Creatures of God: Human Nature & Evolution for Evangelicals & Catholics

I recently began a series of blog posts on evolution and human nature, but I’ve had to put that aside for a while so I could prepare a lecture I will be giving in a few days in Vancouver, BC, as part of a two-day symposium funded by BioLogos.

The syposium is entitled “Creatures of God: Human Nature & Evolution for Evangelicals & Catholics” and is organized by Dr. Paul Allen, Associate Professor, Department of Theological Studies, Concordia University, Ottawa, ON.

Dr. Allen and his team have staged three prior symposia on related themes in three other Canadian contexts: Crandall University in Moncton, NB; Wycliffe College in Toronto, ON; and the Kings University College in Edmonton, AB.

At each of these events, theologians, philosophers, and scientists addressed different audiences of faculty, students, and members of the lay public on the question of human nature in the context of the orthodox claims of theological anthropology and the emergence of the human species according to Darwin’s theory and later revisions of it.

The symposium I’m a part of is addressed specifically to Evangelicals and Catholics, with presentations on the biblical and scientific sides of things.

I’ve been asked to speak on a biblical theology of humanity as imago Dei. I will give my lecture at Regent College (an Evangelical graduate school of theology affiliated with the University of British Columbia) at 7:00 pm on Thursday, October 29, 2015. The title of my lecture is: “Being Human: Engaging the Opening Chapters of Genesis in Light of Hominin Evolution.”

The following evening, Dr. Jeff Schloss (BioLogos Senior Scholar and T. B. Walker Chair of Natural and Behavioral Sciences at Westmont College) will be speaking at St. Mark’s College (the Catholic theological college of the University of British Columbia). His lecture is entitled: “Uncommon Nature Through Common Descent? Evolution and the Question of Human Exceptionalism.”

Each evening there will be a number of respondents to the paper that is presented, followed by an open discussion of the topic.

More information about both lectures can be found by downloading this flyer.

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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.

Why Christians Don’t Need to Be Threatened by Evolution

GENESIS RECAST Conference

For too long Christians in North America have thought the Bible was in conflict with biological evolution. Yet many orthodox Christian theologians of the nineteenth century (including Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield) saw no conflict in principle.

The Manufactured “War” between Science and Religion

This famous “war” of science and religion (of which the creation-evolution battle is the most prominent example) is a relatively recent invention, manufactured from the atheist side by John William Draper (History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, 1874) and by Andrew Dickson White (A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, 1896), and on the Christian side by fundamentalists who misread the Genesis creation accounts as scientific.

But this is a serious genre mistake. Many atheists treat “science” as a full-fledged worldview that claims to tell us that there is nothing to reality but the natural world and that the scientific method gives us all the valid knowledge there is. Likewise many Christians treat the Bible as a science textbook, when the point of creation accounts in the ancient world (of which Israel was a part) is to explain the meaning of life and how we are to live.

Of course, the issues are a bit more complex than that. But to find out more you will need to attend an important conference that is coming to the Buffalo, NY area on September 18-19, 2015.

Genesis Recast—The War with Science Is Over

This is the provocative name of the conference, which will headline John Walton, Old Testament professor from Wheaton College, on how the read the Genesis creation accounts. His orthodox Christian faith in connection with his expertise in the Bible and the ancient Near East admirably equips him to guide us in how the interpret the Genesis creation accounts in line with their original intent.

Of course, we need to go well beyond a declaration of “peace” between the Bible and science.

The Positive Role of a Biblical View of Creation

The biblical view of creation claims that the cosmos is “very good” (Gen 1:31) and is imbued with God’s wisdom and order (Prov 3:19-20). Indeed, the wisdom literature of the Bible encourages us to understand the world, in which God’s wisdom is embedded, that we might live better in it.

Furthermore, God’s creation of humanity in his own image, with the task to rule the earth (Gen 1:26-28) and tend the garden of creation (Gen 2:15), implies an exalted role for human beings, which includes the possibility of science. As stewards of earthly life, we are commissioned with a vocation that encompasses (but is not limited to) the scientific understanding of the world in which we live.

Not only can the world be studied scientifically, but a biblical view of God’s good creation suggests that human knowledge of the world (while not infallible) is possible and (when proper testing is in place) is reliable and trustworthy.

So far from being threatened by evolution, Christians who embrace a biblical understanding of creation may see the hand of God in the deep time of the cosmos and the complex processes of biological evolution. In fact, we may be in awe of the amazing creativity of this great God of ours.

Living with Unanswered Questions

Does this mean that we’ve solved all problems of how theology and the Bible relate to what we are learning about the cosmos and the evolution of life on this planet? By no means. I myself am working on these issues and have lots of questions. But whoever said that we would have all the answers, especially within our lifetime?

Expecting all the answers now is a decidedly modern form of hubris.

Instead, Christians need to learn the virtue of patience, and to take a long view of things. If we trust in the God of creation, revealed supremely in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, we can learn to live with the unanswered questions we have—indeed, to love the questions, as Rilke suggested, until that day when we live into the answers.

More Information on the Genesis Recast Conference

While John Walton is the keynote speaker for the Buffalo conference, there are other speakers, addressing issues relating to the New Testament, genetics, and implications for the church. You can find details about the other speakers on the conference website, as well as in my previous post on the subject.

Registration is so cheap as to be ridiculous. If you live within driving distance, there is no excuse not to go, since a conference of this caliber won’t come this way again in a long while.

I hope to see you there!

If you need flyers (4×6) or posters (13×19) for your church or organization, let the conference organizer know [iyouthguy@gmail.com], and he will send them to you.