Evolving Evangelicalism (part 3): The Problem of Scientific Naturalism And My Thesis

The following series is based on my senior paper for Seminary. You may remember a video where I invited people to contribute their stories to help make my case. For the next couple weeks, I’ve decided to share my findings with you all. There will be a “thesis/problem” section, a “biblical theology” section, and an “application” section. I hope you will read along and share this with others! You can read the rest of the series here.

Evolving Evangelicalism: Inviting Church Leaders to Refine their Approach to Scripture and Origins (part 3)

The Problem of Scientific Naturalism

Any evolutionary theories incorporating scientific naturalism (or evolution as worldview) absolutely conflict with Christian belief. Pastor Timothy Keller insists: “Belief in evolution as a biological process is not the same as belief in evolution as a worldview.”[1] Scientific naturalism, distinct from biological evolution, “holds that all that exists is physical and can be reduced to its elemental material composition.”[2] Therefore, god is myth; only matter is eternal.

In this view, various forms of matter, called essences, existed eternally prior to the point in evolutionary history that led to the observable universe.[3] As a result, naturalists believe that appealing to God (or any spiritual entity) distracts from human progress because problems in the world can only be solved through science.[4] Alvin Plantinga makes the distinction clear: “What is not consistent with Christian belief… is the claim that this process of evolution is unguided – that no personal agent, not even God, has guided, directed, orchestrated, or shaped it.”[5] Christians often fail to leave room for a God-directed evolution, and naturalists often assume atheism can be deduced because of science.  Both views wrongly assert a false polarization.


St. Augustine[6] believed that humans ought to approach the quest for knowledge by holding together the two sacred forms of revelation given to humanity by God: the book of Scripture and the book of nature (or the natural world). He believed that these two books are God’s perfect and complementary modes of truth communication. Therefore, the interpretation of texts should not be held so tightly as to fail to leave room for the book of nature to reveal truth about reality.[7]

With this concern in view, Augustine wrote: “Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books.”[8] This applies today as well-meaning evangelical leaders teach that the biblical origins accounts conflict with evolution. This antagonistic stance is unnecessarily hindering some people from becoming or remaining part of the Christian faith, when in fact, the biblical witness of cosmic and human origins in no way conflicts with modern science.


[1]. Timothy Keller, “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople,” BioLogos Foundation, http://biologos.org/resources/timothy-keller/ (accessed February 11, 2012), 5.

[2]. Steve Wilkens and Mark L. San, Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2009), 100.

[3]. Ibid., 101.

[4]. Ibid., 104.

[5]. Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 12.

[6]. The source of the following: Lawrence M. Principe, “Science and Religion,” The Teaching Company: Great Courses, http://www.teach12.com/tgc/courses/course_detail.aspx?cid=4691 (accessed February 11, 2012).

[7]. Ibid., See: Course Book, 8.

[8]. As quoted by: I. Howard J. Van Till, “God and Evolution: An Exchange,” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion & Public Life, no. 34 (June 1993). Humanities International Index, EBSCOhost (accessed January 4, 2011), 32-38.

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  • The only way the Bible conflicts with science is if we view the Bible as a scientific textbook. I have no problem viewing that God has shaped things over time, using evolution for a larger purpose. But I was only able to agree with that view once I stopped holding to the Bible as the definitive answer book for all of life, and viewed it more as a guidebook of stories on how we can interact with God from those who came before me.

    • Kellen, I appreciate your insight.  I’ve been wrestling with that idea.  Can you point me in the way of your intellectual travels?  Books…links…lectures…whatever…. I’ll take em!  How did you reach this conclusion?  I just started reading Peter Enns’ “Inspiration and Incarnation” which seems to head down that road.  Have you read this?   Man…a few months ago, I stood in the middle of Barnes and Noble and absorbed the weight of available information (and ideas).  Factor in our pre-dispositions and the hyper-information age in which we live, to the intellectually thirsty and honest at heart, has the gravitational force of a black hole. I certainly need a Savior.  I think this is why its necessary we are informed by the Transcendent.  An honors calculus student can humble themselves to tutor a failing algebra student but not vice versa.  Thus on Christ the solid rock I stand…(all other ground is sinking sand)…But now I’m just at the point of trying to understand Him as He reveals Himself (on His own terms) not as He’s packaged.  Would love your recommendations (or anyone else eavesdropping) 🙂 Thanks…Brian reduxinflux@gmail.com

      • Unfortunately it wasn’t just one source. It was a 2.5 year journey through seminary. Much of which was spent trying to answer the question of where my belief lies now. My worldview was shattered when I entered seminary, and I had to rebuild. I’ve read a lot of blog posts, a few books, and just the general wrestling with the idea.

        A few of the ideas that helped along the way were finding out that the Bible didn’t drop down as one thing, but was compiled over years by many different people. And despite what some people say, there are contradictions. Not many of them are ground shattering, but it doesn’t all agree. So I began to view it as a collection of stories from people who walked this path before me as the wrestled with God and the world they were in. I admit, I haven’t fully fleshed out this idea yet, but it has provided some freedom that I didn’t used to have when viewing the Bible.

        • Kellen, Thanks for your candid response. I can relate.  
          God speed my friend.  “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring and thanks Paul for your recommendations…I’ll check em out 🙂

      • LeRoy, 
        Peter Enns’ “Inspiration and Incarnation” is a good place to start. For additional recommended reading, you could glance at my two Listmania! lists (
        Biblical Inerrancy  and Helpful books on the bible-science debate ) on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/gp/cdp/member-reviews/A10ULJVWJGVUYD/ref=cm_pdp_rev_all?ie=UTF8&sort_by=MostRecentReview

  • Jared Lowe

    I just started reading “Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the ultra-Darwinists and the Creationists both get it wrong.” The first chapters, at least, are not for the timid – he interacts thoroughly with issues in genetics, for instance – but he looks to be making a solid contribution to the discussion.

  • I agree 100% (as you know) 🙂

    Great job!

  • Dave

    One of the (many) problems I have with Darwinism is the “clay foundation” it’s built upon. There are now multiple generations of people who have been proven wrong yet still are the stepping stones for where “science” is today. How can we continue to agree with people who abhor what we treasure most? 

    • Bob Chapman

      What “clay foundation”?

  • Bob Chapman

    “holds that all that exists is physical and can be reduced to its elemental material composition.”

    Is light a wave or matter? (It has been a few years since I was in college. Physicists may have answered that question since then.)

    Do you mean “essense” as Aristotle used it?

  • The Bible shares who and Whose we are. It speaks to why we’re here, not how we got here.
    “Science and religion are neither mutually exclusive nor need to be seen as at odds with each other. Simply put, there are two kinds of truth – factual truth, and meaningful truth. Curiously, it may be argued that over the years, factual truth is what tends to change and be less reliable.” p. 199 “Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity” http://www.progressivechristianitybook.com

    See also, “Why my Fish are Kissing” http://www.elephantjournal.com/2010/09/why-my-fish-are-kissing/

  • Enjoying the series, Kurt.  Keep ’em coming!  Good work.

  • Solomon


  • Robert BYers

    it sounds like the old trick of saying Genesis is not true and the authors are liars.
    The bible is true and the vast majority of evangelical christians believe that.
    Therefore evolutionary jazz is wrong.
    Not the bible wrong . Evolution is wrong.
    Stop trying to get around this or your rejection of scripture and pass it off as okay and normal.
    think more about the merits of evolution and maybe the bible won’t seem so wrong.

    • No one here is saying that ”
      Genesis is not true and the authors are liars.” Some of us are saying that there is more than one way to interpret the Hebrew text of Genesis.  For instance, 
      One does not specify an age for the
      Earth or an age for the Universe.

      One does say that there was a
      beginning to the Universe and planet Earth.

      One does say that God created the
      heavens and the Earth.

      One does say that planet Earth was
      not always as it is now; changes have occurred.

      One does say that God acted to bring
      the present condition of the Earth into being.

      One does not say that the creative
      times (yom) are 24 hours in duration.

      One does not say that the creative
      times (yom) followed immediately one after another.

      One does not specify the total
      interval of time required for their completion.

      One does not say that the commands
      of God were fulfilled immediately, like a bolt of lightening.

      One does not indicate the specific
      means and steps by which the creative actions were brought to completion.

      One does say that God acted and issued
      commands for changes in the physical environment.

      One does say that God commanded the
      land to bring forth plants.

      One does not mention algae, diatoms,
      or any microscopic plant or creature.

      One does not categorize “life” in
      agreement with the modern categorization of “life.”

      One does not say when fish appeared
      or how they were brought into being.

      One does say that God commanded the
      appearance of air-breathing creatures in the water.

      xvii)Genesis One does say that God commanded and created
      air-breathing animals of the land.

      One does say that God created Adam

      One does not say that the creation
      of Eve was accomplished quickly.

      Whitefield, Reading Genesis One:
      Comparing Biblical Hebrew with English Translation (San Jose: R. Whitefield
      Publisher, 2003), p. 137]

  • John Hockert

    The simple fact is that once we bring in the idea of a God who acts in the universe, whether in evolutionary biology, physics, or any other science, we have given up science.  Science is the search for explanations of the universe from initial conditions and mechanistic rules.  Once an external agent like God is added, it is not science any more.  For example, Intelligent Design is not science!  The fact that something is not science does not mean that it is not true.  Science is a means for constructing very useful explanations of nature.  Whether they are true or not does not really matter to scientists so long as they are useful.  For example quantum electrodynamics has been proven false twice (by Freeman Dyson in the 1940s and the axiomatic field theorists in the 1960s); however, it is still a useful and powerful scientific approach because its predictions correspond to experimental data.