Table of Contents
A Note From the Author
Part 1: Christianity and Evolution
1. God’s Word
2. God’s Creation
3. God’s Providence
Part 2: The Theory of Evolution
4. Layers of Understanding
5. The Awakening of Evolutionary Science
6. “Let the Land Produce Living Creatures”
Part 3: The Evidence of Evolution
7. Clues All Around
8. The History of Life
9. The Tree of Life
Part 4: The Politics of Evolution
10. “Creation Science” and Intelligent Design Theory
About the Author
Here is the book’s first chapter in its entirety (absent the endnotes).
Ever since the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, many religious leaders and religious laypeople have expressed skepticism of Darwin’s theories because his assertions seemed to them subversive of their understanding of the creation stories found in the Bible’s book of Genesis. Though Darwin’s book did not introduce biological evolution—the idea is as old as ancient Greek philosophy and had been frequently discussed among naturalists for at least half a century prior to Darwin’s work—it did offer the first scientifically valid explanation for how evolution could occur. The idea of “natural selection” came to both Charles Darwin and another English naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace independently and more or less simultaneously. But Darwin had worked-out more of the details and offered more evidence in support of the theory. With the publication of On the Origin of Species Darwin became the best-known proponent of the theory of evolution through natural selection. His book brought the subject before a wider general public for the first time and offered a plausible explanation of life on Earth that substantially differed from a literal understanding of the accounts found in Scripture. Naturally, many God-fearing people, including Mrs. Darwin, were compelled to protest.
It had been long known that Scripture contains a great many passages that offer much greater depth of meaning when they are considered figuratively or allegorically, rather than literally. And the “official” Church’s embarrassing insistence that the Earth is stationary and at the center of the solar system was still a fresh memory. But the creation stories are far too fundamental to be casually brushed aside. They are among the best-known passages in Scripture because they are crucial to so much that follows them throughout the Bible, and because they provide a rather satisfying explanation for the existence of the world, its diversity of creatures, and humankind’s place within it.
The Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes informs us, however, that we “cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” We cannot grasp the scope of God’s works or His methods, nor can we fully comprehend the power and the glory of God Himself or His Kingdom of Heaven. This is why Scripture so often tells us that God or His power “is like…” or the Kingdom of Heaven “is like…” Many names and descriptions are attributed to God in the Bible. Each can offer only an incomplete impression of God’s full character and capabilities. Even the most exalted descriptions fall short. As contemporary author Karen Armstrong explained in her book, The Case For God,
…God is One—but this term properly applies only to beings defined by numerical qualities. God is Trinity—but that does not mean that the three personae add up to any kind of triad that is familiar to us. God is nameless—yet He has a multitude of names. God must be Intelligible—and yet God is Unknowable.
Verbal descriptions always run the risk of giving us the impression that we can know what God is really like. We cannot. We can nurture a personal relationship with God within which we can gain insight for our own lives, and we can be comforted and buoyed by His love. We can know God in the sense of feeling His presence and having faith in His benevolent stewardship. But we cannot comprehend the real essence and complexity of His triune character nor the enormity of His power and capabilities. As thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas explained, “Man’s utmost knowledge is to know that we do not know Him.”(1)
Modern Bible translations usually refer to God by the titles “Lord” and “God” instead of the names Yahweh or Elohim at least in part as a result of a Jewish tradition beginning around the third century B.C. that regarded these personal names too sacred to utter. It is with an understanding of the limits of language in their pursuit of communion with God that monks sometimes opt for extended and complete silence.
Most Christians well understand that the extent of God’s power and complexity far exceeds their own limits of comprehension, much less any description that could be articulated by means of human language. The full scope of a transcendent God’s character and methods can only be hinted at, not definitively named or described.
As a result, Scripture can impart Biblical truth for the benefit of multiple depths of understanding, depending on the capacity and/or the propensity of the reader to grasp concepts of greater depth and complexity. The Bible has something to offer us as children as well as every other stage of life. For many, the simple truths found in the plain language of the texts are all that is needed, while for others, abstract truths of much greater profundity than that which can be seen on the surface can also be gleaned from the pages of Scripture. The influential Christian scholar of the early church, Origen, concluded that Scripture can be understood on three levels—“the literal sense, the moral application to the soul, and finally the allegorical or spiritual sense.”(2) Until the Reformation, Origen’s three levels of Scriptural meaning, along with a fourth eschatological dimension that was added by fourth-century monastic reformer John Cassian, were standard consideration in Biblical study.(3)
In his book The Literal Meaning of Genesis, acclaimed fourth-century theologian Augustine of Hippo expressed the idea of multiple depths of understanding Scripture when he asked of a particular passage if, in that instance, Scripture was speaking, “as is its habit, in a weak and simple style to the weak and simple, and yet all the same suggesting something more profound for those to grasp who have the capacity.”(4) Despite his rather blunt manner of speaking, Augustine wisely expressed the importance of our not overlooking greater depths of meaning than that which can be deduced from merely a literal reading of many Scriptural passages.
Christians in particular are familiar with the Biblical use of allegory and parable because Jesus used those devices extensively as He communicated unfamiliar concepts to His followers. Indeed, the very foundational principle of Christianity is communicated to us by means of language that is not intended to be understood as literal. While Jesus is described as the “Son of God,” we know that to believe God sired a son in the sense of a biological descendant, like Greek and Roman gods were once believed to have done, would be a violation of the monotheistic mandate of the First Commandment. We know that Jesus’ appearance on Earth as the “Son of God” is to be understood as the earthly manifestation of the triune God of Abraham Himself—as only one side of the three-sided (triangularly revealed) deity that has been termed the Trinity. That is, just as a triangle exhibits three sides while remaining a single geometric figure, the deity that exhibits three characteristic “persons”—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—remains the single entity that is God. As third-century theologian Tertullian put it, the Son is to God the Father just as a ray of sun is to the sun.
When a ray of the sun is projected from the sun it is a portion of the whole sun; but the sun will be in the ray because it is a ray of the sun; the substance is not separated but extended. So from spirit comes spirit, and God from God as light is kindled from light…(5)
As the disciple John reported in his gospel, Jesus had explained, “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30) “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father… Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me…” (John 14:9)
The word “Son” is used to describe Jesus because He was (and is) “begotten” by God the Father, not created like everything else in the physical universe. Though the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit can be thought of as the three “persons” of God, they cannot be understood to be separate and independent individuals in the same way that human fathers and sons are independent individuals.
Jesus would know best how to describe Himself to us, and since he spoke of the Father and of Himself as the Son, we can certainly expect that the terms He used provided the most appropriate descriptions available in human language. At the same time, however, we know that Jesus cannot be the carnal offspring of God because of the very first rule of Christianity, which holds that there can be only one God.
It is important to keep in mind the distinction between the Son as “begotten” and His “incarnation” as Jesus of Nazareth, when He became fully man while remaining fully God. The Son was not “begotten” at the moment of Mary’s miraculous conception. He exists in conjunction with and because of the Father, but there can never have been a time before which the Son was begotten by the Father, because God in all aspects is eternal and immutable. He never grows, evolves, reproduces or otherwise changes His ultimate essence in any way.
The disciple John made reference to the eternal nature of the Son when he substituted “Word” for Son in his gospel: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14) That is, the same God’s Word by which the world was created. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made.” (John 1:1-3)
In his epistle to the Colossians (verses 1:15-17) the apostle Paul reaffirmed the description in John’s Gospel of Jesus as eternal, as the earthly manifestation of God, and as the Creator, when he wrote: “He is the image of the invisible God, the first born over all creation. For by Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…all things were created by Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” In Hebrews 1:3, Paul wrote that the Son is, in relation to the Father, “the exact representation of His being.” In 1 Corinthians 1:24, Paul described the Son as “the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Another term that has been interchanged with “Son” and “Word” is “Logos.” Originating in Greek philosophy, Logos is defined in this context as “cosmic reason” and was believed to be the source of world order and intelligibility, or the “self-revealing thought and will of God.”(6) (Jesus Christ, or “the Son,” as Logos will be a very important concept to keep in mind as we explore an understanding of God as Creator in the following chapter.)
The difficult concept of the Trinity helps to remind us that the complete character of God is incomprehensible to human reason—that God is transcendent—and thus we might suppress idolatrous tendencies to reduce God to images of our own likeness and our own preferences. The complicated subject of the Trinity has filled numerous volumes and need not be fully explored here. It suffices to note that, though we may not usually think of it in this way, the phrase “Son of God” can be understood as more of a metaphorical than a literal description of that aspect of God that was manifested in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Just as importantly, we should be keenly aware that greater depths of meaning are underlying many other Scriptural passages, perhaps most especially, some of the stories and the descriptions of God and His actions that are found in the Old Testament.
When the apostles Paul and Barnabas carried the Gospel to the Gentiles, a few of the Jewish Pharisee converts insisted that Gentiles could not become Christian until they had first converted to Judaism and were circumcised. The Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15) resolved the issue by, in effect, declaring that Christianity does not hinge on a strict adherence to the Law of Moses. Subsequently, the Epistle of Barnabas, a text that was part of Biblical Scripture in some of the early Christian churches, declared that the Law of Moses had never been meant to be taken literally. Early Christians followed the example of Jesus and the apostles in accepting the Old Testament as inspired Scripture. But they also found comfort and inspiration as they allegorized and spiritualized its ancient Hebrew stories and mandates.(7)
Second-century Gnostics, most notably a man named Marcion, pointed to differences between the descriptions of God in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. Marcion claimed that the Old Testament God, who is characterized as jealous and often vengeful and who ordered genocidal war, was driven more by pride, bitterness, and anger than by love. Marcion insisted that the Old Testament God is incompatible with the Father of Jesus Christ who is described as merciful and filled with grace and love for all. The renowned Christian scholars of the early church, such as Origen in the second century, Tertullian in the third century, and Ambrose and Augustine in the fourth century, rebuffed Marcion’s claims by expressing an understanding that great depths of meaning and Truth can be extracted from the coarseness of the Old Testament when allegorical and spiritual interpretations are applied.(8)
Periods of literalism came much later, beginning in the Dark and Middle Ages. Literalism was then bolstered, first around the seventeenth century as a reactionary response to the philosophical and scientific progress of the era that would be described as the “Age of Reason” or the “Age of Enlightenment,” and then in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a response to modernity and the rise of liberal theology.
As the Dark Ages began, it was self-described “conservative” churchmen who flattened the Earth and brought the stars and the sky down low to be modeled after the tent that had been the Tabernacle of Moses.(9) Jesus’ declaration that “the moon will not give its light” and “the stars will fall from the sky” at the end of time (Matthew 24:29) would seem perfectly plausible if the stars were small lights suspended from a crystalline vault that constituted the sky, as was supposed by ecclesiastical authorities. (It was believed that rain fell through little holes in the heavenly vault from a celestial cistern.) Today, of course, we know that Jesus’ words, like much of Scripture, often utilized considerable poetic license. Early Christians knew it too. Like the Greek philosophers before him, Augustine (in the fourth century) well understood that the Earth is spherical, that the moon reflects the light of the sun, and that stars are like the sun but much farther away.(10)
Thus, the “official” Church’s various revisions of the physical universe may have done more to undermine Christian credibility and to enable atheism than any other machination. Nevertheless, undeterred by the embarrassment that resulted from the Church’s insistence that the sun orbits the Earth and other discredited ideas that had been based on erroneous literal interpretations of Scripture in the Middle Ages, an insistence on the plain text of the entire Bible persists among some Christians even today. This is likely due in part to the emergence of evangelicalism, but is more directly attributable to the advent of fundamentalism.
Beginning in England in the eighteenth century and then flourishing in the United States in the early nineteenth century, evangelicalism was primarily a reform movement. Furthering a trend that had begun with the Reformation, it sought to move away from a doctrinaire deferment to religious authority and tradition, while emphasizing a more individualistic and pragmatic approach to Christian living and a deep conviction in Biblical authority. Instead of being wholly reliant on a minister or a seminary education, small groups of believers could read the Bible together and instill virtue in their daily lives.(11) With it, however, came an unprecedented literalism in Scriptural interpretation.(12) For some, absolute Biblical authority meant that the plain text of Scripture was the whole Truth, as they simply overlooked many of the much deeper and more profound truths that can sometimes be gleaned from allegorical or spiritual interpretations.
The term “fundamentalism” was derived from a series of essays that were published in twelve volumes from 1910 to 1915 in the United States under the title The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth. The essays were the culmination of a reactionary response to liberal, relativistic, and modernistic trends that were perceived by many to have been corrupting mainline Protestant denominations. They were intended to affirm the fundamental principles that their authors believed were essential to the Christian faith. Among these principles was the “inerrancy of the Scriptures,” which many people took to mean the inerrancy of the literal text and phraseology of English Bible translations, dismissing most suggestions of greater depths of meaning through interpretation. (Ironically, several of the authors of The Fundamentals, including B.B. Warfield who wrote most forcefully of Biblical inerrancy, did not believe that Scripture needed to be understood as literal when it referred to nature, and they accepted evolution as a valid scientific explanation of God’s creative activity.(13))
The modern idea that “each and every word in the Bible is literally true” of course overlooks the limits of the very “nuts and bolts” of how language works, particularly language that has been translated from one to another. In his popular book, The Purpose Driven Life, Dr. Rick Warren referenced fifteen different English language Bible translations. As Reverend Warren explained:
First, no matter how wonderful a translation is, it has limitations. The Bible was originally written using 11,280 Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words, but the typical English translation uses only around 6,000 words. Obviously, nuances and shades of meaning can be missed, so it is helpful to compare translations.(14)
Even a comparison among various English translations will certainly sometimes fall short of conveying the real essence of the original text. The languages of ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek each had their own poetic patterns of expression that must be interpreted by modern human understanding as well as translated. For this reason, it may be useful to think of some Scriptural passages more conceptually than literally. That is, we ought to consider the general concept being conveyed without becoming bogged down with the literal meaning of a particular word or phrase (as we understand it in modern American English) when that literal meaning may seem to contradict other Scriptural passages.
Similarly, when we see Scriptural passages that seem to be contradicted by modern scientific discovery or which otherwise seem to defy our logical understanding of the world around us, we need not retreat from a conviction of the integrity of Scripture. Instead, we can endeavor to understand the literary methods employed in ancient texts and focus our attention on the limited purposes of those texts. This is particularly relevant to the ancient Hebrew texts of the Old Testament. In a footnote to his book entitled Miracles, C.S. Lewis offered an insightful way of understanding some of the Old Testament miracles and stories, suggesting that God’s will and God’s plan are revealed through evolving literary styles from the Old to the New Testament.
…just as, on the factual side, a long preparation culminates in God’s becoming incarnate as Man, so, on the documentary side, the truth first appears in mythical form and then, by a long process of condensing or focusing, finally becomes incarnate as History. This involves the belief that Myth in general is not merely misunderstood history (as Euhemerus thought) nor diabolical illusion (as some of the Fathers thought) nor priestly lying (as the philosophers of the Enlightenment thought) but, at its best, a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination. The Hebrews, like other people, had mythology: but as they were the chosen people so their mythology was the chosen mythology—the mythology chosen by God to be the vehicle of the earliest sacred truths, the first step in that process which ends in the New Testament where truth has become completely historical.
While history may become somewhat more explicitly focused and more literally described as we move through the Old Testament and into the New Testament, particularly in the book of Acts, the Scriptural use of symbolic and poetic language is of course continued throughout.
It is important to keep in mind how mythical stories were used in ancient cultures—not just in Hebrew culture, but in most all cultures—to impart important moral and societal truths. As Lewis suggested, the use of myth was neither a misunderstanding of reality nor an attempt to deceive. It was a literary device that could more effectively communicate complex ideas or universal moral truths.
In ancient cultures there were two distinct methods of pedagogic communication. Mythos and logos, as the Greeks called them, were both considered essential paths to knowledge, each with its own sphere of competence. Logos (lower case l meaning “reason,” as opposed to upper case L meaning the “cosmic” or “divine reason” later associated with Jesus) was a pragmatic mode of thinking that enabled people to understand and cope with physical reality. Mythos, on the other hand, enabled people to, very often through song and symbolism, grasp more vague or abstract concepts, moral truths, and ultimately, to find meaning and purpose in life.(15) Complex realities or moral truths could be conveyed by the lessons imparted by mythical past occurrences. As historic stories were passed orally from generation to generation, what had actually happened was less important than what could be learned from the ultimate meaning of the events described.(16)
In the book of Genesis we find two such stories that, on the surface, appear to be intended to describe the physical events surrounding the creation of the universe and the human beings and other creatures that inhabit the Earth.(17) Though the suggestion is controversial, it appears that the two stories—one told in verses 1:1 through 2:3, and the other told in verses 2:4 through 2:25—came from different sources. It appears so because the two stories were written in very different styles, because God was referred to by different names (“Elohim” in the first story and “Yahweh” in the second), and because God behaved in very different ways. Most telling is that the two stories describe glaringly contradictory chronologies of events. Atheists tend to latch onto these discrepancies, among others, in their efforts to assail the veracity of Scripture, but in doing so they simply misunderstand the style and the point of the narrative.
There are at least a couple of explanations for why the two creation stories are so different. Though each is concerned with judgments of the extent of Mosaic authorship, neither requires a compromise of Biblical integrity.
Tradition holds that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), also known as the Torah. Many Biblical scholars over the last three centuries, however, have concluded that it was the work of at least four sources and that the texts were written and combined after Moses’ death. This idea began to take hold at the end of the eighteenth century and was then more fully developed in the nineteenth century among a group of German Bible scholars who utilized a new way of analyzing ancient texts. Using what is called a “historical-critical” methodology that, among other things, employed additional texts of the same or adjacent time periods for contextual comparisons, these scholars concluded that the Pentateuch was a compilation of the writings (or “documents”) of at least four sources.
Linguists concluded that the language of the entire Pentateuch reflects the dialectic style of Hebrew in the first millennium B.C., long after the life of Moses.(18) And of course it was written in third person past tense. Included in these analyses, were comparisons of what are called “doublets” and “triplets” in the text, where the same events are described two or three times, often in quite different ways and sometimes with conflicting accounts, such as in the case of the two creation stories. Sometimes called “German higher criticism,” this method of Scriptural analysis was not introduced to the general public until seven Anglican clergymen included its findings, often called the “Documentary Hypothesis,” in their English publication of Essays and Reviews in 1860, the year after the original publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
Since Jesus and several New Testament authors, as well as the Old Testament itself, made reference to Mosaic authorship of the Torah, among other reasons, many conservative evangelical Christians and others vehemently reject the idea of multiple authorship. But perhaps we need not choose between two, seemingly opposing, possibilities. Given the way ancient Scripture was handed down over many years and through many generations, we can easily imagine that perhaps both are actually true.
Though the Law of Moses was originally a written account of God’s revelation to Moses as described in Scripture, it would then have been hand copied and, most commonly, orally transmitted through many generations among long separated populations of Jews. Of course from the ninth century through the seventh century B.C., the Israelites resided in two separate kingdoms—the Kingdom of Judah, with Jerusalem as its capital, and the larger and more prosperous Kingdom of Israel that bordered the Mediterranean Sea to the north. Then there was the Babylonian exile from the sixth century into the fifth century B.C., with groups of Israelites returning during three separate time periods. Naturally, as the traditions of Moses were orally handed down over many generations among separate populations who were also being influenced by the other traditions of the regions in which they resided, they could easily have taken on variously distinguishable characteristics. With this in mind, we can imagine that while the written accounts found in Scripture may have been compiled from multiple written sources, much of the history described and, even more importantly, the fundamental principles conveyed, remain the inherited sacred Law of Moses.
Scripture itself tells us that additions were made to the Pentateuch after Moses’ death. For example, the book of Joshua (verses 14:25-26) tells us that Joshua added decrees and laws to the Book of the Law of God. Deuteronomy 34, which describes Moses’ death, would also, naturally have been written by someone other than Moses.
Even if we set aside the Documentary Hypothesis, Moses himself would certainly have used several outside sources. In addition to his various mentors, such as his father-in-law Jethro as described in Exodus 18:17-26, Moses would likely have also drawn upon a number of ancient oral traditions. While much of the Pentateuch describes events that occurred during Moses’ lifetime, Genesis in particular describes events that occurred long before his life. Scripture does not tell us precisely how each and every detail of the book of Genesis was revealed to him.
However we might conceptualize it, multiple authorship of the Pentateuch is not essential to the point being made here, so we can certainly reject it if we prefer. But it may help us to see why there are two very different creation stories and why we need not be troubled by their inconsistencies.
Since the exact identities of the four sources proposed by the Documentary Hypothesis were unknown, they were assigned the names “J,” “E,” “D,” and “P.” The “J” source was so named because that source used the personal name for God, Yahweh (the German equivalent being “Jahweh”), as was the practice in the southern Kingdom of Judah around the 900s B.C. The “E” source used the name “Elohim” when speaking of God, as was more commonly done in the northern Kingdom of Israel. The text attributed to the “E” source is thought to have been written about a hundred years after that of the “J” source. The designation “D” is for “Deuteronomists,” who were a group of reformers in Jerusalem around 600 B.C. The “P” source, for Priestly Code, is believed to have been a group of priests during and shortly after the Babylonian exile, around 500 B.C. It is thought that the “J” and “E” narratives were combined around 750 B.C., and the “D” and the “P” texts were then added to the “JE” narrative sometime around 400 B.C.
It is believed that the creation story described in Genesis 2 was a “J” narrative from around the tenth century B.C., while the creation story told in Genesis 1 originated some 500 years later from the “P” source (developed during or shortly after the Jews’ Babylonian captivity). The editors who compiled these and the other stories contained in Genesis simply had no reason to eliminate any apparent discrepancies in the two accounts of creation because their purpose had nothing to do with a scientific documentation of natural history. Instead, they tell us something that, for believers, is much more important. They tell us about God’s sovereignty and about our relationship and our responsibility to Him.
The creation stories along with other stories in Genesis tell us that there is only one God, that He is the sole Creator of the universe, that He had a purpose for His creation, that the world is not autonomous from its Creator, and that the world is not transcendental (of the same stuff as God). The stories affirm that the world has been set in motion by God and is sustained only at the behest of God’s will, but is nevertheless independent of God’s direct control. (It is worth noting that, in Genesis 1 [unlike Genesis 2] God’s acts of creation are indirect. God simply allows creation to proceed as He commands: “Let…” certain things happen. In Genesis 2, of course, man is the product of the “dust of the ground,” just as science has shown.)
Of course, the book of Genesis tells us even much more than that. Indeed, it is unquestionably the most important book of the Bible, since all that follows is based on the foundation that it establishes. Theologians and Biblical scholars have written countless volumes that purport to explain its meaning and lessons. We need not explore all of the many facets of the book or their various interpretations and implications here. It suffices to note that the fact that the creation stories in Genesis do not fully comport with what we now know about physics, cosmology, geology, and biological evolution does absolutely nothing to compromise the integrity of Biblical truth.