This essay is a response to the first paper in the series Southern Baptist Voices, a dialogue between Southern Baptist seminarians and representatives of the BioLogos perspective on science and Christian faith. For a more complete description of the project’s history and aims, please see our introduction here.
In Part 1 and Part 2 of his own two-part paper, Expressing Our Concerns, Dr. Kenneth Keathley named six areas that many Southern Baptists find problematic about BioLogos. This post addresses the first three of those six areas of concern, to be followed by our consideration of issues four, five and six on Friday.
At the outset, the authors of this response and the entire BioLogos community would like to thank Dr. Keathley not only for his work in writing his introductory essay, but for his willingness to organize a small collection of essays by other Southern Baptist scholars describing their concerns about the BioLogos perspective. We welcome this opportunity to clarify our positions and remove stumbling blocks where possible. We sincerely appreciate the gracious tone of mutual respect that marks Keathley's essay. His arguments are clear and nuanced in a way that invites thoughtful engagement.
Keathley begins his essay by noting that the Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M) is silent on the doctrine of Creation, save to affirm God as Creator and the special creation of humans. Certainly BioLogos and all Christians affirm God as Creator and the creator of humans. “Special creation” usually refers to sudden creation, and there we would disagree. BioLogos believes that God created the human body using a gradual, evolutionary process and that creation of humans is God’s supreme act in creation. As in the beginning God willed for us to be, so he still calls us to be today. We are his crowning glory and it doesn’t get more special than that.
Keathley goes on to outline six concerns Southern Baptists have with evolutionary creationism. Some of those six are covered at length in future essays, but others—important ones, such as the status of Adam and Eve and the nature and authority of Scripture—are not. More exchanges may be needed in the future to address these topics in greater detail than we can accomplish here, but we will begin our part of this dialogue with our Southern Baptist friends by making short replies to each of the issues Keathley raises in his opening paper.
1. Concerns about theological method:
Keathley rightly points out that “Our goal should be more than merely finding a way to reconcile Genesis with the latest discoveries in genetics.” We emphatically agree. Furthermore, we are pleased that Keathley agrees with our argument that evangelical Christians cannot ignore the latest advances in biology, geology, and related fields. We are evangelical Christians ourselves, active in our own local evangelical churches, so it saddens us to observe that our own segment of the Protestant church has not, to date, adequately interacted with the enormous body of evidence for evolution or dealt with its implications in a substantive way. Reconciling Scripture with firmly-established scientific theories ought to be a concern for all Christians in the present age.
“Can one start with the Scriptures and arrive at anything resembling theistic evolution?” Keathley asks. That’s an excellent question. The answer might well be no, but then neither could one start with the Scriptures and arrive at a heliocentric model of our solar system, which virtually all Christians now accept. Four hundred years ago that wasn’t the case because of passages like Psalm 104:5, which says that “[God] set the earth on its foundations.” But as evidence mounted, the church eventually came to see that heliocentrism wasn’t so threatening to the Bible after all, because Scripture wasn’t concerned with providing details about astronomy.
Similarly, could one start with Scripture and arrive at a biological understanding of how a fertilized egg develops into an adult human being? Psalm 139 states that “[God] knit me together in my mother’s womb,” but few would see this as contradictory to the detailed scientific understanding we have today. We all know that we can’t extract scientific information from the Psalms. But, as John Walton powerfully demonstrates in his book The Lost World of Genesis One, we need to rethink the kind of information we’re expecting from the Genesis creation account, as well. We mustn’t seek answers to questions the writers of Scripture weren’t attempting to address. Based on the text itself, it is hard to make a case that Genesis was written to explain how God made our physical bodies.
Keathley wisely warns about the dangers of starting with a scientific conclusion and then looking for biblical sanction. Absolutely, we do need to be careful not to let the scientific tail wag the theological dog, but we suggest that science and theology—both interpretive activities, both based on God’s revelation—speak to each other in mutually enriching ways. While only the Bible provides the knowledge necessary for salvation in Christ, creation itself reveals true knowledge about God’s world including certain details about how God has created. When a scientific theory stands for 150 years with overwhelming support by those who study it, as evolution has, we feel it behooves us as Christians to consider it seriously.
2. Genesis has only so much hermeneutical elasticity:
As Keathley points out, the number of ways to interpret the early chapters of Genesis has exploded as of late. This explosion has been caused not only by the rapid expansion of scientific knowledge in recent decades—especially in physics and biology—but also by exciting developments in biblical studies and hermeneutics. Of course finding a rich variety of interpretations among faithful Christians is nothing new:
On this subject there are three main views. According to the first, some wish to understand paradise only in a material way. According to the second, others wish to take it only in a spiritual way. According to the third, others understand it both ways, taking some things materially and others spiritually. If I may briefly mention my own opinion, I prefer the third.
—Augustine of Hippo (354-430) De Gen. ad lit VIII, 1:
“On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis”
Keathley maintains that “certain evolutionary creationists ask us to accept more and more fanciful interpretations of Genesis” and then gives an interesting example of how the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib might be explained by an evolutionary creationist. Having never heard this interpretation before, we find it difficult to believe it represents any kind of mainstream evolutionary creationist view on the topic.
At BioLogos, we explore these interpretation questions by engaging top biblical scholars and theologians, not just scientists. We are committed to giving voice to a variety of interpretative ideas for the Genesis passages and encouraging dialogue on these questions. To some, a few of these interpretations might, indeed, come across as “[playing] fast and loose with the biblical text,” but many others are based on serious biblical scholarship taking into account the cultures of the time when the texts were written. Non-concordist views are typically motivated more strongly by an understanding of the context and culture out of which the original text emerged than by a desire for consistency with modern science. We also would ask Keathley to explain more clearly how evolutionary creationists differ from old earth creationists on this question, since old earth creationist interpretations are also not strictly literal.
3. The connection between natural history and salvation history:
Here Keathley suggests that BioLogos has not articulated well enough how to connect natural history and salvation history. This may be so, and we look forward to exploring this theme more substantially in the future. However, he seems to misunderstand the BioLogos view in a couple of important respects that are worth noting now. Keathley writes,
Southern Baptists affirm that ordinary providence is the way that God generally deals with His creation. But salvation history is discontinuous. It contains many moments in which the events that occur can be understood only as special, unique actions of God. This is why creationists, whether they are [Young Earth Creationist] advocates, or [Old Earth Creationist] advocates, or even [Intelligent Design] proponents, expect to find evidence of discontinuity in the natural record also.
We agree with the above statement regarding ordinary providence and special acts of God in salvation history. BioLogos has in many places affirmed the reality of miracles as described in the Bible, and—importantly—we do not discount the possibility that miracles may have occurred in natural history as well.
We do not, however, see the logic behind expecting to find measurable discontinuity in the natural world simply because God works supernaturally in salvation history. In fact, this expectation seems to go directly against Keathley’s own distinction between the ‘ordinary’ and ‘salvific’ modes of God’s providence. And in any case, God’s regular working through natural laws—the “customs of the Creator” we might say—is not somehow a lesser kind of divine action than miracles.
Perhaps more importantly, though, the biblical miracles do not take place in haphazard fashion; they are in every case linked to some theological purpose (for more on this point, see this paper by Ard Louis). It is difficult to see what theological purpose might be found in a miracle that occurred millions of years before the first humans were around to appreciate it, for example. Still, as stated before, we don’t discount the possibility that God has worked in miraculous ways in natural history.
Keathley goes on to observe that the relationship between BioLogos and the Intelligent Design (ID) community seems hostile. We at BioLogos would not characterize it as such, though we admit to taking markedly different approaches, as we explain here. But the disagreements between BioLogos and the ID community are decidedly not about miracles in salvation history or the truthfulness of Scripture. They are about what we can reasonably expect to discover using the scientific process, what we have discovered, and whether evolution—God’s chosen means of creating, in our view—can account for the rich diversity of life on earth.
We see no biblical reason to view natural processes (including natural selection) as having removed God from the process of creation. It is all God’s and it is all intelligently designed. Those in the ID movement for the most part reject some or all of the major scientific conclusions of evolutionary theory.
Tomorrow, in Part 2, we address the last three of Dr. Keathley’s areas of concern.