William CAVANAUGH & James K.A. SMITH, eds., Evolution and the Fall.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017.  Pp. xxix + 231.  $26.00 pb.  ISBN 0-802873790.  Reviewed by Daniel L. SMITH-CHRISTOPHER, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA 90278


Reviewing a collection of essays is always a challenge, even with an interesting topic that brings the various writers together.  The topic that unifies this wide-ranging series of essays is the variety of problems raised by Evolutionary Science, especially Hominid Evolution, when these scientific theories are brought into a dialogue with Christian doctrines of "Original Sin" and/or the concept of the "Fall" of humanity.  One of the difficulties here, of course, is the differences between some of the theological traditions with regard to how they would approach these “problems”, and there is some interesting diversity represented in these essays as well,  Catholic and Protestant.   However, despite this diversity, this is rather clearly a self-selected group, which is to say, the writers here all share the central presumption of the entire project: evolution does present challenges to the concept of "The Fall" and thus aspects of the theological notion of the sinfulness of humanity.  Not all Christian theologians would agree at the outset.  For this review, I will take each essay in turn and comment briefly.

After an Introduction written by the editors Cavanaugh and Smith (“Beyond Galileo to Chalcedon: Resources for Reimagining Evolution, Human Origins, and the Fall”) which tries to suggest Chalcedonian discussions as a more creative model of encountering external ideas to Christian faith instead of the Galileo model of confrontation, the crucially important opening essay, “Human Origins: The Scientific Story” attempts to set the stage by summarizing the state of Hominid Evolutionary thought at present.  It is written by Darrel Falk (Prof. of Biology, emeritus, Point Loma Nazarene College), who served for a time as President of the BioLogos Foundation, which was founded by Francis Collins (perhaps most famous for his work on the Human Genome Project).  Falk's opening essay only introduces theological issues briefly at the end of his essay.  Although I have a minor reading interest in this topic, so hardly qualified to be critical, given the speed with which hominid evolutionary science is progressing and changing, with new discoveries making the news frequently, this particular essay was a thankless task (what my New Zealand comrades, always obsessed with Rugby, like to call “a hospital pass”), but Falk's essay serves as a good introduction to the science that will be taken up in the discussions by theologians that follow.  

The essay, "In Adam All Die?: Questions at the Boundary of Niche Construction, Community Evolution, and Original Sin" is written by Celia Deane-Drummond, who is on the Theology faculty at the University of Notre Dame.  She has written on this topic previously, and is particularly interested (in the opening pages of her essay) in taking up a dialogue with Jack Mahoney's work, Christianity in Evolution (2011), especially tracing some of the highlights of Catholic official theological responses to evolutionary philosophical challenges in the last century.   At the end of this section, Deane-Drummond questions Mahoney's alleged summary dismissal of the theological issue in the light of evolutionary science, with a very interesting question:  "Attempts to debunk original sin raise wider questions about methodology: How far and to what extent should theologians seek to respond to scientific theories that may themselves become obsolete over time?".  In the light of her own question, Deane-Drummond illustrates precisely the point of her question by taking up a particular nuance in evolutionary thought, namely "Niche Construction Theory" (NCT, a discussion, by the way, that illustrates nicely the minefield of Falk’s intrepid attempt to summarize Evolutionary science because of its increasing complexities and internal debates).  The basic notion, it seems, is to contest the older view that external factors alone determine evolutionary changes.  NCT, on the other hand, emphasizes a much more interactionist approach that suggests that species can, to an interesting degree, become "agents of their own evolution" (34) because they are interacting with the very environment that is an evolutionary driver.  This raises intriguing and significant issues for the dialogue with theology and especially the concept of the sinfulness of humanity.  Deane-Drummond pursues an outline of how particularly Catholic theology, especially on the issue of the notion of the state of sinfulness of humanity as communities as well as individuals (thus redefining "the fall") can be in dialogue with this particular expression of evolutionary theory.

James K.A. Smith (Prof. Philosophy at Calvin College), in his essay, “What Stands on the Fall?: A Philosophical Exploration” suggests that we identify a central Biblical "narrative plot" with which to bring other fields of inquiry into dialogue (in this case, of course, hominid evolutionary theory).  This plot is presented by Smith as consisting mainly of the following: "…the goodness of creation, a fall into sin, redemption of all things in Christ, and the eschatological consummation of all things" (51).  To say that this is a bare-bones summary of Biblical thought would qualify as a spectacular understatement.   While I appreciate Smith's method─ set up the parameters of the discussion and then proceed to explore possible avenues of dialogue with ideas outside those established theological parameters─it seems quite clear that his narrative summary is precisely where problems can arise.  In the previous essay, for example, Deane-Drummond speaks quite clearly about the significance of the creation of the human community─and the notion that God creates a community through whom to interact with the world─and this strikes me as a significant omission in his "narrative plot" from the Bible, not to mention some rather serious road signs in the development of that community (slavery, to land, to monarchy, to exile and the fall of the nationalist experiment, diaspora existence, colonial interaction with world empires, etc., it reminds me of the debates around Von Rad’s “Kleine Credo”).  These are not minor quibbles because they interfere with the very definitions (and indeed, causes) of the sinfulness of humanity.  What counts as part of the central "narrative plot" will drive aspects of the discussion, including any dialogue with contemporary science. 

There follows some very interesting essays from Biblical Scholars who also take up the issues.  The first essay is by the always interesting Jamaican Biblical theologian, R. Richard Middleton (Northeastern Seminary in NY) entitled, somewhat heavily: "Reading Genesis 3 Attentive to Human Evolution: Beyond Concordism and Non-Overlapping Magisteria".  After rejecting the notion that Biblical scholarship and science simply must stick to their own areas of investigation, Middleton helpfully articulates a careful series of arguments about the linguistic and Near Eastern contexts of many of the images and terms used in Genesis 3.  Many of these discussions, in and of themselves, point to potentially significant elements of this dialogue.  What is especially helpful about Middleton's essay is that is shows that the Biblical narrative is actually far more complex and deals with far more varieties of issues in discussing the human condition than is often expressed in a rather crudely summarized "fall of Adam".   In fact, Genesis discusses "sin" in a series of important contexts beyond simply the story of Adam and Eve─communal failures, national failures, social and political failures, all of which would take a discussion with evolutionary science in quite interesting directions (and Middleton’s essay is especially interesting when paired with Cavanaugh’s essay, described below).  I also see Middleton's essay as a significant dialogue partner to Smith's previous essay precisely because Middleton demonstrates that pointing to the important nuances in the "narrative plot" from Biblical analysis is by no means an insignificant distraction.  Furthermore, Middleton’s important book The Liberating Image (2005) was a very important challenge to the frequency with which discussions of the “biblical view of humanity” in Genesis have been simplified and generalized, and I was gratified that his voice was represented in this collection.

Joel Green (Dean and Prof. of New Testament at Fuller Seminary) writes: "Adam, What Have you Done?: New Testament Voices on the Origins of Sin”, surveys the discussions of the Adam and Eve story in late Second Temple literature and the New Testament (e.g. briefly discussing non-canonical texts such as "The Life of Adam and Eve"; "4 Ezra"; "2 Baruch", and "Biblical Antiquities").  Green concludes that in these texts, "Sin is not compulsory, even if its ubiquity might suggest its inevitability" (105).  From this wider context, Green then examines key texts from Paul and James in the New Testament.  Intriguingly, Green concludes: "Both Paul and James thus emphasize sin's corporate dimension and assume sin's heritability, not in the sense of passing down sin through procreation, but in the sense of pattern and influence." (115).  Green then summarizes at the end of his essay, "Accordingly, on the issue of original sin, scripture provides plenty of room to take seriously the primary questions raised by evolutionary biology.  The qualified view of original sin to which scripture bears witness does not require belief in a first human couple, Adam and Eve, or in traditional notions of a historical 'fall', or in the traditional view of sin's genetic transmission…" (116).  Like Middleton's essay, Green's essay reveals how significant the voice of Biblical scholarship is in raising all kinds of annoying problems that muddy the waters for the easy way that these issues can be generalized in discussions that have tended to pay little attention to Biblical and textual analysis.  But Green’s essay is a challenge to crude theologizing about the Fall generally…and is particularly troublesome for taking Augustinian thought in relation to Scripture seriously.

Aaron Riches (who teaches Theology at the Seminario Mayor San Cecilio in Spain) writes: "The Mystery of Adam:".   This essay, subtitled, "A Poetic Apology for the Traditional Doctrine", is perhaps the most difficult essay in the entire work.  Apparently calling for the maintenance of a very dark assessment of the human condition in Christian Theology because it is necessary to a rather ethereal view of Christ in a good deal of historic Christian theology, Riches appears to be deeply concerned that modern Christian theology will somehow abandon the ramparts of its' view of the human condition in hopes of a simplistic peace-treaty with contemporary evolutionary science.   But his appeal to poetic expressions of Catholic thought would require considerably more development in order to be convincing.  Does evolution really challenge the poetic expressions of the human condition - or ask us to develop those expressions in ways that can create helpful dialogue with science and Biblical theology.  I'm afraid this reviewer was left rather cold by these notions, and I seriously wondered why Riches' article, more interested in Peguy and other poets than Scripture itself, was grouped with Middleton and Green's arguments in a section identified as "Biblical analysis".

Section III is entitled, "Beyond Origins: Cultural Implications".  

Brent Waters ( A Professor of Social Ethics at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary) writes: "Being All We Should Have Been, and More: The Fall and the Quest for Perfection".  Here, he takes up the interesting idea that Pelagianism has some sort of philosophical "family resemblance" to contemporary arguments of post-humanists and trans-humanists who advocate for a further evolutionary motivated exploration of new trajectories of the human experiment - for example, in arguments for the rise of cyborg combinations of humanity and technology.  It is a fascinating field for dialogue with Christian theology, and Waters does a good job of summarizing some of the issues at stake - and most particularly in the notion of the further "perfectibility" of humanity in posthumanist thought.  I somewhat objected, however, to pulling my beloved Pelagius into this scrum (sorry, another Rugby reference).   Pelagius was arguably less interested in actually achieving "human perfectibility" (a notion for which he is hammered in virtually all standard histories of Christian thought) and arguably more interested in the Christian importance to SEEK perfectibility by actually trying to be obedient to the teachings and example of Jesus, rather than simply short-circuiting the quest with an appeal to our fallen natures (and therefore go ahead and vote for repressive conservatism which is supposedly so much more "realistic" about human frailties).  I myself suspect that brother Pelagius would have more in common, therefore, with (for example) 19th century Christian Socialism, or the modern Sojourners Community, and elements of Anabaptism (all of them deeply treasured movements for me), than posthumanist speculations, but that would take us into another argument entirely.

Norman Wirzba (  Prof. of Theology and Ecology at Duke Divinity School ) writes: "On Learning to See a Fallen and Flourishing Creation: Alternative Ways of Looking at the World".  In this fascinating article, Wirzba takes up some themes in Orthodox Theology (using as a dialogue partner some of the thought of Maximus the Confessor).  Wirzba's main task, it seems, is to illustrate that Christian theologies of the ‘fallenness’ of humanity can be seen as seriously one-sided and therefore flawed.  He articulates the notion that there is a "flip side" as it were - if Christians can talk about a fall, they can ALSO talk about flourishing.  In other words - if we have a notion of sinful fall, do we also have an important vision of redeemed flourishing?  This is a most helpful idea - and would go a long way toward restoring more positive elements of the theological discussion.  It could also combine nicely with some of Middleton's insights in plumbing the depths of the imagery in Genesis toward a much more nuanced view of the human condition.

William Cavanaugh, one of the editors of this collection (and Prof. of Catholic Studies at DePaul University) writes: "The Fall of the Fall and Early Modern Political Theory: The Politics of Science".  Cavanaugh has contributed what this reviewer considers to be one of the exceptionally important essays of the entire collection.  By pointing out that the concept of the "fall of humanity" (or ideas about any possibilities of redemption) has had serious implications for social and political theory, and Cavanaugh successfully clarifies that this is no mere debate in the Theology department or the Science Wing of the university.   Notions about the "fallenness" of humanity have been behind some of the most reprehensible political theories in Western Christendom, such as Hobbes' "Leviathan".  Here, a picture of the rough state of humanity can serve to justify strong, militaristic or dictatorial regimes - especially if there is no influential concept of the redemption to counter this view.  If we are fallen, then naturally rampant capitalism with its very low opinion of the human condition and its morality, and strong state-supported guarantees of the terms of economic contract against human tendencies to cheat, will appear to be the only "realistic" option (and Reinhold Niebuhr's social pessimism clearly lurks in the shadows).  But Cavanaugh asks, discussing Locke along the way, what if the Biblical message is also a message about the potential redemption of humanity?  I would then ask: were the 19th century Christian Socialists hopelessly naive, or wonderfully prophetic?  The questions include: What are we supposed to do - not merely: what are we usually doing?  Using Hobbes, Filmer, and Locke as examples, Cavanaugh's essay raises stunningly important perspectives about how this debate has serious implications beyond the two parties normally identified as involved in this discussion…and with deadly serious consequences.  Those questions did not end in "early Modern" political theory, as anyone who merely breathed in the last year would well know.

Peter Harrison ( Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Queensland, Australia) asks: "Is Science-Religion Conflict Always a Bad Thing?: Augustinian Reflections on Christianity and Evolution”.  In this final essay, Harrison elucidates some principles of examination of thought derived from his re-reading of Augustinian thought, and suggests that they might serve as reasonable guides for Christians who seek to be in dialogue with a partner (e.g. various realms of scientific inquiry that are given to fascinating speculations that clearly cross into theological territories, such as physics and biology rather than, say, departments of electrical engineering).   For example - in cross-disciplinary discussions, whose insights are given priority?  When a scriptural interpretation seems to contradict an established scientific conclusion, ought we to usually instinctively rethink Scripture?  What about Deane-Drummond's helpful caution about science itself always being subject to changes?  Harrison is quite correct, I think, to think through whether there are not important cautions in setting up such potentially one-sided parameters for cross-disciplinary discussions - and his notions apply far beyond a discussion between Evolution and the Book of Genesis.

All in all, I considered this to be a strong collection of essays that would be helpful in Graduate courses, or even advanced undergraduate courses (with appropriate discussions in class to accompany the readings).  If I had any criticisms, they would be the lack of representation of a strong liberal voice, shown (for example) in the propensity of some of the writers to argue against the idea that the doctrine of original sin as represented in Biblical literature is in the category of “theological story” by labeling such an argument as tantamount to saying that Genesis accounts would thus be "just a myth" (or a similar dismissal of the idea of a "powerful metaphor", so Riches, 122) is annoying.  First, myth is a powerful and serious category of human expression and belief, and is consistently degraded (especially in evangelical theology) into a code-word for crude skepticism (not to mention the neo-colonialist echoes of dismissing the significance of indigenous story, etc.).  Second, it rather therefore clearly sets out the theological presumptions that limit the usefulness of some of these discussions beyond the theological presumptions and contexts from which they write.

Given the parameters of the project, however, I consider this to be a valuable and important series of essays.