Evolving Evangelicalism (part 13): Beyond the Culture War (Bad Curriculum + Leadership Gap)

This is the conclusion of the “Evolving Evangelicalism” series. You may remember a video where I invited people to contribute their stories to help make my case. I plan to make this available as an ebook in the near future. For now, you can read the rest of the series here.
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Evolving Evangelicalism: Inviting Church Leaders to Refine their Approach to Scripture and Origins (part 13)

3. Quit Reinforcing the False Dichotomy in Curriculums and Sermons

In two of the churches where I served as a pastor, it was common practice to implement curriculum that reinforced anti-evolutionary theology. In both churches, the senior pastors saw the benefit of diverse views, yet, rather than cause conflict in the community, they allowed the anti-evolution agenda to be taught, and chose to not create space for other approaches – such as the views I have advocated for in this paper. Curriculums, like Focus on the Family’s Truth Project, continue to cultivate the false dichotomy that leads to the spiritual results shared in the stories above.

I invite pastors and other evangelical church leaders to see the continuation of this kind of theology as damaging to the Gospel message. In most contexts, the application of such a realization will need to be handled with much sensitivity. Perhaps churches can take a step forward by eradicating curriculum like the Truth Project and Ben Stein’s Expelled from their programs. Whatever it takes, pastors and leaders ought to consider how reinforcement works against a church that desires to create an atmosphere of openness to varying perspectives. How a church deals with this issue has potentially eternal ramifications.

4. Bridge the Gap between Evangelical Leaders and the Pews

Finally, I suggest that the gap needs to be bridged between many evangelical scholars/pastors and the pew. Evangelical leaders like – C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, Tim Keller, Greg Boyd, John Walton, Bruce Waltke, Philip Yancey, John Stott, Francis Collins, Darrel Falk, Os Guinness, Peter Enns, Joel Hunter, Tremper Longman III, Alister McGrath, and Mark Noll – are examples of respected evangelical scholars or pastors who have openly affirmed evolution and hold a high view of biblical authority. Yet, the disconnect is vast between the beliefs of evangelical leaders and the average church attendee. Mark Noll writes:

The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind… [T]hey have nourished millions of believers in the simple verities of the gospel but have largely abandoned the universities, the arts, and the other realms of “high” culture.[1]

He later discusses the problem of evangelicals and those who demote the roll of modern-day science in order to sustain particular views of “creationism.” This is a key example of the anti-intellectual streak in much of evangelicalism. Noll writes:

Evangelicals make much of their ability to read the Bible in a “simple,” “literal,” or “natural” fashion… In actual fact, evangelical hermeneutics, as illustrated in creationism, is dictated by very specific assumptions that dominated Western intellectual life from roughly 1650 to 1850 (and in North America for a few decades more). Before and after that time, many Christians and other thinkers have recognized that no observations are “simple” and no texts yield to uncritically “literal” readings…. [T]o interpret the early chapters of Genesis adequately, it is necessary to make use of the thorough historical study of the ancient world, carefully nuanced exegesis, and wide familiarity with scientific procedures and results.[2]

Noll convincingly argues that evangelicals as a whole are ill-equipped to interact with intellectual evidence in the area of science. This problem can only be remedied by pastors and church leaders who choose to seriously consider the invitation to both grow in their own understanding of Scripture and to present perspectives congruent with biblical scholarship. Many Christian leaders were taught in seminaries that shied away from this topic or assumed that creationism is the only biblical option.

Although segments of the evangelical academy are evolving toward fresh exegetical approaches to these issues, many pastors’ educations predate that shift. Therefore, we who are leaders must be readers, self-motivated to grow in theological reflection and the communication of these insights. If need be, we can borrow the credibility of well-known evangelicals who expound an Augustinian two books approach to theology. In doing so, we equip Christians to recover the evangelical mind and offer a path out of this unnecessary culture war.

CONCLUSION

The goal of this paper was to demonstrate that the polarity between biological evolution and biblical theology unnecessarily creates a stumbling block for people to become or remain Christian. We examined the problems surrounding this issue, such as the church creating an unnecessary stumbling block to Christ. Through this, we noted the missional purposes for engaging the conversation in fresh ways. Through an approach to biblical theology that attempts to hold the book of nature and the book of Scripture together, we saw that a faithful exegesis of Genesis 1 says nothing in conflict with modern scientific understandings of evolution.

I then invited the church to move forward by: creating cultures of openness, listening to stories with new ears, avoiding problematic curriculums and sermon content, and bridging the gap between known evangelical scholars and pastors and the culture of the pews. One of these influential evangelicals is Billy Graham. He once said:

I don’t think that there’s any conflict at all between science today and the Scriptures. I think we have misinterpreted the Scriptures many times and we’ve tried to make the Scriptures say things that they weren’t meant to say, and I think we have made a mistake by thinking the Bible is a scientific book. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption, and of course, I accept the Creation story. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man… whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.[3]

May we heed the wisdom of Billy Graham and choose to abstain from any unnecessary hindrances for the furtherance of the Gospel of Christ in the 21st century. May we help the evangelical church at-large to grapple with biological evolution in fresh ways. And may we partner in God’s mission to embody the realities of God’s kingdom in God’s incomprehensible universe, as it continues to evolve and expand until King Jesus’ return to earth.


[1]. Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994), 3.

[2]. Ibid., 197.

[3]. David Frost, “Doubts and Certainties: David Frost Interview (BBC-2, 1964),” in Billy Graham: Personal Thoughts of a Public Man – 30 Years of Conversations with David Frost (Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor, 1997), 73-74.

  • http://twitter.com/j_m_hildebrandt Jason M Hildebrandt

    I have to say I really appreciated this series. These are very similar thoughts to my own, and that won’t surprise you. I hope we can get past these wars over the Bible and start focusing on the task at hand, but I fear that there will always be more to fight over and more to distract us. You’re probably correct that this is a Gospel issue–not that accepting science is counter to the Gospel, but that rejecting science hinders the Gospel.

    After all my years of arguing with so-called creationists, the thing that saddens me the most is that I can’t be labeled a creationist because I accept the theory of evolution even though I readily proclaim God as creator. More conservative Christians don’t want me, and atheists wouldn’t accept me if I did bear that label.


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