Science and the Bible: Theistic Evolution, Part 1

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

“Création ex nihilo,” from Charles de Bouelles, Libellus de nihilo (1510). God “inspires” (breathes or blows into) the universe, creating it out of nothing (ex nihilo).

 The dictionaries I checked don’t define the term, “theistic evolution,” so I offer my own definition: the belief that God used the process of evolution to create living things, including humans. Some might find this a vague definition, since (for example) it doesn’t include the adjective “Darwinian” before “evolution,” but that would eliminate most of the people prior to World War Two who would otherwise fit the definition. On the other hand, if we left out a specific reference to human evolution, then the category would be even larger, since a number of important Christian writers have accepted evolution among the “lower animals,” while explicitly rejecting it for human beings. We could argue endlessly about such things, and not pointlessly; my point here is simply to be clear about terminology.

“Theistic evolution” has been discussed by that name since at least 1877, and one of the first to do so was the great Canadian geologist John W. Dawson, in his book, The Origin of the World, According to Revelation and Science (1877). In the midst of a lengthy discussion of the animals created on the fifth day of creation, he says:

The long time employed in the introduction of the lower animals, the use of the terms “make,” and “form,” instead of “create,” and the expression “let the waters bring forth,” may well be understood as countenancing some form of mediate creation, or of “creation by law,” or “theistic evolution,” as it has been termed; but they give no countenance to the idea either of the spontaneous evolution of living beings under the influence of merely physical causes and without creative intervention, or of the transmutation [evolution] of one kind of animal into another. (p. 225)

As the final part of this sentence implies, Dawson was (ironically) a staunch opponent of both human evolution and the common ancestry of other animals; in short, by no reasonable definition was he a theistic evolutionist, even though he thought that a great deal of change had taken place naturally, “within certain limits” that he associated with the created “kinds” spoken of in Genesis. Indeed, references to “theistic evolution” are probably no less common among opponents of the view (including William Jennings Bryan in the 1920s) than among proponents, but I won’t attempt to enumerate further examples.

In recent years, however, some proponents of TE have endorsed alternative labels for their position(s). The most prominent example is Francis Collins, the geneticist who started BioLogos. Collins uses the term “BioLogos” itself as the label for his overall position, which fits well within my TE category. The evangelical theologian Denis Lamoureux, one of the most qualified of all writers on this topic (he has earned doctorates in both theology and biology), strongly prefers the term, “Evolutionary Creation” (EC), precisely because he thinks the noun “creation” ought to have more emphasis than the adjective “evolutionary,” something that the term “theistic evolution” does not accomplish. I recommend his book of that title to anyone who wants an authoritative analysis of both biblical and scientific aspects of the origins controversy. The main ideas are clearly presented in his web lectures. Another highly qualified proponent of TE, George Murphy, also has reservations about the term, but he recognizes its wide recognition and agrees with the idea itself, that “Evolution is God’s way of creating”. I will have more to say about Murphy, a very important voice, in a subsequent post.

Despite these quite reasonable objections to the term, I continue to use the “TE” term, partly because it has historical continuity and I’m an historian, and partly because it’s easily recognized. If anyone wants to object, however, they won’t get objections from me, unless their own reasons aren’t reasonable. My only request: define your terms as clearly as I’ve defined mine.

Because the term is broad and a bit hazy, more should be said about it. When we talk about “Intelligent Design” next month, I’ll tell you that it’s a “big tent” (something proponents of that view also say), insofar as it glosses over the biblical and theological issues that have usually separated Christians into various “camps” (such as the various positions we are now studying) when it comes to origins. TE is also a “big tent,” in that adherents differ strongly amongst themselves on theological and biblical issues. Unlike ID, however, theology is openly discussed—and competing theologies of God, nature, and humanity are openly advocated, not left implicit. We’ll say more about this next time. This column presents one type of TE, a type favored by many evangelical scientists and scholars. For example, the people I will discuss all accept (as far as I can tell) the Incarnation and Resurrection—that is, they are Trinitarian Christians who believe that Jesus was fully divine (and fully human) and that the disciples went to the right tomb, only to find it empty, before encountering the risen Christ in diverse places. They also believe in creation ex nihilo, the classical view (illustrated at the start of this column) that God brought the universe into existence out of nothing. There are other types of TE, some of which are not (in my opinion) sufficiently biblical, or even sufficiently Christian, to be part of this series. Please keep that in mind as we proceed: don’t tar all TEs with the same brush—something that happens all too often elsewhere. Let knowledge, not ignorance, be our guide.

Core Tenets or Assumptions of Theistic Evolution

(1) The Bible is NOT a reliable source of scientific knowledge about the origin of the earth and the universe, including living things—because it was never intended to teach us about science.

This reflects not only modern scientific knowledge, but also (more importantly) modern biblical scholarship. Peter Enns and some other evangelical scholars have recently stressed this point, initiating a firestorm in the evangelical academic community that, so far, has confirmed my view that evangelicals in general are just not ready to deal with this, even though it is consistent with the classical notion of accommodation. My own comments about the magnitude of the problem, written before the firestorm started, can be found here.

(2) The Bible IS a reliable source of knowledge about God and spiritual things.

Remember the quip that Galileo attributed to Cesare, Cardinal Baronio, “The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.” (We discussed this earlier in the series). Evolution was not an issue in Galileo’s day, but this platitude is frequently quoted by advocates of TE—and often without proper attribution to Baronio. Commonality obviously lies in the attitude, not the topic. Many critics of TE are willing to adopt Galileo’s approach when it comes to the Solar System, but not when it comes to evolution: they are anxious to keep Galileo out of the garden of Eden.

Portrait of Cesare, Cardinal Baronio, attributed to Caravaggio (1602-3) (Source)

(3) Scientific evidence is irrelevant to the Bible—it is simply not a science book.

See above. This needs to be stated separately, since some believers look to science for “proof” of the Bible, just as some unbelievers look to science for “disproof.” Proponents of TE stress that science and the Bible aren’t like apples and oranges; rather, they are more like apples and rocks: you can hold one in each hand without tension, but they have very little in common. We wouldn’t look for God in the phone book, or in an automobile repair manual. Don’t look for science in the Bible. In principle, scientific theories neither support nor threaten the Bible.

(4) The creation story in Genesis 1 is a confession of faith in the true creator, intended to refute pantheism and polytheism, not to tell us how God actually created the world.

This is meant to echo what we said about the Framework View. It is not necessarily true that all TEs accept the Framework View or something like it, but many do. Most would probably say that the Bible is not contradicted by any specific scientific theory of biological diversity—unless that theory oversteps its philosophical boundaries and functions as a kind of religion, what Conrad Hyers called “dinosaur religion.”

(5) The Bible tells us THAT God created, not how God created

Again, this sounds like the Framework View—or, at least, it should. Belief in God the creator is consistent with science, and even supported by some aspects of science; but, it is not a substitute for scientific explanations.

An Assignment: It’s Your Turn to Read and Write

Astronomer Owen Gingerich has written an eloquent little TE book, God’s Universe. A number of quotations have been compiled here. My review for First Things identifies some of the key theological and philosophical issues related to TE. Please follow these links, study what you find, and offer comments below. If anyone has actually read the book itself, your views would be particularly valuable to include.

Looking Ahead

In our next column in two weeks, we continue our discussion of Theistic Evolution, focusing on some crucial theological aspects of TE. In the meantime, please do the “assignment” and get back to us.


About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.