“Theistic Evolution” | Book Review

I remember the first time I had ever engaged in a debate with a non-Christian or someone who at least shared a different view than me. I was maybe ten or eleven (I don’t remember exactly what age), in class, when another student and I disagreed over the matter of whether evolution was compatible with Biblical scripture. I said no. He said yes.

Over the course of my life, I’ve found myself periodically coming back to this question. During my high school years, I was adamantly anti-evolution. I was a committed young-earther. In my early university years, I remained a so-called young-earth creationist. However, over the last couple of years, towards the end of my schooling and now as a graduated student of mechanical engineering I have significantly loosened my stance on evolution. This is a result of discussion with individuals much smarter than I am, people who have done far more study, including theological and scientific, and people that disagreed with me on the validity of young-earth creationism (YEC). I’ve found myself in a place that, to some extent, is willing to be persuaded, given a few basic theological assumptions are agreed upon.

The book, Theistic Evolution, thus, comes at an interesting moment in my spiritual journey. As I reexamine the question of evolution and the Christian faith–which, by the way, isn’t for me a dispute over faith and science (“Are They Friends or Foes?”)–this sizable collection of essays seeks to meet people, like me, where we are with valuable insight from a scientific, philosophical and theological perspective (the book is edited by folks like J.P. Moreland from Biola U, Stephen Meyer, and Wayne Grudem who provides theological contributions).

The book does well to define what exactly is attempted to be done. Meyer introduces the book’s scientific and philosophical content as arguing that neo-Darwinism and the neo-Darwinian formulation of evolution is at the very least highly contentious and, on its own, incapable of explaining macro-evolutionary phenomena. He properly notes that “Theistic Evolution” may have many definitions depending on who you ask and he even briefly comments on the definition I, personally, was espousing before I read this book. According to Meyer, evolution could either be referring to change over time (a trivial definition), Universal Common Descent (UCD), or the neo-Darwinist concept of natural selection as driving macro-evolution. Therefore, the theistic evolution position, depending on which version of evolution you agree with, could simply be a position which reconciles God’s existence and Biblical testimony with any or all of these possible definitions of evolution.

Before reading Theistic Evolution, I loosely accepted macro-evolution (a new development for me) and that the earth was old, while still holding, to some extent, to a literal interpretation of Genesis 1. I simply believed God could use evolution, if he so desired, to manage and shape His creation. Meyer identifies this position as being more properly labeled “Intelligent Design”, rather than Theistic Evolution, simply because it still maintains that God actively guides creation, whereas Theistic Evolution, otherwise defined as holding to the third definition of evolution (natural selection), asserts the random, unguided-ness of evolution and natural history. He iterates, “Other theistic evolutionists see the evolutionary process—including both the origin and subsequent evolution of life—as a purely unguided and undirected process, just as orthodox neo-Darwinists do. These theistic evolutionists conceive of God’s role as much more passive.” (Meyer, Theistic Evolution, p.218)

After this introduction, Meyer then states the target of his work, his thesis: neo-Darwinism and the doctrine of natural selection are irreconcilable with the Christian faith–these are necessarily and unavoidably problematic for the Christian. On the other hand, the first two definitions of evolution (change over time, and UCD) aren’t so problematic though UCD is disputable (and Meyer et al. do go on to challenge the theory). Natural selection means that evolution is unguided which runs contrary to Biblical teachings of the sovereignty and creative provision of God.  

Wayne Grudem further clarifies the theological contentions of the book which I found to be particularly helpful. This book isn’t trying to do establish whether or not theistic evolutionists are saved. Nor is the book attempting to give an argument for the most rigidly literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3. Grudem, within the scope of the book, isn’t even interested with the subject of the age of the earth, necessarily. The fundamental issues at hand for the Christian are the philosophical presuppositions of materialism, naturalism, and so-called scientism, as well as hermeneutical methodology which too many Christians seem to be overly dismissive towards.

This book is less about outright rejecting evolution per se as it is about upholding God’s design throughout natural history and the supreme authority of the text of scripture as a source of knowledge.

To this end, I’m in firm agreement.

There is significant scholarly weight behind the vast and diverse contributions. For example, there are authors like Douglas Axe who has over a decade of genetics research experience and expertise. As I read through the scientific chapters, I recognized that, while I have (some) technical training, I am by no means a scientist. It was important that I check for (a) fairness in the presentation of scientific data as well as the representation of opposing viewpoints, (b) logical consistency, especially when dealing with the core arguments specified by Meyer in his introduction, and (c) coherence and focus within the different works from different authors. I don’t want to go deep into content but briefly share my thoughts in relation to these three concerns.

With regards to concern (a) there was a lot of information and scientific discussion that I had not yet encountered in all of my previous research on the issue of evolution. I had always wondered how macro-evolution, the development of new organs and body functions over time, was possible or explained. But never before had I considered the specific problems to be addressed within the field of genetics. It makes perfect sense to me that the issue of micro- and macro-evolution, and natural selection, be examined as a problem within genetics and genetics research. So, seeing a presentation on new developments in said research and a clear articulation of the problems confronting the theistic (and atheistic) evolutionist was extremely valuable to me. Ultimately, the scientific chapters lend to further research on the individual’s part to investigate the claims of each author.

There are plenty of citations especially from opposing viewpoints which I think does only to strengthen the integrity of the book, in general, though perhaps in places a more serious treatment of said viewpoints could have been offered.

Then, looking at concern (b), I paid close attention to the logicality of the scientific and philosophical portion, especially since I am not educated enough to fact-check much of the scientific data and claims presented, since a lot of it relies on personal research and such. It would be hypocritical for me to declare any assertion “guilty until proven innocent”, however, I think it’s appropriate to be critical and analytical towards any claims made.

Some of the reasoning concerned me. Meaning, while the data being presented was deeply interesting and compelling, and while a lot of the assertions were valid and helpful, some of the logic early on, I noticed, was familiar to me. As such was the case, I could recognize, in some cases, how one might dispute the arguments being made. But, also, some of the arguments simply didn’t follow.

For example, I find it incredibly difficult to agree with natural selection after reading certain authors’ claim that the dismal odds of a functionally significant early genetic mutation occurring render the means of natural selection nearly futile for creating new body plans. However, it’s difficult, still, especially for the atheistic evolutionist, to make the leap that since the odds of X occurring are so incredibly small, therefore, it is untrue that X occurred in reality.

An example of similarly unconvincing argumentation is in this passage:

Intelligent design makes the falsifiable claim that design, or the appearance of design, derives only from intelligence. When we observe complex processes, digitally encoded information, or finely tuned machines, we observe the appearance of design, and according to the theory of intelligent design, we have good reason to infer intelligence. Stephen Meyer argues, “If we trace information back to its source, we always come to a mind, not a material process.” Meyer’s argument is a falsifiability argument: if anyone were to present a counterexample—design without intelligence—then intelligent design’s claim would be falsified and would have to be abandoned. However, continued absence of a counterexample provides evidence for intelligent design. (Ewert, Theistic Evolution, p.199)

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This doesn’t just apply to the case of God, but to other things as well. Absence of counterexamples of design sans intelligent causes is not evidence of the absence of counterexamples, or of intelligent design. (By the way, aside from this, Ewert very interestingly addresses various computer simulations as evidence for natural selection as a driver of evolution.)

This being said, a lot of valuable research has been done and these often times technically sophisticated portions of the book effectively perform their work in enlightening the Christian to the information that is out there, that they may not have even be aware of before. I certainly find it insurmountably difficult to accept natural selection as a valid theory, as an effective mechanism for bringing about evolutionary, large-scale change in animal species. And UCD (which I never really accepted to begin with), though not as theologically problematic, is also firmly established in my mind as a dubious idea.

(This doesn’t mean that the God-of-the-gaps objection holds any weight. We may see the rise of a new and better explanation for the fossil and geological data we see. However, I maintain, still, that God uses natural mechanisms actively to create this natural world.)

To the reader’s advantage, folks like Matti Leisola, necessarily I think, point out the fundamental problems of what I’ll call evolutionary experimentation–attempting to simulate in a lab what happens in nature so as to try and explain a phenomenon (teleology making its way into the argument for random, natural processes). Leisola, in his chapter “Evolution: A Story Without A Mechanism” weighs in anecdotally on the important influence of philosophical underpinnings in scientific conversation. He writes, “What, then, is the “modern” concept of truth? After hundreds of discussions over the years it is quite clear to me that very few natural scientists are aware of their philosophical commitments.” (Leisola, Theistic Evolution, p.159). It’s hard to dismiss the observation that few scientists consider their metaphysical assumptions when interpreting physical data. It is ever more difficult to dismiss that few are conscientiously committed to a worldview consistent with their presuppositions about reality or even try to engage honestly on such a basic plane of thought. I feel this way especially when such popular scientific thinkers like Stephen Hawing, Sam Harris, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins try their hand at tackling God and philosophy (on Twitter, for example).

What are the philosophical commitments of these scientists? I have yet to find a philosophical naturalist give an answer to the question of Meaning and Morality without resorting to “you create your own meaning/good” or borrowing assumptions from theism. I wonder how many scientists even consider this problem, the subjective nature of reasoning and morality under the assumptions of materialism, when interpreting the data and coming to conclusions about the origin of life. These are fundamental problems. Necessary problems. For the theistic evolutionist, does it really make sense to borrow conclusions from a naturalist worldview and import them into a Christian one? It’s an awfully tight fit, if so.

Another great point that sums up the dilemma for the theistic Evolutionist is here:

Now, one may try to argue that evolution and design are not contradictory. However, the writings of Charles Darwin and his contemporaries, and of many others ever since, prove that they are. Darwin and his followers explicitly claim that chance variation and the law of natural selection have created all species of living organisms. If so, design is ruled out. In contrast, if design is the cause of the creation of species, then chance and law are ruled out as the creators of species. (Leisola, Theistic Evolution, p.163)

Definitions matter.

Now, on my final point of concern (c), the focus was definitely there and the consistency and fluidity was there. Of course, each author has their own style, approach and area of expertise, but each piece served a larger, unifying purpose which created a diverse, multi-faceted, enjoyable reading and learning experience.

My final thoughts are on the final theological chapters of the book. I think this section is quite helpful and probably the most important part for Christian audiences. At least, if we’re reading and studying this issue presuppositionally.

Does a consistent hermeneutical approach to Genesis 1-3 make room for the (theo)logical conclusions of theistic evolution? The problem that is prevalent in many apologetic discussions (attempted to be thwarted without apology by Grudem and company) is when scholars take their science and philosophy to the text of sacred scripture rather than allowing the text to speak for itself and inform our theology. Grudem begins, where I would, with what is theopneustos, the God-breathed text of scripture. And, in this way, he provides a refreshing pastoral take on the issue at hand. In doing so he, I think, correctly totals the spiritual expenditure for the one holding to theistic evolution. What one gains in elevating and appealing to external sources of authority over and above the word of God, one loses in internal consistency.

What follows Grudem’s chapter is the deeper analysis of the text from the conservative mostly-historical perspective with responses to alternative interpretations. Dr. John D. Currid (professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary) gives a really interesting piece against many of these popular alternative approaches such as myth and poetic literature. He presses against the theories and explanations offered by the likes of Peter Enns and John Walton. Again, more detail is uncovered that many are unfamiliar with.

In the second final essay of this volume, Dr. Guy Prentiss Waters (professor of New Testament, also at RTS) argues the confliction between theistic evolutionary theory and the viewpoints of the New Testament authors. Acting as the full-handed finale of a persuasive combination of academic hay-makers, out of plain necessity, Dr. Waters brings into conversation the thought of Luke, Paul, Christ himself, Peter, and other NT writers who all, interestingly enough, seemingly held to what one might call a “traditional” interpretation of the Genesis account, to the chagrin of those who recently may have gone liberal, abandoned OT credibility, and ventured off solely with the NT in hand.

(I think Dr. Waters’s point in section B.1. (chapter 29) highlights what is, for me, one of the most compelling Biblical arguments in favor of the historical Adam and Eve.)

As a small sample of his argument, here is one of the conclusions Dr. Waters draws from Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 15:

… Paul presents the ministry of Christ in a particular light. Christ’s work of death and resurrection was not designed to destroy or eliminate our humanity. Neither was it designed so that we might transcend our humanity. It was designed to perfect and to advance our humanity. For this reason Paul repeatedly refers to Adam and to Christ, in parallel, as “man” (1 Cor. 15:47, 48, 49). If the omega point of our redemption is an eschatologically consummate humanity, then Paul’s alpha point in this chapter is the pre-eschatological humanity of Adam (v. 45, citing Gen. 2:7). To call into question the humanity of Adam or to challenge the universal descent of humans from Adam therefore has dire implications for the gospel as Paul outlines it in this chapter. Absent either a historical Adam or the universal descent of humanity from Adam, Paul’s gospel is incoherent. (Waters, Theistic Evolution, p. 907)

He would later go on to aptly handle more liberal treatments of the Pauline texts of 1 Corinth. 15 and Romans 5, for example, from Enns and Walton whom he gives extensive attention.

Theistic Evolution combines positive argument (here is what the science leads us to believe currently) with negative argument (here is why the alternatives can’t be true) in I think appropriate balance. Chapter 28 which deals with the OT teachings is more negative (and excellently so) while chapter 29 (NT) is a comprehensive, positively argued case for New Testament endorsement of the historicity of Adam and the Creation narrative.

In toto, there’s much to be learned, by all sides, by the lay man and the academic alike, from this robust and layered collection of essays critiquing theistic evolution. Often times, the relegation of one or two chapters to each author means they must reference their own work (in addition to other literature) to maintain brevity. This may frustrate some readers looking for the deepest level of detail but, especially for the avid apologist, this should be appreciated for the blessing that it is.

What I especially appreciated from this book is that (a) it treats this complex issue with enough respect that it gives a fairly lengthy, multi-disciplinary response, and (b) the theological writers affirm an elevated view of Scripture and Biblical truth. While not every single line of reasoning lands, I think, certainly every chapter provides an enjoyable and enlightening experience to the Christian reader who wants a reasonably balanced and fair understanding of the conservative interpretation of Genesis 1-3. While this work won’t end any conversation on evolution, science and faith, it can certainly be useful in giving direction to an uncertain mind and a reliable resource on the bookshelf of any apologetic preacher.

 


A special thanks to Crossway for supplying a complimentary copy of “Theistic Evolution” to review through their Blog Review program.

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