Theological Traditions and the Dialogue with Evolution

| By Pete Enns

The dialogue between Christianity and evolution evokes a wide range of responses from people who otherwise have a lot in common: evangelical protestants. Self-identified evangelicals hold to things like the inspiration of Scripture and various core doctrines (e.g., Trinity, incarnation, atonement, resurrection). Nevertheless, with all this in common, evangelicals often have widely different opinions on how evolution and Christianity can be in conversation—indeed, whether that conversation can happen at all. This prompts a question:

Why do differences of opinion on the Christianity/evolution discussion exist at all among reasonably like-minded Christians?

There are many angles one could take to look at this question, and let me say right upfront that I don’t think there is one simple answer. Why we respond the way we do about anything stems from a complex matrix of issues—some obvious, others hidden—and these issues are difficult to lay out. For example, things like personality traits, the specific group we identify ourselves with (which has its own complex history), where we happen to live in the world, when we happened to be born—each of these issues, and others, plays a role in how any one individual enters the Christianity/evolution discussion.

There is one factor, however, that we can isolate with considerable profit. I want to begin discussing it here, and I am hoping that our broad readership will have a lot to add. The question I have is this:

How do our various theological traditions contribute to or hinder the dialogue between evolution and our Christian faith?

Although there is much that unites our traditions in our common Christian faith, they also have distinctives. Baptists, Anabaptists, Calvinists, Wesleyans, Charismatics, and others differ on how to think about and talk about God, the Bible, the church, baptism, sanctification….the list goes on and on.

All of these traditions are to be respected and honored. I am absolutely not interested in whether any one tradition will win the argument, so to speak, as the “best” tradition for carrying on the conversation—so we should leave that behind right at the outset.

What I am after is whether there are characteristics of our theological traditions that affect how the dialogue with evolution is carried out, and why differences of opinion exist on the evolution question at all. All of these evangelical protestant traditions have, I believe, strengths that allow for a true engagement with the theological challenges of evolution. They also have some obstacles for such engagement.

One strength shared by all of the protestant traditions is that they are protestant—namely, they were born out of a felt need to challenge tradition on the basis of what they felt Scripture, reasonably interpreted, required. It is part of protestant temperament to reform when needed, and this is a great asset for discussing evolution today.

One obstacle of the protestant tradition is that its theological boundaries and trajectories were being developed before the challenge of modern science began to rear its head in earnest. In other words, protestant traditions in general early on, understandably, could not have accounted for the types of challenges that evolution would introduce in the nineteenth century.

When the challenge of evolution arose, it prompted both conversation and conflict among the various protestant traditions, which was influenced by many factors (such as that tradition’s own history, populist reactions and concerns, etc.) An absolutely central factor, however, has been the protestant emphasis on biblical authority and what that means in view of the various challenges that Christians faced, particularly in the nineteenth century (namely biblical archaeology and biblical criticism, in addition to the scientific challenges).

The protestant Reformation famously declared sola Scriptura, meaning that Scripture alone is the final authority on what must be believed for faith and life. Evolution came on the scene much later and challenged biblical views of human and cosmic origins—and in fact in the minds of many made evolution impossible to maintain. At least on the populist level, if not also on the theoretical/academic level, a common protestant response has been that evolution posed a fundamental threat to the foundational notion of sola Scriptura.

Here is one way to express the protestant tension:

To what extent is the protestant reformational spirit and commitment to sola Scriptura going to be in tension over the hermeneutical and doctrinal challenges raised by evolution?

For evangelical protestants to make peace with evolution, this tension will have to be worked out. And in my opinion, the central question of the protestant dialogue with evolution—on both the theoretical/academic and popular levels—is the role that Scripture is seen to play in setting parameters for that dialogue. And, as I said, I see in all the protestant traditions important lessons worth learning and assimilating as we move the dialogue forward.

One important caveat at this point. It is important to realize that many Christians outside of recognized evangelical contexts agree with evangelicals on many core theological commitments, and have much wisdom for us in working through the dialogue with evolution. I am limiting my comments to evangelical protestants because that audience is BioLogos’s central audience. I do not, however, want our Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopalian, or Lutheran brothers and sisters to feel as if they have no role in this discussion. Quite to the contrary, their wisdom and input are invaluable.

I will begin in my next post by looking at the Calvinist tradition. I begin there because I feel it is has the broadest impact on how evangelical protestants have viewed the role the Bible should play in making theological decisions.


About the Author

Pete Enns

Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.


Comments are currently not showing correctly. We are working to address the issue. In the meantime, you can access all comment and discussion boards by clicking the link below: