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Written by: C. W. Booth

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Theology of Theistic Evolution

Introduction

Having just read The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006) by Francis Collins, the project lead for the decoding team of the Human Genome Project, I was disappointed to find little effort expended synthesizing theology with science. To be sure the science was thought-provoking. But if one accepts a stance for theistic evolution, as does Collins, then burning theological issues present themselves that still must be addressed.

Collins is in very good company in having adopted theistic evolution as an origins-of-life model. Preacher Charles Ryrie once taught something similar, having explained that there was an ancient earth teaming with life and dinosaurs before God started over, planted Eden, and created Adam and Eve. C.S. Lewis was a very vocal advocate of evolution as the mechanism God used to produce humans from apes. Apologist Lee Strobel has written entire volumes quoting scientists who espouse this theory.

In short, theistic evolution maintains that God created a time-space fabric along with the energy that erupted into the Big Bang. The result was an energy-matter universe that slowly coalesced into its present galaxy-strewn form under the active but invisible guiding hand of God. Earth was intentionally designed to evolve into a life-supporting planet onto which God breathed organic life based on an incredibly complex chemical programming language of DNA. After uncountable eons life advanced into higher primates, of which God selected a pair and gave them self-awareness as the first modern humans.

Theological Issues

Theological implications and questions abound when someone accepts this theistic evolutionary model. God is certainly credited as the Creator of the universe, but other aspects of Genesis are brought into question. Lewis took the easiest way out and argued that there never was an historical Adam and an Eve and that original sin (Genesis 3) was a fairy tale and subsequently the curses of a sin nature and total depravity were doctrinal fictions straight from Satanís mind.

Putting aside Lewisí musings as outside the Christian norm of orthodoxy, the question of how to seriously examine theology in light of the claims of theistic evolution remains and deserves to be explored. Though I believed in the evolutionary model until my salvation at age fourteen, I quickly found the Darwin/Dawkins atheistic version of the model to be antithetical to much of the Judeo-Christian faiths. For that reason at an early age I embraced a Young Earth Creation Model, treating Genesis 1-3 as literal historical narrative. To this day I continue to lean toward that view, though I am willing to allow that those who embrace theistic evolution may have valid points to make.

Genesis 1-2 as Extended Metaphor

If theistic evolution (perhaps calling it an ďOld Earth Creation ModelĒ would be more descriptive) was the mechanism by which God created the universe the first area of concern will be the Genesis 1-2 creation narratives. Since the six days of creative activity would have to mean six eons of time (a week of eons) instead of six literal days then Genesis 1-2 must be taken as either an allegory, a parable, or an expanded metaphor.

As with other expanded biblical metaphors it is not always necessary to identify a specific meaning for each symbol and every event, merely that the combined story makes a literal point or provides a valid teaching. In other words, it may not be essential to establish the separation of lights as being an eon long action but a symbolic way of stressing that God supernaturally superintended the coalescence of the stars. Moreover, as a metaphor there need not be historical significance to the order of events in the six eons but rather there must be spiritual significance. In any case, if one treats Genesis 1-2 as a parable or extended metaphor it illustrates that humanity was the crowning act of animal creation by God as man was given caretakerís dominion over the planet, plants, and animals.

The Inception of Modern Humanity

Since the goal of this exercise is to apply an orthodox and valid theological frame around the Old Earth Creation Model (i.e. theistic evolution) one question that must be answered is: When did mankind become mankind? Evolution theory states that the primates evolved into modern homo-sapiens. If true, then at what point did the primates become truly human?

Animals of all kinds, except humans, are thought by Christians to have body and life only. Bodily life is sometimes called the soul or spirit of the animal. However, more often than not when the soul or spirit is a word applied to a human in the Bible it refers to the eternal element of a person that knows right from wrong and that worships God. Animals do not have this same caliber of soul/spirit, merely life. Animals do not worship God and they do not evaluate their actions based on knowing spiritual rightness and spiritual wrongness. It is also assumed that animal life dies in the grave along with the animalís body while the human spirit returns to be with the God who created it (Ecclesiastes 12:7, Matthew 22:32) and is eventually redeemed with their glorified body in the resurrection.

If the Old Earth Creation Model is valid then at some point in very ancient history God selected one spiritless primate animal. God then breathed into him an eternal spirit giving him eternal life, a knowledge of holiness (but not sin), the ability to worship, an intellect with language skills, and a self-awareness. From that earthly spirit-imbued man God also generated a female, either literally via a form of supernatural surgery or by using the man as a model and replicating the process with a female primate. Whichever is the case, it was not that those apes just one day suddenly of their own accord became self-aware, moral, and God-oriented. The entire point of Genesis 1-2 is to illustrate that God caused this to happen via His purposeful and intelligent creative power.

The Garden of Eden

These two new humans were placed into a specially prepared garden which God Himself planted on the earth (Genesis 2:8). Since the plants were given to these people to eat and animals were not given to them to eat, it may be assumed that within the confines of the garden there was no death, no severe pain, and no suffering by humans or animals. It was perfect vegan paradise shielded from an otherwise death-prone carnivorous world.

Original Sin

Next comes the theological problem of Genesis 3 and original sin. Since the biblical story is the explanation of how sin, the curse, pain, suffering, and separation from God entered the otherwise perfect paradise of Adam and Eve it cannot be dismissed as pure mythology as Lewis desired to do. It is abundantly evident that Adam and Eve would have lived forever in this sheltered paradise had they not rebelled against God, given into their lust for knowledge and power, and cast their lot with Satan. Nonetheless their rebellion was literal, whatever form it may have taken, and the curse of Genesis 3 was imposed.

To ensure the couple would not live forever while on the earth, they were put outside the protected paradise garden where they would labor, age, and eventually die. Animals, as symbolized with the animosity placed between the woman and the snake, would become both predators of humans and their prey. The ground outside the garden was also cursed such that it would fight rebellious humanity by growing weeds and requiring hard work to become productive. Pain, suffering, and death were now a human reality, not just a fact of animal life outside the garden.

Nothing in the above theological assessment of Old Earth Creation compromises the truth of Paulís great explanation that all men have sinned from Adam on (Romans 5:10-15). Death did indeed enter the world with Adamís sin, that is, human death. If Romans 5 is read carefully it is readily obvious that the context is that of human sin, human redemption, human eternal life, and human death.

Conclusion

Surely there is much more that must be investigated regarding the theological framework around the Old Earth Creation Model. However, as demonstrated, initially it would seem that the model can well fit the truths of Scripture if one is willing to handle Genesis 1-3 as an extended metaphor, parable, or allegory which teaches a series of literal truths about the created origins of the universe and human life by God.

This is not to say that the Old Earth Creation Model is definitely correct and that the Young Earth Creation Model is decidedly wrong. Rather, it allows for taking the Bible just as it is and applying the proper rules of genre interpretation and still seeing two valid views of creation which retain God as absolute Sovereign, Savior, and Creator. My heart remains with the Young Earth Creation Model but my mind permits others to adhere to the Old Earth Creation Model (i.e. theistic evolution).

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[This essay was originally posted as blog. As a blog it was subject to public review and comments. Only a selection of the cleaner and more salient comments are reprinted below.]

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Booth Posted the Following Response to a Comment from the Public (public comment not shown)

Just a small aside regarding use of the word "food." The speech God gives in Genesis 1:29-30 is to Adam and Eve while in their garden. The word "earth" does not mean planet, it means "a parcel of land," in this case, it is likely a reference to the entire garden which may have been as large as half a continent.

In other words, since Adam and Eve did not have access to the entire planet, only to the garden, it seems that common use of the language here is approrpriately restrictive to those birds, plants, animals, and insects they would come across while in the garden. Therefore, it is proper to conclude that every animal in the garden was vegetarian, but nothing is said about or implied of those that lived outside the garden.

Booth Responded to Another Comment from the Public (public comment not shown)

I suspect this to be as true for you as for me, but I want to be certain. I find talking through a difference of opinion regarding Scripture to be personally useful and helpful, and it often changes my mind when I find myself to be mistaken. Differences of opinion are welcome and not a source of anger. I recognize that not everyone will come to the same conclusions I do and I accept that as a fact of human life and am simply grateful for the opportunity to talk through issues.

I do fully understand what you are saying about the seemingly inclusive language of Genesis 1:28-30. Yet, Adam and Eve did not have access to the entire planet. As soon as they were created they were placed into the garden, "Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. The LORD God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed. Out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." (Genesis 2:7-9)

In fact, Eve was created in the garden, "Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The LORD God commanded the man, saying, 'From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.' ... The LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man." (Genesis 2:15-17, 22)

It is evident that Adam and Eve could not leave the garden because their punishment for their rebellion was to be put outside the garden, "therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life." (Genesis 3:23-24)

Therefore, if every plant was given to Adam for food, but Adam could only access every plant inside the garden and many plants outside the garden were deadly, the natural meaning of "every plant" must be "every plant in the garden." When Adam and Eve were given the blessing of "filling up the land with children," it could not have meant the entire planet since to leave the garden would have been a punishment and impossible to do before they rebelled. So again, "the land" must naturally mean "the land of the garden."

I agree that there is a future time coming, the Millennium, when animals will not kill each other for food. But human death will still be normative as is indicated by the statement that those who only live one hundred years old during that time will be thought to have been cursed (or not favored). Therefore, the Millennium is not truly a return to the garden life. The garden has been sealed.

Thanks again for the conversation.

Booth Replied to a Follow Up Comment

You are correct, it is pure assumption on my part that Adam and Eve could not / did not leave the garden while they were in their sinless state. But I do not think the assumption is groundless (pardon the pun). Here are the questions I ask regarding the garden if they were able to leave it and return freely:

- If the entire planet were a paradise garden, why was a special garden needed?

- Why did God "place" Adam and Eve in the garden and tell them to cultivate it when He really meant the entire planet?

- Why did God block re-entry into the entire garden instead of just blocking access to the one tree?

- Is it not evident that even if Adam and Eve could leave the garden they could not have accessed the entire planet, e.g. Japan, Canada, North America, South America, Australia, etc. making the inclusive language (every green plant) far less inclusive than perhaps first imagined?

Nonetheless, you are right, it is an assumption on my part without a definitive proof. However, I might also ask, is it also not an assumption that they could leave the garden and return freely? Is there any evidence in the Scripture that they actually were able to do so and actually did venture outside?

Finally, as you already know, the above blog post was an exercise for my personal education to determine if theistic evolution had a valid theological leg to stand on. I am not convinced it is "the right answer" to the creation / origins debate. From a long view, I will grant that theistic evolution has potential merit, but I am not fully convinced it has full credibility.

Booth Responded to Another Follow Up Post

One of my interests in seeking a theological examination of theistic evolution is to take out of the way obstacles to the gospel message that the world has placed in front of those who are not yet saved. Just as it can become an obstacle when people post lists that allege that the Scriptures have errors (and so those lists ought to be refuted) the world has placed evolution vs. creation in front of both unbelievers and believers as an obstacle to faith. I think that obstacle can be torn down.

Like you, I prefer to take the Bible literally whenever possible. But some of the writing uses metaphor; the metaphor is symbolic but the the truth it illustrates is literal. IF the six days of the creation work are metaphors for literal creation events or eons, I am not overly upset (though I have never actually believed they were metaphors). Faith in God and faith in Christ need not rely on knowing if the individual creation "days" are metaphors or literal 24 hour days. Faith in God does depend on understanding that He brought into existance all that does exist, that He created mankind, and that He alone redeems mankind. A debate over how to read or interpret the mechanics of creation need not be a barrier to saving faith.

Blessings.

Booth Responded to Another Follow Up Post

One of the things I will not do in the name of evangelism or apologetics is espouse or embrace a view I think is patently incorrect. In other words, I would not tell someone struggling with theistic evolution vs. creation, "Oh sure, God used evolution to create us," if I thought theistic evolution were defintately and demonstrably wrong. That would be dishonest and not God-honoring.

I believe Young Earth Creation is the better biblical model, but I also recognize I may be incorrect. So the way I generally deliver the Old Earth Creation Model is to say just that. Some day, if I discover that an Old Earth Creation Model is actually correct, my faith in God is not shaken, though I will be disappointed in myself for getting it wrong. I feel the same way about eschatology, if my view of the rapture (the first resurrection) and the Millennium are wrong, I will be disappointed but will recognize that some things in the Word are not explained to the last detail (for God's own holy purposes).

Some things are not subject to doubt or debate. Jesus did come as an historical man, did die, did raise from death, and will come again to judge the living and the dead. Those are truths that are unambiguous in their presentation in the Word and are necessarily worth debating and defending without compromise.


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