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Are we grasping the nettle with our apologetics?

Lessons from theistic evolution activism1


Published: 20 February 2018 (GMT+10)

In keeping with biblical commands to defend and contend for the faith, CMI is a Christian apologetics organisation (see 2 Timothy 4:2, Jude 1:3, 1 Peter 3:15). In recent years, we have produced a number of important articles aimed at exposing the compromises and dangers of theistic evolution (TE)—the erroneous belief that molecules-to-man evolution is fully compatible with the Bible (e.g. here and here).2,3,4 As we have shown, the Bible’s historical claims are only the first casualty of such attempts to weave secular reasoning about origins into Genesis. Much more serious are the moral and ethical consequences that directly follow, as well as the impact on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In June 2015, a new pro-TE apologetics organisation was launched in the UK. Called Grasping the Nettle (GTN), they commenced their activities (mostly public events and lectures) on the back of the television and DVD series, Exploring the God Question: Science, God and the Search for Truth. This influential three-part documentary series, accompanied by study guides and a leader’s manual, involves a virtual Who’s Who of world-famous scientists and theologians; some atheists and some theists. It also includes contributions from NASA and The Vatican. One should not underestimate the powerful influence that such resources can have on many people. In response, a series of six detailed review articles by CMI’s Russell Grigg was published on creation.com in 2014 and 2015:

What are the vision and aims in apologetics?

GTN’s stated aim is to help “the church to be clear in its own thinking on ‘the science/God issue’.”5 Although this would seem a laudable objective, the reality falls very short of what informed, biblically-minded Christians would hope for; the devil is in the detail. On GTN’s website, there is plenty of information about those involved in the movement, their rationale and their strategy for accomplishing their aim. There is also talk of promoting “respectful dialogue” about the “God Question” and “religious belief” but almost no mention of the Gospel. The exception appears in one question and the responses to it (discussed later).6 Since the members of GTN’s ‘Steering Board’ include nine clergy, plus people representing various church-based organisations, this would seem to be a stark omission. Surely the Gospel of Christ, which is central to any truly Christian endeavour, ought to have a more prominent place.

This website, creation.com, has long carried this mission statement: “To support the effective proclamation of the Gospel by providing credible answers that affirm the reliability of the Bible, in particular its Genesis history.” Anyone familiar with CMI’s publications will be well aware of our commitment to scientific accuracy and literacy. It is the reason why over thirty of our speakers and writers have scientific, medical or engineering credentials, many of them up to PhD level. Our emphasis on rigorous science was exemplified in the book and acclaimed companion DVD documentary, Evolution’s Achilles’ Heels.7 As Christians, however, the Bible must occupy the supreme place in our thinking. Since it is the infallible Word of God Himself, we should be primarily concerned to proclaim Scripture as the ultimate authority and truth. This ‘Book of books’ reveals the One who was Himself the embodiment of Truth (John 14:6). Therefore, CMI’s stated vision (in keeping with the whole tenor of the New Testament) is: “To see the Lord Jesus Christ honoured as Creator and Saviour of the world”.8

TE activism tends to ignore Scripture

Despite all the talk about promoting clear thinking about science and God issues, there can be no doubt that GTN’s real mission is to promulgate TE. Their website homepage is explicit about their cooperation with the organisation Biologos, a bastion of TE in the USA, founded in 2007. As an important CMI article about Biologos reveals, its writers distort and twist Scripture in alarming ways as they try to bring it into submission to their preferred authority—evolution. The result is simply not true Christianity. It is little wonder, then, that the people at the Biologos-friendly GTN say so little about the Gospel.

The one exception mentioned earlier was occasioned by an anonymously submitted question:

“How should we react to the claim that the literal interpretation of Genesis 1–11 is absolutely fundamental to the truth of the rest of the Bible and the Gospel itself?”9

This is indeed a critical question. Anglican Bishop John Keenan10 responded on GTN’s behalf but his answer evades the force of the question entirely. He claims that those early chapters of Genesis are both non-literal and pre-scientific, arguing:

“Instead, the Genesis Creation account is intended to reveal theological and anthropological truths, such as that there is a good and wise God who created the Universe at a beginning out of nothing in order to display His glory and, in love, to share it with mankind.”

Unfortunately, no Scripture quotation is provided to back up Keenan’s claim. Instead he concludes his platitude with a rather banal quotation from an atheist, Professor Brian Cox:

“Meaning … is where art and music and philosophy and theology live …”11

Tragically, Bishop Keenan’s assertions are a denial of the historicity of Genesis 1–11 affirmed by Jesus and the New Testament writers. Of course, other proponents of TE have made attempts to defend their evangelical credentials, but this can only be done by redefining what ‘evangelical’ originally meant, and by a host of other theological gymnastics.2,3,4

Pressing toward the goal

The apostle Paul always sought to fulfil his calling as a Christian more perfectly, while acknowledging that he still fell short. He wrote that, “…straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13–14). Like him, we should be striving for excellence in our Christian walk, struggling against that which opposes the Gospel, and where necessary doing hard things. English is rich in figures of speech that express this need to accept responsibility for the tasks allotted to us; for example, ‘bite the bullet’, ‘tackle head on’, ‘take the bull by the horns’, and of course ‘grasp the nettle’. If we believe strongly that something is of vital relevance, we will want to give time to praying and labouring to that end. We have a goal in view and we press ever closer to it.

So, if we believe that the promotion of biblical creation is germane to the health and vitality of the Christian church, are we actively promoting it? Are we pressing toward the goal? There is no doubt that prominent theistic evolutionists are being seriously pro-active. They see clearly that creation apologetics organisations and resources are a threat to their position and prestige. Those holding to TE know they must lobby hard for their views to be heard and accepted.

Denis Alexander is one such person. In a postscript at the end of his strongly pro-TE book, Creation or Evolution: Do we Have to Choose? (see review) he writes:

“Christians who make it their mission to attack evolution … are embarrassing and bring the gospel into disrepute. … The public promotion of creationism and ID continues to create intellectual barriers for scientists, significantly diminishing the likelihood of their taking the gospel seriously. … Launching attacks on evolution is divisive and splits the Christian community… Instead of putting millions of pounds and dollars into publishing glossy magazines attacking evolution, why not put that money into helping the poor, or tackling HIV, or funding orphanages?”12

That’s certainly fighting talk. Interestingly, it does seem from this that Alexander is aware of the existence of magazines such as Creation, although the claimed millions spent on such is laughable; we could only wish! We will just note in passing that these words are a little rich coming from someone who for years (as with two editions of this very book) has made it his mission to promote evolution and attack biblical Creation teachings—things which Christ Himself believed and taught. However, we just emphasise here that theistic evolutionists are themselves on a mission. If that were not the case, why all the effort put into the pro-TE books, why the pro-TE documentary series, why the relatively recent establishment of highly pro-active pro-TE organisations like Biologos (which is funded to the tune of millions of dollars) and GTN?

Christ brings division?

Through their activism, GTN and Biologos and similar organisations betray their realisation that they must fight for their views to be heard. Unpleasant though it can be, those working within CMI and similar biblical creation organisations find themselves contending for the opposing viewpoint. Alexander may say that he worries about “intellectual barriers for scientists” and things which are “divisive” among Christians. However, for Christians who wish to remain faithful to their Lord, those things are sometimes unavoidable.

It was Jesus himself who said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household” (Matthew 10:33–36). The context of these verses deals with whether a person publically acknowledges (confesses) or else denies Christ; unfortunately, Christians can occasionally find themselves ostracised by their own family members. Tragically, it is also true that Christians who stand publically against error may find themselves belittled and rejected, and even accused of inciting division (however, please note who really causes division). Nevertheless we must press on, grasping the nettle.

Called to persevere

Unpalatable though it may be, biblical creationists have a sincere concern to maintain the standard of God’s Word—in all its undiluted truth, from the very first verse. If the truth is divisive, so be it. If the truth is an intellectual barrier for some people, so be it. The Bible is clear that many who refuse to “love the truth” and “believe the truth” are condemned rather than saved (2 Thessalonians 2:10–11). The clear-cut teaching of Scripture on creation matters is unpopular in many of today’s churches. But we are not to water down the truth to make it more palatable to unbelievers (see also Post-truth: even in the Church?). There can be no worthwhile Christian unity at the expense of God’s truth. Only as falsehood and heresy are exposed and eradicated can the Body of Christ shine effectively as a beacon into the darkness of an increasingly crooked and twisted society (Philippians 2:15). Indeed, in CMI’s decades of experience, theistic evolution only confirms scientists who are unbelievers in their unbelief. This is because it provides a conflicted worldview that undermines the logical foundations of the Gospel—this was the experience of several who ended up working in creation ministry!

Theistic evolutionist groups such as GTN are increasingly grasping the nettle through their various stated strategies (public events, study groups, public dialogue, training and equipping). Can biblical creationists afford to be sleepy (Proverbs 6:4)? What more could you be doing to help people grasp the truth? For lots of good ideas, see Using your talent (the section headed: ‘Pressing forward, gaining ground’).

References and notes

  1. A modified version of an article in Update, CMI-UK/Europe, August 2017. Return to text.
  2. This and the next two references are just three of many examples: Bell, P., Perils of Theistic Evolution, Creation 37(3):44–47, 2015. Return to text.
  3. Fangrad, R., BioLogos, theistic evolution and the Pelagian heresy, 22 March 2014, creation.com/b-te-p. Return to text.
  4. Cosner, L. & Bates, G., Did God create over billions of years? 6 October 2011, creation.com/billions. Return to text.
  5. See graspingthenettle.org/home/about; accessed 16 June 2017. Return to text.
  6. At time of writing I could only find one reference to the word ‘gospel’ on the website: At odds with the biblical narrative; see graspingthenettle.org/question, accessed 16 June 2017. Return to text.
  7. The book and DVD involved nine and fifteen PhD scientists respectively. Return to text.
  8. This is defined as ‘Our Vision’ at creation.com/about-us. Return to text.
  9. See ref. 6, sub-question D. Return to text.
  10. The Right Reverend John Keenan is Bishop of the Diocese of Paisley, Scotland. Return to text.
  11. See graspingthenettle.org/question/at_odds_with_biblical_narrative; accessed 16 June 2017. Return to text.
  12. Alexander, D., Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose? 2nd edition, Monarch Books, Oxford, UK, pp. 461–463, 2014. Return to text.

Readers’ comments

Ian B.
When you say you are alarmed at how Biologos twists and distorts the scriptures to suit their cause, I would presume from the statement that you accept your interpretation of these same scriptures as more valid than theirs. We all accept the OT is the divinely inspired word of God, even the Jews! But who is the arbiter as to which interpretation is correct ? The Jews received it in the first place as direct revelation from God..their view and interpretation is largely ignored now..just why I don't know , as the scriptures say they received the oracles of God..Christians now say that through the revelation of The Spirit of God, we interpret them afresh..by we, I suppose that depends on who "we" are...if it is the largely understood and orthodox point of view..then in your article you have already criticised the Pope and other church leaders for their support of people you say are twisting the scriptures..and I thought they were this part of the orthodox view you draw authority from. So, I respectfully ask you , as Jesus used to be challenged.."By what authority do you declare their interpretation to be wrong when it disagrees with your interpretation?
Philip Bell
That's a fair question: Whose interpretation is correct? At the end your comment you reference Jesus' challenge and it's exactly that authority that I would refer to. In other words, if we wish to know how to interpret Genesis, we ought to refer to the manner in which the Holy-Spirit-inspired New Testament writers understood and taught the passages concerned. The answer is quite simple: they unerringly taught that the people, places and events of Genesis 1-11 as historically factual. See: The use of Genesis in the New Testament plus the table of references therein.
Jim A.
Genesis records that Eve was asked the infamous question, ”Has God indeed said...” injecting venomous doubt into what God had said to her husband, Adam, and then what Adam, in turn, passed along to Eve. Seems to me, the whole question of ‘evolution or God’ revolves around that question “Has God indeed said.” As recorded by Moses in Genesis, God, indeed, says that He made it all, not evolutionary random chance. There will always be a person, or organization, which asks “Has God indeed said” when the answer is plainly written in scripture that He is the Creator, not evolution. Whom we believe, ultimately, becomes our God, just as it did for Adam. One God gives us life, the other god gives death. Our free-will choice to make. God, indeed, has said.
Christina E.
Denis Alexander, unwittingly I'm sure, echoes Judas in John 12:5.
Thomas M.
This article inspired me. I've been "freeloading" on CMI for years by getting educated one day at a time through the daily emails. I just committed to make a modest monthly donation to CMI via credit card. I could never repay for what I have learned.
Grahame G.
Philip, I'm also going to question that use of "grasping the nettle".

Yes, the most common usage is "to tackle a difficulty boldly" but the phrase has a deeper meaning. The Nettle is a plant that will sting you if you brush against it, and so grasping it firmly is necessary to avoid the sting.

I think there's a deeper problem with them using "Grasping the Nettle" as there name.

But before I get to that, I agree with you and your article if we take the common meaning of the phrase. And that's probably the best approach for the majority of readers, so the following is not to suggest your approach is wrong at all. I just think we can also see a deeper meaning.

As has been pointed out by Terry, the nettle as a stinging plant is clearly a result of the fall (along with thorns and thistles). "Grasping the nettle" is only necessary if one needs to touch a nettle. Or walk through them.

Since they symbolise the fall, it seems to me that GTN have inadvertently admitted that they are embracing sin with a passion. And they think this is a stronger apologetic than avoiding sin and pagan thinking. And I'm not saying they did that deliberately. I think they are unaware of the deeper meaning and etymology of the phrase.

And again, I say this not to undermine your article but to add an extra layer of meaning, and of rebuke, to these compromisers.

But in the normal meaning of the phrase, your article is spot on. And thank you for it. It's good to be aware of lies and false teachers. And to know how to combat them. I hope my approach is seen as an extra arrow in the quiver.

And thanks to Terry for also having a shot at pointing out this irony.
James K.
TE is truly the gateway to disbelief. Even formidable minds like Ben Shapiro slip from the biblical truth because of this compromise. Should TE have its way, and believe me it essentially has, God would be reduced to a metaphorical novelty, a cultural relic less than even the Queen of England.
Melvyne C.
My point:
“I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation,...”
Nora Barlow (Ed.), The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, p. 86.

That is where theistic evolution leads.
Melvyne C.
An excellent article. Theistic evolutionists cannot even serve two masters. If they serve Darwin: hypocrisy, as Darwin did not serve Christ. And if the serve Christ, they serve Darwin, who said "Christianity is a damnable doctrine."
Philip Bell
Darwin's reference to "a damnable doctrine" was not to Christianity as such, but the doctrine of hell:
"I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my father, brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine."
Neve, M. & Messenger, S. (Eds), Charles Darwin: Autobiographies, Penguin Books, London, p. 50, 2002.
Terry D P.
“In June 2015, a new pro-TE apologetics organisation was launched in the UK. called Grasping the Nettle (GTN).”
The naming of this organisation is ironic, given this curse that God laid on Adam in Genesis:
“It will grow thorns and thistles for you,
none but wild plants for you to eat.”
Philip Bell
It's an interesting point, though I'm not sure I agree. In fairness to GTN, 'grasping the nettle' means doing difficult things; see again my comments in the first para' of this article under the section 'Pressing toward the goal'.
Richard L.
Towards casting light on the spiritual-warfare dynamics involving theistic evolution (TE), we can profitably inspect when (and when not) it is OK to “agree to disagree” on a given bible-related topic. (TEs wrongly try to put TE into that category.) That category only exists when everyone in the discussion can affirm that the bible-text-involved details are (1) reliably present, but (2) not reliably understood by us. TEs fail that test re their handling of Genesis 1.

(The above category exists only when all humans in the discussion are in a positive mental-spiritual zone where God (1) respects them—them trembling at God’s word, Isaiah 66:2—and (2) approves of their bible-handling skills, 2 Timothy 2:15—the humans escaping that verse’s “shame” caution.)

A 2nd criterion for our being in that positive zone is our obedience to the discipleship command to test all things (1 Thess. 5:21), this action being necessary for the transforming of our minds away from worldly wrong mental programming (Romans 12:2, same Greek “test” word). Obedience clears up inflictions of bad mental baggage, which otherwise pressures us into bad theological approaches (Col. 2:8). TEs fail this test, very visibly, by explicitly refusing to test scientists’ notions.

A 3rd criterion for being in the good zone is our ability to honestly do inductive bible study of the involved bible text: (1) actually going to that text, (2) actually noting all the details in it, (3) asking and seeking answers to all the Wh- questions that can be asked of those details, and (4) being willing to publically contend (Jude 3) for the corrective truth provided by those details. All TEs visibly fail in (3) and (4), many also in (1) and (2).

Biological history is thus not in the “OK to agree to disagree” category.

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