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Brandon G. Withrow

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Can Evangelical Theology Evolve with Science?

Posted: 09/30/2011 4:02 pm

Last August, Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry remarked that evolution is a theory with "gaps" in it, immediately generating up millions of Google search results.His perspective is not his alone; polls continue to show that while evangelicals are not entirely closed-off to the idea, evolution is far from being overwhelmingly accepted by them.

When it comes to the creative engagement of science -- whether it is on human origins or climate change -- the evangelical majority cannot shake its reputation that it is courting irrelevance by adopting fringe science and insular thinking.

Can evangelical theology evolve in its relation to scientific inquiry or is it destined for extinction?

In his recent piece here at The Huffington Post, Karl Giberson wonders about the future of evangelicals and science, particularly given what he sees as the evangelical tendency to reject established scientific claims in favor of "fake challengers."

"American evangelicals desperately need credible leaders to wean them off their preference for discredited and indefensible knowledge claims," says Giberson. "At the moment, however, it is hard to imagine where these leaders might come from."

A few voices have challenged the canon of acceptable evangelical vocabulary, whether for good or bad, but the limits of what is tolerable are often reached quickly, and sometimes, painfully. Last month, NPR reported on John Schneider, a former professor of Calvin College who was pressured to resign as a result of his conclusion that there was no historical Adam.

Even though Calvin College accepts the idea of evolution, which logically leads to Schneider's view, the odds that his position will find a jubilant reception among his fellow evangelicals are not all that great.

Recently, a new poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service shows that on the issue of evolution, "a third (32 percent) of white evangelicals affirm a belief in evolution, compared to two-thirds of white mainline Protestants, six in 10 Catholics and three-quarters of the unaffiliated." The last major poll done by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in 2009 showed the majority of evangelicals (55 percent) rejecting evolution in favor of the idea that human beings were created in their present form.

The subject of evangelicals, evolution and Adam was reprised again last week on NPR. Talk of the Nation host, Neal Conan, discussed with Barbara Bradley Hagerty (NPR religion correspondent), Daniel Harlow (religion professor at Calvin College) and Albert Mohler (president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) on the importance of a historical Adam for Christianity in light of evolution.

There were some explosive moments in those 30 minutes.

For Mohler, to question the original story of Adam is to forfeit the Christian gospel -- a slippery slope to rejecting Christ. For Harlow, science has already provided the soundest evidence for rejecting the Genesis Adam as historical; to dismiss this is to ignore God's revelation through nature. Both claim to be orthodox Christians.

The very existence of this conversation over the historical Adam, however, is evidence that real in-roads are being made by some leaders in the evangelical world. Fewer scholars appear less fearful of considering the implications of science for theology. Christianity Today featured an article on the heated conversation over the historical Adam last summer, and Baker Academic's The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn't Say about Human Origins by Peter Enns (2012) are some examples.

When it comes to science, however, evangelicals still have a lot of potential theological re-imagining ahead of them.

When I consider the challenges raised by neuroscientists in reference to the nature of the human mind, I see a thousand more difficulties on the horizon. The more tests are done, the more it appears that for the human being, that seat of the mind, or the real you, is to be found in the brain. What does this say about the existence of a soul or spirit -- that immaterial side, which is often understood as eternal, according to evangelicals?

Should evangelicals begin considering Christian materialism as an alternative to the soul? Some have suggested as much, though this position has yet to pick up steam (see, for example, Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialist Alternative to the Soul by Kevin J. Corcoran).

From my place in the mainline, perhaps these questions do not stir the pot as much as they do in the broader evangelical world. It does appear, however, that while the majority voice is very loud, there are some who are asking others to stop long enough to consider the ramifications of new ideas and discoveries rather than just dismissing them through bad science for convenience sake.

There is also the real question of boundaries. When does someone or something stop looking evangelical? Albert Mohler wants to draw his lines thick and clear with little room for deviation. Harlow tends to take the Augustinian approach usually paraphrased as, "all truth is God's truth."

Who gets the final say on whether evangelical theology can evolve?

 
 
 

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