Evolution and the Deep Resonances between Science and Theology, Part 1

| By Michael L. Peterson

This is the first in a six part series adapted from a chapter in the upcoming book The Continuing Relevance of Wesleyan Theology: Essays in Honor of Laurence W. Wood, edited by Nathan Crawford (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2011).

Evolution is at the heart of the dramatic tension between science and religion in contemporary American culture. The lines of division are sharply drawn. The New Atheism—advanced by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, E. O. Wilson, and others—maintains that science, particularly evolutionary science, answers all important human questions while invalidating religion. Creation Science—developed by Henry Morris and Duane Gish, and currently defended by Ken Ham and his Answers in Genesis organization—insists on a literal interpretation of Genesis, an alternative science of origins, and the fallacies of evolution. Intelligent Design (or ID)—based on writings by Michael Behe and William Dembski, promoted by the Discovery Institute, and recommended to the faithful by Chuck Colson, Rick Warren, and James Dobson—argues that a transcendent intelligence, not evolution, is the explanation of certain complex biological structures.

The controversy over the scientific theory of evolution, of course, raises the more general issue of the relationship between science and religion—a controversy dating back to the dawn of the modern age when the Galileo affair foreshadowed the coming clashes between these two important human activities. The challenge then, as it is now, is that of relating the theories and findings of science to specifically Christian theological knowledge. In the Galileo affair, the new heliocentric astronomy did not conflict with Christian belief per se but with the ecclesiastical authority which insisted that both the biblical record and theological teaching support a geocentric view. Christian reflections on this event have concluded that there is no inherent conflict between Christianity and science, and that indeed science is a means of discovering the empirical details of God’s creation. Then what about evolution as described by science? The Christian community generally has come to embrace the breath-taking sweep of cosmic evolution—the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, the nuclear activity of giant stars which provided the early chemical complexification of the universe, the violent formation of galaxies (such as our own relatively modest galaxy, the Milky Way, and our local solar system), the great antiquity of the Earth, and the expanding universe.

What about biological evolution? Applying the lessons of the Galileo affair would suggest not only that there is no conflict between Christianity and biology but also that the biological facts, once again, must somehow reflect God’s purposes in creation. This general view—falling under the rubric of theistic evolution (also called evolutionary creation)—has long been accepted by many scientists in the believing community. For example, this view was expressed by Asa Gray and Charles Babbage, who were contemporaries of Darwin. Reflecting a full century of further scientific progress, in 1973, Theodosius Dobzhansky, a Russian Orthodox believer and acclaimed geneticist, published a famous article entitled “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.”1 Theistic evolution is also endorsed by many members of the American Scientific Affiliation, an avowedly Christian organization. It is not difficult to find practicing scientists who are Christian and who embrace theistic evolution (e.g., Kenneth Miller, Simon Conway Morris, and Joan Roughgarden). Another high-profile scientist, Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project and now director of the National Institute of Health, founded the BioLogos Foundation (and website) to promote understanding of theistic evolution. Faithfully participating in the cultural discussion, Collins debated Dawkins in aTime magazine joint interview, arguing that “God’s creative power . . . brought it all into being in the first place.”2Various versions of this view are also supported by Christian philosophers and theologians (e.g., George Coyne of the Vatican Observatory, Ted Peters, Keith Ward, and Pope John Paul II). No doubt, theistic evolution will never satisfy Creation Science advocates or even proponents of ID who subject it to excessive qualification and selective rebuttal. Then again, both of these camps are in their own ways intellectual descendants of Protestant fundamentalism, a movement whose defects have been thoroughly catalogued in many other venues.3

In reflecting on evolution from within the framework of classical ecumenical Christian orthodoxy--or what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity”4 --I will not engage New Atheism, Creation Science, or Intelligent Design—all of which systematically misinterpret the evolutionary story emerging from the sciences as the embodiment of philosophical naturalism and atheism. It is actually very encouraging that many mainline denominations have official statements either endorsing or expressing openness to some version of theistic evolution. This includes the United Methodist Church, the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church, Church of the Nazarene, and the Roman Catholic Church. My present aim is to accept the premise of theistic evolution (the simple conjunction of theism and evolution) and then explore how it may be developed into a much richer perspective that advances contemporary theological insight and articulation. In every age and for every generation, theology must maintain relevance and credibility by interacting with all that we come to know and experience in nature and history. What is more, theology seeks pure understanding, the ever deepening penetration into the enduring truths of the faith. Critical aspects of that understanding necessarily depend on sympathetically embracing the scientific position on evolution. Taking the integrative and interdisciplinary role of philosophy seriously, I identify here some of the intimate and important ties between theological truth and the scientific facts.

It is commonplace for discussions of philosophical problems in religion—the problem of evil, problems over the divine attributes, the problem of divine action, etc.—to revolve around the implications of standard theism without direct reliance upon Christian doctrines and beliefs. Likewise, in discussing the problem of relating science and Christian belief, theistic evolution per se carries no more theological content than that of standard theism (the claim that an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good deity underwrites the physical existence and lawful processes of the universe) and is therefore compatible with Judaism and Islam. Often, basic theistic evolution is supplemented by an appropriate nonliteral reading of disputed passages of scripture in order to construct an approach that Christians find intellectually helpful. In this regard, St. Augustine now seems almost prescient in his commentary on Genesis when he urges Christians to make biblical interpretation, not biblical authority, the proper focus in the encounter with extra-theological knowledge. He even counsels that believers must be ready to seek a different interpretation of a biblical text “if reason should prove that [some factual] opinion [which appears to conflict with the text] is unquestionably true.” It is worth quoting at length Augustine’s passionate argument regarding how scientific incompetence in believers can negatively affect the perception of the gospel:

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for a [nonbeliever] to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these [scientific] 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?5

Logically, the union of appropriate nonliteral readings of certain biblical passages with theistic evolution is one way of securing the compatibility of Christianity and the science of evolution, but it does not provide a coherent and comprehensive account of why reality is the way it is. To develop such an account, we must take the advice of Marilyn Adams, who says that the full intellectual resources of distinctively Christian theism must be employed to address the most difficult philosophical challenges facing Christian belief. In the present context, this means that basic theism, even coupled with enlightened biblical interpretation, cannot speak for the total Christian theological vision.6 Instead, we must identify and explore some of the deepest elements of historic Christian theology in order to engage evolutionary science—but how, exactly, should this project proceed?


1. Theodosius Dobzhansky, American Biology Teacher 35 (1973): 125-129.
2. David Biem, et al., “God vs. Science,” Time (November 13, 2006): 48-55. See http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1555132-3,00.html.
3. See Ronald Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006). See also “Religion and Science” in Michael Peterson, et al., Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 507-570.
4. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), particularly see the Preface.
5. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Ancient Christian Writers 41, trans. and annotation J. Taylor (New York: Newman Press, 1982), pp. 42-43.
6. Marilyn Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999), e.g., p. 4.


About the Author

Michael L. Peterson

Michael L. Peterson is professor of philosophy at Asbury University. He is also managing editor of Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers. His books include Reason and Religious Belief (Oxford); God and Evil(Westview); With All Your Mind: A Christian Philosophy of Education (Notre Dame); and Evil and the Christian God(Baker). He has produced multiple edited volumes and journal articles.