The Four Views among Evangelicals concerning Creation

Two weeks ago I attended the Christian Scholars Conference at Pepperdine University. Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and current director of the National Institutes of Health, gave a keynote address in which he argued that Christians must be open to the notion that God used evolution to bring about the human race. On the plane ride to the conference, I read the latest issue of Christianity Today. Its cover story was entitled “The Search for the Historical Adam.” For Evangelicals, the origins issue is front and center.

And it’s not going away anytime soon. I believe I am safe in saying that the doctrine of Creation and the proper interpretation of the first 11 chapters of Genesis will be the biggest theological and biblical debate we face over the next decade. Evangelicals are divided on the issue. At this time, four positions predominate: young earth creationism, old earth creationism, evolutionary creationism, and intelligent design. Let me briefly describe them and give links for each position.

1. Young earth creationism (YEC): YEC proponents argue for a literal, 6-day creation that occurred approximately 6000 years ago. They contend that the proper interpretation of Gen 1-3 requires this position. Death, disease, and predation entered the world through the Fall of Adam. For the most part, geological evidences of an ancient earth are attributed to the flood of Noah. YEC advocates find the astronomical evidences of an ancient universe (such as light from distant stars) much more difficult to explain. A variety of theories are offered, but the predominant one is still the mature creation view, otherwise known as the “appearance of age” hypothesis. The leading representative group today for the YEC position is the organization Answers in Genesis (http://www.answersingenesis.org/)

2. Old earth creationism (OEC): Old earth creationism is sometimes called progressive creationism. OEC proponents argue that God created in successive stages over a period of millions or billions of years. In other words, OEC advocates accept the scientific evidence for an ancient universe (and the Big Bang theory), but they do not accept the predominant biological theory of origins, which of course is Darwinian evolution. OEC theorizes that God miraculously created Adam and Eve about 60 to 100 thousand years ago. The strongest objection YEC proponents have to OEC is its acceptance of animal death and disease prior to Adam’s fall. The leading representative group today for the OEC position is the organization Reasons to Believe (http://www.reasons.org/).

3. Evolutionary creationism (EC): Proponents of evolutionary creationism (also called “theistic evolution”) accept the current scientific theories both of the origin of the universe and of the human race. That is, EC accepts the Darwinian hypothesis that all life, including humans, descended from a common ancestor (generally understood to be a single-cell life form). EC advocates believe that God endued Creation with the principles and laws that caused the essential components of life to self-organize. Random mutation provided the immense variety we observe in the fossil record and in living things today, and natural selection determined which species survived and which went extinct. Generally, EC does not understand Adam and Eve to be literal persons (though there are significant exceptions to this point). The leading representative group today for the EC position is the BioLogos Foundation (http://biologos.org/).

4. Intelligent design (ID): The Intelligent Design movement began as a group of scholars and scientists who were unconvinced by the Darwinian hypothesis and were disturbed by the philosophical naturalism that seems to underlie it. ID proponents argue that an objective examination of the scientific evidence alone (without appealing to the Genesis account) will lead an unbiased inquirer to the conclusion that design by an Intelligent Being (i.e., God) is the best explanation of the evidence. ID contends that arguing over the age of the earth distracts from the bigger adversary–Darwinism and the philosophical atheism underlying it. As a result, one can find both YEC and OEC proponents within the ID movement, and in fact a handful of ID advocates hold to certain non-Darwinian versions of evolution (Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, is a prime example). The leading representative group today for the ID position is the Discovery Institute (http://www.discovery.org/).

Mark Rooker and I currently are writing 40 Questions on Creation and Evolution, and I can tell you that the number of books, articles, and websites on the subject is overwhelming. None of the four views are without serious problems, but my sympathies lie with the ID position. Evangelicals are a missional people. As such we cannot shy away from the difficult issues presented by origins science, and we must engage the natural sciences with confidence and integrity. The God Who gave us the Bible is the God Who created heaven and earth. We must endeavor that He will have worshippers in every vocation and we must advance the Kingdom of God into every arena of life-including the natural sciences.

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  11Comments

  1. Norman   •  

    Thank you for your brief synopsis of each viewpoint. Helpful. I cannot even imagine, however, that you are correct in that the doctrine of creation will be the most significant theological debate of the next decade. Obviously it is a major interest of yours, but I suspect most persons like me simply appreciate God’s hand in creation and say, “Whatever,” or “However.”

  2. Ken Keathley   •     Author

    Norman, no doubt many do say “whatever” or “however.” But those involved in the natural sciences are never satisfied with those responses, nor should they be. Not much progress would be made that way, I suspect. And the Church has a responsibility to demonstrate how the Gospel addresses the empirical realm of God’s Kingdom.

  3. John   •  

    As an academic on 2 campuses (full time at a community college, adjunct at a university), I can attest to Ken’s assertion. Most of our youth today, especially those going into sciences such as biology, chemistry or physics, consider the Creation account as a major obstacle to their faith. These youth encounter evidence that points to a creation 14.5 billion years ago and wonder if they must choose between their faith or the evidence.

    I discussed this via email with a colleague recently. A short quote:

    “Jesus is the truth, and all truth points to Him, even scientific truth.

    “I stand on the Creed: ‘I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.’ I know God created all things, to His glory, including the scientific laws we’ve deduced. I also know God inspired all Scripture, including Genesis 1-3. I suppose I have to live with a bit more messiness than I really like. You’ve heard me say it before: Anyone seeking the Truth will find Him; after all, He promises that those who seek will find. They’ll then have to determine what they do when they find Him. I intend to understand the science well enough to direct the eager souls God puts in my care, such as the physics student who took [the history course I teach] a couple of years ago. Such is the lot of a believer who follows the sciences and knows that they, too, like all truth, have pointed people to our Savior, whose crucifixion atoned for our sins and whose resurrection gives us the sure and certain assurance of our own eternal life.”

    Dr. Stephen Barr, Professor of Particle Physics at the University of Delaware, recently spoke about science and religion here in Tuscaloosa. You can find my notes of his lecture here:

    http://www.johnalex.org/Johns_Start_Page/Papers_and_Lectures_files/Stephen%20Barr,%20Cosmology%20and%20Religion,%2031%20March%202011%20UA.pdf

    I hope they help someone better understand this issue. – JA

  4. Daniel W   •  

    Ken,

    I think your description of Theistic Evolution should be a bit more nuanced. I recently read a debate between Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennet about whether religion and science are compatible. Plantinga holds that God could very well have taken a more active role in evolution than just setting things up and starting them off. He argues that the theory of evolution does not state how mutations in creatures occur, and that they can be caused by many things (such as radiation). Therefore, God could very well have arranged for certain mutations to occur. He could have also preserved certain key populations from destruction, ultimately assuring that humans evolved.

  5. Ken Keathley   •     Author

    John, thank you for your comments. And thank you for you notes from Dr Barr’s talk. I enjoy reading him.

  6. Nathaniel   •  

    One thing that I think would be helpful would be more distinction between the ID position and the YEC and OEC positions. It seems to me that even the EC camp would likely support some sort of ID position.

    Is the ID position distinct from the other three positions or a larger category that contains the other three? If the distinction between ID and its sub categories is the lack of desire to discuss the age of the earth, then I wonder if comparing it to the other three camps is really comparing apples to apples.

  7. Ken Keathley   •     Author

    Daniel, you’re right that the descriptions could be more nuanced. I’m painting with a broad brush, but I believe with reasonable accuracy. For example, Plantinga’s position probably would fit better in the ID camp. There is a difference between someone who might hold to theistic evolution (Michael Behe, Alvin Plantinga, etc) and someone who holds to theistic Darwinism. The first holds only to common descent; the second also holds to common descent but rejects guided design. The first could fit in the ID camp, the second only with the BioLogos group.

  8. Daniel W   •  

    Ken,

    I suppose that at some points there is a very fine line between ID and theistic evolution. In the debate that I read (published in Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?, Oxford University Press) Plantinga was arguing that theism is compatible with Darwinian evolution, since the theory does not specify what exactly causes mutations. He further argued that Darwinism is only incompatible with theism if naturalism is assumed. He even went as far as to argue that Darwinian evolution is in fact more compatible with theism than with naturalism (and he did cite Behe’s for some of his arguments). As for the BioLogos foundation, I’m not sure that they would argue that God did not interfere in evolution. They affirm that “evolution is a means by which God providentially achieves His purposes.” People generally use the term “providence” to refer to God acting in history. Anyway, I’m not denying that some Christians may believe that God just started off evolution and let humans develop by chance, but it is hard to see how that position can coexist with a Christian worldview.

  9. Ken Keathley   •     Author

    Nathaniel, ID takes much more of a big tent approach then does YEC, OEC, or EC for that matter. And the four camps definitely are not simply four apples in the same basket, which complicates following the debate. However, they do represent the four approaches currently in evolution/creation discussion.

  10. Nathaniel   •  

    Thanks, I look forward to reading “40 Questions on Creation” when it comes out.

  11. Pingback: Christian views on Creation | Grace Transforms

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