Nazarenes Exploring Evolution
A large number of scholars and leaders in the Church of the Nazarene are exploring how evolution may be compatible with Christian faith. This may represent a turning point in a long history of wrestling with important issues in science and theology.
Nazarenes Exploring Evolution
Recent polling shows that the majority of scientists believe in evolution. More than 9 of 10 professional scientists believe the evidence for evolution is compelling.(i) While the theory of evolution comes in a variety of forms, virtually all forms say that gradual changes occurred to produce new species over long periods of time.
Not only do the majority of scientists affirm evolution, the general features of evolutionary theory – including an old earth and natural selection – are widely accepted in culture today. Most public television and scientifically-oriented programs simply assume the general truth of evolutionary theory.
Recent polling also shows, however, that more than half of American Evangelicals believe humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.[ii] Those who hold this view typically believe the world is relatively young. And they interpret Genesis (and other books of the Bible) in a particular way to support their young earth view.
This difference between 1) the majority of Evangelicals and 2) the majority of scientists seems true of the Church of the Nazarene. Many denominational scholars in various disciplines – scientific, biblical, and theological – believe the general theory of evolution is compatible with Wesleyan-holiness theology. Yet, many non–specialists in the Church of the Nazarene reject evolution. In fact, a 2007 Pew poll said only 21% of Nazarenes mostly agree or completely agree that evolution is the best explanation for the origins of life on earth.[iii] Dan Boone, president of Trevecca Nazarene University, sums it up: “the bulk of our Christian scholars/scientists are in a camp different from the bulk of our laity [on issues of evolution].”[iv]
I and about eight other scholars and leaders have begun a project called, “Nazarenes Exploring Evolution.” The project and its participants work to foster greater understanding among members of the Church of the Nazarene about the potential fruitful relation between Wesleyan-holiness theology and evolution. It does so by exploring scripture, science, theology, and other realms of knowledge. It seeks not to ridicule those who hold non-evolutionary views of creation, such as Young Earth Creationism, Progressive Creationism, or Intelligent Design. Instead, it offers Theistic Evolution (or similar views) to members of the denomination as a viable alternative among accounts of how God creates the universe.
Nazarene Scientists on God Creating through Evolution
In a 2009 Pew research study, 97% of scientists said humans and other living things have evolved over time by natural processes, guided by God, or evolved in some other way.[v] To date, no one has taken a poll of scientists in Church of the Nazarene colleges and universities to determine how they think about evolution. But some scientists in the denomination have published their views on the subject.
Fred Cawthorne, of Trevecca Nazarene University, says that “evolution by no means contradicts the fact that God is the Maker of heaven and earth and that he has been actively guiding and sustaining the universe for all time. If we say God cannot create through a gradual, progressive process such as evolution, then we limit God’s transcendence and immanence.”[vi]
Karl Giberson, long-time professor at Eastern Nazarene College, affirms evolution: “I think evolution is true. The process, as I reflect on it, is an expression of God’s creativity, although in a way that is not captured by the scientific view of the world… God’s creative activity must not be confined to a six-day period – ‘in the beginning’ – or the occasional intervention along the evolutionary path. God’s role in creation must be more universal – so universal it cannot be circumscribed by the contours of individual phenomena or events.”[vii]
Darrel Falk, of Point Loma Nazarene University, says that “for the past century and a half, thousands of scientists from disciplines as diverse as physics, geology, astronomy, and biology have amassed a tremendous mass of data, and the answer is absolutely clear and equally certain. The earth is not young, and the life forms did not appear in six twenty-four-hour days. God created gradually.”[viii]
Rick Colling, a long time scientist at Olivet Nazarene University, says that “some people, on religious grounds, choose to aggressively ignore or deny many scientific concepts and principles, especially in the domain of evolution… The problem, as I see it, is that we tend to squeeze God into small rigid boxes… Unfortunately, this approach to religious faith is fraught with liability because it prevents God from truly being God – a creator capable of using any means He chooses for His creation.”[ix]
Without polling, it is difficult to know if these views represent the majority of Nazarene scientists. But it is true that the voices quoted above are not alone among Nazarene scientists who believe the evidence for evolution is strong and evolution does not necessarily conflict with the belief God is Creator.
Nazarene Biblical and Theological Scholars on God Creating through Evolution
There is little doubt some people reject evolution based on their interpretation of the Bible. The Bible says little to nothing about evolution. And the first chapters of Genesis, when read literally, do not easily fit the theory of evolution.
Many biblical scholars, theologians, and philosophers in the Church of the Nazarene, however, believe the Bible should not be interpreted as a straightforward science or history book. For instance, many believe Genesis 1 reads like a hymn of praise. Others believe it draws from Jewish Temple literature, which is religious and not scientific. Most Nazarene Bible, theology, and philosophy scholars believe the main point of Genesis and other creation texts is theological: God is Creator. Genesis and other books of the Bible need not mention the specific ways God creates for this main point to be true.
Robert Branson, a long-time professor at Olivet Nazarene University, says that “it is one thing to say we believe that God is the Creator. It is quite another to say that in Scripture God described with scientific accuracy “when” and “how” he created.”[x]
Dennis Bratcher, a long time Bible scholar in the Church of the Nazarene, says that “sometimes it is hard for us to realize that the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is an Oriental book… The thought world of Oriental culture is radically different from the thought world of Western culture, particularly when we recall that there is a period of three thousand years between us and that culture… That’s why they are not writing about evolution in Genesis 1; that’s 3,000 years in their future.”[xi]
Alex Varughese, of Mount Vernon Nazarene University, and his Nazarene co-writers of Discovering the Bible say that a “careful reading of Genesis 1:1-2:4a shows that the focus of the text is on the Creator and what He made. Our usual questions of why, how, and when are not answered in this account.”[xii]
Michael Lodahl, of Point Loma Nazarene University, says that “a Wesleyan reading of Genesis – and of the world – need not and should not shy away from the dominant ideas of the contemporary natural sciences. It is obvious that if the evolutionary story of the universe (including our own planet and all of its living inhabitants) is generally accurate, then the opening chapters of Genesis cannot be assumed to be giving a straightforwardly literal account of the creation of the world.”[xiii]
I like to say it this way: “The Bible tells us how to live abundant life. It does not tell us scientific details about how life became abundant. The Bible also tells us how to go to heaven. It does not provide the science to tell us how the heavens go.”[xiv]
Without polling biblical scholars, theologians, and philosophers in the denomination, it is difficult to know if the quotations above represent the majority. But the available literature suggests that these views do represent most scholars in these disciplines. Most scholars in Bible, theology, and philosophy seem at least open to the possibility that Wesleyan-holiness theology is compatible with evolution. And many are convinced the two are compatible.
Does It Matter?
Even those mildly interested in questions of theology and evolution know the science-and-religion discussion has a history of conflict. Any progress toward insight or reconciliation comes slowly, if at all. Veterans of the discussion are prone to weariness, and denominational leaders might wonder if the “fight” is worth the trouble. Does addressing the issues of evolution really matter?
Christians have long believed that truth matters. Although Christians may not ever know all truth because we “see through a dark glass” (1 Cor. 13), we are called to search for truth in our attempts to love God with our minds. Because the natural and social sciences are primary avenues for discovering truth about existence, these sciences can play a central role in helping Christians discern how to love God and others as oneself.
Al Truesdale, long-time professor at Nazarene Theological Seminary, summarizes the importance of seeking truth in the Church of the Nazarene: “Denominations that stand in the Wesleyan tradition [such as the Church of the Nazarene] are at their best when they advocate a vital faith that seeks understanding through a bold examination of the results of all human exploration, whether in technology, in the sciences, or through historical research.”[xv]
One reason this discussion matters, therefore, is that the search for more adequate understandings of God and the world God creates relies upon a variety of sources, not the least of which are the sciences. If evolution is widely accepted among those who have studied the natural world most intently – scientists – it matters how Christians engage the science of evolution in light of Christian Faith.
This brings us to a second reason why the discussion of evolution and theology matters. It matters because many (but not all) scientists in the Church of the Nazarene affirm the general theory of evolution. These scientists often feel ostracized, get labeled as ungodly, are marginalized, or considered deceived.
The testimony of Nazarene biologist, Darrel Falk, is similar to the testimonies of many Nazarene scientists: “One of the biggest deterrents (to entering a Nazarene community) was my impression that I could never become part of an evangelical fellowship because of my belief in gradual creation…. Unless the church begins to downplay the significance of believing in some variety of sudden creation, there will continue to be thousands of individuals … who will be denied true fellowship in God’s kingdom.”[xvi]
Christian Witness Today
A third important reason why the evolution and Christian theology discussion matters is the nature of Christian witness. And the Christian witness pertaining to evolution is especially true for how young people think of God and Christian faith.
In a recent Pew study, more 18- to 29-year olds reported having a positive view of science than those in any other age category. More specifically, sixty-one percent of young people believe life evolved over time due to either natural process or divine guidance. Seventy percent of all college graduates – no matter their age – affirm some form of evolution. In sum, young people and those with degrees in higher education are more likely to trust scientists who argue for the validity of evolution.
Statistics also show, unfortunately, that young people leave the church and/or become atheists because they perceive the church to be opposed to science in general and evolution in specific. In his book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith, David Kinnaman uses the data from Barna Group research to show why 18- to 29-year olds are leaving the Church. Nearly 3 in 10 say the church is out of step with science, and one quarter say Christianity is anti-science. About one quarter of young people are turned off by the creation vs. evolution debate, and about one-fifth say Christianity is anti-intellectual.[xvii]
Kinnaman quotes one young person and why he left faith over the church’s failure to accept science: “To be honest, I think that learning about science was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says the young person. “I knew from church that I couldn’t believe in both science and God, so that was it. I didn’t believe in God anymore.”[xviii]
Stories from Nazarene parents, youth pastors, and university professors indicate that some young people are leaving the Church of the Nazarene for the reasons Kinnaman reports. These young people think they cannot affirm the idea that God creates through evolution and still feel welcome in the denomination.
Dan Boone, president of Trevecca Nazarene University, asks an important question of himself that also applies to the Church of the Nazarene, “Will I engage a young generation in an open-minded biblical conversation that welcomes scientific discovery, reasoned philosophy, and careful logic? Or will I ignore all of these in favor of an interpretation of creation that is barely one hundred years old and rooted in the fear of science?”[xix]
In the coming year, look for 60-70 essays by Nazarene scholars and leaders exploring evolution and faith. And look for a conference on the subject next January 23-25, 2014, at Point Loma Nazarene University.
In a loving, constructive, and humble endeavor, the Nazarenes Exploring Evolution project seeks to help the Church of the Nazarene consider how evolution can complement rather than contradict Wesleyan-holiness theology.
Research Center for the People & the Press. http://www.pewforum.org/science-and-bioethics/public-opinion-on-religion-and-science-in-the-united-states.aspx Accessed 1/18/13. See also, http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/09/section-5-evolution-climate-change-and-other-issues/ Accessed 1/22/13
[ii] Research Center for the People & the Press http://www.pewforum.org/science-and-bioethics/public-opinion-on-religion-and-science-in-the-united-states.aspx. Website accessed 1/18/13
[iii] Association of Religion Data Archives, http://thearda.com/Denoms/families/profilecompare.asp?d=1001&d=601&d. Accessed 1/23/13. Rich Housel, who alerted me to this website, notes that the sample of Nazarenes polled was very low: 103.
[iv] Dan Boone, A Charitable Discourse: Talking about the Things that Divide Us (Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill Press, 2010), 106.
[v] Research Center for the People & the Press. http://www.pewforum.org/science-and-bioethics/public-opinion-on-religion-and-science-in-the-united-states.aspx Accessed 1/18/13. See also, http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/09/section-5-evolution-climate-change-and-other-issues/ Accessed 1/22/13
[vi] Fred Cawthorne, “The Harmony of Science and the Christian Faith,” in Square Peg: Why Wesleyans Aren’t Fundamentalists, Al Truesdale, ed. (Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill Press, 2012), 105.
[vii] Karl W. Giberson, Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 216.
[viii] Darrel R. Falk, Coming to Peace with Science: Bridging the Worlds Between Faith and Biology (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2004), 214.
[ix] Richard G. Colling, Random Designer: Created from Chaos to Connect with the Creator (Bourbonnais, Ill.: Browning, 2004), 107.
[x] Robert Branson, “The Bible, Creation, and Science,” in Square Peg: Why Wesleyans Aren’t Fundamentalists, Al Truesdale, ed. (Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill Press, 2012), 105.
[xii] Alex Varughese, ed. Discovering the Bible: Story and Faith of the Biblical Communities (Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill, 2006), 65.
[xiii] Michael Lodahl, God of Nature and of Grace: Reading the World in a Wesleyan Way (Nashville, Tenn.: Kingswood, 2003), 63.
[xiv] Thomas Jay Oord and Robert Luhn, The Best News You Will Ever Hear (Boise, Id.: Russell Media, 2011), 25. See also Oord, Divine Grace and Emerging Creation: Wesleyan Forays in Science and Theology of Creation (Eugene, Or.: Pickwick, 2009) and Oord, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2010), ch. 4.
[xv] Al Truesdale, “Introduction,” in Square Peg: Why Wesleyans Aren’t Fundamentalists, Al Truesdale, ed. (Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill Press, 2012), 10.
[xvi] Darrel R. Falk, Coming to Peace with Science, 230. For similar testimonies, see Richard G. Colling, Random Designer, and Karl W. Giberson, Saving Darwin.
[xvii] David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2011), 136.
[xviii] Ibid., 131.
[xix] Dan Boone, A Charitable Discourse, 102.