Ask an Evolutionary Creationist: A Q&A with Dennis Venema
Dennis Venema responds to several frequently asked questions about evolution and Christian faith.
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The following exchange was originally posted on the website of author Rachel Held Evans in September 2011, and published at BioLogos shortly after. It features questions submitted to Held Evans by her readers about Christianity and evolution, with responses by former BioLogos fellow of biology Dennis Venema.
“Creationism” is one of those words that almost always needs clarification. For many, “creationism” is synonymous with Young-Earth Creationism, the view that the Genesis narratives are to be taken literally. This view holds that the entire cosmos is around 6,000 years old, that the fossil record was laid down almost in its entirety during a literal, global worldwide flood, that God created humans directly out of dust, and that Adam and Eve are the progenitors of the entire human race. The organization Answers in Genesis is probably the best-known proponent of this view.
Old-Earth Creationism typically holds to a local flood, and accepts Big Bang cosmology. Despite agreeing with mainstream science on these issues, they deny evolution: they believe that the vast majority of species (and especially humans) were independently created by God during earth’s long history. Old-earthers also hold to a literal Adam and Eve as the progenitors of our entire species. Reasons to Believe is the best-known organization that promotes this view.
Intelligent Design (ID) is a view that many feel is a form of creationism, though the ID Movement itself often rejects the label, claiming that it is strictly an alternative scientific view. The ID Movement is a “Big Tent” approach for all and sundry who reject at least some part of evolutionary biology. As such, there are Young-Earth Creationists, Old-Earth Creationists, and others within the movement. The main ID view is that some features of life are too complex to be the result of evolution, thus indicating that they were “designed”—a word that functions as the equivalent of “created” within this group. The Discovery Institute is the best-known organization for promoting ID.
Despite their (large) differences, all of the above positions deny some aspect of modern science. The only Christian perspective on origins that fully accepts mainstream science is the Evolutionary Creation / Theistic Evolution view. This view holds that science is not an enemy to be fought, but rather a means of understanding some of the mechanisms God has used to bring about biodiversity on earth. This view accepts that humans share ancestry with all other forms of life, and that our species arose as a population, not through a single primal pair. There are different views within the EC community on whether there was a historical couple named Adam and Eve—some hold that there was, and that they were selected by God from a larger population as representatives. Other folks in the EC community feel that Adam and Eve are typological figures, such as a representation of the failure of Israel to keep the covenant. The science (human population genetics) is clear that our species arose as a population, and that is what I have focused on (since that is my area of expertise). I try to leave the theology to others, but often folks want to talk theology on these points, not science.
What has been the most compelling evidence for you personally that has solidified your position as an evolutionary creationist?
Well, the evidence is everywhere. It’s not just that a piece here and there fits evolution: it’s the fact that virtually none of the evidence we have suggests anything else. What you see presented as “problems for evolution” by Christian anti-evolutionary groups are typically issues that are taken out of context or (intentionally or not) misrepresented to their non-specialist audiences. For me personally (as a geneticist) comparative genomics (comparing DNA sequences between different species) has really sealed the deal on evolution. Even if Darwin had never lived and no one else had come up with the idea of common ancestry, modern genomics would have forced us to that conclusion even if there was no other evidence available (which of course manifestly isn’t the case).
For example, we see the genes for air-based olfaction (smelling) in whales that no longer even have olfactory organs. Humans have the remains of a gene devoted to egg yolk production in our DNA in exactly the place that evolution would predict. Our genome is nearly identical to the chimpanzee genome, a little less identical to the gorilla genome, a little less identical to the orangutan genome, and so on—and this correspondence is present in ways that are not needed for function (such as the location of shared genetic defects, the order of genes on chromosomes, and on and on). If you’re interested in this research, you might find this (again, somewhat technical) lecture I gave a few years ago helpful. You can also see a less technical, but longer version here where I do my best to explain these lines of evidence to members of my church.
I have trouble with randomness in natural selection. Why is it essential in scientific terms that evolutionary development is random? How does that fit with the notion of a God who is involved in the world? …Random evolution would not be theism (or it wouldn’t Biblical Christianity). It would be deism; the Great Clockmaker who set everything in motion and then kept hands off. Why is randomness essential scientifically, and how does a Christian accept it theologically?
I think you mean randomness in mutation: natural selection is anything but random (it’s a process whereby certain variants in a population reproduce more successfully than others). Evolution has a random component (mutations arise that may be detrimental, neutral or beneficial) and an emphatically non-random component (the different variants within a population do not all reproduce at the same frequency, meaning that the next generation will not be exactly like the previous one). So, as a whole, evolution is not random since it has a strongly non-random component. Evolution is actually remarkably good at producing similar results over and over again: consider how similar ichthyosaurs (descended from terrestrial reptiles) and dolphins (descended from terrestrial mammals) are. That’s the non-randomness of evolution at work. Some evolutionary creationists have argued that this non-randomness of evolution is a way that God uses evolution to shape His creation (the best work on this topic is Life’s Solution by noted Cambrian paleontologist Simon Conway Morris).
I agree with you that the evidence seems to point to evolution being true. I’ve read BioLogos and the old Evolution and Evangelicals blog. I’ve read books where people try to rework theology in light of this scientific knowledge. And yet, I’m left feeling confused and unsatisfied about doctrines like sin, the Fall, salvation, etc. What about you—have you found a satisfying way to maintain your evangelical theology in light of evolution?
This is a tricky question, because it hinges on the inherently subjective term “satisfying.” What I might find satisfying you might not—and in order to answer the question I have to guess at what you mean by it.
Personally, the concept of Divine accommodation has been helpful to me. This is a theology that has a long heritage in Protestant circles (e.g. Calvin). In a nutshell, it’s the idea that God, in his grace, brings himself down to the level of the audience he is communicating with. For Genesis, that audience is an ancient near-eastern culture, not our modern scientific one. For Genesis, my view is that God wants to communicate that he is the Creator of all that there is, that he has given humanity a special image-bearing role within it, but our sinfulness has broken that relationship, et cetera—but that he doesn’t see a need to give them a science lesson first. I would recommend Denis Lamoureux’s book I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution and, though not directly related to science, Peter Enns’ book Inspiration and Incarnation may also be helpful to you (it certainly was to me).
From the perspective of an evolutionary creationist, what meaning and value do you extract from the creation accounts in Genesis, and why would they be important for the Christian faith if they can’t be taken literally?
See the answer above—I see the Genesis narratives as God graciously reaching down to an ancient culture in order to communicate to them that he is their creator, that they are alienated from him, and that he desires that they be restored to fellowship through his offer of covenant with him (ultimately pointing to the need for God to step into history himself as the One who can keep the covenant on our behalf).
I’ll never forget sitting in one of my classes several years ago and hearing the professor ask the question: “What came first, death or sin?” If we believe that there was no death before sin, it causes a wrinkle in our ability to hold to the theory of evolution. As a scientist, this question caused him to reexamine the evidence. How have you personally dealt with this “wrinkle?”
Yes, if you believe that no death of any kind (plant, animal, bacterial) occurred before human sinfulness, then this precludes an evolutionary view, since the fossil record is (obviously) a record of things, well, dying. If you hold that no human death came before sinfulness, then it depends on what you call human (there is a gradation of forms leading up to the modern human skeleton in the fossil record, as well as the overwhelming genetic evidence that we arose through an evolutionary process) and what you consider sin (i.e. when did we become accountable to God for our actions?). There is also the long-standing observation that God decrees that Adam and Eve will surely die the day they eat of the fruit—and then they live for several hundred years after the fact. I’d also recommend reading through Romans 5:12–8:17 (which, as you know, is all about Adam, sin and Christ as the second Adam) and making a mental checklist of how Paul uses the term death in this passage. References to physical human death are in the minority—suggesting that Paul’s understanding of what is going on in Genesis has a lot more nuance than a simple literal reading would imply.
All of the questions posted so far approach the topic from the viewpoint of assuming belief in a god. As an atheist, I don’t share that assumption. If you transitioned from an anti-evolutionary/pro-intelligent design view to an evolutionary creationist view a few years ago, why didn’t you keep going and just embrace evolution and drop the theistic aspect?
Your question implies that there is a natural trajectory from accepting evolution to rejecting God. As a theist, specifically an evangelical Christian, I don’t agree with this point, though I understand where you are coming from. Let me explain.
Your assumption, that “evolution offers a mechanism for understanding the existence of living organisms that doesn’t require the existence of a god” holds weight only if one has the view that “natural explanations” and “theistic explanations” are a zero-sum game. This is a God-of-the-gaps approach, where God has less and less to do as we understand more and more how nature works (and a view I reject). Logically, if I held this view I would view science as an inherently evil activity, since any natural explanation diminishes the activity of God from this viewpoint. Your view is also one that science cannot establish as correct, since science cannot speak to the absence of divine action in an observed phenomenon.
If, on the other hand, one believes that “natural explanations” reveal the means by which God ordains and sustains his creation, then “natural explanations” are not a threat to theism at all, but rather a window into the ways God acts in the world. This is the view I hold, and it too is a view that science cannot establish. Both theistic evolution and atheistic evolution are philosophical / theological interpretations of what science can establish: evolution.
As for “drop(ping) the theistic aspect”—this would imply that my faith was based on a particular understanding of creation such that I would question my faith when I questioned the mechanism of creation and/or my interpretation of Genesis. This wasn’t really an issue for me, since my faith was, and is, based on believing that Jesus of Nazareth is in fact the resurrected Lord of the entire world (to roughly paraphrase how N.T. Wright puts it) and that the resurrection is God the Father’s vindication of Jesus’ messiahship (as a sinless, suffering servant that, mystery of mysteries, turns out to be God Himself, incarnate). None of that belief was ever predicated on a specific interpretation of Genesis with respect to scientific details, and as such, accepting evolution as a mechanism by which God creates did not alter those beliefs. (If you’d like to see a rational, historically-rooted investigation of the credibility of the resurrection, N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God is the standard by which others are judged.)
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