The Perils and Promise of Preaching the God of Two Books | The BioLogos Forum


(system) #1

Intro by Deb Haarsma:I’m excited today to invite Pastor Joel Hunter to share his story with you. Pastor Joel has been a longtime friend of BioLogos, including several years of service on our Advisory Council. He shares here some of the challenges for pastors in addressing science and the Bible, and the choices he made in his own ministry.

I have always loved science. Throughout my ministry, science has been not merely a fascination, but also a treasured source of sermon illustrations. Also, science always has been a topic of interest for my best friend and wife, Becky. She’s a microbiologist who taught for years. I’ve always considered science and Scripture to be complementary revelations of God’s “nature.”

I am a part of the theologically conservative evangelical tradition—that part of the family of God that tends to be very suspicious of science’s seeming disagreement with simple interpretation of certain Scriptures. Early in my ministry I faced the choice of appealing to the fundamentalist parts of my congregation, who tend to assume that science is not only godless but fundamentally anti-God, or focusing on encouraging the congregation members who want to see God everywhere they look. The folks I mentioned first tend to be angrier and more threatening; I love them and understand their concerns, but I admit I have a natural inclination toward the latter group. There have been several factors, actions and relationships that have helped me guide people in my congregations who want a fuller encounter with God.

First, my interpretation of Scripture has grown to be much more comprehensive, and I believe more accurate, as I have learned to contextualize passages by considering their genre, the audiences they were/are addressing, and the times in which they were written. The eternal truth of God comes through all Scripture, but not every piece of Scripture is to be read in the same way. Some Scripture is narrative and moral; law meant to be taken as both true story and that provides ongoing boundaries. But much of Scripture is not meant to be interpreted literally. It is poetry or metaphor or instruction. So one question to consider is: How should we read Genesis?

On the other side of the equation, I have not assumed that our interpretation of Scripture would someday catch up to prevailing scientific theories. I still remember the caustic regard in the 1960s toward the idea of the universe having a “beginning,” but then evidence discovered for the Big Bang suggested it to be a probable fact. So for an Evangelical, one who considers Scripture authoritative, it is not my routine to dismiss Scripture as secondary to prevailing scientific understandings. Like most Evangelicals, I believe if Scripture and science seem to disagree, the problem is probably the misinterpretation of one or both.

Second, my natural inclination has been to look for God in every area of life, especially those areas traditionally dismissed as “worldly” by the church. So through our positions of leadership, both Becky and I have helped people question the durability of their assumptions.

When Becky taught in public schools she taught science from the perspective of one who believed in a Creator. When she taught in a conservative Christian school, she set up debates in her biology classes exposing her students to the theological/scientific basis for young-earth creationism, theistic evolution, and atheistic evolutionism. Throughout her teaching career, she did not receive any objections from parents.

At the church, I not only made many references to scientific perspectives to illustrate biblical points, I even invited Hugh Ross early in his writing career to come and speak about the science and wording of Scripture. Ross, an astrophysicist, advocates for the view that Scripture could well be indicating that the Creator took millions or billions of years (Hebrew “YOM”= day = an “eon”) to create the earth as we know it. I thought my ministry might be in peril if we talked about the earth being old, but it wasn’t. In fact, many folks who attended the sessions were more relaxed and reassured that they were not closet heretics.

The most important part of my appreciation for the nature of God has come through my relationships with people and a fascination for the creatures and ecosystems of this world. These things have prompted me to worship God for his creation. Excellent teachers, from my high school biology teacher to my present day colleagues in the sciences, have all been “worship leaders” for me. Excitement and wonder that comes from anyone overwhelmed with the majesty of creation inspires me to worship. They do not have to be fellow believers. While I am inspired by fellow Christians who have been pillars in science—Newton, Kepler, Pascal, Kelvin, and our own Francis Collins—I have also been quite taken by non-believers who understand the glory of creation. E.O. Wilson is someone with whom I have collaborated, and he unintentionally has drawn me even closer to God as the Creator. These people have something in common with me: they all sense in nature something quite larger and more mysteriously engaging than the mere evolved cells.

Those factors have been key for my ministry. As a pastor I have a very simple job description: help people grow closer with God. I have found that the best way to do that is to look for him in all areas of life. There have been two inescapable, almost haunting, Scriptures that have made scientific investigation a holy pursuit for me:

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made… (Romans 1:20)

The heavens are telling of the glory of God;

And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.

Day to day pours forth speech,

And night to night reveals knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words;

[When] Their voice is not heard. (Psalm 19:1-3)

I want to know the voice of God in written Scripture, but I also want to hear his voice through his creation. We worship the God of two books—Word and World. I do not want to miss one iota of the way he works or one glimpse of his wonders.

When I, as a pastor, look at evolution, I do not immediately come up with clear answers regarding how it fits with theology. In fact, what I do come up with are some pretty significant hesitations. An example that elicits hesitancy is what evolution might imply for portions of Genesis. I believe in a historical Adam and Eve, yet I know that current genetic evidence precludes the possibility of all of humanity descending from one couple. So where does that leave me? One who holds to a more “literal” interpretation of the Bible might ask, “Where did all those people outside Eden come from?” One who affirms evolution might say, “Genesis was meant as a creation myth.” I don’t fit in either camp.

What I do know is that a pastor is on “thin ice” when it comes to controversial subjects. Many pastors want to challenge their congregations not only to spiritual growth but also to intellectual growth (the two hardly can be separated). But we also realize that our jobs are in jeopardy if we push too far beyond the “norm” of prevailing assumptions in the evangelical church. Young-earth creationism has been so prevalent in the American evangelical church that it excludes, to the point of intense resistance and reaction, any other point of view. In other words, just as with any other institution, a pastor can get fired if he or she makes the powers-that-be too uncomfortable.

In one sermon not too long ago, I referred to evolution as an established fact. A parishioner walked out of that sermon. I found her after the service and said, “I know I upset you with the reference I made to evolution. You have been listening to my teaching for many years. I hope you know by now that this church and I hold a high view of Scripture as the final source of truth and authority.”

“Well, I thought I did, but now I am not so sure,” answered this woman, who has been trying to get Ken Ham to present in our church for some years.

“You know I would never do anything to lessen the importance of Scripture.”

“Pastor, when you confess evolution, you not only make a liar out of Scripture, you also become the reason young people are not following God and are living lives without regard to the Bible.”

This woman is not an unintelligent person. She is a professional nurse and a leader in a mission organization. She was not seeing the difference between choosing a non-literal interpretation of Scripture and denying the authority of Scripture itself. Happily, she is still in the church and may have decided after some reflection that perhaps I’m not trying to lead young people astray.

Because I have been pushing my congregation beyond their comfort levels for 27 years, I cannot count myself as a part of a very large group of pastors who would like to address evolution and are afraid to do so. The congregation I serve is quite used to me drawing attention to controversial topics. But a vast number of congregational leaders know that when they deal with evolution, they are also dealing with job security.

Despite many leaders’ fears and hesitancy, the number of pastors and Christians who have a broad picture of the superintendence of God keeps growing. And as we experience a generational shift, I believe science more and more is being considered both as a path to truth and also a call to worship. I believe that Scripture will lead us into an expansive understanding of a Creator whose evidences and attributes can be found in every facet of nature. And I believe that the ongoing study of both Scripture and science—as they relate to both the “finished product” and incremental creation (evolution)—will lead me to a closer relationship with God. And it is through that relationship that I will be a pastor equipped to lead others well, because I will be hearing him in the widest and deepest possible sense.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/the-perils-and-promise-of-preaching-the-god-of-two-books

(Dr. Deborah Haarsma) #3

Thanks for reading Pastor Joel’s story. While he is not available to respond to comments at this time (and my own availability is limited at the moment), I encourage you to discuss his thoughts below. Why is it so hard to pastors to talk about evolution and Christian faith? Do you agree with Pastor Joel that science is “a path to truth and also a call to worship”?

I also encourage you to visit our Common Questions pages for much more on God’s “Two Books” of revelation, and how science and Scripture together point to our great Creator God.


(Brad Kramer) #4

I moved 3 posts to a new topic: Problems with evolution


(Albert Leo) #7

I realize that Pastor Joel cannot respond directly, but I for one would surely like to learn more about his collaboration with E. O. Wilson. There is no doubting Wilson’s credentials as an accomplished scientist, and the way he has ferreted out the mysterious ways of some of Gods’s tiniest creature is admirable. I have always wondered what led him to an atheistic outlook.
Al Leo


#8

Absolutely. The essay was inspirational.


(Roger A. Sawtelle) #9

I think a big part of the problem is that people think of God as “Absolute,” which would mean that God would not save us unless we got Who God is just right.

However God is not Absolute, rather God is Love. The Absolute god is narrow must be treated just right or we will be rejected. The Loving God of the Bible seeks first our love and then our obedience. Errors are forgiven if done in good faith.

No one fully knows God. That is why we live by faith. We live by our relationship of love for God and sustained by God’s love for us. When we live in a love and faith relationship with God we seek to continually grow in faith, knowledge, and love for God knowing that none of these can and will be perfect or complete, because we are not Absolute, nor is God Who is relational.


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(Roger A. Sawtelle) #11

@Eddie

Thank you for your response.

Much of what you say is correct, however I believe that my perspective is better. While the core meaning of absolute is “free, unbound, unconditioned” it is also true that it is understood that absolute means free of tangling relationships, unbound by covenantal agreements, and unconditioned by concerns for others. Islam maintains that Allah is Absolute in this sense, so this is an important understanding of Who God is in the world today.

I base my understanding of Who God Is not on some philosophical definition of God, but YHWH’s self revelation to Moses at the "burning bush, " as YHWH, I AM WHO I AM. Here YHWH reveals God as Sovereign, but not Absolute. YHWH specifically says that YHWH heard the cries of the Hebrews, which motivates YHWH to send Moses to liberate them.

You emphasize how God is different from humans, but the Bible clearly says that God created humans in God’s Own Image, so the Bible says that humans are similar in important ways to God. From the NT perspective Jesus Christ could not be the Second Person of the Trinity in human form if humans are not created in God’s Image.

I am surprised and chagrined that you say that human love is based on weakness, defect, and neediness. Where does this come from? Human Love like God’s Love is based on strength and faith.

God is Sovereign, but God is self limited by God’s nature of Love. God, YHWH, IS WHO YHWH IS. God is relational. God cares about people, all people.

God is not dependent on the Creation, but God is not independent of the Creation. God is interdependent with humans and the Creation.

Our loving relationship to God and others is more important that our knowledge of how God created the universe.


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(Roger A. Sawtelle) #13

@Eddie

What you need to know about Islam as a competent theologian is that unlike Judaism and Christianity, Islam is not a covenantal faith. The reason given is that a covenant would limit the freedom of Allah to reward and punish.

The only assured manner to salvation is not keeping the Sharia, but death through Jihad, which is why Jihadism has such a power over many Muslims.


(Albert Leo) #14

Hi Eddie
First of all, I should state that I have enjoyed your discussions with @Relates on this topic. Sometimes disputes between two intellectually gifted philosophers and/or theologians are carried out using language and terms that are opaque to us non-initiates. Not so in this case.

I was not brought up as an evangelical Christian, but, mostly through BioLogos, I find much to admire in their Faith. Through the years I have made quite a few ‘adjustments’ to the Catholic Faith I was born into, and now I wonder if a trained theologian would question my claim the I have remained Christian in the process. I have chosen two quotes from your 20h response to @Relates that bear on this.

(1) “God’s love for us is NOT need driven.” But I believe God MUST have needs–otherwise why would He take the trouble to create this Universe? I believe He needed someone who is outside of Himself to learn to know and love Him–someone not foreordained to do so. After taking 14 billion years to create such a creature, He must have some sort of need for us to love Him–or else He does not truly love us.
(2) In the second quote, the operational word is: completely. If God completely controls evolution, then everything is predestined and freedom is an illusion. Our love for God would then simply be God loving Himself.

Not having had any formal training in Logic, I suspect there are several holes in the arguments I have put forth above. I would appreciate you and/or Roger pointing them out.
Al Leo


(Roger A. Sawtelle) #15

@aleo

Albert,

Thank you for the questions. I expect Eddie has a different perspective.

Question 1: Is God’s Love need driven? My answer is yes and no. God WANTS our love, but does not NEED our love. However I think that the classical philosopher would say that God would not want something unless God needed it.

Jacob got his brother Esau to sell his birthright to him for a pittance because Esau said he needed to eat. It would seem that Esau was very hungry, but he certainly could have driven a better bargain because he really did not need to eat just then.

God’s love is based on God’s character. God does not NEED to love us or be loved by us, according to God’s nature, but God choses to be relational, which means that God is loving and means also that God WANTS to be loved. The classical philosopher would say that God acts out of God’s nature, which is to have no needs, rather than his character, which is to be relational.

God said I AM WHO I AM – YHWH. This means that God is and does whatever God chooses to be and do, and that is to be loving. In that sense YHWH is driven to love, because YHWH chooses to love, not because God must, because God is compelled or influenced by an outside force.

  1. Is God completely in control of evolution? Here I would agree with you. If God is in complete control then there is no freedom to love and humans are not really created in the Image of God.

Still we must say that God is in control. God does set limits without which the universe cannot function. How God is able to maintains order while providing freedom for all God’s creatures is a great mystery and a huge expression of God’s wisdom and power.

Humans are foreordained, so to speak, to be able to love God and others, but not predetermined to love God and others. On the other hand sometimes we feel that if it had not been a special hand of God on our lives, we could and would not have responded to God’s love.


(Albert Leo) #16

Roger, thanks for the prompt and understandable reply. I guess it is too late in life for me to rewire my brain to think as a classical philosopher and be able to make a distinction between God’s character and His nature. I figure that if God made this Universe with a purpose in mind but giving it some freedom to develop in unpredicted ways, then His character must be relational, and we humans are blessed in being capable of knowing and loving Him–and He, us.

The agnostic scientists of my acquaintance are too humble (yes, humble) to believe that Whomever (or whatever) brought this Universe into existence could give one whit for creatures like you and I. I don’t think it was my Christian upbringing that kept me from joining their group. But somehow I was open to the possibility that I might be able to detect His presence in my life. And He did make His presence known–not as a voice emanating from a burning bush, but just as real and not once but a number of times. If I were a pastor, instead of stressing theology and studies of scripture, I would stress finding ways to be open to the Lord’s presence. And those ways can be quite different for each individual. Past a certain point, classical studies of scripture and theology can actually become counter-productive–al least for me. Somehow I inherited a dominant maverick gene. Or perhaps i am like the Missourian who dares to say, “Show me!”. And God did.
Al Leo


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(Roger A. Sawtelle) #18

@aleo

Albert,

Thank you for the your kind response. I agree with much of what you say. Too much theology can interfere with the experiential aspect of faith. However in some churches there is too much emphasis on the experiential, and too little on the theological. Humans are body, mind, and spirit, so we need an approach that meets the needs of all three, not just one or even two.

This why I have tried to develop the Relational Understanding of Science, Philosophy, and Theology and I am glad you agree. I am shocked that @Eddie accepted this point of view…

My concern is that a Relational Understanding of Life will become a slogan, rather than a theory which changes people’s view of reality. Please share it with others.


(Albert Leo) #19

Hi Eddie
The first paragraph in your 18h response indicates that you have reached somewhat the same conclusion I have in an important part of our relationship with God–an omnipotent Being that has chosen to be beholden to one of His creatures, us. To me, this is the (almost) incredible message of the Good News of the New Testament–Jesus is proof that God actually needs us to love Him. That knowledge alone, rather than the fear of hell, ought to be enough incentive to lead a good life.

This quote shows how easily it is to read into a passage what one wants it to say. Does it support generalized intelligent design, i.d., or promoted I.D.? Let’s take the deer and the kangaroo as an example.

I believe that God’s intelligent design was operative when the Big Bang created time, space and energy; that He was aware of how their interaction would produce several generations of stars which in turn would generate about a hundred different kinds of atoms; that as dust and gas collected into new stars and planets, some of the latter would contain molten iron cores that would churn, create magnetic fields and break up crusts as they formed on the surface. On our Earth there was such a crustal area (now called Gondwanda) that offered an attractive niche for a medium sized herbivore. As four legged browsers were evolving, the plate supporting Gondwanda split, bearing the land which would become Australia eastward. On that plate the herbivores evolved into marsupials and travelled by leaping with two hind legs. On the larger section of the plate they evolved into placentals that used all four legs to travel, and some became deer. Rather than this following God’s foreordained plan, I believe that, in some sense, it came as a ‘surprise’ as to how this niche could be utilized, and thus it provided ‘entertainment’. Is this an anthropomorphic scenario? Absolutely! How else can a human being think, except anthropomorphically?

After He created our Universe, God had Time on His hands. He certainly knew the overall picture of what His creation was likely to produce, but perhaps the element of chance that He inserted into the process provided Him with entertainment in observing the precise result. J. B. S. Haldane, the eminent biologist, thought God must be inordinately fond of beetles because He created so many species of them. Perhaps even God was a little surprised, but amused, at the result.

A more worrisome role of chance could be played out by one of the bolides than cross earth’s orbit. We believe that God has knowledge of this. Would He physically intervene if one is headed our way before we have the means of deflecting it? We can hope so.
Al Leo


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(Albert Leo) #21

I finally get your point, Eddie. You don’t object that non-traditional theological positions are voiced (e.g. Polkinhorne’s), so long as they are clearly presented as such. I’m comfortable with that. However, neither of us is responsible, as Deborah Haarsma is, of the future funding of BioLogos. Jim Stump’s recent experience is clear evidence that some good and serious Christians have put rather narrow boundaries on what is allowable inside the Christian tent and what must be cast out as heresy.

I am disappointed (but understanding) that the BioLogos team shies away from my position that Darwinian evolution did NOT produce humankind–at least in the sense that is important to theology. My creation scenario solves the Adam & Eve gene pool problem that has taken up quite a bit of space on recent blogs. But it definitely is NOT traditional, and strongly supports a different way that evil enters human lives, and thus it supports a non-traditional view of how we look at Jesus as our Savior. So I can understand why my scenario should not merit official BioLogos space, even if accompanied by the usual disclaimer. I am happy (and a little surprised) that it is not censored and kept out of these replies.
Al Leo


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(Patrick ) #23

In reading the posts by Al, Eddie, and Roger seems to highlight that it may be impossible to harmonize understandings obtained from science with faith. Despite all the good intentions of Biologos and folks here, at what point does Jerry Coyne’s arguments that science and faith are incompatible are true? At each new scientific discovery we can twist and modify each but the incompatibility still remains. One or the other is true but no both.