We cannot ignore the debate about how to relate the Bible’s account of human origins with the current consensus of mainstream science. However we rightly want to avoid the acrimony that too often marks the discussion, not least between evangelical Christians.
I met over a couple of days with a group of ministers to think some more on this issue. We based our discussion around Denis Alexander’s Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? and the response Should Christians Embrace Evolution? edited by Norman C Nevin. The authors on both sides are evangelical Christians, but they differ on the extent to which Christians can embrace the findings of evolutionary science.
Denis Alexander does not think that that evolutionary science and the Bible are at odds. He outlines 5 possible models which I found to be a helpful sketch map of the ground (see Chapter 9, and evaluation in the chapters that follow).
Model A. There is no connection between the Bible and science; Genesis is a myth (234) and the Fall is the story of everyman (254)
Model B There was a gradual growing spiritual awareness from first hominids 200,000 years ago in Africa which eventually became human in God’s image. Gen 1-3 is a mythical retelling
Model C God chose a pair of neolithic farmers some 6,000-8,000 years ago (241) to endue them with his Image, (Stott’s Homo Divinus). Adam is representative of all humanity which somehow came to share as God’s image bearers. Adam represents humanity in a sort of federal way as far as image bearing and as far as the Fall are concerned.
Model D Old earth with periodic miraculous creative interventions. Adam and Eve were created ‘out of dust’ and are discontinuous with the rest of creation.
Model E Young earth creation about 10,000 years ago with literal six days of creative activity.
We did not resolve the discussion into a single solution. Instead I note these reflections on the issue itself, and propose some ideas for Redeeming the debate in Church.
Reflections on the Issue Creation vs Evolution
- If we are debating among evangelical Christians, we can agree on some non-negotiables straight away. Based on the gospel presented in the New Testament (NT) and the passages in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 about Adam-Christ, we must insist on an historical fall, and a representative Adam. This rules out Models A and B above.
- There are other issues that are non-negotiable on one side but not on the other that we need to examine in the light of the scriptures. For instance the meaning and significance of death, the place of miracles in creation, what it means that God pronounced the creation ‘good’ (can it be good and yet involve death or suffering?). What we decide on these issues is a function of our whole systematic theology, even in they seem to us so obvious as not to need justifying.
- No apparent solution is entirely free of problems. However we relate science and the Bible, it will be messy somewhere. Models A and B are unacceptably messy on the Bible, the Fall and Sin. Models D and E are messy because of their rejection of some or all of evolutionary science. (Messy in the sense that more questions are raised by the solution). And Model C has a number of loose ends. This calls for humility on all sides.
- We need to distinguish between a weakness and a fatal flaw. The absence of an historical fall is (in my view) a fatal flaw. But a question about how the image of God is borne and shared under Model C may be a weakness.
- We also need to distinguish between strong assertions and tentative proposals. For instance I found that Wayne Grudem’s list of 8 positions held by theistic evolutionists (in his foreword to the Nevin volume of essays) obliterates this distinction (as well as inaccurately representing Alexander’s position in Do we have to choose).
- The Bible challenges the place that reason has in our thinking and in our culture. We need to be ready to examine our cultural assumptions under Scripture. But this does not mean we must reject all science!
Redeeming the debate within churches
This part of the debate is conducted among Christians, and often within churches. Here are some thoughts on how to conduct ourselves in person and in print (and online).
- We need to listen to each other. That is, we really need to listen to what the other person is saying, rather than on what I hear them say. I am really surprised at how many people whose academic training (e.g. a degree) should equip them to understand another’s point of view don’t do so in this debate,
- We need to know whether we disagree with what someone is saying, or whether we disagree with what we think follows from that. For instance, you may think that a position inevitably leads to Gnosticism or Atheism, but you must not call this an Gnostic or an Atheist unless that is what they are saying. But you can say that you think their position leads to G/A and invite a response.
- While the debate touches on some primary issues (sin, salvation), it does not turn on them. This is not a primary level debate, although the issues are not secondary
- Because no solution is error-free, we need space to struggle towards a better answer.
- We must watch our language and tone. Whether the opponent is arguing a Christian position or a non-Christian one, there is no excuse for some of the language and polemics used by some Christians.
- Everyone needs a dose of humility. I might be wrong; and they might be right about some things. And we might both be wrong. We long for the time when we will see everything clearly.