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Nazarenes Exploring Evolution Paperback – October 14, 2013
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About the Author
Rev. Sherri B. Walker is an ordained Nazarene minister who lives with her husband and tow young children in Nampa, Idaho mentoring, equipping, and empowering in both higher education and the local church. Dr. Thomas Jay Oord is professor of theology and philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University and is the author of numerous books including Science of Lov and Creation Made Free.
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The topic of evolution and Christian faith is important. It is important because belief in God offers comfort, hope, meaning, and purpose for many. This in a world that often seems very hopeless and meaningless indeed. But belief in God is a personal matter. It is a matter of faith, not fact. God’s existence cannot be proven by science. But neither can God’s existence be disproven by science. How unfortunate that the two most vocal extremes in American culture today– one evidently unaware - are working to undermine belief in God. Literal creationist positions are scientifically untenable, and unattractive to those who understand modern science and evolution. Atheistic evolutionary naturalists claim that evolution precludes the existence of God. In the film documentary on evolution and Christian faith, “From the Dust”, Michael Ramsden, of the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics, sums the unfortunate false dichotomy well: “Be pre-modern, go live in a cave; believe in God, OR embrace reality, welcome the new world and become an atheist.”
Obviously, these options are not good ones for Christians. So is there a way for Christians to acknowledge modern science and evolution, and also maintain space for belief in God?
We Christians who know and understand the scientific evidence supporting evolution recognize that evolution is real and is not going away. In this light, evolution is simply seen as a marvelous creative process derived of God’s creative genius. Sadly, this approach is pronounced “heresy” by creationists who accuse such Christians of “not believing the Bible.” The resulting confusion is causing great division within some Christian denominations.
This book ”Nazarenes Exploring Evolution” is an initial attempt by one Wesleyan evangelical denomination to find itself in the midst of this confusion. But there are problems with the book right out of the gate: The title itself is a misnomer. The truth is this book does not explore evolution at all. Of the 62 essays, only a few mention the actual science of evolution, and even then, only in passing general reference. Not one single essay lays out the detailed comparative DNA genome evidence unequivocally establishing (i.e. proof) human beings as evolutionary creations – intimately and marvelously connected with all other life on earth. No, the authors of these essays are primarily concerned with other things.
Hans Deventer, in his essay 34 “Genesis and Reading Scriptures” offers keen and revealing insight when he says: “Few things are as frustrating as discussing one thing, while the issue is something totally different – the proverbial elephant in the room.”
Alas, this is what Nazarenes leaders and theologians do. They are afraid. They do not honestly and openly explore science and evolution. They do not embrace knowledge and facts about our world. They are not true scholars. Rather, in classic post-modern form where facts are viewed as just opinion, and ‘all opinions must be equally respected’, they carefully dance around facts and posture themselves around evolution.
Although this book represents an improvement over the past, this pattern of posturing is reflected in a couple overarching themes.
The first theme is scientific ignorance. As already noted, the book contains scant discussion of the foundational knowledge base and process of evolution. Would it not seem important that before one expresses opinions regarding a topic, they would first learn as much as possible about that topic? Not so with Nazarenes. A few of the essays even seem to suggest that science and evolutionary processes must take a back seat to ‘biblical and doctrinal authority’. Over the past decade or so, several Nazarene science professors have written books and articles articulating evolution/faith compatibility, and encouraging Nazarene leaders, pastors, and laypeople to learn more. All of these individuals were, to greater or lesser degrees, ignored, attacked, and/or vilified. I know. I was one of them.
Facts matter. Therefore, it is difficult to be optimistic regarding the future credibility of the Nazarene denomination when education, foundational knowledge and facts are held in such low regard.
The second theme is fear and is represented here in several ways.
A. Nazarene leaders, pastors, and professors are keenly aware that their positions and livelihood could be in serious jeopardy if they speak of evolution with any degree of confidence or louder than a whisper – even if God is given full credit for this remarkable process! The biblical literalists will demand silence or removal, and even threaten financial boycott of the organization. Some Nazarene leaders such as Dan Boone, author of essay 5 “Conversations on Evolution and Christian Faith,” seem to steadfastly and successfully stand against such threats. Others cave.
B. Another fear represented in some essays is the fear of being “excluded” from the Nazarene clan. Many of the essayists have been lifelong Nazarenes and would rather not risk speaking out publicly regarding evolution, especially if it means that their “orthodoxy” might be called in to question by the creationist Nazarenes.
C. Yet, another - and probably the most legitimate - fear arises from the fact that evolution truly does raise substantial theological questions regarding the doctrine and creeds of not only the Nazarene denomination, but Christianity in general. I cannot possibly articulate these questions as well as Joseph Bankard in essay 40, “Theological Implications of the Evolution Debate”. The ‘fall’, original sin, the cross, redemption, and the problem of evil - among others, are a few theological issues that he identifies. I thought this was one of the most honest and important essays of the book. In addition, Bankard’s remedy (which will likely be ignored by the Nazarene leadership) is spot-on when he says: “But how should Christians respond in light of these new difficulties?” “… I suggest that Christians must begin to do theology in light of evolution.” What a simple, yet profound revelation! Evolution is God’s nurturing and redemptive tool for the preservation of life on earth. A Christian (cave-dweller mentality) theology that pretends otherwise has a dim future at best. And although Nazarene theologians could be courageous and engage, I sincerely doubt they will risk their careers to follow truth in this regard.
In reality, the Church of the Nazarene is confused and conflicted. Some of its leaders and people desire to be relevant in a scientifically-informed technology-driven culture. Yet, at the same time, these leaders do not want to anger the non-scientific creationists among its membership by openly and assertively acknowledging evolution as God’s means of bringing humanity to its current state. Even the Nazarene denomination manual statements over the years, have appeared deliberately vague, and thus deceptive – designed to create an impression that evolution is acceptable, when in real world practice, it cannot be openly studied in the churches or be spoken of positively from the pulpit. What will Nazarenes do? Appease the creationists, or be relevant? They can’t have it both ways. It is a conundrum.
A better solution is within reach.
As a lifelong Nazarene (until four years ago when I gave up on the denomination) and Nazarene college biology professor, I always believed that all truth is God’s truth, and that education held the key to begin addressing the dilemma. However, when I proposed to denominational leaders that Nazarene geologists and biologists might be able to help in this regard, the responses I received were, “No, it is better to let sleeping dogs lie,” and “Your message of education regarding evolution is “not welcome” in the churches.” When I left Nazarene higher education, the evolution critics gloated that they had successfully gotten rid of the “monkey man”.
Overall, “Nazarenes Exploring Evolution” seems akin to a “coming out” by a handful of scholars within the church who are beginning to see the writing on the wall and desire to express their tentative acceptance of evolution while cloaked in the security blanket of numbers. If such baby steps are necessary, then perhaps this book is a positive step. In addition, if one is interested how some Nazarenes “feel” about evolution, or interested in hearing descriptions of some of the writer’s personal, intellectual, and emotional struggles/journeys to disassociate themselves from literal creationist thinking, this book offers value. In addition, a few especially valuable and noteworthy essays, while not truly exploring evolution, nonetheless do a great job articulating useful insights into the big picture. Burton Webb, in essay 24 “Providence and Evolution” offers some substantial help to theologians who might want to take evolution seriously and begin to craft a meaningful and credible Christian theology. Jeremy Hugus, in essay 54, “Mending Wall: Good Fences make Good Churches”, provides one of the most informed and thoughtful overviews of the topic, and also addresses the consequences of people’s actions as relates to evolution and Christian faith.
Kudos to Tom Oord and Sherry Walker for their efforts in organizing this book.
An honest, open, and informed exploration of evolution is sorely needed by the Church of the Nazarene. However, there is little, if any, evolution exploration going on in this book. Nevertheless, hope springs eternal: Maybe in the future, Nazarenes can evolve.
The book begins with an introduction by Thomas Jay Oord, which highlights the gap between how Nazarene congregations and Nazarene scholars think about evolution. The remainder of the book consists of 62 essays, with an average length of 4-1/2 pages, almost all of which were written by Nazarene college/university professors or administrators and Nazarene pastors.
The focus of many of the essays is the author's personal journey from understanding Genesis 1-11 as literal history to understanding Genesis 1-11 as teaching theology rather than history or science, and thereby accepting the Big Bang and biological evolution as God's way of creating our universe.
The essays contain very little about the scientific case for biological evolution. In fact, a number of the essay authors start out by admitting that they aren't scientists. Even the scientists don't go into the case for biological evolution.
There is also very little about the primary issues that a Christian confronts after accepting biological evolution, e.g., historical Adam and Eve, the impact on Christian theology if there was no historical Fall, and Paul's references to Adam in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.
Three of the professors (Stephen Riley, Joseph Bankard and Mark R. Quanstrom) even explicitly raised these questions but did not even try to answer it. Among the 16 "pastoral perspectives," there is one pastor (Ryan Scott) who gets it and states his case particularly well.
This book will be of interest primarily to Nazarenes, although anyone interested in the compatibility of evolution and Christian will find it interesting and perhaps helpful.