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Sunday, 2 March 2008

Would your Church allow you to Publicly Support Evolution?

Last September I commented on biologist Richard Colling’s plight at ONU instigated by his public support for biological evolution. I suspect this type of story will become more prevalent in the next several years since although Evangelical biologists largely support evolution, it is still very rare for Evangelical church or ministry leaders to publicly pronounce their acceptance of the scientific theory. These scientists represent the vanguard in attempting to persuade the broader Evangelical church that peace with evolution is possible and preferable, but, as in most theaters of war, being a peacemaker can be a very dangerous assignment.

Visiting a Baptist Monk

I really enjoy Michael Spencer’s Internet Monk blog. His “dispatches from the Post-Evangelical Wilderness” are always direct, engaging, thought provoking, and spiritually challenging. I have said in the past that I prefer to keep the moniker Evangelical rather than abandon it for “Post-Evangelical” as Spencer does. However, after reading his blog for a while, I believe his vision and hope for the Post-Evangelical church appears similar to my own for the Evangelical church, so maybe our disagreement is simply semantic.

Spencer certainly does not fit the stereotypical image of a Southern Baptist Bible teacher. I highly doubt his views on inerrancy are supported by many SBC members, and it seems to get him into trouble occasionally. And although even moderate SBC churches like Saddleback officially support Young Earth Creationism, Spencer emphatically states that he does not. He defends a high view of scripture, but also understands what the Bible is, and what it is not. He comments that:

Ever since I read Conrad Hyers’ The Meaning of Creation and realized that the Bible wasn’t a science book and its inspiration wasn’t involved in the views of science in ancient cultures, I’ve not lost much sleep over the relationship of religion and science.
An SBC Minister on Evolution: No Comment?

Although Spencer is comfortable with an old earth, it appears he does not take a strong public position on evolution (either for or against). Undoubtedly, one reason for this is that the science / faith dialogue is not a priority for him. However, it is unlikely that he will ever publicly support evolution – at least if he wants to continue with his current employment. In a post about Tim Keller’s support of Theistic Evolution (TE), Spencer comments on how significant Keller’s support of TE would be within the Evangelical community. (Note: the post was eventually pulled because of ambiguity over whether Keller actually supports TE). Spencer then asks some great questions (primarily to Christian leaders like himself):
For those of you who are theistic evolutionists (or might possibly be if you knew what you believed), could you openly announce your belief in theistic evolution in your setting? Especially in your church? your sermon? your college or seminary class (as student or teacher)? your ordination council? your session or church board? your ministry employment?
He then provides, with typical directness, what would happen if one day he announced his belief in TE:
I’d be fired from my job as Bible teacher, chapel preacher and campus minister. Immediately.
Not really good incentive to investigate evolution further – particularly since it is clearly not a central issue to his ministry. Frankly, I don’t blame him for not pursuing this matter any further.

A PCA Minister on Evolution: Risky Comments

The Keller situation that Spencer mentions above is also interesting in this context. In his new book “The Reason for God” Keller does provide qualified support for a Theistic Evolution position (at least asserting that it is within the bounds of orthodoxy). (See: Tim Challies book review here, this article in First Things, and this interview in Newsweek for details). Keller is a very influential pastor in the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), a conservative Presbyterian denomination whose Creation statement (HT: BTF) includes this paragraph on the initial chapters of Genesis:
“In these chapters we find the record of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth* ex nihilo*; of the special creation of Adam and Eve as actual human beings, the parents of all humanity (hence they are not the products of evolution from lower forms of life).”
Now, as Rich Blinne notes, the above report was submitted by a non-binding advisory group within the PCA, and so it cannot necessarily be used to censure Tim Keller. Still it is clear that Keller, with his qualified support of evolution, is offside with the majority within his own denomination and is likely taking some personal risk by doing so.

It is heartening to see Evangelical church leaders like Keller reject the Evangelical / Evolution conflict thesis. We need more leaders with his integrity and stature speaking out. It requires courage and wisdom, courage for reasons obvious to anyone familiar with Evangelical culture, wisdom since speaking out can potentially cause more damage than good. Not every church leader is in a situation where this type of public announcement is possible or advisable.

Evangelical Grass-roots and Evolution

The situation is similar for many grass-roots Evangelicals. Personally, I’m fortunate that our family is involved with an Evangelical Anglican Church (with a heavy emphasis on the Evangelical) in which God’s method of creation is a non-issue – you won’t see us participating in Evolution Sunday but neither will you hear a sermon condemning modern scientific theories of the development of life. So for me there is little personal risk in discussing my views in the church. However, most Evangelicals grappling with the implications of an evolving creation are not so fortunate. I suspect many would lose whatever position they held in their church, maybe even their membership, if they publicly stated their acceptance of evolution. Charges of heresy and abandonment of the gospel would inevitably strain friendships and family relationships. For many, the price would be very high.

What Personal Ramifications?

I’m interested in hearing other personal perspectives on this problem. What would the ramifications be in your church if you stated your support for evolution? Are these ramifications clearly spelled out in your church charter or membership requirements? Or is opposition to evolution an unwritten rule unanimously accepted by all? How would support for evolution impact your relationship with your family or other Christian friends? How would it affect your participation in parachurch Christian ministries or services? Could you continue working in these organizations?

An even more significant question: For those of you that have revealed your acceptance of evolution, was it really worth it? Would you do it again, or would you choose to remain silent if given the choice to start over?


Anonymous said...

At the least, my husband would lose his job, and he's not even the one who believes that evolution is true. And it would cause a fair amount of turmoil in our church.

Anonymous said...

I'm a small group leader and a Sunday school teacher (for children). I have not made any announcements to the church body at large and don't feel it would be appriopiate or helpful in our goal of reaching the community for Christ. But I have been open with my pastor who has explored the issue himself and I suspect actually accepts common descent; but never makes an issue of it. Given that 99% of the church body rejects evolution, I do hear quite a lot of comments about it, and though I never respond I do feel a bit oppressed in the church atmosphere.

I am on a private webforum of Reformed Baptists Pastors scattered across the US and Britain. I came out to them and was severely racked across the coals. It has pretty much destroyed any respect that they might have had for me or any chance of real fellowship between us. To answer your question, no, it wasn't worth it. I now feel like a second class citizen and it caused a bit of emotional stress in my life. But then again, it was also hard to remain silent among their own dismissive and sometimes rude comments about evolution. At least one of them has a very promising future to be very influencital within the evangelical community. He is just now entering a Ph.D. program and it extremely intelligent, well written, and Godly. I have prayed, and even formally requested that he look into the issue with the hopes that he would be the theologian who tackled this issue. As many have commented before, all the books and articles written that combine faith and science are almost always written by scientists. We need a powerful voice coming from the theology side. So for this lone reason, I am glad I spoke up; because at some point the leaders need to be challenged on it because it can cause quite a bit of harm for those struggling with the issue to be told flatly that they can not be Christian and accept evolution. For every other reason I wish I had remained silent.

As for my personal family, my wife finally knows (I was not completely honest with her for a long time, keeping her 3 or 4 months behind in my journey of what I actually thought). My three sisters know, since they are fairly liberal, no longer refer to themselves as evangelical, and I felt free to tell them. I have not told my two conservative brothers, nor my parents.

Steve Martin said...

Vera: That is an interesting point. A lot of times the ramifications are significant for our families as well (eg. spouses, children) even if they aren’t directly involved. That is probably an even more difficult situation.

Pete: Thanks for your story. On your comment:

I have not made any announcements to the church body at large and don't feel it would be appropriate or helpful in our goal of reaching the community for Christ.

Amen. We need to keep our priorities straight. On the other hand, at some point the personal impact (eg. your feeling oppressed) has got to take its toll. At what point is it enough? When do you seek fellowship with others? Another post for another time – or maybe not – not sure I have any good answers on that one.

As to not telling your parents, I’m in the same situation. Mine support CMI. So, although my understanding on evolution doesn’t impact me in my local church, it could with my family (and with certain friends).

Anonymous said...

No evangelical should in any way support evolution! Evolution and Creationism are antitheses. They are in direct conflict with each other. Either God created or He didn’t. He is omniscient and omnipotent and did not need the crutch of evolution to help Him. When He created the earth, as stated in the Bible, it was formless and void. It was void of all life and covered with water. He separated the waters from the land to provide His creations a foundation upon which man and all life, plant and animal could dwell, propagate and prosper.
Of utmost significance is that if evolution was involved, He, the Lord Jesus Christ, Himself, in His humanity, would also be a product of it. His ancestry would, like everyone else, have evolved from a pool of slime on up through the apes. I do not worship a God who once was a monkey!!

Buzzbait said...

I don't grasp the concept of speaking your mind at a church. If the evidence is overwhelming that evolution has changed living things to adapt to their surroundings than why disprove it. I feel that someone who is too ashamed to prove what seems to be real is simply brainwashed. We would be stuck in the stone age if everyone thought like right??? We would never be able to advance ourselves because of the fear of disproving some wisetale that was pounded in our heads by a nut job who thinks he posseses the word of god. Don't get me wrong I strongly encourage a faith in ones life but when faith becomes so strong and blinding that everyday people are not able to think for themselves about why we exist, that is a bit scary. Remember it is not in the best interest for the church to promote free thinking and persuit of reasoning because it doesn't agree with the passed religious belief. It is also a big business and if you have people think for themselves then perhaps they won't want to come back. One more thing, imagine if this applied to the court room. If your family was tragically murdered and there was scientific evidence that would link the murderer to the crime would you make every effort to believe it? Would you believe someone elses story which might be true but also seems fiction? I personally would go for the scientific evidence. I hear people say that they can't speak their mind because of fear of being second class citizens. Nice people you associate with, I have a great group of free thinking friends that love me the way I am and I love them for who they are, even if we disagree, at least we shared ideas and learned something. I would suggest getting away from any association that doesn't care for your piece of mind. And one more thing keep you religion to your self, stop trying to alter my comfortable life with your creepy rules and labeling of people who might not be brained washed like some of your folks. Good Day.

Cliff Martin said...


As one of two primary leaders of a small fellowship, I came out in support of common descent and biological evolution about 5 months ago. It was very upsetting to the life of our fellowship. Though I have been the primary teacher for about 17 years, I have now not taught formally in these 5 months. I did not dream that such a large number of my brothers and sisters would have a reaction similar to the one anonymous offered two comments up.

(btw, anonymous. Some of us actually view special creationism as the "crutch", and natural evolution as the spectacular, phenomenal work of God! but that's another story.)

Would I do it again? Yes. Honesty and integrity demanded it of me. I suppose I sometimes wish that I could turn back the clock to a time when this issue did not exist for us. But in reality, I do not lament the search for truth.

Through the passage of time, there has been a lot of healing and softening of the two opposing sides. But there has also been an unexpected benefit. Since there is now no one motivated to lead the church in a status quo existence, we are exploring totally new paradigms for church life that are invigorating and exciting. The end of this story may be better than its beginning.

Anonymous said...

I mentioned before I was a small group leader. The group was about 24 strong and I knew there were some that had very strong opinions. One guy in particular, a very mature believer who himself had been a small group leader for 3 years (and has seen become one again) was very adamant for 6 day creation and even believed there were dinosaurs in Africa. I lived in a bit of fear that the subject would come up and my group would fracture, a very alarming thing since our church is a church plant that just started in September (and some of these conversations predate the church launch itself!). Then again, my pastor was in the same group; and he is very good at handling such situations. I probably would have punted to him.

Since then, our Church has been growing so fast that we have multiplied our small groups several times and the membership of my group has completely turned over, except for me and the pastor (and our wives). It doesn't seem as much an issue now though we have one guy who has made a few comments and another who is concerned about his brother since one of his impediments to the gospel is that he is a "scientist".

"On the other hand, at some point the personal impact (eg. your feeling oppressed) has got to take its toll. At what point is it enough? When do you seek fellowship with others? Another post for another time – or maybe not – not sure I have any good answers on that one."

Agreed, the personal impact is draining and sometimes it seems very appealing just to walk away from evangelicalism. I know common descent it true, I can not reverse that; and if Al Mohler, or James White, or "anonymous" on this very website want to declare that orthodoxy and evolution are at odds then I just want to walk away and leave them to themselves. But then again, my very own pastor is accepting of me (and maybe common descent) so to walk away now is sort of weak. Its hard for me because churches that accept evolution tend to be liberal in ways that I am not.

To be honest, you guys, this very web ring of evangelicals who accept common descent is my fellowship right now. With Gordon as a starting point, I have bouncing around all of your sites and it has been very helpful. I don't blog myself, but the "Pete" that shows up in all the comments is the same person and I appreciate the time and energy you guys have put it to exploring these issues. Without you I truly would be alone and might have even given up already.

Buzzbait said...

Cliff and Pete, I truely see you both as a good religious people. I also see the bind that you are in and give you both much respect for standing up for what can only be proven at this point. Thanks for speaking your own mind since clearly "anonymous" is backing up his answer with brain washed material. If we teach our kids this kind of behavior we will all be in trouble. Let our kids learn the world around them without the influence of propiganda that carries no truth.

Gordon J. Glover said...

Most people in my church are not even aware that I had a book published about creation. The pastor got a copy, but he never mentions it. The associate pastor is reading through it and wants to get copies for the Chruch library, but I warned him to finish it first (he's only in part II). I also told him that I wouldn't take it personally if he didn't publically support it.

There are a few families who support what I do and would call themselves closet evolutionists (a few of us are going to see Francis Collins speak next weekend). As time passess, I become less apologetic about my position. The sky is not solid, there is no ocean above the heavenly bodies, the earth is not flat nor is it fixed, the heart is not the organ of conciousness, the mustard seed is not the smallest of the seeds -- why should I apologize for any of these "unbilical" truths? The burden of proof is on those who stumble over the obvious. What kind of fragile faith and tiny god is threatened by the obvious facts of nature?

I only ever run into people like "anonymous" on-line. Christians that I fellowhip with in person at least pretend to be interested and open minded about what I do. Iron sharpens Iron, and the only sharpening I ever get is in blogs.

Anonymous says: "Evolution and Creationism are antitheses. They are in direct conflict with each other. Either God created or He didn’t." Did God create you? If so, how did He do it? Did he use knitting needles (Psalm 139:13) or His own hands (Psalm 119:73)? Remember, either God created you or He didn't!

"He is omniscient and omnipotent and did not need the crutch of evolution to help Him." Agreed. So why then did He go to such trouble to make us think He did?

"Of utmost significance is that if evolution was involved, He, the Lord Jesus Christ, Himself, in His humanity, would also be a product of it." -- and God humbled himself...

"His ancestry would, like everyone else, have evolved from a pool of slime on up through the apes." -- Pool of slime, dust of the earth; neither bears the image of God apart from God's breath of life. It's not our material composition or origin that makes us special, it is our status as image-bearers.

"I do not worship a God who once was a monkey!!" Neither do I. God came to earth as an infant human. Evolution changes nothing.

Anonymous said...

"As time passess, I become less apologetic about my position. The sky is not solid, there is no ocean above the heavenly bodies..."

I'm becoming the same way. When I first came out to the Reformed Baptist webforum; I was told repeatly that if I were to accept common descent then I must defend it from the Bible. (Indeed, I was even instructed to stop reading scientific material and only read the Bible.) At the time I could not really reconcile evolution and Genesis and was pretty honest about this. They all found it unbelievable that I would continue to assert common descent after admitting this. With the help of Gordon's excellent book and blogging and the commentary by Walton I have come a long way to understanding the OT, though I still have my hang ups (it is going to take a long time to unroot some of my deep seated understandings of history). But I am no longer waiting for that tension to be resolved, because the truth is that the reality of common descent is now so obvious to me. Likewise, I am no longer hunting around to see which evangelical leader says what about evolution. They might as well condemn that the earth is round, if they do it is totally out of ignorance. (Okay, that's not true; I do still hunt around to see what they say; as I look constantly for some signs of hope out there. But unlike other theological disputes, such an padeobaptism or full preterism; where the only source material is the Bible and the real answer probably won't be known until we die, evolution is a verifiable fact of nature that can be observed and validated by anyone willing to look. And it is not going away, whether or not I am judged by the current keepers of orthodoxy. Hopefully I won't let it take to much of a toll on me emotionally and that I can remain gracious.

Gordon J. Glover said...

This is all the subject of my current book project -- which deals with the fallout from BTF. When a problem like evlution arises, most evangelicals run to their bibles to try and solve it.

But the question of common ancestry is not an exegetical problem for theologians to solve. It is a question over how to best interpret the available data. Exegesis has failed to ever resolve a scientific dispute. Unfortunately, all attempts to use scritpures this way in the past have been disasterous.

As I am arguing in my next book, the problem we Christians have with evolution is with the data itself -- but most evangelicals don't want to even take a look outside their bibles. Do we have a theoloical issue if evolution is true? -- sure we do! And I'm not trying to minimize these: original sin, federal headship, god's image in man are all issues that must be carefully worked through. But we also have a quite a problem if evolution is false. We have a creator who supposedly gives His people theological doctrines based on the recent special creation of all living things in their current form, but then voluntarily submits his creative will to the precise physical constraints of the the evolutionary process without even the slightest pretense of fiat.

Which problem is worse?

Steve Martin said...

Hi anon:
I believe most of your concerns have been addressed here on my blog & elsewhere – you may want to review some of the following if you are interested in constructive dialogue:

1. On scriptures, Gordon’s “Beyond the Firmament” book is a great place to start. You may also want to check out my “Scripture or Science” & “Literal or Liberal” posts (see: Table of Contents on sidebar)

2. On the incarnation & the image of God, you could review Gordon’s Evolution and the Incarnation post (http://www.blog.beyondthefirmament.com/2007/12/22/evolution-and-incarnation/ )or my post “Made in God’s Image or Evolved from Apes” post – again check out the TOC.

3. On whether an evangelical can or should support evolution, check out the category “evangelicalism” on the sidebar – I’ve discussed this several times before.

Hi buzzbait: Welcome. I agree that when it comes to opposing evolution, many Christians are “brainwashed” because they have only been told one part of the story – sometimes it is told dishonestly. And many of us would like to rectify that. But, this type of healing is an arduous and often painful task – and anyone who thinks the fix is as easy as saying “Here’s the truth, believe it” without acknowledging & dealing with the accompanying baggage is probably naïve in the extreme.

However, I’d also submit that when it comes to opposing Christianity, many people are just as "brainwashed" because they have been told (or seen) only one part of the story. Rectifying this misinformation / brainwashing is also very important for us – in fact, much more important than rectifying the misinformation about evolution. We are passionate about truth whether that be the truth of the development of life on earth or the promise of new life in Christ.

Cliff: Thanks for your thoughts. As you point out, although discussing our views on evolution can be painful, this is many times the best path – and as you note, can actually be very beneficial to the Kingdom. We may not always know the results, but as the apostle Paul notes, God does bring good from evil. It is encouraging to hear from others when this happens. Thanks again.

Pete: One clarification. I was not suggesting that “Seeking fellowship with others” meant abandoning the Evangelical church. But sometimes, you may have to move from one group of Evangelicals (who have a toxic affect on your relationship and your mission) to another group. Of course, depending where you are geographically located, this might be pretty difficult. (ie. For me in urban/suburban Toronto this has got to be easier than for someone from a smaller town in , for eg, the southeast US). On the other hand, I think leaving should be a last (or very late) resort. We are a “spiritual family” and shouldn’t expect to agree on everything. We need to work through these differences.

Gordon: Thanks for your thoughts. Looking forward to your new book.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments, so far. Thought I might chime in with my own short story.
I recently moved across Canada and began attending a WELS Lutheran church, given that I was born and raised in the synod prior to my move. I attended the church for several months, during which time some of the members, including the pastor, became aware that I was studying palaeontology in grad school. One night, during a private meeting at my apartment, the pastor asked me what my thoughts were on evolution. I was honest and told him that I subscribed to it unapologetically. His response was that this was contrary to the teaching of the church and that I would no longer be welcome at the communion table if I continued to hold to such views. He also mentioned that I was welcome to continue worshipping at the church, so long as I kept my thoughts about evolution to myself.
Needless to say, I don't go there anymore. (In fact, I don't go to any church anymore, though I'm still looking).

Anonymous said...

Some churches still have that opportunity. Methodist, Mormons, Presbyterians, and a few others haven’t taken much of a stand. But really, why should they. A majority of their congregations don’t believe it, and in reality, it probably doesn’t do much to bring people to God.

But most of the churches simply can’t. As anonymous put it you can’t believe in evolution and believe in a literal translation of the bible. You can pretend, you can make up phony science to prove Noah could fit all the animals on the ark, you can pretend fossils mean something biblical, but, really you can’t do the science without a bunch of “wink wink” scientific method. You can look though your biblical glasses and ignore all science, but you really can’t believe in evolution and a literal translation of the bible.

The fundamentalist missed something though. People are walking away from the fundamentalist churches in droves. Why? Well, my theory is this. They were told so many little lies along the way, that one day, became clear. One day they are standing in a canyon in Utah and see 200 million years of geology and think, you know, the world just can’t be 6000 years old. If the church is going to lie about science, and the age of the earth and all the things that are apparent in the world, then, they probably lied about that Jesus thing, and that Holy spirit thing too.

Churches should stay away from evolution, from Intelligent design, from the big bang, monkey DNA and stick with the words written in red.

Gordon J. Glover said...

elbogz, I agree with you somewhat -- I have these same feelings. But rather than walk away from it all, I'm simply going back and looking at everything again rather than just believe something that has been handed down by tradition.

I have a good friend who teaches Christian Apologetics at the school where my kids attend and he had to read Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris etc. for several weeks to prepare for a debate about the problem of evil where he had to argue from the worldview of atheism. He is going through a similar experience, having to really think about why he believes certain things. I think this is a good thing for Christians to do.

I have to clarify one thing you said (twice): "...you can’t believe in evolution and believe in a literal translation of the bible." This is somewhat misleading, because neither can you believe in anatomy, astronomy, geology, meteorology, botany, mathematics, or geography and truely stick to a literal interpretation of scripture. Scripture was never intended to be authoritative on those issues, and merely reflects the popular views of the human authors when it comes to the natural sciences.

In this respect, evolution is nothing special. It just happens to be where the front lines of this historic battle between natural and special revelation currently exist.

Anonymous said...

My education about evolution came as part of the deconstruction of a lot of things that I had always accepted without much though, like dispensationalism; at the same I was learning a lot about Jesus by N.T. Wright and the traps of institutional religion (thegodjourney.com). The common thread of these, maybe, is getting hung on systems.

At the church where I was employed these were not taught overtly much but were part of the air. It wasn't as big a deal to find another job as it is for lots of readers, since I was in the computer/web area.

But it would have been correctly perceived as subversive had I come out on that stuff. If you find yourself not in agreement, you are supposed to 'leave quietly' according to the membership covenant. I am not as anxious as some people seem to be to remain within the evangelical world.

Seth said...

I've been reading and generally enjoying Tim Keller's new book, The Reason for God, and would welcome comments on it, especially because, as Steve notes, it does look thoughtfully at the evolution question.

Tim's my former pastor and I have the highest regard for him. He nicely acknowledges that Christians may well be able to follow Christ and accept evolution. He also nicely challenges several philosophical claims that secular humanists make in evolution's name. All these parts of his book have been a real tonic for me, strengthening my faith and deepening my joy.

Having come to faith years ago in Tim's church, this balanced approach was part of the ground I grew on. I must admit I've been stunned to discover that his excellent church, Redeemer, has been something of a greenhouse; that outside, the larger Evangelical world is remarkably cold toward basic science. Tim uses the word, 'orthodox' to describe his faith, rather than 'evangelical', and I can see why.

That said, one thing in particular has been bothering me as I’ve read Tim’s book, so I'd also welcome specific comment on it.

As Tim writes, the orthodox Christian view is that the fall affected nature as well as man. It holds that disease, natural disaster, genetic defect, and natural violence all came about through original sin. I simply can't accept such a view in uncut form, given the scientific evidence. So, I'm wondering

(a) whether readers of this blog believe this tenet is a critical or debatable point of Christian theology,

(b) whether it’s Christological or just Pauline,

(c) what evolution-friendly sects and theistic evolutionists say about it,

(d) what thoughtful Christian writers and theologians have written on the question lately, and

(e) what readers of this blog think about it.

Cliff Martin said...

Seth, you raise some excellent questions. You correctly observe that "... the orthodox Christian view is that the fall affected nature as well as man" and you ask for our response.

At OutsideTheBox are some posts on entropy including this one which addresses the entropy timeline. The current state of cosmology is quite clear: entropy dates back to the creation moment. As such, it necessarily predates the Fall of man by billions of years.

All of the natural calamities you list are the direct and necessary consequences of entropy, not the Fall. Some of my posts deal with the theological issues you raise. You can read them if you're interested.

Whatever conclusions Paul might have drawn from his understandings of Genesis, he makes some fascinating statements about entropy and the bondage to decay in Romans 8. If you buy into the idea that Paul here is speaking of what we call entropy (as I do), then clearly there are some teleological and eschatological implications to entropy that the church has not explored much.

The questions you ask all come under an even larger question relating to how we know what we know. Do we allow Science to adjust our understandings of Biblical Theology? Or do we use our theological assumptions to trump science. This debate has been going on for centuries. It is high time the church settles it.

I don't know much about Tim Keller, but it sound like he could be very helpful to the wider church in this regard.

Gordon J. Glover said...


IMHO, this doctrine probably started as a very helpful way to explain what we now consider "entropy" for a first centry audience, and to relate the obvious fact that things run down to sin, and not charge God with an imperfect creation. Remember the Greek "Platonic" notion that contrasted the perfect eternal and unchanging realm with the imperfect forms of physical creation. Paul is obviously "becoming a Greek to the Greek" and takes liberties with the OT -- as many of the NT authors do in accordance with 2nd temple Jewish hermaneutical traditions.

But this doctrine is nowhere explicitly formulated in the OT -- which makes since these "Platonic" distinctions would not have been that important to an ANE audience as they were to a Hellenistic audience. If you accept the organic principle of biblical inspiration, then none of this should be a problem.

Even today, I think the doctrine has value as a paradigm to understand certain spiritual truths, but it obviously falls short as a scientific theory. This does not, however, make it a bad idea, or an erroneous doctrine, we just need to understand the limits of our theological paradigms. A doctrine is not wrong if it fails to make testable scientific predictions because that is not within the scope of theology. Unfortunately, most evangelicals miss this point. They have been led to believe, by both creationist and materialists, that truth is meaningless unless it has scientific merit.

In that way, I treat this doctrine no differently than I would treat the entire Garden of Eden narrative. A useful non-scientific context for creation that helps God's people understand basic truths about ourselves, our relation to God, our relation to one another, the effects of sin on creation and our relation to the created order.

I'm sure others have different opinions.

Steve Martin said...

Jordan: Thanks. Your (former) church’s reaction is pretty sad – although I guess I’m really not surprised that this happens. I hope you find a new church soon. Daryl Falk (in “Coming to Peace with Science”) discusses how wonderful it was for him to find an Evangelical church that accepted him. Not trying to minimize your specialty, but I think biologists probably get an even bigger bum rap than do paleontologists.

Steve R: I understand why you (and others) aren’t always anxious to remain in the Evangelical fold given the circumstances. More of a concern for me are those that feel they must also abandon their Christian faith in these circumstances. (And I realize that there are those who believe leaving the Evangelical church is equivalent to abandoning their Christian faith – and I also realize that these same people may say my (strong) disagreement with this implies I don’t deserve to be called an Evangelical. A much different conversation though.).

Thanks for your thoughts on Keller, your personal reflections on his ministry, and his book. I would also like to see other’s thoughts on the book.

You have some excellent questions. As I’ve noted before, the whole issue of the origin of sin (probably more so than the closely related doctrine of “original sin”) is the biggie for me. Not sure I can add much right now (without being long winded & probably not that focused). I’d rather think about it some more & maybe post on it someday (don’t hold your breath for something real soon though :-) ).

For now, I’ll just point to some examples in my selected bibliography that speak to this (first four you will be able to find online – fifth one is from Keith Miller’s excellent volume “Perspectives on an Evolving Creation”)

1. Wenham, GordonJ. "Original Sin in Genesis 1-11." The Churchman 104, no. 4 (1990).

2. Murphy, George. "Roads to Paradise and Perdition: Christ, Evolution, and Original Sin." Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 58, no. 2 (June 2006): 109-118.

3. McIntyre, J. A. "The Historical Adam." Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 54, no. 3 (Sept. 2002): 150-7.

4. McIntyre, J. A. "The Real Adam and Original Sin." Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 58, no. 2 (June 2006): 90-8.

5. Collins, Robin. "Evolution and Original Sin." In Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, edited by Keith B. Miller, 469-501. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 2003.

Cliff: re: relationship between science and theology. I think having the church "Settle it" might be an unrealistic goal (at least in the short term). I'd be glad if we just started talking about it. Oh - I guess we are - thanks for continuing to raise this point.

Gordon: Methinks you’ve been reading Peter Enns again. Thus the echos of "heresy, heresy" from the ultra-reformed choir. :-) Good points.

Seth said...

I'm grateful to Gordon, Cliff, and Steve for their thoughtful and swift responses to my questions. I look forward to thinking further about their insights. I also look forward to getting others' comments; thoughtful responses are a great help to me, and, I suspect, others too. First though, a word of apology:

As I wrote Steve this morning, by posting my March 5 comment here, I seem to have short-stopped the question, "Would your Church allow you to Publicly Support Evolution." I'm sorry for that, and I'll see to it that I'm a better participant from now on!

Cliff Martin said...


These comment threads often have a way of self-directing off-course. Thanks for reminding us of Steve's original question. Although, the issue you raise is central to the strong stance that many denominational and church groups take regarding acceptance of evolution and those who espouse it.

Anonymous said...

One other comment on pete's comment about the evolution issue: '[I] don't feel it would be appropriate or helpful in our goal of reaching the community for Christ.'

It might be true, but in my current state of thinking I feel like it is not a good state of affairs either, should a member of the community find Jesus and come into the fellowship, to have to tell him, 'By the way, don't say anything about your views on science. The people here can't handle it.'

Anonymous said...

Steve Martin said: "Gordon: Methinks you’ve been reading Peter Enns again. Thus the echos of "heresy, heresy" from the ultra-reformed choir. :-) Good points."

You beat me too it Steve.

Steve Ranney said "It might be true, but in my current state of thinking I feel like it is not a good state of affairs either, should a member of the community find Jesus and come into the fellowship, to have to tell him, 'By the way, don't say anything about your views on science. The people here can't handle it.'"

Yea, I agree with this. And trust me, I keep an a keen eye out for those who we might share the gospel to who find the rejecting the historical reality of common descent a stumbling block. Indeed, we had some who came to faith just recently who did wonder if they had to accept all of our science. My wife and I have been mentoring them and I let it spill that I accept common descent.

It matters to me a great deal that the evangelical church is so wrong about this since it is a huge barrier to being a relevant whitness to the more scientifically educated and espeically actual scientists. I just think at this time it would be counter productive to stand up and make a statement when noone has really asked me.

My Church is a church plant and our many sister churches have all made stands against evolution. It is in our statement of faith as well since we basically adopted theirs. But as I mentioned before I wonder if my pastor is not actually accepting of common descent now. So I wonder how that will affect us going forward. The other churches have invited YEC speakers to talk for large lengths of time in separate Sunday school classes. I would presume my pastor might find this extremely counter-productive and harmful (since evolution is true, lying to our congregation will only make our future more dire.

If there ever comes a point where this becomes a major issue, I will speak out. But then presumably my pastor will do so first. I do hope he is on my side. If there only 2 of us in 400 people who believe in evolution, having the second being the pastor himself is quite a blessing.

Anonymous said...

The guy is fortunate to have you. Imagine how it would be for someone to come into the community and think 'I am the only one that thinks this.' Like you say, a huge and unnecessary stumbling block. Eventually though, a person will have to learn to live with the 'odd relatives.'

Jeffrey Amos said...

Having recently moved across the country (KS to NJ), I've experienced "coming out" in the past, and am presently experiencing being a closet TE.

I told my brother/college roommate within a week of switching from YEC to TE. It is to his credit that although there was mutual mental anguish, tempers were controlled. Telling my dad was similar, but to a greater extent.

As I suppose is the case for most, it ultimately revealed the strength of my ties with my YEC family. In my case, these are exceptionally good.

My experience with my church was bittersweet. Ten months after accepting TE, none of my Christian friends outside my family knew. But I had written a 20-page essay in defense of TE, and intended to post it on facebook. An agnostic friend proofread it for me.

Before posting it, I had an excellent meeting with the elder in my church who is essentially the resident theologian. When I left he was a convinced YEC who was also convinced that I was orthodox.

But posting the paper revealed the strength of my ties with my (old) church - really rotten. I still go there when I visit home because it's my parent's church, but it's not the same. More often than not, I feel shunned.

But many Christians are rejecting their faith upon discovery that the evidence shows their YEC faith to be wrong, and many non-Christian are not giving Christianity a second thought after thinking they have learned its empirical disproof.

Coming out required me to sacrifice my reputation. One acquaintance publicly told me to "stop pretending to believe in God." Two of my friends have told me that I've nearly convinced them. If that number were zero, it would still be worth it to know that I have spoken the truth.

But on the other hand, I haven't told anyone in my new church that I've been attending for several months. It will come out eventually, but right now having Christian friends at all is far more important. It is conceivable that the reaction will make it advisable to leave - I'm not yet ready to deal with that kind of blow.

I sympathize with people with people who stay in this state indefinitely, but I could never do so myself. What is a friend to whom you cannot share what you believe?

Steve Martin said...

Thanks for your comments. Your remark that your elder remained "a convinced YEC" but that "he was also convinced that you were orthodox" is significant. This is more important (in my opinion) than convincing him (and others) that the evidence for evolution is solid. In fact, many times discussing the science is actually counter-productive (one of those "win the battle" but "lose the war" situations). I believe that in most circumstances we should start by affirming the gospel and articulate why the science of biological evolution does not in any way affect it.

ErinOrtlund said...

Great to find your blog! Thanks for your comment on my post. I suppose I was somewhat naive--I didn't realize just how many evangelicals disbelieve evolution. I know according to Francis Collins, it is considered a fact among scientists. I've bookmarked your blog and hope to visit often!

Stephen Matheson said...

Hey, great discussion, all. I have to be brief, but the basic story is that I have been blessed to be in some very healthy Christian communities that would not have shunned a person for accepting common descent. Many of the Christians in most of those communities would have disagreed with me, or even thought I was quite odd to accept evolution, but on the whole they would have loved me and accepted me anyway.

I have also had the privilege of being a part of two overtly Reformed communities: Park Street Church in Boston, and our current Christian Reformed congregation in Grand Rapids. I doubt that full-blown acceptance of common descent is the majority opinion in either of these places, but there are plenty in both who do, including significant subsets (at least) of leadership.

Now, my current denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, is very much of two minds on the issue. Here is a summary of the church's official statement on the matter:

"Humanity is created in the image of God; all theorizing that minimizes this fact and all theories of evolution which deny the creative activity of God are rejected. The clear teaching of Scripture and the confessions rules out holding views that support the reality of evolutionary forebears of the human race. But further investigation or discussion regarding the origin of humanity should not be limited."

As I have publicly written (on a Calvin College faculty listserv), I take my refuge in the last sentence, without which I could not consider working at Calvin.

Among CRC members, there is surely at least a strong minority who deny common descent and are scandalized by those of us who don't. But those who are most offended by the idea have long since founded alternative denominations.

Moses said...

I teach a pre-teen/early teen sunday school class, produce videos, and lead worship (music) occasionally at my church. During my journey from YEC to TE ( or EC) I have been candid with my pastor and others about my changing views on the creation issue, as well as the charismatic movement. I would self identify as "post" charismatic and "post" evangelical. So far they have been polite, respectful, and I believe considering the evidence and theological and worldview implications for themselves. If things went south and I was relieved of my responsibilities, I would be able to live with that - but would be difficult as this is the church where I grew up, came to faith, was baptized, got married, etc... Regardless, I hope to keep a healthy relationship and open communication with them. While I had individually spoken with some family members, I decided to tell my entire family at thanksgiving last year. I guess I figured there was a big pink elephant in the back of the room who had not been formally introduced. Since then we have had some intense discussions, but I am confident that they still believe I'm a "Christian." It's amazing how much YEC doctrine is the basis for some of my family's messianic/ dispensational views on faith & eschatology.

Perhaps the tide is slowly turning, and this debate will be over, and YEC will be placed in a museum somewhere while we all join forces to spread the good news Jesus came to share...

I really appreciate the info and comments on this blog.

Moses said...

I also lead a life group ( home group ) and at the first meeting a family that were good friends, and were staunch YEC's came out. I was honest and upfront, telling the group that I believed that the theory of evolution was the best explanation for the diversity of life on earth, and that it was billions of years old - not thousands. I shared briefly some of my reasons for my "conversion". They were shocked. But I wanted to tell them upfront because this assumption( old earth, TE ) would be part of the basis of our future life groups discussions ( although we've not discussed the subject since.) The next day at church, the Dad/Husband of this family came to me and graciously told me they couldn't be part of the group, but he appreciated my sincerity, and wished to continue our friendship, and he still considered me a brother. He really did not want this to hurt our friendship for which I am grateful. It was a happy ending - because there was respect for each other as brothers although we were at odds in our beliefs. I hope for many more happy endings and perhaps some conversions along the way.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Moses,
Thanks for your personal perspective. That was great. This thread is pretty old (almost two years!) so I doubt anyone else is following it anymore. However, the new series "Evangelicals, Evolution, and the Church" that is being published now will probably be of interest to you - and I suspect you will have some good input into this discussion as well.