Not long ago a pastor friend called, asking for help. “I’m preaching through Genesis 1–11,” he said, “and I need some advice on the whole creation and evolution thing.” There was anxiety in his voice. He wasn’t sure how preaching on origins was going to go in his church setting—or whether he would even survive! Understandably so. There is hardly a more controversial subject among evangelical Christians.
Several years earlier, a rumor circulated within my congregation along the following lines: “Pastor Todd thinks we came from apes!” My congregation was, historically speaking, on the conservative side of many theological issues, this one included. In its not-too-distant past, the church had embraced six-day, young-earth creationism as its (unofficial) teaching position. Needless to say, the fact that their relatively new and fairly young pastor held to a version of evolutionary creation caused some congregational heartburn.
This tension-filled season in the life of our church provided a good occasion to engage in serious conversations about origins issues. We grappled with our doctrinal boundaries as a local church: What degree of diversity will we allow? And given our diversity, what can we still affirm together as a unifying doctrinal core?
The upshot was the development of a series of ten theses on creation and evolution that we believe (most) evangelicals can (mostly) affirm. We weren’t looking for perfect unanimity. Our ultimate goal was to maintain the “unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3) and to prioritize the gospel as of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). It was important for us to arrive at a position on creation and evolution that was in keeping with that faithful Christian saying, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
In this essay, I share our ten theses on creation and evolution—or what we call Mere Creation. This is not what young-earth creationists believe or old-earth creationists believe or advocates of intelligent design believe or evolutionary creationists or theistic evolutionists believe but what most (evangelical) Christians, at most times, have believed and should believe about creation.
1. The doctrine of creation is central to the Christian faith.
Historically speaking, evangelicals have struggled to take the doctrine of creation seriously. Our love has been soteriology and Christology, not creation. But our neglect of the doctrine of creation is not only because our attention has been elsewhere; we have sometimes downplayed the doctrine of creation for the sake of ecclesial cohesion. We’ve categorized the doctrine as a “secondary” or “tertiary” issue in an attempt to preserve church unity. Why break fellowship over an issue not directly related to the mission of the church or the salvation of souls?
One of the strengths of evangelicalism is its ability to forge common cause out of theological diversity. And yet the danger is that our toleration for doctrinal differences becomes an indifference to doctrine. Of course, some doctrines are nearer to the core or closer to the periphery than others. Angelology isn’t central. Nor are certain aspects of eschatology. But the doctrine of salvation is; so too the doctrine of God, the doctrine of the Spirit, and the doctrine of Christ.
We should add to this list the doctrine of creation for the simple reason that it addresses some of the fundamentals of our faith—the reason for and nature of the world God has made, as well as the reason for and nature of the creatures God has made, not least those creatures made in God’s image.
2. The Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God, inspired, authoritative, and without error. Therefore whatever Scripture teaches is to be believed as God’s instruction, without denying that the human authors of Scripture communicated using the cultural conventions of their time.
I have found it helpful in origin discussions to begin with a full-throated affirmation of the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of the Bible. This is especially true for those who are sympathetic to evolutionary creation since they are sometimes unfairly portrayed as sitting loosely to Scripture.
I’ve also found that Christians who reject an evolutionary account of origins do so not primarily because they find the science unconvincing but because they have come to the conclusion that such a view will inevitably undermine the authority of the Bible. The fear is that embracing evolution leads to compromising biblical authority.
The thrust of this thesis is that whatever the Bible teaches, God teaches. Whatever Scripture asserts (as distinct from what Scripture merely affirms) is to be believed as what God intends it to say. It’s not a viable option for those committed to the authority of Scripture to say, “I know the Bible teaches this, but I don’t believe it.”
In saying this, however, we want to avoid implying that God did an “end run” around the authors of Scripture. No amount of stress on a “high view of the Bible” should cause us to inadvertently downplay the human side of the equation. As D. A. Carson nicely puts it, “The Bible is an astonishingly human document.” We also do not want to suggest that a robust view of Scripture leaves no room for the authors to communicate divine truths through the cultural conventions of their time.
When we read the Bible, then, not least when we read the creation accounts in Genesis 1–2, we want to know the author’s intention as expressed in the text written, even if this doesn’t exhaust a faithful handling of Scripture. At root, we want to know what this particular author meant to say, at this particular time, with these particular cultural conventions.
3. Genesis 1-2 is historical in nature, rich in literary artistry, and theological in purpose. These chapters should be read with the intent of discerning what God says through what the human author has said.
We move now from what Scripture is to what Scripture says. This is where all the proverbial bugs come out of the rug.
Of course, there is much to debate about how to interpret Genesis 1–2. All too often, the question is posed as an either-or. Is Genesis fact or fiction? Is it historical or theological? Does it reveal literary crafting or is it describing actual historical events?
We need a balanced approach to the question of the literary genre of Genesis 1–2. This means allowing for the fact that the text is a carefully crafted composite genre with all three elements—literary, historical, theological—present.
Clearly, the text is intended to be read as a historical account, at least at some level. This isn’t ancient mythology or folklore. More is going on. And yet a close reading of these texts reveals rich literary artistry. This isn’t the kind of “just the facts” reporting you find in a newspaper.
Yet it seems clear that the author’s aim is ultimately theological—to say something about God, the nature of the world, and the identity and destiny of human beings who are created in his image (Gen. 1:27). The point is not ultimately about supernovas or greenhouse gases or horticulture but about “God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth,” as the Apostle’s Creed puts it.
Of course, affirming that Genesis 1–2 is a composite genre doesn’t immediately solve issues of interpretation. Scholars will undoubtedly continue to debate the meaning of these chapters. But as we seek common ground, we should at least begin with a shared commitment to authorial intention and agreement that the genre of Genesis 1–2 is complex and arguably composite.
4. God created and sustains everything. This means that he is as much involved in natural processes as he is in supernatural events. Creation itself provides unmistakable evidence of God’s handiwork.
Any conversation about origins involves under-the-surface assumptions about who God is, what the world he has made is like, and how God interacts with this world. For instance, our view of God is often more deistic than theistic. In our secular age, even Christians are accustomed to viewing the world in mechanistic or materialistic ways—we find it quite easy to affirm that God is involved in raising someone from the dead, but we also slip into patterns of thinking that exclude God from the routine workings of nature, like the rotation of the stars, the formation of clouds, or the grass as it grows. That’s just nature doing its thing.
This implicit naturalism limits our theological imagination in unhelpful ways. We need to avoid being essentially atheistic in the way we view the “natural” world, as though God isn’t involved in all the processes scientists like to study—things like cell divisions, photosynthesis, or condensation. As Karl Barth says of God’s providential interaction with his creation, “He co-exists with it actively, in an action which never ceases and does not leave any loopholes.” Or consider Psalm 104, which celebrates God at work in virtually everything.
An upshot of this is that creation itself provides unmistakable evidence of God’s handiwork. As the psalmist declares, “The heavens are telling the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1, NRSV). Or as the apostle Paul puts it, God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20, ESV).
5. Adam and Eve were real persons in a real past, and the fall was a real event with real and devastating consequences for the entire human race.
This is likely to be a sticking point for some. An increasing number of evangelical evolutionary creationists are giving up belief in Adam and Eve as real persons in a real past. The genetic evidence, at least as we now understand it, makes belief in an original human pair doubtful if not impossible.
I suspect in 20 years’ time, support for Adam and Eve as real persons in a real past will be a minority view even within evangelicalism. Should this come to pass, I remain confident that the Christian faith will survive, even though this will require some reconfiguration of our deepest convictions.
That being said, I personally don’t find the genetic evidence compelling enough to jettison belief in a real Adam and Eve in a real past. I admit that the evidence is mounting and at this stage looks (to my untrained eye) impressive. But two scriptural convictions keep me tethered to the historic Christian conviction about the original human pair. The first is the testimony of Scripture, especially Adam’s presence in genealogies (Gen. 5; Luke 1) and in Paul’s Adam-Christ typology in Romans 5. Even more compelling is the idea that the Christian view of salvation appears to hinge on the doctrine of original sin and the fall as an event, which in turn requires a real person to have transgressed and thus plunged humanity into a state of sin from which it needs redemption.
It may be the case that faithful Christians will develop biblically legitimate and theologically sensible ways of explaining the gospel apart from a real Adam and Eve. But until that point, the better part of wisdom is maintaining a spirit of engaged conversation on this issue.
6. Human beings are created in the image of God and are thus unique among God’s creatures. They possess special dignity within creation.
Modern science has demonstrated that there is strong biological continuity between human beings and all other animals. Human beings, for example, share 98.5 percent of their DNA with chimpanzees. It is increasingly difficult, then, to claim that human beings are qualitatively distinct from the animal kingdom.
Indeed, it is surprising to note how much emphasis the Genesis creation account places on the continuity between human beings and other creatures. When God created human beings, he didn’t cause them to fall from the sky but formed them from the dust of the earth.
And yet Scripture clearly intends to say that something special took place on the sixth day of creation when God created human beings. The change of language is indication enough: from “Let the waters teem” (Gen. 1:20) and “Let the land produce” (Gen. 1:24) to “Let us make” (Gen. 1:26). Here the creation reaches a new stage, a high point, and God leans into the creation of humanity in a way that is distinct from what has gone before.
The Christian tradition has tended to locate this uniqueness in the doctrine of the imago Dei, or image of God. Defining precisely what this image of God entails has been vexing for theologians. But the basic point is straightforward enough—humanity is endowed by God with a special dignity. While there is continuity between humans and the rest of animal-kind, this sixth-day creation called “humankind” is unique.
7. There is no final conflict between the Bible rightly understood and the facts of science rightly understood. God’s “two books,” Scripture and nature, ultimately agree. Therefore Christians should approach the claims of contemporary science with both interest and discernment, confident that all truth is God’s truth.
Some take issue with the notion of God’s “two books,” the book of Scripture and the book of nature. But metaphor goes back at least to Augustine and can be found in esteemed places like the Belgic Confession.
The point is that these two books, Scripture and nature, ultimately agree. At times in history we have thought they disagreed or were in conflict. This is because both the book of Scripture and the book of nature require interpretation. Today we want to affirm that all truth is God’s truth—wherever you find it, whether in the Bible or in the creation.
A corollary of this is that Christians should approach the claims of contemporary science with both interest and discernment. Sadly, at least in popular imagination, Christians are known less for enthusiasm and more for their skepticism toward science. But the truth is that Christians do not need to be nervous about the findings of contemporary science—as though science might unearth a defeater to the Christian faith. It won’t. It can’t.
We may have to live with some tension between what we believe Scripture teaches and what we understand science to be saying. But Christians, rooted in the ultimate harmony of these two books, ought to cultivate a confident patience. Remember, now we see “in a mirror dimly” (see 1 Cor. 13:12, ESV). One day, all will be made clear. So we wait, in hope.
8. The Christian faith is compatible with different scientific theories of origins, from young-earth creationism to evolutionary creationism, but it is incompatible with any view that rejects God as the Creator and Sustainer of all things. Christians can (and do) differ on their assessment of the merits of various scientific theories of origins.
The Neo-Darwinian assertion of people like Richard Dawkins, that mutations are random and that evolution is therefore necessarily unguided or blind, is a metaphysical add-on to the scientific theory of evolution, not a part of the theory itself. It’s a supposition derived not from any science but from a naturalistic worldview, which regrettably is thought by many to be inseparable from the science of evolutionary biology. Christians justifiably object to evolutionary science being used as a pretense for making grand philosophical claims about the nonexistence of God or the nature of the world or what it means to be human. Furthermore, Christians are quite right to object to the science classroom being used as a pulpit for naturalism.
The idea of unguided evolution is incompatible with Christian theism. Within the biblical worldview, nothing is random. Not even a sparrow falls to the ground apart from the will of God (Matt. 10:29). If in fact God created the biological diversity we see through mutation and natural selection, then he superintended the process every single step of the way. Evolution would thus be a thoroughly directed process, the means by which God has chosen to bring about life throughout history.
Yet we must understand that the supposed conflict between Christianity and evolution is more apparent than real. The Christian faith, in principle, is not at odds with evolution as a science but with evolution as a worldview. Christians can and do assess the merits of the science of evolution differently. That’s all good and well. But the claim that evolution is by its very nature opposed to Christianity is simply overreaching—it’s not defensible philosophically or theologically.
Some Christians believe that God created the world several thousand years ago. They see this as the plain reading of Scripture and what Christians have believed for centuries. There are others who take the Bible just as seriously but see the scientific evidence a little differently and think the world is very old—several billion years. Here’s the bottom line: Christians can and do differ on their assessment of the merits of contemporary science. This is okay. What is not okay, or what is not a Christian view, is to exclude God from the process in any way. If the earth is young, then God made it young. If the earth is old, then God made it old. If human beings came from literal dust, then God did it. And if human beings share common ancestry with other species, then God did that too.
9. Christians should be well grounded in the Bible’s teaching on creation but always hold their views with humility, respecting the convictions of others and not aggressively advocating for positions on which evangelicals disagree.
As we grow in the depth of our understanding of these important issues, we should mature in our ability to engage with those who hold opposing views. It is a sign of Christian maturity to be able to live with these sorts of tensions; it is a sign of childhood or adolescence to be agitated by a less than black-and-white world.
Central to this is the Christian virtue of humility. Sometimes we will talk about “needing humility,” as though we can turn humility on like a light switch. The truth is that humility is a virtue that is only cultivated over time and with great patience and intentionality. It is also only cultivated in community, with the help and encouragement of others. This is why the apostle Paul invited Christians to work hard “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3, ESV).
In practice, humility and a desire to preserve ecclesial unity mean respectfully listening to the views of others. It also means not agitating for change or grandstanding with one’s own views. On a complex, sensitive, and contentious issue like origins, it is best for evangelicals of goodwill not to aggressively advocate for positions on which evangelicals disagree.
10. Everything in creation finds its source, goal, and meaning in Jesus Christ, in whom the whole of creation will one day achieve eschatological redemption and renewal. All things will be united in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
Creation ultimately exists for Christ. He is its source, its goal, its meaning. Scripture describes Jesus with these soaring words, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:15–17, ESV).
As Mark Noll has argued, the person of Christ provides motives for serious learning, not least in the sciences. There is a Christological basis for our engagement with the doctrine of creation and the natural world.
More than that, we confess that Christ is also the telos of this creation. Not only its meaning but its goal—its redeemer and the source of creation’s climatic resolution. Or as Scripture so pointedly says, God’s will has been “set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:9–10, ESV).
Todd Wilson is the president and cofounder of the Center for Pastor Theologians. This article is adapted from his chapter, “Mere Creation,” in Creation and Doxology: The Beginning and End of God’s Good World (IVP Academic), which he co-edited with Gerald Hiestand.
Taken from Creation and Doxology edited by Todd Wilson and Gerald L. Hiestand. ©2018 by edited by Todd Wilson and Gerald L. Hiestand. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com