The mixing of evolution and theology sometimes results in a theory called theistic evolution. This theory posits that through the process of evolution, God gradually developed life forms until finally they became human beings.
The biblical concept of the creation of life stands in sharp contrast to that of theistic evolution. God created life on the Earth in six literal 24-hour consecutive contiguous creative days and then rested on the seventh day, which is attested to not only in Genesis 1 but also in Exodus 20 and 31. Christ confirmed a literal interpretation of Genesis when He referred to Adam and to the Flood.
Even a liberal 20th-century theologian such as Rudolf Bultmann affirmed that the biblical writers, whoever they were, had a literal interpretation in mind in writing about creation. Bultmann did not accept something as prominent in Scripture as the resurrection of Christ, or a literal visible Second Coming, or even the authority of Scripture. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the writers of the Bible believed in and meant to describe a six-day creation. This does not mean that Bultmann accepted the six-day creation. He argued that we live in a contemporary modern society and therefore we know better than the Bible writers in areas such as science and history and psychology and sociology. However, Bultmann recognized that the Bible writers referred to a six-day creation even though he himself opted for theistic evolution.
How would the acceptance of theistic evolution affect Adventist theology? Does it matter whether the creation of life happened millions of years ago or only a few thousand years ago as indicated by the Bible? Is the biblical concept of creation important to Adventist theology? How would the rejection of the biblical doctrine of creation affect the rest of our beliefs as a church?
The Nature of the Bible
The result of accepting theistic evolution instead of the biblical concept of the six-day creation could lead to any one of several conclusions:
First, it could mean that the Bible simply expresses opinions that we must verify or reject by a human discipline such as science, history, sociology, psychology, or by human experience.
Second, it might mean that the Bible is authoritative only in some realm such as the spiritual, but not in areas that have to do with human disciplines.
Third, it might be argued that the Bible has a canon within the canon. Only certain parts of the Bible are authoritative. Genesis 1 and 2 are not part of the authoritative portion of the Bible.
Closely associated with the question of biblical authority is the question of biblical interpretation. Some theistic evolutionists claim that the writers of Genesis did not intend to convey history. They were speaking poetically or allegorically. Thus they did not expect us to accept such forms of speech literally. Furthermore, it would be argued that we should not take seriously, as truth for today, the affirmations of Christ and others in the rest of the Bible to the literalness of Genesis 1 and 2.
The Origin of the Bible
The concept of theistic evolution alters the concept of how Scripture came to be. The Bible claims to be the Word of God given by the Holy Spirit through prophets, who communicated that word to the people in their own thought forms and language. The result was not the work of human beings, but the inspired Word of God.
The concept of theistic evolution also implies an evolutionary origin for the Bible. The Bible is not the Word of God—it is the evolving spiritual literature of certain ancient Near Eastern societies. During many generations and in many different social contexts various editors and schools of thought brought the pieces of literature together in the form that we now find in the Bible. In this view, the theologian who discerns and delivers the leading edge of spiritual evolution today carries on the role of the prophet.
Scripture and Nature
The concepts of theistic evolution affect our understanding of the relationship between the Bible and the natural world in two possible ways. First, the Bible may be made subservient to the insights gained from study of the natural world. The Bible would then be interpreted from the standpoint of contemporary humanistic disciplines.
Second, the Bible might be placed on the same level as science, history, tradition, church councils, revered texts from other faiths, philosophy, or reason. These may be regarded as equally transmitting God’s revelation. Therefore, the task of the theologian is to interpret them rightly and synthesize the results into a coherent whole. This second approach has usually resulted in conclusions similar to the first.
In contrast to the previous approaches, the Reformation asserted that the Bible is not subservient to human reason and that Scripture is the sole authority (sola scriptura) by which we must measure all other authorities. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has based its beliefs on this perspective. While theistic evolution attempts to find a synthesis between the Bible and science, the principle of sola scriptura clearly rules out such an approach.
The Power of the Bible
Theistic evolution transforms the notion of the power of the Word of God. The Bible declares that creation took place by the word of God, and Scripture claims to be the Word of God. Therefore, the Reformation taught that when we read the Bible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it makes God’s power available to those receptive to it. It is the same creative power that brought the world into existence, that brought healing to the deaf, sight to the blind—the power of conversion, the power of transformation.
But theistic evolution denies such a power. It views the power of creation at best as a guiding spirit gradually manipulating matter and life during a period of millions of years to bring about change. Theistic evolution does not regard Christianity as a divinely revealed religion, because religion itself is considered to be in the process of evolving. Christianity may be the evolutionary peak for the present, but something else will supersede it.
Theistic evolution attempts to ground its theory of origins in the power of science. In contrast, the Bible states that we accept creation by faith (Heb. 11:3), a gift of God (Eph. 2:8) that comes by hearing the Word of God (Rom. 10:17) under the power of God (1 Corinthians 1; 2).
The Nature of Matter and Humanity
The Bible asserts that God spoke, and worlds came into existence (Gen. 1:1–25; Ps. 33:6). Questioning this teaching, theistic evolution wonders whether God created matter in the same way that He made humanity—by the process of evolution during millions of years. Is matter self-existent apart from God? If so, is there a duality in the universe? On the other hand, if God spoke and brought matter into existence, then why did He not do the same for humanity?
Some views of theistic evolution affect the concept of the nature of humanity. Seventh-day Adventists believe that human beings are a unity—that God breathed into Adam’s nostrils, and He became a living soul. At death, the breath or spirit of God returns to God and the soul ceases to exist until the resurrection.
Some versions of theistic evolution do not regard human beings as created living souls. Many hold that at some point in the process of evolution, human beings received a soul. The soul is simply a fixture added on to human life. Thus a human being is not a unity, because the soul was originally separate from the body. Separating the soul from the rest of the human being allows for the concept of the natural immortality of the soul and its pre-existence.
The concept of humanity in the type of theistic evolution noted above seems to be self-contradictory. First, it questions whether God steps into history and whether miracles actually take place. But is not the infusion of a soul at some point in time a historical and miraculous event? If so, why not simply accept the biblical account? Second, theistic evolution questions the idea of human resurrection. If God either cannot or does not create by fiat creation, why should He do so in a resurrection? And if He does it in the resurrection, why not in the beginning?
More important, this form of theistic evolution contradicts Scripture. If, as the story states, God created humanity in His image, at what point, and how, in the evolutionary process did it take place? Further, the Bible states that humanity fell from the image of God at the entrance of sin. Theistic evolution raises doubt about sin by suggesting that humanity is actually in a process of improvement over time.
The Nature of God
Theistic evolution challenges Adventist theology’s understanding of the nature of God.
First, it questions His intelligence, power, and love. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, is He truly a God of love? Would a God of love drag His creation through such a long process of evolution—of survival of the fittest finally to bring forth humanity? If God is indeed a God of love, the divine method of creation propounded by theistic evolution would appear to call either God’s intelligence or power into question. Either He is intelligent, but not very powerful, or powerful, but not very intelligent—otherwise He would have created in a more loving manner. It does not seem possible to accept theistic evolution and at the same time also to uphold all three of the classic properties of God’s nature: God’s infinite love, intelligence, and power. Unfortunately, only some combination of two of the three qualities can coincide with theistic evolution.
Second, theistic evolution doubts God’s personal nature. Is God personal, or is He just a pervasive influence or spirit, or perhaps even an impersonal energy that does not relate to us at all? If indeed God created us for relationship, at what point did human beings become suited for a relationship with God, and why did it take Him so long to bring it about? By contrast, the Bible asserts that God created humankind for personal relationship with Him and that the plan of salvation seeks to restore that original relationship.
Third, theistic evolution questions whether God communicates with us. Theistic evolution asserts that humanity existed for millions or billions of years without any direct contact from God. If the theistic evolutionist then wishes also to accept the Bible as God’s communication, it would be necessary to say that after millions and billions of years, God suddenly came on the scene to speak to humanity.
Fourth, theistic evolution downplays the nature of God’s action in history. Does God act directly in history, or is He simply some kind of backdrop to it, never actually become personally involved in events Himself. With the latter view of God, it is understandable that the theistic evolutionists reject or reinterpret the biblical concept of creation. God simply doesn’t or can’t act the way the Bible depicts. Modern humanity knows better.
Fifth, if God does not directly involve Himself in history, then how does this affect the existence of Jesus Christ? Is He indeed God come to live incarnate, or was He simply a man in the process of evolution, albeit at its highest peak for His time? Or was He the embodiment of the spirit or force that has been driving creation since the beginning of time?
Sixth, if theistic evolutionists have problems with the miracle of creation, they will likely experience difficulties with other miracles recorded in the Bible: the Flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, the resurrections in both testaments, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ Himself, and the future miracle of the literal, visible Second Coming and re-creation of the earth.
Seventh, theistic evolution struggles with God’s relationship to the laws of the universe. Is God in control of the processes of evolution, or is He Himself subject to them and therefore evolving Himself? Similarly, is God the creator and grantor of freedom, or is He Himself bound by the laws of freedom? If God is controlled by the laws of the universe, so that He must operate in harmony with them, is He still God? Would not the laws that restrict Him then be above Him?
Eighth, theistic evolution questions the Bible as the foundation of knowledge. Theistic evolution derives its knowledge of origins, and possibly of the nature of the universe, by observation, by natural means alone. The biblical viewpoint is that the One who spoke worlds into existence, the One who created the nature of the universe, also revealed Himself and the nature and origin of the universe that He created. Thus we depend upon God’s revelation if we are to properly carry out our human intellectual disciplines. In the biblical approach, God is the creator and grantor or knowledge, while in the evolutionary approach, human beings control knowledge. If human beings are in control of knowledge, do they in their autonomy—independence from God—finally put themselves in the place of God?
Ninth, in the process of evolution, is God Himself simply an entity among countless others and therefore Himself caught in the flow of history? Are human beings themselves creators and, though to a lesser extent, nonetheless similar to God? The biblical doctrine of creation safeguards the distinction between God and humanity. God is the Creator; we are the created. He is the sustainer, while we are the sustained. Such a distinction helps us avoid the temptation to make ourselves God.
Sin and Salvation
The themes of the Great Controversy and the plan of salvation are vital to Seventh-day Adventist theology. Theistic evolutionists would reinterpret them drastically. They would see the Great Controversy played out in the process of evolution rather than between Christ and Satan. The plan of salvation would work itself out as an evolutionary progress rather than as God’s communication, presence, incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, sanctuary ministry, second coming, re-creation of the Earth, and so on.
If theistic evolution accepts the biblical concept of sin, then it seems that it must also assert that the process of evolution created humanity in a sinful condition. What would be the implications for a God who would create sinful human beings?
Theistic evolution threatens the biblical concept of the substitutionary death of Christ. If humanity is in the process of progressive evolution, then there was no sin event, and if there was no event of sin, there is no need for a Savior from sin. Jesus might play the role of visionary leader or moral influence, a catalyst to speed up the process of progressive evolution, but He is not humanity’s substitute, for there is no need for one.
From the perspective of theistic evolution, the church cannot teach an everlasting gospel: Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment is come, and worship Him, the Creator. Rather, the church must present a social gospel. It would be a moral club, a facilitator of ongoing evolution.
The Law and Christian Institutions
Theistic evolution undermines the concept of God’s law. If God either cannot or will not enter human history in creation, etc., then surely He made no divine proclamation from Sinai. He did not divinely reveal the Ten Commandment law. Law itself is in evolutionary development. Human beings determine their own laws by externally observing the laws of nature, and by internally observing the laws of human personality. There exists no divine absolute.
The absence of divine absolutes will affect other doctrines related to the law of God, such as marriage and the Sabbath. Both institutions, authorized in the divine law, originated at creation. However, theistic evolution would deny that marriage is a divine institution. Marriage would be binding only to the extent that culture made it so. It would be the result of evolutionary social customs rather than the creation and gift of God. Similarly, the Sabbath would not be a divine institution and a mark of distinction of God’s people but merely the evolutionary development of folk religion, and therefore classed along with other religious responses to the divine.
Theistic evolution nullifies Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary, in His church, and in the new earth. First, if God does not create by fiat creation, if He does not communicate directly to humanity, if He does not become incarnate, if there is no fall from the image of God and therefore no need for a substitute to bring about reconciliation, then surely God does not do such things as minister on humankind’s behalf in a heavenly sanctuary.
Second, theistic evolution would undermine the spiritual gifts that Christ sends to His church from heaven. Consider, for example, the role of the gift of prophecy. Ellen G. White stood strongly behind the biblical concept of a six-day creation by the word of the Lord. If her strong emphasis was misguided at this point, in what else can we accept her authority?
Third, theistic evolution would find it necessary to reinterpret Seventh-day Adventist eschatology. If God does not break into history in creation, then surely He will not do so in a literal, visible Second Coming. Since He does not create by the word of His mouth, will He re-create in the resurrection? And if He did not originally create the Garden of Eden, will He re-create the new earth? Eschatology is not the decisive entrance of God into history. It is the continuing process of evolution for a better life, something that humanity accelerates by bringing about a moral and just society through revolt, rebellion, redistribution of wealth, education, and other means.
The Adventist faith will not be itself if it accepts theistic evolution. The active God who created by the word of His mouth, who communicated through the prophets, who lived among us, died in our place, was resurrected and ascended to minister for us, who will return the second time to gather us to Himself, who will resurrect the dead and re-create the new earth, and who will finally destroy sin, cannot be worshiped if He does not exist. We do not worship a god who dragged us through a long process of evolution. Rather, we worship the God of creation, a personal God who desires to fellowship with us and to dwell among us. God is to be worshiped because He is the Creator. That is what distinguishes Him from other gods.
E. Edward Zinke, retired, is a former Associate Director of the Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland.