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Research Blog

Evolution and the Bible

Posted by Timothy Woodall on June 20, 2013 at 5:00 AM

There is an increasing desire by a number of Christadelphians (and indeed other Christians) to accept evolution and harmonise it with their beliefs.   They believe as a theory it is validated by science.  In some cases proponents have been disfellowshipped.   Historically the belief is not part of the defined statements of faith, although a few congregations have unilaterally added it to their "doctrines to be rejected" without first getting the support of the whole community.

A valid point made by one Christadelphian in his website is that God speaks through the natural world.  This makes sense if God created all the natural world. This means that if the laws of nature prove evolution true they would have to correlate with the Bible if it is equally true.  In practice it seems to lead to a changing view of inspiration where Genesis in particular has to be read metaphorically.   Although the idea of "two words of God" are promoted in reality it means the Bible is reinterpreted with contemporary scientific thoughts about evolution in mind.

It plays on a problem which runs deep.  To what degree should the Bible be understood literally?  In the website we linked to there are lots of examples from the Bible where we would take what is written as metaphor.  Some in fact I believe were originally understood more literally because the worldviews of many parts of the Bible are ancient.  There is reason to believe for instance many held the view the earth was flat and heaven was a place not that far above the earth.

I believe the origins of Christadelphian beliefs owe a lot to a period known as The Age of Enlightenment.  This was a period of time when one particular type of thinking, rationalism (often decribed by its proponents as reason) gained strength.   Some such as Thomas Paine were theists and held that the natural world was the ONLY word of God.  Interestingly an introduction to his book "The Age of Reason" makes a connection between that and the Quaker idea of placing being led by the Spirit over the Bible as sole authority.  Consciosuness is of course the basis of more esoteric ideas of learning from within, but for some that leads to an exoteric approach that physical reality is the only reality.

Many thinkers of The Age of Enlightenment downplayed supernatural worldviews and it undoubtedly was instrumental in developing more secular approaches and scientific approaches.  In practice it often holds its own assumptions about the nature of reality, in particular that matter is the basis of reality and material things are separate from each other.   These are increasingly likely to be questioned as complete worldviews in view of the need for more holistic outlooks.

The historical view of the Bible by Christadelphians was taken unquestioned from mainstream Protestant Christianity.  This places the Bible as the authority, but in fact is a primarily intellectual approach that has its own difficulties.  These are addressed in some detail elsewhere on this site.  This is unlikely to have been the approach or belief of early Christians with church authority and experience playing greater roles.   In practice it hasn't been adequate for Christadelphians either who have formulated their own statements of faith, formed boundaries to fellowship, and in practice leaders have emerged throughout their history to form such things and take actons.

The assumption and promoted view however is that each person is able to "search the Truth out for themsleves" by personal reading of the Bible.  If we ignore the scholarly task involved (which itself is a lifetimes work) of reading the whole, correctly understanding context, checking root meanings, ensuring correct translations etc  we also have to understand cognitive bias.  The reality is anyone seeking to do this comes to the task with subconscious worldviews.

That I believe is likely to have been the case with the founder of the Christadelphians, John Thomas.  One consequence of believing the Bible alone and each man his own interpreter can be a denial of history.  The collective experiences and prior understanding of verses do not matter when you have an authoritative basis in the Bible.  This is one of the reasons why the idea of the Bible alone has led to lots of denominations claiming the Bible alone as their basis but differing in interpretation.   We don't come to the Bible alone without something of ourselves and the forces which have influenced us.   This is also why many denominations ultimately go back to founders with forceful personalities who question existing status quos and who claim a rediscovery of apostolic truth.

Contemporary critics described him as a materialist.  His theology removed a contemporary spirit level of belief.  The idea of the Holy Spirit indwelling was reduced to the Bible alone, contemporary ideas of angels being spirits were reduced to being invisible messengers, the devil and demons as spirits were reduced to mental illness and sin in the flesh.  This in fact has some precedence in the difference between Old and New Testaments.   The Old Testament focuses on the physical nation of Israel, the Law of Moses they were given, a physical kingdom in Israel.   In fact it lacks much detail on any afterlife which is why in the time of the Jesus there was debate between two principal groups, the Pharisees and Saducees.  The New Testament by contrast often spiritualises stuff and in its references reinterprets passages it quotes from.

Embracing evolution therefore fits well with the influences that lie beneath Christadelphia.   Rationalising scripture to fit materialistic thought has precedence even though it fails to usually be recognised.

The problem is the same problem that liberal Christianity has.   It is essentially an altered approach to inspiration.   Christadelphians claim to accept the Bible as literal within context, but in practicalise heavily rationalise the text to suit their doctrines.  Liberal Christians accept it as inspired within its historical context and accept progression of understanding.  As a meaningful basis of authority at some point it loses all relevance entirely when this happens.

Theologically a literal view of Old Testament events was held by most early Christians except Gnostics (and all religions have their esoteric branches).   The need for a literal death and salvation depends on  the Fall in Genesis.   If we make the events of Adam and Eve, the temptation and curses non literal we don't need a literal salvation either.   Very liberal Christians like Bishop Spong acknowledge this.   Our problem becomes a lack of having developed enough, not sin.

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Christadelphian Quotes

You lay a great stress upon facts throughout your letters, and are incessant in your demand that I should attend to them. This is good; but facts have to be rightly put together, and then you must have all the facts. I do not think you put the facts rightly together, and you leave out some, I am sure.

(Robert Roberts, a Christadelphian Pioneer, quoted

by Ruth McHaffie in Brethren Indeed)

The Spirit of liberty, based upon the law of faith, is the Spirit of Christ; and this spirit all the Sons of God are privileged to possess, and having it, to breathe. I claim the right of exercising this privilege, as well as my contemporaries; and I require of them that they should do to me as once they loudly required others to do to them…

(written by John Thomas, the founder of the Christadelphians, when he was against creeds in 

The Apostolic Advocate magazine, August 1836)

(John Thomas, from Apostacy Unveiled, p. 137,

quoted in The Christadelphian Magazine, January 1906)

Must a man never progress? If he discovers an error in his premises, must he for ever hold to it for the sake of consistency? May such a calamity never befall me! Rather let me change every day, till I get right at last.

(from a letter written by John Thomas in 1848, quoted by Robert Roberts, in Dr. Thomas: His Life and Work)

Do what is right; be valiant for the Truth; teach it without compromise, and all lovers of the Truth will approve you. For all others you need not care a rush!

(from a letter written by John Thomas to Robert Roberts and published in The Christadelphian magazine, February 1866)