Evolution, Evangelicals, and their Bible (Or, Dealing with How God Rolls)

Evolution, Evangelicals, and their Bible (Or, Dealing with How God Rolls) January 6, 2012

[The following is adapted from the conclusion of The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins and is seriously modified for blog consumption.]

Why is there such tension between evangelicals and evolution?

The real problem isn’t evolution. There is a deeper problem: evangelicals tend to expect from the Bible what it was never intended to deliver.

Too often evangelicals start out the evolution discussion assuming that the Bible is prepared to address human origins as we think of it today—in historical and scientific terms.

When that unexamined assumption is the default, unimpeachable starting point in the discussion, conflict between “faith and science” is guaranteed. This puts people in the lose-lose position of feeling the need to compare and contrast the Bible and science and make a choice between them.

So, maybe we need to think more about how the Bible works and whether we are creating a problem by beginning with false assumptions.

Those false assumptions begin when we forget that the Bible is ancient literature that speaks from an ancient point of view.  An awareness of the Bible’s ancient cultural influences–even a minimal awareness–helps alert us to the kinds of questions the Bible is prepared to answer. Science is not among them.

But too many expect the Bible to give the final word on all sorts of things–as if it were an owner’s manual or some sort of reference work that speaks to any and every issue. Thinking this way creates problems–like the kind we often see when evangelicals talk about evolution.

Supposedly, it is unworthy of God to speak through ancient stories of origins that are neither historical nor scientific. God is the God of Truth. He would never stoop so low.

Uh…actually…yes he would. God is all about stooping low–way low. That’s how God rolls—at least the Christian God.

Remember the message of Christmas: God became man and walked among us, what theologians call the incarnation.  Here is how the Apostle Paul describes it. Even though Christ,

was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8)

Jesus was lowly, humble, slave-like—willingly emptied of his “equality with God.”

If we can say that about Jesus, surely we can say that about the Bible. Like Christ, the Bible takes the form of a lowly slave—simple, humble, so very human-like.

Herman Bavinck, smart dead white male

Don’t take my word for it. A Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck (1854–1921), had a great way of putting it.  Here is a longish quote, written in turn-of-the-century dead white male talk, but hang with it.

Christ became flesh, a servant, without form or comeliness, the most despised of human beings; he descended to the nethermost parts of the earth and became obedient even to death on the cross. So also the word [the Bible], the revelation of God, entered the world of creatureliness, the life and history of humanity, in all the human forms of dream and vision, of investigation and reflection, right down into that which is humanly weak and despised and ignoble. . . . All this took place in order that the excellency of the power . . . of Scripture may be God’s and not ours.

It’s worth the effort to track with Bavinck here. He is saying that the Bible, like Jesus, is a paradox.  The reason why both Jesus and Scripture look the way they do—so human, so ordinary, so much a part of their world—is to draw attention to God’s glory and power.

Let me put it another way: The Bible reflects the ancient cultures in which it was written, and this very fact proclaims the glory of God.

This may not make much sense at first. The evangelical tendency is not to talk up the Bible as “weak and despised and ignoble” as Bavinck does. The tendency is to talk up the Bible as perfect, inerrant, infallible–from God’s mouth to our ears. And anything that makes the Bible look lowly, etc., is hushed up so that the power of God can shine through.


The exact opposite is true. Jesus claimed that if you want to know God, you have to go through him. We can only see God truly through the human form he has chosen to use. This is true whether we are talking about a first century working-class Jewish carpenter or literature written in ancient Hebrew and Greek.  Both are  “weak and despised and ignoble,” as Bavinck puts it, and for that reason are worthy of revealing God’s power and glory.

The power and glory of God revealed through what is despised and humble.

This is mystery. This is paradox. Welcome to Christianity 101.

Let’s bring this back to evolution. When we read Genesis 1 or Genesis 2-3, we should expect it to give off this humble, lowly, servant vibe. We should not become worked up, offended, or frazzled because these stories clearly and undeniably look so very similar to the stories of other ancient cultures and have nothing to do with history or science as we think of those ideas today.

The kinds of stories we have in the Bible are precisely what we should expect–if we keep in mind how God rolls.

Divorcing the creation stories of the Bible from their ancient settings and forcing them to speak to contemporary scientific discussion over evolution isn’t just wrong or stubborn or misguided…

It is sub-Christian.

Why? Because it minimizes the very thing that makes the Christian God what he is: an incarnating God, a “walk among us” God.

Calling upon the biblical creation stories to settle the evolution question does not show respect for Scripture. It actually sells Scripture short by selling God short.

There is something strangely comfortable about a God who keeps his distance. But that’s not how God rolls. And if you’re going to follow the Christian God, that’s just something you’re going to have to get used to.

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  • Well, put. I had never extended “the come down to live with us” and “God chooses the lowly” notions to the Word. But it makes sense that God rolls that way.

    Just today I was reading about Abraham and how he passed Sarah off as his sister to save his hide. In doing so, he ended up forcing her to be the king of Egypt’s wife (loving husband, huh). The Bible is replete with this kind of sin from God’s people. This is the kind of people God rolls with. Thank God!

  • Great post, Mr. Enns. I had my fundamentalist worldview shattered a few years ago, and Christians like you are slowly helping me put things together again. You rock!

    • Paul

      What shattered your ‘fundamentalist’ worldview? An atheist’s interpretation of science perhaps? Well there’s a surprise. When are Christians today going to have some courage and stand up for what God says, rather than what men say? When we crave men’s approval more than God’s then something is terribly wrong.

  • Awesome post – I love it.

    The parallel between the weak and ordinary human for of Jesus and the ordinary cultural contexst of the Bible is a profound one – I’ll need to think about that a little more…

  • John Taylor

    Don’t you think you should have just a hint of suspicion about a religion that makes stupidity a virtue and claims an immoral example (the torture and killing of Jesus) as it’s central theme?

    All the other religions are known to be fake, why give this one a free pass?

    • The_L

      “Known to be fake?” As a member of one of those other religions, I feel obligated to correct you. 😉

      The truth is that the existence or non-existence of any deity cannot be scientifically proven. That’s not what science is for. Science is a method of studying the physical world. Any metaphysical stuff (gods, angels, etc.) that exists (providing any of it actually does) is therefore beyond the purview of science. You can’t use a tool for an unrelated purpose and get anything meaningful out. Screwdrivers are wonderful, useful things for tightening and loosening screws, but they make lousy frying pans. 😛

      Also, I seem to remember quite a bit in the book of Proverbs about seeking wisdom (personified as an aspect/servant of the Christian/Jewish god). Wisdom is the polar opposite of stupidity.

      And the central theme of Christianity is redemption and the resurrection of Jesus. Death is necessary for someone to return from the dead.

      I don’t care if you’re an atheist or not, but do please do a little research about things before you go around preaching, OK? 🙂

  • Jeremy

    Wow, if this is any indication, the new book is going to be a home run. I can’t wait to read it…

  • Really like it, Peter. My bro ordered it.

    Calling upon the biblical creation stories to settle the evolution question does not show respect for Scripture. It actually sells Scripture short by selling God short.

    You could even say that this approach–an all too human one–ideologizes Scripture. I.e., it treats scripture like a collection of abstractions that we fully understand and control and that can be linked together like legos, rather than narratives through which God calls us to meditate on the mystery of God’s creation.

    • peteenns

      I agree with your point here, Mark.

  • Thank you for this excellent article. John Calvin, one of the reformers of our faith, also explained this in his “doctrine of accomodation” — God accomodated His message to the sensibilities of its audience. Calvin rejected the idea of a firmament, and waters above the firmament, even though it is literally stated in Genesis 1. I think if Calvin were alive today, he’d accept evolution, or at least common descent.

  • david carlson

    This book is going to raise a brohaha

  • Samuel Conner

    Hi Dr Enns. I’ll have to read your book; this is an inviting extract. It sounds to me a great deal like Luther’s “Theology of the Cross”. Some years ago I heard it suggested that the insistence that Scripture speak definitively or plainly to questions of natural history is a species of the kinds of ‘theologies of glory’ that Luther condemned as sub-biblical. God approaches us in ways that we would not choose, were we given the choice. “.. no form or majesty that we should look
    upon Him. Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.” Yet some of us are attracted, and that is only of God.

    Thank you for this post.

  • David M.

    The metaphorical readings of “low” as applied to divine/human nature versus textual pragmatics seem fairly different. I find an argument by analogy of the former to the latter unconvincing.

    • peteenns

      David, it is a very old analogy in the history of the church. Though, of course, as is the case with any analogy, there is no direct correspondence. Not sure what you mean by “textual pragmatics.” Never heard that term before.

      • David M.

        My linguistic roots are showing — I was thinking of the application of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pragmatics to text in the mold of “textual criticism”. There’s almost certainly a better term.

  • It seems that sometimes we think that the “highest” view of Scripture is the best or true one. In fact, it is the Muslims who have the “highest” view, that the Quran is perfect, unchangeable, word-for-word from the mouth of God, perfectly preserved, miraculous, and, in the mainline view, eternal. This is similar in many ways to the way we see Christ, the Word of God, but this highest view is not the way any of use see Scripture.

    • John McCollum

      Mike, that is exactly the way many conservative evangelicals view the Bible. Growing up, we were taught that the Bible was a product of “verbal plenary” (word-for-word, jot-for-jot) inspiration. Many people I know hold to the perfectly preserved part as well, and believe that the KJV is an “inspired and authorized” translation.

      Unfortunately, many of “us” see Scripture that way.

  • I am not convinced Christians just start with Genesis and go from there. Rather, they reason something like this:

    1. If Darwin’s theory is true, then there is descent with modification and variation through natural selection and no design in nature.
    2. But there is design in nature.
    3. Therefore, Darwin’s there is false.

    Premise [2] can be affirmed without scripture, and I am willing to bet that those who believe in neither Darwin’s theory and nor the Bible reason this way. So while I think your post is generally helpful, I think it is incumbent on theistic evolutionists to show how decent with modification and variation by natural selection is compatible with design. Just asserting ‘God created through evolution” doesn’t cut it.

    • AHH

      Adam, your premise #1 goes astray by making “no design in nature” a result of evolutionary science. That just isn’t so with any Christian definition of “design” that allows for natural processes to be tools of the sovereign God.

      The logical consequence of the approach in your comment would be to conclude that the Sun, Moon, and stars are not a product of design either (contrary to Scripture), since we have good scientific explanations for their formation that don’t invoke any direct action of God.
      Any approach to talking about God’s role vis a vis natural explanations needs to be consistent in how it handles stars and starfish.

      • “#1 goes astray by making “no design in nature” a result of evolutionary science. That just isn’t so with any Christian definition of “design” that allows for natural processes to be tools of the sovereign God.”

        Fair enough, but you should know that Darwin himself and many others (Dawkins et al) believed that the natural processes are sufficient for eliminating design from biology, and that everything only appears to be designed. This same reasoning is often extrapolated out to very edge of the universe and beyond (the multiverse). Many Christians (and non-Christians!) don’t believe there is design in nature, just because the Bible says so. They believe there is after beholding nature!

    • The_L

      As a former YEC, I respectfully disagree. My experience was more like this:

      1. The Bible contains truth because it is the Word of God.
      2. If the Bible contains truth, then that means everything in it must be factually and/or historically accurate. (This doesn’t follow logically from #1, but when you’re raised to believe this stuff, you don’t notice the inconsistency.)
      3. Based on #2, creation either happened 6-10 millennia ago, via the exact 6-day process mentioned in Genesis, or every word of the entire Bible is meaningless. (This follows logically from #2, but again, premise #1 can be true without either of the other two holding.)

      Reword #3 to include Noah’s Ark (with or without including dinosaurs on said ark), the Exodus, whichever form of eschatology is currently in vogue, etc. Voila! An unassailable mount of conviction that is not in any sense based on fact–a castle built on the sand.

      Indeed, because such a form of Christianity is built on sand, it is far more difficult to get a person who believes it from conceding to the factual nature of evolution without utterly destroying that person’s faith. The foundations are so weak that if any other part of the castle falls, the whole shebang comes tumbling down like Jericho.

  • Robyrt

    Just because the Word came down to us in humble form through the writings of men doesn’t mean it isn’t true, inerrant, etc. just as Jesus, though human, was sinless. Rather, I’d say that treating the Bible like an instruction manual sells God short on his intelligence and creativity. Genesis 1-3 is interested in conveying something more important than facts.

  • James Elliott

    I recently introduced myself to Parallel Lives by Plutarch (46-120 AD), who must have walked the same roads as the Apostle Paul. My brief encounter points to clues, I think, in addressing the historicity of Adam and Eve. Plutarch seems to have a purpose similar to the writer of Genesis–“not concerned with history so much as the influence of character, good or bad, on the lives and destinies of men (Wikipedia).”

    I’ve read only the lives of Theseus and Romulus so far and am impressed with Plutarch’s skill in sifting through the strands of story looking for “truth.” He’s definitely not afraid to venture to the edges of the geographer’s map, beyond which “lies nothing but sandy deserts full of wild beasts, unapproachable bogs, Scythian ice, or a frozen sea.”

    He also makes this introductory comment: “Let us hope that Fable may, in what shall follow, so submit to the purifying processes of reason as to take the character of exact history. In any case, however, where it shall be found contumaciously slighting credibility, and refusing to be reduced to anything like probably fact, we shall beg that we may meet with candid readers, and such as will receive with indulgence the stories of antiquity.” Obviously, Plutarch believes the stories he relates (even the “groundless tales”) have value in themselves and in the effect they had on the people who lived and breathed them.

    I wish we were able to approach Scripture with more of this spirit, though I certainly would not label the early chapters of Genesis “Fable.” Point is, part of biblical interpretation for Christians is to so live and breath the story of Jesus (yes, founded on OT revelation) as to be changed by the Spirit of Truth.

    Thanks, and keep up the good work!

  • Thank you Mr. Enns…you have successfully altered my thoughts on Creation and Evolution. Now I will have to read your book.

    • peteenns

      As my doctoral professor Jon Levenson used to say, “I don’r care if you read it. Just make sure you but it.”

  • Rich Starnes

    Dr. Enns,

    I admittedly struggle with this issue because I see Chrisitianity as a faith which depends on and distinguishes itself from other religions due to its historicity. While I have no problem with the assertion/conclusion that God did not intend to reveal scientific truth as we currently understand that concept, but I find it hard to accept that He did not intend to reveal historic fact. Even the Mosaic books, for the most part, purport to be telling a history that the remainder of Scripture treats, not as ancient parable, but as actual fact. The genealogies of Genesis alone are treated as factually true in 1 Chronicles and the gospels. If the creation accounts/first 11 chapters of Genesis/entire Pentateuch are not historically true, then at what point is the Bible revealing “true truth?” Abraham? Exodus? Post-entry into the Holy Land? Post-exile? Jesus? The church era? Never? If its all parable/fable/spiritually-but-not-factually-true, then how can we make any truth claims superior to any other religion/worldview which makes its truth claims divorced from historicity?

  • Back when I was a preacher I remember saying from the pulpit that the Bible is inspired, but not like the Muslims claim the Quran was inspired. It wasn’t dictation, but something else. Oddly, when I said that I was still holding to young earth creationism. Things have changed, and I wrote on my current views recently: http://www.missionaljourneyman.com/2012/01/on-evolution-and-creation.html

  • Gray

    You said, “evangelicals tend to expect from the Bible what it was never intended to deliver.”

    I believe that to be true, so far as it goes. However, my question would be, what happens when the thing that was intended is something that challenges or contradicts our assumptions and our science.

    The Resurrection is a good test case. It is supernatural, contradicting our medical and scientific understanding of the natural world. Yet, the bible presents it as historical, and builds a whole heck of a lot of theology off of its occurrence. Do we have reason to mythologize it as well? The real, bodily resurrection of Jesus seems to be exactly what it “intended.”

    • peteenns

      Gray, the resurrection of Christ along with miracles are not scientifically testable and so cannot be compared to scientific subject.

      • Lee

        Earth origin theory is not scientifically testable either!

  • Lee

    Complete garbage! Begging the question/circular arguments. You are doing the same thing the serpent did in the Garden, saying, “Yea, did God really say…?” Shame!

    • Spot on Lee and Gray. Not that it will have any impact on the Doctor as he seems way too clever for that . . . not to mention hip. “That’s how God rolls.” Really? What’s next, “P. Diddy Enns”?

      Though the article does provide an interesting, although not surprising, appeal to the mystery of paradox and Bavinck as one of its most notorious modern practitioners. I am convinced that there really is no limit to the amount of mischief that can be caused by surreptitiously imposing the Creator/creature distinction on epistemology instead of ontology where it belongs. The above piece, and evidently the book on which it was lifted, is a case in point.

      • peteenns

        Sean, I looked your website “God’s Hammer.” You seem a bit angry.

  • Ken James

    2 Thess 2:1-3

    2 Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, 2 not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. 3 Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first