Why some evangelicals believe in evolution (Bulldog for October)

Evolution and creation

Christian undergraduates are sometimes surprised to find that evangelicals on the teaching and research staff of their university are, more often than not, committed to the theory of evolution.
The same undergraduates may have been taught in their home churches that evolution is evil and atheistic. So how can these (apparently) Bible-believing academics hold to such pernicious ideas? Has the peer pressure of academia turned them away from Christian orthodoxy?

Some definitions

The word 'evolution' has become encrusted with many different meanings. Historically, the theory has been used to support capitalism, communism, racism, atheism and Christianity! The term evolution will be used here in its strictly scientific sense to refer to the theory which accounts for the origins of biological diversity. This Darwinian theory claims that the form and diversity of the living world is due to a theory of variation and to a theory of selection. Variation is generated by genetic mutations which occasionally affect the survival and reproductive success of individuals. Natural selection is the process whereby genes which promote the greatest reproductive success of individuals in a given environment are more likely to be passed on to the next generation.

Historical background

Writers have sometimes described the reception of Darwin's theory as if it generated a chasm between the atheists on one hand, who accepted evolution, and Christians on the other hand, who did not. But such an account is mythological. In reality, there was immense diversity in the early responses to the Origin of Species(1) and from Darwin's time to the present day many Christians have held to evolution.
For example, Asa Gray (1810-1888), Professor of Natural History at Harvard, an orthodox Presbyterian in belief, was Darwin's confidante and one of the privileged few to receive advance copies of the Origin. That doyen of late 19th century evangelicalism and de-fender of biblical inerrancy, B.B. Warfield, described himself as a 'Darwinian of the purest water'. Ironically, in light of current opposition to evolution in the USA, in the 19th century Christians were often active in its promotion. So why were evangelicals then, as now, so willing to accept the theory as part of a Christian understanding of God's ways?

1. Because of the biblical doctrine of creation

Christians who hold to evolutionary theory see the Darwinian description as the best explanation we have at present for the way that God has chosen to make living things. There are two major aspects of God's work in creation which receive constant emphasis in Scripture. The first is God's transcendence, the fact that the almighty Creator is distinct from his creation (Psalm 90.2-4; 97.9; Isaiah 40.28). The second is God's immanence, referring to his active involvement in sustaining the created order (Psalm 104; Colossians 1.15-17; Hebrews 1.2-3; Revelation 4.11). God is even seen as the direct cause of animal death and birth (Psalm 104.29-30). The Hebrew word bara used here for 'creating' animals is also used in Genesis 1.1. The Bible makes no sharp distinction between God's actions in bringing creation into being and his ongoing creative activity (cf. Psalm 104 and Job 38).
The biblical doctrine of creation has three important implications. First, our scientific descriptions can never be more than limited human attempts to describe the works of God, to understand the secondary causes which God has chosen to bring about his purposes. Second, since God is the author of life (Acts 3.15), his creative activity cannot be invoked to describe one aspect of his creation as if his activity were absent from some other aspect (Psalm 24.1). Christians will therefore avoid the deistic 'god-of-the-gaps' strategy of invoking the activity of God to 'explain' phenomena which science cannot yet explain. Such strategies undermine the doctrine of God's immanence in creation, by implying that God is absent from those aspects which science is successful in describing, and also the doctrine of God's transcendence, since there is a danger of invoking God as an agent of explanation as if he himself were a mechanism within the created order, rather than the author of all that exists. Third, God's transcendence means that we are in no position to rationalise how his creation works (cf. Job 38-42). Our task as scientists is to tell the truth about God's creation as accurately as we can.
Evangelicals who believe in evolution therefore hold to a strong doctrine of creation, believing that Darwinian theory has had the positive effect of disinfecting Christian thinking from false deistic notions of God's activity in his world. Christians are theists not deists!

2. Because of God's providence

Our scientific descriptions today use terms such as 'mechanistic', 'chance' or 'chaos'. The Bible sees God's works equally demonstrated in all these various aspects of His activity, whether in the more 'law-like' workings of the natural world (Psalm 33.6-11), in chance events (Proverbs 16.33) or in His control of the weather (Psalm 148.8), which today we describe using chaos theory. God providentially uses a wide range of secondary causes to bring about His purposes. Who are we to say that God cannot choose to generate biological diversity by a process of genetic variation and subsequent selection of the fittest phenotypes? (Again see Job 38-42.)
Likewise, the Bible sees God's active creative involvement in what we would now call the 'food chain' which involves animals feeding on each other (Job 38.39-41; 39.26-27; Psalm 104.21; 147.9).
The birth and death of animals is part of God's normal sustaining activity in creation (Psalm 104.29-30). The anatomy and physiology of carnivores are expressly designed so that they can take their correct place in the food chain. The Bible does not teach that plant or animal death was the result of the Fall. It would be strange indeed if the central role of animal sacrifice laid down by God in the Levitical law, as he began his patient work of redeeming his chosen people from the results of the Fall, should contradict his purposes for animals prior to the Fall.

3. Because the evidence is convincing

There would be little point in believing a false theory! Occasionally, books are written claiming that the scientific world is 'in turmoil' about the evidence 'which now contradicts Darwinian theory', but such claims are incorrect. In fact, the theory gives coherence to an immense array of research fields, including molecular biology, biochemistry, immunology and zoology, to name but a few. Of course, there are still debates about the exact processes and mechanisms involved, particularly in speciation, but evolution provides such a convincing link between so many biological disciplines, particularly the new genetics, that it has become a 'grand theory' within which all the biological sciences are carried out. Since Christians are concerned to tell the truth about God's creation as accurately as they can, they should be at the forefront of those working to make it an even better theory than it is already.

4. Because Genesis 1-3 does not exclude it

There is a long tradition of Christian interpretation of Genesis 1-3 which does not attempt to force meanings on to the text which were never intended by the original inspired writer. This tradition long predates Darwin. Indeed, by treating the text as a 20th century scientific textbook, we may be in danger of missing the really important points that God wishes to convey to us. In his monumental commentary on Genesis, intriguingly entitled The literal meaning of Genesis (c. AD 391), Augustine wrote that: 'No Christian would dare say that the narrative must not be taken in a figurative sense.'
Clearly a detailed discussion of such important questions lies beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that there are many evangelicals today, including the present author, who hold to a high view of the inerrancy of Scripture, but who do not believe that the purpose and scope of Genesis chapters 1-3 is to provide us with scientific information about the origins of biological diversity.

Does it matter?

It is important that we keep discussions about evolution in perspective. Our salvation does not depend on what we believe about it (fortunately!). All biblical Christians are 'creationists' because they believe in God as the creator and sustainer of the universe. What they disagree about is how he did it.
Nevertheless, the debate does have some important implications. First, religiously motivated attacks on evolution make it far more difficult for Christians to bear an effective witness to the gospel within the scientific community. Such attacks are seen as obscurantist and it is easy then for atheists to tar all Christians with the same brush. Secular biologists generally view people who disbelieve evolution much as they would flat-earthers. Would you listen to the gospel from a flat-earther?
Second, attacks on evolution help to keep alive the 'conflict thesis', the idea that science and faith are intrinsically incompatible, a Victorian idea which in many other respects has been laid to rest during the latter half of this century. The 'conflict thesis' is precisely what the likes of Richard Dawkins thrive on(2), so anti-evolutionary attacks unwittingly provide atheists with precisely the ammunition they need to keep their anti-Christian crusades going.
Third, as already suggested, it really is our Christian duty to encourage truthful reporting about God's creation. God has given us rational faculties, inquiring minds and abundant evidence. Stewardly earth-keeping (Genesis 2.15-20) surely includes the goal of understanding God's amazing creation using all the resources he has so abundantly given us.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Dr. Oliver Barclay, Dr. Roy Clements and Professor Bob White FRS for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this article.

References

1. See, for example, J.R. Moore, The post-Darwinian Controversies, Cambridge University Press, 1979; D.N. Livingstone, Darwin's forgotten defenders, Scottish Academic Press, 1987.

2. The 'Poole-Dawkins Debate', a series of exchanges published in Science and Christian Belief about the beliefs of Dr. Richard Dawkins, is available for ?1.00 plus p&p from Christians in Science, Atholl Centre, Atholl Road, Pitlochry, Perthshire PH16 5JF.

Dr. Denis Alexander is Head of the T Cell Laboratory, The Babraham Institute, Cambridge, and is editor of the journal Science and Christian Belief.