LCMS Lutherans and Evolution

We have recently been joined by two LCMS Lutherans @James_Duin and @JustAnotherLutheran. I have a special investment here, because I have come to really love LCMS theology through my work as a AAAS Science for Seminaries advisor to Concordia Seminary in STL.

Though I am not a Lutheran, I’m regularly complemented at as a “crypto-Lutheran” by faculty there. I can see why. Lutheran theology is beautiful, and has good ways of thinking about the paradoxes that arise in all areas of life, including science.

Any how, I wanted to create a thread about LCMS and evolution. The LCMS denomination officially denies evolution in its belief statement, but at least one national study showed that about 40% of LCMS Lutherans are theistic evolutionists. Two of them have joined us here, and one of them is even getting formal theological training in Lutheranism.

A few questions here:

  1. What does the distinctly LCMS Lutheran voice bring to bear on this conversation?

  2. What is it like being a theistic evolutionist in the LCMS context?

  3. What is the “right” theological way to affirm evolution from the foundation of LCMS theology?


Not a Lutheran, so I can’t add much off the cuff, but I love this thread idea–great call, Joshua.


How did I sense this was coming, Dr. Swamidass? Haha I’ll respond to 1 and 3 at a later time. But for tonight and for 2 I’ll share a few thoughts:

It’s terrifying at times, because the LCMS officially denies the reality of evolution (we say we acknowledge “micro” but not “macro”; one of the assertions we think rescues us in the face of scientific critique etc.). I fear us turning on those like myself who are curious, convinced otherwise on this subject, but nevertheless love the Lutheran Confessions and tradition.

Positively, part of our hesitancy in matters concerning evolution is our scientific approach to Scripture. By scientific, I mean our demand for accountability first to the norming norm of the Gospel of Christ and his Scripture, our pursuit of objectivity (that is, affirmation and validation of similar observations by fellow theologians of our tradition) in the face of the oft individualistic tendency of American Christians.

Likewise positively, our hesitancy is in part due to faith’s skepticism: a tendency to see eternal certainty as residing in Christ alone and not in the doings of humans. We’ve watched over the course of 500 years as numerous traditions have bowed the gospel - that is, adapted/changed it - from one trend to another. NEVERTHELESS, we have pursued unceasingly to actualize the gospel - to preserve it in its ancient entirety and speak it anew in the language of each age. (If the difference between adaptation and actualization is clear?)

But this hesitancy on our part, coupled with this self-confidence of our theology being true yesterday, today, and tomorrow, has often caused us to ignore important realities/remain apathetic and apathetic especially to the goings on of science. E.g. Francis Pieper denying the Copernican view of the solar system in his Church Dogmatics, published the same year (1924) as Edwin Hubble’s publication of the discovery of the Andromeda Nebula being a distinct galaxy (via Cepheid variable stars etc.) and the subsequent discoveries of other galaxies thereafter.

This apathy coupled with certain insecurities (which I’ll abstain from explicating here, as this is a public forum and I am in no place of authority on the matter and would hate to announce a false witness or charge against us) means people like myself are viewed with a very heightened, almost allergic suspicion. I do not doubt our sincerity. I applaud our theology - including Pieper, whose statement about Copernicus is housed in a much more amiable and admirable proposition about Scripture and whose Dogmatics are commendable as very informative and edifying - and our vigorous accountability to Scripture and the Confessions as a faithful explication thereof. But we have problems.

I say “we” and not “them” because I am a part of this LCMS. I would not think of leaving my church, the same way a man would not think of severing his arm from his body. I belong to them and they to me. And whatever happens in the next few years and decades, I am honored to walk down the roads of the academy and life with the title, company, and sins of the Evangelical Lutherans. As I said to @James_Duin, there’s no other group of sinners with whom I’d be in fellowship. Because I am as much a sinner.

I’ll stop there for now. There is always more can be said. I only hope I’ve written substantively and aptly, with propriety and prudence. I do not wish to scandalize us.



Hmmm… In my circles I see that as an abbreviation for “Liquid Chromatography / Mass Spectroscopy” instead of “Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod”, although the latter existed long before the former. :slight_smile:

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Figures, that someone with the pseudonym of Argon would connect LCMS to matters of - if I’m guessing correctly - chemistry :wink:

I’m pretty sure Argon would require gas chromatography, not liquid. Which, of course, explains why @Argon is not LCMS.

Yeah, biochemistry. Although to comment on Joshua’s guess, I did do a lot of GC while interning a couple summers while a chem undergrad. I can’t recall if we used argon, nitrogen or helium as a carrier gas in the work.

Reading up on the Lutheran “LCMS” has been interesting. Most of the Lutherans I’ve met had no issues with evolution so I guess that many of those either came out of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or that some sort of self-selection bias (academics, sciences and/or geographic location) skewed the distribution of those I’d likely encounter.

Isn’t this a classic case of paradox? And I like this Gospel focus (which is why I’m accused of being a Lutheran)…

The Gospel is supposed to stay the same. Though our context, language, culture and more constantly shifting. Jesus is the same, but our starting points, and the dialogue around us, are constantly shifting. So any faith truly engaged with speaking Jesus to our world will be both changing all the time, and also staying constant.

Does LCMS recognize this as a paradox? How do they think about resolving it?

How exactly does this make evolution difficult?

In Lutheranism there is a robust explication of how different “spheres” are meant to operate by their own standards and rules. I think the early work used “law” in society (e.g. lawyers and judges) as an example. The State has the relative autonomy (and obligation) have laws, but we should be careful to distinguish the State’s law from God’s law. So we simultaneously affirm State law (in principle) while asserting that God’s law is higher. One LCMS prof I know refers to this as “relative autonomy.”

So why not consider science a domain that is also granted “relative autonomy,” to understand nature on its own terms. There is truth there to be affirmed, even though it might at time conflict with our religious understanding. This, I wonder, could be the way forward to deal with…

And as to the corporate nature of of your position. I think that is exactly right…

All to often, theistic evolutionists are ashamed of their “less acceptable” associates. It is good to see you recognizing your place in the Church.Which brings me back to…[quote=“JustAnotherLutheran, post:3, topic:26225”]
our pursuit of objectivity (that is, affirmation and validation of similar observations by fellow theologians of our tradition) in the face of the oft individualistic tendency of American Christians.

I see here a connection to orthodox theology as a statement against the individualistic tenancy of American Christianity. Agreed. Two thoughts…

  1. I think this highlights and justifies the need to show that evolution does not require a wholesale revision of orthodox theology. It does encourage different understandings of specific passages. But I do not think this any different than the changes that the Pentecostal movement have brought to the Church (and the LCMS). Of course there are theistic evolutionists that do not hold to orthodox Christian theology, but it is not as if evolution itself requires a revision of the Gospel.

  2. Evolution itself does encourage a more corporate understanding of our identities. It connects to a much deeper history that we ever imagined, and emphasizes that we are truly “creatures” (to use a Lutheran term), beings created from the “dust of the earth.” Is that a hint towards a Lutheran way of thinking of evolution?

ELCA is mainline, and LCMS is evangelical. There is pretty wide gap between the two, but it is truly fascinating how both draw directly from Luther’s theology and the history of Lutheranism till about 1900. In a way, it is not surprising, because we see the same type of diversity among all Christian who are ostensibly all trying to follow Jesus…

If you are reading about LCMS, it is necessary to read about Seminex ( Seminex - Wikipedia ): The Concordia Seminary in Exile. I think that recent episode still shapes LCMS to this day, and (on a positive note) has made Concordia very responsive and connected to their laity.

I wonder if BioLogos Voices ELCA @Hans.Halvorson can add to this…

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  1. What does the distinctly LCMS Lutheran voice bring to bear on this conversation?

Our tradition, as you rightly point out Dr. S, is somewhat distinct in its appreciation for paradox. But our appreciation does not mean we were the first and only ones to identify the paradoxes of the Christian faith. Our confessional symbols demonstrate how much we stand on the shoulders of giants.

But on that note, I think a brief discussion of “paradox” will do some good, so far as illuminating why I appreciate Lutheran theology, and especially as it may relate to the topic of evolution.

We should begin by defining paradox. Speaking in general of theology, a paradox is when two or more apparently (emphasis on “apparently”) mutually exclusive claims are asserted to be true. The best example of this is the incarnation of Christ: John 1:14 “The Word became flesh”. How can the finite contain the infinite? By present human understanding, this is impossible and ridiculous. But Lutherans have embraced and not shied away from such folly, asserting instead that it is the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. 1:24 “Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God”) Unlike most other denominations, we have not attempted to defuse the tension of the Incarnation, but have acknowledged (in a very pre and post modern way) the limitations of the human perspective. Calvin was less apt in this regard and opts, instead, to say that the infinity of the Second Person did not dwell in entirety in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth (e.g. the extra calvinisticum, respectively). Apparently, many people are uncomfortable with St. Paul when he says to the Colossians (2:9) that in Christ the “whole fullness of deity dwells bodily”. This likewise comes out in our sacramental theology. The Catholics, leaning on Aristotle, posit that the appearance and taste of the bread and wine are the unchanged accidents whereas the substance has been changed (transformed/transubstantiation) into literal body and blood. Which means the bread ceases to be bread and instead become only body and likewise the wine to blood. The majority of Protestants and Evangelicals, meanwhile, have opted for a different form of rational speculation, swinging the pendulum in an opposite direction. When Christ says the bread is his body and the wine, his blood, they think he is speaking only symbolically/metaphorically or perhaps spiritually. The similarity between the Catholics and the Protestants being that each is confident the elements of the sacrament cannot possibly be both bread/wine and, at the same time, body/blood. Because such a thing is reasonably impossible. How could the finite elements contain the infinite? Lutherans take a different road and simply accept Jesus at his word: This bread is my body/this cup is my blood/given and poured out for you for the forgiveness of your sin. We believe it is bread and it is body, it is wine and it is blood, and by eating and drinking we are receiving the forgiveness of our sin for no other reason than because Christ said as much. How this can be so, we do not know. It is a wonderful mystery. But it a mystery for (the benefit of) us because we can be confident/know for certain our sin is forgiven in that instant.

This respect for mystery applies likewise to God’s justice in the face of human experience/the justification of God in the face of history. Faith trusts that which is beyond the scope of human experience or reason. Faith grasps hold of something different: the promise/word of God. Think back to Abraham in Genesis 15. There is an ambiguity in v.6: “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Was it the Lord who credited Abraham as right through his trust/faith or was it Abraham who credited rightness to God through trusting/believing God’s promise? Both. Abraham was right, in the eyes of God, to trust the promise. And Abraham, through trusting the promise, believed God to be right. This applies to the question of justification and theodicy. God says we are right to trust him and take him at his word, that he has made us his own for the sake of Christ and not by our doings. And in trusting him, we trust that, in the end, God and his promises will be vindicated/shown to be right and true. Even if, at the present moment and with our experience of life and history and reason, God cannot conceivably be called right or just.

To summarize these two possibly convoluted paragraphs: the Lutheran appreciation for paradox stems from our tenacious desire to take God at his word. Hence, we embrace the pain of single predestination (that salvation is God’s doing alone and damnation is our doing alone). Hence our respect for God as he has not revealed himself to us, as he is not known, and as he is not to be preached (e.g. almighty means he governs everything at all times in accordance with his will, so must evil be in accordance the will of God?). And with our respect comes our refusal to speculate but to instead lean on God as he has revealed himself, as he has chosen to be known to us, and as he demands we preach of him (e.g. the almighty God who has used his power to rescue us from sin, eternal death, and his own judgment). Our lives tell us there is either no God or that God is a wretched monster who shouldn’t, couldn’t, and doesn’t love us. Our reason leaves us with a God who is always breathing down our necks, demanding us to justify him or ourselves. The only answer to these things is the proclamation of the Christ, that God forgives us and does, in fact, love us eternally; that we receive his forgiveness in the bread and wine/body and blood; that those who are baptized are buried with Christ; that those who have been told their sin is forgiven (“In the stead and by the command of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sin.”) are indeed forgiven their sin.

As applies to this question of evolution, what we find when we look at the history of our planet and universe is something literally awe-full. How the God of this sort of history could be the God of mercy is inconceivable. But God promises he is, in fact, a merciful God and so we must trust him, even if our experience says otherwise. I’ll pause there for any need of clarification!

I end with a quote of Luther by Oswald Bayer:

“For all created things such as the sun and moon, are for Christ and are not against him, because all things work together for good with the godly [Rom. 8:28], even the devil, death, and hell. But you cannot conclude from this that truth is the same in theology and philosophy, for they will continue to be different in kind and in matter,” [Luther] until the eschaton. [Bayer]
Theology the Lutheran Way pg. 79


Hi @Swamidass! thanks for opening this thread, I had know idea the 40% of LCMS Lutherans being theistic evolutionists, do you have a link to that? Also thanks for posting the Seminex link, I may be somewhat ignorant of my own churches history.

  1. @JustAnotherLutheran’s answer is great!

  2. For me this has been somewhat lonely endeavor, I attend a Mens bible study where I am the only one who accepts evolution or at least the only vocal one. I did go through membership classes and met with our pastors 1 on 1, the message was that while the official stance of the church is ID and micro but not macro, it is not a core doctrine and not necessary to accept that position and be a member of the church.

  3. Definitely a struggle with this myself as I do not directly agree with the belief statement of LCMS on the matter, I think LCMSers who deny what they call macro evolution, have suspicions are well founded as the theological implications of evolution continue to be unsolved, so it is easier to deny its existence, which is a valid way to affirm part of evolution at least.


Turns out the number is closer to 50%.

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In a way, you are correct. I do not doubt that God had/has intentionality/design in his governance of all in all. That being the case, there must be the intentionality of God/design of God everywhere. Including in abusive relationships, in the holocaust, in paint drying, in all suffering, in peanut butter, etc. But the God whose designs play out in all things is no comfort and. more importantly, no friend of the Christian (only the God who works all for the good of those in Christ Jesus Rom. 8:28). Recall Job’s friends who attempted to point out to him where and why the hand of God was in his life. Job agreed with them that God was involved in his circumstances. But he was right to differ in holding God accountable for all things, the point of the end of the book being that this God is beyond human comprehension; that his actions in the world are not comprehendible or accountable to human reason. The only respite is his promise to show himself right and merciful in the end.

It should likewise be noted that just because we acknowledge God as designing all in all does not mean we think it is humanly understandable. What humans may deem as evidence of design could, in all likelihood, be nothing akin to how God designs. And thus, could be more human vanity and folly. What we perceive and may rightly deem as random and chaotic and emergent (e.g., consciousness, traffic, weather, etc.) could easily fit into God’s governance as something he designs with a certainty only he understands. This God who governs all and incomprehensibly to us is more amiable to the Christian doctrine of God’s transcendence.

Thus, to deem God’s designs in creation as present but incomprehensible and to deem those who seek to discover such designs as attempting to be unduly self-righteous (I say this not in condescension or accusation, but it is literally an attempt to prove one’s self in the right before God/to prove God right) is more apt for Lutherans (though some in our camp do not realize the depth of this assertion). I quote at length from Bayer (Living by Faith, page 78) and Luther:

When we ignore this unconditionality [of faith in God’s kerygmatic and sacramental promise] and try to understand the order of the world through the “light of nature” or natural reason, we want to perceive a perspicuous nexus of acts and consequences. But we will be like the friends of Job, who according to Luther, “had human and worldly concepts of God and his righteousness, as though God were like us and his laws like those of the world.” No less appropriate than the views of these rationalists are those of the empiricists. Luther says:

If you respect and follow the judgment of human reason, you are bound to say either that there is no God, or that God is unjust… Look at the prosperity the wicked enjoy and the adversity the good endure, and note how both proverbs and that parent of proverbs, experience, testify that the bigger the scoundrel the greater his luck. “The tents of the ungodly are at peace,” says Job [12:6], and Psalm [73:12] complains that the sinners of the world increase in riches. Tell me, is it not in everyone’s judgment most unjust that the wicked should prosper and the good suffer? But that is the way of the world. Here even the greatest minds have stumbled and fallen, denying the existence of God and imagining that all things are moved at random by blind Chance or Fortune. So, for example, did the Epicureans and Pliny; while Aristotle, in order to preserve that Supreme Being of his from unhappiness, never lets him look at anything but himself, because he thinks it would be most unpleasant for him to see so much suffering and so many injustices. The prophets, however, who did believe in God, had more temptation to regard him as unjust – Jeremiah for instance, and Job, David, Asaph and others.’”

Lutherans align themselves with the prophets and confess that there is Divine design everywhere (Luther was particularly fond of peach stones and blades of grass). But some (in our camp and possibly including yourself) think it safer and more intellectually appealing to relegate some or even all of that design into a notion of “irreducible complexity” or other, humanly discernable evidences of “some-nondescript-one else’s” hand in creation. Regardless of the scientific arguments circling such evidences, the framework of relegation is theologically diminutive of God. Diminutive because God literally and at every point along the way, even in the means, works all (everything; no holds barred) in all. So if you think you can scientifically see a designer in the flagella, then you should be able to scientifically tell me where you see a divine designer in the atom bomb and the use of zyklon-B in gas chambers (you may say you see fallen humanity rather than the divine, but remember, it is God who governs all, including bird migrations and fallen humanity; while the bondage of the human will [either to the devil or to God] and the Deus absconditus may not sit well with the tastes of others, remember you are commenting here on Lutheran theology in particular and its reception of design, so these dogmas [e.g., the omnipotence of God over all creation, the bondage of the human will, etc.] must be taken into account).

I understand the impetus to seek out some evidences of God’s design in creation (as his is the only '“intelligence” I assume there would be in such things). But Christ came to end our attempts at finding a way, any way, to God, to influence God, and to know God. He did so by bringing God to us in the clearest (yet, ironically, most hidden) way possible. Lutherans have historically owned this dogged clinging to Christ and God’s revelation alone since the start (and Christians have been doing so since before Luther; e.g., Ockham).

As a final note to this comment of yours about ID and hopeful possibilities: The design ascribed to by the LCMS’s CTCR (Commission on Theology and Church Relations), ascribed to by, ascribed to by our governing president (Matthew Harrison), ascribed to and affirmed officially at our synod and district conventions, is not amenable to EC. The LCMS is, officially, a proponent of 6, 24-hour days, Ken Hamm, young earth creationism. On the books, regardless of pew polls, we are opposed to the ID movement insofar as it affirms an old earth, “macro” evolution, anything other than a purely and strictly literalistic reading of Genesis 1-2, etc. I appreciate the optimism. I really do! And I appreciate the theological reasoning behind our official stance. The reality is, I think, a more difficult matter.

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Forgive my piecemeal responding. I identified several points I wanted to touch on: (1) ID as theological, (2) Luther and Lutheran tradition on natural knowledge, and (3) ID, EC, and the LCMS (hooray for acronyms!)

I’ll begin with the last one first since it was your weakest point (respectfully).


You must have missed my “insofar as” in my final paragraph. I know there are differences between proponents within the ID movement. However, in your final paragraph you voiced an optimism that if EC subscribers adopted more ID terminology, then the Missouri Synod might be more open [and this is insinuated] to conversations about an old earth, evolution of species, and possibly the evolution of humans. My word of warning, therefore, was for you in particular, not for ID subscribers, anywhere, everywhere, and always. Hence me saying: “The reality is, I think, a more difficult matter.” and not “The reality is, I think, the Missouri Synod burns subscribers of ID at the stake.” :wink:

This thread is exclusively about evolution and the LCMS. DIscussion about ID is relevant when not specifically relevant to the LCMS.

Please move your comments about ID and EC relations independent of LCMS to another thread. It does not belong here.

I am one of those that believes that God “designed” evolution. The word “designed” in most understandings is entirely distinct from the ID movement. Most Christians I know that use that word see it as a synonym for “creation.” So, as a matter of language, it is correct to say that EC leaders believe God designed us through evolution. Though some EC leaders do not use that terminology.

This is not the EC position. We do believe God designed (i.e. created) everything, and this is necessary to explain how we got here.

I do agree with this. That is part of the reason I regularly use the word “design” and am clear to distinguish it from the ID movement. I’m not unique this. Owen Gingerich, a modern EC, writes…

“I … believe in intelligent design, lowercase ‘i’ and ‘d’. But I have trouble with Intelligent Design – uppercase ‘I’ and ‘D’ – a movement widely seen as anti-evolutionist.”

Without getting into another debate about whether or not ID is actually anti-evolution, let’s concede that it is “widely seen as anti-evolution.” I think his quote is quite helpful, and has guided my communication with the Church. Apocryphally, I can also reveal that this is the unofficial policy of the AAAS. They have no problem with intelligent design (lowercase) though they have explicitly made statements against Intelligent Design the movement (and their arguments).

So making the distinction between ID and “design” is important. And it is important for EC leaders to reclaim “design,” as the word does help with communities like LCMS.