The Perils and Promise of Preaching the God of Two Books
A vast number of congregational leaders know that when they deal with evolution, they are also dealing with job security.
Intro by Deb Haarsma: Pastor Joel Hunter has been a longtime friend of BioLogos, including several years of service on our Advisory Council. He shares here some of the challenges for pastors in addressing science and the Bible, and the choices he made in his own ministry.
I have always loved science. Throughout my ministry, science has been not merely a fascination, but also a treasured source of sermon illustrations. Also, science always has been a topic of interest for my best friend and wife, Becky. She’s a microbiologist who taught for years. I’ve always considered science and Scripture to be complementary revelations of God’s “nature.”
I am a part of the theologically conservative evangelical tradition—that part of the family of God that tends to be very suspicious of science’s seeming disagreement with simple interpretation of certain Scriptures. Early in my ministry I faced the choice of appealing to the fundamentalist parts of my congregation, who tend to assume that science is not only godless but fundamentally anti-God, or focusing on encouraging the congregation members who want to see God everywhere they look. The folks I mentioned first tend to be angrier and more threatening; I love them and understand their concerns, but I admit I have a natural inclination toward the latter group. There have been several factors, actions and relationships that have helped me guide people in my congregations who want a fuller encounter with God.
First, my interpretation of Scripture has grown to be much more comprehensive, and I believe more accurate, as I have learned to contextualize passages by considering their genre, the audiences they were/are addressing, and the times in which they were written. The eternal truth of God comes through all Scripture, but not every piece of Scripture is to be read in the same way. Some Scripture is narrative and moral; law meant to be taken as both true story and that provides ongoing boundaries. But much of Scripture is not meant to be interpreted literally. It is poetry or metaphor or instruction. So one question to consider is: How should we read Genesis?
On the other side of the equation, I have not assumed that our interpretation of Scripture would someday catch up to prevailing scientific theories. I still remember the caustic regard in the 1960s toward the idea of the universe having a “beginning,” but then evidence discovered for the Big Bang suggested it to be a probable fact. So for an Evangelical, one who considers Scripture authoritative, it is not my routine to dismiss Scripture as secondary to prevailing scientific understandings. Like most Evangelicals, I believe if Scripture and science seem to disagree, the problem is probably the misinterpretation of one or both.
Second, my natural inclination has been to look for God in every area of life, especially those areas traditionally dismissed as “worldly” by the church. So through our positions of leadership, both Becky and I have helped people question the durability of their assumptions.
When Becky taught in public schools she taught science from the perspective of one who believed in a Creator. When she taught in a conservative Christian school, she set up debates in her biology classes exposing her students to the theological/scientific basis for young-earth creationism, theistic evolution, and atheistic evolutionism. Throughout her teaching career, she did not receive any objections from parents.
At the church, I not only made many references to scientific perspectives to illustrate biblical points, I even invitedHugh Ross early in his writing career to come and speak about the science and wording of Scripture. Ross, an astrophysicist, advocates for the view that Scripture could well be indicating that the Creator took millions or billions of years (Hebrew “YOM”= day = an “eon”) to create the earth as we know it. I thought my ministry might be in peril if we talked about the earth being old, but it wasn’t. In fact, many folks who attended the sessions were more relaxed and reassured that they were not closet heretics.
The most important part of my appreciation for the nature of God has come through my relationships with people and a fascination for the creatures and ecosystems of this world. These things have prompted me to worship God for his creation. Excellent teachers, from my high school biology teacher to my present day colleagues in the sciences, have all been “worship leaders” for me. Excitement and wonder that comes from anyone overwhelmed with the majesty of creation inspires me to worship. They do not have to be fellow believers. While I am inspired by fellow Christians who have been pillars in science—Newton, Kepler, Pascal, Kelvin, and our own Francis Collins—I have also been quite taken by non-believers who understand the glory of creation. E.O. Wilson is someone with whom I have collaborated, and he unintentionally has drawn me even closer to God as the Creator. These people have something in common with me: they all sense in nature something quite larger and more mysteriously engaging than the mere evolved cells.
Those factors have been key for my ministry. As a pastor I have a very simple job description: help people grow closer with God. I have found that the best way to do that is to look for him in all areas of life. There have been two inescapable, almost haunting, Scriptures that have made scientific investigation a holy pursuit for me:
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made… (Romans 1:20)The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.
Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
[When] Their voice is not heard. (Psalm 19:1-3)
I want to know the voice of God in written Scripture, but I also want to hear his voice through his creation. We worship the God of two books—Word and World. I do not want to miss one iota of the way he works or one glimpse of his wonders.
When I, as a pastor, look at evolution, I do not immediately come up with clear answers regarding how it fits with theology. In fact, what I do come up with are some pretty significant hesitations. An example that elicits hesitancy is what evolution might imply for portions of Genesis. I believe in a historical Adam and Eve, yet I know that current genetic evidence precludes the possibility of all of humanity descending from one couple. So where does that leave me? One who holds to a more “literal” interpretation of the Bible might ask, “Where did all those people outside Eden come from?” One who affirms evolution might say, “Genesis was meant as a creation myth.” I don’t fit in either camp.
What I do know is that a pastor is on “thin ice” when it comes to controversial subjects. Many pastors want to challenge their congregations not only to spiritual growth but also to intellectual growth (the two hardly can be separated). But we also realize that our jobs are in jeopardy if we push too far beyond the “norm” of prevailing assumptions in the evangelical church. Young-earth creationism has been so prevalent in the American evangelical church that it excludes, to the point of intense resistance and reaction, any other point of view. In other words, just as with any other institution, a pastor can get fired if he or she makes the powers-that-be too uncomfortable.
In one sermon not too long ago, I referred to evolution as an established fact. A parishioner walked out of that sermon. I found her after the service and said, “I know I upset you with the reference I made to evolution. You have been listening to my teaching for many years. I hope you know by now that this church and I hold a high view of Scripture as the final source of truth and authority.”
“Well, I thought I did, but now I am not so sure,” answered this woman, who has been trying to get Ken Ham to present in our church for some years.
“You know I would never do anything to lessen the importance of Scripture.”
“Pastor, when you confess evolution, you not only make a liar out of Scripture, you also become the reason young people are not following God and are living lives without regard to the Bible.”
This woman is not an unintelligent person. She is a professional nurse and a leader in a mission organization. She was just not seeing the difference between choosing a non-literal interpretation of Scripture and denying the authority of Scripture itself. Happily, she is still in the church and may have decided after some reflection that perhaps I’m not trying to lead young people astray.
Because I have been pushing my congregation beyond their comfort levels for 27 years, I cannot count myself as a part of a very large group of pastors who would like to address evolution and are afraid to do so. The congregation I serve is quite used to me drawing attention to controversial topics. But a vast number of congregational leaders know that when they deal with evolution, they are also dealing with job security.
Despite many leaders’ fears and hesitancy, the number of pastors and Christians who have a broad picture of the superintendence of God keeps growing. And as we experience a generational shift, I believe science more and more is being considered both as a path to truth and also a call to worship. I believe that Scripture will lead us into an expansive understanding of a Creator whose evidences and attributes can be found in every facet of nature. And I believe that the ongoing study of both Scripture and science—as they relate to both the “finished product” and incremental creation (evolution)—will lead me to a closer relationship with God. And it is through that relationship that I will be a pastor equipped to lead others well, because I will be hearing him in the widest and deepest possible sense.
About the author
If you enjoyed this article, we recommend you check out the following resources:
Trees | Living Symbols of Praise
Kate Boyd | Science and the Messy Middle