Updated: Jan 20, 2021
Here is my Theological response to questions about if evolution is allowed for Christians. There are plenty of background questions that inform this discussion, so I will go point by point.
1.0 The Classical Church - You will continue to see in my writing and speaking an alluding to the classical church. I suppose I mean to distinguish this especially from the modern church. More specifically, I mean to distinguish this from the modern American Church since the 1900’s onward.
2.0 Theological Method - The way the classical church did Theology was with a four-fold lens. Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. If we have another methodology, we may miss the great heritage of the church which processes the subject of evolution with more tools.
2.1 – Scripture has long been held to be “God-breathed” as is written in 2 Timothy 3:16. Thus, Scripture has been considered the highest authority (not only authority) by the Church of the first 1700 years or so, especially as it relates to faith and morals.
2.2- Tradition (Capital T). This sense of tradition is to be understood as the well-established or agreed upon dogmas and doctrines of the first 750 years of the Church. Some might even say 1054 years, as that was the first great Schism of the Church. The sense of Tradition as established truth, developed very early, perhaps even earlier than the New Testament. Greatest theologians in the 100’s, 200’s, and 300’s wrote this “Tradition” as the “Rule of Faith.” In the “rule” they list the doctrines the Apostles passed on to them.
If you are wondering what is in the list, basically it is the Apostles Creed. Other Creeds agreed upon in more formal ways was the Nicene and Chalcedonian formulations. These definitions and creeds are the universally agreed doctrines of the Christian Faith. This includes Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox denominations. I stress this point because not only will we rely on it, but it shows a common heritage of processing new issues as they arise.
2.3 Reason. Reason has had an obtuse relationship with faith in the last 100 years, and here or there in other eras. However, the bulk of Christian Theology has agreed that reason is the great gift of God. One statement that caught the thrust of this was, “Faith Seeking Understanding.” We have faith in God, and all the while we seek to know. The Christian philosophers and theologians did not see any difficulty between faith and reason working well together and illuminating one another. Thus, their presentations of doctrine were heavily rooted in logic.
2.4 Experience -Experience is in the last tier for theological method. Experience matters, but it plays a smaller role at getting at the truth. Whereas Scripture, Tradition, and Reason play much larger roles.
3.0– Theological Method to a Practical Phrase - Because of the way the church has classically done theology, that brings me to the other phrase that makes good sense of the history of Christian doctrine. On essentials unity, non-essentials liberty, all things charity.
This three-fold pattern is important. Essentials, for some Protestants has meant those “Salvation essentials.” The eminent apologist Norman Geisler wrote a book called, “Conviction Without Compromise” on this topic. It is a good book and Christians should read through it. I basically follow this line of thinking at the church level. However, I usually like to add that the Apostles Creed and other Creeds set the defining parameters of our doctrine. Thus, they form the basis of what the Universal church agreed upon, and still does. Moreover, these Creeds also help us to remember where there has been disagreement.
4.0 Non-Essentials – Non-essentials are where Christians have differed. Many differences have been hotly debated, but never became universally agreed upon. Examples are…
· Communion - There is still disagreement over exactly what happens at the communion table.
· Baptism - Who is to be baptized? The infant or just those who make a profession?
· Church Government - The proper form of Church government, such as Hierarchical as found in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Church. Then, there are the elder led churches, then the congregational churches.
· End Times - The specifics have never been agreed upon, albeit the fact of the 2nd coming of Christ has been universally agreed upon.
There are loads more of doctrinal discussions that the Church has not universally agreed on. That gets us to our subject of Genesis and eventually evolution.
5.0 –Essential and Non-essential and the Creation of the World – The Church has always held that God created the heavens and the earth, of all that is seen an unseen (NICENE CREED). However, the Church has never agreed on the meaning of the “Days” in Genesis or the age of the Earth. The Early Church as well as the Rabbis before and after Jesus had varying interpretations of the days as well as the age of the earth. Since there was no agreement, the universal church thought it wise not to burden future generations with what was unclear. It was clear God created the universe. It was unclear as to exactly how He did this. This framework has given Christians freedom.
6.0 Interpreting Genesis – We first need to look at Genre of the literature.
6.1 Genesis and Genre – If you are familiar with the Bible Project on YouTube, then you would be acquainted with Tim Mackie. Tim has a lot going for him as far as understanding ancient literature is concerned. I highly recommend the animated videos they create for all Christians. He labels Genesis, especially chapters 1-11 as an EPIC NARRATIVE. If this is the case, that immediately gets us away from seeing Genesis as an answer guide to science questions today. Instead, it gets us into the territory of wider and broader truths that would have been better understood to the readers back then.
There is also another way of labeling Genesis’ genre; Metaphysical Story/Narrative. The Philosopher (who is a Christian) Richard Swinburne thinks this literature is best described as a Metaphysical piece of literature (Check out Swinburne’s book “Revelation, from Metaphor to Analogy” for details). If Swinburne and Mackie (and others) are correct, this means the message of Genesis 1-11 is to reach above the local events, language, and categories of its own day to speak to something more universal to every time. The focus then is not to get lost in the local details, but in the universal principles.
If the genre of Genesis is properly outlined above, this allows Christians to make claims about God and the humanity (from Genesis) unburdened from the questions of modern science. Christians came up with a phrase that highlighted well the classical perspective. It was something like, “God has two books, one of Scripture and one of nature.” The point was that we go to Scripture for faith and morals, and we go to nature to figure out how the earth and universe came about. Many of the early Scientists thought they were discovering the very way God created. The book “What’s So Great About Christianity” by Dinesh D’souza outlines this well.
Having two books (Nature and Scripture) and knowing the Genesis genre allows flexibility on details and clarity on universals, means that we are to go to the book of nature to figure out how things have come about exactly.
6.2 – Modern Christians – Unfortunately, Christians have inherited a lot of misunderstanding on these topics. What a lot of the science vs. faith discussion has boiled down to in the popular sphere is a sort of tit for tat discussion framed by opposition. I think this is wrong. For a lot more information on ways of framing this discussion check out Ian Barbour’s book, “Religion and Science.”
7.0 – How did Modern Christians come to read this text as an opposition to various modern science trends? Well, that would take several books to outline. But the short version is something close to the following.
7.1 The Short Version - In the early 1900’s, there arose a group of Bible interpreters that became known as Fundamentalists. This was fine as they progressed in their work. The word has come to mean something a bit different in our day. This group was an esteemed group of scholars, such as B.B. Warfield (of which you will never find a more ardent defender of Scripture). They wrote a series of scholarly tracts to show that Miracles were possible, God created the world, and a few other things. They wanted to show that Christian faith was well grounded, even in the modern science-based world. These defenders of the faith God as creator but were diverse on how God created.
All of this is documented in the books “The Story of Christian Theology” by Roger Olson, the Second Volume of “Church History” by Justo Gonzales, and “The Creationists” by Ron L. Numbers.
7.2 After this group of Fundamentalists, there arose other groups who in my estimation were not as broad/deep of thinkers. They too wished to defend the faith, but they made a wrong move. They made the step to call Young Earth Creationism a Fundamental. Namely, they labeled the earth as being 6,000 – 10,000 years old, the “days” mandated as 24-hour days, Adam and Eve as specially created in a moment, and more as being essential to the faith. They have often positioned themselves as Reformers trying to reform the people of God ‘back to the truth.’ Today, we see Ken Ham from Answers in Genesis and others fulfill this role. For them, “It’s either the Bible or bust” or “Either Genesis or nothing.” I have even heard it go a tad further. “Either Genesis is true in its literal interpretation, or nothing in the Bible is true.” The logical extension from this viewpoint is that if Genesis is wrong in its literal interpretation, then even Jesus did not rise from the dead and there is no God at all. This is where the Logic of Answers in Genesis often takes us.
I think this last group is making a mistake. It is a false representation of classic Christian doctrine.
7.25 – I do find the logic of these groups very difficult indeed. One can clearly affirm the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Jesus without having to affirm the Young Earth view. I have witnessed many young people struggle over essential doctrines of the faith, because they started to question the first pages of Genesis as being a literally true description of how the events unfolded in the beginning. It is much wiser to talk about each book of the Bible according to its genre, rather than saying it is all entirely on the same playing field. I think it is a big misstep to question Jesus just because one could not force themselves to the Young Earth perspective. One could keep Jesus and hold to a different view on Genesis. Anyway…moving on.
8.0 What does this mean for Evolution?
With the above in mind, we should be clear that Christians are free to think what they want about evolution. If they think God used evolution as a vehicle for the development of all living species, and many do, then they are (at least under God and Classical Christianity) free to think so. If some think the earth is young, then they are free to do so. If some think it is old, yet Evolution is still false, they are free to do so. There are even more camps than I just mentioned. What is proper to hold is the Nicene (universally agreed upon) belief that He is the creator of all that is seen and unseen.
8.1 The Science of Evolution – The actual science of evolution is a whole other discussion. Although I have read a dozen or so books on the topic, it is not my expertise at this writing. I will just outline some of broad backdrops in thinking through the topic.
8.2 The Scientist’s Methodology – Christians are incorrect to cite Scripture in a science-based debate. The reason for this is important to grasp. The scientist works with a limited tool set from the beginning. The scientist does not peer into philosophy or theology or even other disciplines. Their focus is on what is natural and how to get at an understanding of what makes the natural world the way that it is. Their tool set is not allowed to look at non-natural things. On the one hand we might call this a limitation of science, but on the other we might term it the wisdom of science. Science is concerned with natural things, and therefore it would be wrong of them to punt to ‘faith’ if their toolset is natural.
If every time a scientist ran into a difficult problem they appealed to angels or some divine invisible activity, we would rightly question if they were doing science. Time and again this approach, looking for natural causes in the natural world, has turned up helpful discoveries and advanced learning. Christians who want to find out scientific information or do science use what is called Methodological Naturalism as a means for getting at natural truth. Methodological Naturalism just means that in our methods we will be naturalistic. We are not saying that we are using naturalism as a complete philosophy of all life.
8.2 – Evolution as an Inductive Argument – Evolution is not a clear logical argument in a deductive way. The arguments I have shared of God’s existence in other places are deductive ones. If the premises are true (and properly stated) then it guarantees the conclusion. Evolution however is an argument to the best explanation. Which, Christians would do well to remember, is the same kind of argument we use for the evidence of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
With the evidence that we have we propose explanations that can account for all the evidence. In each explanation we are looking for its explanatory scope and power. The Resurrection explains the evidence that we have. For many, Evolution is the best explanation in biology.
This is important for several reasons.
1. For Christians who desire to overcome evolution, they will have to offer a better explanation for the diversity and unity of all species.
2. Christians have struggled with this immensely. Some have found evolution contrary to their interpretation of Scripture, but this is hardly a reason for rejecting evidence in the natural world. Punting to “God” to fill the gaps has failed Christians because eventually science fills the gap.
3. Christians have offered no “better” explanation that can help medical professionals and scientists go about their work. All biological science is done with evolution in the background of their thinking. From my own reading of the subject, it appears that very little could overcome evolution’s explanatory power and scope.
4. The truth of this was so pervasive that a scientist named Theodosius Dobzhansky, who was also an Orthodox Christian wrote a now famous paper called, “Nothing in Science Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.”
In the area of God’s existence, I think the Christians have the upper hand. In the area of ultimate explanation of reality, meaning, destiny, cosmology, necessity, Christians (or other Theists) have put forth formidable arguments that are making headway in universities. Yet, at the same time, Christians who are opposed to evolution have nothing natural to offer as a better explanation. There is no replacement.
8.3 To be sure, evolution is and always has been only a partial explanation of things. For, if the timelines are correct, it does not even get started in the universe’s history till 10 billion years after the Big Bang got our universe started. Evolution happens after a universe comes into being. I have always found it funny listening to an atheist give reasons why evolution undercut their belief that God exists. There is no logical reason for this. Evolution deals with the stuff of biology and thus contingent being. When we talk about God, we are talking about necessary being. You cannot have contingent being without necessary being.
In areas the areas of biological science and all it touches; we should encourage Christians to go to God’s second book. Nature.
9.0 My Pastoral Approach with these subjects
I have Pastored a lot of young people through these subjects. In so doing, I usually do not even share my view because of how sensitive some Christians are on this topic. However, I do take the Socratic method very seriously. That allows me to give the students time to parse through several views and see if their own view holds up. I usually offer three or four views to students. I do this not only to give them options, but also to get ahead of questions they will be asking themselves soon. Knowing they have resources to think through difficult problems is essential.
I remember two students in my last church going through Biology Class. They came to me for some answers. We worked through them together. What I found interesting was their comments. They ran something like this. “Pastor Isaac, we are in biology class right now. We are being taught evolution. And, we believe in God, but we were taught that God did his creating directly (all at once). We are learning a different picture in biology. We want to believe in God, but we find the science quite compelling.”
After going through the options, they realized there were many Christian tools (viewpoints) that they did not previously know existed. Some of these other viewpoints meshed very well with what they were learning. They left the church that day loving Jesus and thinking about medical careers for God. Others have left my classes holding to their Young Earth perspective, still others denying evolution but espousing an ancient earth. Almost all students leave with the impression that there is freedom on this topic in the body of Christ and begin to offer grace to other views.
10.0 - I hope that you the reader of this will gain the same respect and grace for other views as my students have. It is clearly our theology to allow freedom on this topic. So long as we think God did the creating, we are free to follow the truth to uncovering how he did it.