There are really (at least) two conversations to be had when it comes to the compatibility of Christianity and evolutionary theory.

The first is scientific. It’s fair to ask whether the theory holds water on its own, regardless of whether or not it contradicts the Bible.

The second is biblical/textual. Does the Bible suggest or, at least leave room for an evolutionary explanation of origins?

As I alluded to in the first post in this series, I honestly don’t have the space here – nor do my readers have the attention span – to do either question justice. Therefore, what follows is a sampling of thoughts and some resources for further study. If this debate interests you, then you’ll have the means to explore it further.

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One argument that I hear constantly from Christians pushing back against evolutionary theory is notion that scientists are basically split on the viability of evolution as an explanatory theory. I think the prevailing reason for this is a basic misunderstanding over what scientists mean by the word “theory”. Regardless, the claim that the scientific community is split on this topic simply doesn’t hold up under scrutiny (see also: Climate Change).

Writing on the theology blog, Jesus Creed, Austin Fischer (who will be featured in a future #ff post), examines the discrepancy between what surveys show scientists actually think about evolution and what the public thinks they think. I’ll quote Fischer at length on this point:

“What I want to briefly focus on is the reality of the situation in regards to what scientists think about evolution. Surveys on such things are notoriously difficult because there is so much nuance surveys simply cannot take into account. For example, which scientists do we survey? All scientists? Do we survey meteorologists? If so, why? That’s not their field and so surveying them in regards to evolution is about as helpful (maybe less) as surveying a Hebrew scholar as to his beliefs on modern ecclesiology.[1]

But setting that aside, most surveys I have seen—no matter which scientists are polled and what the exact question is—put the percentage of scientists who affirm evolution hovering around 90 to 99%. [For example, there was a poll in 1987 in which only 700 out of 480,000 US earth and life scientists gave credence to rejection of evolution.[2] Or there was a 1991 Gallup poll in which 5% of US scientists affirmed creationism.[3] A 2009 Pew poll found that 97% of scientists believe humans evolved over time.[4] The recent Pew poll has 98% of AAAS scientists affirming humans evolved over time.[5]]

But here’s where it gets interesting. According to a recent Pew survey, only about 65% of the general US public understands that.[6] In other words, around 30% of the public thinks scientists are “split” over evolution. There is a popular misconception that scientists are split over evolution. I could not find a place where the survey examined this constituency, but I would venture that a high percentage of these people are evangelical.” [7]

Austin’s post is worth reading in its entirety. And Jesus Creed, the site that hosted his post, has great content coming out every Tuesday and Thursday about the intersection of science and faith if you want to read further.

But for our purposes, Austin’s larger point is fairly straightforward. Before we even get to the question of whether the biblical account – or Christianity more broadly – is compatible with the claims of evolutionary theory, pastors and Christian teachers should have the integrity to be honest about where the scientific community stands on the issue. It’s not pastoral to be intellectually dishonest, even if naively or unintentionally.

I’m actually going to leave the science question there for the time being. The end of this post will include links to some resources that have been helpful to me, a non-scientist, as I have considered the scientific angle for myself.

I now want to spend the rest of this post focusing on the Bible.

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As I’ve already mentioned, I suspect that my embrace of evolutionary science is actually less jarring of a stance than my claim that the Bible itself doesn’t support a “traditionalist” or literalistic reading of the biblical creation narrative (i.e. that the earth and the rest of creation was spoken into existence over a seven day period approximately 6000 – 10000 years ago).

These are book-length claims so what follows here is a tldr (which stands for “too long didn’t read”) version.

To quote biblical scholar Peter Enns (Foreshadowing!!!), “The real problem isn’t evolution. There is a deeper problem: evangelicals tend to expect from the Bible what it simply isn’t set up to deliver.” [8]

Enns’ point is that too often, Christians – especially evangelicals – approach the Bible with assumptions that would have been alien to both the original writers and the original audience. While we live in the same reality as these ancient people’s, our perception of that reality is substantially different. And these difference go beyond language and technology. We err when we fail to account for this in our interpretation. This error manifests in a few ways.

First, it ignores the massive differences in world picture (i.e. the basic assumptions about reality) that exist between our modern world and theirs. For example, when Genesis 1:6-8 and 14-17 speak of the sky/heavens as “firmament” (KJV) or “vault” (NIV), it’s because ancient peoples actually understood the sky to be solid mass (among other things we now know to be false, like a flat earth, etc). Translations like the NASB or ESV that change “firmament/vault” to “expanse” are actually correcting the understanding of the original writers and audience. The point here is that the ancient people understood both their physical and spiritual reality differently than we do.

Second, our modern assumptions about what the Bible must be and how it must function blind us to the way the Bible’s ancient context reflect ancient priorities. As modern, post-enlightenment Westerners, we approach the biblical text expecting it to be a text book. This is an anachronistic (noun: belonging to a period other than that being portrayed) presumption. Regardless of when you think Genesis was written and by whom (more on this in a later series of posts), it’s important that we acknowledge that the aims of the original author(s) were almost certainly different from our own projections of them.

Lastly, the global and historical Church – understanding the points made above – has a long history of taking a non-literal approach to Genesis. Consider the words of Augustine, written over 1500 years ago:

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.

If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.” [9]

I realize these brief rehearsals won’t settle the issue for most people. Think of them as the teaser trailer and the resources I share below as the feature presentation. At best they might entice a curious reader to research more. If that’s you, keep reading. But first, I’ll close with a quote by Anglican theologian Rowan Williams:

“The Bible is, you might say, God telling us a parable or a whole sequence of parables. God is saying, ‘This is how people heard me, saw me, responded to me; this is the gift I gave them; this is the response they made . . . Where are you in this?” [10]

That’s not to say that there isn’t history in the Bible (nor is it terribly difficult to tell which parts of the Bible are meant to be read as such; the challenge is how to read the historical sections). Rather it’s a reminder that God speaks in history and that God is still speaking.

The timeless words of scripture aren’t timeless because they were written to us. They retain their relevance because they were written for us. And the Spirit of God uses them to inspire us in the same way that he inspired the original witnesses to record their divine encounters in the manners and methods of their time and place.

Our understanding of the world has evolved and with it, our understanding of God.

But through it all, God remains.

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Here is a grip of resources for further study. If you have questions about anything shared below, please don’t hesitate to ask!

If you’re a blog/internet person:

Check out the blog of Peter Enns

Enns’ blog is full of accessible writing on faith and evolution as well as responsible biblical interpretation in general.

Check out Biologos

Biologos is the premier organization for studying the compatibility between Christianity and evolutionary theory.

Check out this excellent site devoted to this topic

God of Evolution is a site devoted to the nuances of this debate. It directly address a lot of the pushback Christians have towards evolution.

And this one called “Letters to Creationists”

This one addresses the debate from a more personal perspective.

And this one (which focuses on the age of the Earth)

This last site focuses more of geological concerns regarding the age of the Earth/universe.

And if you’re more of a book person:

This book by John Walton on Genesis 1

An excellent intro by a conservative scholar that demonstrates how to be biblically faithful and still affirm evolution.

This book by Walton of Genesis 2-3

A sequel book by the same author that addresses the question of Adam and Eve in light of evolution.

And this compilation from various theologians

This is an excellent collection of personal stories from Christian pastors and theologians who have changed their mind and decided to affirm evolution.

And this one is excellent

This book come highly recommended from the aforementioned (and foreshadowed!!!) Peter Enns.

As is this one about death before “The Fall”

This last one seeks to address the notion of death before the Edenic fall of humanity.

And if you’re the watching or listening type:

This is a great DVD documentary 

I would actually start here if you want to explore further, especially if you’re not the reading type.

Here’s a helpful podcast

This would be a great listen on your morning commute to work or school.

And another good podcast

As would this.

And one about Adam and Eve

And this.

This one is a Q/A with Christian evolutionary scientists

Also this.

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As this post is already far longer than I want my posts to be, we’ll call it here. There are quite a few stones I’ve left unturned, such as whether or not Adam and Eve were real people, how other biblical narratives such as Noah’s Flood come into play, or how evolution works with our understandings of sin and salvation. Those discussions – and others I’ve failed to mention – will surely take place in future posts.

Now, if you’ve read this far, bravo! We’ve still got our #ff (Follow Fridays) post later this week so be sure to keep an eye out for that.

And please, don’t hesitate to join the conversation by commenting (here or on social media), subscribing, and sharing.

Thanks for reading!

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[1] And on this point, most surveys show that support for evolution is higher among those who specialize in fields that would make them “experts” on the issue.

[2] Martz, Larry; McDaniel, Ann (1987). “Keeping God Out of Class (Washington and bureau reports)”. Newsweek (Newsweek Inc.) CIX (26): 22–23.

[3] http://www.religioustolerance.org/ev_publi.htm

[4] http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/09/section-5-evolution-climate-change-and-other-issues/

[5] http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/chapter-3-attitudes-and-beliefs-on-science-and-technology-topics/

[6] http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-science-and-society/

[7] Fischer, Austin (2016). “Are Scientists Really Split on Evolution?” Jesus Creed. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2015/06/02/are-scientists-really-split-on-evolution-by-austin-fischer/

[8] Enns, Peter (2016). “Selling God Short When Evangelical Talk About Evolution”. Peter Enns Blog. http://www.peteenns.com/selling-god-short-when-evangelicals-talk-about-evolution/

[9] Augustine, On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994.

[10] Williams, Rowan. Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer. Eerdmans, 2014.