Pastoring and Preaching on Evolutionary Creationism
Dennis Venema sits down with his own pastor, Dave Navarro, about a recent sermon given at their church and how to lead a congregation through theological discussions.
Dave Navarro is a pastor in British Columbia, Canada. Dennis Venema is a member of Dave’s congregation. This article is a dialogue between them.
In late 2017, Dave took our congregation at South Langley Church through a series on the Bible itself—its interpretation, its origins, etc. Early on in the series, Dave delivered what would prove to be a very significant sermon in the life of our church.
Dave, can you summarize the sermon?
The sermon was about how we talk about the reliability of the Bible. I argued that Christianity’s core beliefs are that Jesus died for our sins and rose again (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Other beliefs are important insofar as they are connected to this core.
I also gave a basic understanding of genre, explaining that different genres make different kinds of truth-claims.
With the above in mind, we then compared and contrasted the Gospel accounts to Genesis. The Gospels are claiming historical truth (more or less), and that they’re presenting the core beliefs outlined in 1 Corinthians 15:3. By contrast, I argued that Genesis 1-2 is primarily claiming theological truth, and that while it touches some core or near-core doctrines (that God is the Creator, the universe is his creation, and humans are made in his image), these doctrines do not require the story to be historically true. Thus, there is room for different views on creation—from young-earth creationism to evolutionary creationism—as long as these core doctrines are maintained.
(The full sermon recording is here.)
What led you, as a pastor, to prepare this message for your congregation? What needs were you trying to address?
The amazing and terrifying thing about being a pastor is that it’s never about just about issues or ideas—it’s always about people.
So this sermon was for a sister who feels deeply embattled by secularism and scholarship. The world around her is shifting, and she doesn’t have the tools to process it. Faith used to be simple, sure, and certain. She used to know her place in the world. Now she feels left behind, and you can read the despair in her manner.
This sermon was for a brother educated at a secular institution, who has been exposed to well-attested secular scholarship. He has deep convictions about history, science, philosophy, and politics, and in many cases the Bible (as it was taught to him) runs counter to these convictions. He wrestles with whom to believe—his scholarly community, or his faith community.
Most of all, if I’m honest, this sermon was for a sister who no longer attends church or calls herself a Christian. She left because, as she learned more about science and history, she felt hurt about the ways her church had misled her about the Old Testament. And as she asked serious questions, she received nothing but simplistic and dismissive answers. So she left church and became an atheist. At least the atheists were honest. At least they would listen to her questions.
These people, and the many others like them, came with a variety of issues, but I believed that equipping them around hermeneutics and Genesis could help all of them take steps forward.
Tell us a bit about your own journey with faith and science. How did you come to hold the views you now do?
I was blessed to grow up in a family that valued both faith and science, and was open to dialogue about them. So I never really developed the suspicion that so many Evangelicals hold toward science. From early in my faith journey, I held what I think is a pretty standard, centrist view—that God’s word and God’s world do not contradict, but that sometimes our inadequate interpretations of them do. For many years, that was the extent of my thinking on this.
As I received my theological education, I started to get more sophisticated about my views. One of the most impactful things for me was studying the Bible in relation to other Ancient Near Eastern literature. John Walton and Peter Enns were very helpful in this. I had always suspected that we should be reading Genesis as something other than modern Western historiography, but I didn’t know what! But seeing the similarities between Genesis and Enuma Elish, Gilgamesh, and Atra-Hasis made it clear that Genesis is an Ancient Near Eastern document, and speaks in Ancient Near Eastern frameworks of reality. It gave me permission to read the text differently.
So nowadays, I’m not surprised when the Bible doesn’t present a scientific viewpoint. Science is a modern conception. So is historiography. So is inerrancy. There’s a lot of ancient worldview in the text, alongside the divine truth. And once you understand that, a lot of the “problems” of the Bible are no longer problems.
What has it been like pastoring a congregation with diverse views on this subject?
I think if we’re honest, every pastor pastors a congregation with diverse views on this subject. (And if you don’t, you’ve got a bigger problem!)
But I have an advantage in that our denomination explicitly states that we allow for diverse views on Genesis 1-2. As long as we maintain that God is the Creator and humans are created in his image, we have liberty about the mechanistic details. The “core and perimeter” idea in the sermon is actually enshrined by our denomination.
So I came to the sermon with the backing of our Confession of Faith, and also of our church board (I sent them the sermon ahead of time for approval, which I don’t normally do). I drew attention to this in the sermon, not as a power play, but to ease people’s anxieties as we walked through these deep theological waters.
I received a LOT of appreciation for this sermon. Appreciation for being willing to talk about these things, instead of pretending they’re not there. Appreciation for being intellectually honest. I think it was a positive turning point for our church.
But I did plant a significant flag. I expressed that Evolutionary Creationism was within the range of accepted positions. This was always true in our denomination, but I stated it. And for some people, only Young Earth Creationism is acceptable. So this was difficult for them. There is still some conversation going on around it. It would have been easier if I said nothing! But saying nothing would have made me an unfaithful shepherd.
If you could tell other pastors one thing that has been the most helpful for you in this area, what might that be?
Don’t just inform your people—care for your people.
For a growing disciple of Jesus, there is no avoiding the occasional challenging and re-shaping of our theology. In fact, there is no substitute for this grappling. And it’s the pastor’s job to help his or her people to push into this awkward, murky, uncomfortable reality instead of avoiding it. It’s part of what it means to make disciples.
But when you’re questioning people’s long-held religious assumptions, often you’re asking them to re-think reality itself. That’s incredibly disorienting. It’ll keep them up at night. Their assumptions may have been wrong, but they were safe. They were known.
Pastor, this is where you’re uniquely positioned to do something really important. There are scientists and scholars who have thought more deeply about origins than you probably ever will. And their books and lectures and BioLogos blogs really matter.
But you, you know the people. The real, flesh-and-blood, three-dimensional people. You walk up on stage with your sermon on your iPad screen, and as you start speaking, you look out over the congregation. And as you make eye contact with people, you keep remembering their stories. That person’s dad is dying. That person brought us a casserole when my daughter was born. That person was burned by their last church, and they still haven’t healed. And because you know the people, you can help them through this.
So, yes, help your congregants deconstruct whatever unhelpful beliefs they may hold. But more importantly: give them the care and support and safety that they need in the midst of that deconstruction. It’s really easy to smash someone’s theology to bits. But shepherds don’t use sledgehammers. They use staffs, and they gently guide their sheep to greener pastures.
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