It has been a few weeks since I posted my last blog. I have been busy with a hospital chaplaincy internship and have thus not had the time to continue my blog series on Christian nonviolence. For now, I will share a paper I wrote about three years ago (December 2016) for a seminary class on science and religion. An important caveat, however, needs to be provided first: The purpose of this paper was to flesh out some of my frustrations, as a Southern Baptist, with the SBC’s utter rejection of evolutionary creationism and to argue for doctrinal openness on the matter. With that said, I hope you enjoy these thoughts.
According to a recent survey on science and society conducted by the Pew Research Center, 98% of professional scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science believe humans evolved over time. The Pew Research Center also found in another study that Evangelical Christians are among the most likely among all major religious groups in the United States to reject human evolution. While there is a growing number of theologians, pastors, and laypeople within the Evangelical movement that have incorporated the theory of evolution into their beliefs regarding human origins, Southern Baptists seem to be among the most resistant to any form of synthesizing Christian theology and evolution. In 1982, the Southern Baptist Convention issued a resolution rejecting evolution and stated their acceptance of creation science. And over the last 35 years, leading members and theologians of the Southern Baptist Convention (henceforth, SBC) have generally not strayed very far from their creationist convictions, although some Southern Baptist theologians have come to accept the views of Old-Earth Creationism and the Intelligent Design Movement. In fact, according to Southern Baptist theologian Kenneth Keathley, “I am not aware of any SBC seminary faculty who advocates theistic evolution or evolutionary creationism.” As I will explain below, there are several reasons for why Southern Baptists have been so resistant towards any form of evolutionary creationism (EC), but as the contemporary culture becomes more convinced of the theory of evolution and more skeptical of the perspectives that have been generally advocated by Southern Baptists in the past, I believe Southern Baptists must now consider whether any form of EC should be tolerated within the SBC.
The SBC is currently the world’s largest Baptist denomination and the largest Protestant group in the United States. Given that the SBC is comprised of over 15 million members worldwide, it is easy to imagine the vast amount of diversity that makes up the denomination. The SBC is obviously made up of many different types of people from different ethnic, socioeconomic, cultural, and political backgrounds. And even though members of the SBC will be generally unified in the core theological convictions which uniquely make them Southern Baptist, it is also easy to imagine the diversity of tertiary beliefs that are held among Southern Baptists worldwide. Southern Baptists have been known throughout the history of the Baptist movement to hold to different perspectives regarding soteriology, eschatology, and apologetic methodology. In the last half-century or so, Southern Baptists have also held to different perspectives regarding the age of the world and universe as well. And as I will show below, I believe Southern Baptists have good reasons to support different perspectives regarding God’s chosen method of creation. Just as two members of a Southern Baptist church can appropriately hold to different perspectives regarding soteriology, I believe they can also appropriately hold to different perspectives on how God created human beings.
In this paper, I hope to argue that EC is compatible with Southern Baptist theology, and that EC ought to be considered a theological perspective that a Southern Baptist can hold to. In my attempt to persuade readers, it must be noted that I will not attempt to provide any evidence or justification for believing evolution to be true, for the world and universe to be extremely old, or for why other creationist perspectives are incorrect. I simply will attempt to argue that it is possible to be a Southern Baptist and an advocate of EC.
Baptist Faith and Message (2000)
The current edition of the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM) is a confessional statement that was carefully crafted in 2000 by a committee appointed by the SBC for the purpose of summarizing Southern Baptists’ doctrinal beliefs and commitments. It basically contains a brief theological treatise on each topic of importance for Southern Baptist theology and Christian practice. Therefore, the primary way of showing whether or not EC can be compatible with Southern Baptist theology would be to examine the content of the BFM. When one does so, one will find that the BFM seems to allow for some forms of EC. In what follows, I hope to show this by briefly surveying the relevant articles found in the BFM (Articles I-III) that would demonstrate whether or not a Southern Baptist could affirm EC.
Article I of the BFM briefly discusses the role of the Scriptures for Southern Baptists. According to Article I, the Bible “was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man… It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.” Worth mentioning here is that the writers of the BFM clearly view Scripture as inspired and inerrant. What is remarkable about the BFM, though, is that it does not clearly define what it means for Scripture to be inerrant. It only defines inerrancy as being “without any mixture of error, for its matter.” Unlike the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI), it does not make any clarifications as to whether or not Scripture’s truthfulness extends to historical or scientific matters, or if Scripture’s truthfulness solely pertains to spiritual matters. The CSBI, written in 1978 by a large group of Evangelicals, denies that “Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science.” So while the CSBI clearly states that Scripture must be scientifically accurate in order to be inerrant, the BFM does not make such a declaration.
Because the BFM doesn’t mention Scripture’s truthfulness being at all dependent upon scientific accuracy, I believe Southern Baptists are free to leave science out of Scripture. And because of this, Southern Baptists do not need to choose between the account of human origins found in Genesis and the account of human origins articulated by the scientific community. I believe the BFM provides the freedom for Southern Baptists to simultaneously affirm inerrancy (so long as it pertains solely to spiritual matters) and EC. Certainly, though, the majority of contemporary Southern Baptists affirm not only the BFM but also the CSBI (even though they are not required to as Southern Baptists). And because of this, they are forced to choose between the scientific summary of creation found in Scripture and the scientific summary of origins articulated by scientists. Being devout believers in Holy Scripture, it is easy to guess which narrative these Baptists choose when this dichotomy is presented. Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, for example, agrees that EC is a possibility, but denies that EC can be reconciled with “the God who revealed himself in the Bible, including the first chapters of Genesis.” Albert Mohler, while affirming the BFM, is also a fighting defender of the CSBI, and therefore believes that Christians must choose the narrative found in Genesis rather than the narrative found in evolution.
But what is a Southern Baptist to do with the creation narrative found in Genesis, especially if he or she affirms the BFM’s articulation of inerrancy but denies the CSBI’s version of it? The creation account in Genesis certainly does not match up to with the evolutionary understanding of human origins, and if a Southern Baptist is convinced enough to affirm EC, the proper way of interpreting the Genesis creation account still must be addressed. Fortunately, there are some hermeneutical options for such a Baptist. It is possible that one could hold to an “accommodationist” hermeneutic, as a number of different theologians have affirmed in the past (e.g., Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin), which would suggest that God communicated revelation in a way that the audience of the day could understand. For theologians like these, God takes into account our finite and limited ways of thinking when communicating to us, and that is why the Genesis creation account seems so primitive and unscientific to individuals living today. A second option would be to interpret the Genesis story in light of the ancient culture that it was written in. As Old Testament scholar John Walton explains, “God’s Word was written for us, but not to us. Bringing the ancient text to modern readers is not just a matter of word rendering; it’s also a matter of understanding the culture in which the text was written.” Walton’s point is that modern readers of Genesis are around 4000 years removed from the culture in which Genesis was written in, and because of this, we must enter the culture in order to fully understand it. When we do this, we learn that the ancient Israelites were not interested in the scientific questions that we want Genesis to answer for us and that Genesis was not meant to explain our material origins, but to rather explain our functional origins.
I provide these examples simply in an attempt to show that Southern Baptists do not need to give up their belief in inerrancy in order to affirm EC. If a Southern Baptist finds the evidence for evolution compelling and affirms it as a result of the evidence, he or she can still affirm the BFM’s remark that Scripture is without error since the BFM does not claim that Scripture must be scientifically and historically accurate in order to be inerrant. As Denis Lamoureux explains, “Biblical inerrancy and infallibility do not extend to the statements in Scripture about how God created the world, but that He created” (EC, 173). We must remember that the primary purpose of Scripture is not for providing detailed historical and scientific information but “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16 ESV). While many Southern Baptists may not be comfortable with understanding the doctrine of inerrancy as pertaining solely to spiritual matters, I conclude this section by simply pleading with Southern Baptists to consider this understanding to be a viable perspective for Southern Baptists to hold to since the BFM does not extend Scripture’s truthfulness to scientific matters.
Article II of the BFM discusses how Southern Baptists think of the Trinitarian God of Christianity and further explains how Southern Baptists understand each particular member of the Trinity. Since the BFM’s statements regarding the Son and the Holy Spirit do nothing to further demonstrate the compatibility (or incompatibility) of Southern Baptist theology and EC, I will limit my discussion in this section to the BFM’s statements concerning God’s nature and God the Father. The writers of the BFM explain that God is a “personal Being, the Creator, Redeemer, Preserver, and Ruler of the universe… God is all powerful and all knowing and His perfect knowledge extends to all things, past, present, and future, including the future decisions of His free creatures.”And speaking of God the Father specifically, the writers of the BFM explain, “God as Father reigns with providential care over His universe, His creatures, and the flow of the stream of human history…” To put it simply, God, according to Southern Baptist theology, is the personal creator over the universe that providentially rules over all things past, present, and future.
Many Southern Baptists have rejected EC on account of their belief in the personal and providential nature of God. Southern Baptist theologian Jamie Dew explains that he rejects EC because it reminds him too much of Deism. He writes, “As I read certain theistic evolutionists, I often get the feeling that God is being pushed out of the creative process of living creatures… As they see it, God directly caused the universe to come into existence, but once it was here, natural processes took care of the rest.” If Dew is correct, then EC would be completely inconsistent with the BFM’s statements concerning God’s nature and providential activity. Because Southern Baptists believe God “reigns with providential care over His universe,” a Southern Baptist would be reasonably uncomfortable with thinking that God has stepped aside to let nature take over. Dew’s assertion that EC teaches this, though, shows that he has misrepresented the actual claims put forth by advocates of EC. As Denis Lamoureux explains, “The accusation that evolutionary creation is a form of deism is mistaken. The God presented in Scripture is a personal God. Those holding this Christian approach to evolution defend His ordaining and sustaining activity throughout nature both past and present” (EC, 60). Just because advocates of EC do not believe God created human beings in a direct and supernatural way does not mean that they deny God’s creative role in the process. Rather, according to EC, God intimately, actively, and purposefully created all the forms of complex biological life in the world (including human beings) through the mechanisms of evolution.
Some might object at this point that it would be inconsistent to propose that God chose to create all biological life through the mechanisms of evolution while also claiming that God providentially rules over all things. After all, as atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explains, “natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered… has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye” (TBW, 5) Many Christians are unwilling to grant that EC could be a possible doctrine of creation that Christians can affirm simply because they too think of evolution in the way Dawkins does. If the mechanics of evolution are inherently blind, unguided, and without purpose, as Dawkins says, then clearly they cannot be the mechanisms used by God in creation. But as Alvin Plantinga explains, “Suppose that all of terrestrial life has indeed come to be by way of natural selection. It doesn’t follow that life has come to be by way of unguided natural selection… It is perfectly possible that the process of natural selection has been guided and superintended by God” (WTCRL, 39). While the mechanisms might seem blind and unguided from a biologist’s perspective, it could clearly be the case that God guided evolution to His desired end, and that “[evolution] could not have produced our living world without that guidance” (WTCRL, 39).
For a Southern Baptist who finds the evidence of evolution compelling, I believe one could find comfort and doctrinal security within the BFM by affirming Plantinga’s understanding of evolution as being guided and superintended by God. The BFM clearly states that God is the personal and providential creator of all things and an affirmation of EC in no way denies this. One can simultaneously affirm EC and the BFM as long as he or she believes that God purposefully and actively created all biological life through evolution, rather than simply allowing nature to independently produce all living things without His providential direction. The BFM does not allow for any form of deistic evolution, but rather forces one to affirm the active, providential, and purposeful nature of God’s creative activity. Understandably, not all Southern Baptists will be willing to accept this proposal for a number of reasons, but I believe Southern Baptists should at least be able to see that EC is not incompatible with the theology of God’s providence and creation articulated in the BFM.
The last remaining article in the BFM that is pertinent to this discussion is Article III, which describes Southern Baptists’ doctrine of man. According to the BFM, “Man is the special creation of God, made in His own image… In the beginning man was innocent of sin and was endowed by his Creator with freedom of choice. By his free choice man sinned against God and brought sin into the human race.” The key themes of importance for the writers of the BFM concerning the doctrine of man, it seems, are that mankind was created specially in God’s own image and that mankind sinned against God. Many Southern Baptists often reject EC because they cannot imagine how mankind could be specially created in God’s own image if mankind came about through an evolutionary process and because evolution seems to them to undermine a historical Adam and Eve that sinned against God. These concerns are understandably quite troubling and must be addressed if Southern Baptist theology can be reconciled with EC. I believe these two Southern Baptist doctrines of importance concerning humanity can be answered and defended, though, from an evolutionary perspective.
Firstly, let’s consider the doctrine that “man is the special creation of God, made in His own image.” Southern Baptist theologian Albert Mohler rejects EC because “The theory of evolution argues that human beings… are distinct from other animals only in terms of brain size or other capacities. By definition, evolution has no room for the concept of the image of God, for evolutionary theory has no room for God at all.” Likewise Southern Baptist theologian John Hammett argues,
Even if someone were to question my association of the image of God with the spirit or soul, I would argue that the mere existence of an immaterial spirit/soul that survives death yields the same necessity of divine involvement in the creation of the immaterial aspect of human nature, which is my chief contention.
The fundamental problem for these theologians is that mankind’s possession of the image of God demands divine intervention in creation. And if a divine intervention in creation was needed in order for humans to possess the image of God, then EC would be undermined. Rather than theorizing about whether or not the image of God is associated with the existence of the human soul or spirit, as Hammett postulates, we ought to consider the claim that EC would be undermined if God had to intervene in creation in order to grant mankind the image of God. As another Baptist theologian, Fisher Humphreys, remarks, “The Bible does not tell us precisely what the phrase means. What we all agree on is that the image of God is what sets men apart from other creatures of God” (TAG, 75) Therefore, what is important to this discussion is God’s method of creating human beings in His image, not the metaphysical and anthropological make up of human beings as being partakers of His image.
To provide a response to this criticism, let’s consider again what EC claims. To use C.S. Lewis’s “mere” Christianity terminology, I believe the “mere” form of EC would claim that God created human beings through a long evolutionary process, as opposed to creating them in an instant moment of spontaneity. Southern Baptists such as Mohler and Hammett would argue that from their initial moment of being spontaneously created, human beings possessed the image of God. On the other hand, advocates of EC could either argue that at some point along the evolutionary process human beings were granted the image of God or that human beings were granted the image of God throughout their evolutionary development. Whether or not God intervened to grant human beings His image is irrelevant, according to EC, since God still chose to create human beings through an evolutionary process. As Deborah and Loren Haarsma explain, “Our status as imagebearers is not based on how we got these abilities but on the fact that they are a gift from God and are integral to God’s plan” (Origins, 238). In conclusion, I fail to see how EC would be undermined if God intervened at one particular moment in order to grant human beings His image, considering He would have created them through an evolutionary process up to this point. But even if this were somehow inconsistent or shown to be inconsistent, an advocate of EC could still argue that God progressively granted His image to human beings through his governance of natural processes. Either way of imagining God’s bestowal of His image, evolution could still have been God’s chosen means of creating human beings.
Secondly, let’s consider the statement from the BFM that claims that “by his free choice man sinned against God and brought sin into the human race.” The question of importance that must be addressed here is whether or not EC can adequately account for a historical moment of the Fall as Southern Baptists must affirm. Many Southern Baptists think that EC cannot adequately account for this historical moment for two reasons. The first reason, which I will explain below, is that EC seems to imply that Adam and Eve were not historical figures that experienced a historical Fall. The second reason is that death, according to EC, was already present before Adam and Eve’s Fall, thereby implying that death actually did not enter the world through Adam’s sin as the apostle Paul claimed (Rom 5:12). These are reasonable concerns leveraged against EC, but as I hope to show below, they are not left unanswered. In fact, I believe a Southern Baptist can consistently affirm both EC and the historical Fall of Adam and Eve.
According to evolutionary creationist, Francis Collins, scientific evidence indicates that we descended from a group of about 10,000 individuals (TLOG, 126). For this reason many advocates of EC have found it difficult to believe that Adam and Eve were historical individuals who were the first to fall into sin, let alone the first humans that God created. It is completely understandable why a Southern Baptist would be resistant to the denial of the historicity of Adam and Eve, given that Jesus and the New Testament authors seem to treat Adam and Eve as historical figures that fell into sin. For this reason, and because the BFM seems to also describe two historical figures that fell into sin, I will not advocate denying Adam and Eve’s historical existence. Instead, I will attempt to show that EC is compatible with a historical Adam and Eve and a historical Fall. According to one EC perspective, advocated by Dennis Alexander,
God in his grace chose a couple of Neolithic farmers in the Near East… to whom he chose to reveal himself in a special way, calling them into fellowship with himself… In this model the Fall then becomes the disobedience of Adam and Eve to the expressed revealed will of God, bringing spiritual death in its wake, a broken relationship between humankind and God. In an extension of this model, just as Adam is the federal head of humankind, so as Adam falls, equally humankind falls with him.
Likewise, well-known pastor Timothy Keller offers a possible evolutionary model:
In this model there was a place in the evolution of human beings when God took one out of the population of tool-makers and endowed him with ‘the image of God’. This would have lifted him up to a whole new ‘plane of life’. On this view, then what happened?…Then they were put into the garden of Eden as representatives of the whole human race. Their creation in God’s image and their fall affected not only their offspring, but all other contemporaries.
I provide these examples just to show that there could be a great multitude of possible scenarios where a historical Adam and Eve exist and fall into sin. And because such scenarios can be offered, a Southern Baptist convinced of the credibility of EC need not reject the BFM and give up his belief in the historicity of Adam and Eve and their historical Fall.
To address the second concern regarding the historical Fall of Adam and Eve, Southern Baptists have criticized EC for maintaining that death was in the world before Adam and Eve’s sin. This is undeniably true given that EC entails that human beings were created through an evolutionary process that took millions of years of animal death before human beings finally arrived on the scene. As Southern Baptist theologian John Laing rightly points out, for evolutionary creationists, “death actually functions as a mechanism for life. Death plays a vital role in natural selection by rooting out weakness and driving evolutionary development.” And this is troubling for many Southern Baptists because the Bible seems to describe death as being an evil and devastating result of human rebellion. For this reason, any advocate of EC must deal with this potential theological issue and provide an adequate response for how death could exist in the pre-Fall status of the world.
Rather than denying what the Bible says about death or avoiding the issue altogether, evolutionary creationists have actually offered some potential solutions to this problem. One response offered by advocates of EC is that the death that came into the world through Adam and Eve’s sin was spiritual not physical. Interestingly, as Deborah and Loren Haarsma explain, evolutionary creationists “point to Genesis 2:17 (“when you eat of it you will surely die…”) and note that Adam and Eve did not physically die immediately after disobeying God, although they were immediately separated from God” (Origins, 245). If Adam and Eve did not physically die immediately as a result of their rebellion against God, then one could assume that the death that resulted from their Fall was spiritual, not physical. And if this death is essentially spiritual in nature, as advocates of EC often argue, then the issue of physical animal death that would have occurred before Adam and Eve’s Fall wouldn’t be as theologically problematic as many assume. Again, such a response may not compel many Southern Baptists to affirm EC, but I believe that it provides enough justification for one to be able to affirm EC and also consistently affirm the BFM.
In this paper, I have argued that Southern Baptists can affirm the theological statements of doctrine articulated in the BFM and the position of EC. The BFM is not specific enough of a doctrinal statement to be able to exclude an evolutionary perspective of creation, and because of this, Southern Baptists ought to consider EC a viable perspective for Southern Baptists to affirm. Currently, acceptance of EC is rare if not impossible to find among Southern Baptist theologians, pastors and lay people. If Southern Baptists continue to collectively reject EC as a possible Southern Baptist perspective, then I would suggest that a new edition of the BFM be written that includes more specific details explaining how Southern Baptists should understand God’s method of creating human beings. But until that day comes, I conclude by calling Southern Baptists to commit to a doctrinal openness in regards to the doctrine of creation. Just as Southern Baptists have been known for being doctrinally open to various soteriological and eschatological views, I believe Southern Baptists should now be willing to affirm various views regarding God’s method of creation, including EC.