Response to John MacArthur: You're Right About Theistic Evolution!

Don't worry, I haven't reverted to conservative fundamentalism.  I was over at's weblog today and a comment referenced this link: The Achilles Heel of Theistic Evolution.

MacArthur argues:
The Genesis record is a beautiful picture of God’s creation. Order, purpose and harmony permeate His completed work. Man relates righteously to God; Adam and Eve relate lovingly to one another; and animals dwell peacefully among them. No sign of conflict, fear, violence or death appears, until the day Adam sinned against God.
That’s a problem for evolution—a big problem.
Christians who flirt with evolution have some serious explaining to do when it comes to the existence of death before Adam’s transgression. How can God pronounce a world filled with violence, disease, suffering and death “very good”? Answer: He can’t.  Since theistic evolutionists claim death reigned billions of years before Adam’s fall, what did sin do to the world that hadn't already been done? In what way was the “creation subjected to futility” (Rom. 8:20)? How has the “whole creation…been groaning…until now” (v. 22)?
So it seems to me that MacArthur argues that for Christianity's assertion of a need for atonement (Christ's intervention in our evil natures that came directly as a result of the Genesis Fall) to be valid, there has to have been a time in which the world did not need atonement.  If the universe was created with flaws, chaos and death hardwired into its dna, then that undermines the Creation Story.

This is another wonderful example of Christian's readiness to throw everything out over nonessentials.  MacArthur seems to be saying two things here:
(A) The only way to read Genesis is literally.
(B) An atonement model is the only way to understand Jesus Christ.

I reject both of these conclusions.

First, the battle over the Creation Story is not only a sad, tired battle that's cost far too many casualties, but it's a disrespectful rejection of the complex, scholarly-addressed categories of premodern Hebrew narrative and more broadly, Mesopotamian origins narratives.  And God's inability to call something complex, paradoxical, and painful "good"?  Really?  What world - what Bible - can validate such oversimplification?

Second, why do we need to limit God's redemptive power in the world to humanity's need for some sort of legal defense?  Or monetary compensation, paid to Satan - landlord of our souls?  Jesus came to show us the things that God cares about and the things that God loves: compassion, gentleness, patience, self control, rejecting power and embodying weakness, humility, unconditional love, friendship, generosity, non-judgment, taking care of the sick, widows, orphans, and loving enemies.  Good God!  Are all those things about Jesus just circumstantial?!  Does NONE of how Jesus lived and what Jesus taught matter to our souls and the redemption of the world?!  Is it really just about his death, magically saving us from hell through some chess game played by YHWH and Lucifer?!

I mean: Why is is some esoteric “theory” of atonement necessary, when pragmatic reality seems so clear: humanity did with Christ what humanity does with anything pure – we are attracted to it, captivated by it, convicted by it, suspect of it, we come to fear it, and then we kill it. We don’t need a theory of atonement to explain why Jesus was good, and why Jesus died.  Human nature’s modus operandi is quite clear.  So is the truth of Jesus' life and death.

Thank God for evolution.  I pray we continue to do so.


Eruesso said...

Oh snap!

Peter J Walker said...

Heh heh.

To clarify: I'm not saying theories of atonement are meaningless to me. I think they have value, provide context, and contribute to a richer understanding of who Christ was. But atonement is not the ONLY lens through which to view Christ, and it is certainly not the only REQUIRED lens for being a Christian.

Moreover, it perilous, and increasingly problematic, to hold Christianity hostage to models or theories that are becoming rapidly outdated or (perhaps more accurately) unhelpful.

Christians need to stop worship their theological models, and see them for what they are: means to an end (not the end). When they stop functioning effectively, they are no longer a means...

So we find a new way to the "end."

And that's another series of posts ;)

shallowfrozenwater said...

i'm about halfway through "A New Kind of Christianity" and i'm reading very similar themes to your post here. i like both readings.

Marnie said...

thank you so much for this. I was raised in the church but left when I was told that not only will all non Christians go to hell but all non Catholics! It was too much for me to bear and so I scrapped it all. I am slowly coming back to the beauty of Christ and continually struggle with the whole idea of atonement. It makes me cringe that I need to feel guilty and be atoned for being what I was created as... or for the sins of Adam or something. It doesn't jibe with this growing sense of Jesus. Anwyay, thanks for letting me see that there might be others who love Jesus but don't necessarily see his whole purpose for coming to pay off Lucifer etc. :)

Peter J Walker said...

Oops, typo. I meant to write: "Christians need to stop WORSHIPPING their theological models..."

Thanks ShallowFrozen, I still haven't finished Brian's latest book.

Marnie, thank you for sharing. My background isn't Catholic, but it was certainly exclusivist. I think we can do better. I think Christ DOES do better. Keep in touch, here!

chris said...

Wonderful post, I appreciate your point of view. I'll be reading more!!

Chad Holtz said...

I stop by from time to time to read your blog and always like what I see. I popped over this time from your comments on EV.

Imagine my surprise to read you taking such a stand against Johnny Mac's ideas on evolution and scripture and atonement (everything you say here I agree with, btw) after you just scolded me for having the opinion (as well as the argument to back it up) that Elerick's musings are "nonsense."

So I guess, as an emergent thinker/theologian/pastor myself, where is the line that I am missing? Why is it consider to be part of the "emergent ethos" to deride or mock MacArthur but not Elerick? Why do you call me out even as you are doing the exact same thing?


Peter J Walker said...

Chad, maybe I'm grasping at straws, but I have always (pretty consistently) felt that the proclamations of Christian celebrities warrant more direct critique than dialogue in community.

Hmmm... does that mean that the moment someone publishes a book, or a magazine article, they are fair game? It's probably an archaic differentiator, since we're all making proclamations from our marginal platforms: blogs, discussion boards, or whatever.

There seems to be a qualitative difference between criticizing the worldwide platforms of folks like John Piper or Joel Osteen (or MacArthur or Eldredge) and going after "each other" in community settings like Emergent Village. But I can't quantify that. You're right, I guess I've been functioning with a perceived line that I can't quite pin down.

From time to time I have readers drop by who start and finish in attack mode. At my worst, I respond in kind.

This attitude may simply be my own distaste for the machine of Christian celebrity, but at the heart of your comments, I hear you saying: "the fruit of the response is the same." And you're probably right. I can do better, too.

Chad Holtz said...

Thanks for the gracious reply. I expected nothing less.

I also saw your comment on FB, so I'll just sum up here if that's cool.

I hear what you are saying about the celebrity vs. conversation aspect of things. I think I agree. Of course, I also agree that it's probably easier to call someone like Eldredge a douche knowing he's not likely to respond (which probably makes it easier to call him something we know he won't read). The flip side of this, I guess, is that in conversation mode all parties are reading, which I guess is even more honest, perhaps? I'm not sure. Thus, my calling George's post "nonsense" is just me being honest, knowing (and hoping!) that it will bring about some dialog, perhaps even enlightening me so that I can understand where he is coming from.

As it stands, he refuses to answer any of my questions (this is not the first time he's done that to me) and so I am left with my original impression - nonsense.

I like you. I think you are a great writer and thinker and are raising some great things for the church to chew on. I bet I would like George, too. As I say in one comment there, I think he is going after some "goods" worth going after but he is going after them in ways that are unhelpful and even nonsensical. He says I should just be willing to learn rather then critique, and yet I'm sure he (like you and I) would critique Mac's soteriology or Osteen's Santa God.

Some of what you saw there may be overspill from the past convo's George and I have had. They ended in much the same way (he taking his ball and going home, refusing to answer any questions that I asked). He's welcome to that sort of posture, and maybe you know him better than I, but I find it pretty deplorable for someone who claims to be a voice in the emergent church and has stuff being published in theological journals.

As I have said elsewhere, it seems that we emergents encourage people to ask questions, just so long as they are the right questions or questions that don't challenge us. I'm glad to see you are not like George in this respect, and most Emergents aren't. I hope it stays that way.

grace and peace, brother

Peter J Walker said...

Chad, thanks. Yes, of course you're right. It's easier to call someone who's distant a "douche" than someone I have to answer to. I confess I've done both (with language variants), and to be perfectly honest I don't regret each time - sometimes it's nothing less than rebuke (at its best). And sometimes it's nothing more than immature posturing or venting. Sometimes it bears good fruit (in spite of me) and sometimes it brings out the worst in me and in the other.

I have the same hope in conversation as you: I hope we can be honest, I hope we can be both vulnerable and self-reflecting. It's clear to me now that I read your recent comments in the vacuum of those few most recent posts, versus recognizing a longer sustained conversation. Assumptions are dangerous - this wasn't my first, and it won't be my last, I'm sure.

And yes, I was probably reacting because George is someone I do know slightly better than some of my other online friends. And my MO has been to defend my friends, sometimes to a fault (as in: when they don't necessarily need defending).

I have a hunch George may not be responding the way you want because he simply doesn't think in concrete/linear/traditional paradigms. I think he's something of an eccentric (if I assume right) which is one of the reasons I enjoy him so much. He manages to articulate certain paradoxes in ways I haven't seen elsewhere, which is why I think he's really found a niche for his voice in the conversation.

This is convicting: "As I have said elsewhere, it seems that we emergents encourage people to ask questions, just so long as they are the right questions or questions that don't challenge us." Particularly because I have said as much before, and it's always humbling to find oneself on the other side of one's own arguments ;)

Thanks for your grace as well.

Chad Holtz said...

I knew there was a good reason to like you.

Hey, in some respects all is fair in love and war when it comes to the virtual world of blogging/commenting. I've done (and will do) all the same things. And usually, there is some good fruit that comes from it. I count this chat as such.

I read your response on EV (and I'm a bit embarrassed now at my cheeky comment to you on Brink's article - well, embarrassed and a bit proud :) Anyways, thanks for being a good sport.

Perhaps before I ever read anything George writes again I should just ask you to parse it for me before I comment. What you said makes fare more sense to me and is, even, agreeable. Which at the same time makes me wonder if that is what George is really saying (based on past conversations). I don't mean to take up your blog space, and perhaps we should take this elsewhere, but I'd love to hear your take on something...

What i hear you interpreting George to be saying is that our theological constructs can never define God and that our words/systems/models/theologies, etc. always fall short of the ineffable.

Is that fair?

If this is the case, how is this anything new? My BA is in Bible and Theology and I'm in my last year of an MDiv at Duke Divinity. In all my 7+ years of theological training I have never heard nor read anyone suggest that our theology captures God fully. In fact, everything I have ever been taught by both the saints of old and present is that our theology are at best our gasps or grasps at that which we cannot fully comprehend and know and that humility is the highest virtue when it comes to theological reflection.

I assume others are learning the same. Or are they not? Is there really such a dominant strand in existence which requires this radical deconstruction ? What am I missing here?

The other thing that is engrained in me in my education is that theology is worthless if it is not in service of the Church and World. IOW, abstract, esoteric, theoretical musings are exactly the sort of things I perceived Emergents to be pushing back against (which is what got me interested 7+ years ago). I don't want a theology for my head - I want one for my hands, feet, heart AND head.

I'm not sure what sort of things are being taught in George's world, but I'm happy to say that here at Duke we are very much planted with one foot in the academy and the other firmly in the church - that is to say, we are not just thinking for the sake of thinking. We are not ivory tower theologians. I find that to be an important component going forward since I also recognize there is a lot of worthless, nonsensical theology out there which does nothing to instill hope, peace, joy and love in a world that doesn't yet know they ARE reconciled.

Sorry for rambling, but I'd love to get your perspective when you get time.

Thanks, bro!


Chad Holtz said...

Thought I'd let you know that I left you a message on FB to let you know that I responded here on your blog.

Peter J Walker said...

Heh, thanks for the text.

No, I'd just as soon continue the dialogue here. Interesting enough to do in the open.

I really don't want to appear to be speaking for George. He may have alternate intentions with what he's writing, and I don't want to co-opt him, or soften the statement he's trying to make.

As I summarized on EV, it probably does sound a little tame and redundant. My GUESS is that a crucial differentiator is just how MUCH George is willing to give up; to lay on the altar of dangerous spiritual growth. And it is dangerous. It's dangerous to tell people to let go of everything. My background is Pentecostal, and we told people to give everything up to God and rely entirely on the Holy Spirit. But my God, is anyone really prepared for what that means? It's radical subjectivity! It's Billy Graham and Aimee Semple McPherson and David Koresh and Joseph Smith, all in the same room, isn't it? To really believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to lead people in truth and righteousness is almost certainly suicidal for a corporate entity.

And what happens when, after laying everything down, the Holy Spirit isn't audible enough for us to pick up pieces that make sense or bring any sort of spiritual healing, wholeness or hope? What if we lose grasp of salvation, in a reckless attempt to be free? There are a lot of 'what-if's'...

My hunch is that George isn't advocating for only being aware of the need not to hold too tightly. I think he's literally letting go, and seeing what happens next. I think he's also saying, for whatever value theology and orthodoxy may have, it isn't necessary at all.

And I would argue that we need that. We need people brave enough to be spiritual guinea pigs, prophets, heretics or pioneers (however you want to characterize it) to find out what it actually looks like to strip faith completely bare and wrestle in unknowing. If the Apostle Paul was willing to give up his own salvation for the sake of his Jewish progenitors, we probably need to be willing to take greater risks.

Again, I'm not speaking for George, but this is what I'm getting out of it.

Chad Holtz said...

What Pentecostal background, if I may ask? My BA was from Lee University in Cleveland, TN (Church of God). My wife was raised CoG and I was convinced Pentecostals were all nuts till I met her :) Funny how God obliterates boxes time and time again.

I think there is a need for people like George, in the way you describe them, if for no other reason than to be a gad-fly to the rest of us (even if we reject their premise or call it nonsense).

I guess part of my beef is with how language is often deployed in ways that are either unhelpful, impractical or even destructive. For instance, George and I have debated before when he said, and I paraphrase, "Theology is an obstacle to knowing God." You say something similar when you surmised what George is saying when you said, "for whatever value theology and orthodoxy may have, it isn't necessary at all."

This is such a sweeping generalization which judges and presumes so much of others who are living very faithfully and are very much in love with God and neighbor despite their "theology" or in spite of it.

Not to mention the statement doesn't make a lot of sense at face value. To even say "theology gets in the way of knowing God" is in itself a theological assertion. What gets under my skin about people in emerging circles (my own circles!) saying stuff like this is it makes us look stupid and gives the critics plenty of ammo to dismiss what we have to say (and rightly so, imho).

Now, is it true that SOME "theologies" are harmful and impinge on one's knowing God? Sure. But isn't it ironic that even as someone like George says such a thing they are assuming an objective stance about how to know God best even as they attempt to deconstruct the many ways we know God and claim there are no objective stances? This is why I use the word "nonsense." It just doesn't make any logical sense to me.

If you can help me understand that, or show me where I am missing the boat, I'd be grateful.

thanks for the feedback!

Peter J Walker said...

Hey Chad, I'm enjoying the conversation. I don't think you're missing the boat, I just think we're all coming at it from different angles, and I think we have different priorities.

When you say, "This is such a sweeping generalization which judges and presumes so much of others who are living very faithfully and are very much in love with God and neighbor despite their "theology" or in spite of it..." I think you're demonstrating your fidelity to your flock. I understand that, and it's an important point to keep in mind: there are folks who may not NEED to be stretched outside of the conventional religious paradigm. Certain exercizes can do more damage than good. But my concern when I have heard that caution in the past is that what is being "preserved" or "protected" is not necessarily a vital or dynamic faith - it's folks who fill pews because they always have. Rock the boat and they're out.

I don't mean that to sound as judgmental as it does. It isn't for me to say which people those are - only to recognize that we spend an awful lot of time in the church trying to placate people who aren't really on the journey to begin with (not meaning "in" or "out," but active or passive in their participation with community).

I don't agree that it's a sweeping generalization to say theology is an obstacle, or that theology/orthodoxy aren't necessary. It may be truer to say that theology is an unavoidable obstacle, just as it is often a vital tool. You're right - to deconstruct theology is, by its nature, theological. And I still don't think theology and orthodoxy are necessary - they describe the thing - they aren't grace itself. And again: unavoidable? Probably. Helpful? Often. But unless we make the effort to separate our awareness of what is, or of what is true, from our reliance on theological constructs, we inevitably see theology as the thing.

So here's my question: how do we stretch the people who NEED to be stretched (not just the ones who WANT to be stretched) without wounding or wrecking the people who aren't ready, and don't need to be? That's a discernment I can't even begin to fathom!

Peter J Walker said...

Oh, and my background is mostly Assemblies of God, growing up! I had some Vineyard and Potter's House experience in my late teens and early twenties. My wife was Foursquare for about four years.

I'm not particularly charismatic, personally, but something I have brought with me from Pentecostalism is a strong belief in the active, present power of the Holy Spirit. I'm simultaneously VERY cynical, and would even venture to say I'm not sure I've EVER seen legitimate gifts of the spirit (healing, prophesy, tongues) because the circus created around it is so terribly distracting. But I do believe the supernatural is possible: I believe in a God who "can."

Overall, I've managed to overcome MOST of my disillusion with Pentecostalism, and now feel somewhat cautiously nostalgic about my experiences. I don't think I could go back, but I don't regret it, either.

Chad Holtz said...

I agree with you that there is a great amount of placating going on and that many might say what I am saying as a desire to be faithful to "their flock."
That isn't my motivation, though.

But I see a huge difference between what might be perceived as people "placating" people who, as you surmise, aren't really on the journey to begin with, and people "honoring" the journey people are presently on, regardless of our judgments of it.

When I look out over the 80 people in my rural Methodist congregation on any given Sunday I see all sorts of people at all sorts of places in their walk with God. Some are at a 1 and others at a 10, some are far more in tune with God than I and others need a tune up. The line between leading or shepherding a "flock" to new, fertile ground and honoring the ground they presently inhabit is a tricky one to navigate as a pastor and rarely black and white.

I agree theology or orthodoxy are not the thing itself. They point, even with a crooked finger, to the One who is the Thing. However, I'm not so quick to not call it "grace." Grace comes to us in all kinds of forms - from a phone call from a friend to sharing Eucharist with the body of Christ to reading Athanasius' explication of the beauty and wonder of the Triune God. As a Wesleyan, I'm comfortable to say that theology can serve as a "means of grace" through which God works to move us closer to loving him in "spirit and truth." In fact, anyone who is at present actively deconstructing and minimizing theology are, most likely, indebted to their theology for moving them to this space in their journey.

In all of this we have been speaking rather abstractly, haven't we? We are speaking about ideas about other ideas, etc. Perhaps we could put some flesh on this idea of deconstructing theology?

Could you give me an example of how you see theology being used to placate people and if they would only do what George is suggesting then they would be closer to and more in tune with God?

Enjoying this discussion! Perhaps we should turn it into a blog post?

Peter J Walker said...

Chad, I'm up for a blog post. I think dialogues like these make for some of the best reading. What's your recommendation, format-wise? And where?

Okay, I can go with your assessment of grace in its various forms.

"Could you give me an example of how you see theology being used to placate people and if they would only do what George is suggesting then they would be closer to and more in tune with God?"

Yes, but I am sensitive here in not wanting the particular theological issue discussed to overshadow what we're really talking about, which is placation.

I remember visiting a conservative Baptist church in a rural community, where a pastor preached on the sin of homosexuality, and how it is tearing apart the American family. In heated, emotional rhetoric, the pastor ignites the passion and outrage of the congregation: "righteous indignation." They are all convinced that the pastor is right: homosexuals are destroying the fabric of society. The "other" has been identified. Congregants walk out after the service, validated by what they are against, justified by what they are not (queer), and liberated from conviction for their own sins that tear apart their own families - rage, greed, jealousy, laziness, etc...

Any time the "other" is identified (whether a group of people, or a concept) as the enemy of goodness or propriety or truth, the focus is shifted beyond the borders of the community, and constituents are given permission to self-justify. This might be an Armenian pastor critiquing Calvinism. Or it might be something more benign, like a pastor preaching on something everyone is already agreed on as an established norm: like Pentecostals telling each other how important speaking in tongues is, or Mennonites re-convincing one-another to oppose war.

Personally, for much of my life my soteriology was so rigid that I could not honestly or freely cultivate fully reciprocal, authentic friendships because the looming immediacy of hell was too important. Valuing someone else's experience, worldview, or their personal needs wasn't fully possible because I was too consumed with saving their souls. (in practice, I was much subtler than this, but the urgency was there) Moreover, this evangelical imperative validated me in all sorts of ways, justifying bad behavior, reactionary attitudes (ha! I'm still guilty of that, aren't I?) and a general denigration of anything not directly related to "winning converts" to the Gospel.

What George seems to be advocating for is giving oneself - or one's community - "permission" to allow instinct, intuition, conscience and the Holy Spirit to lead us outside of the demands (and boundaries) of theological constructs. It allows us to engage the world on its own terms as is appropriate to the "situation on the ground." This attitude can and will undoubtedly lead to heresies small and large, in the context of orthodox faith. But those who strive for orthodoxy commit no fewer heresies (in my opinion) - it's only that theirs is a fixed target. George's target is moving, changing shape, and sometimes manifesting in simultaneity with other targets of equal or varying point value ;) I would argue that at its best, this approach is deeply rooted in introspection, self-reflection and constant seeking. An unexamined excursion into this barren land - this theological wilderness - leads to apostasy, different brands of self-righteousness, or lazy, passive buffet-style beliefism (and isn't that last one what Emergents are so commonly accused of?).

My friendships are no longer imbued with the covert intentions of conversion.

George, if you're reading, would love for you to weigh in and straighten me out as to your ACTUAL intentions.

Cheers, Chad. Let me know if you'd like to format this into a dialogue.

Chad Holtz said...

Sorry for the delay in responding. Weekends are always full and I could give more excuses but... :)

I agree that all of what you said happens. I guess what I am trying to say is that in all of those cases, BETTER theology has been evoked as a means to counteract those other "stories."

Thus, one theology that excludes others or rests on the "convert" mentality (one I know all to well as having been raised in a similar environment) is replaced by a more liberal, generous theology (orthodoxy?) which is far more inclusive and has a far more nuanced and robust understanding of evangelism (I like NT Wright's definition of it - the proclamation that Jesus is Lord).

So it's not true that we are abandoning theology. We are simply doing different, and hopefully better, theology.

Right or wrong, here is the impression I have of George and other like him when I read their stuff about God and faith:

I imagine sitting with my wife and saying, ' I want to know you better - far more intimately and truly." And as soon as she opens her mouth to speak I say, "Shhh. You are ruining the picture I am imagining you to be." God is not the best me or her I can imagine.

As Christians it is a bedrock premise that we confess God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. George is welcome to disagree with that, and that is fine, but lets not then call his theology as "Christian" theology.

I'm open to ideas about a format - Haven't thought it through much, but it would be interseting.


Mary said...

Hi just doing some searches and hit on your site, Peter. I know it is an older post but I couldn't resist. You quote MacArthur: "Christians who flirt with evolution have some serious explaining to do when it comes to the existence of death before Adam’s transgression."
This assumes death isn't part of God's creation, denies the evident life cycle of life/death/resurrection (rebirth) that is integral to the Bible and Jesus existence. It also assumes that creation is finite even though Isaiah (4:5) & Paul tells us different (Ephesians 2:10 & 4:24).
God creates. God created us to create. Transgression/sin is not death. Death is living in that transgression and not allowing Christ to make a new creature within you i.e. evolve.
If you have watched a Christian person live a long life then die; you know that God is in the life as well as the death.
Folks need to allow God to reveal himself to them personally not as John Calvin (or _fill in the blank________) would have had you see Him.
Thanks for the soap box.

Peter J Walker said...

Mary, you're welcome to this soap box any time! Thanks for sharing, some nice reminders here.

Anonymous said...

People who believe in evolution should live in a ZOO !!!

Peter J Walker said...

Anonymous, how insightful.

Cheryl Ensom Dack said...

I seriously think I read that in a Christian joke book. I'm not even kidding and not trying to be mean. just...for the reals.

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