Adam and Evolution: Praying, Going to Church, and Ancient Creeds Won’t Help

Adam and Evolution: Praying, Going to Church, and Ancient Creeds Won’t Help December 14, 2012

No, I am not against prayer, Jesus, the Bible, etc., so you can delete that comment you’re writing.

I am saying that when it comes to dealing with Christianity and evolution, you have to deal with some data, namely scientific and historical.

I am reacting here to an approach to the Christianity/evolution debate that I have seen raising its head and gaining some traction over the last year or so. The most recent example that comes to mind is an article in Christianity Today by Jamie Smith of Calvin College (“What Galileo’s Telescope Can’t See,” September, 2012).

Though by no means the lone voice in this trend, Smith is emerging as a champion of an approach that, I feel, is almost entirely unhelpful, and if taken too far, will simply make the problem far worse.

The general argument Smith gives voice to goes something like this (I am also collapsing into this some of Smith’s earlier comments on the matter; see responses here and here):

1. Evolution is not as pressing an issue as some might think. It is certainly not a “Galileo” moment, as some are saying. Yes, the church was reluctant at first to come to terms with the scientific evidence confirming a heliocentric solar system, much to its embarrassment. But the current reluctance on the part of [conservative Protestant] Christians to accept evolution is an entirely different matter.

So, don’t raise the specter of Galileo as a means to guilt, strong arm, or shame the church into accepting the implications of evolution for a historical Adam.

2. The reason for #1 is that threefold:

(a) The evidence for evolution, though present, is still a matter of debate, and so we cannot be sure there was not a first man, at least in a theological sense (as opposed to a first biological man).

(b) The evidence of mythic creation stories from ancient Near Eastern, i.e., the world of the Old Testament, though interesting, cannot play a significant role in our interpretation of the biblical story of Adam. Such data are culled from the world of biblical scholarship, which errs in focusing solely on the human context of Scripture. Christians who wish to hear to voice of God, by contrast, need to read the Bible from God’s perspective, i.e., by reading it according to the intention of the “divine author.”

(c) Most importantly, the huge difference between evolution and heliocentrism is that the latter is not central to the Christian faith, whereas the historical Adam is. Hence, the two should not be compared and we cannot use the lessons from the time of Galileo to speak to the current moment.

3. The solution offered is likewise threefold:

(a) Since or theology needs an Adam, don’t rush to judgment by accepting the scientific or historical evidence. Be patient. More data could be brought to light that will affirm Christian doctrine, so don’t cave in to the myth of neutral scientific progress.

(b) A key dimension of the posture of patience is to maintain an active life of prayer and worship in the grand tradition of the church. This involves accessing the ancient traditions of the church, i.e., the early Church Fathers and the early ecumenical creeds.

(c) Perhaps most importantly, Christians must remain centered in Christ, which for Smith seems to mean that proceeding by faith that all things–including evolution–are “held together in Christ.”

Let me say, so that there is no misunderstanding, that patience, prayer, church tradition, Christ-centeredness, and engaging in worship as an act rather than simply reducing one’s faith the life of the intellect are very important to me, and nothing I say here should be understood otherwise.

However, the call to worship, etc., is misplaced because it obscures what is in fact an intellectual issue, the evidence for which is, frankly, overwhelming and has been “patiently” assessed (both the scientific and ancient Near Eastern evidence) for going on 200 years now–which raising the question of at what point patience crosses the line to obscurantism.

One of many things that concerns me about this train of thought is that it gives the impression of theological depth. And I will say on certain levels this is true, at least when compared to the “fundagelicalism” that I feel Smith and I are both reacting to in some sense.

Still, at some point, the way forward Smith claims–the life of prayer, liturgy, and engagement of the “Great Tradition”– must also come to terms with science and history, and offer a way forward that genuinely engages the evidence rather than tables it.

After reading Smith’s article, though, I was still left wondering, as I always am when I read such things,

“OK., but what do you do about Adam vis-a-vis science and history? And be specific and clear, showing us that you understand and take with utmost seriousness not only your own theological requirements but the evidence.”

This question requires one of two answers: (1) Here, specifically and knowledgeably, is why the evidence is not compelling, or (2) here, imperfect and provisional as it may be, is how I bring together the world of my faith and the evidence.

But, if in that moment an appeal is made to patience, prayer, and worship–well–it rings a bit hollow. One might get the impression that this is only a slightly more sophisticated version of circling the wagons such as we find in Answers in Genesis. Calling on the church to “theorize imaginatively and creatively” by “retrieving the wisdom of ancient Christians” sounds wonderful–even sophisticated and promising–but: show me. Talk about the science and the history. How is your theology in concrete conversation with these things?

As it stands, it seems to me that the theology Smith is giving voice to does little more that provide theological language that gives us permission to avoid the problem rather than face it, while giving the impression that in doing so we have achieved some higher level of theological sophistication.

That, in a nutshell, is my deepest concern in all of this.

So, to sum up:

To be sure, as Smith claims in the title of his CT essay, there are things that “Galileo’s telescope can’t see.” Indeed. But there are some things it can see–such as the footprints of evolution and the nature of ancient creation myths. Theology that obscures these things is part of the problem, not the solution.

I do think #3 a, b, c above are vital elements of the Christian life, but they most certainly do not provide either the answer to a way forward for addressing the genuine and pressing problem of evolution vis-a-vis Christianity.

As for #s1 and 2, both of these misrepresent the gravity of the moment and minimize the persuasive nature of the evidence we have at hand for those conversant with it. 2b is a particular concern of mine, in that it seems to suggest that one can access the mind of God by rising above the particulars of history. In my experience, such claims are too often found on the lips of those who confuse their theological system with “what God is really after.”

Others of us, including many biblical scholars, would like to continue thinking that, in some sense, God’s voice is seen in the vicissitudes of history that the Bible presents–despite the challenges this raises–rather than at some safe distance from them.

That would be a truly prayerful, liturgical, worshipful posture in my opinion, and the mystery of the incarnation points us in that direction.


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  • Mark Lickliter


    I want to ask honestly: Is there temptation in the world of academia to come up with new and novel ideas in order to be accepted? It almost seems that for all of church history no one was able to truly understand God’s Word until you came along and set everyone straight. I am reading your book right now and honestly trying to wrestle with your arguments. I understand the need to understand the culture in which the Bible was written in order to aid in our understanding, but can this be taken too far? Is it at least possible that you have taken it too far? If so, are you leading numerous people astray? I notice that you have written a book for children, so what if your premise is wrong and you are leading children astray? What about the millstone that Jesus talked about? Is it truly worth it? Worth being wrong? What is the most positive fruit that you have seen from your new and novel understanding of Scripture? Also, does the Bible itself command us or point us in the direction of such study? (ie: ANE literature, cultural contexts, etc.) What chapter? What verse tells us we must understand these things in order to understand the text? Does the average person have to have a degree in ANE literature to understand the OT? Do you think that it is possible that God sovereignly ordained that Scripture be written in such a way that it transcended all cultures, times and places in order to accommodate us or do we need to read your book first? I am honestly asking these questions and not trying to pick any fights. It just seems that there is an inclination on your part to view ANE literature and science with more weight than the Bible itself. As far as the analogy of the 2 natures of Christ and its relationship to Scripture, it seems that the analogy falls apart very quickly. Christ’s human nature does not sin, but only does what is pleasing to the Father. It would seem that you suggest that the “messiness” of Scripture is its imperfection, but Christ is perfect. If we have imperfect Scripture, then your analogy is proven imperfect as well. However, if Scripture has imperfections how do we determine where they are? With our “perfect” ability to locate them in light of studying ANE literature? Sorry I threw so much at you. I completely understand if you don’t address it all. Thanks for giving me something to think about and I hope I do the same.