10 Theses on Creation and Evolution That Some Evangelicals Can Support
Not long ago a pastor friend called, asking for help. “I’m preaching through Genesis 1–11,” he said, “and I need some advice on the whole creation and evolution thing.” There was anxiety in his voice. He wasn’t sure how preaching on origins was going to go in his church setting—or whether he would even survive! Understandably so. There is hardly a more controversial subject among evangelical Christians.
Several years earlier, a rumor circulated within my congregation along the following lines: “Pastor Todd thinks we came from apes!” My congregation was, historically speaking, on the conservative side of many theological issues, this one included. In its not-too-distant past, the church had embraced six-day, young-earth creationism as its (unofficial) teaching position. Needless to say, the fact that their relatively new and fairly young pastor held to a version of evolutionary creation caused some congregational heartburn.
This tension-filled season in the life of our church provided a good occasion to engage in serious conversations about origins issues. We grappled with our doctrinal boundaries as a local church: What degree of diversity will we allow? And given our diversity, what can we still affirm together as a unifying doctrinal core?
The upshot was the development of a series of ten theses on creation and evolution that we believe (most) evangelicals can (mostly) affirm. We weren’t looking for perfect unanimity. Our ultimate goal was to maintain the “unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3) and to prioritize the gospel as of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). It was important for us to arrive at a position on creation and evolution that was in keeping with that faithful Christian saying, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
In this essay, I share our ten theses on creation and evolution—or what we call Mere Creation. This is not what young-earth creationists believe or old-earth creationists believe or advocates of intelligent design believe or evolutionary creationists or theistic evolutionists believe but what most (evangelical) Christians, at most times, have believed and should believe about creation.
1. The doctrine of creation is central to the Christian faith.
Historically speaking, evangelicals have struggled to take the doctrine of creation seriously. Our love has been soteriology and Christology, not creation. But our neglect of the doctrine of creation is not only because our attention has been elsewhere; we have sometimes downplayed the doctrine of creation for the sake of ecclesial cohesion. We’ve categorized the doctrine as a “secondary” or “tertiary” issue in an attempt to preserve church unity. Why break fellowship over an issue not directly related to the mission of the church or the salvation of souls?
One of the strengths of evangelicalism is its ability to forge common cause out of theological diversity. And yet the danger is that our toleration for doctrinal differences becomes an indifference to doctrine. Of course, some doctrines are nearer to the core or closer to the periphery than others. Angelology isn’t central. Nor are certain aspects of eschatology. But the doctrine of salvation is; so too the doctrine of God, the doctrine of the Spirit, and the doctrine of Christ.
We should add to this list the doctrine of creation for the simple reason that it addresses some of the fundamentals of our faith—the reason for and nature of the world God has made, as well as the reason for and nature of the creatures God has made, not least those creatures made in God’s image.
2. The Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God, inspired, authoritative, and without error. Therefore whatever Scripture teaches is to be believed as God’s instruction, without denying that the human authors of Scripture communicated using the cultural conventions of their time.
I have found it helpful in origin discussions to begin with a full-throated affirmation of the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of the Bible. This is especially true for those who are sympathetic to evolutionary creation since they are sometimes unfairly portrayed as sitting loosely to Scripture.
I’ve also found that Christians who reject an evolutionary account of origins do so not primarily because they find the science unconvincing but because they have come to the conclusion that such a view will inevitably undermine the authority of the Bible. The fear is that embracing evolution leads to compromising biblical authority.
The thrust of this thesis is that whatever the Bible teaches, God teaches. Whatever Scripture asserts (as distinct from what Scripture merely affirms) is to be believed as what God intends it to say. It’s not a viable option for those committed to the authority of Scripture to say, “I know the Bible teaches this, but I don’t believe it.”
In saying this, however, we want to avoid implying that God did an “end run” around the authors of Scripture. No amount of stress on a “high view of the Bible” should cause us to inadvertently downplay the human side of the equation. As D. A. Carson nicely puts it, “The Bible is an astonishingly human document.” We also do not want to suggest that a robust view of Scripture leaves no room for the authors to communicate divine truths through the cultural conventions of their time.
When we read the Bible, then, not least when we read the creation accounts in Genesis 1–2, we want to know the author’s intention as expressed in the text written, even if this doesn’t exhaust a faithful handling of Scripture. At root, we want to know what this particular author meant to say, at this particular time, with these particular cultural conventions.
3. Genesis 1-2 is historical in nature, rich in literary artistry, and theological in purpose. These chapters should be read with the intent of discerning what God says through what the human author has said.
We move now from what Scripture is to what Scripture says. This is where all the proverbial bugs come out of the rug.
Of course, there is much to debate about how to interpret Genesis 1–2. All too often, the question is posed as an either-or. Is Genesis fact or fiction? Is it historical or theological? Does it reveal literary crafting or is it describing actual historical events?
We need a balanced approach to the question of the literary genre of Genesis 1–2. This means allowing for the fact that the text is a carefully crafted composite genre with all three elements—literary, historical, theological—present.
Clearly, the text is intended to be read as a historical account, at least at some level. This isn’t ancient mythology or folklore. More is going on. And yet a close reading of these texts reveals rich literary artistry. This isn’t the kind of “just the facts” reporting you find in a newspaper.
Yet it seems clear that the author’s aim is ultimately theological—to say something about God, the nature of the world, and the identity and destiny of human beings who are created in his image (Gen. 1:27). The point is not ultimately about supernovas or greenhouse gases or horticulture but about “God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth,” as the Apostle’s Creed puts it.
Of course, affirming that Genesis 1–2 is a composite genre doesn’t immediately solve issues of interpretation. Scholars will undoubtedly continue to debate the meaning of these chapters. But as we seek common ground, we should at least begin with a shared commitment to authorial intention and agreement that the genre of Genesis 1–2 is complex and arguably composite.