Evolution and Evangelicals … Reflections

We began a discussion Tuesday on the real and perceived barriers to the acceptance of  an evolutionary mechanism of creation amongst evangelical theologians.  The basis for our discussion is a recent survey by Bruce Waltke (or here), an Old Testament scholar, author of a Genesis commentary and other books. The results of his survey are available here: Waltke Scholarly Essay.

Waltke has a few conclusions and a few suggestions. These are well worth considering in some depth. The presentation that follows below is a paraphrase – not a quote from the white paper. The material is reorganized around three main themes according to my thinking at this time.

First – The caricature of evangelicalism as demanding Young Earth Creationism (YEC) is a gross oversimplification Some 46% of the evangelical theologians surveyed are comfortable with evolutionary creation. More than half are comfortable with some form of old earth creation, evolutionary or progressive. Many have nuanced and carefully considered views. The same general trend is found in other surveys as well.  But it is a deep divide, and in some respects the division increases the heatedness of the discussion.

Like many evangelical OT scholars, Waltke sees a truth in Genesis that is goes beyond literal historicity.  Reflecting on the first barrier and the 44% who found the interpretation of Genesis 1-2 to be a barrier to acceptance of evolutionary creation Waltke notes:

The first barrier can be lowered, I suggest, by recognizing the two levels of literature: the historical story level and the interpretive, creative plot level. On the story level the accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 are historical; on the plot level they are creative representations of the historical reality.

[He uses an illustration of a glass half full of water, half full of air and continues] … the additional creative element expresses truth beyond the historical reality. Similarly, the accounts of creation are based on real history, but presented creatively, using the form of ancient Near Eastern cosmogonies.

Second – But there is more; the conflict goes beyond Genesis. The issues – and the resistance to an evolutionary view of creation go beyond the interpretation of Genesis 1-3.  There are theological and anthropological considerations – the nature of God and the nature of man, the nature of sin and death.  There are world view barriers to the acceptance of evolutionary creation. Some of these relate to perception and definition – and bring us to Waltke’s second conclusion and suggestion.

Waltke makes two important observations on definition: “differentiation must be clearly stated between evolution guided by the Creator and evolution guided by purposeless, random chance” and “a careful distinction must be made between deism and immanence. Evangelicals rightly reject deism–that is to say, God began the process and then walked away from it. The Trinity is immanent in all his creation.” We must think hard about both randomness and immanence.  Conway Morris’s book Life’s Solution is a very important reflection in this regard – randomness is a tool that can be used to achieve purpose.

Third – we have scientific materialism and the God hypothesis. There is a famous interaction between LaPlace and Napoleon. LaPlace presented his work to Napoleon who ..

“received it with the remark, ‘M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.’ Laplace … drew himself up and answered bluntly, ‘I had no need of that hypothesis.'”

Part of the conflict between science and faith is that we do not wish to eliminate the “need of that hypothesis” prematurely and without cause.  This gives rise to another significant barrier to the acceptance of evolutionary creation and, I suggest, to the popularity of the Intelligent Design movement. These considerations lead us to Waltke’s third suggestion.

Waltke is disturbed (as are many others) by the tone of the discussion of Intelligent Design.  He claims that “the arguments of the ID movement, whether for a total negation of evolution or a rejection of it on only the molecular level, represents the main scientific challenge to the theory of creation by evolution.” (I agree – but I also think that in general the scientific claims of the ID movement are not holding up to scrutiny.)

However, Waltke has another key observation on the topic of ID — “the organizations seeking to refute evolution and/or to narrow the gap between creation and evolution must address one another with respect and openness to be optimally effective. The gap between BioLogos and ID, I suggest, can best be narrowed by open dialogue, not by entrenched confrontation.” In a footnote he brings up a comment by one of the respondents to the survey:

In a personal correspondence, one highly respected scholar–were it otherwise, I would not cite him– wrote that it is alleged that Collins will not publicly engage an adherent of anti-evolution ID; he further suggested that if this is not so, Collins should make this clear.

I am also disturbed by the tone of the discussion – there is far more heat than light.  Now, for reasons rooted in my understanding of science and my understanding of the data, I am cleanly on the evolutionary creation side of this discussion – but we need to be able to sit down and discuss the issues with out resorting to vitriolic rhetoric and ridicule. I am uncomfortable with the approach of many – including Miller, Conway Morris, and Giberson at times – on this issue. Ridicule hardens positions, it does not create movement or build bridges.

On the other hand, I do not think that it would be profitable for Collins to publicly engage an adherent of anti-evolution ID.  I don’t think that any good would come of it – and there is much potential for harm. There is no way to design an effective forum or to avoid soundbite sabotage.

Of course there is no reason why we, here, cannot open a civil discussion. With this in mind I will look at books from the ID movement – not only at books expanding upon my position (evolutionary creation).  We will begin in a few weeks with Stephen Meyer’s recent book Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design.

What do you think? What roles do theological, biblical, philosophical, and scientific factors play in your thinking about evangelicalism and evolution?

How can we carry on a useful conversation? What features do you think are needed?

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