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Science and the Bible: Theistic Evolution, Part 3

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September 11, 2012 Tags: Problem of Evil
Science and the Bible: Theistic Evolution, Part 3
Matthias Grunewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (1510-1515), Unterlinden Museum at Colmar, Alsace, France

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

Last time, I presented three implications and conclusions concerning Theistic Evolution. There is much more to say about this, so we continue the same thread—and we will pick it up yet again in two weeks, coming back once more for an historical look in about a month.

Some implications and conclusions of Theistic Evolution--continued

(4) Several leading TEs have advanced a strongly Christocentric theology of creation—stressing the idea (from the prologue of John’s gospel) that the Maker of heaven and earth is the crucified and resurrected second person of the Trinity. Especially when theodicy is the topic, they like to speak about “the crucified God,” or “the theology of the cross,” or “divine kenosis.”

On first glance, some readers might be a bit perplexed: isn’t this column supposed to be about evolution, not the crucifixion? What could those topics possibly have in common? The answer lies in theodicy, or the problem of evil and suffering in the world. As I stressed in my column about the YEC view, creationism is ultimately about theodicy—it’s not only about theodicy, to be sure, but the belief that animals must not have suffered and died before Adam and Eve committed the first sin is crucial to the “young” in Young Earth Creationism. To a significant degree, Theistic Evolution is also about theodicy. In one of the best books on science and religion that I could name, Catholic theologian John Haught explains the atheist’s view of theodicy (which he does not share) as follows:

“Evolution is incompatible with any and all religious interpretations of the cosmos, not just with Christian fundamentalism. The prevalence of chance variations, which today are called genetic ‘mutations,’ definitively refutes the idea of any ordering deity. The fact of struggle and waste in evolution decisively demonstrates that the cosmos is not cared for by a loving God. And the fact of natural selection is a clear signal of the loveless impersonality of the universe.” (Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation, p. 52)

Proponents of TE have responded to the issues raised in the latter two sentences in a variety of ways. I agree with Christopher Southgate’s analysis of the overall situation. Like several of the writers I mention this week, Southgate is a theologian with a doctorate in science; he’s also an accomplished poet. The text he wrote with many others, God, Humanity and the Cosmos: A Textbook in Science and Religion, is really much more than a textbook. I recommend it for anyone seeking a wide-ranging introduction to the principal issues.

Southgate and his collaborators see just two “possible theologies of divine action in respect of evolution,” considering that “the problems of theodicy are severe.” Option ONE: “to posit God merely as the passive, suffering companion of every creature, a view self-consistent but dubiously faithful to the Christian tradition.” Option TWO: “to mount a defence of teleological creation using a combination of [certain] theological resources,” namely these three—

  • “we must adopt a very high doctrine of humanity and suppose that indeed humans are of very particular concern to God.” This is linked with the Incarnation.
  • “we must take very seriously the cross as costly to God, as part of God’s hugely costly way of taking responsibility for the creative process.”
  • “we must give some account of the redemption of the non-human creation …” This is linked with the Trinity. (p. 279 in first edition, 1999)

Given limited space, I’ll focus almost exclusively on the second idea, though we may want to discuss all of them below.

The Crucified God

View of the entrance to the main camp of Auschwitz (May 1945). The gate bears the motto, "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work makes one free). United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Source).

We start with something that arose in a context entirely unrelated to evolution, Jürgen Moltmann’s (read more here and here) notion of The Crucified God. The theological point and the emotional impact of Moltmann’s conception is aptly captured in this stark passage, written in response to Elie Wiesel’s dark story of a child who was publicly hanged at Auschwitz: “like the cross of Christ, even Auschwitz is in God himself. Even Auschwitz is taken up into the grief of the Father, the surrender of the Son and the power of the Spirit.” (p. 278) A recent sermon by Matt Bates, pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Richmond, fleshes this out for us in a very accessible way; please read the whole sermon before going any further.

Repeat: please read the sermon. It’s a vital part of what I’m trying to say.

Now that you see more clearly what the “Crucified God” is about, let’s see what John Polkinghorne says about it:

“This profound and difficult thought meets the problem of suffering at [the] level which its deep challenge demands. The insight of the Crucified God lies at the very heart of my own Christian belief, indeed of the possibility of such belief in the face of the way the world is. But this can only really be so if God is indeed truly present in that twisted figure on the tree of Calvary. Only an ontological Christology is adequate to the defence of God in the face of human suffering. God must really be there in that darkness.” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 44)

Be sure to notice two things in this passage. First, Polkinghorne confesses that his own Christian faith depends on such a conception of God, but there are only two very brief references to evolution in the entire eloquent chapter from which I’ve quoted. There’s plenty of science there, but almost all of it is modern physics, not biology. (I’ll leave it as an exercise to “students” to get a copy of this excellent little book and fill in the blanks.) In other words, evolution doesn’t shape Polkinghorne’s theology nearly as much as his theology shapes his view of evolution.

The second thing to notice is that in the last three sentences Polkinghorne is doing something subtle, but extremely important—something that I don’t want anyone to miss. Contrary to some of the most influential voices in the science and religion “dialogue” (some examples would be Haught, Ian Barbour, and the late Arthur Peacocke), Polkinghorne affirms the full divinity and humanity of Christ, in a classical Chalcedonian sense. Read those sentences again a couple of times, and you should see what I’m driving at. As he says a bit later on, “Unless there really is a God who really was ‘in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor. 5:19), then the cross is no answer to the bitter problem of the suffering of the world.” (p. 45) In other words, one can only take this approach to theodicy unless one actually believes in the reality of the Incarnation; only an orthodox Christian can speak meaningfully of the “Crucified God.” In the final part of this column, when I’ll present Polkinghorne as a contemporary exemplar of a theologically “orthodox” TE, it’s partly this aspect of his thought that I will have in mind.

Lucas Cranach the Elder

Finally, I should note that the term “crucified God” is not actually modern. Although Moltmann wrote an influential book about it, the language comes from Martin Luther. Another physicist-theologian, George Murphy, writes in a highly Lutheran way about The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross, advancing the view that a “theology of the cross” in which God sets aside power to become a participant in the universe, even to the point of death, takes priority over a “theology of glory,” in which we seek God first in the power behind nature, not in the powerlessness of the cross. For a short version of Murphy’s ideas, go here.

Once again, we need to stop mid-stream. These ideas are deep and perhaps too new for many readers, and it’s best to reflect on them before we go further and even deeper.








Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.

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GJDS - #73051

September 24th 2012


Again your emphasis on terms in this discussion is helpful. For the record, I am not from the USA and am of the Orthodox tradition, and have followed a good deal of discussion from Catholicism on matters theological. I agree wrt American evangelists, but I refer to liberal theologians as those who even question the existence of God (perhaps I should stick to Orhtodox vs non-Orthodox theology as my distinction because of the many shades).

My interest in this area has been mainly on the question of Faith and Science (I capitalise Science to mean the body of knowledge provided by all of the disciplines of science, that is non-speculative and not subjected to controversy from whatever area of human knowledge/endeavour).

On theistic evolution (and sub-sets such as ID), these areas do not fit well within my view of Science (capital S) and are thus things that I consider to undergo constant(?) change, and thus I hold these ‘at arms length’.

On humanity, I view humans as being ‘created from the earth’ (made out of clay and so on) to mean from and part of the planet. Thus geological time spans are ‘part of the earth’ and non-problimatic. Most of my effort has gone into discerning the idea and meaning of the word ‘God’ and take the ‘addition’ of this meaning as the creation of the human beings we are (spirit of humanity). This conforms to Genesis but is more aligned with the Gospel of John and the Epistles. we human beings, are truly ourselves when we fully develop the attributes of Christ - thus the birth of Christ is the creation of human beings in toto. I will not continue on details of the fall and related matters.

I will add that the Law (capital L) of God is the basis for considering discussions related to theistic notions of how and what God has created. I will not address your other points for now as the discussion would be too lengthy.

Matthew Heywood - #73070

September 25th 2012

There are a few points about the topic from the geologost’s angle.  I am a geologist (Australian) if you wish to get acquanted with latest developments, search the ‘Net under Philip Bruce Heywood plus creation, evolution, planetary origin, climate, or magnetic field subjects.  Being a geologist I am nothing acquanted with archaeology and anthropology—as far as geology is concerned, Man may as well not have existed. Further, dating human fossils (the very few in existence) by definition is fraught with difficulty.

I can advize you, going on the biblical description and  recent developments, that Noah’s flood  was fully global only as Man at the time understood ‘global’; it probably produced an effect of making man’s establishing himself on this earth a slow and doubtful affair (near-extinction is a genetic fact besides a biblical statement) and it was a sustained tidal surge (not a tsunami) presumably caused by cometary interaction with the Earth.  This immediately throws question marks in every direction regarding dating and meaning of human fossils and traces.  Personally, I place little trust in any proposed human fossil or trace which is claimed to be more than five thousand years old!

Coming to evolution itself.  I propose an evolutionary model based upon Scripture and Geology, which I term, ‘Signalled Evolution’.  The only aspect of Darwinism utilized is the obvious role of environment in the information or intelligence which were signalled or imparted to the information devices of the living cells. 

Darwin was groping in the dark and came up with absurdity on absurdity.  He was, however, correct, in assuming that environment has a role.  The point he missed was that science has to do with maths and physics, and environment has to be reduced to mathematical coded information to influence speciation.  Quantum information technology has now opened the field wide.  Species (Man partly excepted) are nothing more than information married with life. Both information and life are beyond Nature—they require supernatural sources.  

Try to explain step-by-step the transmutation of one species to another, and see how destitute is Common Descent Evolution!  Try it with Man, and you will require not only incest and bestiality, but coincidences beyond rational possibility.  How DID grandad and grandma get down out of a tree and get human genetics?  Trace the steps—and hit a brick wall. Species by definition do not incrementally grade into each other.  The proposal that they do so is reminiscent of Aristotilean medieval church nonsense. It needs a Galileo to show that Nature obeys mathematics.  Nature does not obey imagination!  

Theistic Evolution if it is relying upon Common Descent or Darwinism flatly denies the fossil record—which is a record of abrupt, dynamic outbreaking of new species.  It also denies certain obvious principles of physics and denies those words of Scripture which give species special, reproductive self-containment.  We do not gather grapes of thorn bushes.  Yet darwinistic notions are of some merit where handled appropriately. GENESIS of course and despite the misinformation campaign of people such as ANSWERS IN GENESIS, demands a staged revelation of various divisions of life.  

Gregory - #73208

September 29th 2012

Hi Roger,

Wondering if after several days (since #73049) you’re going to return to this thread to give your Top 5 non-western sources?

It would take me less than a minute to come up with an answer on this question.

Otherwise, your repeated ‘critique of Western thought’ seems to be simply not credible. And it seems like hypocrisy and self-defeating criticism because you admit you are “the product of Western thought and civilization.” Boo hoo (great song “We Cry” by The Script), but still nothing from ‘outside’ or new.

If you want to be taken seriously, please back up your grand claims with authors and sources. References to your own book, which likely none of us has read, as if it alone holds the answers, are unsatisfactory.

Kindly with Thanks, Gregory

Gregory - #73210

September 29th 2012

Thanks for sharing more about your background and beliefs, GJDS. I thought perhaps I smelled/sensed something ‘Orthodox’ (not just orthodox) in your approach (please take the smell/sense analogy in high regard, from having visited many Orthodox churches).

You wrote: “I refer to liberal theologians as those who even question the existence of God.”

Yes, this is similar to how BioLogos used to define ‘liberal Christians’ on their Resources (Perspectives) page. I thought it was a good decision to remove that category and to adopt the current categories (though there is still room for improvements).

E.g. no longer is Howard van Til officially associated with (acknowledged by) BioLogos, even if he signficantly (though we don’t know for sure, since not a philosopher at BioLogos has addressed his work) influenced BioLogos staff and contributors. Maybe Deborah Haarsma (also of Calvin College, department of physics [and astronomy]) could tell H. van Till’s story and his free-thinker/faith position today wrt Christianity at BioLogos.

Wrt capitalising ‘Science,’ that’s fine as per your definition, but I’m always careful when speaking with natural scientists about the twin ideologies of scientism and naturalism. This has been said before, so it doesn’t need to be repeated. I could tell a story about the time I visited an event at which more than a dozen Orthodox Priests were on a science and religion panel, all of whom held PhD’s in physics and none of whom promote scientism or ultimate conflict between science(, philosophy) and religion.

“Most of my effort has gone into discerning the idea and meaning of the word ‘God’ and take the ‘addition’ of this meaning as the creation of the human beings we are (spirit of humanity).” - GJDS

Yes, that is also partly why I substitute the term ‘extension’ for ‘evolution’ in much discourse of science, philosophy and religion. What do human beings ‘extend’ from and to? The term ‘addition’ is much closer to ‘extension’ (lengthening, prolonging, spreading out, etc.) than it is to ‘evolution’ (‘unrolling’).

Roger A. Sawtelle - #73213

September 29th 2012


Thank you for your unreponsive response and the confirmation that you are a relativist.

My thinking is clear and stands on its own two feet with the help of good Biblical theology.

However if you want additional support, I will give you two, Augustine’s On the Trinity and E = mc

Gregory - #73214

September 29th 2012

Rev. Roger,

As you mean the term ‘relativist,’ I am not a ‘relativist.’ But post-modern philosophy is something you likely know very little about, so my response, and Peter Kreeft’s quotation probably went over your head. Otoh, you are a Gaiaist. Which is worse, a Gaiaist or a relativist?

Please don’t try to preach your ‘critique of Western thought’ anymore here because you have failed miserably to convince so far, and now display inability even to cite ‘non-Western’ sources for your criticism other than the Bible.

Your critique of your own Western-ness obviously stands on very little ground if by ‘additional support’ via ‘non-Western sources’ you can only manage to cite St. Augustine (among the most ‘western’ of the church fathers) and E = mc2 (a physics equation by a German Jew who moved to the USA and took citizenship there).

I don’t accept either of those answers as ‘non-Western.’ I asked for your Top 5 ‘non-Western sources’. You gave 2 that don’t even qualify.

Does that not at least make you question how ‘clear’ your ‘critique of Western thought’ actually is in the eyes of others?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #73362

October 5th 2012


Both Augustine and Einstein are meta-Western.

Eddie - #73383

October 6th 2012

Gregory is correct.  Augustine is the epitome of “Westernness” in theology, the ultimate foundation of Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican, as well as Protestant sectarian, Christendom.  His ideas also had an immense influence on secular Western culture, especially regarding his emphasis on the will and his linear conception of time.  Not to know such things is not to be able to converse at even the most basic level in the history of ideas.

As for Einstein, for all his modifications to Newtonian physics, he was still a decisively Western man.  Some of his physics colleagues could be thought of as more “Eastern”—for more on which I would recommend reading Capra’s The Tao of Physics.  But Einstein was a child of the West.  Again, Gregory is correct.

Sorry for this “hyper-critical” interruption, Gregory, but as you can see, I’m an equal opportunity hyper-critic, and give credit where credit is due.  I resume my silence once more.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #73404

October 8th 2012

Gregory and Eddie,

It is good to see both of you in agreement.

Someone who has shaped and founded a tradition is not part of that tradition, but is the source of it.  That is why Augustine is a meta-thinker, not a Western thinker.

Einstein was a western person, but his Theory is a real turning point in our understanding of the world, which is neither western or eastern.  It is truly beyond east and west, which is doubtless why people do not understand its full meaning.    

Eddie - #73405

October 8th 2012

Find me one academically or intellectually significant philosopher, theologian, historian of ideas, historian of Christian thought, etc., that does not consider Augustine part of the Western tradition!

Roger A. Sawtelle - #73520

October 10th 2012


You must learn the distinction between being a part of something and transcending something.

Was Augustine considered part of the Western tradition during his own time?  I doubt it because there was no clear Western tradition at that time. 

It appears that people are trying to put me into a relativistic Western box, and I refuse to be accept their label, because it is not accurate.  

Eddie - #73536

October 10th 2012

Pure sophistry.  You are trying to defend the indefensible—a statement about Augustine that would be uniformly rejected by every trained Church historian, historian of ideas, etc.  Augustine was a Western thinker.  Period.  Live with it.

Nobody is trying to put you in any box.  Any difficulties you are having here spring from your determination to make big vast generalizations about the history of thought, the history of science, theology, philosophy, the Greeks, etc. without the requisite knowledge base.  And no one can fix that problem but yourself.  You have to learn to make your statements more limited and more modest, and you have to adopt the habit of reading the classic sources in each field before writing anything about that field.  You also have to learn from criticism.  A couple of weeks ago I corrected you (based on extensive knowledge) regarding Dawkins, Darwin, natural selection, and mutations, but today, on another thread, I see you pushing the same errors, as if you hadn’t learned a thing from my comments.  If you can’t take the time to learn from the comments of others, there is no reason why others should invest the time (hours in my case) trying to set you straight in their areas of expertise.  That’s why I’ve given up.  Best wishes.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #73553

October 11th 2012


I am sorry that you are offended by my understanding of history as salvation history rather than cultural history.

However that does not make it right or wrong.  We disagree, but you do not want to consider any point of view other than your own.

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