When Darwin first published his On the Origin of Species in 1859, it met with mixed reactions from christians. Some opposed evolution while others had no issues with it, and some even welcomed it. Since then, the Catholic church has decided it sees no problems with the scientific theory of evolution, whereas by the mid twentieth century, evangelical christians had come to generally totally oppose evolution.
But the last two decades have seen huge signs that christianity is changing.
The parting of the ways
The 1960s saw ‘creation science’ begin to be developed as a conservative christian response to evolution. But as christians came to doubt that it could be true science, or true at all, the Intelligent Design movement came to prominence. It seemed to offer something close enough to evolution, something which looked scientific but preserved a belief in Genesis as history.
But for many christians, the publication of Francis Collins’ The Language of God in 2006 was a key event. Collins is an experienced medical and genetics researcher who was Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute from 1993 to 2008, and so had enormous scientific credibility. He was also a strong evangelical christian.
Collins’ endorsement of theistic evolution (which he called ‘BioLogos’) and his explanations of DNA in the easy-to-read book assisted many christians to view evolution in a different light to how they had been taught.
In 2007, Francis Collions founded the BioLogos Foundation which is “committed to exploring and celebrating the compatibility of evolutionary creation and biblical faith”. The BioLogos website is a good source for material on evolution from a christian perspective – for example, on how BioLogos is different from Evolutionism, Intelligent Design, and Creationism or the genetic evidence for evolution.
The BioLogos Resources page has an enormous range of topics, papers and podcasts.
One of the biggest difficulties for christians who accepted the science of evolution was how to interpret Genesis 1-3, especially whether Adam and Eve were historical figures and how to now understand doctrines like the fall and original sin. Many authors have written on the subject, but I was pleased to recently discover Denis Lamoureux.
Lamoureux is an associate professor of science and religion at the University of Alberta in Canada. He has three earned PhD degrees, in dentistry, theology (specialising in Genesis, and in Science and Religion) and biology (specialising in the evolutionary development of teeth). So he is well qualified to speak into the christian debate about evolution.
But he wasn’t always a christian evolutionist. His life has featured several changes in direction and belief. Raised a Catholic, he abandoned christianity while studying biology at university, and eventually became a dentist. He later returned to christian faith and commenced a PhD in theology with the aim of being a protagonist for Creationism. However his studies convinced him that evolution was true, so when he had completed the theology PhD he enrolled in a science PhD to round out his understanding.
I love Jesus and I accept evolution
Lamoureux has written several books, including a popular presentation of his views in I love Jesus and I accept evolution. He calls his view ‘evolutionary creation’, and I am particularly interested in how he harmonises evolution and Genesis 1-3.
Lamoureux argues that the spiritual truths of Genesis are presented within an ancient understanding of science expressed in ancient poetry. And so while Genesis 1-11 accurately teaches spiritual truths, it cannot be taken as accurate history, or science. This means he believes Adam and Eve and the story of the fall did not literally happen in the way described. He justifies these conclusions from the findings of modern evolutionary science, but also on what he sees as internal inconsistencies if we take Genesis 1-3 as literal history.
Nevertheless, he believes the Bible is the Word of God and inerrant when it teaches spiritual truths.
Holding all this together
To hold all this together, Lamoureux argues:
- The Bible often uses stories that are not necessarily factual to teach important truths – for example, parables.
- We need to distinguish (and not conflate) the message and the incidental details.
- Hence sin didn’t cause physical death and we don’t inherit original sin.
- Paul’s statements on these matters likewise are based on ancient understandings and should be distinguished from the spiritual truths Paul did teach.
I will be discussing these contentious but interesting ideas in more detail in the future.
I am not convinced by everything Lamoureux argues. I think he may be a little too “black and white”. Perhaps on some matters he too easily wipes away the traditional teaching, while on others he may hold on to too much. I think the development in the Old Testament from non-literal story to historical accounts may be more gradual and take longer than he seems to allow. And it isn’t easy to identify and separate message and incident, as he admits. But I need to read and think more.
Christianity is changing
But I feel quite sure that his conclusions are part of a major change occurring in christianity. Here is a whole-hearted evangelical christian with strong scientific and theological qualifications bringing a new and much-needed approach to the evolution debate within christianity, and he seems to me to be motivated by the Holy Spirit and an honest search for truth. He may not have got it all right, but I believe he is at least a step along the way.
Definitely worth taking notice of.
Denis Lamoureux videos
- Coming to Terms with Evolution: A Personal Story
- Beyond the “Creation” vs. “Evolution” Debate
- First in a series of videos on his book I love Jesus and I accept evolution. You can watch episodes 2-6 by simply altering the numbers in the URL. Alternatively, this post by Peter Enns provides links to episodes 1-6. I imagine there will be more in due course.