Some concepts of theistic evolution are compatible with Christian orthodoxy when we consider a topical and figurative interpretation of Genesis 1-11. And we are not obligated to enforce the false dichotomy that implies that the divinely inspired ancient Near Eastern literature of Genesis 1-11 is either a literal history or a string of figurative stories with no historical basis. We may refer to Genesis 1-11 as a divinely inspired string of figurative stories with a historical basis. And Christian orthodoxy is compatible with all scientific discoveries while it is incompatible with philosophical materialism.
Despite the twenty-first century hype of the creation-evolution debate, prominent Christian orthodoxy theologians from as early as the nineteenth century had no theological or biblical problem with some concepts of evolution and universal common descent. For example, in 1888, Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield gave a lecture to his students and said, "if we condition the theory [of evolution] by allowing the constant oversight of God in the whole process, and his occasional supernatural interference for the production of new beginnings by an actual output of creative force... we may hold to the modified theory of evolution and be Christians in the ordinary orthodox sense."1
Warfield stated that Christian orthodoxy is consistent with a theistic model of universal common descent as long as the evolutionary model included divine interference, also known as divine intervention. And in 1899, Augustus Hopkins Strong held to both Christian orthodoxy and a belief in divine guidance during the evolutionary origins of human (Homo sapiens) anatomy.2
On the other hand, some denominations oppose all theistic interpretations of universal common descent. For example, the Assemblies of God has a 1977 position paper "The Doctrine of Creation" that says that Genesis 2:21-22 is inconsistent with any theory of evolutionary origins of humanity because these verses teach that the first woman was made from a piece of flesh that was removed from the first man. And no theory of evolution would incorporate a literal interpretation of this event.3
CHRISTIAN ORTHODOXY AND CREATION
We see above that there are different ways of dealing with a Christian orthodoxy interpretation of creation. In regards to creation, common pillars of faith in Christian orthodoxy include the following: 1) God created the material universe from nothing; 2) God has miraculously intervened in the material universe; 3) God has specially created human souls.4 And Christian orthodoxy also maintains that the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are the word of God written accurately through humans and are true in all that they teach. And for the rest of this paper, we maintain a perspective of Christian orthodoxy.
TOPICAL AND FIGURATIVE INTERPRETATION OF GENESIS 1-11
Maintaining a belief in the truthfulness of all Bible teachings while incorporating scientific inferences related to the timeline of the universe and prehistory has challenges for some interpretations of Genesis 1-11 and all other Bible verses that refer to Genesis 1-11. For example, some Bible interpreters teach that the ancient Near Eastern writing of Genesis 1-11 is a literal history, which has conflict with scientific inferences related to the timeline of the universe and prehistory.5 6 7 On the other hand, some Christian orthodoxy interpreters hold to a topical and figurative view of Genesis 1-11, which means that the respective ancient Near Eastern writing focused on the topic and used rich symbolism instead of focusing on the chronology and literal history.8 9 This implies that God never taught that all of the symbolic details of the respective verses are a literal description of prehistory. Likewise, a topical and figurative interpretation of Genesis 1-11 has minimal scientific limitations and implies that the Bible is not teaching any specific timeline of the universe and prehistory or any specific model of creation, for example, six-solar-day creationism, the gap theory, old earth creationism, or theistic evolution.
William Sanford LaSor and colleagues present an excellent Hebrew Bible survey that describes a topical and figurative interpretation of Genesis 1-11,10 and the authors maintain that the Bible is the word of God written accurately through humans and is true in all that it teaches.11 LaSor and colleagues call Genesis 1-11 the "primeval prologue". And they recognize a strong use of literary devices that were common in the ancient Near East while they also explain that all of the events have a historical basis. Likewise, the primeval prologue does not teach many historical details or chronology, but the primeval prologue teaches several important truths that include the following: God created everything in the universe; God intervened to form the original humans; God created and formed a good universe; God designed and instituted marriage; humans fell from their original paradise through the disobedience of the original humans; humans continued to live in depravity; and humans migrated throughout the earth.
In other words, we are not obligated to enforce the false dichotomy that implies that the divinely inspired ancient Near East literature of Genesis 1-11 is either a literal history or a string of figurative stories with no historical basis. We may refer to Genesis 1-11 as a divinely inspired string of figurative stories with a historical basis.
PROBLEMS WITH A LITERAL INTERPRETATION OF GENESIS 1-11
A literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11 that fails to recognize the purpose of the literary devices has problems. For example, in 419, Augustine published City of God while noting some problems with a literal interpretation of Genesis 1. Augustine said that a literal interpretation might struggle with an internal inconsistency by claiming that there was a literal day and night during the first three days of creation (Gen 1:1-13) despite the verses that say God created the sun and the other stars during the fourth day (Gen 1:14-19). And in the context of the geological record and animal phylogeny, a literal interpretation might insist that the origin of sea mammals and birds (Gen 1:20-23) preceded the origin of all land amniotes (Gen 1:24-25). We affirm that Genesis 1 describes six solar days and nights, but as noted by Meredith Kline, these days are a literary framework that teaches about topics instead of chronology.12
Kline also notes that a traditional literal interpretation of Genesis 1 causes conflict by pitting Scripture versus Scripture. He explains that Genesis 2:5 teaches that God did not form vegetation until there was a natural means to preserve the vegetation. For example, Genesis 2:5 says that there was no vegetation until there was a water supply that could preserve the vegetation. And this conflicts with a literal interpretation of the third day in Genesis 1:9-13 that implies that God formed vegetation before the formation of the sun, which would literally mean that a source of light and heat other than the sun had preserved the original vegetation.13
A literal interpretation of the primeval prologue is also inconsistent with population genetics studies that estimate past (long-term) population sizes of various extant species. For example, the study of genetic diversity within a species can infer if the respective lineage had a population bottleneck in the last few million years. And population genetics studies of various mammals such as humans14 15 16 and orangutans17 conclude that in the last few million years there have been no ancestral bottlenecks with the effective population size18 that was less than ten thousand individuals. Likewise, unless there is a major flaw in the respective research methodologies, these studies imply that the lineages for these mammals in the last few million years never had a population size that was less than an order of ten thousand individuals. And these population sizes are incompatible with a literal interpretation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:4-3:24 and a literal interpretation of the global flood in Genesis 6-8.
These estimated population sizes, however, are compatible with Genesis 2:4-3:24 if Adam and Eve in some ways figuratively represent the first group of humans. We are not claiming that these verses suggest that Adam and Eve represent a group of people with a community/tribal leader, but the figurative structure of these verses do not prohibit the possibility. And in the case that there are no major flaws in the population genetics methodologies that estimate past population sizes in humans, then is some ways Adam and Eve represent all of the original humans. And in this case, we may assume the human fall from paradise would have been a unanimous community/tribal decision.
The above population sizes are also compatible with various interpretations of a regional Noahic Flood.19 And the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 primarily describes Caucasian populations, which might be a clue within the primeval prologue that both the flood and the following migrations were regional events. And Mark Isaak compiled several potential scientific problems with a global flood in the days of Noah.20
HEAVENLY ARCHETYPES AND PHYSICAL HISTORY IN GENESIS 1-11
Two-level hermeneutical principle
We noted earlier that Kline interprets Genesis 1 as a literary framework. Kline also explains that the Bible in several passages teaches about a two-level (two-register) cosmology, which involves a heavenly level and a physical level. And Kline explains that in the case of Genesis 1:1-2:3 there is a metaphorical relationship between the archetype in the heavenly level and the history in the physical level. In other words, the days of creation are a heavenly archetype while a figurative physical history. And Kline also explains that the figurativeness in the physical history is no problem for the doctrine of the Sabbath taught in Exodus 20:8-11.21 And this models an important hermeneutical principle, which we call the "two-level hermeneutical principle".
This principle helps to explain how a Bible writer could have formulated doctrine while making a literal reference to Bible verses that are figurative in the physical level. For example, Exodus 20:11 affirms the teaching of the Sabbath while saying that the Lord made the heavens and the earth in six days while resting on the seventh day. The doctrine of the Sabbath flows from a literal understanding of Genesis 1:1-2:3. But the literalness is in the reference to the heavenly archetype instead of the physical history. And we assume that God had the prerogative to inspire the writing of the ancient Near Eastern Bible in any way that God pleased. And as described above, God gave clues within the Bible that affirms the use of the two-level hermeneutical principle.
The two-level hermeneutical principle can apply to other verses in Genesis 1-11 and other verses that refer to Genesis 1-11. For example, as stated earlier, if we assume that there are no major flaws in the population genetics methodologies that estimate past effective population sizes of humans and other mammals, then we may consider assuming that there was at least an order of ten thousand humans in the original human rebellion. And some Bible interpreters might think that this is incompatible with Pauline references to Adam and Eve (Rom 5:12–21, 1 Cor 11:3-16, 1 Tim 2:13-14). But we can extend the two-level hermeneutical principle to all of these verses. And we can also extend it to the Petrine references to the Noahic Flood (2 Pet 2:5, 3:6) and the primordial waters in Genesis 1:2-10 (2 Pet 3:5).
Two-level principle and Romans 5:12-21
We will begin by applying the two-level hermeneutical principle to Romans 5:12-21. These verses refer to a literal Adam while teaching that all humans inherited a destiny of sin and death from "one man". However, based on the two-level principle, this could be a literal reference to the heavenly archetype. So regardless if the number of original humans that fell from grace was two or ten thousand in physical history, there was one man in the heavenly archetype. And all humans born after The Fall inherited a destiny of sin and death.
Two-level principle and 1 Corinthians 11:3-16
Paul teaches about men and women and the cultural importance of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 while appealing to Genesis 2:20-25. For example, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:8-9 (NRSV), "Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man." These Pauline verses flow from a literal interpretation of God forming Eve from a piece of flesh from Adam’s side (Gen 2:21-23). However, these verses could be a highly symbolic physical history while a literal reference to the heavenly archetype. And regardless if this event was literal or figurative in the physical history, the biblical doctrine about men and women and head coverings are the same.
Two-level principle and 1 Timothy 2:11-14
Paul teaches in 1 Timothy 2:11-14 about the precedence of male leadership in the church. And Paul supports this doctrine by appealing to a literal interpretation of Genesis 2:4-3:24 by citing that God formed Adam before God formed Eve and Eve sinned before Adam sinned. However, these verses could be a figurative physical history while a literal reference to the heavenly archetype. And regardless if these events were literal or figurative in physical history, the teaching about male leadership is the same.
Two-level principle and 2 Peter 2:5
Peter teaches about God’s saving grace and judgment while referring to God saving eight people from the Noahic Flood (2 Pet 2:5). However, the respective verses could be figurative in the physical level while a literal reference to the heavenly archetype. And regardless if the Noahic Flood in Genesis 6-8 was physically regional and never touched distant human populations or physically global and wiped out all but eight humans, the doctrine about God’s saving grace and judgment are the same.
Two-level principle and 2 Peter 3:5-6
Peter teaches about the return of Jesus in 2 Peter 3:5-6 while referring to the primordial waters in Genesis 1:2-10 and the flood waters in Genesis 6-8. Again, these verses could be figurative in the physical level while a literal reference to the heavenly archetype. And regardless if the primordial waters and the quantity of the flood waters are figurative in the physical level, the doctrine of the return of Jesus is the same.
Two-level principle and natural science
If we assume that science has no major flaws in the methodologies that infer the timeline of the universe and evolutionary phylogenies and past population sizes of humans, then the above applications of the two-level hermeneutical principle have no conflict with these scientific discoveries. And we may conclude that God decided to teach the respective doctrines with powerful figurative stories that people of all cultures throughout history could understand. Likewise, God ensured that people would need no scientific knowledge to understand these doctrines.
And we caution against an excessive use of the two-level principle. For example, we are not affirming ancient traditions of an allegorical interpretation for every verse in the Bible. But if we see compelling evidence in the Bible or nature, then we may consider applying the two-level principle. However, a physicalist speculation such as "there never was a supernatural miracle" is no reason for concluding that a particular Bible verse must be figurative.
OPPOSITION TO A FIGURATIVE INTERPRETATION OF GENESIS 1-11
If we assume an interdisciplinary approach to the two-level hermeneutical principle and natural science, then some people may ask why God never inspired a Bible writer to clarify the truth about the timeline of history and evolution and the original population size of humans. But we can think of some reasons why God avoided this. For example, explaining the basics about the timeline of the universe and prehistory take a long time. And God decided to teach important eternal truths about physical origins and prehistory in just eleven chapters of the Bible while using powerful figurative stories that require no knowledge of scientific discoveries. And there was no theological reason for God to have inspired an extraordinarily large book of Bible that would have explained the basics of the timeline of the universe and prehistory so that it would have been comprehendible to the ancient Hebrews. And such a book would not have served God’s purposes for the Bible.
Noel Weeks opposes a figurative interpretation of Genesis 1-11.22 And he asks, "Is there any explicit teaching within the Bible itself that suggests its details are not to be pressed in matters of the physical creation?"23 And we agree that there is no explicit teaching within the Bible that suggests that any of Genesis 1-11 is a figurative description of the physical creation and prehistory. However, we noted earlier that both Augustine and Kline describe clues within the Bible that "imply" that some verses in Genesis are figurative in physical history. So we cannot claim that it is explicit, but we can claim that it is implicit. In other words, the Bible implies that some verses in Genesis are figurative in the physical history.
Weeks also argues that various Bible verses that assume a literal interpretation of the respective verses in Genesis would suffer if we insist upon a figurative interpretation of Genesis 1-11.24 But we suppose that the above explanation of the two-level hermeneutical principle refutes that opposition.
ANATOMICAL EVOLUTION AND THE HUMAN SOUL
Evolutionary theory proposes to explain the origin of human anatomy, but Christian orthodoxy teaches that humans contain more than physical anatomy. Ironically, there are no Hebrew or Greek words that refer exclusively to the nonphysical soul. For example, the Hebrew and Greek words for both "soul" and "spirit" have multiple meanings.
The Hebrew word for "soul" is nephesh. The word nephesh primarily means "possessing life", and sometimes refers to animals. And the word nephesh sometimes refers to the seat of human physical appetite, the source of emotions and will and moral action, an individual person, and a dead body. And the Hebrew Bible teaches that the soul departs at death. And the word nephesh has overlapping meanings with other words that mean "heart" and "spirit".25
The Greek word for "soul" is psyche. The word psyche has various similar meanings to nephesh.26 And Matthew 10:28 teaches that killing the human body does not kill the psyche while Revelation 6:9 refers to the psyche of the martyrs below the heavenly altar. Likewise, depending on the context, psyche can refer to everything in human life or specifically the nonphysical soul.
The Hebrew word for "spirit" is ruah while the Greek word for "spirit" is pneuma. These words have various meanings that include wind, breath, divine power, human spirit, and divine spirit. And several times the word pneuma refers to angelic or demonic spirits.27 So sometimes we refer to the nonphysical world as the spiritual world.
Also, the Hebrew Bible teaches that humans exist in Sheol after death.28 And the Greek equivalent to the word Sheol is “Hades” while the New Testament teaches that humans exist in either Hades or Paradise after death and before the end-time resurrection. And these references to human existence after death and before the end-time resurrection imply that humans have a nonphysical soul.
Despite the lack of biblical words that refer exclusively to the nonphysical soul, all of the above imply that humans have a nonphysical soul. Perhaps part of the reason for this lack of exclusive terms is because the mind and will and emotions of living humans are a dichotomy of the physical and nonphysical. For example, humans have neurological wiring that facilitates spirituality.29
THE NONPHYSICAL IN A MATERIAL WORLD
Methodological materialism (the scientific method) does not imply philosophical materialism.30 For example, methodological materialism assumes that all physical and chemical and biochemical properties reduce to the fundamental laws of nature (reductionism). But this type of reductionism does not indicate whether or not nonphysical elements (the supernatural) interact with the physical world. In other words, methodological materialism has no opinion about the supernatural. On the other hand, philosophical materialism is a concept that insists that there are no nonphysical elements in the universe. Likewise, Christian orthodoxy is compatible with methodological materialism while incompatible with philosophical materialism. And Christian orthodoxy believes that God created the fundamental laws of nature.
As stated above, reductionism implies that physics and chemistry and biology reduce to the fundamental laws of nature. Some people take reductionism to an extreme and also say that human psychology reduces to the laws of nature. But Christian orthodoxy believes in a nonphysical soul, so this implies that psychology reduces to both the laws of nature and the laws that govern the nonphysical.
Christian orthodoxy also believes that God and various angels have miraculously intervened in the material world. And as previously stated, methodological materialism has no opinion about the supernatural.
DIVINE SUPERVISION AND INTERVENTION
God supervises everything in the universe (Ps 139:1-18, Heb 4:13). And God intervenes in the material universe according to divine purposes (Gen 50:20, Rom 8:28). And some periods of biblical history experienced more miraculous intervention compared to other periods. So in some ways, God periodically intervenes. However, in some ways, God constantly intervenes. For example, God constantly intervenes in the lives of New Covenant believers through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:9).
God also constantly intervenes in the spiritual world. For example, the New Testament calls Satan "the ruler of this world" and "the god of this world" (John 12:31, 1 Cor 4:4 NRSV). And Satan presumably held this position since the fall of humanity. But God intervenes to limit the malevolent activity of Satan and his demons (Job 1:12, 1 Cor 10:13).
Prominent Christian orthodoxy theologians since the nineteenth century have affirmed that there is no theological or biblical conflict with a theistic model of evolution and universal common descent. And the Bible itself implies that some verses in the primeval prologue and the respective Bible verses that refer to the primeval prologue are figurative in physical history. And we affirm that the two-level hermeneutical principle stems first and foremost from the Bible with no knowledge of scientific discoveries. Likewise, the Bible has no conflict with scientific discoveries that include inferences of evolutionary relationships and past population sizes of humans.
We should never pit the Bible against firmly established scientific evidence. And we should never confuse scientific discoveries with physicalist speculations because physicalist speculations are philosophy instead of science. We may conclude that Christian orthodoxy is compatible with all genuine scientific evidence while incompatible with physicalism.
And Christians who hold to both orthodoxy and universal common descent have various views based upon the evidence in evolutionary science. For example, I propose that the Creator or related agents occasionally intervened in probabilistic evolutionary mechanisms.31 And this is consistent with Warfield’s 1888 lecture. On the other hand, some Christians hold to both Christian orthodoxy and Darwinism.32 33
We reject Darwinism without occasional intervention from the perspectives of both the evidence in evolutionary science34 and biblical theology. However, many Darwinists hold to the central pillars of Christian orthodoxy faith, which include the following:
1) The Bible is the word of God written accurately through humans and is true in all that it teaches
2) God created the material universe from nothing
3) God specially created human souls
4) God intervened in the universe by accurately speaking through the Prophets and Apostles according to the biblical records
5) God intervened in human history according to the biblical records, which include the divine incarnation and bodily death and bodily resurrection of Jesus
Among the central pillars of Christian orthodoxy faith, the primary pillar is the divine incarnation and bodily death and bodily resurrection of Jesus. And the resurrection of Jesus has amazing implications. Jesus physically died on a Friday late afternoon and physically resurrected the following Sunday early morning. This means that his corpse was dead for roughly thirty-six hours, which suggests that his corpse experienced rigor mortis and then physically resurrected. Belief in this amazing divine intervention sets apart Christian orthodoxy from liberal Christianity.
The Bible has many important teachings, and most of them are secondary to the central pillars of faith. And there are many disagreements about secondary Bible teachings that have no consequences concerning eternal salvation. For example, Warfield teaches that Christian orthodoxy implies that God occasionally intervened beyond divine superintendence during the formation of biological species, presumably interpreted from Genesis 1-2. We agree with Warfield, and we rank this as a secondary teaching.
1B.B. Warfield, Evolution, Scripture, and Science: Selected Writings, ed. M.A. Noll and D.N. Livingstone (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2000), 151.
2A.H. Strong, Christ in Creation and Ethical Monism (New York: Griffith & Rowland, 1899).
3The above position paper does not represent a fundamental truth for the AG or I never would have received AG ministry credentials.
4We believe in the immediate divine creation of each human soul, but this paper is also compatible with the doctrine of traducianism.
5The scientific view of the timeline of the universe and prehistory includes inferences about the chronology of energy/mass creation and the expansion of the universe and star formation and planetary formation and biological evolution and prehistoric human migrations.
6N. Weeks, "Problems in Interpretation of Genesis: Part 1", Ex Nihilo 2/3 (1979), 27-32.
7N. Weeks, "Problems in Methods of Interpretation—Genesis 1-11: Part 2", Creation 2/4 (1979), 22-6.
8B. Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954).
9B. Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970).
10W.S. LaSor, D.A. Hubbard, and F.W. Bush, Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), Chapter 2.
11Ibid., Chapter 45.
12M.G. Kline, "Space and Time in the Genesis Cosmogony", Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 48 (1996), 2-15.
14N. Takahata, Y. Satta, and J. Klein, "Divergence Time and Population Size in the Lineage Leading to Modern Humans", Theoretical Population Biology 48 (1995), 198-221.
15S. Sherry, H.C. Harpending, M.A. Batzer, M. Stoneking, "Alu Evolution in Human Populations: Using the Coalescent to Estimate Effective Population Size", Genetics 147 (1997), 1977-82.
16A.G. Clark, K.M. Weiss, D.A. Nickerson, S.L. Taylor, A. Buchanan, J. Stengard, V. Salomaa, E. Vartiainen, M. Perola, E. Boerwinkle, and C.F. Sing, "Haplotype Structure and Population Genetic Inferences from Nucleotide-sequence Variation in Human Lipoprotein Lipase", American Journal of Human Genetics 63 (1998), 595-612.
17Y. Zhang, O.A. Ryder, and Y. Zhang, "Genetic Divergence of Orangutan Subspecies (Pongo pygmaeus)", Journal of Molecular Evolution 52 (2001), 516-26.
18The "effective population size" is the hypothetical equivalent to the number of randomly breeding adults in a population.
19C.A. Hill, "Noachian Flood: Universal or Local?" Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 54 (2003), 70-83.
20M. Isaak, "Problems with a Global Flood", Talk.Origins (1998), www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-noahs-ark.html.
22Weeks, "Problems in Interpretation of Genesis: Part 1"; Weeks, "Problems in Methods of Interpretation—Genesis 1-11: Part 2".
23Weeks, "Problems in Methods of Interpretation—Genesis 1-11: Part 2".
25W.J. Cameron, "Soul", New Bible Dictionary, 2nd ed. J.D. Douglas and N. Hillyer (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1982), 1135.
27J.D.G. Dunn, "Spirit, Holy Spirit", New Bible Dictionary, 1136-42.
28D.K. Innes, "Sheol", New Bible Dictionary, 1103.
29A. Newberg, E. D’Aquili, and V. Rause, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (New York: Ballantine Books, 2001).
30E.C. Scott, "Science, Religion, and Evolution", Evolution: Investigating the Evidence, eds. J. Scotchmoon and D.A. Springer, The Paleontological Society: Special Publications 9 (1999), archive www.ncseweb.org/resources/articles/6366_science_religion_and_evoluti_6_19_2001.asp.
31J. Goetz, "The Extravagant Creator of Junk DNA", Progress in Complexity, Information, and Design (in review), www.iscid.org/boards/ubb-get_topic-f-10-t-000105.html.
32K.R. Miller, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution (New York: HarperCollins, 1999).
33M. Ruse, Can a Darwinian be a Christian? The Relationship between Science and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
Copyright © 2007, 2008, 2011 James Edward Goetz
September 17, 2007