Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Theistic devolution

At the outset I'd like to thank Charlie Sebold for taking the time to look at this and make helpful observations as well as contribute his own intelligent thoughts, much of which I've incorporated into the post.

I thought it might be beneficial for others to have a quick and dirty list of some problems with [Christian] theistic evolution (TE). This list doesn't address problems with the theory of evolution itself -- unless there is some bearing on the Biblical text. Rather this list primarily seeks to address hermeneutical problems I see in TE. In other words, these are some difficulties which a TE would have to reconcile with his presumed conviction that the Bible is God's inerrant Word.

1. In Genesis 1 it's written, "And there was evening and there was morning, the first day...And there was evening and there was morning, the second day...And there was evening and there was morning, the third day." And so on. If we incorporate a modern understanding to our interpretation of the text, this would indicate that the earth has revolved once around its axis. That's the plain meaning of the text.

If you want to argue over the interpretation, however, perhaps it's true one need not interpret the term "day" (Hebrew: yom) as a 24-hour solar day. But it would seem to make far more sense to interpret it this way than it would to interpret it as millions of years or some indefinite period of time (e.g. the day-age theory). Both might be smuggling concepts foreign to the text into the text, so to speak, but the former is far closer to the ancient Israelite's worldview than the latter.

2. Or perhaps the ancient Israelite wrote it as a "day" since he did not understand the universe was billions of years old. This then would allow one to incorporate millions or billions of years into the text.

One problem with this is that it is consistent with an Old Earth Creationism (OEC) reading of Genesis, and need not invoke evolution.

Also, aren't we reading a modern understanding of science into the text (which has its own presuppositions)? Not that there's anything wrong with this, per se, depending on the argumentation, but frankly it's not what the text says. If there's a reason why we should read millions or billions of years into the text, then it needs to be argued out and explained.

Another problem, though, is that if we believe the Bible to have been authored by God (ultimately), then presumably God would've known what a day is and how the term would've been understood by the ancient Israelite. In this vein, why couldn't God have inspired Moses (the main author of the Torah or Pentateuch) to write something such as epoch or period instead of day if God really meant epoch or period? After all, these terms exist elsewhere in Scripture.

Not to mention other Ancient Near Eastern peoples writing at roughly the same time were able to communicate effectively about periods of hundreds of thousands of years such as in their king lists. Take this, for example. Or see this seminal work on the Sumerians.

3. The Hebrew term yom (="day") nearly always means "day" in the Bible. And when it does not, it is clear from the context that it does not.

4. One TE claim is that the first few chapters of Genesis should be read only as allegorical myth or mythical allegory. Why? An oft-used reason is because these chapters appear to speak about creation in a way similar to, say, ancient Babylonian creation myths speak of creation. But on what grounds is Genesis analogous to the ancient Babylonian creation myth (or whatever)? Where's the argument?

5. Furthermore, notice the TE might argue that only the first few chapters of Genesis (usually Gen. 1-3 or 1-11) are to be read as allegorical myth or mythical allegory. That is, Moses wrote Gen. 1-3 or 1-11 as allegorical myth, but the rest of the book as historical narrative. But how does the TE account for the non-apparent shift in genres? What reason(s) does he give for the shift?

Rather, it seems the genre shift has been invented by the TE (and others) because of a presupposition which is imported to the text, viz. some parts of the Bible are literally true, but Gen. 1-3 or 1-11 can't possibly be literally true.

BTW, this is not to ignore valid Biblical typology.

6. Gen. 2:7 states, "then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature."

If this is read only as allegorical myth, then what's the TE's interpretation of the verse?

As I understand a common TE position: After millions of years, in which a proto-human or ape-man emerged, God selected at least one male and one female proto-human or ape-man and gave them a soul or spirit. This is the TE's "Adam and Eve."

One problem with this interpretation, however, is that the Bible notes in the same chapter that Eve was taken out of Adam. The woman was not created independently of the man. The woman was created after the man. Otherwise the verse might note that God took both the man as well as the woman out of the ground and breathed the breath of life into each of them. As it is, the Bible distinguishes between the creation of man (Adam) and the creation of woman (Eve) in the same passage in Gen. 2.

7. 1 Tim. 2:13 likewise backs up this claim: "For Adam was formed first, then Eve." If the TE reads Gen. 1-3 solely as allegory or myth, then it would fly against the Apostle Paul's understanding of Gen. 1-3 as well.

8. A non-belief or a vague belief in a literal, historical Adam could possibly strip passages such as Rom. 5 and 1 Cor. 15 of their power or meaning. If Adam is merely allegorical or mythical, then what (if any) meaning does Christ have as the last Adam?

It's true Adam and Christ are types or symbols. But if that's all they are, then we have been deceived. Christianity would be a lie.

The real point, though, is that something happened in Adam that needed to be rectified in Christ. Adam sinned and he fell. And as our federal head, Adam's sin is imputed to us. As Adam's descendants, we, too, are guilty and condemned.

Yet Christ died on the cross for the sins of His people -- for those "in" Him. His obedience is imputed to us. We are clothed with His righteousness. We are justified in Christ.

Just as Adam brought death to those in him (those born of Adam, i.e. all humanity), Christ brings life to those in Him (those born of God, John 1:12-13).

But to allegorize or mythologize Adam would be to open the door to allegorizing the sin which he committed and all else which follows.

A TE interpretation of Gen. 1-3 or 1-11 cuts against the grain of the redemptive theme running throughout Scripture of sin, fall, death, redemption, and final glorification for both mankind and creation.

9. Moreover, what would it mean for Luke's account of Christ's genealogy, "Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli...the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God" (Luke 3:23, 38)? Are we to take certain parts of this allegorically such as the bit that says Adam, and maybe the bit that says Seth, too, at the same time that we take the part that says Joseph literally? Is Christ descended from an allegorical or mythical character rather than a literal person? As an early church father once said, "If you believe in what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don't like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself."

10. If TE is true, then does this mean Jesus Christ Himself was descended from a proto-human albeit one with a soul? Does this mean that, physically speaking, Christ was descended from an ape-man? Which in turn came from a mammal? Which in turn came from a reptile? Which in turn came an amphibian? Which in turn came from a fish? Which in turn came from an amoeba? If Christ is no more the son of Adam (who was God's special creation) than He is a descendant of the primordial soup, then in fact Christ becomes, not man, but all life. This is only a few steps removed from pantheism.

11. Or if we take it the other direction, according to evolution, why couldn't future man appear vastly different physically from present or modern man? Such that he no longer physically resembles man as we know him today? It's theoretically possible. It's possible that Jesus Christ Himself might one day no longer physically resemble man whom He came to redeem. Sure, future man would presumably still have a soul. But it does cause one to wonder why Jesus came in the body He did come in if future man's body will be quite different.

Moreover, future man could also differ markedly from modern man in traits other than physicality. Future man could very well have a different psychological makeup, emotional life, etc., and thus undergo different temptations, sufferings, etc. than modern man.

What I'm getting at is that Christ Himself would not have shared with future man what He has shared with modern man -- at least not to the same extent or degree. Christ would no longer be "one of us" in the sense that He could fully share in our humanity and human condition. This would have profound implications in Christology, soteriology, and many other areas of Christian theology.

Yet, if it's possible for man to evolve into something different than he is today -- whether it's only a slight difference or whether it's as jarringly dissimilar as depicted in a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey or TV show like Heroes -- then what would that make Christ in His incarnation as man? On the evolutionary tree of life, modern man -- and therefore Christ Himself since He came as a modern man -- could very well be to future man what an ape-man might be to us. Evolutionarily speaking, Christ in His incarnation would be a lesser being than future man. I'll not mince words: It's possible that the evolutionary equivalent of an ape-man would've died for your sins.

All this would undercut Scripture (Heb. 2:14-18; 4:15-16).

12. Is evolution "very good" by God's standard? Is it in line with the picture of creation presented to us in Gen. 1-3?

"And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day" (Gen. 1:31).

But is "survival of the fittest" really "very good" by God's standard? Is it "very good" when animals devour other animals? Even if so, how about when humans are killed by other animals in a struggle or competition for survival?

Perhaps the TE would still say, yes, these things are "very good" since evolution was ordained by God and what God ordains is "very good." Or something along those lines.

But consider that death itself is a vehicle by which evolution takes place. In fact, according to evolutionary theory, it's not possible to evolve or adapt without death. In a deathless world, what would "survival of the fittest" mean, anyway? In a deathless world, there's no need for a creature to better adapt to its environment in order to survive, to acquire traits which better allow it to survive in the teeth of predators, to ensure more and/or healthier offspring, etc. In a deathless world, what would be the primary driving mechanism for evolution as understood today?

Some evolutionists such as the late Carl Sagan's first wife, Lynn Margulis, have argued for symbiogenesis as the primary driving mechanism for evolution. But by and large it seems to be considered a fringe theory by most biological evolutionists. And even if it were true, competition for survival would still need to be factored in to some degree. Thus symbiogenesis would likewise not make sense in a deathless world.

(Indeed, there's not a single theory of evolution, but multiple ones with various differentiations. Whether or not the differentiations are significant depends in part on the particular school of evolutionary theory one subscribes to. What I've been working with here as the theory of evolution, however, is in the mainstream.)

Again, the TE's fallback position is that Gen. 1-3 or 1-11 should be regarded solely as allegorical myth or mythical allegory.

And as I've already mentioned above, it needs to be proved why Genesis should be read as allegorical myth or mythical allegory rather than simply accepted on what amounts to blind faith that it should.

13. Rom. 8:20-22: "For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now."

These verses seem to indicate that at a certain point in time creation was subjected to "bondage to decay."

Presumably, TE would cite that this took place at the Big Bang (given entropy, for instance; otherwise TE would be at odds with modern science).

By the TE's standard, this then would mean that "bondage to decay" occurred well before the Fall, since proto-humans let alone man himself would not have yet been on the scene.

In addition, this would mean that processes such as decomposition, rotting, and the like would've been in place well before the advent of man.

As for Rom. 8:20-22, the theme is one of bondage and freedom, which in turn is tied to Paul's overall theme that those who are in Christ are free in Christ.

At the very least, the use of terms such as "bondage" and "decay," and the phrase about creation itself someday being set free from its bondage to decay, would seem to indicate that the current state of affairs in creation is not exactly what in God's judgment might be termed an ideal state affairs. This would seem to stand in contrast to Gen. 1 wherein God created creation and declared it "very good."

And creation itself appears to be connected to this. Creation is "groaning" to be set free from this bondage to decay: "For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God" (Rom. 8:19). Implicit is that creation's bondage to decay is somehow connected to and resulted from Adam's Fall, since, for one, its freedom is connected to the freedom of the children of God in their full redemption and revelation. In addition, it was not creation's "choice," so to speak, in Paul's personification, to be placed under bondage to decay, but God cursed the earth because of Adam's sin (Gen. 3:17-18).

Let's also note Isa. 11:6 where we read: "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them." (See also Isa. 65:17-25.) Here Isaiah is talking about the future. He is talking about a time yet to come when "the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isa. 11:9). This passage shows God's vision and goal for His creation. It shows us how things will unfold according to God's plan. It gives us a glimpse of the end result. As such the Isaiah passages are tied to the "groaning" and "hope" not only of the sons of God, but also of creation itself; the Isaiah passages are what the sons of God and creation eagerly long for and await with hope. Although things aren't always as they once were nor will things always be what they now are, echoes of the original Eden will nevertheless ring in the world to come.

According to TE, however, since this "bondage to decay" would've had to have been in place since the Big Bang, and since the Fall doesn't take place until well after the Big Bang, and since the creation's bondage to decay is somehow connected to the Fall according to Rom. 8:20-22, how does TE coherently reconcile these disparate details? How could the prelapsarian proto-human or ape-man with a soul (i.e. Adam and Eve) be "free" in a universe which was already in "bondage to decay" since its inception? How does TE account for such discrepancies?

14. I'm sure there are more hermeneutical difficulties and incompatibilities in accepting TE. I've not nearly exhausted the possibilities. If you have additional remarks, please feel free to weigh in.

In sum, from what I can tell, TE attempts to combine both the Bible as well as the theory of evolution into some sort of Frankenstein's monster hybrid of the two. As such, TE is a position of compromise -- untrue to both the Bible as well as the implications of mainstream evolutionary theory. It falls behind in the eyes of both Biblicists and evolutionists, yet sadly seems to think it's part of the modern vanguard. Thus the challenge to TE is to either take or leave the Bible, but stop pretending one can do both.


  1. It's true Adam and Christ are types or symbols.

    How so?

  2. Adam as a type:

    Romans 5:14, "Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come."

    BTW, I would disagree that Christ is a type or symbol. He is the original object (together with the rest of the Godhead) which all types point toward.

  3. Thanks, CalvinDude, for the correction re: Christ. That's absolutely right, and that's how I should've put it.

  4. I've provided some commentary on this post on my blog:



  5. Thanks for taking an interest in what has come to be known as TE. Your comments are all very understandable, as these are the same concerns I had to wrestle with as I moved through the progression from YEC to OEC/ID to TE. I probably won't change anyone's mind with a response to this post, and that's perfectly ok, but I hope to at least offer some insight to TE that perhaps you haven't heard before – and sorry if this post is too long. This response contains some excerpts from my upcoming book on TE which will be out in about three months.

    I am a TE, even though I can't stand the term theistic evolution. In my mind, evolution is just a theory, a framework of interpreting the facts of natural history that makes as few assumptions as possible, and makes no IMMATERIAL assumptions that are irrelevant to the MATERIAL nature of the question being asked. And when it comes to the methodology of science, that question is about the natural history of the world as we observe it today – ie: HOW God created the world. When we ask questions of an IMMATERIAL nature, such as those that start with WHY, I am perfectly content to put the empirical tools of science, which become useless to me at that point, back into my toolbox, and pull out things like theology, philosophy, and tradition.

    In terms of science, evolution is no different than medicine or meteorology. We know that ultimately God brings the wind, rain and lightening (Psalm 135:6-7) and that God heals our diseases (Psalm 103:3), but we are also free to investigate the patterns of material behavior that God uses to govern these phenomena. Evolution, like any other natural science, is simply a way to explain Creation in terms of the continuous operation of the laws of nature, which I believe to be the outworking of God's providential governance of the material world - sans divine intervention. I like to refer the laws of nature as the "patterns of providence." Seen this way, all of the natural sciences become "theistic" because they all assume an intelligible universe, which assumes the uniformity of nature, which is simply a blind and irrational faith apart from a Creator who continuously sustains and upholds His creation.

    You might jump to the conclusion that the inherent naturalism of the scientific method unfairly precludes investigating occurances divine intervention, such as creation. But it does not. For instance, if the world miraculously came into existence from nothing 6,000 years ago, then the unbroken chain of material cause and effect, when investigated by naturalistic science, would come to an abrupt halt. There would be an unmistakable singularity where all of the laws of physics cease to operate, marking the exact instant that the miracle of creation took place. In fact, such a singularity does exist – it is located along the timeline about 13.7 billion years ago. If you want to move the creation event up to 4004 BC, then you either have to reject science, or you have to ignore all prior appearances of natural history as a carefully crafted illusion. Certainly the world could have created with the appearence of age, and that is the only logical version of YEC that I can find. But if only the Bible can tell me which observations are real and which are illusions, what right do I have to assume that trees do not actually grow hands and clap when nobody is looking (Isaiah 55)? In fact, how would I ever know what things in the Bible are to be taken literally and what things are not to be taken literally if I don’t look to nature to help me put the Bible in context of the world we live in?

    Now concerning the Scriptures: I believe the Bible to be God's inspired Word, inerrant and infallible - as long as we don't ask questions that it was never intended to answer. I will not spend any time arguing with you that Moses meant a literal "day" when he says "day." Just like I will not argue that he meant to describe the firmament as a solid structure supporting the "waters above the heavens", under which the sun, moon and stars were fastened (read it carefully). For centuries, Christians had nowhere else to direct these types of questions and so they naturally directed them at the Bible. As a result, the church fathers accepted the model of the Hebrew universe, which was physically identical to the Ancient Near-Eastern cosmos, without question. They simply had no reason (evidence) to doubt it. After the influence of Greek astronomy, the medieval church eventually adopted the Ptolemaic system and built an elaborate Scriptural defense in support of it. If you read Martin Luther’s commentary on Genesis, you will clearly see that he believed the earth to be at the center of the universe, fixed and immovable, just as it is described throughout the Bible. He also believed that the 8 concentric spheres of heaven revolved around the earth and that the 10th sphere was the biblical firmament, a solid and impassable boundary between heaven and earth, beyond which are the "waters above the heavens" which are described in detail in both Genesis 1 and in the Psalms.

    So if we ask the Biblical authors to answer modern questions about the physical nature and structure of the universe, we will find answers – no doubt about that. But these answers are clearly not consistent with 21st century science. Does that make them wrong? Only if we assume that they were intended to convey that kind of information. In that case, God is either a poor communicator, or He is clueless about how the cosmos really works. The other option is to assume that God is not using the Genesis creation account to communicate the true nature and structure of the cosmos – and in fact we have other ways of answering those types of questions.

    TE chooses to accept the latter option. In fact, if you study the pagan creation mythologies of the ancient Near East, it becomes clear that God is co-opting these various stories (the foolishness of the world) to convey timeless theological truth to His chosen people, leaving the physical details of the ancient Near Eastern cosmos in tact so that the original audience might understand it and assimilate it into their worldview. This is known as the principle of accommodation and we see it throughout the Scriptures (and on the mission field). If you read John Calvin's commentary on Genesis, especially 1:16 which deals with many of the astronomical controversies of his day, he gives a very good "run down" of this important principle.

    Given the numerous material contradictions between Genesis 1 and 2, it becomes clear that God was not writing an article for Scientific American. Harmonizing the technical details between the Egyptian and Mesopotamian creation accounts was not even a concern to the ancient mind. So why do we worry ourselves with trying to harmonize these passing details with a universe that was unknown to both Moses and the Hebrews that originally received this text? I’ll tell you why. Unfortunately, modern Christians are infected with the same epistemological disease that also affects our materialistic and atheistic enemies. We have bought into the lie that all truth must take the form of newspaper-style journalism complete with referenced footnotes and color pie charts. We make modern demands of these ancient texts that would have been completely foreign to the age that committed them to writing. If the purpose of ancient mythology as a medium of communication was to show the character of the gods, to demonstrate how they contributed to the identity of a culture, and to explain how they gave order and meaning to the physical universe, then it seems entirely necessary that God begin he Bible with the only one true myth ever written; the “myth to end all myths” so to speak.

    So what then becomes of the fundamental doctrines of man, sin, covenant and redemption that all come from the Book of Beginnings? How can these things be valid unless every physical detail of Genesis is also assumed to be true? This is another understandable, but ultimately modern question. These precious doctrines are doctrines because God chose to make them doctrines by whatever means available, not because the stories that relate them to us as doctrines pass our modern standards of scientific and historical accuracy. When we read Genesis, we should leave our modern materialistic and mechanistic baggage in the 21st century where it belongs. It is entirely inappropriate for understanding the ancient world. Now the material details of the stories in question may be historically true, they may be loosely based on historical truth, or they may be more like the New Testament parables, but that should never be our primary concern. An interesting academic question perhaps, but to state that the truth of these doctrines completely hinges on the specific details of their historicity is to step out of the ancient mindset and into the mindset of a modern, western, post-enlightenment materialist; an approach that ironically has more incommon with folks like Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan than it does with a Christian worldview based on the Bible.

    Sorry for the length of this post. I hope somebody finds it helpful – at least to understand where TEs are coming from.

  6. Thus the challenge to TE is to either take or leave the Bible, but stop pretending one can do both.

    I find this comment troubling. It is one thing to disagree with a Christian, and to insist that the disagreement is important. But it is quite another to say that an issue is adiaphara (non-negotiable part of the faith) that was not in any of the major creeds or confessions.

    Many of us Christians in the sciences have looked at the Book of Nature, and found compelling evidence of an Old Earth, with predation existing before the arrival of man. You suggest that we must either ignore what we have learned by the best of our knowledge in our fields of expertise (aka reject the very minds God has given us), or else reject the gospel of Christ. Think about what you are asking of us!

    You are insisting men who, with good conscience, can say the creed with all their hearts, who trust Jesus as their Savior and Lord, to either leave the faith or check their brains at the door.

    I know this issue is important to you - and your reasons are sound. But I think its horribly foolish to make this a shibboleth, recommending that people like Francis Collins and C. S. Lewis (and myself) leave the faith. Please reconsider this.

  7. By the way, if you're eager to hear my own wrestling with the above issue (I'm something between an Old-Earth Creationist and a Theistic Evolutionists), see this post.