A response to Timothy Keller’s ‘Creation, Evolution and Christian Laypeople’
Published: 9 September 2010 (GMT+10)
Timothy Keller, author of The Reason for God (see our review), recently authored a paper for the theistic evolutionary organization Biologos (see Evolutionary syncretism: a critique of Biologos) titled “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople” (read the entire paper here). In this paper, he wrestles with how to present science to Christian laypeople in such a way that evolution and the Bible seem compatible.
Keller frames the dilemma thus: There are a lot of Christians who see the positive side of science, and who benefit from scientific advances in the forms of medicines, technology, etc. But then they see that what science says about origins seems to conflict with what the Bible says, and they are torn between their faith and science. Of course, this ignores the distinction between scientific and historical questions; ‘origins’ is very firmly in the domain of the latter. And of course, evolution had nothing to do with the advances in real science, including medicine.
Keller’s compromise is apparent very early on in his paper; he argues that “there is no logical reason to preclude that God could have used evolution to predispose people to believe in God in general so that people would be able to consider true belief when they hear the Gospel preached” (p. 1). The argument from what God could have done is almost meaningless because God could do anything that doesn’t contradict His own nature (meaning that He cannot do evil or logically contradictory things). What matters is what God said He actually did, and His record of that in Genesis gives no hint of such evolutionary processes.
Keller makes the caveat that “[n]othing here should be seen as meeting the need for rigorous, scholarly arguments in answer to these questions” (p. 2). Indeed, very little in the paper could be described as rigorous, scholarly, or even arguments, but at least he is honest.
Genesis 1: literal or poetic?
Keller says that the first problem evolution presents for Protestants is that “to account for evolution we must see at least Genesis 1 as non-literal” (p. 2). He claims that “[t]he way to respect the authority of the Biblical [sic] writers is to take them as they want to be taken. Sometimes they want to be taken literally, sometimes they don’t. We must listen to them, not impose our thinking and agenda on them” (p. 3). He argues that Genesis 1 and 2 is analogous to Judges 4 and 5, where one chapter recounts the history, and the other is an exalted poetic description of the same event which is meant to be taken non-literally. He contrasts the poetic Judges passage with Luke 1:1, where the author clearly states that he intends to give a historical account.
Keller argues that it is not always possible to discern the genre of a biblical text and that “Genesis 1 and the book of Ecclesiastes are two examples of places in the Bible where there will always be debate, because the signs are not crystal clear.” But it is clear that he adopts a non-literal interpretation of Genesis 1. He appeals to Edward J Young’s description of Genesis 1 being written in “exalted, semi-poetical language.” Although he admits that Young takes the six days of creation literally, he uses that description as a springboard to describe why one should not take Genesis 1 literally.
But saying that a text uses exalted, semi-poetical language is quite different from saying that it is poetry. Keller argues that instead of the typical parallelism which characterizes Hebrew poetry, “refrains” in the narrative justify taking it as a poetic, non-literal text. He says, “Obviously, this is not the way someone writes in response to a simple request to tell what happened” (p. 4). But Keller’s insight has been far less than “obvious” to generations of Jews and Christians, including biblical authors, who have studied Genesis and interpreted Genesis 1 to be a straightforward account of what actually happened.
Young despised this sort of waffling on the text. His comments against the compromising framework hypothesis seem relevant to Keller’s approach as well:
What strikes one immediately upon reading such a statement is the low estimate of the Bible which it entails. [They say] Whenever ‘science’ and the Bible are in conflict, it is always the Bible that, in one manner or another, must give way. We are not told that ‘science’ should correct its answers in light of Scripture. Always it is the other way around. Yet this is really surprising, for the answers which scientists have provided have frequently changed with the passing of time. The ‘authoritative’ answers of pre-Copernican scientists are no longer acceptable; nor, for that matter, are many of the views of twenty-five years ago.1
Informed biblical creationists like Young accept that there is vivid semi-poetical language in Genesis 1, just like there is in many narrative texts. But another way of stating this is ‘exalted prose’, in the words of historian Noel Weeks. The language used does not negate the grammatical constructions (like the numbering pattern, waw consecutives, the use of yôm with a numeric and evening/morning) which clearly mark it as a straightforward historical narrative. Numbers 7 is very similar to Genesis 1: both have ‘refrains’ including a sequence of consecutive numbered days, but no one doubts that Numbers 7 was intended as historical narrative (see also Genesis was written as history). John’s prologue could be said to have the same sort of ‘exalted, semi-poetical’ language, but that does not mean that he did not intend to teach the pre-existence and deity of Christ.
Keller says that “Perhaps the strongest argument for the view that the author in Genesis 1 did not want to be taken literally is a comparison of the order of creative acts in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.” While Genesis 1 shows light before the sun and vegetation before the atmosphere existed, Keller argues that Genesis 2 presents a more ‘natural’ order. Yet who appointed Keller the judge of what is ‘more natural’? Early church writers disagreed, and even used the literal fourth day creation of the sun as a polemic against paganism. For example, in the second century, Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch, wrote in an apologetic work to the learned pagan magistrate Autolycus:
‘On the fourth day the luminaries came into existence. Since God has foreknowledge, he understood the nonsense of the foolish philosophers who were going to say that the things produced on earth come from the stars, so that they might set God aside. In order therefore that the truth might be demonstrated, plants and seeds came into existence before the stars. For what comes into existence later cannot cause what is prior to it.’2
In the 4th century, Basil commented on the same passage:
‘Heaven and earth were the first; after them was created light; the day had been distinguished from the night, then had appeared the firmament and the dry element. The water had been gathered into the reservoir assigned to it, the earth displayed its productions, it had caused many kinds of herbs to germinate and it was adorned with all kinds of plants. However, the sun and the moon did not yet exist, in order that those who live in ignorance of God may not consider the sun as the origin and the father of light, or as the maker of all that grows out of the earth. That is why there was a fourth day, and then God said: “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven.”’3
Keller argues that the two are, on the surface, contradictory, and that we “can’t read them both as straightforward accounts of historical events” (p. 4). At best, this statement shows ignorance of the way in which the two have been read side-by-side as equally historical, literal accounts of creation; at worst it displays astonishing arrogance. We have covered this subject amply in other articles (for instance, Genesis contradictions?). But the particular ‘contradiction’ Keller raises is so simply resolved that it is not so much an exegetical error as a simple error of reading comprehension. In Genesis 2:5 it says that the types of plants that did not exist yet were the bush of the field and the small plant of the field—that is, cultivated plants. There are two very simple reasons why these did not yet exist—there was no rain yet, and there were no people around to cultivate the plants. Other types of plants existed. But Keller’s ‘harmonization’ of the passage, if taken to its ridiculous conclusion, would require that man was created before vegetation, because 2:5 contains a description of the condition of earth when God made mankind! (See also An understanding of Genesis 2:5.)
Keller argues on the basis of his reading that Genesis 1 does not teach that God made the world in six twenty-four hour days, and allows for long ages. Although he argues that this is “not because we want to make room for any particular scientific view of things, but because we are trying to be true to the text, listening as carefully as we can to the meaning of the inspired author” (p. 5), it is hard to see how any people could come to Keller’s conclusion unless they were determined to find an interpretation of the passage that allows long ages. Thus it is not surprising that long-age views were absent before the perceived need to fit in with uniformitarian geology and evolutionary biology—they, not Scripture, are the real ‘authorities’ for the Biologos crowd.
The biological process of evolution versus social Darwinism
Keller devotes several pages to showing that believing that evolution happened as a biological process does not necessarily mean that one has to embrace the “Grand Theory of Evolution” involving naturalism and social Darwinism. All the same, it’s no coincidence that the founding “eugenics movement looked like a Darwin family business.” We agree with him; we’ve written about how, for example, Richard Dawkins, the Apostle of Atheopathy, is repelled by social Darwinism and calls himself a “cultural Christian.” He’s gone so far as to argue that the King James Bible should be preserved as one of the great literary masterpieces of the English language and that it should not be hijacked by the Church; and even admitted that undermining Christianity could have opened society to “something much worse”. Others embrace evolution while maintaining a belief in God, and we’ve affirmed before that a person can be saved and believe in evolution But that does not mean that one can be a consistent Christian and an evolutionist. The phenomenon of ‘blessed inconsistency’ allows people to hold beliefs without taking them to their logical conclusions. But evolution, by its very nature, makes God superfluous, like a horse pulling a tractor. It also involves a historical order of events which undermines the foundations of the Gospel message, by placing death and suffering before sin, for example.
Keller laments that the link between “the Grand Theory of Evolution” and evolution as a biological process causes many people to reject the latter. “Many Christian laypeople … seek to hold on to some sense of human dignity by subscribing to ‘fiat-creationism.’ This is not a sophisticated theological and philosophical move; it is intuitive” (p. 6). He laments that many Christians are confused by the following quote:
“If ‘evolution’ is … elevated to the status of a world-view of the way things are, then there is direct conflict with the biblical faith. But if ‘evolution’ remains at the level of scientific biological hypothesis, it would seem that there is little reason for conflict between the implications of Christian belief in the Creator and the scientific explorations of the way which—at the level of biology—God has gone about his creating processes.”4
With such unnecessary grammatical contortions and wordiness it is unsurprising that many people are confused by the quote! The exact same idea can be expressed in fewer than half of the words by saying, “While the evolutionary worldview is in conflict with the biblical faith, evolution as a biological hypothesis is not in conflict with the Christian belief in the Creator.” Of course, we would disagree with that too, but at least it isn’t so puffed up with superfluous verbiage.
Keller, however, says that laypeople have to grasp the distinction between the two, “or they will never grant the importance of EBP [evolutionary biological processes]” (p. 6). He laments how theistic evolutionist Christians “often find themselves attacked by those Christians who are not,” but does not mention the hostility (which is often much more vocal and intense) from the theistic evolutionists against those who take Genesis as a historical account. Keller suggests that evolutionist Christians and biblical creationists should focus on the “Grand Theory of Evolution” as a common enemy, which would hopefully make it easier to draw a distinction between that and EBP. But in practice, as exemplified by the Biologos crowd he runs with, theistic evolutionists and atheistic evolutionists make biblical creation their common enemy—and it’s often hard to tell them apart.
Evolution, Adam, and Sin
While Keller is prepared to accept that Genesis 1 is not to be taken literally, and that God could have used evolution, he admits that he is concerned about the problems of reconciling evolution and a historical Adam. He recognizes that key New Testament authors and passages take Adam and the Fall as historical, e.g. Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15; Paul “most definitely wanted to teach us that Adam and Eve were real historical figures” (p. 9). This is at least better than his Biologos comrade Peter Enns who claimed that Paul was just wrong. Indeed, the section where he is explaining the importance of a historical Adam and a historical Fall is the best part of his paper, and we would agree with a lot of that section.
Unfortunately, Keller’s answer is to accept a literal Adam and Eve as a product of evolutionary biological processes (p. 10). His exegetical justification for this is that Job 10:8–9 says that God fashioned Job like a potter, even though Job was born by natural processes. So, according to this train of thought, when it says that God made Adam out of dust, it could mean that he actually came about by a natural process. But like Keller said earlier, it is important to consider the genre. Job is written in a poetic genre, Genesis 2, as even Keller agrees, is not poetry, as noted above. The commentary Keller quotes seems to imply that Adam evolved through a divine intervention but Eve did not, and that Adam’s federal headship encompassed his contemporaries as well as his descendants, an odd view to say the least.
He suggests that this would solve problems like “who were the people that Cain feared would slay him in revenge for the murder of Abel (Gen 4:14)? Who was Cain’s wife, and how could Cain have built a city filled with inhabitants (Gen 4:17)? We might even ask why Genesis 2:20 hints that Adam went on a search to ‘find’ a spouse if there were only animals around? In Kidner’s approach, Adam and Eve were not alone in the world, and that answers all these questions” (p. 11). Never mind that we answered the Mrs Cain problem long ago without resorting to such pretzelizing of Scripture.
Of course, it is rather disingenuous to claim to believe in a literal Adam and Eve as taught in the Bible who got here in a completely different way and existed in conditions completely different from those taught in the Bible. Rather than the biblical Adam, whom Luke called “the son of God” (Luke 3:38), and Paul called “the first man” (1 Corinthians 15:45), Keller believes in ‘Adam’ the son of a soulless human-like hominid. One gets the feeling that he believes in a literal Adam the same way the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in Jesus; the name is the same, but the characteristics are so different that the Adam Keller believes in can hardly be said to be the one taught about in Scripture.
Keller realizes the problem of death before sin, but gives the rather weak counter-argument that the creation could not have been perfect if Satan was around, anyway. But Satan did not have dominion over the creation like Adam did; the rebellion of Satan and the fallen angels did not affect the perfection of the rest of God’s creation like Adam’s sin did. Furthermore, we would put Satan’s Fall after God declared all things “very good” in Genesis 1:31—see The Fall, Curse and Satan. The argument that “there would have had to be some kind of death and decay or fruit would not have been edible” seems willfully ignorant of the distinction between nephesh chayyāh life and that which is living in the biological sense, but which is never spoken of as having a soul. Keller mentions the traditional view that the Fall was the cause of death and suffering, but evolutionists understand “violence, predation, and death to be the very engine of how life develops. … The problem of evil seems to be worse for the believer in theistic evolution” (p. 2). Indeed, it is worse for anyone who compromises on the time scale of creation, because there is no way to fit long ages in without putting death and disease before the Fall.
Keller argues that the consequence of the Fall was a spiritual death, something that had never been experienced before because no one had been in the image of God before. But in 1 Corinthians 15:26, Paul argues that physical death is the last enemy, otherwise he would be teaching a spiritual Resurrection of Christ as well.5 It is hard to see how God could have proclaimed creation “very good” before the Fall if something that would be called the last enemy was present!
Keller differentiates this view from that of the theistic evolutionist who believes that Adam and Eve “were products of evolution and given the image and breath of God” (p. 12), calling it a hybrid between theistic evolutionism and progressive creationism. He does not state outright which of the three models he believes, but says that all three are valid for Christians who believe in evolutionary biological processes.
He concludes by saying that “Christians who are seeking to correlate Scripture and science must be a ‘bigger tent’ than either the anti-scientific religionists or the anti-religious scientists. Even though in this paper I argue for the importance of belief in a literal Adam and Eve, I have shown here that there are several ways to hold that and still believe in God using EBP” (p. 13).
One of the most disturbing parts of Keller’s view here is that it makes individuals who seem to be completely human, who use tools, who bury their dead, who outwardly have all the signs of humanity, into soulless hominids; he says that God took Adam out of a population of tool-makers (p. 10). But surely to say that people who had the capacity to communicate, to live in societies, to do all the things that we think of as distinctively human, were not, is twisting the evidence to fit one’s theory. This is just like the views of progressive creationist Hugh Ross, who not surprisingly is allying with Biologos for a forthcoming conference.
It is impossible to read Keller’s essay without being struck by the weakness of his assertions. The qualifiers that predominate give a sense of something that cannot be more charitably described than as wishy-washiness. It is possible, or it could be, etc. One searches in vain for half a dozen strong assertions that are not about the need for evangelicals to be more open to the notion of God using evolutionary processes. It would be a step up for the paper if Keller would be more open about his compromise; but his need to at least appear to give a faithful interpretation of Genesis which is compatible with long ages results in a paper that doesn’t really say anything.
Keller seems charitable to everyone—to theistic evolutionists, progressive creationists—to everyone except biblical creationists! We, it can only be assumed, are lumped in with the “anti-scientific religionists” who must be enlightened. He seems utterly ignorant of mainstream creationist literature and arguments, otherwise it is inconceivable that he would air objections as embarrassingly simple as “Where did Cain’s wife come from?” or “What about the discrepancies between Genesis 1 and 2?”
Also, for someone so determined to interpret Scripture faithfully, Keller seems to subordinate it to ‘science’ quite a lot. While Keller specifically denies that this is the case, there does not seem to be any other motive for some of his exegetical conclusions; if ‘science’ did not say the universe was billions of years old, who would ever read long ages into the six days of creation? If ‘science’ did not say that mankind was descended from ape-like hominids who were themselves descended from more and more primitive life forms, who would read anything like that into God’s creation of mankind?
In conclusion, the one thing that is more troubling than any other is how Keller would encourage the layperson to ‘reconcile’ Christianity and science by completely reinterpreting the first couple of chapters of Genesis to give a more superficial agreement with evolutionary theory. But this doesn’t satisfy anyone except fellow compromisers. Biblical creationists will, or at least should, strongly object to the compromise; and evolutionists will not be satisfied until the ‘myth’ is completely expunged from the compromiser’s worldview.
But we do agree with Keller on one thing; it is possible to reconcile the Bible and science. But this is not done by reinterpreting Scripture, but by subordinating science to its rightful ministerial position under the authoritative Word of God.
- E. J. Young, “Days of Genesis”, Westminster Theological Journal 25 (1):1–34, 1963, p. 11. Return to text.
- Theophilus, To Autolycus 2:15, AD 181, Ante-Nicene Fathers 2:100. Return to text.
- Basil, Hexaëmeron 6:2; www.newadvent.org/fathers/32016.htm. Return to text.
- David Atkinson, The Message of Genesis 1–11. The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1990), p. 31. Quoted in Keller p. 6. Return to text.
- See L. Cosner, “Christ as the Last Adam: Paul’s use of the Creation narrative in 1 Corinthians 15” Journal of Creation 23(3):70–75. Return to text.