Keller: If biological evolution is true, are we just animals driven by our genes?

Keller’s white paper asks a second “layperson” question, one that really gets at a problem: “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?” Keller’s provides this short answer, “No. Belief in evolution as a biological process is not the same as belief in evolution as a world-view.”

Two senses of “evolution”: EBP & GTE

In explaining this question and his response, Keller distinguishes evolution in two senses. The first is the teaching that “human life was formed through evolutionary biological processes” (he gives the acronym EBP for this), and the second is evolution “as the explanation for every aspect of human nature,” which he calls the “Grand Theory of Everything” and refers to as “GTE” (6). We might call this evolution as a worldview. Similarly, some Canadian Reformed authors have argued for the distinction between “evolution” and “evolutionism.”[1]

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The problem Keller is addressing is that self-described “evolutionary creationists”—such as those at Biologos tend to be—end up hearing the same critique from both creationists and evolutionists: both argue that you can’t hold the theory of biological evolution without at the same time endorsing atheistic evolution as a whole. Essentially both critics assert that evolution is a package, a worldview, a big-picture perspective, and you can’t just isolate one part of it.

Keller suggests to his fellow Biologos members that most Christian laypeople have a difficult time distinguishing EBP from GTE. They have a hard time understanding that it is possible to limit one’s commitment to evolution to “the scientific explorations of the way which—at the level of biology—God has gone about his creating processes” (6, Keller quoting David Atkinson). “How can we help them?” Keller asks, for “this is exactly the distinction they must make, or they will never grant the importance of EBP.” He simply states that Christian pastors, theologians and scientists need to keep emphasizing that they are not endorsing evolution as the Grand Theory of Everything.

Keller’s helpful critique of evolution as the GTE

To support this, Keller provides a brief but helpful analysis, showing that evolution as the GTE is self-refuting. I’ll explain his point with the help of an online video where he elaborates a bit more. Basically, according to those who hold to evolution as the GTE, religion came about only because it somehow must have helped our ancestors survive (survival of the fittest). In fact, they say, we all know there’s no God, no heaven, no divine revelation. Such things are false beliefs. But if that is the case, argues Keller, then natural selection has led our minds to believe false things for the sake of survival. Further, if human minds have almost universally had some kind of belief in God, performed religious practices, and held moral absolutes, and if it’s all actually false, then we can’t be sure about anything our minds tell us, including evolution as the grand theory of everything. Thus, with reference to itself, evolution as the GTE is absurd.

In the online video that I used to supplement the explanation here, Keller is dealing with the problem that opponents of Christianity and of religion generally try to “explain it away.” He states, “C. S. Lewis put it this way some years ago, “You can’t go on explaining everything away forever or you will find that you have explained explanation itself away.”

Keller, following Lewis, illustrates “explaining away” with “seeing through” things: A window lets you see through it to something else that is opaque. But if all we had were windows—a wholly transparent world—all would be invisible and in the end you wouldn’t see anything at all. “To see through everything is not to see at all.”

How does that apply? Keller asks. He then shows that many universal claims are self-refuting.

If, as Nietzsche says, all truth claims are really just power grabs, then so is his, so why listen to him? If, as Freud says, all views of God are really just psychological projections to deal with our guilt and insecurity, then so is his view of God, so why listen to him? If, as the evolutionary scientists say, that what my brain tells me about morality and God is not real—it’s just chemical reactions designed to pass on my genetic code—then so is what their brains tell them about the world, so why listen to them? In the end to see through everything is not to see.[2]

As usual, Keller is an insightful apologist for the Christian faith. He helps us oppose evolution as the Grand Theory of Everything. Just the same, I heard another prominent evolutionary creationist, Denis Alexander, answering questions at a recent conference (2016) and musing about our lack of knowledge as to when “religiosity” first evolved among our ancestors. So, Keller’s helpful critique notwithstanding, at least one of his co-members at Biologos appears to think that religiosity is an evolved trait (or at least allows for this view).


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But not GTE

But Keller doesn’t prove that EBP doesn’t lead to GTE

Although I’ve highlighted something helpful in Keller’s white paper, the main point he needed to do was to prove that one’s commitment to the theory of evolutionary biological ancestry for humans (and all other living things) does not entail holding to evolution as the grand theory of everything. He didn’t do this because the setting in which he spoke was Biologos, an organization which is committed to EBP but wants to avoid GTE because the members are Christians. They’ve already crossed that first bridge. Nevertheless, this is the real point at issue.

Can and will Christians be able to hold to EBP without moving to GTE?

I seriously doubt that Christians can or will be successful in adopting evolution as EBP while avoiding the trajectory that moves toward evolution as GTE. Here’s why, in short.

It seems to me that as soon as one adopts EBP, the following positions come to be accepted (whether as hypotheses, theories, or firm positions):

  1. Adam and Eve had biological ancestors, from whom they evolved (some sort of chimp-like creatures).
  2. These “chimps” in turn had other biological ancestors and relatives, as do all creatures.
  3. In fact, there is an entire phylogenetic tree or chain of evolutionary development that begins with the Big Bang. All living things have common ancestry in the simplest living things, such as plants. At some point before that the transition was made from non-living things to the first living cell (some evolutionary creationists assert that God did something supernatural to make the transition from non-living things to living).[3]
  4. Evolving requires deep time. “Multiple lines of converging evidence” apparently tell us the universe is 14.7 billion years old; the earth is about 4.7 billion, life is about 3 billion, and human life is probably about 400,000 years old (these numbers may vary; I happen to think 6-10 thousand is rather ancient as it is!).
  5. Humans do not have souls; they are simply material beings. This is being promoted by Biologos and other theologians and philosophers.[4] Not all evolutionary creationists would agree; some say God gave a soul when he “made” man in his image, others that the soul “emerged” from higher-order brain processes at some point in the evolutionary history.
  6. The world is on a continual trajectory from chaos to increasing order, or from bad to good to better to best. This creates great difficulties for one’s doctrine of the fall, redemption in Christ, and the radical transition into the new creation.
  7. The earth, as long as it has had animal life, has been filled with violence. Keller admits in his paper how critical this is: “The process of evolution, however, understands violence, predation, and death to be the very engine of how life develops” (2). This presents enormous difficulty for one’s doctrines of the good initial creation, and the fall into sin.
  8. The universe’s order arises mainly due to the unfolding of the inherent powers and structures God must have embedded in that initial singularity called the Big Bang. There is a movement toward Deism inherent in the theory.
  9. Much of what the Bible ascribes to God’s creating power and wisdom actually belongs to his providential guidance, which itself was probably a rather hands-off thing.
  10. God’s nature—particularly his goodness—needs to be understood differently if creation was “red in tooth and claw” from the beginning.[5]
  11. The authority of God’s Word falls under the axe due to the exegetical gymnastics required to accommodate EBP. Scripture apparently no longer means what it appears to mean. This opens up the reinterpretation of everything in the Bible.


In sum, Keller provides a helpful critique of evolution as the Grand Theory of Everything, but fails to demonstrate that holding to evolutionary biological processes does not in itself, very much open one up to evolution as the GTE, and may in fact ultimately make it impossible to avoid more and more of evolution as the GTE. This is surely because for the most part evolution as such depends upon atheistic presuppositions. And in fact, it’s actually quite hard to determine just where the line is between evolution as EBP and GTE. I’m afraid that’s a sliding scale, depending upon which scientist or theologian presents his views. Once the camel’s nose is in the tent . . . you know the rest.

The academic and religious trajectories of scholars who were once orthodox and Reformed show how hard it is to maintain evolution as EBP only. I’m thinking of such men as Howard Van Till (who is now more of a “free thinker”),[6]  Peter Enns (who now only holds to the Apostles’ Creed and treats the Bible as arising from the Israelites, not from God),[7] and Edwin Walhout (who advocated rewriting the doctrines of creation, sin, salvation, and providence).[8] There are whole swaths of theologians and scientists associated with Biologos, the Faraday Institute, and the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation who are trying valiantly to hold together their Christian faith with evolutionary science, and the money of the Templeton Foundation will ensure that pamphlets, presentations, conferences, and books, will bring these views to the Christian public. Holding to Dooyeweerdian philosophy’s sphere sovereignty may help some of these Christians compartmentalize their biology, geology, and their faith, but that philosophical school has been subject to severe criticism in our tradition, and on precisely this point.[9] I fear that the dissonance of EBP itself with the historic, creedal Christian faith will prove to make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Christians to keep their faith and EBP together. I also doubt that one can very easily maintain evolution as EBP only.


[1] See, for instance, Accessed 24 Feb 2016.

[2] See Accessed 24 Feb, 2016.

[3] As an example of an evolutionary creationist attempting to defend the evolutionary link from egg-laying reproduction to placenta-supported reproduction, see Dennis Venema’s recent essays on vitellogenin and common ancestry at Biologos. See Accessed 25 Feb 2016.

[4] See my essay entitled, “In Between and Intermediate: My Soul in Heaven’s Glory,” in As You See the Day Approaching: Reformed Perspectives on the Last Things, ed. Theodore G. Van Raalte (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016), 70–111.

[5] See Accessed 27 Feb 2017.

[6] See Accessed 26 Feb 2016.

[7] See his book, The Evolution of Adam (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press 2012), ix–xx, 26–34.

[8] See Accessed 26 Feb 2016.

[9] For example, see J. Douma, Another Look at Dooyeweerd (Winnipeg: Premier Printing, 1981).

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 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 Accessed 22 Feb 2016.

[2] See Accessed 27 Feb 2016.

[3] For this debate see Accessed 27 Feb 2016.