Professor Stephen Palmer, MA, MB, BChir, FRCP, FFPH defends Christadelphian creationism

by Credo Quia Absurdum

Christadelphians are clearly getting worried about the vocal theistic evolutionists in the community, with their new-fangled internet propaganda trying to persuade the brethren to accept evolution.

So much so that they organised a special “Creation Day” last weekend in Coventry UK, and have posted nearly 4 hours of YouTube video of the proceedings. I've only linked to one - you can easily find the other 7 on the ChristadelphianVideo YouTube channel.

It seems that the study day was aimed at arming the community with the arguments to oppose the menace of theistic evolution in the community, and to show that it has no place in Christadelphian belief. No doubt the theistic evolutionists in the CD community are already composing their long, fully referenced blog posts answering the points raised in the videos, but I can only present a few of my reflections as an Ex-Christadelphian.

Most if it is the musings of Professor Stephen Palmer, MA, MB, BChir, FRCP, FFPH.  In what might be mistaken as an appeal to authority, there is a constant reminder of how well qualified Stephen Palmer is in the graphic for the first few minutes of each of his presentations. 

There can be no doubt that Stephen Palmer is a very clever man, but unfortunately it seems that the Christadelphian virus got deeply into his brain at a very early age, and everything he has learned as an adult has to be interpreted within the confines of a belief that the Bible is literally true.  He alludes to his ideas being subject to some mockery even whilst he was studying at university – but it seems that all his learning and contact with real science has had no effect on his adamantine faith in the historical truth of the bible stories, including a literal Adam!

He doesn’t spell out exactly what he believes about Creation (unless I missed it – he does talk for about 3 hours, and my mind may have wandered!), but he seems to believe in a literal 7 day creation, probably in the biblical time scale of a few thousand years ago.

The main thrust of his argument is that theistic evolution makes nonsense of the traditional Christadelphian interpretation of the bible.  He argues that in the New Testament, both Jesus and the Apostle Paul are represented as believing in the Genesis creation and a literal Adam, and passages in the NT that compare Adam and Christ (like 1 Corinthians 15) make no sense if Adam and the creation story are mythical.  He thinks that theistic evolution makes a nonsense of the atonement – the very core of Christadelphian belief.

He thinks that belief in evolution cannot be reconciled with the Bible and recounts what he considers to be a sorry tale of a “brother in another part of the world” whose blog was teaching various unorthodox ideas, including evolution, until his last blog post was “An end of Faith”.  (Regular readers of this blog will know who he is referring to – and if you don’t take a look at the side bar on the right!). The implied point is that belief in theistic evolution is the first step on the slippery slope to unbelief, and that is why the brotherhood must make a stand – as it did 50 years ago over Ralph Lovelock – and reject evolutionary ideas.

In many ways Stephen Palmer is correct.  Once a Christadelphian becomes convinced by the overwhelming scientific case for evolution there are compromises to be made with the plain teachings of biblical literalism.  You cannot really reconcile the two without major cognitive dissonance.  For many Ex-Christadelphians (myself included) the intellectual honesty of accepting the case for evolution was the first step leading first to a belief in theistic evolution, then wondering if the bible was wrong about other things, discovering that the bible is a very human creation and eventually dropping the theistic entirely in favour of evolution.

He doesn’t really argue the case for creation, but brings up the usual evolution deniers objections like the argument from design. Peacocks tail feathers – amazing – how could that possibly evolve? (AKA the argument from personal incredulity!). He has a Darwin quote beloved of creationists – 

The sight of a feather in a peacock's tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick! 

 - but neglects to mention (as creationists must) that this is taken from a personal letter and in no way reflects Darwin’s view that organs of great complexity could be arrived at by gradations of change in descent with modification. His comment was really a comment on how the human mind – used to dealing with the timescale of a human life – finds great difficulty in visualising the vast expanse of time and number of generations it takes for creatures to evolve such things as the peacock’s tail.

He also mentions irreducible complexity (which is really just a variant of the argument from design/personal incredulity) and the long odds against life coming about by chance (dealt with elsewhere on this blog)

He also seems to reject any of the last two hundred years of biblical scholarship and textual analysis.  He clearly rejects the documentary hypothesis which postulates a number of sources edited together to create Genesis.  He doesn’t believe that Genesis 1 and 2 are different and somewhat contradictory accounts of creation – because they come from different sources – but goes so far as to deny that there are any contradictions in the accounts.

Palmer is very dismissive of the scholarly consensus amongst academic theologians.  He likens it to his own field of medicine and claims that until fairly recent times the scholarly consensus in medicine was based on tradition and the authority of senior figures in the profession, but nowadays is moving much more towards evidence based methods, where outcomes of treatments are studied and compared to arrive at a real idea of what works best.

He seems to be suggesting that the in historical biblical studies the scholarly consensus is based on tradition and authority rather than on evidence.  This is mistaken.

The modern (last 200 years) scholarly consensus is that the Old Testament was largely compiled by Jewish scribes during the period of the exile – around 600 BCE  and consists of earlier texts and oral tradition redacted into the texts that we have today.  A large amount of it is mythical, and has no extra-biblical evidence to support its historicity.

This consensus is evidence based!

It is not just pulled out of the air, but is based on serious examination of the texts and the evidence from history and archaeology. For example there are the similarities between OT stories and stories in ancient Babylonian texts.  There is the complete lack of archaeological evidence for the Exodus, the lack of any Egyptian records of the escape of the Jewish slaves and the lack of any evidence of the invasion of Canaan in the time period suggested by the OT stories. 

You can choose to ignore this evidence, and stick instead to the dogma that the Bible is the inspired word of God and is absolutely true and literal recounting of historical events, but in doing so you are exchanging a thoughtful evidence based intellectual approach for a mere assent to the dogma of tradition.  It is exactly what Palmer falsely accuses academic biblical scholars of doing! It is, in short, intellectually dishonest.

Palmer invokes the often used argument that Jesus spoke as though he believed in creation, and if it’s good enough for Jesus it should be good enough for his followers.  In making this claim he forgets (or more likely does not accept) that we don’t really have much of an idea about what Jesus might have thought and said at all.  The stories of Jesus in the gospels were compiled many years after he supposedly lived.  The records of what he said don’t always agree with one another.  

However, we do know that whoever compiled the gospels would have been a believer in the sacredness of the OT texts. They told the life of Jesus on the basis of the OT prophecies about the Jewish messiah, in order to demonstrate to their readers that he was that messiah.  It is not surprising that he is portrayed as believing in the OT creation stories – pretty much everyone in that world did!

The overall impression that I took from these presentations is that there is a hard core in the Christadelphian community who see great danger in the rising number of CDs who want to incorporate theistic evolution into their belief system.  They know that they can’t counter this by attacking evolution (perhaps they fear that the scientific evidence is just too overwhelming), so they defend their position with a “get back to the bible” approach.

And perhaps in this they are right. There is no doubt that theistic evolution cannot be reconciled with an adherence to a traditional Christadelphian literal interpretation of the bible.  So they just bury their heads in their bibles and believe what is says in the face of any conflicting evidence.  This approach is unbelievably ignorant and short-sighted, and it is doomed to failure.

As an Ex-Christadelphian I shall continue to look on with a great sense of relief that I am no longer one of those who has to defend the indefensible adherence to Bronze Age beliefs against the accumulated scientific wisdom of mankind.


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