Evolution and Salvation (4 of 5)

In the three previous essays I explained why I find so-called Biblical Creationism unconvincing from a biblical point of view (here and here) and why I believe there is a logic, in terms of the ways of God, to prefer evolution by natural selection over creation by fiat as the assumed method of divine activity (here). In this essay, I want to turn to a fundamentally important Orthodox theological principle that pushed me over the edge firmly into the evolutionist camp.

One of St. Gregory’s (Nazianzus) most famous aphorisms is, “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved.” It expresses the fundamental Orthodox sense of salvation. Three things need to be said about the Orthodox understanding of salvation:

  1. Sin is not viewed primarily as a moral problem but rather as death or disease (in the broadest sense of the word). Sin is a profound sickness caused by the draining away of life from creation. In turn, salvation is understood primarily as the gift of life or the healing of this brokenness and sickness rather than delivery from judgment.
  2. This problem of sin and death is universal and not only a human problem. So salvation is conceived as affecting all of creation, not just we humans.
  3. Salvation is accomplished through participation in God’s life given to us in Jesus Christ. And (specifically to the point of this series) this gift of divine life and healing is offered not only to humans, but to all creation.

There is a corollary to this broad understanding of salvation. While both sin and salvation are universal (that is, affecting all creation), it is humans that mediate the process. Just as through Adam sin came into the world, so through Jesus Christ life is offered to all creation. As earthly creatures given God’s breath, as humans created in the image of God, and now, as members of the Body of the life-giving Christ we are the priests who mediate this healing life to the rest of creation.

St. Gregory took these principles and expressed them with a breathtaking simplicity: that which was not assumed is not healed. He said this while he was making the case for the two natures of Christ. Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human. Before the importance of this point was fully understood and the point settled, some theologians believed that Jesus had a human body but a divine nature; in other words, that he was human on the outside but God on the inside.

St. Gregory’s insight was that, if salvation is accomplished through participation, then only a human could bring about the salvation of other humans. If Jesus wasn’t fully human, salvation would be a sham.

Of course, the church quickly realized the truth of Gregory’s insight, and the doctrine that Jesus is fully human and fully God is believed by the whole church everywhere.

But since salvation is universal, affecting all creation, this insight into the nature of Christ must be extended to all creation. Christ has two natures in his one person: a human and divine nature. That is clear enough. But something more must be said about human nature (not only Christ’s human nature, but our human nature) if salvation is going to be truly universal. Human nature must be the same stuff as the nature of all creation. There must be a continuum between humans and the rest of creation. If this continuum doesn’t exist, then Christ’s gift of divine life could not extend to all creation. Salvation would become an escape from a foreign creation rather than the renewal of all creation, of which humans are a part.

So, just as it is incorrect to think that Jesus is God on the inside and human on the outside, so it is incorrect to think that humans are created from the earth on the outside and created from the breath of God on the inside. When God breathed the gift of life into Adam, God was not creating a bifurcated creature, but rather animating an utterly creaturely being.

Early Darwin detractors raged against the implications of evolution by natural selection. We are not cousins of the monkeys, so the argument went at the Scopes trial. The implication was that we were somehow transcendent and quite distinct from the rest of creation. The danger was that with such creationist thinking, the profound connection between humans and the rest of creation would be lost and, in turn, the breadth of salvation as a universal gift (and not just something given to us special humans) would be lost.

Evolutionary theory, on the other hand adds a great deal of significance to St. Gregory’s insights. “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved.” Humanity assumed all creation because we arose out of creation. The whole creation is recapitulated in our being. So when the gift of divine life was given to the sin-sick creation in the God-man Jesus Christ, it seeped, not only through humanity, but into all creation itself, from whence humanity came.

Let me be clear. This connection between St. Gregory, Orthodox soteriology, and evolution doesn’t prove anything. It is possible to maintain this connection within a creationist framework. But the elegance of the connection was the thing that pushed me from having no strong opinion about evolution solidly into the evolutionary camp. Once the profound implications of Gregory’s insights began to sink in to my thinking process, evolution by natural selection seemed the most obvious thing while so-called “biblical creationism” smacked of the same weaknesses as the early theologies that rejected the two natures of Christ.

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The Triumph of Ignominy (3 of 5)

What if “high and lifted up” means precisely the same thing as “ignominious”?

I think this is what Don Kraybill is saying in his book, The Upside-Down Kingdom (once again available in a 25th anniversary edition – woo hoo!). The idea isn’t original with Kraybill. I first ran into it reading Willard Swartley in an Anabaptist study of the trajectory of Biblical authority. But the idea is not original with either of them. The belief that, when it comes to the Kingdom of God, pretty much everything is the opposite of what it seems, lies at the root of Anabaptist sensibilities.

From the Anabaptists I began to understand what it means that Protestantism is triumphalistic. Even the Baptists (I was attending Central Baptist Theological Seminary at the time, so I believe I can say this with some authority) had shifted away from the servant theology of their forebears in the last couple of centuries towards a winner-takes-all mentality.

Triumphalism is a word that gets thrown around willy-nilly, and generally as an insult, so what precisely is it? Triumphalism is the belief that God is going to win, but more precisely, it’s the belief that when God (or the church, or individual Christians) get defeated along the way, it’s merely a minor set-back. It’s a worldview that sees conflict in terms of winning and losing, with no other options. It’s a theology that revels in Christ’s final victory, whether that’s expressed in the rapture (Dispensationalist theology), great wealth and perfect health (various Charismatic theologies), or even in the choice of lections and liturgies leading up to and celebrating the Feast of Christ the King in mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches.

But what if God’s triumph was precisely when Jesus got nailed to the cross and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (In other words, the resurrection is not the triumph, but rather the revelation of the triumph that occurred in death and the Divine Announcement in Hades while Jesus was dead – and notice that, for the most part, nobody believed in the resurrection. It was an ignominious announcement that was glorious only in retrospect.)

What if the distinction between winning and losing is a false dichotomy?

What if the idea that Jesus Christ is going to return to earth to do some serious smiting is simply false? What if he’s not even angry about it? (Here I’m referring to the bumper sticker that was quite popular a decade or two ago: “Jesus is coming again … but this time he’s really mad!”)

What if the final judgment of God is not fire and brimstone at all, but rather God merely showering the unrighteous continually and eternally with the rays of his love? (… which they hate, because they reject the love of God. This last one is an Orthodox bit, not an Anabaptist bit, by the way, but I suspect the Mennonites and Brethren would swoon with delight if they heard it.)

This non-triumphalistic way of thinking grows out of a particular reading of scripture. It assumes the Gospels are the normative story and both the Old Testament and the epistles (and especially the Revelation) have to be read through the lens of the Gospels. Most Protestant theology begins with Paul and interprets the Gospels through that framework; so this is a reversal of classic Protestant biblical priorities (while right in line with Orthodox priorities).

My purpose in this essay is not to defend this framework – that would require a book-length treatment – but rather to explain what it is along with a few of its implications. The two “Stirred, not Shaken” essays (here and here) assume this framework. But more to the point of this and the previous essay, this framework has implications for one’s cosmology.

There are a handful of big problems many Christians have with evolution and Darwinian evolution in particular. Among the biggest is Darwin’s insistence that there is a natural mechanism for evolution. It would seem that Darwin didn’t need God at all in his view of the universe; it leaves room for an agnostic or even atheistic view of the matter.

And I think this is the way God would want it.

Belief in God is not the same thing as belief in gravity. (Doc Habermas, my college Apologetics teacher tried to equate the two; I now profoundly disagree.) Belief in gravity has no moral component. Belief in God requires not only intellectual commitments, but commitments of the will. Michael Polanyi calls this sort of belief “conviviality.” It is not only acknowledgement of a reality; it is a happy (ie, “convivial”) relationship with that reality. This sort of belief implies that the believer thinks God is good company in contrast to a mere necessary acknowledgement.

Belief in God is also fundamentally synergistic while belief in gravity is monergistic. In other words, my belief – or not – in gravity has no effect whatsoever on gravity. On the other hand, my belief in – or not – and relation to Christ, and to Christ’s Body, does have an effect on Christ and his Body. Christian belief flows both ways while belief in gravity just is.

Christian belief, because of these interactions and inter-relationships, cannot be coerced. Being presented with irrefutable evidence that there is an almighty and moral God does not make a person want to become morally pure and submit to the Almighty. As James famously said, “Even the demons believe – and shudder” (Jas 2:19). There’s nothing convivial between Christ and the demons. This is not faith, it’s hopeless resignation.

And if God’s role in the universe – whether in creating or smiting or loving or preventing natural disasters – were blatant and the truth of that divine role irrefutable, then humans would lose an utterly vital component of their creation in the divine image: their freedom and opportunity to exercise faith, then lovingly respond to and choose God-in-Christ in gratitude. Rather it would be resigned necessity.

And this is precisely the God – the secret God, the misunderstood God – who shows up in the Gospels. After his first miracle, at Cana, the wedding steward didn’t know where the created wine had come from (John 2:9), although, John tells us, the servants knew. It was a secret miracle, but for the servants it was a delicious secret. Over and over, after a miracle is performed, Jesus commands the witnesses to tell no one. Even after the disciples figure out he’s the Messiah he “strictly charged them” to keep it a secret (Mt 16:20).

And his public miracles repeatedly got him in trouble. After casting the demons out of “Legion,” the locals kicked him out of town (Mark 5). And his most public miracle of all – the resurrection – was denied and suppressed by the leadership.

And this Gospel trajectory brings me back to the manner of creation. It fits completely into the divine character depicted in the Gospels that God’s role in creation would be secret and completely deniable by those who choose to do it. God doesn’t desire service because it’s inevitable, God desires it because we are grateful, and secrecy serves that end far better than triumphalism.

Facts, Metaphor, and Truth (2 of 5)

In the previous essay I made the case that Genesis 1 uses metaphorical rather than factual language. That begs the question of why. The most obvious answer is that the facts (assuming that evolution is factual) do not lend themselves to a truthful answer. In our scientific age we have come to equate truths and facts, but that is part of the modern myth and has little to do with reality.

As a Christian I know that God created the universe and made humans in his image. But the facts, apart from divine revelation, could easily point us in a different direction. (The reason this is actually a vital reality will be addressed in the next essay.) Richard Dawkins (the scientist who is an atheist) and Douglas Adams (the deceased novelist who was also an atheist) babble on and on quite gleefully about how evolution by means of natural selection proves there is no god.

Here I will focus on Adams (who was raised Anglican) for moment. Adams had his facts right, but the Anglicanism of his youth was of an existentialist variety that didn’t deal well with reality. (That in itself is a long story. Both the British Rational Realist Theologians – Tom Torrance, Alister McGrath, etc. – and Pietist Evangelical Theologians – John Stott, etc. – do an excellent job of dissecting and offering a post mortem on that era and wing of Anglicanism.) The modern Western myth of self-directed humanity throwing off the shackles of superstition by relying on scientific facts interpreted in an utterly natural (ie, anti-supernatural) manner seemed the obvious choice when the only other option known to Adams was existentialist Anglicanism.

Besides, atheistic science avoided the whole sticky mess of morals that religion quite impolitely spends a lot of time harping on. Evolutionary biology, along with the naïve belief that it disproved Christianity was perfect for someone like Adams who wanted to be both intellectually rigorous and morally ambiguous.

And this illustrates the problem with facts qua facts. Instead of lending themselves to the truth, they lend themselves to whatever ideology is preferable this decade. As Disraeli observed about a particular species of facts, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

And this brings us back to the metaphorical language of Genesis 1. The Hebrews were competing with some powerfully convincing stories about how and why everything got started. The Babylonians and the Egyptians had compelling stories about gods and demi-gods and sentient creation all battling for pre-eminence. Along with being exciting, these stories explained bad weather, good crops, and the divine right of kings – everything an ancient empire needed to thrive.

Of course, as the late Douglas Adams might have said, the whole thing was bullocks! Complete rubbish!

So the question is, how does one communicate the truth of the matter in this context? How does one convey that there is one God (in contrast to a pantheon), who is Almighty (in contrast to the rather tame, ableit mean-spirited gods of the ancient world) and created a creation that is in harmony with God (in contrast to the deadly fights between the gods and the earth itself in the ancient myths)?

The answer is Genesis 1. The story is simple and yet mind-boggling in its magnitude. It’s far more compelling than a science text , even a science text written by the inimitable Richard Dawkins. And most importantly, it’s true. And the reason it’s true has specifically to do with the fact that it is metaphorical. Because of the author chose poetry, he was able to mean far more than he ever said in these gloriously simple words. And that is the power of poetry and the essence of truth.

Evolution, Metaphorically Speaking (1 of 5)

In honor of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origen of Species, I’m going to come out of the closet (on this blog, anyway, most everyone who knows me personally and cares about this sort of thing already knows): I’m an evolutionist.

This admission is only meaningful in the context of my history. I grew up in the Bible Church, complete with a Bible College education, and in that tradition, taking evolution seriously is definitely “Runnin’ with the Devil.” (For that matter, the fact that I like that song well enough for its title to come to mind in this context is probably a second indication that I’m runnin’ with the devil … be that as it may.)

But here’s the curious thing. I’m not an evolutionist because I think the scientific proof is so overwhelming. I’m not a biologist and I don’t pretend to understand all the ins and outs, but from what little I know, it seems there are some serious holes in the finer points of evolutionary theory. (In fact, I’ve heard evolutionary biologists say just that.) Rather, I’m an evolutionist because I think it fits the Bible far better than any creationist theory currently extent.

I began to suspect six-day creationism in Bible College, and specifically when I was taking Hebrew and Hermeneutics classes (ie, the science of interpretation) at the same time. One of the basic principles of hermeneutics is that we shouldn’t try to make a text same something the text itself doesn’t want to say. This is especially true in the realm of poetic texts.

It (hopefully) goes without saying that not all biblical language is intended to be literal. For instance (and this one is utterly obvious), David says that if it weren’t for the Lord, his enemies would have swallowed he and his troops alive (Ps. 124:3). They must have been big enemies to swallow the troops whole!

But there’s more to metaphorical language than the mere point that it’s not to be read literally. Metaphorical language (of which poetry is a type) has the ability to say more than is written on the page. To understand a passage that’s intended to be metaphorical in a literal sense is to remove the truth from the passage. To illustrate, I turn to Ezekiel.

Ezekiel says God is going to remove our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh (Ez. 36:26). In this case, Ezekiel is dipping into a whole trajectory of Hebrew poetic language. At the simplest layer, the will (a vague concept) is spoken of by referring to the heart, a bodily organ. Does the human heart literally control the human will? Nope. But, the heart becomes a concrete way of speaking about the nebulous concept of the will.

Once this metaphor is established, a metaphor within a metaphor is possible: the vice of stubbornness is talked about as a “hardness of heart.” It’s now a very small step (and poetically stunning) for Ezekiel to take this to a third level and make the idea of a hard heart utterly concrete (yes, the pun was intentional) when he calls stubbornness, “a heart of stone.”

In short, poetic language is not literally factual, but because of the emotional freight that poetic language can carry, it becomes far more true than a merely factual statement. The truth of “I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” is far deeper than the truth of the factual statement, “I will turn your stubbornness into obedience.” It’s a far deeper truth because it means more than it says (to borrow a phrase from Michael Polanyi).

Many centuries later Jesus would teach us that we are, quite literally spiritually, dead and the Holy Spirit can make us spiritually alive. Once we know this truth that Jesus taught, it’s easy to see that Ezekiel was pointing forward to this in his poetic language, and if Ezekiel would have forgone poetic language and stuck to the facts, saying, “I will turn your stubbornness into obedience,” that conceptual leap from Ezekiel’s prophecy to Jesus’ fulfillment could never have been made.

That’s the power of poetic or metaphorical) language. Truths that can never be quantified can be spoken with poetic language. And if we fail to recognize poetic and metaphorical language where the author intended it, we essentially deny the truth of the passage by diminishing the truth.

At least that’s what Mr. Gehman, my Hermeneutics teacher hammered into our heads.

While Mr. Gehman was pounding home this point in Biblical Hermeneutics class, I learned in Biblical Hebrew class (and saw clearly with my own eyes) that the Genesis 1 creation account, if not a poem in the strictest sense of the word, is written in a highly stylized and poetic form. (If you fail to recognize the poetic structure, the text is kind of weird.) You can click here to see an overview of that poetic form.

Way back then, under the unintended tutelage of Mr. Gehman and Mr. Parkhurst, I began to doubt the obviousness and biblical proofs for creationism.

And then somewhere along the line I read Gen. 1:11, 1:20, and 24 literally (instead of figuratively, as the Creationists do), and I had an aha! moment about proof-texting and the danger of allowing our assumptions to blind us to what the text says. “And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures …'” (v. 20). “And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures …'” (v. 24). Literally (if literalism is a practice you value), God didn’t create the living creatures, he told the waters and the earth to bring them forth. Curious.

If these curious observations were the extent of the matter, the fact that I’m an evolutionist would be insignificant. But changing how one reads Gen. 1 changes how one sees other passages in scripture. And that’s where this whole evolution question gets interesting. But that’s another essay.