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Evolution and the Bible

The Bible is not only compatible with the idea God creates through evolution. I also think some themes in evolution actually reinforce and correspond with themes in Scripture.

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Sep

17

Evolution and the Bible

The Bible is not only compatible with the idea God creates through evolution. I also think some themes in evolution actually reinforce and correspond with themes in Scripture.

In my previous blog post (the first in this two-part discussion), I reported on my biblical pilgrimage. I moved from thinking the Bible was absolutely inerrant to finding it had discrepancies. And yet the Bible remains principally authoritative for me, and I consider it trustworthy with regard to matters of salvation.

Evolution

What does this talk about the Bible have to do with exploring evolution?

At a minimum, my study of the Bible and great Christian thinkers reveals that the Bible and contemporary science are not essentially in conflict. The Bible’s purpose pertains to salvation. The purpose of science is greater understanding of the natural world.

Sure, sometimes a scientist will make statements that seem to allow no room for God. When a scientist does this, he or she moves beyond findings or theories about the natural world and speculates about things beyond the domain of science. I feel free to disagree with these kinds of statements, in part because they go beyond the proper explanatory functions of science.

As a theologian, I find it exciting that science and theology need not conflict. I’m free to think biblical authors operated from a worldview different from mine shaped by contemporary science. But because God uses the Bible in ways to teach me and others truths for our salvation, I’m not worried that ancient worldviews don’t match contemporary science.

Created Co-Creators

It’s one thing to say evolution doesn’t conflict with the Bible’s purpose. It’s another thing to say evolution actually reinforces central biblical truths.

When I say, “reinforce,” I’m not saying the Bible proves the theory of evolution is true. Nor am I saying the Bible proposes evolution or even evolutionary creation. Afterall, I don’t think biblical writers could have had evolution in mind when they were inspired by God to write the book the Church has canonized as Scripture.

But I do think evolution fits well with important features of the Christian faith. And I don’t think other theories fit as well.

For instance, Genesis tells us that “when God began creating the heavens and the earth,” “the earth was a formless void” and “darkness covered the face of the deep.” In creating, a “wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:1-2).

From relationship with creation, God calls forth other things. In this creating, God does not act alone. God says, for instance, “let the earth put forth vegetation” (11), “let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures” (20), and “let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind” (24).

In other words, the Christian creation story says creatures act as created co-creators! That story fits well with the idea God creates through an evolutionary process involving creaturely contributions. It doesn’t fit so well with creation views that say God unilaterally zaps creatures into existence from nothingness.

God is Love

I find the Bible bubbling over with examples of God working in, with, and alongside creatures. And that shouldn’t surprise us. Isn’t that the way love works? It makes sense to think a loving God would create in, with, and alongside that which God previously created.

It’s pretty obvious to most people that love doesn’t entirely control others. Love does not coerce. Instead, love calls, persuades, invites, or influences without overriding freedom.

Evolution helps us realize that giving of freedom and/or agency is a gift God gives all creation. Sure, the tiniest creatures don’t have freedom like we do. But they have some measure of agency. And it would make sense that a loving God would give freedom and/or agency to all God creates. We know that give-and-receive relations require at least some freedom and/or agency from those in relationship.

To say God gives freedom and/or agency to all creation and has always been doing so helps answer some of the biggest questions we have about evolution. For instance, evolution tells us that it took millions of years for creatures to evolve into the complex forms we now see. But if God gives freedom and/or agency to all creatures and they act as created co-creators, it would make sense that creating complex creatures takes time.

Or consider the problem of pain, suffering, and death. An evolutionary theory that says God lovingly gives freedom and/or agency helps explain why things sometimes go wrong. Creatures might use that freedom and/or agency badly. And that’s an important place to start when pondering the difficult issues of evil.

In short, the theory of evolution can help remind us of the central truth of the Christian faith: God is love. And it can help us see why Jesus’ great commandments – love God and love others as ourselves – fits in the fabric of creation.

Cruciform Existence

Let me add one more way in which I think a biblical theme fits well with evolutionary theory.

There is ample support in the New Testament that the death of one (Jesus Christ) brought life to others. “Christ died, and now we can live,” Christians often testify. They make this claim not only based on their experience but also upon the biblical witness. In fact, those who die to their sinful habits and come alive in Christ are said to live a cruciform existence. They imitate the crucified One.

In an important sense, they theory of evolution also requires death in order for life to emerge anew. Darwin saw very clearly that without death the planet would quickly become overgrown and overpopulated. In some cases, death is required for more robust and more diverse life to emerge. In other words, evolution also has a cruciform element in it.

I want to be clear that I’m not saying all death is good. Death is sometimes evil but other times not. But Christians have affirmed since the beginning that at least sometimes death is necessary for the bringing forth of life.

Jesus Christ, of course, witnesses to this cruciform existence most poignantly. And when we choose death for the sake of something better, our death is similar to Jesus’ death and the death that occurs in evolutionary processes. Death can bring life!

God is Doing a New Thing

I could say much more about evolution and the Bible. But I don’t have time and space. So let me conclude.

Not only do I think the theory of evolution best accounts for the scientific evidence. And not only do I think the Bible is compatible with evolution because the Bible’s purpose is to reveal God’s salvation. I also think the theory of evolution is a gift. It’s a gift to Christians like me who take the Bible with utmost seriousness. It reinforces central themes of the Christian faith.

The writer of Isaiah 43 records God saying, “I will do a new thing.” God then immediately asks, “Do you not perceive it?” (19) An evolutionary picture of the world suggests God is in the business of doing new things. And the Bible says creation has been invited to participate.

Perhaps Evangelicals are ready today to perceive that God’s way of doing new things is written into God’s creating through evolution. And in this, the book of Scripture and the book of nature agree.

 

Posted in 2012 under Theology and Science

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Comments

Edward Frost

09.17.2012
2:02pm

I am a Christian and a graduate level biologist, so I trust the Bible as authoritative and accurate in revealing God, my condition and The Way of salvation, as well as being comfortable with recent understandings of evolution.  I am troubled though with the thought of God creating using death. It doesn’t sit right with me.

 

etch

09.17.2012
2:09pm

“In other words, the Christian creation story says creatures act as created co-creators!”
The quotes from Genesis suggest the co-creator is earth. Are you considering that things usually (in some quarters) accepted as having no agency have some agency?

 

Richard Mark

09.17.2012
4:17pm

Thomas, you have given an excellent defense for Theology & Science in your view of God’s creating through evolution.  Thanks RJM

 

Jeannine Howard

09.17.2012
5:22pm

Again, interesting and provocative insights to your research and study on evolution. I totally agree “that the death of one (Jesus Christ) brought life to others” because Jesus was the perfect sacrifice(death). I can also understand the necessity of a worldview embracing open theology to accept a cruciform element in evolution.  It would be most upsetting to say God planned death and suffering through evolution but if death and suffering all came about by free choice, then God is off the hook—the omniscience/free-will debate solved.

 

Thomas Jay Oord

09.17.2012
9:08pm

Thanks for all your comments. Let me respond very briefly to Edward and Etch, while saying thanks to Richard and “I agree” to Jeannine.

Edward - I tried to be careful to say God can USE death in the creative process. I didn’t want to claim that God built death into the system. I don’t know if that qualification helps you, but it generally fits with what Jeannine says.

Etch - Yes, I think that other animals, fish, and birds have agency. I think the Biblical witness generally supports this view. What is harder for folks to accept is that cells and atoms have agency. Some scientists accept this, many others do not. It’s a difficult hypothesis to establish using usual standards of science. But I find attractive a general worldview that says humans have the greatest amount of agency and other creatures have less agency, depending on their complexity.

 

Ben Wornell

09.17.2012
11:44pm

Since (it appears) death is a necessary part of evolution, and evolution is what produced us, I think there is a strong burden to show that creatures could exist absent death, let alone creatures with minds capable of considering their place in the world and contempting God.  It’s not that God “planned” death through evolution, but that God planned creating us, and evolution, which entails death, may have been the only way to bring us about.  God did not build death “into” evolution, evolution entails death and we could not be built without evolution.  Not the mention those other endless forms most beautiful and most worderful that have been, and are being, evolved.

 

Ben Wornell

09.17.2012
11:54pm

Agency seems like something creatures have, not particles.  We are talking about statistical probability versus choice.  Even if choice could be represented statistically, we have our our experience of “choice” as a basis to imput choice on other minds.  There is no reason to say it goes all the way down to atoms. 

What exactly do you mean by agency?  That events pertaining to indivual entities are fundamentally unpredictable?  Or uncoersible?  For atoms it’s decay time, for people it’s: “how do I want my eggs cooked?”  (just trying to figure out exactly what you mean by agency as it seems central to your theology wink

 

Jeff K. Clarke

09.18.2012
3:52am

In a recent guest post on my blog, Creation Under Limiting Conditions, Bev Mitchell spoke to the idea of death as recycling. I think it compliments your ideas here, Tom.

Good Post.

Jeff

 

Jeff K. Clarke

09.18.2012
3:53am

Tom,

Here is the link to the article I mentioned in the previous post.

Thanks.

http://jeffkclarke.com/2012/08/17/guest-post-part-two-creation-under-limiting-conditions/

 

Jennifer Chase

09.18.2012
11:43am

Ben, at the level of atoms/particles, would agency be so minimal as to just be statistical probable states or something like isoenergetic arrangements (on the order of definitions of entropy?)

It seems that the role, purpose & power of death is a BIG central issue to address in any discussion of the mechanisms God has used to bring about complex life in general and human life in particular. I appreciate, Tom, that you are stating positions on this topic that can be discussed/modified/recreated collaboratively. Thank you!

 

Ben Wornell

09.18.2012
7:36pm

Dr Chase, that’s basically it.  I’m just trying to see exactly what Dr Oord’s position on agency/freedom is.  My understanding is that agency goes all the way down to the level of atoms etc and there is something about theagency God gives people and particles that prevents God from coercing either (i.e. totally controlling them).

 

Daryl Densford

09.18.2012
7:46pm

Interesting thoughts.  A question comes to mind, though:  If we can’t accept the creation narrative to support “God unilaterally zap[ping] creatures into existence from nothingness”, how can we accept it to support God’s intention that creatures act as co-creators, etc.?  It seems that if the text is not trustworthy for one it’s not for the other.

 

Jen Field

09.19.2012
7:01pm

I love the phrasing, “the theory of evolution is a gift.” I completely agree.

Thanks for sharing.

 

Samuel Aparicio

09.20.2012
7:15am

I am a pastor with a degree in Molecular Biology. My own journey of faith took me from being a believer in my younger years, an agnostic in college, and finally a believer who is following a call to the ministry. My turning point back to faith came when I realized that Christianity and science are not in conflict, so I am always appreciative when I come across theologians and Christians who are speaking and writing creatively to understand how the two actually work best together.

Dr. Terrence Fretheim gave a special lecture at Nazarene Theological Seminary in August (I believe the recording is available through the seminary website). Discussing violence in the Bible, he also emphasized the role of the agencies God chooses to work through. It is not that God desires to use death or violence, but as Dr. Fretheim put it, God always works in history directly, but through means. This is because, in order to maintain a true/genuine relationship with creation and humanity, God will not violate the element of freedom and free will God created into our world.

 

Thomas Jay Oord

09.20.2012
12:14pm

Ben,

Yes, I speculate that all entities, from the least complex to the most, are not vacuous actualities. In the most complex, I think robust (albeit constrained) freedom is expressed. In lesser creatures, a measure of agency is expressed, even if calling this agency “freedom” may seem odd.

I grant that this is a metaphysical view. I think it’s compatible with much of science, but I don’t think science is capable of confirming agency and freedom—at least using the usual measures of science.

I hope that helps some…

 

Greg Crofford

09.20.2012
1:09pm

Dr Oord, you repeatedly use the expression “freedom and/or agency.” Can you briefly tease out for your readers what you maan by those terms?

Thanks!

 

alan gibson

09.22.2012
3:40pm

Tom
I appreciate your idea that the evolutionary process can fit into the creation narrative.  It begs the question why God did not zap all of creation into being simultaneously instead of pacing it out over six days.  Certainly supports an evolving process.

 

Ben Wornell

09.24.2012
9:39pm

Dr. Oord,

Its roughly what I thought.  I didn’t want to misunderstand where you were coming from.

Does agency /freedom play any role in your theology of love other than to give reason for God’s noninterference?

God gives agency out of His nature (love), or agency is a necessary part of everthing in creation, which God cannot override?  Therefore, evil exists while God is good and not responsible for it?

Thanks.  Keep up the Good Work.

 

dirk

09.25.2012
6:16am

TJO, you might be interested in the work, after Whitehead, of Steven Shaviro:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgrwEHuEjwo

 

Jeannine Howard

09.25.2012
11:22am

I just finished reading “Why Evolution is True” a response to BioLogos contributor Robert Bishop. The article is written by atheist evolutionist Jerry A Coyne PhD. What caught my attention was Coyne’s statement; “Theology changes when either science or secular reason forces it to, not because revelation-based rumination suddenly made theologians do a facepalm and say, “Wait, I know now that God meant life to evolve!  How stupid of me not to have seen that!”  Tom, how has your changing of view of evolution influenced your work toward an Open Theology?  Is theology itself in an evolutionary mode—are there aspects of theology that never evolve? I understand as mentioned above how Open Theology paves the way toward evolution making sense with a loving Creator but are we forming theology to fit what science tells us is true at a particular time?  Perhaps this is a topic for another of your informative blogs. smile

 

Bev Mitchell

09.26.2012
4:43pm

Edward Frost 09/17/12
You say ” I am troubled though with the thought of God creating using death. It doesn’t sit right with me.”

Biologically speaking, death is a corollary of life. As far as we know, life has persisted since it first came into being 3.5 billion years ago. Life has clearly been an amazing success.

Tom,

Interesting how you make the link between life’s irrepressible tenacity and brilliance, and love.

Another way to view this is via the concept of habitat. All living things require a suitable habitat, and the inter-generational memory provided by DNA provides a beautiful way for organisms to adapt to small changes in habitat, and thus to change themselves. As you know, habitats are incredibly varied and include not just forests, streams, oceans and lakes but eyebrows, guts, skin, fur, leaves, almost anything, almost anywhere. All the action of life takes place in habitats.

A cute furry bunny has fleas, and may well have a parasitic worm in its gut. The bunny is a furry bundle of potential habitats. Our magnificent trees would be much worse off, or not here at all, without the extensive fungal mycelia of mycorrhizae that are attached to their root tips. Trees would starve without them. Just for fun, check out this site:

https://www.google.ca/search?q=mycorrhizae&hl=en&client=safari&tbo=u&tbm=isch&source=univ&sa=X&ei=no5jUPXLCqT20gG-sIGwBw&ved=0CE8QsAQ&biw=1024&bih=672

An important educational goal of biology is to encourage people to see habitats virtually everywhere. Another goal is to help people understand that all living things utterly depend on relationships with other living things. Life absolutely requires relationship. So does love. Interesting.

 

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Thomas Jay Oord is a professor, author, and theologian from the Northwest. Read more