We recommend Dennis McCallum’s review of The Language of God for another perspective on this issue.
Is evolution compatible with a faithful reading of scripture? We previously maintained that micro-evolution is compatible with scripture, but macro-evolution is not compatible with the claim that God created life.
We believe this view needs to be corrected, because scripture allows for the possibility that God worked through natural processes like evolution to create life, including biological humanity. Regarding the creation of humans, we propose that a faithful reading of Genesis one and two allows for an evolutionary origin for Adam's body, but evolution cannot explain the origin of spiritual life. God intervened to create spiritual life in Adam as he does in all humans. It seems that the details in Genesis two indicate God's special intervention in the creation of Eve.
We agree with most Christians who believe in a creator God who worked through natural phenomenon, like gravity, over billions of years to form stars, planets and solar systems. He used these forces of nature that he created, to perform his creative work. He did it in such a way that the earth could sustain life. But if so, then God could have worked through natural processes, including evolution, to create the diversity of life we observe, including humans.
We are not arguing for evolution. But we believe scripture is not specific enough about "how" God created to rule out evolution as a means of God's creativity. Those who oppose evolution as incompatible with biblical Christianity run the risk of pressing the text beyond what is written and placing an unnecessary barrier before non-Christian investigators. We believe Christians should help people understand that evolution as an explanation for biological life is compatible with scripture.
This paper explains the issues at stake with this question of evolution and scripture, and defends the position proposed. Appendices provide additional background.
Proposed Position on Evolution and Scripture
- God created the universe and all life forms, through some combination of natural processes and supernatural intervention.
- Genesis, including the first 11 chapters, is historical. We agree with and affirm the Chicago statement on inerrancy on this subject.
- Adam and Eve were historical people, from whom the human race descended.
- Genesis one and two do not specifically describe how God created life or the human body. A faithful reading of Genesis allows for the possibility that God created life, including the human body, through a combination of evolution and divine intervention.
- God created Adam as a spiritual being with a special act of creation when God made Adam in His own image.
- God created Eve from Adam's substance and imparted spiritual life to her.
Scripture is Compatible with Evolution
To form a sound position on evolution and creation it is helpful to begin by understanding some of the mistakes interpreters make in bringing science and scripture together. We will survey three prototypic mistakes that we should try to avoid. Then we will present a position on Genesis one and two regarding origins, creation, and evolution. We will demonstrate that scripture is compatible with an evolutionary view of the origin of life, including, with exceptions, the origin of human life.
Three Errors in Relating Science and Scripture
Often these errors occur as new scientific discoveries emerge which challenge the accepted interpretation of scripture.
Error 1: Surrendering the Authority of Scripture
The first error is to surrender the authority of scripture. On the Bible's own terms, it is not just man-made speculation about spiritual truth, but authoritative communication from God. Though that communication has occurred through various human authors, scripture asserts unambiguously and consistently that "...no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." (2 Peter 1:20-21). "All scripture", asserts 2 Timothy 3:16, "is God-breathed, profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction..." On the authority of scripture hangs the entire foundation of biblical Christianity. Any erosion of that authority cuts the anchor line, leaving us at the mercy of every wind of human intuition and opinion.
Christians have surrendered scriptural authority in response to challenges from science: sometimes in a straightforward way, and sometimes more subtly.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, a tidal wave of liberal theology swept through the church. This theological position was built on a straightforward rejection of the inspiration of scripture. It was driven to a large extent by the sense that science contradicted scripture and therefore disproved inspiration. This view taught that scripture was of value only as religious mythology and not the accurate communication of truth.
Today in the west, the authority of scripture is under assault from a different direction, namely spiritual relativism, or post-modernism. This attack is more subtle. It dichotomizes spiritual truth from normal everyday objective truth. According to this view, it doesn't matter whether the bible is scientifically accurate. This view believes that only the spiritual statements in scripture are valuable, and of those only the ones found to be personally helpful.
But if the bible is factually false in the areas which can be tested, for example via science, then we surrender the authority of scripture. If we cannot trust scripture where we can test it, then we cannot trust it in those absolutely critical areas where it is difficult to test; namely its statements about God's character, the afterlife, and salvation.
This is the position of scripture itself. The bible, taken on its own terms, denies the notion that spiritual truth is different from everyday truth, and therefore refuses the relativistic way out of potential conflicts with science. God insists from the beginning that we should look for, and that he would provide, objectively verifiable evidence for the spiritual statements he would reveal (Deuteronomy 18:21-22). As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, if the physical/historical event of the resurrection of Christ did not actually occur, then none of the spiritual truths built upon it are true:
"If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain...for if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied." (1 Corinthians 15:14-19 NASB)
We should apply the same rationale to other areas of life. There is no splitting of the two. And therefore, by the bible's own terms, there should be no conflict between clear statements in scripture and well-established scientific facts.
An even more subtle form of the surrender of scriptural authority occurs when Christians adopt such a loose approach to the interpretation of scripture that, in effect, it can be made to say anything. A current example of this mistake is found in Francis Collins' generally very good book, The Language of God. In response to the difficulties in reconciling Genesis two with the evidence for the evolutionary origin of humans from non-human hominids, he says:
"But other parts of the Bible, such as the first few chapters of the book of Genesis…have a more lyrical and allegorical flavor, and do not generally seem to carry the marks of pure historical narrative." (Francis Collins, The Language of God, p. 175)
Actually, from Genesis two forward there is no contextual or stylistic break from later passages which we know to be history. There is no textual justification for this consignment of the text to allegory, as purely symbolic and non-historical, and in fact the rest of scripture repeatedly refers to the events in Genesis two and three as historical (Matthew 19:4-6, 1 Chronicles 1:1, 1 Timothy 2:13, Romans 5:14, to name just a very few). Collins is retreating down this path to avoid what he believes to be conflict with science, but by doing so he surrenders the authority of scripture. If any difficult passage can simply be declared symbolic, then how can I know I will actually be raised from the dead if I place my faith in Christ? Perhaps that, too, is purely symbolic?
As we consider the issue of evolution, we have to be on guard against a response which surrenders the authority of scripture. This means that any interpretation of the relevant texts must be legitimate, and that there should be a reasonable harmonization between that interpretation and any well-established scientific facts regarding evolution.
Error 2: The Galileo Mistake
Christians have often made a second error in a deliberate effort to avoid the first. This error occurs when Christians are confronted with scientific data that seems to contradict a passage in scripture. Instead of considering other rational interpretations which would harmonize with the new scientific data, some Christians declare war on the scientific data.
The most famous instance of this error occurred when the church denounced Galileo's teaching on sun-centered (Copernican) astronomy. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was one of the founders of the modern scientific movement. He was a brilliant and productive researcher and a devout Christian. For centuries past, Ptolemaic astronomy had been the accepted scientific view. By this view, the earth was at the stationary center of the universe, with the sun, planets, and stars rotating around it on a complex system of crystal spheres. Quite reasonably, Christians had interpreted passages like 1 Chronicles 16:30 to affirm Ptolemaic astronomy:
"Indeed, the world is firmly established; it will not be moved." (1 Chronicles 16:30 NASB)
However, a number of researchers began to argue that this view was incorrect, and that instead the earth and the other planets were orbiting the sun. This provided a far simpler explanation for the motion of the planets, and of course this is factually correct.
When Galileo published his research, the church had two choices. The first option would have been to investigate the new scientific claims, re-evaluate their interpretation of passages like 1 Chronicles 16:30, as Galileo himself urged, and affirm that a legitimate understanding of that text actually harmonized with the new scientific view. And of course today, all Christians read such verses this way--the surface of the earth forms a stable place to live, the fact of which in no way contradicts Copernican astronomy. But instead the established church declared the new scientific view heretical. Church leaders attacked it and anyone supporting it, including Galileo. Brought to trial by the inquisition in 1633, Galileo recanted his scientific works on this topic, though he later recanted his recantation. He spent the last seven years of his life under house arrest. The Catholic Church issued a formal apology for this error in 1992. But this was far too late to avoid the damage to Galileo and to countless people for whom the reputation of Christ had been unnecessarily tarnished.
Francis Collins quotes Augustine. Writing more than 1000 years before the time of Galileo, he precisely captures the terrible consequences of Galileo mistakes:
"Usually…a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world...now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for a [non-Christian] 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 that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss to those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scriptures 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 on 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, c390 AD)
The cost from such mistakes is indeed high, and they have occurred repeatedly through church history. Though these mistakes seem easy to see in retrospect, we would be well-advised to take seriously our own susceptibility to making such mistakes today.
One extremely costly example of a Galileo mistake occurring today in western evangelical churches is young earth creationism and flood geology. Here, Christians refuse to consider alternative, legitimate interpretations for the usage of the word day (Hebrew yom) in Genesis one, and insist on interpreting that word to mean 24-hour days, in a strict chronological sequence. By implication of this interpretation, the universe must be no more than some 10,000 years old, a view which is (to say the very least) in serious conflict with science. Most scientists reckon the universe to be some 15 billion years old, and the earth some 4.5 billion years old.
Most non-Christians who believe that they must accept young-earth creationism in order to take the bible seriously will choose instead to reject biblical Christianity...the very unnecessary tragedy Augustine warned against.
As we deal with the question of evolution, we must avoid a Galileo mistake. This means that we must avoid confusing our own preconceptions about the issue of evolution and creation with what the text actually requires. Careful interpreters must be ready to study the text and grant latitude where the text allows.
Error 3: False Dichotomy—God's Providence or Natural Processes?
Many Christians make a false dichotomy between God's providence and natural processes. They claim that creation of man must be a completely special act outside natural processes. They mistakenly oppose an evolutionary explanation for the creation of the human body (biological Adam) because in their minds, a natural explanation for humanity excludes God's creative activity. They fail to see the scriptural emphasis on God's presence in the natural order.
Throughout Scripture we find a connection between God's providence and the workings of nature: God is present in the natural order. Nature demonstrates something of His character and his attributes (Romans 1:18-20) and scripture states that God's creative power is at work in nature. We see this particularly in the formation of humans through the process of conception and fetal development. We find a few references helpful in Job:
"Your hands fashioned and made me altogether, And would You destroy me? Remember now, that You have made me as clay; and would You turn me into dust again? Did You not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese; clothe me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews?" (Job 10:8-11 NASB)
It is quite clear that Scripture here and elsewhere (Job 31:15; 33:6; Psalm 139:13-16; Isaiah 44:24) holds that God is active in the physical process of human fetal development: a natural process. So we find his creative nature and providence active in this fascinating natural process.
In fact in Job 10:8,9 he uses the same word for "made" (asah) that Genesis 1:25, 26 use to refer to the creation of all land animals and to man. In Job asah refers to the natural process of conception and development (unless one holds for a special creative act in the formation of Job). Therefore asah in Genesis one could refer to a natural process rather than a special act of creation.
We find that Scripture attributes many other natural processes to God's power and providence. In Job 36:27 he writes, "For He draws up the drops of water, they distill rain from the mist," and thus attributes the water cycle to God. In Nehemiah 9:6 we read, "You alone are the LORD. You have made the heavens…" Nehemiah attributes the formation of heavenly bodies to the Lord and we need not look outside God's laws of nature to find explanations for the formation of heavenly bodies.
We need to grasp this idea of God's providence being manifest in nature to properly understand a passage like Isaiah 44:24 "Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, and the one who formed you from the womb, 'I, the LORD, am the maker of all things, Stretching out the heavens by Myself And spreading out the earth all alone…'" Here we see the seamless association of God forming a man in his mother's womb (a natural process) and His creation of the heavens. This is so significant because it demonstrates that from God's perspective we need not make distinctions between his divine providence and natural processes.
Those who see God's providence in the natural order need not fear scientific discovery. We welcome discovery because it sheds light on how God's universe works. Of course we must carefully and critically evaluate the data and the sometimes hasty conclusions made by scientists. But in the final analysis, science will tell us more about God's creative nature. Therefore in the realm of biology and specifically evolution, we need to be open to discovery and the possibility that God created the human body through a natural process that could include evolution.
What could not occur through evolution or a natural process is the advent of spiritual life. The infusion of spiritual life occurred when God created Adam in his own image such that he lived as a physical (the human body) and spiritual being. We are simply saying that it is possible, and consistent with Scripture, that God created Adam's body in part through evolution, and then imparted spiritual life to him.
Genesis one and two and Evolution
Do Genesis one and two preclude evolution as a means of creation?
First let's consider how much of Genesis one consists of God creating through natural processes. In Genesis 1:6, God creates earth's atmosphere: "Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters." In Genesis 1:16 God creates the stars and planets: "God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also." Most interpreters agree that God created these objects through what we consider natural means (i.e. known laws of nature).
Now let's turn to the sixth day of creation. At this point we find the creation of land animals and man. Genesis 1:24 reads, "Then God said, 'Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth after their kind'; and it was so."
This statement, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures," seems to indicate that God created living creatures from existing substances of the earth. The text does not tell how he created them, and does not indicate specific creation of each type of creature. Therefore it does not preclude creation through evolution.
Some interpret the phrase "after their kind" to indicate the creation of specific species or phyla, and therefore to contradict evolution. But this is an overly restrictive view of the text. The phrase is telling us that living things reproduce This is a distinctive of living things compared to non-living matter. But if God could have created the stars through natural processes, then he could have created the "kinds" through natural processes like evolution and then they would reproduce "after their kind."
Those who insist that phrases like these can only refer to a special act of creation are making the second and third errors we warn against. They are more restrictive than the text requires, thereby picking an unnecessary fight with science. And they are refusing to acknowledge that God's creative activity is often expressed through natural processes.
In Genesis 1:25 we read, "God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind; and God saw that it was good." From this passage we conclude that God made the beasts, but we do not know how he created. Did he make each individually as a special act of creation, or could he have used a slow natural process to create the beasts? The text does not provide the answer. It is interesting to note that the word asah, translated "made," in Genesis 1:25-26 is also used in Job 10:8-9 (see above under Dichotomy) to refer to God "making" Job through the process of conception and fetal development: a natural process. We conclude that asah is not a technical term used in Genesis one to depict special acts of creation, but could be used in Genesis one to describe a God-created natural process to form the beasts, just as it is used elsewhere.
In Genesis 1:26 we read "Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…" The same word, asah, is used for "make" in this instance so that same argument from Genesis 1:25 applies. Asah is not a technical term and therefore how God made man is not described in Genesis. No matter how God created the biological body, we know he created man and woman distinct from the other creatures because he made them in His own image. This indicates spiritual life that distinguishes humanity and we therefore believe special intervention by God was required to impart spiritual life. Spiritual life cannot evolve since it is not physical so that one could not look to evolution as a source of spiritual life.
The statement in Genesis 2:7 provides more specific information about the creation of man. Here we read, "Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being."
One could interpret this literally, to mean, "God took dust and made Adam in a moment of time." We believe that is a possible interpretation, but it does not offer the best fit with scripture and scientific facts. When they ate of the tree they did not die physically, but through that act they ushered in spiritual and physical death to humanity.
First of all the word, yatsar, translated "formed," is used in a similar fashion in 2:19 where we read, "Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast…" So, the idea that God created man from dust and the beasts from the ground is consistent. Those who insist that 2:7 must refer to the special creation of Adam must also hold that 2:19 refers to special creation of the individual animals brought to Adam for naming.
If we do not take a narrow interpretation, then we can say, at least, that God created the beasts and the human body from existing materials of the earth. We can also conclude that yatsar is not a technical term describing special creation. In fact, the word is used, like asah, to describe God working through known natural means. In Psalm 139:13 we read, "For You formed (yatsar) my inward parts; You wove me in my mother's womb." So we find that yatsar, like asah can refer to a natural process.
Therefore when we look at the text of Genesis 2:7, describing Adam's creation, we conclude that God created him from existing materials (from dust), but we cannot know exactly how God created him. We cannot look at the word yatsar and conclude that Adam was the result of a special act of creation outside the realm of natural phenomenon since yatsar elsewhere depicts the natural process of conception and development. Yatsar could describe a natural process like evolution.
Now let's turn to the phrase in Genesis 2:7 "[God]…breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being." Are we limited again to the narrow interpretation which would indicate a special creation from dust and God granting biological and spiritual life from his breath into Adam's nostrils? The narrow interpretation raises a few important questions.
First of all, why would God need to breathe life with a literal breath of air? And if he did, how could air impart life in the complicated way we understand life (cellular respiration and function on a microscopic and organ system level)? Most people would agree that this statement is at least in part metaphorical.
The other issue is that life and death in Genesis depict spiritual as well as physical condition. In the most immediate context of Genesis two, we find that the concept of life as spiritual life prevails. God told Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree or they would die (Genesis 2:17). When they ate of the tree they did not die physically, but through that act they ushered in spiritual and physical death to humanity.
So when we read in Genesis 2:7 "that man became a living being" we do not believe we are constrained to the position that God formed the biological and spiritual parts of Adam at that moment and thus made him a living being. God could have created Adam's physical body over time and then breathed spiritual life into him in a moment of time-he became a living being and fully man as God intended.
And what about the narrative of the creation of Eve? There are two interpretive options: first, that the account of God making Eve from Adam’s rib is figurative, and second, that the account is describing an actual supernatural intervention by God. The first option is untenable unless you also consider the entire account of Adam’s creation to be figurative as well, which we believe is an unsupportable interpretation. The whole of scripture indicates that Adam was an actual individual and that the events described in his life in Genesis 2, 3, and 4 are historical. But given that constraint, the only reasonable understanding of the account of the creation of Eve is that it, too, is to be understood literally. If Adam was in a garden, spoke with God, named the animals, had a son named Cain and another named Seth, then it tortures the text to say that all of those elements of the narrative are to be understood literally but that Adam’s sleep and God’s removal of the rib are to be understood figuratively. And of course the God of scripture is perfectly capable of performing this supernatural intervention. Such an origin for Eve, while not scientifically verifiable or falsifiable, does harmonize with the extremely low level of genetic variation observed in human populations.
We conclude from a careful study of Genesis one and two that we should not preclude evolution as a means through which God may have created the physical Adam. Adam was created in God's image: a biological being who could have been formed over time under God's guidance of nature, and then imparted with spiritual life by the Creator. We conclude that Genesis one and two do not preclude evolution as an explanation for the origin of life.
Appendix A: Scientific Data Regarding Evolution
Our primary concern is to correctly understand the latitude in the text of scripture, and to grant that latitude regarding creation and evolution. However, the scientific issues are important. This section summarizes our views on the scientific case regarding biological evolution.
Brief Summary of the Scientific Data
Micro-evolution (natural selection works on genetic variation in a population to make the population more fit) is a well-established scientific fact. Indeed, many have commented that "survival of the fittest" is almost a tautology, true by definition. Examples like bacterial antibiotic resistance demonstrate this basic mechanism of evolution
Macro-evolution (that all living things are produced from a single or a small number of simpler single-celled organisms through genetic mutation and natural selection) is a larger claim, and one open to more objections. The ability of genetic mutation to originate new complexity remains controversial to many. The fossil record seems to indicate the relatively sudden appearance of new forms, which then tend to undergo little important change. This is not what evolutionary theory would predict. Nevertheless, the consensus among scientists is that these difficulties will be overcome.
The origin of life from non-living chemicals by natural processes is not technically an element of evolution (evolution begins only when self-replicating organisms come into existence), but it is commonly presented as part of the evolutionary view of the origin of life. There is no very plausible theory for how this transition occurred. Our understanding of the minimal requirements for the first self-replicating cell underscores the difficulties faced by any such theory.
Human evolution (that humans are descended from non-human animals by an evolutionary process of mutation and natural selection) is no doubt the most philosophically controversial aspect of the whole issue of evolution. But from a scientific standpoint, there are a number of strong lines of evidence that this is in fact what has occurred.
Appendix B: Glossary of Terms
Adapted from www.genetichealth.com.
Amino acid: Amino acids are small molecules that make up proteins. There are over 100 different amino acids, but our body uses only 20 amino acids to make all of its proteins. Our body can manufacture some of these 20 amino acids, but others we have to get from outside sources such as food or supplements. Our genes determine the sequence of amino acids in a protein. This sequence determines what shape the protein takes, and what function that protein serves in the body.
Base pair: Bases are the components that make up DNA. There are 4 bases: Adenine (A), Cytosine (C), Guanine (G), and Thymine (T). In a DNA molecule, the bases pair with each other to hold together the two strands in a double strand of DNA. Base "A" always pairs with "T," and "G" always pairs with "C." Base pairs are also used as a unit of measure to indicate a length of DNA. A piece of DNA that is 10bp long has 10 base pairs in it. Likewise, a gene that is 2Kb long has 2,000 base pairs. The human genome has around 3 billion base pairs.
Chromosome: A strand of DNA contained within a cell. Each chromosome contains many thousands of genes. In humans, there are a total of 46 chromosomes, half of which come from each parent. Chromosomes come in pairs. We have 23. 22 of them are "autosomes" and one is a sex chromosome (either X or Y). The combined total of all chromosomes in a cell is the genome.
Chromosomes have most of the cell's DNA (mitochondria and chloroplasts also contain DNA and genes).
Genome: All of the genetic material (DNA) contained in a full set of chromosomes in an organism. In humans, about three billion base pairs make up our genome.
Gene: A segment of DNA (a string of bases) that contains the instructions to make a specific protein (or part of a protein). Genes are contained on chromosomes. Chromosomes, and the genes on those chromosomes, are passed on from parent to child. Errors in the DNA that make up a gene are called mutations and can lead to diseases.
Mutation: A change in the sequence of bases. A mutation can change the protein-building instruction contained in the gene. Some mutations have little or no effect on the protein, while others cause the protein not to function at all.
Protein: A molecule that makes up many parts of every cell in the body. Examples of proteins include hormones, enzymes, hair, and antibodies. Proteins are made up of 20 different types of individual units called amino acids. It is the order of these amino acids in a protein that determines what form and function a protein has. Each gene holds the instructions for making a single protein.
Appendix C: A History of the Evolution Debate
Darwin's Origin of Species, published in 1859, offered an alternative explanation for the origin of life and created a philosophical firestorm. The debate polarized many people because Darwinism became a platform for many and varied attacks on theism, Christianity, and biblical morality. One can see why so many Christians eschewed any association with Darwin or evolution. Scholars attributed religious development to evolutionary principles, proposing that monotheism evolved from polytheism. Some of the most influential (and destructive) people of the era like Nietzsche, Marx, and Hitler embraced evolutionary theories and atheism. In fact, Marx considered dedicating Das Kapital to Darwin.1 In America, the eugenics movement, advocating natural selection, enacted compulsory sterilization of the mentally or physically unfit in thirty-two states. "In short, scientists offered a means to breed better people."2 Catholics and conservative Christians stood together to fight the proliferation of eugenics. In view of these events, one can see why Christians viewed Darwinian evolution as a threat to society and their faith.
The threat of secular culture and science to the Christian world view helped fuel the fires of Christian fundamentalism. Leaders like D.L. Moody, advocated for withdrawal from secular culture. They argued for an increasing separation between the secular and sacred life. They advocated that "Christians avoid worldly activities like dancing, card playing, drinking, pandering to the lusts of the flesh, and atheistic teachings such as evolution."3 We find very little engagement on evolution based on scripture exegesis, but more an attack on evolution because of the association with atheism and naturalism.
The Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 polarized the nation on the issue of evolution and creation. From that point, for most Christians, belief in evolution as a mechanism for the origin of life was incompatible with a faithful interpretation of scripture.
In A Case for Faith, Lee Strobel reveals the sharp divide between faith and evolutionary thought today. He quotes Michael Denton, a molecular biologist and physician:
"As far as Christianity was concerned, the advent of the theory of evolution….was catastrophic…..The decline in religious belief can probably be attributed more to the propagation and advocacy by the intellectual and scientific community of the Darwinian version of evolution than to any other single factor."4
He also quotes Richard Dawkins, a vicious opponent of faith, who declares:
"By coupling undirected, purposeless variation to the blind, uncaring process of natural selection, Darwin made theological or spiritual explanations of the life process superfluous." Dawkins concludes that Darwin made it possible to be "an intellectually fulfilled atheist."5
Strobel goes on in his book to argue against evolution as a means of origins and, in a convincing way, argues for Intelligent Design as an explanation for life.
So today we face this deeply polarized debate over evolution and creation. Atheists embrace Darwin as their hero, so how could any Christian believe that Darwin's theories are valid? Is it possible that Christians have mistakenly alienated the scientific world on this issue and that God could have used evolution as a means of creation? B.B. Warfield and many others embraced evolution in the late 1800's, but their voice was overshadowed by the rhetoric opposing Darwinism. In defending the faith, twentieth century Christians had many victories, but seem to have mistakenly rejected evolution as a possible means through which God created the human body.
The Lost Voice of Reason: B.B. Warfield
Warfield is best known for his collaboration with Hodge in affirming orthodox doctrines of inspiration. Their essay entitled Inspiration was published in 1881. Warfield argued that the "…Bible is fully inspired. Absolutely without error, it is to be regarded not just as a bearer of the Word of God, but as the Word itself."6 He argued this position in the face of liberal (naturalistic) theology for over forty years and is known as a staunch defender of scripture. The Chicago statement finds its origins in Hodge and Warfield's work.
Warfield also believed in evolution as a means of origins and published many essays on the issue. He also reviewed others' writings on the topics of science and evolution. We find that Warfield believed strongly that God created everything and as a staunch Calvinist believed in God's providence. He saw providence in creation and nature. Therefore he believed that one need not fear science. For Warfield, any scientific findings that describe the inner workings of nature would shed light on the nature of God. Christians should therefore welcome scientific discovery and, in faith, find ways to meld faith and science. "To him, it was utter nonsense to think that those who studied the earth, the universe, or the history of humankind were not also studying the works of God."7
Warfield aligned himself with Darwinian thinking on natural selection from early on. He worked with his father to publish a work on the breeding of short horn sheep and in 1873 wrote, "Nature's selection, while always in favor of the maintenance of the animals in the best manner, yet is impartial, and under ordinary circumstances would maintain an average." His later essays clearly expounded his position on evolution and he published his first formal entry into the subject in 1888.
This essay opened the door for orthodox Christians to consider evolution and theistic origins. "Warfield was convinced that save for the narrative dealing with Eve's creation, that there was no 'general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either as given in Genesis 1 and 2 or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution.'"8 That same year Warfield reviewed The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, and was deeply moved by Darwin's tragic loss of faith in the face of scientific evidence. Warfield carefully analyzed Darwin and concluded that his departure from a biblical world view was born out of a literalistic reading of Genesis and that "Darwin displayed a 'total misapprehension of divine providence, and…a very crude notion of final cause.'"9
In 1901 Warfield published a formal position on evolution at a time when Christianity and science were increasingly at odds. His position on evolution and creation find their foundation in God's providence. Warfield concludes, "…the Christian man has as such no quarrel with evolution when confined to its own sphere as a suggested account of the method of the divine providence."10 He put forth that life unfolded at the hands of God through three different modes of divine action:
Ex nihilo — out of nothing
Theistic evolution — the providentially controlled unfolding of nature
Mediate creation — "God acted or intervened, with already existing material to bring something new into existence that could not have developed from the forces latent in the material itself."11
In a later essay Warfield clarified his position on the creation of man: God created the matter of the universe with the forces of nature ex nihilo, through evolution he providentially formed man, and by a special act of mediate creation he created the soul of humans.
"If under the directing hand of God a human body is formed at a leap by propagation from brutish parents [that is, per saltum evolution (evolution by mutation)], it would be quite consonant with the fitness of things that it should be provided by his creative energy with a truly human soul."12
Warfield's later writings affirmed his position on evolution along side his high view of scripture. Noll also cites J.I. Packer who defended the early chapters of scripture as inerrant and said that "he could not see anything that 'bears on the biological theory of evolution one way or the other.'"13
There is much to commend Warfield's position on creation and evolution. He believed that God created matter in such a way that biological systems would emerge through evolution and in it all he sees providence. He believed that God intervenes in nature and particularly in the creation of the human soul. Man could have emerged through the providence of evolution to a "brutish" form, but only through a special act of creation could he be called a man (mediate creation).
It is unfortunate that B.B. Warfield's perspective was lost in the rhetoric of the debates over evolution. Had his well-conceived and biblical perspective have been followed, much less polarity would persist today and more scientists might be Christians.
1 Ravi Zacharias. A Shattered Visage. Wolgemuth & Hyatt: Brentwood. 1990. 16.
2 Edward Larson in Demy and Stewart. Genetic Engineering. Kregel: Grand Rapids. 1999. 106.
3 John A, Moore. From Genesis to Genetics. University of California Press. Berkeley. 2002. 147.
4 Michael Denton in Lee Strobel. The Case for Faith. 89.
5 Strobel. 89.
6 Mark Noll and David Livingstone. B.B Warfield: Evolution, Science and Scripture. Baker: Grand Rapids. 20, 21.
7 Noll. 24.
8 Noll. 29.
9 Noll. 32.
10 Noll. 35.
11 Noll. 35.
12 Noll. 37.
13 Noll. 38.