Science and the Bible: Theistic Evolution, Part 3

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

Matthias Grunewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (1510-1515), Unterlinden Museum at Colmar, Alsace, France

Last time, I presented three implications and conclusions concerning Theistic Evolution. There is much more to say about this, so we continue the same thread—and we will pick it up yet again in two weeks, coming back once more for an historical look in about a month.

Some implications and conclusions of Theistic Evolution--continued

(4) Several leading TEs have advanced a strongly Christocentric theology of creation—stressing the idea (from the prologue of John’s gospel) that the Maker of heaven and earth is the crucified and resurrected second person of the Trinity. Especially when theodicy is the topic, they like to speak about “the crucified God,” or “the theology of the cross,” or “divine kenosis.”

On first glance, some readers might be a bit perplexed: isn’t this column supposed to be about evolution, not the crucifixion? What could those topics possibly have in common? The answer lies in theodicy, or the problem of evil and suffering in the world. As I stressed in my column about the YEC view, creationism is ultimately about theodicy—it’s not only about theodicy, to be sure, but the belief that animals must not have suffered and died before Adam and Eve committed the first sin is crucial to the “young” in Young Earth Creationism. To a significant degree, Theistic Evolution is also about theodicy. In one of the best books on science and religion that I could name, Catholic theologian John Haught explains the atheist’s view of theodicy (which he does not share) as follows:

“Evolution is incompatible with any and all religious interpretations of the cosmos, not just with Christian fundamentalism. The prevalence of chance variations, which today are called genetic ‘mutations,’ definitively refutes the idea of any ordering deity. The fact of struggle and waste in evolution decisively demonstrates that the cosmos is not cared for by a loving God. And the fact of natural selection is a clear signal of the loveless impersonality of the universe.” (Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation, p. 52)

Proponents of TE have responded to the issues raised in the latter two sentences in a variety of ways. I agree with Christopher Southgate’s analysis of the overall situation. Like several of the writers I mention this week,Southgate is a theologian with a doctorate in science; he’s also an accomplished poet. The text he wrote with many others, God, Humanity and the Cosmos: A Textbook in Science and Religion, is really much more than a textbook. I recommend it for anyone seeking a wide-ranging introduction to the principal issues.

Southgate and his collaborators see just two “possible theologies of divine action in respect of evolution,” considering that “the problems of theodicy are severe.” Option ONE: “to posit God merely as the passive, suffering companion of every creature, a view self-consistent but dubiously faithful to the Christian tradition.” Option TWO: “to mount a defence of teleological creation using a combination of [certain] theological resources,” namely these three—

  • “we must adopt a very high doctrine of humanity and suppose that indeed humans are of very particular concern to God.” This is linked with the Incarnation.
  • “we must take very seriously the cross as costly to God, as part of God’s hugely costly way of taking responsibility for the creative process.”
  • “we must give some account of the redemption of the non-human creation …” This is linked with the Trinity. (p. 279 in first edition, 1999)

Given limited space, I’ll focus almost exclusively on the second idea, though we may want to discuss all of them below.

The Crucified God

View of the entrance to the main camp of Auschwitz (May 1945). The gate bears the motto, "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work makes one free). United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Source).


We start with something that arose in a context entirely unrelated to evolution, Jürgen Moltmann’s (read more here and here) notion of The Crucified God. The theological point and the emotional impact of Moltmann’s conception is aptly captured in this stark passage, written in response to Elie Wiesel’s dark story of a child who was publicly hanged at Auschwitz: “like the cross of Christ, even Auschwitz is in God himself. Even Auschwitz is taken up into the grief of the Father, the surrender of the Son and the power of the Spirit.” (p. 278) A recent sermon by Matt Bates, pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Richmond, fleshes this out for us in a very accessible way; please read the whole sermon before going any further.

Repeat: please read the sermon. It’s a vital part of what I’m trying to say.

Now that you see more clearly what the “Crucified God” is about, let’s see what John Polkinghorne says about it:

“This profound and difficult thought meets the problem of suffering at [the] level which its deep challenge demands. The insight of the Crucified God lies at the very heart of my own Christian belief, indeed of the possibility of such belief in the face of the way the world is. But this can only really be so if God is indeed truly present in that twisted figure on the tree of Calvary. Only an ontological Christology is adequate to the defence of God in the face of human suffering. God must really be there in that darkness.” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 44)

Be sure to notice two things in this passage. First, Polkinghorne confesses that his own Christian faith depends on such a conception of God, but there are only two very brief references to evolution in the entire eloquent chapter from which I’ve quoted. There’s plenty of science there, but almost all of it is modern physics, not biology. (I’ll leave it as an exercise to “students” to get a copy of this excellent little book and fill in the blanks.) In other words, evolution doesn’t shape Polkinghorne’s theology nearly as much as his theology shapes his view of evolution.

The second thing to notice is that in the last three sentences Polkinghorne is doing something subtle, but extremely important—something that I don’t want anyone to miss. Contrary to some of the most influential voices in the science and religion “dialogue” (some examples would be Haught, Ian Barbour, and the late Arthur Peacocke), Polkinghorne affirms the full divinity and humanity of Christ, in a classical Chalcedonian sense. Read those sentences again a couple of times, and you should see what I’m driving at. As he says a bit later on, “Unless there really is a God who really was ‘in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor. 5:19), then the cross is no answer to the bitter problem of the suffering of the world.” (p. 45) In other words, one can only take this approach to theodicy unless one actually believes in the reality of the Incarnation; only an orthodox Christian can speak meaningfully of the “Crucified God.” In the final part of this column, when I’ll present Polkinghorne as a contemporary exemplar of a theologically “orthodox” TE, it’s partly this aspect of his thought that I will have in mind.

Lucas Cranach the Elder


Finally, I should note that the term “crucified God” is not actually modern. Although Moltmann wrote an influential book about it, the language comes from Martin Luther. Another physicist-theologian, George Murphy, writes in a highly Lutheran way about The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross, advancing the view that a “theology of the cross” in which God sets aside power to become a participant in the universe, even to the point of death, takes priority over a “theology of glory,” in which we seek God first in the power behind nature, not in the powerlessness of the cross. For a short version of Murphy’s ideas, go here.

Once again, we need to stop mid-stream. These ideas are deep and perhaps too new for many readers, and it’s best to reflect on them before we go further and even deeper.









About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.