Growing Up Christian – Without Losing Faith or Brains (Guest Post: George Murphy)

It’s a pretty common story.  Someone grows up in a conservative Christian setting and is taught that Genesis gives the true account of creation and that evolution is false.  Then in high school or college the young Christian learns about evolution.  You’ve probably heard or met people who had that experience and reacted in one of two ways.  He may be convinced by the scientific evidence that evolution is true, and decide that Christianity must therefore be false.   Some have taken this path to militant atheism.  But if the Genesis stories have been a sufficiently fundamental part of the student’s world view, she may reject evolution and insist that Genesis is literally true.  Some anti-evolution crusaders have had such a history.

The first part of that story is mine.  I grew up in a conservative Lutheran church and took its teaching seriously.  In ninth grade I did a science project with the ambitious title “A Refutation of the Theory of Evolution.”  But one Sunday morning of my sophomore year in college, on my way home from church, I thought, “There’s no good reason for a Christian not to accept evolution.”  No drama, no trauma, just a realization that the basic claims of evolution don’t conflict with Christian faith.  Since then I’ve gotten a doctorate in physics, become a Lutheran pastor, and spent a lot of time and energy writing and speaking about how to understand scientific knowledge in a Christian context.

By no means am I the only person coming from a conservative background who has decided that religious belief and evolution can be compatible.  But reflection on my history has made me think that perhaps I have at least one insight into the process of coming to terms with science.

The fact that I was attracted to the physical sciences as I was growing up certainly helped in this process.  (It’s pretty hard to believe in six-day creation if you know a bit about modern astrophysics.)  But a major factor was the type of conservative Christianity to which I was exposed.  Certainly there was emphasis on the truth and authority of scripture but I wasn’t told that the Bible was to be revered for its own sake.  The teachings that made the greatest impression on my were those that the Lutheran tradition has always stressed – justification by grace alone through faith alone for Christ’s sake, the person of Christ and his real presence in the Lord’s Supper.  Forgiveness of sins was crucial but I don’t recall particular emphasis being placed on the idea of Christ paying for Adam’s sin (though that is a traditional teaching).

When I thought about the Apostles’ Creed (which we had to memorize, together with the catechism’s explanations, in confirmation class), I saw that its focus is on the saving work of Christ and renewal of life by the Spirit in the church.  Of course creation is there – “I believe in God, the Father, creator of heaven and earth” – but there’s nothing about the details of creation.  That doesn’t mean that the details are unimportant, and evolution provokes some tough theological questions.  It wasn’t until I was in seminary that I really wrestled seriously with some of those questions.  But the priorities are clear.  And we don’t have to have answers to all our questions in order to put our trust in the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Theological illiteracy contributes to the idea that science has to conflict with Christianity.  I don’t mean just lack of knowledge of the books or stories of the Bible but, more seriously, ignorance of the difference between truly fundamental Christian teachings and aspects of the faith that are secondary.  (I’m appalled by “statements of faith” that put belief in “a personal devil” on the same level as the atoning work of Christ.)  If a young person realizes that Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is the real fundamental that must be clung to in life and in death, it won’t cause a lot of harm if they think for awhile that the earth is a few thousand years old and that the Garden of Eden was a real place where a real Adam and Eve lived.  Maturity can come in its own time.  And our children and grandchildren won’t be pushed to become either militant atheists or anti-evolution crusaders.


Thanks to George Murphy on this challenging post!  The first time I encountered his writings was here.  Here is his bio from his website:

George Murphy has been active for many years in helping churches see the relevance of science for faith and to deal with religious issues raised by science and technology. With a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Johns Hopkins, he taught college science courses in the United States and Australia for twelve years. He received his M.Div. from Wartburg Seminary, and was pastor of St. Mark Lutheran Church in Tallmadge, Ohio from 1984 till 1999 and a pastoral associate at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Akron, Ohio from 1999 to 2008. Now retired from regular parish ministry, he continues to write and speak on issues of science and theology and is an adjunct faculty member at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus.

Dr. Murphy has published many papers in physics as well as articles in the science-theology dialogue in Dialog, The Lutheran, Zygon, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, and other journals, and writes the “Handiwork” column on issues of science and technology in ministry for Lutheran Partners. His most recent books are Pulpit Science Fiction (CSS, 2005) and The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross (Trinity Press International, 2003). Earlier books are Toward a Christian View of a Scientific World (CSS, 2001), Cosmic Witness (CSS, 1996) and The Trademark of God (Morehouse-Barlow, 1986), which is now out of print.

He has spoken at conferences and retreats for clergy and laity, seminaries, and universities and taught television courses on theology and science and religion. He served on the task force that developed the Evangelical Lutheran Church’s “Caring for Creation” statement and on a committee of the the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio that produced a report on “The Incarnation and the Internet”, and for years was a member of the Steering Committee of the ELCA Alliance on Faith, Science and Technology. Dr. Murphy has written for several services that provide internet resources for preachers.

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  • Juli

    I have a fascination with physics – especially quantum physics and theoretical physics. I will definitely read some of his work. I would probably have pursued a science education if I could have wrestled past my hang up with math. 🙂 Great post, though – thanks for sharing!

  • "And we don’t have to have answers to all our questions in order to put our trust in the God revealed in Jesus Christ…Theological illiteracy contributes to the idea that science has to conflict with Christianity."

    A hearty AMEN! I have nothing to add!

  • Josh Mueller

    I've come to similar conclusions myself although I used to be a fervent anti-evolution crusader in my high school years, and it took a bunch of other paradigm shifts to understand that my approach to Scripture was extremely narrow.

    I wouldn't say that theistic evolution has solved all my former questions. The most troublesome aspect of evolution for me is not the time frame or the mode of creation but the fact that nature was designed to be "red in tooth and claw" from the very beginning without sinners or Satan to blame. I'm still not sure what this process of violent death in order to promote the advancement of life is telling us about God.

    • I wouldn't give him canonical authority, Josh, but I think JRR Tolkein had an interesting point of view on the death question you raise. It's clearer in "The Silmarillion" than in LOTR, but he offered the idea that man was given the gift of death by the Creator, as the path by which he could leave "the circles of this world" to join the Creator in even greater bliss. Man, however, was jealous of the immortality he saw in others, and rather than accept the Creator's gift, laid siege to the Undying Lands to seize immortality on his own terms. I think it's an interesting parable of the fall…

    • Kurt

      Josh M. Have you read Greg Boyd's thoughts on this? I don't know if I agree for sure yet, but it is an interesting approach:

  • kimberly quinn

    I maybe missing something here, but what is the point of the post? He gives no evidence for his belief in evolution, seems to pick and choose which part of scripture he believes. I didn't find it challenging in any way. When people start to pick and choose what Scripture they believe they are on a slippery slope

    • Jonathan B.

      His evidence is a working knowledge of modern physics, coupled with a firm belief that the God of the Bible would not intentionally lie and mislead the entire world and an understanding of the type of history being communicated in the Bible (Salvation's history, not World history).

      Case in point: Modern astrophysics has detected stars which are billions of light-years away (the evidence for this is a simple understanding of high school trigonometry, the methodology isn't flawed in any way). Now, assuming our understanding of basic math isn't flawed, we have two options regarding the Genesis account. Either it isn't 6 literal days (ie God is trying to communicate something else through that account) and the universe is billions of years old or God lied about the position of that star.

      See, it's possible for that not to be 6 literal days and God not be lying, because Genesis wasn't written to 21st century readers so he may not be (and in fact probably isn't) trying to communicate a play by play of the creation of the universe. But it's not possible for an observed star to be billions of light years away and the universe only be 6,000 years old at the same time. Romans tells us the invisible attributes of God are visible in His creation, one of those attributes is His truthfulness. If He tells us (through scientific observation) that a star is billions of light-years away, then He must be telling the truth about the position of that star. That truth about the star's position logically implies another truth about the age of the universe, that it is at least billions of years old.

      Personally, I like the take on Genesis found in some videos posted by Carson Clark on his blog, interpreting the account as the inauguration of the Earth as God's temple. It fits with how ANE readers would have interpreted it, it's consistent with modern scientific understandings, and it doesn't require Christians to look like fools by putting snakes in oddly-colored hyperbaric chambers and claiming when the grow to outrageous proportions that it indicates Genesis is true (that's a true story from a creation science museum I was forced to visit in High School).

    • Hello Ms. Quinn, I don't understand your reply. Would you mind explaining why you think George Murphy is"picking and choosing" scripture? Thank-you. Kim Baragry

  • This was a thought provoking post, Kurt.

    I hope I don't cause offence by disagreeing with your point of view on Theistic Evolution. What I do agree with is your statement that Theology and Science do not need to be in disagreement. Science is simply a study of how our world works. Who made our world? God. Therefore science is our way of seeing something of the wonder and power of God.

    I am no scientist and cannot bring anything scientific to the discussion. I have 2 problems with Evolution as the mechanics of Creation.

    1) I think it limits God – why would God create something in an imperfect state?

    2) If God created something and left it to develop on its own does this not mean we can infer that God is not in complete control?

    I think that the Intelligent Design theory raises too many questions about evolution as a theory for it to be viewed as a method God would use.

    I would say that micro-evolution is definitely apparent but in terms of macro-evolution, I have problems marrying this up with the Biblical characteristics of God.

    Sorry my first post here is a negative one. What I think is great is that there is a good forum for discussing these matters.

    While I do see my massive limitations in understanding I know the one thing I can be sure of is a God who loved me and His Son who died to save me.


    • Kurt

      Simon… thanks for your kindness and your humble comment. I am glad that you felt it ok to speak up against this… I used to share your concerns. A good starting place for a deeper discussion would be my 15 min video on Genesis 1 available here:

      Please, engage with that content and let me know what you think!

      • Thanks Kurt. I will take a look. I think discussion is good – fighting is bad. But glad to be on here and looking forward to hearing from you more.

        • Kurt

          You bet friend. Grace and peace.

  • I like this a LOT. I look forward to engaging in more conversation, but at the moment I have to run. Maybe later tonight.

  • kimberly, The Bible was written by dozens of authors over a 3500 year time span. It is a compilation of different types of literature, from history to poetry. One of the rules of reading ancient texts is that you take them at face value. Genesis 1 has the hallmarks of poetry or liturgy or theater – you can easily imagine it being performed as a shadow-puppet play. Further, there was clearly no human eyewitness, so the inspired author can be thought of as recounting an impression of a vision or a dream, much like Ezekiel or Daniel or John. The text itself does not demand to be taken literally, as does Luke's travelogues in Acts. This isn't "picking and choosing which Scriptures to believe." It's simply reading the text for what it is, and as importantly, NOT reading it for what it isn't.

    Simon, your question, "Why would God create something in an imperfect state?" was answered by John Piper a number of years ago in "The Pleasures of God" (I think). A too-brief summary: God is perfectly happy being God. He is totally "chill" with Himself, and so will do things that only He can do, just because He can do them. (I'm a guitar player, and I take pleasure in playing stuff I can play, just because I can play it.) So what's something that only God can do? Create a Universe that must be saved from itself, that only He can save, and then save it.

    Now, that is a gross oversimplification, and it is too easy to get the wrong idea about God's motivations. (Piper also addresses that in his essay, "Is God for Us or for Himself?")

    But God creating a flawed thing by no means casts aspersion on His perfection. After all, Persian rug weavers are capable of weaving a rug without flaws; they deliberately introduce a mistake into each rug so as not to insult God by making something perfect.

    Likewise, God creating a universe and then leaving it to develop actually implies greater knowledge and control, since God perfectly foreknew each and every result of each and every random event. Greg Boyd is dead wrong on this point – God cannot be surprised.

    How does this square with free will and accountability? It's a paradox. But a paradox is not the same thing as a contradiction. Genesis through Revelation, God is large and in charge, AND man has free will and is accountable. How both can be true, we can't understand. But Scripture is very clear that both ARE true.

    An example: It's late on a winter's night here in Ohio. But it is also a warm sumer day in Melbourne. How can this be? You have to change your perspective – jump out into space – to see than not only both CAN be true, but MUST be true. If it is winter here, it MUST be summer there. And that realization opens up greater insight. That is the nature of paradox.

    • With all due respect, Corrie, I think you may be selling Boyd and the Open View a little short here. A careful look at Scripture does not come out with as clear-cut view of God's foreknowledge as that usually preached from our pulpits. In fact, when I've gone to a number of the major "proof texts" used to substantiate God's absolute foreknowledge, I've seen that they fall into a couple categories far short of comprehensive knowledge:

      1) God stating what he has purposed to accomplish…which obviously cannot be thwarted, not because he has the knowledge, but because he has the power to accomplish it;

      2) God stating that–unlike humans–he does not go back on his word, and if he has decreed something, it can be trusted (he can be trusted)

      Neither of these truths requires comprehensive, absolute foreknowledge. On top of this, it is a logical (as opposed to biblical) reality that anything that can be foreknown must, in fact, be settled. If there is such a thing as a possibility, a choice, or an option in a thing, then the outcome cannot be foreknown as a certainty, but only as possibilities and (perhaps) their probabilities. That's why Boyd posits God as knowing all of the possible outcomes of a situation, so he's not really "surprised," but because he has honestly and truly released the choice for the outcome to one or more of his creatures, he doesn't know which outcome will be chosen until the choice is made.

      The notions that God is "outside of time" and/or must have absolute foreknowledge of events, are actually Platonic, not Biblical, constructs. The God of our faith is far more dynamic and interactive than all that.

  • More of my ruminations on the Open View, if you're interested, over here.