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Why We Fight About This

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April 20, 2010 Tags: Christian Unity
Why We Fight About This

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

The Bible and evolution are a volatile mixture. Everyone seems to have an opinion and few of these are neutral. The conversation stirs up emotions.

I leave it to sociologists and psychologists to work out why people react they way they do. But let me tell you what I think is going on—based on my experience and recent events at BioLogos.

Passions run high because evolution is threatening. Some Christians feel threatened because evolution challenges something meaningful and non-negotiable—their understanding of God, of ultimate reality, of how the parts of their existence fit together and make sense.

The Christian faith provides stability and assurance that our lives have meaning, that the world is in God’s hands, that our existence is not a cosmic joke. Our lives and the universe around us have a purpose.

Our faith provides us with a sense of coherence.

When people feel that their sense of coherence is threatened, conflict is not far behind. We do not move to dialogue but protectionism. We stop asking whether something is true and rather react out of fear. The more credible the threat, the more we circle the wagons and maintain at all costs our sense of coherence.

A claim that alien visitors have refuted Christianity would not be a threat. We would greet such a claim with ridicule or ignore it. But evolution is different. It cannot be easily dismissed. Evolution persuasively accounts for the natural world. Scientists recognize its claims as having tremendous explanatory power.

Evolution also threatens Christians who feel they must take the Bible literally. In the face of such a threat, the motivation to protect is strong.

Based on recent events, the first question to be asked, as I see it, is not how Christianity and evolution can be at peace. The first question is: “How can we even begin to talk about this?” As long as protecting coherence is the first order of business, that conversation cannot begin.

The shame is that many people desperately want the conversation to happen. Stifling the discussion to maintain coherence will not do. Closing off discussion is done in the name of protecting the masses from losing their faith. The irony is that the Church’s failure to encourage open dialogue has led many to relinquish their faith altogether. Such is the case when protecting religious coherence takes priority over preparing the church for the future.

My focus here is not on recent events at BioLogos. The struggle to maintain religious coherence in the face of new ideas is as old as recorded history. Recent events involving evolution are just one example of this larger phenomenon.

There is no more perfect storm than when traditions that provide coherence about ultimate reality are threatened. For some Christians, evolution provides such a threat, and a lot of heat is generated as a result. But many other Christians are seeking venues that support open dialogue. Such open dialogue, in my opinion, cannot be avoided much longer.

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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Martin Rizley - #12640

May 6th 2010

In such an environment, egalitarianism of the sort you are desribing runs rampant, where the most pompous and vocal gain a following for themselves and cause ungodly divisions and factions.  I believe very strongly in a teaching office in the church; but where we differ is that I do not believe that I or any other teacher in the church has a right to present as divinely revealed truth binding on the conscience or practice of others something that I cannot demonstrate from the Scriptures—whether it be a doctrinal matter like the triune nature of God, the deity of Christ, or a practical matter such as the importance of attending the public services of worship.  I believe every teacher should labor, not only to understand the Scriptures, but also to be able to demonstrate or prove to the congregation that a particular teaching has clear biblical support.

Martin Rizley - #12641

May 6th 2010

As to why doctrinal divsions exist between those who believe in Sola Scriptura, and who even believe in the same gospel, I believe it is not surprising that such divisions exist, given the fallen and imperfect nature of the church and the world in which we are living.  I think a number of theological differences between different groups may reflect different degrees of understanding the biblical teaching on a particular subject.  That is, it is not always the case that one group’s understanding of an issue is totally ‘right,’ whereas the other group’s understanding is totally ‘wrong.’  Sometimes, the difference is one of degree.  One group has a fairly ‘good’ grasp of a particular issue, but that the other group has a ‘better’ (more complete, well-rounded, or full-orbed) grasp of the same issue.  If the church is comparable to a family, that ought not to surprise us, for children in the same family are often at different levels of growth and maturity and have different capacities of understanding the mind of their parents.  That is why we must all practice humility, because whatever degree of understanding we have is by God’s grace, and none of us possess a perfect understanding of all truth.

Gregory - #12643

May 6th 2010

I appreciate the patience of both participants in this thread. It is likely the first thread at BioLogos blog to go more than 500 posts, probably even the first over 400!

While it doesn’t seem that *anything* will ever be able to make Martin budge the slightest on his sola scriptura, literalist approach to the Bible *and* Christianity, it may be that his admitted lack of knowledge in natural sciences will leave open the possibility that Catholic or Orthodox Christian natural scientists *could* (in principle) discover truth about the natural world that biblical literalist Protestant Christian natural ‘scientists’ do not. Maybe that’s just a hope of mine for Martin’s growth.

He is ‘not dogmatic’ about the age of the universe or the earth, which is a significant ‘confession’ to have made and he is not outside of the Tradition of Orthodox or Catholic Churches wrt Adam and Eve being real, historical (notice that Martin says ‘literal’ instead) persons.

The other day a rather simple and probably somewhat silly question came to me while reading Ezekiel: Martin, what do you wear when you ‘lead services’? After the service, do you usually change your clothes inside the Church or not?

Martin Rizley - #12648

May 7th 2010

You’re right about this thread going on a long time; Rich and I have been going back and forth for so long, we probably ought to give it a rest!  What do you think, Rich?  As far as what I wear when I preach, in my own church, I wear a suit and tie (like most Baptist preachers).  When I have been invited to preach at other churches, however, I have on occasion worn a “Genevan gown.”  I have no objection to doing so, when that is the custom of the church.

Gregory - #12649

May 7th 2010

Thanks, Martin. I’ve learned a lot, from the both of you. I’m partial to what Rich is saying, 1) b/c I’m not a biblical literalist & find such a position untenable in 21st century Christianity, & 2) because I think he takes ‘the science’ more seriously & justly than you do.

BioLogos is about ‘integration of science & Christian faith’ or ‘Science & the Sacred,’ while I find your views mainly about ‘faith or Sacred’ & only take the ‘science’ seriously & would accept it *if* it is being done by someone in your own personal religious community (in-group, as sociologists of religion say). In other words, the fact that most biblical literalists are *not* credible ‘scientifically’, not only to the vast majority of living scientists of all religions or none, but also by non-biblical literalist Christians (who constitute a vast majority of all living Christians) makes your position *very* hard to take seriously.

But then, this is partly why BioLogos was founded: to make a believer out of you, Martin!

Re: wearing a ‘suit’ to preach, you knew there was a ‘gotcha’ coming: Eze 42: 14. Why don’t you wear & remove your ‘priestly garments’, Martin? Selective literalism, biblically unsuitable…?

Shalom, Gregory

Rich - #12650

May 7th 2010


I am glad to hear that you recognize the problems I am talking about, and that you agree that not everyone in a church is qualified to teach. 

By authoritative church teaching, I had in mind things like:  (1) the fuller or more explicit presentation of doctrines that are only developed sketchily in the Bible; (2) the drawing of moral or theological consequences which are nowhere found in the Bible, from premises which are found in the Bible; (3) refereeing between competing interpretations of the Bible, where the issue is such that it cannot be left “open”.  And what I have been arguing is that no Church worthy of the name can survive unless it has the authority to perform *at least* function (3). 

An example of function (1) would be the full and explicit presentation of Trinitarian doctrine; of function (2), teaching on abortion and reproductive technology; of function (3), putting a lid on irresponsible interpretations of the book of Revelation.  Would you want the Church to be without the authority to perform any of these functions, merely because they require going beyond “scripture alone”?

Martin Rizley - #12687

May 7th 2010

Rich, Most Protestant churches affirm that the teaching of Scripture includes both what is explcitly stated in the Bible as well as that which is ‘necessarily contained’ within the system of biblical teaching as a necessary consequence.  The London (Baptist) Confession of 1689 speaks of those things which are ‘necessarily contained in the Scripture.”  The Westminister (Presbyterian) Confession speaks of things which “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” Thus, on the issue of abortion, for example, if the Bible teaches that the willful taking of human life is wrong, and if it teaches that human life begins in the womb, then it follows as a necessary consequence that the willful taking of unborn life in the womb is wrong—even if it does not explicitly address the issue of abortion.  If the Bible teaches that there is only one true God, and if, at the same time, it shows us three distinct Person in the Bible—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—who are not the same Person, but who all possess the attributes of God, then it follows as a necessary consequence that the one true God exists in three distinct Persons—- even if the Word ‘Trinity’ does not occur in the Bible (continued).

Martin Rizley - #12690

May 7th 2010

So the fact that a church requires its members to affirm the Bible’s teaching on the triune nature of God or to reject abortion as a viable option for Christian parents who conceive a child is not really requiring something that goes beyond the principle of ‘scripture alone.’  That would be true only if the Bible’s teaching were limited to that which is ‘explicitly stated’; but it is not so limited, for it also includes that which is ‘necessarily contained’ as an inescapable consequence of Scripture’s teaching.  For example, the fact that Scripture says “Do not get drunk with wine,” but says nothing about vodka, does not reasonably allow for the view that vodka-induced intoxication is acceptable!  The principle is clear—Christians are not be controlled or governed in their thinking, their decisions, their actions, by the abuse of any intoxicating substance—whether wine, vodka, whiskey, or any chemical substance.  And as far as the book of Revelation is concerned, I don’t think churches should require adherence of their members to any particular eschatological scheme based on that book—since it is full of symbolism and is perhaps the most difficult book in Scripture to interpreted.

Rich - #12693

May 7th 2010


I accept your point.  The problem is that most of the theological and moral problems the Church is called upon to referee are knotty, filled with ambiguity.  It’s rare that one can simply take a few Biblical statements, apply some rules from Logic 100, and come up with “what the Bible obviously implies”.  On the question of abortion, e.g., the Bible doesn’t say that the willful taking of human life is wrong in an unqualified way—it’s justified (certainly in the Old Testament, anyway) for war and capital punishment.  And does the Bible say that specifically *human* life begins in the womb, in a clear and unambiguous way?  Thus, logic is insufficient—*judgment* is required, and judgment is not as mechanical as logic, and judgments may differ.  Yet on an issue such as abortion, a judgment is necessary.  Is it permitted or not, and if so, under what circumstances?  “Scripture alone” is not a cure-all; it is often nowhere near sufficient to deal with the real-life decisions.  The Church will be paralyzed with indecision whenever neither Scripture nor Logic provide a clear-cut answer, unless there is some trust that the Holy Spirit continues to guide the Church in its decision-making process.  Do you disagree?

Martin Rizley - #12698

May 7th 2010

Rich, When it comes to the taking of human life, the word ‘willful’ is the key word.  Acts of self-defense that involve killing a violent agressor for example, or capital punishment as a divinely-ordained response of civil governments to cold-blooded acts of predmeditated murder, and the killing of enemy combatants on a field of battle in the defense of national security, are not ‘willful’ acts of murder such as the Bible condemns.  Judgment is required on some issues, and some (I would not say ‘most’) issues are indeed ‘knotty,’ as you say; but churches, led by an informed and spirtual eldership, should make an effort to think through and apply biblical principles to contemporary ethical questions, and the degree to which compliance with ‘the corporate will and wisdom ’ of the church should be required of all the members should be in direct proportion to the relative ease with which ethical questions can be reasonably resolved.  There may be ambiguity on some issues, and on these, diversity of viewpoints should be allowed, but other issues are fairly easy to resolve once the principle of biblical authority is accepted, and churches may reasonably expect compliance on these issues.

Martin Rizley - #12700

May 7th 2010

(continue) For example, I believe there is no ethical ambiguity on the question of whether God approves of ‘elective’ abortions or whether God’s design for marriage is exclusively heterosexual.  I think those issues can be reasonably and umambiguously resolved, once the principle of absolute biblical authority is accepted.

Rich - #12707

May 7th 2010


I’m glad we agree that some issues are “knotty”.  On the question of abortion, I don’t want to get into the arguments, but let me say, just to avoid any confusion, that I’m against it; nonetheless, I don’t agree with you that the Biblical position on it is clear, nor do a great number of Christians. 

I don’t agree with your principle that “where there is ambiguity on some issues, diversity of viewpoints should be allowed”.  For example, if, as many claim, there is ambiguity in the Bible on the question of abortion, i.e., if no mere combination of Biblical statements plus logic can reach a decisive answer, but there is a strong feeling, springing from a deeply Christian way of looking at the world, that abortion is wrong, and if this strong feeling is corroborated by the best moral theologians in the world (i.e., the sort of theologians the Vatican employs when it investigates such questions in full theoretical rigor), then I think the Church (any Church), upon prayer and reflection, and a strong sense of being moved by the Holy Spirit, has the authority and even the duty to proclaim abortion wrong, and make that binding upon is members, upon pain of excommunication (or “disfellowship”, if you prefer).

Rich - #12710

May 7th 2010


Actually, both capital punishment and self-defense in war *are* willful acts of killing.  It is possible to will not to kill even criminals or military enemies (Quakers, some Mennonites, Gandhi).  The point is that in the Bible they are *authorized* acts of killing.

Martin Rizley - #12724

May 7th 2010

Rich, By the word ‘willful’ I was not referring to acts that are ‘deliberate’ in the sense of involving conscious choices of the will; I was referring to undirected and/or unauthorized actions springing solely from the human will in defiance of and opposition to the revealed will of God.  In that sense, neither capital capital punishment nor self-defense in war are ‘willful’ acts of killing.  The problem with churches issuing decrees about things that have no clear biblical foundation is that they can end up substituting merely cultural taboos or values for clear biblical mandates.  In the United States, for example, some churches makes decrees about things that are clearly ‘cultural’ taboos, such as forbidding church members to go to movie theaters, and women to abstain from wearing any make-up.  In the past, the Roman Catholic church required their members to abstain from eating meat on Friday—I don’t believe that is still a requirement.  No doubt, at the time, the church leaders felt that there were good pragmatic reasons to require this of the members.  But it still went beyond what could be reasonably deduced from the Scriptures. . . (continued).

Martin Rizley - #12727

May 7th 2010

and thereby curtailed the exercise of Christian liberty in ethical matters that involve a measure of biblical ambiguity.  Churches must limit their authority to requiring only that which God requires, by explicit teaching or necessary consequence; otherwise, they run the risk of becoming tyrannical and overbearing.  Rich, I believe the issues we are discussing are very important and vital for the life of the church, but I’m afraid I really must suspend the converstation for now, due to certain pressing issues that are demanding my attention.  If you wish to continue our conversation, you’ll find me listed on our church website—http://www.texarkanarbc.org  Goo.dbye for now!

Rich - #12739

May 7th 2010


Thanks for your comments.

I agree with you about cultural taboos.  Another one is the one by which some Protestant Churches try to ban the drinking of any alcoholic beverage, even wine, a regulation which clearly has no Scriptural foundation (though many Protestants, even some pastors, think that it does).

The Catholic doctrine of not eating meat on Fridays is, I believe, in a different category.  I wouldn’t swear to it, but I don’t believe that the Catholic Church ever claimed that this was a Scriptural requirement.  I think it was introduced as a means of spiritual discipline, not as something commanded directly by God.

I notice that you didn’t respond to my statement on abortion, but I think you are right that we must attend to other things.  Thanks for the conversation.

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