The Bible and Theistic Evolution

Previously I’ve discussed young earth creationism, old earth creationism, and ruin and restoration creationism.  That brings us to theistic evolution, or I could say theistic evolutionary creationism.

Though theistic evolutionists may have varying beliefs regard to the nature of God, in general, they see God as the source of all existence in one way or another.  Evolution is simply a process which diversifies life in the universe, as much a product of God’s activity as any other natural process such as gravity or a chemical reaction.  In Christianity, theistic evolutionists can be found in most of the major theological streams.  There are people who believe in Biblical inerrancy and nonetheless are theistic evolutionists.

Also, there is generally no difference between the scientific understanding of theistic and non-theistic evolutionists.  They will generally see very different philosophical frameworks for the events that they study, but the events themselves, and the properly scientific framework for them are the same.  In terms of science, all three of the other views I have discussed involved some debate over what may be regarded as natural processes, and some expectation of an identifiable intervention by God in the natural world.  While a theistic evolutionist can believe that God can intervene (I do, for example), in general he or she will not regard such intervention as a proper subject for scientific study, because it will not be repeatable.

To the Biblical literalist, there is nothing about theistic evolution that would commend itself.  It is not compatible with a literal reading of the first 11 chapters of Genesis.  This is one area of debate that can become unnecessarily heated.  When a literalist tells a non-literalist that he is “abandoning the Bible” in accepting evolution, what he really means is that the evolutionist is abandoning a literal reading of the Bible.  For many Biblical literalists, the literal reading is the only possible one, and thus the two are equivalent, but it is important to note that for many, many Biblical scholars, there is no such bias.

Old earth creationists read Genesis less literally than do young earth creationists.  In particular, they interpret the days of Genesis 1 as symbolic of substantially longer time periods, and take the descriptions of the individual days as much more general looks at what happened over that period of time.  While this approach does not take the passages literally, it does take them as historical in some sense.  The old earth creationist does not take the genealogies of Genesis 5 & 11 as complete literal history, but they do take the individuals as historical people, and simply assume that there are significant gaps in the lists.

For the theistic evolutionist, Genesis 1-11 is not to be taken literally at all.  There may be historical events behind some of the stories, but the purpose of those chapters is not to convey literal history.  What they do is present God’s activity and his relationship to the universe in terms that would have been comprehensible to the people who first heard and then read them.  It may be possible that people described in the genealogies were historical people, but that is not the primary question.  The line of connections drawn between the first human being and Abraham, and then from Abraham to the chosen people is the key factor, irrespective of historical details.

This understanding is anathema to Biblical literalists, and makes many Biblical moderates uncomfortable, but it is really an application of a very sound Biblical principle:  Take what is intended literally as literal and what is intended figuratively as figurative.  In this case, one needs to look at the principles, i.e. the message that was encapsulated in these stories that goes beyond the common background material.  If one studies the cosmology of the ancient near east and the literature written about it, one will find that it is very compatible with the language of the Bible.  The stories and the events are substantially different, because the Bible is teaching monotheism, and the one God it teaches is very different from the pagan gods.  But the Bible does not try to change the basic idea of the earth that is round like a dinner plate, floating on the sea beneath with the vault of heaven stretched above it.  (See my articles Genesis Creation Stories – Form, Structure, and Relationship, The Two Genesis Flood Stories, and Psalm 104:  God, Creator and Sustainer.

Understanding the part of the message that is timeless is really quite simple.  Remove the common elements, and what is newly introduced is the important part, or more precisely they constitute the message that God intends to convey.  This is why one can truly believe in Biblical inerrancy (I don’t, read my statement), and yet accept this figurative view, because according to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, what must be understood to be inerrant is the message that the Bible intends to convey, and also allows that the message can be presented through the cultural background of those who write.

A Christian theistic evolutionist (and theistic evolutionists are by no means all Christians) does not seek scientific knowledge in the Bible.  He will seek God’s message and an understanding of how God works with people and interacts with the created universe in a spiritual sense.

This rather extreme difference in the way the camps understand the scriptures is one of the elements that makes creation-evolution debates so very heated.  To a convinced young earth creationist, even an old earth creationist has stepped outside of the scriptural foundations of the faith.  It is not just a matter of disagreement on a minor point of doctrine.  It is a fundamental difference in the foundation of the faith.

But if the various members of the camps would recognize just where the disagreement lies, that it is in how they understand scripture, it might be easier at least to debate the same thing.  For those who regard the Bible as authoritative, the difference between the camps can be as simple as the answer to the two questions:  1)  Must I always take the Bible literally, and 2) How can I tell?


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