After Darwin and the revolutions spawned in genetic research, who are we? And how do we define ourselves and find our past in light of these revolutions? (p. 7)
In other words, we are faced with the task of Finding Ourselves after Darwin, which is the title of this book from earlier in 2018, subtitled, Conversations on the Image of God, Original Sin, and the Problem of Evil. It takes its place as the latest in what looks like a whole publishing industry of multiple-author books exploring theological responses to evolution, following swiftly after Evolution and the Fall (2017), Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin (2014), Reading Genesis After Darwin (2009), Theology After Darwin (2009), and Darwin, Creation and the Fall (2009), and not so swiftly after Evolution and Creation (1987). Whether this represents a growing interest in the topic is hard to tell – 2009 was the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species, after all – but it does demonstrate continued attention and, tentatively, a measure of genuine progress. By and large, these are not polemical books, but sincere attempts to grapple with serious and challenging questions.
The advantage of books like this is that they provide easy access to multiple perspectives on the topic. The disadvantage is that they are inevitably mixed in quality, and their coherence is heavily dependent on the circumstances surrounding their production, and on the editorial process.
This particular volume is one of the research outputs of a project funded by the BioLogos Foundation and housed at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford (pp. 9-10). Most contributors took part on several colloquia in Oxford (p. 8), although this prior engagement is not always apparent in the content of the book. It seems that the original intention was for three books to be published, one on each of the themes named in the book’s subtitle. Presumably it was realised that there would have been a lot of overlap between the books, and instead one (fairly hefty) book was published, in three parts, with three associate editors.
In what follows, I will attempt to give a brief summary of each chapter, along with a few reflections.
The book begins with two Introductory Essays.
Chapter 1, by the book’s general editor Stanley P. Rosenberg is effectively a Preface. Its title reflects a motif of the book, as an attempt to create space for exploration: ‘Making Space in a Post-Darwinian World: Theology and Science in Apposition’.
Chapter 2, by Benno van den Toren, one of the associate editors and the other Co-Director of the project, explains how this space is created: ‘Distinguishing Doctrine and Theological Theory: Creating Space at the Interface of Modern Science and the Christian Tradition’. Christian faith rests on certain doctrines, upon which various theological theories are built, which seek to make sense of the doctrines. This is compared with gravity: we can accept its existence (try doing otherwise!) even while our theories of gravity might change, or even in the absence of any theory at all. So we needn’t be too worried if we don’t currently have a theological theory that makes sense of our doctrines in the light of the (provisional) findings of modern science (p. 18). But it is good to have a theological theory, both to satisfy ‘the desire for understanding’ (p. 20), and to avoid the ‘faith-stress’ caused by a ‘real or perceived dissonance between the Christian faith and scientific theories’ (p. 21).
Each of the book’s three parts is entitled ‘[X] and Evolution’, and consists of a brief introduction by its editor, a ‘leadoff article’ (p. 9) entitled ‘Questions, Challenges, and Concerns for [X]’, followed by 4-6 essays and a brief editorial ‘conclusion’.
Part I, then, edited by Michael Burdett, looks at The Image of God and Evolution. Despite Chapter 2 speaking of this doctrine in terms of that which ‘distinguishes [humans] from all other living species’ (p. 17), the specific question of human uniqueness is not always kept in focus. This is understandable: it is possible that ‘image of God’ in Scripture is not synonymous with ‘human uniqueness’, and there is a sense in which the whole creation ‘images’ its Creator. But it is unfortunate: even though the question of human uniqueness is the ‘most significant issue’ raised by evolution (p. 30), the question of the meaning of ‘image of God’ dominates in the subsequent chapters.
The content of Chapter 3, by J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, fascinating though it is, bears little relation to its title (‘Questions, Challenges, and Concerns for the Image of God’). But it does provide an enlightening overview of recent evolutionary theory, such as the co-evolution of organisms and environments in a process of ‘niche construction’ (p. 35). Discussion of what it means to be human centres around the origins of a ‘distinctively human imagination’ (p. 41). Thus van Huyssteen sees the image of God as ‘emerging from nature itself’ (pp. 44, 45, 47). However, he does not discuss the crucial question of how this might have happened, historically, so as to maintain a clear distinction between humans and nonhumans.
The remaining chapters of Part I deal (respectively) with ‘the four typical views of the image of God’ (p. 27), which are not necessarily mutually exclusive (p. 109): functional, structural (substantive), relational, and dynamic (christological or eschatological).
Chapter 4, by Mark Harris, describes ‘The Biblical Text and a Functional Account of the Imago Dei [Image of God]’. According to this view, the ‘image of God’ in Genesis refers to the specifically human vocation to represent God in exercising loving dominion over the world. Detailed attention is given to the biblical text, under the impression that the functional view ‘poses relatively few problems in the modern evolutionary paradigm’ (p. 61). It is suggested that ‘the imago Dei is reflected in the appearance of Homo sapiens as an entire species’, with apparently no awareness of the complexities this involves. For example, did Homo sapiens arise gradually or suddenly? What about the evidence of interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals and Denisovans? Were they human too?
Chapter 5, by Aku Visala, asks, ‘Will the Structural Theory of the Image of God Survive Evolution?’ The structural model has been dominant throughout church history, and posits ‘some shared feature of divine and human nature … often associated with personhood and certain mental capacities’, and often described using language related to the ‘soul’. Considering an evolutionary origin of humans, ‘there must have been a point where the first human soul emerges’ (p. 72). This has some plausibility to it, but (once again) no attempt is made to flesh out a plausible sequence of events.
Chapter 6, by Thomas Jay Oord, is on ‘The Imago Dei as Relational Love’. Here we are taken massively off course, with a flat denial of human uniqueness. Genesis, it is claimed, ‘doesn’t say humans are the exclusive bearers of God’s image’ (p. 83), the differences between humans and other creatures are ‘differences of degree and not kind’ (p. 85), and nonhuman creatures also express ‘relational love’, which is ‘the core meaning of the imago Dei’ (p. 91).
Chapter 7, by Ted Peters, is about ‘The Imago Dei as the End of Evolution’. The ‘image of God’ is seen as something towards which we are moving, and something that is only fully seen in Jesus Christ. What this means for human uniqueness prior to the eschaton is not made clear.
Part I, in conclusion, fails to address what strikes me as the only challenging question raised by evolution. Assuming that humans emerged through a population bottleneck of perhaps 10,000, which seems to be the scientific consensus (pp. 112, 126-7), how might this have happened? How might a population of nonhumans have evolved into a population of humans, while constantly maintaining a clear distinction between humans and nonhumans? Fortunately, all is not lost, as several contributors to Parts II and III propose scenarios for a sequence of events that could have brought this about.
Part II, edited by Benno van den Toren, is about Original Sin and Evolution. If there has never been a single pair of humans (p. 112), then it cannot be the case that all humans have inherited their sinful nature biologically from Adam and Eve.
In Chapter 8, ‘Questions, Challenges, and Concerns for Original Sin’, Gijsbert van den Brink sheds some welcome clarity on the issue. Distinguishing seven facets of the doctrine of original sin, he identifies as the sticking point (p. 126) the claim that our ‘tendency towards sinning’ is ‘a result of the first sin that took place at the dawn of human history’ (p. 119). Attempting to ‘envisage how this might have come about’, he suggests that the first human population became morally accountable when they ‘received—either by divine intervention or (more plausibly perhaps) through “emergence” or in some other way—a (self)consciousness’. God then revealed himself ‘to these first humans or to their leaders (and why not think of these as a couple?)’ and ‘appealed to this newly arisen consciousness, calling the first humans to find their deepest fulfillment in a life of obedience to his perfect will’. It was at this point that the first sin took place. He quotes Keith Ward: ‘the fateful choice was made of a path of autonomy, … which placed the descendants of those first human beings in bondage to self and its consequent conflict and suffering’ (p. 127).
In Chapter 9, ‘Augustine, Original Sin, and the Naked Ape’, Andrew Pinsent makes a strong case for an Augustinian understanding of original sin, filtered through Thomas Aquinas. Given the ‘disordered desires and dissatisfactions’ we experience (p. 132), he suggests that there is clear evidence that ‘we are not what we should be’ (p. 134). But that does not imply there is some ‘defect’ that is passed down from generation to generation. What is passed down is not the presence of something defective, but the absence of something special. The suggestion is that the human ability to relate to God could have evolved and spread rapidly (p. 142), but that an actual relationship with God is possible only with ‘a special divine action—namely, grace—to enable us to participate in God’s life as children of God’ (p. 136). This gift of grace was originally given, but subsequently withdrawn when the first humans ‘freely chose to reject the love of God’ (p. 142). We have been created (through evolution) ‘to know and to love God’, but, in the absence of such a relationship with God, we find ourselves ‘choosing flawed substitutes for God’ (pp. 136-7).
In Chapter 10, ‘Adam as Federal Head of Humankind’, C. John Collins offers a strong defence of a historical fall, and only a relatively brief discussion of the kind of ‘corporate solidarity’ (p. 153) expressed in the idea of federal headship. Although willing to concede that Adam and Eve are not the unique progenitors of the whole human race, he still places them ‘at the headwaters of humankind’ (p. 158). This is because,
If the fall did not take place under such circumstances, it is exceedingly difficult to grasp how God could justly account its effects to a population that had no proper connection to Adam and Eve (p. 158).
He suggests that Adam and Eve might have been the ‘king and queen’ of the first human population, so that they could legitimately act as representatives, and that ‘everyone who can be called genuinely human descends from this group’. God then ‘entered into a relationship with this population, or the image-bearing subset of it, and he did so by way of Adam and Eve as their representatives’. This involved them ‘obeying a command’, but ‘temptation from a Dark Power seduced them into disobedience’ (p. 158).
In Chapter 11, ‘The Irenaean Approach to Original Sin through Christ’s Redemption’, Andrew M. McCoy clears up a widespread misconception. It is commonly thought that Irenaeus, in describing creation as immature, held that ‘sin is an inevitable or intended part of God’s design for creation’ (p. 163). On the contrary, for Irenaeus, although creation was ‘intended for development and growth’ (p. 161), it was ‘created good and apart from sin and evil’ (p. 164). Sin, for Irenaeus, ‘destroys the potential for humanity to grow as God intends’ (p. 167), and this trajectory is restored only through Christ’s redemptive work (p. 169).
In Chapter 12, ‘Original Sin and the Coevolution of Nature and Culture’, Benno van den Toren shows how nature and culture are deeply entwined for humanity. The long process of enculturation for human infants provides a clear mechanism by which sinfulness can pass from generation to generation ‘naturally’ (so to speak). Whether this observation is sufficient on its own as an explanation for original sin is not entirely clear, but it could easily be combined with other approaches.
In Chapter 13, ‘A Nonhistorical Approach: The Universality of Sin without the Originating Sin’, Christopher M. Hays attempts to dispense with a historical fall. First, he argues ‘that it is erroneous to interpret Genesis 2-3 as a record of events that happened in time and space’ (p. 187). I found this section unconvincing, as it appears to allow modern scientific considerations too much weight in determining how the text ought to be interpreted. Next, he draws on the idea of ‘accommodation’ to suggest that Paul (and, presumably, Jesus, in Matthew 19 and Mark 10) mistakenly believed in a historical Adam, but that his argument in Romans 5 (and, presumably, in 1 Corinthians 15) does not depend on him being correct (pp. 198-9). Finally, he attempts to explain the origins of universal sinfulness on other grounds, resorting to speculation about the effects of an angelic fall (p. 202). Thus all humans are born with a tendency towards sin because of the actions of rebellious angels. The justice of this seems questionable.
Part II, in conclusion, contains much that is of value, and gives the impression that there are no insurmountable theological objections to the ideas that (1) the first population of humans arose through an evolutionary process, and (2) original sin entered the human race through the sinful actions of this population. But this is not to say there are no biblical objections. The most plausible scenarios place the first humans, and the first human sin, in the very distant past. But are the narratives in Genesis 2-3 truly this flexible? What are we to make of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4? What about the genealogies linking Adam to Abraham in Genesis 5 and 11? What about the flood?
Part III, edited by Michael Lloyd, is about Evil and Evolution. The problem of evil is exacerbated by the realisation that ‘pain, disease, and death predate the emergence of humans’ (p. 209), and that God apparently chose the ‘violent’ process of evolution as his means of creation (p. 210). How can we still maintain that God is good?
In Chapter 14, ‘Questions, Challenges, and Concerns for the Problem of Evil’, C. Ben Mitchell gives an overview of the issues at stake, and the approaches that have been taken to respond to them. An evolutionary account needs to do justice to the biblical text, and also to the ‘narrative arc of the Scriptures … and thus of the gospel’ (p. 221).
In Chapter 15, Stanley P. Rosenberg returns to ask, ‘Can Nature be “Red in Tooth and Claw” in the Thought of Augustine?’ While humans experience a ‘privation’ – a removal of something good – as a consequence of sin (pp. 233-4), this is not how Augustine describes the violence and decay seen in the nonhuman creation. On the contrary, Augustine is able to describe the ‘constant succession’ of living creatures, ‘as some things pass away and others arise’, in terms of ‘beauty’ and ‘goodness’ (p. 239). This is merely what is to be expected if ‘creation is fundamentally contingent, limited, and different from God’ (p. 242). The problems brought in by the fall are relational, reflecting a dislocation between humans and themselves, each other, God, and the rest of creation (p. 242). (What if there had been no fall? ‘Certainly, Augustine thought that if Adam and Eve had continued in purity, a greater grace would have been gained, which would have preserved them against decay’, p. 243.) Therefore, for Augustine, it seems that there is no problem of evil arising from nonhuman suffering prior to humanity (although this point is not stressed, and seems not to have been taken on board later in the book). There is such a difference between human and nonhuman creatures that nonhuman suffering prior to the fall is simply ‘not evil’ (p. 237). This will become significant in what follows.
In Chapter 16, Michael Lloyd explores ‘Theodicy, Fall, and Adam’. The focus is on the problem of ‘PANE’: ‘pre-Adamic natural evil’ (p. 246). Animals experience ‘what looks indistinguishable from suffering’, and the natural world is characterised by a ‘violent competitiveness’ that in no way reflects the God who ‘lays down His life that others might live’ (pp. 241-2). Indeed, we should note ‘the apparent antipathy of Jesus toward suffering, whenever and wherever he saw it’ (p. 250). (But did Jesus ever alleviate animal suffering?) So we are faced with a genuine problem. God’s goodness and power are compromised by suggestions that PANE might be instrumental or inevitable, so PANE must be ‘inimical to the purposes of God’. Specifically, we must attribute PANE ‘not to God’s creational choices nor to his creative limitation but to the choices of free creatures’ (p. 255). In other words, PANE must be a consequence of some kind of fall. However, it cannot be a consequence of the human fall, for the simple reason that PANE is ‘pre-Adamic’ (William Dembski notwithstanding).
Lloyd continues in Chapter 17 by examining ‘The Fallenness of Nature: Three Nonhuman Suspects’. Rejecting suggestions that PANE might be a consequence of the fall of a (Platonic) world-soul or of a free process, Lloyd settles on the fall of the angels as the most plausible explanation. It is speculated that ‘the solidarity of the angels with the rest of creation is so close that sin in the angelic realm must also issue in a fallen and disrupted natural order’ (p. 274). As a consequence, creation was fallen before human beings even existed. Creation at the end of Genesis 1 was thus ‘very good’ only ‘ontologically’ (p. 275). The violent and competitive nature of the evolutionary process is a consequence of the angelic fall, but God’s purposes were ‘sufficiently nonfrustrated’ for this process to lead to the evolution of humanity (p. 276).
In Chapter 18, Richard Swinburne presents ‘An Irenaean Approach to Evil’ – ‘Irenaean’ in the sense that Irenaeus ‘taught that God made a world containing both good and evil in order that people might have the opportunity to freely choose the good’ (p. 280). Once again, it is suggested that animal suffering and human suffering are comparable (pp. 288-90). The suggestion is that the suffering of any creature produces a clear benefit for other creatures, who may (for example) be able to show greater courage as a consequence, thus ensuring that the suffering creature did not live or die in vain. Swinburne concludes that there is ‘considerable plausibility in the claim that the expected benefit of God allowing that quantity and degree of suffering to occur that actually occurs outweighs the evil of the suffering’ (p. 292).
In Chapter 19, Christopher Southgate introduces us to the ‘“Free-Process” and “Only Way” Arguments’. In the former it is supposed ‘that the freedom within the processes behind evolution is a good that can be a counterweight to the disvalues that arise from the processes’ (p. 294). Southgate finds these less than persuasive: ‘it is not clear to me that freedom of natural processes is a good’ in itself (p. 298). The ‘only way’ arguments speculate that there was no better way by which God could have created ‘a biosphere containing all this value and beauty’ (p. 294). However, it is recognised that an ‘eschatological component’ is necessary, as compensation for creaturely suffering (p. 304)
Finally, in Chapter 20, Vince Vitale presents a ‘Non-Identity Theodicy’. It is better for me to exist than never to have existed. But if history had been even slightly different (no Holocaust, no Black Death, no animal suffering in evolution), then I would have never been born. Therefore, all the sufferings of history can be justified. Anyway, ‘the afterlife can be great enough and exist for long enough to outweigh even the greatest evils of the present age’ (p. 309) – animals included (p. 317). (I honestly don’t think I have misrepresented the argument of this chapter.)
Part III, then, is built on the premise that evolution exacerbates the problem of evil, because animal suffering and death is unambiguously contrary to the purposes of God. This premise is called into question by Rosenberg’s interpretation of Augustine, but faces little scrutiny elsewhere. Rosenberg’s Augustine and Lloyd are united by their unqualified opposition to evil, which is somewhat qualified by Swinburne, Southgate and Vitale. For this latter group, evil serves an essential good purpose, such that there are certain good things that simply cannot exist without the presence of evil. Evil is therefore, at least in some sense, not evil, but good. Finally, it is worth observing that the idea of a final judgment makes only one or two brief appearances. Is this a significant omission?
Finding Ourselves after Darwin is a difficult book to summarise (as you have no doubt realised). In broad brush strokes, Part I is in danger of missing the point, Part II is very helpful, and Part III is built on a questionable premise. But there is much of value throughout the book. Overall, this volume provides a very helpful contribution to an ongoing conversation.