Some events change the world; others change our lives. One such event is remembered each year on October 31st. No, not Halloween! Reformation Day!
Reformation Day marks an important date in the life of Martin Luther—the day when he nailed the 95 Theses to the doors of the castle church at Wittenberg, Germany. It is easy to imagine this event as an act of righteous rebellion against a corrupt church. Yet, the truth is stranger than fiction. All Luther wanted to do was to start a debate to clarify the Catholic position on indulgences. It was a debate that never took place.1 But, with its translation out of Latin, the 95 Theses thundered across Europe and the Reformation truly began.
It is strange to think that the European Reformation began in this way. Rather than blasting out of the blocks, the race to reform the church began with a faltering stumble. If the 95 Theses had never been translated into German, the Reformation may never have begun. Yet, what is true of the Reformation is so often true of life in general. Life is full of “Wittenberg moments,” events which seem insignificant at the time but later loom large in our own personal histories.
Recently, I’ve been reflecting on a series of such Wittenberg moments from my own life, a collection of tiny events which led me to reform my views on evolution. As someone passionate about Reformed theology, this has not been a casual choice or an easy process. So, to understand why I’ve made this decision, we need to start at the beginning of my Christian story.
Seventeen, Christian, Young Earth Creationist
At seventeen, my conversion happened in a small British independent evangelical church. It was here that I discovered Young Earth Creationism (YEC) for the first time. Shortly after, I attended my first Answers in Genesis (AiG) conference in London. As a teenager and a new Christian, AiG’s passion for God’s word and the urgency of the problem at hand captivated me. The literal, historical reading of Genesis 1-11 was presented as the foundation of the gospel—a foundation that a supposedly dangerous pseudoscience called evolution was eroding away. I left the conference with a copy of Ken Ham’s Evolution: The Lie and devoured it in the weeks that followed. By the time I finished reading, I’d concluded that YEC was a hill the church needed to fight to retain. And I was ready to fight. YEC had become a theological empire on my map of beliefs.
However, there was a problem. As far as YEC apologists went, I was terrible. My attitude towards those who disagreed with me stank. I was arrogant and self-assured. Neither was I afraid to use mockery and sarcasm to win an argument. As a result, I often found myself in blazing rows about evolution with non-Christian friends. This remained the case when, at nineteen, I began undergraduate studies in theology.
This desire to ‘go back to the Bible’ lies at the beating heart of Sola Scriptura. Reformers across the spectrum often had differences of opinion when interpreting Scripture. But one thing they all agreed on was the authority of Scripture.
At seminary, I experienced three life-changing events which had a profound impact on my life and faith. First, I became a convinced Calvinist early on in my studies whilst drinking deep from the wells of Reformed Theology. I pored over not only books by the Reformers and those who came after them, but also the creeds and confessions. Second, the Holy Spirit convicted me of my arrogance and pride. It was an extremely humbling experience, but it did put an end to the blazing rows… for the most part! Third, I met the woman who would later become my wife. She could have studied astrophysics or medicine at top British universities, but instead, she chose theology. And I am so glad she did! To this day my wife remains the most intelligent person I know. Little did I know the impact these three events would have in my journey.
On completion of my theology studies, I was still a YEC. Yet, my views about creation were now held in a more balanced perspective, thanks, in part, to the Christ-centeredness of Reformed Theology. But, in the years that followed my commitment to YEC would face one test after another, until it was finally crushed under an avalanche of evidence.
Wrestling with the evidence
It all began with an innocuous brown box arriving in the mail. It’s amusing to think that as the courier handed me the box, he had no idea what I had ordered online only a few days earlier. The box he was holding contained a bright green Giant Asian Praying Mantis. Looking at it I was immediately fascinated by its behaviour and anatomy. It was love at first sight (!) and I immersed myself in amateur entomology. I began to read books by renowned arthropod biologists like George McGavin and Rainer Foelix, through whom I encountered “the other side” of the evolution argument, presented with striking honesty and humility. I learned about terms like homologous features, adaptation, and speciation.
What’s more, I began to see this evidence played out every day. The evidence was before my eyes every time I examined a live specimen, received one in the mail, or observed them in the wild.2
As I ventured further into the world of entomology, one thing continued to play on my mind. I believed that God created life to inhabit a world without death. Yet, predatory insects and arachnids appeared created to excel at causing death. What’s more, YEC explanations for this evidence started to sound like special pleading. The evidence for evolution was mounting and my YEC beliefs were struggling to keep up. The theological cracks were beginning to show.
Around this time my wife began to help me understand physics, a subject which had always eluded me throughout my education. She suggested I start by “reading something simple,” which made sense to me. So, on her recommendation, I began reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time! Again, the science hooked me and we spent many an evening talking through the contents of the book. She was an exemplary teacher. Through those discussions, I began to grasp physics for the first time. Ideas around general relativity and light speed were starting to make sense. Again, I found Hawking’s conclusion about the origins of the universe unsettling. Harder still, I found that YEC counterarguments were not as convincing as I had remembered them to be. The ideas that had gripped me with such force when I was seventeen, were now starting to sound… silly.
One final challenge still awaited my YEC beliefs: the Literary Framework approach to the interpretation of Genesis 1. In a nutshell, it states that the creation accounts are not primary history, but theology. That theology reveals God as the Covenant King and the world as his temple. Humanity’s role in the world-temple is to reflect his glory and presence, to be his images in his temple.3 I recognised that this reading of Genesis 1 did not exclude a YEC position. But it did not present Genesis as an open and shut case against evolution and millions of years either. In fact, I got the impression that the Literary Framework approach did not need YEC at all. Ultimately, it broke the hold YEC had on me as the only faithful approach to reading Genesis 1. And in doing so, it opened the door to other biblical approaches to origins. Even then, it would still be over a year before I’d do anything about stepping through that door myself.
By this point, my mind felt like a pinball machine as my thoughts bounced between YEC, evolutionary science, and new ways of understanding the Bible’s teaching about origins. It was exhausting! Finally, the mental energy of holding these three areas in tension became too much. I had to do something. But what? In June 2019, I posted a thread on a Bible study forum. I asked for non-YEC books on creation and science by Reformed or evangelical authors. To my surprise, the suggestions came flooding in. Of the many, many suggestions, I settled on two. The first was How I Changed My Mind About Evolution, a collection of testimonies edited by Kathryn Applegate and Jim Stump of BioLogos. The second was John Walton’s The Lost World of Adam and Eve, a book examining what Genesis has to say about human origins.
In How I Changed My Mind About Evolution, I found story after story of men and women like me who had wrestled with the evidence in Scripture and science. Yet, they had gone one step further: they’d integrated evolution with their belief that the Bible was the word of God. I was particularly affected by Dr. Tremper Longman‘s entry. I’ve drawn great insights from Longman’s Old Testament commentaries over the years, so to read how he finds room for evolution in his understanding of Genesis made me pause. Not only did he see Evolutionary Creationism as a biblical option, but it was also his own personal position too! This was a great encouragement. How I Changed My Mind About Evolution showed me that I could be faithful to both the Bible and evolution. It was a beacon of hope in my own interpretive journey.
Walton’s The Lost World of Adam and Eve was a different kettle of fish. If the first book was a balm that soothed my conflicted mind, Walton’s book was a tornado in the trailer park of my thinking! Here I encountered similar ideas to the Literary Framework approach, only Professor Walton tackled the questions of human origins head-on. He showed me that Genesis did not teach the history of humanity’s material origins. To use his own words, John Walton helped me that the Genesis creation account was not a “house story” but a “home story.”4 In other words, Genesis was not giving a blow by blow account of how God actually created all things (how God built the house). Instead, it was a home story. It was an account of God arranging the objects in his sacred living space. In Genesis 1-2 God was bringing order, assigning roles, and making the earth a place fit for him and his image-bearers. I was struck by Walton’s careful exegesis, methodical arguments, and use of Ancient Near-Eastern literature. I’d spent my entire Christian life believing I was reading Genesis 1-3 on its own terms. However, by the time I’d finished both books, all that had changed.
In the wake of these books, Summer 2019 was hard going. I asked hard questions about what I believed about science, the world, and the Bible. I prayed for wisdom, battled doubts, and struggled with painful internal conflict. On one occasion, I asked myself what I would do if, to remain a Christian, I had to choose between YEC and my growing commitment to evolution. I then experienced a deep discomfort when I didn’t have an immediate answer. I spent a lot of time browsing the Common Questions section of the BioLogos website and found resources that helped me integrate science and Scripture. Best of all, BioLogos showed me a way to do this that did not do violence to either of them. It wasn’t easy, but as I tell my sons, nothing worth doing ever is.
It has been a long journey, but in every way, worthwhile. I am now comfortably at home as an Evolutionary Creationist. That means that I am convinced that the universe is billions of years old. It also means that I’m convinced that evolution is the tool God used to develop life on earth over millions of years. Including human life. I’m not claiming to be an expert in these things. I’m never going to be an expert Hebrew scholar, astrophysicist, or world-class biologist. Yet given the evidence, I do believe that Scripture leaves room for the contemporary science of human origins.
Reformed and an Evolutionary Creationist?
For those who are familiar with Reformed Theology, this might come as a surprise. Many might even think that a Reformed Evolutionary Creationist is an oxymoron. After all, John Calvin in his commentary on Genesis speaks of God creating all things in six literal days.5 And, following Calvin’s lead, the Westminster Confession of Faith states that: “It pleased God… In the beginning, to create, or make of nothing, the world, and all things therein whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days”.6
What are we to make of this? Some might think that Reformed Theology has no room for an old Earth. Many more might see no place for evolution in the Reformed Tradition. For the Reformed who accept evolution, the problem is no simpler. What are we to do with historic theologians and confessions that say otherwise? Much of this I am still attempting to work through. However, part of the answer seems to lie in a proper understanding of what the Reformers meant by Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone).7
In Why the Reformation Still Matters, Tim Chester and Mike Reeves observe that:
“We often go forward by going back. And this is what happened at the Reformation. The Reformers were not trying to forge something new. They were not setting out to change the world. All they wanted to do was go back to the Bible.”8
This desire to ‘go back to the Bible’ lies at the beating heart of Sola Scriptura. Reformers across the spectrum often had differences of opinion when interpreting Scripture. But one thing they all agreed on was the authority of Scripture. For the Reformers, the scriptures had the last word on Christian belief, as opposed to tradition or opinion. As Alister McGrath observed, “If the Reformers dethroned the pope, they enthroned Scripture.”9
When I first began exploring Reformed Theology, I missed this ‘scriptural enthronement’ and so made a fatal mistake. I thought being Reformed meant believing everything the Reformers believed, and it took me some time to see that this was not the case. Sola Scriptura means that the Bible has the final word on the teaching of the Reformers too: the Reformers’ teachings (or the historic confessions) are only binding on a believer when they align with the teachings of the Bible (2 Timothy 3:15-16; Hebrews 4:12-13; Galatians 1:8-10; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5).
The Reformers: Brilliant but Fallible
Examining the Reformers from the vantage point of Sola Scriptura enabled two things for me. First, it brought a deeper appreciation of these theologians’ brilliance. They sought to faithfully extrapolate biblical teaching in everything they wrote. Second, it allowed openness and honesty about their mistakes and limitations. That the Reformers were fallible needs no argument. Romans 3:23 applied as much to Calvin and Luther as it does anyone one else. Yet history also bears witness to this fact. Anyone looking for examples does not need to look very far. One example is the egregious attitude of Luther (and Calvin) towards Jews of their day.10 Another is Calvin’s disquieting approval of Spanish theologian and scientist Michael Servetus’ execution for denying the Trinity. Granted, these men were operating in the historical context of their day, but that doesn’t absolve them of all responsibility either!
Despite their brilliance, the Reformers’ fallibility extends to their reading of Scripture too. The clearest example is their reaction to the Copernican view of the solar system. Copernicus taught that the Earth orbits the Sun, a view called heliocentrism. Yet both Luther and Calvin rejected heliocentrism. Instead, they argued from Scripture that the Sun orbits the Earth, a view called geocentrism. They were wrong. Wrong about geocentrism and wrong about biblical evidence for it. This is a helpful reminder that even theological giants have feet of clay. It is also a reminder that while Scripture is without error, interpretations of Scripture are not. Sola Scriptura, then, is a call not only to hold the Bible in highest authority, but to test every interpretation by God’s word, holding on to only what is true, good, and beautiful. (2 Thessalonians 5:20-21; Philippians 4:8-9).
The Reformers: Brilliant but Historically Limited
Sola Scriptura also leads to honesty about the limitations of the Reformers. It goes without saying that every Reformed believer owes the Reformers a debt of thanks. In that sense, we are all “standing on the shoulders of giants,” to borrow a phrase of Issac Newton. And yet, the Reformers were a product of their time and so were their teachings. This is important when considering human origins and the age of the universe. Calvin, Luther, and the other Reformers all worked with the scientific knowledge of the 16th century. We do not. This is not to say that because we know more, we are more intelligent. C.S. Lewis called this approach to the past “chronological snobbery.” Rather, it is to say that our having access to more information than the Reformers is an objective and demonstrable reality. The Reformers had no knowledge of DNA, redshift, or Big Bang cosmology. They had no access to the fossil record, radioactive dating, or Ancient Near Eastern literature. Yet all these things need careful consideration when engaging with Genesis 1-3 and human origins. No doubt Calvin would have engaged with the Enuma Elish or Relativity if he had access to these things. But he did not, and could not, and so we will never know what he and other Reformers might have made of this information. Not this side of glory, at least.
As more time passes, the confessions and the Reformers can only guide us so far in exploring questions about evolution. There comes a point when believers must pray hard and think hard for themselves. They must examine new evidence in light of God’s word but also their interpretation of God’s word in light of the new evidence. What if they then conclude that the Bible has room for different readings of the creation accounts, readings that even accommodate evolution? Well, then, no Reformer or confession has authority to close that door without first proving beyond any doubt that Scripture says otherwise.
Reformed theology and evolution: Finding a way forward
At this point, I think it is important to make a caveat and clarification. I recognise that some will be concerned that this kind of talk might result in a slippery slope. If we can appeal to Sola Scriptura to defend evolution, how long before we revise all Reformed Theology carte blanche? That is not what is being suggested here. For any Young Earth Creationist to make peace with evolution is an uncomfortable and difficult process. It is not a casual decision but one that requires much prayer and great care. This is especially true of those who subscribe to historic Reformed beliefs.
For most, the steps that lead to reforming one’s view of creation and evolution will be personal, a string of “Wittenberg moments” that lead them to look at the evidence with fresh eyes. Many will find encouragement as they see themselves in the stories of others. Others will respond with frustration or fear, believing that a core belief of Christianity is under threat. They might think that God’s word is being substituted for man’s wisdom. Still, others will respond with confusion. Confusion over what to believe about the Bible and evolution or confusion over what to make of all the fuss evolution has caused in the church.
How then might the Reformed community move forward when discussing evolution? First, let’s avoid binding a believer’s conscience to any one approach to creation. It does no good to argue for YEC by a simple appeal to Luther, Calvin, and the Westminster Confession, especially when many Reformed theologians have held to differing positions.11 Second, let’s work toward replacing heated exchanges with calmer dialogues in our churches and online. Finally, let’s remember that the Westminster Confession provides helpful guidance when navigating contested issues. It states that Scripture is crystal clear on what we need for salvation and godliness,12 but not equally clear on all things.13
Speaking personally, October 31 serves as a yearly reminder that the Reformation was not about recovering a particular take on creation. It was about the gospel. And in the final analysis, it is the essentials of the gospel, not our opinions of evolution, that unite us in Christ. Perhaps, 17th-century Lutheran Rupertus Meldenius put it best, “In essentials, unity; in opinions, liberty; in all things, love”. Today, may this be the prayer for all our churches.
Notes & References
1. Martin Luther. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. (W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, Eds.) (Third Edition). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012. 8 & n1
2. To date I’ve kept ants, beetles, giant cockroaches, Amblypygids, millipedes, water beetles, and various native spiders. My favorite has been raising a dragonfly from nymph to adult in a fish tank.
3. For a concise summary of the Literary Framework Approach see chapters two and three in Richard Lints. Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion. (D. A. Carson, Ed.) (New Studies in Biblical Theology, Vol. 36). England; Downers Grove, IL: Apollos; InterVarsity Press. 2012
4. J. H. Walton. The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2–3 and the Human Origins Debate. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press. 2015. 49-53
5. John Calvin. Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis. (J. Pringle, ed). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. 2010. 78
6. The Westminster Confession of Faith. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc. 1996. Section 4.1 (emphasis added)
7. ‘Sola Scriptura’ is one of the five ‘sola’ or ‘alone’ statements that sum up Protestant thought. The five solas, as they are called, are grace alone; faith alone; Christ alone; Scripture alone; and the glory of God alone.
8. Michael Reeves & Tim Chester. Why the Reformation Still Matters. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. 2016. 42
9. Alister McGrath. Reformation Thought: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell. 1988. 95.
10. Martin Luther’s views on the Jewish people of his day are well documented. For an overview see Sections 1 & 2 in the Wikipedia article: Martin Luther and Antisemitism. For a primary source see Martin Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies. 1543. Since John Calvin was always careful to distinguish between Jews of the Bible and those of his day scholars are divided on the extentent of Calvin’s antisemitism. Even so, many will be surprised by the comments made by Calvin. For example, in his commentary on Daniel, Calvin includes a description of his own interactions with Jewish contemporaries in his polemic against Rabbi Barbinel (1437-1508). Calvin writes, “I have had much conversation with many Jews: I have never seen either a drop of piety or a grain of truth or ingenuousness—nay, I have never found common sense in any Jew.” John Calvin. Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Daniel (T. Myers, ed). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. 2010, 185.
11. Charles Hodge, J. Gresham Machen, E. J.Young, Francis Schaffer and James Montgomery Boyce held to an Old Earth, Day-Age reading of Genesis 1. More recently, John Stott, Derek Kidner, Tremper Longman III, J I Packer, and Timothy Keller all either hold to a form of Evolutionary Creationism or are sympathetic to the view.
12. “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men.” The Westminster Confession of Faith. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc. 1996. Section 1.6
13. “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: (2 Peter 3:16) yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” The Westminster Confession of Faith. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc. 1996. Section 1.7