“The Advent of Evolutionary Christianity” is an effort by Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution, to bring together evolution-celebrating Christians. One of his recent panel discussions featured Brian McLaren ( author of A New Kind of Christianity), Gretta Vosper (advocates the Bible is not the authoritative word of God), Ian Lawton (minister at C3 Exchange, a church which made headlines for removing the cross), and Bruce Sanguin (wrote a book combining science, scripture, and poetry into 21st century prayers). During the discussion, McLaren argued, “Evolutionary Christianity is a fact of history about which a lot of Christians are in deep denial.”
What does McLaren mean by evolutionary Christianity? We’re not just talking about Christians accepting evolution; that may or may not include so-called “evolutionary Christianity”. To summarize: evolutionary Christianity is a faith that evolves and changes over time. It is not a faith rooted in the past, but a faith begun in the past that is going somewhere. As an example, he stated:
“I think a lot of Protestants assume that when the Apostle Paul was establishing house churches they had Sunday School, bulletins and hymnals… So many of things, even doctrines that are very precious to a lot of people, particularly doctrines of atonement, for example, have evolved greatly over history.”
Condescension to ignorant Protestants aside, we agree the faith looks different in different times and cultures. We also agree our understanding of some doctrines has changed over time as well; but the similarities end there. Evolutionary Christianity means more than reflecting afresh on the Scriptures to better understand our faith or seeking to effectively express it in changing cultures. McLaren explained it this way:
“My Christian identity is more about joining God in the healing, restoration and development and evolution of the world moving toward a brighter, richer and deeper future. Whereas the identity of joining the Christianity apart from an evolutionary understanding is joining the ranks and we’re holding the lines of something that is 2,000 years old.”
Thus, for McLaren, holding onto something 2,000 years old is bad while evolving towards something brighter in the future is good. At this point he is in disagreement with Jude 3, which states, “I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” For McLaren, the faith was not once and for all delivered, but rather started with the apostles and now is progressing. This is what enables him to jettison the traditional biblical narrative of creation, fall, condemnation, salvation and replace it with his own model of hunter/gatherer, nomadic herder, agriculturalist, city dweller, and empire dweller with increasing descent into shame and coupled with divine reconciliation. The Bible becomes essentially an ongoing conversation with God; a quest driven by questions, not a state defined by statements.
The premise of evolution is not just that species adapt to their environment; it is that one species over time transforms into an entirely new species. This is the problem with evolutionary Christianity. While in one generation the idea of a faith that evolves and adapts to culture is attractive, within two or three generations you end up with an entirely new faith. The first generation may begin by rejecting biblical inerrancy because it bothers their reason, the second generation rejects the resurrection because reason is their highest authority, and the third generation rejects the deity of Christ because the ethic of Jesus is all their reason will allow. The Christian faith evolves from a fish to an elephant and forgets what it was like to swim in the ocean of the Scriptures.
McLaren outlined where this may lead in the panel discussion, “The thing we are trying to evolve into is this: we know we have a strong Christian identity that is hostile to people of other faiths. We know how to suppress our Christian identity in a way that is benevolent to people of other faiths.” As Christianity sheds divisive beliefs, it enables its adherents to suppress it to be more popular with people of other faiths and worldviews. Are you an atheist or agnostic? No problem; our god is only a symbol which draws us to a fuller humanity. Are you a Buddhist or Hindu? No problem; our Jesus welcomes and learns from all faiths.
Evolutionary Christianity has some problems. First, it appears motivated by feelings of embarrassment about the faith and a desire to be accepted by outside groups. It embraces unquestioningly other worldviews (naturalistic evolution) and suppresses unpopular doctrines (exclusivity of Christ). Jesus did not tell us everyone would love us like Raymond but that the world would hate us because of him (Matt. 10:22). He went on to declare in Matthew 10:32-33: “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” Is this a call to suppress the truth?
Second, in its insistence on a “quest of questions” it is in danger of leading its followers to repeat an ancient quest of failure. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent posed a question to Eve – “did God really say?” This is the question at the heart of evolutionary Christianity. Despite the cleverly worded arguments and flowery rhetoric of these re-shapers of the Christian faith, the Bible makes clear claims about who God is and what He has accomplished through Christ. To question and cast off what God has said to adapt the faith to a changing culture is the height of pride and arrogance.
Instead of exalting evolutionary Christianity as a savior from restrictive doctrines, cultural mockery, and our foolish predecessors, will we humble ourselves under the word of God and the wisdom of those who have gone before? Instead of trying not to offend our critics by adjusting the faith, will we cling to the old rugged cross and in so doing not offend God? Will we joyfully proclaim to the world the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus for lost sinners or tell the world we like Jesus but everyone doesn’t need him? Let us hold the lines of this glorious, 2,000 year old gospel and see through evolutionary Christianity’s promise of a bright future that will leave us with no Christianity at all.
To the old rugged cross I will ever be true;
Its shame and reproach gladly bear;
Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away,
Where His glory forever I’ll share.
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it someday for a crown.