Can evolution be reconciled with the Bible? Ben Spackman is a Ph.D. candidate at Claremont Graduate University, and he says “Yes, but not the way people think.” He introduces us to the idea of “Concordism.” What is that?
Ben: This is not a question that is answered easily within 30 seconds, because it requires dealing with assumptions that people don’t even know they have. The main one is something called “concordism.” It’s an assumption that science, especially evolution or the age of the earth or various aspects of that, and scripture are speaking the same language. They’re talking about the same thing and therefore they have to match up or one of them is false. They have to be in concord with each other.
The assumption that Genesis is providing a natural history of the earth, a physical history of the earth, is simply not an accurate assumption, but most people have it. So you end up going in a couple of different ways. You have people who say, well, this is what my reading of the Bible says, so I’m going to make the science match that. You get young-earth creationists who say that the earth is only a couple of thousand years old. Everything was created more or less in its current form as we know it within the last couple of thousand years. Then you have the people who go the other way and they say, well, here’s what science tells us. So obviously that’s what scripture must be saying in some kind of veiled or poetic or metaphoric way.
You may wonder why I decided to talk to Ben. He has a very interesting background.
Ben: If you really want to understand evolution and how different religious people have thought about it, you need three different areas of expertise. You need to understand the science of evolution, at least basically. That’s what my two major rounds of science as an undergrad and then as a post-bacc premed have given me. I have more science than a lot of people. But you also need history, especially intellectual history of about the last 500 years. That is history of ideas. That’s where two of my three Ph.D. exams come in, American Religious History and Reformation History. My third exam will be History of Science. So I’m really getting at the history of the worldview that people have today that leads them to read Genesis in certain ways. What are the roots of that worldview, of those unspoken assumptions back 500 years ago?
The third leg you need– so you need history, you need science, then you have to control the biblical interpretation. You have to be able to look at the Bible in its ancient setting, in its Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek. The problem is that many people who write about evolution are scientists. They don’t have the history and they don’t control scripture. Most of the people who write about this, well, let me limit myself to a Latter-day Saint context. Most Latter-day Saints who have written about reconciling science and religion or evolution have either been scientists, so they get the science down well, but they don’t do the history or the scripture.
Most of the people who have written about it from a scriptural perspective, they don’t know the history. They don’t know the science. Because of our 19th century populist inheritance in Mormonism, that is, we were very skeptical of experts, very skeptical of clergy, very skeptical of authority telling us what this had to mean. If you look at all the books that have been written by a Latter-day Saints on this topic, the vast majority of them have no relevant expertise at all. They’re lawyers. They’re accountants. They’re doctors. They’re people who don’t really do the science. They don’t really do the history and they don’t really do the scripture either. So to my knowledge, I’m the only one who really has a foot kind of in all those different worlds, which is kind of a historical accident. I certainly didn’t choose to spend six years in graduate school and then be given the boot because of Babylonian or to not get into medical school. But in retrospect it’s worked out very well and my wife and I have been very lucky in certain ways. So that’s my story and my educational background. I consider myself an eclectic historian with different skills depending on the time period we’re looking at.
In part 2, we talk about how early Christian fathers and modern LDS think about science and the Bible. Early Mormon Seventies/Apostles BH Roberts, John A. Widtsoe, and James E. Talmage seemed to be very amenable to evolution. It seems like Joseph Fielding Smith on the other hand, had an outsize influence on LDS thought, and tended more towards a creationist stance. In our next conversation with Ben Spackman, we’ll talk about that dynamic, and how early leaders diverged, and how it seems like Smith temporarily won the evolutionary debate.
GT: So let me throw that out there. We talked about who won between Tertullian and Augustine and it sounds like Augustine won? Is that a fair assumption? Before you answer that, I also want to do this. Let’s talk about Talmage, Roberts and Widtsoe and Joseph Fielding Smith. It sounds like Joseph Fielding Smith won in a lot of minds.
Ben: In a lot of ways, I think he did. If you want to be cynical, he kind of waited until his opponents died. Then he published Man, His Origin and Destiny, which was kind of his young-Earth creationist book. Parts of that were written word for word 20 or 30 years earlier. None of his discussions with apostles, who were in some cases his senior and had Ph.D.’s in relevant fields shifted him one bit.
Ben: On the one hand, you can look at that as very admirable. His strength was, he thought, and rightly so, at least in this narrow way, what is important is that we’re faithful to scripture. Where that goes wrong, and I would disagree with it, is how he read scripture. There are other examples of this in LDS history. I have made a very loose argument somewhere that, in a way, Joseph Fielding Smith was kind of the epitome of 19th century assumptions that Mormons had inherited. These other three guys were outsiders in several ways. First of all, they were all foreign, technically. Roberts was British, Talmage was British, Widtsoe was Norwegian. So they were not raised in a set of 19th century American assumptions. They were getting 19th century European assumptions which differed in some ways. They were all converts and so they were not raised with, what you might think of as religious Mormon assumptions that they would just start imbibing by osmosis, from age three onwards in church or something. So, it’s interesting that these three guys who are outsiders in significant ways are the ones who opposed Joseph Fielding Smith’s insider perspective. By insider I mean, you couldn’t be much more of an insider than Joseph Fielding Smith. I mean by his position, by his family, by his history. He was just at the center, at the core.
Many people like to say that man evolved from Apes. We talked about that assumption, and I asked Ben Spackman his opinions on the evolution of man.
GT: So, let’s talk a little bit about your views then. We’ll use the classic trope or whatever. Do you believe that we evolved from one-celled bacterium to evolve into monkeys and apes and to mankind and that sort of a thing?
Ben: As you phrased it, I would say no, but that’s because it’s an inaccurate description of evolution.
Ben: Evolution is itself a fairly vague term. A lot of people who have issues with evolution are actually having issues with abiogenesis. That is, how do you go from something that’s lifeless to something that has life? That’s not technically what evolution is about. Evolution is about the relatedness of living things. They are very similar. Why are they similar? How do we explain the similarities in things which no longer exist, which we have proof of.
Ben: We didn’t descend from apes, we share a common ancestor. That is where the scientific evidence points. Again, I’m not a scientist. I can’t go in and evaluate their p-values or redo these experiments or get my hands on the fossils. As with most aspects of life, we kind of accept the scientific consensus such as it is….
GT: So, in Genesis it says that Adam was formed out of the dust of the earth. Is that what happened?
Ben: I actually like to bring that up with people who are opposed to evolution. They say, “You think we came from apes.” I say, “Well, you think we came from dirt. Is that really so much better?”
What do you think?
What are your thoughts concerning evolution and the Bible? Can they be reconciled via this idea of concordism? Should they be separated as teaching completely different things? Has creationism won in the Church, or do you think the Church is making headway towards a greater acceptance of evolution? Did man evolve from apes?