Why is there such tension between evangelicals and evolution?
The real problem isn’t evolution. There is a deeper problem: evangelicals tend to expect from the Bible what it simply isn’t set up to deliver.
Too often evangelicals start out the evolution discussion assuming that the biblical story of origins simply must have some clear historical validity, at least enough to draw it into a discussion over how the Bible and science are “compatible.” After all, this is the Bible, God’s word. Surely it must do more than just tell ancient stories! It must tell us at least something of what actually happened!
When that unexamined assumption is the default, unimpeachable starting point in the discussion, conflict between “faith and science” is guaranteed. This puts people in the lose-lose position of feeling the need to compare and contrast the Bible and science and make a choice between them.
So, maybe we need to think more about how the Bible works and whether we are creating a problem by beginning with false assumptions.
Those false assumptions begin when we forget that the Bible is ancient literature that speaks from an ancient point of view. Even a general sense of the Bible’s ancient cultural influences helps alert us to the kinds of questions the Bible is prepared to answer. Science is not among them.
But too many expect the Bible to give the final word on all sorts of things—as if it were an owner’s manual or some sort of reference work that speaks to any and every issue. Thinking this way creates problems—like the kind we often see when evangelicals talk about evolution.
Supposedly, it is unworthy of God to speak through ancient stories of origins that are neither historical nor scientific. God is the God of Truth. He would never stoop so low.
Uh…actually…yes he would.
God is all about stooping low—way low.
That’s how God rolls—at least the Christian God.
Remember the message of Christmas: God became man and walked among us, what theologians call the incarnation. Here is how the Apostle Paul describes it. Even though Christ,
was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8)
Jesus was lowly, humble, slave-like—willingly emptied of his “equality with God.”
If we can say that about Jesus, surely we can say that about the Bible. Like Christ, the Bible takes the form of a lowly slave—simple, humble, so very human-like.
A Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck (1854–1921), had a great way of putting it. Here is a longish quote, written in turn-of-the-century dead white male talk, but hang with it.
Christ became flesh, a servant, without form or comeliness, the most despised of human beings; he descended to the nethermost parts of the earth and became obedient even to death on the cross. So also the word [the Bible], the revelation of God, entered the world of creatureliness, the life and history of humanity, in all the human forms of dream and vision, of investigation and reflection, right down into that which is humanly weak and despised and ignoble. . . . All this took place in order that the excellency of the power . . . of Scripture may be God’s and not ours.
It’s worth the effort to track with Bavinck here. He is saying that the Bible, like Jesus, is a paradox. The reason why both Jesus and Scripture look the way they do—so human, so ordinary, so much a part of their world—is to draw attention to God’s glory and power.
Let me put it another way:
The Bible reflects the ancient cultures in which it was written, and this very fact proclaims the glory of God.
This may not make much sense at first. The evangelical tendency is not to talk up the Bible as “weak and despised and ignoble” as Bavinck does. The tendency is to talk up the Bible as perfect, inerrant, infallible—from God’s mouth to our ears. And anything that makes the Bible look lowly, etc., is hushed up so that the power of God can shine through.
The exact opposite is true. Jesus claimed that if you want to know God, you have to go through him. We can only see God truly through the human form he has chosen to use. This is true whether we are talking about a first-century working-class Jewish carpenter or literature written in ancient Hebrew and Greek. Both are “weak and despised and ignoble,” as Bavinck puts it, and for that reason are worthy of revealing God’s power and glory.
The power and glory of God revealed through what is despised and humble.
This is mystery. This is paradox. Welcome to Christianity 101.
Let’s bring this back to evolution. When we read Genesis 1 or Genesis 2-3, we should expect it to give off this humble, lowly, servant vibe. We should not become worked up, offended, or frazzled because these stories clearly and undeniably look so very similar to the stories of other ancient cultures and have nothing to do with history or science as we think of those ideas today.
The kinds of stories we have in the Bible are precisely what we should expect—if we keep in mind how God rolls.
Divorcing the creation stories of the Bible from their ancient settings and forcing them to speak to contemporary scientific discussion over evolution isn’t just wrong or stubborn or misguided…
It is sub-Christian.
Why? Because it minimizes the very thing that makes the Christian God what he is: an incarnating God, a “walk among us” God.
Calling upon the biblical creation stories to settle the evolution question does not show respect for Scripture. It actually sells Scripture short by selling God short.
There is something strangely comfortable about a God who keeps his distance. But that’s not how God rolls. And if we’re going to follow the Christian God, that’s just something we’re going to have to get used to.
***This post originally appeared in January 2012. It is adapted from the conclusion of The Evolution of Adam (Baker, 2012). I also visit some of these themes in The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014) and Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker 2005/2015).