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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

The Real Problem Evangelicals Have with Evolution (And What Needs to Be Done About It)

evangelicals and evolution

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.

Why are so many evangelicals on full alert over evolution?

Because they are afraid—afraid that, if evolution is correct, their evangelical heritage is called into question.

Their personal narrative is threatened.

Our personal narratives tell us where we belong in the world. They give us a sense of stability and comfort amid uncertainty. Generally speaking, human beings hate having their personal narratives challenged, especially if that narrative pertains to such things as the nature of the universe and their place in it, God, the afterlife, and so forth–things the evangelical narrative provides.

Evolution threatens the evangelical narrative. And it’s not a joke. The threat is real.

Reactions to the threat of evolution mask a deep fear: “If the Bible is wrong here, there is no telling where this will go. Soon I may find myself adrift, no longer sure if I can trust anything the Bible says—no longer sure about how I should life my life and what will happen to me after I die.”

It really does come down to the the Bible: what is it and what does it mean to read it well?

The evangelical movement has invested a lot of energy in building thick walls around the Bible, ready to defend it against challenges, real or perceived, that threaten its safety. (If you want to learn why that’s part of the evangelical legacy, Mark Noll will tell you here. I’ve never read anything that gets to the point as quickly and says it so well.)

Evolution effectively challenges time-honored, bedrock, evangelical positions on how the Bible must be read. That’s why for some, even engaging evolution generously, let alone accepting it, simply means turning their back on their own evangelical heritage. The emotional cost of doing so is often too high.

What is lost is the comfort of knowing that your reading of the Bible is right, which allows one to table doubt and mystery and embrace a (false sense of) absolute certainty.

Rewriting one’s theological narrative is threatening, to be sure, but should we not be open to writing new narratives—to be open to theological change when warranted and value that process as part of the journey of faith rather than fear it as a threat to faith?

Somehow, new ecclesiastical and academic cultures must be created, where at the very least difficult issues concerning the Bible can be seriously discussed, if not conceived of differently—without suspicion, slander, reprisal, and politicking.

Moving forward may appear like trampling on the past. But maintaining the past at all costs is hardly the better alternative. That’s fear talking.  We must turn our attention to what it means to be responsible to the future—to our children and children’s children. That takes true courage.

The question of evolution is out in the open, it’s not going to go away, and it has implications for how evangelicals read their Bible and do theology. The only real question before us is how will we choose to address it.

For some, that will mean facing their fears.

[This is adapted from the conclusion of The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins. It first appeared in January 2012.]

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