As people of faith, how are we to understand the topic of biological evolution? This topic has been raised in the pages of The Banner and elsewhere in Reformed circles. As Edwin Walhout suggests in his article “Tomorrow’s Theology” (June 2013), there is convincing evidence to support the thesis that biological evolution has occurred. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that opinions on the topic vary widely, as indicated by the responses to that article. I believe more needs to be said. So in the spirit of engaging the church in an open and continuing conversation, here are some suggestions for broadening the discussion.
Many Christian biologists—and I include myself in this group—accept the findings of biological science as a feature of creation that we have to account for. The combined evidence from fossils and from scientific comparisons of the anatomy, physiology, and DNA of various organisms is so strong that it can no longer be ignored. As a result, most Christian biologists I know accept some form of evolutionary development. In its refereed journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, the American Scientific Affiliation has published many helpful articles that support this viewpoint (see sidebar on p. **).
However, I do have some reservations about the standard evolution accounts. So as we consider the theory of evolution, I suggest that we keep several key points in mind.
Evolution: Biological Theory or Worldview?
Charles Darwin’s religious doubts and his views of God’s way with the world continue to be topics of much debate. Darwin had doubts about a God who interacts with this world and who allows the cruelty that we observe in ecosystems and in natural selection. Some authors suggest that his faith was particularly challenged by the pain of losing his beloved daughter, Annie, who died at the age of 10. Can we separate Darwin’s religious views from the biological theories that are the result of his work?
In our attempt to understand the discussions on evolution, it is important for us to keep in mind the distinction between evolution as a legitimate biological theory and evolutionism as a godless worldview that we as Christians cannot accept. I need only mention the title of the book The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins to indicate what I mean about the latter. Dawkins has expressed his criticism of the Christian faith in language the genteel Darwin would never have used (we will ignore the amateurish theologizing of Dawkins for now). Nevertheless, we need to acknowledge that a large body of literature presents the theory of biological evolution dispassionately and, in some cases, with respect for the Christian tradition.
A second feature of creation that our faith would have us recognize is complexity in the world of nature. Whether we are walking in a rainforest or examining a muscle cell through an electron microscope, we can’t help but be struck by the beauty and complexity of creation. People experience this beauty and complexity in their everyday experience and, as scientists, in the biology lab. In both cases we feel a sense of wonder, even exhilaration.
Not all scientists are of a mind to acknowledge this complexity. James Watson, co-discoverer of the helical structure of DNA, states: “There is only one science, physics: all else is social work.” It’s true that physics is important. Even within our bodies, structures and processes obey physical laws. Nevertheless, many scientists—both Christian and agnostic—disagree with Watson’s statement. They hold that biological organisms and processes cannot be described in purely physical terms, for they obey biological laws as well.
One way of getting at what “creation” means is to recognize that biological structures and processes have integrity and descriptive frameworks all their own. There is a level of biological complexity within the creation. Such an understanding of biological organisms and processes enhances our ability to appreciate God’s design for creation.
Of course, when it comes to human beings and their culture, there are multiple levels of complexity that need to be recognized: language, logic, and religion, among others. All of these levels reflect the wisdom of the Creator, and they are the embodiment of God’s plan for human life.
A Process with Purpose
In the third place, let us notice that there is purpose in the evolutionary process—it accomplishes God’s intent for creation. We know from Scriptures that human beings, and in fact all biological organisms, are meant to be here. This is stressed by biologist and theologian Denis Lamoureux and by philosopher Jacob Klapwijk (see sidebar on p. **). There is purpose in the living world, even if we acknowledge that evolutionary processes imply moments of chance and randomness.
Recognizing that some of the processes that drive biological evolution depend on chance does indeed raise difficult questions. However, what is true for evolution also holds for human reproduction: Even though we know that the determination of gender in a baby is an apparently random process, expectant parents who are Christians might sometimes pray for a girl or a boy. Similarly, we trust that the course of history, chaotic though it is, is ultimately in God’s hands. Even the outcome of a toss of the dice, according to Scripture, is determined by God: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Prov. 16:33). God’s rule enters everywhere, even if we do not always understand God’s way with the world.
In his big book Sociobiology, E.O. Wilson proposes that animals behave in such a way that their own genes are passed on to successive generations. And because animal behaviour is thought to be determined or influenced by genes, a particular behavior can be selected for and thus made part of the evolutionary grand scheme. Richard Dawkins supported this view in his book The Selfish Gene. Genes are “selfish” in that they favor their own survival and the behavior patterns of the parent. Unselfish or “altruistic” behavior, a puzzle even for Darwin, can be explained in some cases by suggesting that it favors the passing on of the individual’s own genes through relatives (who will have some of the same genes). In other cases scientists suggest that animals practice reciprocal altruism in turns: “I scratch your back, you scratch mine.” In either case, we will defer to specialists in animal behavior to sort out this problem.
The theory becomes objectionable, certainly to Christians, when it is extended to human behavior, as Wilson does. Certainly human beings can rise above their biological past to lead unselfish lives and to do unselfish acts, regardless of the role of genes in animals. In fact, I see this as part of our being created in the image of God. Christians hold that unselfish behavior is not some puzzling anomaly to be somehow explained. Rather such behavior is part of the new life we have in Christ, who calls us to love others as we love ourselves. For Christians, such behaviors as donating blood or adopting a child, helping a stranded motorist or serving a cup of water to a stranger, are not a puzzle but a rewarding task. Here too our faith shapes our understanding of an aspect of evolution theory.
Needed: A Positive Debate
Contributions to the discussion on origins range from the simplistic to the profound. Unfortunately, too often the former predominate. Yet it is vital that we engage in a positive, worthwhile, and worthy debate. I say that for two reasons. First, when people, particularly students, are exposed to simplistic reasons for rejecting evolution, and then encounter sophisticated arguments for the process in the literature or in the classroom, they often reject the church or begin to question their faith. Instead, I suggest that members of the church read and talk about Scriptures, about biological origins, about evolution, and about natural selection, its supporting process. A good place to begin is with the literature written by Christians in the “Digging Deeper” sidebar (see p. **). Old Testament professors at Reformed seminaries could and should help advance the conversation by offering to participate in public forums and debates on religion and science.
Second, as Reformed Christians, we have always trusted that the “books” of creation and Scripture both testify to their Author. As those who, through Christ, have come to know the Creator as our Father, we must continue to read both books together and allow them to lead us into the truth about God and creation.
God’s creation praises its maker. That God’s creating work is an essential Christian doctrine, and that God’s creation praises him and deserves our loving care, is beyond doubt for the Christian believer. Along with the psalmist we proclaim, “Lord my God, you are very great” (Ps. 104:1).
The authors of these resources enthusiastically profess that God is the creator. They treasure the message of Scriptures, particularly as it is found in Genesis 1 and 2-3, Psalm 104, and Colossians 1:15-20. Nothing they write, or, indeed, in this article, contradicts that God created everything from nothing. Yes, there are implications in all of this for theology, and we will need to consider them thoughtfully and faithfully. The challenge to consider is that the interpretation of the Genesis accounts does not come solely from the evolution debate; there are other good reasons to continue the work on this fascinating topic. Clarence Vos has written about how we read biblical accounts (“How Should We Read the Bible?” November 2011); theologians are challenged to continue the discussion.
- Deborah Haarsma and Loren Haarsma, professors in the physics and astronomy department at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., have co-authored a helpful introduction to the origins debate. Their book Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design is written from the viewpoint that God used processes of evolution to bring biological organisms into being.
- Denis Lamoureux, who has a Ph.D. in theology and another in biology, has written two books on the topic of origins: Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution and I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolution.
- Reformed philosopher Jacob Klapwijk’s book makes the case for purpose in biological evolution in Purpose in the Living World: Creation and Emergent Evolution.
Two Websites for Further Exploration
- The BioLogos website biologos.org was started by Francis Collins; it gives access to many informative authors and articles. Look for thoughtful essays, particularly the incisive article “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople” by theologian Tim Keller. Articles on this website in “The Forum” by Dennis Venema on “Evolution Basics” and the essays by Andy Crouch and Ted Davis can help us understand current debates about religion and evolution.
- American Scientific Affiliation: Science and Faith website, asa3.org, is a starting point for many helpful articles on science and the Christian faith. Click on “Resources,” then “For Churches and Groups,” and then “God and Nature Magazine.”
- How does Cook’s article either open doors for more discussion on the topic of evolution and theology or shut them?
- Do you agree with Cook that “we need to keep in mind the distinction between evolution as a legitimate biological theory and evolutionism as a godless worldview that we as Christians cannot accept”? How do you understand the difference?
- Is it is necessary to have a “positive, worthwhile, and worthy debate” about origins? Why or why not?
- What groundwork would need to exist in order for us to receive conflicting positions and participate in a civil discussion?
- Cook says that “God’s rule enters everywhere, even if we do not always understand God’s way with the world.” If that is true, how do we handle our fear and doubt?
- How do both “books” (creation and Scripture) contribute to the truth about God and creation?