A Travel Guide to the Evangelical Creation Debates: Introduction
BY CHARLES P. ARAND
Introductory notes: I believe that one of the purposes of the Concordia Journal is to stay current on the intellectual trends taking place within society and the theological questions they raise for us within the church. The reason for this is that sooner or later, we will encounter them within our church and within our congregations and will need to help our people navigate them with our Lutheran resources.
This means, in part, that we as a faculty hope to serve our pastors and congregations through the Concordia Journal in at least two ways: (1) by doing some of the legwork or research into these trends so as to share them with you for your discussion and reflection, and (2) by providing ways to think through these trends or questions theologically so as to help our people navigate them for the sake of confessing Christ. Of course, we fully recognize that, this side of the eschaton, we can always fulfill these purposes better, and so we are always looking for ways to improve. As a matter of fact, many of the improvements that have come to Concordia Journal (and www.concordiatheology.org) have come from pastors and laypeople who took the time to provide constructive feedback.
With that in view, one of the biggest debates taking place over the past decade in Evangelical circles is about the intersection of faith and science and how to reconcile or harmonize them. Dr. John Jurchen references one of these camps in his article in the Summer 2017 of Concordia Journal (namely, the Old Earth Creationists) when he mentioned some of its advocates such as Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe or the folks in the Intelligent Design community.
This, I hope, provides us with an opportunity to take a tour of the contemporary landscape of that debate among the Evangelicals and become better acquainted with the various camps, along with their positions and arguments, so that we can be better equipped to respond in a Lutheran way. This is especially important for us because over the past fifty years we have often found them to be somewhat reliable allies on many conservative issues both theological (Scripture, creation, etc.) and social (marriage and family, pro-life issues, etc.).
But they are going through some significant debates on the doctrine of creation, the outcome of which is not entirely clear. I hope that this series of posts will provide a little bit of a window into those debates and, more importantly, prompt us to articulate our own Lutheran voice that, I believe, is much needed in these debates among our Evangelical brothers and sisters. As we go through these positions, I would be interested in hearing what you’ve run across and in particular any resources that you have found helpful for addressing these issues.
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Over the past few years, we at Concordia Seminary have had the opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the current state of the discussion regarding issues related to faith and science, including at times the matter of origins. I must admit that prior to this I myself was not all that familiar with the current state of the debate until I began doing more reading in and talking to those who are much more engaged in the topic outside Lutheran circles. So, it has been something of a learning experience to see what kinds of positions are being taken in these sometimes heated debates within that conservative wing of Christianity broadly referred to as Evangelicalism.
Furthermore, I believe that it is important for us to become familiar with these debates and the various camps or “teams” engaged in them, for two reasons. First, all of the camps in these faith and science debates publish extensively and address an audience that often dwarfs The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. This means they may even influence our own pastors and people who will run across their materials online and in Christian bookstores. Second, if we are going to be drawn into these debates, we need to know who the various teams are and the particular positions that they seek to defend and promote. It is kind of like having a map or “travel guide” by which we can follow along.
As we survey them, I feel four cautions are critical for us keep in mind.
FIRST, Lutherans have largely been silent in these debates, so only a minority of voices in any camp will be consistent with Lutheranism. We can and will find common ground with some of them, but we also do not want to lose our distinctive voice (See Josh Swamidass’ article in the Summer 2017 issue of the Concordia Journal).
SECOND, all these “camps” are more than mere positions, but complex groups of organizations and people. There is often significant diversity and disagreements within each camp. We usually will find a range of theological positions within each camp, which will not equally align with or oppose our own. Again, our distinctive theological voice was not considered as these camps formed, so we may come to very different assessments of individual positions within an individual camp.
THIRD, the seeds that grew into fruition in these various camps germinated in non-Lutheran theological soil. They grew in soil that we may say is (broadly speaking) Evangelical soil. This in turn shaped the specific Reformed/Calvinistic or Fundamentalist forms that they took in response to the intellectual winds of Western culture. This means that these schools of thought bring with them a certain relationship between faith and reason that we may not hold (and this is an old debate going back to the Reformation).
FOURTH, these camps were defined in the crucible of the culture wars that themselves grew out of a particularly premillennial-dispensationalist vision of a “Christian nation” in which America is the heir of Israel. Consequently, they are often caught up in the American “culture wars” in a way that is alien to Lutheranism, and may even explain why our voice has not been included.
For these reasons, I caution against identifying too closely with any specific camp or approach to the science-faith issues they address. It would be better for us to define a distinctively Lutheran option that brings our theological values into dialogue with others, without losing our own voice.
The Different Camps
I see three major camps or approaches for dealing with the connection between theology and science in the current debate taking place among Evangelicals. My identification of the three camps relies on the self-description of the three groups. In this regard, I am attempting to define them on their own terms, and not by terms imposed upon them that they may not recognize. On the left side of the spectrum are those who call themselves Evolutionary Creationists (who hold to both an old earth and theistic evolution). On the right side of the spectrum are those who call themselves Young Earth Creationists (who reject both old earth views and evolution, theistic or otherwise). And somewhere in between stand those who call themselves Old Earth Creationists (who hold to an old earth view but reject theistic evolution).
Although it might seem like these groups would have little in common, such is not the case. Yes, there are differences between them, but all of these debates take place under the same overall umbrella that we call Evangelicalism. For this reason, it may be helpful to first speak of their common starting points and assumptions.
Shared Concerns and Goals
Their concern is the prevailing culture. We need to begin by recognizing that all of the camps in this debate are concerned about…and even alarmed by…the tidal wave of influence or pressure that science (i.e., secular naturalistic science) exerts upon our churches as it sweeps into its wake our schools, universities, media, and politics.
Their motivation is often evangelistic and pastoral. The evangelistic concern asks, “how does one reach with the Gospel those who are non-Christians and have been shaped by science and even scientism?” The pastoral concern lies for those young people who go into science and lose their faith. This, in fact, reflects the personal story of many those who are found within these various camps. Many of them tell stories about how their churches forced them to choose between science or faith. Or if they found the science convincing, they discovered that their church communities disowned them. A recent book that has put statistics behind this is You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church…And Rethinking Faith by David Kinnaman. His research showed that the perception that the church is anti-science is among the leading reasons why young people leave the church, and this is a motivating concern for all camps.
Their means for addressing these issues is apologetics. Each of the groups outlined below are largely para-church apologetic organizations. That is to say, they seek to use reason and arguments from reason to make a case whereby one need not choose between science and faith. They speak about the relationship between scripture and creation by employing the metaphor of “God’s Two Books” (which carries its own assumptions…especially for the “reading” of creation). And a key axiom for them is that God’s two books cannot conflict, which is why they set about the apologetic task to demonstrate how faith and science can be reconciled or integrated.
Because each of the camps that we will consider live under the large Evangelical umbrella, they hold to basic theological tenets with which we would largely agree. Again, I would like to remind ourselves that we are here dealing not with the liberal wing of Christianity, but those who are most often identified with the conservative and fundamentalist wings of Christianity.
They hold to a high view of Scripture. In nearly every case (and unlike the historic critics of a generation past, e.g., Seminex), all three camps share a high view of Scripture and have strong statements about its inspiration and authority (that often encompasses its infallibility and inerrancy). In other words, they would describe themselves as “Bible-believing Christians.” Where they differ thus lies in both their interpretation of particular Scriptural texts and their scientific reading of God’s creation.
They hold to the tenets of the ancient Creeds (and often the Westminster Confession). All three of the camps that we will examine confess God as the Creator of heaven and earth, namely, that God created everything that exists and he did so ex nihilo. As a result, all three of these camps also reject neo-Darwinistic or naturalistic evolution, which can be defined as:
“The diversity of life on earth is the outcome of evolution: an unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments” (National Association of Biology Teachers). This rules out any supernatural activity of God in the origin and development of life and of humans, and hence makes a naturalistic metaphysic the basis of science. (“Report of the Creation Study Committee” [Presbyterian Church in America, 2000], 2317)
They all confess that Jesus is the crucified Messiah who is now the resurrected Lord of all creation as the heart and center of their faith and the primary concern of the Christian church. They hold that God has and does intervene in miraculous ways, such as in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Initial Theological Reflections
If these various camps often affirm the historic creeds and confess the bodily resurrection of Jesus and his Lordship over all things, we might ask how this connects with other articles of the faith set forth in Scripture. And even though they share a high view of Scripture, we will find that they, at times, interpret Scripture in a way that says less or more than Scripture really says in order to reconcile the Bible to science.
The debates in which they engage are, in my opinion, contemporary versions of older debates within the church about the respective roles of faith and reason (i.e., philosophy/science). In this case, it seems to me that they seek to provide a kind of synthesis between faith and reason. Thus, it is worth noting here that these are not simply camps holding to certain theological positions. They also hold to certain scientific positions, and many of them are scientists themselves. In other words, we are dealing not with purely theological positions but with theological-scientific positions. This also comes through in their self-descriptions.
Each of the groups describes itself as creation-ist or as holding to creation-ism (namely, an approach that is best described as a form of creation-science). This already offers a clue that we are talking about more than a theological stance (as in, I believe God created all things). It also includes a certain scientific stance. That is to say, they regard themselves first and foremost as advocating for God’s work of creation with an integrative model of theology and science.
Even as they each refer to themselves as creationists, they attach an adjective to the noun in order to describe what kind of a creationist they are. These adjectives clue a person into what is arguably their main focus in the faith-and-science debate. Thus, we have Evolutionary Creationists, Old Earth Creationists, and Young Earth Creationists. Where they thus differ lies in both their reading of Scriptural texts and their reading of scientific data.
In other words, the language of “creationism” refers not only to a theological position, but a theology-science position (or a synthesis of theology and science) by which they each find ways to read Scripture and science together. And the reason for integrating the two appears to be one that seeks to support or buttress one’s faith in the veracity and verity of the Scriptures. In other words, the desire is to remove doubt about the Scriptures but to do so by empirically demonstrating that there is no conflict between creation and Scripture thereby making it “safe” (in my opinion) to believe the Scriptures.
Looking Ahead: The Three Evangelical Camps
I suggested earlier that the three camps can be arranged on a theological spectrum with Evolutionary Creationists on the left, Young Earth Creationists on the right, and Old Earth Creationists somewhere in the middle. In the posts that will follow, I will survey them in a more chronological order with regard to when each of them arose over the course of the last hundred years or so. Thus, in the next few posts, we will consider the three camps in the following order:
What is Old Earth Creationism?
What is Young Earth Creationism?
What is Evolutionary Creationism?
In each case, we’ll briefly sketch their history along with their take on specific issues or questions that have often been in the forefront of the questions regarding the conflict between faith and science. Again, we should note that these questions arise less out of one’s reading of Scripture (as if Scripture asked and then answered such questions) and more out of questions raised by science for the Bible. These pertain to the age of the earth, evolution, the interpretation of Hebrew word yom (“day”), and the question of animal death before the fall.
Looking Ahead: The Lutheran Option
As I reflected on these different camps, got to know some of the folks in them, and listened to their perspectives, I couldn’t help but think that what is missing here is what I would call a Lutheran Option.
In other words, while I might find myself agreeing with some of them on the conclusions they may draw about various issues, there is still a “different spirit” at work here in terms of history, theological assumptions regarding the Bible, the hermeneutics for reading the Bible, the relationship of the formal and material principle of Scripture, and the relationship of faith and reason…to name a few. In other words, we don’t fit neatly into their categories, and thus are not entirely at home into any one of these camps.
In addition, I couldn’t help thinking in my various conversations that a Lutheran voice would make a very helpful contribution to their discussions. And as I have talked with various folks who are engaged in these debates, they have also wondered aloud to me, “Where’s the Lutheran view in this discussion?”
And so, after we survey the Evangelical landscape on the debate between science and theology, we’ll turn to “The Lutheran Option.” Here is where I would like to make the case for a Lutheran perspective on these issues. This will take place in two parts:
An Exegetical Case for the Lutheran Option
A Theological Case for the Lutheran Option
I pray that these posts will be helpful as we come across these debates and writings, and I look forward to our fraternal discussions of these issues.
 The major resource for this topic is a ten-volume work edited by Ronald L. Numbers entitled, Creationism in Twentieth-Century America (Hamden, CT: Garland Publishing, 1995). An overview of these ten volumes can be found in a review by J. W. Haas, Jr., “Flesh for The Creationists’ Bones.”
I will be drawing heavily from Number’s book, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, Expanded Edition (Harvard University Press, Expanded edition, 2006). This expanded edition brings up to his date his earlier edition of 1992, which has become something of a standard in the field.
In addition to Numbers, the research by Edward Davis is very helpful, especially an article that he wrote entitled, “Science Falsely So Called: Fundamentalism and Science.”
 It should be noted that even though Evolutionary Creationists require an old earth, they do not refer to themselves as “Old Earth Creationists.” Those who classify themselves as Old Earth Creationists describe themselves this way in distinction from Evolutionary Creationists or theistic evolutionists.