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Hillsong worship leader says ‘evolution is undeniable’. But let’s not jump to conclusions

Sam Hailes reports on the latest furore over the Hillsong worship song 'So Will I (100 billion X)'

The lead songwriter of Hillsong United has caused a stir by tweeting “evolution is undeniable”.

Joel Houston was responding to a question about the second chorus of Hillsong’s 'So Will I (100 billion X)', which he co-wrote with Benjamin Hastings and Michael Fatkin. Here are the lyrics in question:

And as you speak

A hundred billion creatures catch your breath

Evolving in pursuit of what you said

If it all reveals your nature so will I

Here's Houston's tweet in full:

In the song, the word “evolving” can be interpreted in a few different ways. You could argue Houston was not referring to evolution per se but was using another word for “growing”. And some of his follow up tweets give plausibility to this interpretation: “According to the Spirit-nature renewing us, we evolve counter-naturally to that of our earthen nature—ever in response to God’s Word.” Houston is not necessarily saying that species evolve into other species. He’s talking about sanctification! He’s saying our inward nature changes and becomes more like God as we follow him.

But Houston also added this clarification: “things evolve, they change and adapt, I DON’T believe in evolution as a theory of SOURCE, I believe it’s merely a pattern of nature—created by God, reflecting Nature’s desire for renewal, survival, new life—from, through and ultimately to—God”.

It's always worth hearing people out. We shouldn't jump to conclusions upon reading a phrase such as 'evolution is undeniable'. Instead we must ask 'what do you mean by evolution?' These things are rarely simple, and for those interested in the theological complexities, you can read Houston's full explanation here.

Obviously, for those who adhere to theistic evolution (the belief that God created or oversaw the process of evolution), there isn't much to see here...But what of the many Christians who hold a more literal interpretation of Genesis? Even with Houston’s above explanation, some will struggle to sing the word ‘evolving’ in the context of a song about creation.

One of the major objections from the young earth creationist camp is that if God used the process of evolution to create the natural world, this would mean there were millions of years of death and decay, before Adam sinned. This contrasts with a literal reading of Genesis which suggests death only entered the world after Adam sinned. Before Adam sinned, Eden was a paradise and there was no death. The conclusion of this line of reasoning is that evolution from species to species did not happen.

Stop singing?

We should be under no illusions that some churches will stop singing ‘So Will I’ entirely. (Some had done so even before the latest tweetstorm). This is a great shame as it’s one of the most beautiful and powerful worship songs written in recent years. But I understand the concern. Some cannot countenance referencing a process (evolution) that stands against their view of the Bible in the middle of a worship song. The theology espoused in modern worship songs often resonates and stays with people more than any words contained in the sermon! So church leaders are keenly aware that what their congregation sings really does matter. 

Is there a way around this? It might be tempting for some worship pleaders to change that line of the song to something else. But copyright law forbids this. If you want to change a lyric, you must seek permission from the writer(s).

This was the approach that the Presbyterian Church took in 2013 when they asked Stuart Townend and Keith Getty if they could change the lyrics to ‘In Christ Alone’. They objected to the line “on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” Instead they wanted to sing “the love of God was magnified.” The writers declined the request.  

​I can understand why Townend and Getty stood their ground. Whatever you think of penal substitutionary atonement, we can all agree that the cross is central to Christian belief. Getty and Townend clearly hold a particular view, and shouldn’t apologise for it.

But when it comes to creation and evolution, can’t we be a little more flexible? Most fair minded Christians allow room for divergent viewpoints. I haven’t yet heard of a church leader who, believing in evolution, has excommunicated parishioners who hold to young earth creationism. And the same can be said of young earth creationist pastors and theistic evolutionary congregants. In most churches there will be varying views on exactly how God created the world. There are good Christians on all sides of this often complicated theological and scientific debate.

A possible way forward

I wonder if a (very) cheeky re-wording of Romans 14 might be applicable here:

“Accept the one who believes in young earth creationism, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to believe God guided the process of evolution, but another, adheres to 6-day creationism.  The one who accepts evolution must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not believe in evolution must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?”

Obviously, I’ve adapted this text (perhaps beyond what some would be comfortable with). But I believe there’s good reason to apply Paul’s teaching in this way. The original context was Paul talking about Jewish food laws, but his overall point was that Christians shouldn’t quibble and judge each other over secondary matters. We should allow for diversity of viewpoints when the core of the gospel is not at stake. 

With all this in mind, I wonder if Hillsong should be encouraged to write a second version of the song – out of respect to the many Christians around the world who will struggle to sing the word ‘evolve’. They need only change one line, then one of the greatest worship songs of our time will be able to sung by all Christians everywhere.

I’ve a feeling that’s unlikely to happen. Houston has already explained: “we were aware of the implications “evolving” would serve as a conflicting adjective for some—but thought it was worth it”.

My hope is Christians of all theological persuasions will be able to sing 'So Will I'. If we were to dissect each line of today’s most popular songs, we could all find a few words to quibble over. And I’ve been known to keep my mouth clamped firmly shut at some moments when I should be singing the words on the screen in front of me! (I make no apology for this. No Christian should feel like they have to sing lyrics which contradict their view of God). Keeping silent for a couple of bars might be the best way forward for those who take issue with ‘evolving’ – simply don’t sing that line but enjoy engaging with the rest of the song. 

If there’s a silver lining to the same old inter-Christian debates on creation and evolution which are now taking place on Twitter, it's this: One of the greatest worship songs of our time has been thrust back into the spotlight. 

Perhaps the final word should go to Houston, it's his song after all. And he's expressed a sentiment which might go some way to uniting both theistic evolutionists and young earth creationists:

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