This is a guest-post by historian of Science Ted Davis, and is the twelfth installment in our “Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics” series. Ted is the vice-president of the American Scientific Affiliation, and is consulting editor for both Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith and Science and Christian Belief.
For at least a century, evangelicals 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.”
Fundamentalists and Evangelicals: Significant Differences
John Stackhouse has given an excellent definition of an evangelical. I especially like the breadth of his criteria for being an evangelical and his emphasis on ecumenical cooperation. Evangelicals and fundamentalists share many core beliefs, but differ from one another mainly in attitude, especially their overall attitude toward modernity, including science. George Marsden, the leading historian of fundamentalism, defines it as “militant anti-modernism,” and both parts of that definition are crucial. Where fundamentalists have historically emphasized separation from the world and its “worldliness,” evangelicals have typically been much more willing to engage the world on its own terms, and thus their understanding of the world is negotiated to a much greater extent than that of fundamentalists.
Evangelical Tension with Science
Nevertheless, 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. Many evangelicals accept the big bang – indeed, quite a few evangelical leaders believe that aspects of the big bang theory strongly support belief in the divine creation of the universe. Many evangelicals also accept modern geology, with a 4.65 billion-year-old earth and the 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.
Evangelicals and Evolution: Looking for Alternatives
This motivates many evangelicals to look for alternative views. Some embrace creation science. Others prefer one of the many varieties of “old earth creationism” or “progressive creationism.” Probably a large number prefer the confident, sometimes even cocky tone of the “intelligent design” movement. Officially (at least), ID takes no stance on the age of the earth and universe, though most ID adherents have no quarrel with mainstream science on those issues. Technically ID has no stance on human evolution, either: as long as “design” can be shown within science itself, evolution is in theory acceptable to ID advocates. In practice, however, many ID leaders have said strongly negative things about both “evolution” (or “Darwinism”) and “theistic evolution,” leading most observers to conclude that ID is just another form of antievolutionism, albeit the most sophisticated form that has yet appeared. Many ID advocates view the hypothetical “just-so stories” of evolutionary biologists with scorn: they want to see convincing evidence that what might have happened actually did happen, before they embrace a fully evolutionary account of life’s history.
Reconciling Evolution with Scripture
Most evangelicals do not see any viable way to combine human evolution with the following beliefs, which they base on their interpretation of the Bible:
- 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 their crucial beliefs about human dignity, freedom, responsibility, sin, and redemption. The 64-dollar question is: can they maintain those beliefs without simultaneously affirming the necessity of an historical, separately created first human pair?
Evangelical Theologians and Biblical Scholars: It is your move
Reconciling the theory of evolution with these core beliefs depends to a great extent on evangelical academics, particularly 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. Both of those professional communities tend to be skeptical if not 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, a leading contemporary scientist who accepts evolution but also upholds the Nicene Creed (a pertinent example is his book, The Faith of a Physicist).
And Polkinghorne has plenty of company – Francis Collins, Joan Centrella, Owen Gingerich, Simon Conway Morris, William Phillips, and Ian Hutchinson (to name just a few) are all excellent scientists, and they all believe in 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. I suspect we are in for more of the same.