By Jon Weatherly
Creation versus evolution, young earth versus old earth, design versus chance, God versus Darwin—few issues stir as much controversy for and among Christians as the question of origins. The recent debate between Ken Ham, founder of Answers in Genesis, and Bill Nye, PBS’s “the Science Guy,” is but the latest in a series of flashpoints going back at least to the celebrated Scopes “monkey” trial of 1925.
In the aftermath of these events, Christians sometimes feel they’ve been surrounded by mortal enemies who must be fought at all costs. Too often what some Christians mount as a counterattack becomes a circular firing squad, damaging fellow believers more than advancing the cause of Christ.
Motivated by faith in Christ, intrigued by scientific discovery, having struggled to understand the issues, and seeking to promote peaceful understanding among Christians, Bayard Taylor offers a clear, clever, and insightful perspective on these controversies in The Late Great Ape Debate (Standard Publishing, 2008 — click here to read an excerpt). For Christians seeking light on the controversy that can reduce the heat among brothers and sisters, this book has much to offer.
With a playful, humorous touch, Taylor lays out the issues on origins and Christian faith. He emphasizes that there is not simply one Christian approach to the matter but, by his count, four:
Young Earth Creationism (God created the world and its life recently and miraculously, without the processes to which modern science points).
Old Earth Creationism (God created the world at a much more distant point in the past, still creating life, and especially human life, by a special act of creation).
Intelligent Design (certain features of living things provide objective evidence of special creation by a designer).
Trinitarian Theistic Evolution (the biblical God used the gradual processes of change at work in the world to create the earth and its life, including human life).
Taylor helps readers appreciate each of these views, seeing what is prioritized in each and what strengths and weaknesses each presents from the standpoint of the others. Throughout the discussion, he offers cogent reasons why biblical Christians, committed to the “white-hot core” of Christian teaching, should respect fellow Christians whose views on creation differ from their own. Reminding readers that the Bible’s account of creation is about who and why, not when or how, he explains how Christians can in fact come to different conclusions on the origins controversy without compromising what the Bible teaches.
Not All Equal
So are all views of origins equally Christian, then? Not at all, Taylor argues. There remains another view, Materialistic Evolution, the notion that the universe exists and life exists in it without any contribution by any god. This is the view that genuinely conflicts the white-hot core of Christian teaching. Taylor aptly points out that for Christians, Materialistic Evolution is problematic because of its materialism, the denial of God and his involvement and purpose in all of creation by whatever process.
Taylor is alert to a widely overlooked factor in the controversy: that advocates of Materialistic Evolution and advocates of Young Earth Creationism tend to make the same assertions about the Bible’s account of creation. That is, both assert that the Bible’s account is of a sudden and recent process that leaves no room for the vast periods of time to which modern geology and paleontology point. For the Materialistic Evolutionist, that means that the Bible and Christianity are therefore false. For the Young Earth Creationist, that means that modern science is therefore false.
In response, Taylor guides readers to see the possibilities that science cannot disprove God’s involvement, and the Bible may not exclude the possibility of God working through “natural” processes over long periods of time. Specifically, Taylor notes that in Genesis 1, apart from a very literalistic interpretation of day and a very modern interpretation of kind as “species,” the Genesis creation narrative says little or nothing that excludes God’s use of long periods of time and gradual processes of change to create the world and its life as we know it.
A More Informed Place
Aimed at the general reader, The Late Great Ape Debate can move Christians of all opinions and Christians of no opinion to a more informed place to evaluate the controversies. I make this evaluation not by expectation, but by experience. Using the available small-group leader’s guide, I led a small group of about 10 participants, ranging from high school age to retirement age, in discussion of the book over several weeks.
At the beginning, we held a range of opinions, some quite committed, some quite uncertain. At the end, many of our views had shifted, and not all in one direction, while all reported better understanding and more ready acceptance of others’ points of view. Confidence and peace had replaced uncertainty and defensiveness.
My own interest in this subject comes as a teacher of biblical language, literature, history, and theology. My concerns with the most widely publicized Christian views on origins are their insistence that the Bible teaches so many things that it simply does not say and their assumption that the Bible addresses the questions that we ask, not the questions that the Bible’s ancient audience asked. While blessedly not a technical work on such matters, this book reflects a clear grasp of such issues. It identifies and holds to the Bible’s “white-hot core” with commendable consistency.
As a friend of Christians engaged in the natural sciences, I respect their faith-shaped judgment that finds much merit in many of the aspects of modern science to which some Christians object. I mourn the experiences of Christians in the sciences who have been ostracized for their scientific endeavors. I long instead for Christians to be encouraged to express their gifts as explorers of God’s multifaceted creation. Taylor shares that perspective and shows a clear way forward.
As a member of Christ’s church, my concern is for the unity of Christ’s body in the bond of peace. We should grieve when Christians argue over which organization or spokesperson articulates the only genuinely Christian view. The Late Great Ape Debate provides a mandate to unite in the biblical essential that God is creator, with liberty to explore the possibilities that scientific evidence presents. That goal is more worthwhile for Christians than the outcome of any debate.
Jon Weatherly serves as professor of New Testament and dean of The School of Bible and Theology at Johnson University in Knoxville, Tennessee.