In many ways, Theistic Evolution (TE) is an extension of Old Earth Creationism. Both welcome many insights and explanations from scientific models. Therefore, both hold the view that the Earth and universe are billions of years old. Both maintain that the primary focus of Genesis 1–2 is communicating spiritual and theological truths in the context of salvation history, rather than necessitating a literal account of the timing and mechanisms involved in the origins of the cosmos.
But there are points where OEC and TE diverge. And to understand these distinctions, we need to understand clearly what people mean when they refer to the process of evolution.
Dennis Venema describes it this way:
“At its most fundamental level, evolution is the change in average characteristics of a population over time. Darwin termed this effect, ‘descent with modification.’ All populations exhibit genetic variation, since DNA copying is imperfect and mutations may occur.”
What is evolution?
Therefore, in its purest form, evolution refers to the process by which variations in reproduction result in mutations and changes in the physiology of a species. Even prior to Charles Darwin’s research, humans knew they could selectively breed animals (like horses and dogs) to isolate desirable characteristics. Darwin’s major contribution involved observing that, given enough time, nature had its own way of revealing which features are the most advantageous for the survival and flourishing of a species. He deemed this process “natural selection,” which constitutes the core facet of Darwinian evolutionary theory: individual organisms with features best suited to their environment tend to live longer and reproduce more frequently and successfully, which causes the species as a whole to manifest these more desirable characteristics over time.
Darwin thought this meant that, given enough time, the process could bring about new species that are physiologically distinct and unable to reproduce with one another. In pure Darwinian Evolution (which tends to rely on philosophical naturalism and assumes a mechanistic worldview), chance and competition drive the process.
Therefore, the biodiversity of living organisms can be explained by random variation in reproduction and natural selection to the extent that all past and present organisms are linked in a giant family tree going back to a single-cell life form (what evolutionary theory calls, “common descent”).
While Darwin was unable to explain how desirable features were preserved in the species, Gregor Mendel, a Catholic priest and geneticist, eventually demonstrated that physiological adaptations occurred and were preserved in genetic information that could be passed down from parents to offspring. As this discovery filled out the gaps in Darwin’s evolutionary theory, Neo-Darwinism has since dominated biology and origins science.
It is difficult to deny that some form of evolution occurs within the world. As previously mentioned, selective breeding shows that adaptations and mutations can occur through reproduction to create new species or subspecies (labradoodles, anyone?). Even over the last century or so, life expectancy and height have substantially increased for human populations across the world. While advancements in technology, agriculture and medicine can account for some of these changes, some form of adaptive process may be at work.
Macro vs micro
It probably is not a surprise that the scientific community as a whole has fully embraced the explanations offered by Darwinian evolutionary theory. However, many scientists, philosophers, researchers and theologians question whether evolution, natural selection and genetic mutation, on their own, can account for the existence and diversity of organic life. In light of that skepticism, many find it helpful to distinguish between microevolution and macroevolution.
Microevolution describes variations in the genetic or physiological features that can occur within a particular species or group of genetically compatible organisms. Selective breeding of horses and canines is an excellent example. In nature, microevolutionary processes can gradually change the average appearance, size or characteristics of certain organisms. These changes can even produce new species, but they are typically able to reproduce (with varying levels of success) within their specific gene pool.
Macroevolution, on the other hand, tries to capture what happens when, given enough time, natural selection and mutation produce an entirely new, genetically distinct organism.
These categories have been particularly helpful for OECs, who typically acknowledge the process of microevolution but question the explanatory power of macroevolution given the fossil record and age of the Earth. However, it should be noted that the major distinction between the two is simply a matter of scale. And adherents of macroevolution argue that the age of the Earth allows enough time for these dramatic changes to take place.
Generally speaking, Theistic Evolution finds the scientific evidence for macroevolution compelling, and therefore accepts it as a mechanism (even the primary one) God used to create organic life in all its forms – microbial, plant, animal and human.
Where do they find the evidence to support this conclusion? The same places evolutionary scientists look for confirmation of their theories.
For starters, the geologic fossil record generally confirms the kind of progression of biological complexity evolution suggests. The lowest geological layers tend to contain fossils of simpler life forms, and those closer to the surface contain more diverse and complex organisms. Evolutionary scientists also point to the existence of similar physiological features and structures shared by very different life forms. For instance, the skeletal structure of bat wings, marine mammal fins, animal paws and human hands shows remarkable similarity. But beyond that, cellular structures and chemical processes show remarkable consistency across various types of organisms, and all organic life utilizes the same fundamental four-chemical structure for DNA.
Scientists and TEs also find compelling evidence when they look at similarities in the genetic code itself. Humans and chimpanzees share nearly 99% of the same code, and DNA sequences between other animals, even insects, are close enough to be inserted into one another and not only maintain function but also repair genetic defects in other species.
Additionally, evolutionary scientists and TEs look for signs of evolutionary progression in current species. This not only includes genetic artifacts in the DNA sequence that serve no biological purpose, but also vestigial organs like the human tailbone, pelvic spurs in snakes and floating (unattached to the rest of the skeleton) hip bones in whales. Many also believe this progression can be seen in the geographic distribution of species, which tend to more closely reflect those in nearby regions. Some types of animals, like marsupials, were geographically isolated in the natural world at their discovery.
Additionally, paleontologists have identified hominoid fossils throughout the world they increasingly believe suggest a branching family tree of pre-Neanderthal bipeds. They believe this suggests humanity’s common descent with primates at some point, where the two diverged through natural selection into various types of pre-human bipeds and apes.
What about Scripture? Like some Old Earth Creationists, TEs typically argue that the Bible is not a science textbook but rather seeks to communicate transcendent and spiritual truths about the Creator. Therefore, they read Genesis 1–2 in a way that primarily focuses on symbolic themes developed through the Pentateuch and in the rest of Scripture. They often point to other Ancient Near Eastern Creation myths and demonstrate how Genesis offers a unique theological perspective about the power and sovereignty of God and how He “temples” within His Creation, establishing an intentional and covenantal relationship. Their view of inspiration allows for cultural perspectives and worldview to shape how the biblical authors communicated God’s truth.
Ancient Near Eastern cosmology seemed to hold that the Earth existed on a flattened disc, surrounded by water, supported by pillars, encapsulated by a solid dome in which the stars were fixed. TE (and some OEC) adherents argue that this misinformed “scientific” understanding does not negate the eternal truths communicated in scripture. Therefore, they maintain that the Bible does not require the rejection of the major tenets of evolutionary theory and does not suggest we should ignore what the natural world, which God created and fashioned, can teach us.
Additionally, TEs argue that it is consistent with God’s beneficent character to manifest a magnificently endowed universe with an intentional structure capable of producing diverse, complex and God-glorifying life. Howard Van Till argues that Evolutionary Creationism “emphasizes God’s giving of being to a creation that is richly gifted with the capabilities to organize and transform itself into new forms in the course of time.”
Therefore, TEs like Old Testament professor Bruce Waltke tend to emphasize how God often acts providentially, sovereignly guiding the progression of events within nature and history to achieve His ultimate ends.
Cooperation with natural sciences
The strengths of Theistic Evolution tend to flow from its cooperative relationship with the natural sciences. Like Old Earth Creationism, TE benefits from a growing consensus from various scientific disciplines that the world and universe are ancient, much older than the 10,000 years allowed by the most generous YEC model. However, even more than OEC, Evolutionary Creationism enjoys (and even seeks out) a concordist, collaborative relationship with scientific discovery. This allows for TEs to show consistency relating to science and experts, and also the benefit of how fruitful evolutionary theory has been for the broader scientific community.
Additionally, TE’s emphasis on God’s providence and the Bible’s intent to reveal spiritual truth allows scientific conclusions and scripture’s theological claims to coexist. They see God’s wisdom in designing a universe so intricately and intentionally that it can manifest and develop organic life, complex organisms, vibrant ecosystems and human consciousness. This allows Christians who ascribe to TE intellectual credibility when witnessing to academics and skeptics alike.
Critics tend to begin with challenges to Neo-Darwinian theory. As previously mentioned, science operates at its best with observable, repeatable phenomena. But origins sciences and evolutionary theory tend to venture out from the realm of certainty into inference as they offer suggestions to explain gaps between the fossil record and organisms we can observe today. Darwin himself believed the fossil record should be rife with intermediary species.
However, the geologic column seems to suggest that discrete jumps in the development of organisms and examples of fossilized bridge species are few and far between. Additionally, the fossil record of the “Cambrian explosion” (estimated to have occurred some 530 million years ago) shows a dramatic jump from exclusively single-cell life forms to dramatic biological complexity and diversity. Paleontology and geology seem to demonstrate that at least two more leaps occurred, with the most recent some 2 million years ago.
Rich diversity of life
While it should be noted that fossils are naturally preserved in only very specific situations, the current body of evidence raises important challenges to the gradual progression of evolution suggested by natural selection and genetic mutation. Many scientists also question whether or not the estimated age of the universe provides enough time for evolution on its own to produce the rich diversity of life on Earth. This has led some thinkers like philosopher Alvin Plantinga and theologian Kirk MacGregor to conclude that evolution could only work with divine intervention and guidance (which could advance a strongly TE perspective).
Additionally, Neo-Darwinian evolution provides little predictive power (usually a measure of success for scientific theories) and fails to provide meaningful answers to important origin questions. For example:
- If all life traces back to a single-celled organism, how did the universe create organic life out of inorganic matter and energy?
- Even if some hominid fossils demonstrate practices like burial, development of tools and technology, and symbolic reasoning, how are the emergence of human consciousness, rationality and spiritual existence accounted for?
- At what point did our evolutionary ancestors become human as we understand it?
- Why do we not observe an emergence of those characteristics in other branches that extend from our common ancestor?
Other dissenters object to TE on more philosophical grounds. Skeptical Christians question whether it gives up too much to scientific inquiry, to the point of starting with science rather than scripture in constructing its worldview. Evolutionary science, especially that of Neo-Darwinism, tends to ascribe to and advance a mechanistic and atheistic (or at least deistic) worldview. Critics, therefore, wonder if TE relegates God’s activity mainly to the origins of the universe in a way that portrays Him as distant and uninvolved with Creation, where scripture shows Him as interested, involved and immanent.
Other interpretive questions:
- If human beings were created through common descent, at what point was the divine image manifested?
- Did it arise with human consciousness as evolution took place, or does it relate to a particular spiritual life God imparted at some point in the specific creation or evolutionary development of homo sapiens?
- How does one square evolutionary theory with the way scripture seems to portray Adam and Eve as a historical couple (for instance, the genealogy in the Gospel of Luke suggests Adam was a literal person)?
Some proponents of TE posit that the narrative regarding Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3 utilizes them as symbolic representatives of humanity’s descent into selfishness and evil. However, many Christians struggle to allow for this much fluidity behind a text that otherwise seeks to present a historical record of God’s interaction with His Creation.
Reconciliation with the Bible
On its own, evolution and natural selection can seem violent and wasteful. It is not surprising that, like OEC, TE would subscribe to plant and animal death prior to the fall. But to reconcile evolutionary theory with the biblical text, some TEs allow for human (or at least hominid) death by asserting that the demise referenced in God’s warning against disobedience was spiritual death.
However, Genesis 3:22 seems to suggest that ongoing physical life is a possibility, which seems to undermine TE’s alternative explanation. Furthermore, Christians have confessed a bodily resurrection of Jesus in anticipation of a future freedom for all humans from the reality of physical death. Therefore, the Christian perspective on Genesis 1–3 would argue that some sense of physical death must be in view.
All these work in conjunction to create significant interpretive challenges to how TE conforms to biblical text.
Without a doubt, questions regarding humanity seem to be the most difficult to reconcile between a strong TE perspective and the biblical text. These interpretive issues have only underscored the accusation that some TE models might go too far, to the point of becoming a scientific enterprise searching for a theological license for its claims
It should be noted that, as with OEC, there is a diversity of TE models and explanations that avoid some interpretive issues by offering hybrid explanations that allow for a historical ancestral couple. It should also be noted that many TEs still hold to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, though it is easy to see how some Christians could be dissatisfied with how their view seems to restrict the areas on which the Bible speaks with unequivocal authority.
The purpose of these detailed reviews has been to educate and empower you to further understand Christian theology. And I hope it has done just that. I encourage you to reflect on these things, study Scripture further and spend time with God so you can have an informed opinion on the topic. It’s been said before, and I’ll say it here: It’s important to know what you believe and why you believe it.