Peter Enns takes a look at fundamentalist Calvinist John Piper’s recent podcast arguing that the Bible and evolution are incompatible, “Evolution is ‘theoretically possible’ but ‘unbelievably unlikely’: thoughts on creation and evolution from John Piper.”
Enns’ response is compassionate:
What I sense here is Piper’s public expression of cognitive dissonance. He is smart enough to know that evolution cannot simply be brushed aside, but he is struggling with how to align that with a literalistic reading of the Bible, which is a non-negotiable requirement of his theology.
I appreciate Piper’s dilemma, but evolution and biblical literalism cannot be reconciled. At some point I feel Piper will have to step over the line, one way or the other. He can’t have it both ways. In the meantime, podcasting inchoate thinking runs the risk of being taken by his listeners as a fully formed position. This does justice neither to the matter of evolution and Christianity, nor to the spiritual formation of those who follow his teachings.
Enns also summarizes what Piper calls four “stumbling blocks” that trip him into denying what we know about evolution — the first of which is astonishing. This is Enns’ summary of Piper’s objection:
Death as a curse – both in Genesis and Romans – does not refer simply to human death but to all death. Hence, the Bible’s view of the origin of death and evolution are incompatible.
The reference to Romans there, presumably, is to Paul’s statement that “sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin” (Romans 5:12). I think Paul would be surprised — and rather angry — to learn that later Christians were attempting to twist that into a statement about biology, but that is what Piper is suggesting. Piper is saying that Romans teaches that nothing died before humans sinned.
This creates a serious incompatibility — not between the Bible and evolution, but between Piper’s understanding of Romans and the book of Genesis. Here is Genesis 1:20-23:
And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
So that’s Day 5 in the first creation story of Genesis — the day God creates flying creatures and swimming creatures. If we’re going with Piper’s literal reading of Genesis, then Day 5 is when God created the drosophila* and gastrorichs.
In that first creation story in Genesis, the humans aren’t created until the sixth day. That first story doesn’t mention Adam and Eve, by the way, just humankind — plural, males and females and, apparently, plenty of them. But since we’re sticking with Piper’s “literal” reading here, we’ll play along as he pretends this first story from Genesis is compatible with the second story — the one with Adam and Eve and Eden and sin.
This “harmonizing” of the two stories really doesn’t work — the first story takes seven days, the second takes one day; in the first story it’s plants, then people, in the second story it’s people, then plants, etc. But let’s play along.
Here’s our story:
Day 5: God creates “every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm.”
Day 6: God creates humankind.
Day 7: God rests.
Day 8: The first generation of gastrotrichs dies.
Don’t be sad — three days is a good, long life for a gastrotrich, and I’m sure they were as happy as any microscopic invertebrate could be, swimming about in the river that flowed out from Eden to become the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris and the Euphrates.
But wait, John Piper says, the biology textbook in Romans 5 says that’s impossible. When Paul says “death came through sin” it doesn’t just mean human death but all death. Before Adam sinned, nothing died — not even the teeny pseudocoelomate creatures or the fruit flies or the Ephemeroptera.
Hmmm. I suppose if we stick with Piper’s reading, then Adam wouldn’t have named them that. Since the whole naming-all-the-animals story comes before the forbidden-fruit story, then, as Piper would have it, even the mayflies of Eden would not have been ephemeral.
Piper has several different options here for dealing with the problem of short-lived species in a world without death. He can have Adam and Eve make a beeline directly for the forbidden fruit, thus putting the Fall somewhere early in the morning of the eighth day. Or he can argue that these early, Edenic fruit flies and microscopic animals were tiny little invertebrate Methuselahs. Or …
Well, you get the idea. As an imaginative exercise in world-building, it’s fascinating to ponder the various ramifications of this idea of a world without death — a world in which every cell of every creature is immortal. It’s fun to think about — in just the same way that Torchwood: Miracle Day was fun to think about (if not as much fun to watch).
But while this idea of a world without death makes for an entertaining mental puzzle, it quickly creates an avalanche of absurdities and contradictions that prevent us from thinking of it as anything else.
Piper’s insistence on reading Romans 5 as a biology textbook does not make him theologically “conservative,” only theologically absurd. Saddle up the dinosaurs, this is Ken Ham territory.
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* Update: Fixed spelling here and in the title. Oops.