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Evangelicalism and Adaptation

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February 22, 2013 Tags: Christian Unity

Today's entry was written by Justin Topp. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Evangelicalism and Adaptation

Note: This essay was originally posted July 13, 2010.

I recently had the chance to attend the BioLogos-Gordon College Conference 2010: "A Dialogue on Creation." Over four days, we listened to lectures and had vibrant discussions on evolution and creation. The life of the mind was indeed stimulated and friendships were made.

During the Q&A session of one of the talks, a wonderful question was posed regarding Evangelicalism and evolution, and what the future held for Evangelical theology. Given the current tension between modern science and the church, the following question was posed: “Which would be better: Evangelicalism changing to accommodate modern scientific findings, or the development of a new, ‘better equipped’ theological basis?” That is, in the spirit and model of evolution, is it possible for Evangelicalism to adapt, or would Christianity be better served if a new theology took its place?

In the discussion that followed the question, it was clear that the majority agreed that Evangelicalism must not fade out of the picture.

Why?

The main argument is that Evangelicalism is much more than theology. The component of intellect, while being vital, is only one piece of Evangelicalism. Ideas can be debated, thrown around, tossed out, and revitalized. I hope that most would agree on this. In addition, however, there are strong personal, cultural, and sociological implications for the demise of Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is not solely a theological construct. We should not throw the whole enterprise away and start anew.

Clearly, adaptation is the better approach. (I can only imagine that species when faced with this “choice” would tend to agree.) But as in nature, there are limitations to variation and adaptation. Is this degree of change even possible without losing the heart and soul of Evangelicalism?

This discussion reminded me of a relatively common example of adaptation that I experience as a biology professor at a Christian liberal arts university. Students often come into my classes having been told by their pastors that acceptance of evolution equates with being a non-Christian. If evolution is true, then the Bible cannot be read literally, and so on. As an Evangelical who is firmly convinced of evolution, I tell them that of course it is possible to be a Christian and an evolutionist at the same time.

But it often doesn’t matter. Students still see it as an either-or. They remain ardent in their anti-evolutionary stance, for fear that treading the water will lead them to lose their faith. Since they obviously don’t want the latter, they MUST reject the former. I’m not sure I blame them.

They can’t comprehend that their beliefs can undergo an adaptation or evolution themselves. For them, it is clearly extinction or bust. And in this case, we’re contrasting adaptation with extinction of not just a species, but life completely.

So what am I to do? Should I show them the evidence for evolution? Yes. Should I tell them that I believe their pastor is mistaken? Yes (but with humility and grace). Should my “modeling” of Christian behavior and action support my claim that as one who is clearly an evolutionist, I am also a Christian? Yes. These are all good examples of what can be done. But I think that there is also another way.

Theology is often described as “faith seeking understanding,” a quest to explain in human terms an encounter with God. To contemplate the infinite using the finite. In Evangelicalism, we believe and rejoice in the experience of God, both personal and communal. We hunger for this experience and in fact question our faith when we struggle through times where God seems absent. Where is God? Why has God “left us”? Conversely, those times when God seems most close awaken and revitalize us and, I think, perhaps, personally remind us of the hope that we have as Christians.

All of the above language intimates that there is inherently a strong personal component to our understanding of faith (for me, within Evangelicalism). It is my fear that students struggling with evolution and the aforementioned pastors’ comments believe that the truth of evolution will then somehow invalidate their experiences with God and the life of the Evangelical community. As a result, they will cling heavily to their ill-conceived disbelief in evolution –“evolution MUST be wrong because my faith is right.” I know this statement to be wrong. How can I teach them this without ripping apart their faith?

I look my students dead straight in the eye and tell them that no matter what, debate within the intellectual sphere cannot and should not take away or diminish the importance of the personal nature of their faith. The intellect, to use a scientific phrase, while necessary for the faith, is not sufficient. The personal and communal experiences that they believe to be encounters with God matter. They give us a glimpse of God and ultimate reality in ways that can be difficult to describe. The experience of Jesus’ followers led to the creation of a new religion! This is not to say that one’s faith needn’t hold up to scrutiny, but merely that adaptation of the mental does not invalidate the personal. (For more, see "No Fear", with Os Guinness.)

As a result, there is no need to be on the defensive regarding evolution. Instead, one should be on the offensive for intellectual truth, regardless of what it looks like. Personal experiences are meaningful and no one can take that away. I tell my students to ground themselves in that. And then I tell them to feel free to go and discuss the validity of scientific or other claims, without fear. The classic mantra “All truth is God’s truth” is not cliché.

 

As we learn more about the world that God has created and take the truth claims of science seriously, it is likely that some cherished or traditional Evangelical ideas will need to be reworked. However, this does not mean that evangelicalism should fade away; it will only need to adapt to its new environment. Along the way, we proceed with intellectual humility and the purest of intentions. We do this with the belief that our experience of God is real and that our interpretation of it and the world around us is, while challenging, legitimate. We do this remembering that the intellect is just one component of our Evangelical faith tradition. We do this knowing that the end result will be a “species” that is indeed the most fit to explain our interaction with and understanding of God.


Justin Topp is an Associate Professor of Biology at Gorden College. Previously, he was an Assistant Professor of Biology at North Park University in Chicago, IL. His research interests are in cell and molecular biology and include cell signaling, alternative splicing, and currently, the molecular characterization of Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease. He has recently started blogging on science and religion at wordpress.com.


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Merv - #76869

February 22nd 2013

Justin, you wrote: 

That is, in the spirit and model of evolution, is it possible for Evangelicalism to adapt, or would Christianity be better served if a new theology took its place?

I can’t think of a “redder” cape to display in front of a bull than the chosen wording for this question that was posed to you at the conference.  It provokes (and justifies?) exactly the fear that drives the very Christians to which you are reaching out.  The fear is this:  that evolutionary theory and philosphy (note that I include much more here than mere science)    is the bedrock truth to which everything else (including Christianity) must adapt (adapt or die).  Rather than having accepted the premise of that question I think I would have rhetorically asked instead “So just what [if any] core theological doctrines are at stake here?”  In a previous essay, it was noted that some wished Christianity would have been done away when heliocentrism finally won the day.  Obviously Christianity adapted.  I’m sure some geocentrist Christians of the time felt that one of their core doctrines was being ripped apart.  Would we agree from today’s perspective?  I think not.  We don’t discrard all the Church writings prior to Copernicus as having faulty theology because of their geocentric views.  I think we would all agree today that the changes thrust upon Christianity by heliocentrism were doctrinally ... well ... zilch.  The only change was that the  cosmology of the day changed, and so the figurative language employed by Scriptures to teach other more important things was being ill-used in its attempted application to celestial mechanics.  So the “change” to theology was to cull it of some ancillary (and as it turns out, erroneous) baggage that got tacked on.   

I think many more Christians today will be much more amicable to scientific conjectures and theories generally if they can be encouraged to view science not as a rival to evangelicism but as a useful tool among others to draw upon inside of the established evangelical framework.  True—certain mechanical interpretations of origins Scriptures will necessarily conflict with unfolding (and unfolded) science.  But I think time will reveal the extent to which these adaptations actually consisted in changes to vitally core doctrine.

If anyone can point out how Augustine or Aquinas reading of Psalm 104 would be in any way inferior to our understanding of the same passage today because of their being geocentrists, then you will have found how science changed theology.  But if you are convinced that such a change happened well within the existing umbrella of Christian understanding of that day, then it should be no stretch to imagine the same happening for our origins issues today, while at the same time avoiding or prolonging the controversy by posturing science and theology as rival systems.

-Merv

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lancelot10 - #78793

April 20th 2013

Merv - whats wrong with geocentrism - it has to be true for Joshua’s day , Hezekiah’s illness and much other scripture such as the psalms and Job.  Relativity theory means that both systems are possible and geocentric equations are still used.

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Jon Garvey - #76878

February 23rd 2013

Good post Merv.

If I could add one perspective on heliocentrism it would be be this. In mediaeval theology, and the Bible before it, the spiritual structure of the Universe was the most important issue, and the assumption was that the physical structure matched that. It was suitable that heaven was the highest, and earth the lowest, realm (it was never the case that the earth was central).

As far as the Bible goes, it’s arguable how much the writers even considered the physical aspect seriously, but that clearly was the priority of Galileo and the natural philosophers. Heliocentrism therefore, in effect, merely distinguished the spiritual structure of the Universe from its physical shape.

But after heliocentrism became established, people began to try and reunite the spiritual and the physical by saying that if earth is a mere speck in the Universe, it cannot be of great concern to God. This is just as wrong as assuming that heaven must be physically “up”, but it became the accepted wisdom in the scientific view of man’s place in the cosmos, and in that way illegitimately crept into some versions of theology.

Evangelical theology resisted this by insisting on taking the Bible’s spiritual cosmology seriously. Christ still came down to earth and ascended to heaven; God still did make the world for man; the Son is still the Lamb slain from the creation of the cosmos. The merely physical has not, so far, been allowed to override spiritual truth: all that was adapted was peripheral.

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Merv - #76881

February 23rd 2013

Absorbing Jon’s thoughts above…

While some of us today may be able to easily shrug off the mechanics of the universe as not particularly applicable to our theology, it was much harder for them.  Not that they didn’t have their own dualist philosphical heritage.  But if I have understood you and others correctly,  they did see the entire cosmos, physical an spiritual as part and parcel, one unified reflection of the same reality.  Is that a fair statement?

I think there is something spiritually healthy (not to mention accurate) about seeing all reality as a unified whole.  While some would see this apparent “divorce” between mechanical and spiritual realities as just such an example of an unwise partition, I think it could be viewed rather as using all our various human disciplines to help apprehend the one whole reality.  In that line of thinking, science isn’t dismissed as irrelevant to theology, but is embraced and drawn in as a handmaiden to it.  Not that science becomes a slave dictated to by theology—science can only do what it mechanically will if it is to remain science.  But any or all findings about creation are (or should be) a resource for theology to the extent that it wishes to draw upon such things for instructional and worshipful purposes.  

I continue to speak here, not as an expert or even any kind of source for original ideas, but as someone honing his ideas by bouncing them off others.  To me the presence of so many other knowledgeable people who will jump in to correct or add needed nuances is what makes this forum so valuable.  Thanks, Jon.

-Merv

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lancelot10 - #77020

March 1st 2013

DID ANGELS AND EVIL SPIRITS NEED EVOLUTION?

The truth of the Bible has to be the Alpha and Omega of our faith.   The Bible cannot be in error from the original writings as given by the Holy Spirit - except for mistranslations.

Since the bible teaches geocentrism - geocentrism it has to be - this should be easy enough to accept if einstein hubble and hoyle said thet geocentrism is perfectly feasible since the equations work for both systems.  Geocentrism is still in the magisterium and Robert Sugenis has proved that geocentrism is a rational theory based on relative motion.

Also if we accept evolution as a theory then we have to accept that the devil and his angels evolved from something ??????  Did the devil as a spirit being come from an ape deisgn  ???   Was there a rebellion in heaven as the bible says - were the rebellious angels made instantly by God or did God have to evolve them.

A can of worms is thus opened up by saying God needed or used evolution when this is clearly not the case as far as sacred scripture goes.

 

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