The Bible and Evolution

September 13th, 2012 / 10 Comments

My friends, Darrel Falk and Kathryn Applegate, are joining me to edit a book of essays on evolution. What makes this book especially interesting is that Evangelical leaders, theologians, and scientists write these essays, and they are largely in favor of the idea that God creates through evolution!

Naturally, I thought I should write an essay. As I thought about the many angles I could take, I decided I’d write a testimonial. And the best place to begin the story of my exploration of evolution is with the Bible.

That may seem strange. Many people wouldn’t start with the Bible when talking about a scientific theory. But I’m a theologian, and I take the Bible with utmost seriousness. Talking about the Bible is a natural place for me to begin, both because the Bible was principally important in my youth, and because it remains so for me today.

I don’t mean to snub science. Science is important too. I read a lot in the sciences, and I think the evidence supporting the theory of evolution is strong. I try to take this and other evidence with great seriousness.

But the real story – for me – starts with the Bible.

Centrality of Scripture

Fortunately, my parents were committed Christians. Our family was one of those “attend-church-three-times-a-week-and-more” families. My parents were significant leaders in our local congregation, and I began following their footsteps early in life.

I doubt I missed more than a handful of Sunday school classes before I was twenty years old. And I always attended Vacation Bible School – even winning Bible memorizing competitions on occasion. (John 11:35 was my friend!) I participated on youth Bible quizzing team for a while too.

While growing up, I don’t recall anyone telling me that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God. But my passion for Scripture and my Evangelical community inclined me toward that position. Scripture was central in my life.

Besides, I wanted a failsafe foundation for my beliefs. And how could I convince my Mormon friends to become Christians if the Bible was not true in every sense, including literally true about what it said about the natural world? Witnessing to God’s truth seemed to require that I believe the Bible was without error on all matters, including matters related to science.

An Inerrant Bible?

My view of the Bible began to change when I went to college. It wasn’t that a liberal Bible professor brainwashed me away from the positions of my youth. Instead, I started reading the Bible carefully and the work of biblical scholars. I began to think it important to love God with my mind in a more consistent way.

And then I took a class in koine Greek, the language of the New Testament. In this course, I discovered several things. First, we have differing English translations of the New Testament, because the biblical text allows for a number of valid translation options. (When I later took Hebrew class, I found the diversity of valid translations even greater!) Second, we do not have access to the original biblical manuscripts/autographs. Our Bibles come from later manuscripts, the earliest of which are not complete. And, third, the oldest texts we have differ in many ways – although most differences are minor.

I also discovered discrepancies in the Bible. For instance, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus curses a fig tree and it withers immediately (21:18-20). But in Mark’s version of the same story, the fig tree does not wither immediately and the disciples find it withered the next morning (11:12-14; 20-21). Mark says that Jesus heals one demon-possessed man at Gerasenes (5:1-20), while Matthew says there were two demon-possessed men involved in that same miracle (8:28-34). Jesus tells the disciples to take a staff on their journey as recorded in Mark 6:8, but Matthew says Jesus told the disciples not to take a staff (10:9-10). Jesus says Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly. Then, making an analogy with his own death, he says the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Mt 12:40). But Jesus was not dead three days and three nights!

I mention only a few of the many internal discrepancies. Once I discovered a few, I noticed more. This, of course, made me question whether I should say the Bible is inerrant in all ways.

What’s the Bible For?

I’m persistent. I don’t usually settle for easy answers, ignore problems, or appeal to mystery at the drop of a hat. I want to give a plausible account of the hope within me.

My quest for better ways to think about the Bible prompted me to read theologians and Bible scholars from the past and present. What I found surprised me! I had assumed believing the Bible is inerrant in all ways was the traditional position of Christians throughout the ages. I assumed it was the position of my own Christian tradition. I was wrong.

Few if any great theologians argued the Bible was absolutely inerrant. Augustine did not affirm inerrancy in this way. Thomas Aquinas didn’t. Neither did Martin Luther or John Wesley – a least in a consistent way. And I discovered through reading and conversations that those considered the leading biblical scholars and theologians today also reject absolute biblical inerrancy.

I did find a few teachers who said the Bible was inerrant. But when I read their explanations of the Bible’s discrepancies and their views about the differences between the oldest manuscripts, I found they stretched the word “inerrant” beyond recognition. Their meaning of “inerrant” was nothing like the usual meaning. And it was certainly not what most Evangelicals meant when they called the Bible the inerrant Word of God.

Perhaps even more important was my discovery that great theologians and biblical scholars of yesteryear believed the Bible’s basic purpose was to reveal God’s desire for our salvation. Many giants of the Christian faith could agree with John Wesley who said, “The Scriptures are a complete rule of faith and practice; and they are clear in all necessary points.”

The necessary points of Scripture refer to instruction for our salvation. They indicate that, as the Apostle Paul puts it, Scripture is inspired and “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The purpose of the Bible is our salvation!

I also discovered Christian leaders over the centuries did not feel required to search the Bible for truths about science. In fact, they sometimes used allegorical interpretations that seem silly to me now. The vast majority of Evangelical scholars with whom I talked also didn’t think the Bible has to be inerrant about scientific matters.

After my studies, I came to believe that the Bible tells us how to find abundant life. But it does not provide the science for how life became abundant.

Can I Trust the Bible?

When I tell people I don’t require the Bible to tell me truth about science but I trust God to use the Bible to reveal what is necessary for salvation, I’m sometimes asked this question:

            “If the Bible can’t be trusted on science and all other matters on which it speaks, how can it be trusted on matters of salvation?”

That’s a fair question. Before I answer it, however, we should look at what it seems to presuppose.

Those who ask this question seem to think the Bible is a container carrying a complete set of literally true statements. Those who take this position worry that, like a house of cards, any defect in that complete set means the whole structure will fall. One error, to them, places into jeopardy the truth of the whole book!

Others who ask this question seem to presuppose a view of inspiration that seems to make the writers of Scripture machines or robots. God manipulated these writers by controlling them and their worldviews entirely.

By contrast, I think there are great advantages to thinking God inspired but did not entirely control biblical writers. This symbiotic view of authorship explains the presence of errors in the Bible. And it explains why the limited worldviews of biblical authors don’t fit perfectly with contemporary worldviews informed by science.

I think, however, that the Bible can be trusted about what it says about salvation even though its statements about the natural world – when interpreted literally – may be wrong. After all, biblical scholars say we best interpret Genesis 1 and other Bible creation passages as hymns and theological poetry, not scientific treatises.

My Answer

My primary answer to why I think we can trust the Bible to be used by God to reveal truths about salvation, therefore, pertains to salvation itself. I trust the Bible on matters of salvation, because God has transformed my life as I read and followed the Bible’s teaching. God continues to transform me – provide salvation – as I pray and read the biblical text.

In fact, the transformation God is doing in my life seems to have increased since I stopped thinking the Bible was inerrant in all ways! I don’t know if there’s a connection, but there may be.

In short, the “proof” of the Bible’s truth about salvation is in the “pudding” of transformed lives – mine and billions of others. The Bible doesn’t have to be accurate in terms of contemporary science or be absolutely inerrant for God to use it for our salvation.

This is only part of the story. In the next blog, I want to talk specifically about how the Bible is not only compatible with evolution. I think it can actually support key notions in a theory that says God uses evolution when creating.

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Sandra Hainstock-White

Tom, this is excellent, thank you for sharing your story along with your thoughts.


Thanks for this post Dr. Oord. It seems between the God particle and Bill Nye’s video, this is a key issue for discussion in the Church today. And it’s far too easy to lose our appreciation for scripture in the discussion for those of us who believe God created through evolution.

I actually wrote a post on this topic myself, if you have a spare moment. A lot of good discussion ensued in the comments and I found it to be my most fun and interesting blog post yet. I would love to hear your thoughts on it, since this is something you’re working through right now.

Hans Deventer

Tom, this is a very good approach. Looking forward to what’s next!

David Ackerman

Tom, This is a nice view of the generally “Wesleyan” perspective on Scripture. It is always a challenge to deal with these topics in a pastoral way with people. A person can go too far one way or the other, and walking the middle is not always safe. Any time we say “this is the way to read the Bible,” we set up potential roadblocks for people. I don’t want to be overly politically correct about a politically corrected idea, but just cautious about saying the Bible does not make such and such a claim. This 1) sets us up for criticism, and 2) sets us up as an authority over the Bible. The second is my biggest concern in our post-modernizing world. These are the challenges we Wesleyan Bible scholars deal with.

Dr Kwin

This is a great article and exactly what I think. I also tell students and others that the Bible cannot be a book about science because science had not yet been invented. Certainly people of the ancient near east made close observations about nature, but they did not have the technology to examine it on macro and micro scale. Such technology has changed our world views. Even if God had revealed to Israel’s writers and story tellers what we know about beginnings today, it would not have made sense to them and they would not have preseved it. They did not CARE about dinosaurs because they did not know about dinosaurs! smile

Jeannine Howard

Evolution—interesting theory.  Being a devout animal lover, I have a really difficult time accepting death, suffering, starvation—all necessary in a evolutionary world, was/is part of God’s plan.  Perhaps since animals only have souls, not spirits, suffering etc. is OK for them in the evolutionary process.  Or did the evolutionary process begin after “the fall”?  Now that would make more sense. After the fall, nature, in a fallen state, did what nature does—death, suffering, starvation etc.

Dr. R.Dean Thoman

I will be interested in seeing your next blog. Why you think you can actually support key notions in a theory that says God uses evolution when creating. Whither you mean creation of the earth, man, plants or the million of other species we have.

Dave Mowry

“Christian leaders over the centuries did not feel required to search the Bible for truths about science. In fact, they sometimes used allegorical interpretations that seem silly to me now.”

Can you think of an example?

Don Johnson

Very nice insights!

The way I think of it is that God accommodated to the worldview understandings of the original recipients of each book in the Bible.

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