Creation and Evolution
Can a Christian believe in both creation and evolution?
Of course not. Creation and evolution are mutually contradictory. But as is so often the case, reality is not as black-and-white as you have been led to believe. There are more than two possible positions on the creation and evolution debate, forming somewhat of a continuum. Millard Erickson (Christian Theology, second ed, pp. 501-7) identifies five major positions that people take on the debate between creation and evolution:
- Naturalistic Evolution – The position that God does not exist, and that each species evolved by chance through natural selection alone.
- Deistic Evolution – The position that God exists, but did not play a role in guiding evolution. At most, God created conditions that would facilitate independent evolution.
- Theistic Evolution – Similar to Deistic Evolution, this position holds that God exists but allowed physical evolution to play out on its own. Where this position differs from the deistic view is in positing that at some point God added a spiritual element in order to create humanity.
- Progressive Creation – This position holds that God created each individual species, but allowed for natural development within each species, which Erickson calls “intrakind” evolution, or microevolution.
- Fiat Creation – God made each species in its entirety as a unique, direct creative act. There is no sense in which humanity developed out of other species.
Erickson himself argues for position four because he believes it takes account of the biblical data as well as the physical evidence that there appear to be transitions between species.
Erickson’s mistake is in drawing a sharp distinction between natural processes and God’s intervention. Erickson’s posits that God sometimes acts supernaturally and sometimes acts through natural processes. But I would want to press him on exactly this point. If God is acting and directing in both cases, then is there really even a distinction between the two? It would seem more appropriate to say that God directed the entire process, but sometimes His direction was more evident than at other times. If this is the case, I fail to see why we wouldn’t just call it Theistic Evolution. It is essentially evolution at God’s direction.
If Erickson is wrong, then which of the other four positions should we adopt?
I’m not sure that any of them are right. Erickson’s five categories miss some of the most important distinctions in the debate. Before deciding on an answer, consider the following questions:
- If God exists, would it be more likely that life developed independently, or under God’s direction?
- Is it possible that God could have guided the process of natural chance? Or is this merely a contradiction of terms? Scripture seems to leave a place for finding God’s order behind apparent randomness. Does God direct every seemingly random event?
- Can it rightly be called creation if God worked through ordinary processes to create? Or does creation require supernatural intervention?
Erickson’s categories do not capture the importance of these questions. I suggest reworking the options as follows:
- Naturalistic Evolution – This position can be held independently of one’s view of the existence of God. But on this view one thing is certain: regardless of whether God exists, He was not the guiding force behind the development of life.
- Theistic Natural Evolution – God exists and brought about life providentially through the natural processes of chance. This view would require that it is possible for an event to be completely random and yet have the result be directed by God. What appears to be a contradiction is, on this view, merely a paradox that is difficult to comprehend but not actually contradictory.
- Evolutionary Creation – This position holds that life developed over time, as in Darwinian evolution, but the most important developments were due to God’s intervention, not the ordinary process of chance.
- Sequential Creation – God created life sequentially, from less complex to more complex, like a master architect, building upon the previous plans. God has never caused one species to evolve into another species.
This way of drawing the map differs from Erickson’s in several key ways. First, I don’t see any relevant distinction between Naturalistic Evolution and Deistic Evolution. The essential question is whether the process was guided. God’s existence is not particularly relevant to this discussion. Either way, on the Naturalistic Evolution view, it would be a misnomer to call nature, “creation.” Second, Erickson does not seem to consider the possibility that randomness could be divinely directed through God’s providence. If such a concept is not a logical absurdity, then it is not a contradiction to believe in both “creation” and Darwinian evolution; they would be two words for the same thing. Third, the term “Progressive Creation” is misleading. Erickson’s position is really a form of evolution; it’s just that he rejects naturalism. This is why I think “Evolutionary Creation” is a better term for his position.
So which position should a Christians hold? Historically, the most important element that theologians have stressed is the divine plan behind our existence. Thus a Christian may legitimately hold options two, three, or four. Only option one may not be held consistently with traditional Orthodox Christian theology.
It appears that Option four, Sequential Creation, sits somewhat uncomfortably with the physical evidence. But it is not as incompatible as Erickson would have us believe. “Sequential Creation” makes more sense out of transitional forms than when it is labeled “Fiat Creation.”
Options two and three sit somewhat uncomfortably with Genesis 1. But they are not as incompatible as our more conservative brothers and sisters would have us believe. There is a long tradition in Christian theology, going back at least to Augustine, that holds that Genesis 1 is meant to be interpreted as a poem (and thus we should be open to the possible use of metaphor) rather than a straightforward historical account.
My view of scripture is that it is primarily a covenantal document between God and His people. I have not found a compelling theological reason to invest the first several chapters of Genesis with the historical authority that conservatives want to give it. That is not to say that I reject these chapters, but merely that I am just not quite sure what to do with them. I am much more comfortable withholding judgment on the grounds of conflicting evidence than I am taking a stand either way and being forced to shut my eyes to any evidence that doesn’t fit my view.