Podcast: Dennis Venema & Michael Peterson | Intellect in the Service of Christ

Before we can understand the interactions of science, religion, philosophy we must first know what each is. In their new book, Biology, Religion and Philosophy: An Introduction , our guests Dennis Venema—an evolutionary biologist—and Michael Peterson—a philosopher—work to define these disciplines before diving into the ways in which they inform each other, support each other, and ultimately help us to understand the world we live in and to better know God, the creator and sustainer of all things.


A good discussion. I loved this from Michael Peterson, in relation to the problem of evil:

I love this. One of my convictions as a former agnostic was that the created order is amazing and good, despite pain, suffering and death being an essential aspect of it. (This is what led me to be a scientist, an environmentalist, a hunter, and to reject veganism, Buddhism and other world-hating philosophies.) It’s helpful as a new Christian to have it confirmed that that fits with at least some streams of Christian theology.


World-hating philosophies eh? It’s amazing what we bring the party, the lenses through which we see.

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Dennis replied to the question “Is DNA a code?” with a clear “no.” Perhaps he could explain the meaning of the BioLogos [Collins] common phrase about DNA being the “language of God.” Isn’t language based on code? When the code of the infamous Enigma machine of the Nazis was determined, its language became decipherable. Maybe he could elaborate on the aim of genomics and why Francis Collins came to believe he was reading the “language of God” when the human genome was mapped out.

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Perhaps that came out uncharitable? I apologize. And odd? Maybe I can better illustrate with quotes rather than my own words.

Here’s Zen poet Gary Snyder, in an essay that begins with discussing the Buddhist precept of non-harming of sentient beings: “There is no death that is not somebody’s food, no life that is not somebody’s death. Some would take this as a sign that the universe is fundamentally flawed. This leads to disgust with self, with humanity, and with nature. Otherworldly philosophies end up doing more damage to the planet (and human psyches) than the pain and suffering that is in the existential conditions they seek to transcend.”

(The “otherwordly philosophies” he’s criticising surely include most versions of Buddhism and other Indian religions, with their assertions that everything in the world, including cycles of life and death - samsara - is unsatisfactory - duḥkha - and perhaps even unreal, and ought to be transcended - nirvana.)

Here’s secular philosopher J. Claude Evans criticizing another secular philosopher (Paul Taylor) while making a very similar point: “All life, whatever form, exists and continues to exist only because it appropriates energy in one form or another from its environment. Life is appropriation. Any ethical theory that does not recognize and affirm this fundamental fact is not a serious candidate for an environmental ethic…” (emphasis in original)

Here’s another philosopher vs philosopher complaint (Val Plumwood vs Carol Adams): “the refusal to allow anything morally considerable to be ontologised as edible or useful results in a deep rejection of ecological embodiment for those beings, since all ecologically embodied beings are food for some other beings.” And elsewhere, “an ontological vegetarian is committed to a rejection of the ecological world.”

As a baby Christian I’m still coming to grips with the problem of evil, but I am inclined maintain the view I formed as agnostic, that the world is in fact very good, and that that goodness is achieved through processes that nevertheless are bad for certain individuals involved.


In biochemistry when referring to a specific the genetic sequence for (an amino acid or protein) is it incorrect to speak of, say, “genes that code for the human growth hormone”?

“[Decoding the human genome sequence] is the most significant undertaking that we have mounted so far in an organized way in all of science. I believe that reading our blueprints, cataloguing our own instruction book, will be judged by history as more significant than even splitting the atom or going to the moon.”

–Francis Collins


The ‘like’ is for your robust and well mannered response. I’m extremely dubious of what appear to be speciously sophisticated straw men with obvious non sequiturs in the first and third cases.


Code is just metaphor.

BioLogos’ take on and in the authors and hopefully not the text, which since its publication in April has no reviews, which isn’t surprising for an undergraduate text I suppose, appears to be one of intellect built on faith. Which compromises both.

I want to believe. Part of me still does. I want to be in Christ’s service, i.e. be a decent, kind, patient, generous, self-sacrificial, pacific, eusocial human being, whether He’s real or not, in the face of material reality in biology - evolution - and philosophy - existentialism: above all in the face of the utter, total supremacy of nature. Experienced with ever increasing loss. I have the story of Christ to thank for that motivation, filtered through millennia of theology; I now have no idea how it can be true, yet want it to be. That is the result of the paradox that the fact of the eternity of nature means that God would have to be decent; eternity makes God a better person. But it also makes Him irrelevant.

You can at least be assured that you have not gone where no man has ever gone before. I have been where you are. But I came back after trying to think like a metaphysical naturalist.

The naturalistic theory of origins says that for billions of years after the unknown and unknowable beginning there was nobody. There was some thing , but it wasn’t some body . As the universe was developing and organizing without order or purpose, nobody knew or observed it. Throughout time and space there was no person, no intelligence, no will, no consciousness, no sensory awareness, no knowledge, no thought, no reason, no word—nowhere! For millions of eons something was here, but no conscious mind was aware that something was here. There was no purpose or intent, yet without anybody or anything here to direct it, this something followed an orderly progression from a simplicity that’s never been observed to a complexity we can’t understand.

Naturalism gives credit to a big, unimaginable “explosion” that caused immateriality to take on materiality. Purposelessness then created a cosmos. Chaos organized itself. Unconsciousness awoke. Deadness begot life. Asexuality engendered sexuality. No one became someone. Impersonality gained personhood. Irrationality became rational. Non-entity became a self. And this material self functioned for millions of years according to the principle of self-preservation to evolve into a being who, oddly, could even purposely will to give up his life for the belief that every body and every thing have a spiritual (super-cosmic/super-natural) cause, purpose, and destiny. So godlessness created God. And because of that belief, amorality produced morality, which in turn developed into complex moral and ethical systems based on apparently irrational beliefs about deity, spirituality, goodness, love, and immortality.

Summary: For all but the last tiny eon of existence, nothing had knowledge of anything else; yet something lifeless and unconscious cooperated with something else lifeless and unconscious to bring into existence the living, knowing, conscious, intelligent, rational creature called man who survives by deliberate cooperative relationships. This accidental—and oddly naked—ape communicating in symbols invented language and made poetry. The uncreated thing created music and art, and its evolved and embarrassingly illogical emotions cause it to weep in wonder over the stunning beauty, grandeur, and mathematical perfection of its apparent purposeless and meaningless environment.

This reasoning, decision-making, sensory somebody who came into existence by the will of nobody can yet will to love or hate, kill or allow itself to be killed, and even develop the capacity to senselessly alter or destroy the natural systems that created it—threatening to send everything back into unconsciousness.

So according to naturalism, man is nothing but a cosmic orphan overwhelmed by the knowledge that he has no ultimate purpose and no ultimate hope. Shakespeare’s Macbeth articulated it well:

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

A contrary poetic refrain comes from Sheldon Vanauken, in his book “A Severe Mercy: A Story of Faith, Tragedy and Triumph:”

Between the probable and proved there yawns
A gap. Afraid to jump, we stand absurd,
Then see behind us sink the ground and, worse,
Our very standpoint crumbling. Desperate dawns
Our only hope: to leap into the Word
That opens up the shuttered universe.

To me the wonder of the universe is so great and the naturalistic worldview is so unthinkable, I can only declare along with that ancient poet, David, who said:

"The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world "(Psalm 19).

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The universe is full of sapience and eternity is fuller of universes, regardless of whether God is the ground of being or not. I haven’t encountered an evangelical mind that acknowledges that prime truth yet. There is no need for Him to be; He explains nothing that His absence doesn’t and necessitates infinitely more complexity. Incarnation is the only warrant for Him. And for our Earth local incarnation, desire and hope are all we have to make the claim work. In the mean time, we must love one another regardless.

What if Jesus is Wisdom and Logos* (as the Bible claims) and the only other universe is the spiritual one that causes our material universe to exist? And what if there is a holy Spirit that communes with the spirits of human beings to affirm the reality of a holy Father God?

*Logos, (Greek: “word,” “reason,” or “plan”) in ancient Greek “philosophy” and early Christian theology, the divine reason implicit in the cosmos, ordering it and giving it form and "meaning.

If God is the ground of being, He grounds the infinite and eternal, physical and transcendent. The latter realm doesn’t cause the former. He has always caused the one eternal creation with two aspects.

Sophia is the Spirit. And Jesus cannot be coterminous with the Second Person of the Trinity.

In the interest of using intellect in His service.

I doubt that we can fully parse out the Trinity and separate them into any neat categories. Sophia means “wisdom”–the wisdom that was co-creator with God. Since Jesus is named in the NT as Creator, he too could personify wisdom. I like to think that outside the Pearly Gates there is a large dumpster with a sign that says, “Before entering, discard all theologies here.” There is no doubt more mystery than knowledge in our theologies. If there were no mysteries, there would be no hope.

All three of those authors articulate their positions well, in the full texts I snipped those quotes from. If things seem amiss, it’s probably the fault of my quoting. If it’s a topic you’re interested in, the full sources would be worth reading. They are: Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild; J. Claude Evans, With Respect for Nature; Val Plumwood, Eye of the Crocodile.

All three kind of do secular theodicy, in that, they defend the goodness of the natural order. Plumwood’s a pretty extraordinary case. She was already a radical ecological philosopher when she narrowly survived being death rolled three times by a saltwater crocodile. Being prey is a fairly rare and interesting perspective from which to write about the evil or otherwise of predation.

Where? . . . .

John 1:3
Colossians 1:15-17


Thanks. I’m more in to evidence based arguments, hence I’m a born again pro-nuclear evangelist.

Hi Dean. Fair questions. It is “like” a code in some respects. “Language of God” is a metaphor. God doesn’t actually speak in chemical bases.

We wrote the Common Question article, Can Evolution Generate New Information? to address this. Short answer: it depends what you mean by “information”.

Can questions of value or morality ever be answered solely with evidence? Isn’t this why philosophers and theologians haven’t been put of of work by scientists?

If a value or moral argument is made exclusively by appeal to evidence, then the person making the argument is leaving unstated how facts should be translated to value, and (furtively or accidentally) intending the audience to make a connection between fact and value that favours his argument.

I have been guilty of that myself above. I should have said, I assert that the goodness of the living world is self-evident and axiomatic (a value belief, not an evidence-based claim), therefore, I judge any view that rejects the order of the living world to be hateful.

The philosophers I quoted were more carefully temperate in their language than I was, in merely noting that the views they critique ought not to be called environmental ethics (Evans) or that those views reject the living world (Plumwood). Then again, both of them make those comments in order to back up their rejection of those views, so I think they, too, ought to have been more explicit about their values.

Perhaps there should be a nature-lovers’ creed to make those values explicit: I assert that the living world is inherently good and awesome, … (elaborate).

As Christians possibly that should be implied by our faith and Genesis 1:31.

I know of no other way to answer moral questions but scientifically: how does it all feel? Why? Same with value. The subjective is real after all and we have phenomenology to deal with it. Hence the evolution of morality in the Bible is just that. Whether there is a divine spark in it, incandescent in Jesus, remains to be seen.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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