Is Evolution Biblically Acceptable? The Question of Genesis 1
December 29, 2014
Given what World Magazine has called a "major, well-funded push" to promote the acceptance of evolution among evangelical Christians, the case must be persuasively made against the compatibility of evolution and the Bible. In answer to this pro-evolutionary stance, I am one of those Bible teachers who believe that the implications of evolution involve sweeping changes to the Christian faith and life.
While I appreciate the moderate spirit of many who want to find a way to accept evolution alongside the Bible, I find that the more radical voices are here more helpful. For instance, I share the view of Peter Enns in the conclusion to his book The Evolution of Adam, writing that "evolution... cannot simply be grafted onto evangelical Christian faith as an add-on," but requires a fundamental rethinking of doctrines pertaining to creation, humanity, sin, death, and salvation. But Christian ethics must also be revised. Enns writes that under evolution "some characteristics that Christians have thought of as sinful," including "sexual promiscuity to perpetuate one's gene pool," should now be thought of as beneficial. Even so foundational an issue as the Christian view of death must be remolded by evolution. An evolution-embracing Christian faith must now see death as an ally: "the means that promotes the continued evolution of life on this planet."
I am not a qualified scientist and have virtually nothing to contribute to the science involved in evolution. As a Bible teacher and theologian, my concern is the necessary beliefs that flow from the Word of God. For the ultimate issue involved with evolution is biblical authority: must the Bible submit to the superior authority of secularist dogma? Or may the believer still confess together with Paul: "Let God be true though everyone were a liar" (Rom. 3:4). From this perspective, I plan a short series of articles arguing against the idea that evolution is biblically acceptable.
Evolution vs. Genesis 1
The first topic to consider is our reading of Genesis 1. It is frankly admitted by evolution supporters that anything like a literal reading of Genesis 1 rules out evolutionary theory. As Tim Keller wrote for Biologos: "To account for evolution we must see at least Genesis 1 as non-literal." I would alter that somewhat, since the issue really is not the absolute literalness of everything we read in Genesis. Rather the question is whether or not Genesis 1 is a historical narrative that intends to set forth a sequence of events. Evolution requires that Genesis 1 is teaching theology but not teaching history. But is this an acceptable categorization of Genesis 1?
First, though, does an historical Genesis 1 rule out evolution? The answer is Yes. Consider Genesis 1:21, which records that God created species by means of direct, special creation: "God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind." These "kinds" are species, which did not evolve from lower forms but were specially created by God. This special creation is highlighted in the case of the highest creature, man: "God created man in his own image; male and female he created them" (Gen. 1:27). If these verses are presenting a record of history, it is a history radically at odds with the history posed by evolutionary theory.
This raises the question as to the genre of Genesis 1. Literary scholars teach the widely accepted view that different kinds of literature cue different reading expectations. So what is the genre of Genesis 1? According to those who support evolution, Genesis 1 functions as a poetic rather than historical genre. The argument is that Genesis 1 employs highly stylized language and a repetitive structure. Keller's white paper argues that Genesis 1 is like the Song of Miriam in Exodus 15 or the Song of Deborah in Judges 5. It corresponds to more historical chapters by presenting a poetic rendition that must not be taken as the history itself. Just as Exodus 14 tells the history of the Red Sea crossing, followed by the Song of Miriam in Exodus 15, so does Genesis 1 relate to the more historically acceptable version of Genesis 2 (a subject that will be treated in a later article). Given this poetic form, Genesis 1 may be ruled out as teaching historical events.
The problem with this view is this: 1) there is a recognizable form to Old Testament poetry and; 2) Genesis 1 is not written in this form. You can see this by reading Genesis 1 and then reading the Song of Deborah.
Genesis 1:1-2 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
Judges 5:1-3 Then sang Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam on that day: "That the leaders took the lead in Israel, that the people offered themselves willingly, bless the Lord! "Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes; to the Lord I will sing; I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel.
These passages are not written in the same genre. I would point out in passing, however, that while Judges 5 certainly is a poem, the history it presents is nonetheless true. This observation challenges the idea that to label a chapter as poetry serves immediately to remove its historical value. Judges 5:26 celebrates Jael slaying Sisera: "she struck Sisera; she crushed his head; she shattered and pierced his temple." That is pretty much what Judges 4:21 says happened.
While defending the historical potential of poetry, that subject is not germane to Genesis 1. The reason for this is that the Bible's first chapter has a different genre, namely, historical prose narrative. Old Testament poetry is shaped by parallelism and repetition. Consider Psalm 27:1: "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid." Hebrew poetic parallelism involves the second line interpreting or expanding the meaning of the first. This is not what we see in the narrative of Genesis 1.
It takes great effort to deny that Genesis 1 fits the genre of historical narrative. Here, we see a structure consisting of a series of waw consecutive verbs. The waw is the Hebrew letter V, which means "and" when attached to the front of a verb. When attached to a noun it is disjunctive -- it stops the narrative flow. When it is consecutive, before a verb, the waw advances the narrative flow. "This happened and then this happened and then this happened." This is what we find in Genesis 1: "And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness" (Gen. 1:3-4). Given this construction, literary guides to the Bible commonly identify Genesis as "an anthology, or collection, of stories" in which "narrative is the primary form." Therefore, just like so many other chapters in the Bible which contain divine wonders that the unbeliever will reject, Genesis sets itself forth as recording events from history. Christians are expected to read accounts like this and believe that what is recorded actually happened, however contrary to secularist expectations.
A challenge to this view comes from Jack Collins' description of Genesis 1 as "exalted prose narrative." On the one hand, he admits "that we are dealing with prose narrative... [and] the making of truth claims about the world in which we live." On the other hand, he says the chapter presents an "exalted" form of writing. The reason for this is because of "the unique events described and the lack of other actors besides God" and also because of "the highly patterned way of telling it all." By this latter point he means the structure of successive days and the morning/evening pattern. Because of these features, Collins assets that "we must not impose a 'literalistic' hermeneutic on the text." By this, he means believing that the events happened as the text says they did. But why the exalted features overthrow the normal way of reading the text is not made evident. Might the exalted nature of the narrative be a function of the event itself: God's unique creation of all things? Wouldn't we expect an account of this to be "exalted" simply by virtue of the stupendous events? And what other actors than God might there be in such an account?
The reality is that the genre of Genesis 1 is the same as the genre of Genesis 2 through 50: historical narrative. Therefore the arguments used to remove the historicity of Genesis 1 must inevitably apply equally to the whole of Genesis, with all its teaching about God and man that is opposed to secularist dogma, including the Fall of Adam, Noah's Flood, the Tower of Babel, and God's covenant of salvation with Abraham. All of these narratives are highly stylized accounts involving exalted and unusual themes, at least from our perspective.
There is a reason, of course, for isolating Genesis 1 from the rest of the book. Admittedly, it is more "exalted" a narrative than others - it is the creation account! But Genesis 1 is also the chapter that most stands in the way of the theory of evolution, for which scholars are determined to find room by warning against "highly literalistic" readings - i.e. ones that take the narrative seriously as history. And when Genesis 1 has been neutralized, the same approach can be applied to other pesky narratives like Genesis 3 and the Fall of Adam. After all, there can be no Adam when evolution has been accommodated accepted by our reading of Genesis 1. So now the danger of a "highly literalistic" reading has advanced to chapter 3. But, wait, the flood narrative cannot be taken seriously in light of today's science and that narrative is highly structured, too. It will not take too long before the entire book of Genesis is reduced to historical rubbish.
One of the grand motives, I believe, for accommodating evolution in Genesis 1 is so that evangelicals can stop arguing about science and start teaching about Jesus. But do we fail to note that Jesus' story begins in Genesis 1? "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God..." (Jn. 1:1). In fact, when the interpretive approach used to neutralize Genesis 1 as history is necessarily extended by evolution, then the reason for Jesus' coming is lost? After all, without a biblical Adam as the first man and covenant head of the human race, then what is the problem for which the Son of God came? Here we see just how right Peter Enns is: evolution is not an add-on to the Bible, it is a replacement.
Dr. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Greenville, SC and the chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology