Book Review – Should Christians Embrace Evolution? Biblical & Scientific Responses, Edited by Norman C. Nevin
Book Review By Tim Morris
Should Christians Embrace Evolution? Biblical & Scientific Responses. Edited by Norman C. Nevin. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2011. Pp. 192
April 17th, 2012
Should Christians Embrace Evolution? is a collection of essays responding to a book by Denis Alexander entitled Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? Alexander’s book is one of a number recently-published works that attempt to reconcile evolutionary biology and Christian belief in one way or another. The authors of Should Christians Embrace Evolution? provide a survey of a variety of biblical and theological concerns about “reconciliation” proposals like Alexander’s. They argue that such an embrace requires significant alteration of historical Christian understandings of the goodness of the original creation, the status of Adam and Eve as the representatives of humankind, and the meaning and consequences of their Fall into sin. They conclude that an embrace of evolution by Christians is a thus a serious mistake.
A brief overview of the contents of Should Christians Embrace Evolution?
The authors of the essays in the first section of the book contend that the clear teachings of a variety of biblical passages become muddled when attempts are made to understand Scripture in a way that would be consistent with an evolutionary picture. Alistair McKittrick (Chapter 2) argues that the events described in Genesis 1-3 are clearly intended by the author of this portion of Scripture to be literal in an historical and chronological sense. Likewise Michael Reeves (Chapter 3) and Greg Haslam (Chapter 4) present arguments that the biblical authors of both Testaments assumed that an historic couple, Adam and Eve, were the first human beings, that sin entered the world through their rebellion, and that this historical act had physical consequences. Particularly helpful in my view was the writers’ demonstration that an appreciation of the affinities of the Genesis account with other Ancient Near Eastern creation accounts need not of itself lead to a rejection of historicity and chronology in the Genesis account.[callout title=Callout Title]They argue that ahistorical positions regarding Adam and Eve and the Fall inevitably begin to alter orthodox understandings of salvation…[/callout]Further they show that the recognition of symbolic and literary treatments of these events and people elsewhere in Scripture doesn’t in and of itself eliminate from consideration a literal and historical basis of those events and people as well. Those arguing for the reconciliation of Genesis and evolution often seem to assume that simply pointing out affinities between Genesis and ANE literature or showing cases of symbolic/literary elements in the creation narrative clinches the case against any literal sense in terms of people, events, and chronology in the creation narrative. The authors helpfully highlight this mistake.
Several essays (chapters 4, 5, and 6) focus on essential theological elements that the authors argue are put at risk by attempts to reconcile Christian theology with evolutionary theory.
They helpfully survey a variety of theological difficulties that accrue if an historical Adam and Eve and an historical Fall with attendant physical consequences are eliminated in order to accommodate evolutionary explanations. They argue that ahistorical positions regarding Adam and Eve and the Fall inevitably begin to alter orthodox understandings of salvation (i.e. saved from what, if there is no “real” Fall) and thus impact traditional Christian understanding of the work, significance and historical reality of Christ, the second Adam. Further, the authors argue that in order to provide a necessary ontological basis for all humans being fallen “in Adam,” Christian theology must insist that Adam is not only the spiritual head, but also the biological head of all humanity. In Chapter 5, entitled “Creation, Redemption and Eschatology,” David Anderson argues that theistic evolution proposals like Alexander’s lead to an isolation of the spiritual from the physical in redemptive history that resonates with sub-Christian physical/spiritual dualisms, including those found in the Gnostic movements of early church history. Anderson says:
“When it [a theistic evolutionary perspective] turns its attention to matters of redemption and the new creation, [it] is a …Gnostic scheme …[which] consistently separates …theology from history, fact from idea, spiritual from physical. … If evolutionary theory gives an accurate history of the past…then the fall must necessarily be an event with no significant impact on the physical order or humanity or his exposure to death in particular. The curse cannot have involved physical penalties. By consequence the scope of redemption cannot include anything in these realms. …The physical resurrection cannot be a recovery and glorification of a life that Adam lost our access to, but becomes instead a neutral doorway into a different mode of existence. (pp. 90-91)”
Lastly, there is a section (chaps 9-11) that suggests alternative interpretations for some scientific data that are widely considered to be significant evidence for an evolutionary picture of origins. Norman Nevins reviews some familiar critiques in regard to the judgments evolutionary biologists make concerning homologous and analogous features in different organisms (similarities in structures taken to indicate common ancestry vs. structures that are similar but are taken to have developed independently) and in regard to the relative scarcity of “transitional” forms in the fossil record. John Walton critiques naturalistic approaches in origin of life research, and Andy McIntosh raises issues concerning biological information and thermodynamics, in regard to whether natural processes have the capacity to increase biological information over time. Of particular interest to me as a molecular biologist was Geoff Barnard’s discussion of recent genomic data (regarding chromosome fusions, pseudogenes, and mobile genetic elements) usually taken as confirmation of common ancestry for humans and animals. He raises a variety of questions concerning assumptions being made in the evolutionary interpretation of these features, and suggests several alternative non-evolutionary explanations for these data.
Several strengths and several weaknesses of Should Christians Embrace Evolution?
In terms of specific strengths of the book, I was impressed by the evident cooperation of a group of scientists, theologians, and pastors/teachers in producing this volume.[callout title=Callout Title]I was impressed by the evident cooperation of a group of scientists, theologians, and pastors/teachers in producing this volume.[/callout]Often in these discussions in the church, one group (e.g those with scientific training or those with theological training, or lay people who haven’t been “corrupted” by advanced study) assumes that its own insights or expertise uniquely equips it to declare the right path for the church. Often one group (for instance, the scientists or the theologians) takes control of the discussion rather than recognizing that God equips his church with a variety of gifts and that all might be utilized in seeking a faithful direction for a particular denomination or fellowship.
Secondly, this volume provides a helpful reminder that our lives are lived in the context of a real spiritual battle that touches all aspects of our lives and thought, certainly including contemporary scientific claims, and our responses as believers to them. While I might disagree with some of the particular lines being drawn in the volume, the point remains that Christians will be required to take countercultural positions at some point or other, and we should not duck from this prophetic task when it is indicated.
A third strength is the authors’ insistence that our fundamental theological commitments derived from the teachings of Scripture should frame our understanding of the natural world, and should explicitly inform the judgments we make about the deliverances of scientific work. While it is often difficult to pinpoint exactly where our judgments as Christians should begin to diverge from the consensus judgments of the evolutionary disciplines, the authors make a strong case that taking the evolutionary picture of human origins at face value seems to require significant alteration of some deeply rooted elements of basic Christian theology.
Along with the strengths given above, however, the book also exhibits, to a certain degree, some of the dysfunctions that seem to me to characterize the origins discussion among evangelicals.
Firstly, (although not overbearingly so) there were a variety of places where evolutionary “reconcilers” in general (and Denis Alexander in particular) are considered to be disingenuous in some way or other in their work. The implication given is that they somehow lack the courage of their convictions and thus resort to “shrewd” arguments, apparently to avoid the embarrassment of properly owning the offense of Christ (see an example on p. 52). This kind of insinuation is in my view unjust and should be studiously avoided in the “in-house” debates concerning these issues in the church. Though not excessive in the book, this undercurrent is present and the book would have been improved by eliminating it altogether. It seems to me good and right that various origins proposals by God’s people should be put before fellow believers and evaluated at face value on their merits alone.
Secondly, although it varies in degree from author to author, the book too quickly passes over the complexities of faithfully navigating the relationship between scriptural and creational revelation. Although Scripture is to be taken as foundational to Christian understanding of all things, there are a variety of “feedback loops” whereby our understanding of Scripture is inevitably and in many ways properly informed and refined by creational revelation.[callout title=Callout Title]…the general impression left by this volume is that evolutionary biology is like an omnibus bill that must be embraced or rejected as a whole.[/callout]It would have been helpful to see this complexity explored a bit more, rather than leaving the dominant impression that in these issues, it is simply a matter of either being loyal to Scripture or being loyal to the worldly consensus of science. A related issue is that, although the authors do give a definition of the specific notion of “evolution” being opposed early in the book (p.13, “the Darwinian mechanisms of mutation and natural selection and [a] commitment to common ancestry”), there are a wide range of “theistic evolution” or “evolutionary creation” proposals in play on the contemporary scene, and these proposals vary quite a bit in their “embrace” of different aspects of evolutionary biology. Unfortunately, the general impression left by this volume is that evolutionary biology is like an omnibus bill that must be embraced or rejected as a whole. This type of either/or assumption is an oversimplification and tends to short circuit the discussion of these issues among believers.
Thirdly, the book could have profited from a more coherent handling of philosophy of science issues. On the one hand the book strongly (and properly in my view) encourages the idea that we Christians should fundamentally frame our thinking along Scriptural lines. On the other hand it claims in regard to science that we should desire simply to “follow the evidence wherever it leads” (p. 14). It turns out that no one simply “follows the evidence where ever it leads.” Data don’t come to us with tags affixed, telling us what it is evidence for. We humans develop arguments to try to convince one another that particular data are best interpreted as evidence for some particular explanation and our judgments about the success of those arguments are strongly impacted by our worldview level convictions and background beliefs. From this standpoint the “follow the evidence wherever it leads” rhetoric is unhelpful.
Finally, there were several passages that seem to encourage the idea that the evolutionary biology consensus is in the process of crumbling because it is so obviously contrary to the data, and further, that the exposure of the vacuity of evolutionary theory and wholesale defection in the ranks is prevented only by the political stranglehold of evolutionists in the scientific world. I’m convinced that these “evolution conspiracy theories” are serious distortions of the real situation and as a rhetorical device serve only to damage productive discussion. The evolutionary consensus (right or wrong) is not in the process of crumbling and although there certainly are (as in all human endeavors) a variety of political and ideological streams flowing through the origins discussion, to reduce it all to ideology and politics is a serious error.
In the end, with the caveats noted above, I think this book well worth reading and digesting for those interested in engaging these issues. Though I am not convinced by all of the arguments presented, I do think the book helpfully focuses a variety of cautions that need to be taken seriously by those who want to move their Christian communities full speed ahead in the project to reconcile contemporary evolutionary theory and a Christian theology.
A few general comments about engaging origins issues
Every time I engage these issues, I’m always made aware of how much more I have to learn about God’s Word and God’s world and the varied ways that God’s people strive to respond faithfully to both in relation to these origins issues. So it seems to me a good thing to have these discussions ongoing among believers. The discussions can keep us from complacency and ensure that there are a variety of thoughtful Christian perspectives on offer in the contemporary culture.
Also, I’ve found that these discussions keep before me the irony of my own propensity to consider myself as better than others and to look out for my own interests in the midst of my attempt to be faithful to my Lord—so that repentance seems to be a required constant companion while dealing with these issues.
I’m also more and more convinced as time moves on that dealing with these issues by playing “hardball” in specialized academic disciplinary ghettos, or closed church “councils” or in strident debates led by para-church origins advocacy groups is unlikely to be helpful to God’s church. The “specialists” and origins advocacy groups often do have valuable insight to contribute to the conversation, and church leaders do have responsibilities to make decisions and to temper chaos, but it seems to me that moving forward on these polarizing issues will require the intentional development of broad “origins discussion safe zones” in the context of real worshipping communities. This would require humility, listening ears for all, supernatural patience, and likely giving up on the dream of final closure about many of the details. May God bless his people with the grace to struggle with these issues in a way that centrally and unmistakably points to the Good News of the Gospel of King Jesus, the Ruler, Sustainer and Redeemer of it all.
Some resources readers might find helpful in further exploring these issues:
C. John Collins
Tim Morris and Don Petcher
Report of the Creation Study Committee (Presbyterian Church in America)
Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (American Scientific Affiliation Journal
Volume 62 Number 3 September 2010
Dr. Tim Morris is a Professor of Biology at Covenant College. His book, Science and Grace, co-authored with physicist Don Petcher, was released by Crossway Books in March 2006. Science and Grace was written to help Christians build an understanding of scientific endeavor within a Christian worldview by utilizing specific Christian convictions concerning God’s faithfulness to His people and to His creation.