Last year (2009) was the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of his world-shattering book Origin of Species. Many Christians, particularly those on the conservative end of the spectrum, have had a very difficult time with evolutionary theory as it is considered, by them, to completely undermine the biblical narrative of human origins.
In the book Darwin, Creation and Fall: Theological Challenges, we have a fascinating exploration by a group of scholars who are conservative evangelicals and who accept the current consensus of scientists on the evolutionary origins of humans. Now that is interesting!
The two editors of the book come from different disciplines. R J (Sam) Sperry was Professor of Genetics at University College London 1984-2000. T A Noble is Senior Research Fellow in Theology at the Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City. They have gathered a number of writers who, in this volume, explore the relationship between the biblical account of origins and Fall in Genesis 1-3 and the contemporary understanding of origins as articulated by the theory of evolution.
Each of the contributors to the book takes a particular aspect of the issue and describes, and attempts to resolve, some of the challenges once one accepts the biblical documents as authoritative and the modern consensus on evolution. The book begins with a chapter that sets the doctrine of creation in the context of worship of the Creator. This is followed by a historical survey of Darwin’s struggle to come to terms with his scientific discoveries and their theological implications. The next chapter takes a look at Darwin himself and the theological challenges that arose for him as he worked on his science. Another chapter revisits the early chapters of Genesis and discusses the issue of interpreting this text. Following this is a discussion of the concept of original sin and provides some fresh perspectives on the doctrine of the Fall. The last two chapters engage with two theologians — one ancient (Irenaeus) and one modern (Henri Blocher) who have contributed significantly to the discussions of the Fall, original sin, and theodicy.
In the epilogue to the book, the authors affirm the following:
- An insistence that as new information emerges, Scripture, whilst God-given and authoritative, must be re-examined and may require reinterpreting. Christians of a former age had no doubts that the sun moves round the earth and supported their ideas from the Bible …; nowadays we unhesitatingly interpret the passages which seemed to speak of a fixed earth in other ways.
- An awareness of the compelling genetic and fossil evidence that human beings have descended from an ape-like line, and that we are therefore related to other living beings.
- The uniqueness of human beings as the only creatures made in God’s image, albeit ‘fallen’ so that life in fellowship with God is now only possible because of Christ’s redeeming and reconciling death. (pp. 197-198)
The authors conclude that they have arrived at a ‘…position which seems impossibly conservative but also surprisingly radical.’ (p. 198) They warn of the danger of ‘…rush[ing] too quickly to conflate the narrative of human origins and Fall in Genesis and the narrative of human origins given by modern science’, and they acknowledge the necessity of each discipline (science and theology) maintaining their own integrity with each contributing different perspectives on the issues. They arrive at the hypothesis that:
Our prehuman ancestors cannot be called immoral (let alone ‘sinful’) on the grounds that they killed, deceived, behaved promiscuously, and so on. But when God created the first humans, apes now in God’s image, or Homo divinus as John Stott has called them, these creatures, since they were now brought into this unique relationship to God, became moral agents. Although they shared many inherited — including behavioural — traits with their ancestors and animal relatives, this did not mean that they were dependent on or determined by them. Sociobiologists fall into the naturalistic fallacy when they argue that human ethical norms are no more than correlates of our evolutionary history. But the new relationship to God, being in his image, which led to new moral possibilities and responsibilities, was followed by a failure to believe and obey God, and consequently a failure to grow into the spiritual and moral greatness we were meant to exemplify. (pp. 200-201)
This hypothesis demonstrates how deeply radical and conservative the authors’ position is. The main benefit of this book, though, is not so much in the position they arrive at (which, of course, needs to be discussed, evaluated and critiqued) but more in the model it presents for conservative and liberal Christians in engaging both with science and with scripture. It demonstrates an approach which moves beyond dogmatism and the conflation of interpretations of the Bible with what the text may, in fact, authentically mean.
In the concluding paragraphs of the book, the authors write that
It is our conviction that there is no conflict between Holy Scripture and modern science. Indeed the Christian doctrine of creation provided the ground for the rise of science. The idea that Christian faith and science are in conflict and always have been is a myth propagated by Humanists for ideological reasons, but sadly they are helped by sincere Christian believers who think they are defending Holy Scripture when in fact they are doing nothing more than defending interpretations of Holy Scripture which are sadly inadequate. That does not mean to say that all the questions are answered, all the problems settled and all the mysteries resolved. That is never the case in either theology or natural science! Both are ongoing quests for deeper understanding. (p. 204 – emphasis in original)
Darwin, Creation and the Fall is going to be very tough reading for conservative Christians. Undoubtedly, many will accuse the authors of heresy and blasphemy. If they do, then they will not have seen how deeply committed the authors are to the Bible and to God and how they are determined to give due weight to the biblical text as well as due weight to what we now know about human origins from a scientific view.
And, undoubtedly, there will be those who see these authors as doing nothing more than trying to rationalise their religious beliefs in order to legitimise what many atheists see as an outmoded, irrelevant, and even immoral, system of belief.
But for those of us who want to affirm our commitment to God and struggle to understand that commitment in the context of what we now know from science, this book will be a fascinating journey that, as the authors say, won’t answer every question, but will provide the opportunity to hear from others about a way forward in resolving an unnecessary conflict between faith and science. For anyone interested in these questions, and who are not afraid to think in new ways, this book is essential reading.
Book deteails: Berry, R. J., & Noble, T. (Eds.). (2009). Darwin, Creation and the Fall: Theological Challenges: Apollos.