Evolutionary Creationism: Relating text and evidence

June 17, 2020

Evolutionary Creationism: Relating text and evidence

Chris Mulherin

The consensus amongst scientists is that our solar system was formed around 4.5 billion years ago. And, when it comes to human origins, science overwhelming supports Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, modified with later knowledge arising from genetics and other fields in biology. The Christian who accepts these mainstream scientific views affirms that the science is (probably/mostly, as far as it goes, and recognising the current gaps and difficulties) correct. However, such a Christian would also say that the scientific story tells us nothing about the purposes or ultimate cause of life, the universe and everything. The Bible, meanwhile, affirms in numerous places and especially in the magnificent first chapters of Genesis, that God, who made human beings in his own image, is the creator of the cosmos.[1]

When writing about Genesis 1600 years ago, Augustine, who was perhaps the greatest of theologians, warned Christians about bringing disrepute on the church by using the Bible to make ‘scientific’ pronouncements (as we would call them today).[2] The evolutionary creationist, taking both the Bible and science very seriously, follows Augustine’s cue by allowing both Scripture and science to speak within their areas of authority.

In regard to the question of human origins, perhaps the most obvious point of discussion that arises from accepting a mainstream scientific view is the so-called problem of the historical Adam (and Eve!). For centuries, the common Christian assumption has been that Adam and Eve were two historical individuals created in the image of God as the first human pair and from whom (and no others) all humans have descended. If we take the early chapters of Genesis as a strictly historical record, we might conclude that Adam and Eve lived a few thousand years before Christ, and possibly that the earth and indeed the universe is just a few thousand years old. (I will return to the question of ‘the historical Adam’ and its theological implications in a second article.)

Science on other hand paints a very different story. It tells of a 14-billion-year-old universe, an earth of some 4.5 billion years in age, and our species, Homo sapiens, appearing on the scene over 100,000 years ago. Not only that, but the fossil record affirms Darwin’s theory of gradual changes over vast time scales resulting in new species. Humans find themselves, according to this view, at the tip of one branch of this tree of life. And yes, if we trace back in time down the branches towards the trunk we find that humans and hydrangeas, goannas and gum trees have a common biological ancestor.

Recently, the science of human origins has been overwhelmingly confirmed by a whole new line of evidence: the sequencing of the human genome in a project led by the prominent evangelical Christian Francis Collins. Our genetic make-up is inherited from our parents and their parents and so on. By mapping the human genome and by comparing it to the genomes of other species, we arrive at a history of life on earth that is independent of the fossil record, but one that tells the same story of increasingly complex biological development, over millions of years, resulting in human beings as we know them today.[3]

With respect to the age of the earth and the ‘days’ of Genesis 1, there is a long history of attempting to date the creation from the Bible.[4] The most famous example is that of the 17th-century Bishop Ussher who placed creation in 4004 BC. These attempts assume it is appropriate to look to the early chapters of Genesis for exact historical details, but this assumption cannot be justified if we think that neither God nor the original author(s) were concerned about teaching us historical or ‘scientific’ matters. However, while this question of the age of the universe and the days of creation features in many conversations about interpreting the early chapters of Genesis, it does not present the same challenges as the questions about the historical Adam, death, and the Fall because issues about timescales contribute little to Christian theology.

So, how should we approach this tension between modern science and the way many Christians have understood the first chapters of Genesis? Let me propose a number of principles that are essential to relating the biblical text with the scientific consensus.

Eight principles for relating the Bible and science

1. Recognise that science (and human learning in general) is a God-given gift to humanity. The Christian believes that all truth is God’s truth; science is a godly calling to explore the wonders of the created order. The history of science is littered with people who, like astronomer Johannes Kepler, understood themselves to be glorifying God as they explored the creation.

2. Provisionally trust mainstream science. We ought to assume that science is probably right about most of its time-tested theories. The responsible thing to do is to trust the experts. Of course, this is what we do every time we put our trust in the technologies (and the scientists behind them) that dominate our lives; few people are sceptical about whether a plane will stay in the air or whether an X-ray will cause serious harm. However, trusting science does not imply that science always gets it right. ‘Proof’ in science is like that of the law court: possibilities are weighed up, theories are tested, one scientist trusts the work of another, alternatives are discussed, arguments are made, and in the end the experts make up their minds about whether they are convinced ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. The skeptic, of course, can never be satisfied: no scientific theory is certain. But accepting settled science on an issue, while recognising that it could conceivably be wrong, is a responsible position to take.[5]

One implication of this for Christians is that when new theories about the natural world come to be accepted, they become considerations for how we interpret the Bible on such matters.

3. Be willing to revise secondary beliefs. Just because most of the Christian church has believed something for centuries does not mean that it is necessarily essential to Christian faith. The church over the centuries has changed what previous generations of Christians took for granted. Today we do not condone slavery, nor do we think the earth is at the centre of the universe. Such views have been allowed to go by the wayside because they are not core doctrines of the faith.

4. Recognise that God speaks our language. The revelation of God throughout history is recorded in Scripture through individual people who use the language and the cultural assumptions of their own time.[6] One implication of this is that there should be no expectation that the biblical writers would have a ‘correct’ understanding of physics or astronomy. They set theological truth within a cultural framework that included understandings and concepts of their time. To put it bluntly, we should not be surprised or concerned if the Bible seems to be making ‘wrong’ scientific assumptions. Few people think that Ecclesiastes chapter 1 is ‘mistaken’ in speaking of the sun rising and setting and ‘hurrying back to where it rises’.

5. Recognise that biblical interpretation does not occur in a vacuum. Every interpreter of Scripture is a human being who comes to the text with their own assumptions and questions. The interpreter lives in a particular time and place, speaks a particular language, thinks and questions in a particular way. So, today, ‘science serves along with history, culture and language as one of many inputs into the interpretative exercise’.[7]

6. Recognise that God is concerned about character not chemistry (or physics or biology). The Bible forms and informs morality and our knowledge of God; it is ‘useful for correcting’ in matters of righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). However, it is crucial to note that the Bible never corrects what we today might call scientific cultural misunderstandings. So, while God does give his people a moral code that goes against that of the surrounding cultures, God does not correct, for example, the (false) view that the earth is at rest (Psalm 104:5) or that the moon is a ‘light’ (Genesis 1:16).

7. Do not confuse a high view of Scripture with a literalistic view. The Bible is a compendium of many books, written in many styles (genres) by many authors over thousands of years. Taking the Bible seriously means that we will recognise this complexity and expect to work hard, at times, to interpret it. Yes, the good news of God saving his wayward people through Jesus Christ is abundantly clear. However, much about the biblical text is difficult to interpret: Should we be baptised for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29)? Where did Cain’s wives come from (Genesis 4:17)?

To interpret the Bible literally is to ask what the author is literally concerned with, but to interpret the text literalistically is to avoid the questions about the author and their setting that contribute to the meaning, as if the words themselves have meaning that can be understood millennia later without considering their original sense. This recognition that interpretation can be difficult and that interpreters may arrive at differing judgements stands in contrast with a modernist approach that expects absolute clarity and certainty. Whether in science or in biblical interpretation, this is simply not feasible.

8. Recognise that, whether in our knowledge of God or of God’s creation, ‘we see in a mirror dimly’ (1 Corinthians 13:12). For reasons mentioned above, we ought to accept that there is no one, easy and obvious solution that will resolve the tension between scientific and biblical understandings of human origins. I would go so far as to say that anyone who implies that the answer is obvious and non-problematic is not sufficiently wrestling with either the theological or the scientific issues. Any proposed resolution of the tension amounts to an inference to the best explanation, and different people will make different judgement calls about what that best explanation is.

Theology, like science, is a human pursuit. Like science, there are core elements of what we might call ‘orthodoxy’.  However, like science, theology is not a static body of knowledge. Like science, theology at its best is a conversation that recognises that we are not God and much of what we do see, we see dimly.


If we accept the sorts of principles outlined above, then it is no stumbling block for the committed Christian to admit that reconciling science with the Bible will always leave a remainder of unresolved tension. The Christian lives by faith in Jesus Christ and not by having irrefutable answers to every possible conundrum. This is not to lessen a confident belief that Scripture is indeed inspired by God and profitable for drawing us into a closer relationship with our Lord. But it does rest on accepting what Augustine said almost 2000 years ago: the purpose of Scripture is not to teach ‘scientific’ truth.

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

[1] It would be wrong to call just one of those narratives (Genesis 1 or 2 for example) the creation account. See this brief list of over 20 creation narratives in the Bible, originally compiled by Professor Tom McLeish: iscast.org/creationstories (URLs accessed May 2020).

[2] In part, Augustine said, ‘usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world … Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for a non-Christian to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.’ Augustine of Hippo, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans., J. H. Taylor (Newman Press, 1982), pp42–43.

[3] See Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006).

[4] See, for example, this history of interpretation: Andrew J. Brown, The Days of Creation: A History of Christian Interpretation of Genesis 1:1–2:3 (Deo, 2014). With respect to the ‘days’ of creation, even if taken literalistically the meaning of the word ‘day’ in Genesis 1 and 2 is ambiguous. In Genesis 1:5 ‘day’ appears to mean a 12-hour period (‘day’ versus ‘night’) and then in the same verse it appears to mean the whole 24-hour light and dark cycle. In chapter 2 the seventh ‘day’ seems to be without end (2:2), and in verse 4 ‘day’ (translated ‘when’ in some versions) refers to the whole six or seven-day period.

[5] Scientist and philosopher of science Michael Polanyi wrote in his major work about the nature and knowledge claims of science that ‘The principal purpose of this book is to achieve a frame of mind in which I may hold firmly to what I believe to be true, even though I know that it might conceivably be false.’ Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958), p214.

[6] Lucas et al. say ‘God’s message always comes in a form that is “incarnated” in a particular ethnic, cultural, historical and linguistic context. Because what we have in the Bible is a written record of that revelation, it also comes in literary forms which are appropriate to the time when it was written.’ Ernest C. Lucas et al., ‘The Bible, Science and Human Origins’. Science & Christian Belief Vol.28, 2 (2016), pp80–81.

[7] Allan J. Day, ‘Adam, Anthropology and the Genesis Record: Taking Genesis Seriously in the Light of Contemporary Science’. Science & Christian Belief Vol.10, 2 (1998), p115 (iscast.org/journal/article/Day_A_2000-01_Adam_Anthropology).

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