Monday, June 22, 2015

Evolution and Christianity: to Kirk Durston

Today I would like to respond to a blog post written by Kirk Durston. I have never met Dr. Durston but I want to say I appreciate the post he has written even as I will disagree with points made within it. The post does a great service by pointing out many of the doctrines that would need to be examined and adjusted to fit an evolutionary understanding of creation. He notes, with Edwin Walhout, that “original sin,” “salvation,” and “God’s purpose in history” need to be re-examined. I will not take up any response to the issues of our understandings of “salvation” and “God’s purpose in history” for it seems to me that these two are more readily explainable and cause less of an issue than our concept of “original sin” and indeed it is this doctrine to which Durston refers throughout the rest of his post.

Our present understanding of original sin is highly linked to the understanding that historical persons named Adam and Eve lived in the literal Garden of Eden and made choices that were forever passed down to their descendents. Eve sinned first by eating fruit from the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” and then Adam joined her in this sin. There are several ways in which this rebellion against God is understood to be passed down from generation to generation but the key uniting factor in how this is viewed is that all of the physical descendents of this couple, in some fashion, receive this tendency toward rebellion or this sin into their lives at birth or shortly after. You can already see by my choice of words that there is a great deal of argument, confusion, and disagreement among theologians as to how precisely this occurs; but we will leave that out of things for now.

Durston points out the problem of accepting that humans were created by God through a process that involved ancestors who were more primitive hominids. He shows how this might require that we choose some couple within the evolutionary process to be the original Adam and Eve and make this couple the initial pair in God’s redemptive process for humanity. Yet, the problem with God simply choosing two humans and declaring them to be Adam and Eve, is that the same contemporary science which states that humans descended from other primitive hominids also states that the human population has never been less than a few thousand individuals.This means that we did not all descend from just two individual homo sapiens.

Up to this point, I agree with Durston’s post. It is here that we diverge in our hypotheses of how God began the redemptive process. I, along with such authors as Dennis Venema and Darrell Falk, would begin to disagree with certain statements in Durston’s next paragraphs. There are other ways to solve the difficulties of our present theology than the ones presented by Durston’s post. He rightly points out that the fact that the humans now on this earth descend from a few thousand original humans means that we could push the original chosen couple even further back in time and further back in evolutionary history such that the original Adam and Eve were one of the antecedent hominids. Adam and Eve may have been Neandertals (Homo neanderthalensis) or Denisovans (Denisova hominins) or a combination of the two. Of course this creates other questions with which our theology must wrestle but these are not insurmountable challenges, as Durston seems to suggest.

The other possibility to which Durston points is to suggest that there never was an historical couple named Adam and Eve. Although this may be a difficult concept to accept, again, it is possible to imagine that God speaks to us through Genesis in a fashion that was readily understandable to the people of the time in which it was written and must now be understood in a different fashion. Durston suggests that if we get rid of the concept of an historical Adam and Eve then the New Testament writers “were sincerely mistaken in their acceptance of Adam as a real historical figure” and that the Bible must be viewed as a document containing “divinely inspired misinformation.” I am tempted to take issue with Durston’s use of the words “mistaken” and “misinformation” because, to my mind, these words are too harsh and convey too much about the alleged character of our God, but I do not want to make this the main issue and so let us use the terms which Durston uses. Then we would say that the New Testament writers who refer to an historical Adam would be mistaken and that the New Testament would contain misinformation. Surely Mr. Durston is not unaware of other examples of mistaken ideas and misinformation in the Bible. Take for example the Old Testament commands regarding “clean” and “unclean” animals. Both Leviticus 11:3-6 and Deuteronomy 14:7 state that the hare chews a cud. This is clearly a mistaken concept based on Ancient Middle Eastern understandings. Hares or rabbits do not chew cuds and so this information in the Old Testament is technically wrong and “divinely inspired misinformation.” Despite this fact, we do not call into question the entire Bible or the entire Old Testament. What of Joshua 10:13 which speaks of the “sun standing still” to prolong the length of the day? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to speak of the earth standing still? What of Matthew 13:32 that refers to the Mustard seed as the smallest of all seeds? This is a mistake and represents a false understanding of the scientific world. We could go on with other examples.

Perhaps the New Testament writers were mistaken in their assessment that Adam was an historical figure. Is this an insurmountable theological problem? No. Is integrating an understanding of evolutionary creation going to require that we re-think some of the theology that has been created over the last two millennia? Yes. I respectfully submit that Kirk Durston is not willing to follow some of these possibilities to their theological ends; but they may indeed be workable and consistent with both divine inspiration and scientific discovery. Alternatives that reject an evolutionary understanding of creation have their own theological issues that must be explained. If God did not create humans using more primitive hominids, why do we find such ancient hominids in the fossil record? Why does our own DNA seem to contain DNA from ancient neandertals? Why does the earth and the universe appear to be extremely old?

Theology must work toward answers that are not yet seen. We need new hypotheses that may be tested to see how they work before moving on to seek to explain the next challenges that may come at our collective theologies. I pray that we might be able to live with uncertainty and hope until all uncertainty is banished and we see clearly the object of our hope. Of course, that time will only be when we see “all things with perfect clarity.”1

1 1 Corinthians 13:12 (New Living Translation)


  1. Keith, as you have demonstrated, there is considerably more to the discussion than merely one blog post. Thank you for your thoughtful post and discussion of some of my points. My objective was to cause those who follow Jesus Christ tread more carefully with regard to re-interpreting the Bible on the basis of current science’s attempt to reconstruct the past. As a scientist, I see a steady stream of new problems in our interpretation of the past and what we (scientists) thought we knew about the past. When I had completed my first undergraduate science degree (physics), I thought we pretty well knew how the laws of nature work. How naïve I was. Just this past week, Neil Turok, Director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, argued that the standard model of physics is in such a mess that we probably have to go back to ‘square one’ and start again. Things in biology and paleontology that I thought were resolved are now being challenged by very significant discrepancies. After having lunch with a very famous Darwinist, he confided to me that the more we discover the more he thinks he ‘doesn’t know what the H*** is going on’ and the ‘stranger’ reality is shaping up to be. I have an ‘X File’ full of peer reviewed, published papers that I add to about once per week that do not fit the reigning paradigms.

    Here is my point: we need to be very cautious about re-interpreting the Bible to fit science when there are already serious problems being discussed in the labs and faculty lounges that may take eight to ten years to become public knowledge. Of course, your point I also agree with in that we also need to be very careful about insisting we are infallible in our understanding of Genesis.

    Just two points by way of response to some of the counterexamples you mentioned. First, it depends upon the frame of reference one takes. For example, having had several children who raised rabbits, I knew exactly what it meant when it says that rabbits chew the cud (note that ‘cud’ is an English interpretation of what the ancient Hebrew word meant). It was one of my children who explained to me how rabbits pass little green pellets (cecotropes) from the cecum and eat them again to pass them through the digestive tract a second time. They have a unique digestive system. Our Western understanding of the English word ‘cud’ is the problem here; my children, who knew nothing of cows, certainly had no problem understanding this passage as referring to the little green pellets that are eaten again. Same goes for the sun; it depends upon ones reference frame. I’ve taken first and second year astronomy courses, yet I still refer to the sun as ‘rising’ or ‘setting’ (I’ve not yet had the opportunity to use ‘standing still’ yet). As I learned in physics, reference frames are everything. As for mustard seeds, as a farm boy I enjoyed chewing mustard seeds and I knew of plenty of wild seeds that were much smaller. I imagine the first century Israeli people knew that as well and simply understood Jesus to be referring to the seeds they actually planted in their gardens. In general, it is only if we take a narrow understanding of particular words or phrases that might be considerably more precise than they were intended to be at the time, that we run into problems.

    My second point is that very little theology rests upon the above counter examples, but there is a great deal of theology that is central to Adam and Eve and the fall, as the Theistic Evolutionist pointed out that I referred to in my blog post. The importance of the theology coupled with the sheer number of references to Adam either directly or indirectly, makes the historicity of Adam of much greater importance than the items in the counterexamples above.

  2. (Could not fit this into my other comment) We do find remains that can either be clearly classified as ‘homo’ or ape. There is strong evidence (yet more this past week) that Neanderthalensis and Sapiens interbred and are, therefore, one and the same species. If we were to set aside ethical considerations, and approached human variation as we do dog breeding, we might be surprised at what variation capabilities existed within the human genome. The primary problem, however, with taking an evolutionary interpretation of humanity are the de-novo genes we have (at least 60) that are not found in any ape. I shall be writing on the difficulty of getting just one novel protein-coding gene, but sixty definitively falsifies (I shall argue) a non-intelligent manipulation of genetics. (It is far outside the capability of an evolutionary search engine).

    On the other hand, I do not know how God created the disparity and diversity of life but I think current advances in science falsify the neo-darwinian theory (as I have begun to argue in a series of posts beginning with ‪ ). We need something else now.

    1. Dr. Durston,

      Thanks for your respectful comments. I am not sure, but it seems that we may not be that far from agreeing with each other. Even as I read your latest blog post, "Essential Prediction of Darwinian Theory of Macroevolution Falsified by Information Degradation" , I sense that you are not arguing for some form of Young Earth, Literal Six Day Creation mechanism. It seems to me that you are arguing for some form of guided evolutionary process. (If I am reading you wrong, please clarify.) This is usually referred to as Intelligent Design. I too think that God has been guiding the creation process. Perhaps where we diverge in our opinions is really just about how much God has been guiding the process. I am okay with God starting a process many billion years ago that continues to this day. I am confident that God could start with the elemental dust of the earth, develop single-celled life, develop more and more complex life, guide the development by "natural selection" through to the first hominids, allow and guide and select for the development of the first homo sapiens in such a way that He would eventually declare them to be created in His own image. I do not think that God's word suffers if there was not an historical Adam. I would agree with you that "it is only if we take a narrow understanding of particular words or phrases that might be considerably more precise than they were intended to be at the time, that we run into problems." I think this may also be true of how we understand Adam.

      I also agree that we must be careful in aligning ourselves too closely with current scientific understandings that may later be shown to be false. Yet, this is forever the plight of humanity. We seek to understand our universe with the best of science, philosophy, and theology. We make hypotheses about what may be the reality of our universe and then we go about trying to prove or disprove them before making new hypotheses and starting the cycle again. I think we do this in theology as well as science and if we develop a theology that accounts for contemporary science that is later proven to be wrong, our theology will need to make another start and account for the new status of science.

      My biggest concern, and I suspect it is a high concern of yours as well, are the young adults who enter our universities where they are presented with an understanding of biology that seems to leave little room for God. If we leave them with "narrow understandings of words or phrases" and Sunday School answers to the big questions of life, they will think that they need to jettison their faith in favour of science. I am constantly looking for ways in which current understandings of science and faith can fit together even as those understandings of science are changing.

      Dr. Durston, you are more aware than I of developments that may one day call into question an evolutionary understanding of the universe and biology in particular. Yet, until it is called into question in main-stream science it is certainly a paradigm with which our students will wrestle in their university classes. I am not particularly stuck on the importance of evolution but both of us believe that science has the ability to find answers to how our universe came to be and we both believe that it was indeed created by God.

    2. Keith (just call me Kirk), I share your concerns as well. My usual advice to students is 'don't try to make science fit the Bible and don't try to make the Bible fit science'. There may be a wealth of detail that God never elaborated on and science's creation story is far more shaky that most people are aware. I also advise Christians to refuse to defend a position that they do not feel well enough versed in to defend. There is nothing wrong with saying, 'This is what I think the Bible says, but I'm not infallible.' I know many Christians feel pressure to take a 'position' on everything. Instead, I recommend they say something like, 'It appears to me that the Bible is saying such-and-such, but I could be wrong.' In general, I see two problems: some believe their understanding of Genesis is infallible and some have way too much trust in science. With regard to origins, I think there is a third option, although I'm only aware of one published paper that presents it, maybe two. I may blog on this down the road. Then there is the discussion of time. I definitely want to blog on the two current views of time and how it is measured. Another mistake people make is thinking that if the universe is very old, then it logically follows that life evolved according to a neo-darwinian process. Not at all. The age of the universe and the origin of life are two different problems. There are a lot of unknowns and uncertainties. I suggest to people, 'Just sit back, put your feet up, and enjoy the ride of discovery. There will be a convergence on the truth eventually.'