Since a 1950 papal encyclical pronounced that Darwin's theory about the origins of life and Christianity were not in conflict, the Roman Catholic church has viewed evolution as a "serious hypothesis."
But Pope John Paul II, in a letter released to the Pontifical Academy of Science meeting in October in Rome, said that "fresh knowledge leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis."
According to Owen Gingerich, an evangelical professor at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, understanding the significance of the pope's words requires a look at the early sixteenth century, when the Catholic church initially viewed as hypothetical the Copernican view that the Earth revolves around the sun.
"The public generally associates 'hypothesis' with the word mere," Gingerich says. "The pope is essentially saying that evolution is not a mere hypothesis. To the scientist, evolution has for some time functioned as a working hypothesis. To the creationist, it is a mere hypothesis and therefore something deserving of scorn."
The papal letter, which does not carry the same level of authority as an encyclical, reiterates several key Catholic understandings about evolution and Christian doctrine, including:
—"The human soul is directly created by God."
—There is not a single theory of evolution, but many. Yet any theory that ex-cludes the spiritual dimension is "incompatible" with biblical revelation.
—Evolution's validity as a theory must be "constantly tested against the facts."
DARWIN ON TRIAL: While the pope's letter does not stake out new ground, it does bolster the teaching of evolution at a time when Darwin's theories and nearly 150 years of related research have come under sharp scrutiny from within and without the scientific community.
"The neo-Darwinian theory with its 'blind watchmaker' mechanism has been tested against the facts and cannot explain them except with ad hoc, unfalsifiable evasive maneuvers and unsubstantiated storytelling," says University of California—Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial. "The theory is incompatible not only with the truth about man, but also with the truth about plants, animals, and the cell. It must therefore be rethought."
Lehigh University biochemistry professor Michael Behe, author of the controversial Darwin's Black Box, argues that the science of evolution cannot persuasively account for the complexity of life's basic building blocks, such as the cell. Behe states that he has no quarrel with evolution's concept of common descent. But he argues that Darwin's theory of random chance does not account for the major differences among the species.
Nor does Darwinian theory, according to Behe, account for "irreducibly complex" cellular systems. He writes, "An everyday example of irreducible complexity is a mousetrap. All the pieces have to be in place before you catch any mice."
Yet, Behe says, evolutionary scientists have been highly resistant to consideration of "intelligent design" explanations of complex life forms. For example, Johnson notes the National Association of Biology Teachers adopted in 1995 the following definition of evolutionary theory:
"The diversity of life on earth is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies, and changing environments."
Johnson says such a definition of evolution as an impersonal and unsupervised natural process leads directly to assertion that the existence of human beings is completely happenstance.
ONGOING DIVISIONS: Although many Christian academics adhere to the biblical teaching that God is the source of all material creation, there is deep disagreement on how it occurred. Thus while secular scholars endorse an all-encompassing scientific perspective concerning the material world, religious scholars occupy a wide spectrum on the issues of life's origins.
These disagreements among Christians have been exacerbated by apparent misinterpretations of the papal letter. For instance, conservative columnist Cal Thomas wrote that John Paul II has "succumbed in his declining years to the tyranny of evolutionary scientists who claim we are related to monkeys." In rebuttal, however, Keith Fournier, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice and author of A House United: Evangelicals and Catholics Together, said the pope's letter reaffirms the Roman Catholic stance that "evolution was not inconsistent with the church's teaching on the account of creation [in Genesis]."
Among Christian experts on evolution, an inescapable issue concerns what to make of the six-day creation account in Genesis. Ray Van Leeuwen, professor of Bible and theology at Eastern College in Saint David's, Pennsylvania, says, "Nobody interprets the Genesis creation account literally, and if they think they do, they're fooling themselves."
According to Van Leeuwen, Genesis states that the stars are in the firmament and the waters are above the firmament. Noting that God unleashed the flood waters during Noah's time by opening the gates in the firmament, Van Leeuwen says, "I don't know of anyone who thinks the flood waters came from beyond the stars, a distance of at least four light years."
Van Leeuwen contends that Genesis contains principles that have important implications for science, but is not itself scientific. "We learn from Genesis that God is faithful to creation, that creation has stability and constancy. This makes scientific investigation possible."
Van Leeuwen maintains that Genesis is best understood in terms of its author's references to ancient Near Eastern culture, including Egyptian cosmology: "The nations around Israel at that time maintained a belief in a polytheistic fusion of deity and cosmos. The thunderbolt of Genesis 1 is the statement that the one God of Israel had made all things."
To try to interpret Genesis literally, Van Leeuwen says, is to allow "the modern scientific world-view to dictate the terms of the debate." Van Leeuwen believes Genesis ought not to be cited as scientific evidence to establish that evolution is false.
Creationist Hugh Ross, founder and president of Reasons to Believe, observes that the papal letter undermines classic Darwinian theory. "The pope refers to theories of evolution. That opens the door to many different ways to interpret the fossil record." Ross says the Genesis account is truthful. He believes that earth is 4.6 billion years old, with life begining 3.9 billion years ago.
According to Howard Van Till, a Calvin College physics professor, there is precedent in Christian thought for the view that God "gifted the created world from the beginning with all the capabilities it would need in order to actualize every kind of physical structure and life form in the course of time." Van Till maintains that evolution may be part of God's design.
"We need to get away from this idea that the fundamental presuppositions of modern science are an outgrowth of an antitheistic naturalism," Van Till says. "They are very much at home with historic Christian theism if you go back in history."
Van Leeuwen says, "What is non-negotiable is that human beings uniquely bear the image of God." Van Leeuwen also affirms that "the God of Scripture is the God of all reality and does not contradict himself."
But he believes there is something to be learned from history: "The Christianity of the Middle Ages was the Siamese twin of a geocentric world-view. When geocentrism was proven false, the natural conclusion was that Christianity was false. That's what can happen when you identify scriptural truth with fallible scientific understanding."
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