Do I believe in evolution? It depends

November 20, 2012

Like Carolyn Arends, who wrote this thoughtful column on the subject in November’s Christianity Today, my view of the inspiration of scripture (shared by the United Methodist Church) does not require a literal six-day Creation. I don’t believe that scientific explanations for the origin of the universe and our place within it are at odds with a Christian understanding of Creation.

I also agree with Arends that arguing over the historicity of Genesis 1 and 2 can become a rather depressing exercise in missing the point. The point is not to say how God created, but that he created and what it means. The genre of biblical literature matters:

[T]he Bible is not a book; it’s a library containing books of many different dates and genres. That’s why it’s not inconsistent to read Genesis 1 and 2 as an (inspired) ancient Near Eastern cosmology that poetically declares Yahweh to be the Creator, while reading the Gospels as (inspired) first-century, biographical-historical eyewitness accounts of events.

In other words, there’s no necessary relationship between rejecting a literal six-day Creation and denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus. As Arends points out, Genesis 1 and 2 are true and inspired, but not in the same way that New Testament accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are true. The difference is genre. Genesis 1 and 2 are true in the way that great poetry is true (but even more so because of the work of the Holy Spirit). As most of us know, poetry often speaks the truth more loudly and clearly than a dry recitation of historical (or scientific) facts.

Still, Arends rightly points out that “allowing the possibility of evolutionary creation is fraught with difficulty.” And she puts her finger on the biggest potential problem: that we have to distinguish “between the theory of evolution (which describes a process) and a philosophy of naturalism (which assumes that the process is all there is).” In my view, it’s easy to underestimate the enormity of this problem—because science has a way of overstepping its authority without anyone noticing.

When someone asks me, for example, “Do you believe in evolution?” I have to ask them, “What do you mean by ‘believe in‘?” Do I believe in evolution in the sense that if evolution happened, then God didn’t also create the world and everything in it? Then, no, I don’t believe in it.

Often, the premise of the question is flawed: It says if evolution, then not God—as if God weren’t really transcendent, as if God were simply a bigger, stronger version of ourselves—one actor among others on this plane of cause-and-effect—as if God were in competition with his Creation.

If that’s what “believing in evolution” means, count me out. I reject the philosophical materialism that lies beneath the question. All Christians should, even those of us who have no theological objection to evolution per se.

4 Responses to “Do I believe in evolution? It depends”

  1. carolynarends Says:

    Hi Brent,
    Thanks for your thoughtful reflection and for unpacking the freight behind the phrase “believe in.” I did try to get at your point, I think, when I referred to …
    “… a careful delineation between the theory of evolution (which describes a process) and a philosophy of naturalism (which assumes that the process is all there is) …”
    but I appreciate you refining the point further and perhaps more clearly.

    Iron sharpening iron!
    Carolyn

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks for the clarification, Carolyn! In my haste to get a blog post out, I somehow overlooked that sentence. I’m sorry! I will revise that paragraph immediately. My main point is that separating the process from the philosophy is a bigger challenge than it may at first appear.

      Keep up the good work!

      Brent

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent and Carolyn, I enjoyed reading the “Wrestling with Angels” piece in Christianity Today and Brent’s post here. I would note, Carolyn, that you stated that if proper biblical exegesis required a literal, six-day creation, you would accept that, all “scientific” claims to the contrary notwithstanding. That is my view–biblical exegesis does compel a “literal” view. I don’t base this solely on the Genesis account, although I don’t think that is really subject to such “poetic ambiguity,” as I would phrase it, as some might suggest. It is noteworthy in that respect that the specific events which are delineated for the different days are not consistent with typical “scientific” chronology.

    That aside, in Exodus the Sabbath day commandment is stated to be based on the Genesis chronology of God working for six days and resting on the seventh. Further, Jesus refers to marriage as being based on the Genesis account as to Adam and Eve, certainly suggesting a literal interpretation (not descended from apes). Paul refers to Adam as the first man, Christ being the second Adam who did not fall prey to temptation and sin as the first Adam did. Also, Peter refers to the world being created from out of water, as the Genesis account’s beginning would support.

    Moreover, where do you stop with this “poetic license”? What about the great ages of Adam’s close descendants? Are those “literal” or not? What about Noah’s flood? And why stop there? Why not make Abraham’s offering of Isaac a poetic rendering of some spiritual point? That is in Genesis as well. I agree that the Genesis 1 account is in a poetic metre, but I don’t believe that this transforms it out of stating literal truth.

    Finally, why do we need to do these “interpretative gymnastics”? To coincide with what atheistic scientists surmise happened? Since we reject the fundamental premises that these atheists rely on, why should we want to constrain ourselves to the deductions they derive from those faulty premises? Big Bang cosmology and “ancient earth” interpretations of evidence are not based on “science” (observation and experiments), but on a “deducing backwards” from what we presently observe based on the premise that what we now observe could not be caused by “divine intervention.” But we believe there WAS divine intervention, right? So, I just don’t see any “scientific” reason why I should doubt “six days.”

    Tom

    • brentwhite Says:

      Tom,

      I know we’ve argued about some of these issues before. I’m sure you got an ear-full over at Paul Wallace’s old blog. I don’t feel equipped to to argue about the science underlying these questions. I am taking on faith that scientists know what they’re talking about when they speak scientifically, as opposed to metaphysically or theologically. I don’t understand the science. Few of us do—including most of the atheists who tell Christians that they’re morons for believing in God.

      All that to say that if the very wide scientific consensus on on the age of the earth and evolution turns out to be wrong, it’s no sweat off my back, I promise. I don’t care.

      But I’m not opposed to science. And I reject the idea that only “atheistic scientists” (who have their own agenda?) accept the science underlying the age of the earth and evolution, etc. Many, many Christians who are scientists (not least of whom, Intelligent Design proponents) accept the underlying science. And most of the Church has no problem with this.

      In the history of Christian thought leading up to the Enlightenment, the Church did not worry over the question of literal versus metaphorical when it came to interpreting the Old Testament. The Church Fathers, for instance, were very liberal about interpreting Old Testament passages in a metaphorical way. We didn’t start drawing lines in the sand over these issues until the 18th or 19th centuries or so.

      Besides, I think the Bible itself gives us license to interpret the Creation story metaphorically. For one thing, there are two Creation stories, not one. And the second story, beginning in Genesis 2:4, contradicts the first, right—at least when read literally, I mean? I don’t think the Bible writers were dummies who never noticed the difference in the order of Creation in these two stories. I don’t think they cared. Because they weren’t writing a science textbook.

      blw


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