Theological Traditions and the Dialogue with Evolution

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March 22, 2011 Tags: Christian Unity

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

Theological Traditions and the Dialogue with Evolution

The dialogue between Christianity and evolution evokes a wide range of responses from people who otherwise have a lot in common: evangelical protestants. Self-identified evangelicals hold to things like the inspiration of Scripture and various core doctrines (e.g., Trinity, incarnation, atonement, resurrection). Nevertheless, with all this in common, evangelicals often have widely different opinions on how evolution and Christianity can be in conversation—indeed, whether that conversation can happen at all. This prompts a question:

Why do differences of opinion on the Christianity/evolution discussion exist at all among reasonably like-minded Christians?

There are many angles one could take to look at this question, and let me say right upfront that I don’t think there is one simple answer. Why we respond the way we do about anything stems from a complex matrix of issues—some obvious, others hidden—and these issues are difficult to lay out. For example, things like personality traits, the specific group we identify ourselves with (which has its own complex history), where we happen to live in the world, when we happened to be born—each of these issues, and others, plays a role in how any one individual enters the Christianity/evolution discussion.

There is one factor, however, that we can isolate with considerable profit. I want to begin discussing it here, and I am hoping that our broad readership will have a lot to add. The question I have is this:

How do our various theological traditions contribute to or hinder the dialogue between evolution and our Christian faith?

Although there is much that unites our traditions in our common Christian faith, they also have distinctives. Baptists, Anabaptists, Calvinists, Wesleyans, Charismatics, and others differ on how to think about and talk about God, the Bible, the church, baptism, sanctification….the list goes on and on.

All of these traditions are to be respected and honored. I am absolutely not interested in whether any one tradition will win the argument, so to speak, as the “best” tradition for carrying on the conversation—so we should leave that behind right at the outset.

What I am after is whether there are characteristics of our theological traditions that affect how the dialogue with evolution is carried out, and why differences of opinion exist on the evolution question at all. All of these evangelical protestant traditions have, I believe, strengths that allow for a true engagement with the theological challenges of evolution. They also have some obstacles for such engagement.

One strength shared by all of the protestant traditions is that they are protestant—namely, they were born out of a felt need to challenge tradition on the basis of what they felt Scripture, reasonably interpreted, required. It is part of protestant temperament to reform when needed, and this is a great asset for discussing evolution today.

One obstacle of the protestant tradition is that its theological boundaries and trajectories were being developed before the challenge of modern science began to rear its head in earnest. In other words, protestant traditions in general early on, understandably, could not have accounted for the types of challenges that evolution would introduce in the nineteenth century.

When the challenge of evolution arose, it prompted both conversation and conflict among the various protestant traditions, which was influenced by many factors (such as that tradition’s own history, populist reactions and concerns, etc.) An absolutely central factor, however, has been the protestant emphasis on biblical authority and what that means in view of the various challenges that Christians faced, particularly in the nineteenth century (namely biblical archaeology and biblical criticism, in addition to the scientific challenges).

The protestant Reformation famously declared sola Scriptura, meaning that Scripture alone is the final authority on what must be believed for faith and life. Evolution came on the scene much later and challenged biblical views of human and cosmic origins—and in fact in the minds of many made evolution impossible to maintain. At least on the populist level, if not also on the theoretical/academic level, a common protestant response has been that evolution posed a fundamental threat to the foundational notion of sola Scriptura.

Here is one way to express the protestant tension:

To what extent is the protestant reformational spirit and commitment to sola Scriptura going to be in tension over the hermeneutical and doctrinal challenges raised by evolution?

For evangelical protestants to make peace with evolution, this tension will have to be worked out. And in my opinion, the central question of the protestant dialogue with evolution—on both the theoretical/academic and popular levels—is the role that Scripture is seen to play in setting parameters for that dialogue. And, as I said, I see in all the protestant traditions important lessons worth learning and assimilating as we move the dialogue forward.

One important caveat at this point. It is important to realize that many Christians outside of recognized evangelical contexts agree with evangelicals on many core theological commitments, and have much wisdom for us in working through the dialogue with evolution. I am limiting my comments to evangelical protestants because that audience is BioLogos’s central audience. I do not, however, want our Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopalian, or Lutheran brothers and sisters to feel as if they have no role in this discussion. Quite to the contrary, their wisdom and input are invaluable.

I will begin in my next post by looking at the Calvinist tradition. I begin there because I feel it is has the broadest impact on how evangelical protestants have viewed the role the Bible should play in making theological decisions.


Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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normbv - #55623

March 25th 2011

The Singular Observer - #55617

What’s even more revealing is that first century and second temple Jewish literature were even more prone to non literal approaches than even the later early church fathers.
 
Check out the Barnabas Epistle in which he had to explain what appeared literal to the readers was described as actually spiritual language. The scriptures were obviously known at that time to have been compiled in allegory and symbolism.
Not following their lead is like taking an aesop fable that one discovers and trying to analyze it literaly. You end up with some wierd ideas.


Andrew - #55625

March 25th 2011

Augustine believed God created everything at once about 8000 years ago (The City of God Book 12 Ch10).
http://creation.com/augustine-young-earth-creationist


normbv - #55630

March 25th 2011

Yes because he took the earlier writers literally up to a point. However Augustine also wrote that the six days of Gen 1 were analogical Days  and he was living in the last  sixth Day that Gen 1 describes. He thought the end of the six thousand year Days were upon them soon. Of course over 1500 years have passed since Augustine’s sixth Day,  basically making his 1000 year as a literal Day idea a moot point.

 

Augustine … “And we know that the <!—k38—>law<!—k31—> extends from the <!—k39—>time<!—k31—> of which we have record, that is, from the beginning of the world: In the beginning <!—k39—>God<!—k31—> made the <!—k38—>heaven<!—k31—> and the earth. Genesis 1:1 Thence down to the <!—k39—>time<!—k31—> in which we are now living are six ages, this being the sixth, as you have often heard and know. The first age is reckoned from Adam to Noah; the second, from Noah to Abraham; and, as <!—k38—>Matthew<!—k31—> the evangelist duly follows and distinguishes, the third, from Abraham to <!—k38—>David<!—k31—>; the fourth, from <!—k38—>David<!—k31—> to the carrying away into Babylon; the fifth, from the carrying away into Babylon to <!—k38—>John<!—k31—> the Baptist; Matthew 1:17 the sixth, from <!—k38—>John<!—k31—> the Baptist to the end of the world. Moreover, <!—k39—>God<!—k31—> made man after His own image on the sixth day, because in this sixth age is manifested the renewing of our <!—k38—>mind<!—k31—> through the <!—k38—>gospel<!—k31—>, after the image of Him who <!—k38—>created<!—k31—> us; Colossians 3:10 and the water is turned into <!—k38—>wine<!—k31—>, that we may taste of Christ, now manifested in the <!—k38—>law<!—k31—> and the prophets.”

 

http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701009.htm  

 


normbv - #55631

March 25th 2011

Sorry about the instructions to use word pad instead of copy and pasting from MS word.

Can someone delete my first response.

Yes because he took the earlier writers literally up to a point. However Augustine also wrote that the six days of Gen 1 were analogical Days and he was living in the last sixth Day that Gen 1 describes. He thought the end of the six thousand year Days were upon them soon. Of course over 1500 years have passed since Augustine’s sixth Day, basically making his 1000 year as a literal Day idea moot.

Augustine … “And we know that the law extends from the time of which we have record, that is, from the beginning of the world: In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth. Genesis 1:1 Thence down to the time in which we are now living are six ages, this being the sixth, as you have often heard and know. The first age is reckoned from Adam to Noah; the second, from Noah to Abraham; and, as Matthew the evangelist duly follows and distinguishes, the third, from Abraham to David; the fourth, from David to the carrying away into Babylon; the fifth, from the carrying away into Babylon to John the Baptist; Matthew 1:17 the sixth, from John the Baptist to the end of the world. Moreover, God made man after His own image on the sixth day, because in this sixth age is manifested the renewing of our mind through the gospel, after the image of Him who created us; Colossians 3:10 and the water is turned into wine, that we may taste of Christ, now manifested in the law and the prophets.”

http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701009.htm


The Singular Observer - #55634

March 25th 2011

Andrew @ 55625, the point is that Augustine was comfortable with a non-literal interpretation. The YEC pov relies on a strict literal interpretation, other wise the whole house comes tumbling down. Not so with the Church Fathers, including Augustine. But more than that, the following quote from Augustine is quite informative as to his attitude to what we would call science:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of the world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion [quoting 1 Tim 1:7].
(The Literal Meaning of Genesis, written in about AD 415. Noll, pp. 202-203, from the John Hammond Taylor translation of 1982)


Andrew - #55642

March 25th 2011

Thanks S.O. for posting a paragraph from Augustine’s On The Literal Meaning of Genesis to show Augustine didn’t read Genesis literally and was opposed to creationist ‘nonsense.’ I hope we can read Augustine in context without using it as a tool of abuse out of context. Of course Augustine’s reading was different to modern YECs, but it is interesting to note that Augustine tried to harmonise the Genesis account with the science of his day in a literalistic manner, the problem was the quality of the science, hence the rationes seminales that perhaps comes from Plato and Aristotle - this ironically seems to have some influence on Jesuit Abraham Kircher’s belief that fossils were not of organic origin but grew naturally in the rocks because of some lapidifying force.   

But if you follow the link I gave above you will see Augustine was influenced by the Apocrapha writing of Sirach 18:1 which reads that “He who lives eternally has made omnia simul” or everything at the same time. However, the Greek reads differently and says that “God made all things together (panta koinee), or “the whole world” “



Roger A. Sawtelle - #55694

March 26th 2011

George,

Again I can understand your concern.  I basically agree that there is no real contradiction between Creation and evolution as (a fact and not as Darwin saw it.) 

My best advice is to continue to develop your own view and not be too concerned what others say.  I could suggest my book, DARWIN’S MYTH as an excellent resource, but is not an easy read. 

Your concern about your children is important and certainly you do not want them to to taught bad theology.  On the other hand one is not going to find the perfect church.  There is always going to be issues, problems, and disagreements.  

So again you study and get your head straight.  Share this with your family in a way they can understand.  Go to a church where the fellowship is good and not legalistic or dogmatic, and you should be fine.  


Martin Rizley - #55706

March 26th 2011

Pete,
You say,  “I demonstrate my belief in that authority by trying to listen to Scripture, as much as I can, in the context in which it was given.”  There are two problems that I see with this statement:  1)  it is too one-sided in seeing the Bible as influenced by the culture in which it is written; it overlooks the fact that at many points the biblical writers are taking issue with their culture, standing against it, and placing themselves in opposition to it.   For example, the ancient religious writings of many cultures are filled with accounts of battles between the gods.  They assume the existence of a celestial pantheon that is locked in perpetual struggles to achieve conflicting aims.  By contrast, the biblical writers insist that “the gods of the nations are idols.”  They are nothing at all.   So the mere fact that some ancient cultures may have placed mythical figures like the sun god in their genealogies of kings, for example,  does not at all suggest that the Hebrew writers would have done the same thing with their genealogies.  What evidence can you point to that suggests they would have inserted ‘invented’ or ‘symbolic’ figures (a symbolic Adam, Eve or Seth, for example) in an otherwise historical genealogy?  The only evidence you can cite would be from pagan sources which prove nothing about the literary conventions of the monotheistic Hebrew culture that put such a high premium on truth telling;  (2)  the other problem with your position is that it seems to have no ‘limits’ in view.  Other theologians, like Rudolf Bultmann have gone farther than you in applying this principle and have justified ‘demythologizing’ the New Testament on the ground that they are reading these writings in the context in which they were given.  They say no modern can take literally the account of events which imply an outdated mythological worldview; on that basis, they refuse to take seriously the NT accounts of Jesus’ miracles and even his bodily resurrection.  They ‘reinterpret’ those accounts by considering the historical context in which they were written.  How do you prevent falling into the same trap as Bultmann, once you allow autonomous human reason to judge that the ‘historical context’ of a writing permits you to abandon the straightforward, natural meaning of the text?



Bassett - #55739

March 26th 2011

Christians and evolutionists will always be in conflict unless they realize that they(both) are asking two different questions about creation.  One wants to know who and what that involves, the other how and what that involves.  Get it together!!


Martin Rizley - #55745

March 26th 2011

Bassett,
The problem with the contrast you set forth between the Christian’s questions and the evolutionist’s questions is that you offer no evidence to support your thesis.  On what basis do you claim that the biblical writers were not concerned with ‘how’ questions?  How do you know that to be true?  If you look in a concordance, you will find various theological questions of the ‘how’ variety that concerned the biblical writers, such as How are the dead raised?   How can the Messiah be David’s Son and David’s Lord at the same time?   How was Abraham justified—before or after he was circumcised?  Surely the biblical writers were concerned to know how sin entered the world, as well.    Paul gives the answer—“Through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin. . .”  So I disagree that Christians have no interest in the how questions.  Moreover, the Christian answer to the question, “How did sin enter the world?”  stands in direct and irreconcilable conflict with the claims of those evolutionists who deny that there ever was a ‘first man’ through whom sin entered the world, for whom ‘sin’ is simply a term for the bestiality we carry within us as a legacy of a sub-human past.


conrad - #56897

April 5th 2011

Why do differences of opinion on the Christianity/evolution discussion exist at all among reasonably like-minded Christians?
It was probably the time issue.
 Evolution obviously required a lot of time and everyone believed in absolute time including the fixed length of a day.
 6 days would not fit with evolution.
 no one even debated the correct meaning of “yom” in those days

conrad - #56898

April 5th 2011

Why do differences of opinion on the Christianity/evolution discussion exist at all among reasonably like-minded Christians?
It was probably the time issue.
 Evolution obviously required a lot of time and everyone believed in absolute time including the fixed length of a day.
 6 days would not fit with evolution.
 no one even debated the correct meaning of “yom” in those days

 


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