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Science and the Bible: Theistic Evolution, Part 1

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August 15, 2012 Tags: Creation & Origins
Science and the Bible: Theistic Evolution, Part 1
“Création ex nihilo,” from Charles de Bouelles, Libellus de nihilo (1510). God “inspires” (breathes or blows into) the universe, creating it out of nothing (ex nihilo).

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

The dictionaries I checked don’t define the term, “theistic evolution,” so I offer my own definition: the belief that God used the process of evolution to create living things, including humans. Some might find this a vague definition, since (for example) it doesn’t include the adjective “Darwinian” before “evolution,” but that would eliminate most of the people prior to World War Two who would otherwise fit the definition. On the other hand, if we left out a specific reference to human evolution, then the category would be even larger, since a number of important Christian writers have accepted evolution among the “lower animals,” while explicitly rejecting it for human beings. We could argue endlessly about such things, and not pointlessly; my point here is simply to be clear about terminology.

“Theistic evolution” has been discussed by that name since at least 1877, and one of the first to do so was the great Canadian geologist John W. Dawson, in his book, The Origin of the World, According to Revelation and Science (1877). In the midst of a lengthy discussion of the animals created on the fifth day of creation, he says:

The long time employed in the introduction of the lower animals, the use of the terms “make,” and “form,” instead of “create,” and the expression “let the waters bring forth,” may well be understood as countenancing some form of mediate creation, or of “creation by law,” or “theistic evolution,” as it has been termed; but they give no countenance to the idea either of the spontaneous evolution of living beings under the influence of merely physical causes and without creative intervention, or of the transmutation [evolution] of one kind of animal into another. (p. 225)

As the final part of this sentence implies, Dawson was (ironically) a staunch opponent of both human evolution and the common ancestry of other animals; in short, by no reasonable definition was he a theistic evolutionist, even though he thought that a great deal of change had taken place naturally, “within certain limits” that he associated with the created “kinds” spoken of in Genesis. Indeed, references to “theistic evolution” are probably no less common among opponents of the view (including William Jennings Bryan in the 1920s) than among proponents, but I won’t attempt to enumerate further examples.

In recent years, however, some proponents of TE have endorsed alternative labels for their position(s). The most prominent example is Francis Collins, the geneticist who started BioLogos. Collins uses the term “BioLogos” itself as the label for his overall position, which fits well within my TE category. The evangelical theologian Denis Lamoureux, one of the most qualified of all writers on this topic (he has earned doctorates in both theology and biology), strongly prefers the term, “Evolutionary Creation” (EC), precisely because he thinks the noun “creation” ought to have more emphasis than the adjective “evolutionary,” something that the term “theistic evolution” does not accomplish. I recommend his book of that title to anyone who wants an authoritative analysis of both biblical and scientific aspects of the origins controversy. The main ideas are clearly presented in his web lectures. Another highly qualified proponent of TE, George Murphy, also has reservations about the term, but he recognizes its wide recognition and agrees with the idea itself, that “Evolution is God’s way of creating”. I will have more to say about Murphy, a very important voice, in a subsequent post.

Despite these quite reasonable objections to the term, I continue to use the “TE” term, partly because it has historical continuity and I’m an historian, and partly because it’s easily recognized. If anyone wants to object, however, they won’t get objections from me, unless their own reasons aren’t reasonable. My only request: define your terms as clearly as I’ve defined mine.

Because the term is broad and a bit hazy, more should be said about it. When we talk about “Intelligent Design” next month, I’ll tell you that it’s a “big tent” (something proponents of that view also say), insofar as it glosses over the biblical and theological issues that have usually separated Christians into various “camps” (such as the various positions we are now studying) when it comes to origins. TE is also a “big tent,” in that adherents differ strongly amongst themselves on theological and biblical issues. Unlike ID, however, theology is openly discussed—and competing theologies of God, nature, and humanity are openly advocated, not left implicit. We’ll say more about this next time. This column presents one type of TE, a type favored by many evangelical scientists and scholars. For example, the people I will discuss all accept (as far as I can tell) the Incarnation and Resurrection—that is, they are Trinitarian Christians who believe that Jesus was fully divine (and fully human) and that the disciples went to the right tomb, only to find it empty, before encountering the risen Christ in diverse places. They also believe in creation ex nihilo, the classical view (illustrated at the start of this column) that God brought the universe into existence out of nothing. There are other types of TE, some of which are not (in my opinion) sufficiently biblical, or even sufficiently Christian, to be part of this series. Please keep that in mind as we proceed: don’t tar all TEs with the same brush—something that happens all too often elsewhere. Let knowledge, not ignorance, be our guide.

Core Tenets or Assumptions of Theistic Evolution

(1) The Bible is NOT a reliable source of scientific knowledge about the origin of the earth and the universe, including living things—because it was never intended to teach us about science.

This reflects not only modern scientific knowledge, but also (more importantly) modern biblical scholarship. Peter Enns and some other evangelical scholars have recently stressed this point, initiating a firestorm in the evangelical academic community that, so far, has confirmed my view that evangelicals in general are just not ready to deal with this, even though it is consistent with the classical notion of accommodation. My own comments about the magnitude of the problem, written before the firestorm started, can be found here.

(2) The Bible IS a reliable source of knowledge about God and spiritual things.

Remember the quip that Galileo attributed to Cesare, Cardinal Baronio, “The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.” (We discussed this earlier in the series). Evolution was not an issue in Galileo’s day, but this platitude is frequently quoted by advocates of TE—and often without proper attribution to Baronio. Commonality obviously lies in the attitude, not the topic. Many critics of TE are willing to adopt Galileo’s approach when it comes to the Solar System, but not when it comes to evolution: they are anxious to keep Galileo out of the garden of Eden.

Portrait of Cesare, Cardinal Baronio,
attributed to Caravaggio (1602-3) (Source)

(3) Scientific evidence is irrelevant to the Bible—it is simply not a science book.

See above. This needs to be stated separately, since some believers look to science for “proof” of the Bible, just as some unbelievers look to science for “disproof.” Proponents of TE stress that science and the Bible aren’t like apples and oranges; rather, they are more like apples and rocks: you can hold one in each hand without tension, but they have very little in common. We wouldn’t look for God in the phone book, or in an automobile repair manual. Don’t look for science in the Bible. In principle, scientific theories neither support nor threaten the Bible.

(4) The creation story in Genesis 1 is a confession of faith in the true creator, intended to refute pantheism and polytheism, not to tell us how God actually created the world.

This is meant to echo what we said about the Framework View. It is not necessarily true that all TEs accept the Framework View or something like it, but many do. Most would probably say that the Bible is not contradicted by any specific scientific theory of biological diversity—unless that theory oversteps its philosophical boundaries and functions as a kind of religion, what Conrad Hyers called “dinosaur religion.”

(5) The Bible tells us THAT God created, not how God created

Again, this sounds like the Framework View—or, at least, it should. Belief in God the creator is consistent with science, and even supported by some aspects of science; but, it is not a substitute for scientific explanations.

An Assignment: It’s Your Turn to Read and Write

Astronomer Owen Gingerich has written an eloquent little TE book, God’s Universe. A number of quotations have been compiled here. My review for First Things identifies some of the key theological and philosophical issues related to TE. Please follow these links, study what you find, and offer comments below. If anyone has actually read the book itself, your views would be particularly valuable to include.

Looking Ahead

In our next column in two weeks, we continue our discussion of Theistic Evolution, focusing on some crucial theological aspects of TE. In the meantime, please do the “assignment” and get back to us.

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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Gregory - #72157

August 23rd 2012

“which has authority to shape our views - Scripture, or evolutionay science. They tell us two different things.” … “If evolution is true, Christianity isn’t. Athiests can be honest about this, I don’t know why Christians can’t be.”

As I said above, Carson, I think that position “is a crude and unnecessary ultimatum.” My apology for the blunt word ‘crude.’ That’s just my opinion and not BioLogos’. The purpose of BioLogos is to convince people who hold the position you do that you are wrong and that it is possible to accept biological evolution and be a Christian. Please forgive the personal question about your father. It was meant to inquire where you got the ideology of ‘creationism’ from and what it might take for you to let go of it.

Carson, it sounds like you’re just the kind of person BioLogos is hoping to ‘convert’ to becoming an evangelical Christian who accepts (not blindly) biological evolution, an ‘old earth’ and God creating through natural evolutionary processes. That is, someone who displays a humble and teachable spirit and who surely wants to discover truth about God and Creation and who is not ‘anti-science’. I do wish you the best of success in your readings, as you’re new to the site, there is much to offer here in that regard, e.g. as D.U. Litz recommended reading list.

Please understand that some of my questions and ‘guesses’ about you were based on the statistical profile of those who ‘hold to Creationism.’ The survey numbers in the United States tell that the lower a person’s education, the less contact they have with scientists and if they only form their views on evolution through their local church pulpit, that they are more likely to ‘hold to Creationism’ than those with higher education, who regularly come into contact with scientists. The numbers show that evangelical Christians are particularly vulnerable to the ideology of ‘creationism.’ But you’ve said the statistics don’t match your profile, which is fine too. Everyone is a unique person, so if it sounded as if I was ‘assuming’ who you are, again, I offer my apology.

Here’s an infographic that touches on some of this: http://biologos.org/blog/americas-view-on-evolution-and-creationism-infographic

On a more constructive note, you wrote: “This was all that was ever needed from my perspective. A simple, “Technically speaking, evolutionist means ‘x,’ while evolutionism means ‘y,’” would have been a concise and clear way of correcting and informing my ignorance on the matter, while at the same time, moving the discussion along usefully.”

Then I’ll offer my definitions, as it seems this may help clarify things with Ted Davis and Eddie also.

My view is that, technically speaking, an ‘evolutionist’ is a person who holds the ideology of evolutionism, not merely a person who accepts evolutionary biology. A person who accepts evolutionary biology or biological evolution is simply that; or they might in a very small % of cases be a biological evolutionary theorist or just simply an evolutionary biologist or geneticist, etc. [This is to leave aside entirely evolutionary political economics, evolutionary psychologists, etc. for sake of context.]

Evolutionism is an ideology that promotes ‘dynamics’ and ‘processes’ and opposes ‘statics’ and ‘origins,’ that is, it is against being ‘stuck,’ lacking motion or being still; Evolutionism is likewise an exaggeration of ‘evolutionary theory’ into fields where it does not belong, which pretends that things ‘evolve’ which actually don’t ‘evolve,’ and which elevates evolution into a worldview, rather than being a properly limited natural scientific theory or field of study. This is similar to the definition I gave above, from a Catholic Priest, which says evolutionism is an ideology that applies Darwin’s theory of natural selection to a wide variety of questions beyond biology.

Gregory - #72158

August 23rd 2012

Iow, the reason I harped so much on terminology (thanks especially to GJDS for patience with this) is because if one wants to confront evolutionism as an ideology, which BioLogos has in the past year explicitly said it does, then conflating ‘anti-evolution’ with ‘anti-evolutionism’ is counter-productive. Likewise, confronting evolutionism as an ideology requires a different approach than confronting young earth creationism. I hope I have made this point clear and that others might choose to recognise it.

This may be seen as relevant to some of the questions you’re asking, Carson, as the same is true with creation and creationism. One can believe in Creation and not feel a need to call oneself a ‘Creationist.’ Iow, Creationism is not simply a responsible way to read the Bible. It is an ideology that confuses a particular way of reading the Bible (i.e. a literalistic way) with claims made by scientists and preachers who mix ideology with science into so-called ‘creation science.’

“If you want to have a discussion about the best hermeneutic to employ, well and good…I assume such posts exist elsewhere on BioLogos already.”

Not being a theologian, I’m not the right person to have that discussion with. But yes they do; quite a few of them. And if you stick around, no doubt you’ll meet some good conversations about biblical hermeneutics.

I asked: “Could God not have ‘evolved (read: created through an evolutionary process)’ human beings?”

You answered: “If that is what the natural scientific evidence suggests, fine.” Yet natural scientific evidence suggests that the Earth is millions, not thousands of years old, and unless I misunderstand you, the position you hold rejects that evidence. So there is some ‘selection’ going on regarding ‘scientific evidence,’ which something that TEs (and ECs) have less of a problem with.

Carson Rogers - #72545

September 8th 2012


I’m not sure if you are still reading the posts in this thread since it is a few weeks old at this point, but I just wanted to take a moment to aknowledge and accept your apology. Thanks for doing the right thing. I haven’t been checking on this thread lately due to other demands on my time, but I saw what you wrote and just wanted you to know. Thanks again.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #72186

August 25th 2012


You reaised a serious question about death and evolution.  You should be aware that this question was explored recently in several blogs.

The question arises as to whether the death predicted by God to the original couple was physical death or spiritual death.  Like you  at first I assumed that it was physical death, but the problem with that is that the original humans did not die from eating the fruit, that is it was not poisonous and cause physical death. 

The poison from the fruit was sin and sin caused their deaths.  The problem was not really eating the fruit, but failing to trust in God, which was indicated by the eating of the fruit.  This was a spiritual act of betrayal and rebellion that resulted in original sin (alienation from God and others) which resulted in spiritual death. 

Jesus shows us that physical death is not to be feared, but spiritual death, separation from God is something to be avoided at all cost, even physical death.  Thus there is no real contradiction between God using death as part of the process of evolution, just as God used death as part of the process of salvation, i.e. Good Friday.

Humans are by nature mortal.  God did not create us to be evil, thus mortality is not evil.

I do not know if this answers your question, but I hope it gives you something to think about.          

Carson Rogers - #72547

September 8th 2012


Thanks for your thoughts. I am aware of this view, but I honestly do not see how it circumvents the theological hang-ups that I pointed out. A few points:

1) I reject your assumption that mortality is a necesarry trait of humanity. Jesus is fully man and is immortal.

2) I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that “mortality is not evil.” As Scripture presents death, it is always, at the very least, closely associated with sin and is consistently depicted (well outside of the Genesis creation account) as a result of sin. As to “God” using death for salvation, I would not say that was becuase there was some merit or even spiritual/moral neutraility associated with death. Just the opposite. It was judged even as sin was judged in Christ. 2 Cor. 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Christ hung on the cross as sin on our behalf and felt the full weight of God’s righteous wrath which led, inadvertently, to his physical death. The physical death that we deserved in Adam, he graciously withheld from giving to us, but instead delivered to our sin, in Christ, on the cross.

Incidently, I tend to think this is why Adam and Eve were graciously kept from eating from the Tree of Life after the Fall. Had they eaten from the tree, it may have been that they would have become physically immortal, but in their fallen state. This would be why Christ’s death and bodily ressurrection would be necesarry - to first pay for and eliminate the eternal sin debt of death incurred by the Fall - then to eventually consummate the physical ressurrection of humanity on the Last Day.  In John 6:40, Jesus speaks of the Father’s will for eternal life and then connects it to physical immortality: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” I think it is worth noting here too, that Jesus says in Revelation 2:7, that “to the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” This same tree subsequently shows up in Revelation 22:2. Having the sindebt paid, believers are restored to their perfect, created state, and are free to eat of the tree, as they were in Genesis 2:16-17

3) Scripture is clear that Christ died a physical death and raised bodily. We too, Scripture indicates, will be raised bodily. If spiritual death was all that was being defeated/reversed, why was Christ’s ressurrection necesarry? It seems that if it were only correction for Adam’s spiritual sin that was needed, only Christ’s atoning death would be required, not his bodily ressurrection. It seems instead, that Christs ressurrection stands as a down payment on our own physical immortailty at the Ressurrection in the Last Day.

4) I agree with you that the eating of the fruit was not the first sin, but the idolatry in Adam and Eve’s heart was. The eating of the fruit was merely a physical ratification of the spiritual reality present in their hearts. Nevertheless, Adam and Eve did die physically, just as God said. As I read the Bible, it seems to present humans as a pshyco-somatic unity, and where the spirit is dead and separated from God, so too is the body dead and separated from the life-giving goodness of God. 

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.


Terry - #72246

August 28th 2012

Just last night I posted this at the ASA at http://network.asa3.org/forums/posts.asp?topic=460038& and sent a copy to Ted Davis. He suggested that I cross post it here as part of this thread. In this context it may appear more polemical that originally intended.
At the recent ASA meeting at Point Loma a few of us were discussing the origin of the term “evolutionary creation” as an alternative to “theistic evolution”. Obviously, Denis Lamoureux’s 2008 book Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution which was based on Denis’s earlier use of the term in a 2003 paper, made the term common-place in the evolution-creation discussion.
When Denis was asked about the term, he referred to Howard Van Till who had told Denis that the term had been used in Reformed circles for some time. I’ve been trying to track that down with little success.
While I can hardly believe that I coined the term, I first used it in a 1994 essay written as part of the tenure process at Calvin College entitled “Can a Christian Be an Evolutionist?” That essay is on-line athttp://www.asa3.org/ASA/topics/Physical Science/Gray1999.html and at http://grayt2.wordpress.com/2012/06/03/can-a-christian-be-an-evolutionist/  Paragraphs from that essay were used in later papers, for example a noontime seminar at Calvin College in 1995 at http://www.asa3.org/evolution/noontime.html  I think Denis Lamoureux was still an anti-evolutionist at that time. 
Here is the line from that essay.

Since the term “theistic evolution” seems to be suspect for some reason, perhaps we should call it an “evolutionary creation”. This semantic shift makes creation the noun rather than evolution, perhaps for the better.

My personal recollection for writing that the term “theistic evolution” was suspect had to do with the very negative way the term “theistic evolution” was received in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church during 1992 and 1993 when the controversy over my views of evolution first began.
I don’t find the term in the 1991 “Report on Creation and Science” from the Christian Reformed Church (on-line athttp://www.crcna.org/site_uploads/uploads/resources/synodical/creation and science agenda 1991.pdf ) where I might expect to see it if it had been used in Reformed circles since they summarized discussions in the Dutch Reformed world in that report. I don’t find the term in Richard Bube’s 1971 essay “We Believe in Creation” in Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 23:121-122 (1971) (on-line at http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1971/JASA12-71Bube.html ) where the phrase would have been a fitting way to reclaim the term creation as distinct from “fiat” creation. I also don’t find the term in Jan Lever’s 1958Creation and Evolution. Lever was a biologist and was an early advocate in Dutch Reformed circles for some acceptance of evolutionary theory.
Lever does cite an 1899 essay by Abraham Kuyper who uses the term “evolutionistic creation” (the English translation). This essay entitled “Evolution” which can be found in English translation in the Calvin Theological Journal 31:11-50 (1996) (on-line athttp://www.asa3.org/ASA/resources/Kuyper.html ). In section X Kuyper writes:

And that same difference would also distinguish such a divine evolutionistic creation from the Darwinian theory. Evolutionistic creation presupposes a God who first prepares the plan and then omnipotently executes it…

So while Kuyper uses the same idea, in English translation he does not precisely use the term “evolutionary creation”. Perhaps in the Dutch there is no difference between “evolutionistic creation” and “evolutionary creation”.
Can anyone help with this puzzle?
Terry - #72248

August 28th 2012

Randy Isaac has just pointed out in the ASA forums the use of the term “theistic evolutionary creation” in Buswell’s review of Bernard Ramm’s 1954 book The Christian View of Science and Scripture (http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1955/JASA12-55Buswell.html ) where the term is used in a footnote in Ramm’s book.

Ted Davis - #72251

August 28th 2012


Thank you so much for copying your interesting post. If I ever knew Ramm had that language, I’d long forgetten about it. As we said some time ago, Ramm was definitely an OEC, not a TE, but unlike so many other Christian authors from that period (1950s) he did not disparage the TE view. In that footnote, Ramm is writing about the YEC flood geologist, George McCready Price, who (in Ramm’s words) “equates his interpretation with revelation. The issue [Ramm adds] is [actually] between fiat creation and theistic evolutionary creation.”

Gregory - #72272

August 29th 2012

Hi Terry,

Glad to see you again!

You asked: “Perhaps in the Dutch there is no difference between “evolutionistic creation” and “evolutionary creation”. Can anyone help with this puzzle?”

Well, I read Kuyper’s paper for my master’s thesis, which was partly on evolution and evolutionism.

In quick reading, it is interesting to note that the Dutch wiki page on ‘evolutionisme’ cites the following scholars: Darwin and Spencer. O.k. Then F. Boas and M. Harris. (Surprised?) Then Leslie White and Julien Steward (anyone heard of them?). Then Redfield, Service, Sahlins and Fried. To them (at least this wikipage), ‘evolutionism’ is mainly an anthropological topic.

No Dobzhansky, no J. Huxley, S.J. Gould or N. Eldridge, et al. But anthropologists.

In Dutch, ‘evolutionism’ translates as ‘evolutionisme,’ while ‘evolutionary’ translates as ‘evolutie’. My Dutch is not familiar enough (or my search time long enough) to know how ‘evolutionistic’ translates or if there is an equivalent. I also read Jan Lever’s “Where are we headed? A Christian Perspective on Evolution” and consulted with ‘reformed’ philosophers.

I suspect ‘evolutionary creation’ is a fairly recent term of English origin, crafted in light of the evolution vs. creation debates of the 20th century. You write that the term ‘theistic evolution’ was suspect and viewed negatively. Should we imagine that ‘evolutionary creation’ is not already or will not be held as negatively and with suspicion nowadays, especially if one exaggerates it into an ideology called ‘evolutionary creationism’?

See ‘evolutionisme’ here: http://www.members.shaw.ca/aevum/32Propositions.html

This was the paper, incomplete and unfinished by H. Dooyeweerd, that convinced me the ‘Dutch reformational’ tradition is almost surely not on the cutting-edge regarding evolution, evolutionism, creation and creationism. That tradition has quite clearly from my studies in the Netherlands not yet come to terms with why Dooyeweerd failed to complete his ‘anthropology.’

Please let me know, Terry or Ted, whose ‘Reformed’ anthropology post-Dooyeweerd you would recommend, if there is any, that you think has given an adequate account regarding evolution and creation without the -isms, which “affirms the religious centre of man.”

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