Having worked through a number of theological challenges posed by evolutionary theory in the first four chapters of Reformed Theology and Evolutionary Theory, van den Brink moves to the difficult question of common descent and its impact on theological anthropology. He identifies two primary concerns. First is whether the scientific evidence for common descent is a concern for persons in the Reformed tradition. Second, and where van den Brink spends most of his energy, is the question of whether common descent poses a threat to human dignity.
Summarizing van den Brink
As he begins thinking about human dignity, van den Brink wonders whether the challenges to dignity that evolution might raise are a particular problem for those in the Reformed tradition. He works through a brief history of Reformed thought on original sin noting particularly the gravity of the sin of Adam and Eve and the wide gap in Reformed thinking between the excellence of the prelapsarian condition of the first couple, and their postlapsarian state. He suggests that this emphasis on the excellence and dignity of pre-Fall humanity in Reformed thinking may be a factor in why some Reformed Christians have an especially hard time accepting human evolution from “brute beasts” (p. 141).
Van den Brink moves then to the question of the challenge human evolution poses for understanding human dignity. Van den Brink begins this discussion by offering some clarification of the problem. What, he wonders, makes humans think we are unique? After all, every organism is unique by virtue of the fact that they are one species and not another (p. 143). For example, a dog is unique insofar as it is a dog and not a cat. To say humans are unique, in other words, is not saying very much. What most people mean when they claim humans are unique is what van den Brink calls “special uniqueness,” a quality tied to human dignity and theologically grounded in the doctrine of the image of God (pp. 143–44).
Van den Brink runs through various arguments against the idea that human dignity is significantly different from animal dignity. He includes an exposition of theologian David Cunningham’s argument that animals should be included in the image of God, challenging Cunningham’s exegesis while also noting the wide variety of interpretations of the image of God throughout history (pp. 147–49).The key to van den Brink’s theological category of humans as specially unique lies in his understanding of the image of God. He goes on to argue that human uniqueness should be understood as a theological category rather than a biological category.
The key to van den Brink’s theological category of humans as specially unique lies in his understanding of the image of God. The doctrine of the image of God has been notoriously difficult to pin down even within the somewhat narrow boundaries of Reformed theology. That said, van den Brink does a fine job of briefly describing some of the more prevalent historical and current understandings. The historical views which he identifies as “substantial” or “structural” cannot, from his perspective, “stand the test of exegesis” (p. 151). Better, he thinks, are the functional or relational views. The functional view he associates with biblical scholars; the relational with systematic theologians (p. 151). He observes that these views are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Indeed when taken together, argues van den Brink, the functional and relational views point to what he considers to be truly unique about humans: the fact that we are called by God and able to respond to that call.
This ability to respond to God, according to van den Brink, is the primary theological reason for human special uniqueness. Our physical nature is not apart from this ability but enhances it, making fellowship with God possible (p. 157). He concludes by noting that this theological perspective on what makes humans unique is not something that is observed in nature. We can only know this through Scripture.
Van den Brink does a marvelous job holding in tension the claims of science and those of theology in this chapter as he does throughout the book. He examines some of the most common questions about human dignity in light of evolutionary science, poking and prodding at both the science and the theology, and coming to an admirable conclusion that not all we know about humans is observable in the natural world. Ultimately, there may be some aspects of human persons that science is not equipped to discover. I couldn’t agree more.Van den Brink does a marvelous job holding in tension the claims of science and those of theology in this chapter as he does throughout the book.
I also appreciate his efforts to knock out the wedge between biblical and systematic theology on the image of God. Not only can the functional and relational views work together, van den Brink offers a window into how this is likely the best way to understand the image. His emphasis on God’s call and the human response demonstrates this synthesis of viewpoints and is also thoroughly Reformed with its emphasis on the primacy of God’s action.
Despite my appreciation for van den Brink’s work overall, it is not clear to me that he has offered a fair portrayal of the broad Christian tradition’s understanding of the image of God. Rather, he seems to concede to the common contemporary critiques of the tradition without much thought.
Using Scripture & Philosophy in Theology
One concession is his claim that traditional “substantive” views of the imago Dei “cannot stand the test of exegetical scrutiny: “quite simply,” he explains, “the identification of the imago Dei with either the soul or reason (or whatever other capacity) does not occur in the Bible” (p. 151). He further explains that the “background of these views is found in various forms of Greek philosophical thought” (p. 151).Van den Brink implies that because the tools of Greek philosophy were the background, these formulations are not biblical, a fairly common criticism. I have no problem agreeing that pre-modern understandings of the image of God were very often constructed using the tools of philosophy. But van den Brink implies that because the tools of Greek philosophy were the background, these formulations are not biblical, a fairly common criticism.
The problem with this critique is that it is not accurate, at least not with respect to the pre-modern tradition as a whole. The exegesis of many, if not most, pre-modern theologians is every bit as scrupulous as that of modern exegetes and its interplay with philosophy no more suspect than that of modern theologians. For example, in his magisterial work, the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas is clearly working with Scripture in his discussion of the image of God and its connection with the intellect or mind, including such texts as Genesis 1, Ephesians 4, Colossians 3, and 1 John 3, along with a number of others.Matthew Levering notes these specific texts in his excellent exposition of Aquinas on the imago Dei. See his Engaging the Doctrine of Creation: Cosmos, Creatures, and the Wise and Good Creator (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017), 185–88. He is also clearly using Aristotle in various parts of his overall argument as well as in a few places within his treatment of the image of God. Like systematic theologians today, Aquinas faithfully exegetes Scripture while also using the philosophical tools of his day to seek understanding of these revealed ideas, sewing them together in a way that shows an inherent and organic cohesiveness.For more on this point see, for example, Eleonore Stump, Aquinas (London: Routledge, 2003), 29–31. The same could be said for many other pre-modern theologians, including many in the Reformed tradition. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to suggest that the background of the pre-modern formulations van den Brink criticizes is both solid biblical exegesis and Greek philosophy? And wouldn’t it be fair to say that modern theological constructions are worked out in much the same way—via solid biblical exegesis and some modern philosophy, be that Kant, or Heidegger, or some other philosophical platform?
Another lingering question I have is whether it is actually the case that the identification of reason with the image of God “does not occur in the Bible,” as van den Brink asserts (p. 151). While it does not occur in Genesis one, there are other places in Scripture that do connect reason or knowledge with the image of God. One example of this connection is in Colossians 3:10. Here, in the context of taking off the old self and putting on the new, Paul writes, “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” It seems that this renewal in knowledge is a renewal related to the image of one’s Creator, the image of God. Matthew Levering makes this point in his discussion of Aquinas’s understanding of the “rational soul.” See Levering, Engaging the Doctrine of Creation, 186. But van den Brink rejects this text, as well as Ephesians 4:24 as “eschatological,” thus not applicable to the prelapsarian state. It is unclear why, however, a salvific/eschatological understanding of the image of God drawn from Scripture cannot be used to aid in the interpretation of the prelapsarian image of God. Indeed, this seems to be fitting, at least from a Reformed perspective where a basic principle of biblical exegesis is to use Scripture to interpret Scripture.
Capacity to Know and Be Known
Curiously, van den Brink’s own criteria for humans includes a “capacity to engage in personal reciprocal relationships” and a “remarkable capacity for answering God’s call” to represent God, a call that he argues both “precedes and grounds our dignity” (p. 155). He links these capacities to the image of God. I don’t disagree that these capacities are unique to humans and marks of the image of God. But it is unclear how one can separate these capacities from reason. Indeed, it takes some level of reason, even from a purely physical perspective, to engage in reciprocal relationships including our relationship with God, a relationship characterized by the fact that one day we will know fully even as we are fully known (1 Cor 13:12).
In addition to these questions, it is interesting that van den Brink chooses to use the terminology of “capacities,” a term that the Christian tradition often associates with the soul and its connection to the image of God. While he never defines exactly what he means by capacities, he seems to write about capacities in physical terms associating them with the body in some way. But if that is what he is suggesting then he is back to the problem of grounding the image of God via these capacities biologically, a suggestion that leads to further problems.For example, if the capacity for relationship is grounded biologically, what about someone who does not appear to have that capacity, perhaps her brain is damaged in such a way that she is not able to form relationships or perhaps is completely unresponsive? In Thomistic terms, the person lacks both active intellect and will. While van den Brink says little about the soul, why not consider uniquely human capacities as potentials of the soul, in line with much of the Christian tradition, rather than dismissing this idea altogether as van den Brink seems to do? (p. 151) The idea of body/soul unity where the soul does not emerge from the body but, rather, is the life of the body, is not as biblically untenable as modern theology has led us to believe. It also fits well with van den Brink’s goal of moving beyond empiricist explanations of human persons and toward a robust and truly theological anthropology.
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