Not too long ago a pastor friend called asking for help. “I’m preaching through Genesis 1-11,” he said, “and I need some advice on the whole creation and evolution thing.” I could hear anxiety in his voice. He wanted to preach these foundational passages of Scripture but knew they were full of landmines. He wasn’t sure how wading into the issue of origins might go—whether he would even survive! Understandably so, since there is hardly a more controversial subject among evangelical Christians.
I resonated with my friend’s concerns. Several years earlier a rumor circulated within my congregation along the following lines—“Pastor Todd thinks we came from apes!” My congregation was, historically speaking, on the “conservative” side of many theological issues, this one included. In its not-too-distant past the church had embraced Six Day Young Earth Creationism as its (unofficial) teaching position. Needless to say, when they came to terms with the fact that their relatively new and fairly young Senior Pastor held to a version of evolutionary creation, there was a bit of congregational heartburn.
The upshot, though, was that it provided good occasion for the leadership of our church to engage in a serious conversation about origin issues. As part of this process, I did my best to articulate my own views. But more importantly, we as a leadership wrestled with the question of what degree of diversity will we allow on the questions of origins—and in light of the diversity we allow, what affirmations can still unite us as a church?
The result of these conversations was the development of a series of ten theses or affirmations on creation and evolution. Our goal was to formulate something that both recognized and affirmed the fact that well-informed and biblically faithful Christians within our church hold differing views on creation and evolution. This was our attempt to maintain the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3) and prioritize the gospel of Jesus Christ as of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). And so we offered these ten theses or affirmations on creation and evolution as our effort to live that faithful Christian saying: in essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.
In this essay I share with you three of our Ten Theses on creation and evolution—or what we call Mere Creation. Not what Young Earth Creationists believe, or Old Earth Creationists believe, or advocates of Intelligent Design, or Evolutionary Creationists or Theistic Evolutionists believe—but what most (evangelical) Christians, at most times, have believed and should believe about creation.
1. The Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God, inspired and authoritative. Therefore whatever Scripture teaches is to be believed as God’s instruction, without denying that the human authors of Scripture communicate using the cultural conventions of their time.
This thesis offers a fairly straightforward (albeit condensed) affirmation of the doctrine of Scripture. This would resonate, in the main, with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which still serves as a touchstone of evangelical thinking on Scripture.
When discussing origins issues, I have found it helpful to affirm, at the start, a robust commitment to the inspiration and authority of the Bible. This is especially important for those who are sympathetic to some form of evolutionary creation because they are often viewed as pushing the margins of biblical orthodoxy.
I’ve also found that Christians who reject an evolutionary account of origins often do so not because they find the science unconvincing but because they believe it undermines the authority of the Bible. The fear is that embracing an evolutionary account of origins leads to a compromise of biblical authority. That is why it is helpful to begin these kinds of conversations with a robust affirmation of the inspiration and authority of the Bible, so that everyone is on the same page when it comes to Scripture.
The thrust of this thesis is that whatever the Bible teaches, God teaches. It’s not a viable option for those committed to the authority of Scripture to say, “I know the Bible teaches this, but I don’t believe it.” Or, “I know that’s what God’s word says, but I’m not buying it.” These aren’t viable options, at least not for self-identifying Evangelicals.
In saying this, however, we want to avoid implying that God somehow did an end-run around the human authors of Scripture; nor do we want to imply that a robust view of Scripture leaves no room for the human authors to communicate divine truths through the cultural conventions of their time.
The Bible is indeed a God-breathed book (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16). Yet a commitment to biblical inspiration should not negate our sensitivity to the human dimension of Scripture. A robust evangelical doctrine of Scripture allows for both divine and human elements. Yes, human authors were “carried along by the Holy Spirit,” but it was they—in all of their historical particularity and cultural conditioning—who in fact “spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21).
Thus, when we read the Bible, not least the creation accounts in Genesis 1-2, we are in pursuit of the author’s intent—perhaps not exclusively, but at least fundamentally. We want to know what this particular author intended to communicate at that particular time with these particular cultural conventions.
2. Christians should be well-grounded in the Bible’s teaching on creation but always hold their views with humility, respecting the convictions of others and not aggressively advocating for positions on which Evangelicals disagree.
Christians have both an obligation and opportunity to be well-grounded in the Bible’s teaching on creation. The vision of “mere creation” advocated for in this essay shouldn’t cause anyone to downshift in their pursuit of fuller biblical and theological understanding. Unity in the faith doesn’t need to slouch toward the lowest common denominator.
Christians should know what they believe about the doctrine of creation. They should also have some sensitivity to the issues of contemporary science. This doesn’t require graduate work in embryology or a mastery of quantum mechanics. But Christians should aspire to know something of the state of the discussion and what Christians are currently wrestling with at the interface of science and faith.
But as Christians grow in the depth of their understanding of these important issues, they should mature in their ability to live together with those who hold opposing views. It is a sign of Christian maturity to be able to live with these sorts of tensions; it is a sign of childhood or adolescence to be agitated by a less than black-and-white world.
Central to this is the cultivation of the Christian virtue of humility. Sometimes we will talk about “needing humility,” as though we can turn humility on like it's a light switch. If only it were that easy! The truth is that humility is a virtue that is only cultivated over time and with great patience and intentionality. It is also only cultivated in community, with the help and encouragement of others. This is why the apostle Paul invites Christians to work hard “to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).
In practice, humility and a desire to preserve ecclesial unity means respectfully listening to the views and opinions of others. It also means not agitating for change or grandstanding with one’s own views. You may be on the side of the angels, but that doesn’t give you the right—nor would it be most helpful to the body of Christ—to prove to everyone that you are in the right. On a complex, sensitive, and contentious issue like Origins, it is best for Evangelicals of goodwill to not strongly advocate (i.e., agitate) for positions on which Evangelicals have historically disagreed.
3. Everything in creation finds its source, goal and meaning in Jesus Christ, in whom the whole of creation will one day achieve eschatological redemption and renewal. All things will be united in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
Creation ultimately exists for Christ. He is its source, its goal, its meaning. Scripture describes Jesus with these soaring words, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15–20).
Sometimes appeal to Jesus as the “answer” can be shallow, like a trite Sunday school answer that stops conversation without actually providing answers. That’s not what this final thesis is about.
Instead, as Mark Noll has argued, the person of Christ provides motives for serious learning, not least in the sciences. There is a Christological basis for our engagement with the doctrine of creation and the natural world. Those who confess Jesus Christ as God incarnate have the theological resources needed for a Christ-centered approach to learning.
But more than that, we likewise confess that Christ is the telos of this creation. Not only its meaning but its goal—its redeemer and the source of creation’s climactic resolution. Or as Scripture so pointedly says, God’s plan has been set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time—“to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10).