Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Evolutionary Creationism - a guide for the perplexed

I describe myself as an evolutionary creationist because it neatly described my position as a Christian who regards evolution as the mechanism behind the creation of the diversity of life we see on this planet. This raises the question of exactly how a natural process can be regarded as a creative act. Representative of this line of thinking is the assertion that creation is an intentional action, while evolution, being a natural process, is fundamentally incompatible.

This is a surprisingly poor argument. The Bible repeatedly refers to God sending the rain and making the sun to shine, rise and set, yet special creationists are willing to accept that these actions can have natural explanations. It is special pleading to argue that the creation of life on this Earth is off-limits to natural explanation. Psalm 148:8 refers to 'stormy winds fulfilling His word'; while this is poetry, and needs to be read as such, the implication that natural events can be employed to effect Divine outcomes is not inconsistent with the idea that natural processes and intentional actions are not mutually exclusive.

Another objection is that this argument presupposes that the grammatical objects of bara' are exclusively material, whereas as John Walton has demonstrated, when a list of the objects of bara' in the OT are compiled, these objects cannot be unambiguously classed as material, a fact which undermines the argument that natural processes and intentional actions are mutually exclusive:
"In contrast, a large percentage of the contexts require a functional understanding. These data cannot be used to prove a functional ontology, but they offer support that existence is viewed in functional rather than material terms, as is true throughout the rest of the ancient world." [1]
Walton's thesis that Genesis 1 as ancient cosmology which is function-oriented (creation of time, weather and food) comports well with the ancient Near Eastern background of Genesis, [2,3] and allows the exegete the opportunity both to interpret Genesis 1 in its sociocultural context, and avoid fighting a losing battle in denying the reality of common descent and large scale evolutionary change.
The importance of not fighting this battle cannot be overstated. Attempts to read the creation narratives as accounts of material origins have proven to be less than reliable [4], a fact which should have reminded us of the need to read Genesis in its ANE context, rather than forcing  it to answer questions of interest to us, but not its original audience. The implication of this is that the question of whether the mode of divine providence was evolution or special creation is of no theological importance, and can be delegated to science.

It is therefore of no little interest to see how evolution can be seen as creative. Invertebrate palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris has argued [5] that the phenomenon of evolutionary convergence means that "[w]hat was impossible billions of years ago becomes increasingly inevitable: evolution has trajectories (trends, if you prefer) and progress is not some noxious by-product of the terminally optimistic, but simply part of our reality. [6] Conway Morris ended his intriguing book with his list of evolutionary facts which he regarded as congruent with Creation:
(1) its underlying simplicity, relying on a handful of building blocks;
(2) the existence of an immense universe of possibilities, but a way of navigating to that minutest of fractions which actually work;
(3) the sensitivity of the process and the product, whereby nearly all alternatives are disastrously maladaptive;
(4) the inherency of life whereby complexity emerges as much by the rearrangement and co-option of pre-existing building blocks as against relying on novelties per se;
(5) the exuberance of biological diversity, but the ubiquity of evolutionary convergence;
(6) the inevitability of the emergence of sentience, and the likelihood that among animals it is far more prevalent than we are willing to admit. [7]
Even if we step back from evolutionary convergence, one can still argue that evolution can be nudged in the right direction by the right environmental changes, such as those which resulted in the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous, resulting not only in the extinction of the dinosaurs, but the mammalian adaptive radiation which allowed the evolution of primates. A special creationist who freely agrees that God can send the rain by use of atmospheric physics has already conceded the ground when it comes to questions of whether creation can likewise be effected by natural events.

An elegant elaboration of a theology of an evolving creation comes from respected OT scholar Bruce Waltke:
By “theistic evolution” I mean that the God of Israel, to bring glory to himself, (1) created all the things that are out of nothing and sustains them; (2) incredibly, against the laws of probability, finely tuned the essential properties of the universe to produce ʾāḏām, who is capable of reflecting upon their origins; (3) within his providence allowed the process of natural selection and of cataclysmic interventions—such as the meteor that extinguished the dinosaurs, enabling mammals to dominate the earth—to produce awe-inspiring creatures, especially ʾāḏām; (4) by direct creation made ʾāḏām a spiritual being, an image of divine beings, for fellowship with himself by faith; (5) allowed ʾāḏām to freely choose to follow their primitive animal nature and to usurp the rule of God instead of living by faith in God, losing fellowship with their physical and spiritual Creator; (6) and in his mercy chose from fallen ‘ʾāḏām the Israel of God, whom he regenerated by the Holy Spirit, in connection with their faith in Jesus Christ, the Second Adam, for fellowship with himself. [8]


1. Walton J.H "The Lost World of Genesis 1" (2009: IVP) p 43
2. Walton, John H., Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. (2006: Grand Rapids, Baker Academic)
3. Walton John H.,  Genesis 1 As Ancient Cosmology, (2011: Eisenbrauns)
4.. As Davis Young points out "A review of 300 years of literalistic and concordistic harmonizations between the biblical text and the results of empirical geological study shows that there has been absolutely no consensus among evangelical Christians about interpretation of the details of the biblical accounts of creation and the flood or about texts such as Psalm 104, Proverbs 8, or other wisdom literature that bear on the creation, the flood, or the physical character of the earth." (Westminster Theological Journal 49, no. 2 (1987): 291–292.)
5. Simon Conway Morris "Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely World" (2003: Cambridge University Press)
6. ibid, p xii.
7. ibid, p. 329
8. Bruce K. Waltke and Charles Yu, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 202–203.