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Ted Davis
 on January 17, 2013

Assessing the Evangelical Encounter with Evolution

Evangelicals exhibit considerable tension and ambivalence when it comes to science, especially human evolution.

Part 6 of 7 in Science and the Bible

Ernest James Pace, “Leaking Badly and Headed for the Earth,” Sunday School Times, June 3, 1922, p. 334.

For more than a century, evangelicals and fundamentalists have typically rejected both evolution and higher biblical criticism. Sometimes there are good reasons: the claims of some biblical scholars are so outrageous and the claims of some scientists so anti-religious, that a strongly negative response is entirely appropriate. Too often, however, the evangelical encounter with modern science conforms to what historian Mark Noll has called “the scandal of the evangelical mind”—namely, “that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Attitudes toward science have been crucial to this analysis. As Noll says, “since 1960 creationism has done more than any other issue except abortion to inflame the cultural warfare in American public life.” (p. 192)

Readers who want to know more about Noll’s book and its reception should go here and here. His conclusions about evangelicals and science are fully consistent with those I am about to present.

Evangelicals in Tension with Science

Evangelicals exhibit considerable tension and ambivalence when it comes to science, especially human evolution. On the one hand, evangelicals enthusiastically embrace the findings of science, when it comes to most applications in medicine and engineering. They also accept the experimental sciences, such as physics, chemistry, physiology, or thermodynamics. They have no problems with gravitation, the periodic table, the circulation of the blood, or the law of entropy. Here, their attitude is highly empirical: if it can be shown from repeatable experiments and observations, it’s true and presents no challenge whatsoever to religious belief.

On the other hand, evangelicals are quite hesitant to accept some conclusions of the so-called historical sciences, such as geology, cosmology, and evolutionary biology. Fundamentalists reject the very legitimacy of those sciences, and have created their own alternative explanation, “creation science,” which comports with their particular views of biblical authority and hermeneutics. Evangelicals are more ambivalent. As we’ve seen, many evangelicals accept the big bang and modern geology, with a 4.65 billion-year-old earth and the enormously long history of living things before humans arrived on the planet. But evolution–understood here to mean the common descent of humans and other organisms–presents very serious problems for many, perhaps most, evangelicals. This motivates them to look for alternative views.

The alternatives evangelicals embrace are precisely those we have studied in this series. Some eagerly support the YEC view. Others prefer one of the many varieties of the OEC view. Many like the strident tone of the ID movement, with its vigorous assault on biological and cultural “Darwinism” and its near-universal rejection of human evolution. For most evangelicals, however, TE is probably not a viable option at present, for biblical and theological reasons.

Reconciling Evolution with Scripture

Most evangelicals do not see any reasonable way to combine human evolution with the following beliefs:

  • the uniqueness of humans, who alone bear the “image of God”
  • the fall of Adam and Eve, the original parents of all humans, from a sinless state, by their own free choices to disobey God
  • the responsibility of each person for their own actions and beliefs, within a universe that is not fully deterministic
  • the redemption of individual persons by the atoning sacrifice of Christ.

Evangelicals cannot and must not be separated from these crucial beliefs about human dignity, freedom, responsibility, sin, and redemption. The 64-dollar question is: can these beliefs be maintained without simultaneously affirming the necessity of an historical, separately created first human pair? The answer is probably in the hands of evangelical academics, especially theologians and biblical scholars. Can they be persuaded that the scientific evidence for evolution is sufficiently strong to warrant a re-examination of the traditional view? Can a credible gospel and credible science be harmonized?

There exists an enormous gap between popular conceptions of science–conclusions, methods, and attitudes–and those of scientists themselves. This gap is not unique to science among practitioners of specialized knowledge, and it is not unique to evangelicals among the lay public. But it is real and very significant, and it affects theologians and biblical scholars no less than anyone else. Those who try to bridge this gap are mostly scientists (in their role as educators at colleges and universities and insofar as they write books for lay readers) and science journalists. Many influential members of those professional communities are skeptical or even strongly hostile toward Christian beliefs, and this can exacerbate an already difficult state of affairs. If ways can be found to popularize good science, while showing appropriate sensitivity to the concerns of evangelicals, it would be a very good thing.

Signs of Hope

Certainly there are reasons to hope. The conversation about science and religion is considerably broader now than it was at the time of the Scopes trial in 1925. Back then, many Protestants faced a very grim choice. On the one hand, they could follow politician William Jennings Bryan and the fundamentalists, rejecting modern science in the name of biblical authority and orthodox beliefs. On the other hand, they could follow theologian Shailer Mathews and the modernists, rejecting biblical authority and orthodox beliefs in the name of modern science. There was no one out there like John Polkinghorne, Francis Collins, Joan Centrella, Owen Gingerich, Simon Conway Morris, William Phillips, or Ian Hutchinson—to name just a few of the many top scientists today who accept evolution while affirming the divinity of Jesus, the bodily resurrection, and the actual divine creation of the universe. But they are all scientists, not theologians (except for Polkinghorne, who is both). In Galileo’s day, it was the scientists who eventually convinced the theologians and biblical scholars to accept Copernicus’ theory of the earth’s motion around the sun. But, it took a long time, and the process was difficult and often painful. Thus far, the biblical scholars and theologians who have tried to move the conversation forward have not been very well received, as Richard Ostling has so capably reported. I suspect we are in for more of the same.

About the author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.