Human evolutionary continuity and exceptionalism

There’s a series on BioLogos at the moment, by Joshua Moritz, on the real meaning of the imago dei. Moritz is a significant scholar in the science and faith field, so one detects the influence of Ted Davis in his recruitment as an author. The basic thesis is that the “image” is, on textual and ANE grounds, best seen in relational, rather than ontological terms. Man is appointed as God’s representative on earth, with a priestly function in bringing all things together in God’s presence. He is elect but not primarily for his own sake (Moritz argues a parallel with election to salvation by grace, which, he says, is also primarily in order to benefit others).


The flip side of this is that the ontological view of “image”, in terms of innate characteristics like reason, spiritual capacity and so on, is really extraneous to the discussion. The essence of mankind is his election by grace, not his superiority by creation.

Now it happens that I’m very sympathetic both to a “representative” view of image, and to the aspect of election as being for the good of others rather than simply the privilege of the chosen. The first aspect fits very well with the idea of mankind as a living temple-image in the cosmic temple of Genesis 1, manifesting God’s rule and presence on earth. Moritz doesn’t really refer to this, but does to the similar example, in the ANE, of the images of kings set up to much the same purpose in far-flung outposts of empire.

The second aspect fits my view of Adam’s role (emphasised in recent work by John Walton) as a chosen representative to bring God’s blessing to the human race as a whole. It also fits the ideas of Israel as a nation of priests to bring blessing to the nations, of David the king chosen by grace for an everlasting dynasty on behalf of God’s people, and of believers chosen to be “a kingdom and priests” to reconcile humanity, and by extension the cosmos, to God in Christ.

That’s all pretty uncontroversial, then, even though these may be aspects that are under-emphasised in many Christians’ thought. But my few comments on the thread (eliciting a very long reply from Dr Moritz) were to the effect that man’s appointment by grace was being stressed at the expense of an equally significant biblical strand about man’s ontological uniqueness. And election on behalf of others (meaning, in the BioLogos discussion, “all creatures in the cosmos”) similarly fails to account for the biblical counterbalance of God’s subjection of the cosmos for the sake of the elect.

The context of this theological discussion, of course, is the whole BioLogos project: the subtext is the question of man’s evolution. By stressing election rather than ontology, Moritz specifically suggests that nothing in man’s nature is other than quantitatively different from what is seen in animals. For example, he rejects dualistic accounts involving concepts of “the soul”, using some reasonable arguments from Hebrew language and so on – but largely ignoring the large body of philosophical opinion on the immaterial quality of mind. “Christian materialism” after the manner of Nancey Murphy seems to be taken as a given, which is very far from true. The separation of biology from religion, then, is a big part of the agenda here, the first being allocated to naturalistic science, and the second to relational, or maybe forensic, theology.

But deep arguments aside, it sometimes pays just to step back and look at the big picture being painted. In terms of human creation, we are being told, mankind is just a particular animal species chosen by God for special service. A look at even my typical day calls that into severe question.

I’m usually partly awakened by sensing my wife getting out of bed. Here are two anomalies for a start: I am bound to a female for life not by instinct, nor even solely by choice, but by covenant relationship. And we sleep in a manufactured bed. She wakes me properly with a hot coffee, usually with a perennial joke about my pretending to be asleep. Do badger males get that, I wonder? I drink my coffee whilst contemplating the beauty of the view and predicting the day’s weather. Then I get up – on to two legs, unlike most animals – even my first waking action is exceptional. There’s a separate room where I wash using various toiletries – not many animals consider hygiene, and I’m not sure my dog’s rolling in fox dung has the same cosmetic function.

Some animals store food, but it wasn’t manufactured from cultivated wheat like my cerial, nor eaten with the milk of another mammal species. And I’m willing to bet that none of those animals listen to the world news whilst they’re breakfasting. Nor do they wash up their plate and spoon afterwards.

Nobody would imagine any animal taking time out then to read the Bible and pray to their Creator and Saviour about the day, but it’s not uncommon with humans. Nobody expects animals to switch on the computer either – but even the reason I do so is, in evolutionary terms, unheard of. I exchange e-mails with my distant brother daily, to encourage him in caring for our elderly mother with dementia. Which animals take such care of their parents? Or feel unease if they’re too far away to do more? Or experience existential doubts about the whole situation? After that, I’m picking up on my interest in faith and science matters – maybe trying to blog new ideas, or old ideas in a slightly new way. Or I might be creating music for someone else’s future entertainment – even the humpbacks don’t practise in private.

And while I’m doing that, Jake the black labrador wanders in simply to renew his affection for the leader of his adoptive pack – not many animals show family affection with another species, but it wasn’t the dog’s idea. Ants may nurture aphids for food as I keep chickens for eggs – but they don’t spare much thought for protecting them from predators. And they don’t keep ponies to improve their mobility – let alone purely for recreation, as my wife does.

I could carry on writing about my day – but the first hour is enough to suggest that pretty well all of it has little parallel in the rest of the animal kingdom. Moritz pointed out to another commenter that advanced human technology is a poor indicator of ontological uniqueness, since simple cultures are far less sophisticated. But were an Australian aboriginal in the outback to recount his day, it would still involve speech, hunting by fire and weapon, walkabout, the dream-time, dance, music and art. And if we’re talking about the image of God, we’re talking about human origins (in the terms of Genesis) in neolithic times. To invoke biological speciation is to beg the question: the Bible does not say that adam evolved uniquely, but that we are created uniquely.

Blaise Pascal, I think, spoke wisely on this:

It is dangerous to explain too clearly to man how like he is to the animals without pointing out his greatness. It is also dangerous to make too much of his greatness without his vileness. It is still more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both, but it is most valuable to represent both to him. Man must not be allowed to believe that he is equal either to animals or to angels, nor to be unaware of either, but he must know both.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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6 Responses to Human evolutionary continuity and exceptionalism

  1. Cal says:

    I wrote a paper in my first year of college over the question of whether man is just the 3rd Chimpanzee (with Bonobos being the 2nd). My defense ended that while man does share some functions (eating, hunting, tool-use) has extremely expanded other abilities (sapience, sentience, dreams, language, depth of emotions) the thing that separates man entirely from the animal world is his propensity of worship. Seeking divine things, suffering from ‘Sehnsunct’, elaborate worship of animals, nature, other humans, abstractions, gods (even the True God!) is unlike anything else.

    So in my opinion, this Imago Dei is both representative and ontological. Every time God elects, He does what is impossible: He makes something out of nothing. He breathes into dust and creates Adam, He gives a miraculous birth to Sarah to create Isaac, He incarnates through the virgin birth.

    This choosing of humanity does not mean He does not create something new, even outside of the means He normally created (evolutionary change) yet it doesn’t mean He started from scratch either. I think its perfectly acceptable to say that Adam was made from the pinnacle that was Hominids.

    So I agree with you. Moritz does well by highlighting this but he starts building walls unnecessarily instead of allowing both. I’m a near physicalist, but even that doesn’t mean that the mind is not immaterial. I don’t understand all the pendulum swings. Just because we say no to Cartesian dualism does not mean we now become total materialists. However, I don’t think humans can be humans without a body.

  2. Gregory says:

    “the thing that separates man entirely from the animal world is his propensity of worship”

    Yes, this has been proposed by many others and it was addressed by Darwin too. Contemporary physical anthropologists point out that other hominids display ‘religious’ culture, in addition to homo sapiens sapiens/human beings. The question of ‘separated entirely’ or ‘together effectively’ seems to be the rub here.

    Doesn’t the relationship between Jon and Jake and Jon’s wife and her ponies suggest an ‘in this together’ approach is more welcome and appropriate than a ‘separate entirely’ one?

    “in my opinion, this Imago Dei is both representative and ontological.”

    What makes you conclude the ontological? Are only theological arguments valid on the topic? Is there any possibility of a scientific ontology of the imago Dei in/of human beings, even if it is to be found in a post-neo-evolutionary psychology?

    “I think its perfectly acceptable to say that Adam was made from the pinnacle that was Hominids.”

    Does that ‘pinnacle’ then preclude that we human beings could be the pinnacle from which a new ‘artificial intelligence’ could be created and ‘elected’ to move beyond us?

    Also, I had thought the alternative to dualism that most people seek is monism, is it not? Materialism and near physicalism don’t seem to reach the main point of contention. Exceptionalism can only be pushed so far and then it breaks down. Where/when might that point be?

  3. James Penman penman says:

    Given that Christ is pre-eminently “the image of God” in biblical thought (Col.1:15, Heb.1:3), & given that the Son is the Father’s Image ontologically, not merely functionally (the HOMOOUSION in the Creed), I’d argue by analogy that the divine image in humankind is ontological as well as functional. As Christ is the Uncreated Son of God, humanity is the created son – an image of The Image, if you like.

    What would I include in this image ontologically? I think I’d include the attribute of “natural immortality”, i.e. an everlasting existence after bodily death – a distinctively human attribute, biblically. Also the kind of God-consciousness that Paul expounds in Rom.1:18ff, which seems to imply “humanity as innate worshiper” (we will either worship the Creator or something created).

    Does this make sense? Jon, Cal, Gregory? Anyone?

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    That’s a very good point, penman. Just as the passages that speak of Christ being “declared to be the Son of God”, “Today I have become your Father”, etc, ought not be taken to exclude the divine nature of the Son – he is appointed/chosen/anointed because of what he is.

    If immortality is intrinsic to human nature, then wholly naturalistic explanations for man are a non-starter – entropic matter cannot do “immortal.” But is that the case? The tree of life motif would seem to suggest
    immortality is an extrinsic act of grace… arguments against that?

    Of course, directed evolution could still produce an entirely exceptional humanity at the material level – my doubts are about the ability of a “generally governed” process to do so.

    Gregory’s point about a post-evolutionary cultural exceptionality could use some specific expansion, I think, for it is that realm that the revelatory aspects of election lie. What ideas do you propose, Gregory?

    The question of hominid culture and especially spirituality is a highly speculative one, it seems to me. It’s almost impossible not to read pre-historic clues from our fully-human viewpoint: is burial of your dead religious, a pre-religious fear of dead ancestors, a heightened respect for the dead, or for death itself, or merely a way to stop the cave smelling? How can one tell. Even the Gobekli Tepe shrines give no clear awareness of divinity, which seems only to be certain in the earliest historic cultures involving named gods and sacrifice – bringing us intoi the time frame of Genesis.

  5. James Penman penman says:

    Hi Jon

    I agree that immortality in the richest sense – full participation in the life & glory of God, “deification” as the church fathers call it – was NOT already given to Adam. It would have been the outcome of obedience.

    The immortality Adam had as part of the ontological Imago Dei was something other than the above. You could call it “soul survival”: that is, human consciousness survives physical death. We will exist for ever.

    But that isn’t the same as “immortality” in the denser sense in which you’re using the word, viz. glorification/deification – not bare EXISTENCE for ever but LIFE in the most potent sense of the term, “the life that is truly life”, a full sharing in the life of God.

    I think these qualifications synthesize what each of us is saying. As an aspect of the divine image ontologically, Adam was endowed with the attribute of everlasting personal existence regardless of physical death. Had he obeyed, he would have entered into a state of immortality, the rich, glorious, imperishable life of God in the soul of Man, which is now to be had only in Christ.

  6. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Shades in Sheol despite the loss of the tree of life and final judgement even for those irremediably fallen … that’s strongly suggestive you’re right.

    Those of us who agree on that can’t, surely, see it as an emergent property of natural life without a whole lot more physics than the Hogg’s boson!

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