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Sunday, 29 June 2008

Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics: Historical Perspective and Future Directions

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.


Cliff Martin said...

And the process was difficult and often painful. I suspect we are in for more of the same.

Indeed. The next 20 years hold the grim prospect of some of the bloodiest battles the church has ever known. There are entire movements in evangelicalism (Calvary Chapel comes to mind) which are built upon the foundation of Creation Science. When the conclusive DNA evidence filters down to the general public in popularized, understandable forms, the resulting dilemmas for these movements will be stark and agonizingly difficult.

Thank you for an excellent post. Your conclusion that evangelical theologians must engage in the work of harmonizing Christian faith with the clear findings of science is on target. These are days for strong, bold leadership. I hope that, as such leadership emerges, my dark prognostications will never be borne out.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article. I agree (and have said until I'm blue in the face) that the ball is in the theologian's court, and that no matter what scientific evidence or how many promises of compatibility with theology we give, devout evangelicals no less than fundamentalists await satisfactory answers to your questions before they even take evil, godless science, especially as long there are appealing folk science alternatives such as ID.

I'm convinced that true reform of evangelicals' attitudes toward evolution (even if it's just toleration) will require one man to step up and popularize a shift away from creationism and create an "evolutionary creationism movement", formulated especially to respond to the "conclusive DNA evidence" Cliff mentioned. As problematic and volatile as controversial "movements" can be - who wouldn't like to see peoples' minds just gradually change? - this is the way we as humans think, and I suspect it's unavoidable. But it's also something to look forward to. Who will it be?

Unknown said...

I'll admit that I'm pretty skeptical that any new theologizing or the public acceptance by a prominent theologian/Christian leader will accomplish much. There have been people who have tried to do this, and the typical response is that they are pilloried as heretics (and sometimes they become such in response, as seems to have happened with Van Til).

My guess is that any significant change will be more of a slow, almost impossible to locate where is came from paradigm change along the lines of what Thomas Kuhn described in science: the old guard will eventually die off (and will go to their grave unconvinced), and the bulk of the newer younger leaders will be more tolerant of or accepting of evolution because their identity has not been nearly as tied to this one issue for their entire lives.

Anonymous said...


Good points. I suppose what I'm envisioning is the only way for evolution to make an impact in among evangelicals any time soon. The development I mentioned is probably quite unlikely, but I stand by my statement that it will take a rock star to pull it off any time in the near future.

...the old guard will eventually die off (and will go to their grave unconvinced), and the bulk of the newer younger leaders will be more tolerant of or accepting of evolution because their identity has not been nearly as tied to this one issue for their entire lives.

It appears we both believe that it will take leaders, not a grassroots groundswell, to change the landscape. But the current course of young leadership is dominated by devout evangelical Christians being molded and grown to become tomorrow's leaders; these Christians are being homeschooled or educated at Christian schools, systems which by a vast majority make concerted efforts at inextricably tying creationism, YE or otherwise, to the gospel. It may not happen soon, but I think it will take a few high profile, otherwise respectable Christian leaders to bring light and life to a modified theology that allows acceptance of new science. We've got to "catch them while they're young" and get the right ones thinking the right things. That's where I think Gordon Glover's efforts are so invaluable.

Where change in scientific understanding precedes change in theology, there is a precipitous, though not inevitable, runoff toward disdain for theology (atheism) in one direction and disdain for science (special creationism) in the other. They've got to have a theological framework to embrace after abandoning their old, defective one.

Anonymous said...

Make that, "They've got to have a theological framework to embrace before abandoning their old, defective one."

Steve Martin said...

Hi Ted,

I know you are a historian & not a fortuneteller, but I’d really like your perspective on a few questions below. As you state, evangelical biblical studies scholars and theologians will need to reexamine and rearticulate some traditional views for the acceptance of biological evolution to gain widespread acceptance among evangelicals. My own view is this.

1. In biblical studies, we at least have some good initial work being done by impeccable Evangelicals. OT scholars like Meredith Kline (OPC, Gordon College) probably forged the path here, and people like Peter Enns & Kenton Sparks are taking this work to the next stage. But even here there is pretty broad resistance within Evangelicalism (eg. Enns troubles within WTS & the broader reformed & evangelical communities).

2. When it comes to theology though, I’m not sure we have any professional North American evangelical theologians who have even approached the topic of evolution (I believe it is different in the UK, particularly within the evangelical wing of the Anglican church). There is no one from a Wheaton or a Gordon or any of the other mainstream Evangelical colleges that I’m aware of. And from what I’ve heard (very 2nd or 3rd hand here) is that the theological departments in most Evangelical colleges are the “most conservative” departments on campus. (When I say conservative, I mean “to conserve the traditional interpretations, and to resist any change”).

My questions:
a) Do you agree with my assessment above?
b) If so, do you see #2 changing in the next decade at all? Ie. What are the odds that there will be a Meredith Kline type theologian that steps up and provides us with something of a framework to at least start working through the issues?
c) In the comments above, Stephen and Kyle speculate on how this situation can change. Stephen states it will need the backing of a significant Evangelical leader; Kyle speculates that it will be a generational shift. My initial thought would be to agree with Stephen (it will need to be like a dike breaking & not a slow erosion). What do you think?

Cliff Martin said...

I am encouraged that a few high-profile conservative evangelical leaders (e.g. Chuck Colson, Jack Hayford, and John Ankerberg) have at least endorsed OEC. Since many Evolutionary Creationists, like myself, arrived at our openness to Evolution via Hugh Ross, I find some hope in this. In his introduction of Ross (who spoke at his church), which is available on-line, Jack Hayford laments the anti-science mentality of many evangelicals and fundamentalists. Maybe this is slow erosion?

Anonymous said...

Have you all seen "The Genre of Genesis Part 1" by Australian evangelical, Dr John Dickson? He's a personal mate of mine and holds a pretty much reformed view of most things... TULIP, 4 Solas, etc.

Also try: Part 2 — The purpose of Genesis Chapter 1

The history of Creationism and what it can teach us about science and faith

Jimpithecus said...

I think that one of the hardest problems to get around is that most evangelicals simply don't want to hear about evolution. They equate it with evil in the world and don't want to even entertain the notion that it could be accepted. That has certainly been my experience. When faced with the evidence, one of my friends said "Well, I know what I believe!" How do you get around that? I don't know who it was that said: "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still." It is certainly true with regard to evolution.

Anonymous said...

Overall, I think Kyle is right that any theological changes will be slow to come. Many years ago there was some interaction between members of the American Scientific Affiliation and members of the Evangelical Theological Society, but it’s been a long time since that last happened. Evangelical theologians tend not to interact much with leading evangelical scientists (I am referring here to evangelical scientists who are well known in their fields, not necessarily to those who are well known to evangelicals), and vice versa. Liberal Protestant theologians are more likely to spend time talking to leading scientists, whether or not those scientists are Christians, though even this type of interaction is not really common–it’s mainly confined to small, somewhat incestuous conferences related to the “dialogue” of science and religion. I attend some of those events myself, and I don’t usually run into evangelical theologians.

As Steve Martin points out, North American evangelical leaders have typically avoided dealing with evolution in any really serious way. It’s very different in the UK, where people like John Polkinghorne and Alister McGrath–both widely (and accurately) identified with the evangelical wing of Anglicanism–have been outspoken advocates of orthodox theology in conversation with the sciences. Both Polkinghorne and McGrath have spoken at a number of the evangelical colleges in the USA; we had Polkinghorne at Messiah two years ago, and McGrath was a Staley lecturer on several campuses. But it is not clear to me that any American evangelical theologians compare at all closely with them. Perhaps–I say, perhaps–this may result (at least partly) from the fact that there are no Christian liberal arts colleges in the UK and from the fact that theology is taught at the leading public universities over there. Consequently, it may be harder for evangelicals in the UK to “ghettoize” their thinking.

The influence of Hugh Ross (a Canadian-born astronomer and apologist, director of Reasons to Believe) on some conservative evangelicals has certainly been significant. Ross has in fact moved quite a few evangelicals out of the “young earth” type of creationism; his lucid books, using lots of good physical science, have convinced many believers that the earth and the universe are far older than a few thousand years–and that this does not result in a fatal challenge to evangelical beliefs. There is of course nothing new in the general message. Any novelty would be in the specific scientific details, not the biblical ideas. Ross’ message is highly similar in tone and attitude to that of leading evangelical scientists of the nineteenth century, such as Benjamin Silliman, Edward Hitchcock, and James Dwight Dana–the type of thinking known as “progressive creation,”a term that was in use at least as early as 1839 and was popularized in the last century by Bernard Ramm’s influential book, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (1954). On evolution, however, Ross’s views are equally out of the nineteenth century, in that he completely rejects the common descent of humans and other organisms, holding instead to very numerous acts of separate creation by God through the eons of earth history. On this score, at least, Ross is not likely to persuade evangelicals to embrace modern science.

Whether Francis Collins, Darrel Falk, or other evangelical biologists will be able to persuade theologians and biblical scholars that evolution is true, remains to be seen. But that is the main point that needs to come across: the evidence for evolution is very, very strong, and needs to be taken more seriously by a group of Christians who have always put a premium on truth.

Anonymous said...

While I’m late to the party, I just wanted to say this is an excellent essay. I’d like to raise one issue that has occurred to me while reading the OP and comments. When I think of an evangelical, I think of someone who highly values evangelism. And this is where Hugh Ross comes in. He has indeed helped many Christians switch from YEC to OEC, but I think that his success, at least in part, comes from the power of using Big Bang cosmology as an evangelistic argument for the existence of God. The basic message he makes, at least on this point, is that science points to the existence of God. Science as ‘Reasons to Believe.”

If there is any truth to this, then this may pose a more serious problem that many may appreciate. To get more evangelicals to embrace evolution, y’all may have to do more than make the case for evolution and successfully harmonize it with the non-negotiable points that Ted outlines. You may have to uncover arguments where evolution itself, like the Big Bang, actually points to the existence of God.

Cliff Martin said...


Maybe this comment thread is unfinished ...

Thank you for your insightful comment. I completely agree! I think it was Francis Collins who said something like this (I use this quote often, but unfortunately have not been able to track it down!)"

"If evolution happened, it was not Darwin's idea, but God's."

Part of what I am trying to sort out is how evolution speaks positively into our theistic beliefs, but even more, how it integrates and confirms Christian teachings. I believe it does! But not without some shifts in our understandings about what the Bible is teaching. It is important that we move away from apologizing for our acceptance of evolution, and a defensive mode for blending theism and evolution, and begin to present evolution as a positive reason to believe!

Helpful in this regard is your book, The Design Matrix, which I have just begun reading. I have for some time been trying to weave together the concepts of randomness and design, or divine superintendence. In the end, I suspect we will come to see how these two seemingly contradictory concepts form a perfect tapestry.

Alas, I am fearful that some of my friends who post here would be put off by the design elements in your book. IMO, many of us have become unduly wary of design because of our strong rejection of the political I.D. movement. Thus we run the risk of throwing out what may be the strongest elements of "evolutionary evangelism" with the bath water of I.D.

Even as I celebrate the wonders of random mutations and natural selection, sometimes common sense overruns my evolutionary musings with this compelling notion: the marvelous and diverse life forms we observe demand some explanation beyond a string of mindless random events. I am looking forward to my continued reading of your book.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Mike,
It is never late to continue an interesting discussion. :-)

Evangelism is indeed a big part of the Evangelical faith. And I agree that Hugh Ross has done an excellent job in communicating the scientific evidence (at least for cosmology) & how this is consistent with the Christian faith. However, I am somewhat uncomfortable with his approach … almost inferring that the evidence of science should be a leading apologetic tool.

Personally, I think this “science as apologetic tool” can be dangerous. We are Christians because we put our faith in the risen and incarnate Christ, not because the scientific evidence somehow points towards Christ. Yes, I believe that the scientific evidence is coherent with the Christian faith, and I would go so far as to say that the Christian Faith might be the most coherent worldview given the current scientific evidence. But I would never put my “faith” in this science. Who knows what evidence lies around the corner that may tip the scales away from a Christian worldview for a period of time. (On this topic and regarding the Big Bang, see my Polkinghorne quote post The Christian God: Not Limited by nor Restricted by Edges.

So I would disagree with the point that:

You may have to uncover arguments where evolution itself, like the Big Bang, actually points to the existence of God.

In fact, I think we should watch that we do NOT use scientific arguments as primary evidence for the existence of God. We can use scientific arguments within a theological framework to do just that, but I doubt science alone can accomplish that. For the type of argument I think does make sense, see George Murphy’s A Theological Argument for Evolution.

And IMO, the best argument against my entire thesis above is the common interpretations of Rom 1:20. I’m still thinking that one through.

Hi Cliff,
Not put off at all by the design elements in Mike’s book. I think Mike’s approach is useful (and his tone is definitely welcome!). In the end though, whether “Design” is the best inference of the scientific data is not really a big deal for me. I believe in “Design” because I believe in a “Designer”, and not the other way around. Whether design is scientifically detectible is of little importance to me. Mr. Dembski and Mr. Dawkins are of course betting their entire programs on a “yes” and “no” respectfully.

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

I actually agree with all that you have written. I am just raising one possible obstacle for getting more evangelicals to embrace evolution. I don’t think someone like Ross has made inroads into this community simply because he explains the science well and shows how to effectively harmonize physics with Christianity. He goes beyond that to use science for apologetic and evangelistic purposes. In football terms, he is playing offense not defense. I’m not advocating that this approach be mimicked for the very reasons you cite. I’m just pointing out this seems to be a key ingredient in his success.

Anonymous said...

Hi Cliff,

My book doesn’t attempt to shoulder the burden of using evolution for evangelistic/apologetic purposes. On the contrary, I try to take as objective and open-ended approach as I can.

Yet recently, I wrote an essay that got me thinking more along these lines. I simply set out to explore some of the rational relationships between proteins and DNA from my typical IDangle. The essay is at:


But as I was putting this together over several weeks, it occurred to me the argument I was making is not in anyway dependent on the mode of becoming. That is, whether these biomolecules came into existence through natural law, evolution, or a divine miracle, the argument remains the same. Turning to evolution, I am increasingly struck by just how ingenious the mechanisms of evolution are. Sometimes I just want to shout to people, “Don’t you realize just how smart this whole process is!?”

Anyway, I’d also like to add that I agree with your views about the search for a perfect tapestry between randomness and design, or divine superintendence. Ken Miller’s first book started to take some interesting steps in that direction, where randomness is what makes free will possible. In essence, the randomness vs. design argument may be a science-like version of the theological debate about free will vs. God’s providence (although, when it comes to theology, I’ll be the first to admit I am out of my depth).

Steve Martin said...

Mike: Very astute point that the randomness / design discussion (which contains scientific aspects) is similar to the free will / providence theological discussion. I've been mulling similar ideas myself (and hastily admit I too am but a rank amateur here). I'm reading God, Chance, and Purpose by David Bartholomew - there is some discussion on this there. I'd be interested if you have other references to comparisons between these discussions.

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

No, I don't have any such references. But it would be interesting if you could post a summary of David Bartholomew's arguments related to this. I, for one, would read it.

Steve Martin said...

Ted Davis requested that I add this comment to this thread

Darwin himself saw the parallel between free will/predestination and the divine ordination of natural selection. I quote briefly from James Moore's Post-Darwinian Controversies, p. 334; Moore in turn quotes from Darwin's correspondence.

"Yet the fact that 'an omnipotent and omniscient Creator ordains everything' could not be overlooked and once again Darwin was 'brought face to face with a difficulty as insoluble as is that of free will and predestination'."

It was comments of this sort, I am convinced, that led Asa Gray to claim that Darwinism added no *new* perplexities to theism.