Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Evolution and the Churches of Christ

It has been an interesting few months for my particular flavour of Christianity, the Restoration Movement (also known as the Stone-Campbell Movement).  The Restoration Movement began in America (and is indeed more popular in America than in Canada) in the early 1800s as two separate movements, one led by Barton Stone and the other by the father and son team of Thomas and Alexander Campbell, both of whom sought to bring the church back to its New Testament roots (hence 'restoration').  It emerged within the context of the Second Great Awakening at Cane Ridge.  Justice and equality were important virtues for Restoration Movement followers - the Campbells began their work in response to the exclusivity within their Presbyterian churches, in which the poor and outcast were not allowed to participate in communion.  From this simple beginning the Restoration Movement churches - Churches of Christ (independent), Churches of Christ (a cappella) and the denominational Disciples of Christ - were founded.  The independent and a cappella churches are considered to be non-denominational, their slogan being 'we are Christians only, but we are not the only Christians.'

Despite a foundation of openness, the Churches of Christ today have a tendency to lean towards fundamentalism.  Not always, and often not officially - members are not required to sign a statement of faith declaring their belief in premillennialism or six day creation, unlike some denominations - but a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-12 and Revelation is often assumed, and often taught, by the leaders of these churches.

And so it has been an exciting few months for the Churches of Christ, with two important documents being published.  The first is a review for a book by Lynn Mitchell and Kirk Blackgard entitled Reconciling the Bible and Science: A Primer on the Two Books of God.  Unfortunately, neither authors are scientists.  Mitchell is the pastor of Heights Church of Christ in Houston, and director of the Religious Studies Program at the University of Houston, while Blackgard is a lawyer and expert in conflict management.  It is not unprecedented for a lawyer to enter the fray, however - just look at the Intelligent Design Movement's Phillip Johnson.  At any rate, both authors are from Churches of Christ, and their book is openly pro-evolution, making this the first pro-evolution book to come from the Restoration Movement tradition.  The American Scientific Affiliation has a thorough review of this book in their September 2011 edition of the Proceedings of Science and Christian Faith.  The book itself was published in 2009 - what makes it of current importance  is the attention paid to it at the Christian Scholars' Conference in June of 2011, in which it was reviewed and considered an important contribution and a step forward for the Restoration Movement.  I have yet to read this book, but was excited to discover just yesterday that it existed.

The second (and to my mind more exciting) publication just came out in the latest edition of the Stone-Campbell Journal.    'The Stone-Campbell Movement's Responses to Evolution, 1859-1900' contains some of James Gorman's dissertation-in-progress at Baylor University.  In it, he reviews the stance of Restoration Movement authors towards evolution in three periodicals, the Millennium Harbinger, Christian Standard, and Gospel Advocate, in the late 1800s.  He breaks his review up into four decades, and concludes that many authors were initially sceptical and opposed to evolution, but became increasingly more open to evolution as time went on.  In other words, the reaction to evolution within the Restoration Movement was historically a mixed bag, ranging from open opposition to complete acceptance.

According to Gorman, the reactions against evolution were typical of those found in other evangelical denominations of the time.  There was opposition to Darwin's approach, with people concerned that his theory went against the true scientific methodology formed by Francis Bacon.  It seemed to some that Darwin was developing an inference without the evidence, particularly in regards to human evolution, when there was no intermediate form between apes and humans.  Secondly, William Paley's Natural Theology had a firm hold in the mind of many Restoration Movement writers, and the fixity of species was given the status of biblical authority because of it.  Thirdly, natural selection for many seemed to deny design.  Finally, the anti-evolutionary stance of scientist and American darling Louis Agassiz gave the sceptics a scientific basis for their scepticism.

Despite this anti-evolutionary stance that dominated the Restoration Movement writings of the 1870s, there were some voices that were pro-evolution, and these increased in dominance as the decades rode on.  In 1877 Church of Christ minister Clark Braden published The Problems of Problems, an anti-evolutionary book that caused a storm of pro-evolutionary publications by voices that otherwise may have remained silent.  Many (but not all) continued to deny human evolution, but saw no conflict between species' mutability and Christianity.

Among the pro-evolutionary voices were some heavy hitters within the Restoration Movement.  Although Alexander Campbell died in 1866 and therefore missed most of the debate, he lived during the height of the geology debate.  Rather than insist on a literal reading of Genesis one, however, he allowed the science to influence his reading of scripture, accepting geological evidence for an old earth.  Isaac Errett in 1884, in an article entitled Evenings with the Bible, wrote:

It is of little concern to me so far as my faith in this revelation is concerned, whether the Evolution theory be true or false—whether every created thing sprung into full perfection by an immediate act of creative power, or was developed from one or more created germs, in which were packed away all the possibilities and potentialities of all the varieties of being, the various forms and grades of life that were afterwards produced. In any case, it requires this revelation to lift the veil beyond which science has never been able to penetrate, and show in God himself the original fountain of life and creative power.

No less than David Lipscomb, who in the 1870s had written an openly anti-evolution article, in 1899 published five articles that showed that evolution, if true, was no threat to Christianity.  In short, although many within the Church of Christ today unreflectively assume that the anti-evolution stance is the original position of the church, in reality the history of the Church of Christ is more diverse, with people engaged in open dialogue, allowing a plethora of voices to be heard.  Hopefully Mitchell and Blackgard's book and Gorman's article will be important voices in the next few decades.


Brannan. David K.  September 2011.  The Two Books Metaphor and Churches of Christ. Proceedings of Science and Christian Faith.  3: 193-203.

Gorman, J.L  Fall, 2011.  The Stone-Campbell Movement's responses to evolution, 1859-1900.  Stone-Campbell Journal.  14: 191-206.

Mitchell, L., and K. Blackgard.  2009. Reconciling the Bible and science: A primer on the two books of God.  BookSurge Publishing: Lexington, KY.


JTB said...

Campbell's postmillenialism plays into this a bit as well; he was a believer in historical, scientific and technological Progress. He also described his hermeneutical goal as reading the Bible "scientifically"--a neat little factoid I've always wanted to find time to write about...

Really excited about Jamey's work!

Matthew said...

If you ever have time to write that article, please let me know! (and if you need a place to post it, it is welcome on here). I am definitely intrigued by this statement of Campbell's.

Brenton Dickieson said...

An important post, Matthew. I'm an openly pro-evolution (or, I say, pro-what-Genesis-is-really-talking-about-which-isn't-science, but that's a long catch phrase) lay pastor and academic from the Stone-Campbell restoration movement. My shift came from trying to read the Bible authentically, rather than evolutionary evidence. I am not a scientist, but I am a critical thinker. I've read "Origin of the Species" and looked at the basic evolutionary evidence and argument, and it works logically.
I do have concerns on 2 fronts: 1) a kind of imperialistic approach to the topic among scientists that smacks of self-critical blindness; and 2) the social application of evolution, which is deadly.
So I applaud your work.
However, I'll take you to task on the opening. The big hypocrisy on anti-evolutionary/6day creation Church of Christ folks is that they apply a literal biblical reading to Genesis 1-3 that they DON'T apply to Revelation 4-22. Ask them about "days" in Genesis, and it is precise; ask them about "years" in Revelation, and it is a big symbolic thing. It is a fundamental inconsistency.
I think that Rev 4-12 does need to be read largely like S-Campbell folk read it (as amillennialists), because we determine the genre (apocalyptic) and read it appropriately. So the question is, "what is the genre of Gen 1-3?" Presuming historiography or scientific literature tells us more about our cultural biases, than it does about the Bible.
In the end, perhaps they are right, but until we ask the questions, we are merely reading the Bible as a worldly document and placing a worldly framework on top of it.

Matthew said...

Brenton, thanks for the comment! I think you and I have very different experiences with Revelation in the SC movement. I was raised in a church with a very strong premillennial view, in which the time, times and half a time correspond to 3.5 years, and in which the Left Behind series has done sound hermeneutics. So you may be right that in some churches there is a hypocrisy in how they interpret scripture, but my church was quite consistent!