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Evolution and Our Theological Traditions: Summing Up

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June 14, 2011 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Evolution and Our Theological Traditions: Summing Up

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

The conversation between evolution and Christianity is an intellectually challenging one. Too often, however, the conversation proceeds on a faulty premise, namely that one’s understanding of Christianity is the sure basis upon which the conversation takes place. One sees this faulty premise at work whenever the conversation begins by one party declaring what is and is not “at stake” in the conversation. In this case, science is seen as the intruder whose merits are judged on the basis of what Scripture “clearly” says.

But the matter is certainly much more complicated than that. What the Bible says and does not say, and how one makes that determination, and how that determination applies to any given issue, including evolution, puts us squarely—and unavoidably—in a deeply theological and hermeneutical conversation. These factors quickly come into play anytime a serious conversation occurs between science and faith.

One of the points I have been trying to make in this series, which is here coming to a close, is how the two dominant theological strands in American Evangelicalism—Calvinism and Wesleyanism—have demonstrated wisdom and sophistication in recognizing and addressing the hermeneutical questions. These movements form much of the intellectual foundation for current Evangelicalism, but the hermeneutical lessons of those traditions have not always been mined in contemporary discussions over science/faith issues.

Of course, I do not mean either or both of these traditions have provided final answers to the pressing questions science puts before Christians. They do, however, model for us how hermeneutics can and must contribute to the conversation.

In closing, I would like to highlight one major hermeneutical contribution from each of these traditions. Taking these factors to heart will add needed depth and substance to the science/faith conversation within Evangelicalism today, drawing upon its own traditional roots.

One central hermeneutical contribution of the Calvinist legacy to the science/faith discussion is its persistent attention to the historical context of Scripture. Today this is often referred to the grammatical-historical interpretation: Scripture must be understood, not as one wishes, but against the backdrop of its historical setting, which includes close attention to the words on the page according to the ancient language in which they were written.

This stands to reason, since a core Christian conviction is that Christianity is a historical faith, meaning it tells the story of God’s dealings with people in history. Hence, understanding someone of the historical setting of the Bible will elucidate, not obscure, a text’s meaning. A Christian reading of Scripture must embrace the historical dimension, wherever it leads.

Now, of course, historical setting can sometimes be vague or difficult (or impossible) to understand, and some scholarly historical judgments can certainly be incorrect at the end of the day. Much of what occupies biblical scholars is the difficult task of trying to discern that setting and then how that setting actually affects biblical interpretation. There is nothing mechanical about the process; biblical interpretation is rightly said to be both a science and an art. Nevertheless, the Calvinist legacy keeps the struggle between “then and now” front and center. Regardless of how unclear such a process might be at times, in principle that is precisely what responsible biblical interpretation aims for.

Those interested in the science/faith discussion will take this lesson to heart by following as best as we are able where the historical evidence leads, even if it takes one in unfamiliar and even uncomfortable territory. The goal, after all, is to let Scripture speak to us, not to have Scripture speak as we wish.

The Wesleyan hermeneutical contribution to the contemporary science/faith discussion is its recognition of the unavoidable complexity involved in arriving at any sort of theological knowledge. Scripture has a primary role, as God’s word, but discerning how Scripture is to be understood is not a simple matter. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral explains that four factors invariably are working together: Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience.

The Wesleyan legacy reminds us that true theological knowledge is not simply a matter of reading Scripture as if from a blank slate; or simply applying one’s reasoning powers as if neutral; or appealing to one’s own tradition as if firmly settled; or simply opting to listen to one’s own inner spiritual convictions. Instead, theological knowledge is a product of a vibrant interplay of numerous factors. Therefore, those participating in the theological conversation will do so with an attitude of patient, humble service for the church, ever willing to turn the critical eye inward instead of thinking that difficult matters can be quickly settled.

It is my observation that the discussion over evolution is not always undertaken with these theological trajectories in mind, and true progress is hindered as a result. To embrace and embody these elements of the Calvinist and Wesleyan legacies does not predetermine the final answers to be offered—it only helps secure that the conversation will proceed in the proper way.

Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #62605

June 14th 2011

It seems to me that there is something missing in this series.  The Wesleyan tradition is firmly grounded in the Holy Spirit.  This is probably taken into account in the experience aspect, which of course is difficult to evaluate.  Of course the tradition involves much more than the Holy Spirit, which can be overlooked by many.

However the movement of the Holy Spirit is a movement of change.  It is much like providence, it is much like evolution.  If God can create in and through humanity with the power of the Holy Spirit, then certainly God can create in and through nature with the power of natural laws which God created for that very purpose.

The Bible is important, but the Word of God, the Logos is the key, as God reveals through Jesus the Way of Salvation for humanity and the universe. 

Merv - #62610

June 14th 2011

I initially had the same reaction, Roger—-where in the quadrilateral is the Spirit?  But after more reflection, I thought that the “omission” was probably not an oversight as the Spirit would be over the whole system (all four quadrants).  As you state, experience certainly involves the Spirit, but I wouldn’t hesitate to go further and suggest that nothing in any quadrant will stand apart from the Spirit (despite our attempts, perhaps).  Scripture will not be read and understood until the Spirit opens our eyes.  Reason cannot exist without a mind—and that involves a creator/sustainer.  Even tradition, could arguably involve the Spirit in much the same ways that regularities we see in nature are a manifestation of God’s presence (not absence) when creation is Biblically understood. 

So the Spirit can wrap all this together in a way that would be trivialized if one tried to compartmentalize the Spirit away into just one sector as if it resided primarily there.


beaglelady - #62621

June 14th 2011

This has been a most informative series. Now I’m wondering if Dr. Enns will be commenting at all on the Biologos and the June 2011 ‘Christianity Today’ Editorial threads.

KevinR - #62627

June 14th 2011

“Therefore, those participating in the theological conversation will do so with an attitude of patient, humble service for the church, ever willing to turn the critical eye inward instead of thinking that difficult matters can be quickly settled. It is my observation that the discussion over evolution is not always undertaken with these theological trajectories in mind, and true progress is hindered as a result”

Seems to me it’s more the other way around. Those who do not want to take the reading of Genesis 1 as a straightforward historical account, finds it necessary to go through all kinds of hoops and twists and turns to make Genesis 1 [and it’s consequences] fit in with their firm belief in evolution. Not wanting to let go of the belief in evolution because it purports to be scientific and hence of superior knowledge about origins compared to some primitive man’s understanding long ago, it become necessary for them to search for and find various deeply philosophical ways to escape the fact that the bible clearly says 6 literal days.

A very apt reminder is that Jesus himself said: “in the beginning, God created them male and female”. A straightforward, commonsense understanding of this sentence speaks volumes. It annihilates any thought of evolution that one might harbour regarding the origins of man. “In the beginning” clearly says that mankind was there from the start - no evolution required. The only way one can begin to insert evolutionary timescales is to fiddle with and manipulate the text. As a result, if one insists on evolutionary time scales, one has to question the veracity of Jesus’ words. Is Jesus lying?

Take another example of straightforward reading of the bible: Exodus 20:11 - the commandment says clearly God created heaven and earth in six days. Where is there any time in there for billions of years of evolution? One cannot escape the fact of six days since the context is clear - it’s God speaking to man in terms that man can understand - six literal days. This is repeated in Exodus 31:17. Again , only by running to and fro and finding all kinds of eisegetical reasons can one by-pass the six days, the most popular seeming to be that the six days is a comment inserted by Moses. How do people know it’s simply a comment? Were they there when Moses put it in there? Do they have some OTHER secret text somewhere that doesn’t contain it [no i’m not referring to Deuteronomy] and where Moses actually made a footnote that says “I think this means 6 days”?

The way I see things, one can become a Christian when coming from the scientific environment and still believe in evolution. But once it gets revealed to one that the bible allows absolutely zero room for the atheistic philosophy of evolution and billions of years, then one needs to let go of that kind of wisdom of natural man and embrace that our God is a mighty God, able to create in six literal days in a way that is miraculous from mankind’s point of view. After all, when Jesus said to the paraplegic to get up and walk, it didn’t take years for him to be healed, it happened instantaneously. When Jesus spoke to the waves and winds to lie down, it happened immediately. Therefore, if one can claim to believe in the miraculous resurrection of Jesus, why would one find it necessary to reject a miraculous creation and try and find solace in atheistic evolutionary myths?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #62630

June 15th 2011

Kevin wrote:

Those who do not want to take the reading of Genesis 1 as a straightforward historical account, finds it necessary to go through all kinds of hoops and twists and turns to make Genesis 1 [and it’s consequences] fit in with their firm belief in evolution.

Response:  The problem is not evolution.  the problem is the clear geological record of the earth.  So the question is not did God create the universe, but how did God create the universe.

We find in the Bible that events change the way we understand it.  At one time most people thought that slavery was compatible with the Bible, but now we do not.  Thye Bible has not changed, but our understanding of it has changed. 

God could have revealed Jesus Christ the Savior “in the beginning,” but God did not, yet we find evidence of Jesus throughout the OT based on the revelation of His life, death, and resurrection.  Is this violating the straightforward reading the the OT by imposing Christ on the narrative, or a deeper and better understanding of the facts.

You quote Exodus 20:11 concerning the commandment of the Sabbath.  Maybe you are not aware that in the other version of the Decalogue found in Deuteronomy 5:6-21 this verse and only this passage is different. 

(Deu 5:15 KJV)  And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.

Which version is the true one, the cosmological one or the one that refers to the historical event that they just experienced? 

Jesus also questioned the Genesis understanding of creation when He said, (John 5:17 KJV) “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” 

Finally John 1:1-14 reveals Jesus Christ as the WORD (Logos) of God through which all things came into existence.  All of this indicates to me that Genesis 1 and 2 are not to be read as a simple historical narrative.

God works primarily in and through history.  Even in Genesis the universe was not created in a day, but 6 days, but that does not make it any less miraculous.  We think that it took millions of years, but hat too doe not make it any less miraculous.  God does what God chooses to do as God chooses to do it.  God gives humans minds so we gave follow what God does in retrospect and appreciate the intricate design of the Creation.  I do not see why anyone would have a problem with that.

God chose to do the greatest miracle also in time and history.  (John 3:16 KJV)  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”


Roger A. Sawtelle - #62631

June 15th 2011


You make a good point, which is the Holy Spirit cannot be localized to any of the four areas of the Quadrilateral.  However that does not mean that it should be overlooked all together.  I expect the problem is that the Holy Spirit is not a “principle” that can be spelled out. 

However the concept that the Bible is God’s Book, but not God’s WORD, should be made explicit, which it is not in either tradition as far as I can tell.  It is implied if we take the Bible seriously, but it seems that I have to continually point this out, when it should be obvious. 

Of course this does raise questions as to Who is Christ the Logos and how do we know this, which is what we should be discussing instead of evolution.

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