What Makes Us Human: Reflections on Genesis and Genetics in West Chester, PA

I’ve been doing quite a bit of speaking on behalf of BioLogos, a Christian organization dedicated to helping Christians and others see the hand of God in the evolutionary process.

Francis Collins

BioLogos was founded by Francis Collins, the evangelical Christian physician and geneticist, who—as head of the Human Genome Project—developed the first comprehensive analysis of the human genetic code.

Collin’s book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006), is both a good non-technical introduction to evolution and genomic science and a testimony to his view of the harmony of science and faith.

It was the honest questions that Collins received from the public about the relationship of Christian faith and evolution that led him to found BioLogos in 2007.

Praveen Sethupathy

I’ve now done three joint talks with Praveen Sethupathy, a Christian professor of genetics at Cornell University, who did a post-doc with Francis Collins at the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Both Praveen and I are members of BioLogos Voices, a group of speakers sponsored by BioLogos, who are offering our services to Christian and secular audiences interested in thinking about the relationship of science and faith in non-polarizing ways.

Our Lecture at West Chester University

The most recent talk that Praveen and I did was in West Chester, PA on April 8, 2018. We were invited by Raymond Johnson, the pastor of The Journey Church in West Chester, to give a joint presentation in their Sunday Night Theology series, held at West Chester University.

The title of our talk, to a packed room, was “What Makes Us Human? Lessons from Genetics and Genesis.”

Praveen kicked off the evening by narrating some of his own faith journey and how he understands the intersection of his scientific profession and his Christian faith. He then discussed the various possibilities that scientists have proposed as characteristics that might distinguish humans from other animals, including anatomical, behavioral, cellular, and genetic distinctives. But none of them hold up to sustained scrutiny.

Not Biology, but the Image God

Instead, he suggested that the Bible understands human distinctiveness not in terms of any particular features of Homo sapiens, but in our calling or vocation to image God by how we live (a point on which there is nearly unanimity among contemporary biblical scholars). He introduced the topic by quoting from my own book, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (p. 27):

“The imago Dei designates the royal office or calling of human beings as God’s representatives and agents in the world, granted authorized power to share in God’s rule or administration of the earth’s resources and creatures.”

After discussing this “functional” human calling to image God and reveal God’s character, Praveen went on to talk about God’s delight in his creation, especially as portrayed in Psalm 104; thus our own ability to delight in God’s world may be an aspect of the image of God, a way in which humans uniquely reflect their Creator.

Along the way, Praveen addressed the paradox that ordered and purposeful outcomes often result from what we might think of as random processes. This is because randomness (such as we find in evolution) is often not purely random, but is impacted by all sorts of chemical and biological constraints that are built into nature. Thus even the supposed randomness of evolution is not inherently contrary to the notion of design in creation.

What Does the Bible Say about Human Distinctiveness?

Praveen then handed things over to me. My task was to develop the biblical materials on what it means to be human.

First, I took the audience through a tour of various Scriptures (in Genesis, the Psalms, and Job) that assumed a commonality or kinship between humans and other animals. I suggested that this commonality can prime us theologically to be open to the idea of common descent.

But the Bible also portrays humans as different from other creatures, in our calling to image God.

It is true that the Bible only rarely refers to humans as created in God’s image (there are only five or six passages that explicitly say this). Does that mean that the idea of the imago Dei is not particularly important in the biblical worldview?

To address this question, I used the following analogy:

Whereas the coherent vision of being human found in the Bible is like a powerful underground river that fertilizes much biblical theology, the explicit statements about our creation in God’s image are those places where the water bubbles to the surface, and the flow becomes visible.

I then fleshed out some of the content of the imago Dei, by examining a variety of biblical texts that articulate aspects of our calling to represent God and manifest his presence by how we live in the world.

This imaging function is clarified by how the ancients thought of images (idols) in temples dedicated to their various gods. Whereas the image/idol was understood as mediating the presence of the deity being worshiped, Scripture affirms that only humans are God’s authorized images in the cosmic temple of creation.

Humans can thus do what idols can’t. They are able to represent God on earth and to mediate God’s presence through their obedient response to God’s will in the full range of earthly life.

The Image of God and Evolution?

I concluded by speculating about how our unique calling to image God (the core of human distinctiveness) might be compatible with human evolution.

To that end, I sketched a possible scenario, wondering whether God may have entered into relationship with a group of Homo sapiens, sometime after the species had emerged and stabilized. This new relationship would have radically transformed human consciousness and thus initiated the imago Dei as the distinctive human response to God’s presence.

Of course, the truth of the Bible, and our calling to image of God, does not depend on this (or any other) imaginative scenario.

Questions, Questions, and More Questions

We then had a substantial time of discussion as people in the audience asked their probing questions and we tried to answer them as best we could.

Some of the questions had to do with scientific issues, but many had to do with the Bible and how we interpreted biblical creation accounts in relation to evolutionary science. We certainly did not get through all the questions the audience had in the time frame allotted, neither did we answer all the questions to everyone’s satisfaction.

Nevertheless, we tried to articulate our trust in the God of the Bible, who is revealed in Jesus Christ, while embodying an openness to science and the humility to acknowledge that we didn’t have all the answers.

Audio Recording of the Presentation

For those interested in the audio recording of the presentation, it is available here, either for online listening or for download.

The audio begins with an introduction by Raymond Johnson.

Praveen’s talk begins at about the 7:56 minute mark. And my talk starts at around 38:10 minutes.

The Q&A time is not part of the posted recording.

 

 

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Evolution and the Historical Fall—What Does Genesis 3 Tell Us about the Origin of Evil?

Last year I was appointed a BioLogos theology fellow, commissioned to write a series of six blog posts on Christian faith and evolution. My mandate was specifically to bring my own expertise in biblical studies (particularly the Old Testament) to bear on the question of evolution.

My own personal slant has been to explore questions at the intersection of faith and evolutionary science, both respecting the science and remaining steadfast as an orthodox, evangelical Christian (this, of course, challenges the truncated understanding of “evangelical” that the media often promulgates).

My fourth Biologos blog has just been published on the BioLogos website. It addresses the question of a historical Fall (the origin of sin) and how this might be compatible with the evolution of Homo sapiens. You can read it here.

This blog is based on the much longer chapter I wrote for the book Evolution and the Fall (Eerdmans, 2017), edited by James K. A. Smith and William Cavanaugh. You can see an interview with the editors about the book on the publisher’s blog site.

My previous BioLogos blogs addressed:

My final two BioLogos blogs will address:

  • The providence of God in a world of death and randomness (often thought by Christians to be consequences of the Fall).
  • How cosmic evolution might relate to the biblical promise of a new heaven and a new earth.

You can find all my BioLogos blogs in one place (including upcoming posts); just scroll to the bottom of the page.

BioLogos was founded by Francis Collins, the scientist in charge of the human genome project, which cracked the human genetic code; he is also an evangelical Christian. He founded BioLogos to encourage all people to see the hand of God in the evolutionary processes of nature.

The current BioLogos purpose statement reads:

“BioLogos invites the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith as we present an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation.”

Please join me as I explore these fascinating questions at the intersection of evolutionary science and Christian faith.

I welcome responses to my post on the BioLogos website.

You can also post responses to the blog about my post at the Jesus Creed website, hosted by Scot McKnight (the blog is by an excellent science and faith blogger who goes by RJS).

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.