Liberal Evangelicalism (Part 4): Darwin Guts the Gospel
In the first three installments, I’ve noted liberals’ (and liberal evangelicals’) enthronement of experience, their war on certainty, and their preference for pre-redemptive-era interpretations of Jesus rather than post-redemptive-era interpretations (Paul versus Jesus).
We can’t go forward without touching on the liberal view of science. Liberalism emerged at a time (the 19th century) when scientific advances seemed breathtaking. The scientific method and early science had been founded mostly by Christians and with a Christian understanding of the world: that God had created an orderly physical world and that man was called (Gen. 1) to steward it for God’s glory. Gradually, the Enlightenment drifted from these moorings, first into deism (God created the universe but isn’t actively involved in it) and finally into agnosticism (we don’t need God at all to explain the universe). There can be no doubt that the discoveries of modern science (operating on Christian premises but gradually denying the Maker of those premises) reshaped the West, and for this reason when the Bible was thought to conflict with science (as it did in the famous case of Galileo’s insistence that the earth orbits the sun, contra church dogma), liberals, wanting above all else to adjust the Faith to modern trends, increasingly dumped the Bible for science.
Or, rather, scientific myth. Why do I say this? As Dillenberger and Welch observe (pp. 200–206), no scientific event brought the conflict into greater focus that the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, which championed biological evolution. This work was scientific to the extent that it addressed present empirical facts, but religious (“faith-based”) in that it interpreted those facts to suggest a theory of human origins. In this sense, it was no different from the book of Genesis, which doesn’t claim to be verifiable by the scientific method — it claims “only” to be the Word of God. In short, the Bible and Darwinism contain competing (non-scientific) views of human origins.
The liberals’ answer to this conflict was generally to embrace what we term nowadays “theistic evolution”: God created the mechanism by which man evolved. This set them at odds with Biblical orthodoxy on the one hand and atheistic scientists on the other. It also meant that the straightforward teachings of the early chapters of Genesis on universal origins had to go.
Today’s liberal evangelicals, too, are eager to jettison teachings vital to the most obvious interpretation of the Genesis account — like the historicity of Adam and Eve. Pete Enns, a controversial liberal evangelical, explains it this way in the Huffington Post:
Evangelicals look to the Bible to settle important questions of faith. So, faced with a potentially faith-crushing idea like evolution, evangelicals naturally ask right off the bat, “What does the Bible say about that?” And then informed by “what the Bible says,” they are ready to make a “biblical” judgment.
This is fine in principle, but in the evolution debate this mindset is a problem: It assumes that the Adam and Eve story is about “human origins.” It isn’t. And as long as evangelicals continue to assume that it does, the conflict between the Bible and evolution is guaranteed.
Since the 19th century, through scads of archaeological discoveries from the ancient world of the Bible, biblical scholars have gotten a pretty good handle on what ancient creation stories were designed to do.
Ancient peoples assumed that somewhere in the distant past, near the beginning of time, the gods made the first humans from scratch — an understandable conclusion to draw. They wrote stories about “the beginning,” however, not to lecture their people on the abstract question “Where do humans come from?” They were storytellers, drawing on cultural traditions, writing about the religious — and often political — beliefs of the people of their own time.
Their creation stories were more like a warm-up to get to the main event: them. Their stories were all about who they were, where they came from, what their gods thought of them and, therefore, what made them better than other peoples.
In short, we can’t expect the Bible to be unique. Like all other such narratives of the time, the Bible’s human authors were simply telling a very personal religious story.
On the other hand, almost everybody reading the Bible without any interest in reconciling it with modernity “assumes that the Adam and Eve story is about ‘human origins.’” What less would it be? But once you start with the assumption that the Bible is like any other book, you can come up with all sorts of counterintuitive theories — and avoid what’s on the page right in front of you.
Not to worry, say the liberal evangelicals. After all, we’re all about the evangel, the Gospel, not human origins, which have no essential bearing on the gospel.
Never mind that the Bible itself assumes a nearly absolute continuum of creation-history-redemption. Jesus is the Second (historical) Adam, corresponding to the Edenic (historical) Adam (Rom. 5). If you get rid of the historic sinning Adam, soon you’ll need to get rid of the historic sinless Jesus — and this is just what liberalism does. Liberals don’t deny the Jesus of history (only the Jesus of the Bible). But by lopping off Adam and Biblical origins, they necessarily turn the gospel into something it isn’t. In the end, you can’t get rid of Genesis without getting rid of the Gospel.
It’s strange that early liberals often understood this fact better than today’s liberal evangelicals. In his 1925 work The Religion of Yesterday and To-Morrow, famed Harvard professor Kirsopp Lake, a prominent liberal, wrote:
[T]he Fundamentalists are perfectly right in thinking that Genesis is the keystone of all biblical theology, and they are perfectly right in thinking that it cannot be reconciled with modern [evolutionary] Science…. To say [as the theistic evolutionists were] that evolution is merely the method of creation is a travesty. (pp. 86–87)
Orthodox Biblical Christians, therefore, cherish the scientific method and modern science, but not scientistic mythmaking.
More importantly, if the liberal evangelicals continue on the same trajectory as the liberal predecessors, they’ll soon find out that you can’t dump Genesis 1–3 without in the end also dumping John 3:16.