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Building morality on evolutionary foundations?

Tim Keller addresses the British Prime Minister and government at the National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast


Published: 21 August 2018 (GMT+10)
Rev Dr Tim Keller

American pastor and author Rev Dr Tim Keller1 gave an important keynote speech at the National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast in Westminster Hall, London, on 19 June 2018.2 This was a significant address for several reasons but primarily because he gave a clear gospel presentation, which we applaud. He also outlined why Western society, and specifically British society, needs Christianity: Christians, he explained, are called to be ‘salt’ to the culture (Matthew 5:13–16). However, at a key point in his talk, although having emphasised the need for theological foundations for our Christian ethics, he failed to defend those same foundations. How? By not critiquing the evolutionary underpinnings of secular ethics. And unless leading evangelical scholars, writers and speakers like Keller are willing to do that, their grand speeches will just remain pious platitudes along the lines of ‘be good’. Without a rigorous defence of Genesis, such appeals to Christian morality will remain baseless. Despite Keller’s articulate, scholastic presentation, the very foundation of his argument was left undefended and fatally weakened. This was unfortunate considering that those in attendance included Prime Minister Theresa May, cabinet ministers, 25 peers, over 140 members of parliament, ambassadors, and church leaders from across the UK.3

It seems to be a peculiar and consistent blind-spot among prominent leaders within evangelical circles these days that a literal understanding of Genesis as the foundations of ethics is no longer assumed; even though it is required, it is never defended, lest they seem to be siding with the ‘young-earthers’, and that would never do!

The part of Keller’s talk that particularly demonstrates his arguments are flawed is where, paraphrasing leading philosopher Charles Taylor,4 Keller says:

“Our modern culture is ‘deeply incoherent’, over ‘moral value’, because, on the one hand, we have the highest moral ideals of any culture in history … So, on the one hand, we have these ‘high ideals’, on the other hand, modern culture tells you, that all moral value is ‘socially constructed’, or maybe the product of our ‘evolutionary biology’. But all moral value is basically a ‘subjective preference’. And so what Charles Taylor says is, we have these ‘high moral ideals’, but we don't have the ‘moral sources’ to support them. We say, “look at these ideals!” and then over here we say, “really, all morality is relative”. And he says that creates a huge problem; we don't have the moral sources to support our ideals” (my emphasis).

Indeed! Of course, Keller is not arguing for evolutionary biology to be the foundation for ethics; he sees that the foundation must be Christian but tacitly admits that this must be contrary to that derived from evolutionary biology. Keller fails at this vital point to say why the ethics derived from evolutionary biology must be false. He does see them as false, but not because he sees evolutionary biology as a false system of thinking. He doesn’t dare to go there!

Laying the evolutionary foundations of Keller and BioLogos bare

Keller has made his beliefs regarding origins plain elsewhere, specifically in a paper written for the theistic evolutionary think-tank BioLogos in which he argues that the creation account(s) in Genesis 1–2 cannot be taken literally and are contradictory, that the creation days are not literal 24 hour days, and that long ages of evolution must be accepted (see CMI’s response).

However, Keller does not accept social Darwinism and the ethics built upon evolution, which of course is a logically inconsistent position to take. In his BioLogos paper, Keller asks, “Doesn’t belief in the one idea—that life is the product of evolution—entail the adoption of this whole ‘world-view’?”5 The logical answer to Keller’s question would be a resounding “yes”. Amazingly, however, he fails to convincingly answer his own question. In regard to death before the Fall, Keller asks:

“The process of evolution, however, understands violence, predation, and death to be the very engine of how life develops. If God brings about life through evolution, how do we reconcile that with the idea of a good God? The problem of evil seems to be worse for the believer in theistic evolution”.6

He gives no workable answer to this, other than making a distinction between evolution as a biological process (EBP) and evolution as a Grand Theory of Everything (GTE), but fails to give a convincing reason as to how they can be kept separate. But this, surely, is a case of wanting to have one’s metaphorical cake and eat it? If evolution is true, then must it not also be the grand metanarrative for understanding everything, including ethics? But Keller knows history and the horrors that Social Darwinism has caused, which necessarily (though inconsistently) causes him to back-away from the logical implications of his evolutionary world-view.

Moral sources for high ideals only make sense from a creation perspective

During Keller’s Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast speech, he gives significant examples of how ‘moral sources’ foundational to Christianity have been able to uphold ‘high ideals’. I will discuss most of his examples in what follows. But, in every case, when analysed, there is a stark contradiction between Keller’s presuppositional (assumed) evolutionary world-view and the Creation world-view that is naturally required to support the ethic in question.

Bishop of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395)

Slavery and the creation image of God

Keller discusses slavery. The first person who is known to have protested against the immorality of slavery, and the institution, was Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395). Gregory preached a famous sermon asking:

“How many obols* for the image of God? How many staters* did you get for selling the God formed human being? For Jesus Christ who knows the worth of human nature has said an entire cosmos is not worthy to be exchanged for a human soul [Mark 8:36–37]. Who can buy a man or sell a man once you realize he’s in the image of God?” (*ancient currency).7

What Keller fails to say is that Gregory’s argument is founded upon Genesis creation, of man being created by God in His image! It is the very antithesis of evolutionary thinking, where man is currently at the end of a long multi-million year struggle for survival of the fittest—and where some humans are presumably more evolved than others. Darwin, while hating the implications, saw slavery as the outworking of natural selection in action. So why, in the evolutionary world-view, should slavery be wrong? Keller is silent regarding this logical conundrum but he is correct to see that the biblical understanding of the image of God in man, as promoted by Gregory (and as grounded in Genesis creation), led to the idea of human rights. This eventually became enshrined in the American constitution as ‘inalienable human rights’ for all, whatever a person’s race, gender, class, or social status.

Martin Luther King Jr. and the creation image of God

Martin Luther King Jr.

Keller quotes Martin Luther King Jr.8, who made the image of God from Genesis the central philosophical foundation stone in his sermon The American Dream:

“You see the Founding Fathers were really influenced by the Bible, the whole concept of the imago Dei, the image of God, is the idea that all men have something within them that got injected, not that they have substantial unity with God, but that every man has a capacity to have fellowship with God and thus gives him a uniqueness, it gives them a worth, it gives them dignity and we must never forget this as a nation, that there are no gradations in the image of God. Every human being from a ‘treble white’, to a ‘bass black’, is significant on God's keyboard, precisely because every human being is made in the image of God. This is why we must fight segregation with all of our non-violent might!”9

Keller, from his belief in evolutionary biology, would do well to look honestly at the evolutionary roots and fruits of racism which provided every reason for the evolutionist to be racially motivated in all areas of their thinking, a fact that has been well articulated by leading evolutionist Stephen J. Gould. The fact remains, Martin Luther King Jr. could never have spoken about human equality in the way that he did if he were an evolutionist. Darwin clearly taught that humans had sprung from isolated evolutionary populations, where some became more evolved than others, but Keller seems blind to this. The Creation ethic is founded upon the reality (based in Genesis) that all people were made of “one blood” (Acts 17:26). Therefore, the idea of ‘races’ is fundamentally incorrect, for there is only one human race because we are all related to Adam.

The Roman sex-ethic vs. creation—a better foundation

Citing the antiquity scholar, Kyle Harper,10 Keller gives another example of the Christian world-view providing superior ethics, this time comparing it to the Roman world sex-ethic, based on a culture of ‘shame and honour’. In Roman culture, a married man could take whomever he pleased (outside of marriage), and no woman could resist him. Sex was viewed as an aid to climbing the social ladder. As Keller rightly points out, Christianity provided a superior ‘other-directed ethic of love’ when it came to sex—initiating “the first sexual revolution”—where “all sex has to be consensual and covenantal”. The Christian ethic freed women from sexual slavery and gave them equal status with men in a monogamous life-long relationship.

Again, what Keller fails to recognize or mention is that the Christian sex-ethic is derived from Genesis. God made male and female in His image at the beginning of creation. They would become one flesh, the ultimate symbol of equality, as taught by Jesus in response to the Pharisees’ argument about divorce (Mark 10:2–9; Matthew 19:3–6). But if biological evolution is true, what is wrong with the Roman sex-ethic? Based, as it was, on an evolutionary, Greek pagan world-view, what was morally wrong with producing as many offspring from as many partners as possible, in order to propagate one’s genes and dominate the social order? And what is wrong today with people re-interpreting marriage to mean what they prefer? (See Kinsey, Darwin and the sexual revolution). What is wrong with the subjugation of women within the Darwinian world-view? Keller seems blind even to the possibility that his belief in biological evolution is directly at odds with the ethical foundations (in Genesis) of the Christian sex-ethic which he is so keen to uphold.

Amish grace: founded upon creation

Movie based on the book ‘Amish Grace’ describing the events of the 2006, Pennsylvania school shooting and subsequent forgiveness demonstrated by the Amish

Another key example Keller discusses, of the Christian world-view being able to uphold high ideals, is the forgiveness demonstrated by the Amish community after the shooting of ten Amish school girls by a gunman (before shooting himself) in Pennsylvania, October 2006. This became major headline news in the US. The Amish ability to forgive was demonstrated to the gunman’s family, even to the point of attending the dead man’s funeral.11 Keller quotes a book written about this incident12 where the authors state their belief that Western society is not capable of producing people who can react in this way anymore. The reason is that modern culture is increasingly a “consumeristic”, “individualistic culture”, teaching “self-actualization” and “self-assertion”, but never “self-renunciation”. In short, these qualities exist in Amish culture because it is based on Christianity, said the authors.

However, we can be more specific than that, by looking at the historic statement of faith of the Mennonites (of which the Amish are a later offshoot).13 Under the subtitle “Of God and the Creation of all Things”, the confession states that God, “in six days, created, made, and prepared, heaven and earth, and the sea, and all that in them is”. Under the subtitle “Of the Fall of Man”, it states, “We believe and confess, according to the holy Scriptures, that these our first parents, Adam and Eve, did not continue long in this glorious state in which they were created, but that they, seduced by the … the devil, transgressed the high commandment of God and became disobedient to their Creator; through which disobedience sin has come into the world, and death by sin, which has thus passed upon all men … .” Keller must also be aware that it was the Amish who crafted the Ark at Answers in Genesis’ Ark Encounter, consistent with their biblical, creationist beliefs.14

So Keller is hoisted on his own petard, his parade example of ethics-in-action being from a group who are considered biblical fundamentalists by any standard—biblical creationists, not evolutionists! The Amish believe that humanity is created in God’s Image and therefore of infinite worth. Moreover, their understanding is that people are fallen as a result of the First Adam’s transgression, but are redeemed by the work of Christ (the Last Adam) on the cross. It is this world-view of the Amish, their ‘moral source’, which has been so ably demonstrated to uphold their ‘high ideals’. They can forgive, as Christ has forgiven them. The reason why modern culture rarely produces people of this moral calibre anymore is that it has rejected its Judeo-Christian roots, these being the biblical doctrines of God, creation, sin and salvation. But Keller singularly fails to recognize this fundamental fact.

What is more, there are significant examples of belief in evolution producing the very opposite of what Keller promotes as laudable behaviour. For instance, a number of massacres have been directly linked to belief in evolution, witnessed from the statements of those committing the atrocities (Columbine High School, Finnish high school, Leeds High School, Anders Breivik). And then there are also the clear links between evolutionary belief and Social Darwinism, the Nazi party, and Eugenics.

Evolution in the Church: causes salt to lose its saltiness

Keller started his talk quoting Jesus from Matthew 5:13–16 where Christ admonishes the Church to be “salt”. He recognises that Western culture needs the ‘salt’ of Christian influence in order to preserve it from destruction. He is correct in recognizing that ‘saltiness’ means being distinct from the culture and challenges the Church not to lose its distinctiveness. Keller finished his address with a call to the Church to remain distinctive and true to its ideals, and a call to British society to allow the Church to be distinct, and to critique the Church on its ideals. But the grand irony of Keller’s address is that, in reality, he is advocating that the church should not be distinct from society—because the world-view of Western society is evolutionary. If the Church imbibes the evolutionary world-view of ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘nature red in tooth and claw’, it is seriously compromised.

The deepest tragedy is that Keller’s position confirms (and the same applies for other leading evangelicals, who hold a theistic evolutionary position) that Christianity has indeed lost much of its saltiness as a result of compromise with evolution and millions of years.

A call for the Church to be salt, to return to biblical foundations

The only way Christians, as salt, can regain their saltiness is to repent of evolutionary compromise and return to the truth of God’s Word regarding Creation. Christians must more earnestly heed Jesus’ warning to remain separate and distinct from the world’s culture and thinking, lest we come under greater judgment.

May Christians return to the biblical foundations of ethics so that they can be a distinct witness to the culture. “For other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).

References and notes

  1. Timothy J. Keller (born September 23, 1950) is an American pastor, theologian, and Christian apologist. He is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and the author of several bestselling books. Return to text.
  2. Follow this link to watch a video of Keller’s keynote address: youtube.com/watch?v=AkcouxJE6o4. Return to text.
  3. National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast 2018, nationalprayerbreakfast.org.uk. Return to text.
  4. Taylor, C., Sources Of the Self, Harvard University Press, 1989. Return to text.
  5. biologos.org/uploads/projects/Keller_white_paper.pdf p. 2. Return to text.
  6. Ibid. Return to text.
  7. Garnsey, P., Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 82. Return to text.
  8. Martin Luther King Jr. was an American Baptist minister who led the civil rights movement from 1954 until his assassination in 1968. Return to text.
  9. Quoted in Keller, T., Generous Justice, The Meaning of Marriage, Every Good Endeavour, Preaching, Kindle Edition, 2018. Return to text.
  10. Harper, K., From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, Harvard College, 2016. Return to text.
  11. The story was made into a movie see: http://www.mylifetime.com:80/movies/amish-grace Return to text.
  12. Kraybill, D.B., Nolt, S.M., Weaver-Zercher, D.L., Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, Jossey-Bass, 2010. Return to text.
  13. This was adopted on 21 April 1632 by the Dutch Mennonite Conference held at Dordrecht. See: Holland Dordrecht Confession of Faith (Mennonite, 1632), gameo.org; accessed 10 August 2018. Return to text.
  14. Amish Arkitecture, answersingenesis.org, 1 January 2016. Return to text.

Readers’ comments

Paul M.
For me, some of Keller's messages have been really encouraging, but others have really missed the target! I did not know he was a theistic evolutionist, which may in fact explain the shifting basis of some of his messages. I can forgive him, if addressing a large secular audience for not including EVERYTHING in a message, but the real disappointment here is the Keller himself lacks everything in his thinking.
All this for evolution? I debate evolution with people who can't even understand the answers. I think I am clearly articulating a point, and perhaps I am because they'll then switch to a moral argument. My last discussion ended with 'Adam and Eve never existed and God never made anything'. God is the real reason for denial, but evolution is certainly a convenient getaway car. To me its not a scientifically sufficient vehicle, but then those escaping God would gladly use a rusty bicycle if it were nearby.
Marvin T.
When key leaders avoid the controversial stances that Christianity makes, namely the authority of scripture over the assertions of modern science, the mood shifts from 'a brilliant sermon from a brilliant man to another pastor who is not well read enough to know the facts of evolution'. It heaps shame upon his education and it brings the controversy to the doorsteps of political leaders from a key evangelical leader. But was his intent to be a prophet to these leaders? No, I'd say not, he wants to be pastoral and give the soft touch. I personally recognize that his credibility would suffer, his highly educated peers would have reason to question his wisdom in being a 'prophet' to the leaders of the nation when he is just a pastor, author.

For me this sort of thing is not isolated to 'a literal 6-day creation', this is really about saving face and sacrificing some ground in order to be heard and accepted for the precious ground of salvation. None of us get it right all the time, none of us win every battle, but what I see in Pastor Keller and others who speak similarly 'soft' when their time to trumpet truth is given them is they are not cut from the same cloth as the reformers and as the ministers of old who pulled no punches to declare salvation and the authority of God's word over all areas of life, including the epistemology of morality.

It's good there are men of God who are willing to speak all the counsel of God when given the opportunity, Yet, I find their voices are in the wilderness of men, not on the front page and definitely not on the approval list from highly educated evangelical leaders. It takes anointing and courage to declare the inconvenient truth, it only takes education from men to articulate compromises that offer no grasp of divine truth.
Aiden B.
Excellent article by creationist Gavin Cox! I’m not sure if I know this American pastor Keller. But the lack of Biblical authority, especially in morality is too dangerous to overlook. In a culture promoting evolutionary foundations in the absence of Biblical authority, it is no wonder why many may ask:

“What basis do we have for saying that anything is wrong at all if our behaviors are no more than the consequence of past natural selection?” Atheist Austin L. Hughes, The New Atlantis.

Hitler also followed his belief in evolution and natural selection by saying:

“I have the right to exterminate an inferior race that breed like the vermin.”

There is a saying, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Yet the nation America is promoting the same past natural selection and the result: holocaust in public school shootings. This is why giving answers for the hope we have within us is essential while we wait for our Saviour God to return (1 Peter 3:15).
Gavin Cox
Amen, thanks Aiden for your comment.
Richard D.
When we walk in the counsel of the ungodly, we set our minds not on the things of God but on the things of man and become a stumbling block for the church, and worse yet an unwittingly agent for the evil one. (Ps.1:1, Mark 8:31-33). Sadly many pastors, and apologist are doing this.
I honest believe if Jesus were walking among us today, and they, the theistic evolutionists, came up and rebuked Jesus regarding his young earth teaching, Jesus would respond to them the same way he did to Peter when Peter rebuked Jesus regarding the Lord's teaching concerning His crucifixion and death.
"Get behind Me Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God but the things of man!". Or at the very least, "..you do not understand the Scriptures, or the power of God."
Why do I feel so strongly? Because Jesus, God the Son, The Word, The Word made flesh clearly said, "If I told you earthly things and you do not believe how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?"
Keep preaching it bro! The Gospel, godly behavior, morality, any thing worthy of praise rests firmly on the History of Genesis, given to us by The Word of God. With a false history, doubt creeps into everything, historical and spiritual, with apostasy, the end result. All we have to do is look at the mainline protestant church, who early on embraced an old earth, and note where they are now. Firmly rebuke those who teach false doctrine regarding Genesis, in hopes God may grant them repentance, knowing full well that teachers will incur a stricter judgment. Follow Jesus' example. Do it with tears, as I am sure you are doing so and have done so in the past.
Keep up the good work, Hold up the authority of the Scriptures. Keep preaching. You are in my prayers. You are right where the battle rages in the church.
Gavin Cox
Amen, thank you Richard for your encouraging feedback, your prayers are much appreciated! I think you are right regarding what Jesus would say to those TEs who "do not understand the Scriptures, or the power of God". And as you say Jesus clearly said that if we don't believe Him concerning the "earthly things" (which encompassed His teaching on marriage, male and female being at the beginning of creation and the writings of Moses), how can we believe Him on the "heavenly things"- those weighty eternal issues of salvation- which include a new heavens and earth free of the bondage to sin and decay as a result of the Fall. Those teachers who cast doubt upon these fundamentals will surely receive the "greater judgement" (James 3:1).
Matthew L.
So sad to see godly men compromise to a point that they contradict the very message of deliverance from sin and death that they possess. Wanting to share the necessity of a Christian ethic to a fallen world, many hold fast to inconsistent claims that somehow that ethic includes ideas such as "survival of the fittest", predation, disease and death as originally designed by God. Calls for saltiness and distinctiveness mean very little as we are led around by vain philosophies and empty deceit and not What Christ has revealed.
Dr Keller writes in his book (The Reason for God, 2018, pg 177) "Human beings are so integral to the fabric of things that when human beings turned from God the entire warp and woof of the world unraveled. Disease, genetic disorders, famine, natural disasters, aging, and death itself are as much the result of sin as are oppression, war, crime, and violence. We have lost God's shalom- physically,spiritually, socially, psychologically, culturally. Things now fall apart." To this I would say "Amen". But how does this statement align with the opposite claims made in agreement with organizations such as Biologos that these are the exact elements that God has used to bring His creation into being and bring male and female forth in His image, proclaiming them very good? If God had done what Dr. Keller and Biologos have suggested with these methods and proclaimed it good, who are we to argue for an ethic that categorizes them as evil and consequences of sin? I struggle to see how so many want to encourage just enough of what God has revealed to avoid absurdity and chaos to a fallen world, but then want just enough absurdity and chaos to not appear too extreme to a fallen world while avoiding what God has revealed. Pray for our pastors.
Gavin Cox
Thanks Matthew for your response. I wasn't aware of the Keller quote that you've very helpfully supplied in your response. You rightly point out this quote completely contradicts Keller's evolutionary world-view which places death disease and bloodshed before the Fall and sin (as witnessed in his BioLogos paper). An ethic based on 'survival of the fittest' as you point out is directly opposite to that of an ethic based on creation e.g., the Image of God in humans which gives them infinite worth, rather than the need to dominate to survive. It seems TEs like Keller are actually theologically schizophrenic in their approach. What they believe on an emotional level is directly contradicted by what they believe at an intellectual level.Yet it seems to be their intellectual pride that stops them from admitting their internal, foundational contradiction. You can't build on the same foundations that you are simultaneously digging up.
Jim M.
I love Dr. Keller's teaching on anything but Genesis and creation. I am so disappointed by the stance that he takes. I'm guessing here, but could it be that in order for him to feel relevant in today's culture and continue to minister in the big city environment, he just cannot allow himself to take the creationist position which brings with it mockery, disrespect, and the idea that one is irrelevant in today's society. I hope that is not the idol for which he sacrifices what I believe to be the truth of God's Word.

Anyway, one big problem I see w/his views is that God becomes irrelevant and unnecessary. If evolution can explain it all, why do we have to envision God being involved in the process? Why would any atheist be moved to believe in a Creator for whom there seems to be no evidence for? Paul tells us that nature reveals the existence of the Creator so that all men are without excuse, but that is not the case in his worldview. You can explain the creation just as easily without God so why add God to the mix?

I find it odd that in trying to remain culturally relevant and scientifically accurate in order to reach people that he actually undermines the very existence of God by claiming it all happened by chance.

How does it bring glory to the Creator to attribute it all to undirected natural processes?

How does that fit with the grand creation psalms that praise God for His wisdom, power, and wondrous creative works?

Why would a God who is so concerned about the worship and exaltation of His name and His glory hide His involvement in creation through natural processes so that no one can tell He did it?

How does natural revelation then reveal God at all?

I just don't understand.
Gavin Cox
Thanks Jim for your response, I agree with what you say. I am sure Dr. Keller is excellent in many other areas, but this one foundational area of origins seems to be the stumbling stone upon which most Christian leaders in our modern age trip over and are broken upon. It became painfully obvious to me when reviewing Dr. Keller's talk that EVERY example he gave was blatantly contradicted by the logical implications of his evolutionary world-view. He had to constantly borrow the biblical world-view of creation in order to make sense of any of his examples of 'ethics' supporting 'high ideals'. As you rightly point out, it is a matter of intellectual pride that these high-flying evangelicals dare not be seen to support creation. But having evolution as their (assumed) world-view can only undermine the biblical world-view that they are so desperate to uphold. Like I said in my article, they "want their metaphorical cake and eat it", but the end result is, that their rejection of the biblical world-view, when it comes to origins, will make them irrelevant by fatally undermining the foundations upon which they are trying to build.

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