K. Drage, A Plain Man looks at Evolution

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A Plain Man looks at Evolution

Ken Drage[1]
29 April 2018

In this article I am sharing my personal experience that began in earnest in the late 1960s, of meeting the challenge of the doctrine of evolution. Why a plain man? Because the science of evolution has recently grown in leaps and bounds until few now have the depth of knowledge to question its findings and when we do we only expose our inadequacies. However, as Christadelphians, we do have the ability to test its conclusions against the tenets of our faith; perhaps, more importantly, do we have the humility to acknowledge that some aspect of our received understandings may also need to be questioned, as they raise unnecessary barriers.

Like many, I could see the inherent difficulties and had tried to avoid wrestling with the problem. In 1966, as a member of Watford, it became impossible to avoid the issue. Ralph Lovelock, a respected brother and member of the Christadelphian Publishing Committee, was also a member of Watford. In the autumn of 1964 he gave a series of talks at the Central London Bible Class on ‘The Origin of Man’ that presented creation in an evolutionary framework. In the following two years the talks had generated a mighty storm that was rocking our community — some even saw a community split as inevitable.

At this stage it may help to remind ourselves why evolution had become such a divisive subject. The idea of evolution was not new. It had been around for many years, well before Darwin published his ‘On the Origin of the Species’ in 1859. It was his title tag, ‘by means of natural selection,’ i.e. nature-driven, change produced by environmental pressures that was the new element introduced by Darwin and many Christians, not just Christadelphians, saw this denying God an entry into the creative process.

Right from its beginning our community has sought, where possible, to accommodate the expansion of scientific knowledge. Dr Thomas, in his foundation book ‘Elpis Israel’ (1850), had no difficulty accommodating fossils in a world much older than 6,000 years by introducing a pre-Adamic age; though his solution might not easily fit into our present understanding of creation, he did show he was open to suggestions that accommodated advancing science. Islip Collyer, a respected brother in the interwar years, in his book ‘The Vegetable in the Witness Box’ (1922) castigated evolutionists but could still conclude, ‘Evolution is a fact of nature’ (p 101). . . . ‘believers in Evolution who . . .  affirm . . .  an overruling Providence . . .  perhaps we have no quarrel with them’ (p 94). More importantly for the case of Ralph Lovelock, he contributed to the 1949 Birmingham Central series of addresses under the theme ‘Dare We Believe’, his subject ‘Christianity & Evolution’. This address was later published by the Christadelphian Office as a pamphlet presenting an evolutionary approach to creation that he later expanded in his Central London Bible Class talks and showed his understanding of creation had been in circulation for many years before the Central London addresses and accepted by the Christadelphian establishment of the day.

When external pressures forced Watford to look into Ralph’s teaching, our expectation, given previous community accommodation of current scientific thought, was that a resolution would be found. It soon became clear this was not going to happen. As the implications of Ralph’s views bore home on the Watford ABs, in particular death present from the beginning of creation, their concerns grew. They saw sin and death as synonymous, originating with Adam & Eve’s sin. This was the bedrock of their understanding of atonement, the cause of the fall finally judged and condemned in Jesus’ death. It was no longer a discussion about doctrine but about the very grounds of their faith, it had become personal and they felt threatened. The dimension of their discussions with Ralph began to change, it became an emotional issue. I do not want to convey the impression of an ecclesia at open war with each other. The discussions were conducted in a civilised manner, both sides aware and deeply saddened by what was happening but the hurt to faith was such that it made it difficult for other views of atonement, that could have offered a solution, to be heard. We were witnessing the natural resistance to change when passionately held core beliefs are challenged. I stress these dynamics of the 1966 discussions because if the parties in the current debate do not recognise this could be a factor in their own discussions there is little hope of coming to a resolution; the process, to succeed, does require participants to spend time listening to the emotional concerns of each other.[2]

Does the NT doctrine of atonement require death to have been introduced after Adam & Eve’s sin? It was this question, more than anything else that stirred me to get involved, especially whether the differences warranted such drastic action as withdrawing fellowship; Watford did try to see if a compromise could work but pressure from various quarters in the community, at the time, made this impossible for them.

Romans 5 v 12 became a key verse, ‘sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men’. But, I was finding the AB’s application of this verse beginning to lead their understanding of Genesis 1-3, not, as I would expect, the other way round; Genesis is far more detailed in its explanation of what happened at creation than Romans 5. Also, most Christians had inherited, without thinking, Milton’s view of ‘the fall’ — the opening verse of his epic ‘Paradise Lost,’ [3], ‘Of man’s disobedience . . .  brought death into the world, and all our woe’. I began to question if this was a true reading of the Genesis account:

Gen 1 v 28-31: This presents mankind as mortal requiring regeneration by birth, part of a cycle ending in death with maintenance of a mortal body by eating the produce of agriculture; eastern cultures favour a vegetarian diet and this doesn’t imply the exclusion of meat and the killing of animals.
Gen 2 v 17: The AV margin reading ‘dying thou shalt die’, favoured by Dr Thomas, well describes the state of created man mortal from the beginning.
Gen 3 v 16-19: The judgment of Eve didn’t introduce child-birth into the world, only an increase in women’s suffering. Adam is not working in the fields for the first time, the working conditions are now harsher while the ending of Gen 3 v 19 is telling Adam he is not escaping from his mortality and will eventually die.

I no longer saw the origin of death in the terms of Paradise Lost. The two trees in the garden stood for the choice facing, not only Adam, but, all mankind, a life lived in a relationship with God which would allow us to escape death or inevitable fulfilment of our mortality when rejecting him and relying on self. .It is a choice not just in the garden but repeated throughout the Bible, no better presented than by Moses on behalf of God, ‘I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil’, Deuteronomy 30:15 and ‘fury and great wrath’ (Deuteronomy 29:28) if the wrong path is chosen. It is the broad and narrow paths presented in the Sermon of the Mount. If we allow the natural reading of Genesis to impose its understanding of Adam on Romans 5 v 12, we are led to seeing it speaks of Adam’s failure to obtain escape from his mortality. Adam is seen as a type and forerunner of us all for we all share his inherent mortality and weaknesses — the OT doesn’t dwell on the sin of Adam.

To support this conclusion, Romans 5 v 12 cannot be read in isolation from related arguments in Romans and the First letter to Corinth – both letters were written during the latter time of Paul’s stay in Ephesus;

Romans 7:18-24 speaks of the contrasted impulses of spirit and flesh that Paul cannot conquer, which we sometimes relate to the state of mankind after the fall, but this would not have been how it would have been read by Paul’s audience. Paul, once a member of the Rabbi class, is drawing on established Jewish thinking that would have been well known to the Jewish members of the church at Rome. The Rabbis held the two impulses, the [Jetzer Hatov and] Jetzer Hara, were part of man’s mortal nature from the beginning. [4] The flow of the argument of Rom 7 & 8, therefore, does not start with the outcome of the fall but with the original mortal weaknesses of created man, the ‘groaning’ of ‘the whole of creation’ referred to in Romans 8:21-22. The escape is the tree of life, presented in Romans 7 v 25 [as] through ‘Jesus Christ our Lord’.
1 Corinthians 15 v 47 deals with the mortal origin of Adam, not Adam’s status after his sin. He was created a ‘physical body . . .  a man of dust’ that, without the intervention of God through Christ, dies and returns to dust.

It is inconceivable that Paul, when penning Romans 5 at the end of his third missionary journey, would have different understandings of the origins of Adam’s mortality. Any meaning we might take from reading Romans 5 in isolation must bow to the consistency of arguments in Romans 7 and 1 Corinthians 15 when drawing on Genesis 1-3. The conclusion, Genesis 2 & 3 sets out the status of mankind – brothers used to describe them as the-seed bed of scripture – while the remaining scriptures are informative.

This leaves us with a problem, why were we created unable to manage our free will, bound to fail? A problem the Rabbis and Job, amongst others, struggled with. Perhaps, the only answer is that given to Job, God saying I created the world as you see it, the lion living off prey, the anger and aggression of the crocodile, even your perceived complaint of injustice, (Job 38-41); accept it as it is for ‘I create weal and woe’ (Is 45 v 7). If death and evil originated through Adam’s sin, wouldn’t this have been a better conclusion to the book of Job than the one we now have? We don’t have all the answers, we still see in a mirror dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12) and, if as I argue, we were mortal from the beginning, he can only be described as ‘good’ not because he is perfect but [because] that is how God wanted him to be.

And then there is creation by natural selection. Does this exclude God? Genesis 1-3 and Psalm 8 see mankind as stewards and partners in God’s creative purpose, not automatons, but having free will, even allowed to exercise it contrary to God’s will. Adam & Eve did, and paid a price. So did Pharaoh, refusing God’s command to free Israel; he also suffered for his disobedience but God applied external pressure and obtained His end. Can these two examples suggest a model of ‘natural selection’ that allows a role in forwarding creation but still has God managing the outcome? God may have the power of an autocrat but the God of the OT and the NT always allows us free choice but never sees this limiting His overall authority and power.

Finally, the narrowness of the community’s received understanding of atonement. It leans heavily on Romans 3:21-26, which is read as God first having to show His righteous judgment condemning sin and death in Jesus’ nature before forgiveness flows – Robert Roberts in ‘the Blood of Christ’ (p 18) described this as ‘Heaven’s Etiquette’. Not only [is this] a restricted view of atonement, it doesn’t correctly present the argument of Romans 3. It has been questioned in the past, it is legal and harsh, imposing a limit on God’s ability to freely forgive. It is not the purpose of this paper to develop a fuller theory of atonement, sufficient to say even Romans 3 is portraying a much more compassionate view, not [of] a God that has to condemn before forgiving, but of a righteousness that is equitable, driven by compassion, that sees that we are trapped and need a helping hand to free us — not a system bound by rigid legal statutes. I don’t read Romans 3 v 25 as requiring God to show his horror of sin before he forgives. But, Romans 3 is not the only model of atonement presented in the NT. There is Jesus’ role as the suffering servant (Is 53), taking upon himself our guilt and sorrows, freeing us from ourselves, (Matthew 20:24-28); a continuing warm ‘one to one’ relationship with God, not requiring an act of propitiation but showing expiation flowing from the Father through Christ. And there are others[5], each stressing a different facet of the cross. Though the events at Watford had a sad ending, I, at a personal level, began to find my understanding of salvation being enriched. Also, important for this paper, they could accommodate theories of evolution as they didn’t require death to be imposed on Adam after his sin; they did require Jesus to share my nature to the full and this, not death, is where the emphasis should lie.

So, like Islip Collyer, I have come to the conclusion that I can accommodate a theory of evolution for it need not exclude God. Whether the theory of evolution is true or not I leave to others. But I have found in the vastness of an evolving universe, created by the Big Bang, a power far greater than seen in earlier understandings of creation. It moves me and when I am told by science that creation follows laws and is not random, it doesn’t undermine my faith, it shouts loud as never before that there must be a God who first framed these laws, who oversees the continuing process of creation that has yet to reach the destiny of its maker.

Ken Drage
29 April 2018

  1. Slightly reformatted and very slightly edited for clarity.
  2. Atonement remains a stumbling block in our community. The 2015 Christadelphian articles on creation and evolution:
    • Stephen Palmer, October; ‘What has evolution to do with atonement? Simply this: those who think that evolution can be reconciled with the scriptures are forced to deny that our mortality is the consequence of Adam’s sin’.
    • John Morris, June: ‘. . . [theistic evolution] is in any case not compatible with Bible teaching on the descent of all mankind from Adam and Eve, the fall, the sentence of mortality, and the divine plan of redemption.
  3. The concept of ‘original sin’ that Paradise Lost draws on, originated in the C2 AD and came to a head in the teaching of Augustine of Hippo, 354-438 AD.
  4. See A Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud, ch 3; also, the Dead Sea Scroll Sect, The Manual of Discipline, iii – iv, 26.
  5. ["others": i.e. other Scriptural "models of atonement" — BP]