The 10th Chapter of Acts recounts the events surrounding the conversion of the first gentile Christians—those in the household of the Roman Centurian Cornelius. As an artist and a naturalist, I have always been delighted by Peter’s vision of the sheet with commingled clean and unclean animals. But my reaction to the story as a follower of Christ is somewhat more complex: it has by turns thrilled, comforted and convicted me, for at various times in my life I have been on both sides of what was actually a double-conversion—of Cornelius the pagan turning to Jesus, and of Peter the Jewish Christian also turning towards Jesus, but away from his surety in who was “in” and who was “out” of the Kingdom of God. In the context of the BioLogos project, the image of Peter being led reluctantly along the Lord’s path offers a corrective to the way many—particularly Dr. Al Mohler—have joined the debate over the compatibility of science and faith.
The visions Peter saw of the sheet were, prior to any revelation that he was being sent to a gentile household, offensive to his sense of purity as a devout Jew who respected and loved the Law. Add to this that Cornelius was not just a gentile, but a military commander in the hated occupying forces of Imperial Rome. Though Peter came to understand that the vision meant he was to make no a priori judgments about who could and could not be saved by the grace of Jesus, the command from the Lord to “Get up, Peter. Kill, and eat” was an affront to his identity and was in direct contradiction to what he believed set him and the other Christians apart from the rest of humanity in addition to their confession of Jesus as Lord.
He clearly didn’t like it and proceeded with some reservations, but he was at least open to the leading of the Spirit, and was prepared to set his own prejudices aside to see what God was up to. Soon enough, Peter recognized that God was again upending his understanding of reality as much as of the Scriptures, just as He had with the irrational-seeming idea of a Messiah who died, and then the even more outrageous fact of a resurrected Jesus. In the end, the Lord did more than instruct Peter to share the Gospel of Jesus with Cornelius’s household, He demonstrated that repentance and belief in the Gospel of Jesus were, alone, the prerequisites for belonging to the family of God by pouring out the Holy Spirit upon the men and women gathered under that Roman roof.
As Peter discovered, our theology is descriptive, not prescriptive; it is our collective and halting attempt to describe in coherent terms what we know of God by what we have seen of His acts and what we have read in His Word—and, above all else, by what we have seen in the acts of the Word, Jesus. And though it morphs into rules we try to impose on the divine and our neighbors, it does not in any way constrain the Lord who is constantly calling us in new ways, through new means, and telling new stories with the most unlikely characters. On the contrary, theology is put to the test not just by our logic, but by the witness of what God is doing in our lives and in the lives of others around the world. Evidence of the Spirit at work is the only true measure we have of our theology; all other measures, including whether it fits our carefully-reasoned arguments of who is in and who is out, are vanity.
But, in very public fora of late, Dr. Al Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has been making it known that he regards those associated with the BioLogos project to be, at best “confused Christians,” with the implication being that we may be worse than unbelievers, dangerously leading the gullible to destruction. Despite his focus on the “logic” of our position vis-à-vis the Bible and his very specific definitions of both theology and evolutionary theory, the heart of Mohler’s claim that one cannot be a fully-functioning, authentic Christian and hold that God created using the process of evolution, is not, finally, about the compatibility of science and scripture, but about the power of the Holy Spirit. It is about the limits that Dr. Mohler has put on God’s ability to redeem and transform whomever He so pleases, in whatever manner He so pleases.
It is the same issue Peter faced when confronted with the vision of the sheet lowered out of heaven, which prepared him to meet Cornelius where he (and his family) were. Having seen the Holy Spirit poured out on these gentiles and former servants of Caesar, he had to ask, “Is there any reason why these should not be baptized?” In short, it is not a matter of whether Dr. Mohler (or Ken Ham, or Jerry Coyne, for that matter) find it reasonable or logically consistent or even in conformation with their readings of scripture, it is a matter of whether God has and is doing His redemptive work in the hearts, minds and lives of men and women who understand evolution to be a true material account of God’s creative work that does not in any way constrain God’s agency and sovereignty. And that is not an academic issue, but a very concrete and intensely personal one about the lives of those who hold views Dr. Mohler places outside the realm of truly following Christ.
Particularly coming from the head of the largest Southern Baptist seminary, Dr. Mohler’s repeated implications and suggestions, if not outright pronouncements, that I and anyone else who does not reject evolutionary processes are, therefore, not Christian in any but a nominal or diminished way, not authentic followers of Jesus no matter what we say and despite the evidence of the Holy Spirit both in us and working through us, seems to me to fly directly in the face of one of the central facets of Baptist tradition—that my salvation and relationship with the Father is not a matter for rulers or authorities or institutions to decide. Is there not a danger that 21st century ecclesiastical rulers and authorities might unwittingly oppose the Spirit through their all-too-human decrees, though their intention be to defend doctrines that are good and true and right?
We in the BioLogos community have on more than one occasion failed in our love precisely as Dr. Mohler and writers on all sides of this debate have. Nevertheless, our President, Darrel Falk, has repeatedly called (and been ridiculed from both left and right) for seeking unity among believers. I do not naively believe that we will miraculously come to a common understanding about the means God used in His creation, or how to read (or even translate) every passage in the Bible, or how best to organize our lives as believers together as Baptists, or Presbyterians, or Nazarenes, or Catholics, etc. Though such divisions, such divorces within the church are the surely result of the hardness of our hearts , our different theological and ecclesiastical traditions may also reflect God’s will and his desire to inhabit and work through all the myriad cultural environments in which we live, revealing and highlighting different aspects of His character in each. To the extent that we wrestle with each other over these issues with compassion and love, we demonstrate that even our conflicts may be redeemed by the Lord.
It is no small miracle that the Spirit is uniting a broken, diverse, and far-flung people into one Body, often—if not always—in spite of us, its members. In seeking unity we will see that the diversity within the Body formed by our common claim of being saved by the free, costly gift of God’s grace directs us towards a fuller understanding of the glory of God Himself and a greater humility before our brothers and sisters in Christ. Therefore, while it is problematic that Dr. Mohler so warmly agrees with Jerry Coyne regarding the ‘logical compatibility’ of evolution and religious belief, more hurtful for the Church is Dr. Coyne’s nearly gleeful account of the lack of charity within the Christian community. Dr. Mohler’s attitude and tone provide what Coyne and others take as another proof that our faith is a foolish and destructive lie.
So, recalling Peter’s conversion along with that of Cornelius, I invite Dr. Mohler to refrain from condemning (even by faint praise) those whom the Spirit has sanctified and is sanctifying, and through whom He is calling more of the lost to Himself. More, I invite him to join me at the table as a brother and to put off the too-common practice of acting as if we know everything we need to know about those on the other sides of these issues from what we read on-line.
As Cornelius asked Peter “to stay with them for a few days” to see what the Lord would be teaching them together, I invite Dr. Mohler to come and see what I see in the hearts and lives of people in the BioLogos community. Come and see what I see in the hearts and lives of specific, real live Christians in my adopted home town of Richmond, Virginia. Come and see what I have seen for years in the hearts and lives of men and women of faith directed towards the Lord by their studies of evolutionary biology, and who see the glory of God in the very process you find ugly and abominable. Come see the Spirit at work in hearts and lives focused and unconfused in their pursuit of Jesus and of His Kingdom.