Calvin College Noon-time Lecture
Can a Christian Be an Evolutionist?
March 20, 1995


SCIENTIFIC ISSUES‹Phil Johnson discussion group/Al Plantinga
Appeal to Old Princeton/Essential Doctrines


The theory of biological evolution is widely acknowledged in the scientific community as the great unifying theory in biology. Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr writes:

The theory of evolution is quite rightly called the greatest unifying theory in biology. The diversity of organisms, similarities and differences between kinds of organisms, patterns of distribution and behavior, adaptation and interaction, all this was merely a bewildering chaos of facts until given meaning by the evolutionary theory. There is no area of biology in which that theory has not served as an ordering principle (Animal Species and Evolution).

The neo-Darwinian synthesis, the version of evolutionary theory that arose in the 1940's, brought together taxonomists, ecologists, and geneticists with the recognition of the importance of geography and population biology in evolutionary change. Consequently, among all branches of biology evolutionary theory commands nearly universal acceptance. Not only does evolutionary theory organize the various branches of biology, but each of them contribute somewhat independently to a unified coherent theory. Paleontology, classical and molecular genetics, population biology, sociobiology, taxonomy, developmental biology and biochemistry have joined together to contribute to the grand universally accepted synthesis. This is not to say that these contributors do not argue among themselves concerning the relative weight and interpretation of their respective contributions, but these are in-house discussions. Among professional biologists evolutionary theory is considered not only the best explanation of the available data, but a very good explanation of that data.

The question today is "Can a Christian Be an Evolutionist?" This question can be answered from at least three directions. First, is there good scientific evidence for evolution? Second, is evolution compatible with Christian theism in general? Third, are there specific texts of scripture that address questions related to evolution?

SCIENTIFIC ISSUES‹Is there good scientific evidence for evolution?

Of course, universal acceptance of a theory does not necessarily mean that it is correct or even that those who accept it accept it on the basis of the empirical evidence. Critics of evolutionary theory often claim that a deeply rooted religious commitment to atheistic naturalism drives most of the scientific community to accept evolution. In other words, evolution (together with big bang theory, chemical evolution, plate tectonics and other geological theories) is part of a "religious" origins account for the atheistic naturalist. Recent criticisms along these lines include those by Phillip Johnson (Darwin on Trial) and Alvin Plantinga (Christian Scholar's Review, Special Issue: Creation/Evolution and Faith, "When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible" and responses). There is no doubt that some evolutionists, especially those who write for a more general audience, have used evolutionary theory to support their atheistic views. Perhaps the most celebrated example of this is the widely quoted statement of Richard Dawkins (author of The Blind Watchmaker) "Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." Plantinga claims that given atheism, evolution is a warranted theory, but that given theism (which all Christians would admit), the empirical evidence for evolution is not compelling and that some sort of special creationism seems more likely. Plantinga seems ready to admit to some of the evolutionary claims, but believes that at key junctures in the theory (e.g. origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, origin of human beings, and perhaps other sudden appearances of new forms) that a more warranted explanation, given theism, is to call upon some act of special creation.

In principle, I sympathize with the claims of Plantinga and Johnson. Certainly, some evolutionists use this biological theory to buttress their atheistic worldview and Christian scholars are called upon to point out this use of evolutionary theory. Also, the atheist, who has no origins alternative, has much at stake, morally and existentially, in denying God a role in creation. Christian scientists must be cognizant of these non-scientific factors at work in the theorizing that occurs in the professional community. However, having said this, I do not agree with Plantinga in his claim that, given theism, the warrant for evolution is weak. It is my judgment, as a biologist and as a theist, that the evidence for evolution is strong and that it is something that the Christian community needs to wrestle with.

Evolution means many different things as folks like Johnson and Plantinga are apt to point out and I agree with them that it is important to recognize distinctions. For example, evolution is uncontroversial when you are talking about things like changes in gene frequencies observed in population genetics or selection for specific traits when there is some kind of selection pressure, either natural or artificial, on the population. This is what we might call microevolution. Macroevolution or what might be called the common ancestry hypothesis is more controversial. Plantinga and Johnson, for example, doubt the common ancestry hypothesis. Johnson is fond of pointing out that the classic example of natural selection, the selective predation by birds of white moths and selective survival of black moths on the soot blackened trees of industrial England, tells us nothing about where birds, moths, and trees came from in the first place. The origin of complex structures such as the eye or new organs is still somewhat conjectural. Recent critics of evolution have extended this argument to the molecular level. The fossil record clearly records a history of life on earth; whether the fossil record shows that evolution has occurred has been more disputed because the pattern in the fossil record is one of little or no change for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years and then the sudden appearance of similar but distinctly different species. Also, the great diversity of the major groups of organisms (phyla) appeared in a geological instant in what is called the Cambrian explosion. Theories of abiogenesis, the origin of life in the first place, are highly speculative. Finally, evolutionary biology has not accounted in any satisfactory way for human intelligence and culture.

Most of these criticisms of evolutionary theory are not new; they are just old arguments reasserted by new critics. In my opinion developments in biology and paleontology over the past twenty years have contributed significantly to the solution of many of these problems. DNA and protein sequence comparisons are providing evidence for macroevolution. Developmental biology and molecular biology of development are beginning to show how small genetic changes can give rise to large morphological changes. The fairly recent paleontological theory of punctuated equilibrium accounts nicely for the pattern of the fossil record. The new science of chaos or complexity theory is providing very interesting suggestions of how some of the major intractable problems of evolution might be solved. These include: the origin of consciousness, the origin of new irreducibly complex structures, the Cambrian explosion, mechanisms for punctuated equilibrium, and the origin of life itself. Computer simulations of certain features of evolving systems, sometimes known as artificial life, have shown that these systems "self-organize" by a few simple rules into only a few stable states and that transitions between different stable states can occur quite abruptly. Researchers in this field argue that self-organizational properties of complex systems are even more important than Darwinian natural selection in giving life its present properties [As an aside, let me recommend the new book by Brian Goodwin How the Leopard Changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity as an introduction to applications of this new science to biological problems and to evolution.]

It is the combined effect of these things together with some of the classical arguments for evolution that lead me to the conclusion that the evidence for evolution is strong. I am not yet ready to be dogmatic concerning the origin of life in the first place and the origin of human consciousness, although I am optimistic that solutions are forthcoming; however, I am quite convinced of the theory of common ancestry and of an evolutionary theory that spans the range of organisms from bacteria to primate.

THEOLOGICAL ISSUES‹Does Christian theism permit evolution?

The theory of biological evolution does not necessarily imply the atheistic worldview advocated by Dawkins and rightly resisted by Johnson and Plantinga. In fact at several key junctures I must disagree with many of the advocates of evolution. In doing so they may even claim that I am not an evolutionist at all, but that is a conclusion that they and not one that I make. The heart of this disavowal has to do with the claim that although I accept evolution as a biological theory, I am still a Creationist. The biological theory is our human formulation (subject to on-going refinement) of God governed "natural" processes whereby God created the vast array of living things. The word "natural" is used not in the sense of "autonomous" but in the sense of "regular" or "ordinary". The notion of secondary cause captures the idea. God is the ultimate governor, yet He chose to govern processes via regular cause and effect relations that can be understood as we observe the world. This can and should be said of every natural occurring process that can be described by science.

There are several implications of this theistic view of evolution. Since the term "theistic evolution" seems to be suspect for some reason, perhaps we should call it "evolutionary creation". This semantic shift makes creation the noun rather than evolution, perhaps for the better. The evolution that I hold to is not random in any ultimate sense, nor is it purposeless, nor is it without design. These are all claims that some evolutionists make. But these are metaphysical and theological claims, not scientific claims. There is a certain sense in which I believe that chance or random processes are involved in mutation or chromosome rearrangements or in recombination or chromosome pairing during meiosis or gamete fusion. These processes are empirically known to follow the laws of statistics, just as coin flipping, card drawing, or sex determination does. But this is not to say that these processes are chance or random in any ultimate sense. Since God is the ultimate governor of whatsoever comes to pass, each coin flip, card draw, or mutation is determined by his all-wise and all-holy counsel. There is even a Proverb (16:33) that says "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord." Design and purpose can be discussed in the same way. Just because adaptations (the excellent fit between an organism's structure and function or environment) can be accounted for by natural selection, does not mean that there is not a divine design or purpose. That claim is fundamentally religious and atheistic. There is no necessary incompatibility between evolution by natural selection and divine design and purpose.

I can think of no better way to support my point here than by quoting from A.A. Hodge, the Old Princeton theologian whose commitment to the inerrancy and authority of Scripture and to the Reformed faith is beyond question. Hodge wrote the following in the Introduction to Theism and Evolution by Joseph S. Van Dyke and reprinted in The Princeton Theology 1812-1921 edited and compiled by Mark Noll (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1983):

Evolution considered as the plan of an infinitely wise Person and executed under the control of His everywhere present energies can never be irreligious; can never exclude design, providence, grace, or miracles. Hence we repeat that what christians have cause to consider with apprehension is not evolution as a working hypothesis of science dealing with facts, but evolution as a philosophical speculation professing to account for the origin, causes, and end of all things.

Hodge's colleague and contemporary at Princeton, B.B. Warfield, wrote the following in his unpublished "Lectures on Anthropology" (Dec. 1888) (cited in Darwin's Forgotten Defenders, p. 119):

The upshot of the whole matter is that there is no necessary antagonism of Christianity to evolution, provided that we do not hold to too extreme a form of evolution. To adopt any form that does not permit God freely to work apart from law and which does not allow miraculous intervention (in the giving of the soul, in creating Eve, etc.) will entail a great reconstruction of Christian doctrine, and a very great lowering of the detailed authority of the Bible. But if we condition the theory by allowing the constant oversight of God in the whole process, and his occasional supernatural interference for the production of new beginnings by an actual output of creative force, producing something new i.e., something not included even in posse in the preceding conditions,‹we may hold to the modified theory of evolution and be Christians in the ordinary orthodox sense.

The lengthy citation of Abraham Kuyper (cited in Creation and Evolution by Jan Lever) is worth repeating here to express the notion that evolutionary theory is not necessarily antagonistic to the Christian faith if design and purpose are not excluded.

An entirely different problem is that so often discussed in England whether religion permits, as such, the spontaneous evolvement of the species in the organic world from one single primary cell. That question, of course, without reservation, must be answered in the affirmative. We should not impose our style upon the Chief Architect of the universe. (emphasis mine) Provided he remains, not in appearance, but in essence, the Architect, he is also in the choice of his style of architecture the Omnipotent. If it thus had pleased the Lord not to create the species as such, but to have one species arise from the other, by designing the preceding species in such a way that it could produce the next higher, the creation would have been just as wonderful. But this never would have been the evolution of Darwinism because the predetermined plan would not then have been excluded, but would have been all-predominating, and not the world had then built itself up mechanically, but God by means of elements which He himself prepared for that purpose. ... And that same difference would differentiate such a divine evolutionistic creation from the system of the Darwinists. Evolutionistic creation presupposes a God who has first made the plan and then executes it omnipotently. Darwinism teaches the mechanical origin of things that excludes all plan or purpose or draft.

The acceptance of evolutionary theory by Christians must be seen as mediate Creation, whereby God called some things into existence using pre existing materials and ordinary means. As indicated by the above citations, these orthodox Presbyterian and Reformed theologians, found no reason to disagree with evolutionary theory as long as the certain essential characteristics were not disregarded: the dependence of the Creation on God, His design and purpose, the Creation of human beings in God's image, and God's freedom to act miraculously in his Creation.

EXEGETICAL ISSUES‹Are there any specific texts of scripture that have a bearing on evolutionary theory?

An additional issue is whether or not evolutionary theory comports with specific teachings of scripture concerning the creation of all things. The days of Genesis 1 and the specific account of the creation of Adam and Eve have been particular sources of difficulty. In the orthodox Reformed tradition dating from at least the middle of the 19th century, the days of Genesis 1 have been regarded as long periods of time or as a literary framework for the execution of God's creative decrees. My own view is the latter. In my mind the issues surrounding Genesis 1 are non-controversial. There is, however, an amazing resurgence of a six 24-hour day view based on a literal reading of the Genesis text which has then become a filter through which all scientific theorizing is done. According to the landmark study by Ronald Numbers, this perspective has its roots in Seventh-Day Adventism and exists today primarily among Fundamentalists and other conservative evangelicals. Regretably, it is becoming increasingly common in Reformed denominations including my own, the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination.

Reconciling evolutionary theory with the specifics of the Genesis 2 account of the creation of Adam and Eve is much more difficult. These are the issues that are at the heart of my differences with the Presbytery of the Midwest of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. I take a rather conservative approach to this chapter and the following chapter that narrates the Fall. While admitting to many symbolic elements in these chapters, I think that Biblical theology as a whole requires a historical Adam and Eve, their creation as distinct from the animals, being unique as divine image-bearers, their creation in a state of innocency, their violation in space and time of the covenant of works (or the covenant of life, if you prefer), the federal headship of Adam over the whole human race in the original covenant and in the original fall.

The main bone of contention is Genesis 2:7. Then the Lord God formed Adam of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. (NASB) I believe that the text allows for the view that the body of Adam derived from animal ancestors, i.e. the "dust" of Genesis 2:7 can be taken as pre-existing creatures, (primarily referring to our "earthiness"), but that the creation of Adam as a whole human being, body and soul, in the image of God, was the result of a special miraculous act. John Murray, who has been the most influential systematic theologian in the OPC, argues that this passage precludes my interpretation. According to Murray, that which constituted man as man also constituted him as living creature. This precludes animal ancestry since animal ancestry, in my view, states that Adam was a living creature before he was constituted human. This is the same position that has been advocated in the Christian Reformed Church by Russell Maatman.

My response has been that since the study of God's creation (science) is giving us evidence of animal ancestry that we ought to re-examine the text to see if we might be mistaken in our initial reading that has not considered the text. This re-examination of a traditional interpretation occasioned by extra-Biblical evidence is a time honored practice in the Christian church include our Reformed tradition. [See Davis Young's new book The Biblical Flood: A Case Study of the Church's Response to Extra-Biblical Evidence]. This has been another point of dispute with the OPC Presbytery of the Midwest. The Presbytery claims that I am not merely re-examining the text but that I am subordinating the Bible to "alleged empirical evidence" and thus denying the orthodox doctrine of scripture.

I am not convinced that Genesis 2:7 is intended to bear the weight of the interpretation that Murray places upon it. In his own discussion of this passage Murray comments "We may not know the precise nature of the action denoted by 'breathed in his nostrils'". Here he acknowledges the anthropomorphic and non-scientific character of this account. One might ask numerous questions here some of which may appear to make a mockery of the sacred account, but when asked, pointedly illustrate the anthropomorphic character. When God formed Adam out of the dust, did he form all the organs, tissues, and cells, too? Or did he make a merely external form which was miraculously transformed into a functioning biological organism with all the functioning biological sub-structures? Was God's action an act of divine mouth-to-mouth rescusitation, giving breath much the way a lifeguard to rescusitate a near-drowning victim. In what sense does God breath? Is not breath simply a sign of life and since God is the source of all life the scriptures depict God's giving of life to Adam in the metaphorical way? Thus, one might question the finality of Murray's conclusion on the basis of the obvious and necessary metaphoric and anthropomorphic character of the account.

The upshot of the this whole discussion of Genesis 2:7 is that I believe that we have interpreted ourselves into a corner by accepting Murray's position and that we ought to return to the position suggested by Warfield, namely that we can accept biological evolution and animal ancestry with reference to the physical and biological constitution of human beings, while requiring a special creative act of God with reference to the human soul.