Evangelicalism and Evolution ARE in conflict (and that’s fine)

This month over at RespectfulConversation.net, as part of their ongoing series on the future of evangelicalism, the topic is evolution and evangelicalism. I posted there some of my own thoughts on the matter. Below is an excerpt. Follow this link to my post and to the entire conversation. Do it now.

….So, I repeat my point: evolution cannot simply be grafted onto evangelical Christian faith as an add-on, where we can congratulate ourselves on a job well done. This is going to take some work—and a willingness to take theological risk.

Evolution demands true intellectual synthesis: a willingness to rethink one’s own convictions in light of new data, and that is typically a very hard thing to do…..

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  • Norman


    I think it all depends upon your supposition regarding what Paul believes regarding “sin and death”.
    If Paul is looking at it through the lens that the historical church has then you are correct. However if he views “sin and death” corporately and covenantal via OT and 2nd T ideas that illustrates whether faithful “dead” (Eze 36-37) Israel could stand in the presence of God righteously then we have a different discussion that needs to take place. Both discussions are important to the faith community but if the original context is determined that Paul doesn’t think the way we suppose then your possibility here may indeed be valid from a theological viewpoint.
    “The other is the claim that there is no real conflict between evolution and Christianity. The two can get along quite well, with perhaps a minor adjustment or two—nothing to lose sleep over.”

    • Rick

      Good thoughts, and it brings up something Pete is touching on: That “different discussion” would seem to be a harder road in Evangelicalism than in other streams of Christianity.
      However, I think Pete paints with a broad brush and that portions of Evangelicalism would be more open to that discussion than other portions.

  • I don’t believe that evolution and Evangelicalism are NECESSARILY in conflict, as soon as one allowed for the possibility that God wanted us to have a supernatural Canon where there are mistakes within it.

    As for me this makes no sense

    but I am really seeking for respectful discussions about that with progressive Evangelicals such as Peter Enns.

    For I fail to see how they can accept that Biblical writers were wrong about scientific facts and morality (and logically speaking also theology) while maintaining the conservative notion that the Biblical Canon is special and was inspired in a way that Christian books between 200 A.C. and 2000 A.C. were not.

    To my mind it is a real mystery that brilliant and intellectually honest people can hold this belief.

    • Paul Bruggink

      ‘Mistakes’ and ‘wrong’ are not the way to think about the issues. Try thinking ‘is this a plausible interpretation’ instead.

    • Instead of viewing the Bible as a perfectly consistent, timeless description of God, try viewing it as God exerting a constant pull on his [usually very stubborn] people. Imagine the conception of Yahweh that such people will have—not as good as ours [hopefully] and probably with error!

      Consider how Jesus would respond to you if you were to share a meal with him, where he would ask what you thought God is like. How do you think he’ll respond when you make an error? I believe that as long as you were humble, he would respond with kindness and love. I also believe that he’d be happy for your conversation to be recorded and called canon.

      Try viewing the Bible as a call to understand the Trinity more and more, forever being humble so that God will give you grace instead of resisting you. Viewed in this way, it makes sense that the Bible doesn’t speak as strongly about slavery and civil rights as we’d like—the people at the time weren’t ready for such things. We are—well, some of us. (See the Jim Crow laws.)

      • Hi Labreuer thanks for your answer!

        I agree with most of what you have said, but why should we then view books outside the Canon as being less inspired?

        2013/10/2 Disqus

        • Here’s my not-a-scholar list:

          1. We should lend some credence to the idea that the Holy Spirit inspired those who set down the canon as we have it now. My understanding of this process was that there wasn’t a whole lot of deciding going on; it was more of recording what the general consensus was—a consensus with much inertia built while Christianity was being persecuted.
          2. We should consider consistency between books such as the Infant Gospel of Thomas and current Protestant canon; do such books match up with what we otherwise know of the Trinity?
          3. We ultimately have to trust that God wouldn’t mislead his people—any misunderstanding must come from their refusal to see and hear clearly.

          The above doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth reading non-canonical books such as the Apocrypha. After all, the New Covenant is the Holy Spirit in each of us, not to mention the people inhabited by the Holy Spirit before Jesus ascended. It just means that when we learn to discern good from evil (Rom 12:2), we trust canon books more than non-canon books—especially when they conflict.

          • A consensus can be quite wrong, for instance there were in 800 AC. in western Europe that torturing heretics or putting them to death was morally right.
            Moreover critical scholars fail to see that such a consensus existed at all, actually we have strong grounds for thinking there was NO such consensus about at least several books which were eventually accepted.

            But thanks for interacting with me.

            Lovely greetings.

          • A consensus can be quite wrong

            Hence why I said “lend some credence” and listed #2 and #3. But let’s look at the torturing of heretics: was this discerned to be a good practice by an ecumenical council? I mean one of the first seven, which still ostensibly included all of Christendom.

            Moreover critical scholars fail to see that such a consensus existed at all, actually we have strong grounds for thinking there was NO such consensus about at least several books which were eventually accepted.

            I think I and others would be interested in hearing about some specifics, here. I’ve only really started to learn about the canonization process of the NT.

          • Rick

            “Moreover critical scholars fail to see that such a consensus existed at all…”

            Michael Kruger wrote: “…remember that the church eventually reached a broad, deep, and long-lasting consensus over these books that some disputed. After the dust had settled on all these canonical discussions, the church was quite unified regarding these writings. Of course, critics will suggest this is an irrelevant fact and should be given no weight. For them, the decisive issue is that Christians disagreed. But, why should we think that disagreements amongst Christians are significant, while unity amongst Christians is insignificant? The latter should be given the same consideration as the former.”


          • Bryan

            “We should lend some credence to the idea that the Holy Spirit inspired those who set down the canon as we have it now.”

            This statement simply doesn’t work. Individual scriptures were written with various Christian communities along the Mediterranean favoring some over others; e.g. Gospel of Thomas, Shepherd of Hermes, etc. When Eusebius assembled what we now know as the (Catholic) canon and eventually trimmed down later during the Reformation, no such discussion exists about the work of the Holy Spirit in assembling these texts. It was cold hard reason and obedience to the state. Some scholars question whether we should even have a “closed” canon but rather an “open” canon. This would permit other texts a fair reading but on the other hand, can open up other texts that were quite awful. This is a very difficult issue.

          • Wait a second, are you saying that the Holy Spirit doesn’t help out when all Christians get together to try and figure out what books to work off of? By the way, I’m speaking of the early ecumenical councils, not non-ecumenical goings-on later. I don’t think the Holy Spirit is nearly as ‘present’ or ‘clear’ when Christians are intentionally dis-unified.

          • Bryan

            To whom are you referring when you say “Christian”? Eastern Orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians, Ethiopic Christians, Protestant Christians…who? All the above-mentioned have different canons. If all make the claim that they were “help”[ed], as you say, by the Holy Spirit then what criteria should one put forth in adjudicating who is right or wrong? Or should right or wrong figure in the equation? Eusebius makes no claim to having been led by the Holy Spirit; only interviewing eyewitnesses to the apostles.

            As Protestants (I am assuming you are) we could very well question why we shouldn’t acknowledge the original Catholic canon (early ecumenical council) and give credence to deutero-canonical texts as well as apocryphal. When it comes to the work of the Holy Spirit, and I am not dismissing it, it becomes a very “slippery” subject when discussing the composition of the canon.

            Incidentally, books such as 2nd Clement as well as the Shepherd of Hermes, et al. were strongly considered but were rejected. Augustine rejected the book of James as well as Revelation. It is easy on the side of having these texts in our canon all along and say he was wrong. However, was he “right”. And does it matter? Some Jews rejected Ezekiel for being too mystical as well as Esther and stumbled over Song of Songs. Its a good idea to include all of the diverse “Christian” groups in your assessment. By the way, what gave Luther and the Protestant Reformation the right to exclude books that were already in the canon?

          • I personally come from a non-denominational Protestant background, but I know a bit about Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. I know little about Ethiopic Christians.

            My first question would be: what doctrinal differences exist when we compare and contrast the various canons and translations used (e.g. the EO prefer the LXX over the MT)? How much unification happened (which texts did all reject and which did all accept), and what diversity remains?

            Honestly, I would be most confident in the books that all Trinity-believing Christians agree are canonical. After that, I’d ask whether any truly heretical (e.g. Jesus-denying) doctrines can be drawn from the other books. There is so much redundancy between the books of the Protestant Bible that if you remove one, not much actually changes. So do the books that the EO or RCC or EC slide into the canon I know as easily as the kind of like the books I was raised to consider canon? If the answer is “no”, I would get curious and ask for examples.

  • dangjin

    all that is being done here is importing false teaching into the faith, nothing more. evolutionary thinking is false teaching and not of God.

  • David Lee

    Can we be somewhat more thoughtful about our language, please?

    The problem is with the e-word. No, not evolution, but evangelical.

    Here in the UK, easily the majority of self-professed “evangelicals” have no truck with creationism; we recognise and affirm scientific discovery, theory and thinking. And with higher-profile evangelicals, both theologians and scientists, the evolution-accepting majority is proportionally even higher. By contrast, it seems that in the USA the word “evangelical” seems very much bound in and packaged with creationism.

    Both sides of the Atlantic, “evangelicals” share much in common about actively sharing the good news of the saving work of Jesus Christ, and proclaiming his kingdom. But when that definition is extended towards issues of evolution and creation, an Atlantic “great gulf” is revealed.

    Are we to let the Christocentric good in the word “evangelical” be sullied and tarnished by association with fundamentalist creationism?

    • Tony Johnson

      David and Dr Enns,
      I may be a bit naïve or ‘too far gone’ for my ‘Evangelical’ siblings on both sides of ‘the pond’, but as I sit here at the bottom of the world I wonder. I wonder, why the need to clean up, revitalise, re-imagine, re-define, or redeem this most useless of labels/tags/titles, that is the word ‘Evangelical’. As a former ‘Evangelical’ and recovering Fundamentalist, I have simply moved on. I do my theology and I dabble in the sciences, I preach and teach the Gospel of God in Christ and if someone calls me a ‘Liberal’, a ‘Progressive’, or whatever, I couldn’t give a hoot anymore. So my question is a simple this, what does one gain by seeking to ‘claim’ the ‘name’ whilst believing what science teaches us and what critical scholarship has been saying for decades?

  • James

    Yes, there is an unspoken or assumed definition of evangelical, and maybe also evolution, that forces the two ideas to conflict. I think each is flexible enough to fit the other without much difficulty. We must be careful, however, not to ‘bend’ science to fit our concept of truth–like Victorian Methodists who made science support their view of temperance. We do, however, need to remain open to new facets of truth that are uncovered by scientific means. Usually, in the process, we also uncover truth that formerly lay hidden from view in Holy Scripture–like a richer understanding of ‘original sin’. Fortunately, we have a living Word that fits real life situations.