A Critique of “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Lay People,” by Tim Keller

Guest post from Dr. Adrian Keister (Ph.D. in mathematical physics from Virginia Tech). The article from Tim Keller is found here.

What’s the Problem?

The first paragraph sets up the tone for the entire piece: the supposed antithesis between orthodox Christianity with a high view of the authority of the Bible, and evolution. Keller challenges that antithesis in the third paragraph. However, in that third paragraph, Keller evidently equates “evolution” with “science” when he writes, “However, there are many who question the premise that science and faith are irreconcilable.” So Keller has shifted the debate now, and this is a point I would not grant him. It is my firm belief that evolution is not science, any more than the theory of mature creation is science. They are both faiths, because the very method of science, being inductive and absolutely dependent on experiment, excludes questions of origin. Let us suppose, via Karl Popper, that scientific statements are statements that can, in theory, be falsifiable by observation. If that is the case, then questions about origins simply do not fall into that category, as there are no repeatable experiments available to settle such questions. The fact that evolution is considered science by mainstream scientists is neither here nor there. 10,000 Frenchmen can still be wrong. If the mainstream scientists have a vested interest in writing God out of their equations, as it says the natural man wants to do in Romans 1, then we should not be surprised when they come up with theories that exclude God! People do science, not machines, and people are always biased. People can always have a vested interest in achieving certain outcomes, even if they are scientists and the desired outcomes are supposed scientific statements.

Keller writes:

However, there are many who question the premise that science and faith are irreconcilable. Many believe that a high view of the Bible does not demand belief in just one account of origins. They argue that we do not have to choose between an anti-science religion or an anti-religious science.

I could certainly agree with the last sentence, but I would agree for different reasons than Keller appears to hold. I would agree because the very nature of science and the scientific method means that the questions science can attempt to answer have nothing to do with the supernatural. Here, I mean that the supernatural is God working through extraordinary means, and the natural is God working through ordinary means. Science excludes itself from questions about the supernatural, precisely because such events are not repeatable and thus there are no experiments. However, for scientists to make the additional leap of logic and claim that the supernatural does not exist, or that supernatural occurrences never happen, is a non sequitur of the first order. Just because the naked eye cannot see past a certain point does not mean there is nothing beyond that point. Keller, on the other hand, appears to hold to this non-antithesis because he believes evolution and orthodox Christianity are compatible. Again, he is placing evolution within science.

Keller’s fourth paragraph, including the van Inwagen quote, seems to me to be irrelevant to the main discussion. Keller’s claim at the end of the paragraph that “This is just one of many places where the supposed incompatibility of orthodox faith with evolution begins to fade away under more sustained reflection” seems to me a bit of a straw man. God is, of course, free to use any means He pleases that do not contradict His nature. However, the main topic of discussion here is whether macro-evolution is compatible with orthodox Christianity. Orthodox Christianity does not need evolution to explain its own existence; it depends for its existence on the Bible and God working to help men understand the Bible.

Keller’s fifth paragraph excludes the possibility that there really is an antithesis, and that those who claim there is an antithesis might be louder and more prominent because they are correct. Yet again, in the second sentence of this paragraph, Keller has equated evolution with science.

Pastors and the People

In this section, Keller lays out four difficulties that he sees laypeople having with evolution. The first is the literalness of Genesis 1, and biblical authority in general. The second is evolution as a Grand Theory of Everything, as per Richard Dawkins. The third is the historicity of Adam and Eve. The fourth is the problem of violence and evil. Keller proposes to “lay out” the first three of these difficulties. To Keller’s credit, he takes on himself and other pastors the hard work of interpreting the Bible, scientists, and philosophers in order to make things real to their parishioners.

Three Questions of Christian Laypeople

Question 1: If God used evolution to create, then we can’t take Genesis 1 literally, and if we can’t do that, why take any other part of the Bible literally?

Answer: 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.

The above question and answer are quoted verbatim from Keller. At first blush, I would react by saying that while I think the answer is a true statement, I do not think it answers the question.

Keller then launches into an examination of whether Genesis 1 is prose or poetry or something else. Keller does not appear to want to take Genesis 1 literally. His first argument is that “…Genesis 1’s prose is extremely unusual. It has refrains, repeated statements that continually return as they do in a hymn or song.” (emphasis original) So far as I can see, this argument is inconclusive. No one, I think, would argue that Numbers 7 is narrative, and yet it definitely has a refrain. His second argument is that “the terms for the sun (‘greater light’) and moon (‘lesser light’) are highly unusual and poetic, never being used anywhere else in the Bible, and ‘beast of the field’ is a term for animal that is ordinarily confined to poetic discourse.” This could be true. However, even if we grant the term “exalted prose narrative” as being descriptive of Genesis 1 (which I do not necessarily grant), this does not imply automatically that “we must not impose a ‘literalistic’ hermeneutic on the text.” (Keller is quoting Francis Collins here.) How is exalted prose narrative supposed to be interpreted? What clear examples do we have of interpreting such narrative?

Keller then claims that Genesis 1 and 2 cannot both be taken literally because there would be incompatibilities. The examples Keller brings up seem quite weak to me. Keller’s first example is that there is light before any natural sources of light. My brother Lane thinks that this may be a polemic against the Egyptian sun god Ra. Of course there can be light without the sun, moon, or stars: see Revelation 22:5. Then Keller claims that vegetation before atmosphere or rain is impossible. I would divide that question into two. Vegetation before atmosphere might or might not be possible, but at the very least, Keller appears to claim that the atmosphere was created on Day 4, whereas in my reading, Day 1 seems a better candidate. As for vegetation before rain, Keller either does not know about canopy theory (Genesis 2:6 is relevant to that discussion), or dismisses it. However, canopy theory is quite plausible, although I would claim it is not science. As for Genesis 2:5, it by no means necessarily teaches that God followed a natural order, precisely because of Genesis 2:6. The entire creation was supernatural! God made the rules in creation, and He acted by following His own good pleasure. Finally, Keller claims that “evenings and mornings” are not natural, given that the sun is created on Day 4. However, this is a strange way to argue: that something is not natural means we can’t interpret a passage literally. Or even, giving Keller the benefit of the doubt, that if all the characteristics of one passage are not natural, and all the characteristics of another passage are natural, that we must then interpret them differently. Would he make the same claim about passages in Exodus, that alternate between supernatural and natural? I simply do not see any clash between Genesis 1 taken as literal history, and Genesis 2 taken as literal history.

Keller writes, in summary, that “Genesis 1 does not teach that God made the world in six twenty-four hour days.” In this paper, he appears to come to this conclusion because he thinks Genesis 1 is not meant to be taken literally. However, even if we grant that Genesis 1 is not to be taken literally (which I do not grant), that does not mean that a day is not a 24 hour day. Nonliteral passages can still have literal elements to them. Keller seems to point to non-literalness in every element of Genesis 1.

Question 2: 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?

Answer: No. Belief in evolution as a biological process is not the same as belief in evolution as a worldview.

Keller makes a distinction between evolution proper (the biological process) and “perennial naturalism”, which is Alvin Plantinga’s term. Perennial naturalism is clearly antithetical to orthodox Christianity, and I think Keller thinks that, too. However, it is not clear to me how this helps Keller’s overall case. Let us recall that Keller’s thesis is that biological evolution (not perennial naturalism) and orthodox Christianity are compatible. So, let EBP be the statement that macro-evolutionary biological processes occur. Let PN be perennial naturalism, and let OC be orthodox Christianity. Keller would agree that PN AND OC is false. Ah, but EBP does not imply PN, like the new atheists claim. Therefore EBP AND OC? The conclusion is not warranted. By that reasoning, we could say that anything that does not imply PN is compatible with OC, which is clearly false. Gnosticism does not imply PN, but it is antithetical to OC. As to whether EBP does or does not imply PN, I will defer to others, since I have not studied the matter.

Keller writes:

Many Christian laypeople resist all this and seek to hold on to some sense of human dignity by subscribing to ‘fiat-creationism.’ This is not a sophisticated theological and philosophical move; it is intuitive.

I am not sure whether Keller means to demean “fiat-creationists” by calling them unsophisticated (I would tend to think so, given the nature of Keller’s ministry, but I do not impute motives) or whether he is merely making an impersonal remark about the nature of “fiat-creationists”. Moreover, Keller does not define the term “fiat-creationist”. If by “fiat-creationist” he means simply someone who believes in a literal Genesis creation story, where God creates by divine fiat, then I would certainly place myself in that camp. I do not see either that such “fiat-creationism” is unsophisticated merely because it rejects all forms of macro-evolution, nor do I see that even if it is unsophisticated, that that is a bad thing. It is a rather puzzling comment, so I will refrain from further critique.

Question 3: If biological evolution is true and there was no historical Adam and Eve how can we know where sin and suffering came from?

Answer: Belief in evolution can be compatible with a belief in an historical fall and a literal Adam and Eve. There are many unanswered questions around this issue and so Christians who believe God used evolution must be open to one another’s views.

Since Keller takes a literal view of Genesis 2, and believes in a literal Adam and Eve, there is less in this section with which I would quibble. I probably would not have quoted N. T. Wright favorably, as his theology is highly problematic, although the statement in question seems unobjectionable. Keller certainly does argue for some of the more orthodox positions in this section.

However, in getting to the subsubsection entitled “A model”, Keller runs into some difficulties. It is not entirely clear to me whether Keller holds to Kidner’s views of a pre-Adamic race or not, but that is clearly what is in view here. And if there is a pre-Adamic race, then there was death before the Fall of Man. The difficulties of having death (really, of any animal, whether in the pre-Adamic race, or other animals) before the Fall of Man are several. One is that the wages of sin is death. That is, sin implies death. Can we say that not-sin implies not-death? That would be the converse. Equivalently, can we say that death implies sin? If we can, then death before the Fall flies in the face of God’s goodness. It is not that man inherently deserves life, and that God must, in justice, give it to him if he obeys. Instead, it is a matter of God’s Word. God said to Adam, “Do this and live, do that and die.” The antithesis seems to me to indicate that we can conclude the converse. Furthermore, in Isaiah 11:6-9, we see the picture of a restored earth. No animal seems to be hurting any other animal. If the restored earth is to be a return to the Garden of Eden, how can there be animal death before the Fall?

This “model” seems to give away much too much to the scientists. In fact, this is a general trend I noticed in Keller’s writing. As Gordon Clark once said, “Science is a collection of useful falsehoods.” Useful, but not “true”. That is, since science is based on the inductive method, which is technically a fallacy, science can really only ever make probabilistic statements. Science can never arrive at the truth, since its method is inherently flawed. That does not make science worthless, as it does have immense predictive value in its domain. But that’s precisely the point: questions about origins of the universe are not within the domain of science. You can hypothesize all day about origins, and scientists have, but the bottom line is there are no repeatable experiments to reproduce what actually happened. Therefore, science simply cannot contradict the Bible, at least in questions of origin. The Bible says something about origins, and science cannot. This is, in general, why I have not seen any tension between true science and Christianity. Science, while competent in its areas to say some things (subject to the limitations I mentioned before), cannot rise even to the level of addressing anything supernatural. And since what the Bible says about natural processes is perfectly accurate, and science corroborates it, there are no conflicts whatsoever.

Keller’s view is not technically one of the four accepted views that the PCA allows for TE’s. The Metro NY Presbytery has probably ruled that Keller’s views do not strike at the fundamentals of the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards. That is a question I have not studied, but I believe there is cause for concern, and it warrants investigation.