No Need to Fear Evolution

An excellent blogger on science and religion issues, who goes by the handle RJS, has just posted an introduction to my first BioLogos blog (Why Christians Don’t Need to Be Threatened by Evolution) on the website Musings on Science and Theology. RJS’s posts are then re-posted on the Jesus Creed website, where comments are allowed (Jesus Creed is a blog run by New Testament scholar Scot McKnight; it is hosted by Patheos, which hosts a variety of religion blogs).

The post by RJS is called No Need to Fear and it goes beyond introducing my BioLogos blog. It goes on to explain (very well) my argument about Genesis 1 and what it means to be made in God’s image from my book The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1.

But then RJS has blogged about The Liberating Image before in no less than nine posts! And I did an invited follow-up post on how my thinking about the imago Dei has developed since the book. RJS also did a nine-part series on my more recent book A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology. (For anyone who doesn’t have time to read either book, these blogs give a pretty accurate portrayal of my argument).

Having done my introductory BioLogos post on my approach to evolution (Why Christians Don’t Need to Be Threatened by Evolution) and then a second post on cosmic creation (The Ancient Universe and the Cosmic Temple), my next post will be on what it means to be created in God’s image according to the Scriptures and how that might intersect with what science is telling us about human evolution.

Interestingly, the blog by RJS (No Need to Fear) introduces some of the themes I will touch on in my third BioLogos post. So you can check it out if you want an advance taste of what I might say on that topic.

My Ambiguous Relationship with Carl F. H. Henry (Heading to the Dabar Conference on Genesis and Science)

I’m about to head off to a four-day conference (June 8-11, 2016) that will address the topic of “Reading Genesis in an Age of Science.” This is the kick-off conference of a three-year “Creation Project,” sponsored by the Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in Deerfield, IL.

The Dabar Conference

The conference is known as the Dabar Conference (this is the Hebrew term for “word,” pronounced davar). The name evokes Scripture as God’s Word and the biblical theme that God creates by the word (Genesis 1; Psalm 33:6-9; Psalm 119:89-91; John 1:1-3).

Although the Creation Project involves more than the annual Dabar Conference (it involves research fellowships and smaller meetings throughout the year), the Conference is meant to gather “evangelicals together from different disciplines, denominations, and institutions with the goal of orienting evangelical theologians to the relevant recent work in the natural sciences and promote scholarship in the field of the doctrine of creation.”

The Creation Project’s topics for the next two years are “Affirming the Doctrine of Creation in an Age of Science” (2017) and “Reclaiming Theological Anthropology in an Age of Science” (2018).

This Year’s Conference Topic

This year’s emphasis on “Reading Genesis in an Age of Science” is meant to address a number of questions, the core of which is the following:

“How are the opening chapters of Genesis and other origin texts throughout the Christian Scriptures related to the claims of modern scientific advance?”

Although it is not stated explicitly, evolution (of the cosmos and of humanity) is an important aspect of the science that will be addressed.

You can see the full 2016 Dabar Conference schedule here.

My Contribution to the Conference

The Dabar Conference is billed as a “working” conference, where position papers are presented, followed by respondents (of which I am one), and then open discussion.

I was invited to participate likely because of my work in Old Testament (especially Genesis) and also because of my connection to BioLogos.

I’ve been asked to bring my philosophical and biblical studies backgrounds to bear as a respondent to C. John (“Jack”) Collins’s paper, entitled “Reading Genesis 1-11 in Biblical and Social Context.” Although I’m mostly on board with his reading, I’ll be exploring some of the implications of Collins’s framing of matters, wondering out loud about how we might better articulate some of his points in light of important issues in contemporary science.

Charitable Disagreement among Christians

There is no guarantee that everyone at the conference will agree (in fact, we are likely to disagree), but we are coming together as Christian sisters and brothers to explore the questions in an atmosphere of critical and charitable inquiry.

I’m glad that the stated intent for the conference is to cultivate “clarity, humility, and mere orthodoxy, all of which are important for developing innovative future research projects and in providing public guidance to the church.”

Carl F. H. Henry vis-a-vis Middleton and Walsh

I’m particularly glad for this stated intent since, paradoxically, my own work on postmodernity and biblical faith back in the mid-nineties was summarily dismissed by none other than Carl F. H. Henry (after whom the Henry Center is named).

Carl Henry heard a paper that Brian Walsh and I delivered at the Wheaton Theology Conference back in 1994 (based on our book, Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be, which was published by IVP the following year). He wrote a single-page scathing critique (in World magazine) of the conference and of our book, which he had not actually read. Instead, he based his critique on lines he quoted from a phone interview that IVP did with us about the book .

While there were undoubtedly legitimate differences of opinion between Henry’s point of view and our own position, the tragedy is that his critique (in the article) was based primarily on out-of-context quotations from the phone interview, which omitted important clarifications of what we meant.

For example, Henry quoted me as saying: “Even the truth of the gospel . . . is a human construction.” And he took this to mean that I denied the reality of revelation from God (something no-one who knows me would ever think).

Here it is important to note that something crucial was left out of the quote (signified by the ellipsis dots).

Brian had just commented about truth as both given from God (revelation) and our responsibility to formulate it in human language in order to communicate it.

Then comes the full sentence in which I followed up on Brian’s comment: “Yes, because even the truth of the gospel—which we constantly articulate in the church, in liturgy and proclamation and evangelism—is a human construction. I mean, the Four Spiritual Laws is a human construction in response to the truth of Jesus.”

I first read Carl Henry’s works when I was an undergraduate theology student in Jamaica and found that he was someone I could respect. So I was quite disappointed by this dismissive misreading.

Even though Carl Henry is no longer alive (he passed away in 2003), perhaps my participation in this conference (sponsored by the Henry Center) will serve to bring a certain reconciliation.

 

The Problem of Animal Suffering in a Good Creation—Engaging Ronald Osborn’s Death Before the Fall (IVP, 2014), Part 3

In two previous posts I began to examine Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).

In the first post I introduced the book and summarized Osborn’s critique of narrow literalism in the way the biblical creation accounts are often read. In the second post I affirmed (and even strengthened) his case for understanding animal predation as part of the good world God made.

In this post I will summarize Osborn’s argument for God’s redemption of animal suffering, and raise some questions about it.

Osborn had early on mentioned “the central riddle of this book” (p. 13), which was the tension between the beauty and terror of animals in the wild.

In chapter 12 Osborn mounted a good case for viewing animal predation (and the suffering this naturally causes) as part of God’s good creation. As I noted in my previous post, I found his argument from the book of Job (supplemented with the perspective of various Psalms) convincing.

However, Osborn is not content with making this point.

In chap. 13 (“Creation & Kenosis”), Osborn explores the other side of his tension, namely that it does not seem satisfactory to simply affirm the goodness of animal mortality and predation, given the very real suffering evident in the animal world. He calls this a “deep scandal” (p. 157) and notes that “There are things under heaven and in earth that we should not be at peace with, and the jaws of Behemoth, I would submit, are one” (p. 157).

Osborn therefore turns to the theological notion of kenosis, in connection with the Patristic doctrine of theosis, to address this problem.

In the end, his claim is that Christ’s self-emptying and death was for the redemption of all suffering, even that which predates human evil.

Kenosis

The theological idea of kenosis is derived from Philippians 2, where Paul describes Christ’s self-humbling (verse 7).

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied [eknōsen] himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

This is the first half of a poem or hymn that Paul quotes, the second half of which affirms Christ’s exaltation after death, and makes clear his deity (by using language from Isaiah that in its original context referred to YHWH’s uniqueness).

Traditionally, the idea of kenosis is associated with Christ giving up or letting go of his deity (or of his attributes of deity), suggesting that the incarnation involved a subtraction or lessening.

However, this misreads the text, which affirms instead that Christ (who legitimately has all the power of deity) did not use this for his own advantage, but (in humility) became a servant, even to death, to bring us salvation. This is the core of N. T. Wright’s argument in his chapter on Philippians 2 in The Climax of the Covenant.

The point is clear if we ask why Christ can be an example for us (verse 5).

He didn’t model becoming empty of deity (whatever that might mean); that wouldn’t be relevant to us. Rather, Christ modeled the compassionate use of power and privilege. If the one who is equal to the Father used his deity for our sakes, how much more should we use our God-given privileges to serve others in love.

It seems to me that Osborn tends towards using kenosis as an umbrella term to refer to Christ holding in abeyance his divine attributes, which led to his suffering (so he incorporates suffering under kenosis). This is why he can identify kenosis with open theism, which affirms God’s self-limitation in order to generously allow creatures space for genuine freedom. But one can be sympathetic with open theism (as I am) without affirming kenosis in Osborn’s sense.

 Theosis

Osborn pairs his notion of kenosis with theosis, also known as “deification” or “divinization.” Although I find some articulations of this doctrine problematic, since they seem to confuse the categories of creator and creation, I understand the impetus of theosis, both in the church fathers and today among authors like Michael Gorman.

The biblical warrant for using language of theosis is usually 2 Peter 1:4, which affirms that God has promised that we “may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature.” Of course, this doesn’t mean becoming God, but godlike in our character.

But beyond the transformation into godlikeness, the theosis doctrine, especially in Irenaeus (second century church father), is also associated with a goal-oriented vision of salvation. That is, the transformation that redemption effects is not a return to primitive origins, but along with repairing what went wrong, brings humanity to its intended telos or goal, which sin impeded.

So this combination of kenosis and theosis allows Osborn to articulate a vision of God’s compassionate suffering in Christ, which serves to bring the cosmos, with its immense animal suffering, to God’s intended telos of perfection where all suffering is eradicated.

I have to admit that I am attracted to Osborn’s vision.

Indeed, it is similar to my own articulation of the telos of salvation in my book A New Heaven and a New Earth. Like Osborn, I would go beyond Irenaeus in applying this goal-oriented vision of salvation to the cosmos and not just to humanity.

As many biblical scholars are coming to recognize, the Bible envisions a movement from a garden in the context of God’s creation of heaven and earth, to a garden-city in the context of a new heaven and a new earth, where God is fully present.

So, the goodness of the original creation is not the same as the perfection God has in mind for the cosmos.

I also find Osborn’s affirmation of God working non-coercively in and through ordinary processes of nature and history compelling. He notes that God’s sovereignty does not predetermine everything in advance, but gives creatures freedom to develop (p. 161). This, he explains, is the basis both of the evolutionary process and of the animal suffering this process has engendered.

Why Does the Cosmos Need Redeeming?

A problem is evident, however, in chapter 13 when Osborn comes to evaluate the evolutionary process, with its resultant suffering.

Should we think of this suffering as “natural evil,” that is, something that is wrong in some fundamental sense, and so needs redeeming?

Or is the evolutionary process, along with the suffering this has caused over the eons, part of the good (though wild and unpredictable) creation God has made?

In chapter 12, on the book of Job, Osborn had argued for the natural death and suffering of animals in the evolutionary process as part of God’s good world. Yet in chapter 13, he argues that this world of animal death and suffering needs redeeming.

But why would animal mortality and suffering need redeeming? Two answers are possible.

First, they could need redeeming because they are the result, in some way, of human sin. But Osborn has already (rightly) rejected the idea that nature is “fallen” due to human sin. Rather, he views animal suffering as simply part of what a world of living organisms involves, especially an evolving world.

Alternately, nature could need redeeming because it is intrinsically deficient (here the deficiency would be precisely the animal suffering involved in the evolutionary process).

Did God Create a Deficient Cosmos?

I want to affirm the basic intuition I sense in Osborn here, that the world seems out of whack with how it should be. And he clearly has a sense of kinship with, and compassion for, animals that is laudable.

Nevertheless, Osborn comes perilously close to a theme that is gaining momentum among Christian writers who take evolution seriously, namely that the death of Christ atones not just for sin and its consequences (which I affirm), but for God’s inadequate or deficient creation of the cosmos. In a sense, God is atoning for his own sin in creating a deficient world.

I think that the issue comes down not to whether evolution should be accepted (I agree with Osborn that it makes more sense of the evidence than any alternative). Rather, the issue is whether we think of the chaotic wildness of the cosmos (of which evolution can be considered a part) as part a of a good creation or as “natural evil” which needs to be redeemed.

We cannot have it both ways. Either a good creator brought into being a good, though not “perfect,” world. Or God is not a good creator, and so cannot be trusted. And no amount of kenosis can atone for this.

The Need to Distinguish Creation from Fall and Redemption

According to Osborn, “God creates as he redeems and redeems as he creates” (p. 160). But I would want to maintain that God’s generous power evident in creation (which does not require God’s suffering) is distinct from God redemptive action to reverse the fall (which certainly requires God’s suffering).

I fully agree with Osborn that the kenosis of the cross (rightly understood) opens our eyes to see the realities of good and evil; but when he states that “When Christ cries ‘It is finished’ on Easter Friday the creation of the world is at last completed” (p. 165), I must dissent.

Otherwise creation and fall are indistinguishable, and God is not a good creator.

This means that we need to think carefully about the interconnection between God’s telos or goal for creation (which does not depend on the introduction of sin) and the need for redemption (which does). I myself haven’t fully sorted this issue out.

In the end, Osborn’s book is a strange tissue of great insights and contradictory proposals. Should we accept the testimony of Job (and the psalms) that God views animal predation as good? Or do we go with our instincts that this is all “natural evil” requiring redemption?

Perhaps Osborn will take some time to think through these issues and write some more on the topic. It is certainly an agenda for my own theological explorations.