At the Crossroads of Scripture and Science: Learning from the Council of Chalcedon

| By on The Evolving Evangelical Featuring: William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith

Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon by Vasily Surikov. Image taken from Wikipedia.

The list of recently published books on the intersection of evolution, Christianity, and human origins is very long, and growing longer almost by the month. It’s a fact we take great pride in, since it’s due in large part to the rapid growth of the BioLogos movement and to our impact on the Christian conversation. Several of the most recent entries in this library are fruits of our multi-year Evolution and Christian Faith (ECF) grants program, which funded a number of collaborative efforts between scholars, scientists, and leaders to work through the challenging issues that evolution raises for Christians. Even though the program officially ended in 2015, many of the grant outputs are still being released. For instance, the book Adam and the Genome, released earlier this year, was supported by a BioLogos grant.

The newest entry to this conversation is Evolution and the Fall, a collection of essays on Christianity and human origins co-sponsored by BioLogos (through an ECF grant) and our friends at The Colossian Forum. The contributors include some familiar members of the BioLogos community, including ex-president Darrel Falk and 2016 Theology Fellow J. Richard Middleton. They are joined by an impressive list of theologians, philosophers, and historians, including Celia Deane-Drummond, Peter Harrison, and James K.A. Smith.

Spoiler Alert: if you’re looking for a book that neatly solves all the tensions between Scripture and science, especially as it pertains to human origins, this book isn’t it. Rather, it aims to be a model for how Christians should work through the tough issues in a way that respects the core doctrines of the faith while also respecting the well-established results of science. Thus, there’s an inherent messiness to the book, as the writers purposely eschew easy answers in favor of question marks. Others might view this as a sign that evolution and the historic Christian doctrine of the Fall are hopelessly at odds, but there is a much more hopeful (and helpful) way of looking at it: that there is inherent value in working through the “tension” between nature and Scripture, instead of settling for a rejection of either Scripture or science.

In the excerpt below (from the book’s introduction), William T. Cavanaugh and James K.A. Smith argue for exactly such an approach to the tough questions raised by evolutionary science. They invoke a clever and helpful comparison between the Galileo trial (and its common usage in Christian debates about science) and the Council of Chalcedon, a much earlier conflict in the life of the Church.    

Excerpt from: William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith, "Introduction: Beyond Galileo to Chalcedon" from Evolution and the Fall," ed. William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing), xvi-xviii.

[The] Galileo analogy is a loaded one; it assumes a paradigm in which science is taken to be a neutral “describer” of “the way things are” whereas theology is a kind of bias, a “soft” take on the world that has to face up to the cold, hard realities disclosed to us by the natural sciences and historical research. Christian scholars and theologians who (perhaps unwittingly) buy into this paradigm are often characterized by a deference to “what science says” and become increasingly embarrassed by both the theological tradition and the community of believers who are not quite as eager to embrace scientific “progress.” The result is that the Christian theological tradition is seen to be a burden rather than a gift that enables the Christian community to think through such challenges and questions well.

This book questions this construal of our situation. We agree that the church is at a critical juncture in the history of Christian thought—that issues around the historicity of Adam (and related issues of original sin) are crucial, difficult questions that the church must face. But we believe that before we can “solve” the tensions at the intersection of scripture and science when it comes to human origins, we need first to “hit the pause button,” as it were, and consider just how the Christian community can work through such issues. And we believe that the “Galilean” metaphor is unhelpful and unproductive in this regard precisely because it already biases the conversation in an unhelpful way. Instead of fostering theological imagination, this approach tends to assume that the issues are settled and we just need to “get with the program”—which usually requires relinquishing some key theological convictions.

In contrast to this “Galilean” framing of the issues, we believe that Christian scholars can find an older model and paradigm in the ancient sources of Chalcedon. As Mark Noll has argued in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, Christian scholarship is not rooted in merely “theistic” claims—and should certainly not be rooted in a functional deism. Rather, the proper place for Christians to begin serious intellectual labor “is the same place where we begin all other serious human enterprises. That place is the heart of our religion, which is the revelation of God in Christ.”[1] Noll’s point isn’t just pious invocation of Jesus; rather, as he goes on to show, what’s of interest in Chalcedon is the way the church navigated contemporary challenges with a theological imagination that was able to retain core Christological convictions while at the same time taking seriously the “science” (natural philosophy) of the day. A “Galilean” approach might have simply said: “Look, based on our current philosophical knowledge, it’s impossible to affirm that someone is both human and divine. So you have to resolve this tension in one direction or the other: either Jesus is human or he is divine. He can’t be both.” But of course that is just the approach that Chalcedon refused. Instead, feeling the tension and challenge, the Council of Chalcedon exhibited remarkable theological imagination and generated what is now one part of the heritage of the church: the doctrine of the hypostatic union—that in the one person of Christ subsist two natures, divine and human. This is not a theological development that could have been anticipated before the church worked through the issues.

What if we thought of ours not as a “Galilean” moment, but a “Chalcedonian” opportunity?




Kramer, Brad. "At the Crossroads of Scripture and Science: Learning from the Council of Chalcedon" N.p., 18 Apr. 2017. Web. 17 February 2019.


Kramer, B. (2017, April 18). At the Crossroads of Scripture and Science: Learning from the Council of Chalcedon
Retrieved February 17, 2019, from /blogs/brad-kramer-the-evolving-evangelical/at-the-crossroads-of-scripture-and-science-learning-from-the-council-of-chalcedon

References & Credits

[1] Mark Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), xii.

Reprinted with permission of Eerdmans Publishing Company. 

About the Author

Brad Kramer

Brad Kramer completed his M.Div. at Biblical Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and earned a BA in politics, philosophy, and economics from The King’s College in New York City. His articles have appeared in The Daily BeastPatrol, and OnFaith. Brad served as Managing Editor at BioLogos for four years, from 2014 through 2018.

More posts by Brad Kramer