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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

3 Things About Evolution and Recalibrating Your Orthodoxy Meter

evolution and orthodoxy

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

Give me a moment to step up onto my soapbox.

As I never grow tired of pointing out, evolution poses serious theological challenges to Christianity of virtually any flavor, and certainly of Christian traditions where the inerrancy of Scripture is a core conviction.

In those cases, evolution can’t simply be merged with inerrantist theology by making some slight adjustments to either and leaving both more or less intact.

As is, evangelical theology cannot simply absorb evolution and go on as if nothing has happened. A true merger (if that’s even the right way of putting it) between evangelical theology and evolution requires the former to make more serious changes–to recalibrate its orthodoxy meter, so to speak.

Think of the mainstream evangelical orthodoxy scale as 1 to 10 (from very conservative to uncomfortably pushing the boundaries). Rather than seeing that scale as immovable, I think that scale needs to shift for any meaningful, lasting, and compelling progress to be made in the evolution discussion.

I think the 1 – 10 needs to move to something like 3 – 12 or 4 – 13.

Don’t hold me to those numbers. I’m just trying to make a general point: leave behind the more conservative evangelical commitments and introduce to the scale some positions that normally are not found along the evangelical spectrum.

I see 3 areas of evangelical theology, all pertaining to the Bible, that reflect this recalibration.

(1) Drop the notion of prescriptive inerrancy.

For those who can’t or don’t want to leave inerrancy behind, at least leave behind prescriptive inerrancy.

That is my term and it describes the kind of inerrancy that says, “Because the Bible is inerrant, your interpretive conclusions may not go here, here, here, or here.”

Inerrancy like this works as a fence to guard against “wrong” interpretations. By contrast, “descriptive inerrancy” does not limit beforehand what the Bible can or can’t “say.” Rather: “No matter what interpretive conclusions I wind up accepting, I believe that the Bible is as is from God and therefore it is what it is.”

I know plenty of evangelicals who adopt a “descriptive inerrancy” point of view. I don’t feel personally that “inerrancy” is a concept that is set up for that kind of flexibility, but others do and that’s fine with me.

The more important point for me is that particular views on how the Bible should work (prescriptive inerrancy) simply derail any meaningful conversation concerning evolution and have to be left behind in favor of another option available for inerrantists. [I talk about this more in the postscript to the 2nd edition of Inspiration and Incarnation.]

Without making this necessary (and, I understand, difficult) move, the other two are dead in the water.

(2) Accept the mythic nature of the creation narratives in Genesis.

Not only do the sciences suggest this, but so does our knowledge of antiquity.

All ancient societies (not to mention others not affected by the western world) have origins myths–stories that provide a sense of communal self vis-à-vis the divine and earthly realms.

It is a bizarre logic to think that the Israelites and the Israelites alone somehow avoided all this and provided a creation story that, although looking very similar the stories of other peoples of that region, was nevertheless somehow preserved as more historically (or scientifically!) accurate.

Put another way, evangelical theology needs to make room–not reluctantly, but deliberately and unapologetically–for the power of myth in the ancient telling of the biblical story.

To anticipate a point, no, I don’t know “where that will lead, where the slippery slope comes to a halt,” etc., etc. But the fact that there may (or may not) be implications of this move does not mean the move itself is wrong and should be avoided. The mythic nature of Israel’s origins stories (not only in Genesis but Job and Psalms) cannot be seriously contested by those who wish to remain in learned conversations with others.

(3) Think differently about historical accuracy.

This is clearly related to #2 but it needs to be broadened out a bit.

It is common (and correct, I think) for evangelicals to make a distinction between a complete/literal historical accuracy of the Bible and an “essential” historical accuracy, which takes into account things like common idioms of the day, the use of round numbers, etc. I’m down with all that. “Inerrancy” does not mean “literalism.”

But, a deep impulse of evangelical theology is that the Bible always tilts toward historical accuracy of some sort. In other words, the Bible never simply presents as historical something that isn’t historical in some sense.

This deep impulse comes to the surface in the evolution discussion when we read things like, “Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the flood story, etc., are presented to us as history in some sense, since we read of people, in geographic locations, and the passage of time in these narratives.”

But we all can list many fictional stories that involve characters with names, geographical locations (including real locations), and recount events in chronological sequence. That doesn’t make them historical. All stories do that.

The question “How much history is in the Bible?” is an old one—certainly older than American evangelicalism—and it’s not going away any time soon, nor are we going to solve the issue in a blog post.

But for the evangelical conversation with evolution to make progress, I think the historical impulse of evangelical theology needs to be re-examined.

Perhaps, at least as a mind experiment, evangelicals could work out an evangelical theology that assumes what most others assume, the mythic/non-historical nature of the creations stories. What might that theology look like? Be creative and imaginative. Go for it. The gospel won’t fall apart. I promise.

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Anyway, I know I’m asking a lot. Actually, I’m not asking anything of anyone. I’m just staying what I think the problem is.

And the foundational problem is an old one–going back to Judaism before Christianity: How do you continue with an ancient faith when new circumstances challenge that faith? And that is truly a question that is always with us and will never go away.

[If you want to see more posts on evolution, click here. You can also check out my book, The Evolution of Adam.]

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