Review of: How I Changed My Mind about Evolution: Evangelicals Reflect on Faith and Science, ed. Kathryn Applegate and J. B. Stump (Downers Grove: IVP, 2016).
This book features twenty-five autobiographical accounts of evangelical theologians and scientists, in which they explain why they have adopted the theory of evolution. The editors note at the outset that fully “69% of Americans who faithfully attend church weekly believe that God created humans in their present form less than ten thousand years ago” (16). Their goal is to reduce the number of Evangelicals holding this view.
Instead of laying out the evidence of Scripture and the findings of scientists, they opt to tell their stories. Deborah Haarsma, president of BioLogos, acknowledges, “Answers won’t be found solely in intellectual arguments, and sometimes piling on more evidence doesn’t help” (11).
The book’s editors work for the BioLogos organization and share the book’s copyright with it. For those who don’t know BioLogos, it depends on generous funds from the Templeton Foundation and uses these funds to present “an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation” (16).
Each author has his or her unique story. At the same time, one can notice that a number of themes recur in the stories. I will note three major themes.
John Walton’s reinterpretation of Genesis 1 & 2
First, the effect of John Walton’s approach to Genesis 1 & 2 has had a dramatic effect in terms of opening the way for Christians to hold to an evolutionary account of the origins of the universe, and even of the origins of life. By appealing to Walton’s arguments, they are able to marginalize the Bible in the origins debate, arguing that the Genesis account only attempts to answer the “who” and “why” of creation, not the “how” and “when” (38, 43). Or, as two other authors put it, the biblical text only addresses the “what” of creation, not “how” God did it (50, 171).
Walton’s claim is that Genesis is simply the Hebrew version of an Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) origins account (93, 102, 109, 118) and that such accounts only teach what was the function and purpose of each part of the created world. Genesis thus sets out to refute the views of surrounding nations only by attributing the existing world to the Hebrew God instead of the pagan gods, and presenting the earth as God’s dwelling, his temple. The origins of the material stuff of creation and the means of bringing the world into being were not the concern in such accounts. These claims of Walton have been soundly refuted by Noel Weeks in an article in the Westminster Theological Journal (78:1 , 1–28). Walton incorrectly interprets the ANE texts, brings together texts from extremely diverse times and contexts, and, I might add, presents an exegesis of Genesis 1 & 2 that overlooks all the points averse to his interpretation and makes words like “create” and “make” mean things they simply don’t mean. I’ve listened to Walton deliver his insights in several long speeches and I’ve read one of his books. Unfortunately, J.B. Stump is correct when he writes of himself that Walton’s scholarship “has been a gateway for me (and many others) to consider a more sophisticated treatment of Scripture” (120). It’s interesting that Walton’s interpretation may appear to be more sophisticated for the average Bible reader, but it’s patently incorrect.
The “two books” argument
Secondly, quite a few of the authors refer to Scripture and creation as the “two books,” the books of special and general revelation, respectively (60, 78, 115, 175). Theologians draw from the first; scientists from the second; and both of these “professionals” are supplying us with interpretations of divine revelation. This metaphor for equating the findings of certain scientists with general revelation and calling this “complementary” (18) to the message of Scripture has been around for some time; it may emerge from a misuse of article 2 of our Belgic Confession (190). One author even speaks of “reading the big book of creation alongside the little book of Scripture,” telling scientists that they are “thinking God’s thoughts after him” (95). Another says that the “book of [God’s] works is one that he desires us to take, read, and celebrate” (102).
But the Scriptures never speak of general revelation in this way. Rather, the revelation that is available to all people in the world is enough to make them know that there is a God, and that he should be served and praised (Psa 19:1–6; Acts 17:24). This revelation leaves them without excuse when they suppress the knowledge of God and substitute idols in his place (Rom 1:18–20). The discoveries of scientists are not revelations from God, but human interpretations of data that are fitted within particular theories. The Lord never promised a correct interpretation of nature, but he did promise to lead his people in the rich pastures of his Word by the working of his Holy Spirit. Further, since all people because of sin suppress the knowledge of God from creation, Scripture must correct those misconceptions; thus, the clear message of Scripture must have precedence. Our own Dr. N. H. Gootjes wrote some excellent articles about this years ago, called, “What Does God Reveal in the Grand Canyon.” See here and here and here for these articles, plus a final word here. Let us honour our God by keeping his holy Word in its proper place, far above all humanly-devised theories.
Straw man arguments
Finally, the third major theme I picked out was not a theme the authors highlighted, but something I noticed. It really felt to me that the arguments they mentioned against evolution were some of the weakest; they were blowing over straw men. For instance, dinosaurs never existed and Satan buried the bones that testify otherwise (30). Or, “Job invented electricity” (49). These are not the types of arguments used by those who argue for a so-called “young” earth and fiat creation. See this page for examples of arguments that have sometimes been used but are no longer recommended.
N. T. Wright’s chapter—an excerpt from one of his books—tries to relativize the entire young earth position by treating it as a tempest in a North American teapot, as if only unsophisticated revolutionaries would ever treat the biblical text in such a fundamentalist way (131–37). Similarly, another author states, “Despite twenty-five centuries of debate, it is fair to say that no human knows what the meaning of Genesis 1 and 2 was precisely intended to be” (73). I would have expected the editors to excise such nonsense.
Readers must also endure the expected jab at Bishop James Ussher, who concluded that God created the world in 4004 B.C. (72). In fact, Ussher was one of the most learned men of his time, and sought to determine creation’s date because this was an exercise that many other scholars around him had sought to do. Indeed, many Jews still give today’s date as determined from the moment of creation—today, as I write, it is 17th of Tishre, year 5779 since creation began. See here for a date converter.
Finally, all sides in this debate ought to agree that pat responses such as “with God one day is like a thousand years,” will never suffice, and, in fact, represent a misuse of Psa 90:4 and 2 Pet 3:8 (35).
The book at hand was not composed to marshal all the arguments in favour of evolution. Rather, it tells the stories of various evangelical theologians, pastors, and scientists. As such, its style is completely in line with the purpose of BioLogos, which aims to “translate scholarship on origins for the evangelical church” (back cover, re the task of Kathryn Applegate at BioLogos). In other words, the book seeks to make evolution seem acceptable by holding up a series of twenty-five models for evangelical believers to follow, and thereby to reduce that statistic of 69% that was mentioned at the outset.
However, the book only leaves me more concerned, inasmuch as some of the strongest arguments that seem to have opened the way for these Evangelicals to change their minds about evolution—the three that recur most often in the book—turn out to be very bad arguments.