Science and the Bible: Theistic Evolution, Part 4

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

Some implications and conclusions of Theistic Evolution—continued again

Last time I introduced the idea that a Christocentric theology of creation is one of the hallmarks of Theistic Evolution, and I focused on the idea of the “Crucified God.” But the scientist-theologians who write about TE also think about creation and theodicy in terms of divine “kenosis” and eschatology. So today we’ll conclude our “implications” section by returning to creational theology, and then turn to the ways TEs re-think Adam and Eve in light of human evolution.

Kenosis, theodicy and eschatology

John Polkinghorne and others, citing Philippians 2:7, like to speak about divine “kenosis”, God’s choice to “empty himself” in taking on human form; they apply this also to the act of creating the world in a great work of self-sacrificial love. Although Wikipedia gives much information about the roots of this doctrine in Orthodox and Catholic circles, my knowledge is minimal and I cannot confirm what I find there (though it might all be correct). According to a theologian I once consulted, kenosis in soteriology was discussed by Lutherans in the 17th century (if not perhaps even earlier, by others), but was only extended to theology of creation in recent decades. The most I can say with confidence is this: one of the most striking features of Protestant thought about nature, during and since the Scientific Revolution, is the degree to which it is not Christocentric in the sense we are now discussing. In much Protestant and Evangelical literature devoted to the topic of creation, one often looks in vain even for references to Jesus, let alone to Jesus as the suffering servant through whom the world was made. Only in the latter part of the 20th century do I find a clear emphasis on the idea that nature is the creation of the God who put aside power and was crucified. If this understanding is correct, then I would say that it’s high time, and let’s get on with it!

TEs (especially Polkinghorne) are also in the forefront of those Christian writers who are linking theodicy inextricably with eschatology. Yet another scientist-theologian, Robert Russell, offers this powerful eschatological vision in Cosmology From Alpha to Omega, drawing on all of the main ideas I’ve presented in this section:

In order to move us beyond mere kenosis to genuine eschatology, I believe that both kenotic theology and eschatology must be structured on a trinitarian doctrine of God. The reason here is simple: it is the trinitarian God who will act to bring about the redemption of all of nature since it is this God who is revealed as God in and through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. A kenotic theodicy (that God suffers voluntarily with the world) in and of itself is not redemptive. Eschatology is required, in which the Father who suffers the death of the Son acts anew at Easter to raise Jesus from the dead. In turn, the involuntary suffering of all of nature--each species and each individual creature--must be taken up into the voluntary suffering of Christ on the cross (theopassionism) and through it the voluntary suffering of the Father (patripassionism).(p. 266)

George MacDonald (source)

Because this series is primarily focused on the history of approaches to understanding Science and the Bible, I will not delve more deeply into these important theological issues, but only direct readers to resources such as these. Still, I close this section with a quotation from George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons, the same passage that C. S. Lewis used in abbreviated form as an epigram for The Problem of Pain:

“the Son of God, who, instead of accepting the sacrifice of one of his creatures to satisfy his justice or support his dignity, gave himself utterly unto them, and therein to the Father by doing his lovely will; who suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like his, and lead them up to his perfection...”

Adam, the fall, and sin

(5) TEs have to confront questions about human origins that are much easier for OECs or YECs to answer: Did Adam and Eve really exist as historical persons? Was the “fall” an actual historical event? If not, what is the origin of sin?

Michelangelo Buonarroti, “The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,” Cappella Sistina, Vatican (1509-10)


My comments here are much briefer, but I don’t mean to imply that the questions are any less important than the one I’ve just dealt with. Polkinghorne does not hold a traditional view of the fall, but he likes Reinhold Niebuhr’s view “that original sin is the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine!” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 88) This reminds me of G. K. Chesterton, who famously remarked, “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved” (Orthodoxy, chap. 2). In other words, anyone who doubts the idea that we are “fallen” creatures simply needs to look around—that is all the evidence of our strong bent to wickedness that you’ll ever need.

There are ways to finesse the fall and evolution in a quasi-concordistic manner, such as the “headship” model advocated by Denis Alexander. Others reject any appeal to Concordism, stressing the principle of divine accommodation. For example, Denis Lamoureux argues that in the revelatory process the Holy Spirit came down to the level of understanding of the ancient Hebrews and used their ancient conception of de novocreation, in which humans were created quickly and completely. Thus, in Genesis chapters 2 and 3, Adam and Eve are ancient vessels that deliver the inerrant spiritual truths that God created us and that we are sinners.

The views that have received the most attention among evangelicals, however, are probably those of biblical scholar Peter Enns, particularly his new book, The Evolution of Adam. Instead of trying to summarize them myself, I’ll link his discussion of “Mistakes in the Adam/Evolution Discussion”, since it parallels some of the content in the book. Also see his replies to some evangelical scholars who have been critical of the book.

One of the most original and thoughtful proposals I have seen comes from philosopher Robin Collins (for bibliographical information on this and the other works cited in the rest of this column, see below). Collins calls his model the “Historical/Ideal” view, because “the original state described in the Garden story represents an ideal state that was never realized,” showing “what an ideal relation with God would be like.” Adam and Eve represent every person who has ever lived, but they also represent “the first hominids, or group of hominids, who had the capacity for free choice and self-consciousness.” Just as the first hominids made sinful choices, so do we now, and original sin involves “the resulting bondage to sin and spiritual darkness that is inherited from our ancestors and generated by our own choices.” I can’t convey the subtlety and thoroughness of this account in a short space, so those who want to know more will have to read for themselves. Conveniently, Collins provides a link to a “near final version” of his paper on his web site. If someone wants to summarize his arguments in a few paragraphs below, it would be a real service to our “course.”

Problems with historicity

(6) Questions about the historicity of Adam & Eve are underscored by evolution, but they would still come up even if Darwin had never existed and no one had ever proposed that humans and other animals have common ancestors. The Bible places Adam & Eve in a Neolithic world, with cities and agriculture, whereas non-biological scientific evidence shows that humans existed for a very long time before cities or agriculture came into existence.

Read that again. It’s a crucial point. Far too many people believe—erroneously—that evolution is responsible for undermining the historicity of Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden. In fact, the relevant science here is almost entirely from anthropology, not biology, and it involves human antiquity, not common ancestry. Since the mid-nineteenth century, evidence has been building that creatures anatomically and behaviorally identical to us have been on this planet for a very long time, far longer than the biblical 6,000 years. We could leave Darwin and evolution entirely out of the picture, and we would still be having a conversation about the historicity of Genesis 2 and 3. The same issues pertain to any OEC scenario. Most proponents of ID can’t duck this, either, even though they get to say “officially” that ID isn’t about the Bible. Because most ID proponents are not YECs, they accept the general validity of the methods used to date rocks and fossils, and so (by implication) this is their problem, too, whether or not it’s acknowledged.

To illustrate my point historically, let me introduce readers to George Frederick Wright (read more here and here). Ronald Numbers, the leading historian of American religion and science, wrote a clear, detailed article about this (see the reference below) that I strongly recommend to anyone whose interest has been piqued. An influential Congregationalist clergyman and theologian, Wright was mentored by Harvard botanist Asa Gray, served briefly under Thomas C. Chamberlin on the U. S. Geological Survey, and even contributed articles on early humans and the ice age—his specialty—to scientific journals. During the 1870s, he worked closely with Gray to promote what is usually seen as a type of Theistic Evolution. By the early twentieth century, however, he appeared in some of his writings to have almost completely reversed his views on evolution. He even contributed an essay on “The Passing of Evolution” to the famous pamphlets, The Fundamentals, that later gave its name to that movement.

In other writings, however, Wright seemed to remain convinced of evolution, at one point saying that, “it is difficult to resist the conclusion that, so far as his physical organism is concerned, man is genetically connected with the highest order of the Mammalia.” Whatever he really thought about common ancestry—whether he was really a TE, an OEC, or an ID (one could make a good case for each)—the question of human antiquity dogged Wright for decades, as he sought ways to reconcile the genealogies in Genesis with accumulating evidence that humans have existed much longer than 6,000 years. Fortunately for Wright’s Christian faith, which probably hung in the balance, the famous Princeton theologian Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, together with the conservative biblical scholar William Henry Green, managed to persuade Wright that the Genesis genealogies had plenty of wiggle room. Anyone wanting to see the crucial details should read Green’s paper on “Primeval Chronology” at this point. Note Warfield’s own conclusion (same URL): “There is no reason inherent in the nature of the Scriptural genealogies why a genealogy of ten recorded links, as each of those in Genesis v. and xi. is, may not represent an actual descent of a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand links.”

Can this really be true, without straining the whole idea of historicity? Davis Young’s skepticism seems appropriate here. How far back can we place Adam and Eve and still have contact with the biblical period? In my opinion, a clear and convincing picture of an historical Adam and Eve, reconciling the biblical picture with human antiquity, has not yet been produced, and I am doubtful that we will ever have one. Those who want more information about the possibilities and the difficulties are invited to consult the articles (cited below) by anthropologist James Hurd, evolutionary biologist David Wilcox, and anthropologist Dean Arnold. To the best of my knowledge, Hurd and Wilcox are TEs, while Arnold is an OEC. It’s up to you, my “students,” to consult these sources and place summaries and comments below. I’ve done enough already.

Looking Ahead

In about two weeks, I’ll conclude with a short history of Theistic Evolution. There’s plenty to think about in the interval. Please follow some of these links, borrow some of these books, and add your views to mine.


References & Credits

Dean Arnold, “How Do Scientific Views on Human Origins Relate to the Bible?” in Not Just Science, edited by Dorothy F. Chappell & E. David Cook (Zondervan, 2005), 129-40.

Robin Collins, “Evolution and Original Sin,” in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, edited by Keith B. Miller (Eerdmans, 2003), 469-501.

James P. Hurd, “Hominids in the Garden?” in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, 208-33.

Ronald L. Numbers, “George Frederick Wright: From Christian Darwinist to Fundamentalist,” Isis 79 (1988): 624–45.

David Wilcox, “Finding Adam: The Genetics of Human Origins,” in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, 234-53.

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.