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On Organs and Vacuum-Cleaners: Karl Barth on Creation and Evolution

The following letter was written by Protestant theologian Karl Barth to his niece Christine on the topic of creation and evolution. It raises an interesting hypothetical question to my mind, which if I had the chance I would ask the committee members of the Faith and Science conference. Let us imagine by some strange course of events that this great defender of the Christian faith converted to Adventism and embraced all of our traditional beliefs with one exception: he persisted in his irenic views on evolution expressed below. Would the members of the committee attempt to prevent Karl Barth from teaching at an Adventist college or university? If not, would they also make clear to all church members that while literalism on Genesis is the official position of the church it is not a litmus test for fellowship in the Adventist community or for church hire?


Basel, 18 Feb. 1965

Dear Christine,

You have had to wait a terribly long time for an answer to your letter of 13 Dec.—not because of indifference, for I am sincerely interested in your welfare, and in that of your mother and sisters, and am always pleased to have good news from Zollikofen.

Has no one explained to you in your seminar that one can as little compare the biblical creation story and a scientific theory like that of evolution as one can compare, shall we say, an organ and a vacuum-cleaner—that there can be as little question of harmony between as of contradiction?

The creation story is a witness to the beginning or becoming of all reality distinct from God in the light of God’s later acts and words relating to his people Israel—naturally in the form of a saga or poem. The theory of evolution is an attempt to explain the same reality in its inner nexus—naturally in the form of a scientific hypothesis.

The creation story deals only with the becoming of all things, and therefore with the revelation of God, which is inaccessible to science as such. The theory of evolution deals with what has become, as it appears to human observation and research and as it invites human interpretation. Thus one’s attitude to the creation story and the theory of evolution can take the form of an either/or only if one shuts oneself off completely from faith in God’s revelation or from the mind (or opportunity) for scientific understanding.

So tell the teacher concerned that she should distinguish what is to be distinguished and not shut herself off completely from either side.

My answer comes so late because on the very day you wrote, 13 Dec., I had a stroke and had to spend several weeks in the hospital.

With sincere greetings which you may also pass on to your mother and sisters,


Uncle Karl

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