The Scandal of the Evolutionary Mind

The final part of Ted Davis’ s somewhat loosely-entitled series  Science and the Bible has appeared over at Biologos. It is really a summary calling for theological engagement with evolutionary science along the lines of Mark Noll’s 1994 book, Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. What was rather depressing was less the article itself than some early responses.

One replier, agreeing with the article, cited “good work” being done by Catholic scholars responding to evolutionary truth (after mentioning Peter Enns as a lone voice in the evangelical camp). His summary of one of these works was this:

…the purpose of Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection was primarily to teach altruism and to point the way to eternal life by his example.

Well, the Moral Influence Theory is hardly new, and hardly begins to do justice to the gospel picture of Jesus. It’s true that Jesus taught altruism as the summary of the Law (but actually, as I pointed out in a recent post on BioLogos, not altruism but love – which is why it’s another red herring to speculate on its evolution). But he got it directly from Leviticus, and stressed more the duty of love to God (from Deuteronomy). And there’s plenty of quibbling from evangelicals about his teaching too, altruistic or not, for example on divorce, lust, fasting and so on.

Jesus as a moral example, apart from the context of his atoning Messiahship, is actually a pretty problematic basis for anything. Take away his miracles (which aren’t exemplary unless you can do miracles too, and in any case are often regarded by modern types as legendary accretions) and what morally imitable acts can one actually point to in the gospels? Jesus taught – but about spiritual repentance and forgiveness, primarily, and often quite unfashionably confrontationally. Remember his words on random tragedy: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” He died, but helped no one physically in doing so – it was primarily for blasphemy in appearing (truly) to make himself equal with God. The civil charge was, of course, trumped up sedition against Rome. Either way, it was only altruistic if his death achieved something objective for us.

But let me examine the Amazon blurb on the book itself, Christianity in Evolution, by Jack Mahoney:

In an evolutionary perspective the incarnation involved God entering the evolving human species to help it imitate the trinitarian altruism in whose image it was created and counter its tendency to self-absorption.

Now, for a start it is hardly an evolutionary perspective for God to enter humanity by incarnation. Neither, indeed, is the idea of man’s creation in the image of God anything to do with evolutionary theory. Even if mankind were created instantaneously in 4004 BC and fell by eating a fruit, then it would be no less appropriate for God to seek to correct his self-absorbtion – though maybe “helping it imitate” is a little too Pelagian a view of grace to be convincing to many sinners.

But neither can self-absorbtion be explained evolutionarily, except by the depressingly familiar twisting of Dawkins’ outdated selfish genes to mean selfish organisms, or the equation of God-given animal behaviours with human sin, as if the very term the image of God did not imply our distinction from brute beasts, as Scripture makes clear.

Listen out, People – Evolution has no explanation for the self, so it can offer no explanation for self-absorbtion.

Self-absorbtion is not even Scripture’s understanding of sin, however, which is actually seen as lack of God-absorbtion. Evolution has no bearing on that, either, of course. Back to the blurb:

Primarily, however, the evolutionary achievement of Jesus was to confront and overcome death in an act of cosmic significance, ushering humanity into the culminating stage of its evolutionary destiny, the full sharing of God’s inner life.

“Evolutionary destiny” has a quaintly Victorian Darwinian ring to it, don’t you think? As I’ve written before, that idea of evolutionary perfection was what Darwin imported from Christianity, as a conscious substitute for eschatology. It has no basis in evolutionary science, which has increasingly rejected even accidental progress, let alone a teleological “destiny”. Neutral evolution doesn’t do destiny. Jesus’s resurrection, meanwhile, would only be an evolutionary achievement if it were due to a resurrection gene which passed to Jesus’s offspring – presumably by his marriage to Mary Magdelene or something equally trendy.

Previously such doctrines as original sin, the fall, sacrifice, and atonement stemmed from viewing death as the penalty for sin and are shown not only to have serious difficulties in themselves, but also to emerge from a Jewish culture preoccupied with sin and sacrifice that could not otherwise account for death.

Here one might ask a pertinent question: since the incarnation was God’s big evolutionary idea, why did it happen to occur in “a Jewish culture preoccupied with sin and sacrifice”? Could it not be that God’s trinitarian involvement in mankind’s “evolutionary destiny” would actually begin long before Jesus was born, as the Bible says? After all, Jesus could so easily have been born into a good western liberal family where all these old ideas had been superceded by evolutionary truths. Then one would have avoided the unfortunate fact that the whole of Jesus’s teaching and life revolved entirely around his concern for sin, the fall, sacrifice and atonement.

Incidentally that phrase, “shown to have serious difficulties in themselves” gives the game away. Such ideas have served two millennia of serious Christian thinkers and believers well, and a millennium or more of Jewish people before that. But because 21st century western man sees difficulties, all that’s gone before must be held to be in clear error, and evolution just dragged in as supporting testimony to what western prejudice had already determined to be truth.

The death of Jesus on the cross is now seen as saving humanity, not from sin, but from individual extinction and meaninglessness. Death is now seen as a normal process that affect [sic] all living things and the religious doctrines connected with explaining it in humans are no longer required or justified.

Newsflash – the Jews at Jesus’s time almost all already believed in the general resurrection of the dead and in God’s judgement of the righteous and the wicked. Maybe the Sadducees believed in individual extinction, but Jesus had little to say to them. Death was never extinction – but perishing under God’s judgement.

And another Newsflash – the Jews and nearly all the Christians up to the time of the Reformation were completely familiar with the idea that animals were created to undergo death within God’s good creation. Evolution hasn’t altered that one jot – it has just come up against the quite recent teaching that not only human death came through the fall. Human death, however, did require sin to explain it, but not because nobody had learned evolutionary theory: it was because the Jewish culture was also preoccupied, because of what they held to be “divine revelation” with the idea that God had given the first men access to a unique source of eternal life, which had then been lost through sin.

Evolutionary science has absolutely no warrant to deny that that gift of eternal life was given at some stage in human history (maybe not even as long ago as pre-history), nor that rebellion against God’s command brought ruin on our race, and on our race alone. Common ancestry simply has no bearing on the matter.

Granted, some serious theological work needs to be done to integrate the spiritual and teleological story of man with the material and biological story – but given that the work of John Walton and others has already shown that the Bible has little interest in material origins at all, that bridge has already been crossed with no damage to core historical doctrine whatsoever. One could compare it to the Copernican revolution, and for the same reason: once one realises that material cosmology is not what Scripture is concerned with, then one easily sees that its doctrines are untouched by the entry-level spiritual insights given by the physical and biological sciences.

The approval of a book like Mahoney’s by anyone in the evangelical TE community shows how woefully superficial is that community’s insight into, and respect for, its own teaching. I’ve said a lot, so I’ll save my thoughts on Ted’s article itself for another post.

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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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