Approaching the origins debate: Text, evidence, and theology

June 17, 2020

Approaching the origins debate: Text, evidence, and theology

Dani Scarratt

The origins debate, as we now know it, gained momentum in the second half of the twentieth century.[1] By then, two branches of science had established theories, with roots in the previous century, that accounted for findings that appeared to be in conflict with the common understanding of the Genesis Creation account. Evolutionary theories, such as that proposed in Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), challenged the idea that one newly created couple became the parents of the human race. Evolution also required vast time spans. Geologists had long hypothesised an ancient earth, but it was not until Marie Curie’s discovery of radioactive decay (1896) that radiometric dating was developed. Within a few decades, the conclusion that the earth is billions of years old (‘deep time’)—not a mere 6000, as suggested by genealogies in Genesis—had become widely accepted.

The resulting challenges have been dealt with differently by different Christians. Some maintain that the long-held interpretation of the Genesis texts is correct, and so conclude the science is faulty. They seek, therefore, to correct the science by developing alternative theories that account for the data in ways consistent with this. In 1961, The Genesis Flood by Henry Morris and John Whitcomb brought this endeavour—creation science—to the awareness of the wider Christian public, and the work of creation scientists is ongoing with many organisations dedicated to the task.

Others, convinced that mainstream theories are too well supported to allow for such scientific reinterpretation, turn instead to interrogate the commonly accepted understanding of the early chapters of Genesis. Can these texts be understood in such a way as to accommodate the science while retaining biblical and theological integrity? Some have concluded that they can, and maintain commitments to deep time and evolution as well as Creation.

The nineteenth century also saw the discovery of a number of manuscripts from the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) neighbours of Israel. The relation of these manuscripts to the early chapters of Genesis is another factor that has led biblical scholars to revisit the received interpretation, and is thus potentially relevant to those seeking to weigh up the various considerations.

A final factor to be taken into account is Christian theology. Theology can be thought of as Christian theory (doctrine) based on the data of the Bible texts. Over centuries of scholarship and debate, the core elements of Christian theology have become largely settled among the main branches of Christianity, though there are differences of varying significance (e.g. between Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and so on). Any interpretation of the Genesis texts must take its theological implications into account, and discussions around this are a significant part of the ongoing origins conversation.

Over recent decades, a multitude of possible ways of accounting for the apparent tension between the Genesis text and scientific data have emerged. Our aim in this issue is not to champion any particular view, or engage in debate, but simply to provide an overview of some of the key positions currently held among Christians in regard to origins.[2]

The edition is structured around textual considerations, scientific considerations, and the theological implications of the resulting positions. Each is a huge topic in itself, and no more than a brief summary is presented here. To those who want to explore further, we recommend you take advantage of the further reading suggestions included.

Old Testament scholar Andrew Shead summarises the main lines of interpretation of the Genesis texts; and theologian Andrew Leslie surveys the theological significance of the issues at stake. Authors representing Young Earth Creationism (YEC) and Evolutionary Creationism (EC) were asked to summarise their accounts of the age of the earth and human origins; to outline the relationship between the Genesis texts and science as they see it; and to discuss the theological implications of their views. Special thanks go to Don Batten and Creation Ministries International for co-ordinating the YEC content, and to Peter Barry and ISCAST (Christians in Science and Technology) for assistance co-ordinating the EC response.

A limitation must be noted. Among Christian scientists there are (broadly speaking) three main positions: YEC, which rejects both deep time and evolution; Old Earth Creationism (OEC), which rejects evolution but accepts deep time; and EC, which accepts both deep time and evolution. In this issue, only YEC and EC are represented; OEC has been omitted due to space constraints. However, it is a significant contributor to the Christian conversation about origins, and those interested in finding out more are encouraged to visit the Reasons to Believe website (

A final comment before handing over to our authors. Most of us are not biblical scholars or experts in ANE literature; we are not geologists, biologists, geneticists, palaeontologists or any other of a host of scientific specialties relevant to origins research; we are not theologians. We do not have the expertise to weigh up the evidence for ourselves, and are grateful to those—including our authors—who contribute to the task of debating and evaluating the options on behalf of the rest of the body of Christ. For most of us, the position we settle on may well have less to do with firsthand convictions about what is true in these fields than with who we trust and how well their account sits with our existing beliefs. And that is if we feel the need to nail our colours to one particular mast at all. For some it will be enough to know there are credible options out there, held by godly Christian experts, and that our remaining questions about origins are not grounds to reject the gospel of Christ and its hope of a new creation.

To read the next article in our Origins edition, click here.
To see all articles in this edition, click here

[1] For more information on the history of origins discourse involving biblical and scientific considerations, see D. Alexander, Rebuilding the Matrix (Lion Hudson Publishing, 2002) and T. Mortenson, The Great Turning Point (Master Books, 2004).

[2] See also the following titles from Zondervan’s Counterpoints Series: M. Barrett and A. B. Caneday (eds.), Four Views on the Historical Adam (2013); C. Halton (ed.), Genesis: History, Fiction or Neither? Three views on the Bible’s earliest chapters (2015); J. B. Stump (ed.), Four views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (2017).

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