Dennis Venema

Evolving–Reconciling Evolution and Christian Theology

“The number one reason young Christians leave the faith [and that non-Christians find Christianity intellectually incoherent] is the conflict between science and faith, and that conflict can be narrowed to the conflict between evolutionary theory and human origins as traditionally read in Genesis 1-2” (Venema & McKnight, pp.104-105).

I just finished reading an engaging book released this year, a collaboration between two first-rate Christian scholars entitled Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science. Dennis Venema, who has a PhD in Genetics and teaches at Trinity Western University in Canada, along with Scot McKnight, who has a PhD in New Testament and teaches at Northern Seminary in Chicago, do a bang-up job bringing evolutionary theory and Christian theology into a constructive synthesis. Both of these men have ties to BioLogos, an organization composed of Christians who are evangelical in theology (shorthand for they affirm biblical authority and orthodox Christianity) and believe in theistic evolution, or that God created the world through the mechanism of evolution. I’ve found BioLogos to be the best resource at fostering informed dialogue between the scientific and Christian communities, and it was at a BioLogos gathering in New York when Dennis and Scot first met each other, which has now led to this book. 

Christianity and science have had their ups and downs throughout history. We can point to several positive examples between them. Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, was a monk. Isaac Newton, a prominent scientist who discovered the theory of gravity, wrote that creation points to God. Frances Collins led the team that sequenced the human genome in the early 2000s and is an evangelical Christian. On the other hand, we’ve all heard the story of Galileo. His research supported Copernicus’ theory that our solar system is heliocentric—the earth and other planets revolve around the sun. After he (perhaps intentionally) slighted the pope in one of his works, Galileo was put on trial, told to curse his findings, and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life for contradicting the “clear” teaching of the Bible—that the earth is the center of the universe. 

Heliocentrism remained controversial for quite some time. Venema tells the story of John Edwards (not the famed American revivalist Jonathan Edwards of the First Great Awakening) who wrote an apologetic work in 1696 against heliocentrism, saying it clearly violates Scripture, which teaches the earth is the center of the universe. For, after all, Psalm 104:5 says “the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved,” or Ecclesiastes 1:5 “And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place.” And how else could God make the shadow go backwards for Hezekiah in 2 Kings 20:1-11, or stop the sun in the sky for Joshua in Joshua 10:1-15? Edwards also said heliocentrism is contrary to reason. I like one of his arguments Venema quotes:

Nay, truly, if the earth were hurl’d about in a Circle (as these Persons assert) we should feel it to our sorrow, for we should not be able to keep our ground, but must necessarily be thrown off, and all Houses and other Buildings would be thrown down, being forcibly shared off from the Circumference of the Earth, as things that are laid on a Wheel are flung off by it when it turns round (Ibid., p. 10).

Knowing what we know today, it may be a bit humorous to read an argument for being slung off the earth like a ball from a fast-pitch machine if the earth is really rotating and orbiting as fast as those heliocentrists say it is. Copernicus’ ideas had been around for about 150 years by the time Edwards wrote, however, some of the science was still coming in to confirm heliocentrism, and the vast majority of Christians (and probably people in the West in general) had been geocentrists for a long time. Today, that has been totally reversed, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who claims to believe the earth is the center of the universe. And what of John Edwards’ claims that the sun being the center of our solar system is contrary to Scripture and reason? The fact is, hardly anyone sees it that way now. Bit by bit, as more and more research confirmed heliocentrism, people started to wonder if they’d been interpreting those Scriptures improperly. Now that we’ve put people into space and on the moon, it’s against all reason to think otherwise concerning the sun being the center of our solar system. While initially some were against it because of Scriptural and rational questions, the church shifted.

In a similar manner, ever since Darwin published his On the Origin of Species, we have been in the midst of another conversation concerning origins, and a similar slow and steady shift has been happening.

Exploring this topic inescapably leads us to the Bible and how we are to interpret it. Most Christians believe the Bible is inspired by God to teach us and help us live a holy life (2 Tim. 3:16-17), and Protestants especially hold that if a doctrine cannot be proved by Scripture, it should not be required as necessary to salvation. To believe or do something contrary to Scripture, properly interpreted, would be sinful.

Genesis 1-11 tells the story of a God creating all that exists in six days, an original human pair (Eve and Adam) who sinned in the garden of Eden, their exile from the garden, a murder of a brother, a flood, the building of a tower, the confusion of languages, and several genealogies. Elsewhere, the Bible depicts much of humanity being descended from Adam and Eve, including big names like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Jesus (Luke 3:23-38). Paul teaches in Romans 5:12-21 that in Adam, sin was introduced into the world and because of that, death came to all people (see also 1 Corinthians 15:21-22).

When it comes to the sciences, physicists are telling us that the universe didn’t originate a few thousand years ago from a six day creation, but from a big bang 13.8 billion years ago. Our universe took shape over billions of years (the earth is estimated to be about 4.5 billion years old), and evolutionary science is indicating that life on earth evolved slowly but surely over several billion years, with modern humans arriving on the scene about 250,000 years ago. It also shows that humans didn’t come from one original pair, but from a pool of about 10,000 hominins during a bottleneck about 150,000 years ago (Ibid., 44; Venema shows there are several independent lines of evidence pointing to this conclusion in chapter 3). 

Evolution is a theory in the science world. As Venema writes, when we use the word “theory” in common speech, we often mean something like a guess, but in science, theories are developed over a long period of time, are verified by many different experiments, and are useful for explaining “why the facts are the way they are” (Ibid., 3). The big bang and evolution aren’t just vague guesses, but have been verified time and time again by a whole host of different experiments. In short, they’re as well established as gravity, as the sun being the center of our solar system, as germs and cells and the laws of planetary motion.

Perhaps you can see the mutually exclusive claims. Which is it? Six days or billions of years? Were there two original humans or a pool of 10,000? Has stuff been dying for billions of years, or did death only come after Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?  Were Eve and Adam real people? If not, what do we do with other biblical authors treating them like they were, including them in genealogies (Luke 3:23-38) and Paul using Adam as an example of how sin spread to all humanity (Romans 5:12-21)? If Adam and Eve aren’t a historical couple and many Christian traditions hold to a doctrine of original sin (the sinful nature of that original couple has been passed down to every human being in existence), what are we to do with that belief? Moreover, what does it do to our understanding of salvation in Jesus Christ, who by his work is supposed to set us free from death and sin if life has been dying long before humans ever came on the scene?

These apparent inconsistencies have led many to choose either evolutionary science or an anti-science version of Christianity. Person A will take science, its methodologies, its explanatory power, and its progress and leave behind a Christianity she or he considers intellectually vacuous and superstitious. Perhaps another worldview, like atheism or Buddhism, wouldn’t have such a dissonance between the claims of science and claims of religion. Person B, on the other hand, will take God, the Bible, the morality it teaches, and the spirituality of a Christian faith walk, and reject science—at least evolutionary science and certain aspects of cosmology—holding to a literal six day creation. This has often been labeled the creationist perspective. Creationists see evolution and the Bible as inevitably conflicting, and would argue that to unite the two into a synthesis is like trying to make oil and vinegar mix—you can shake things up a lot, but in the end, they just don’t go together.

Some have gone so far as to champion creationist science, a banner carried by people like Ken Ham and the organization Answers in Genesis (there are others as well). Creationist scientists deny evolution and any other scientific data that goes against their literal interpretation of the Genesis creation narratives, and they work to prove that interpretation scientifically. These folks are hailed by many in the scientific community as practitioners of pseudo-science, often presenting technical answers and challenges to largely non-scientifically trained audiences (people like me) who don’t have the foggiest idea of all the data out there. It would be like someone wanting to have an in-depth discussion with me about software programming. I might recognize a few words here and there, but largely I’m going to have no idea what you’re talking about and I’m going to trust that you know more than I do on this one. But for those who do have more background in evolutionary science and are cognizant of the data, they recognize that something fishy and unfair is going on in many creationist critiques of evolution. Venema is quite helpful in this regard in the book, demonstrating that yes, evolution actually can explain fish turning into primates, and lays out the genetic arguments for why that’s the case.

Venema and McKnight give several examples in the book that make a lot of sense according to evolutionary theory, but just seem baffling from a six-day creationist perspective. I’ve included three here. First, when it comes to our sense of smell, humans have some pretty damaged genetic material, which can help explain why our sense of smell is shoddy in comparison to a dog or a cat. What’s interesting is that when you look at the sense of smell of other primates, they too have a lot of mistakes, sometimes down to the very same malfunctioning genes that are in humans, which suggests common ancestry. Orangutans, our furthest primate relative, share one malfunction in common with us, guerrillas share two malfunctions in common, and then our closest ancestor, chimpanzees, share three malfunctions in common with us (Ibid., 34). That sure does look like some of the malfunctions happened to our common ancestors. And if God created us only a few thousand years ago, why did he create us with all this damaged and seemingly useless genetic material? Second, as an example of an intermediate species, Venema points to Basilosaurus, an ancient whale that had small hind limbs that were unable to support its weight, and says there are several other examples (Ibid., 16). Third, McKnight tells the story of someone who noticed the “latent but inactive remains of the Vitamin-C producing gene” shared among humans and primates and wondered: If God created all there is a few thousand years ago, why did he put stuff like this all over the place that seems to point to evolution? (Ibid., 172). There are more examples in the book, and it makes for good reading.

Why have I been rambling on about this topic? Well, my own view is one of theistic evolution, that God created all that exists and developed the world through evolutionary processes. I believe it’s possible to reconcile evolution and the Bible while not downplaying biblical authority. Not everyone will agree with me, and that’s fine. We don’t have to view things the same way to be sisters and brothers in Christ, or at the very least to be friends. And I fully admit that I could be wrong—I don’t know everything there is to know. But it’s for reasons that become apparent when interpreting the Bible itself, when looking at the weight of evidence for evolutionary theory, and especially in consideration of those who feel they must choose either Christianity or science, that I see theistic evolution as a compelling position. Science and Christianity don’t have to conflict. In fact, I think they can help each other and need each other. Science is a wonderful vocation for Christians, and no, you don’t have to check your brain at the door to be a Christian.

In my next blog, I want to continue the argument Venema and McKnight lay out in their wonderful book (you should read it—they are much more informed and winsome writers than myself) and look at what the Bible says and how to interpret it as we wrestle with these questions. Stay tuned.