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 in Light of 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” (given the dates, which conflict with my teaching, I don’t know if I will be able to attend; but it was nice to be asked).

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.

I would be interested in any responses either to the conference (if you were there) or to my report about it.

The Meaning of “Paradise” in the Bible

My fourth and final blog post in the weekly series “Beyond the Book” was just posted by Baker Academic. Each of my four posts during March have focused on some point of interest that I learned about eschatology while working on A New Heaven and a New Earth. The latest post, called The Meaning of “Paradise” in the Bible, explains that this term is not equivalent to “heaven,” contrary to the assumption of many Christians.

Baker is giving away three copies of A New Heaven and a New Earth. You can sign up for a copy here, until midnight tonight (March 30, 2015).

If you want to read the four posts in order, here are the other three:

My first post, Preparation in Heaven for Revelation on Earth – The “Apocalyptic” Pattern, focused on the underlying pattern I came to discern in many “heaven” passages in the New Testament that seem to be associated with the Christian hope.

My second post, The Meaning of “Heaven” in the Bible, explained that “heaven” is not thought of in the Bible as an immaterial, uncreated realm, but rather as the cosmos beyond the earth, which can stand symbolically for the realm inhabited by God and the angelic host (and angels are often identified with stars in the Bible).

My third post, The Stars Will Fall From Heaven, discusses the origin of this image in extra-biblical literature and its meaning, which has to do with judgment on corrupt angelic powers and not the literal destruction of the cosmos.

The Intersection of Evolution and the Fall

I am about to head off to a conference at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Chicago called “Re-Imagining the Intersection of Evolution and the Fall,” to present a paper on Genesis 3 in light of evolution. This three-day conference (March 26-28, 2015) grows out of a research group I’ve been a part of for the past two years that has been tasked with addressing how orthodox Christians may think about the origin of human evil (the “Fall”) in the context of what we know about the evolution of humans on this planet.

The group has two biblical scholars (myself included), along with scholars specializing in theology, philosophy, biology, ethics, and history. Many of the scholars have expertise in more than one discipline, and many have previously written on this topic.

Here is the lineup of the research team, in alphabetical order, along with their disciplinary specializations:

  • William Cavanaugh (theology, political theory)
  • Celia Deane-Drummond (theology, biology)
  • Darrel Falk (biology)
  • Joel Green (New Testament, theology, neuroscience)
  • Peter Harrison (history of science)
  • J. Richard Middleton (Old Testament, theology)
  • Aaron Riches (theology)
  • James K.A. Smith (philosophy, theology)
  • Brent Waters (theology, social ethics)
  • Norman Wirzba (theology, environmental ethics)

Here is a list of the bios for each person on the team.

Each of us will be presenting our findings in plenary sessions at the conference. You can access the conference schedule here and you can read a brief summary of the content our our presentations here.

A more detailed summary of my own paper can be found here.

Beyond the plenary presentations, there will be multiple sessions of concurrent presentations by other scholars (twenty-two in all); some of these look very interesting. I even know some of these presenters; one of them is Matthew Hill, who has been an adjunct professor at Roberts Wesleyan College and now teaches philosophy at Ann Arbor University. A book based on his dissertation, called Evolution and Holiness, is being published by InterVarsity Press this year.

The papers from the conference (both the plenaries and possibly some of the concurrent papers) will be collected in a volume published by Eerdmans, scheduled to appear sometime in 2016. The volume will be edited by William Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith, who are the co-chairs of the research team.

I’ll post some reflections about the conference when I get back.