Why I’m no longer a Theistic Evolutionist (4)

As I’ve highlighted previously, the creation accounts are rich and complex, providing us with a wealth of theological insight. However, it also seems apparent that they are making real, concrete claims about history. And those claims include material claims. But what, exactly, are these material claims? I’m going to suggest that, minimally, the Genesis creation accounts are making three material claims about the natural world: (1) distinct plant and animal kinds were specially created by God at different times (Gen 1:11, 20, 24), (2) an original human pair was directly created by God as uniquely bearing God’s image (Gen. 1:26–27; 2:7, 22), and (3) God’s special creative activity during the creation week has now ceased (Gen. 2:1). I’m by no means suggesting that this is all the creation accounts are claiming, merely a minimal starting point from which to operate.

If the Genesis creation accounts are indeed making these sorts of material claims, then any Theistic Evolutionist (TE) who views Genesis as authoritative must either find a way to make these compatible with evolution or find some way to cordon them off as relics of an ancient cultural milieu.[1] For taken together, they present a considerable challenge to the contemporary evolutionary understanding of life. More specifically, the accounts rule out universal common descent of animals and humans since Genesis claims that animals were created in distinct groupings according to their “kind” (Hebrew, mîn) at different points, and most importantly, that humans were specially created by God’s direct creative activity.[2] Further, since the text indicates that God’s special creative activity is complete, “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished…” (Genesis 2:1, ESV), then this special, miraculous creative process is no longer continued. However, in contemporary evolutionary theory, creative development is ongoing. The evolutionary process has not stopped, and it will continue to operate so long as biological organisms exist.[3] This is extremely difficult to square with the completed creative activity indicated in the Genesis creation accounts.[4]

As I’ve already discussed at length, one of the most promising ways to make the Genesis creation accounts compatible with evolution is to adopt Walton’s proposal that they aren’t actually making material claims, only functional ones. However, as I’ve argued, this isn’t a viable position. What, then, is a TE supposed to do with these highly problematic material claims? One TE interpretive strategy that addresses this issue I’ll briefly discuss here is the concept of “divine accommodation.” Essentially, this is the position that God, in the act of inspiring divine truth to the authors of scripture, did so in a manner that was accommodated to their level of understanding, so it could be comprehended by both the authors and the recipients. This notion of “accommodation” is, on one level, a sound hermeneutical principle. For it recognizes the fact that God did not reveal himself in incomprehensible language or nonsensical ahistorical concepts, but at a level that can be understood and comprehended by human minds. For instance, John Calvin argues, “For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us? Thus, such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness.”[5] As historical theologian Richard Muller notes, “The Reformers and their scholastic followers all recognized that God must in some way condescend or accommodate himself to human ways of knowing in order to reveal himself. This accommodatio occurs in the use of human words and concepts for the communication of the law and gospel, but it in no way implies the loss of truth or the lessening of scriptural authority.”[6]

However, what some TE’s do with the principle of accommodation is argue that God inspired the author(s) of Genesis and accommodated to their level of Ancient Near Eastern conceptual understanding in such a way that he inspired them to describe the creation of the world in terminology that reflects ancient understandings of the cosmos, understandings which are, in actuality, false. This is the position opted for by TE’s such as , who argues that “In disclosing spiritual truths, the Holy Spirit descended to the level of the writers and employed their geology, astronomy, and biology as a vessel. In other words, He accommodated.”[7] Lamoureux goes on to suggest that “it is necessary for modern readers of God’s Word to separate the Message of Faith from the incidental ancient science, and not to conflate these together.”[8] This, he insists, does not threaten the authority of scripture since “inerrancy and infallibility rest in the spiritual truths of Scripture instead of its views on the structure and operation of the physical world.”[9] Current BioLogos president takes a similar stance toward divine accommodation and the creation accounts, stating that “God could have chosen to explain to the Israelites that their physical picture was mistaken, that the sky is actually a gaseous atmosphere covering a spherical earth. Instead, God chose a better approach: He accommodated his message to their understanding in order to make the intended message very clear.”[10] Thus, for those TE’s employing the principle of accommodation, all one need do is sift the false, ancient material claims from the timeless theological truths God intended to convey in the creation accounts.[11]

However, the fundamental difficulty with this position is that it forces one to assert that God inspired false claims about the world in scripture. It is one thing to acknowledge that the ancient authors of Genesis would have known nothing about contemporary cosmology or biology, and so God did not inspire them in terms that would have only made sense after the 20th century. It is quite another to claim that God not only accommodated to their level of understanding but also inspired them to write falsehoods. For example, if I told my daughter that she was going in for surgery, I would explain it to her in simple terms that she would understand and be familiar with. I might say something like “you are going to take a long nap while the doctors take what’s making you sick out of you so that you can feel better.” But if I said something along the lines of “the doctors are going to take you to an enchanted forest where elves and unicorns are going to use their magic wands to make you feel better,” that wouldn’t merely be accommodating to my daughter’s level of knowledge and conceptual understanding, I would be simply lying to her. Similarly, in the Genesis creation accounts, what we see are depictions of events that aren’t inconsistent with an ancient understanding of the cosmos, but nevertheless do not teach this understanding. Take, for example, the depiction of an event in Genesis 1 such as the creation of the rāqî‘a or “expanse.” This isn’t inconsistent with an ancient understanding of a solid sky holding up a heavenly sea.[12] But notice the text is not actually making the claim that we should believe that there is a solid sky holding up a heavenly sea. If the ancient author had this understanding of the world in mind, then we can understand God’s accommodation to the author’s level of comprehension by not attempting to explain the world in modern scientific terms that would have been nonsensical to ancient ears.[13] However, neither are we forced to conclude that God inspired the author to compose falsehoods about the world due to the constraints of ancient cosmological conceptions.

Despite their best efforts, TE’s who opt for the “accommodation” strategy to explain how the Genesis creation accounts are giving timeless theological truths mixed with contextual, false claims about the natural world simply cannot maintain a consistent account of biblical authority and inerrancy. Again, those TE’s who do not have a robust notion of inerrancy may have no problem saying that scripture teaches false things about the world. However, for those TE’s who do profess that the scriptures are authoritative and inerrant, appealing to accommodation in this manner to explain the material claims in Genesis that conflict with evolution should be cause for significant concern.[14]

In the next post, I’ll wrap up this series by giving some of my concluding thoughts and offering a suggestion for how to best engage in dialogue with advocates of TE.

References

[1] These claims will not be problematic for a TE who doesn’t view Genesis as authoritative or who has a view of scripture which allows actual errors to be claimed by the text. However, for many TE’s, including the BioLogos organization, this is not an option. From the BioLogos website: “We fully affirm that the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God.” See https://biologos.org/common-questions/christianity-and-science/biologos-id-creationism. Accessed August 5, 2018.

[2] One possible objection, from a TE perspective, is that it could be argued that the Genesis creation accounts are just speaking generally of the evolutionary process. I see three problems with this approach. First, by adopting this stance, the TE has committed to allowing the creation accounts to be making material claims and must now shoulder the intellectual burden of ensuring that Genesis does not contradict evolutionary theory. Second, the repeated references to God specifically creating varieties of animals “after their kind” either directly contradicts evolutionary theory or demands a very loose interpretation. Third, the direct de novo (new) creation of Adam from the dust and Eve from Adam’s side requires that a TE who wants to square evolution with Genesis must minimally reject universal common descent at this point, which makes the “TE” label somewhat disingenuous.

[3] See Stephanie Keep, “Misconception Monday: Can Evolution Stop?,” https://ncse.com/blog/2015/02/misconception-monday-can-evolution-stop-0016202. Accessed August 3, 2018.

[4] For the purpose of clarity, by “special creative activity” I mean God’s creative activity that goes beyond the activity of God, at all times, upholding the world ex nihilo (out of nothing). The creative activity I have in mind is miraculous creative activity, which clarifies in the following way: “Things that are at times divinely accomplished, apart from the generally established order in things, are customarily called miracle.” , Summa Contra Gentiles, III.101.1.

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.13.1.

[6] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), 19.

[7] Denis O. Lamoureux, Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 146.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, 146–147.

[10] Deborah B. Haarsma, “Evolutionary Creation,” in Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, ed. J. B. Stump (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 130.

[11] Instead of “naïve literalism,” which is what TE’s like Lamoureux are trying to avoid, what we have instead is what may be termed “naïve accommodationism,” where anything remotely repugnant to contemporary scientific understandings of the world are categorized as being “accommodated” to ancient conceptual understandings.

[12] For the sake of argument, I have simply granted the premise that the Ancient Near Eastern cultures in which the Genesis creation accounts were originally composed did indeed possess a somewhat united view that a solid sky held up a heavenly sea. However, it is not at all apparent that this is the case. The noted Old Testament scholar Othmar Keel argues that many contemporary representations of the Ancient Near Eastern world “err in portraying the upper regions too concretely, as if they were well understood by the men of that time as was the earthly environment” and that “A wide variety of diverse uncoordinated notions regarding the cosmic structure were advanced from several points of departure.” See Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 37, 57. See also G. K. Beale, The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 193218. Regardless, even if this is exactly what the author of the Genesis creation accounts had in mind, it in no way necessitates the idea that God inspired falsehoods about the nature of the world because of the human limitations of the author.

[13] Additionally, using terminology that would echo the surrounding cultures’ cosmology would heighten the polemical effect of demonstrating the superiority of the God of Israel over other “gods” and powers.

[14] Having spoken with Lamoureux personally, I am utterly convinced that he is fully and completely committed to the infallibility and inerrancy of scripture. Nevertheless, his position on accommodation leaves him in an inconsistent position, in my perspective.