When Lutheran Pastors Confront Creationism

When Lutheran Pastors Confront Creationism

This week, I stumbled upon a blog post by a pastor at a church from my old denomination, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The pastor, Duncan McLellan, wrote the post a few days after his church had hosted a “Genesis Seminar” in which “several experts in Creation Science and the Old Testament spent three days at the church, teaching and discussing the flaws with the Evolutionary Model and explaining many passages in the Bible that describe the Creation.” This post was particularly fascinating to me, because McLellan definitely did not come to the conclusion that one might think. But his attitude actually revealed to me a pattern in the LCMS’s views towards creationism.

Theories concerning Evolution and Creation actually have something in common: well-intentioned supporters of both want to fill in the gaps.  For Evolutionists, there are gaps in the so-called “Fossil Record” that need to be tweaked to make it fit with their theory.  For Creationists, there are gaps in what the Bible says; the Good Book does not provide all the data to create an A-Z narrative of a comprehensive Creation account.  And so, as you would expect, both camps insert what they believe to be the most likely set of assumptions into the gaps of their theories.  (Assumptions that, of course, prove their theories to be correct.)  The key for both groups, I believe, is to be honest and up front about what they are doing. 

The language in this paragraph sets the tone for the whole post. It sounds to me like McLellan wants you to trust him because he is an unbiased source who knows something that neither side knows. It might initially read as intellectual honesty for him to say that the bible does not give a perfect creation account, but at the same time, he is the pastor of the whole congregation.

It’s true that evolution and creationism are not the biggest focuses of the LCMS, but it is still the pastor’s responsibility to help you to understand questions like this. After all, the “evolution-creation debate” wouldn’t be so hard for Lutherans in the first place if they hadn’t been told an account by the church that contradicts with the evidence. Then the church does nothing to help them sort through that confusion. I guess I shouldn’t be too upset that McLellan is not explicitly teaching creationism, but it still feels like he’s just not doing his job.

Regardless, this paragraph has its own obvious flaws. The first is that McLellan implies that evolution and creationism are equally likely to be the answer to the origins question. It reminds me of creationists pushing public schools to “teach the controversy,” even though evolution is simply a scientific theory, and creationism is merely religious doctrine. I think of this graphic that I saw many years ago, but which still does a good job of representing the two.

a series of dots which can be fully connected when spelling out the word "evolution" but could also spell out "God did it" if several of the dots are left unused.

I’m not sure what McLellan means by “…there are gaps in the so-called ‘Fossil Record’ that need to be tweaked to make it fit with their theory.” I can only wonder what was taught at the seminar that had taken place almost a week before he wrote this post, and how the speaker must have come to this conclusion. It’s frustrating to not know exactly what McLellan is remembering from this seminar, and only being able to see his half-remembered interpretations of the presentations. Are there gaps in the fossil record? Or are we tweaking the gaps? What does that even mean? (I don’t really want to get into the “gaps in the fossil record” right now, but I did cover them in a recent post.)

As for McLellan’s issues with the creation account—which don’t actually explain why it isn’t a viable explanation of our origins—I can only laugh thinking that a three-day creationism seminar could not even convince a fundamentalist pastor that young-earth creationism is true. Also, taking an “honest look at what both groups are doing” would very quickly expose creationism as the cherry-picked, quote-mining, data-twisting pseudoscience that it is. Correcting a scientist’s opinion about something regarding evolutionary theory would only make the theory stronger. (Because that’s how science works!)

For example, Evolutionists should be honest that they are assuming that what would fill in the gaps of the fossil record would agree with what they theorize. 

Again, I’m definitely missing the context of what prompted him to use this as his take-down of evolution. What does that sentence mean? Does McLellan have a problem with making scientific predictions? What should evolution scientists do? Since evolution does not use experiments the way that chemistry does, making predictions about where certain fossils would be found and then finding them there is how we continually confirm that evolution is a science that can make accurate predictions. It’s a hypothesis, not an assumption. And these hypotheses about fossils are proven true time after time.

They are also assuming that numerous complex genetic mutations would have a fundamentally beneficial effect on life over time, even though the genetic mutations we observe today have a negative effect on life.

This must also be something he is sort of remembering from the seminar that had occurred almost a week earlier. Genetic mutations and fossils are not typically thought of as being in the same scientific field, so the fact that he put these together tells me that that’s all he knows because that’s all that he heard. My hypothesis also makes sense, because this idea that mutations must have “beneficial effects” is a pretty common creationist trope. I’m not sure why, though. It’s simply not true.

Genetic mutations happen randomly, and an organism’s genes determine its physical traits (or phenotype). Those traits can affect its chances of surviving long enough to reproduce. Thus, natural selection determines which genes survive within populations and which die out. If having a certain trait almost always allows organisms to live and reproduce, then that trait will become more widespread in future generations, even if it’s not what you’d typically think of as being “beneficial.” (Think of the feathers of a peacock. The heavy tail can be cumbersome, but this downside is outweighed by all the peahens that are attracted to the display and will reproduce with the peacocks.) This is why people always say that one only doesn’t believe in evolution if one doesn’t understand it.

Creationists need to wrestle with the genre (or writing style) of Genesis 1-2.  There is reason to believe they are written as history, but not in the way many Creationists think.  Creationists also have to wrestle with the chronological location of “in the beginning” in its relationship to “the first day.”  Lastly, Creationists need to be careful not to impose 21st Century genealogical standards on the millennia-old genealogies from the opening chapters of Genesis (and Matthew and Luke). 

To be honest, I’m not super familiar with textual and historical analysis of Genesis 1 and 2. For some context, I turned to an interview with a PhD Assyriologist who called the creation accounts “elevated prose” and admitted that it’s still debated whether the story was meant to be taken as history or purely as myth. The only thing he was sure of was that it’s not meant to be analyzed as scientific data. Beyond that, I once again don’t know precisely what McLellan means with his vague claims that the story is history, but “not the way you think.”

It’s interesting to me that this fundamentalist pastor has doubts about the historicity of the creation accounts. Granted, there’s a difference in the way he treats “evolutionists” as making dishonest assumptions about the data, while creationists merely have difficult literary passages to “wrestle” with.

McLellan’s issues with Genesis don’t question the truth of Genesis itself, but rather he tries to separate the young-earth creation narrative from the actual Genesis story. Because of this worldview difference, he obviously doesn’t have the same issues with the story that I do. I will gladly tell you that there is no way that the Genesis story can be taken literally, and that you would have to do a lot more than reconsider your “21st Century genealogical standards” to reconcile the story of Adam and Eve with reality.

. . . [Evolution] cannot explain the “uncaused cause” that disrupted the eternal nothingness that brought the universe into being.  In other words, there was an eternal equilibrium that something disrupted that caused the “Big Bang” which resulted (billions of years later) in all we see here.  

Why would biological evolution explain a cosmological theory? Other than both being parts of science, they have nothing to do with one another. I also take issue with the fact that he invokes the Kalam cosmological argument as a way of scaring people away from trying to understand evolution, which is much easier to wrap your head around than the “quantum weirdness” that could have resulted in the Big Bang.

You don’t need to accept the Big Bang to accept evolution. The only thing they have in common is that the bible mentions neither of them. (Although this hasn’t stopped people from trying to argue that the Genesis creation accounts are really describing the Big Bang, with God doing the banging.) It’s also worth noting that since the Big Bang was the beginning of space and time, there was no time beforehand. There was no-when for an “eternal nothingness” to be.

(An aside: one of the problems with dating the universe as many in the scientific community do is to assume that the speed of light has remained a constant over time.  We have no idea if the speed of light was the same 1,000 or 1,000,000,000 years ago as it is today.  They assume it is a constant over time, but offer no proof for why this has to be the case.) 

As for McLellan’s issue with assuming that the speed of light hasn’t changed, this tells me almost certainly that he’s been influenced by Ken Ham’s odd and erroneous distinction between “historical” and “observable” science. Regardless, scientists do not merely assume that the speed of light is constant. Science benefits from people questioning things, and they do (even if their findings are possibly lacking).

Lastly, there is the practical argument against people who maintain a belief in the Theory of Evolution that they cannot say what the theory is.  Have you ever asked someone who believes in Evolution what The Theory of Evolution is?  My experience is that most evolutionists cannot explain the theory beyond several sentences, yet claim their belief is scientific.

This post has no end of strange and unusual arguments against evolution. For one, people define the theory of evolution by natural selection all the time. Here’s the definition from Biology Online:

Evolution (evo‧lu‧tion, ˈɛvəluːʃ(ə)n) is defined as a change in the genetic composition of a population over successive generations. When we hear “evolution”, we often think of a progressive change. However, evolutionary changes are not directed toward perfection or even toward some defined goal. Evolutionary changes involve interaction between available genetic variants and the environment in which they exist. For evolution to proceed, there are vital key players: genetic variation, natural selection, and genetic drift.

I include this definition especially because it is by a group that McLellan would deem “Evolutionists” and also because it refutes common misconceptions. But according to McLellan’s criteria, is this enough sentences? Why would a sufficient definition of evolution require more than “several sentences”? That wouldn’t be so much of a definition as it would be a description. And why is acceptance of evolution an unscientific belief if you can define it succinctly? I wonder how McLellan himself might define evolution. Or creation, for that matter. Or God.

This last point does not prove evolution to be false, just that, the many who claim to “believe” in it are doing just that: believing.  It is for them a faith, a naturalistic/ pantheistic religion that is supported by many in positions in power and reinforced by a culture that delights in the relativism it necessarily produces. 

This is another line that regurgitates popular creationist points. I’m so tired of people calling evolution a religion. It especially makes no sense coming from religious people, whom you would assume do not themselves take insult at being called religious. And the moral relativism trope, like the attempt at connecting evolution to cosmology, is a way for creationists to seek a pattern where there is none.

If you want to engage in a meaningful and fruitful debate with someone who believes in evolution, stay away from Genesis 1-2 and instead go to the last chapters of each of the gospels.  Start with the resurrection of Jesus and work back from there.  After all, our mission as Christians is not to convince people to agree with us as to how life came into the world, but to proclaim the good news of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life because of who Jesus is and what he has done, is doing and will do. 

As McLellan himself admits in the post, this is the part where he stops being predictable and introduces his own… unique take on the origins “debate.” That is, not having a take at all. He is essentially saying that if you want to have a creationism/evolution debate, don’t. Change the topic and talk about the New Testament instead. I say it’s fine if your denomination focuses more on the Gospels than Genesis, but understanding where we came from is important to people. They can’t convince people to agree with them if they themselves don’t know what they believe about origins.

Outside of creationist circles, evolution is broadly accepted in most societies. So when your congregants exit the church on Sunday, they’re not going to be able to ignore it. You can’t loosely tie the creation story to the Gospel story through the fall, resurrection, and ascension, and then say that that should be enough for people to stop asking questions about creation and just think about Jesus instead. LCMS pastors like this not having answers to questions about evolution is how they lose people like me in the first place. And look at me now, doing the devil’s work. 

Between Creationists and Evolutionists the question of origins is theoretical.  It is based on either a slanted analysis of cherry-picked data, or a belief that the words of a certain book have unquestionable authority.  And, at the end of the day, the best thing that will happen is the two sides agree to disagree. 

This stance that origins are not only a mystery but that they are irrelevant when compared with the story of the resurrection is a theme that I see among LCMS pastors and even other Christians. I once did a series going through an LCMS seminarian’s examination of the options regarding which flavor of creationism is true. The fact that he even did that showed me that the LCMS doesn’t take an official stance on creationism, just like McLellan doesn’t.

The issue is that most LCMS members probably don’t even know this. The church itself promotes young-earth creationism and Answers in Genesis specifically all the time. It is just so strange and so telling to me that they teach their congregants young-earth creationism but that when you look at the beliefs of the pastors and other higher-ups, they don’t even fully accept it. They definitely reject evolution, but since that is the only real answer that we have, they don’t know what to believe.

The truth of evolution doesn’t exist in some other dimension where we can accept it as sort of true but mostly not true at the same time. And we can’t ignore it. It’s right in front of our eyes; the truth of evolution and the ancient earth are all around us. Actually, they’re closer than that. The proof of evolution is in our own bodies. It’s in our DNA, and it explains who we are and why we do the things we do. It’s right here if we will just accept it.

8 thoughts on “When Lutheran Pastors Confront Creationism

  • September 12, 2021 at 10:01 am

    Religious leaders and scientists have been clashing since ever. One gets his knowledge from divine revelation and the other one from analytical observation and deduction. Remember that it took the catholic church 400 years to decide that Galilei was right and that the Earth turns effectively around the Sun. Religious leaders (from whatever denomination) have difficulties to accept facts that go against centuries of dogmatic teachings.

    • September 13, 2021 at 2:16 am

      Science and religion are two faces of the same coin. One uses its head, while the other relies on tales. 😉

  • September 12, 2021 at 2:40 pm

    An excellent job, you flaming heretic!
    You spawn of the cosmos!
    You collection of stardust made flesh!
    Origins, huh?

    Most of us who have left religion, Christianity specifically, have done so for the same reasons: there is simply no factual concrete evidence for gods, and the behavior of those practicing religion, note Christian and Taliban, is sufficient proof gods are not affecting their behavior. or else the gods are very evil.

    One of our first questions in Sunday School was, “Where did God come from?” The standard answer is, “He always was.” After studying the bible, returning to the original language where possible, I am left with the same answer and I am forced to accept it if I am to continue practicing Christianity.

    I barely made it through high school algebra so to think I understand quantum mathematics is… Just don’t go there. But I have seen enough to know that their calculations lead to predictions of certain properties of the universe that are proven true. Thanks to Max Planke and his disciples. Damn heretics.

    I’m not very sure of the big bang theory because where did the stuff come from that went bang? This is not equivalent to the same question about gods. We have evidence of the universe and can study its existence. We have no evidence of a god.

    Christianity and its parent religion were not universally accepted religion until the RCC gained the power to kill in the name of their religion. I imagine that making the choice between burning at the stake or accepting the Pope as your sovereign is not too hard to understand. This authority came from the same scripture that McLellan relies on to make his assumptions.

    Before we had written languages we had believers and non-believers. To this day Christianity has nothing more than what it began with; The conjecture and imaginings of vain men.

    Before we had written languages, we had men who looked at the universe and have considered the beginning and the end of it. Religion would have brought a dead end to such wonderment.

    In 1000 BCE, the life expectancy of man (humans) was about 35 years. That is through conjecture, as there were/are no records to be studied. As of 2000 CE, the life expectancy of a man (humans) is 76.9 years. This can only be attributed to the sciences which have impacted our living conditions. We have become (evolved into) a more efficient and sturdy mechanism.

    Today, more than ever, we can believe that the education of the clerics leaves them too informed to believe in the young earth and creationism. Only self-imposed delusion can explain them. But we have to consider the tremendous investment they have in protecting and continuing the fallacy. If they should accept evolution then it would mean the end of religion. And, like me, the rest of the world would be so pissed that they had been so gullible for so long.

    But, we are humans. We grow and we learn. We learn and we grow.

    I like to imagine that somewhere in the far-off future, some new form of sapiens will study our bones and ponder their beginnings. I hope that by that time they will not be hampered by the possibility of a creator.

    Thanks for this post. These may be the only reason I have to like you.

  • September 13, 2021 at 2:58 pm

    I hate when other Lutherans spew this kind of bullshit.

  • October 25, 2021 at 4:58 pm

    Between Creationists and Evolutionists the question of origins is theoretical. It is based on either a slanted analysis of cherry-picked data, or a belief that the words of a certain book have unquestionable authority.

    Right here is where he gives the game away. He equates the scientific theory of evolution with “slanted analysis of cherry picked data”. He obviously doesn’t know anything about how science actually operates. He’s more interested in setting up a false dichotomy in order to avoid having to make a decision based on the evidence so that he doesn’t have to actually think about his beliefs at all. It’s basically both-sidesing the debate on human origins, and basically saying “nobody can possibly know” so that he can just continue to believe what he already believes.

    • October 25, 2021 at 5:52 pm

      That’s so true!!

      When I started reading that I didn’t realize you were quoting him and I thought you were just saying that – I was about to say no!! That’s not how it works!! 😂

  • January 3, 2022 at 2:59 am

    “it is still the pastor’s responsibility to help you to understand questions like this.”
    No, it isn’t, not anymore than yours and mine. That’s because he (just like you and me) doesn’t have any authority regarding the topic, ie evolution theory. It’s the responsibility of authors like Jerry Coyne (Why Evolution is True) and Donald Prothero (What the Fossils Say). I do not mean to say that this pastor above criticism; I’m just saying that we should have low expectations. The burden of proof is his – he has to demonstrate first that he understands evolution theory sufficiently himself. We can take nothing at face value (I have the same approach to you and hope you’ll display it to everything I write). Sure enough the pastor does a pretty bad job.
    The same applies to me when we write about evolution theory (and science in general). Before starting to criticize a scientific theory we need to make sure that we understand it, ie by reading the two just mentioned books. Nothing in his blogpost indicates he has done this essential homework.

    “I’m not sure why, though. It’s simply not true.”
    It’s because christian pseudocritics of evolution theory can’t let go of the idea of Homo Sapiens being the pinnacle of creation/evolution. They assume – and we have to admit that scientists in the past have made this mistake too – that according to evolution theory Homo Sapiens is an enormous improvement compared to an amoeba.

    “You don’t need to accept the Big Bang to accept evolution.”
    Technically no, but it would be wildly inconsistent. From the viewpoint of a philosopher of science they are both the results of the same method: methodological naturalism. As for the rest you’re correct – refuting one doesn’t mean refuting the other.

    “there was no time beforehand”
    Premature. There are physicists who think there was time before the Big Bang. And if the multiverse hypothesis is correct there might have been space before the Big Bang as well – just not in our Universe.
    Let me finish with a quote from the pastor’s blog post:

    “First, the necessary biological “advances” the theory is built on (genetic mutations resulting in a species that is more adept at surviving) is unobservable in the modern world.”
    Given all the mutations of COVID-19 I can only wonder once again to which extent this is ignorant and to which extent it’s stupid. It’s one thing I like about many creationists. They expertedly refute their own criticism without noticing.


What do you think?