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Reformed Theology and Evolutionary Theory

Gijsbert Van den Brink
Published by Eerdmans in 2020

As the title suggests, Gijsbert Van den Brink’s Reformed Theology and Evolutionary Theory will be of particular interest to those in Reformed traditions. Non-Reformed readers, however, should not be deterred. Van den Brink provides careful discussion of questions that evolutionary theory raises for Christian theology broadly construed, and his treatment is both accessible and sensitive to the complexity of the issues, making this volume the best introduction to the topic that I have had the pleasure to read.

Van den Brink begins by providing an introduction to both Reformed theology (chapter one) and evolutionary theory (chapter two). While the non-Reformed reader could easily comprehend the book’s main arguments without reading chapter one, his introduction to evolutionary theory in chapter two is essential to the arguments of the book. Here he distinguishes three layers to the concept of evolution: gradualism, common descent, and natural selection. Gradualism refers to the deep history of the planet and its various life forms as these are found in the fossil record. Common descent is the idea that all life has its origin in one life form, from which immense variety has emerged over time. Lastly, Darwinian evolution theorizes natural selection as the primary mechanism by which life has evolved. Van den Brink discusses the scientific evidence for each of these levels and the problematic attempts by Christians to offer alternative explanations for this evidence. Each of the three levels raises distinct questions for theology and these questions structure the remainder of the book.

Many old-earth creationists deny Darwinian evolution and common descent, but still acknowledge gradualism. Even this first level of the science raises questions for Christian theology regarding the interpretation of scripture and the justice of animal suffering. In chapter three Van den Brink addresses the seemingly contradictory claims between scripture and science regarding the age of the earth and of various life forms. He adopts a perspectival approach to biblical interpretation, which holds that statements about the natural world in scripture correspond to the world view of the original author and audience and that the reader of scripture should be looking for theological rather than scientific knowledge. While Van den Brink largely agrees with this perspective, he cautions that genuine contradictions between the science of evolution and theology could still occur because, like science, the Bible is also interested in telling a history of human life. In his discussion of animal suffering in chapter four, Van den Brink argues that a gradualist cannot appeal to human sin as the cause of animal suffering, since animals have been dying through predation and disease for hundreds of millions of years. For Van den Brink, this is no great loss, because attributing animal suffering to human sin raises theological and philosophical concerns quite apart from the consideration of science. While he does not advance a specific alternative explanation, he surveys and assesses the remaining options, arguing that they are basically the same ones that would apply to natural evil quite apart from the question of evolution.

Chapters five through eight treat theological questions raised by levels two and three of evolutionary theory: common descent and natural selection. Can humans still be in the image of God if we are so like our closest evolutionary relatives? Is it possible to maintain a history of God’s covenant with humanity, including a historical Adam and a fall? Can God still be an intentional creator, providentially directing creation, if the evolution of life is due to chance mutations? Can morality and religion still be real if it has evolved to further human survival and reproduction? In the background of these chapters is a dual awareness that many Christians reject evolutionary theory out of fear that it will disprove their faith and that many secular thinkers use the claims of science to advance a non-scientific, atheistic agenda. In contrast to both tendencies, Van den Brink’s aim is to honestly examine the implications for theology if the claims of science are true. He maintains throughout that, while scientific findings may be the occasion for revisiting certain interpretations of scripture, at no point does the scientific evidence rule out traditional Christian claims. For instance, humans can be understood as created in the divine image not because of any specific biological trait, but because God has chosen them for a unique role in creation and a unique relationship with God. The doctrine of the fall and the events of Genesis 2-3 can be read as “event depicting” without claiming that Adam and Eve were the first humans. He sees the Reformed notions of federal headship and election as particularly helpful in this interpretation of the doctrine. Natural selection through a process of random mutations does not rule out providence because cause and effect are philosophically more complex concepts than strictly materialist perspective typically allows, and events that appear random from one perspective need not be wholly without cause. Lastly, even if morality or religion does have an evolutionary explanation, the same could be said of many of our cognitive capacities and tendencies, yet we do not assume they are thereby invalid. At each stage in these arguments, Van den Brink displays a solid grasp of scientific theory and is thoroughly conversant with a variety of theological options. This volume is highly recommended for anyone wishing to rigorously examine the challenges evolutionary theory poses for the Christian faith.

Angela Carpenter

Angela Carpenter is an assistant professor of religion at Hope College. In her work, she focuses on Christian theology and ethics, with an emphasis on Reformed theology. She teaches Faith Seeking Understanding, Food and Faith, and Becoming Good. In 2019, she published Responsive Becoming: Moral Formation In Theological, Evolutionary, and Developmental Perspective (T&T Clark).


  • Paula Triezenberg says:

    Angela! Good to see your contribution to this journal! Wishing you all the best.

  • Paula T says:

    Hey Angela! Good to see your contribution to this journal. Best wishes to you at Hope!

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Angela, for your take on evolution/creation, as well as that of Van den Brink. I’m taken back by these discussions, as though Christianity has the only alternative to the theory of evolution. If there was only a single religion with a single alternate theory to evolution, then the discussion would make sense. But the reality is there are numerous religious creation theories all differing from each other except for the involvement of God or the Gods. They all involve the supernatural. And as with Christianity, all claim divinely inspired Scriptures making their own creation stories the only viable option. And all such stories of creation, including the Christian story, involve bazar events and actions, making all such stories, to the scientific mind, untenable. So the evolutionary theory doesn’t simply fail to align with the Christian creation story, it doesn’t align with the stories of any religion, because they all involve the supernatural, which doesn’t factor into scientific evolutionary theory.

  • Mark says:

    Sounds like a good book to put on the list. There is another approach to consider and that comes from the theology of Karl Barth. Here Christian theology challenges the very basic notion of linear/historical thinking because in Barth’s view, Christian teaching begins, has its firm center, in the middle of human history – not at its murky beginnings. The light of the crucified and risen Christ shines not only on the present and the future, but casts its illuminating and penetrating light also backwards enlightening not only the whole of the Old Testament (something like a Caravaggio painting) but also all of history. Now I realize Barth is held by many under great suspicion, but we can at least ask – certainly on this Good Friday – whether Jesus could actually hold up under this great weight of forcing even our linear thinking into a new paradigm, one which actually gives both evolutionary and theological thinking room to breathe. Anyway – Happy Easter!