Nazarenes Exploring Evolution

Evolution(ism) and Creation(ism), Canon and Creed

Growing up in the Church of the Nazarene, when I did (born 1970) and where I did (Southern California), meant that I was somehow given a lot of what could be called run-of-the-mill, nondescript conservative evangelicalism—of the Wesleyan-Arminian variety, to be sure, but also of the general North American variety. Included in that nondescript, run-of-the-mill evangelicalism was a decent bit of anti-evolution thinking. Somewhere in my childhood, though I can't recall exactly when, I learned of evolution and got the distinct impression that it was something bad. I remember, if nothing else, the standard jokes about—or rather against!—humans being descended from monkeys.

Like many young people at that time, my devotion and piety were often manifested by listening to Christian music, listening to Christian radio (which included, invariably, its fair share of radio preachers), and regular study of the Bible. The first two of these—the music and the radio preachers—often took prominent stands against evolution, reinforcing their point with a sufficient supply of the standard monkey jokes. The cumulative effect of all this devotional "input"—including that from the Bible, too, at least to some degree (but see further below on Genesis 1)—left the impression that good, devout Christians just didn't side with evolution. If nothing else, there were the monkey jokes to consider.

Evolution(ism)

But then there was school. Science classes in my public schools didn't shy away from evolution, and since my parents (devout Christians) didn't either, neither did I. For some reason, my adolescent brain realized that despite the Christian music and the radio preachers, even the mesmerizing power of Genesis 1, there was something true about scientific inquiry, scientific results, and the scientific method.

But how was I to put these different truths together? Somewhere along the way, probably in my church youth group, I was given a crucial tool by which to draw a distinction between evolution—the scientific theory—and "evolutionism," which could be considered a much broader ideology if not religion. I think that it is this latter entity, evolutionism, that many well-meaning Christians think of when they speak against "evolution," but the two are not the same. Evolution-the-scientific-theory is a well-established fact in scientific literature for how biological life grows and develops; evolutionism-the-religion is a non-scientific but heavily philosophical and (a)theological deduction from science to argue that, given evolutionary processes, natural selection, random mutations, and so on and so forth, there is no God, no Creator, no purpose in life, etc. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Creation(ism)

The evolution vs. evolutionism distinction helped me through my secular school years but also, surprisingly enough, in my Christian college where I encountered a good number of people who were convinced that evolution and evolutionism were identical. Precisely because of this conflation, they were forced to do some serious mental gymnastics in their college science classes, buying into some but not too much of what they were learning there. All the while, they were second guessing the faith of any of their professors who happened to subscribe to evolution-the-theory, and they were reinforcing their mental gymnastics with a rather rigid and mechanistic understanding of the Bible, what it was about, and how it worked. I felt the latter issue acutely, though I couldn't yet articulate its problems, during my freshman year when I participated in a Bible study that had its fair share of anti-evolution (or, rather, anti-evolutionism) folks. So, imagine some college students, a faculty member or two, the biblical stories about David, Jesus, Moses, Paul...and throw in a few monkey jokes.

Experiencing this group and seeing firsthand the strangeness of the positions—not on the scientific side, mind you, but on the biblical side—revealed that just as evolution (not a problem, in my view) could become evolutionism (a definite problem, in my view), so, too, could the idea of creation (a core theological doctrine and therefore definitely not a problem) become "creationism." I would define "creationism" as a religion not unlike evolutionism. It frequently makes recourse to creation-science, and the two are often closely linked. But in terms of the Scriptural side of things, "creationism" is limited, as far as I can tell, to an inexplicable valorization of Genesis 1 above all other texts in the Bible that concern creation.

Great help in better understanding the issues at work in evolution(ism) and creation(ism) came in a biology class taught my senior year by Dr. Darrel Falk. The help came in two forms: First, in an assigned textbook by Richard T. Wright, a Harvard trained Ph.D. who taught biology at Gordon College, entitled Biology through the Eyes of Faith (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989). The book took up not just evolution in general, but human evolution specifically—along with many other important issues—and treated them all reasonably and, or so it seemed to me, with complete competence in terms of both science and Christianity.

The second and more important help came in Dr. Falk himself. He was a fantastic teacher, an expert in his field, a top-notch scientist fully at home in and at peace with evolutionary theory, and a deeply committed Christian to boot (and at root). Here, in the flesh, was an instantiation—incarnation even!—of the paradigm that I had heard of with the ear but hadn't yet seen with the eye (to allude to Job 42:5), the paradigm that I knew inchoately, that is, but which lacked key pieces and much evidence. I will never forget the time Dr. Falk told his own moving story about how he looked at his children playing one day and felt sad because they would lack the church upbringing he had enjoyed. Why would they lack that? Because he was a scientist, convinced of the truthfulness of evolutionary theory, and he was, as a result, sadly convinced that no church would have him for that reason and for that reason alone.

But a church would have him! In this case it was the Church of the Nazarene, a Wesleyan-Arminian denomination that understood Scripture less rigidly (but no less seriously) than some other branches of North American evangelicalism. And so, happily, Dr. Falk found his way to my college and to my home church. The daughters he felt sorry for ended up as key members of my church's youth group.

I will also never forget the hours Dr. Falk invested in me, meeting with me outside of class as I began to put together the implications of evolution within a larger theological framework—a point I was eager to do since I was a religion/Bible major.

Canon

As I have already indicated, Scripture was present from the very beginning in my thinking about creation and evolution. Growing up Wesleyan helped a great deal. Indeed, I suspect that it is precisely the Wesleyan aspects of my evangelical heritage and upbringing that enabled me, despite my deep, primal love of Scripture and the well-meaning monkey jokes, to be able to see and agree with that distinction between scientific theory (evolution) and scientific religion (evolutionism)—though I realize the term "scientific religion" is something of an oxymoron. I don't mean to suggest that religion and science have no overlapping relationship whatsoever.1 But I do mean to say that science is not, as such, religion.2

In any event, after college I went to seminary and then did a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies with a focus on Old Testament. Since then I've been teaching seminarians, some of whom have had serious questions about creation(ism) and evolution(ism). It was in the course of teaching students about the Bible, especially about Genesis 1, that I came to see that the Bible itself is not of one mind about how God created the world. It is of one mind—if the Bible can be said to have a "mind"—on the fact that God created the world and all that is in. But how God created the world is a matter of opinion in the Bible. There is no getting around Genesis 1, front and center as it is, but while that is an important text, a breakthrough came when I realized that its seven-day schema of creation was never repeated elsewhere in the Bible.3 Rather than simplistic and extensive repetition of Genesis 1 elsewhere in the Bible, what we find instead are a lot of other texts about creation, texts like Genesis 2 (immediately adjacent to Genesis 1!), which suggest that God created things in different ways and in different sequences than what is set forth in Genesis 1. Consider Psalm 74:12-17, which uses creation language in conjunction with God's combat against the sea dragon (a long-standing creation motif in the ancient world), or Proverbs 8:22-31, which says that the first thing God created wasn't light, as Genesis 1 would have it, but Wisdom personified. And this doesn't mention still other texts from the Old Testament let alone the New Testament. For the latter, one need only think of John 1:1-4 or Colossians 1:15-20, which contribute to the discussion but also complicate it by placing Jesus, the Word of God, present at the creation. In brief, there is a lot to be said about creation in the Bible. A lot more than just Genesis 1.

What do all these different texts with their different "takes" on creation mean? Well, there can be no doubt that they mean a number of things, but here's one obvious conclusion: any overly obsessed focus on Genesis 1 to the expense of all other texts about creation in the Bible is seriously mistaken. On what grounds should one favor Genesis 1 over Genesis 2, over Proverbs 8, or over John 1? All of these texts are canonical; all of them, that is, are Holy Scripture, not just one of them and certainly not just the first in the series. And here's the crucial point: these different, holy, canonical writings disagree on the how of creation. But here's the next, equally important point: they are in full agreement on the fact of creation—or, better, on the Who of creation, which is to say, they agree on the fact that it is God who created heaven and earth, even if God had Jesus or Wisdom (or both!) near at hand in the process.

Creed

And that is why we find the Apostles' Creed affirming our belief in "God...Creator of Heaven and Earth" but without any further discussion or qualification. The Creed moves on immediately after that to "and in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord." The Creed does not tack on a rider to the creation part indicating how God created (e.g., "in seven twenty-four hour days"). And that is not because the Creed is afraid of (or somehow infatuated with) Darwin, but because the Creed is thoroughly biblical. The Creed knows—if a Creed can be said to "know" something—that the Bible affirms the fact that God created, but it also knows that how God created is not clearly portrayed in Scripture, at least not unequivocally.

If the Creed had mandated belief in seven twenty-four hour days, it would have reflected only one Scriptural perspective on creation (and only one particular interpretation of that perspective) to the neglect of all the others. That would do injustice to the full witness of Scripture. And so the Creed doesn't do it. Why? Because the Bible itself doesn't do it. Why, then, do some Christians insist on doing it? No doubt they mean well, but their well-meaning runs seriously afoul. In their zeal for Genesis 1, and in their defense of Genesis 1, they end up doing serious damage to the rest of Scripture and what it has to say on this crucial subject. And note that the difficulties I am mentioning here are only on the biblical side of "creationism"; I haven't even begun to mention the scientific problems inherent in the same.

It was in the classroom, then, that my journey came full circle, much like it had begun in the classrooms of my youth at school and at church. It was a journey from Genesis 1 and creationism, to evolution and evolutionism, and back to creation and Genesis 1. In light of all that, I see no reason to affirm "evolutionism." In fact, Canon and Creed combine to indicate that I cannot affirm it. Instead, I confess belief in the Triune God who created heaven and earth. But I also see no need to affirm "creationism." Scripture includes far more than Genesis 1, the Creed agrees, and my theological tradition affirms God's truth everywhere it can be found, even outside Canon and Creed—places like the amazing natural world that God created along with its many scientific laws and processes. I see no reason not to believe that all of these things—the world with its scientific processes—also include evolution, just as I affirm that all of them, of whatever sort, are created, redeemed, and sustained by the Lord.

1 The celebrated atheistic evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould argued just that: that religion and science do not overlap. See his Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballentine, 1999), a book that, in its own way celebrates religion. I myself believe science and religion do overlap and interrelate in many ways—some of which are quite close, none of which, however, are exactly coterminous. See the helpful book by William P. Brown, Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

2 Perhaps it would be better, in light of what I've said above about evolutionism, to say that science can be a religion of sorts—which is to say that it can be an ideology and philosophy that moves outside of the laboratory, the scientific method, hypotheses and verification/falsification, etc. But at that point, it is no longer a privileged repository of "hard data": it is yet another religion or ideology in a large marketplace populated by many others and must take its turn competing for attention and adherents, justifying its claims and so on and so forth. Unfortunately, there are no test tubes that prove science-as-religion correct. The scientific endeavor can't, in the end, prove or disprove religion as such. There's no mixing Jesus up in a test tube, let alone God; nor are the notions of revelation or inspiration capable of replication in a lab.

3 There is, to be sure, a reference to God resting on the Sabbath day in Exod 20:11, but that is not found in the parallel text in Deut 5:15. Even in Deuteronomy 5 there is no repetition of the seven twenty-four hour day schema—if, in fact, the days in question are twenty-four hour days, which is a point of debate in some circles, though I see no compelling reason to think that the Hebrew text suggests otherwise.





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Comments (10)

  1. Jennifer Chase:
    Mar 04, 2013 at 01:01 PM

    Thank you, Brent, for setting out the terms "creationism" and "evolutionism." I appreciate a way to separate out the science that describes the process of evolution from the psuedo-religious materialism that suggests that evolution is the begining and end of the story. A Christian, as you say, must believe that God is the Creator and cause agent of life. That Christian can/should do so without adhering to either "creationism" (with it's determinism of where, when, how) nor "evolutionism" (with it's hopeless, meaningless, agnosticism). Thank you, too, for giving credit to Dr. Falk and his peace-bringing approach to faith and science.

    Reply

    1. Brent Peterson:
      Mar 04, 2013 at 05:54 PM

      Thanks for this helpful narrative of your journey. I think it is helpful to appreciate and focus on what the texts are saying and what they are not saying. Too often I am sure I bring my agenda to the text looking to validate my previoulsy held ideas. It is also helpful to be reminded that the emphasis of God as Creator is found throughout the canon, fully celebrating that God is the creator.

      Reply

  2. Paul:
    May 10, 2013 at 01:14 PM

    Thank you Professor Brent for sharing part of your intellectual and faith journey. I picked Biology as my major in college because of my desire to be in health professions. Because I was young in my Christian faith, I deliberately avoided classes that dealt with evolution. At least I did have an excellent scientific foundation from which I could practice my heath care career and also to evaluate scientific treatises. I also majored in Psychology which helps me to think differently and to evaluate differing viewpoints. My present opinion is that evolution on the micro level is scientifically demonstrated to leave very few doubts. Even most creationists accept that. It is on the macro level that I find support to be lacking. The assumption is that micro leads to macro. The challenge we have in Biology is that we lack a consistent definition of what a species is. Different branch of Biology, Botany, Microbiology, Zoology, Virology differs on how a species is defined, making a proper discussion difficult.

    Reply

  3. chuck kutchera:
    Jun 09, 2013 at 10:04 PM

    I haven't had a chance to read all the essay's on this site , but I haven't found any Scripture supporting ( the theory) evolution. Is there any? All the writers are teachers/professors and most (if not all) have a degree in theology
    when I talk to a non believer about evolution, I talk science, but when talking to CHRISTians I can quote Scripture defending my position.

    Reply

    1. Gerard R. Oppewal:
      Aug 21, 2013 at 03:05 PM

      Good point, Chuck. There is no scripture supporting evolution, mainly because evolution does not exist or has ever existed. The Bible tells the story of creation, but there's a lot of modern science to be found in it. I'll show you.....

      -Isa 40:22 It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth.....
      Isaiah knew that the world was round.

      -Job 26:10 He hath compassed the waters with bounds, until the day and night come to an end.
      Doesn't 'compass' mean 'to encircle'? So Job knew too!

      - Job 26:7 He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing.
      Earth hanging 'from nothing' ie 'in space'.

      - Luk 17:34-36 ...there shall be two men in one bed (..)
      Two women shall be grinding together (..)
      Two men shall be in the field (..)
      Apparently, on Jesus' return people shall be in bed AND working in the field. Only possible if the earth is round.

      - Lev 11:6 And the hare, because she cheweth the cud....
      This text has often been used to show the Bible wrong, but lo and behold: the hare regurarly eats it's own excrement, and thus, chews his food twice, as we discovered centuries later.

      Need I go on?

      One more point to ponder:
      - Gen 1:31 And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.
      So, if Lord of the universe says 'it's very good', how is some haphazard, unproven contraption of man going to IMPROVE on that? Well, it doesn't. 'Perfect' ended with the flood, we have experienced only 'degradation' ever since. (Degradation, the end of the evolution theory by Peter Scheele).

      - The flood explains the extinction of numerous animals far better than evolution ever can, as well as ice ages, frozen mammoths, fossil fuel, and the making of Grand Canyon.

      By all means, please talk science! If facts support a theory, the theory gains credibility. Go Creation!

      Reply

      1. Lowell H Hall:
        Aug 22, 2013 at 12:23 PM

        Hi George:
        I am fascinated by your posting but also quite dismayed by your use of Holy Scripture.
        For example, you state that Isa 40:22 demonstrates that “Isaiah knew that the world was round”. However, as you very well know, a circle is round but it is flat – not spherical. In fact, both Hebrew and Greek have specific words for spherical. However, NOWHERE in The Bible are those words for spherical used when the earth is mentioned (more than 2700 times). So, based on the whole Bible, it is very clear that the understanding of the Biblical writers was that the earth is flat, not spherical.

        Furthermore, in more than 25 Scripture passages the earth is described as having foundations, often referring to pillars of support. In fact, listen to how God speaks to Job (Job 38:4). He starts by asking, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world? . . . On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone . . .” Again we see that the Biblical writers understood that the earth needs a foundation and, in this case, a cornerstone.
        The understanding of the Biblical writers does not correspond to the world as both you and I know it. If you read my essay slowly, carefully, and prayerfully, you will see this inescapable fact (Echoes from my Spiritual Journey).

        An important point here is that the non-believing contemporaries of the Biblical writers shared the same view of the nature and function of the world as did those inspired Biblical authors. Nonetheless, God did not inspire any correction of the Biblical authors’ views! However, the central message of Holy Scripture was a radical correction to the prevailing views of the nature of God – as it is today. What a strong contrast!

        Many more examples can be given but I will refrain in this space.

        I am absolutely astonished that you put into print such an egregious misinterpretation in your exposition of Lev 11:6. The verse refers to “chewing the cud” which is a very specific biological process. The food goes into the stomach and then is brought back later for further processing, including chewing. That process is not at all the same as “eating its own excrement” - and you very well know that! How far are you willing to stretch Scripture for your own ends? And do you believe that the writer of Leviticus was unaware that the hare eats its own excrement?

        Finally, it is often said that “there is no scripture supporting evolution” and as you put it, “. . . . mainly because evolution does not exist or has ever existed.” This is a very strange saying. Let me illustrate. I am a professional chemist. I regularly use the concepts of atoms and molecules in my research and teaching. Currently we are developing methods to determine the chemical structure of unidentified human metabolites. I also make use of spectroscopy which deals with light in the visible region of the spectrum as well as in the infrared, ultraviolet, and microwave regions. I have also made use of x-rays and crystallography to determine the molecular structure of molecules. We have been part of research that has helped others to create new molecular substances of medicinal interest, substances not known before.
        It is very clear that none of these topics are mentioned in Holy Scripture and, THEREFORE, BY YOUR LOGIC, THEY DO NOT EXIST. What more needs to be said?

        So, in conclusion, it appears to me that if God intended to inspire Biblical writers about the nature and operation of His creation, he could have done it in literally thousands of Biblical passages. BUT HE DID NOT. I believe that sends us a strong proclamation from God that The Bible is not intended as a source of revelation about how He created and how His creation functions. The Bible reveals who God is, that His nature is love, and that we need a savior to be in right relation to Him . . . and much more. Let us give praise and thanksgiving for His great gift of love and salvation.

        Reply

  4. Kevin OConnor:
    Dec 03, 2013 at 07:02 PM

    Your problem with the Genesis 1 seems that God describes the "How" creation happened. Your answer is just because God expounds further on the marvel of who was there at the start. I think is cool... I think you fall short in understanding other scriptures of Isaiah 45:7-12 is the affirming of Genesis 1. Here is your main problem... If you think the world is millions or billions of years old. Then you have to believe death came into the world before Adam. This is a big problem... I can help you with it...lol let's dialogue

    Reply

  5. Wes:
    Jan 17, 2014 at 07:56 AM

    Brent,

    I think your distinction between “evolution” and “evolutionism” is a good one. It has been my experience, as a pastor, that when most evangelicals, like myself, here the words “evolution being taught in a Christian college setting”, they think of what you called “evolutionism”. And, I think, that is only natural because most of us attended public schools where “naturalism” and “evolutionism” was openly taught, and was the only discussion allowed on the subject of origins. There was no place for the word “ creator” in their teaching. For this reason, evolution leaves a bad taste in the mouth of many, if not most, of us conservative evangelicals. I to am a Nazarene Elder. I graduated from NNU and Nazarene Seminary. I think I understand the distinction you are making between “evolution” and “evolutionism”. But I must admit the word “evolution” still leaves a bad taste, for it carries with it the baggage of “evolutionism.” It seems to me that Christian educators could avoid the negative baggage of “Darwinian evolution” with its naturalist, and atheistic connotations, and also be more loving toward their “less educated” Christian brothers, by teaching about “Origins science“. We could then have an open discussion about the science behind the different theories of origins, (evolution being one among others) And the design paradigm being another, and yes even so called creationism - even if you and others disagree with them. Shouldn’t they be given a place at the table at a Christian university? They certainly have not been given a place at most secular public schools. Shouldn’t college students be given the opportunity to make up their own minds?

    I have been told that the upcoming “origins” conference at Point Loma Nazarene College is suppose to be an “Open” discussion of the science of origins. But it appears to me that all the speakers represent only “evolution science” - and the implication seems to be that evolution is the correct and only option. This will, in my opinion, only add to the negative baggage that the word “evolution” already carries in many of our minds.
    In order for a discourse to be loving, it requires that both view points be listened to.
    All through my public education my questions were dismissed, and my point of view on Origins was not listened to. I did not experience this as loving, no matter how polite the discussion. And frankly, neither would you or any of the speakers at this upcoming conference. If I were a new student at Point Loma Nazarene College, I would not feel loved by the one-sided information presented at this conference. It would bring back all the old baggage of the dogmatic way evolution was taught in my public school. I would expect something different and more charitable at a Christian college. I understand why those who believe in “evolutionism” do not want to listen to any scientific knowledge that
    calls into question their belief that the world came into existence through random chance, and natural forces. But it is incredible to me why a Christian university would fear or not allow the enormous new scientific knowledge that has been gained since Darwin, which has led to what has been called “intelligent” design theory. Yet, where are the speakers representing this view?

    Reply

  6. Bill P.:
    Jan 26, 2014 at 04:49 PM

    I read this with interest. I agree that the ultimate point is that God created and that people bear God's image (a point he does not say). However, in his effort to dismiss the normative authority of Gen 1, he never deals with its content. In fact, the Gospels themselves differ on chronological specifics about Jesus. Yet, we affirm each of them. I do not hear Dr. Straw affirming Gen. 1. Perhaps I am wrong. Btw, the Proverbs reference is not a reference about a literal creation and should not be included.

    Reply

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