Theistic Evolution and the Creation of “Human Beings”

Back in late 2009, some ministerial colleagues and I were discussing with concern the apparently growing influence of evolutionary thinking in the Canadian Reformed Churches.  What could we do about it?  Five of us decided to collaborate on an article, “Ten Reasons Why Evolution is Dangerous and Evil.”  Authored by Walter Geurts, George van Popta, John van Popta, Jim Witteveen and yours truly, this was published in the January 1, 2010 issue of ClarionYou can find it online here.

At the beginning of March 2010, an 11-part series of responses began to be published on the Reformed Academic blog.  It’s not my intent to interact with those responses as such.  Rather, I want to point out one particular point of response.  It relates to something I’ve read more recently.

One of the “ten reasons” was that “Evolution must regard Genesis 2:8 as mythical.”  Rev. John van Popta argued that the creation of Adam was a special act of God.  Adam was created from literal dust as the first human being.  Genesis 2:8 gives us history, not myth or allegory.

In their response, Reformed Academic (RA) insisted they agree:  “We fully affirm the main point of this paragraph, namely that man is a special creation.”  They pointed that there are those who “lend credence” to the theory of common ancestry who also affirm “the clear Biblical teaching of the soul, and that the human person is made uniquely and specially in the image of God.”  RA maintained that they do not join with those who regard Adam as a-historical.  At first glace, all of this may seem quite palatable and encouraging.

What was sometimes not recognized in the early stages of this debate was that some words were being used equivocally.  What we meant by “Adam as the first human being created specially by God from the dust in history,” did not necessarily mean the same thing as what they meant by that.  People can say that and yet lend credence to the theory of common ancestry.  One way is by positing the existence of pre-Adamite hominids.  These are human-like creatures supposed to have existed before and with Adam.  There could have been hundreds of generations of these hominids which had evolved over millions of years.  But no human beings!  No, Adam is still the first human being.  God selects a pair of hominids, pulls them out of their lowly origins (“dust”), and bestows on them his image.  At that point, they become human beings with souls.  It’s important to realize:  in this view, this really happens at some point in history.  So everything is preserved intact:  the possibility of biological macro-evolution (common ancestry), Adam as the first human being specially created by God in his image, and Genesis as an actual historical record.

In the thick tome Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical and Theological Critique, Wayne Grudem has a 54-page essay entitled, “Theistic Evolution Undermines Twelve Creation Events and Several Crucial Christian Doctrines.”  Grudem makes many valid points.  However, I can imagine some theistic evolutionists reading it and offering a similar critique to what RA offered on some of our ten reasons.  Let me mention a few examples.

Grudem states that, according to theistic evolution, “Adam and Eve were not the first human beings (and perhaps they never even existed).”  But a theistic evolutionist could put his hand up and say, “Wait a moment, Dr. Grudem.  With you, I do believe that Adam and Eve were the first human beings.  There were no human beings before this historical couple.  Your critique doesn’t apply to me, even though it’s true that I lend credence to the theory of common ancestry.”

For another example, Grudem writes that proponents of theistic evolution state that “Adam and Eve were born from human parents.”  Again, we could imagine an evolutionist protesting:  “No, I don’t believe Adam and Eve came from human parents.”  Hominid parents, perhaps, but definitely not humans.  After all, Adam and Eve are the first human beings.  We all agree on that!

One more example:  “Human death did not begin as a result of Adam’s sin, for human beings existed long before Adam and Eve and they were always subject to death.”  “No, Dr. Grudem, with you I believe that human death came from the fall into sin in Genesis 3.  There was no human death before Adam and Eve, because there were no human beings before them.”  If we talk about hominid death, that’s a different topic, but not relevant in the theistic evolutionist’s mind.  With us they can insist there was no human death before Adam and Eve.

This is a significant weak spot in Grudem’s essay.  Perhaps he hasn’t encountered these kinds of counter-arguments.  It’s but one more demonstration that we need to be carefully dissecting these matters and not always taking everything at face value.  Just because someone says they believe Adam and Eve to be real historical figures doesn’t mean they mean what you mean.  You have to ask; you have to dig deeper.  Just because someone says they believe Adam and Eve to be the first human beings doesn’t mean common ancestry/evolution is out of the question.  You have to ask probing questions like:  as a biological creature, was the individual later called Adam brought into physical existence by the meeting of a sperm with an egg?  Or:  as a biological creature, was the individual later called Eve ever nourished at the breasts of a creature which had given birth to her?  Then you might find out what you’re really up against and be able to formulate arguments which will better get to the heart of the matter.

I Believe in Theistic Evolution

I recently realized I believe in/affirm theistic evolution.  Depending on your perspective, have I sold out or have I finally come to my senses?  Neither.  Let me explain.

It has long perturbed me that those who affirm or allow for Darwinian macroevolution to be compatible with a biblical worldview will sometimes call themselves “creationists” or will claim to believe in/affirm biblical creation.  They do this knowing that biblical creation is usually understood to refer to a view that holds to God having created in six ordinary days on a timescale of some thousands (rather than millions or billions) of years ago.  By claiming to believe in creation they lay concerns to rest, whereas all they have really done is disguise their true position.

Stephen C. Meyer has helped me to see I could do the same thing with theistic evolution.  Meyer wrote the “Scientific and Philosophical Introduction” to Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, a massive volume published in 2017 by Crossway.  He notes that theistic evolution can mean different things to different people, as can “evolution” without the modifier “theistic.”  For example, it can refer to common or universal common descent or to the creative power of the natural selection/random variation (or mutation) mechanism.  But evolution can also just simply mean “change over time.”  And if one believes that God causes “change over time,” then that can be understood as a form of theistic evolution.  With that, Meyer contends, no biblical theist could object (p.40).  He concludes, “Understanding theistic evolution this way seems unobjectionable, perhaps even trivial” (p.41).   So, in the sense of believing or affirming that there is change over time directed by God, I am a theistic evolutionist — and I suspect you are too!

But what’s the problem with this?  Let’s say I were to (miraculously) get myself invited to a BioLogos conference as a speaker who affirms theistic evolution.  It appears I’m on board with the BioLogos agenda.  The conference organizers are a little doubtful, but I insist that I affirm theistic evolution and they take me at my word and welcome me in their midst.  Then I give a talk where I evidence that I’m actually a six-day creationist who believes Darwinian macroevolution to be a fraud.  “But you said you hold to theistic evolution!”  “Oh, but you didn’t ask me what I meant by that.  I believe that God causes change over time — that’s how I’m a theistic evolutionist.”  Would anyone blame the conference organizers for thinking me to be lacking in some basic honesty?

Integrity is really the heart of the matter.  If I say, “I read a book and I realized I’m a theistic evolutionist,” most people will hear that and conclude that I still believe in God, but I also affirm Darwinian evolution.  And that is not an unreasonable conclusion.  Furthermore, what would be my purpose for making such a claim?  Would it be to tell something designed to mislead so as to advance my cause?  Does the end justify the means?

If you affirm Darwinian macroevolution as the best explanation for how life developed on earth and you believe God superintended it, then man up and say so.  Honestly say, “I am a theistic evolutionist.”   As for me, believing that God created everything in six ordinary days on the order of some thousands of years ago, I will say directly, “I am a biblical creationist” or “six-day creationist,” or “young earth creationist.”  But let’s all be honest with one another.

Biblical creationists also have to stop being naive.  Just because someone says they believe in biblical creation doesn’t mean they actually believe the biblical account as given in Genesis.  They can fill out those terms with their own meaning.  So we have to learn to ask good questions to ferret out impostors.  Questions like:

  • Do you believe God created everything in six ordinary days some thousands of years ago?
  • Was the individual designated as Adam in Genesis ever a baby creature nestled at his mother’s breast?
  • Was the individual designated in Genesis as Eve a toddler at some point in her life?
  • Do you believe it biblically permissible to say that, as creatures, the figures designated in Genesis as Adam and Eve at any point had biological forebears (like parents/grandparents)?
  • What does it mean that God created man from the dust of the earth?

These are the types of questions churches need to be asking at ecclesiastical examinations for prospective ministers.  These are the types of questions Christians schools need to be asking prospective teachers at interviews.  True, even with these sorts of questions, there are no guarantees of integrity, but at least we will have done our due diligence.

Video Review: Is Creation A Secondary Issue?

The following review is by Walter Walraven.  It originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Faith in Focus, the official magazine of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand.  It is published here with the author’s permission. 

Is Creation a Secondary Issue?

by Dr Martin Williams and Creation Ministries International

Is creation a secondary issue? That is the question that Dr Martin Williams presents to the viewer in this excellent video produced by Creation Ministries International. Dr Williams has served as a pastor and missionary and is currently Head of Theology and Lecturer in New Testament and Greek at the Reformed Theological College in Melbourne, Australia.

As a pastor, missionary and lecturer, Williams has often heard the comment that “the doctrine of creation is only of secondary importance, and that Christianity is really about salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ”. Because of such sentiments, creation is often de-emphasized in the creation/evolution debate and relegated to the status of secondary importance. Some say “it is an issue that does not relate to how one is made right through faith in Jesus Christ, so why get all hung up on it?”

In this video, Williams contends that the creation account is the TRUE story of history which is proclaimed in the Scriptures. He gives a clear, systematic, logical and easy to understand explanation of the implications of holding to theistic evolution or long age thinking, and explains quite clearly what effect it has on the gospel. He comments further that not many people have thought of creation from the perspective of the cross. He then answers the question of why people die, progressing through to the explanation of why Jesus died, moving through to a logical conclusion.

Williams also brings into play the views of prominent evolutionists such as Darwin, Sagan and Alexander, who promote the view that death is a permanent part of this earth’s history over millions of years. Denis Alexander, who seems to hold to theistic evolution, states, “Nowhere in the Old Testament is there the slightest suggestion that the physical death of either animals or humans, after a reasonable span of years, is anything other than the normal pattern ordained by God for this earth.” Williams correctly asserts that such an idea is clearly contrary to the teaching of Scripture, which teaches that death is actually the result of sin. (Gen 3:17-19)

Maintaining our confidence in the historical narrative of the creation account as presented in Genesis, and understanding why Jesus died according to the Scriptures, is of first importance. It means rejecting evolution or long age thinking, which destroys the gospel.

In closing, I would like to point out, that this is a theological defence of the creation account as it presents itself in the early chapters of Genesis. Williams does not deal with the so-called science of evolution, but with the false view that God as the creator allowed or caused the creation to evolve. I do believe it would be a useful tool for members in our churches in the defence of the gospel when it is attacked at the foundations. The section containing questions and answers is most edifying and worthwhile to view. I wholeheartedly recommend and endorse this video to our readers.

This video can be obtained from Creation Ministries International as a DVD or MP4.

Words Can Be Slippery Things

It’s happened many times in church history.  The theologian says that he believes in the resurrection.  But eventually it comes out that he believes that Jesus truly rose from the dead in the hearts of his disciples, but not actually in history.  Another theologian insists that he believes in election.  But eventually we discover that he believes that God chooses believers, not out of his sovereign good pleasure, but on the basis of foreseen faith.

In his book Revival and Revivalism Iain Murray discusses Charles Finney at length because of his role in the Second Great Awakening.  Murray notes on page 262 that Charles Finney spoke of a “vicarious atonement,” which is usually another way of speaking about penal substitutionary atonement, i.e. that Christ took our place on the cross, bearing the wrath of God in our place.  But Finney believed nothing of the sort.  His language was deceptive.  He used the right words, but he meant something completely different.

This strategy gets employed in the debates over origins too.  People will insist that they believe that Adam and Eve were real historical people, that they were the first human beings, created in the image of God.  It sounds orthodox on the surface.  But we need to dig deeper:  what do you mean by human being?  Was Adam ever a baby nestled at his mother’s breast?  Was Eve a toddler at some point in her life?  Did she have grandparents?  What do you mean “created in the image of God”?  What does “created” mean in that sentence?  You say that you believe God created man from the dust of the earth.  Great!  But what do you mean when you say that?  Asking these sorts of questions will usually reveal whether things really are what they seem.  In theology, we need to be precise — and transparent — with our definitions.  It’s not enough just to use the right words, you also have to be holding to the correct understanding of those words.  Without that, the true gospel itself is soon lost.

Many Branches in the Human Family Tree?

A recent discovery in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa appears to support the idea that there were many versions of early humans once walking the earth. At least, that’s the claim that has been made here by Professor Chris Stringer, curator of a new exhibit at London’s Natural History Museum.

The discovery of the bones of at least fifteen individuals was made in 2013 by Rick Hunter of the South African Speleological Exploration Club, and it has been called “one of the most exciting finds in the last one hundred years.” The fossils are believed to be a new species of human – Homo Naledi by name – described as being human, but also having many “primitive” characteristics: small brains, mixtures of “primitive” and “derived” features, including hands that appear to be specially adapted to life lived in the trees.

Dr. Stringer admits that the age of the fossils has not been determined. “We’ve put it in our evolutionary diagram at the beginning,” he states. “But,” he adds, “we don’t know how old it is.” However, it is believed that these bones are from “a very primitive kind of human,” who “probably lies close to the origins of the human genus.”

Researchers have drawn a number of conclusions on the basis of this find. Stringer himself states that “we have to get away from this idea that there is a simple march of progress from an ‘ape-person’ to what we are today.” Homo naledi may be part of one of a number of “streams” in the evolutionary process, and one of Dr. Stringer’s stated goals is to debunk the notion that the evolution of the human species is “the pinnacle of a predestined evolutionary sequence.” He adds, “We want to show that diversity, and the fact that there was nothing pre-ordained about our own evolution and our eventual success.”

There are two interesting points to ponder when it comes to both this find, and the way it is being presented to the public. First of all, the agenda of those who have created this display has been made clear; Dr. Stringer himself declares that he is motivated, at least in part, by a desire to change people’s thinking about the manner in which humans have evolved.

His choice of language in describing the viewpoint he is seeking to challenge is revealing, to say the least. He doesn’t like the idea that we humans are “the pinnacle of a predestined evolutionary sequence,” and he argues that “there was nothing pre-ordained about our own evolution and eventual success.” It appears that, for Dr. Stringer, it is not just the idea of an evolutionary process that must be defended. It is also the belief that there is a design or purpose to that process, or an end-goal to that process, that must be abandoned.

The second point we must consider is the impact that discoveries like this, and particularly the conclusions drawn from them, must have on the thinking of those who hold to evolutionary creation and theistic evolution. We’ve noted in previous articles that there are a number of scholars who consider the Biblical Adam and Eve to be the representatives of an early population of hominids, not literally the first humans, directly created by God. Rather, the representative “first couple” of Scripture were the product of a long process of biological development. They were the first hominids endowed with a “human soul,” so to speak.

Should recent finds lead to the conclusion that there are indeed multiple lines in the human family tree? And does this mean that there are some human beings who are not descended from “Adam and Eve”? Or are the theistic evolutionary conclusions in need of correction and revision once again? Were Adam and Eve the representatives of one particular line, or all of them? And if Adam was the covenantal head of only one branch of the human family tree, what does that say about the Lord Jesus Christ?

The foundational issue here is methodological in nature. In the end, your answers to these questions will flow from your starting point. Our starting point is the Triune God, and his perfect word. His word tells us:

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us…” (Acts 17:24-27).

This word must be our starting point, and it must shape our thinking – about how to interpret the evidence of “Homo Naledi,” and every other fossil discovery – and everything else in the world. Dr. Stringer’s own words prove that there is no such thing as neutrality, even within the sciences that like to claim the neutral ground as their own. Contradictory presuppositions inevitably lead to contradictory conclusions.

But when we start with the unchanging Word of God, our conclusions are firm, and trustworthy. God doesn’t change, and his word doesn’t change. In the end, when we begin to base our conclusions on interpretations of the evidence made by people with a decidedly un- and even anti-Christian agenda, we are building our house on shifting sands.

Keller’s advice to fellow Biologos members

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A theological orthodoxy as well-aligned as that of Timothy Keller is hard to find among the increasing numbers of scientists, theologians, and organizations currently urging evangelical Christians to accept biological evolution. He is the pastor of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) and is well-known through his writings on apologetics, church planting, and preaching. His 13 page white paper, hosted by Biologos and entitled “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople,” has been referenced favourably by scientists and theologians in conservative Reformed churches.[1] For example, when Frieda Oosterhoff introduced Keller’s paper some years ago on the Reformed Academic website, she stated,

(Readers of this blog, incidentally, will notice that our blog partner Dr. Jitse van der Meer sees eye to eye with Dr. Kidner in the matter of human evolution, the historicity of Adam and Eve, and the descent of all humans from Adam, and that he affirms the same tentative approach as Kidner and Keller.)[2]

In his paper Keller entertains the real questions of concerned Christians and offers answers as to how to help them integrate evolution with their faith. We have intended to interact with his arguments for some time.

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It’s important to situate accurately our debate with Keller. The debate between us is not whether the Christian faith and current science (or what is claimed to be science) are irreconcilable, for we all agree that in many respects they are reconcilable while in some respects they are not. The debate, rather, is in what particular respects they are and are not able to be reconciled.

The debate between us is not whether evolution is a defensible worldview that gives us the basis of our views on religion, ethics, human nature, etc. We all agree that it is not the “grand theory/explanation of everything.” We all agree that there is a God and he is the God of the Bible—Triune, sovereign, covenant-making, gracious, atonement-providing, and bringing about a new creation. Nor am I debating whether Keller is an old-earth creationist aka progressive creationist or an evolutionary creationist or a theistic evolutionist. His own position is a bit unclear so I will simply deal with what he has published in this paper.[3]

The debate between us is not whether matter is eternal; whether the universe’s order is by sheer chance; whether humans have no purpose but to propagate their own genes; whether humans are material only; whether human life is no more valuable than bovine, canine, or any other life; whether upon death all personal existence ceases; or whether ethics is at root about the survival of the fittest. We all agree that none of these things are the case—Scripture teaches differently. We are not debating these points.

Our differences emerge in the compatibility of Scripture with biological evolution, namely, whether Scripture has room for the view that humans—insofar as they are material beings—have a biological ancestry that precedes Adam and Eve. Is this a permissible view?

The first thing to realize as one reads Keller’s paper is its context and purpose: Delivered at the first Biologos “Theology of Celebration” workshop in 2009, Keller lays out 3 (at first 4) concerns that “Christian laypeople” typically express when they are told that God created Adam and Eve by evolutionary biological processes. Keller advances strategies to help fellow Biologos members allay these fears of Christian laypeople. The context thus is that biological evolution is a permissible view; the scholars just need to figure out how to make it more widely accepted.

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Keller deals with the following “three questions of Christian laypeople.”

  1. If God used evolution to create, then we can’t take Genesis 1 literally, and if we can’t do that, why take any other part of the Bible literally?
  2. If biological evolution is true—does that mean that we are just animals driven by our genes and everything about us can be explained by natural selection?
  3. If biological evolution is true and there was no historical Adam and Eve how can we know where sin and suffering came from?

These are excellent questions! Keller provides summary answers and longer explanations for each question. His short answers to the first two questions seem solid enough on the surface of things, yet his longer explanations deserve careful examination. His short answer to the third question is something we have directly contested on creationwithoutcompromise.com more than once, from the standpoint of Scripture. Here are his three summary answers. You can correlate them with the questions above.

  1. The way to respect the authority of the Biblical writers is to take them as they want to be taken. Sometimes they want to be taken literally, sometimes they don’t. We must listen to them, not impose our thinking or agenda on them.
  2. Belief in evolution as a biological process is not the same as belief in evolution as a world-view.
  3. Belief in evolution can be compatible with a belief in an historical fall and a literal Adam and Eve. There are many unanswered questions around this issue and so Christians who believe God used evolution must be open to one another’s views.

With this introduction in place, we can now interact with Keller’s advice to his fellow Biologos members in his longer explanations of each of these summary answers.

[1] Keller’s paper can be found online at http://biologos.org/blogs/archive/series/creation-evolution-and-christian-laypeople. Accessed 22 Feb 2016.

[2] See http://reformedacademic.blogspot.ca/2010/03/tim-keller-on-evolution-and-bible.html. Accessed 27 Feb 2016.

[3] For this debate see https://adaughterofthereformation.wordpress.com/2012/04/04/is-dr-tim-keller-a-progressive-creationist/. Accessed 27 Feb 2016.

A Dangerous Direction

BeekeA few months ago, we included a review of a book edited by Richard D. Phillips, God, Adam, and YouYou can find Dr. Van Raalte’s review here.  I’ve had the book for a while, but have only just begun reading it myself.  So far, it definitely lives to up to what was said in the review.

I’d like to share an excerpt from chapter 2, “The Case For Adam.”  Dr. Joel Beeke presents ten persuasive historical and theological arguments in favour of the orthodox view of Adam.  His final theological argument is that “the historical Adam is a test case for biblical authority.”  He specifically critiques scholars like Peter Enns who argue that God “‘adopted mythic categories’ from the ancient world, myths that we may now discard, so long as we retain the kernel of truth they contain.”

Beeke goes on to remark:

Those who take this route perhaps may not realize that they are departing from the path of biblical orthodoxy and following the same road as unbiblical neoorthodoxy.  Emil Brunner (1889-1966), a prominent neoorthodox theologian, said that the Bible’s teaching on creation is “not a theory of the way in which the world came into existence,” but only a summons to know God as your Lord and Creator.  Thus, he said, the Adam of Genesis 2 is inseparable from ancient beliefs about the universe and cannot be viewed as a real individual in light of our modern understanding.  For Brunner, Paradise was a “myth” not “historical fact.”

It is not necessary for us to go in this direction.  Why couldn’t the ancient Hebrews have understood it if God had told them that he created by a long, slow process of evolutionary change?  Every day, as they planted and harvested crops or worked with sheep and cattle, they could see change and improvement in the various seeds they planted or the animals they bred.  Why couldn’t God effectively communicate to them that he had conferred a human soul upon an existing animal rather than breathed life into a body formed directly out of the earth?  Why not reveal in Genesis that God made many human beings at first, instead of just one?  Why would these things have been harder for them to accept than the idea that there is only one true and living God, given that all their neighbors worshiped many gods?  And why must we separate the way in which God created from the fact that he is Creator?  Does it not glorify God as Lord to know that he created man, not through any natural process, but by a supernatural act of creation?  Yes, the account of the historical Adam’s creation greatly honors God as Creator and Lord.

Furthermore, this is a dangerous direction to go.  If the Bible is a mixture of cultural dressing wrapped around divine truth, then how can we be sure which part is the husk and which is the kernel?  What one generation embraces as the kernel of divine truth could very well be rejected by another generation as merely more human culture and tradition.  We see this happening around us even now with respect to the definition of marriage and homosexuality.  (pages 38-40)

Beeke is spot on.  Indeed, theistic evolutionary views can only gain acceptance as believers succumb to lower views of the Bible.  Such views typically over-emphasize the human element behind the authorship of Scripture and under-emphasize the divine.  We should never forget the Reformed (and biblical) teaching that the primary author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit.  And yes, “primary” is the right word.  The Bible is not 50% human and 50% divine.  It is first and foremost the Word of God.  It has come to us through human involvement, but it remains entirely 100% the word of our Father in heaven.  The more clearly we see that, the better equipped we are to stand fast against false teachings like theistic evolution.