Recent developments in the science of human evolution raise important questions for our Christian understanding of what it means to be human. What do these findings mean for our understanding of the idea that we are created in the image of God? For our understanding of original sin, or how evil came into the world?
I feel greatly privileged to think through these questions as a member of the Oxford-based ‘Configuring Adam and Eve’ team that is part of the wider BioLogos ‘Evolution and Christian Faith’ project. If I am honest, I am not only thrilled to be part of a group of scientists, philosophers, and theologians thinking about some of the recent discoveries and hypotheses about the development of the human species, I am also scared. I do not yet know where this will lead. My faith has grown around a certain understanding of human uniqueness and a historic Fall. As a systematic thinker and theologian, I resonate with the analysis of C. John Collins’ Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? (2011) who claims that the Christian understanding of redemption seems to be intrinsically bound up with a particular understanding of the Fall.
I can see some ways in which these new evolutionary discoveries may be integrated with core Christian commitments, but I am far from certain what this will look like, and this uncertainty does create a sense of unease for me. Yet I believe we need to resist the temptation to run to quick conclusions, either by digging our heels in the sand defending classic solutions or by presenting new ideas as the new orthodoxy. There are historic considerations that warn us from jumping to quick conclusions. We have learned from past paradigm-shifting moments in history, such as those associated with Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Freud, that it often takes generations before theologians and the Christian community arrive at settled opinions on whether and how revolutionary ideas have implications for our understanding of the Gospel and of how God works in the world.
Neither do we need to jump to quick solutions, for our faith is in the crucified, risen, and living Christ and not in any specific understanding of how all that squares with every aspect of our lives and of what we know or think we know. Sometimes, out of fear or some sense of being required to defend our position, Church leaders and teachers have hastily set up a boundary marker around some doctrinal theory which they have confused as a core doctrinal issue. When it later became apparent that these lines were too hastily drawn and could be crossed, the crossing of those boundaries brought the Christian faith into disrepute. The faith had become too closely associated with for example a geocentric universe which had been defended as the only biblical position. It is our calling to bring every aspect of our lives under the authority of Christ and all our thoughts captive to Christ, but it is equally evident that this is an ongoing journey. This is not only the case in our daily struggles to live holy lives – or even to know what this means in the complex world in which we live. This is equally the case when we strive to bring ever more areas of our culture and scientific thinking to the obedience of our Creator.
One tool that may help us in this effort of remaining faithful to the Gospel while open to the challenges we face is the realization that all our doctrinal commitments aren’t equally authoritative. The Early Church has given certain doctrines a special status by marking them out as ‘dogmas.’ A dogma, such as the belief that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human, is critical to the Christian faith, because our salvation stands or falls with this truth. The Christian community has said that in our reflection on the person of Jesus Christ, we need to respect certain boundaries: we should always guard the conviction that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. These are, however, boundaries, and they do not intend to give an authoritative description of how we should picture the person of Christ and conceive of the relationship between his two natures in more detail. Theologians have in fact proposed a number of models of how we might conceive of this relationship. Some have talked about the communicatio idiomatum, the sharing of the characteristics between the two natures of Christ. Others have used the model of kenosis or self-emptying: the divine Son laid down his divine powers and prerogatives to live within the limits of human existence.
Our respect for these dogmatic boundaries and for biblical teaching (or ‘doctrine’) does therefore not stand or fall with our acceptance of certain doctrinal theories of how we should conceive of the person of Christ. We may exchange one theory for a better one. We can even hold on to the basic biblical doctrines without any theory at hand. My belief in the humanity or the divinity of Christ does not depend on such a theory. This is not a retreat to obscurantism. You do not need to have a good theory of sound to know that sound is real. You do not need a theory of depression in order to recognise it and to know that it is real. You do not need to deny the reality of love, because it is very hard to formulate an adequate theory of love. Most theories of love I have come across fall short of the reality they seek to describe—and sometimes we need multiple models to help us understand different aspects of the reality we are exploring.
It seems to me that some Christians’ initial defensive posture toward evolutionary science is caused by the fact that we do not always know how to rate our doctrinal commitments appropriately. We rightly believe that the Bible is the Word of God, inspired and entirely trustworthy, but we associate that idea directly with a certain theory of how inspiration works and how the human words in the Scriptures can also be the Word of God. When our theory receives criticism, we feel that our deeper doctrinal convictions are under attack.
We believe the doctrine that humankind is different from the rest of the created world because it is created in the image of God and has a special covenantal relationship with God. We may associate this idea with one of a number of doctrinal theories that are currently on offer, for example, the theory that the human being is the only animal with a spiritual soul. There are, however, other theories that understand the image of God primarily in relational terms. Only human beings are created in the image of God because God has invited or called them in a covenantal relationship with him. These different theories will of course face different challenges when considering evolutionary science. When one theory appears inadequate, we may need to look for a different one, but we do not necessarily need to abandon the faith and doctrine that we are unique because we are created in the image of God.
Knowing that all my doctrinal commitments aren’t equally central to my faith helps me personally to find the intellectual and existential space I need to deal with some of the leading theories on human evolution. I realize that some doctrines are worth fighting for much more than others. Some doctrines are indeed essential for safeguarding salvation. Without God being the Creator, for example, there can be no salvation in the Christian sense. If matter is intrinsically evil, as the Gnostics in the Early Church believed, we can only be saved from our physical existence, but there can be no salvation of this material world itself. Yet, other convictions may be more adequately viewed as doctrinal theories: they are efforts at explaining the reality of God which we encounter in the Scriptures and in Jesus Christ. Our faith does not of course depend on our ability to explain this reality any more than we can only believe in light if we have an adequate scientific theory explaining it.
Some of the recent debates about human evolution may indeed demand adjustment, maybe significant adjustment, of my theoretical understanding of how—for example—original sin works. But this doctrine has always been a conundrum. It is strongly confirmed by experience (particularly for those of us who have tried to raise children) and at the same time, it’s one of the most difficult doctrines to understand (how can we square inheritance and responsibility?). My recognition that we are all enslaved to sin and in need of a Saviour is not necessarily linked to one specific doctrinal theory –not even to my ability to formulate any theory at all. The interface between current evolutionary findings with our Christian doctrines such as original sin does indeed create tensions. Distinguishing between what the Bible and the church teach concerning the human conditions and alternative and sometimes competing doctrinal theories that help us make sense of this reality may give us the conceptual space we need to engage with these issues.