Nazarenes on Evolution

on May 5, 2014

    Virtually all Christians agree that God is Creator. And virtually all believe the biblical witness to God’s creative activity. But how God acts as Creator is disputed. And Christians disagree with one another on how to best interpret the Bible’s statements about creation.

    The vast majority of contemporary scientists think evolution is at least an important part of why we find creatures in such complex and diverse forms. A 2009 Pew research study indicates that 97% of scientists think humans and other living things evolved over time by natural processes, guided by God, or evolved in some other way.1

    What scientists mean by “evolution” isn’t always clear. But to believe in evolution usually means that all creatures share common ancestors. And it usually means the complex creatures we see in our world – including humans – emerged over very long periods of time through natural selection, genetic mutation, and self-organization. This means the earth is old and new species emerged very slowly.

    Christians, as a whole, aren’t sure what to make of this. Some simply believe God creates through evolution. This, in fact, seems to be the position of the largest Christian group, the Roman Catholic Church. Many other Christians agree.

    But Evangelicals are especially likely to doubt central aspects of evolutionary theory. In that same Pew study, 57% of Evangelicals say they reject evolution. These Evangelicals believe humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

    When close to 100% of scientists accept evolution and close to 60% of Evangelicals reject it, some today think they must choose between evolution or God.

    The Church of the Nazarene and Evolution

    For some time, I’ve been interested in what members and leaders of the Church of the Nazarene think about evolution. I am an ordained elder in this denomination and a theologian at one of its premier academic institutions. I care deeply for this collection of God’s children.

    In the past year, I’ve been leading a project to explore evolution and theology in the Church of the Nazarene. With the help of Sherri Walker, we’ve published short essays on the internet in which Nazarene leaders express their views on evolution and Christian faith. A book of these essays, called Nazarenes Exploring Evolution, appeared in early 2014. And in January, I co-led (with Mark Mann) a conference on this subject at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California.

    Like most denominations, the Church of the Nazarene understands the importance of creation. But the official denomination statement on creation is brief. It says,

    The Church of the Nazarene believes in the biblical account of creation (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth . . .”—Genesis 1:1). We oppose any godless interpretation of the origin of the universe and of humankind (Hebrews 11:3).

    Although this statement affirms God as Creator and opposes theories that are “godless,” many laity and some clergy in the denomination think this statement opposes evolution. Many believe the theory of evolution is essentially godless, in the sense that God would not have created through evolution.

    Polling Nazarenes on Evolutionary Issues

    Most Christians consider the Church of the Nazarene to be part of the Evangelical movement. Given this, one might expect members to view evolution in a way similar to the 57% of Evangelicals who reject evolution.

    Prior to the Nazarenes Exploring Evolution project, the only known poll of Nazarene views on evolution was conducted by Pew in 2007. In that poll, a mere 21% of Nazarenes “mostly agreed” or “completely agreed” that “evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth.”2

    Recently, the Nazarenes Exploring Evolution project took an online public poll to find out what Nazarenes think. The denomination’s own researchers helped shape the poll. Although no poll is perfect, below are what Nazarenes who took the poll said:

    Poll of Nazarenes on Evolution

    Question 1: Genesis and other biblical texts require Christians to believe the earth was created less than 15 thousand years ago.

    Question 2: The Bible can properly be interpreted as compatible with the theory of biological evolution.

    Question 3: Geology, astronomy, and physics have established that world is billions of years old.

    Question 4: Humans likely became a species as God worked with the biological evolutionary process.

    Among other things, this poll suggests that more Nazarenes today feel comfortable with evolution.

    Nazarene Scholars on God Creating through Evolution

    The Nazarenes Exploring Evolution project also conducted a more targeted poll. This one involved sending a set of questions to scientists and theologians working in American denominational colleges, universities, and seminary. All universities and colleges of the Church of the Nazarene in the United States were contacted, including Nazarene Theological Seminary and Nazarene Bible College. More than fifty scholars responded, which is roughly half of those working full-time at denominational institutions.

    Question 1: Genesis and other biblical texts require Christians to believe the earth was created less than 15 thousand years ago.

    Question 2: The Bible can properly be interpreted as compatible with the theory of biological evolution.

    Question 3: Geology, astronomy, and physics have established that the world is billions of years old.

    Question 4: Humans likely became a species as God worked with the evolutionary process.

    Question 5: The Church of the Nazarene should allow the theory that God creates through evolution as one acceptable view of creation among others.

    The final question about the denomination affirming that God creates through evolution is particularly interesting to me. The scholars poll indicates that about 88% of Nazarene theologians, scientists and biblical scholars think something like evolutionary creation ought to be affirmed as at least one viable option for thinking about how God creates.

    These polls also reveal what many scholars and pastors in the denomination have been saying for some time: the Bible should not be interpreted as a straightforward science or history book. Many biblical scholars, for instance, believe Genesis 1 reads like a hymn of praise. Others believe Genesis 1 draws from Jewish Temple literature, which is religious and not scientific.

    Most Nazarene theology, Bible, and philosophy scholars believe the main point of Genesis and other creation texts is theological: God is Creator. Genesis and other books of the Bible need not mention the specific ways God creates for this main point to be true.

    Conclusion

    The Nazarenes Exploring Evolution poll of religion scholars reveals that most scholars in science, Bible, and theology are open to the possibility that Christian faith is compatible with the idea that God creates through evolution. But a significant number of laity are less comfortable with this idea. These polls seem indicate that we find in the Church of the Nazarene a marked difference between how some laity and scholars think about evolution. One goal of the Nazarenes Exploring Evolution project is to address this divide through conversation, education, and charitable interaction.



    Thomas Jay Oord
    About the Author

    Thomas Jay Oord

    Thomas Jay Oord is a theologian, philosopher, and scholar of multidisciplinary studies. As a scholar, Oord has written or edited more than 25 books. He is also an award-winning photographer, giving lectures on God, nature, and photography in universities, churches, organizations, and seminaries. Oord is also known for his contributions to research on love, open and relational theology, science and religion, and the implications of freedom and relationships for transformation.