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A Transformative Doctrine of Creation
Q: Is the 'Fall' at Eden a necessary condition and cause, or the incidental effect of biological evolution? Which came first and caused the other, cognitive sin or biological evolution?
In his The Triune Creator, the late Colin Gunton identified three models to explain the relationship between creation, the fall and redemption.
He calls the first the restoration model because it views redemption as restoring nature back to its initial perfect conditions with a corresponding eschatology that promises a recovery of what was once lost. In this view, the prospects of the after life matches the heights reached at initial creation. Adam and Eve are presumed to be biologically identical to us – except perhaps for not having navels. Life after death must be similar to the biochemical life form we live today. This model must explain how the resurrected body can be free from pain and suffering unless the pre-fall bodies are substantially different from our bodies today. Proponents of this model include Origen and Augustine.
The second is the evolutionary model. It views the fall as either a brief impediment or “a step on the way, to the perfecting of that which was in the beginning.” Creation was not perfect in the beginning but has to become perfect. However, the fall at Eden was the means by which development can be achieved. Sin is therefore a necessary and expected consequence of nature expressing its contingence. This model minimizes the problem of evil and generate an eschatology of emergence, where we may expect a superior form of existence. It is influenced by Hegelian and Darwinian ideas.
Gunton prefers a third model he calls the transformative model. According to him, creation is a teleological project, “but by virtue of the fall, can reach that end only by a redemption that involves a radical redirection from the movement it takes backwards whenever sin and evil shape its direction.” Creation is thus the process that God enables to exist in and through chronological time. Gunton claims Irenaeus as a proponent because of his strong doctrine of both sin and redemption as well as his equally strong eschatological and transformative view of the process. The eschatological expectation here is one of completion, in which the final state of redeemed creation is superior to the conditions at initial creation. Redemption involves the defeat of evil and its removal, restoring the original direction of created order. In this view sin is real but perhaps not a necessity. The first model is not much in vogue among theologians of science or scientific theologians for being difficult to support in the face of critique from contemporary biblical scholars. The second and third models appear to differ, in Gunton’s view, by their position on the gravity and the consequential imperative of sin and the banishment of evil.
The issue at stake appears to be whether the moral fall was a necessary condition of biological evolution.
Is either the culpable 'Fall' or biological evolution the causal agent of the other? Is the Old Testament account of the Eden story and described by later Churchman as 'The Fall' descriptive or prescriptive, i.e., was it a report of what happened or an account of what had to have happened, with no freedom of will among the participants?
Traditional interpretations tend to suggest that the Fall need not have occurred – that Adam and Eve could have avoided but chose to exercise their freedom in a manner that led to their banishment. This interpretation was driven by the need to shield God from blame for their banishment and make the first couple responsible for their actions.
Is this an Aristotelian category mistake? How can we offer a biological account of a cognitive event that we judge to be a moral failure to a metaphysical authority? Is there a biological explanation for the emergence of moral cognition that serves to respond to the divine authority of a universal moral order.
The postfoundational method invites a core theological understanding of the biblical texts as it converges with a broader understanding of these very issues in contemporary culture. Put simply, can the account of the first humans be reconciled with, among others, the discovery of fossils by paleoanthropology, our neurological understanding of the brain working as the mind, and our best geological guesses about the ancient earth?
Moltmann’s evolutionary model resists Gunton’s tripartite demarcation and any attempt to systematize theology. It falls somewhere between Gunton’s second and third models. Both theologians acknowledge the evolutionary process in cosmological chronology while preserving the finality of the eschaton. Both posit a transformative teleological future in which God triumphs over evil.
Drawing from Gunton and Moltmann, I shall advocate a doctrine of creation that is at once, evolutionary and eschatological. The universe is transformative, but made to evolve.
Is the operative factor for the fall of humanity volition to sin or neurological propensity for survival? If nature was created to evolve, can a classical doctrine of creation make sense of our human experiences?
A transformative, evolutionary doctrine of creation is a viable way to prepare for a doctrine of theological anthropology that accounts for findings in paleoanthropology, primatology and neuroscience.
Unlike strict process theology and panentheism, I propose a transformative doctrine of creation that fuses the proctological doctrine of creation with the eschatological doctrine of redemption by reversing the flow of divine history.
This looks to the open future as it unfolds into the present. It preserves the imperative of a free will agency of creation as well as the sovereignty of the creator by a kenotic framework to explain the nature of autopoietic creation by God’s co-creators.
Gunton sums it up nicely when he writes, “theories of evolution are not as such so serious a problem for a theology which holds to the relative rather than absolute perfection of creation ‘in the beginning’. Such a doctrine modifies the problem of evil that is presented by evolutionary theory” with reference to the suffering in, and wastefulness of life.
How do paleoanthropologist Steven Mithen and evolutionary biologist Terrence Deacon contribute to our understanding of physical and cultural anthropology. Anthropologist Ian Tattersall and Spencer Wells add to our current understanding of how the human race might have evolved and traversed great distances in migratory patterns that may be genetically traceable today.
Lurking behind a theologian’s interest in anthropology is the question of the identity of biblical Adam. Robert Jenson and Philip Hefner boldly declare a non-traditional possibility and Wentzel van Huyssteen offers evidence of shamanistic apprehensions as the clue to the emergence of religious cognition and life after death.
Taking a critical realist postfoundational approach to constructing a transformative doctrine of creation, we are now ready to test our methodology against a real world question. How does a revelational natural theology (McGrath’s RNT) that acknowledges a post foundational rationality (van Huysteen’s PFR) understand and explain what it means to be made in the imago Dei with specific reference to the role of consciousness, emotional intelligence, and synaptic memory, in the emergence of moral cognition in Homo sapiens sapiens?
By discovering the philosophical convergence between scientific findings of neurobiology and theological reflection of moral response in nolition, we can achieve a more robust redescription of the Christian doctrine for an evolutionary creatio continua as we anticipate the creatio nova to come.
If the biblical account of what we call the Fall may be understood as ‘rising beasts’, ‘falling upwards’ to moral awareness, it would make better sense of biological evolution, theodicy and the human condition.
Having examined what theology claims about humanity, our next step is to consider what the natural sciences say about what makes humans human. To this, we shall turn to paleoanthropology and Steven Mithen’s notion of cognitive fluidity and the roles that emotions, and memory play in the persistence of the conscious self-awareness.
The classical doctrine of creation is dated and cannot survive the discoveries of the sciences since the 16th century. But Christians have been loath to admit it because we have made ancient knowledge of the world new idols. So we whistle in the dark and worry that high school kids start asking inconvenient questions. I wrote this 10 years ago before I formally studied astronomy and physics, so now, there are even bigger problems for just about every Christian doctrine we hold. They have become only relevant within the closed questers of Christians with little to engage the outside world. I am hoping to encourage the Church to take a missional view of evangelism that embraces the wonders of God's creation with integrity rather than with fear. There is much to celebrate as we learn about the beauty of God's creation - the one we call nature.