Evolution and Our Theological Traditions: Summing Up
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.