Committed to Conversation–Finding Fellowship in the Face of Conflict

A committed young-earth creationist, Dr. Todd Wood, and an equally committed evolutionary creationist, Dr. Darrel Falk, spend time with each other.  At first both are suspicious of the other’s Christian credentials. One feels like he is thought to be a fool the other is concerned that he is looked down upon as a heretic. Through a difficult series of conversations, they come to realize that they do share a common faith and can have Christian fellowship as neither a fool nor a heretic. However, that fellowship doesn’t mean that each does not believe the other is in grave error with respect to their interpretation of Genesis, and thus, a danger to the church.  But, if one brother in Christ is damaging the church, how can true Christian fellowship exist?

The Fool and the Heretic. By, Todd Wood and Darrel Falk. Available at Amazon.

This is one of the questions addressed in a new book, The Fool and The Heretic, by the same two PhD biologists mentioned above.  I provided a general review of this book a week ago.  Today, I want to delve a bit deeper into the book and offer my own thoughts and observations on this question.

Whose view of Genesis is correct?

That really isn’t the point of the book, though each authors would surely hope that you would be inclined toward their view. However, few readers are unlikely to be interested in the answer.  Both authors are quite confident that they are right, or maybe more accurately, that the other is wrong. Regular readers of my blog will know that I have serious theological and scientific reservations about the young-earth view, so it will not surprise anyone the author with whom I share a more affinity. But that doesn’t mean that I read the book rooting for one side over the other. I’m more interested as a Christian in learning how to find common ground. I want to find a way to love my brothers and sisters in Christ and to win them over in love, versus winning the argument (in my eyes) but losing a relationship.

With that caveat, I offer some additional perspectives on the dialogue that I have observed in creation/evolution discussions.  

Although the book is not about picking a winner, the Truth cannot be that there is no Truth.  God did create the world and He did it through some mechanism, be it fiat creation or special providence, etc. We should not be disinterested in the answer.  However, we need to be careful that we don’t inflate our interpretation of that truth into the Truth concerning things about which we, as limited creatures, cannot fully know.  

While I appreciate the convictions of both authors and applaud their willingness to lay out their cases, I cannot conclude that one was wholly right and one was wholly wrong.*  The reason is that I believe that both of their positions had some elements of truth and other elements that were false. As a result, neither hold the “correct” view in my mind though I have no doubt that there are many flaws in my own views.

As I read the book I found myself saying “no, no, no” – in the most polite way I could – at multiple junctures to both authors’ defenses of their own positions and critiques of the other’s.  In a nutshell, I felt that both authors were completely honest about their views and yet they, themselves, represented caricatures of paradigms that, even after understanding one another better, both were still trapped in.

Those worldviews, or paradigmatic views, are, like all of ours, the product of their theological upbringings combined with the collective influence of a culture of unhealthy debate over creationism within the church.  Through difficult discussion and introspection both Wood and Falk are able to overcome many of these false impressions formed by their cultural backgrounds. And yet, I believe they both needlessly maintain beliefs that keep them from making even greater strides in their dialogue.

I believe their past experiences are preventing them from appreciating theological nuances that could help both realize there are viable alternatives. I’m not talking about a middle way, but rather different paths yet to be explored.  The good news is that other paths exist that are worth testing. I feel that both authors are missing some rich theological traditions that provide greater interpretive space to explore, yet still maintaining a great respect for scripture, including, even, inerrancy.

When you have two people with opposing views, neither of which are wholly correct, there is hope because an opportunity still exists for them to explore those alternative paths together. This is a far less frightening than when participants in a dialogue are in a position where one must abandon his position and fully embrace the other, lock, stock, and barrel. This is how Ken Ham and some other YEC leaders approach the conversation, telling their audiences that they must fully embrace their view or be left with only one other option.

 I look around and see so many things that Christians do that harm the church. There are so many “incorrect” views of the Scriptures.  There are so many untruths that are being taught as truths. But I must remember that if everyone holding a view that could potentially harm the church were eliminated from my church, I would end up in an empty church with no pastor or friends.  In fact, I would not be part of that empty church either.  Fortunately the Church is a place for sinners who, though still sin and damage the church, are called to a life of forgiveness and growing communion with Christ and other believers.   

It is evident that we must be humble and admonish in love and forgiveness.   The challenge of maintaining orthodoxy has always been, just how far shall we go in allowing diversity of views before we say, we can abide by it no more?  When does an alternative view become heresy that must be kept at bay? Surely a point is reached where we must call out untruth and even break communion over unrepentant sin.**

Are the opposing views of Wood and Falk such a case?  Is one view so wrong that one or both should not be allowed to darken the doors of the church?   I believe that we have two people who each believe that the other holds tightly to something false. And those false beliefs, if left unchallenged, no doubt will harm the Church.  And yet, this is not about breaking communion. It is not about an inability to sit down at the communion table with a brother who we believe to be in error, but has not sinned against us.  For those who profess Christ and demonstrate that they are in Christ, there is no choice. We are commanded to sit with one another in fellowship and disagree in love. That love includes admonishment, it includes not letting one simply be who they are without caring what they believe.  It includes recognizing that their actions may be detrimental to the gospel, but trusting God to do His work despite our sin. It involves working with them, but recognizing that we are sinners at the same time.

Do young-earth views harm the church?

I’ve pondered this question for many years and usually come down on the side of Falk that, on the whole, it hurts the witness of Christ. However, I want to be careful here to be clear that, although I think that the young-earth perspective is not a theologically or scientifically sound interpretation of the scriptures or scientific evidence, I don’t believe that all those who hold this view to be harmful to the church.  As with everything in life, there are large degrees of variation. The reason for my hesitation to make a singular judgment about YEC can be illustrated in my reaction to statements made in this book. On page 44 and the following pages, Darrel Falk makes his case that young-earth creationism is “causing harm to the church.” He sees Todd Wood as a good Christian man, but worries that if the church embraces Wood’s view of creation it will be “contributing to the declining influence of the Christian faith on culture.”

While I share some of Falk’s concern, I don’t view Todd Wood as the problem.  At least not to the degree that many of his YEC colleagues are. I believe his conclusions about God’s creation drawn from his interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 and physical evidence of the creation are misguided and ultimately wrong, similar to how I believe many others in the church are wrong about their views of baptism, sabbath-keeping, eschatology, regulative principle of worship, etc. However, if Christians were to follow the example of Wood, the result should not be as severe as Falk imagines.

Here is an instance where Falk is maintaining a stereotype of the larger YEC community and, however true that stereotype may be, he is unfairly imposing it upon Wood. This doesn’t fit the message of the book which emphasized learning to understand the individual and not applying stereotypes.  In fact, if more YECs were like Todd Wood, I believe the church, though far from perfect, would be a stronger than it is, even though I still believe Todd Wood is wrong. Why? Because of the character of Wood that is revealed in the book and through my own observations of Wood’s interactions with the creation science and secular scientific community.  

As Falk notes elsewhere, Wood loves science. He is fascinated by new discoveries and doesn’t shy away from them. He tackles them head on and is willing to say “I don’t know” when he can’t provide a framework for understanding a new observation in light of his young-earth paradigm. If this pattern of curiosity and honest approach to understanding our fallibility were shared among more believers who felt bound to their interpretations of Genesis, it would provide a far better witness than the kind of hostile discourse and stifling of dialogue that Ken Ham and others promote within the Church.  They show a general disdain for experts who disagree with their views and use bullying language to mock and demonize those who don’t fit neatly into their paradigm. They have created an environment in which the Christian is encouraged to wall off the world around him, including any Christians with opposing views. They act as if exploring contrary evidence is dangerous and to be avoided, preferring instead to direct followers to just so solutions found in their many books of answers.

One might liken the YEC leaders view of scientific exploration by the lay person to that of the Catholic church of old, in which the scriptures were not be read by the lay person because the church leaders believed that people were not able to discern the truth rightly and needed clergy to tell them what to believe.  YEC leaders act as gatekeepers of knowledge filtering the news of the world and providing the correct interpretation to their flock. The Christian non-expert is discouraged from examining science and faith questions directly, but worry not, all of the answers have been provided.

There is a gnostic streak that runs through many YEC ministries.  The standard YEC literature frequently depicts the world as “running down” or in a state of decay.  Rather than still being “good,” the physical world is a permanently marred and malignant place in which we are merely waiting out our lives to escape.  Our mission seems only to hold onto our faith against the evil forces of the world rather than to seek out God’s purpose in redeeming creation, caring for it, and marveling at, and participating in, God’s plan of redemptive history through time.

In contrast, Todd Wood inspires a genuine curiosity in creation and frequently exhibits a healthy appreciation for the challenges that Christians face when they seek to apply their young-earth convictions to the scientific evidence.   Students that follow Wood are far more apt to have deeper and richer conversations about creation. Their minds are potentially open to wrestling with data rather than reflexively rejecting it. I expect that many will eventually find their way to changed views, potentially to the great disappointment of Wood. However, they will have done so more graciously and (so importantly) maintaining their faith, instead of being tossed to-and-fro like so many disillusioned former YECs that I know.

There is an asymmetry in the authors standing in their respective communities

What does it say about young-earth scientists working at established YEC ministries that it had to be a person outside of the mainstream YEC organizations that was willing to plunge into these dangerous waters? Unfortunately, I expect that rather than hailing this book as a step forward, the YEC establishment may either ignore this book (the most likely scenario) or they will interpret Todd Wood’s responses as fitting the “foolish” moniker applied in the title.  Either response would be a shame and a missed opportunity for self inspection on their part. It’s a big step forward. It shows a path for Christian fellowship, especially in dispute. The type of fellowship that, even if both feel the other is damaging the church, minimizes the overall damage and eventually may lead to healing.

The book strikes a hopeful tone that respective dialogue and communion can exist among Christians with opposite views on the issue of origins and the age of the earth.  Can this introspective look into the development of a richer and deeper dialogue really be an example to the larger community of Christian scientists with opposing views?  Although Wood and Falk demonstrate that such dialogue is possible, I wonder if their experience can be more broadly applied. The problem is that their situation may be atypical.  Todd Wood is an outsider in the young-earth community and has been willing to criticize the young-earth establishment while Darrel Falk is an insider in the evolutionary creationist’ community.  As a result the model in this book may not be easily transferred to the interactions of any YEC and evolutionary creationist.

But then, I too am highly vested in the questions and find myself more closely aligned with one author than the other and, yet, I was profoundly affected by the dialog that was made possible by two men who were willing to put their differences aside and fellowship with one another.  Much as we have been commanded to do.

* Todd Wood predicted a reviewer would say this. I had already written this post before he made these comments and I decided I would not alter them in reaction to his thoughts on the matter.
** Yes, the church absolutely must call out heresy. They must draw a line.  Many protestant denominations have creeds, catechisms and other systematic theologies that act as guard rails, though not infallibly, against heresy.

Related posts:
Reflections on ETS 2014: An overview of origins-related talks
Reflections on ETS 2014: The State of Creationism in the Church Today
Who is Our Authority? The Reformed Church Looks Outside for Answers from Genesis 

Editing graciously provided by MC

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