Responding to N.T. Wright on Theistic Evolution

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Responding to N.T. Wright on Theistic Evolution

A while ago, I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts: Ask NT Wright Anything. N.T. Wright is a well-known Anglican minister, scholar, and author whose theological views I greatly value. His insights are biblically based and often his theology approaches that of mainstream Adventism but from a refreshingly new perspective. However, during this episode, Wright and I diverged profoundly as he advocated for theistic evolution and attacked literal creation. While listening, I felt a little hurt and puzzled. How could Wright and I, who both value the Bible as God’s inspired word, diverge on such a foundational issue? Moreover, what drove Wright to consider my view as not only wrong but contemptible?

In this article, I’ll reflect on my chief objections to Wright’s attacks on literal creation, where I see one of Wright’s points as unfair or logically flawed. I believe Wright’s views represent those of many Christians, especially scholars. I also think some of these views were formed on misconceptions. In responding, I strive to form a respectful dialogue between literal creationism and theistic evolution.

First, let me make some definitions clear. “Literal creationism” refers to the belief that God created the earth in six literal days by the power of His word (Gen 1 and 2), which also implies a belief in a global, catastrophic flood (Gen 6-8). When I say “evolution,” I mean macro-evolution (i.e., the big bang theory, evolution between species, etc.) as opposed to micro-evolution (i.e., evolution within a species). “Theistic evolution” refers to an attempt to marry the biblical narrative with macro-evolution.

Objection 1: Asserting that the Early Church would have interpreted Genesis in a loose, “poetic” way

First, according to Wright, the creation narrative “was never meant to teach a literal six-day creation.” Instead, he asserts the literal interpretation arose as Christians contrasted themselves against “the rationalist critiques of Christianity in the 17th and 18th century.” This literal interpretation turns Genesis into a “wooden, one-dimensional thing.”[i] Thus he promotes a poetic interpretation and believes the early Christians did, too.[ii]

Yet others, such as Drs. Giem and King, insist that the account reads like a historical narrative. Also, Giem asserts, “In the era before modern geology, the story was interpreted, with rare exceptions, as describing six ordinary days.”[iii] I agree with Giem—it’s hard to believe that Peter or Paul, who saw with their own eyes the immediate power of God’s word as proclaimed through both Jesus and themselves by the Spirit, might have accepted the rather impotent theory of theistic evolution. In John 9, Jesus didn’t rub mud on the blind man’s eyes so his or his descendants’ eyes might eventually evolve sight. No! He said, “go, walk to Siloam and wash… so he went and washed and came back seeing” (Jn 9:7). God’s word can have an immediate creative or healing effect.

Objection 2: Saddling literal creationism with American fundamentalism

Next, in another podcast, Wright states that “most British Christians and most Christians around the world don’t get hung up on the six periods of 24 hours in the way that some Americans still feel they have to, it’s a shame.”[iv] To him, literal creationism is all a part of a “phony war” between science and religion that came to a head during the 1925 Scope’s trial, becoming ingrained in U.S. “culture wars” whereby rural, traditional Americans battle the ideas of a non-religious coastal elite. Thus, he packages literal creationism with other fundamentalist tendencies, including right-wing political activism, dispensationalism, and all that follows.

I think Wright has oversimplified matters. In other words, it is both possible and common to adhere to some of the beliefs that Wright bundles together and to reject others. For example, I and most other Adventists believe in a literal creation but reject the secret rapture. We consider creation important on its own, not just as part of an ideological bandwagon.

I also disagree that Americans are the only ones concerned with the implications of rejecting literal creation. Wright’s own podcast provides evidence for this: no sooner had he stated literal creationism was “peculiar” to Americans than three questions about the negative theological consequences of theistic evolution came from British and Romanian listeners! Given Wright’s opinion, it’s strange that these questions should come from non-Americans, especially since he has no shortage of American listeners. Apparently, at least a few and possibly many non-Americans are concerned about the rejection of literal creation.

Objection 3: Neglecting the theological problems produced by theistic evolution

These listeners from England and Romania mentioned above shared one key concern: death’s presence before sin as implied by theistic evolution. How could this be? Death, which came into the world “through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). Death, through which Christ “might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb 2:14-15). Death, of which Paul writes, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:54-55). Should we blame Wright’s listeners for recognizing the inconsistency of death with God’s character of love, and wonder why God would utilize death (even before the Fall) as a tool for creation, as theistic evolution implies?

Yet, Wright and others fail to offer satisfactory explanations for this problem and others. In his article, No Middle Ground, Dr. Greg King cogently summarizes theistic evolution’s theological implications. Beyond contradicting the creation narrative, Doctrinal issues impacted include the authority of scripture and the doctrines of God, salvation, man, Sabbath, marriage, and the new earth.[v] I recommend reading his full article for details. Thus, by attempting to resolve the conflict between evolution and religion, theistic evolution introduces a host of faith-eroding theologies.

 

Objection 4: Assuming Evolution is a “proven scientific theory”

Despite these theological problems, Wright is dismissive of literal creationists because he considers the matter a moot point. In his book Surprised by Scripture, he describes evolution as a “proven hypothesis about the physical world.” This must mean that Wright doesn’t think reasonable evidence exists to support a literal creation or flood. In these matters, he defers to the scientific experts (pp. 45, 15).

Like Wright, I’m not a scientist. But one thing I do know—there is compelling evidence that supports belief in a literal creation and worldwide flood, and that there are plenty of holes in the macro-evolutionary theory. Instead of explaining these in detail, I invite the audience to watch episode 1 of Michael McCaffrey’s Days of Noah series (starting about 30-minutes into the episode) or see books such as Understanding Creation: Answers to Questions on Faith and Science for succinct summaries of evidence. These include arguments arising from the interdependence and complexity of organisms, the earth’s perfect living conditions, soft sedimentary layers, amino acid racemization, the presence of bacteria and tissue in some fossils, and evidence of accelerated radioactive decay; Also, the problems of evolutionary leaps, erosion, sedimentary gaps, and genetic mutation.[vi] With these and other points entering on literal creation’s side, evolution is far from a “proven hypothesis.”

Conclusion

As I alluded to at the beginning of this article, what bothers me is not so much that Wright and I disagree, but that Wright seems to hold literal creationism in contempt. In Surprised by Scripture, he says: “I wonder whether we are right even to treat the young-earth position as a kind of allowable if regrettable alternative,” calling it a “false teaching” (43-45). Why does he harbor this vitriol against a position so clearly supported by scripture? And who made him the arbiter of what is “allowable”, anyway? My request is that we enter these debates with a respect for the opposing side. I hope this article has at least continued a conversation worth having. I also hope it has shown that literal creation is a reasonable and Biblical position to take and that theistic evolution introduces a host of issues, more, in my opinion, than it pretends to solve.

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Notes.

[i] Wright, N.T., interview by Justin Brierley. 2021. “#58 Genesis, 6-day creation and the first humans.” Ask NT Wright Anything Podcast. Premier Christian Radio. March 25. 6:47-8:28.

[ii] Wright, N.T. 2014. Surprised By Scripture. New York: Harper Collins. p. 31.

[iii] Giem, Paul. 2011. “When Did Creation Occur?” In Understanding Creation, by L. James Gibson and Humberto M. Rasi, 88-100. Nampa, ID: Pacific Press.

[iv] Wright, N.T., interview by Justin Brierly. 2019. “#12 Genesis, evolution, Adam and Eve and The Fall.” Ask NT Wright Anything Podcast. Premier Christian Radio. April 24. 8:45, 4:45, 9:40.

[v] King, Greg A. 2018. “No Middle Ground: Why Theistic Evolution and Biblical Creation are Mutually Exclusive (With Some Implications for Eschatology).” Reflections, July: 1-5. https://adventistbiblicalresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Reflections-63-7-18.pdf.

[vi] See Understanding Creation essays by Standish, Giem, and Roth.

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About the author

Nathan Mckee

Nathan McKee is a business professional with a passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, lay-led ministry, and discipleship. He lives in Collegedale, Tennessee with his wife, Bethany, and son, Henry.