Over the next few weeks, I will be posting a series that I’m calling “Tough Topics.” I will explore several theological hot-button issues that I have wrestled with, or am still wrestling with, in some cases. I don’t pretend to have all the definitive answer to any of these questions, or even to explore them exhaustively. My hope is that this series will help others who are thinking about these topics and expand the thinking of those who have never considered them before.
Did We Come from Monkeys???
One of the more contentious of the “hot-button” issues that has plagued evangelical Christianity (especially in its American forms) over the last century was the discovery of biological evolution. Darwin’s discovery of natural selection as the mechanism that drives the evolution and survival of species seemed to push the need for God’s direct creative work one further step away. Just as the discovery of a heliocentric solar system forced Christians to re-evaluate their interpretation of Scripture in the 1600s, the theory of evolution provided another major challenge in the dialogue between science and faith. Unlike the discovery of a heliocentric solar system, however, the controversy around evolution has continued in some Christian circles for about a century and a half!
Unfortunately, over the course of this conflict there has been a lot of mistrust and misconceptions built up on both sides of the debate. This has been part of why Christianity gets stereotyped as “anti-science.”
Alternately, Christians who are opposed to reconciling their beliefs about creation with modern science are often ignorant of what evolutionary biology does and does not claim. For example, this results in Christians making absurd objections along the lines of, “Well, if we came from monkeys, how come we don’t see monkeys giving birth to humans anymore?” (Believe it or not, I’ve heard this argument before. And in case anyone is wondering, evolutionary biology does NOT claim humans came from monkeys, but just that we both share a common ancestor.).
The conflict that some Christians find between evolution and their faith is that evolution undermines a so-called “literal” reading of the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2. I put “literal” in quotation marks because the reading of the text that today’s creationists advocate actually is not a literal reading of the stories, but actually imports much modern knowledge about the universe into the text already.
Secondly, I say “stories” because modern scholarship on the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) is nearly unanimous in its conclusion that the first two chapters of Genesis are a compilation of two different creation traditions that were passed down through generations orally, and then compiled into one. Don’t believe me? Read Genesis 1:1-2:3 and then Genesis 2:4-25 and note the different names for God (God/elohim vs. LORD God/YHWH Elohim). Also, notice the order of creation; in Genesis 1, humans are created last, after plants and animals, while in Genesis 2, a man is created first, then plants, animals, and a woman. Features such as these suggest that these two stories are not to be understood as scientific accounts, in the modern sense.
Basically, if one is to be committed to a “literal” reading of the text to understand how the world works, one must be prepared to argue that the world is actually a flat disk on pillars, the sky is solid, the stars are actually little lamps, and the sun and moon move while the earth stands still. Yet, I don’t see anyone arguing to taking the accounts “literally” to that extent. Even the most die-hard young-earth creationist already radically reinterprets the stories in a way that would be completely foreign to the ancient Hebrews.
Letting the Bible be the Bible
In my last post, I talked a little about the idea that God’s revelation to us in Scripture is “accommodated” to what his people in their specific place and time could understand. I think keeping this in mind holds a lot of promise for helping Christians reconcile the findings of modern science with their faith. We must remember that Scripture is not interested in correcting ancient people’s scientific knowledge, but is interested in testifying to the God who revealed himself to the people of Israel and most clearly in Jesus.
This is actually not a radically new idea. Ancient Christian theologians recognized that within Scripture there were different “levels” of truth. They argued that there was literal truth, allegorical/typological truth, prophetic truth, and moral truth in the texts of Scripture. Sometimes a text may not be literally true, but that does not mean it isn’t true on another level!
The truth of the creation stories should be understood more theologically, than scientifically. The point of the two stories is that God created everything good and made human beings, male and female, in his own image. It establishes the idea that God is the only god, and that human beings are God’s stewards to take care of his good earth.
If you read the creation stories of Israel’s neighbors, such as the Babylonian Enuma Elish, you will notice how similar these stories are in a literary sense, but you will also notice how different they are theologically. Israel’s neighbors were polytheists and saw the world as being governed by gods who went to war with each other. Humans do not sit in the exalted place of being “image bearers” of the gods, but are their slaves. The creation stories in our Bible were written in that context and offered the Israelites an alternative way of understanding God and the world.
In the end, I don’t believe Christians have anything to worry about when it comes to evolution. I think one can believe that evolution was the process that God used to bring about life on earth, and also hold to a high doctrine of Scripture. If Scripture is understood in its ancient literary and historical context, then it is clear that it is not meant to be a scientific document, but a theological one.
This post is a 30,000 ft. view of the issue. There is obviously a lot more that could be said about the science, the way we interpret texts, and how many faithful Christians reconcile evolutionary biology with Scripture. For those who are interested in learning more, I’ve posted a couple links to books and resources I have found helpful.
https://biologos.org This is a great organization of scientists, pastors, and theologians who are committed to the science and faith dialogue.
The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions by Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins. Two evangelical scientists show why they do not believe one has to choose between faith or science.
How I Changed my Mind About Evolution edited by Kathryn Applegate and J.B. Stump. This features essays by a number of well-known evangelicals such as Scot Mcknight, John Ortberg, N.T. Wright, and Richard Mouw.