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The Theological Dilemma of Evolution, Part 1

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March 4, 2010 Tags: Christian Unity
The Theological Dilemma of Evolution, Part 1

Today's entry was written by Gordon J. Glover. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

While Evangelical Christians in the scientific community tend to accept the theory of evolution in large numbers, those outside the scientific community still overwhelmingly reject it. The psychology of why people believe what they do is complex, but in the case of believers who choose to accept or reject the theory of evolution, one’s Christian community plays a large role in that decision.

For instance, Christians who work as professional biologists, paleontologists, zoologists, geneticists or geologists don’t have the luxury of avoiding the theological implications of common descent. While creationist ministries require their scientists to sign statements of faith that reject evolution, Christians in the professional community can’t impose special filters on the data or let their personal biases influence how the data is interpreted. Ignoring inconvenient facts and hand-picking specific data sets are considered highly unethical practices in the professional scientific community.

To perform their jobs faithfully and maintain the highest standards of professional integrity, these Christians must examine the data objectively and try to make some theological sense of it. They build networks of like-minded individuals, like the American Scientific Affiliation, where the theological challenges of evolution can be freely and openly explored. But if the Bible says in the opening chapters of Genesis that God created all living just as they are today, why should the average churchgoer believe otherwise?

Unlike those in the scientific community who must examine the data that support evolution, most Christians simply have no compelling reason to venture that far out of their theological comfort zones. Unless pastors and theologians can create “safe places” within the Church where bible-believing Christians can come together and openly discuss these things, the majority of Christians will never consider evolution as a possible means by which God could have created all living things.

So the real challenge for Christians in the scientific community is not, “how can we write better books about evolution and get them into the hands of our fellow Christians” but rather, “how do we convince pastors, theologians and seminary professors to facilitate an honest and open dialogue about the same data that so many believers who work in the natural sciences are forced to wrestle with on a daily basis?”

The first thing that Christians in the scientific community should do is acknowledge that the theory of evolution does present significant problems for certain theological traditions For people within such traditions, waving one’s hand like a Jedi master while saying, “Genesis must be allegorical” is not going to cut it. A scientist who does that is being every bit as insensitive as the non-scientist who flippantly boasts, “There are no transitional fossils” to the paleontologist.

I’m not saying that these theological problems are insurmountable within these traditions, but they are far from trivial. You can bet that Christian pastors and theologians are deeply aware of the serious issues that must be dealt with if the theory of evolution is true. But what most of them fail to realize is this: given the various sets of data that all seem to converge on the evolutionary scenario, they’ve also got some significant theological problems if the theory of evolution is false (we’ll examine this side of the dilemma in part 2 of this series). So when it comes to evolution, ignorance is not bliss. We can’t just avoid the difficult questions by simply rejecting evolution or pretending that “real science” does not support it.

The various sets of data that support common descent, by their very existence, create a theological dilemma for some that must be addressed one way or the other. Evolution must be true or false – and there are consequences either way. But here is the good news: before pastors, theologians and seminary professors can deal effectively with this dilemma, they must first wrestle with the data itself – something that they might not be willing to do if convinced they can avoid controversy altogether by simply rejecting the scientific consensus on origins.

Most evangelicals are already familiar with the theological consequences that would arise by validating evolution. The most serious of these is based on the narrative link between Adam and Christ. For instance, the Old Testament genealogies make it clear that there was a definite blood-line between Adam and Jesus – implying that if Jesus was a historical figure, then Adam must also be a historical figure. In the New Testament, both Jesus and the Apostle Paul refer to the Adam-Christ connection as a historical reality.

There also appears to be a strong Scriptural basis for the notion that physical death and decay were a direct result of Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden. In fact, the Apostle Paul, in Romans 8, seems to operate under the assumption that this account in Genesis 3 is literal history. And finally, the person and work of Christ in the New Testament is directly tied to the historicity of the first man, Adam in the Old Testament. The Apostle Paul makes this connection several times in Romans 5, and again in I Corinthians 15.

These are the issues that usually keep pastors and theologians from even considering the scientific case for evolution. In part 2 of this post, we’ll look at the other side of the theological dilemma. What are the theological consequences that would arise from evolution being false or physically impossible?

Gordon J. Glover holds degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Ocean Engineering and is the author of Beyond the Firmament: Understanding Science and Creation. A veteran of the U.S. Navy, he now resides in the Washington, D.C. area where he works and runs the popular blog, "Beyond the Firmament".

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Steve - #5793

March 4th 2010

Thanks for broaching this important topic. I look forward to reading about your intriguing contention that our theological quandries aren’t all solved if evolution is false.

norm - #5795

March 4th 2010

The problem is that once one starts investigating the scriptures more intently you may find that you uncover historical church theologies that are just wrong. When one looks at 1 Cor 15, Rom 5-8 concerning Adam and Creation it might become clear Paul wasn’t reading and applying Adam and the creation literally. This then causes more problems with the current historical theologies of the church and becomes the proverbial “bridge too far” for most pastors and theologians.  As an example Paul’s discussion of “death” from Adam is not applied literally as it is equated with spiritual separation from God. Also Adam in 1 Cor 15 is a corporate understanding applied to Israel; therefore the “body of Death” is corporately Israel before resurrection. The body of life corporately is the “body of Christ” post resurrection.  Evolution then becomes a secondary problem until one reconciles how the NT writers understood the OT and interpreted it.

Similar problems abound with the eschatological end discussed in scriptures. Contrary to commonly held beliefs the NT writers were not looking for a physical end of the world and rapture like many modern evangelicals are. The end of the world was a covenantal end not a physical one.

Paul Bruggink - #5796

March 4th 2010

Having reluctantly accepted that the scientific evidence for biological evolution is becoming overwhelming and likely will continue to do so, I have been focusing on writers who have begun to deal with the theological problems raised by attempting to integrate biological evolution into the Christian faith, such as Denis Lamoureux’s “Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution,” and two recent collections of essays: “Darwin, Creation and the Fall: Theological Challenges,” edited by R. J. Berry and T. A. Noble, and “Theology After Darwin,” edited by Michael S. Northcott and R. J. Berry. 

There are solutions, but it is going require a lot of re-thinking of theology and how we understand the Bible.  It will be a long time before the average evangelical church accepts them, particularly since so many Bible colleges and seminaries are still refusing to deal with the reality of an old universe and an old earth, let alone biological evolution.

Knowing what a marvelous job you did with “Beyond the Firmament,” I also am looking forward to your looking at the other side of the theological dilemma.

Canadian Evangelical - #5802

March 4th 2010

“While Evangelical Christians in the scientific community tend to accept the theory of evolution in large numbers, those outside the scientific community still overwhelmingly reject it.”

Only evangelicals in the United States.  Please don’t generalise from the particular.

“It will be a long time before the average evangelical church accepts them.”

Again, only in the U.S.A. will it be a long time.  Plenty of us are already there, and have been for years.

Paul Bruggink - #5805

March 4th 2010

Canadian Evangelical:

And you also beat us Americans in hockey at the Olympics.  :-(

Edge32 - #5806

March 4th 2010

I have to admit to being someone who until recently has been hiding my head in the sand. I am a scientist who does research in molecular evolution and a Christian. I have split the two. Stating to be a creationist and yet doing work every day that is based upon evolution and that continues to prove it to be true. This week I read “The Language of God” and have realized I cannot continue to divide the two. I have to take the two truths I know and find some way to put them together. Theistic evolution seems to be the way to do that. I find my intellect accepting it and saying this makes perfect sense. My upbringing and teaching I have received all these years in church resists. Honestly I see two choices accept theistic evolution and what I know to be true or continue deceiving myself. Articles like this are helping me to take that final step. Time to quit lying to myself.

steve martin - #5815

March 4th 2010

As a Canadian, I want to thank-you for bringing up that hockey game.  You can reference that loss with a simple frown; if we had lost it would have been declared an national catastrophe! 50% of us watched every second of that game, and 80% of us watched parts of it.  When Crosby scored the OT winner I suspect the relief outweighed the elation by about 5:1. 

Canadian Evangelical:
First, there are at least two of us so maybe you want to change your handle

Although the generalizations Gordon makes are more strongly applicable to the American evangelical church, I think it is also true for the majority of Canadian evangelicals.  There are certainly many of us that are EC’s,  and maybe the proportion of evangelicals EC’s in Canada is similar to say New York or California, rather than the US South East or Mid-west, but it is still relatively strongly anti-evolution.  Or at least that is my reading of the evidence.  Do you know of some polls (maybe by EFC) that state otherwise?

Gregory Arago - #5819

March 4th 2010

Not sure about others, but I was elated, rather than relieved, by about a ratio of 3-2!!

Apparently there is an article in the Galileo Goes to Jail and other Myths by Ron Numbers that references the Canadian situation wrt young earth views, perhaps anti-evolutionism too.

To repeat my position on this, I think it is well possible to be solidly pro-evolution when it comes to natural-physical sciences, and responsibly anti-evolution when it comes to human-social thought, which includes the topics of morals, ethics, secularism, aesthetics, altruism, etc.

Lumping the cosmological, biological *and* cultural spheres together with one concept - evolution (e.g. as both Dobzhansky and J. Huxley did) - is bound to be confusing, and perhaps even in many places just plain wrong, unless one accepts a kind of ‘universal evolutionism,’ which Christians should rightfully be weary about.

I don’t see any problem at all in Christians taking seriously the power of evolutionary philosophy when considering this issue. To do without philosophy is to sacrifice a measure of wisdom on the matter.

Gordon J. Glover - #5821

March 4th 2010

Edge32—I find your testimony very encouraging!

gingoro - #5822

March 4th 2010

Canadian Evangelical:
First, there are at least two of us so maybe you want to change your handle

No Steve I think there at least three of us but who knows it is hard these days to define what an evangelical is.  Just the statements on inerrancy need a Phd to interpret them.  Maybe Gregory Agaro is also another, as he is Canadian?

My biggest problem was what to do about the Adam and Eve story and its references in the New Testament.

While I would not be dogmatic and am certainly not done thinking about the issue.  I do not think that Adam was created de nova.

To be continued

gingoro - #5823

March 4th 2010

Here are my current thoughts.

1.  God selected a representative human couple (or possibly a tribe) and communed with them, in particular God communicated a small part of his requirements to them, just as he gave us progressive revelation in the Bible.  At Adam’s time I would expect that others of the same species as the representative pair existed So what we have in Genesis is a myth based in part on actual happenings.  Can I sort out which details occurred and which are only used to communicate theology to us?  No.

Man, like his fore-bearers did what I will call bad things.  Note I do not use the word sinful just like I do not use the word sinful to describe the ill behavior of the other primates.

To be continued

gingoro - #5824

March 4th 2010

2.  Man in Adam and Eve rebelled against God’s commandments and thus the fall happened and Adam and Eve’s guilt was imputed to the remainder of the human species.  This fall was not from a state where no bad things occurred.  It was a fall into legal guilt since man now had knowledge of God’s will and commandments, at least in a minimal sense.  This is one area where I find theology makes more sense when I accepted an evolutionary origin of mankind.  Paul’s discussion in Romans about those without the law seems to apply in spades.  Who did Adam’s children marry? Presumably others of the same species living at the same time.  Who were the children of God in Genesis…  I don’t know.

To be continued

gingoro - #5825

March 4th 2010

3. The fall resulted in both a loss of potential benefit from a deeper communion with God and sin seems to act like a magnet and draw us into more sin, just because something of forbidden.

Thus Adam and Eve are the primal spiritual parents of Israel and probably in the tribal hierarchy as well.

One big problem I am still left with is God’s statement that what he created was good.  My current though is that this world is the best that possible given all of God’s moral attributes and that would also ultimately produce the king of beings that God desired.  While God can do more than we can imagine it may not be true that he can do all we can imagine.  As can be seen I define “omnipotent” as being able to do all that is possible not anything we can imagine and not infinite.
Dave W

Norm - #5828

March 4th 2010

In response to Dave’s warning; when people use the ad hominem attack to demean and discredit then reader beware. This is how evangelicals restrict people from learning by scaring them. I assume Dave has the wood piled high and the fire heated ready for all of us heretics on this site. 

My understanding is that through Christ and His resurrection the old covenant was removed and ushered in the New one. The mortal man is changed into the immortal through Christ so that in life and post mortem we enter into God’s presence eternally. How does passing from the mortal to the immortal and living eternally with God rate as being heretical?
Is it because Dave believes we must hang around in the metaphorical dust of the Earth for thousands or eons of years before we get to be with God.

Just like in Genesis you get all kinds of strange beliefs because of not understanding Hebrew symbolism. I get to be with God immediately upon my passing from this life but Dave is comforted in death by perpetual sleep until Armageddon comes and the physical world is destroyed frying everyone like ants who are not raptured. Folks that is what literalism brings you: YEC on one end and literal dispensationalism on the other as two peas in the pod.

Canadian Evangelical - #5831

March 4th 2010

Yes, perhaps I too was generalising from the particular, as creationism, certainly of the Young Earth variety, is not a problem in my congregation.  Intelligent Design seems more prevalent.

Karl A - #5849

March 5th 2010

Norm #5828 - what warning of Dave’s are you talking about?
Norm #5795 - I don’t any more consider the theological issues raised by evolution as problems; I have grown and deepened considerably by being forced to consider these issues, aided in large part by these blogs and associated comments.  What a great opportunity, disguised as a problem.
Dave W aka Gingoro - thank you for sharing your hypothesis on what the dawn of God’s interactions with hominids may have looked like.  I think this is one of the things Gregory was asking for two days ago - bringing theology and anthropology together, albeit in a very exploratory and initial way.  I think we’re exploring very interesting concepts like the distinction between innocence and perfection (post 2 days ago) that tie into a revised understanding of “The Fall”.  I suppose these are old business for many theologians but it’s good for us laypeople to have our eyes opened too.
Dave W - a couple links for theodicy and how can the creation be considered good:
http://evanevodialogue.blogspot.com/2007/10/theodicy-and-evolution.html and

Gregory Arago - #5857

March 5th 2010

Agreeing with Karl A. about “bringing theology and anthropology together, albeit in a very exploratory and initial way”. I’ve heard Orthodox Priests say the Church Fathers were strong in philosophy (and of course, theology), but weak in anthropology. This is a topic we are left to face in the 21st century. Imo, it is much bigger than ‘intelligent design’!

It is noticeable that ID uses arguments *to* anthropology (human-made things, artefacts), but does not include anthropology itself. Eugenie Scott will thus continue to plague the IDM.

gingoro wrote: “At Adam’s time I would expect that others of the same species as the representative pair existed.”

In addition to ‘species,’ the topic of ‘races’ comes into play also, according to Scripture. This might be a place for the theologians among us to reach out to anthropologists and invite them into the conversation. I’m sure I would not be the only one who would benefit from hearing their voices!

Gregory Arago - #5858

March 5th 2010

“I do not think that Adam was created de nova.” - gingoro

Perhaps, yes, and I imagine this is a gigantic sticking point for American evangelical Christians. Dave likely admits this does *not* necessarily reject ‘special creation’ in that Man/Humanity is still a special creation by God, unique in *kind*, not just in *degree*. The kind vs. degree distinction is crucial; all too few people readily confront it. Answers are not easy (e.g. green movement).

“Adam and Eve are the primal spiritual parents of Israel and probably in the tribal hierarchy as well.” - gingoro

Yes, in the sense of ‘primal’ meaning ‘first.’ ECs and TEs can learn this ‘origin’ of spirituality is ‘non-evolutionary’. First origins; then processes!

Hierarchy – them’s battle words to many modern sociologists!

Karl A. – “what the dawn of God’s interactions with hominids may have looked like” – a good way to state the issue! This language is soft enough to get under the blanket acceptance of ‘evolutionism’ as ‘science and religion’ accommodation. Karl may be TE, but most TEs don’t address anthropological problems.

norm - #5860

March 5th 2010

Karl A - #5849 - a post by someone named Dave was removed by the administrators that I responded to. If I could delete my post now I would if I could. Dave said he was marking me as a heritic.

Bob R. - #5878

March 5th 2010

Of course the father & mother of the human race are historical figures. However, they may not have had the names “Adam” & “Eve” in the sense in which we think of them today as proper nouns. A look at a Hebrew concordance will show that there is no special literal historical significance attached to the names “Adam & Eve” other than that they were the progenitors of us all.

God named the first man, “man,” and the first man named the first woman, “life.”  I see no barrier to the possibility of theistic evolution being compatible with the creation story. No matter what you call the first man & woman, historicity is a non-issue because common origin is a necessary fact if I understand the birds & the bees correctly.

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