Theistic Evolution & Biblical Interpretation

Forms of theistic evolution seem to abound in Christian circles. Theistic evolution is a teaching that says that evolution was used by God to create mankind, even in evolution’s fullest sense of very gradual change through random mutations and natural selection.

To make theistic evolution work, Genesis 1 and 2 must be taken as some sort of figurative language, a theological passage teaching about mankind. The most common form I run into lately is that God picked one of the myriad of gradually-changing species and breathed a soul into it, thus creating Adam. In this sense, so we are told, Adam can be the first man, but there was a prior human-type being, even possibly the same specie, that did not have the image of God breathed into it. Such belief seems hard to visualize, considering the fact that human DNA has about three billion data bits, requiring an almost inconceivable number of gradual specie changes before God picked one to place His image into. On a practical level, it is hard to imagine any visible difference between the specie at 2,349,897,281 and the next one at 2,349,897,282.  To the theistic evolutionist, Genesis 1 is more of a theological explanation than a literal first creation of something human-like. Adam is presented as the first man with God’s image, not the first man.

But Genesis is not the only passage in the Bible that mentions creation and Adam. To make his system fit, the theistic evolutionist must fit these other passages into his theological system. Passages such as Romans 5 create a large challenge, requiring the evolutionist to continue Adam as not literally the first man in sentences that compare Adam to Christ, a person the Bible clearly holds as literal in the normal sense. The theistic evolutionist seems to be able to press his theological reading of Genesis into the New Testament.

I recently pointed out to a theistic evolutionist that Adam is mentioned in the New Testament in genealogies in Luke 3 and Jude 14. Adam is also listed in the genealogies in 1 Chronicles 1 to 9. Undaunted, the response from the theistic evolutionist was that the genealogies are primarily theological teachings, not historical, for the purpose of making truth claims about humans being children of God.

So now we again have the intent of the author determining the meaning that is in the text, not the words themselves being the holders of meaning. As long as we can say that a passage was meant by the author to be teaching such-and-so, we truly have no ground for a text to give an objective meaning to anyone.

Keep in mind that the genealogies of Genesis, 1 Chronicles, and Luke have people in them that we know existed as real humans in the world. So the theistic evolutionist would have to hold that even though the long list of begats in these passages have real people, they are not historical and should not be taken as such.

Think of it . . . if something like a genealogy can be taken as non-historical, what passages are there that would force historical literalness onto the reader? Could we not place a theological framework on any passage, then tell ourselves that God never intended this to be literal, but rather a container of deeper spiritual teachings? If the genealogies are not historical, what passage is left that must be literal?

In reality, genealogies by themselves are merely statements of fact. Jesse begat David, and David begat Solomon. It is difficult to see how such tediously long lists of names throughout nine chapters of 1 Chronicles could be anything but a historical record. Adam is right there in the list, along with everyone else.

Once we start to spiritualize passages of the Bible, we have no clear stopping point. The book of Acts is a long story of the apostles, with dry facts about cities, shipping lanes, and weather mixed in with sermons and miracles, sometimes in the same sentences. We have no clear, objective way of extricating one from the other.

We do not have to guess at what happens when people begin to hold that Bible  passages are primarily not historical accounts but spiritual teachings. Theologian Rudolph Bultmann tells us in Rudolph Bultmann: Interpreting Faith for the Modern Era (Fortress Press, 1991) that the teaching that Jesus is the literal son of God is a pagan myth brought into Christianity, but that the ethical teachings of Jesus are valuable. He then explains:

Shall we retain the ethical preaching of Jesus and abandon his eschatological preaching? Shall we reduce his preaching of the kingdom to the so-called social gospel? Or is there a third possibility? We must ask whether the eschatological preaching and the mythological sayings as a whole contain a still deeper meaning which is concealed under the cover of mythology. If that is so, let us abandon the mythological conceptions precisely because we want to retain their deeper meaning. This method of interpretation of the New Testament which tries to recover the deeper meaning behind the mythological conceptions I call de-mythologizing — an unsatisfactory word, to be sure. Its aim is not to eliminate the mythological statements but to interpret them. (292-293)

We readily admit that the theistic evolutionist is not attempting to call Genesis myth. Nevertheless, the method and purpose they are using is the same as that of Bultmann and his followers, or at least is indistinguishable. The purpose was to hold that the normal, historical-grammatical reading of the text is not what is important, and we must dig deeper to find the true meaning behind the words. Such a method gave rise to an entire group of liberal preachers and teachers, men like Harry Emerson Fosdick and John Spong, who held that they believed the Bible, but denied Biblical miracles and most of the historicity of the entire Bible.

In conclusion, theistic evolution is a method that cannot hold up to the normal reading of the text of the Bible. Apart form Genesis, passages such as the genealogies and Romans 5 demand enough literalness so that they are historical texts. The various passages throughout the Bible that mention Adam give us no textual indication that Adam is anything less than a historical figure. Theistic evolution is something that must be read into the passages that speak of Adam, not taken from the passages. When we deny that Adam is the historical first man, we dig a dangerous hole for ourselves and end up wrenching texts of scripture from their moorings. I can only assume that most theistic evolutionists are trying to reconcile scripture with modern secular teachings of biology. I urge caution to all who are doing so, for they are on dangerous ground.

I urge everyone to take their positions slowly and carefully. As a student of church history, several times over the centuries Christians have taken positions that were designed to harmonize Christianity with the current perceptions of the world. They thought they were doing good, thought they were helping to save Christianity. But in the end, they did more damage to the cause of Christ than they ever imagined. People like Kierkegard and Bultmann thought they were helping Christianity, but their cure was worse than the disease they were fighting. Those of us who are apologists will spend the rest of our lives trying to undo what damage was done in theology and philosophy over the last 300 years.

For more on how such issues play out, see here, and here, and here.

About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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18 Responses to Theistic Evolution & Biblical Interpretation

  1. How do you view John Walton’s argument about Genesis, that it is a description of origins in functional ontology and not a material one?

    • humblesmith says:

      I have not read John Walton so I cannot comment on his position. But “functional ontology” sounds a lot like what I was speaking about in this post. If we symbolize large sections of scripture and deny historical facts, we have no method for distinguishing between obvious historical passages like I speak if in the post.

      • I don’t think Walton was arguing that it was non-historical. His view, as I understand it, is not figurative in the sense that most people use it. He contends that the narrative in Genesis rests in the context of the ancient Near East worldview where creation was about giving something function, rather than bringing it into existence. This provision of function is something that actually happens in time, as opposed to something that is merely representational.

        The best way I can explain it is to think of a retail store. It includes a building, merchandise, business processes, and employees. But in this view it didn’t exists as a retail store until those elements were made to function that way.

        If this is correct it means that we are reading our worldview back into Genesis 1. Theistic evolution may have other problems but this text would not be one of them.

    • humblesmith says:

      Further, a non-historical Adam presents big problems in Romans 5. If Adam is figurative, is the fall from God figurative? A non-historical Adam forces us to either say Adam is figurative but the fall is literal, in which case we are inconsistent, or Adam is figurative and the fall is figurative, in which we are heretics. A non-historical Adam presents big problems, but not in Genesis as much as in Romans 5 where he is mentioned in the same sentences as a very historically real Jesus. It also presents problems in the genealogies, as this post explains.

  2. dwwork says:

    Reblogged this on Reasons For The Hope Blog and commented:
    My friend Glenn gives a great reason that Theistic evolution is a dead end.

  3. jlafan2001 says:

    This is exactly why I gave up being a christian. I looked at the evidence for evolution and found that it was overwhelming. Too much to be denied. The bible would have to be bent in order to fit with evolution just like Biologos tries to do. I realized that either the science would have to be twisted or the bible would have to be twisted in order to fit the two. Once that happened, I left the faith. Science has shown that we did not descend from a primal couple which falsifies christianity as per what this post implies. There are many christians that accept the evidence from population genetics are now scrambling to find a way to save the faith by reconciling what can’t be done. This is dishonest. They should accept that their faith is wrong and try to tell others the truth.

    • humblesmith says:

      Have you read Stephen Meyers recent works, or Michael Behe’s latest work on the limits of evolution, as he demonstrates via malaria vaccines? It seems to me that science is just on the cusp of actually being able to test the theories of mutations in DNA, so it might be wise for you to hold your conclusions. God has a history of letting people climb all the way out on a limb before cutting it off.

      I might suggest searching on this blog for naturalism and evolution. I’ve found that bigger problems are created when we deny God’s existence.

  4. jlafan2001 says:

    I don’t read the works of creationists and IDists. They fooled me for so long that I don’t want to go down that path anymore.

    As for the implications of denying god’s existence, I actually accept them. I am a nihilist. I find the traditional arguments for secular humanism lacking and wishful thinking. I think that there is no morality, meaning, value or purpose to anything. Logic, reason, free will, emotions are all products of the brain. Am I happy with this? No, but it’s not about what makes you happy. It’s about finding reality.

    • humblesmith says:

      You said “I think that there is no morality, meaning, value or purpose to anything.”

      This is self-refuting, for it is a meaningful sentence saying there is no meaning. Plus, I don’t believe that you actually hold this position, since if you truly don’t believe meaning exists, you wouldn’t be telling me I’m wrong. Further, everyone holds to some morality. If you don’t think there is any meaning or morality, just post your address and let us know when you’re not at home. So far, everyone I’ve met thinks it’s wrong for me to steal their stuff.

    • Itsonlyphotos says:

      Without offering a theological argument, I just want you to know that I know the feeling of struggling for answers and finding only more questions. My best advice, no matter whether you believe in the Almighty or not, is to acknowledge that seeing yourself as a genetic robot is not healthy. Clearly, you feel more than that.I would argue that this type of philosophy is less the product of cautions analysis and more the result of unquestioned materialism. There are some problems with materialism that it’s adherents are loathe to answer let alone attempt to answer. The very idea that you can express your opinions and emotions so coherently on this blog suggests to me a problem with the prevailing idea that man is the result of blind physical processes. After all, if physical laws are what fixes all of life, that would seem to indicate that you are unable to be logical except to to a strange cosmic accident. Nevertheless, be good to yourself. You seem like a decent gent

  5. jlafan2001 says:

    I right this stuff not because I think it’s meaningful it’s because my genes and brain compel me to. I have no choice in the matter. It’s just cause and effect.

    Same thing with morality. I don’t break the law because I genetically recognize that it’s not good for my survival. Stealing from me is also not good for my survival. Stealing from you would be good fro my survival so long as the bigger fish (the law) doesn’t catch me. Nothing is about morality but rather survival. It looks different to different people at different places at different times. Whatever helps the species, groups, societies or individuals survive to pass on the genes that control them to so so.

  6. unkleE says:

    Hi humblesmith, there are other issues you don’t seem to have addressed, but are relevant. Briefly:

    1. Experts (e.g. CS Lewis, Peter Enns) say that parts of the OT read like they are myths, and their similarities to other ancient near east literature we would regard as unhistorical makes it seem likely that they do contain non-historical material. The OT doesn’t always present one view on history, ethics or theology (which you’d expect if the traditional evangelical view was correct), but several, perhaps indicating a process of learning and maturing in understanding.

    2. The New Testament writers, and Jesus, don’t quote the OT as if it was unchangeable literal history, ethics and theology, but modify some texts, reinterpret others and use “rabbinical” methods of interpretation that we wouldn’t think acceptable today. This may explain Paul’s Adam references. But it certainly throws into question modern exegetical understandings.

    So I think discussion of the likely “truth” of Genesis 1-3 has to be fitted into those apparent realities. Thanks.

  7. humblesmith says:

    If you have a Lewis citation where he claims that parts of the OT read like myths, I would like to see it. The readings I have made of Lewis show him to be lacking as a theologian, but as a literary critic he has said quite the opposite as to what you claim (see here: https://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2015/03/30/literary-critics-examine-the-new-testament/ )
    Again, if you have a citation for Lewis, please pass it along. Until then, my quotes from Lewis stand.

    As to Enns, many liberals would hold to a position such as his. My post takes this into account when it mentions taking Genesis as figurative. The point of the post is not that some people take Genesis to be a literary device, but rather the theological implications of doing so.

    I would challenge the assertion that the New Testament writers don’t quote the OT as being historical. It is true that they sometimes quoted a translation, the Septuagint, and sometimes summarized broad ideas into a quote, But I submit that the NT writers did indeed quote the events of the OT as if they were history. As I said in the post, the places in the NT that mention Adam give us no indication whatsoever that the NT writers viewed Adam as anything other than a literal person. I mention two, the genealogies of Luke and Jude.

    • unkleE says:

      Hi humblesmith, here are the references you asked for:

      1. Five CS Lewis quotes on the Bible, the OT, myth and history.

      2. I’m not really interested if many “liberals” hold the same view as Enns (who identifies as an evangelical). The question is whether his views are based on the historical evidence. In support of that are his books (see Inspiration and incarnation, and his views on Ancient near east literature and Variations in Old Testament teachings. In support of a view not very different to Enns’, here is a book by undoubtedly evangelical authors grappling with difficult facts. I especially recommend this book.Denis Lamoureux is another undoubtedly evangelical writer who holds some similar views.

      3. On how the NT interpreted the OT, you have many sources you can turn to. I first worked it out when I noticed how the NT writers didn’t always quote reliably, so I went through every OT quote in the first 6 books of the NT, and found that about half the quotes were not verbatim, out of context, or changed the original meaning. So I read up what the experts had to say about it, and they confirmed what I had found – Richard Longenecker and Peter Enns.

      I wonder if you may be worried at the implications of all this? I don’t think we need to be. I believe the evidence still points to the Bible being a book God wants us to have, it’s just that we have fenced God in with rules about how he must have done that, and I think the facts show that he did it a different way than we might have expected – see How to interpret the Bible.

      I hope all that helps. Thanks.

      • humblesmith says:

        As the post states, and I again repeat, there is nothing in the NT quotations of OT figures such as Adam that give us evidence that the NT writers held them as anything other than historical. If we take, as but one example, the genalogies of Luke, which lists Adam in a list of known historical people, in a context of a known hisotorical narrative, and then take Adam to be figurative, then not only are we departing from the idea of derriving meaning from the text and rather inserting our meaning into it, but we also have nothing in our method that prevents us from taking the path of Bultmann, Fosdick, and Spong. This was the point of the post. Bultmann laid the groundwork for a generation like Fosdick who denied biblical miracles, who then bore the fruit of Spong, who holds himself to be Christian while denying almost every tenet of the faith, including God existing as a being.

        I also mentioned in the post that it is indeed possible to be orthodox and hold that Adam is non-historical. Doing so gives one two possibilities: holding Adam figurative and the fall literal, which would leave one orthodox but inconsistent, and holding Adam figurative and the fall figurative, which would leave one to be a religious person who is outside of the Christian faith. I have not read the book you cited, but the ones I have seen spend a lot of ink dancing around the issue but end up in one of those two camps.

        As to our friend Dr. Lewis, by his own admission he was not a theologian. I would be interested to see his opinion on his quotes that appear to say the opposite of each other.

        As to the fine points of historical criticism, I would refer you to the works of Eta Linnemann, who did an excellent work on the subject, showing the problems in quite a bit of detail.

        • unkleE says:

          Hi humblesmith,

          (1) I don’t say Paul didn’t think Adam was literal, I just say that the writers (and Jesus) had a more flexible view of history and revelation, as you can readily see if you go through all the quotes for yourself.

          (2) I think the “slippery slope” type of argument where you lump my views in with various “scare names” (Bultmann, Fosdick, and Spong) is not a fair tactic. I don’t say what those guys say and I don’t believe what they believe. I am sorry you would do that.

          (3) I believe Adam and the Fall are both figurative, and I am active in my christian faith, have been a believers for more than 50 years, pray every morning, am active in evangelism, apologetics and social justice. You judged me wrongly. I am sorry that you would do that too.

          (4) I don’t see inconsistency in CS Lewis’ views, and you haven’t shown any.

          It seems from your reaction that you don’t want to discuss this, but just to pin various labels on me. It may be best to close this discussion. Thanks for your time.

  8. Pingback: Creation, Big Bang, and Age of the Earth | Thomistic Bent

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