Posted by: Timothy McNinch | October 15, 2009

What is “evolutionary theology”?

I’m not talking about the evolution of theology, though I do want to ask about how theology is changing. And I’m not talking about theistic evolution, though I probably agree with some form of the philosophy. I’m thinking of this as perhaps the flip side of the “theistic evolution” coin.

Theistic evolution presumes “theos”, then looks for ways to see God at work in biological evolution. I feel a need to explore what happens when we presume evolution, and then ask what happens to “theos”, i.e., “evolutionary theology”. Now, I do presume God; I am and will always be a theist. But if I want to take the scientific method seriously as a (yes) limited, but still real and valuable epistemological source, there are some theological questions I need to ask. And I haven’t heard many others asking them. So, I thought, why not blog it?

Here are some of my questions:

• What is the biological definition of “life”, and what implications does that have for an understanding of the “soul”?

• If death is a necessary part of the evolutionary process, how do we imagine the role of death in God’s “creative process”?

• We attribute global consequences to human sin (“the fall”), but were not those dynamics (death, decay, carnivorism, thorns, earthquakes) present in creation before humans evolved? How does this impact our understanding of the Biblical account?

• If humans evolved from earlier species, who was Adam? Even if Adam is a literary device (“Adam” means “Earth Man”), how can we understand human-ness in light of evolution? Or a concept like the “image of God”. How are homo sapiens divine image-bearers in a way that, say, neanderthals are not? And since evolution takes place in populations and not in a direct line of descent, who then was the first “image bearer”? And what about that person’s mother?

• What impact does evolution have on our theology of “original sin”? If (“IF”) the early chapters of Genesis are not describing history, but are rather a poetic depiction of the theological relationship between God, Humanity, and Creation, then is a “pre-condition” of sinfulness really passed from parents to children, inherited from Adam? How does this impact a theology of total depravity?

• How do we imagine the “new creation” as a world without sin or death? Will God really disrupt the path of evolution that started with the Big Bang? How would that impact physics? Biology?

• What light does evolution shed on the theological problem of evil and suffering?

Well, that’s a start… What would you add?



  1. I think this a great and timely topic! I’ve often wondered about the topic of death and it’s relationship to evolution & sin. So I’d be interested in hearing how Tim and others have thought through that sticky topic. I also think human evolution and the origins of our relationship with God are fascinating.

    One of the first topics that comes to mind is our theology of Biblical interpretation. I think a lot of the misunderstanding around the issue of evolution shows the need in our country for regular church folk and pastors to learn and think about how to study the Bible. In Evangelicalism we seem to have gotten caught in the either/or trap that the Bible is either literal or metaphorical. I REALLY appreciated the one sermon that I’ve heard in church, which went into the background of the historical context of Genesis 1-3, especially explaining Creation myths as a literary genre. Many folks are shocked and caught off guard when they learn about this in secular colleges & universities! We all should find ways to make sure the WHOLE church thinks through how to study the Bible well.

  2. To the author,

    In regard to your questions:

    1. The biological definition of life is hotly contested [though I feel compelled to mention Dr Werner Gitt’s observation: “The common factor present in all living organisms, from bacteria to man, is the information contained in all their cells.”]; however, the Bible makes distinctions between plant [“green things”] and animal life [“nephesh”], which makes sense if you think aboout it. Dead flowers bother us a whole lot less than a dead carcass on our living room table!

    2. You’re presuming both the truth of evolution and that God would actually use such a process [which i realize is the entire point of your post]. The first part of your postulate is partially incorrect. Death isn’t really a part of evolution; that is, it’s not part of the mechanism, though it’s present in the process. To wit, molecules-to-man evolution is a process of cycling death and mutation via natual selection, sexual selection, etc whereby all life is descended from the first life. So death is assumed in the process, as are mass extinctions. The theological problem we run into here is that the Bible states that by one man sin entered into the world and death by sin. It also states that the wages [deserved earnings] of sin is death. How is it earned if simply a natural part of the life cycle of all organisms? How is death the result of man’s sin if death predates both man and sin? Unfortunately, the reason these questions are nonsense is because the Bible specifically identifies Death as the last enemy. An enemy. Not a natural part of life. To make death, the last enemy, part of the creative process of a God who identifies Himself with Life is, I imagine, a special sort of blasphemy. In any case, it assumes that God did not create by fiat, by spoken command, as the Bible relates nor in 6 solar days as it also plainly states in both Genesis and Exodus 20:11 [i.e- the 4th Commandment]

    3. “We attribute” is not quite correct. This should read, “The Bible attributes,” for it is most certainly the case that the Bible records that death and thorns were a direct result of the Curse, and it is infered from the Text that decay [the earth travails and cries out for rebirth] and carnivory [all animals being given vegetation to eat originally] came after the Fall. There is some disagreement as to the source of earthquakes. Some attribute this as a direct result of the Fall [the aforementioned accursed ground], while others suppose it an indirect result of the catastrophic plate tectonics involved in the Noachim Flood. I lean toward the latter opinion.

    How does this impact our understanding of the Biblical account? It makes complete nonsense of it. Our hamartiology and soteriology [theology of sin and salvation, respectively] both account for the need for salavation in the literal Fall of a literal Adam which required a literal Savior, Christ the Lord. All cannot be imputed Adam’s sin unless they share his spiritual bloodline. And it also affects our overall eschatalogy [theology of the end]: If Christ sits at the right hand of the Father until the restoration of all things, are we to be restored to a world of death, suffering, mutation, cancer and carnivory. Passages in Isaiah et cetera lead us to believe that animal carnivory will cease [lion lying down with the lamb, children placing their hands in snake’s dens with no worry of harm], as will death, pain, suffering. And our bodies will be perfect. We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. This paints a far different restoration than a return to a former state of evolution, death, thorns, pain, suffering, carnivory, et cetera. Worse, this affects our general theology [our theology of God and who He is], for if evolution and millions of years is true He called all of Creation with all of carnivory, suffering, death, mass extinctions and suffering “very good.” What sort of an ogre does that?

    4. If Adam is a literary device, if he never existed, well, even the atheists have this one figured out:

    “The most devastating thing though that biology did to Christianity was the discovery of biological evolution. Now that we know that Adam and Eve never were real people the central myth of Christianity is destroyed. If there never was an Adam and Eve there never was an original sin. If there never was an original sin there is no need of salvation. If there is no need of salvation there is no need of a saviour. And I submit that puts Jesus, historical or otherwise, into the ranks of the unemployed. I think that evolution is absolutely the death knell of Christianity.” [given in a debate with William Craig, Atheism vs Christianity video, Zondervan, 1996.]

    If Adam is a literary device, human-ness is the state of being a talking monkey with an overestimation of his own importance in the grand scheme of things. To be fair, if we add God into the mix, he picked humanity. The question is whether we’re more than the sum of our parts; an airplaine is the sum of it’s parts, but none of those parts fly – only the whole. Of course, we can state this is the case, because it is, but we have to be sure that the cause we attribute this phenomenon to is rational. Could God have picked out the human species and made us living souls on a higher plane than animals? He could do anything, so yes. But does that idea even make sense in light of the Bible’s declaration that we’re made in God’s image? Is God a primate?

    I should point out that one of the questions in this section is invalid. Neandertals have been re-classified as homo sapiens neadertal in recognition of the fact that they appear to be totally human. In fact, their skulls [with a larger brain capacity than most of us poor homo sapiens] are close in morphology to modern Aborigines. If your question were rephrased to substitute, say, australopithecines like Lucy for Neandertals, it would at least make sense in an evolutionary paradigm. In answer to the general thesis of the question, pre-humans wouldn’t be God’s image bearer by simple fact of not being human. That also answers your question about a pre-human mother, btw.

    You do well to note that evolution allegedly takes place in populations not individuals. It pains me to note that Adam and Eve were a couple. A pair. Two individuals. What happened to the rest of the species? Sin could only be imputed to those under Adam’s bloodline, if we’re consistent with the Biblical text. Evolution makes nonsense of a single image bearer as the Bible relates.

    5. As noted, the notion of evolution erases the notion of a literal Adam and with it any tangible notion of a literal Fall and a literal need for a Savior. Sin becomes an inherited animal characteristic, muddled by our need to co-exist peacefully in order to survive.

    Making Genesis a poetical depiction of theology begs the question. After all, what is our theological position of a need for salvation based on if not the history of Genesis. It makes a horrible liar out of God, who gave us Bible stories but never let us know they weren’t true histories until 21st century science came along to unveil His grand charade. It has none of the marks of an allegory, except that some folks feel the need to find a way to make the revealed Word of an infallible, infinite God who was there fit the error-prone graspings of men who largely reject Him and His Wor, and who weren’t there anyway.

    As Jonathan Sarfati points out:

    “If an old earth were really the teaching of Scripture, then one claim is glaringly conspicuous by its absence, that is, any claim in commentaries that the Bible unambiguously teaches long ages. Rather, usual claim is that the biblical text appears on the surface to teach a young earth but may allow for an old earth. We never hear something like, ‘Yes, the decay of the earth’s magnetic field and rapid reversals seem to provide irrefutable proof of a young earth. But we mustn’t allow even the strongest science to overrule the clear teaching of the Word of God that the earth is billions of years old.’”

    6. Here you see how eschatalogy is effected. Will God really disrupt the fish-to-philosopher process we’ve never observed in either biology or the fossil record? You’re forced to ignore the fact that God created everything “very good” if you accept evolution. You’re forced to wonder if a cessation of the “natural” order is rational for a new heaven and earth. btw, you also presume the Big bang here.

    But the short answer is that we imagine a world without sin and death as a restoration of the world that was before a literal Adam, a literal 6-day Creation and a literal Fall.

    7. Since mass extinctions occur by evolutionary presumptions [not just the dinosaurs and the KT Boundary – there were allegedly others], then God creates things and cares more about the end result [man, in this case] than the creatures involved in the process. It makes God a complete ogre.

    If you’re interested, I have more information on the pernicious effects of “compromise creationism” positions such as the one you propose on my site on this page:

    -Sirius Knott

  3. Sirius, thanks for your very thorough and thoughtful response to my post. I will definitely take your answers to my questions as a POV to be considered as I delve more deeply into each of these themes.

    There is much in your response that I will disagree with in the end, I’m afraid. But I found overall that you echo the same tensions I feel between mainstream evolutionary science and some of the traditional doctrines of Christianity, tensions that have not been adequately resolved (to my knowledge) by “middle-ground” attempts like Intelligent Design, Old-Earth Creationism, and the like–which you label “compromise creationism”.

    If we take the Bible (and the early chapters of Genesis in particular) to be “true” and “inspired by God”, must we reject the science of evolution no matter how compelling the accumulated evidence in its favor? Sounds like you answer with a resounding affirmative. I can respect that position, and appreciate the desire to be faithful to God that I gladly assume is behind it.

    I may not answer the question in the same way as you, Sirius, but I am motivated by the same desire to honor our Creator, and am therefore compelled to continue wrestling through these themes. Thanks for your input along the way.

  4. To clarify, I do call it compromise creationism, but that’s not to say that I think you have to be a Young Earth Creationist to be a Christian; but I think you should, obviously. I wrote more on that subject recently:

    You are certainly correct that I would answer with a resounding affirmative if it cam down to it as you suggest; however, I do not find the accumulated evidence for evolution compelling. In fact, I find there to be an embarrassing dearth of the really big claim of molecules-to-man evolution. Claims that observable horizontal changes, speciation and natural selection, within kinds are somehow smaller increments of vertical fish-to-philosopher evolution simply beg the question. DNA comparisons only underscore that similar body plans require similar blueprints, but say nothing of cause and effect. They simply read into that one. Similar body parts [homology] can be interpreted in terms of design efficiencies [you don’t re-invent the wheel; you use what works]. The fossil record doesn’t evidence small successive changes by gradualism, but rather sudden appearance and stasis, so we can’t confirm it via the long view. They suggest vestigial organs, but assuming that an organ is leftover simply because you do not yet know its function hasn’t paid off very well for them – and it’s bad medicine. the appendix, your tonsils and nearly 100 other proposed so-called vestigial organs now have known functions.

    In the end it is a matter of authority: God’s revealed, inerrnat Word or the error-prone graspings of men who weren’t there; nevertheless, I’ll bite:

    What evidence is it that you find so compelling?

    -Sirius Knott

  5. Don’t worry Sirius, I’m not baiting you 😉

    I’m glad YEC isn’t your litmus test of who is/isn’t a Christian. Really.

    And I guessed you might take issue with my use of the word “compelling”. Obviously the evidence for evolution is not compelling to you. But, like you say, though you’ve done your own research on the evidence for/against evolution, the issue for you isn’t evidence but authoritative revelation.

    Hypothetically speaking, even if the evidence for “molecules to man” evolution (as you say it) WERE rationally compelling to you, it sounds like you would still opt for the revealed Word of God as the more reliable source of knowledge about origins.

    So there are (at least) two parallel conversations to be had. The first is about whether or not the scientific evidence for evolution is rationally compelling. The second is about how to rightly understand what the Bible says about origins and the doctrines that depend on that.

    I’m personally interested in both conversations, but mainly in the second for the purposes of this blog. I want to ask about the theological consequences for those who DO find evolution compelling. Can we honestly and consistently harmonize evolution and Christian theology (adapting our theology to a much more complex understanding of the physical cosmos than the ancient worldview) and maintain our fidelity to the text of Scripture? Does a context-sensitive interpretation of Genesis relieve some of this tension?

    I know your answer to those, Sirius, but I’m going to need to press this out for myself… I’ll appreciate your feedback along the way.

  6. Let me know if you need any help. Or at least an alternate viewpoint.

    You should know that when my wife asked me about evolution 11 years ago, I answered, “Well, I suppose God could have used evolution.” Things have obviously changed.

    Sirius Knott

  7. […] and Millions of Years Affects Traditional Theology I recently came across a post calledWhat is “evolutionary theology”? The author asked a series of questions concerning the implications for theology if evolution were […]

  8. Great discussion! As someone who has dismissed the importance of evolution vs. non-evolution in everyday life, I find this is truly interesting. I’ll be sitting in the nosebleed section listening since I don’t have much to contribute yet! Thanks for devoting your time to expanding and challenging our minds on this subject.

  9. Interesting undertaking! As a former evangelical / current Episcopalian, I’ve found the following linked document helpful in sorting out some of my own questions. I’m interested in evangelical perspectives on how the approach outlined in the Episcopal “Catechism of Creation” is useful or not useful.

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