We should reject naturalistic evolution, but put our faith on the line only over those alternatives that are unquestionably biblical.
There is not one shred of scientific evidence or unequivocal biblical authority for believing that the universe was created either by Charles Darwin in 1859 or by William Jennings Bryan in 1925.
That leaves us with several choices:
1. God created the world with the help of Archbishop Ussher at 9 A.M. on October 23, 4004 B.C.
2. The material universe is eternal and has evolved forever on the basis of blind chance.
3. In the beginning God created matter and the rules by which it operates, and then left it to endure on its own without his help.
4. In the beginning God brought the universe into being and since then has guided its course and proved sufficiently interested in how it turns out to interact with it directly along the way.
We favor view four and would like to explain why. That immediately raises such questions as: Where do we get our information?
Does The Bible Teach The Truth About Science?
We may hold scientific truth in varying degrees of probability, and may in time be proved wrong. But still, from our study of science we know some few things about the physical universe to be true.
Our question here, however, is of quite a different order. Evangelicals believe in another source of truth—the Bible. It is, in fact, the infallible Word of God. Therefore, in addition to what we know from science, we also accept the complete truth and divine authority of all the teachings of Holy Scripture.
But granted that the Bible is a book of truth, how may we determine what the Bible says? The truths of Scripture, like the truths of science, do not spring out automatically. In a way analogous to the scientific study of the data of nature, the student of Scripture must also labor over the texts of Scripture to make sure he interprets them correctly.
For example, we dare not demand that the biblical author must speak only in literal language or, for that matter, only in figurative symbols, myths, and parables. Like any other author, the biblical author is free to use whatever literacy form he chooses. Our task is to understand what he says. We do this with the Scripture as with any writing by analyzing the author’s grammar and language symbols in light of their historical and cultural context. In this way we ascertain what he intended to say, believing that, properly interpreted, this is what the Bible actually does say and is, therefore, truth from God. Of course we also believe that the Holy Spirit of God helps us in this work of interpretation. When we have completed the work of interpreting Scripture correctly, he can speak these truths to us directly as his personal word.
Does Scripture Contradict Evolution?
Unfortunately, there is no general agreement as to precisely what Scripture teaches about evolution. In interpreting the Bible we must avoid two dangers. We must not permit currently popular scientific viewpoints alien to the Scripture to determine our understanding of what the Bible means. On the other hand, we must equally resist the reading of traditional interpretations of Scripture back into the text and then demanding that science conform to our prejudices. Unfortunately, the church has a history of yielding to both these temptations, as the names of Copernicus and Galileo remind us.
The principle for the evangelical Christian is clear: When the Bible speaks, he must stand firmly by what it says; but when the Bible is silent, he must be silent as to what he believes on biblical authority. And the evangelical must always remember that the purpose of the Bible is not to teach science but spiritual truth. Certainly the Bible is not a textbook on science; and it is not written in scientific language, but in the popular language of people living two or more thousand years ago. We must, therefore, not try to settle scientific questions by referring to passages of Scripture talking about something else. Nevertheless, the whole of the written Scripture is the word of God written, and is therefore true in all that it teaches on every subject.
What Is Evolution?
Strangely enough, there is even more disagreement on what we mean by “evolution.” Frequently the term refers to a naturalistic evolution on a cosmic scale. This view is the antithesis of Christian faith, which holds to a sovereign personal deity who brought the entire universe into being and continues working to guide its history.
But belief in evolution is not always tied to a denial of theism and the creator God. Some evolutionists believe God started the whole show by creating matter and setting its laws of operation so that now everything develops by natural processes. Such theistic evolutionists accept the fact of divine creation but insist that evolution is the method by which God carried out his work of creation. Such a view is popular with some scientists who are also committed to biblical and Christian faith. More on this later.
A third sense in which the word evolution is used describes a process of continued change or development in plant and animal life. According to this view—often called microevolution—new varieties are produced in nature by ordinary processes and, at least in some cases, new species in the Linnean classification may be brought into existence by this evolutionary or developmental process. Most evangelicals would agree that this kind of evolution takes place. In fact, I know of no single contemporary evangelical scholar who contests this, including all “scientific creationists,” although they may not use the word “evolution” to describe their view.
Finally, evolution is sometimes wrongly used to mean the Darwinian (or Neo-Darwinian) theory of natural selection. Contrary to popular opinion, Darwin did not discover evolution, nor was he the first to propound a theory of evolution to explain the varieties of plant and animal life on earth. Evolutionary theories are at least as old as the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus.
What Darwin did was to come up with a plausible theory of how all this could happen by natural processes. He posited an abundance of small mutations, each accidental in itself, some of them proving advantageous in the struggle for food and life. Such mutations would enable the plant or animal to survive so it would pass on its helpful mutations to its offspring. Eventually enough of these advantageous mutations would occur to create a significantly different kind of plant or animal. According to Darwin, this explains how all the various species of plants and animals could have evolved on a purely natural basis.
Everyone agrees that variations of this sort sometimes occur, but there the agreement ends. Some evolutionists accept Darwin’s explanation as to how all new species emerged, but others do not. They hold to evolution but insist that we simply do not have any explanation of how it occurred. Others accept a general evolution encompassing all life, but argue that it required a divine creative intelligence to make it work. And most evangelicals not only reject Darwinism as an explanation of the method by which evolution occurred but also reject any comprehensive view of evolution itself, opting instead for a miraculous intervention of God directly into the process at certain points.
What About The Age Of The Earth?
Everyone agrees that naturalistic evolution makes sense only if spread over immense amounts of time—hundreds of millions of years. If we could only show that the earth is a recent creation, evolution would be immediately ruled out. And there is some scientific evidence to support an age for the earth in the range of tens of thousands rather than hundreds of millions of years. (For a summary of this evidence, see the article by Thomas Barnes, beginning on p. 34).
Moreover, many think that any fair reading of the Bible shows that the earth was created only a few thousand years ago. Bishop Lightfoot (not Ussher) may have been off a bit, but give or take a few thousand years, his date of 9:00 A.M., October 23, 4004 B.C., is the Bible’s teaching. In any case, it is said, a chronology extending beyond ten or fifteen thousand years is incompatible with explicit biblical statements. Indeed, so creation scientist Henry Morris argues, any other interpretation of the Bible is simply a manipulation of the text to make it conform to a contemporary scientific view, popular since the days of Darwin, but a pseudoscience wholly unwarranted by the facts.
However, the church has in fact always offered various competing interpretations of the biblical passages relating to creation. The basis for a very recent creation of the universe, so meticulously worked out by Archbishops Ussher and Lightfoot and others, rested on two assumptions: (1) the days mentioned in Genesis 1 must be six consecutive periods of 24 hours, and (2) the geneologies presented in Genesis 1–11 and repeated elsewhere in Scripture must be complete.
Unfortunately, both of these assumptions are based on a superficial reading of Genesis and related passages. A rigorous examination of the texts, even taking them in their most literal possible sense, makes it very difficult to accept either assumption as compatible with the author’s intent, and certainly makes impossible the view that the passages are unequivocally teaching this view.
The Hebrew word translated “day” in Scripture often refers to periods of time. Indeed, Genesis 2:4 explicitly lumps into a single day all six “days” of creation: “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven” (NASB).
The attempt to bolster a literal interpretation of “day” by an appeal to the Sabbath commandment confuses interpretation with application. The commandment is not giving an inspired exegesis of Genesis 1 but is illustrating the need for human rest by referring to the seventh “day” in the action of God (who did not need to rest but chose to set a pattern for us).
Moreover, a literal reading makes it extremely difficult to fit all the sixth-day events into a single 24-hour day (Adam’s naming of the animals, his failure to find a companion, the creation of Eve, Adam’s exclamation, “Now, at last!”). Clearly, the author is communicating that the sixth day extended over quite a period of time. Thus on the most literal possible interpretation of the passage, at least one of the six days was not a 24-hour day but a long period of time. And certainly there is no grammatical reason to reject the view that the other days likewise stretched over long periods.
Even if we were compelled to interpret the six days as literal 24-hour days, we would by no means be shut up to a recent creation. As a note in the Scofield Bible points out, it is quite possible that Genesis 1:2 describes the state of the earth when God began his first day of creative work. How long the heavens and earth may have existed before the creative work described in this chapter, we do not know. We know without question only that in the beginning, God did it. Moreover, we are not told that these days were consecutive. Such evangelicals as Eckelmann and Newman, for example, argue that God began certain types of his creative work on each of six 24-hour days, but they were not consecutive. Literally the text reads: “a first day,” “a second day,” and so on through the week of days.
But there is no reason to think that the biblical author really meant to describe literal 24-hour days. A millennium and a half before Darwin, the ancient theologian Augustine argued that the biblical author structured the passage as a literary device to display the way the omnipotent God had created all things instantaneously. Many modern students point out that the account is directed specifically against the pagan myths of the ancient world. Their pantheistic view confused God, man, and nature. By contrast, the author of Genesis showed the proper relationship of Jehovah God to the whole of the created universe and the relationship of man to woman. He also showed the relationship of humankind to other humans, to the animal world, to all other living beings, and to the world of nature. Certainly the first chapter of Genesis was never intended to provide a calendar-type chronology of events in the creation of the world. The single clear point of reference in the first chapter of Genesis is the phrase “in the beginning.” Here we do not need to guess. Right from the start, God was in control.
As J. I. Packer so beautifully warns us, “It was to show us the Creator rather than the creation, and to teach us knowledge of God rather than physical science that Genesis 1 and 2 … were written.” Rather than criticizing these chapters for not satisfying our curiosity about matters of science, “we should take from them a needed rebuke of our perverse passion for knowing Nature without regard to what matters most: knowing Nature’s Creator.”
In summary, even the most loyal defenders of biblical inerrancy can find no hard data pinpointing the chronology of “in the beginning.” It is important that we refrain from going beyond what the text demands. We cannot set dates for creation on the basis of the biblical data. As biblical students, therefore, we must remain agnostic about the age of the earth. We have no biblical warrant for ruling out the validity of the commonly accepted geological timetable. Let scientists battle it out on the basis of the scientific evidence, but we should not bolster weak scientific positions with misinterpretations of the Bible conjured up for that purpose.
At the moment, we conclude that the preponderance of scientific evidence from geology and astronomy favors a universe 15 to 20 billion years old (since what might have been a “big bang” of divine creative energy to start things), and an earth with an age of 4 or 5 billion years. But there is some evidence to the contrary, as Dr. Barnes points out. Therefore, in traditional scientific fashion (theory if not always practice), we tentatively hold to an old earth, but we are always willing to revise the figures up or down depending on new evidence, or new insights into old evidence.
One of the problems in the current debate is the tendency of “creation scientists” to put biblical faith on the line on the basis of an earth and universe created in the last ten thousand or so years. Nevertheless, it is irritating to read the works of scientists like Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard (and unfortunately, some evangelicals too), who ridicule young-earth advocates but never bother to deal with their arguments.
Drs. Gish, Barnes, Slussher, Morris, and Whitcomb may be wrong on this point, but they are intelligent, knowledgeable scholars. Their opponents may feel that they are so emotionally committed to their position that they would not change regardless of evidence presented. But such opponents forget that millions of Americans—one half the adult population, including many of our brightest young Christians—are turned off by such ridicule. They suspect that the laugh only covers up a lack of facts and thin logic.
What About The Age Of Humanity?
Of course, if the earth is only 10,000 years old, man cannot be older. But we are convinced that the Bible does not permit us to put a calendar date on the age of the earth. Does it set a date for the origin of humans?
The geneologies of Genesis led Archbishop Ussher to set the creation of human life at 4004 B.C. But these geneologies are not complete, as a comparison of the Genesis account with Chronicles and Luke demonstrates. A careful reading of Genesis reveals that the author is giving us minute biographical sketches of significant personages. This fact coupled with the usage of the Hebrew “begat” or “son” to indicate a relationship other than father and immediate son renders invalid any attempt to construct a biblical chronology by simple arithmetic. Even the most strict creationists recognize this, and allow for creation of human beings over 10,000 years ago. But this concession is fatal to any strict view that seeks to set a date by adding the ages of the patriarchs, and nowhere does the Bible seek to suggest any age for humans by such a means.
A person could argue that whatever relationships are indicated by the geneologies, these are more meaningful when applied to tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands. But one fact is clear: the geneologies of Genesis will not permit us to set any exact limit on the age of man. Of that we must remain ignorant unless the sciences of geology and historical anthropology give us data from which we may draw tentative scientific conclusions.
Samuel J. Schultz, in what is probably the most widely used survey of the Old Testament in thoroughly conservative schools, writes: “Nowhere do the Scriptures indicate how much time elapsed in Genesis 1–11.… Regardless of what date man may approximate for the beginning of the human race, it is still within the scope of the scriptural account.” And Francis Schaeffer, popular spokesman for evangelicals, shows how widely this view is held in very conservative circles: “Prior to the time of Abraham, there is no possible way to date the history of what we find in Scripture.… When the Bible itself reaches back and picks up events and geneologies in the time before Abraham, it never uses these early geneologies as a chronology. It never adds up these numbers for dating.”
What About Human Evolution?
For any Christian, the idea of human evolution poses a set of problems not raised either by cosmic evolution of the heavenly bodies and planet Earth or by an evolution of the plant and animal world. It is not just a matter of pressing the natural sense of the words in the Genesis account of creation, though these pose difficulty enough for the view that human life descended physically from lower forms of life.
The problem is much deeper than this. It lies in the basic view of man spread through the whole of the biblical revelation. Though a physical being, a human is not just a physical being but also possesses a nonphysical soul/spirit. Evolution of physical beings, no matter how completely guided by divine omniscience, could never produce biblical man, who is also spirit. Not only so, a human is a unique and mysterious unity of matter and spirit made, unlike the plants and animals, in the image of God, and made specially by God to be like himself for fellowship with deity. This relationship, with all it implies for human knowledge, moral nature, role in the universe, and final destiny, constitutes the uniqueness of man.
That is why human evolution poses a special difficulty for any Christian, and why evangelicals who take the biblical view of man seriously must reject outright any ordinary view of human evolution. Biblical man can be explained only by the sheerest sort of immediate divine miracle to bring into being the divine-like man and woman of the Bible.
But, some will ask, could not God have used evolution from lower forms of life as his method of producing biblical man? Indeed, it is very dangerous to finish any sentence that begins with the words “God could not.” The Bible does so only to indicate that God never denies his own character.
But how shall we determine the method God used to create human life? The science of historical anthropology will not help us much. Suppose geology showed us an unbroken sequence of minute fossil changes from pongid through Australopithicus through homo habilis through homo erectus, Neanderthal, and Cro-Magnon man to modern man. That would prove only that God used a similar pattern for the physical aspects of higher mammals. Upright posture, cranial capacity, intelligence, even tool-making ability are not the really decisive difference that constitutes biblical man. Archaeological evidence for the worship of God, a sense of responsibility to God, burial rights, a self-conscious morality—these, therefore, are more to the point in showing a true human being.
The creation of the physical framework of a human being is by no means the truly unique thing that divides that being off significantly from other types of life. Presumably, God could have chosen to infuse the offspring of an animal with a divine-like spirit and so transform it (or two of them) into the first biblical man and woman. To many of us, that would seem harder to believe than the divine creation of man and woman de novo (as a completely new being).
But all this is pure speculation. The Bible tells us little about the method by which God brought the first humans into existence; but the little it does say certainly seems to indicate creation de novo rather than the radical transformation of a lower form of life (see Young’s analysis on page 41). We do not consider the view of an evolutionary origin for humankind as heretical so long as it fully safeguards the nature of man and woman. We do deem it as resting on inadequate exegesis of some biblical passages and, perhaps, as a bit foolish in light of the radical gulf between all other animals and biblical man and woman.
Where does this leave us with respect to the fossil record? Here a nonspecialist must tread softly where he does not have clear biblical teaching as a guide. Most anthropologists, including those who make a full commitment to biblical inerrancy and a biblical view of man, place Cro-Magnon man (roughly 10 to 30 thousand years ago) and Neanderthal man (roughly 30 to 70 thousand years ago) as clear examples of homo sapiens and fully human in the modern sense. Data for them go far beyond mere physical structure to include drawings and artifacts that suggest a worshiping creature. Here, then, we have biblical man.
But we must note that there is no reason to assume the artifacts we see are those of Adam and Eve or of their godly line; they might be from their descendants who drifted across the earth after the fall. We often forget that Genesis never suggests that the whole earth was originally a garden. Quite the opposite! Though God placed the first biblical man and woman in a garden, the rest of the world was very ungardenlike. And the story, pieced together so patiently by geologists and anthropologists, tells of man apart from God as he wandered over an unfriendly earth prepared for sinful fallen man.
This is not a question of literal or figurative views of Scripture. No careful student of Scripture would wish to impose either one on its text exclusively. It is a question of whether Scripture is true and, if true, what its meaning is, as determined by the way words and grammar are used by the author in any given context.
Evolution Of Plants And Animals?
The study of biblical creation would not be complete without raising the issue of the origin of plant and animal species. The biblical material lays all stress on the unique nature of humankind. The word “create” is used only three times in the first chapter of Genesis: of the beginning in Genesis 1:1, of the origin of conscious life in 1:21, and of man and woman in 1:27. The origin of plant life is particularly illuminating: “Let the earth grass grass.” This suggests not so much divine action of an immediate sort as divine guidance of natural processes.
A superficial view of Genesis might therefore lead one to think that with certain exceptions, God used natural processes, which he controlled to secure his own ends. (The exceptions would be the original creation of matter, of conscious life, and of humankind. In these cases he intervened creatively in a more direct way.) The word translated “kind” does not mean “species,” but simply “kind” in a most general way, and could apply to anything from a Linnean phylum to a Linnean species. It is even pressing too much into the phrase “after its kind” to interpret it to mean that God individually created each “kind” by a separate act. It may be only a phrase to describe the clearly observable laws of inheritance. Offspring are not haphazard; rather, each kind reproduced offspring like itself (and unlike humans made in the image of God). The issue of minor variations is not a matter under consideration, and there is no intent to affirm or deny any relationship between kinds.
On purely exegetical grounds it would be difficult to rule out the possibility that God created all plant and animal species by a divinely guided process that would include an unspecified amount of evolution—short of Genesis man, whom God made uniquely in his own image.
When we look at the scientific evidence from historical anthropology we find sharp cleavages of interpretation. Naturalistic evolutionists, of course, do not have any choice. By their naturalistic philosophy they are forced to hold to an unbroken evolution, for they have no god to do the creating. Theistic evolutionists who hold that God created, but in a uniform way by nonmiraculous evolution, are in the same fix.
When Darwin began his work he hoped that geologists would discover a fossil record complete with an unbroken series of very minute gradations. In the absence of any uniqueness on the part of plant or animal kind such as we find in biblical man, this would have presented us with a strong presumptive case for the interrelationship of all life below the level of humans. To Darwin’s great disappointment the record provided no such continuous change.
Since his day our knowledge of the fossil record has increased immensely. Currently, some scientists believe that Darwin’s hope will eventually be fulfilled. But more and more scientists, many of whom are committed to a naturalistic philosophy, have become reconciled to the fact that the “gaps” are not all filling out and probably never will. The multitude of small, almost imperceptible gradations simply never existed.
What then? If a person is committed to an unbroken evolution, he may posit macromutations—sudden jumps—as do Professor Gould of Harvard and many others. A Christian evolutionist will say that here was a divinely guided macromutation.
But a biblical supernaturalist who believes God can and does act miraculously in his world whenever he pleases may well say: Maybe this was a “kind” specially created by God. The more evidence available, the more significant becomes any lack of intermediary forms. Accordingly, though it will seem to the supernaturalist more probable that here was a created kind, he or she will not sweat. If suddenly a whole new series of intermediary fossils appears, demonstrating many minute variations between them, the supernaturalist will conclude: Well, what do you know! Apparently God in his wisdom saw fit to produce kind A and kind B from a common parent after all. That person will not be distressed by evidence that God introduced new kinds by guiding a nonmiraculous process of development (evolution in a highly limited sense of the term).
The Sum Of The Matter
Evolution, we conclude, means different things to different people. The Christian definitely cannot accept a naturalistic philosophy as held consciously or unconsciously by many evolutionists. Moreover, the Christian who takes his Bible seriously can scarcely bring Scripture into harmony with an unbroken evolution even when that process is guided by God. At the very least the believer must introduce sheer supernatural miracle at two points in the process: original creation and the origin of man.
Most Christians who believe God is ceaselessly active in his creation find it more consistent with the Bible and with the scientific evidence to believe that God chose to act in a miraculous way at many points in the unfolding of the world. True theists hold that the God of the Bible is like a fond parent who didn’t want to desert his offspring after he created them but chose to continue with them in interaction and fellowship.
God can perform a miracle when and where he wishes. But an evangelical must not ascribe to God miracles for which he or she has no evidence. Particularly we must not dictate to God how he must have done his business of creating. When he sees fit to reveal something of his ways with the world, we shall receive it with gratitude as a clue to our better understanding of him, of his creation, and of ourselves.
But then, God rarely sees fit merely to gratify our curiosity. And when God is silent, it is our deepest wisdom to be ignorant.
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