Left: "Abrahamic Covenant" by Christoph Weigel, 1695.
Courtesy Pitts Theological Seminary, Emory University.
The only parsons and scientists who argue are those who understand neither the God of Genesis nor the science of the universe. The parsons make God too small to make use of science, the scientists make science so big they think it can function without God’s having given it life.
Both are wrong, for they do not grasp how big God truly is. The true debate is not over evolution, but over the simple question: How big is God? Is he big enough to use any means he chooses? —George MacDonald, 18881
In my previous posts I pointed out that there is no biblical basis for asserting a definition of the imago Dei that relies on a concept of human biological exclusivity owing to certain special human capacities or characteristics. Rather, we saw that the phrase “image and likeness of God” finds its scriptural meaning in the fact that Homo sapiens are chosen by God in a concrete historical act to be a species taken from among the animals and set apart as God’s own possession for God’s special purposes. In the same way that God formed (yatsar) Israel to be a people or nation unto himself (Isa 43:21), so God formed (yatsar) the first human beings (Gen 2:7) to be the partner of God in his formation and administration of creation. There was no ontological or biological necessity for God to historically choose humans as his image. Such elective choosing was purely an act of divine grace.2
How, then, does understanding the imago Dei as election relate to the scientific question of human origins and the age-old controversy surrounding biological evolution? For many contemporary Christians the most offensive and theologically problematic aspect of Charles Darwin’s understanding of human origins is his contention that human beings are not biologically special or empirically distinct from animals. As is well known, Darwin argued that even in the areas of mental behavior and mind, “the difference…between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.” In this way “Darwin’s dangerous idea” has been perceived as an affront to the natural dignity and majesty of mankind; the uniqueness of the human species is thought to be threatened if we are reduced to the status of “brute beasts.”
Though a powerful force in our current culture, this reaction to Darwin’s theory has more to do with secular French Enlightenment notions of the “dignity of man” and Italian Renaissance ideas of “man as the measure of all things” than with anything that is taught in the Christian Bible (as we saw in the first post). Nevertheless, endeavors to define human nature in stark contrast to the natures of non-human animals continue unabated. In reaction to the perceived perils to human uniqueness posed by the idea of continuity with animals, many have blatantly denied the reality of human kinship with animals—assaulting evolution and asserting the superiority and exemplarity of human beings in the name of theological tradition. Others have endeavored to establish the reality of human uniqueness through an unswerving faith in an anthropocentrism of the gaps—presupposing human exceptionality where empirical evidence is wanting, contested, or—at the very least—ambiguous. For many Christians today, this type of theological endeavor to establish human material uniqueness seems the obvious way forward, and this path is taken for granted even in the face of its being completely unsupportable from Scripture.
Yet taking seriously what the Bible has to say about the imago Dei-as-election instantly relaxes this perceived tension between theological anthropology and the natural sciences. As we saw in our previous posts, the Bible never teaches that the imago Dei is founded upon the natural dignity or majesty of man. Indeed, the Scriptural situation is quite the reverse—any dignity or majesty that we might have as human beings is solely a gift of God’s grace and not our biological entitlement; God’s regard for humanity is a source of wonderment for the Psalmist (Ps.8:4). Darwin’s view of human origins thus has the ironic effect of bringing us back to the core of the Scriptural meaning of mankind, and to the fact that we, as human beings, were chosen from among the animals as Abraham and his family was chosen from among the nations. Apart from God’s choosing and blessing there was no fundamental difference between Abraham’s lineage and the other families of the Earth; likewise, there was no fundamental distinction between humans and other animals apart from God’s choosing and blessing. In both cases, it is God’s choosing that makes the difference—a primarily theological and relational difference, at that, though not without real, material, historical consequences, as well.
Much recent scientific research supports this deeply biblical view of humanity’s place in created reality and has shown that many capacities classically upheld to be distinctive of humans alone (such as self-consciousness, rationality, empathy, and even culture) have also been found among non-human animals.3 Several decades of scientific investigation and thousands of comparative studies between human and animal behaviors and minds have effectively blurred the qualitative dividing line between “man and beast,” at least in terms of the biological underpinnings for many of our higher functions. Indeed, one is hard-pressed to name a single distinctive characteristic of humankind that does not also suggest our continuity with other animals.
For those who trust their Bible and read it carefully and consistently, empirical findings that assert our commonality with other “lower” creatures should come as no great shock or surprise. But perhaps even more instructive than considering the complexity of human biological “uniqueness” in light of the present state of biological life on earth is consideration of the early history of the human species before 50,000 years ago, when recent research suggests Homo sapiens was one of at least several advanced hominoid species on earth,4 and that culture was not unique to them alone.5
Though today it may be difficult for us to imagine sharing the Earth with other culture-bearing hominoids, the fact is that “our species’ current monopoly of hominid life on Earth is an unusual state of affairs”6 and was not always the case: hominids currently classified as distinct species who lived contemporaneously with anatomically modern human beings (Homo sapiens) include Hominid “X” or Homo denisova, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo floresiensis (though the latter seems to have been geographically isolated from other Homo species). Furthermore, there is now genetic evidence that our species interbred with at least one of our cousin species—as recent revelation of the Neanderthal origin of some of our modern DNA implies.7
Again, this is not to assert that the unprecedented achievements of humanity since it emerged from that complex period of deep history were either trivial or somehow “biologically inevitable,” We have only to look around us to see the obvious and de facto uniqueness of our place among God’s creatures and transformative role on earth (for both good and ill). It is also not to argue against the idea that God intended and prepared our species for image bearing long before the time of our historical election. Instead, the point here is to emphasize that it is the ongoing special relationship God established with humankind that put the basic capacities or potential we share with other creatures to use in natural and, eventually, in salvation history.
In some way, the personal interaction of the sovereign God with both the emerging human species (and, in parallel, the people of Israel) may have magnified, focused and directed the effect of those shared traits in order to create a creature and nation set apart. In both cases it was God’s elective employment or use of our capacities for his plans—and not the physical traits themselves—that allow us to image God. However investigations of the material distinctiveness of the human species develop, our theologically-significant uniqueness rests in God’s action and not in our physical bodies or cultural capacities alone. Critically in an age when we seem intent on asserting our sovereignty over even our own biology, this means that even those ‘non-normative’ persons who lack certain physical and/or behavioral capacities (such as small children or the mentally disabled who may not possess rationality or language) are still fully in the image of God.
In closing, then, the evidence from paleoanthropology reveals that Homo sapiens at the time of their initial emergence as a species were confronted with a scenario akin to Abraham as he separated from his ancient Chaldean ancestors. As one people chosen by God from among many, Abraham and his lineage were called out for the purpose of blessing the nations, though they continued to interact and even intermingle with those outside the chosen line. Upon Abraham’s calling and divine election, God brought him out from among his ancestral people and home of Ur of the Chaldees to travel with his family to an unknown land which God would show him (Gen 12:1-20). Abraham and his family thus became the founders of a new population in a new land that was chosen by God. God’s chosen people, Israel, was likewise called out from among the nations and was taken by God from Egypt to a new land of his choosing. In the same manner, the first human beings were taken by God and put in the land that God had chosen for them—the garden located “in the East” in a place called Eden (Gen 2:8). See note at right.
From the line of Abraham the nation of Israel was created or formed (yatsar) through the sovereign choosing or election of God (Isa 43:21) in order to be “a light unto the nations” (Isa 42:6, 49:6). Israel’s election was simultaneously the event of Israel’s creation. The early chapters of Genesis, when considered within their exegetical and ancient Near Eastern cultural context, describe a similar state of affairs for human beings as a whole. God’s choosing or election of Adam and Eve—the primeval ancestors and corporate representatives of the entire human race—from among the hominids is the very event through which humans are created or formed (yatsar) “as the image of God”. The election of humankind is the creation of humankind as the imago Dei. This election and creation of human beings as the divine image simultaneously entails a vocation, mission, and calling for humans to exist for the sake of and for the redemption of God’s created cosmos.
1. George MacDonald, The Landlady’s Master, ed. Michael R. Phillips (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1989), 123-124.
2. For a discussion of the imago Dei as election see Joshua M. Moritz, “Evolution, the End of Human Uniqueness, and the Election of the Imago Dei,” Theology and Science 9:3 (Aug 2011).
3. Krützen, M., Willems, E. P., & van Schaik, C. P. (2011). Culture and Geographic Variation in Orangutan Behavior. Current Biology, 21(21), 1808-1812.
4. For a review article that details the range of the current discussion on paleoanthropology and cultural development see Francesco d’Errico and Chris B. Stringer, "Evolution, revolution or saltation scenario for the emergence of modern cultures?" Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences 366 (2011):1060-1069.
5. For a discussion of this research focused on human uniqueness, see Joshua M. Moritz, “Human Uniqueness, the Other Hominids, and ‘Anthropocentrism of the Gaps’ in the Religion and Science Dialogue,” Zygon 47 (1):65-96.
6. Ian Tattersall and Jeffery Schwartz, Extinct Humans (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000), 227.
7. Green, R. E., Krause, J., Briggs, A. W., Maricic, T., Stenzel, U., Kircher, M., et al. (2010). A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome. Science, 328(5979), 710-722.