The questions the church confronts most severely at present are questions of human nature, and what to call good and what to reject as broken and fallen in our present state. Without a clear understanding of humanity as both-created-and-fallen, we will remain muddled in our thinking on gender and sexuality as we have for the last several decades. But more, we will struggle to formulate coherently and distinctively Christian views on matters as wide ranging as: the value and costs of digital community relative to physically-present community; transhumanism, including all sorts of bodily modification and enhancement with prosthetics, brains not excluded; artificial intelligence; genetic engineering, not only of babies but of adults, including human-animal hybrids; and so on.
These issues are massive and pressing. If they are not all confronting your church today, they will be very soon. Our answers to them depend in important ways in how we conceive of human nature – indeed whether there even is such a thing as human nature – and its relationship to its creator. That is, they are matters of theological anthropology: humans understood in relation to God. As such, our understanding in these issues is inextricably linked to our doctrines of creation and fall. We must be clear on the origin, purpose, and character of humanity: What does it mean to be made in the image of God? What is our calling and vocation? We must equally be clear on the current state of humanity: What does it mean that we are fallen? And we must not least be clear on the necessity and nature of redemption: What does Christ’s resurrection entail for us both here and now and in the future? For all of these hang together, and the answers we offer to any one of them can be undercut if we offer poor answers to the other.
Even as all these issues rush to confront the church, we also face (at least apparent) steadily-mounting evidence for both an ancient earth and also evolutionary origins for humanity. Whether via the Intelligent Design movement, progressive creationism as articulated by e.g. Hugh Ross and Reasons to Believe, or some sort of theistic evolution as advocated by BioLogos, many conservative evangelicals have been exploring alternatives to the young-earth stance which has been dominant since the 1960s.
In some ways this is a return to an earlier form, where even many of the men who wrote the Fundamentals for which the Fundamentalist movement was named were comfortable affirming an ancient earth.1 In an important sense, though, the landscape looks very different now than it ever has. Evidence for speciation has become essentially undeniable—so much so that even prominent young-earth creationists have adapted2 in their understanding of how modern biodiversity arose. Answers in Genesis, for example, now affirms massive speciation, though with their own twist (“speciation only among kinds”).3
But as the young-earth creationists have rightly pointed out over the years, an evolutionary account of human origins at a minimum seems theologically problematic. There are ways to reconcile the rest of the Genesis account with an ancient earth and divinely-purposed evolution, e.g. by adopting John Sailhamer’s reading where Genesis 1–3 describe the preparation of the land where God’s people were to dwell, rather than the creation of the whole cosmos. But all such schemes – however exegetically fruitful, and even if true – nonetheless come to a crux at the point of human origins.
Genesis, the gospels, and Paul all explicitly hang a great deal on Adam and Eve and their disobedience; and if the events are implicit in much of the rest of Scripture, they are implicit and present throughout. The shadow of the Fall lies over the whole history of humanity as the Bible tells it. Perhaps most importantly: the glory of Christ’s resurrection is that he triumphed over the death that had afflicted humanity throughout the Biblical story. Likewise, the promise of Christ’s resurrection for us is that we will share in it: that humanity (and all creation with us) will be renewed. But if death and corruption are our natural state, if violence and war inhere in human nature “from the beginning,” how exactly does Christ’s work stand in relation to us? It certainly cannot be restoration or renewal: in this telling, humanity has always been this way. Take away the Fall – make our wretchedness not brokenness but simply the way we came to be as we grew out of mere ape-hood into sapience – and the coherence of the Biblical story evaporates.
William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith’s Evolution and the Fall, then, is an attempt to address that cross-pressure – to determine whether this tension can be productive, or is destined to be (i.e. to remain) a destructive interaction. Rather than assuming evolutionary origins and Scripture to be in conflict, the authors ask what happens if the two are assumed to be integrable. If the two are both true, then taking this tack will shed new light on our understanding of Scripture. And if they are not, then taking this tack is apt to expose its failings.
The results, perhaps unsurprisingly given the nature of the project as an anthology, are mixed. Several of the chapters are really excellent (and I’ll highlight some of their most important points below). Others were disappointing. But this is almost inevitably the fate of an anthology, and especially so when the contributors range in expertise through “biology, theology, history, scripture, philosophy, and politics.” Some chapters admirably combine careful reflection on science and scripture; others leave the opening question as little more than background to go off and argue for an authorial hobby-horse. Although this unevenness is largely to be expected of collections of essays, it was nonetheless a disappointment – not least because the high points in the collection were excellent, and indeed worth the price of the volume on their own.
Perhaps the most important chapters in the book are the introduction by Cavanaugh and Smith, and Smith’s chapter. I hope these make a splash, because they helpfully and clearly articulate two ideas which are essential for any further work in this area, at least if it is to produce light and not only heat.
The first is a commitment to “faithful extension” – not supersession or outright jettisoning – of the Christian tradition. Cavanaugh and Smith properly ground the entire project here:
From the point of view of a tradition like the Christian tradition, “reasons” and “advances” [in understanding] are understood differently [from the “progress” narrative of the academy] because there is a weight granted to the tradition as tradition; there is a requirement that any advance be seen as an extension, not a supersession, of the tradition. There are no prizes for novelty in a tradition.
This contention profoundly, but rightly, constrains our approach to human origins. The cross-pressure applied by evidence for evolution may not trump the deposit of faith we have been entrusted first of all in Scripture and secondly in the creeds and confessions of the church historic and catholic. This does not mean the tradition is not amenable to “extension, revision, expansion, and development” – to the contrary. We are indeed to be always reforming, but the direction of our efforts is constrained by the tradition and our respect for the work of the Spirit in God’s people. Thus:
[Any] modifications, revisions, and reformulations will (a) need to provide an account of how they are faithful extensions of the tradition and (b) have to concede that the discernment of what counts as faithful extension is determined by the community of practice, and not just the realm of expertise. So we will indeed have to determine whether reformulations violate the “core” or “essential” markers of the tradition; and we will have to concede that the determination of this is entrusted to the people of God, which is wider than the realm of academics, scholars, and scientists (though scholars and scientists who are part of this community of practice also get to participate in this discernment process).
I’ve quoted these at length because I think this formulation is essential, not only for this topic but in thinking about how to be people who are always reforming in general. Our creeds and confessions are open not to replacement but precisely to faithful extension. This is particularly important as we face issues the church has never confronted before due to the rapid development of technologies that (as Matthew Loftus has often put it to me) enable dramatically greater effect in their exercise – whether good or evil.4 Our answers may be new in the sense that they address new questions; but they must not depart from or distort the tradition we have inherited.
As an important aside: this is one reason we need a connection to our history via the creeds and confessions. A sort of bare biblicism which divorces interpretation from the testimony of the Church catholic cannot even have the helpful scheme of “faithful extension” – for immediately the question would be, “faithful extension of what?” The kind of nuda scriptura approach that is common in much of evangelicalism leaves us without anything to extend. “Back to the text!” is the way we reform our traditions and confessions; it is not an excuse to throw them out wholesale. We stand indebted to the great cloud of witnesses which has gone before: centuries of saints who have thought and spoken on God’s word to us. We are not bound to agree with everything they said, but we are bound to honor them by safeguarding the good they have passed down to us.
So in the question of human origins we are bound by the church’s historic and universal affirmation of a real Fall at a real point in real history – reducing Genesis to mythology simply will not do. Theistic evolutionists who are ready to call Adam and Eve mere story-figures who tell us something true yet without being in any way historical fail this test. Cavanaugh and Smith rightly challenge them to keep to the plot.
But the cross-pressure remains, and this takes us to the second important contribution of the volume. If we reject an evolutionary account of human origins, we still must grapple with apparent evidence in that direction. This is not merely an apologetic concern (“How do we persuade our heathen evolutionist neighbors?” or even “How do we keep our kids from being corrupted when they go off to college?”). Rather, as James K. A. Smith points out, an apparent conflict between a reading of Scripture (especially the historic reading of Scripture) and our understanding of the world as we read it scientifically is a theological problem.
While acknowledging that many historic Christian confessions, including those of the Reformers, straightforwardly affirm a single original couple, Smith notes that we nonetheless are confronted with evidence which poses for us a serious challenge. Again, Smith is worth quoting at length here:
In light of accumulating archeological and genetic evidence, it is difficult today to simply affirm the existence of an original human couple, Adam and Eve. Indeed, such an affirmation entails a unique theological challenge: If all humans are descended from a single pair, why would the Creator of the universe seem to indicate in his creation (i.e. via general revelation) that humanity has a long, evolutionary origin and is descended from many more individuals? Any assertion of this received account of one historical couple will have to grapple not only with the scientific evidence to the contrary, but also with the theological problem that is generated when the “book of nature” seems to say something very different. There may indeed be theologically cogent ways to address this discrepancy, but it is important that we concede that the “traditional” picture of one historical couple, Adam and Eve, is not theologically unproblematic. (p. 55, emphasis original)
Smith is right. If anything, he does not go so far as he could. If we simply shrug at this problem or wave it away, we are merely fideists – with blind faith planted firmly not in the text (and certainly not in its author), but in a particular late-modern hermeneutic. We must grapple with the evidence for common descent. More than that: if we reject that evidence, we must offer both viable alternative accounts explaining the evidence in the book of nature, and compelling reasons to embrace those alternative accounts.5
That this tension is ultimately a theological problem has often not been grasped, especially by young-earth creationists. It has often been waved away as merely a matter of presuppositions. But to whatever degree presuppositions are in play, this question is not merely one of presuppositions. There is a real challenge to a young-earth reading from the world as we find it. Any proffered answer to these questions must acknowledge and resolve this challenge as a theological problem. Accordingly, there is an opportunity here for those in the young earth creation research program parallel to that which confronts the theistic evolutionist: an opportunity to address the problem more faithfully and more honestly.
In conclusion, then: a truly Christian response to the issue of human origins must be faithful to our creeds and confessions; and it must respond faithfully to the evidence of the world around us. It cannot merely break with the church’s teaching on the merits of scientific observation and theory (however well supported); the theistic evolutionist has considerable work to do in fitting the stories together rightly. Neither can it ignore what scientific observation and theory indicate; the young-earth creationist must deal with the theological problem of a world which does not readily fit to its reading of the text.
Yet there is good hope. If the world is indeed ordered to our understanding, and if God’s word is true, and if God’s Spirit has been in the past and remains today at work in the church, then we may be confident that there is indeed a way to faithfully extend the tradition and resolve the theological problem set for us by this cross-pressuring. And the whole church is implicated in these questions, not only those of us with a particular interest in the science – because the answers we give here will shape the answers we give to every question of human nature which confronts us.
I am profoundly grateful to my friends Ben Makuh and Eric Farkas, with whom I read this book earlier this year. Our conversations about each chapter – sometimes disagreeing sharply! – clarified my thoughts on these issues and this book in innumerable ways.
- Claims by young-earth creationists that anything but a young earth entails denial of inerrancy are, accordingly, simply wrong. Warfield, Machen, and Kline certainly affirmed inerrancy and affirmed an ancient earth; they might have been wrong but their witness clearly shows that an ancient earth and the record of Genesis are not patently incompatible. ↩
- I might even say “evolved” if I were feeling especially cheeky ↩
- Young earth creationists affirming this new model will usually bristle at this being called macro-evolution, in part because they have backed themselves into a corner over the past many decades by teaching consistently that macro-evolution is anathema to Scripture. But it certainly fits the normal definition of evolution in the scientific community; and it fits what young earth creationists themselves called evolution even just a few years ago. ↩
- Nuclear power is an obvious example: its ability to sustain human efforts as a means of generating power is orders of magnitude beyond anything else we have invented – and so is its power for destruction. It appears much the same could be said of the advent of the internet, and the current rapid development of AI, and so on. ↩
- The young earth creationist program has simply failed to produce such an account; instead its approach has consisted of goalpost-moving and, as noted above, increasing acknowledgment – albeit quiet and with much protest at calling a spade a spade – of the evidence for what a few decades ago would have been ruled out of bounds as “macro-evolution.” A credible alternative program will have to do better than this. ↩