This post first appeared in my biweekly newsletter which you can read and subscribe to here:
- Why Now?
- My Evolving Understanding
- Speaking with Wisdom and Knowledge
- Evolution and the Point of Scripture
|1. Why Now?|
A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by my friend Andrew Carpenter for his Obscure Pastor podcast. One of the things I shared was that I enjoy challenging students and seeking to answer their questions about faith. But I noted, I do not give them the sanitized Christian answer because I often do not find those answers compelling. A few days later I interviewed my student Giulio on his role with CSF and his major in biology. We discussed a bit about studying science, believing in evolution and how this relates to Christian faith.
Darwinian evolution is one of those topics that still brings out passionate emotions in people. As I reflected on my discussions with Andrew and Giulio, I realized that it might be worth a bit of time discussing Darwin’s theory of evolution in this post.
So here we are. Its a long one. I hope at least a few people read it and even write back to me. One of the reasons I began this second newsletter was to indulge myself in reflecting on what I am reading, so I make no apologies that I wrote a lot!
And here’s my point which may surprise some and not others: the theory that humans and all other animals have evolved from a common ancestor over the course of billions of years is probably true and not really a big deal.
|2. My Evolving Understanding|
I do not recall evolution being talked about much in the church I grew up in. The first I recall hearing about evolution was comments from family members or people at church that evolution was a lie. This may have been in the context of an adult Sunday school class studying it or reaction to what I would soon be learning in school. That said, I just do not recall hearing about it much. Even when I faced my first crisis of faith, sometime in my teen years, issues of science were not a part of it. Mine were questions of how we know the Bible is true, how do we know the Bible we have is what we are supposed to have, and how can we believe Jesus is unique in a world full of other religions. In other words, I’ve always been interested in history and religion, so my questions focused there.
Of course, questions of science could not be avoided. Such questions are in the air we breathe. Objections supposedly rooted in science are a primary reason people give for not believing in God. As I became more aware of this and began to know more people, and as I was a hopeful Christian student who desired to give an answer for the hope I have (1 Peter 3:15) I felt I had to figure it out. Through this, I encountered what came to be called the Intelligent Design movement. Biochemist Michael Behe had released a book arguing that what scientists were learning by looking inside of cells was showing that Darwin’s theory was in trouble. Despite the warnings in the beginning of the book that it was not for those without some basic biology and chemistry, I read it. I didn’t really understand it. But I felt assure I could continue in my faith because Darwin had been refuted!
At this time, I was beginning to study Christian apologetics, which was answering the questions people pose to faith and presenting arguments in favor of faith. The most common defenders of faith that I was learning from taught Old Earth Creationism. Lee Strobel’s The Case for the Creator argued that the scientific evidence demonstrates that God created the universe and that Darwinian evolution is wrong. Old Earth Creationism argued that microevolution may be true (species adapt to their surroundings) but not macroevolution (species do not change into other species). Yet these writers accepted all other modern science, affirming that the universe was clearly billions of years old. In fact, the Big Bang was sometimes looked to as a proof for God’s existence (it was proof the universe began to exist, after all, and begged the question of what set the whole thing in motion!).
It was in this context I entered campus ministry. A few years into my ministry, biochemist Kenneth Miller visited PSU Berks. I read his book in which he argued for evolutionary creation (aka theistic evolution), basically saying Darwin got it right but this does not prove there is no God. At this same time, Francis Collins’ book The Language of God was published. Collins argued that evolution is true, but he also told the story of how he came to faith in God through the writings of CS Lewis. Finally, as I was reading these books, it seemed most of the students I knew who were studying science were okay with evolution. The ones most antagonistic to it tended to be ones repeating what they had learned in church, but they had not studied it themselves.
Through all this, I have been surprised when Young Earth Creationism continued to pop up. Since I first began studying these topics on my own, all the Christians I read believed in a universe billions of years old (Hugh Ross, Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig, etc.) The Young Earth view had never really been on my radar, but its still very popular. Last spring when I was telling people about our planned family vacation through Pittsburgh to Cincinnati to Kentucky and Nashville, more than one person asked, “are you going to visit the Creationism Museum?” Being a conflict avoider, and not wanting to upset people, I just kind of shrugged and said probably not. Honestly, it never crossed our minds. We were more interested in visiting the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh then the Creationism museum. This past fall a friend of mine, a pastor who I partner with in ministry, asked what resources I have that he could give his students to show the errors of evolution. I had to work up the courage to confess that I don’t really have a problem with evolution.
Here’s what I tell students when they ask about evolution: if you’re interested in science, then study it with an open mind. Do the work. Learn the details. Get in the lab. Darwin’s theory of evolution is not a hoax or a lie or some sort of conspiracy. It just might be proven wrong one day, probably when someone proposes a better theory with more explanatory power. But there’s no absolute conflict between the science of evolution and faith in the God revealed in Jesus.
Can I believe in evolution and be a Christian? Sure. Why not. Plenty of people do. Being a Christian is rooted in having faith in Jesus. Do you believe that Jesus is the one who completes the story of God, the Lord and Savior? Then you’re a Christian. Let’s not add anything to faith. They debated this in the first century when they asked whether Gentiles need be circumcised. It is incredibly difficult to live as a follower of Jesus in the world today. Why add additional obstacles? Focus on the central idea and give students the freedom to come to their own conclusions, if they so desire, on other things.
|3. Speaking with Wisdom and Knowledge|
In the early 400s, Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest theologians Christianity has ever produced, wrote the follow in a commentary on the first three chapters of Genesis: “Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous things for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show a vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but the people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books and matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience in the light of reason” (Augustine Genesis 19:39).
Augustine’s lesson here is still relevant for today. He is saying, in essence, if you do not know what you are talking about then keep quiet. Or, to put it differently, if your comments on science and evolution are heard by someone who is an expert on the subject and what you say is clearly uninformed, then why should they listen to you about anything? Do you want to turn people away from discussions of who God is, what God has done in Jesus, how to live in the world today and other important issues because you want to prove some scientific, and ultimately irrelevant, point?
One obvious example of this is the comment I sometimes hear Christians who reject evolution say: “evolution says humans evolved from apes and that is just absurd!” But that is not what evolution teaches. Evolution teaches that humans and apes share a common ancestor. It’s a small point, but one that, if you get wrong, is probably going to make people less likely to want to listen to you about anything else.
Darwin’s theory of evolution includes two main points: common ancestry (all living things share a common ancestor) and natural selection (organisms better adapted are the ones that survive). Darwin’s own contribution that made him famous was the theory of natural selection. Plenty of other scientists in his day believed in common ancestry. It was the mechanism Darwin posited that changed the course of science (“survival of the fittest” as it is commonly called). But here’s the rub: even some Intelligent Design adherents (Old Earth Creationists) believe in common descent. Michael Behe, who I mentioned earlier, believes that humans share a common ancestor with other animals. He writes in his book The Edge of Evolution:
“For example, both humans and chimps have a broken copy of a gene that in other mammals helps make vitamin C. … It’s hard to imagine how there could be stronger evidence for common ancestry of chimps and humans. … Despite some remaining puzzles, there’s no reason to doubt that Darwin had this point right, that all creatures on earth are biological relatives” The Edge of Evolution, pp. 71–72 (Source: Wikipedia)
Behe’s argument appears to be that God had a hand in evolution and thus, as I understand it, natural selection is not sufficient to explain how humans came to be. The point is, even Christians who are put forth as challenging Darwin’s theories may not reject the theory wholesale. This is why I always get a bit bothered when well-meaning Christians share articles with headlines like “Latest Findings Challenge Darwin!” When you read the article, it often ends up scientists are questioning only aspects of Darwin’s theory. But these are dialogues among scientists. Its not like they’re all becoming young-earth creationists!
Am I saying a Christian must believe in evolution? Honestly, I couldn’t care less how anyone think the earth came to exist. Christians believe everything which has come into being was created by the Infinite Being that we call God. God, Christians believe, is not an object within the natural realm that we can examine via science. Nor is God the one who sometimes pops in to fill gaps and perform miracles and all the other things science cannot, or has not yet, explained. God is wholly other and in a category alone and is sustaining all of creation all the time. I love how David Bentley Hart describes God in his book The Experience of God:
“(God) is instead the infinite to which nothing can add and from which nothing can subtract and he himself is not some object in addition to other objects. He is the source and fullness of all being, the actuality in which all finite things live, move, and have their being, or in which all things hold together; and he is also the reality that is present in all things as the very act of their existence. God, in short, is not a being but is at once ‘beyond being’ (in the sense that he transcends the totality of existing things) and also absolute ‘Being itself’ (in the sense that he is the source and ground of all things” (Hart, David Bentley (2013). The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 109).
The Creator God has spoken through the prophets and is most profoundly revealed in the incarnation of Jesus. Science can tell us a lot about how creation has come to be, but as I have written about in my last newsletter, when it comes to how humans ought to live and our meaning and purpose, this is where science hits its limits. Hart explains that science studies nature and cannot, by definition, address the reality of what is beyond nature. To assert somehow that Darwinian evolution, or any other science, negates God is to move from science to faith:
“Naturalism is a picture of the whole of reality that cannot, according to its own intrinsic premises, address the being of the whole…and so requires an act of pure credence logically immune to any verification…Thus naturalism must forever remain a pure assertion, a pure conviction, a confession of blind assurance in an inaccessible beyond; and that beyond, more paradoxically still, is the beyond of no beyond. And naturalism’s claim that, by confining itself to purely material explanations for all things, it adheres to the only sure path of verifiable knowledge is nothing but a feat of sublimely circular thinking: physics explains everything, which we know because anything physics cannot explain does not exist, which we know because whatever exists must be explicable by physics, which we know because physics explains everything. There is something here of the mystical” (Hart, 109). I don’t really know how God created. It seems to me to make sense to go with the theory of evolution until something better comes along. But for me, as a non-scientist, I’m putting my faith in the majority of scientists. I suppose they could be wrong. I guess I might say, its not just that I do not know, I don’t care (Ironic as I am writing this whole article about it!). But its worth saying: You don’t have to have an opinion on everything. I enjoy history and would love to discuss the merits of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia or why the Roman Empire collapsed in the 400s. If I am going to have such discussions, I probably need to learn a thing or two. Likewise, you don’t have to have an opinion on such history OR on evolution. But if you want to enter into debate, you need to show you know what you are talking about.
|4. Evolution and The Point of Scripture |
I do have lots of opinions on the Bible, and have studied it a whole lot more than science! The Bible in general, and Genesis specifically, was never written with the intention of giving us information on science. It never was, nor ever was it intended to be, a scientific textbook. I wonder if some of our desire to find science in there is because even we Christians have accepted the idea that the only truths that matter come from science. This is understandable. We live in a scientific culture. To be taken seriously, we feel we need to be, or appear to be, scientific. So we might argue that the Bible is scientific. The problem is that this is playing a game that we can’t win with rules that stack the deck against us.
We need to take the Bible more seriously as the book it is, not the book we think it should be. There are a lot of directions we could go here. One is that if we look at Genesis in its ancient, historical context, we can see that it is setting up a contrast not with modern science thousands of years in their future, but with the science of their day. Or perhaps, the religion of their day, since they did not neatly assume a divide between natural and supernatural as we do. For example, the Babylonians and other ancient peoples believed that the sun, moon and stars were divine. The Jewish scripture contrasted this with one God who made the sun, moon and stars. Another example is that in many ancient creation stories, the creation of the cosmos is a result of bloody battle between gods. In the Jewish scripture we see a God who simply speaks and it is so. In other ancient cultures, only the high and mighty had any claim to be like the gods, but in the Genesis story, all humans are made in God’s image. Finally, the creation stories affirm the goodness of the natural world. It is not a realm to escape from, but a place to be redeemed. This sets up the entire scripture story that climaxes in Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection. Our goal then is not to escape to some ethereal, spiritual plane but to join God in remaking the world.
This brushes up against Old Testament scholar’s John Walton’s argument that Genesis 1 is about functional origins, not material ones. Since I find Walton’s ideas fantastic, I’ll also point you to articles here and here. The story we are beginning in Genesis 1 is of God building a cosmic temple, and when this temple is completed, God rests on the seventh day. Later on when the temple is built in Jerusalem, this temple is a microcosm of the cosmos as a whole. God’s entire intention in creating is to dwell with people. The natural and supernatural are not meant to be totally separate realms, but are locked together. Christians believe that Jesus is the place where heaven and earth meet, he is the true temple. This is a huge idea in NT Wright’s work, clearly laid out in his recent book, which I just finished, History, Eschatology and Natural Theology (as well as many of his other books).
I hope, if you are still reading, that you are getting that I think Jesus is rather important, and what you think about Jesus is much more important than what you think about evolution. We see that the early church fathers developed an understanding of scripture that proceeded through different levels of understanding. The most influential work here is Origen’s On First Principles. First there is the bodily, or literal, sense. This is the plain meaning. For example, in Deuteronomy 25:4 the plain meaning is not to muzzle the ox while it is treading the grain. Don’t do it! But second there is the soulish sense which is the application in the life of the Christian. The apostle Paul comments on that passage from Deuteronomy in 1 Corinthians 9:9, saying the point is not about oxen but about his right to receive pay for his work in ministry. Finally there is the spiritual or allegorical sense which moves beyond application and tells us things about Jesus Christ. This runs on the idea that all of scripture, as the risen Jesus told his disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24), points to him.
Origen even makes the claim that apparent contradictions or errors in scripture may have been put there intentionally by God to move us to deeper understandings:
“But since, if the usefulness of the legislation, and the sequence and beauty of the history, were universally evident of itself, we should not believe that any other thing could be understood in the Scriptures save what was obvious, the Word of God has arranged that certain stumbling blocks, as it were, and offenses, and impossibilities should be introduced into the midst of the law and the history, in order that we may not, through being drawn away in all directions by the merely attractive nature of the language, either altogether fall away from the true doctrines, as learning nothing worthy of God, or, by not departing from the letter, come to the kowledge of nothing more divine” (On First Principles, 4.15)
“And yet I have no doubt that an attentive reader will, in numerous instances, hesitate whether this or that history can be considered to be literally true or not; or whether this or that precept ought to be observed according to the letter or no. And therefore great pains and labour are to be employed, until every reader reverentially understand that he is dealing with divine and not human words inserted in the sacred books.” (On First Principles, 4.19
One of the most common questions I get as a campus minister, from Christians and anyone else, is whether the Bible has contradictions and what to do with them. Some of these things in scripture are easily explained with a better grasp of context and genre, so we could call them “apparent contradictions.”. Yet some of them are not so easily brushed aside and some, if we are honest, sure do seem to have no good explanation (remember what I began this article with, as a Christian, I am not interested in accepting sanitized Christian answers if I do not find them compelling). Or, to put it in terms the early church Fathers would have said, there is no good explanation on the surface or literal level. So we must look deeper into the text. Now, I think what Origen says may strike some of us as a bridge too far. Yet it might be worth asking if we, with our contemporary presuppositions and assumptions are not the ones who are wrong? In seeking to smooth over every apparent contradiction in scripture, are we changing the Bible from what it is into something else? Are we straining out gnats while ignoring camels? Are we missing the point? Because again, the point is Jesus.
This is what the early church fathers emphasized. All of scripture is about Jesus. Even when they read Genesis 1, they focused not on how God created the world but what this tells us about Jesus. Maximus the Confessor talks about moving through the outer garments of scripture to the inner truths, the body.
“Therefore it seems to me that, as rational beings, we must necessarily take thought for the ‘body’ of Holy Scripture, which is far superior to its ‘garments,’ by which I mean its inner meanings, which are divine and exalted, as well as for the inward aspects of creation, and so hasten by means of reason to the Divine Reason, for He Himself says: Is not the soul more than food, and the body more than clothing” (Ambiguum 10)
It is not just the church fathers who write such things. The best Christian theologians throughout the centuries, and up to today, recognize the Bible is not there as a repository for information so we can smugly be right about things. Instead, the Bible, exists to point us to Jesus. The Bible, when read rightly, points away from itself and to Jesus who is the Word of God made flesh. Pastor and theologian Greg Boyd emphasizes this throughout his magnificent book The Crucifixion of the Warrior God:
“In light of the material covered in this chapter, I trust it is clear that the NT does not present Jesus as merely revealing an aspect of what God is like, as though we need to supplement this revelation with everything else we find in the Bible. Jesus is rather presented as the one and only Son who is, in contrast to all revelations that preceded him, the very ‘radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s being’ (Heb 1:3). He is the very ’embodiment of the truth of God…I also trust it is also clear from the material we have covered that ‘the Old Testament…is all about Jesus’ which means that ‘there is no dimension of the Old Testament message that does not in some way foreshadow Christ,’ as Goldsworthy notes” (91).
Science in general and evolution specifically ought not cause fear or anxiety in Christians. Instead, Christians are free to study with an open mind. The Bible is not opposed to science, nor was it ever intended to provide scientific information. Instead, the Bible testifies to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The foundation of faith for Christians is Jesus and the point of scripture is to direct us to live as followers of Jesus, not to give us information about how the world came to be.
This has been a long one, so thanks for reading.
I’ve had my say, but maybe you think I’m wrong. Do you believe in the theory of evolution? Why or why not? Have you been told that, as a Christian, you must not believe in evolution? How did you handle that?
What would you tell your skeptical friend who is a biology professor and finds Darwin’s theory to be as true as any scientific theory we have, but who wants to come to your church? Will she find welcome in her science and her study? Will she be turned off to Jesus because people mock her scientific livelihood?
What is the purpose of the Bible? How do you deal with apparent contradictions or the different ways God is portrayed in parts of the Old Testament compared to in Jesus?
|For Further Reading:|
In addition to the books mentioned above, check these out:
*Genesis for Normal People by Pete Enns
*Cross Vision by Greg Boyd
*Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Creation Narratives by Peter Boutenoff
*Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers by Christopher Hall