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Evangelicalism and the Doctrine of Creation

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May 27, 2010 Tags: Christian Unity
Evangelicalism and the Doctrine of Creation

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

Evangelicalism is a movement among various churches rather than a single ecclesial body like the Catholic Church. The history of evangelicalism in America is replete with defections from one church to another or the initiation of new denominational bodies. For this reason, there have always been inherent risks in being evangelical. Such risks derive from belonging to a theologically conservative Protestant subculture for the sake of a common witness. By identifying with a larger movement, denominations and individuals with distinctive theological and ecclesial identities chance losing those very identities. Wesleyans, Pentecostals, and Reformed embrace the name evangelical at the hazard of sacrificing what makes them Wesleyan, Pentecostal, and Reformed. A good recent example is the community-church trend in which denominational and theological distinctives disappear behind a name with geographical or cultural significance (Three Oaks Community Church, Connections Church, etc.).

A common temptation in the face of such risks is to attempt to redefine the evangelical community in the image of a single theological or ecclesial stream. Numerous critiques of evangelicalism have been written that decry its capitulation to this or that cultural trend. The theologically astute reader recognizes the subtext in many such critiques that evangelicalism should become like a particular theological stream.

Doctrinal pressure points more clearly reveal the temptation corresponding to these risks. When someone hits a pressure point, apologists for various camps unleash a volley of criticisms in order to maintain or recover the “evangelical” position. The recent uproar over Bruce Waltke’s video on this site exposed again how much the doctrine of creation has become a pressure point because of its relationship to scripture and the question of how to resolve seemingly competing authorities: theology and science.

To release the pressure, evangelicals must openly acknowledge the risks of belonging to this movement and seek to discover afresh what it is that holds us together. I suggest that the doctrinal center of evangelicalism is a theology of conversion grounded upon the balance of Word and Spirit that has implications for its doctrine of creation.

The Risks of Evangelicalism

As a movement, evangelicalism attempts to hold together various theological traditions and ecclesial bodies. Even in attempting to describe these groups one has to make a choice between utilizing theological descriptors (Wesleyan, Reformed, etc.) or ecclesial ones (Baptist, Presbyterian, etc.).

The challenges of maintaining an evangelical identity exacerbate the tensions between traditions and Tradition (Reformed, Baptist, Wesleyan, Pentecostal). Within each Tradition, there are interpretive traditions that fork out like tributaries from a larger river. Not only do these streams draw strength from one another, they also compete over how precisely to define the Tradition to which they all belong. They question one another as to what it really means to be Wesleyan, Reformed, or Pentecostal, and, in the midst of such questioning, sometimes the theological interpretations connected to a particular stream become wrongly associated with the Tradition itself. The questioning is valuable because it is one of the ways reform (semper reformanda) occurs; or, as I would put it, renewal happens. Problems arise, however, when one tributary asserts that it is the only legitimate expression of the broader Tradition.

When one moves back up the river into the great lake that is the source of the “evangelical” movement, with its inherent risks of dilution, the competition can become even more fierce. The revivalist tradition in America and its preference for mass meetings––whether these are conferences, camp meetings, evangelistic crusades, etc.––is the concrete expression of the great lake. Some evangelicals swim together by minimizing doctrine and maximizing piety. This approach generally irritates those who wish to maximize doctrine as a way of participating at a distance that gives them a sense of safety and security from the threat of theological and ecclesial dilution. And then, there is the ever-elusive quest for a doctrinal center from which all the rivers flow: something that will endure and is flexible, yet stable enough to keep all rivers connected to the great lake while allowing distinctive theological and ecclesial impulses to coexist.

Recognizing the risks of dilution is an important starting point when dealing with doctrinal pressure points, but beyond this, evangelicals should seek the center.

The Doctrine of Creation and a Possible Evangelical Center

If the revivalist tradition is the concrete expression of evangelicalism––the place where evangelicals debate, discuss, and worship together before returning to their respective churches––it may point toward a possible center. A theology of conversion grounded upon the balance between Word and Spirit can function as this center. The gospel of Christ is preached in the power of the Spirit. Moreover, the Spirit generates the affective movement of faith that enables the individual to rest in Christ. This initial affective movement unleashes the affections so that love, hope, joy, etc., all spring forth by faith alone (sola fide). From the personal union created by the Spirit, Christ shares his own alien righteousness as the basis of justification, and the Spirit gives rise to an intrinsic righteousness through the reordering of human affectivity and desire. The Word forms the pattern while the Spirit shapes the individual accordingly. Salvation, broadly construed, is a movement from disorder to order sustained by Word and Spirit who together justify and sanctify.

Ancient Christianity debated whether God created the universe all at once or through successive creation. In the twelfth century, Hugh of St. Victor sought to reconcile these views by postulating an initial creative act followed by a progressive unfolding in which God transformed being into beautiful being. This was Hugh’s way of affirming creation ex nihilo and the Genesis account of successive development. For Hugh, God’s purpose was pedagogical. Through the book of creation, God intended to show humanity that it must grow and develop into beautiful being in the same way that God beautified formless matter within a succession of “days.” Likewise, the book of creation reminded fallen humanity about God’s plan to move them once again from deformity to the beauty of form. There was no contradiction between God’s two great books, creation and scripture.

The evangelical theology of conversion corresponds to a doctrine of creation in which Word and Spirit work together. The Logos is the pattern for all living things and the one in whom they take shape (Colossians. 1:17). As John Polkinghorne notes, there is a pattern-forming propensity to the universe. The Spirit is the love that operates at the edge of chaos, breathing life into all things, binding them together, and creating order (Genesis 1:2). Evangelicals can still debate the particulars, but do so within the common framework of Word and Spirit that acknowledges creation as both event and process in the same way that conversion itself is both event and process.

The way to relieve doctrinal pressure points is not for one tradition to attempt to redefine the whole in its image. To do so is to make the whole captive to one part. Rather, it is to acknowledge the inherent risks in a common movement and to attempt to find what holds evangelicals together. It may be that a theology of creation grounded upon Word and Spirit can supply that which will endure and is flexible, providing the stability needed to keep all the individual rivers connected to the doctrinal center of the great lake.

Dale Coulter is an associate professor of historical theology at Regent University and co-editor of PNEUMA: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies. His research interests church history and the use of models in theological discourse. Coulter has been published in numerous journals and has authored two books -- Per Visibilia Ad Invisibilia: Theological Method in Richard of St. Victor (2006) and Holiness: The Beauty of Perfection (2004). In addition, he provided the afterword to Alan Kreider’s Social Holiness: A Way of Living for God’s Nation (2008). Coulter serves on the editorial Board of Victorine Texts in Translation and is co-editor of its first volume: Trinity and Creation. He is a regular contributor to Regent University's Renewal Dynamics blog.

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Bryan Hodge - #15550

May 29th 2010

Hi Merv,

I think the important thing to remember with this passage is that Paul is not speaking about a moral issue when he refers to the uses of drink or food or day. He is referring to a moral issue in how Christian are to see those things, i.e., they are not intrinsically good or evil; they are created things to be used for God’s glory. That moral is nonnegotiable here. Paul would not have been OK with people saying, “Well, that’s just how Paul sees it, but I think a created day is inherently good,” or “I think a drink is inherently bad.” So the point Paul is making is that there is no moral value inherent in created objects. Hence, one can use them as they see best glorifies God. Both the weak brother and the mature brother is trying to please God with the use of them.

Bryan Hodge - #15551

May 29th 2010

But Paul would not be OK with them judging one another as though created objects were inherently right or wrong because that is false theology. I don’t know if I’m explaining it well here. So the folks in your tradition who made it a moral would actually be believing a false doctrine of created things. Paul is not saying that is OK. We cannot assign a moral to an inanimate object within itself. He is saying for them to change their minds. My point here is that theology and moral practice is not in view in the freedom to use created things. When it comes to the moral, i.e., do not judge another for how they use a created thing, it is not up for private interpretation. Is that clearer at all? I would further recommend some commentaries, like Moo and Fitzmeyer. Thanks again.

Gregory - #15553

May 30th 2010

Hi Dale,

I find this *quite* intriguing:
“This process will require not simply Christian theology making room for evolution, but evolution making room for Christian theology. This is because evolution has largely taken shape within a naturalist philosophical framework, in many ways, hostile to Christianity.”

How do you suggest “evolution” can or should ‘make room’ for Christian theology? This is a *crucial* issue b/c the requests usually run the other way.

Are you speaking of *just* biological evolution here, or of evolution as an interdisciplinary concept, i.e. philosophy in the Academy? If you can offer a “non-naturalist philosophical framework” for evolution, I’m all ears. TE is not (yet) coherent, surely you’d agree.

“My point above is that such a sifting process for evangelicals will require a common theological framework.” - Dale

Well, I don’t speak only to or with evangelicals. That should not be BioLogos’ goal either; it is too narrow. How could a ‘common theological framework’ *possibly* exist in such a scenario? There is no evangelical Rome, Geneva or Beijing.

I’m with your dream, but the reality?

Dale Coulter - #15557

May 30th 2010


Thanks again for the thoughts and the intrigue. I’m moving away from the original blog so I’ll make this brief.

1. Was the Plotinian notion that the good is self-diffusive (implying God must create) not hostile to Christianity in its Neoplatonic framework? How about the Aristotelian notion that the world is eternal? Was the Aristotelian notion of the agent intellect not hostile to Christianity in its original framework? Was the Stoic notion of apatheia not hostile to Christianity in its original framework? And, were these philosophical frameworks immediately coherent within a Christian context or did it take centuries to think through them in light of issues like Trinity, two-nature Christology, etc.? Live the dream!

2. I know that there is a position that one cannot have a theological framework without an ecclesiological center (Rome, Constantinople, etc.), but I think one can. We have had a revivalist tradition for almost 300 years so we’ll see if it lasts longer. History will tell the tale. But this debate is for another site .

3. This site is not for evangelicals only, but my blog was directed to them. That’s it. No need to read anything more into it.

Again, thanks for the thoughts.

merv - #15600

May 30th 2010

Sounds reasonable, Bryan.  I think I’m understanding your point.  Thanks.


Gregory - #15637

May 30th 2010

Hi Dale,

Thanks for taking the time to respond, even if some of the issues I raised moved us away from the original blog.

I appreciate your references to previous situations where ideas have been ‘Christianized’. The topic of evolution, however, which you are focussing on in the context of Creation, poses its own unique set of problems for mono-theism and the Christian tradition. The main text for TE, Perspectives of an Evolving Creation, is mainly an adjustment of theology to science, as far as I can tell from the parts of it I’ve read.

Not wanting to labour the issue, if you’ve decided to rest it, but the following still is a challenge, which I am impressed to see that you’ve identified on this site.

“This [sifting] process will require not simply Christian theology making room for evolution, but evolution making room for Christian theology.”

This is my basic question to you: How can/should evolution make room for Christian theology?

Thanks again for your insights!

Dale Coulter - #15641

May 30th 2010


If I could answer that question in the 1250 characters BioLogos allows for a comment, then I really would be doing something.

One place to begin with would be a rejection of hard materialism and a way of talking about the human soul/spirit as the ground of communion with God, and thus the larger issue of a teleology of human nature in light of the incarnation taking up the finite into the infinite (Maximus the Confessor’s theandric notion). You know, what the Cappadocians, especially Gregory of Nyssa, affirmed in their understanding of the human person. If you are Orthodox, and I’m going on Darrel’s comment above, then you might look at Nellas “Deification in Christ” for his remarks on human nature in light of the patristic idea of a garment of skins.

Another place would be what the Christian understanding of sin says about humans devolving to one degree or another rather than evolving. As Athanasius’ so eloquently puts it, the descent into death is a descent into the madness of nothingness in which humans lose psychological integrity through the corruption of being. So, how does a Christian understanding of sin impact humans as evolving animals?

I’ll stop before I hurt myself. Good question.

Gregory - #15705

May 31st 2010

Hi Dale,

Let me just say I agree with the thrust of what you are saying and can accept it in the spirit of fellowship.

Yes, “talking about the human soul/spirit as the ground of communion with God” is a great way to reject ‘hard materialism.’

There are (at least) 2 problems in contemporary higher education, including the USA’s. 1) The proper place to speak about the human soul/spirit/consciousness, which supposedly unites *all* of humanity, is in the human-social sciences. Yet many human-social scientists are agnostics or atheists & reject the soul/spirit aspect, choosing ‘mere consciousness’ instead. 2) As the ‘science & faith’ or ‘science & religion’ or ‘science & theology’ debate is currently framed (& I fault the Anglo-American tradition for this, in contrast to, e.g. the German-Russian tradition), ‘science’ means *only* ‘natural-physical sciences’ & does *not* include human-social sciences (HSS).

So how are we going to address the common ground *without* involving the human-social fields?

Teleology is real & mainly undisputed in HSSs. Should we welcome them into the conversation?

Gregory - #15707

May 31st 2010


“...what the Christian understanding of sin says about humans devolving to one degree or another rather than evolving” - Dale

The term ‘devolution’ is mainly used in political science, i.e. devolution of power, from the centre. Biologists don’t often speak of ‘devolution’ & it hasn’t caught on as a popular term. This is partly due to the notions of uni-directionality & irreversibility in evolutionism.

I don’t think you’ve hurt yourself, Dale, but rather are facing difficult questions for which there are few easy answers. You did make the statement above about ‘evolution making room for theology’ to which you haven’t offered a clear answer.

If you prefer to speak of human beings, who are created ‘imago Dei’ as merely “evolving animals,” that’s your prerogative. I doubt many Christians, including evangelicals, will be impressed or swayed to accept such terms. And that’s the reality.

Human beings are *more than just animals,* or rather we are *special animals,* don’t you think Dale? Historical Theology, your field, seems to tell us this quite unambiguously.

Dale Coulter - #15713

June 1st 2010


Thanks for the reply. I think here is where we must leave it; the topics are a little too complex to discuss in such a limited forum. For the sake of clarity, I will say:

1. I did not attempt to answer your question because I don’t think it’s possible in this forum—I just gave two areas where one might attempt to do so.

2. Yes, the Social Sciences should be brought into the picture. But the history of Christianity is filled with psychology right back to Paul’s use of the Greek term epithumeia (desire) to talk about sin, which was translated into concupiscentia and cupiditas in the Old Latin, both of which were passions/affections/emotions. Early Christians saw the relationship between human ontology and psychology. Human persons (ensouled bodies) break apart because sin involves a loss of psychological integrity that redounds to the whole human person.

3. I thought my speaking of a human soul/spirit would commit me to the claim that humans are more than mere animals, they are rational animals, which is another way of saying animals endowed with a unique form of existence (imago dei).

4. It would be nice if you came clean on your own ecclesial location.

Dale Coulter - #15714

June 1st 2010


Don’t feel as though you must answer #4 because, as I said, I think our conversation in this forum has reached its limit.

Blessings to you and thanks for the engagement.

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