Science in Christian Perspective

St. Mark Lutheran Church
158 North Ave., Box 201
Tallmadge, Ohio 44278

From: PSCF 38 (June 1986): 124-126              Response by VanDyke


In my article in the previous issue of this Journal, I presented two fundamental arguments:

1) Salvation of the world through the Incarnation of the Word of God is made possible by the evolutionary origin of humanity, but not by "creationism." Thus evolution is theologically preferable to creationism.

2) Darwinian evolution is more in accord with the biblical
picture of God's activity than is Lamarckian evolution.

I focused there on the first of these, "the theological argument for evolution." Van Dyke's article, in that same issue of this journal, makes it necessary to discuss the second argument in more detail, for he argues that the specifically Darwinian features of evolution, "differential mortality and resource scarcity," are inconsistent with the scriptural view of God's work.

I welcome Van Dyke's paper. It is a worthwhile attempt to get at serious questions that have to be confronted if we are to get a modern theological understanding of what it means for God to be Creator and Redeemer. But Van Dyke and I come to rather different conclusions about the biblical answers to those questions.

First we need to clarify terminology. Van Dyke would place my approach under the heading "theistic evolution." I use that term in a more limited way for approaches which essentially superimpose the evolutionary picture upon a traditional picture of creation and fall. I distinguish between that and patristic views, the various approaches (classical liberalism, Teilhard de Chardin, process theology) which I lump under the heading "progressivism," and the approach which I take. One purpose in making such distinctions is simply to avoid the mistaken impression that there are no significant differences between theologians who accept evolution. In some ways, the differences between process theology and "theistic evolution" (in my sense) are at least as important theologically as the differences between creationism and evolution.

My approach has grown out of a particular theological tradition, that of Lutheran theology, and especially Luther's "theology of the cross." One starts from the cross and views the world from the cross. The cross is at the heart of who God is for us. Thus if Christ is present for us in the world, it is as the crucified one. God's presence in the world is "crossshaped." The second century apologist Justin Martyr claimed as a prophecy of the cross of Christ the statement of Plato in the Timaeus that God placed the Logos "crosswise" (echiasen) in the universe.' Whatever one may think of Justin's quaint idea that Plato got this from Moses, it seems to me that it provides a good symbol. I use the term 11chiasmic cosmology" for the approach which I've taken to science- theology issues in general and to evolution-creation questions in particular: it is Christ crucified who is shown to us in the universe.

II How Does God Work?

There will be some points of detail on which I disagree with Van Dyke's paper, but I want to focus on a profound difference in our understandings of the way God works and the way in which God is revealed to us. Van Dyke argues that competition, death and extinction, essentials of the Darwinian understanding of evolution, cannot be the means through which God creates. "Death, shortage, and competition cannot represent, at one and the same time, both the activity of God and the consequences of human sin." While some nuances need to be handled with care, I believe that the basic idea of this sentence is quite wrong.

God creates out of nothing. That is, God brings about the work which God desires in spite of-in defiance of-the lack of any human, any creaturely, possibility. God does not bring forth being, life and salvation from what may seem to us to have clear potential for being, life and salvation. Rather, God brings them forth from their very opposites.

God created the universe out of nothing. (11 Mace. 7:28)

" God gave the child of promise to a couple laughably beyond the possibility of having children. (Gen. 17:17, 18:12) 

God created a nation out of slavery. (Ex.3:7-10) God restored the exiles whose hope for return was gone. (Ez. 37:1-14) 

God chose a virgin to be the Mother of God. (Lk. 1:34-37) 

God raised Christ from death. (I Cor. 15:3-9)

God justifies sinners (Rom. 5:6-8)

These actions of God are brought together in Romans 4. We are shown there the faith of Abraham in the One "who justifies the ungodly" (Rom. 4:5), "who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist" (Rom. 4:17). God gives hope in hopeless situations.

Van Dyke asks, "Why don't we find in the biblical record evidence which would link the processes of selective death and resource scarcity with the creative work of God ... T' My answer is that, in an important sense, we do. The Bible does not give details about evolution, Scripture does not give the details of what went on in creation like a scientist's observation notebook. But scripture does set out clearly that God's work is brought forth from suffering, death and evil.

The center of all this work is what God does in Jesus. Because of this one who dies the accursed death (Gal. 3:13), blessing comes to the world. Life comes through death, forgiveness through condemnation. I would ask the reader to look again at the Bonhoeffer passage quoted in my earlier paper. By human standards, Lucretius' was right in saying, "Nothing can ever be created by divine power out of nothing." But God created the universe out of nothing. By human standards, dead people cannot rise. And Christ arose. This does not make sense to human beings who interpret the world according to their own standards of meaning. The cross is "folly" to them. But by God's standards, the cross is wisdom. (I Cor. 1: 18-3 1 )

This is why Luther made his fundamental distinction between "theology of glory" and "theology of the cross," condemning the former as a pseudo-theology and saying that how death for all creatures is related to human sin, is still only the theology of the cross actually corresponds to the way something of a theological mystery. But that God creates out that God is revealed: of evil is scriptural.

The one who beholds what is invisible of God, through the perception of what is made [cf. Rom, 1:201, is not rightly called a theologian But rather the one who perceives what is visible of God, God's 'backside' [Ex. 33:231, by bebolding the sufferings and the cross.

The 'theologian of glory' calls the bad good and the good bad. The
I theologian of the cross' says what a thing is.'

God does not work in the way that we expect God to work. It is in the cross, in suffering, loss and death, that God is revealed.

Does this mean that there is some good hidden in evil, life buried in death, so that God can extract the good from the bad? Does evil have some potential for good? No. God creates out of nothing.

Does this mean that God makes use of the destructive powers of sin, evil, and death? Yes. Does it mean that God is indifferent to whether good or evil is done in the world, and brings about life or death equally? No. "The soul that sins shall die," and "I take no pleasure in the death of him who is worthy of death" (Ez. f8:4, 32)." Again, a distinction made by Luther, related to that between "theology of glory" and "theology of the cross," is helpful. Luther distinguished between God's "proper work" and God's "strange" or "alien" work. God's proper work is work of love and mercy, bringing about life and blessing. God's alien work is condemnation and destruction.' The latter is done in order that the former may be brought about. To speak very anthropomorphically, God's proper work is "what God really wants to do." But often it is only when the way has been cleared by judgment and condemnation that God's fully life-giving work can happen. This is seen clearly in the work of Law and Gospel. The primary function of God's Law (its "theological use") is to convict sinners----~'the law always accuses." The Law by itself cannot save (Rom. 3:20). But its condemnation drives sinners to the Gospel, in which they can hear God's forgiveness (Rom. 3:21-28).

This has been a somewhat lengthy excursus into Lutheran theology, but it seems to me necessary in order to deal with the matter at hand. I am not saying that all Lutheran theologians would agree with me about evolution, 6 that Luther was an evolutionist (which would be sheer anachronism) or that one does theology by just appealing to Luther. But the way in which Luther sets out biblical theology makes clear what it means to say that God creates out of nothing, and enables us to see on the mechanism of Darwinian evolution the "trademark" of all God's work. The Darwinian mechanism of evolution is precisely the kind of thing that the theology of the cross would lead us to expect.

Having said this, I want to emphasize that we should not pretend to have a full understanding of the relationship between human sin and the presence of suffering and death in the world. In my previous paper I discussed some possible ways of understanding the matter, but they are only possibilities. Thus the question of why there is evil in the world, and of Van Dyke says of "theistic evolution ... .. Basic and distinctive Christian views of sin and death, and of the scripture's ability to communicate the attitudes and attributes of God, are so compromised that the resulting synthesis is, at best, questionably Christian." I can only say, "No." Creation out of loss and death is not the way we expect God to work. But it is Christian precisely because it carries the sign of the cross.

III. Further Details

I've dealt in the previous section with the fundamental theological difference between Van Dyke's approach and mine. Here I want to look at some matters of detail in his discussion.

First, there are important questions about the cosmic scope of creation and redemption. Van Dyke cites Isaiah 11:6-9, which speaks of the universal scope of the new creation. But how does this take place? "What has not been assumed has not been healed," and if evolution is wrong, what connection do lions and lambs have with the Incarnation?

Van Dyke cites such passages in order to show an original absence of death and destruction. Now the question of whether the Old Testament, in particular, contains the idea of identity between primeval time (Urzeit) and eschatological time (Endzeit) has been much debated. Childs' discussion' is helpful. He gives his opinion that "the evidence of an Urzeit-Endzeit pattern within Israel is overwhelming."' But Childs points out that some important qualifications are necessary. For our purposes, there are a couple of points which have to be emphasized.

God is going to do something definitely new. God will bring about a new Exodus (Is. 10:26, 43:16). At the same time,

Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Is. 43:18-19)

It is not for nothing that scripture speaks of new heavens and earth (Is. 65:17, Rev. 21:1).

Secondly, as that reference to the new Exodus already shows, scripture does not speak simply of a return to a prehistoric paradise. God's saving acts in history are to be repeated. It is especially interesting that Israel's wandering in the wilderness is, in some sense, seen as the ideal time in the past, to which there will be a return (Jer. 2:2-3, Hos. 2:14-15). The eschatological significance of the Feast of Booths, commemorating the wilderness wanderings, is significant here (Lev. 23:39-43, Zech. 14:16-19).

We need to be careful not to try to make the Bible say more than it really does about God's original creation. Genesis 1:29-30 is not talking about abundance (as Van Dyke says) but about what is lawful for food. (The regulation is, of course, changed in Genesis 9:3-4.) Traditional western pictures of the physical beauty, intelligence, et cetera of Adam and Eve, far above that of present-day humans, are simply not supported by scripture.

I did not deal with ethical questions in my previous paper, though I have discussed problems of evolution and ethics elsewhere.' I agree with Van Dyke that one cannot get biblical ethics from evolution itself. There is nothing within evolution itself to rule out something like Nazi ethics, and the only thing that Hitler did wrong from that standpoint was to lose. But I would also deny that a Christian who accepts evolution is bound to try to derive Christian ethics from within the evolutionary process. Evolution is a tool of God, whose will for our lives is most clearly revealed to us in Jesus Christ through the scriptures. That's where we get our ethics, not from what worked for our ancestors a million years ago. Again, God is doing something new in Jesus Christ. One sees that very clearly in scripture. "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth . . . " (Ex. 21:23-25) is a considerable advance on the primitive idea of unlimited retribution (e.g., Gen. 4:23-24). But God does not stop with "eye for eye." That level of ethics is again transcended in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:38-42).

IV. Conclusion

Van Dyke begins his paper with references to the common belief that Christianity and evolution have been "reconciled." It is to Van Dyke's credit that his paper calls attention to the fact that much of this reconciliation has been too cheap. It is not enough (although I believe it is true) to say "evolution is God's way of creating." A serious study of evolution as God's way of creating shows that it is not an easy way to follow. It is a dark way, sometimes hard to understand or accept. It is the way of the cross.


1Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin. In vol. I of The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Ed. by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979 (reprint), p. 183.

2Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe. Trans. by Ronald Latham. Baltimore: Penguin, 1951, p. 31.

3Luther, Martin, Theses for the Heidelberg Disputation, numbers 19-21. Trans. by Kadfried Froehlich. In Martin LutherlSelections from His Writings. Ed. by John Dillenberger. New York: Doubleday, 1961, pp. 502-503.

4The translation of Ez. 18:32 here is from Eichrodt, Walter, Ezekiel. Trans. by Cosslett Quin. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970, p. 2.33.

5Althaus, Paul, The Theology of Martin Luther. Trans. by Robert C. Schultz. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966, pp. 118-121, 168-173, 258.

6See, e.g., the confession of faith of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, Dies Glauben Wir. Milwaukee; Northwestern, 1968, pp. 8-9.

7Childs, Brevard S. Myth and Reality in the Old Testament. Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson, 1960, pp. 72-83.

8Childs, op. cit., p. 76.

9Murphy, George L., The Trademark of God. Wilton, CT: Morebouse-Barlow, 1986, ch. 11.