Every generation of believers has its particular hot spots of debate. In our Irish context, Christology, national identity, ecumenism, eschatology, sectarianism, social justice, gender roles and more recently, sexuality have all had their turn. Few, if any, of these have been addressed once and for all despite our best efforts. They re-emerge, and no doubt will continue to do so, in a kind of cyclical pattern as interest and controversy ebbs and flows.
Having said that, it is hard to find a more hotly disputed or more highly emotive subject to discuss within the family of faith at the moment than that of the theory of evolution. It is now a century and a half since the first publication of the Origin of Species, or as its full title of 1859 puts it, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. During this time, Darwin’s theory on how species have developed has led to some very radical shifts in our scientific understanding. It has also led to the rise of new-atheism and, sadly, some of the most deeply emotive and divisive debates within the Christian church in a long, long while. As someone who once found this whole subject matter deeply troubling himself, I can understand the intensity it has generated. The challenge evolution brings to certain understandings of the first chapters of the Bible is unquestionably significant. However, it is equally the case that those of us involved in mission today cannot ignore this topic and hope it is going to go away. If we are to continue being authentic, effective witnesses to the Gospel in our land we must do open and honest business with this former theology student at Cambridge University and with his once speculative theory that has now become the predominant worldview of Western science and culture.
In this short paper, therefore, I would like to look at some of the key issues that emerge in this debate and explain why, for me evolution is not our enemy.
Evolution and Atheism
Let’s begin by making sure we understand that evolution and atheism are not the same thing. I have read and heard several people use these words as if they are interchangeable and they most certainly are not. Christians have always proclaimed that the world in which we live did not appear by accident. Genesis 1.1 puts it simply: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’. This was, and is, our proclamation. Indeed, not only is God the originator of our world, He is also its constant sustainer. As Paul said to those in the Areopagus, in Acts 17, it is God himself who ‘gives everyone life and breath and everything else. It is ‘in him we live and move and have our being.’ This is the vital starting place in any Christian discussion of creation and despite the assertions of new-atheism, the theory of evolution in no way threatens this proclamation.
Many of us seem to think that embracing Darwin’s theory somehow excludes the involvement of God in our world. Many of us seem to think that the theory supports, or even demands, an acceptance of the conclusions of atheism, and this is far from the case. Whether God spoke and brought our world to its fully formed state in a short period of time or whether he did so over many millions of years changes nothing about his position as Creator nor the ongoing miraculous nature of his work. Richard Dawkins, and his like, might wish to argue that evolution entirely disproves the existence of God but their argument is utterly illogical. If anything, all that evolution changes is our understanding of God’s method.
Like every other scientific discovery, the theory of evolution speaks only to the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of our world and has nothing to say to the far more significant questions of ‘who’ and ‘why’. If natural selection rather than specific creation is how our various species came about, and we, of course, would want to define that word ‘natural’ very carefully, the obvious questions still remain: Why was that? Why did that whole process come to be in place? Who is behind it all? Atheism may well want to say that there is no ‘who’ to discover but the theory of evolution in itself absolutely does not.
Evolution and Biblical Authority
Secondly, it is important that we understand that whatever its final form may be, and in parts it is still very much in development, the theory of evolution in no way threatens the authority and infallibility of the scriptures. It questions only our interpretations. In the discussions I have been part of in recent years, I have often heard it stated that evolution contradicts the literal reading of the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2. Furthermore, not only does evolution threaten the credibility of those chapters, people say, it threatens the credibility of the whole bible. If the bible is not literally true in its account of creation, then how can it be literally true in its account of anything else? Ironically, for me, these latter arguments are usually ones I hear from Christians and not atheists! But are these fears actually warranted? Does what science has to say about creation really threaten the credibility of the scriptures and of our faith? In actual fact, the answer given to these last questions by many of our best known leaders in the church over the years is a resounding ‘no’!
Here are just a few examples:
1. B.B. Warfield (1851-1921)
Benjamin B Warfield was the highly respected Professor of Theology at New Jersey’s Princeton Seminary from 1887 to 1921 and an ardent advocate for the reliability and authority of the Bible. JI Packer lists him along with John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards and Abraham Kuyper, as the fourth member of ‘Reformed theology’s Fabulous Four’. Warfield described himself as a ‘darwinian of the purest water’ and argued in his 1888 Lectures on Anthropology that:
“The upshot of the whole matter is that there is no necessary antagonism of Christianity to evolution, provided that we do not hold to too extreme a form of evolution. To adopt any form that does not permit God freely to work apart from law & which does not allow miraculous intervention (in the giving of the soul, in creating Eve etc.) will entail a great reconstruction of Christian doctrine, and a very lowering of the detailed authority of the Bible. But if we condition the theory by allowing the constant oversight of God in the whole process, and his occasional supernatural interference for the production of new beginnings by an actual output of creative force, producing something new, we may hold to the modified theory of evolution and be Christians in the ordinary orthodox sense.”
2. Rev Dr Billy Graham (1918- present)
Billy Graham is perhaps the most famous Christian evangelist of the last century. It is said that he has preached the Gospel in person to more people than anyone else in history, which is quite a feat. In one of his many interviews with David Frost, this is what he had to say on this subject:
“I don’t think there’s any conflict at all between Science today and the Scriptures. I think we have misinterpreted the Scriptures many times and we’ve tried to make the Scriptures say things they weren’t meant to say. I think that we have made a mistake by thinking the Bible is a scientific book. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption, and of course, I accept the Creation story. I believe that God did create the universe. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man….whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.” (Quoted in Billy Graham: Personal Thoughts of a Public Man, by David Frost and Fred Bauer)
3. Dr Alistair McGrath (1953 – present)
Alistair McGrath, who is a frequent debater with the new Atheist movement, is the Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at King’s College, London. He received a First class honours degree in chemistry and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in molecular biophysics from Oxford University before going on to get a first class honours degree in Theology from there as well. He is extremely well placed to have a view on this subject. In an interview with Nigel Bovey, Dr McGrath was asked if he felt that someone could be a Christian and believe in evolution? His response was as follows:
“Yes, they can. Evolution is not, by definition, atheistic. Darwin (himself) saw his theory as reconcilable with the Bible. He struggled with his Christian faith towards the end of his life but that was because his daughter had died very young, not because of his ideas on evolution. Some Christians will be uncomfortable with the idea of believing in evolution, particularly because it raises the question of how to interpret the early chapters of Genesis. That’s a very big issue in its own right. All I can say is that, with complete integrity, there are many Christians who see evolution as illuminating the way in which we understand Genesis and as giving us an enhanced vision of how God brought the world and humankind into being. People can make evolution atheistic but it doesn’t have to be.”
(For the full interview see http://www.christianevidencesociety.org.uk/article/articles/25/)
To these three we can add such well known Christian names as Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis, Professor JI Packer, Pope John Paul II, Bishop NT Wright, and Rev Timothy Keller – all of whom have had no difficulty in maintaining absolute belief in Biblical authority whilst accepting the basic tenets of evolution. It is also significant to note that their basic approach to Genesis is far from a new one.
In a very helpful article entitled ‘Augustine’s Origin of Species’, published in Christianity Today in May 2009, Alistair McGrath outlines the thinking of St Augustine of Hippo (354-430AD), one of the most respected early Christian Bible scholars, with regards to his views on the Genesis texts. In it, he points out that Augustine, too, wrestled with Genesis 1 and 2 throughout his career and tackles them on at least four occasions in his writing, including his work, The Literal Meaning of Genesis which was written between 401 and 415 AD. Obviously Augustine was writing long before the birth of modern science and the dawn of Darwin’s theory about the preservation of favoured races. But it still very interesting to note what his own conclusions were about how we should be dealing with the accounts of creation in scripture. Here is an excerpt from that article:
“Augustine draws out the following core themes [in his thinking about creation]: For him, God brought everything into existence in a single moment of creation. Yet the created order is not static. God endowed it with the capacity to develop. Augustine uses the image of the dormant seed to help his readers grasp this point. God creates seeds, which will grow and develop at the right time. Augustine asks his readers to likewise think of the created order as containing divinely embedded ‘causalities’ that emerge or develop at a later stage. Yet he has no time for any notion of random or arbitrary changes within creation. The development of God’s creation is always subject to God’s sovereign providence.
Augustine argues that the first creation account (Genesis 1:1-2:3) cannot be interpreted in isolation but must be set alongside the second creation account (Genesis 2:4-25), as well as every other statement about the creation found in Scripture. For example, Augustine suggests that Psalm 33:6-9 speaks of an instantaneous creation of the world through God’s creative Word, while John 5:17 points to a God who is still active within creation. Thus God created the world in an instant but continues to develop and mould it, even to the present day. This leads Augustine to suggest that the six days of creation are not to be understood chronologically. Rather, they are a way of categorizing God’s work of creation. They provide a framework for the classification of the elements of the created world so that they might be better understood and appreciated. These and other biblical passages, he insisted, can legitimately be understood in different ways. The important thing is that these interpretations must not be wedded to prevailing understandings about our world. Otherwise, the Bible becomes a prisoner of what was once believed to be true but is not any more. In Augustine’s own words:
“In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines our position, we too fall with it.”
You can find the full article at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/may/22.39.html
Given his antiquity, Augustine’s reading of scripture remains remarkably insightful for our day. For him, a ‘literal’ reading of Genesis does not require creation to be seen as having occurred in six literal 24 hour days. Neither does it require a rejection of any discoveries that seem to be in contradiction to that view. To require a 6 by 24 hour interpretation when scripture itself states that the earth and sun did not exist together until the fourth ‘day’ (See Gen 1:9-19) made no sense to Him. And if that was so in the fifth century, why should it be any different today? The reason that Augustine, and so many of our best Christian leaders over the years, have not had a problem with alternative views of Genesis 1&2 is that Biblical authority is not under threat from such views, nor is from the theory of evolution. It may well be that some of us will have to adjust our expositional and theological thinking in the light of what we now know. But, changing our thinking and these chapters in Scripture, or the whole of the Scriptures, losing their credibility and authority are two very different things. The Bible’s infallibility is in no way tied to ours!
Faith & Science
One of my greatest concerns about the attempts being made to ‘defend’ the Gospel from the perceived attack of evolution is that this defence is positioning the Christian church as being at odds with, and threatened by, the learning of science. It seems to me that behind these stringent efforts against what most now hold to be true about the age and nature of our world, there lies a deep insecurity. It is as if this modern science is not only wrong in its conclusions but must be wrong else our faith be proven false. But how can such insecurity exist if the gospel is truly from the creator of creation? In the Middle Ages theology was known as ‘the queen of the sciences.’ These days, not only has this designation been lost, increasingly Christians are being thought of as anti-science, in conflict with it and afraid to face up to its attested discoveries. Worse than this, Christians are being encouraged to be this way by their very own teachers. Surely this is the ultimate incongruity!
How could the church that God has brought into being ever be threatened by a greater understanding of the world that God has brought into being? If Jesus is who he said he was, and the gospel is what it claims to be, shouldn’t we welcome every increase of this knowledge? Wouldn’t every new discovery that is made simply be a further affirmation of and opportunity to explore the wonder and complexity of our heavenly Father’s work? For me, this is exactly what it is. Yet, instead of this, many of us who declare creation to be God’s handiwork, have been persuaded that the science that uncovers its details is now our enemy. We must not yield to such persuasion. Abraham Kyper, another of reformed theology’s ‘fabulous four’ once said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: mine!” As followers of Christ we must continue to have the confidence to affirm this and to include the field of science as very much within that domain. Of course, we will want to draw very different conclusions from the insights of science to those who are atheists but that is a far cry from our wanting to reject those insights altogether. We who believe should rejoice in the advancements being brought to our understanding most of all. They do nothing but further declare the wonder of the God who has revealed himself not only in Israel and in Christ, but also in creation.
Take, for example, the advances that have been made in the field of genetics. What do they point us to? Well, in a world so long, and continuing to be, torn apart by racial, tribal and ethnic division, the modern field of genetics has shown us that we all belong to the exact same family. Against the racism of centuries we now know that Black people are no separate, inferior ‘breed’. Against the polemics of the Nazis we now know that there is no such thing as ‘Aryans’. Amidst the tribal sectarianism of our Irish past, we now know that Catholics and Protestants are not so very different after all. In fact, we are all genetically identical. This ‘field of Genetics’ has revealed that there is no such thing as race. Indeed, the whole of our human species seems to come from a single moment of creation and that every single person alive is in fact part of that one, same global and historic family. Sounds a lot like the scriptures doesn’t it?
Likewise, in the field of cosmology, take the theory of the big bang. First proposed around 1931 by Georges Lemaître, this now widely accredited theory states that long in the past our world was not and then, suddenly, in only a tiny fraction of a second, after some kind of ‘big bang’, it was. It is almost as if the world did not exist and suddenly someone spoke and brought it into existence! How is any of this a problem for those of us in the church? It simply isn’t. Scientific discovery may sometimes challenge our man-made interpretations of scripture but it is never a challenge to the Gospel. We must, must remember this in our thinking about evolution.
The sad mistake of Darwin, and of the church then and now, is to mistake our doctrines and interpretations of the scriptures for the scriptures themselves. They are absolutely not the same. Darwin was no more the ‘Devil’s chaplain’ than any other scientist who has discovered a new insight into the workings of God’s creation. His theory about evolution is no more a threat to the Christian faith than the discovery of penicillin. When we uncover new aspects of what God has done to make the miracle of the universe happen, we are only discovering the incredible patterns and sheer brilliance of His thoughts after him. Far from being something to be attacked, this unfurling of our world’s true nature, whether it be the centrality of the Sun in our universe, the expanses of space beyond it, the nature of DNA or even God’s method of creating new species, is a welcome gift and should be received as such. Only our needless insecurities prevent us from seeing this.
Many of our current fears come from the fact that we have somehow been lured into defending the scriptures as if they were a collection of scientific journals. This was unfortunately the initial reaction of some in the church to Darwin’s ideas and it has now become so ingrained in our thinking that it is hard to imagine doing otherwise. But surely it is self-evident that the Biblical authors never intended to write in this way? The idea of a scientific methodology did not even exist when the Bible was authored. Given this, is it not equally self-evident that we are utterly mistaken to try and interpret the Bible and/or defend it assuming that they did? Even though the authors of scripture did have a special revelation that might have allowed them to know of future science, which science would that have been? Would they have written in the science of the Persians or the Romans? Would they have written with the science of the 1600s, of today or of 3011? And if God were to lead them to write in any way save that which was appropriate for their own time, what sense, or use, would their writings have held for their first readers? As His Word demonstrates again and again, God has always revealed himself in the culture of the day and he has always done so in a manner that is understandable there and then. This is exactly what we find in Genesis 1 & 2. The message these first chapters communicate is indeed infallible and absolutely clear but that message is not about the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of creation. It is about the ‘who’ and the ‘why.’ To instead hold the Genesis texts up as pieces of science and then argue and demand that they meet the criteria of 21st century science misses the whole point of what God intends them to reveal. There are several different literary forms within the pages of scripture but none of them is scientific. There is history, prophecy, allegory, poetry, parable and apocalypse. Each of these forms speak authoritatively to us. Each of them communicates to us exactly what God desires us to know though they do not all do this in exactly the same way. When we speak of taking the Bible literally we must therefore ensure that by that we mean the taking of scripture in the way its authors intended us to. Otherwise we create totally unnecessary difficulties for ourselves – such as whether the trees in Israel ever actually clapped their hands, whether the stars ever joined in battle against Darius, whether the mustard seed is really the smallest in the world, or whether the accounts in Genesis are an accurate scientific record. Amidst the form and imagery of the wider scriptures we have been given a form and imagery of creation in the book of Genesis and what this has to teach is truly, and undeniably, amazing! Understood as their author intended, these words are just as authoritative and infallible today as they ever have been. It is only when we try to force them to be what they clearly are not that our difficulties with science then arise.
The Dangers of Either/Or Apologetics
If I, personally, have any real concern or insecurity about the debate taking place at the moment over evolution, it actually only lies in what is being argued within the Christian church. In particular I am thinking about what seems to be increasingly posited by those who hold the positions of intelligent design and young earth creationism. These people are my brothers and sisters in Christ and I want to speak respectfully of them here, but I must express my twofold concern. Firstly, I am troubled by the increasingly stated position of some within these movements that any who disagree with their views cannot be regarded as bible-believing Christians or even as true followers of Jesus. This sounds very much to me as if they are saying ‘we are saved by grace alone, through faith and, by holding to our position on creation.’ I think this is a grave mistake. Secondly, I am deeply concerned by the increasing number of those who hold these positions who wish to stake the whole credibility of the Bible and of our faith on the ‘rightness’ of their particular interpretation of the creation accounts.
Take, for example, Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky, who consistently argues that we cannot claim the truth of Christianity whilst accepting the theory of evolution. “Given the human tendency toward inconsistency,’ he writes in an piece for Time Magazine, “there are people who will say they hold both positions. But you cannot coherently affirm the Christian-truth claim and the dominant model of evolutionary theory at the same time.” (See http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1090921-2,00.html#ixzz1MhWRLUqT) Wayne Grudem, Research Professor in Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary whose book Systematic Theology: An introduction to Biblical Doctrine is a set text for many in the church expresses himself very similarly. ‘Christians,’ he says, ‘cannot accept modern evolutionary theory without also compromising essential teachings of the Bible.‘ More popularly, I have heard this same position stated something like this: ‘If I have to choose between believing the bible about creation or believing the scientists, I am going to believe the Bible!’
For me, such arguments, faith-filled as they may sound, are bewildering. They not only change entirely theology’s position with regard to science, they change the whole foundation of our faith from what it has always been – the cross and resurrection of Jesus – to these things PLUS a literal six day creationism. As Augustine pointed out long ago, this is both an unnecessary and a foolish thing to do. If the time comes that evolution is utterly accepted, assuming for a moment that we are not there already, then what will be the consequences? The obvious conclusion for those who have heard (and possibly held) such positions mentioned above will almost certainly be that not only has a particular view of creation been proven non-credible but also the entire ‘truth claims’ and ‘essential teachings of the Bible’. I can see the day coming when someone will say to me, ‘I had to choose between believing the Bible or believing the scientists, so I had to believe the scientists!’ How could such a choice ever be necessary? By setting up an ‘either the Bible OR the attested insights of science’ defence for the Gospel, I am deeply concerned that these non-evolutionary positions hold far more danger for the future mission of our church than Darwin’s theory ever will.
As evolution moves, like the theory of gravity, from being something that is speculative to something that is widely accepted as fact amongst our world’s population, there will no doubt be implications for some of us in our peripheral thinking and teachings as Christians. But whatever these changes must be, they will alter absolutely nothing about the core message we proclaim as followers of Christ. However God brought our race into being, whichever astonishing miracle he chose to use, it remains the case that our rebellion cut us off from him; that only through a Saviour who would pay the price for our sins could we ever be reconciled to Him; and that by the Cross, and the grace purchased for us upon it, that salvation has now been accomplished. Beginning with Moses and the Prophets, the Bible’s sole purpose is to reveal this truth to the world. It is on this alone that the credibility of the Christian faith has always been based. How God chose to bring us into being, and how long ago that was, makes no difference to our proclamation. Darwin’s theory on the origin of species changes nothing about the Gospel’s good news for our species. This is why, for me, the theory of evolution holds no threat to the future mission of the church and is not, in any way, our enemy as followers of Jesus Christ.