Embracing Evolution: How Understanding Science Can Strengthen Your Christian Life

I just received from InterVarsity Press a copy of Embracing Evolution: How Understanding Science Can Strengthen Your Christian Life (IVP Academic, 2020), by Matthew Nelson Hill.

Matt Hill is a graduate of Roberts Wesleyan College (double major in psychology and in philosophy and religion). He went on to do an MDiv at Asbury Theological Seminary and a PhD in philosophy at Durham University. Matt is ordained in the Free Methodist Church and currently serves as associate professor of philosophy in the theology department of Spring Arbor University.

I have known Matt’s father, Nelson Hill, who was a faculty member and administrator at Roberts, before he retired, and I came to know Matt on his many visits to Rochester over the years.

Embracing Evolution is a beautifully articulate and helpful book that builds on the more technical book Matt wrote for IVP called Evolution and Holiness.

The IVP website says that the official release date for Embracing Evolution is June 16, 2020. I received an advance copy because I wrote the Foreword to the book (I had read Matt’s earlier book and benefited greatly from it).

In the Foreword (which is reproduced below), I recount some of my own journey towards reconciling the Bible and evolutionary science. This version of the Foreword has some extra footnote references (not all of which appear in the published format).


Foreword to Embracing Evolution

Many Christians today are on a journey of understanding, trying to make sense of evolution in light of their faith. This is particularly difficult to do in our polarized cultural climate in North America, where religion and science are often portrayed as opposed to each other.

For that reason I am delighted to be able to write this Foreword to Matt Hill’s Embracing Evolution. Whereas many books on Christian faith and evolution either view the two as antithetical to each other or struggle to make significant connections between them, Embracing Evolution shows that understanding human evolution can be positively helpful for Christians seeking to be faithful to Jesus Christ.

My Journey of Understanding the Bible and Science on Origins

Unlike those Christians who started out as young earth creationists and became convinced of the validity of biological evolution later in life, I have no memory of ever dismissing evolution as fundamentally incompatible with biblical faith. Having become a Christian at a young age, I not only accepted, in my teenage years, that the earth was very old (based on what seemed to be reasonable scientific research), but as a young adult I read widely about the evolution of Homo sapiens and our various hominin relatives.

Thankfully, my home church in Kingston, Jamaica (Grace Missionary Church) never insisted on young earth creationism. And when I began my undergraduate studies at Jamaica Theological Seminary, I took two courses in my first semester that made such a view of creation untenable.

The first was a course on the Pentateuch, where one of the textbooks assigned was Bernard Ramm’s The Christian View of Science and Scripture.[1] Here I found an evangelical theologian outlining multiple views of how the Bible related to a variety of scientific issues. Although Ramm articulated his own opinion on the issues he discussed, he noted that there was no single obvious “biblical” answer for questions such as the age of the earth, the great flood, or even evolution. In each case, this was a matter, not of biblical authority but of scientific evidence.

I also took a course in my first undergraduate semester on hermeneutics or biblical interpretation, where the textbook was A. Berkely Mickelson’s Interpreting the Bible.[2] While this was a bit of a dense read for an eighteen-year-old, I never forgot Mickelson’s point that since there was no human observer at creation and since the eschaton is still future, biblical language describing the beginning and end must be largely figurative; these descriptions inevitably transcended human experience.[3] Therefore, just as it would be inappropriate to read eschatological imagery in the book of Revelation as a journalistic account of what a movie camera might record (which seemed obvious to me), I came to realize that it would likewise be a misreading of Genesis to treat the six days of creation as a scientific account of origins.

These two courses at the start of my theological studies combined to convince me that there was no conflict, in principle, between science and the Bible on the question of origins. More than that, these courses (along the rest of my seminary education) encouraged me to be open to the scientific exploration of God’s world.

During my undergraduate studies I was also developing an interest in a holistic theology that affirmed the goodness of creation (in the beginning) and God’s intent to redeem the cosmos (in the end).[4] By the time I graduated with my bachelor of theology degree, I was on a track to take seriously what the sciences were telling us about how this world, including biological life, came to be.

Cognitive Dissonance about Evolution

Then as a graduate student in philosophy, while working as a campus minister for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at the University of Guelph, in Canada, I found myself avidly reading books on hominin evolution—including Lucy, the account of the discovery of Australopithecus afarensis (nicknamed Lucy) by Donald Johanson and Maitland Edy.[5]

Although I had no real doubts about the scientific evidence for evolution, including the evolution of Homo sapiens, I was somewhat troubled that evolution didn’t seem compatible with the biblical notion of the fall, the origin of evil recounted in Genesis 2–3. I had always been taught that this text portrays Adam and Eve (an original couple) forfeiting a primal paradisiacal state through a single act of disobedience, which led to the introduction of death for both humans and the natural world. I couldn’t get my head around how this might fit with what scientists claimed about human evolution, including the obvious fact that animal and plant death preceded the origin of humanity on earth. So I did what many Christians do when confronted with cognitive dissonance—I put it out of my mind and concentrated on other things.

In my case, these other things were my graduate studies, first a master’s degree in philosophy and then course work in Old Testament, followed by a doctoral dissertation on humans as imago Dei in Genesis 1 (published as The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1).[6]

In the years leading up to my dissertation, I taught often on the imago Dei, in both church and academic settings, and I’ve now written some dozen articles and blog posts on the subject.[7] I have also regularly taught on the garden story of Genesis 2–3, both in churches and in a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses.

My teaching on the first three chapters of Genesis was developed without any explicit reference to evolution. Rather, my focus was on how these texts should be read for their theological discernment of God, the world, and the human calling. Instead of referencing the modern scientific context, I was focused on how the theology of ancient Israel, gleaned from the Bible itself, along with the “cognitive environment” of the ancient Near East, contributed to the meaning of these texts for the life of the church.[8]

Evolution and the Fall

But everything changed in 2013, when I was invited by James K. A. Smith to join an interdisciplinary team of scholars (united by a commitment to the classic orthodox creeds of the church) who would connect their scholarly expertise to the subject of human evolution and the fall. The invitation to participate in this project set me on a path to address the very questions that my cognitive dissonance had previously led me to avoid.

As I began working on how the narrative of Genesis 2–3 might relate to the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens, I discovered that paying attention to evolution did not detract from reading the text but actually helped me notice nuances that I had previously overlooked. For example, I had simply assumed that the first humans lived in a paradisaical state of perfection before the entrance of sin. Yet immediately after the creation of the humanity in Genesis 2, we have the account of human disobedience in Genesis 3. Might that lack of narration of a paradisaical state be significant for relating the text to evolutionary history?

In the essay I wrote on Genesis 2–3, published in a volume called Evolution and the Fall, I attempted to hold together an evolutionary account of humanity with a real historical origin of evil (which I believe is a non-negotiable Christian doctrine), yet without claiming that the Bible and science are saying the same thing.[9]

In doing so, I was rejecting the classic idea that we can easily correlate or harmonize the Bible and science. Yet, I also found Stephen Jay Gould’s famous idea of nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) inadequate.[10] This view is usually taken to mean that the Bible and science describe different realms of reality—and so cannot, in principle, contradict one another. However, I have now come to formulate the relationship between the Bible and science as two different lenses or perspectives through which we may view the same world.

Of course, the connections between the lenses of the garden story and human evolution aren’t seamless. As Matt Hill himself admits, it isn’t always easy to correlate what the Bible tells us theologically about suffering and death with the history of animal predation and extinctions long before humans came along. And how exactly does a biblical perspective on human sin relate to the development of moral consciousness among Homo sapiens—or even among earlier hominins?[11]

Evolution and the Christian Life

But Embracing Evolution does not focus on the Bible and science generally. Instead, the book addresses how knowledge of evolution can aid us in the quest for holiness and moral transformation in the Christian life.

Matt helpfully builds on his earlier (more technical) book, Evolution and Holiness: Sociobiology, Altruism and the Quest for Wesleyan Perfection, but with a wider purview.[12] Drawing on what we know about our common genetic inheritance as human beings, and even the specific proclivities we may have because of our particular ancestry, Matt gives practical advice on how this knowledge can help us make better moral decisions as we seek to be faithful to the God of the Scriptures.

Having done more and more speaking of late for church groups and conferences on how a biblical approach to questions of human identity and the origin of evil might be related to what the sciences are telling us about human evolution, I’ve found a hunger among Christians (and interested others) to come to a deeper understanding of biblical faith in a way that opens us up to learning from God’s other book, the empirical world that the sciences address.

I am delighted to recommend Matt Hill’s Embracing Evolution as a wonderful addition to the literature on this subject.


[1] Bernard L. Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954).

[2] A. Berkely Mickelson, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963).

[3] Mickelson, Interpreting the Bible, chap. 14: “Descriptive Language of Creation and Climax” (306–322).

[4] This led to a book that I co-authored with Brian J. Walsh, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1984); I later wrote a book specifically on eschatology, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).

[5] Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey, Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981).

[6] J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005).

[7] A few of the articles are: “The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context,” Christian Scholar’s Review 24 (1994): 8–25; “The Role of Human Beings in the Cosmic Temple: The Intersection of Worldviews in Psalms 8 and 104.Canadian Theological Review 2.1 (2013): 44–58; “Image of God,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology, vol. 2, ed. by Samuel E. Ballentine et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 516–523; “The Genesis Creation Accounts,” chap. 1 in T & T Clark Handbook of Christian Theology and the Modern Sciences, ed. by John P. Slattery (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2020), 15–31; and “The Image of God in Ecological Perspective,” in The Oxford Handbook of Bible and Ecology, ed. by Hilary Marlow and Mark Harris (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[8] For more on the term “cognitive environment,” see John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018). Walton has popularized this idea through his many books in the Lost World series.

[9] Middleton, “Reading Genesis 3 Attentive to Human Evolution: Beyond Concordism and Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” chap. 4 in Evolution and the Fall, ed. by William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 67–97. Along with this, I wrote a more broadly-based article on the garden story, entitled “From Primal Harmony to a Broken World: Distinguishing God’s Intent for Life from the Encroachment of Death in Genesis 2–3,” chap. 7 in Earnest: Interdisciplinary Work Inspired by the Life and Teachings of B. T. Roberts, ed. by Andrew C. Koehl and David Basinger (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2017), 145–173.

[10] Stephen Jay Gould, “Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (March 1997): 16–22.

[11] A few years ago (2017) I was interviewed at the Faraday Institute (Cambridge University, UK) on the topic of the image of God and evolution (after having given a public lecture on the subject). More recently, I was interviewed by Jim Stump of BioLogos for a podcast on the topic of humanity made in the image of God, which touches on the question of evolution (you can read my blog post about it here).

[12] Matthew Nelson Hill, Evolution and Holiness: Sociobiology, Altruism and the Quest for Wesleyan Perfection, Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016).

Essays Celebrating Paul Livermore—an Incomparable Faculty Colleague

In a previous post I introduced an essay I wrote, entitled  “The Blessing of Abraham and the Missio Dei: Reframing the Purpose of Israel’s Election in Genesis 12:1–3.”

A Festschrift for Paul Livermore

The essay has been published in a volume of twenty-five essays that I co-edited with Doug Cullum, the Vice President and Dean of Northeastern Seminary. This volume is a Festschrift in honor of our retired colleague Paul Livermore, one of the founding faculty members of the Seminary—indeed, the person who first came up with the vision to start the Seminary.

Paul Livermore retired in 2013, after thirty-three years of faithful service to both Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary. This short video commemorates his life and ministry at both institutions.

 

 

The video is interspersed with Livermore’s comments. Three things he says stand out to me.

One is his comment that in a given class lecture, only one-tenth of what a professor knows is visible (often it is students’ questions that uncover some of the hidden nine-tenths). This was very true for Paul, who had an amazing wealth of knowledge about a wide range of subjects.

Another is that hell for a professor would be a huge stack of bad student papers to grade (how honest can you get!). But that heaven would consist in reading some really excellent papers.

The third thing I note about Paul is that there is a recording of his reciting the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4–9), which plays over the opening video scenes; this shows how deeply grounded he has always been in the Old Testament.

The title of the Festschrift is Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis, which suggests something of the range of intellectual and practical interests that have characterized Paul Livermore throughout his career. These interests have spanned theological scholarship (in different academic disciplines) and a commitment to the life of the church.

Here you can read a brief four-page biographical sketch of Paul Livermore’s career, from the Introduction to the Festschrift.

From Biblical Studies to Patristics

Paul Livermore was formally trained in New Testament and Second Temple Judaism (he was a doctoral assistant to Bruce Metzger at Princeton). His doctoral dissertation was called “The Setting and Argument of Romans 1:18–3:20: The Empirical Verification of the Power of Sin” (PhD diss., Princeton University, 1978).

Although he started out teaching Biblical Studies at Roberts Wesleyan College, Livermore eventually became an expert in Patristic theology. As someone in the Wesleyan theological tradition, he was drawn to the Church Fathers (especially the Eastern Fathers, as John Wesley himself had been) and he crafted an influential interdisciplinary course at Northeastern Seminary that addressed the development of doctrine, spirituality, and the church in the centuries after the New Testament.

Originally called “The Formative Era,” the course is now called “Being Christian,” and focuses on the attempt of the early church to clarify what it meant to be Christian in the first few centuries of the Common Era.

Since Livermore retired, the course has been taught by Dr. Rebecca Letterman and (in its current configuration) by Dr. Josef Sykora. The Seminary offers this course as part of six foundational courses, called The Great Conversation.

Contributors and Essays in the Festschrift

Paul Livermore’s impact on a range of faculty colleagues, church leaders, and students is confirmed by the wide variety of essays in the volume, which span Old and New Testament studies, theology, history, pastoral ministry, the Apocrypha, and the ancient Near East.

The essays are grouped into three sections:

  • Part 1: Grappling with Scripture in Ancient and Contemporary Contexts (eleven essays).
  • Part 2: Insights from the History of the Church (nine essays).
  • Part 3: Exploration and Reflections—Theological and Otherwise (five essays).

There are essays by current and former faculty at Northeastern Seminary and Roberts Wesleyan College, including:

  • Jeffrey Altman (Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, Roberts Wesleyan College)
  • David Basinger (Professor of Philosophy at Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary, and Chief Academic Officer, Roberts Wesleyan College)
  • Douglas Cullum (Professor of Historical and Pastoral Theology, Vice-President and Dean, Northeastern Seminary)
  • Timothy Dwyer (Professor of Bible and Ministry, Chair of the Ministry Department, Warner University)
  • Elizabeth Gerhardt (Professor of Theology and Social Ethics, Northeastern Seminary)
  • Rebecca Letterman (Professor of Spiritual Formation, Northeastern Seminary)
  • Wayne McCown (Provost Emeritus of Roberts Wesleyan College and Founding Dean Emeritus of Northeastern Seminary)
  • J. Richard Middleton (Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis, Northeastern Seminary)

There are essays by past students of Paul Livermore, including:

  • David Belles (Academic Dean, International Fellowship of Christian Assemblies Bible College, Richmond Heights, OH)
  • T. L. Birge (Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies, Azusa Pacific University)
  • Margaret Flowers (Professor Emerita of Biology, Wells College, Aurora, NY)
  • Joel H. Hunt (author, Athens, GA)
  • Mark McMonagle (Vicar, St Brendan Orthodox Mission, Honeoye Falls, NY)
  • John Miller (Professor and Program Chair, Elim Bible Institute and College, Lima, NY)
  • Suzzane Pearson (Spiritual Director, Rochester, NY)
  • Linda Schwab (Professor Emerita of Chemistry, Wells College, Aurora, NY)
  • Louis Stulman (Professor of Religious Studies, University of Findlay)
  • Thomas Worth (Pastor, Community Covenant Church, Manlius, NY)

There are also essays by colleagues of Paul Livermore from various academic and church contexts, including:

  • Donald Bastian (Bishop Emeritus of the Free Methodist Church)
  • Joseph Coleson (Professor of Old Testament, Emeritus, Nazarene Theological Seminary)
  • Eugene Lemcio (Professor Emeritus of New Testament, School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University)
  • James McNutt (Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History, Thomas More University)
  • Frank Anthony Spina (Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, Seattle Pacific Seminary and School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University)
  • James Sweeney (J. Russell Bucher Professor of New Testament, Director of the Master of Divinity Program, Winebrenner Theological Seminary)
  • Karen Winslow (Professor of Biblical Studies, Chair of Biblical and Theological Studies, Director of Master of Arts in Theological Studies, Azusa Pacific Seminary)

You can see the full Table of Contents here.

Paul Livermore, the Old Testament, and Judaism

In the video commemorating Paul Livermore’s retirement, he mentions teaching Hebrew in his first semester at Roberts Wesleyan College and the extremely bright students he had in the class. Two of his brightest students (who went on to do doctoral work in Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern Studies), were Louis Stulman and Joel Hunt. I don’t know if they were in that particular Hebrew class, but Stulman’s essay on the Hebrew Bible as trauma and resistance literature and Hunt’s essay on the meaning of an ancient Mesopotamian prayer are included in the Festschrift.

Livermore’s deep connection to the Old Testament and the Jewish tradition is evident in a 1987 article he wrote for the Wesleyan Theological Journal, where he challenged various Christian stereotypes about “legalism” and Jewish understandings of the Law/Torah. The article title is taken from a comment Rabbi Akiva makes about the Torah as the “precious instrument” (klî ḥemdah, also translated “precious vessel” or “desirable instrument) in Pirkei Avot 3:14 (Pirkei Avot or “Chapters of the Fathers” is a collection of ancient Rabbinical teaching on various ethical subjects).

You can read the full article here: Paul W. Livermore, “The Precious Instrument: A Study of the Concept of Law in Judaism and Evangelicalism,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 22 (1987) 17–37. This essay is cited in James McNutt’s chapter (see below).

Various of Livermore’s colleagues from other academic contexts have also contributed essays in Old Testament, the Apocrypha, and Judaism.

These include Joseph Coleson, who probes beneath the idea of “covenant” to a more foundational relationship between God and his people in the Bible; Eugene Lemcio, who engages in an eschatological reading of “Bel and the Dragon” (in the Apocrypha); James McNutt, who exposes the anti-Judaism in the writings of biblical scholar Adolf Schlatter; Frank Anthony Spina, who addresses the irony of reading Joshua as a Christian text; and Karen Winslow, who explores the understanding of the Akedah (Genesis 22) among Second Temple Jews.

It was Paul Livermore’s interest in the Jewish tradition that encouraged me to complete my own essay exploring a non-supersessionist reading of the call of Abraham, which is included in the Festschrift.

Tolle, Lege (Take Up and Read)

And then there are all the essays on New Testament, church history, spirituality, ethics, and beyond!

These essays pay tribute to the multidisciplinary impact of Paul Livermore, founding faculty member and Professor Emeritus of Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College.

Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis is a book well worth owning, with essays to be mulled over and savored.

Endorsements and Reviews

Brian T. Hartley, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Theology at Greenville University:

“Paul Livermore’s deep influence over three generations of students can be clearly discerned through these twenty-five essays that span key refrains in Scripture, theology, and church history. Dr. Livermore’s character, passion, and vision for bridging the divide between church and academy all receive clear witness through probing pieces that explore central themes which lay at the heart of his own scholarship and teaching.”
David W. Kendall, Bishop Emeritus, Free Methodist Church-USA:
“I have known and worked with Dr. Paul Livermore for nearly forty years. I regard him as both friend and mentor, scholar and learner, accomplished and humble, and a lover of God and people. I am pleased to commend this volume as a fitting tribute to the breadth and depth of Paul’s character and influence for so many of us—his students, colleagues, and friends.”
Deana L. Porterfield, President, Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary:
“This collection weaves together multiple voices to create a beautiful tribute to the deep impact of the life and teaching of Dr. Paul Livermore. It is an accessible but rich compilation focused on his commitment to the cause of Christ through scholarship, teaching, and service to the church. Each author magnifies an aspect of Dr. Livermore’s insights, through their own lens of scholarship, to honor a life and mind dedicated wholly to God.”

The Liberating Image—The Practical Significance of Being Made in God’s Image

Back in November 2019, when I was attending the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Diego, I met up with Jim Stump, vice-president of BioLogos. I’ve known Jim for about five years and he asked if he could interview me for the Language of God podcast series that BioLogos sponsors.

The focus of the interview was a topic dear to my heart—what it means to be made in the image of God (imago Dei).

The podcast page introduces the interview this way:

“We were made in the image of God, but what does that really mean? Whom does that apply to? What does that call us to? The Bible is very central to understanding the answers to these questions, as is cultural context. In this episode, biblical worldview professor, Richard Middleton joins Jim Stump in an attempt to answer some of the questions about human identity through both of those lenses.”

This is some of what Jim Stump said on Facebook about the interview.

“Here we talk about the Bible and science (like what each has to say about Adam and Eve), but mostly focus on his specialty: the image of God. I’m biased and prone to believe what I want to be the case, but I think this is a really interesting conversation.”

You can listen to the full interview here on the BioLogos podcast website.

Although Jim does eventually ask me to speculate on how the imago Dei might relate to the development of Homo sapiens, the interview focuses on what the Bible says about the image in its ancient Near Eastern context and its relevance for living in God’s world. I essentially summarize the main thrust of my book The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos, 2005).

Prior to the book, I had written a programmatic article on the subject, with almost the same title: “The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context,” published in Christian Scholar’s Review 24 (1994): 8–25.

Jim Stump is from the Missionary Church, the same denomination that I was a member of as a teen and young adult in Jamaica. I did my undergraduate degree in theology at the Jamaica Theological Seminary, which was founded in 1960 by the Missionary Church Association of Jamaica. It turns out that Jim had spoken at a 2007 commencement ceremony at my seminary.

Although the image of God is the focus of the BioLogos interview, I also talk a bit about what Jamaica is like (in response to Jim’s questions).

If you are interested in further reflections on the applicability of the imago Dei to matters of ethics and justice, you can read the blog post I was invited to write for the Imago Dei Fund. It is called “The Ethical Challenge of the Image of God in the 21st Century – Human Rights and Beyond.

And if you want to explore a bit more about how the imago Dei (and the Fall) might (I emphasize that word) relate to what we know of the origins of Homo sapiens, I discuss these topics in a presentation I gave for the Canadian and Christian Scientific Affiliation, called “Human Distinctiveness and the Origin of Evil in Biblical and Evolutionary Perspectives.”