Christianity, Evangelical, Issues in Science and Religion

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Christianity, Evangelical, Issues in Science and Religion

The term evangelical (from the Greek word for gospel) has several meanings; for the purpose of this entry, it will refer to an English-speaking Protestant development that emphasizes personal religion (focused on Christ), Biblical authority and preaching, missions, and evangelism. The origins of this particular type of evangelical Christianity stretch back to eighteenth-century revivals in England and America, with such leading figures as John and Charles Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitefield. Early evangelical leaders and scholars accepted a harmony between natural science and religious faith, typical of the age of British natural theology. Edwards saw the glory of God revealed in a spider's web, while Wesley could find the wisdom of God revealed in creation as understood by the natural science of his day. For the most part, evangelical scientists and theologians sought a harmony between science and Scripture.

Views of nature

Evangelicals understand the natural world in terms of Biblical theism and the doctrine of creation. God is the author of nature and of the contingent order of the natural world. Nature was created good, and exists for the purpose of glorifying God. Sin, however, has distorted and warped nature, especially human nature. God will eventually redeem nature and all things through Christ. Thus the natural world serves as a stage for the great drama of salvation: sin and corruption, salvation and redemption. Because it is subject to a higher, spiritual order, evangelicals believe that the stability of natural law may be altered for a higher purpose, without undermining the reliability of natural science. They defend both the value of natural science and the stability of natural law, along with the reality of miracles in the context of God's plan for nature and history.

Interaction with the sciences

With a few exceptions, the general picture of harmony between faith and science did not change in any marked degree after the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. Given the vitriolic rejection of Darwinism by populist evangelicals in the early twentieth century, this may seem unlikely; but the fact is that most evangelical scholars and natural scientists before World War I accepted some form of evolution, even if some were attracted to non-Darwinian variations, such as that of Jean Baptiste Lamarck. They rejected "Darwinism" when that term was identified with atheism or naturalism (e.g., the Princeton theologian Charles Hodge). Prominent evangelical theologians and scientists of the late nineteenth century, such as James Orr, B. B. Warfield, and A. H. Strong (theologians), or James D. Dana, David Brewster, and Asa Gray (scientists), could all advocate a combination of biological evolution and Biblical religion. There were, of course, critics of evolution among evangelicals in this period, but that was not the dominant mood. The scientific and religious critics of Darwin in the nineteenth century came from a great variety of religious perspectives, and cannot be typified as predominantly evangelical.

After the first World War, the cultural mood changed in the West, and among evangelicals. The horrors of war stimulated a more world-denying, counter-cultural popular religion. Pre-millennial eschatology became popular in the new movement, soon called "fundamentalism." This eschatology expected the imminent return of Jesus and the decline of worldly culture until his return. In this populist movement, evolution was associated with progress, with liberalism, and even with biblical criticism. Because the Book of Revelation was read in a literal way, so was Genesis. Evolution and Darwin were rejected in favor of biblical literalism and tribulation preaching in which the "tribulation" is the period of woes and sufferings predicted in Revelation. The main spokespersons for this populist pre-millennial movement were not scholars and scientists but preachers and pamphleteers. This is the reason the famous Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, took place in 1925 after the rise of fundamentalism, and not earlier. The anti-evolutionary forces in Dayton were lead by the populist politician William Jennings Bryan, not by scholars. It is no accident that the first major "creation scientists" was an Adventist (George McCready Price) because of the close association of populist pre-millennial eschatology and anti-evolutionary rhetoric in American church history. The rise of this kind of fundamentalism also marked the end of the harmony between natural science and biblical religion as a predominant mood within evangelicalism.

The so-called creation science movement was an attempt to give this anti-evolutionary point of view some scientific respectability. Henry Morris was particularly influential, but few serious biologists joined this association. Despite the work of the Institute for Creation Research in Santee, California, and other loose associations of creationists, creation science has remained a populist movement with little scientific respectability. It thrives predominantly within pre-millennial movements, rather than among associations of scientists and scholars. Like earlier fundamentalists, they are often accused of relying upon popular politics, rather than scientific literature, to oppose evolution.

The dialogue since World War II

After the Second World War, some conservative scholars and church leaders saw a need to engage with culture, including science. Carl Henry, Bernard Ramm, and E. J. Carnell, along with English evangelicals like John Stott, were among the theologians who advocated a rejection of fundamentalism and a return to social engagement and scholarly achievements. In his influential book A Christian View of Science and Scripture (1954), Ramm reasserted the older evangelical harmony between science, including evolution, and the Bible. Associations of evangelicals who were also scientists, such as the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) and the Victoria Institute in England, help promote this reengagement. In 1959, members of the ASA, a group previously noted for its anti-evolutionary stance, published Russell Mixter's Evolution and Christian Thought Today, a controversial work cautiously in favor of scientific evolution.

Given this complex history, evangelical scholars and scientists remain conflicted with respect to evolution. Unlike their fundamentalist ancestors, evangelicals embrace natural science and scholarship in general. The majority of evangelical scholars would advocate a Christian approach to the sciences that unites faith and reason, rather than the anti-intellectual rhetoric of the fundamentalist movement. But with respect to evolution, some evangelicals remain dubious. In particular, the Intelligent Design movement (popular among evangelicals) includes scientists, philosophers, and theologians who argue that life on Earth is the result of intelligent design. They seek to reject Darwinism, as they understand it, while still accepting natural science as a whole. On the other hand, many evangelical systematic theologians like Thomas F. Torrance are willing to accept biological evolution, while still holding that the universe is created, sustained, and ordered by God.

See also Creationism; Darwin, Charles; Design; Intelligent Design; Science and Religion, Models and Relations


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alan g. padgett

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Christianity, Evangelical, Issues in Science and Religion