No, not a confession from me, but rather the title of a book I recently reviewed for Discerning Reader. My first draft turned out way too long, so I trimmed it down to half the length for DR. Rather than let the longer version go to waste, I’m posting it here.
The debate over evolution within evangelical circles shows no signs of going away soon. In the last two decades it has been fueled by the rise of the Intelligent Design movement, one consequence of which has been to cause defenders of Darwin (including some professing Christians) to regroup and to attack creationism with unprecedented fervor. Meanwhile, other evangelicals are seeking to make peace—at least on the scientific front—with the theory of evolution. Francis Collins, the former director of the Human Genome Project and an evangelical believer, founded the BioLogos Foundation with a view to encouraging Christians (particularly his fellow evangelicals) to embrace the view that we evolved by natural processes from lower life forms. BioLogos has successfully recruited a number of prominent Christian leaders and scholars to support its cause.
Denis Lamoureux is a significant contributor to this ongoing debate. As the holder of three doctoral degrees (dentistry, theology, and biology) he is especially well qualified to speak to it. Lamoureux has engaged in debate over biological origins with Philip E. Johnson, the father of the Intelligent Design movement. Over the last 20 years, as he has wrestled with the origins issue, he has held to just about every position on the spectrum, from atheistic Darwinism (before his conversion) to young-earth creationism (after his conversion) to progressive old-earth creationism to his current position of “evolutionary creationism”. As the title of his book indicates, his aim in I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution is to show that evolutionary creationism is not just a coherent and defensible view, but ultimately the only tenable position for Christians who are committed to the “Two Divine Books”: the Book of God’s Words (the Bible) and the Book of God’s Works (the natural world).
Chapter 1 makes a sensible start by carefully defining key terms. Lamoureux claims to accept both creation and evolution, but according to some commonplace definitions the two are incompatible. He therefore offers his own definitions. Evolution is the scientific theory that all life, including humans, arose through natural processes (i.e., with no supernatural interventions). Creation is essentially the theological doctrine that God made the space-time universe out of nothing. Crucially for Lamoureux, the claim that God created does not commit us to any particular view about how God created; hence belief in creation is compatible with belief in evolution, at least in principle. So creationism as such should not be confused with, e.g., literal six-day creationism.
The chapter also offers definitions of “intelligent design” and “scientific concordism”, the latter being the view that the scientific statements of the Bible correspond to the way the physical world really is. The upshot is that Lamoureux accepts intelligent design (albeit in a qualified sense) but rejects outright scientific concordism, which he considers mistaken on both biblical and scientific grounds. His position here depends on a basic distinction between theological statements and scientific statements. He recognizes that the Bible makes both types of statements, but suggests that Christians are mistaken to treat its scientific statements in the same way as its theological statements. Lamoureux is concerned that most evangelicals conflate scientific concordism with biblical inerrancy and in so doing create an unnecessary obstacle to accepting evolution.
Chapter 2 surveys the spectrum of positions on the question of origins. Lamoureux outlines five basic categories of origins: (1) young earth creationism; (2) progressive creation; (3) evolutionary creation; (4) deistic evolution, and (5) dysteleological (i.e., atheistic) evolution. A helpful table lays out the differences between the five positions on key issues such as the role of God, the age of the universe, the nature of the Bible, scientific concordism, and the origin of humans. Lamoureux rightly notes that these are only representative positions; there are many other possible positions that lie between, or even across, the five basic categories. It’s hard to dispel the suspicion, however, that Lamoureux has carefully constructed his typology so that his view appears as the moderate mediating position between two extremes.
Chapter 3 launches Lamoureux’s case against scientific concordism, a position he once “fiercely defended”. His leading claim is that the Bible itself rejects scientific concordism, thus giving the impression that his main concern is for us to submit ourselves to God’s Word; in reality his argument is that the Bible makes numerous scientific assumptions and statements that we now know to be false (e.g., it represents the universe as consisting of three vertically-arranged tiers). Nevertheless, this does not make God a liar, Lamoureux insists. We need to take an “incarnational approach” to the Bible, recognizing that that God accommodated his revelation to the “ancient science” of the biblical authors much as the Son of God accommodated himself when he took on human flesh.
Lamoureux believes this approach allows us to retain the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, albeit with some qualification. I have to disagree. It’s clear from this chapter and the next that Lamoureux rejects plenary verbal inerrancy (the historical evangelical view that the Bible affirms no falsehoods) in favor of a limited inerrancy position, according to which the Bible is inerrant with respect to its theological statements but not with respect to its scientific statements. Lamoureux makes no bones about it: the biblical writers made false scientific statements. Indeed, he implies that the incarnate Son of God made false scientific statements.
The case against scientific concordism continues in chapter 4. According to Lamoureux, the first three chapters of Genesis reflect ancient science, but today we know better. The pattern of fossils in the geological record contradicts the historical events described in Genesis. Once again we are assured that God is no liar. In his wisdom, God chose to use outdated scientific ideas to express his “Messages of Faith”; in this case, the message that he judges humans for their sins. To his credit Lamoureux avoids weasel words and states his conclusions directly and unequivocally: “That’s right, the events in Gen 3 did not happen as stated. There never was a cosmic fall.” Such clarity is commendable, but the suggestion that this doesn’t amount to an abandonment of biblical inerrancy stretches credibility to breaking point. Words have meanings, after all.
Chapter 5 sets out what Lamoureux takes to be compelling scientific evidence for an old earth and for the evolutionary origins of life. Readers familiar with the scientific debates over these issues will find nothing new here. What’s surprising, however, is that Lamoureux rests his case for evolution almost entirely on the existence of transitional fossils. In contrast, seasoned apologists for evolution will often concede that the fossil record presents not so much a powerful argument for Darwinism as an awkward problem to be explained, not least because of the conspicuous absence of expected intermediate forms. According to one leading evolutionist, Mark Ridley, “the gradual change of fossil species has never been part of the evidence for evolution … because [the fossil record] has great gaps in it.” Among the problems for Lamoureux’s scientific argument—problems he doesn’t mention—are the fact that transitional fossils would be evidence at most for common ancestry (not for universal evolutionary development by solely natural processes) and the fact that whether or not a particular fossil is interpreted as a transitional form largely depends on whether one accepts common ancestry in the first place. Lamoureux’s use of evidence is, at best, prejudicially selective.
In chapter 6 Lamoureux addresses the thorny issue of human evolution. Are we biologically descended from lower life forms—ultimately, from simple single-celled organisms? Did human death precede the fall of Adam? Was there an Adamic fall at all? As he well realizes, it’s here that Lamoureux faces his greatest challenges in trying to reconcile biblical theology with evolutionary science. He opens by presenting what he takes to be compelling scientific evidence for human evolution: anatomical and genetic similarities between humans and modern-day apes, ‘transitional’ hominids in the fossil record, and recent analysis of the human gene pool. This review is not the place to enter into a detailed evaluation of his case, but I will say this: I was struck by how flimsy a case it was. Much of the empirical data can be explained equally well by common design as by common descent, while other elements of Lamoureux’s case (e.g., inferences from supposed transitional species) rely on circular reasoning, since they depend on interpretations of the evidence that presuppose precisely what is in question (evolutionary development).
In the remainder of the chapter, Lamoureux explores the theological implications of his scientific conclusions about human evolution (which somewhat gives the lie to the notion that one can neatly separate theological statements and scientific statements). He identifies three different approaches to reconciling these conclusions with the biblical teaching that we are made in the image of God and fallen in sin. Two of these approaches he rejects as “concordist models” (concordism being a cardinal sin in Lamoureux’s eyes). The third approach—that of evolutionary creationism—entails that Adam and Eve never existed as historical individuals.
But wait a second: didn’t both Jesus and Paul believe that Adam was a real historical person? Yes, concedes Lamoureux, of course they did. We must remember that their beliefs, like those of their contemporaries, were accommodated to the “science-of-the-day”. Strictly speaking, they were mistaken in those beliefs, but this doesn’t threaten the “Message of Faith” that God has communicated through the Bible. We just need to winnow the theological wheat from the scientific chaff.
The final chapter reiterates Lamoureux’s contention that accepting evolutionary theory needn’t threaten any of the “foundational beliefs of Christianity” and addresses the most common questions Lamoureux faces whenever he presents his case for evolutionary creationism. Why did God create through evolution? Why did he accommodate the Bible to ancient science? What about original sin? What about suffering and death in the evolutionary process? How do the dinosaurs fit in to the Bible?
A full critique of Lamoureux’s evolutionary creationism cannot be given here. I will, however, indicate some of the major reasons why I don’t find his arguments compelling. In the first place, his approach to interpreting Scripture is highly problematic. He professes to acknowledge both the “Book of God’s Works” (revelation in nature) and the “Book of God’s Words” (revelation in Scripture) but it’s clear that he gives the former unqualified priority over the latter; if there is any apparent conflict between nature (for which read: modern science) and the Bible, Lamoureux concludes that the Bible is mistaken due to its accommodation to ancient science. On this way of thinking, the Bible must always be judged in the light of modern science. Yet this prioritization is the very opposite of the view that Christians have historically taken on the issue. As Calvin famously put it, the Bible functions like a pair of spectacles given to correct the distortion of natural revelation by our fallen intellects. Scripture has authority over science, whether ancient or modern.
Furthermore, Lamoureux’s separation of theological statements and scientific statements in the Bible is impossible to apply in practice. Take, for instance, the claim that God judged the world by sending a great flood (cf. 2 Peter 3:6). Is that a theological statement or a scientific statement? On the face of it, it’s both—at the very least, it has theological elements and scientific elements that cannot be teased apart.
A further concern is raised by Lamoureux’s central claim that the Bible is accommodated to ancient science and therefore makes scientific statements that are false. Why think that the accommodation only pertains to science? Why not suppose, for much the same reasons, that the Bible is accommodated to ancient morality too? Indeed, that’s precisely the argument used by many liberal theologians today who argue that Christianity is compatible with monogamous homosexual relationships. If Lamoureux wouldn’t accept their position, why should we accept his? What do modern scientists have that modern ethicists don’t?
The point can be pushed further still. If the Bible is accommodated to the fallible scientific outlook of its original audience, perhaps it is also accommodated to their fallible religious outlook. Perhaps all those claims in the New Testament regarding Christ’s substitutionary atonement are merely a concession to the religious outlook of ancient people who were used to thinking in terms of animal sacrifices, propitiatory atonement, and so forth. Presumably those claims would be no more immune to error than the Bible’s scientific claims. But then how much confidence could we place in the gospel message preached by the apostles?
The point is this: accommodationist theories of biblical inspiration such as Lamoureux’s are like a universal acid that burns its way through everything. Once we argue that the Bible is unreliable in one area (science) due to its accommodation to ancient ignorance, we can have no principled basis for insisting that it is still reliable—never mind inerrant—in other areas such as ethics and theology.
So much for Lamoureux’s doctrine of Scripture. What about his scientific arguments? I’ve noted already some of the weaknesses in his case: circular reasoning, selective evidence, and conclusions that go far beyond what the empirical data support. Equally problematic is the fact that he doesn’t even mention, let alone address, some of the many significant scientific difficulties faced by the theory that all living organisms have gradually evolved from rudimentary life forms by purely natural processes (e.g., the lack of a plausible mechanism for large-scale evolutionary development, the so-called “Cambrian explosion” in the fossil record, the origin of sexual differentiation, and the existence of irreducibly complex biological structures). The uninformed reader will almost certainly be misled into thinking that the scientific case for evolution is beyond question. Still, perhaps we should cut Lamoureux some slack on this point. After all, if the biblical authors can be excused their misleading or false statements on the basis that they were captive to the science-of-the-day, presumably so can he!
Finally, I suspect many evangelical readers will be unconvinced by Lamoureux’s plea that his position preserves all the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. He speaks several times of “non-negotiable” Christian beliefs, but never explains what criteria he uses for treating some traditional Christian beliefs as non-negotiable and others as dispensable. One can’t help but suspect that his list of essential doctrines is rigged so that his own views fall safely within the bounds of orthodoxy.
Lamoureux’s rejection of the doctrine of original sin, which follows of necessity from his rejection of the historical Adam and Eve, is particularly problematic. If Adam never existed then obviously no human being could have inherited a sinful nature from him. Lamoureux suggests that this traditional doctrine originated with Augustine (who was, of course, misled by the science-of-the-day) but he fails to acknowledge that Augustine argued his position from Scripture. What Lamoureux recommends in place of the traditional doctrine might be dubbed “Original Sin Lite” (or perhaps “Original Sin Zero”): every human being is a sinner and that’s all we need to affirm. Yet surely this falls far short of the doctrine taught in Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-22, which offers both a coherent theological explanation for universal human sinfulness and a profound parallel (and contrast) between Adam and Jesus. It’s remarkable that Lamoureux makes no reference to these passages in his discussion of original sin, and his treatments elsewhere in the book require him to hold these texts at arm’s length. One has to wonder whether he would have so quickly concluded that Adam is a dispensable mythical figure had he been more exposed to the Reformed tradition in his theological studies. There is far more at stake here than whether Paul was mistaken in certain incidental historical facts.
I have to conclude that despite its irenic approach and the undoubted expertise of its author, this book fails in its goal of reconciling biblical Christianity with modern evolutionary science. Nevertheless, it is very useful in this respect: it makes clear what price has to be paid in order to make peace with evolution, even if one takes a relatively conservative approach. The first casualties are the doctrines of biblical authority, clarity, and inerrancy, closely followed by the doctrine of original sin; and once those are sacrificed it’s inevitable that more will follow, for no doctrine is an island. The doctrines of salvation by grace alone and justification by faith alone, to cite two examples, are intimately connected to the nature of the fall and its consequences.
The stakes are high. These are gospel issues. Lamoureux may well be correct about what it takes to accept evolution, as he defines it; but if he is, then precisely because I love Jesus, I cannot accept evolution. Fortunately, his scientific arguments put me under little pressure to do so.