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Tim Keller on Creation and Evolution (RJS)


The white paper written by Tim Keller for the November workshop “In Search of a Theology of Celebration” is posted on the BioLogos web site: Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople (or direct link). In his paper Keller gives what he finds to be the three most common problems posed by laypeople in the church on the questions of science and faith.

1.  Biblical authority.  With three subquestions – “What does that mean for the idea that the Bible has final authority? If we refuse to take one part of the Bible literally, why take any parts of it literally? Aren’t we really allowing science to sit in judgment on our understanding of the Bible rather than vica versa?

With respect to this question Keller gives essentially the answer I would give: “The way to respect the authority of the Biblical writers is to take them as they want to be taken. Sometimes they want to be taken literally, sometimes they don’t. We must listen to them, not impose our thinking and agenda on them.”

Genesis 1 is not intended to be literal – and we should not impose a literal interpretation on it. The stories of the resurrection of Jesus Christ are intended to be literal – of this there is no real question.  To tie these together – as both literal or neither literal is to impose our agenda on the text.

The second two problems he identifies as most common are:

2. Biology and philosophy. This is the convolution of evolution with atheism and ontological naturalism  – the real culture war battle.

3. The historicity of Adam and Eve. What is the proper understanding of the account of Adam, Eve, and the fall? The problem is not so much Genesis 2-3 as it is Romans 5, Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15.  “If we don’t believe in an historical fall, how did we become what the Bible says we are–sinful and condemned?

Today I would like to consider Keller’s approach to the second problem. In the next post  (tomorrow) we will wrestle with the third.

If biological evolution is true, does this mean that we are just animals? Do natural explanations remove both the need for and the plausibility of belief in God?

To the second question: If biological evolution is true — does that mean that we are just animals driven by our genes, and everything about us can be explained by natural selection?  Keller answers:  No. Belief in evolution as a biological process is not the same as belief in evolution as a world-view.

This is an absolutely critical point – acceptance of the scientific evidence for method of creation, most importantly evolutionary biological processes (EBP) does not require acceptance of a naturalistic view of the world. This is where many Christians (myself included) find themselve squeezed on both sides. Many people – from the new atheists to the Christian creationists (of all varieties, young earth, old earth, and intelligent design) use rhetorical techniques of attitude rather than argument to sustain the point.  It is quite helpful, in fact – absolutely critical –  to understand what is going on here.

Keller says that naturalism as the grand theory of everything (GTE) is…

GTE is fast becoming what Peter Berger calls a ‘plausibility structure’. It is a set of beliefs considered so basic, and with so much support from authoritative figures and institutions, that it is becoming impossible for individuals to publicly question them. A plausibility structure is a ‘given’ supported by enormous social pressure. The writings of the new atheists here are important to observe because their attitudes are more powerful than their arguments. The disdain and refusal to show any respect to opponents is not actually an effort to refute them logically, but to ostracize them socially and turn their own views into a plausibility structure. They are well on their way.

He goes on to point out that this creates a culture war in where for many Christians there is a responsive reaction in favor of fiat creationism to retain a sense of human dignity and take a stand against secular naturalism. He points out that  “This is not a sophisticated theological and philosophical move; it is intuitive.” 

So what does this mean? Many orthodox Christians who believe in EBP often find themselves attacked by those Christians who do not. But it might reduce the tensions between believers over evolution if they could make common cause against GTE. Most importantly, it is the only way to help Christian laypeople make the distinction in their minds between evolution as biological mechanism and as Theory of Life. 

The intuitive response of some against secular naturalism – and the function of secular naturalism as the plausibility structure in our society.  These are, in my opinion, the most important fronts in the battle between science and faith in our society. But the solution is not to fight the battle head on, but to look for the true third way.  Keller hits it here – we need to make common cause against naturalism as the grand theory of everything. More importantly we need to present the gospel (the Christian alternative to secular naturalism)  and we need to do so without tying it to patent absurdities – deal breakers that prevent a hearing in many circles.

As I approach these problems and questions I begin with the following set of assumptions – you can challenge away.

God exists – and has made his presence and plan known. The most significant part of his interaction is seen in the incarnation – God became man; that is in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and in presence of the Spirit. Scripture is key here as it  reliably tells the story of God’s interaction with his creatures.

The existence of God is proven not through the failure of “natural”
mechanism to account for aspects of the world around us, but through
the relationship of God with his creation. Science studies God’s
mechanisms. It is a cumulative and self-correcting process.

Evolution will stand or fall on its own terms by the weight of the evidence. Truth will out – eventually. I think that the truth is that evolutionary mechanism is very well attested and supported by the evidence. It is as close to proven as anything in biology. So I am convinced at this point that the truth that will out is the truth of evolutionary biological processes. But whether it stands or falls makes no difference to the faith (my faith) – it is no more significant than meteorology or mechanics. 

What does this mean within the church? One of the driving forces behind the resistance to evolutionary
explanations within the church is the belief that evolution promotes an
atheistic world view and thus must be resisted by believers. Secular
naturalism, it is felt, devalues humans to mere animals leaving the
door open for eugenics, social Darwinism, and all forms of evil. There is also an insufficient appreciation for the strength of the evidence for evolutionary biological processes and the role that creationist stances can play as deal breakers in the presentation of the gospel.

So, discussing this issue in the church I think that we need to realize that ….

We need to divorce scientific explanations of nature (God’s method) from the presentation of the gospel.

We cannot decide the validity of scientific theories based on the search for empirical proof for the existence of God.

We cannot decide the validity of scientific theories and explanations based on unsavory bedfellows or the philosophy of secular naturalism. While an atheistic world view is to be resisted – it must be resisted on defensible grounds. Keep the focus on the real problem – not artificial problems.

We cannot allow our (finite and limited) understanding of theology to decide the validity of scientific theories. Rather, with open minds and hearts, we must allow our faith to rest in and on God – and operate on the assumption that the whole world (and universe) is in his hands. It sounds trite perhaps, but all truth is God’s truth.

What do you think? What battles do we need to fight – and how?

If you wish to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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posted December 29, 2009 at 7:59 am

“These are, in my opinion, the most important fronts in the battle between science and faith in our society. But the solution is not to fight the battle head on, but to look for the true third way. Keller hits it here – we need to make common cause against naturalism as the grand theory of everything.”
But one side, the strong Creationists, are not looking for a “third way”. They feel their position solves not just the naturalism problem, but many others as well.
This brings up the issue that Protestants (and Evangelicals in particular), do not have 1 (or even a few) voices that all look to for authority. Perhaps this is why the RCC and EO Churches do not seem to have such a problem finding that third way.
Not only do we need to follow the advice of Keller, we need to point to figures (such as Keller) that can be a visible, wise voices for the larger Evangelical church. We are currently too splintered.

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Jeff Doles

posted December 29, 2009 at 9:39 am

Scot, you moved on to address the second point, but I do not think you adequately addressed the first point. You asserted that Genesis 1 was not intended to be literal, but you did not demonstrate it in any way.
I don’t doubt that we are to take the Scriptures literarily, recognizing that there are both literal and figurative elements. But what is the tip-off that Genesis 1 is meant to be non-literal? What would have alerted the first readers/listeners that it was not to be taken literally? It seems that, up until a few hundred years ago, both Jews and Christians, by and large, took Genesis 1 to be literal. But if it was not intended literally, how did all these miss that for so many centuries until scientists began to theorize a very old age for the earth?

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posted December 29, 2009 at 9:41 am

I agree with you. I can remember my frustration listening to a popular Creationist claim that the reason young people were leaving the church was because we were undermining their faith in Scripture by teaching evolution as a method God could have used in creating the cosmos.
That said, I’ve worked really hard to teach my people an understanding of the early chapters of Genesis that emphasizes the truth in the stories (dignity of humanity, etc) as opposed to it being a handbook for how God did it. That allowed a lot of freedom and relief for our members that had a lot of doubts about 6 day creationism and felt like bad Christians because of it.
Key in that was approaching it in a way that allowed us to remain united as a local expression of the people of God even as some of my congregation members encouraged me to check out that amazing museum in Cincinnanti…
I think that’s what a third way looks like on the ground.
Then again, maybe I wasn’t explicit enough and people heard what they wanted to hear… ;-).

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posted December 29, 2009 at 9:51 am

We are too splintered. But this is not the big problem here as I see it – because I really don’t think that authoritative pronouncements will make peace.
We do need honest and thoughtful conversation, and wise leaders who will take a humble stand on the issues. Keller is a smart and reasonable choice. I don’t think that he gets it all right, but his approach is great. He doesn’t actually seem to think that he has it all figured out.
Strong creationists are not looking for a third way, nor are those pushing an atheistic word view convinced that science removes God as a necessary or rational “hypothesis”. But most in the church (and society) are not on the extremes. In this particular context the third way is an approach is what I would term faithful realism. We look through eyes of faith but acknowledge science for what it teaches about God’s creation. It will not do to allow theologians to dismiss science as delusional and unimportant.
The “third way” also doesn’t regulate science and faith as “non-overlapping magisteria” where a magisterium is defined as “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution” (definitions from Stephen Jay Gould and Wikipedia). Science and faith certainly overlap – and speak to each other.

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posted December 29, 2009 at 9:57 am

Jeff (#2)
Scot didn’t write this post – I did. I skipped over the first point lightly for two reasons – first, we have discussed it at length on this blog and second, Keller spends but little time on it in his white paper.
On Genesis 1, the text itself … John Walton’s book “The Lost Worlds of Genesis One” is a good resource; on the early church use Peter Bouteneff’s “In the Beginning” is from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, but provides a good overview.

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posted December 29, 2009 at 10:15 am

Thanks for doing this series. I know that for many, these are the major fault lines. I hope your continued efforts help to soften what the voices on both the extremes are trying to harden.
On the last question, I want to echo something you stated in the post: “Keller hits it here – we need to make common cause against naturalism as the grand theory of everything. More importantly we need to present the gospel.” I think this is the key strategy. There are issues of central importance to Christ, and uniformity concerning how God created does not appear to be one of them. We have to keep the main thing(s) the main thing(s), even if we spend significant time carefully working through issues such as these (and many should). (Of course, I’m the first to say that our “gospel” needs some beefing up to be faithful to the robust one that Christ announced and embodied, but that’s a different conversation.)
But, in the big picture, in terms of which battles do we fight and how, we can’t ever prioritize winning the textbook battle in the public school science class over learning to love (neighbors and enemies) as Christ. Even the appearance of this (evil) causes loss to Christ’s main concerns. We have to trust Christ’s strategies to accomplish his purposes, even if they are ‘flanking’ strategies to issues such as these.

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posted December 29, 2009 at 10:19 am

RJS, – It will not do to allow theologians to dismiss science as delusional and unimportant.
As you know the issue isn’t the theologians, it’s poor creation scientists attempts at hermeneutics and popular preaching and laity. The theologians for the most part seem to be ignored in my circles.

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posted December 29, 2009 at 10:29 am

“…because I really don’t think that authoritative pronouncements will make peace.”
I don’t think it would, nor would I want that, but I would hope that people such as Keller would be able to have enough clout in which they could lead much of the Ev. church to third way discussions. Such discussions are great, but people from the various segments will want to hear that from those they view as credible. We can’t get a strong third way discussion going until more want to participate. If more don’t participate, the extreme atheists will have plenty of targets and useful PR (fits on bumper stickers). We may not have enough people at the table to make a difference.
“Science and faith certainly overlap – and speak to each other.”
A good example of that is an interesting paper on genetics, sin, and sanctification by Prof’s Keith Drury and Burton Webb. Their paper is a good demonstration of how science and theology can work together to look as such interesting issues and questions.

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posted December 29, 2009 at 10:39 am

I applaud Keller’s open and irenic approach and his courage in recognizing that this ultimately is a question of integrity. I also appreciate that he emphasizes what he believes are some important theological distinctives (i.e., the actuality of the Fall) while respecting other views. Excellent.

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Clay Knick

posted December 29, 2009 at 10:57 am

No wonder I love this blog so much. :)
Thanks for doing this, Scot.

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Herman Cummings

posted December 29, 2009 at 11:20 am

Tim Keller says that “sometimes they wanted to be taken literally, sometimes they don’t”. That is a position of ignorance. Those who claim to believe in the Bible use that sort of “excuse” because they have little understanding of the book of Genesis. All of Genesis is to be taken literally.
It is unfortunate that the worlds of Creationism and theology refuse to learn the truth about the first chapter of Genesis, which has been known since 1993. The seven days in Genesis were 12 hours days, and were not linear. Each day was taken from a different week, and each week was taken from a different geological age. This view is called the “Observations of Moses”, which is the correct opposing view to the theory of evolution.
Herman Cummings

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A Greenhill

posted December 29, 2009 at 11:28 am

If some parts are literal and others figurative then it goes without saying that “sometimes [the authors] want to be taken literally, sometimes they don’t”.
And when someone asks how you know the difference, the answer you’ve offered is “we must listen to them”…
When “answers” like that seem legitimate to you, it’s no wonder you’re a creationist.

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posted December 29, 2009 at 11:41 am

I have deleted comments – and will delete more if they violate the ground rules. Disagreement is fine. Name-calling is never tolerated.

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posted December 29, 2009 at 12:05 pm

A Greenhill – I don’t understand your comment on any level.

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posted December 29, 2009 at 12:29 pm

It is refreshing and encouraging to see somebody like Keller from the fairly conservative end of the Evangelical spectrum (I think he is in the PCA) come out endorsing theistic evolution (or at least saying it is OK for evolution to be God’s means of creation).
Keller hits a key point in this area, which is the need to separate the science from the philosophical baggage some attach to it. The shared assumption by both sides of the “culture war” approach to this issue (whether from atheists like Richard Dawkins or the “creation science” crowd or some of the ID movement) is that “natural” explanations automatically exclude God from the metaphysical picture. This is the difference between “methodological naturalism” (a description of the way science works by looking for natural explanations) and “metaphysical naturalism” (the philosophical assumption that such natural explanations exhaust all categories of truth, which Keller rightly rejects).
An example is rain, which the Bible attributes to God. I know atmospheric scientists who could describe rain entirely in terms of natural mechanisms with no reference to God intervening. By the logic of most Christian anti-evolution activists, we should be opposing these theories of precipitation as atheistic. But a faith that recognizes God’s sovereignty over nature can accept “natural” explanations at the physical level while still affirming that God is ultimately in charge. Unfortunately, while most Christians can accept natural processes as God’s tools in the case of rain, many fail to make the identical move when it comes to the development of life. Maybe Keller can help show the way.

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posted December 29, 2009 at 12:37 pm

Keller is in the PCA – and is rather conservative (this comes out more in the rest of his white paper – and in tomorrow’s post here) but his approach provides an excellent example. He sets up a way to further the conversation and isolate and consider the serious issues.

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posted December 29, 2009 at 1:39 pm

I need to read the white paper. I like the tone of the discussion and I think the GTE is where the battle should be waged. Even so–and I am NOT a scientist, not even close–I still have a hard time with evolution as a theory. From what I’ve read from microbiologists, the old Darwinian concepts don’t really seem to work. The smaller the organism becomes does not necessitate simplicity. Any micro changes actually destroy the organisms. It is not so much a theological problem, but it is a pragmatic problem.
This is where I have problems with evolutionary theory (other than evolution within species).

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posted December 29, 2009 at 1:42 pm

But I do agree, let the text speak for itself and interpret it according to the way it asks to be interpreted. We don’t have problems interpreting the Psalms metaphorically (oh, well, some folks do, but anyway…)

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posted December 29, 2009 at 1:48 pm

RJS – Thank you for your continuing contributions to science/faith issues!
Some things I see as important, but often unrecognized, are:
1. Presuppositions or assumptions. This is important if the issues are considered rational or intellectual. An example is that Keller is right on in his consideration of our view of scripture.
2. Anti-intellectualism. All truth is God’s truth is not a fundamentalist maxim. Consider Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.
3. Cognitive Dissonance. This a psychological phenomenon that we probably all display at some level about some things we believe. It should be kept in mind in science/faith discussions.

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posted December 29, 2009 at 2:19 pm

I agree with Tim Keller and RJS that an important battle is against “scientific naturalism”. It is instructive to look at the structure of the argument for “scientific naturalism”. It is a syllogism, structured as follows:
Premise #1: If evolution is true (if life has developed by common descent via genetic variation and natural selection), God is not the creator of life and is pushed out of the picture. More generally, this is the “God of the Gaps” premise that “natural” explanations and God are mutually exclusive.
Premise #2: Evolution is a true scientific description of the history of life. [More generally, scientific explanations exist for natural phenomena we might attribute to God.]
Conclusion: No God.
Unfortunately, many Christians swallow Premise #1 whole, and skip right on to attacking Premise #2 which becomes a necessity to defend the faith once #1 is granted. Since 99% of the Christian opposition to #2 is scientifically weak at best or nonsense at worst, this sets up a huge stumbling block to the Gospel for the scientifically literate.
Keller properly recognizes that Premise #1 is full of unjustified philosophy, and should be rejected by Christians who affirm God’s transcendence over nature. Once we dispose of the bogus Premise #1, then the science of evolution can be discussed (if desired) without our faith hanging in the balance.
If the Evangelical church could just see the error of the “God of the Gaps” Premise #1 (promoted not only by atheists but also by many Christian anti-evolution activists), and that therefore the science of evolution (Premise #2) is not a faith-killer, it would be a great step forward in this whole conversation.

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Tim Stroud

posted December 29, 2009 at 2:38 pm

Great article. I think the fact of evolution is a battle that theology cannot win, like football is a game that the Boston Celtics cannot win; and wouldn’t even try playing. Pick your battles carefully. But the consequences of popular thinking about evolutionary theory are up for grabs.
Keller’s view seems a slippery-slope to discrediting (in terms of literalism or historical accuracy) other portions of the Bible in order to shore-up the plausibility/rationality of Christianity. (What is the relationship between plausibility and faith? Or rationality and faith?) The trade-off may help people focus on the core tenets of Jesus’ messsage but if not spun properly calls into doubt the once revered Word of God. (Or even an Old Testament/New Testament schism) Can both positions be held without producing a new round of cognitive dissonance?
“Scripture is key here as it reliably tells the story of God’s interaction with his creatures.” What does “reliably” mean?

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posted December 29, 2009 at 2:48 pm

Tim Stroud,
The part beginning “The intuitive response of some against secular naturalism – and the function of secular naturalism as the plausibility structure in our society.” is my reflection on the topic of Keller’s white paper.
I find that scripture reliably tells of God’s interaction with this creation. To an extent this is a faith statement – and is only provable through a circular argument (much like typical evangelical ‘proofs’ of inerrancy). But if we look at scripture with eyes of faith – open to the reality of a God who interacts with his creation, there is nothing in scripture that I find deeply dissonant although there is much we must wrestle with.
So – my view, (not Keller’s I am sure – he seems much more conservative on this issue) … The purpose of scripture is not to illuminate us on the mechanism of God’s creation, but to inform us of the story of God’s interaction with his people and his creation. With respect to the first problem above – on the authority of Scripture, I go further than Keller – the Bible does not have final authority. God is the final authority and scripture carries God’s authority in the telling of God’s story of his interaction with his people. The Bible is not the rock on which we stand – God is the rock. The bible is absolutely trustworthy and reliable in its function as the lamp that lights our path and illuminates our understanding of God.

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Matt Dodrill

posted December 29, 2009 at 3:05 pm

The conflict is between naturalism (worldview) and Christianity (worldview), NOT Christianity a and evolution. And, by the way, I appreciate your critique of natural theology regarding this issue.
check out my new blog:

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John W Frye

posted December 29, 2009 at 4:21 pm

Thanks so much for keeping us informed of these issues. I,too, benefited from your analysis of Keller’s paper.

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posted December 29, 2009 at 5:00 pm


posted December 29, 2009 at 8:42 pm

Perhaps a non-sequitor: A Christian ecologist here at UW-Madison has often been asked what he believes about evolution vs. creationism. His response is to first say that when he gets to heaven, God mostly likely won’t ask the ecologist how God created the world. More likely, God will ask him — and the rest of us — what we did with the Creation while we were on the Earth.

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posted December 30, 2009 at 12:49 am

I agree – I also doubt he will ask us our doctrine of sin and salvation – more likely he will ask us what we did to follow him. And it is rather clear in the NT that this relates to how we treat people, especially the “least of these”.
But I don’t think that this means that we should just drop the questions and fail to engage with them.

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Quentin L F Patch

posted January 2, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Judgement Day-NOVA pbs DVD
This is a discaussion about worldviews, the cornerstone of which is the answer to Where ya from, originally? Not some incidental, but the whole ball game.
science says Darwinism is superstition. Rocks can’t write. DNA is language; requires intellect, conscious mind, to pick and place characters; also a sender and compatible receiver. See best-selling book by Stephen C Meyer “Signature in the Cell.”
Ivillusionism is the central support for atheistic materialism. The atheists’ emperor is parading down Main street naked, and Americans are laughing.

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