Eerdmans 1984) p xi-xii 
[3] Warfield B.B. “On The Antiquity and the Unity of the Human Race” Princeton Theological Review (1911) 9:1-25
[4] Cited in Alexander, D (2002) Rebuilding the Matrix: Science and faith in the 21st Century. p. 177.
[5] Keas M “Darwinism,Fundamentalism, and R.A. TorreyPerspectives on Science and Christian Faith (2010) p 37
[6] Abel R “Wrested Scriptures” Evolution: Preliminary Points
[7] Gregory T.R. “Evolution asFact, Theory and PathEvo Edu Outreach (2008) 1:46-52
[8] Well over 99% of professional working biologists accept common descent and large scale evolutionary change. See