RTB Scholars’ Thoughts on Pope Francis and Evolution

Pope Francis drew some media attention last month for his reiteration of the decades-old Catholic endorsement of the big bang theory and evolution as a means of creation. The Washington Post summarized the pope’s statements:1

The pontiff appeared to endorse the theory of the Big Bang and told the gathering at the Vatican that there was no contradiction between believing in God as well as the prevailing scientific theories regarding the expansion of our universe.

“When we read about creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so,” Francis said. “He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment.”

The pope avoids gesturing at the thorny issue (at least for some Christians) of whether humans descended from apes. Atheists argue, moreover, that understanding the Big Bang and what emerged from that cosmic moment obviates a need to believe in a deity. On that count, Francis obviously disagrees.

vatican-towerThis position is nothing new. The Catholic Church has supported compatibility between evolution and Christianity (sometimes called theistic evolution) since at least the publication of Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis in 1950.2

As an old-earth creationist organization, Reasons to Believe (RTB) would agree that the big bang is compatible with, even supportive of, biblical creation. The Bible describes four key characteristics—a singular beginning, cosmic expansion, and constant laws of physics including the law of decay—that define a big bang universe. Genesis 1:1 and Hebrews 11:3 declare that the universe began to exist (thus required a Beginner). At least five biblical writers describe what may be an expanding universe (e.g., Job 9:8; Psalm 104:2; Isaiah 40:22; 42:5; 44:24; 45:12; 48:13; 51:13; Jeremiah 10:12; 51:15; and Zechariah 12:1). Scripture also talks about the constancy of the laws of physics (see Jeremiah 33:25). Romans 8:18–21 speaks of a pervasive law of decay. Scientists now have the ability to measure these characteristics, thereby demonstrating the Bible’s reliable description of cosmic history. (See the RTB 101: Big Bang web page.)

However, RTB disagrees with the Catholic Church on the issue of evolution. While acceptance of evolution as a means of creation is not “a salvation issue,” it does raise some legitimate theological concerns for Christians. Theologian and philosopher Kenneth Samples points to human origins in particular. “The biblical issues are a little dicey,” he says. “Does theistic evolution require you to relegate Adam and Eve to the status of mythological figures?” (See here and here.)

Many believers feel strongly that such a shift would change our New Testament understanding, of Romans 5 in particular, where Paul compares Adam and Christ. Kenneth elaborates, “It’s apparent, I think, that both Paul and Jesus believed that Adam was a historical person. I think it would deeply affect one’s view of inspiration if you thought Jesus and Paul had an erroneous view of Adam and Eve.”

Kenneth points out that theistic evolution seems to require a questionable shift in literary genres (from history to mythology) and also faces challenges in explaining particular passages. For example, Genesis 2:7 describes God creating Adam from the dust of the earth. “That seems to move from the inanimate (dust) to the animate (human),” Kenneth explains. “But if we believe in evolution, then the move is from animate (hominid) to animate (modern human). This doesn’t seem to square easily with Scripture.”

But what about science? Does it require us to assume an evolutionary model for life’s origin and history, whether that model includes God or not? Not necessarily.

Yes, several facets of evolution have proven true. For example, we know that microorganisms, bacteria, and viruses evolve. They evolve resistance to antibiotics and antiviral compounds. We know that organisms can adapt to changing environments; this would be microevolution (e.g., peppered moths). We know that evolution even happened at the level of speciation, where one species can give rise to a closely related sister species (e.g., Darwin’s finches).

It is important, however, to distinguish between microevolution (adaptation) and speciation and the large-scale macroevolution that most Darwinists envision (see here and here and here). Biochemist Fazale Rana explains, “Evidence for evolution at small scales doesn’t mean that it explains abiogenesis or the emergence of life from non-life, or that it can explain the entirety of life’s history.” (The Cambrian explosion is an excellent example of natural history causing trouble for the evolutionary paradigm.) Moreover, Fazale argues that many features claimed as evidence of common descent (such as shared anatomical and genetic characteristics) can also be interpreted as evidence for common design. (See “Do You Know the Difference between Observation and Interpretation? Part 1 and Part 2.”)

Though neither science nor Scripture require acceptance of the evolutionary paradigm, many genuine Christians, including Catholics, believe evolution is the best way of explaining life on Earth. Kenneth concludes, “While theistic evolution is an explanatory interpretation in progress (with some views closer to orthodoxy than others), I don’t think, at least yet, that it means that a person couldn’t affirm historic Christianity. I know there’s a whole group of theistic evolutionists who would rather be called evolutionary creationists and are trying to justify a historical Adam. I certainly want to hear them and I want to hear how they can do that from a biblical point of view.”

RTB looks forward to participating in the discussion about theistic evolution and the relationship between science and Scripture.

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If you’d like to hear in-depth explanations of the old-earth view of creation and why we reject the evolutionary paradigm, we recommend the following resources:

 

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Endnotes

  1. Ishaan Tharoor, “Pope Francis Says Evolution Is Real and God Is No Wizard,” Washington Post, October 28, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/10/28/pope-francis-backs-theory-of-evolution-says-god-is-no-wizard/.
  2. Ibid.

 

 

 

 

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