What I Learned at the Evolution Conference

I promised a report on the the March 26-28, 2015 conference of the Colossian Forum entitled “Re-imagining the Intersection of Evolution and the Fall” held at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL. I’ve been back for a week now, so it’s time to share some of my thoughts.

In general, I had a stimulating time of listening to thoughtful speakers and networking with a variety of scientists, theologians, philosophers, historians, and biblical scholars—a very worthwhile event.

My presentation on “Reading Genesis 3 Attentive to Human Evolution” was well received, and resulted in many great conversations afterwards.

Photo of me giving my presentation on March 27, tweeted by Jamie Smith.

New Opportunities Arising from the Conference

While at the conference I was asked by BioLogos, the organization that funded the conference, to do a series of blog posts on the topic of my presentation (which I accepted). I was also invited to a BioLogos meeting of pastors, scholars, and others in San Francisco this Fall (all expenses paid) on the theme of the science/ faith intersection, called “Celebrating Creation.”

While at the conference I had a meeting with Jim Kinney and Steve Ayers, from Baker Academic (the publisher of my latest book, A New Heaven and a New Earth). Jim invited me to publish my next book with them, something I am happy to do. It is tentatively titled The Silence of Abraham, the Passion of Job (on lament prayer). I just sent Baker Academic a preliminary proposal.

What was my basic takeaway from the conference? There were two main points that struck me as important.

Taking Evolution Seriously

The first thing that struck me is that there are many orthodox Christian scholars, working in different fields, who fully embrace the evidence for the biological evolution of humanity over millions of years; they have no trouble being committed Trinitarian Christians while taking evolution seriously. This was a heartening realization, because it coheres with what I believe should be the outworking of a biblical doctrine of creation. Believing that the Creator made a world that is “very good” (Gen 1:31) suggests that we should trust that reliable knowledge of creation is possible, and this knowledge includes the findings of science, including evolutionary science.

Of course, science is an ever-changing field, as new data are uncovered, and not everything that scientists claim at a particular moment will still be claimed in the future. This is certainly true of the details of hominin evolution, including issues like precisely when Homo sapiens migrated from Africa or the precise dating of the male and female ancestors of all persons living today (which depends on understanding the rate of mutations of the Y chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA). Nevertheless, the general outlines are pretty clear and the fact of evolution is not really in dispute in the scientific community.

Taking the Christian Faith Seriously

If there was one significant difference of opinion that I picked up at the conference, it was over the issue of how we relate the Christian faith (including the doctrine of sin/the fall) to evolutionary science. While many scientists and some theologians at the conference clearly wanted to harmonize (in some way) the biblical accounts of origins and the fall with what we know (or think we know) about biological evolution, not all were convinced this was the best route to go.

The reasons were twofold.

The first has to do with the ever-changing field of scientific knowledge. Peter Harrison (a past Gifford lecturer, who has written extensively on the history of religion and science) gave a brilliant presentation on historical attempts to relate biblical teaching about the cosmos to contemporaneous science. He showed how quickly harmonizations of the Bible and science in the modern period had to be revised, as science grew and progressed, leaving some of the authors of new books on the subject looking quite foolish. So we shouldn’t be too quick to jump to an explanation of how biblical truth relates to the latest science.

But the second reason for resisting immediate harmonization is even more important. The biblical accounts of creation and fall have their own integrity, and these accounts make theological claims about origins in their own right. The danger in harmonization (laudable though it is to try and show connections between theology and science) is that we are in danger of changing what the text is actually claiming (for example, many attempts to connect the biblical accounts of origins to evolution end up denying the Bible’s affirmation of a good creation or the historical origin of human sin).

We need to attend to the fact that the Bible wasn’t written to satisfy our scientific curiosity about the cosmos, but rather has a salvific and ethical purpose. This was a point made especially by theologians and biblical scholars at the conference.

It was the judgment of many (though not all) at the conference that the church needs to attend to its own articulation of the significance of creation and fall, indwelling its own scriptural narratives in their full depth, without feeling pressured to make the Bible “fit” what science is currently telling us. This is not a matter of mistrusting science, but rather of respecting the integrity of the biblical witness to God’s purposes for the world articulated in texts like Genesis 1-3.

I was particularly struck this past weekend, as my church celebrated the paschal, mystery followed by Easter, in a series of services, of the amazing richness of the biblical story of Christ’s victory over death, which is meant to frame all of our lives, and guide us towards holy living. Far from us needing to explain away our faith to make it fit contemporary science, the existential truth and power of this deep mystery is a guide for living and thinking, including our thinking about and our practice of science.

My Own Approach to Evolution and the Fall

Not all the presentations at the conference explicitly addressed Genesis 3, the the classic “Fall” narrative. But, as an Old Testament scholar, that was the focus for my own paper.

When I began working on my paper, I initially framed it as an alternative to naive concordism and Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). The former approach is what I grew up with in the conservative evangelical church, where Scripture was understood as teaching scientific truth about the cosmos, including a young earth and a non-evolutionary history of biological organisms. The result is that much of modern science is rejected, and the rest is made to harmonize with Scripture.

NOMA is the approach advocated by Stephen Jay Gould, the famous agnostic scientist who wanted to respect what the various religious traditions said. He therefore affirmed that their truth was of a different order from that of the sciences, so that the various “magisteria” (science and religion) could never actually contradict each other.

I was dissatisfied with both approaches—the former since it doesn’t take science seriously and the latter since it seems to erect a concrete wall between science and faith that admits of no interaction.

I initially conceived of my paper as an attempt to get beyond both concordism and NOMA. To that end I set out to explore various theological motifs in Genesis 2-3, such as the creation of humans and animals from the earth, the meaning of the tree of life, the prohibition of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the significance of the snake and its dialogue with the woman, the subsequent narrative of transgression and judgment, and the spread of sin and violence in Genesis. Along the way, I made some tentative and speculative comments about how elements of this story might relate to a virtue ethics approach to the development of moral consciousness and also with the state of our current knowledge of evolutionary anthropology.

While some of my suggestions for possible connections with evolution were intriguing, in the end I came to the conclusion that our primary need is to understand the story of Genesis 2-3 in its own right before we try to relate it to evolutionary history. We need to take the time to understand (and indwell) this powerful narrative as the deepest truth of our origins as human beings and the origins of our falling out with God and one another. Only then will be in any position to think clearly about how this text might relate to human evolution.

Note: The conference proceedings are now published as essays in Evolution and the Fall (Eerdmans, 2017), ed. by William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith.

8 thoughts on “What I Learned at the Evolution Conference

  1. Pingback: The Intersection of Evolution and the Fall | CREATION to ESCHATON

  2. Thanks Richard. This is very helpful. I think I would want to say something like this, which is drawn out of our new book, From Evolution to Eden. The Genesis creation drama has the capacity to break out of its immediate cultural context, without denying or effacing it, and to continue to show itself as a story that carries a temporal mark that is fitting for any time. The founding narrative in Genesis—this story of beginnings, sets out a theological, historical, and literary redescription of the world, which stands in stark polemical contrast to other ancient Near Eastern portrayals of creation, as well as to contemporary forms of naturalism, represented by Richard Dawkins and others.

    • Greg, The way you describe Genesis vis-a-vis the ANE is the very way I approach the text in my previous book on the meaning of the imago Dei (The Liberating Image), both grounding the text in its ancient context and reading it theologically for our own day. I’m still waiting for your book to arrive, so I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet. But it sounds like we have the same basic hermeneutic.

      • Richard, thanks for your reply. I’m grateful for your work in The Liberating Image, which I have learned from and put in our library. In FEE we refer to ourselves hermeneutical realists. We interact heavily with Paul Ricoeur, who I did my PhD on, so our slant is somewhat philosophical/hermeneutical, as well as theological and literary.

    • I’m delighted with your statement that the Genesis creation drama is “a story that carries a temporal mark that is fitting for any time.” This is essentially what I say to my students about the Bible. It is so much better than saying the Bible is “timeless,” since it clearly is not.

    • I myself have found Ricoeur quite helpful on the “Adamic Myth” (the chapter in The Symbolism of Evil) I am wondering, however, what you think of Ricoeur’s notion (building on Pierce) of the ever growing series of interpretations all becoming part of the meaning of the text. I take this to be phenomenologically true, but it gives no guidance for a normative evaluation of better or worse interpretations.

  3. Richard, I wonder whether the Orthodox tradition’s critique of Western handling of the Bible may be relevant here. They take issue with rationalism, and might say that concordism emerges from it, and make mysticism (as they see it) a more appropriate approach to the text’s mystery.

    A rationalist approach to this issue would not only tend to seek historical referents, but also tend to press ourselves as readers into the mold of disinterested, objective observer (scientist!). Meanwhile, mysticism would have us participate in the revelation more holistically, as one fully affected by it. This investment of the reader in the text seems to permit the text to function as a living mirror to our souls (Heb 4:12?), where, astonishingly, we read of our own formation. The narrative and affective dimensions of what it means to be alive and fully invested in that discovery, seem to add so much to the clinical approach.

    Pressing this a little further, I come to my point: the Orthodox doctrines of energia and theosis seem to articulate some of that more teleological and functional outlook on the Creation narratives (including the echoes of imago Dei in Ps 8), in terms of a protology-eschatology which sets the spiritual-ethical project in motion, with a developmental act of exaltation to participation in divine life and glory, and its expression via co-regency in the new creation. Something like that. I note in passing that theosis is making something of a comeback in non-Orthodox, Protestant-evangelical circles (with some obvious caveats about the creator-creature distinction), and seems to supply something of an ontological ingredient for what might be analogous to an evolutionary advance. Doctrinally, the new humanity conforming to the imago Christi, would be more akin to what it means to be fully human, after recovering that glory which was forfeited by the first Adam.

    Having only read your abstract, I’d be interested to see how you develop your thoughts. Your mention of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil piqued my interest in the above connection, where I would understand that fruit as judicial, kingly knowledge of the kind Solomon received, with the implication that Adam and Eve may have matured to the point of being granted to eat, despite the initial prohibition. Although that tree is never recapitulated in, say, Revelation, one wonders whether it is absorbed into the motif of glory, and ultimately that of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, which fills the whole earth (Hab 2:14). Linking it to the burning bush seems like a stretch, but on the other hand, cosmic temple proponents sometimes do associate “the midst” of Eden with the most holy place of a sanctuary, with two cherubim guarding access, as two cherubim figures were doing on the mercy seat, and so, it might be the case that the mystery of a tree in the divine presence sums up the idea of nourishment from the source of life, in terms of all the good gifts which might be conferred, allowing for the gift of ethical knowledge in addition to life (2 Peter 1:3 is suggestive of that, in a chapter rich with themes of glory, theosis and eschatology). Your discussion elsewhere about kings mediating divine knowledge seems relevant here, as does a paper by David Wenkel which argued that eschatological co-regency was inaugurated for the twelve at Pentecost, in light of the promise in Luke 22:28–30. The visible descent of the Shekinah glory might round out that picture.

    Anyway, all that to ask, do you have any thoughts about these admittedly sparse connections, in light of a more developmental or process-oriented approach? Now that I know your paper is focused on Gen 3, I wonder whether you have yet had a chance to extend its insights in ways connected to your broader project.

  4. Peter, It sounds like your reading of the Garden as the Holy of Holies and of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as ethical knowledge is very similar to mine.

    I also take a developmental view regarding the tree, that it was only temporarily prohibited, and is connected to growth into maturity. The phrase knowledge of (or knowing) good and evil in the OT refers to the ability to distinguish between good and evil in ethical decisions (once to the ability to distinguish between good and bad more generally).

    I interpret the two trees (of ethical knowledge/wisdom and life) in terms of Israel’s wisdom traditions, where wisdom is a tree of life to those who find her; and this is fulfilled in Christ, the wisdom of God in whom is the fullness of life, a wisdom and life in which we are invited to participate.

    I am very aware of the recent turn to theosis/ divinization even in the Protestant tradition (I think of Mike Gorman’s Luce Fellowship to explore this theme in the NT in connection with the church’s mission). I myself prefer to use language of the Shekinah coming to indwell the church, and ultimately the cosmos, when God will be “all in all,” as Paul says. Although I understand the Orthodox distinction between participating in God’s energies and God’s essence, I guess the creator/ creature distinction has been very strong in my formation, and might explain why I resist the language of theosis (perhaps also because there is really only one NT text that explicitly uses this language).

    However, I am fully on board with the view that there is a developmental/ teleological trajectory in the Bible, so that creation was meant to unfold to its God-ordained telos. This development was compromised by sin, but redemption sets us back on the path to our intended glory. This interpretation of the biblical story is central to my eschatology book, though I haven’t really worked out its implications for understanding evolution (except that both are developmental). That’s something to think about further.

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