How The King James Version Teaches Evolutionary Biology

King James Onlyism is the idea that the King James translation of the Bible is divinely inspired. Advocates will suggest that God preserved his word through the effort of these great translators. But KJV-Onlyism is usually associated with other fundamentalist ideas, including notions about the age of the earth. KJV-Onlyists are often Neo-Ussherians, meaning that they believe in the young earth model. But a consistent KJV-Onlyist should believe in the Theory of Evolution, because the KJV seems to teach it. If you are wondering how the King James Version teaches evolutionary biology, the relevant text is Genesis 1:20.

“Let the water bring forth the birds…”

Evolutionary biology teaches that all organisms have a common ancestor. Some are more closely related than others. We are related to our cousins and people of different ethnicities. The same principle can be broadened the animal kingdom. Birds and fish have similar family link. KJV-Onlyists may be appalled at this notion because in their view, God created the fish and birds independently ex nihilo. But if you look closely at Genesis 1:20, it seems to support evolutionary theory. The text reads in the KJV, “And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.” The water brings forth both fish and birds in the KJV.

Interestingly, many modern translations make an interpretive move by changing the dependent clause “and the foul that may fly” into an independent clause. The NASB reads, “Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens.” Translations that capture the KJV’s rendering include the Jubilee Bible, Douay-Rheims Bible, Webster’s Bible Translation and a few others. But for those of us who are committed to understanding the original language, the mere appearance of evolution in the KJV and these other translations might not be very compelling.

If you look at a rough word-for-word translation of the Hebrew, you will notice that the KJV rendered it pretty literally. Other versions (even those that practice formal equivalence) applied their interpretations to the text. That is certainly not a bad practice. Every translation has to interpret to some extent because a true word-for-word translation would be incoherent to us. But we can see how a literal rendering of this verse would lead us to believe in evolution. If we are interested in believing what Moses actually wrote, we should accept the KJV’s endorsement of common ancestry in this verse.

This Interpretation In History

This is not a novel idea. In fact, we have records of it in church history as early as the 4th century AD. St. Basil the Great wrote, “Why do the waters give birth also to birds? Because there is, so to say, a family link between the creatures that fly and those that swim… Both endowed with the property of swimming, their common derivation from the waters has made them of one family.”

The Christian YouTuber Robert Rowe recently sent me several other commentaries from esteemed theologians that come to the same conclusion. As recorded in Martin Luther’s Lectures On Genesis, he said “Who could conceive of the possibility of bringing forth from the water a being which clearly could not continue to exist in water? But God speaks a mere Word, and immediately the birds are brought forth from the water.”

John Calvin was rather puzzled over this truth. He wrote in his Genesis 1, “It seems unreasonable that Moses declares birds to have come from the waters and therefore this is seized upon by skeptical men who desire to slander the Scripture.” In Wesley’s Notes: Genesis, John Wesley said, “The fish in the waters, and the fowl out of them. This command he himself executed…”

Many of these great theologians did not understand the significance of this point. John Calvin went on to describe it as an apparent absurdity. Skeptical men would mock the biblical truth of common ancestry. Yet as we have learned more about the natural world, the biblical account of evolution has been vindicated. Since Calvin lived hundreds of years before the popularization of evolution through Charles Darwin, he never got to see that vindication. But if he were alive today, that would have resolved his confusion.

Interpreting Genesis 1 More Broadly

If we take a Neo-Ussherian perspective of the creation controversy, the presence of Genesis 1:20 will seem out of place. It will not fit within a 144 hour creation week. However, I would take a different interpretation of this passage. I am not sure which model I would fit best into. But I basically think that the days in Genesis 1 are metaphors for God’s creative activity. There are several hints throughout the text that a metaphorical interpretation is more plausible.

For example, many who have engaged in this debate have probably thought about the old problem of the sun. If the sun is created on day four, there is no meaningful sense in which we can have morning and evening. Morning and evening are literally defined by the light from the sun. If you want to say that there is some other light source, that is [1] unevidenced and [2] does not resemble our conception of morning and evening. So the fact that the sun is created after mornings and evenings strongly suggests that we should not take this passage literally.

Another earmark of the metaphor is in the seventh day of the creation week. I pointed out that the first six days had the morning and evening bookend. But the seventh day never closed. The author of Hebrews tells us that this is because we are still in the seventh day. He writes in 4:4-6, “For He has said somewhere concerning the seventh day: “And God rested on the seventh day from all His works” and again in this passage, “They shall not enter My rest.” Therefore, since it remains for some to enter it…” If we are still in the seventh day, then clearly we should not take it as a literal 24 hour day.

These two points go to support the thesis that Genesis 1:20 teaches evolutionary biology. If evolution does not have to work within the confines of 144 hours, there is plenty of time for it to occur. There is no reason to think that Genesis 1 does not cover God’s creative activities over a very long period of time. Genesis 1 therefore has two attributes: [1] it allows for an old earth. [2] It teaches evolution.

Moses: A Brilliant Philosophical Scientist?

This discovery brings a new light to the notion that Moses was just a goat herder with no insight into the natural world. Many philosophers of old have made brilliant observations that were only confirmed by modern science in the last few centuries. But Moses was not a philosopher. Some even think Genesis was written after the Babylonian Captivity, hastily composed in a panic to define the Israeli identity during a tumultuous time. On either of these models, it would not make a lot of sense for the author of Genesis to provide such a scientific insight. This insight was regarded as confusing and absurd to thinkers as eminent as John Calvin. I suppose the question is: how did the author of Genesis know about evolution? Was he just a great philosopher that made a good observation or rendered a robust hypothesis?

National Geographic reports that the link between fish and birds is obvious in that the scales seem to evolve into feathers. While there is some dissidence, it is typically assumed among scientists that birds and fish have a common ancestor. Yet theologians have literally been saying this for centuries as they write commentary on Genesis 1:20.

This reminds me what Dr. Robert Jastrow said on page 116 of God And The Astronomers. “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance. He is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

How The King James Version Teaches Evolutionary Biology

To bring us back around, the King James teaches evolutionary theory. Many great theologians have been boggled by this before evolution was popularized. Now that it is popularized, newer translations see the corollary and provide an interpretation that excludes evolution. But the rendering that has prevailed for centuries is that birds and fish are related. The fact that we see it today in modern biology should not cause us to recoil. We should respond with glee, because Genesis 1 predicted the unifying theory of most of the earth sciences.

Recommended Reading:
How Theistic Evolution Outstrips Both Creationism And Naturalism
The Case For Animal Death Before The Fall