Preachers in Lab Coats and Scientists in Geneva Gowns

Bryan Estelle


It is well known that J. Gresham Machen avoided direct comment on the subject of evolution. This may have been for several reasons.[1] For example, Machen was content to make reference to Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield's works when asked about the subject of evolution. Even so, according to D. G. Hart, Machen garbled some of the subtleties of Warfield's views.[2] Perhaps Machen would have thought differently if he had seen the effects of social Darwinism on so many aspects of civilization, including the rise of the Nazis.[3]

I am not a trained scientist. Although I have taken a number of science courses at the University of Oregon, of which my favorite was a geology class on glaciers, my training has been almost entirely in the humanities. I do think that the humanities have many things to say to the scientific community on the subject of evolutionary theory. In my opinion, Marilynne Robinson's recently published Terry lectures are a case in point. They are nothing short of brilliant![4]

Therefore, following Machen's lead, I will not pretend to speak authoritatively on matters outside my training and expertise. Even so, because I am a minister and trained in Semitic languages and literatures, and because I have been called by God to prepare ministers for the Gospel ministry, I have been interested in the relationship between science and Scripture. I have recently followed some of the discussions on this relationship and will make a few comments on how I think this discussion should be framed in the future, at least with respect to tone among officers in the OPC. What I have observed through the years in the secondary literature and in personal conversations is that people in the church are vexed by this relationship between science and Scripture, which is ultimately a challenge of how to relate general and special revelation. As officers in the church, we need to think through our response to such concerns raised from trained and untrained scientists. The secondary literature touching on this issue is voluminous. To cite only a few examples from our own small circle, the recent resignations of Old Testament Professors from Reformed seminaries and the flurry of writing in the blogosphere indicate that there is much thinking in the future that needs to take place in these crucial areas. [5] Furthermore, despite the fact that our denomination went through a lengthy trial of a ruling elder who was charged with "the public offence of stating that Adam had primate ancestors, contrary to the Word of God (Genesis 2:7, 1:26-27),"[6] and whose appeal reached the highest level of our church courts, and despite the fact that a committee's report on the doctrine of creation was received by the General Assembly of 2004, it doesn't appear as though issues surrounding creation as recorded in Scripture and the relationship of science to biblical revelation is going to disappear anytime soon. My goal in this article is to describe an attitude I've observed among conservative Christians and some scientists and suggest a way forward for productive dialogue with people in our churches. I think that the Scriptures have things to say on this issue, but they are also silent on certain current questions and we would do well as officers in the church to remain silent on these questions as well, at least in so far as we claim Scriptural support for our positions.

For most Christians, this area is of most vital concern when it touches on matters of creation, especially our doctrine of man. This is true especially in recent days since the historicity of Adam has always been crucial to our theology; it just hasn't been a disputed point until recently in conservative Reformed and evangelical circles. Therefore, towards the end of this article, I venture into one area of application of the Scriptures to suggest a posture that I think should inform and influence a church officer's thinking in this area. What does Scripture say with regard to the issue of the historicity of Adam; and how can we set forth some parameters that should guide our thinking, reflections, and especially our attitude and posture towards this hotly debated topic?

Preachers in Lab Coats

I was struck by my brother-in-law's comment several years ago (he is a trained scientist and not a professing Christian), when he claimed that the creationists (he had in mind certain ICR—Institute for Creation Research representatives) are "preachers in lab coats." This was his way of saying they had a pretty slick way of presenting their material on the university campus in debate, which to the untrained ear sounded good; however, those creationists were not doing real science and for one that was a scientist, they were basically charlatans.

Creation Science became popular with the publication in 1961 of The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris.[7] This book presented a view of the world whose starting point was God's revelation in the Bible. What God had told us about creation in his Word was enough: a young earth, with no animal death possible before the fall of mankind, with observation of the present deposits of huge fossil beds being the result of a catastrophic global devastation, etc. But legitimate interpretation of the Scriptures and of general revelation may offer different results than these previously mentioned opinions of the Creation Science movement. Indeed, these views are in stark contrast to positions presented in most universities: the present form of the world came to be through a slow, gradual, uniform process. In 1974, Morris published Scientific Creationism. A dramatic shift occurred with this publication. Now the movement of creationism was making claims, it alleged, based on scientific observation independent of Scripture. With the formation of the ICR (Institute for Creation Research), the goal was to develop a fair hearing for creationism in the public schools. Baptized under the banner of Christianity, a major parry in the culture wars was begun. With the formation of the ICR, it seems that the goal was to develop an equal or fair hearing in the public schools for an alternative view to evolution. With this publication, and ensuing ones as well, the argument becomes allegedly "more scientific." Creationist approaches are often concordist, that is, they seek to find harmony between the Scriptures (as they interpret them) and the findings of modern science (as they interpret them) with examples ranging from disciplines in cosmology, chemistry, physics, and biology.

Scientists in Geneva Gowns

In contrast to the preachers in lab coats are what I am calling "Scientists in Geneva Gowns." Here I have in mind practicing scientists who depart from the rigors of their respective disciplines and make exaggerated claims with an overstated degree of certainty with respect to the contemporary scientific picture. Sometimes they will even make grandiose claims for a particular cosmological worldview. They have left the realm of science and entered the realm of "folk science."[8] Carl Sagan and his views on the cosmic structure of the universe are a good example of this.

Having discussed the extremes, we now enter the world of real scientists. These are scientists that may not be donning Geneva gowns; rather, they are merely wrestling with what it means to be a Christian scientist. They may be Christian scientists who question inerrancy and invoke a common sphere in which they claim there is really not a different way that Christians and non-Christians do science. They may even invoke Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA principle, the principle of non-overlapping magisteria, in which "science and religion are not in conflict, for their teachings occupy distinctly different domains."[9] In the view of non-overlapping magisteria, "Each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority and these magisterial [sic] do not overlap." What is the danger here?

Stephen Myers, who used to teach at Whitworth College but now is part of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, advocates a position of "qualified agreement." He states that "scientists often affirmed the agreement between the 'book of nature' and the 'book of Scripture,' both of which were understood to be mutually reinforcing revelations of the same God."[10] Other scientists (Christians), such as Howard Van Til at Calvin College, argue for a kind of partnership between theology and science. Van Til argues that the community of scientific scholars and the community of theological scholars are partners in theorizing, each making its own unique contribution in the search for truth.[11] For Howard Van Til, there is not any one doctrine of creation, but many portraits of creation.[12] There are also secular scientists with whom we engage in conversation or who wander into the corridors of our churches. All these different groups raise important issues for officers in the church on how we should posture ourselves regarding debate on the relationship between science and Scripture.

A Way Forward for Officers in the Church

What is the way forward in the midst of these constant questions and this tendency for preachers to don lab coats and for scientists to don Geneva gowns? I propose that the way forward is for officers in the church, especially ministers, not to fall into either of these inclinations. They should be preachers in Geneva gowns, no more and no less. Of course, if they are trained as scientists, then it may be permissible for them to speak on matters scientific. However, the utmost care should be taken not to make dogmatic scientific statements as if speaking for or out of the church since our interpretations about the book of nature may be mistaken. After all, scientific paradigms are in constant flux and worldviews will change once a significant amount of data generates a paradigm shift, as Thomas Kuhn taught us so many years ago.[13] It seems to me that several things can be affirmed here.

One thing we can affirm from Cornelius Van Til's work is that all data in God's revelation, whether in Scripture or in the material world, needs interpreting.[14] He also claimed that many non-Christian scientists may actually have a better grasp of this world than Christians in matters scientific. These points deserve emphasis in the present climate as we are surrounded by those that would try to posture themselves as preachers in lab coats or as scientists in Geneva gowns.

Herman Bavinck made similar points. When dealing with the issue of harmonizing Scripture with science, he claimed that there is the book of nature and there is the book of Scripture. When conflicts arise, it is usually due to our own misunderstandings. "Conflict arises only because both the text of the book of Scripture and the text of the book of nature are often so badly read and poorly misunderstood."[15] It may sound somewhat striking to our ears, but that same theologian said, "No one has any objection, no one can have any objection, to the facts advanced by geology. These facts are just as much words of God as the content of Holy Scripture and must therefore be believingly accepted by everyone. But these facts must be rigorously distinguished from the exegesis of these facts that geologists present."[16] These are striking statements advanced by a Reformed theologian of the highest caliber.

But what should we make of those today who are questioning the historicity of Adam or suggesting that Adam had primate ancestors in some form? This, it seems to me, is an area in which ministers and officers in the church may speak authoritatively. At least one of these issues was brought home to the courts of the church in the OPC during the Terry Gray trial, alluded to above. I do not hold Mr. Gray's views. Because of the speeches I heard at that General Assembly, my own view is that Terry Gray's views were sometimes misrepresented during that trial; nevertheless, that case did force the following topic to the foreground: did Adam have biological ancestry? Or, more precisely from Terry Gray's perspective: is it possible that Adam was created from some pre-existing genetic material?

Prior to the appeal process at the General Assembly, I tried to persuade Terry Gray by arguing from Genesis 2:7 and presented Murray's argument based on that verse to show him that his own position was faulty.[17] In other words, with Machen, I draw back from the notion that "the human species may have evolved from lower forms of life."[18] Meredith G. Kline had engaged in private correspondence with Mr. Gray on these matters as well in an attempt to dissuade him from his erroneous position. Some of the following points are derived from Professor Kline.

It is possible to argue that the human species had no biological continuum with some lower life form in the creation of the human being, Adam. Although there may have been some kind of continuity or affinity from sub-human creation to the human Adam (Kline called this typological-teleological continuity, a continuity designed by the Creator's wisdom but not biologically continuous), I think that one is hard pressed to argue exegetically from the Scriptural data that that continuum was biological.[19] To argue thus would seem to be an over interpretation of the text in question (Gen. 2:7). After all, the result of the action described in that verse was the animating of the man-creature, not the transformation of something already animated into man as man (see Eze. 37:6, which seems to be relevant). As an ancillary note, even if one were to argue that Genesis 2:7 allowed for the origin of humankind through some kind of biological parentage (it seems a condition contrary to fact), such a process is not within a responsible exegesis of Genesis 2:21 in light of the origin of Eve on the basis of the analogy of Scripture (see 1 Cor. 11:8 and 1 Tim. 2:13). Furthermore, although I do think it is possible to argue for the assumption of ordinary providence being present in operation during the creation week based on the exegesis of Genesis 2:5-6,[20] nevertheless, it does not seem permissible to appeal to the process of evolution operative and accessible to scientific testing and demonstration during that creation week. Why is that so? Because, according to Genesis 1 and 2, the creation of humankind was part of a process that has ceased now.[21] In other words, the process of creation described in Genesis 1 and 2 was part of God's six-day creation week which is marked by God's seventh day cessation of that process, was comprised apparently of ordinary providence and punctuated by supernatural fiat creations. It is, strictly speaking, a terminated, closed period of time. It is wonderful: God spoke the creation out of nothing and into nothing. The result was very good. The magisterial creation week, a week in which ordinary providence and the supernatural were both operating is a unique week, different in kind from every other week thereafter, although analogous to subsequent weeks in human history.

In conclusion, I myself am happy when the ID scholars marshal evidence that pokes holes in the pretentious positions of the scientific community that act as if an evolutionary position is the only possible position in today's world.[22] Even so, the ID movement has its own background and presuppositions that should not be neglected in our appraisal of it, even as the checkered history of the creationist movement should not be neglected.[23] We don't want preachers in lab coats, and we don't want scientists in Geneva gowns, we want just the opposite.

It is neither safe nor advisable for the Church to make claims that go well beyond scripturally warranted data to argue against the scientific guild. As Marilynne Robinson claims, "Creationism is the best thing that could have happened to Darwinism, the caricature of religion that seemed to justify Darwinist contempt for the whole of religion."[24] On the other hand, the church must speak where her Lord gives her authority to do so: it seems self-evident to me based on the Apostle's treatment of Adam, among other reasons, that one cannot build a historical gospel on a non-historical Adam. On this we should not be silent as officers in the church.


[1] See D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994), especially 96-107.

[2] Hart, Defending the Faith, 98.

[3] See Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (New York: Picador, 1998), 40.

[4] See Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2010).

[5] The readers of this journal are probably well aware of the firestorm created by the publication of Peter Enn's book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. After leaving Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, Enns became a biblical studies fellow at the "Biologos Foundation," a science and Scripture think tank and has published on the "Biologos Forum" regularly on the web on issues pertinent to creation and the historicity of Adam. Other examples could be cited as well. For example, the most recent edition of the journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (September 2010) is devoted to reflection on the historicity of Adam, genomics, and theological reflection in light of evolutionary science.

[6] For details, see the Minutes of the Sixty-third General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, June 6-13, 1996, especially pages 296-300.

[7] Some of the following summaries are helpfully described in Science and Christianity: Four Views (edited by Richard F. Carlson; Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000) and Del Ratzsch, The Battle of Beginnings: Why Neither Side is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996).

[8] See Howard Van Till, Davis A. Young, and Clarence Menninga, Science Held Hostage: What's Wrong with Creation Science and Evolutionism (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 1988), chaps. 1-2, 9.

[9] Carlson, Four Views, 71.

[10] Carlson, Four Views, 131.

[11] Carlson, Four Views, 198.

[12] Carlson, Four Views, 203.

[13] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Second Edition; Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1970).

[14] Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (P & R, 1974), especially chaps. 6-7.

[15] Herman Bavinck, In the Beginning: Foundations of Creation Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1999), 120-121.

[16] Bavinck, In the Beginning, 126.

[17] Mr. Gray was already very familiar with Murray's argument, but disagreed with it. See John Murray, "The Origin of Man," in pages 3-13 in Collected Writings of John Murray: Volume two, Selected Lectures in Systematic Theology (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977). It may come to be, based on further reflection on the dust metaphor from the standpoint of analysis of how the metaphor functioned in the Bible and ancient Near East that our understanding of Gen. 2:7 may grow with rereading. But I do not see presently how it can take away from Murray's points touching on the issues at hand. Germane to this might be Delbert Hiller's work, "Dust: Some Aspects of Old Testament Imagery," in Love and Death in the Ancient Near East: Essays in Honor of Marvin H. Pope, ed. John H. Marks and Robert M. Good (Guilford, Connecticut: Four Quarters Publishing Company, 1987) 105-110, and Giovanni Pettinato, Das altorientalische Menschenbild und die sumerischen und akkadischen Schöpfungsmythen (Heidelberg, Carl Winter, 1971), 17-160.

[18] Hart, Defending the Faith, 98.

[19] Murray, "Origin of Man," also affirmed that "Man has affinity with other animate beings on this earth," 7. Notice, however, Murray's maintaining a careful balance between the distinctiveness of Gen. 2:7 and Gen. 2:19 correlated with other integral verses while maintaining yet that "the difference must not be allowed to obscure for us the all-important lessons of affinity implicit in the consideration that God formed the man dust from the ground [sic]."

[20] But not mere ordinary providence, also supernatural divine fiats are evidenced in the text.

[21] Ordinary providence continues of course punctuated by occasional supernatural occurrences, e.g., the Red Sea event, the resurrection of the dead.

[22] See the review article “Intelligent Dissent” in this issue, reviewing Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (New York: Harper One, 2009) and William A. Dembski, ed., Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2004).

[23] See, for example, Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, Expanded Edition (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006), 373-398.

[24] Robinson, The Death of Adam, 40.

Bryan Estelle is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as associate professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, California. Ordained Servant Online, November, 2010.

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Ordained Servant: November 2010

Creation Matters

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The Huguenot Christian, Part 2: The Church in New Rochelle

Dis-integrated?: The Social Network: A Review Article

Intelligent Dissent: A Review Article

Two Kingdoms: A New or Old Idea? A Review Article

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