This is the second in a six part series adapted from a chapter in the upcoming book The Continuing Relevance of Wesleyan Theology: Essays in Honor of Laurence W. Wood, edited by Nathan Crawford (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2011). Peterson believes that while basic theistic evolution is a start, it does not provide for the believer a coherent picture of the total theological vision cast by the Bible. For this reason, he will be identifying and exploring the deepest historic Christian theology in order to engage evolutionary science in a meaningful way. Part two embarks on this ambitious journey.
A Sketch of the Theological Picture of Reality
Let us begin by sketching some of the large themes of classical Christian orthodoxy, followed by those of science, exploring the significance of each theme as we proceed.
Classical, Ecumenical, Historically Orthodox. Classical Christianity is the definition of Christian belief hammered out by councils, synods, and consensual bodies convened during the early life of the church. These conclaves met on a worldwide basis to enunciate a precise understanding of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, and other doctrines and, in so doing, to distinguish authentic Christian belief from heresy and error. The official declarations of the Seven Great Councils—Nicaea I, Constantinople I, Ephesus, Chalcedon, Constantinople II, Constantinople III, and Nicaea II—bound all Christians East and West. Universal Christianity—that is, catholic Christianity—supplies the intellectual content necessary to engage science. To begin, universal Christianity points singularly to the overarching goal of our existence as human creatures. The Catechism of the Catholic Church poignantly declares:
God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. . . . The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself.1
We were made for God. We find the meaning of our existence in relation to him, and we are meant to experience God’s life taking root and growing in our lives within a worshiping community. This great mystery occurs, therefore, in the midst of the people who are called Christ’s body. The Westminster Confession states: “All saints that are united to Jesus Christ their head, by his Spirit and by faith, have fellowship with him in his graces, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory, and being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces...”2 Indeed, the Apostles’ Creed makes “communion of the saints” a necessary item of belief.
Nicene, Constantinopolitan, Chalcedonian. The findings of all of the Seven Great Councils clarify and solidify important elements of Christian faith; but the first councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) as well as the council of Chalcedon (451) shall serve as symbolic for our purposes. At Nicaea, of course, the nature of Christ the Son of God was formulated: he is not simply the most perfect of all creatures but is consubstantial and co-eternal with the Father (“eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God”). At Constantinople, the belief that the Holy Spirit is a Person and proceeds from (and therefore must be of the same substance with) the Father was affirmed, thus giving endorsement to the concept of the Trinity (“with the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified”). At Chalcedon, the meaning of the Incarnation was further refined: Jesus Christ our Lord perfectly and forever unites in one Person two distinct natures, human and divine, without confusion of the human with the divine or the diminution of either the human or the divine (“truly God and truly man”). Such theological statements, resulting from the councils, form an important basis for a Christian vision of reality capable of productive engagement with contemporary science.
Trinitarian. Significant theological explanation is often generated by the power of a single crucial insight. Only Trinitarian belief is complex enough to match the depth of experience recorded in the Bible and continued in the ongoing life of the Church. However, the concept of the Trinity is not merely a summary of experience (the economic Trinity known through creation and salvation); rather it is—following Rahner’s Rule—to be identified with the Immanent Trinity (God in Himself in His own eternity, infinity and glory).3 God’s nature is truly, but not exhaustively, made known through his revelatory acts. This means that the proclamation of the “One in Three and Three in One” is not a just a mystical formula., but rather a privileged metaphysical insight, given to the body of believers This statement reveals that the Godhead is intrinsically a dynamic personal, interpersonal, social, and relational Being, with the Persons interacting in mutual relations of self-giving love. Reflecting the renaissance of Trinitarian theology in our day, this essay assumes that Trinitarian themes are not simply one area of theology but provide the very framework for theology, including the other theological themes explored below.
Creational, Incarnational, Sacramental. The concept of “creation out of nothing” (creatio ex nihilo) reflects the truth that reality is fundamentally divided into two broad domains: the Creator and the creation. The classical doctrine of creation entails that God freely—without necessity or cosmic conflict—brought everything else into being. Knowledge of the nature of God as Creator entails that the creaturely realm is real, rational, and good.4For purposes of this discussion, to be real is to posses the gift of material existence, to be rational is to possess order agreeable to mind, and to be good is to have divinely-bestowed worth. To be creaturely, however, also means to be dependent, not self-sufficient—and this contingency means that the Creator is continually keeping the creation from ontological collapse. Humanity, as the crowning aspect of creation, is said to bear the image of God (imago Dei) — made essentially to be like God in certain finite respects and destined to be in communion with God. The doctrine of the Incarnation is both evidence of God’s desire to identify intimately with humanity and the first fruit of humanity actually being taken into the divine life. With divinely-given authority, the Church leads us into this mystery of grace by administering the sacrament of the Eucharist. We may appropriately enlarge the definition of sacrament in the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles—as “a visible sign of an invisible grace”—so that all things in ordinary life and in the larger reality we inhabit potentially become sacramental:avenues of God’s grace. We can briefly sum up implications of the creational-incarnational-sacramental nature of Christian faith that relate to present concerns: God loves matter—humanity is intimately connected to the material realm, and the whole of nature (human and subhuman), though finite and contingent, has an ultimate destiny in the purposes of God.
Kenotic. It should be no surprise that one of the most striking descriptions of the humility and condescension of Christ—that “he emptied himself” (Phil 2:7 NRSV)—is one of the richest and most central theological concepts. The Son of God, with the purpose of inviting us into fellowship with himself, thought it no shame to become one with humanity and share our lot. Theologian Donald Dawe laments our lack of attention to the full meaning of “self-emptying” (kenosis):
The audacity of this belief in the divine kenosis has often been lost by long familiarity with it. . . . The familiar phrases ‘he emptied himself [heauton ekenosen], taking the form of a servant,’ ‘though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor,’ have come to seem commonplace. Yet this belief in the divine self-emptying epitomizes the radically new message of Christian faith about God and his relation to man.5
Since love is the essential nature of God, it follows logically that the object of love must be given an appropriate degree of independence for genuinely free response. Divine self-limitation, then, makes possible human freedom, which is a necessary condition for being truly able to love God and to develop all of the relational values that make for human fulfillment. On broader theological grounds, we must conclude that the whole of divinely-created reality, and not just our own species’ brief history here, is kenotic in character, as God limits his full power and glory, because this might well be the only way to make a creation at all.
1. Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguori, Mo.: United States Catholic Conference, Inc., 1994), pp. 7, 15.
2. The Westminster Confession, art. 26. See the complete Confession in the Appendix in Paul Smith, The Westminster Confession: Enjoying God Forever (Chicago: Moody Press, 1998).
3. Karl Rahner, The Trinity (London: Burns & Oates, 1970), p. 22.
4. See Daniel O’Connor and Francis Oakley (eds.), Creation: The Impact of an Idea (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1969), Part I on “Nature.”
5. Donald Dawe, The Form of a Servant (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963), p. 13-15.