Contemporary issues in biology and Christian theology are still dominated by the legacy of 19th-century biologist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Debates in evolutionary biology in relation to religious belief have been reinforced by historical myths that stress conflict over integration. More conservative branches of Christianity, often allied to particular Protestant traditions, argue for a form of popular theology that attempts to compete with science, namely, creationism. More sophisticated versions of this position may appear under the guise of intelligent design, though creationism and intelligent design are not synonymous. The mirror image of this position has developed among biologists who identify themselves as new atheists, adding further fuel to the fire of an existing controversy. Methodologically speaking, the engagement of biology and theology will depend on different philosophical presuppositions according to basic models of (a) conflict, (b) independence, (c) dialogue, and (d) integration. The biological sciences also have broader relevance to allied subject domains including, for example: (a) ecological, agricultural, animal, and environmental sciences; (b) anthropological, social, and political sciences; (c) medical sciences, including genetic science and embryo development; and (d) new technologies that include bioengineering. Theological engagement with the biological component of each of these domains is particularly intense where there are controversial ethical issues at stake that seem to challenge specific Christian beliefs about human nature or divine purpose. A more positive approach to the biological sciences that draws on research in the constructive systematic theological task, while avoiding historically naïve forms of natural theology, is starting to emerge in the literature. Within Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christian traditions, there is a spectrum of possible positions, such that the field of science and theology as a whole tends to be ecumenical in orientation rather than divided along denominational boundaries. The Catholic and Orthodox churches, however, give greater precedence to official statements by their respective churches that then influence public reception of controversial issues in biology and theology in particular ways.
Contingency is a term that occurs in philosophical discourse as well as in theology in a number of contexts and with a number of meanings. In its modern sense the English term contingency refers to events, processes, or properties that may occur, but are not certain to occur; or that have, but might not have, occurred, because they depend on factors beyond our knowledge or which themselves are contingent. Generally speaking, it refers to events, objects, and properties that could be otherwise, that do not have to be as they are, and that do not have to be at all, and for whose existence we cannot give a sufficient cause. Thus contingency covers a whole range of meanings, including “not necessary,” “by chance,” “random,” and “unpredictable.”
In the discourse on science, the debate pivots on questions of determinism vs. indeterminism in physics (especially in quantum physics and in systems theory), on the contingent character of the cosmos and its fundamental physical laws, and on the question of whether the development of evolution and the actual forms of life that result from it are merely coincidental in biology. Some have referred to the first form of contingency as nomological and to the second as local contingency (Robert J. Russell, “Contingency in Physics and Cosmology: A Critique of the Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg,” Zygon 23.1 ). The alternative is between physical determinism (all events necessarily follow from prior initial conditions, so that contingency only refers to a lack of knowledge) and indeterminism (some events are not determined by prior conditions, hence contingency is an ontological fact). In religion and theology, contingency often marks the fundamental difference between the Creator and creation. It is used in ontological and cosmological proofs of the existence of God in the sense that all created beings cannot account for their own existence, but—in their contingency—point to a Creator, who is not contingent, but the necessary ground of his or her own being. However, it is disputed whether such a conclusion is valid or itself contingent. Another divide is between those who argue for total divine predestination (God determines everything that happens; again contingency is only a human category regarding insufficient knowledge and insight) and those who argue that God leaves some things to chance or to being determined autonomously by created entities. A consequence of the latter view seems to be that God cannot have sufficient fore-knowledge with regard to the process of creation so that God’s omniscience and omnipotence seem in danger. On the other hand, the option of total predestination faces the problem that in its view the Creator seems to be responsible for everything, including all evil.
The various positions that Muslim scholars have adopted vis-à-vis Darwin’s theory of evolution since its inception in 1859 are here reviewed with an eye on the theological arguments that are embraced, whether explicitly or implicitly. A large spectrum of views and arguments are thus found, ranging from total rejection to total acceptance, including “human exceptionalism” (evolution is applicable to all organisms and animals but not to humans).
The two main theological arguments that are thus extracted from Muslim scholars’ discussions of evolution are: 1) Is God excluded by the evolutionary paradigm or does the term “Creator” acquire a new definition? 2) Does Adam still exist in the human evolution scenario, and how to include his Qur’anic story in the scientific scenario?
Additional, but less crucial issues are sometimes raised in Islamic discussions of evolution: a) Does the extinction of innumerable species during the history of life on earth conflict with the traditional view of God’s creation? b) Is theodicy (“the problem of evil”) exacerbated or explained by evolution? c) Are “species” well-defined and important biological entities in the Islamic worldview? d) Can the randomness that seems inherent in the evolutionary process be reconciled with a divine creation plan?
These questions are here reviewed through the writings and arguments of Muslim scholars, and general conclusions are drawn about why rejectionists find it impossible to address those issues in a manner that is consistent with their religious principles and methods, and why more progressive, less literalistic scholars are able to fold those issues within a less rigid conception of God and the world.
Duane H. Larson
Were Luther to have lived another two decades, he might have been surprised even so early on to be informed that he positively influenced the rise of natural science. One can readily cite many Luther quotes that would cast him as anti-science; decontextualized quoting readily constructs such caricatures. But the truth of the matter is quite otherwise.
Consideration of Luther and Luther’s protégés and their philosophical-historical contexts reveals their positive regard for science. This is explicit in Luther’s immediate heirs like Melanchthon and Andreas Osiander. Though they differed in their opinions about the work of Copernicus, both respected him and the discipline he practiced. Luther’s influence carried beyond his immediate disciples through Johannes Kepler into the 17th century. The Irish-Anglican chemist and theologian Robert Boyle, for example, was significantly influenced by the Reformation principle of God’s sovereignty. In turn, Boyle strongly influenced Isaac Newton. But Lutheran support for the natural sciences had one major qualification. When “freed science” appeared to speculate more on God’s action than describe the visible character of natural phenomena, Luther saw overreaching ambition.
Such are the outlines of a historical approach of Luther’s influence on the beginning of the scientific revolution. Other Lutheran theological themes contributed to natural science’s robustness. In addition to a focus on God’s sovereignty—and so the doctrine of justification by grace through faith—these themes include (1) the nature of biblical authority, (2) the “realistic” epistemology of the theology of the cross, and (3) sacramentology.