Evolution, Creationism, and the Church of the Nazarene

[The following is my final research project for a class called Reading the World, a survey course for all first-year master’s students at Boston University School of Theology]


“Creationism” spans two nuanced views, “Young Earth” and “Old Earth”, though the “Young Earth” view is usually what people have in mind when they hear “creationism.” Nonetheless the central tenets of the two (except for #6) remain the same:

“1. The sudden creation of the universe, energy, and life from nothing;
2. The insufficiency of mutation and natural selection in bringing about development of all living kinds from a single organism;
3. Changes only within fixed limits of originally created kinds of plants and animals;
4. Separate ancestry for humans and apes
5. Explanation of the earth’s geology by catastrophism, including the occurrence of a worldwide flood;
6. A relatively recent inception of the earth and living kinds.” [1]

Though scientific evidence from biology, physics, biochemistry, genetics, and many other disciplines support claims for the old age of the Earth and corroborate different aspects of the theory of evolution, over forty-three percent of Americans polled in June 2007 believe that God created humans in their current form at one time within the last 10,000 years.[2] CBS News, in a 2009 poll, reported the number to be higher – over 51%.[3] What accounts for such disparity between the scientific evidence and the religious views of the majority of Christians in America?

The purpose of this study, therefore, is not to prove the “rightness” or the “wrongness” of these differing views, but instead to account for the disparity between modern evolutionary theory and creationism, and finally to show that there are explicitly Wesleyan means of approaching these options. Our ultimate concern revolves around the following question: “Is scientific creationism a plausible Wesleyan position?” To answer this question and to illustrate a nuanced opinion, therefore, this paper will first orient the debate within the specific context of the Church of the Nazarene; after establishing this context we will consider the historical and theological nature of both evolution and creationism while reviewing the Wesleyan heritage of the Church of the Nazarene; finally, we will attempt to evaluate the evidence presented in order to make a case for a perspective that leans away from scientific creationism while striving for Christian unity.

Changing Views Within the Church of the Nazarene

Since its inception the Church of the Nazarene has worked to distance itself from the larger Pentecostal movement within the United States and also from fundamentalism while remaining traditionally evangelical. D. Shelby Corlett noted in a Herald of Holiness article on April 20, 1935 that Nazarenes are not “so-called Fundamentalists” for many reasons, including the Nazarene aversion to the “extreme positions [of fundamentalism] on the verbal inspiration of the Bible as differing from the plenary inspiration as held by our church…” The Church of the Nazarene professes the “plenary inspiration of the Holy Scriptures…given by divine inspiration, inerrantly revealing the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation…”[4] Mediating between the extremes of fundamentalist inerrancy and rationalistic theories, the majority of Nazarene and Wesleyan scholars practice what H. Orton Wiley describes as the Dynamical or Mediating theory.[5]

The Church of the Nazarene also mediates between extreme views concerning Creation, as illustrated in its Statement on Creation from the Appendix in the 1993 version of the Manual:

“The Church of the Nazarene believes in the biblical account of creation (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” Genesis 1:1). We oppose a godless interpretation of the evolutionary hypothesis. However, the church accepts as valid all scientifically verifiable discoveries in geology and other natural phenomena, for we firmly believe that God is the Creator.”[6]

The first official statement on creation and science, this 1993 addendum is emblematic of the denomination in its thoroughly evangelical posture. The Nazarene Church believes in the “biblical account” of creation and opposes any “godless interpretation,” affirming that “God is the Creator,” and it therefore reflects the evangelical conviction that principally, “all spiritual truth is to be found in” the pages of the Bible.[7] More important for our present study is the mention of the evolutionary hypothesis, which reveals the inclusive nature of the statement.

Nuanced but fundamental changes occur in the 2005 and 2009 revisions of this statement, and therefore they shed light on the differing opinions within the Church of the Nazarene. In the 2005 statement, mention of the “evolutionary hypothesis” is changed to “the origin of the universe and of humankind.” Although specific mention of the evolutionary theory has been replaced, this revision still affirms that one can be a “good Nazarene” while believing in a literal six-day creation, progressive creationism, intelligent design, or theistic evolution.

The most shocking revision came in 2009. The statement in this revision is considerably shorter than the others, for the entire section concerning verifiable science has been removed:

“The Church of the Nazarene believes in the biblical account of creation (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” Genesis 1:1). We oppose any godless interpretation of the origin of the universe and of humankind (Hebrews 11:3).” [8]

In an interview with Dr. Thomas Oord, Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University, Tom expressed the dismay of many active Nazarene scientists and educators who felt that it was a shame to have the section about science completely removed. [9] Oord also expressed that “the vast majority of Nazarenes teaching in higher education are sympathetic to something like theistic evolution’s stance.” [10]  Thus, for many Nazarenes this revision indicates a major setback in an otherwise maturing denomination. We must ask, where in the history of the Church did such disparity of belief begin, and what can the Church of the Nazarene learn from it? An internal poll from October 2000, revealed that 93.1% of Nazarene clergy are opposed to evolutionary theory [11] – and yet there is nothing specific to this denomination or its theological heritage that requires or necessarily encourages such a position. We must now turn to the historical and theological developments behind evolution, creationism, and Wesleyan theology so that we might overcome this ecclesial and theological breakdown.

Historical and Theological Considerations of Evolution and Creationism

Thus far we have introduced our primary concern – whether scientific creationism is a plausible Wesleyan perspective – and we have made concrete the specific context and community engaging in this dialogue today, the Church of the Nazarene in America. Now we turn our attention to issues concerning the era of Modernity and the growth of the scientific worldview. This overview will reveal the hostile character of the debate between evolution and creationism.

Modernity & Evolution. The notion of “modernity” is confusing and complex; nevertheless we can, for the purpose of this study, succinctly but vaguely define modernity as a fundamental shift of mindset and culture occurring at least since the 16th century that essentially moved the locus of power from the powerful few to the hands, hearts, and intellects of the many. For example, the work of the Protestant Reformers in Germany and France moved power and authority within the Christian religion from the Pope to the “priesthood of all believers.” Similarly the philosophical movements within the Enlightenment produced the “turn toward the subject,” meaning the exultation of the experience and authority of individual human beings. [12]

For many, the Enlightenment critique of Christian theology was the direct precursor to the evolutionary worldview. Many Christians feared that evolution would “push God out” of the world just like liberal Protestantism was doing by critiquing the possibility of miracles, the Christian notion of divine revelation, and ultimately the identity and significance of Jesus Christ.[13] Thus the modern project created a culture in which religion became just one sphere among other spheres of society. Peter Berger explains this phenomenon of secularization characterized by “the decline of religious contents in the arts, in philosophy, in literature and, most important of all, in the rise of science as an autonomous, thoroughly secular perspective on the world.”[14] Additionally the growing emphasis on a scientific worldview began calling into question religious explanations of reality. Theological liberalism rose to meet the challenges of secularization by creating its own tools, such as the historical-critical hermeneutic, evidenced in the writings such as David F. Strauss’ The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined. The critical-historical method, after it critiqued the New Testament and Christology in the “quest for the historical Jesus,” began a critique of the historical veracity of the Genesis creation stories.

Between a growing secular culture and a doctrinally conservative Christianity, evolution was seen by many as a divisive and unwelcome threat. However, disunity did not happen overnight, Frederick Gregory explains, and truthfully, “Darwin led more to a renewal of old quarrels than to new debates.”[15] One such old quarrel arose with the publication of Jean Baptiste Lamarck’s 1809 Philosophie Zoologique. Lamarck argued that organisms change over time, and “even though his idea…was shown to be completely wrong,” it was the first major work that challenged the notion of the “fixity” of species.[16] Nevertheless, after Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle and the subsequent publication and review of the English naturalist’s 1859 classic, On the Origin of Species,[17] Charles charted a course for science that would effectively change human history. As the story of modernity goes, liberal Christians such as Henry Ward Beecher (1818-1887) and A. H. Strong (1836-1921) attempted to reconcile these maturing worldviews with Christian faith and biblical revelation. It became clear to liberal Protestantism “that the gospel had to be reinterpreted in terms of evolutionary thought.”[18]

Fundamentalism & Creationism. Conservatives, however, had a mindset more hostile to evolutionary thought, and thus began the crusade of the creationist worldview. By the turn of the 20th century, strict creationism had yet to crystalize, and it was far from the flavor of creationism espoused by the late founder of the contemporary creationist movement, Henry Morris. At the end of the 19th century there were biblical literalists but they were not “creationist” per se. Instead, the majority of theologians – liberal and conservative – desired to work alongside the scientific findings of geology and biology. Take, for example, the academic dispute between the geologist James Dana and the biblical exegete Taylor Lewis during the 1850s. Both men believed that the Earth is hundreds of thousands of years old; they simply differed on how to reconcile geology with their understanding of Scripture. Dana believed that, though the biblical writers could not have fully understood the natural phenomena about which they wrote, science nonetheless “proves the Bible’s veracity.”[19] On the other hand, Lewis argued that Scripture simply contains the record of human experience, not science, and therefore science is irrelevant to the nature and meaning of Scripture.

Fundamentalist Christians, however, had different theological opinions about what science says about Scripture. Published over a period of five years beginning in 1909, a set of essays known as The Fundamentals – expounding the “Five Fundamentals” – responded to the growing tide of liberal theology. The “Five Fundamental” beliefs adopted by the Presbyterian Church in 1910 are:

“1. Inerrancy of the Scriptures in their original documents;
2. The full deity of Jesus Christ, including the virgin birth;
3. Substitutionary atonement;
4. The physical resurrection of Christ; and
5. The miracle-working power of Jesus Christ.”[20]

“Biblically, fundamentalism is totally hostile to the notion of biblical criticism, in any form, and is committed to a literal interpretation of Scripture.” [21] Thus, of almost ninety essays, “fully one-third defended the Bible against Strauss and the higher critics.” [22] Interestingly, at the inception of the fundamentalist brand of Christianity, not one essay even mentioned a six-day creationist viewpoint. Peters and Hewlett explain the important difference between fundamentalism and creationism. The two perspectives, they contend, are not one-and-the-same. Fundamentalism does not necessarily entail creationist views, “because creation was not seen to be fundamental to the same degree that redemption and biblical inerrancy were.” [23] Furthermore, the fundamentalist doctrines were established in opposition to the higher criticism of liberal theology. In other words, “The enemies of fundamentalists are liberal Christians, not scientists.” [24] Though these differences are small, this is an important distinction to make, to understand that “although most creationists are comfortable thinking of themselves as fundamentalists, the two belief systems are not identical.” [25]

The “Open-Ended” Nature of Wesleyanism

As we saw at the beginning of this study, the Church of the Nazarene has recently made changes to an official statement that moves the church away from a serious consideration of evolutionary theory. In light of the above paragraphs on modernity and evolution, there are a few plausible reasons for this anxiety. First is the fear that evolution is simply the newest in a long string of movements designed to “push God out” of the world and to make a relic out of religion. Though the project of secularization had this as its goal, we have shown that this fear concerning science is unsubstantiated, and history actually reveals the opposite – for the most part science and the Church have worked harmoniously together.

The second possible influence behind the recent statement change and the general tendency of Nazarenes toward conservative views is the allure of the simplicity of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism offers security in the face of a complex world. When liberal theologians attempted to meet the challenges of an increasingly secularized culture by modifying their long-held assumptions and thereby discovering new ways of studying Scripture, fundamentalists saw this as unholy compromise with the world. But this, Randy Maddox notes, is not a Wesleyan approach. Maddox speaks of John Wesley’s “mature epistemic humility” that enabled Wesley to recognize the fallibility of theological claims so that he might discuss them further with modesty and openness. [26] Perhaps this was the same “epistemic humility” that assisted the Church in the task of adjusting their interpretation of Scripture after Copernicus and Galileo were proved correct in their heliocentric cosmology. As one parish minister put it, “because Wesleyans are not fundamentalists, we are open to readings of Scripture that allow us to embrace the discoveries of science while reverencing the profound truths of the Word.” [27] Perhaps that is the same “epistemic humility” that more Christians need to practice today in light of the overwhelming scientific evidence that points to the legitimacy of evolutionary theory.

Asking again the main question that began this study, “Is scientific creationism a plausible Wesleyan position?” To this we will again prescribe the nuanced answer from above, “yes, but mostly no.” Hopefully now, after deeper analysis, this answer is comprehensible. The slight answer of “yes” is given because there is no official statement of the Nazarene Church prohibiting creationism. As Robert Smith defines it, the spirit of Wesleyanism is one of openness in dialogue, patience and understanding in disagreement, and avoidance of doctrinal absolutes. [28] The difficulty with this approach, however, is that it cuts both ways – there is no denominational statement prohibiting creationism, nor is there a statement prohibiting theistic evolution. This illustrates the “open-ended” nature of Wesleyanism, or, as others have put it, Wesleyanism’s inductive nature.

In an unpublished paper Dr. Edwin E. Crawford outlines the differences between Calvinists and Wesleyans. [29] Much of Calvinist doctrine, Crawford describes, is the result of deductive reasoning, beginning with the premise that God is sovereign. Deductive reasoning can often be a powerful source for argumentation, but it generally makes for an unhelpful approach to theology. If just one piece of the argument – a premise or the conclusion, perhaps – becomes doubted or disputed, then either the entire argument loses its force or the defender of the argument must blindly deny any and all incriminating evidence. In my interview with Dr. Oord, Tom echoed this rationale, illustrating that on either end of the spectrum between fundamentalist Christians and scientific naturalism the loudest voices often adopt a deductive approach.[30] The Wesleyan tradition, however, is conventionally more inductive, meaning – at least in theory – we ought to be more open to evolution and other findings/theories coming from the sciences.


This study has introduced the contemporary debate over evolution and creationism, specifically as it is made manifest in the Church of the Nazarene, illustrated practically in the church’s Statement on Creation and its subsequent revisions. We have surveyed the era of Modernity and the growth of the scientific worldview that saw the birth of evolutionary theory as well as Christian fundamentalism. And finally this study has attempted to show the utter incompatibility of fundamentalism with the spirit of Wesleyanism.

What, then, are we to take from this study? First, Wesleyanism does not afford either the conservative or the liberal the space to absolutely dismiss discordant views. Most importantly, the unity of the Church depends upon the “cordial affection [of] neighbors and strangers, friends and enemies” no matter their differing opinions – what Wesley called the practice of “catholic spirit.” [31] Rather than accord in doctrinal absolutes, the Wesleyan spirit is a spirit of love and hospitality. The animosity between conservative Christians and their liberal siblings, and the ensuing animosity toward evolution must be put away. Any view that supposes a “war” between religion and science is historically and categorically mistaken.[32] Secondly, there is no Wesleyan or Nazarene position that requires believers to mold science to make it “fit” our interpretation of the Bible. Rather, history has shown (especially in the case of heliocentrism) that revisions and alternative interpretive approaches often need to be considered by the Church.

Therefore, let us finally and decisively answer the question that began this study, “Is scientific creationism a plausible Wesleyan position?” We briefly noted above that there is no statement against creationism (and certainly, the recent decisions of the Nazarene Church reveal its conservative sympathies). Therefore, is scientific creationism a plausible position? Yes. But is it the best answer? No. This study has shown that the specific view of scientific creationism is by its very nature reactionary, born out of hostile and anxious times, and is not the product of a faithful approach to Scripture. The Wesleyan spirit is one that takes all of the evidence seriously, practicing openness and welcoming dialogue with all conversation partners from the social and natural sciences. The Church of the Nazarene needs this in order to “avoid the adoption of a worldview that is totally out of touch with the natural world.”[33] Put another way, “Religion without science is confined; it fails to be completely open to reality. Science without religion is incomplete; it fails to attain the deepest possible understanding.”[34]

Finally, theologians and religious leaders must recognize that not all (read, no) solutions offer all the answers to every question. Theistic evolution itself (the implicitly assumed alternative to creationism in this paper) is a big umbrella that means many things to many different people – and it does not quell the anxious nature of the discussion. Quite often it actually creates more questions than it answers. Nonetheless, this study has shown the possibility of moving away from staunch scientific creationism while remaining true to a thoroughly Wesleyan, Nazarene, and therefore evangelical heritage.

[1]   Karl Giberson, Worlds Apart: The Unholy War Between Religion & Science, (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 1993), 145. These tenets were taken from Arkansas’s Act 590, an attempt to introduce creationism into the Arkansas high school curriculum.

[2]   Gallup, “Evolution, Creationism, and Intelligent Design,” http://www.gallup.com/poll/21814/evolution-creationism-intelligent-design.aspx (accessed May 3, 2012).

[3]   CBS News, “Poll: Majority Reject Evolution,” http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-500160_162-965223.html (accessed May 3, 2012).

[4]   Church of the Nazarene, General Assembly. Manual: 2005-2009 (Kansas City, MO: Nazarene Publishing House, 2005), 31.

[5]   H. Orton Wiley, Christian Theology, vol.1. (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 1940-1943), http://wesley.nnu.edu/other-theologians/henry-orton-wiley/h-orton-wiley-christian-theology-chapter-7/ (accessed April 20, 2012).

[6]   Church of the Nazarene, Manual: 1993-1997,  374.

[7]   David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A history from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 2005), 12. Note that Bebbington reviews three other key identifiers of evangelicalism which pertain to the Church of the Nazarene but not to this study.

[8]   Church of the Nazarene, General Assembly. Manual: 2009-2013. Kansas City, MO: Nazarene Publishing House, 2009. 373.

[9]       Thomas Oord, interviewed by author, phone, 3/12/2012.

[10]     Ibid.

[11]     Linda Beail and Greg Crow, “Wesleyan or Fundamentalist? Political and Theological Stances of Nazarene Pastors,” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association of Nazarene Sociologists and Researchers, Kansas City, Missouri, March 12, 2004).

[12]   Kirk Wegter-McNelly, “Enlightenment,” (class lecture, Boston University, February 7, 2012).

[13]   Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1998), 223-26.

[14]   Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. (New York: Anchor Books, 1990), 107.

[15]   Frederick Gregory, “The Impact of Darwinian Evolution on Protestant Theology,” in God and Nature, ed. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1986), 373.

[16]   Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett, Evolution From Creation to New Creation: Conflict, Conversation, and Convergence (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 37.

[17]   Full title, On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

[18]   Gregory, 383.

[19]   Nicholas DiDonato, “Science and Religion,” (class lecture, Boston University, April 4, 2012).

[20]   Peters and Hewlett, 73.

[21]   McGrath, 251.

[22]   Karl Giberson, Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008), 60.

[23]   Peters and Hewlett, 74.

[24]       Ibid.

[25]       Ibid, 75.

[26]   Randy L. Maddox, “John Wesley’s Precedent for Theological Engagement with the Natural Sciences,” Wesleyan Theological Journal, no. 44 (Spring 2009): 44.

[27]   Rick Power, “Why It Matters: The Harmony of Science and the Christian Faith,” in Square Peg: Why Wesleyans Aren’t Fundamentalists, ed. Al Truesdale (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 2012), 110.

[28]   Robert Smith, “Wesleyan Identity and the Impact of the Radical Right,” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association of Nazarene Sociologists and Researchers, Kansas City, Missouri, 1996).

[29]   Edwin E. Crawford, “Fundamentalism and the Church of the Nazarene,” http://www.revivaltheology.net/1_cal_arm/crawford.html (accessed April 27, 2012).

[30]   Oord interview.

[31]   John Wesley, “Catholic Spirit”, in The Works of John Wesley, ed. Thomas Jackson, 14 vols., CD-ROM edition (Franklin, TN: Providence House, 1994), 5:503.

[32]   Cf. Peters and Hewlett, Chapter 1, “War, Really?”

[33]   Giberson, Worlds Apart, 99.

[34]   John C. Polkinghorne, Science and Creation: The Search for Understanding, (Boston: New Science Library, 1989), 117.