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)
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.
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
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
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
- 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.
- Follow this link to watch a video of Keller’s keynote address: youtube.com/watch?v=AkcouxJE6o4. Return to text.
- National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast 2018, nationalprayerbreakfast.org.uk. Return to text.
- Taylor, C., Sources Of the Self, Harvard University Press, 1989. Return to text.
- biologos.org/uploads/projects/Keller_white_paper.pdf p. 2. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- Garnsey, P., Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 82. Return to text.
- 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.
- Quoted in Keller, T., Generous Justice, The Meaning of Marriage, Every Good Endeavour, Preaching, Kindle Edition, 2018. Return to text.
- Harper, K., From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, Harvard College, 2016. Return to text.
- The story was made into a movie see: http://www.mylifetime.com:80/movies/amish-grace Return to text.
- Kraybill, D.B., Nolt, S.M., Weaver-Zercher, D.L., Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, Jossey-Bass, 2010. Return to text.
- 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.
- Amish Arkitecture, answersingenesis.org, 1 January 2016. Return to text.