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New Survey of Protestant Pastors Shows Rejection of Human Evolution

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In a new survey of American Protestant pastors by Lifeway, 73 percent of ministers disagree with the statement "I believe God used evolution to create people." Of that large number, 64 percent strongly disagreed. As you might expect, the numbers were close to the same for the question, "I believe Adam and Eve were literal people," with 74 percent strongly agreeing and only 1 percent not sure.

That overwhelming number is tempered by the survey's result on the age of the earth. "The survey of 1,000 ... also found that ministers are almost evenly split on whether the earth is thousands of years old."

Why such high numbers for the former, but not the latter?

Over the last century, Christians have found new ways of approaching the conversation of an old earth. Given the direction of research and scientific consensus, theological positions have taken on creative solutions, such as the Day Age Theory, in which the days of Genesis 1 are seen as ages. This allows for an old earth, according to this position, and a special creation of Adam and Eve without evolution.

The idea of human evolution, however, has not taken a hiatus in the discussion. In recent years, the growing evidence for evolution has prompted more conversation, confrontation and surveys.

Since the days of Darwin, there have been theologians who have also embraced evolution in some form or another. A Public Religion Research Institute poll (in partnership with Religion News Service) done earlier this year shows that on the issue of evolution among American Protestants, "a third (32 percent) of white evangelicals affirm a belief in evolution, compared to two-thirds of white mainline Protestants..."

Evangelicals tend to be the least likely category for embracing evolution, and here's why: The acceptance of evolution and potential rejection of Adam and Eve can require more changes than just how one reads Genesis 1; it could result in a rewriting of the idea of original sin. It can affect the evangelical narrative. Without the sinful nature acquired by a real Adam, how does one engage the problem of evil and the necessity of the work of Jesus? Does this nullify the evangelium or "good news" of the Bible?

But is this slippery-slope warning the only way to approach the conversation? Not all are convinced that past evangelical approaches to the Bible are always the best.

Peter Enns, author of "The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn't Say about Human Origins," recently wrote on his blog that "Evolution threatens the evangelical narrative. And it's not a joke. The threat is real." [Full disclosure: I am a personal friend of Peter Enns]

He continued: "It really does come down to the ... Bible: what is it and what does it mean to read it well? The evangelical movement has invested a lot of energy in building thick walls around the Bible, ready to defend it against challenges, real or perceived, that threaten its safety."

Enns' solution, however, is not to flee the threat, but to learn how to write "new narratives ... where openness to theological change is warranted." Enns believes that Evangelicals need to work on, and improve upon, how they read their Bibles, not reject evolution.

Young Earth Creationist Ken Ham sees it differently. In reacting to the survey by Lifeway on his blog at Answers in Genesis, he sees the main problem (in terms of priority) as that of an old earth instead of evolution. "For the secularists," writes Ham on his blog, "they have to have millions of years -- without this they can't postulate enough time for evolution." The slippery-slope does not start with Adam; for Ham, it starts with the geological timeline.

"Bottom line - -evolution is really not the problem as much as the age of the earth," says Ham. "Millions of years is the problem in today's world that has resulted in a loss of biblical authority in the church and culture and has led to an increasing loss of generations from the church." The belief that the world is millions of years old is, according to Ham, a "lie of Satan in this present world" that "permeates the church."

Given the Lifeway survey results, this would mean that nearly 50 percent of Protestant ministers are now playing for the other team and apparently do not know it.

What seems apparent in this discussion is that the future of Protestant theological engagement with evolution and its acceptance -- whether Evangelical or mainline -- appears yet to be written for church leadership. New voices will have to compete fiercely with traditional conservative approaches for survival and prominence.

Also, expect more surveys.