We conclude the fifth installment in our ongoing Southern Baptist Voices Series—a collection of seven essays from Southern Baptist scholars with BioLogos responses to their concerns and arguments. You can read more about the series here.
In his paper, Essentialism and Evolution, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary philosopher Bruce A. Little introduced the concept of essentialism, suggesting that it is most consistent with the biblical idea of the fixity of species and constitutes a challenge to evolutionary origins of life on earth. Dr. Little also made the case that modern science has unjustifiably marginalized essentialism because it does not fit within a purely physical understanding of reality.
In Part 1 of the BioLogos response to Dr. Little, Wheaton philosopher Robert A. Bishop began by tracing the decline of essentialism in Western philosophy and science, and suggesting that essentialism is not the only (or the best) way for Christians to answer the question, “What does it mean to be human?” In the second part, Dr. Bishop suggests that Trinitarian theology and the image of God are important, non-essentialist resources to help us think about the distinct place of humanity in creation.
Other Ways of Being Human
In Part 1 of this essay I pointed out that metaphysical naturalism is not necessary nor inextricably tied to the practice of science, and that essentialism is only one of the historically-Christian ways to think about being human. As a case in point, we can identify the Patristic Fathers and Medieval Christian thinkers who discussed a relational alternative for understanding the nature or being of persons.1 Roughly, the idea is that the three persons of the Trinity are what they are and who they are in virtue of their relationship with each other, not based on some intrinsic properties that ground their uniqueness as persons in the Godhead. That is to say that Father, Son and Spirit co-constitute each other, or are bound up together with enabling each other to be distinctly the persons that they are. Far from a static form of being and relationship, there is a dynamic interrelatedness in the Trinity. Father, Son and Spirit mutually constitute each other while enabling each other to be particularly who they are and engage creation and salvation in particular ways suited to who they are as persons. Father, Son and Spirit are being in community.
By analogy of relationship, humans are what we distinctly are in our being and personality in virtue of our relationship to God, creation and each other. Our involvements with others necessarily shape who we are as particular persons. The personal realm, then, is characterized by a dynamic relationality, as persons have ongoing mutually constituting influence on each other. This is part of the “dynamic order” of creation “that is summoned into being and directed towards its perfection by the free creativity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That orientation of being is, of course, distorted and delayed by sin and evil, and returns to its directedness only through the incarnation and the redeeming agency of the Spirit. But evil distorts the dynamic of being, does not take it away."2 Like the relationality of the persons of the Trinity, we are being in community.
We can also pursue the doctrine of creation as an alternative to essentialism, to see if it sheds any light on possibilities for what it means to be human in a non-reductionist sense.3 As other writers have been exploring in the Forum over the past few weeks, the biblical claim that humans are created in the image of God is important to the Christian of view of humankind. This may sound like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, for there are both Christians and non-Christians who claim that if humans arose through evolutionary processes, then we cannot be made in God’s image. Nevertheless, it is worth exploring as a way of showing that there are strong alternatives to a strictly essentialist understanding of being human.
The Image of God
Over the centuries, the dominant view of humans as the imago Dei has been grounded in the idea that there is something distinctive about the creation of humans that both sets us apart from the rest of the animals and that marks us as unique kinds of creatures. Though we are clearly both distinctive and unique, does affirming the imago Dei require this kind of essentialism? On the one hand, Genesis 1:27 has often been interpreted as grounding humanity’s being in the divine image of God on Earth. On the other hand, recent discussions in human evolution have focused on several independent lines of evidence supporting the hypothesis of common ancestry among primates and humans: fossil evidence over the last 6 million years; homologies or anatomical similarities between humans and the primates; biogeographical distribution of supposed human ancestors; similarities in developmental biology between humans and primates; and several lines of genetic evidence favoring common ancestry. In addition, our current best understanding of the genetic diversity of humans is inconsistent with models that assume all humans descended from a single original pair of individuals. Instead, the current best data and models indicate the human ancestral population was never smaller than several thousand individuals.4
On the surface, then, what contemporary evolutionary science currently says on human origins appears to challenge cherished beliefs and understandings of many Christians. However, to understand what implications, if any, an evolutionary development of humans might have on the image of God, we first need to get clear on what it means to be the imago Dei, and that has to be settled theologically, not scientifically.
Historically, some of the most popular proposals for the imago Dei were rooted in human rationality, human freedom or human creativity because it was thought that humans alone among the animals possessed one or more of these qualities. There are two problems with this traditional line of thought. First, investigations since the early 18th century have progressively led to the conclusion that such qualities of humans mark a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind (e.g., brains of mammals and humans are anatomically homologous, dolphins, primates, and some species of birds exhibit degrees of rationality and creativity). The degree of difference may be significant, but a difference in kind is necessary for the traditional line of essentialist thought.
Second, if we look to the Incarnation for clues to the imago Dei we find that Jesus’s humanity is never depicted as exercising extraordinary powers of rationality, freedom, creativity, and so forth. Primarily, Jesus lived as an embodied person in relationship with the Father, other humans and creation as enabled by the work of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Jesus’ human life in Scripture indicates that the divine image is a special relationship, or form of relationality: to be in relationship with the Father as a created, embodied person; to be sustained or upheld in this relationship with the Father through the perfecting Spirit; and to be in relationship with other persons and all of creation.5 Moreover, this special relationship is also a vocation to mirror or reflect the glory, life and worship of God.6
If to be the image of God is to be sustained in a special relationship with the Father, each other and creation through the Spirit, then the imago Dei is not grounded in intrinsic qualities that particularly mark humans as distinct from the rest of the animals, as essentialism would have it. Christians can understand Genesis 1: 24-31 and 2: 4-5, as many of the Patristic Fathers did, as an account of our unity and connection with the rest of creation as well as of our special relationship with God and role in God’s kingdom. So if Father, Son and Spirit created human beings through evolutionary processes, we would have continuity and connection with all of creation while still being the imago Dei. Evolution does not threaten human specialness before God unless it is viewed as a replacement for divine creative activity (which, of course, is what Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne and Answers in Genesis all do repeatedly).
If evolution is broadly right as an account of the creation of all living things (an empirical matter), and if some form of essentialism is found to be consistent with such an account (a philosophical and biological matter), Christians would then have two options for how to understand what it means to be human. We can look for some stable, unique intrinsic features in virtue of which we are human; or we can look to the special Spirit-sustained relationship we have with God, creation and each other. Both are biblically consistent, though I judge understanding the imago Dei as special relationship to make better sense of the whole of the Bible, as well as our experience in the world.