The Novare Cul de Sac

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Last fall, one of my No Quarter November pieces critiqued the use of the Novare curriculum for science that is being used in a number of classical Christian schools. That post can be found here. Given the nature of the issue, it is obvious that more needs to be said on the topic.

I recently had occasion to look at a friend’s copy of Novare’s text for general biology, and I wanted to add a few extra comments on a few of the things said there. Until Darwinism collapses entirely, and may the Lord hasten the day, there will always be a need for ongoing conversations among Christians on this subject.

Let’s Go Meta First

One of the things that the authors, Ayala and Rogstad, emphasize repeatedly is the fact that science does not make truth claims. Theories are described as just that—theories. And depending on their explanatory power, these theories can be described as strong or weak. This means that the authors of this text, to their credit, reject the claims of bombastic atheists who say that evolution has been proven to be true. For a glaring example, take Jerry Coyne, who published the book Why Evolution is True. That would seem to contain, if nothing else, a truth claim. That book has been answered, incidentally, by yours truly, in a little thing called The Other Side of the Coyne, and the answer there was so devastating, if it is myself what says it, that it is scarcely to be believed that Jerry Coyne can still show his face at the University of Chicago anymore.

I jest of course. I am a putt putt creationist, and the prestige that the academy confers went sailing over my head decades ago. I heard the faint whistling noise as it passed, with a Doppler effect and everything. Still, an argument is an argument, and an unanswered argument is an unanswered argument.

But our authors do not make Coyne’s mistake.

“All scientific theories—and facts too for that matter—are provisional.”

Ayala and Rogstad, General Biology, p. xxi

Now what this means is that the authors can deny that they are claiming that the theory of evolution is true. They are claiming merely that it is the theory currently accepted by the majority of scientists, and that it is the one that has the best explanatory power. They therefore do not put themselves in the unenviable position of taking sides with Darwin over against Jesus. By taking this approach, they can position it as a form of scientific epistemic humility. All our theories are simply models that are put forward provisionally. If we are not saying evolution is true, we are most certainly not saying that Genesis is false. We believe every word of the Genesis account, whatever that might mean.

But I said we were going to go meta. One of the first things we should note is that the statement “scientific theories do not make truth claims” is itself a truth claim. Because we are finite creatures, all reasoning whatever must begin with dogma. It may be unacknowledged dogma, but it is never absent dogma.

There are no truth claims in science is a truth claim. Scientific theories are evaluated in terms like strong or weak is a truth claim. Science contains no dogma is the foundational dogma.

Now the authors say elsewhere that the claims of Scripture are truth claims, and are moreover true, which is to their credit.

“Christians continue vigorously to study both the Bible and the natural world. When we finally are able to read both correctly, they will be seen to be in harmony, not in conflict.”

Ayala and Rogstad, p. 417

But notice the quiet rider in that statement. When they are both read correctly. I agree with the statement as it stands, caveat and all, because it is in fact true that all truth is God’s truth. The world came into existence in a certain way, and when we interpret the Scriptures properly, we understand how it was done. God spoke the heavens and earth into existence from nothing.

“By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.”

Hebrews 11:3 (NKJV)

This will not conflict with anything we learn through our study of science and the natural world. It cannot, because the One who framed the worlds is the same one who framed the words of Scripture.

So the principle articulated by these writers is fine, but the real question is which is the guiding authority—the current strong scientific theory, or the Scriptures. Whenever you have two authorities, both of them recognized as authorities, and they appear to be saying different things, one will be interpreted in the light of the other. I don’t fault Ayala and Rogstad for wanting both of these authorities to be true, but I do fault them for not making any effort to show how that could possibly be the case. They say that they are just describing the current state of the science, and that there are theologians working on it “over there,” and that they are sure it will all work out eventually.

When it comes to educating young Christians on our revealed origins and the current scientific study of our origins, this is entirely inadequate. I do not say that it is an inadequate account of Genesis (although it is certainly that also), but rather that it is inadequate as a biology text. You cannot raise the big questions and then be coy about addressing the big questions.

And that brings us to the biggest question.

Evolution, Love, & the Problem of Evil

The question of strict creation over against theistic evolution is not a matter of simple technique, as though God were deciding whether use a Windsor knot or a four-in-hand knot. If it were just a matter of simple technique, then theistic evolution is actually much more intricate and complicated than is strict blammo! creation.

I want to fully acknowledge that if God, back in the day, had decided to embed into the creation all the design features that were to later unfold, like the inchoate mass of tohu n’ bohu was actually one of those Transformer things, that would have been really impressive. I mean, if all the design engineering for the Monarch butterfly was pre-coded into the primordial sludge, that would be way more intelligent design than just engineering the butterfly from nothing. It would be like unfolding somebody’s origami white swan and watching it turn into an F-16 fighter jet along the way. Your respect for the person who folded that white swan would go way up.

But that is not where the problem lies. The issue is not one of intelligent design, because a strict creationist and a theistic evolutionist can both point to that, and do.

“Scientists may or may not find a promising theory to explain the so-called biogenesis—the origin of first life. The probabilities associated with getting a minimal protein or self-replicating molecule or cell started by chance are minuscule beyond comprehension. But this is no problem for us because we know it didn’t happen by itself. Regardless of whether God specifically directed it, as some Christians believe, or it happened because of the laws built into the structure of nature, as others believe, if it happened at all it happened because God made it happen.”

Ayala and Rogstad, pp. 409-410

If God stepped in at some point, and transformed inorganic matter into organic life, that would be an example of divine power. And if He created inorganic matter as a substance that had the built-in capacity to generate life, that would be an even more impressive display of divine power. But the issue is not divine power or intelligence.

The issue is divine goodness.

“If the diversity we see among the creatures on this planet came to be in the way evolutionary theory describes, then it happened because God used mutations and selection to bring forth the millions of species on earth according to his wise and loving plan.”

Ayala & Rogtad, General Biology, p. xxi

I want you to focus on that last phrase “his wise and loving plan.” But what are we talking about? Once we get to the level of sentient beings, we are talking about millions of years of agonistic suffering. The fossil graveyards are graveyards. We are talking about carcasses all over the place, and no sin.

God’s “wise and loving plan” was apparently nature red in tooth and claw. An orthodox defender of the Christian faith can be pressed on this point—why, if God is all powerful and all good, is there so much natural evil in the world today? He can be pressed, but he has an answer. The orthodox believer can point to it as a broken world, and explain that in the rebellion of (an historic) Adam, we broke it. The debate then moves on to why an all powerful and all good God would let that happen, but at least we have established that the doctrine of the Fall is essential to orthodox Christian faith. The world was broken when Adam fell.

Take that away, which the theistic evolutionist does, and what do you have? You’ve got nothing. The theistic evolutionist is in real trouble when it comes to the doctrine of the Fall. When atheists debate Christians, they love to go this argument—the problem of evil is one of their standards. And in such a debate, the theistic evolutionist could be placed, within a matter of minutes, into the position of having to say that natural evil is not evil at all. It is good (Gen. 1: 4), good (Gen. 1: 10), good (Gen. 1: 12), good (Gen. 1: 18), good (Gen. 1: 21), good (Gen. 1: 25), and very good (Gen. 1:31). God likes it when puppies howl in pain, and that is why, when we get to Heaven, God will let us kick them.

The contrast is sharpest here. A creationist and a theistic evolutionist have very different conceptions of what might constitute a “wise and loving plan.” According to us, Adam is the one who introduced all pain and suffering. According to the theistic evolutionist, pain and suffering is what introduced Adam.

This issue is not a trifle, and classical Christian schools need to be a lot more wary than they are being.