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Nazarenes on Evolution

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May 5, 2014 Tags: Biblical Interpretation, Creation & Origins, Evolution & Christian Faith project, History of Life

Today's entry was written by Thomas Jay Oord. 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.

Nazarenes on Evolution

Virtually all Christians agree that God is Creator. And virtually all believe the biblical witness to God’s creative activity. But how God acts as Creator is disputed. And Christians disagree with one another on how to best interpret the Bible’s statements about creation.

The vast majority of contemporary scientists think evolution is at least an important part of why we find creatures in such complex and diverse forms. A 2009 Pew research study indicates that 97% of scientists think humans and other living things evolved over time by natural processes, guided by God, or evolved in some other way. [1]

What scientists mean by “evolution” isn’t always clear. But to believe in evolution usually means that all creatures share common ancestors. And it usually means the complex creatures we see in our world – including humans – emerged over very long periods of time through natural selection, genetic mutation, and self-organization. This means the earth is old and new species emerged very slowly.

Christians, as a whole, aren’t sure what to make of this. Some simply believe God creates through evolution. This, in fact, seems to be the position of the largest Christian group, the Roman Catholic Church. Many other Christians agree.

But Evangelicals are especially likely to doubt central aspects of evolutionary theory. In that same Pew study, 57% of Evangelicals say they reject evolution. These Evangelicals believe humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

When close to 100% of scientists accept evolution and close to 60% of Evangelicals reject it, some today think they must choose between evolution or God.

The Church of the Nazarene and Evolution

For some time, I’ve been interested in what members and leaders of the Church of the Nazarene think about evolution. I am an ordained elder in this denomination and a theologian at one of its premier academic institutions. I care deeply for this collection of God’s children.

In the past year, I’ve been leading a project to explore evolution and theology in the Church of the Nazarene. With the help of Sherri Walker, we’ve published short essays on the internet in which Nazarene leaders express their views on evolution and Christian faith. A book of these essays, called Nazarenes Exploring Evolution, appeared in early 2014. And in January, I co-led (with Mark Mann) a conference on this subject at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California.

Like most denominations, the Church of the Nazarene understands the importance of creation. But the official denomination statement on creation is brief. It says,

The Church of the Nazarene believes in the biblical account of creation (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth . . .”—Genesis 1:1). We oppose any godless interpretation of the origin of the universe and of humankind (Hebrews 11:3).

Although this statement affirms God as Creator and opposes theories that are “godless,” many laity and some clergy in the denomination think this statement opposes evolution. Many believe the theory of evolution is essentially godless, in the sense that God would not have created through evolution.

Polling Nazarenes on Evolutionary Issues

Most Christians consider the Church of the Nazarene to be part of the Evangelical movement. Given this, one might expect members to view evolution in a way similar to the 57% of Evangelicals who reject evolution.

Prior to the Nazarenes Exploring Evolution project, the only known poll of Nazarene views on evolution was conducted by Pew in 2007. In that poll, a mere 21% of Nazarenes “mostly agreed” or “completely agreed” that “evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth.” [2]

Recently, the Nazarenes Exploring Evolution project took an online public poll to find out what Nazarenes think. The denomination’s own researchers helped shape the poll. Although no poll is perfect, below are what Nazarenes who took the poll said:

Poll of Nazarenes on Evolution

Question 1: Genesis and other biblical texts require Christians to believe the earth was created less than 15 thousand years ago.

Strongly Agree: 14.39%; Agree: 7.37%; Unsure/Don’t Know: 4.21%; Disagree: 18.95%; Strongly Disagree: 55.09%

Question 2: The Bible can properly be interpreted as compatible with the theory of biological evolution.

Strongly Agree: 37.89%; Agree: 21.75%; Unsure/Don’t Know: 10.53%; Disagree: 4.56%; Strongly Disagree: 25.26%

Question 3: Geology, astronomy, and physics have established that world is billions of years old.

Strongly Agree: 35.44%; Agree: 22.11%; Unsure/Don’t Know: 12.98%; Disagree: 9.82%; Strongly Disagree: 19.65%

Question 4: Humans likely became a species as God worked with the biological evolutionary process.

Strongly Agree: 27.72%; Agree: 16.49%; Unsure/Don’t Know: 17.19%; Disagree: 7.37%; Strongly Disagree: 31.23%

Among other things, this poll suggests that more Nazarenes today feel comfortable with evolution.

Nazarene Scholars on God Creating through Evolution

The Nazarenes Exploring Evolution project also conducted a more targeted poll. This one involved sending a set of questions to scientists and theologians working in American denominational colleges, universities, and seminary. All universities and colleges of the Church of the Nazarene in the United States were contacted, including Nazarene Theological Seminary and Nazarene Bible College. More than fifty scholars responded, which is roughly half of those working full-time at denominational institutions.

Question 1: Genesis and other biblical texts require Christians to believe the earth was created less than 15 thousand years ago.

Strongly Agree: 0.00%; Agree: 1.23%; Unsure/Don’t Know: 3.70%; Disagree: 13.58%; Strongly Disagree: 81.48%

Question 2: The Bible can properly be interpreted as compatible with the theory of biological evolution.

Strongly Agree: 49.38%; Agree: 33.33%; Unsure/Don’t Know: 3.70%; Disagree: 7.41%; Strongly Disagree: 6.17%

Question 3: Geology, astronomy, and physics have established that the world is billions of years old.

Strongly Agree: 66.67%; Agree: 19.75%; Unsure/Don’t Know: 8.64%; Disagree: 3.70%; Strongly Disagree: 1.23%

Question 4: Humans likely became a species as God worked with the evolutionary process.

Strongly Agree: 39.51%; Agree: 27.16%; Unsure/Don’t Know: 18.52%; Disagree: 7.41%; Strongly Disagree: 7.41%

Question 5: The Church of the Nazarene should allow the theory that God creates through evolution as one acceptable view of creation among others.

Strongly Agree: 69.14%; Agree: 18.52%; Unsure/Don’t Know: 7.41%; Disagree: 3.70%; Strongly Disagree: 1.23%

The final question about the denomination affirming that God creates through evolution is particularly interesting to me. The scholars poll indicates that about 88% of Nazarene theologians, scientists and biblical scholars think something like evolutionary creation ought to be affirmed as at least one viable option for thinking about how God creates.

These polls also reveal what many scholars and pastors in the denomination have been saying for some time: the Bible should not be interpreted as a straightforward science or history book. Many biblical scholars, for instance, believe Genesis 1 reads like a hymn of praise. Others believe Genesis 1 draws from Jewish Temple literature, which is religious and not scientific.

Most Nazarene theology, Bible, and philosophy scholars believe the main point of Genesis and other creation texts is theological: God is Creator. Genesis and other books of the Bible need not mention the specific ways God creates for this main point to be true.

Conclusion

The Nazarenes Exploring Evolution poll of religion scholars reveals that most scholars in science, Bible, and theology are open to the possibility that Christian faith is compatible with the idea that God creates through evolution. But a significant number of laity are less comfortable with this idea. These polls seem indicate that we find in the Church of the Nazarene a marked difference between how some laity and scholars think about evolution. One goal of the Nazarenes Exploring Evolution project is to address this divide through conversation, education, and charitable interaction.


  1. Research Center for the People & the Press. http://www.pewforum.org/science-and-bioethics/public-opinion-on-religion-and-science-in-the-united-states.aspx. Accessed 1/18/13. See also, http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/09/section-5-evolution-climate-change-and-other-issues/. Accessed 1/22/13. [back to body text]
  2. 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, collected by Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. http://www.thearda.com/denoms/families/profilecompare.asp?d=1001&d=801&d=&d=&d=. Accessed 9/19/2013. [back to body text]

Thomas Jay Oord, Ph.D. is professor of theology and philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University. He is the author and/or editor of about a dozen books, including Creation Made Free, Divine Grace and Emerging Creation, and Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement. He blogs frequently on issues of theology, science, and philosophy at http://thomasjayoord.com.


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Gregory - #85379

May 10th 2014

I’d like to comment about this Poll conducted with Nazarene leaders on evolutionary theories as a sociologist.

The 2013 Pew survey can be found here (the first link given above is broken): http://www.pewforum.org/2013/12/30/publics-views-on-human-evolution/

This infographic is helpful to involve in the conversation too: http://biologos.org/blog/americas-view-on-evolution-and-creationism-infographic

Likewise this: http://www.gallup.com/poll/16462/americans-weigh-evolution-vs-creationism-schools.aspx

One question arises related to the Pew survey: are Nazarenes ‘Protestants’? Wikipedia (categorically) says so, yet this article by Oord does not include that term. Why is that?

“Evangelicals are especially likely to doubt central aspects of [presumably just biological] evolutionary theory.” – Oord

(White) Evangelical Protestants are identified in the Pew survey, while evangelical Catholics and Orthodox are not.

Oord says:

“Most Christians consider the Church of the Nazarene to be part of the Evangelical movement.”

I think most Catholics and Orthodox (majority of world’s Christians) would consider “the Church of the Nazarene” as ‘Protestant,’ iow, stemming from the Protestant Reformation.

How is a ‘movement’ distinguished from a ‘denomination’?

Oord also states:

“Many believe the theory of evolution is essentially godless, in the sense that God would not have created through evolution.”

Maybe they just haven’t seen a coherent explanation of exactly ‘how’ God (actively) evolves creation in professional biological literature. How is theological evolution different from or the same as biological evolution?

In the Nazarenes on Evolution Poll, compared to the interesting first 3 and 5th questions, Question 4 in particular is not very clear. This perhaps explains the unclear results among Nazarene laity – 31.23% ‘strongly disagree’ and that more scholars were ‘unsure’ than laity (18.52% to 17.19%). Suggesting that “God worked with the biological evolutionary process” leaves room for doubt (loosely or tightly, quickly or slowly, closely or distantly, personally or impersonally, primarily or secondarily, etc.) about God’s omnipotence and action. Likewise, the specific phrase “God creates through evolution” seems to suggest that ‘evolution’ is somehow ‘separate’ from God, i.e. just an instrument to be used by the Creator. That language is quite different than saying “God evolves ______”. One is more active and direct than the other.

“we find in the Church of the Nazarene a marked difference between how some laity and scholars think about evolution.” – Oord

Yes, this Poll confirms that. An important question then is: Why does the evangelical Protestant laity, in this case, “the Church of the Nazarene” have an ‘epistemological obstacle’ to accepting limited biological evolutionary theories as consistent with their theology?

Lastly, was Question 5 not asked to the Nazarene laity in the Poll, but only to the scholars? Or were the results not clear or consistent? I’d be curious to hear the results of that question to laity if it was asked.


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