Evolutionary Creation is for Everyone
Evolutionary Creation has broad appeal as it promotes the compatibility of evolution and faith, and finds harmony among many branches of Christianity.
Before You Read
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One of the great things about being a pastor and theologian is that I get to interact with people from all walks of life. Often, I get to have discussions with folks from across the denominational and academic spectrum. In the last 6 months I’ve had science and religion discussions with a Methodist church leader, former Anglican bishop, Roman Catholic teacher, and a Dutch Reformed professor. One thing that struck me from all of these conversations was how well the Evolutionary Creation position fits across the denominational spectrum.
The EC perspective rejects the premise that the evolutionary narrative is an inherently atheistic one, or an inherently anti-biblical one. It opposes both the New Atheists on the one hand, and creationists who fail to completely embrace evolutionary science on the other (Young Earth, Old Earth, and Intelligent Design). EC properly distinguishes between evolution as a natural biological process and evolutionism as a materialistic philosophy. Because it explains how God is actively involved in the ongoing process of creating through evolution, Evolutionary Creation offers Christians from nearly every denomination the most compelling perspective of God and nature. It is as if Evolutionary Creation is for everyone!
EC is for Roman Catholics
The first public, clear, and direct response to evolution from higher RCC leadership came through Pope Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani Generis. His response to the theory of evolution emphasizes the distinction between the science of evolution and the philosophy of evolution (philosophical naturalism). He states:
“Some imprudently and indiscreetly hold that evolution, which has not been fully proved even in the domain of natural sciences, explains the origin of all things and… have paved the way for the new erroneous philosophy which, concerns itself only with existence of individual things and neglects all consideration of their immutable essences.”1
In the estimation of Pope Pius XII, the crucial issue facing Christianity when interpreting evolution is not neglecting essential RCC dogma. This view was reinforced and expanded in 1996 by Pope John Paul II in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Pope John Paul II fully embraced the theory of evolution. He said, “Today, almost half a century after the publication of the Encyclical, fresh knowledge has led to the recognition that evolution is more than a hypothesis.”2 As a result, RCC has not made belief in the theory of evolution binding on the consciences of Roman Catholics, although it has maintained the essentialness of adhering to the imago dei of human beings.
While these are by no means the conclusive or exclusive contributions to the discussion of the RCC’s teaching on evolution, they do provide a window into how the RCC interpretation of evolution by natural selection has itself evolved. As a scientific theory, evolution by natural selection is permitted to be believed, so long as it is not conflated with atheistic materialism or used to contradict RCC dogma. God is to be believed as the primary cause of creation who established secondary causes that act in accordance with the natural laws that he has established. Evolution by natural selection is compatible with the Catholic faith in so far as it is maintained that God is Creator, and evolution by natural selection is a secondary cause that follows the natural laws established by God.
Roman Catholic theology and Evolutionary Creation, then, fit together. God is the creator, man is made in his image, and all of creation has evolved following the natural laws as a secondary cause. Evolution is not a philosophy that makes sense of life, rather it is a secondary biological process by which life changes and new lifeforms arise over time.
EC is for Eastern Orthodox
The Eastern Orthodox (EO) response to the theory of evolution by natural selection can be divided into two groups—incompatible and compatible. Incompatibilism sees the evolutionary narrative as wholly inconsistent with Scripture and the Patristic teachings on the creation story in Genesis. As a result, evolution is to be completely rejected. However, many within the EO faith hold to compatibilism. They see the evolutionary narrative as consistent with Scripture and Orthodox theology due to the difference between scientific and theological knowledge. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the compatibilists within EO see no problem with the evolutionary narrative and the creation of humans. This is mostly due to the EO distinction between the different kinds of knowledge.
Isaac the Syrian argued that scientific knowledge is only about the physical reality, and therefore is a “lower” knowledge than knowledge about the spiritual reality. Scientific knowledge is based solely on knowledge gained from physical reality as it appears to the senses, whereas the spiritual knowledge corresponds to what really is. Scientific knowledge gives us insight into how reality appears, but not how reality actually is.3 The evolutionary narrative, therefore, moving from simple organisms to complex humans fits neatly within the EO compatibility perspective because it reflects the creation story of Genesis leading from simple light and darkness to complex humans. For the compatibilists in the EO faith, the “lower” narrative of evolution compatibly follows the “higher” narrative of Scripture.
The EC perspective maintains that the “two books” of Scripture and nature are compatible and in harmony. They are telling two different sides of the same story. Evolution is telling the story of the development of nature. Christian theology tells us what it means, why it is, and how God relates to it all.
EC is for Protestants
The first responses in the late nineteenth century to Darwin’s theory of evolution from Protestant theologians came in the form of two primary areas of concern. The first concern was about the issue of the transmutation of species (species changing over time). The second concern was about the role of design in nature and how evolutionary theory could potentially replace it. However, other issues, such as the literalness of the days of creation week, and the existence of sin and death before “the fall,” were not concerns that Protestant theologians had when they interacted with Darwin’s theory.
Most scientists, as well as theologians, prior to the publication of Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species believed that the geological record revealed that species do not change over time. Moreover, Genesis chapter one describes the various animals and plants of God’s creation being made “each according to its kind.” And so, evolution presented a real challenge to some Protestant theologians’ interpretation of both the geological record and the Bible.
Many Protestant theologians were also concerned about the role of God in nature. Out of a response to the growing atheistic and philosophical naturalistic community among evolutionists, Protestant theologians’ arguments focused on design and divine action within nature, and the combating of philosophical naturalism. However, once both of these initial concerns (transmutation and divine action) were resolved by theologians, Protestantism was for the most part accepting and accommodating of Darwinian evolution until the early twentieth century.
The primary source of conflict between Christian and evolution would come in the twentieth century from the fundamentalists within the Protestant tradition. The fundamentalists saw evolution as standing in stark contradiction to a faithful interpretation of the Genesis creation story. By “faithful,” they meant “literalistic.” But behind a literalistic interpretation of the Bible is the desire to be faithful to God. And the good news is, all of these issues are accommodated for in the EC perspective.
EC understands God as the great Architect of evolution. The EC perspective does not see creation as a one-time past event in history, rather, creation is an ongoing process. Creation has not ceased; God is still actively creating. Evolution is a divinely planned and purposed natural process. God has a plan and a goal for all of creation. The story of the natural world is being told, and evolutionary natural processes are the way the plan and purposes are unfolding. God is active in the past, present, and future, working through evolution to bring creation to its fulfillment. Part of that process was endowing humans with the image of God. Evolution being true does not relegate God to being a spectator of creation. EC holds that God is the creator, and image giver of creation through evolution.
Furthermore, EC maintains that the Bible is the word of God. It maintains a commitment to faithfully interpreting the Bible, as well as accepting scientific data. Because God is both the author of the Bible and of creation, we do not need to fear that the two will conflict. We can accept the Bible and science.
The Broadest Appeal
Evolutionary Creation offers the best perspective on the biological evolutionary narrative because it demonstrates the possibility and capability of God using evolution to create. It offers the broadest appeal to Christian denominations. As a theological position, EC has interdenominational appeal. EC appeals to Roman Catholicism because it properly distinguishes between evolutionary science and philosophical naturalism. The EC perspective leaves room for various views and perspectives regarding the creation of Adam and Eve, and explains God’s activity in the physical world as one of primary and secondary causes. EC appeals to Eastern Orthodoxy because it promotes compatibility between science and the Christian faith, and supports a “dual narrative” perspective between nature and Scripture. EC appeals to Protestant Christians because it not only maintains a commitment to the authority and faithful interpretation of the Bible, but it provides a role for God as designer and guider of creation. Moreover, it allows for the special creation of Adam and Eve, without limiting the perspective to only this view. In short, Evolutionary Creation offers the widest denominational appeal as the best theological response to reconciling Christian theology with the evolutionary narrative. Or to say it another way: Evolutionary Creation is for everyone.
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About the author
Mario A. Russo
If you enjoyed this article, we recommend you check out the following resources:
Charles Foster | Inhabit the World
N.T. Wright | The Point of Resurrection
Phil Vischer | Being Evangelical