The topic of religious belief and evolution is quite notorious for its potential to arouse heated debates that easily become acrimonious (even this forum has not entirely escaped from such responses).See, e.g., https://evolutionnews.org/2018/02/symposium-or-firing-squad/
In this way, the Dutch precursor of Reformed Theology and Evolutionary Theory met with some fierce criticism that sometimes misstated both its content and intentions. Nothing of the sort is visible in the responses of my interlocutors in Sapientia. Even where they disagree with my views, their tone is always fair and focused on the substance matter, as in a combined effort to increase our understanding of the complex issues at hand. I believe this is really exemplary and I am deeply grateful for the critical but sober way in the which my interlocutors engage with the contents of Reformed Theology and Evolutionary Theory. In what follows, I will briefly engage with each of the seven respondents to this book in turn.
First of all, I am glad to see that Oliver Crisp, whom I consider one of the world’s leading experts in the study of Reformed theology, appreciates my proposal to consider its specific nature as a stance. Conversely, I can see the point of his proposal to consider Reformed theology as a centered rather than a bounded set—assuming that the supposed center is not occupied by some “core idea.” As I have tried to show, a lot of distinctively Reformed theological commitments and concerns can be understood as forming a more or less coherent whole when we see the stance of “always reforming in accordance with the Word of God” as its center. I concede that this way of looking at the matter does not solve all issues—e.g., it might not elucidate why Schleiermacher does count as Reformed (as well as Arminius, I would say, since he shared main concerns and debates of Reformed theology), whereas Pannenberg does not. It does enable us to see, however, why some theologians who are nominally Reformed may be less Reformed in their thinking than some colleagues who belong to other traditions. Thus, even though the boundaries that delineate Reformed theology remain vague, viewing it as a stance, or as a set centered around this stance, helps us to use the label in appropriate ways. As is well-known, the fact that some concepts have vague boundaries—‘twilight’ being a famous example—doesn’t prevent them from being useful for communicative purposes.
Second, Craig Bartholomew rightly points to the fact that in order to assess the Bible’s teachings on creation “we would need some sense of Scripture as a whole.” Over against the fragmentation brought about by historical critical research, we need a renewed vision of the overall story-line of the Bible. I could not agree more.(I also agree with Bartholomew’s point that historical criticism has as a matter of fact brought about a fragmentation of Scripture; yet, I think that this was in part due to the fact that many confessional interpreters refused to approach the Bible from a proper historical perspective, thus leaving the territory to those who drew more radical (and, indeed, fragmenting) conclusions than was warranted.) In the survey of Christian Dogmatics (Eerdmans, 2017) which I co-authored with Cornelis van der Kooi, we link up with the so-called theological interpretation of Scripture, arguing that we should read the Bible not just as a heterogeneous collection of ancient religious texts but as canon, i.e., as “a gift from the Holy Spirit to keep us close to the message of the apostles and prophets” (p. 553) and we make an explicit plea for the Reformed notion of tota Scriptura. In the chapters on creation, we discuss the topic of evolution almost as a minor point as compared to the much broader and richer contours of the Christian view of creation at large.Later on, I came to realize that, yet, somehow the empirical world “pushes back.” We can easily lose sight of these broader contours that have so deeply impacted Western thinking, when “we proceed too quickly and one-sidedly to questions about creation and evolution” (p. 224).
Yet, Bartholomew does not make clear how rehearsing the overall storyline of the Christian doctrine of creation would make a difference to our assessment of evolutionary theory. He himself seems hesitant on whether or not evolutionary theory is ruled out by this biblical metanarrative. Apparently, it is not evident that this is the case. Neither is it evident, I think, that evolutionary theory is inextricably linked to a naturalist worldview. I side with Bartholomew in that we should beware of possible biases in contemporary science due to phenomena as the underdetermination of theories by the evidence, the theory-ladenness of observation, the impact of one’s pre-theoretical orientation towards the world, etc. In my Philosophy of Science for Theologians (Peter Lang, 2009), like Bartholomew I suggested that such recent discoveries in the philosophy of science should make us critical of evolutionary theory. Later on, I came to realize that, yet, somehow the empirical world “pushes back.” I still agree with Bartholomew that we should not consider neo-Darwinian evolution a proven fact. But the empirical evidence in its favor (and here is a relevant difference with the time of Kuyper and Bavinck) has become so strong, that at the very least we should take it seriously as the best theory of origins we currently have. That is why I have investigated its theological consequences in my book.
Moving to the problem of evolutionary evil vis-à-vis God’s goodness—for many Christians the biggest faith-challenge caused by evolutionary theory—Michael Murray very helpfully points out that there are various sorts of evolution-based evils, not all of which may admit of one and the same explanation. He also distinguishes between the epistemological problem of evil as most often addressed by philosophers and the existential or pastoral problem that is usually dealt with by theologians. Presumably I am an atypical theologian then, since my concern is clearly with the epistemic problem. This is because the existential problem usually emerges when we ourselves or people we know are confronted with evil and suffering; only few people experience animal suffering as an existential problem that keeps them awake at night.I realize, though, that evolutionary evils do not only befall animals; many natural evils which humans have to face also have evolutionary backgrounds. In addressing the epistemic problem(s) of evolutionary evil, Murray explicitly distinguishes (as I did more implicitly) between three different strategies, viz. what we might call theological nominalism (what is good or evil in our eyes need not be so from God’s objective perspective), greater good theodicy (evolutionary evil is needed for some greater good), and skeptical theismSince each of these options may solve (or alleviate) the epistemic problems of evolutionary evil, the reader has a choice here. (humans are not in a position to evaluate God’s reasons for permitting evolutionary evil). Since each of these options may solve (or alleviate) the epistemic problems of evolutionary evil, the reader has a choice here. Therefore, I didn’t argue for or against any of these options—I just explained very briefly why I personally prefer skeptical theism (p. 134).
Murray, on his part, prefers a greater good theodicy (as in his book on the topic). In my view, he could therefore just rely on one of the standard theodicies on natural evil, since when this works with regard to natural evil in general it will also work with regard to evolutionary evil. Murray objects that theodicies which select morally significant freedom as the justifying greater good do not work with regard to evolutionary evil, since such accounts “will not help explain evils that pre-date the arrival of beings with morally significant freedom” (i.e., presumably, human beings). I don’t see why this is the case, however. It is not far-fetched to suggest (as some authors indeed do) that in order to arrive at the emergence of morally significant freedom there was no other way, even for an omnipotent God, than staging the evolutionary history (with all its sufferings) our planet has seen. In my view, apart from the fact that it seems overly anthropocentric, it is not clear why such a theodicy could not hold water. Nor is it clear why Murray, in the end, wants to combine a greater good theodicy with a skeptical theist response to evolutionary evil. As he himself suggested earlier in his response, the two seem incompatible: either we are in an epistemic position to form a judgment on the choices God made in allowing evolutionary evils (as greater good theodicists think), or we are not (as skeptical theists hold). In terms of Murray’s metaphor: we cannot both argue that germs cannot be traced and use microscopes which do trace germs.
Mary Vanden Berg
How about the consequences of evolution for the status of humans? I argue that even if we humans share a common ancestry with the apes, we may still consider ourselves as having been uniquely created in the image of God—and Mary Vanden Berg seems to side with me on this important point. (Like the other respondents, she even renders my views in such a crisp and clear way that I wondered why I needed so many extra pages in my book!). Yet, she takes issue with my view on the image of God, since, as she sees it, I am “playing the Greek card” here. That is, I imply “that because the tools of Greek philosophy were the background [of formulations that situate the image of God in the human soul or reason], these formulations are not biblical.” That is not what I do, however. I fully agree with Vanden Berg that there is no either-or here: though we should be cautious of possible differences in elaboration, a theologoumenon may have roots both in the biblical Scriptures and in Greek thought (divine providence being a case in point). My argument is different here: first I observe that the notion of a human soul (dualistically conceived) cannot stand the test of biblical exegesis,I wonder whether Vanden Berg and I might agree on this point—in any case, she comes very close to it. as many biblical scholars have pointed out; and next, wondering where it might then stem from, I turn to Greek philosophy as its most probable source. In such a situation, for Reformed theologians it is quite natural to give priority to the biblical witness. So that is what I tried to do here.
But is the idea that the human soul or reason is part of the image of God alien to the Bible indeed? Vanden Berg has her doubts, and she points to Colossians 3:10 in this connection. Here the readers are reminded that they “have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” Even if we concede that humans were already originally created in this eschatological image of God (which in my view still is not self-evident), the reference here is neither to the human soul nor to human reason. Given the context, the word “knowledge” can only refer to the saving knowledge of God in Christ, which has brought about a decisive change in the lives of the Colossians. It is through their growth in this knowledge that they are gradually being renewed to become the image-bearers of God they were all along intended to be. The text does not say as much on anthropology or epistemology as it does on soteriology and sanctification, and we should not burden it theologically with more than it can bear. Having said that, I agree with Vanden Berg that usually “it takes some level of reason, even from a purely physical perspective, to engage in reciprocal relationships, including the relationship with God.”I add “usually” to Vanden Berg’s text, since I would not dare to claim that the mentally disabled etc. are excluded from engaging in such relationships. Usually, however, engaging in such relationships and responding to the call to be creation’s caretakers requires quite some intellectual and volitional capacities. As I wrote, bearing God’s image cannot be conceived of without such cognitive capacities (p. 157). Yet, it is not in these natural capacities that the image of God is to be located according to the biblical writers. Though characteristic of humans, these capacities are not theologically important in and of themselves. What is theologically important and distinctive, is the fact that we are called by God and enabled to respond to that call. I wonder whether Vanden Berg and I might agree on this point—in any case, she comes very close to it.
I am grateful to Scott Swain for his sensitivity to the nuances in my “recontextualizing” account of the biblical story of human origins. Indeed, it is not my intention to read back the data of evolutionary biology into Scripture, but to ask how we can do justice to the theological intentions of the first chapters of Genesis in the context of present-day scientific knowledge. I am glad to see that Swain does not object to my method and results here on exegetical or hermeneutical grounds. Yet, that does not mean that he can accept evolutionary theory. Drawing on Augustine, he suggests that since the conclusions of the physikoi change from generation to generation, Christians are not required to accept any of these conclusions. The same Augustine, however, warned that if non-believers find a Christian preacher mistaken in a field of knowledge (Augustine in particular referred to common knowledge on the natural world here) “and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books [= the Scriptures],Swain argues that this unity is key to understanding pivotal doctrines like original sin and atonement. While I agree with that, I don’t think this unity is dependent on a shared bloodline. how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?”Augustine, De Genesis ad litteram I 19, 39. It seems to me that both quotes of Augustine should be taken seriously when we make up our mind on evolutionary theory.
One reason for Swain’s hesitance is a theological problem that pops up when we consider Adam and Eve as part of a primordial group rather than as the primordial couple: if we humans do not all physically stem from this couple, how can the unity of the human race be safeguarded? Swain argues that this unity is key to understanding pivotal doctrines like original sin and atonement. While I agree with that, I don’t think this unity is dependent on a shared bloodline. It seems to me that, given its theocentric orientation, Reformed theology hasn’t been as obsessed as some other traditions with the physical transmission of original sin, since in the end it is the judgment of God that counts. On a Reformed federal understanding of the transmission of original sin, Adam is the representative (or “head”) of all humanity, so that what Adam did is imputed by God to all people.Cf. Cornelis van der Kooi & Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics. An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 320. Is this “more arbitrary” than when we link original sin to Adam’s status as the biological father of humankind? I would not think so, since obviously original sin is imputed to all and only those who themselves have sinned. As Romans 5:12 has it: “ . . . just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned . . . ”NKJV; the “because” is pivotal here, as opposed to the Vulgate’s “in whom.” Similarly—and that, of course, is Paul’s main point here—the grace of God abundantly extends to all those who have sinned. Since we are limited human beings it is perhaps not our business to establish the exact boundaries of the human race in this connection. Did Neanderthals or other hominins sin? God only knows. But to all those who sinned, sin became an overwhelming power which they cannot escape apart from God’s saving grace in Christ.
Moving now to the challenge posed by Darwinian evolution to the doctrine of divine providence—that “most serious worry for contemporary theology” according to Crisp—I am very happy to see that David Fergusson shares the general approach I adopt in this chapter. In line with past Reformed authors on the subject, I think there are several good reasons to believe that the conflict often perceived here is only apparent. Fergusson even admirably distils seven different lines of argument to this effect in the chapter. And while I don’t see why some of these would rule out each other (e.g., even 4 and 5 are often held in tandem), Fergusson is right that I don’t make a clear choice for any one of them. This has to do with the overall strategy of my project. I wanted to show Reformed and other readers several moves they might make in response to the alleged conflict.I wanted to show Reformed and other readers several moves they might make in response to the alleged conflict. If I had elaborated a case for only one of them, I would unnecessarily have lost readers who were not convinced by that particular case, and who might as a result continue to think they should keep evolutionary theory at bay.
Now quite understandably Fergusson presses me to become more clear on my own views. A few comments must suffice here. First, it seems to me that quantum theory has shown how “open” the natural world actually is, which is theologically important; yet, I don’t think it offers much help in locating a natural habitat for divine agency, since the effects of quantum phenomena level out in the macro-world. It would therefore still require a special act of God for quantum phenomena to make a difference in our everyday life. Second, if we see natural laws as descriptions rather than prescriptions (as I think we should do), we cannot rule out the possibility of divine miraculous intervention. Of course the appeal to miracles should not prevent us from looking for natural explanations; but even when such explanations surface they do not rule out that God was involved. Third, if we were to allow for something coming close to deism in the doctrines of creation and providence, this would still not lead us to deism tout court, since the Christian faith is Trinitarian in scope. Thus, constrained as human history is by evolutionary conditions, the saving agency of the Son and the Spirit takes place within rather than beyond this history. And fourth, as is clear from my book, I am intrigued by insights like those of Conway Morris (and Coakley/Nowak and Fuentes indeed offer similar suggestions) to the extent that whereas individual paths in evolutionary history may be subject to contingency and chance, its overall outcomes—such as the emergence of (something like) human life—can still be seen as built-in divine purposes.
Sarah Lane Ritchie
Finally, Sarah Lane Ritchie superbly renders the main of lines of argument of my response to those who think that evolutionary explanations of human morality and religion are incompatible with the theological appeal to divine revelation as the ultimate source of both. While basically in agreement with my thinking on these issues, she ends up with two questions. First, does my approach “truly recognize the epistemological challenge posed by CSR-research?” Cognitive research (more broadly conceived now than as just focusing on religion) has laid bare all kinds of cognitive biases that continuously influence our thinking, perceiving, decision-making, et cetera. True as this may be, I believe there is hardly anything we can do about this than just following regular scholarly procedures of check and double check, thinking hard and having our products reviewed by a diversity of peers (that is why, for example, the current exchange is so helpful to me). As with other forms of skepticism, it is hard to live our everyday lives in accordance with CS-based skepticism. Moreover,As far as they pretend to be rational, even CS-theories themselves should be treated with great suspicion—the serpent in the end biting its own tail. if cognitive science research forces us to become more skeptical about our rational faculties, this will affect our everyday and scientific views no less than our religious views. As far as they pretend to be rational, even CS-theories themselves should be treated with great suspicion—the serpent in the end biting its own tail.
Second, Lane Ritchie raises what seems to me a very important strategic question on the underlying method I use both in this particular chapter and in the book as a whole. She rightly senses that I have adopted a somewhat defensive posture, in that I probe to what extent traditional doctrines can still be uphold given contemporary scientific developments. I readily agree with her that theologians should also seek more constructive engagement with such developments. As I wrote in the final pages, “Christian theology may have to move beyond ‘postevolutionary apologetics’ [as performed in the book] toward a more constructive engagement with evolution” (p. 271). Our planet’s evolutionary history cries out for coherent and convincing theological interpretations which show that this history is not necessarily devoid of all meaning and purpose. Perhaps my current project can be seen as clearing the ground for such a more constructive attempt. In any case, it seems to me that those who work in theology-and-science should take both these fields with equal seriousness. Taking science seriously means not to tamper with its data. And taking theology seriously includes attending to traditional doctrines that matter enormously to many “ordinary believers” in so far as they consider these to be truthful articulations of their faith. Too often, it seems to me, work in the field of theology and science tends to cut loose from the concerns of such people-in-the-pew; Reformed Theology and Evolutionary Theory is as an attempt to think along with some of them, and help them come to terms with evolutionary theory as an inescapable part of modern science and life.