Why I am not a “theistic evolutionist”

Christians who accept the theory of evolution (see previous post) face some difficulties with terminology.

The usual term applied to our position is “theistic evolution”. However, I dislike describing myself as a “theistic evolutionist”, for a couple of reasons.

First, “theistic evolution” singles out evolution, among all scientific theories, as one for which Christians need a special term. We don’t talk about “theistic quantum mechanics”, “theistic astrophysics” or “theistic heliocentrism” – despite the challenges each of those scientific theories could be seen as making to certain interpretations of Scripture – and part of the “theistic evolution” position is precisely that evolution should be treated in the same way as any other scientific theory.

More importantly, however, “theistic evolution” suggests a harmonisation of science and theology; one which is liable to distort both. In one direction, this can lead people to misunderstand evolution, by interpreting it as progress towards a predefined goal (“human beings are the pinnacle of evolution”). More seriously, though, are the distortions in the other direction, where people draw conclusions about who God is and what he is like in the light of what evolution seems to tell us.

This can go to extremes, as in someone like Teilhard de Chardin. However, even those who retain a more conventional Christian theology are still tempted to this, such as when Ken Miller writes:

[E]volution is the only way a Creator could have made us the creatures we are – free beings in a world of authentic and meaningful moral and spiritual choices.

This is equivalent to the errors of 18th century Deists, who took the findings of Newtonian physics and concluded that God must be a remote being who had set a deterministic universe in motion and then politely retreated to let it proceed on its course without further interference. That was a serious error: but it didn’t discredit Newtonian physics on a scientific level, and nor should theistic evolution discredit the science of evolution.

Another term which I’ve come across is “evolutionary creationism”. The Christian biologist Stephen Matheson has used this term, and it has the advantage of emphasising that Christians who accept the theory of evolution still believe very firmly in creation. However, it is subject to the same criticisms as “theistic evolution”: namely, that it implicitly combines science and theology into a single endeavour, rather than allowing each to speak on its own terms.

So does that leave me with Stephen Jay Gould’s “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA)? This view – that science and religion are dealing with entirely different questions and hence cannot be in fundamental conflict – has some appeal. Perhaps too much appeal: it’s a handy way of waving all the problems out of existence. Everyone breathe a sigh of relief!

The problem with NOMA is that religion – and in particular Christianity – is not able to retreat to the incorporeal realm of “ultimate meaning and moral value” assigned to it by Gould. The Christian proclamation makes certain statements that impinge on the natural world of science and observation. It may not be possible in practice to make scientific observations of Jesus’ conception in the womb of his virgin mother, or of his miracles, or of his resurrection from the dead, but those were all events that were in principle capable of such observation, and that give the Christian faith a stubborn and ineradicable connection with the physical world.

So instead of talking about “non-overlapping magisteria”, I’d prefer to talk about “discrete narratives”. There is the narrative of science, and the narrative of Christian proclamation and theology. Each of those narratives must be taken on its own terms, rather than trying to make premature harmonisations between them (which is simply to create a new narrative that preserves the integrity of neither). But nor can we assume from the outset that the two narratives have nothing to do with one another.

Indeed, the relationship between the two narratives is highly complex, which is one reason why attempts to express that relationship in simplistic terms – whether of mutual incompatibility (as in both creationism and Dawkins-style atheism), mutual harmonisation (as in theistic evolution) or mutual insulation (as in NOMA) – have failed.

I don’t pretend to have the answer as to how the narratives of science and theology are to be related to one another. Indeed, I don’t believe a final answer can be given, since the narrative of science (in particular) is, by definition, subject to constant change and development. However, I do think that Lutheranism has some fresh perspectives to bring to the question – another reason why it is a tragedy that confessional Lutheranism has chosen rejectionism rather than engagement on this issue – and hope to outline some of these in my next post.

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24 Responses to Why I am not a “theistic evolutionist”

  1. The Terrible Swede says:

    No, John, confessional Lutheranism has not chosen rejectionism.

    You’re welcome to discuss this with the Lutherans on The Wittenberg Trail

    Six Day Creation (Hexameron doctrine) is still tenable. Science over Scripture
    is not.

  2. The Terrible Swede says:

    The comment field and this version of IE don’t seem compatible with your blog.

  3. John H says:

    Which version of IE are you using? Have just posted this comment from IE 7. (Ugh. Must go and wash my hands now. πŸ˜‰ )

  4. The Terrible Swede says:

    IE 6.0.2900.2180

    IOW, POS

  5. John H says:

    You have my commiserations. πŸ˜‰

    Sadly, if Google can’t be bothered to support IE 6 then neither can I. πŸ™‚

  6. The Terrible Swede says:

    My statement and invitation still stand.

  7. John H says:

    Oh yes, the actual substance of what you were saying!

    Thank you for the invitation. However, I’m probably not in a position (or the mood) to join in with that particular debate at the moment.

    In any event, these posts are not really about arguing for a pro-evolution position as such. Even if the folks on the Trail could persuade me of the 6 x 24 position, that would still leave plenty of other people sitting in the pews who continue to accept evolution and an ancient universe, and hence it would still leave us with the question of how Lutheran pastors should address those people.

    It is empirically the case that a plurality of views on this issue exists within Lutheran churches. However, some pastors continue to speak as if only atheists believe in evolution, and the Lutheran church on an institutional level continues to choose not to engage with the evolutionary position in any way other than outright, “computer says no” rejection of it. That’s the problem, and it won’t be solved by one layperson moving from one camp into the other.

  8. joel hunter says:

    A hopeful and promising proposal. I wonder if you might apply it to any systematic field of human inquiry vis-a-vis Christian theology. How broadly do you construe “narrative of science?” The subject of your post is limited to the sciences of nature, but it needn’t be, I suppose.

  9. John H says:

    Joel: thanks for your comment.

    I would construe that term not only broadly but loosely. πŸ™‚

    What I’m getting at is simply allowing each discipline to speak, and be assessed/”read”, on its own terms. So I don’t have a particularly hard-and-fast idea of what I mean by a “narrative”. It could be anything from a particular scientific theory or article of faith, right up things (like evolution) that are more of an overarching “paradigm”.

    A case study for me is that of the creation and rebellion of human beings. We need to be clear that there is no obvious point in the current scientific account of human origins/development where we can insert Adam and Eve.

    Equally, however, I agree with Henri Blocher that, if Genesis 2 and 3 are to be regarded as a “myth”, then they are a myth which tells us of a rebellion occurring at a particular time and place, rather than an “everyman” story.

    So even if we have to throw up our hands and say, “I haven’t the foggiest idea how these two accounts fit together”, we can’t abandon the integrity of the biblical narrative of humanity’s creation and rebellion, not least since the biblical proclamation of redemption in Christ makes no sense without it.

    Hope that’s clear: my brain is operating at about 60% capacity today…

  10. Rick Ritchie says:

    The word “narrative” is interesting here. Probably well-chosen. But it makes me wonder just how compatible the genres are.

    I’ve noticed, for instance, that when Richard Dawkins is arguing with someone like Rowan Williams, he’ll use the term “scientific fact” when he means either just something that actually happened or something that could be proved to be true through scientific means, as if these were one and the same in all cases. (This clearly ignores most of what has actually happened, the evidence for which has become lost.) What this shows is how dominant one way of looking at the world can become for those who do so.

    The same thing happens in theology. We tend to read Genesis, say, to answer a particular kind of theological question. We’re looking for metaphysics. What came across to me when I listened to the Bill Moyers series Genesis: A Conversation, was how the Jewish participants read so differently, and how their tradition had done so for centuries. They stayed IN the story. If they ran into a problem, instead of coming up with a new theory to harmonize the data, they would add a new chapter to the story. At first this seemed whimsical to me. Then I started to wonder. Even if the additions were wrong, they might have reflected a better stance towards the story.

    I think you are right about what is specifically wrong about Gould’s proposal. But as a general proposal, there is a lot to recommend it. “Ultimate meaning and moral value” may not quite hit the target. But I think it’s easy to miss that target. I think our theologians are often mistaken as to what the target is, so I’m not surprised if Gould is off by a bit. I suspect, though, that to be able to answer this better, we would have to be better at knowing what kinds of claims were being made by our own narratives.

    Were it not for a few New Testament references, I would probably read Adam and Eve as myth. That doesn’t seem to work based on those references. But I’m still not certain. I feel like I have a lot more to learn as a reader. But not being sure what I’m dealing with allows me a lot of wiggle room, which I value.

  11. AltWorlder says:

    Could there be a view that accepts and pragmatically utilizes scientific findings derived from the theories of evolution, while at the same time holding on to the faith that “ultimate truth” is in Scripture, and that ultimately (but not in the foreseeable future) the Scriptural view will be vindicated by empirical findings?

  12. John H says:

    AltWorlder: I suppose it’s possible in principle to “pragmatically utilize” scientific theories you believe on other grounds to be false, but I don’t think it’s a particularly sustainable position in practice. (Reminiscent of theories that suggest God created the universe with the appearance of great age, which sounds fine as a generality until you actually start to look at the specifics of what that would involve.)

    But your comment begs the question. This isn’t about “the scientific view” (billions of years, evolution) versus “the Scriptural view” (thousands of years, six days). I don’t believe that the Bible, correctly interpreted, teaches a literal six-day creation occurring a few thousand years ago. (Though I should add that I certainly don’t believe it teaches billions of years of evolution, either. I don’t think the relevant texts set out to address the question one way or another.) So it’s not a case of waiting for science to swing round to the “Scriptural view”.

  13. John H says:

    Rick: if you can get hold of Henri Blocher’s book In the Beginning, he has a very good chapter considering the question of whether the Adam and Eve narrative is a myth.

    He concludes – to refine my slightly confused summary in an earlier comment – that the account of Adam and Eve is not a myth. Rather, it is an account of an historical event – a rebellion against God that really happened, in space and time – but told with mythical elements (the garden, the tree, the snake, etc.).

    He argues his case from a comparison with other creation myths and from the Old Testament and New Testament data. Not just the obvious ones (Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15), but texts such as Jesus’ statement that “It was not so in the beginning”.

  14. Rick Ritchie says:

    John H: Sounds like something in the direction of how I would read. Some elements seem to be historical in how they are later read. Others have the ring of myth about them. And knowing how some materials get used in Revelation, there could be some that overlap.

    Now for something I had written in response to your earlier comment to AltWorlder:

    AltWorlder’s question could be unpacked in several different ways. Since he mentioned evolution, I’m not sure that the six days should be read into his question. I’m guessing that the focus for him was an historical Adam. (I could be wrong.)

    In case AltWorlder was replying to my comment, I will say the suggestion has some merit. I definitely like the idea that we expect Scripture to be true. That something that is true will eventually show itself to be true has some probability. But I can wonder how long in coming that would be. I can also wonder whether Scripture being shown to be true would be identical with our current reading of Scripture being shown to be true.

    The more I wrestle with the text itself, the funnier it gets. The “seed of the woman” seems to be literal. We know that the New Testament takes this to be Jesus and he has a genealogy. On the other hand the seed of the serpent is non-literal. Jesus identifies the Pharisees as such (Matthew 3:7). Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness, and leaves him for a more opportune time, perhaps when Peter tells Jesus he does not have to suffer. Jesus addresses Peter as Satan (Matthew 16:23). This makes me wonder whether the text doesn’t function a bit differently from my own expectations. There seems to be a pretty wide spectrum between literal and non-literal, often different parts of the spectrum being involved in the same passage. People often polarize into taking these as just moral stories or straight historical narrative. I’m not sure if there aren’t some promising middle options.

    But just as I think there is wiggle room created by questioning assumptions in the reading of the text, wiggle room that I want to conserve apart from any scientific considerations, I also want to maintain wiggle room in my acceptance of the scientific world picture. How often have past understandings of scientific knowledge shown themselves to have been crass and overly complete? (I think of the eighteenth-century French physician Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis who said that the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile. Yikes.) I could imagine a future materialism that would laugh at the supposed completeness of the current picture apart from any Biblical considerations.

  15. Rick Ritchie says:

    In case it wasn’t mentioned earlier, or recently, John H’s recommended book In the Beginning by Henri Blocher, was published by Intervarsity Press (IVP), something that might increase the book’s trustworthiness for some readers of the blog.

  16. Regardless of what might actually be the case, there is one thing that is continually confirmed in my own experience: the reality of a fallen mankind. One only needs a history book and the nightly news (not to mention a mirror) to know that something went TERRIBLY wrong at some point. As far as specifics, I have not personally made up my mind, but no one will ever be able to convince me otherwise concerning my own and all mankinds depravity and need of a Savior.

  17. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Creation and the hiddenness of God: some Lutheran perspectives

  18. Chris E says:

    The edition of the Blocher book I have has an introductory disclaimer at the start of the book by someone representing the publisher – along the lines of ‘you won’t agree with everything, but there are some interesting ideas inside’.

    I think Meredith Kline is quite persuasive on the differences between Genesis 1/2 and why that might lead us to not take a literal 6-day creationist view.

    I would take Blocher’s view that the fall is something that did happen in history – with possibly mythical elements – I don’t see that NT references specifically mean that Adam and Eve weren’t mythical in the same sense.

  19. Phil Walker says:

    I would struggle with the idea that Adam did not exist as a real human being, and that Eve was not indeed the mother of all humanity, the first because I am Reformed and the second because, well, the Bible says so and there comes a point where you have to knuckle down under the text. But the serpent and the tree and the garden and the angel and all the rest of it can be as mythical as you like.

    My copy of Blocher is out on loan at the moment. I’m ruining creationists, one by one. πŸ˜€

  20. Chris E says:

    As I said, I do believe in the fall as a historical event. On the other hand, it’s not clear to me whether the meaning of the names ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ were read back into the story, or whether these are later symbolic names for real people.

    If one believes in the fall, then there obviously were a group of humans who lived through and experienced the fall, the question for me is whether the description of Adam and Eve is meant to be a literalistic historical description of these people.

    I see no reason why this couldn’t be another case of God condescending to our knowledge at the time – the obvious problem to taking both an evolutionary *and* literalistic view Adam and Eve is Luke’s genealogy. In which case you have the anomalous situation where you believe in evolution, believe in a fall that happened around 6000 years ago, and yet have historical records of civilisations older than that which in your own frame of reference can’t be explained away as a problem with dating methods/gap theory etc.

  21. Rick Ritchie says:

    I don’t know that Luke’s genealogy gets us into trouble here. My own impressions of how to read this were formed by Meredith Kline, who said that the genealogies are incomplete, and B.B. Warfield, who argued the case in some detail in an article titled “On the Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race” which can be found in the volume of his collected works titled Biblical and Theological Studies.

    The nice thing about returning to this question is that Google Books allows access to material that I would previously have had to drive to Fuller Theological Seminary to find. Here is a link to an article Warfield found helpful on the same subject: http://tinyurl.com/7erpla. The challenge is that when reading genealogies we naturally tend to imagine they are complete. In certain cases, sections are written in such a way that we know they must be. But in other sections the case is the opposite. Anyway, I haven’t yet had time to digest the linked article, but I think many may find it helpful.

  22. Rick Ritchie says:

    (I found a better digitized version here: http://tinyurl.com/PrimChron. Ironically, the first version I linked had gaps, and that in an article talking about gaps.)

  23. Jason S says:

    A harmonization of science and the doctrine of Creation risks a sacred-secular syncretism, and as you have noted, the reason that this is a problem is because it scrambles the epistemic milieus of faith and doctrine. This syncretism on the scientific side, at least, suffers the irrelevancy of the phenomenal and, at most, unhinges its own legitimacy found in empiricism. Thus John H, I think you are quite correct about the untenability of harmonization.

    A separation of spheres, as it were, is also not desirable. Here, I am not seeing much difference between NOMA and what you call “discrete narratives”. Faith, in this sort of construction, has in the past suffered the megalomania of reason (e.g. Kantian metaphysics). No doubt their are flavors of fideism which do the same to reason.

    So, I thought you were closer to the solution when you said, “The Christian proclamation makes certain statements that impinge on the natural world of science and observation.” Might the more sober response be to acknowledge when and where one’s faith is in discontinuity with reason and science in the interest of preserving the aspects in which they are found NOT to be mutually exclusive?

    In reference to the subject then, this allows one, in the first place, to make philosophical judgments about evolution (i.e. to give it a “discrete” narrative*), then recognizing that discreteness, reject it on the grounds that it is not sustainable with the Creation narrative, neither in its implications for the doctrine of God nor theological anthropology (as brought to bear in Creation theology).

    *Is it possible to have a “narrative” of science, since in the ideal realm, science is objective? “Narrative” suggests the proximity of ontological import/vulnerability. Thus if science has a narrative, it betrays its contingency.

  24. joel hunter says:

    Alasdair MacIntyre may be helpful here. Or not. In After Virtue there’s a famous passage that leads up to his notion of “enacted narratives,” which has the advantage, and appending your notion of “discrete,” of suggesting the complexity of relationship between narratives that you seek to establish. Namely, if discrete narratives are always enacted narratives, that means they must be understood within the sphere of action, of history, of real, particular lives and places.

    I am standing waiting for a bus and the young man standing next to me suddenly says: “The name of the common wild duck is Histrionicus histrionicus histrionicus.” There is no problem as to the meaning of the sentence he uttered: the problem is, how to answer the question, what was he doing in uttering it? Suppose he just uttered such sentences at random intervals; this would be one possible form of madness. We would render his action of utterance intelligible if one of the following turned out to be true. He has mistaken me fro someone who yesterday had approached him in the library and asked: “Do you by any chance know the Latin name of the common wild duck?” Or he has just come from a session with his psychotherapist who has urged him to break down his shyness by talking to strangers. “But what shall I say?” “Oh, anything at all.” Or he is a Soviet spy waiting at a prearranged rendez-vous and uttering the ill-chosen code sentence which will identify him to his contact. In each case the act of utterance becomes intelligible by finding its place in a narrative.

    If we are keen for the different “sides” to become more intelligible to one another–which is my fondest dream these days–I think MacIntyre’s rubric is helpful, for what Dawkins or Ham or Halton utters is only intelligible when it finds its place in a narrative. This is especially true at the level of basic terms: ‘random’, ‘chance’, ‘God’, ‘species’, etc.

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