As a working scientist, a professor, and a Christian, the coherence between scientific understanding and theological understanding is a subject of great interest. Most of the books dealing with the conflict between science and faith or reason and faith are limited in scope and confined to description of the world and concordance between scripture and observation. Theological topics are seldom invited to the table – but face it, theology, and for Christians, Christology, is where the rubber meets the road. LeRon Shults???s new book Christology and Scienceis a refreshing change to the standard fare, wrestling with the historical development of key doctrines (incarnation, atonement, and parousia) and the reformation of Christology in the light of our late modern understanding of the world. This book is well worth reading and should stimulate a useful conversation … but be aware that Shults writes with a rather academic style – a style that many may find somewhat abstract. In this short series of posts we will consider briefly each of the three case studies presented.
The first case study developed in the book is incarnation and evolutionary biology; not exactly an easy or uncontroversial place to begin. It is one thing to claim theistic evolution as God’s method of creation (as I do) – it is another thing altogether to wrestle with the implications for Christian orthodoxy. Yet when it comes down to it the issue of incarnation is one of the real puzzles confronting the church in the context of evolutionary biology.
Shults puts it quite bluntly: “In our late modern context christological formulations that rely on substance metaphysics and a literal reading of the Garden of Eden no longer serve a reformative function, but foster confusion and repression within and consternation and incredulity without the walls of the church.” (p. 61). When we begin to understand the implications of biological evolution, what does it mean to compare the first Adam and the fall with the second Adam and the perfect obedience of Jesus? What is the problem that Jesus as God incarnate came to solve?
Here is the big question for the church today ??? Consider it as you read on … Should we let our culture and our science reform our understanding of the nature of the incarnation and the nature of sin? If so ??? how?
The most significant point that Shults makes is that all expressions of the nature of Jesus as Christ and the doctrine of sin developed in the context of a culture; thus these expressions are human attempts to grapple with the truth of God’s interaction in the world. Over the course of the first four or five hundred years the Church wrestled with the concept of incarnation – answering pivotal questions including the nature of Jesus as fully human and yet also fully God. These answers contain elements that are transcendent and elements that are inherently tied to time, place, and culture.
Consider the expression of the nature of Christ that evolved from the early statements of faith and baptismal formulae to the full blown Chalcedon definition. This controversy developed in the context of a Greek or Roman understanding of the nature of man and the relationship of body to soul. The common analogy in the NT and patristic writings is that Christ’s humanity is to his divinity as the human body is to the soul. Not only this ??? but the doctrine of the incarnation arose in a context where “The most popular view ???was that male semen contains logos (or pneuma) that gives shape to the matter of human flesh, which is provided by the female” (p. 40). So Jesus obtained flesh – humanity – from Mary and spirit from divine implantation. Into the Middle Ages and beyond it was thought that the male provided no physical contribution to his off-spring. What sense are we to make of incarnation in light of the incontrovertible reality that male and female provide DNA (materially contained information content) that combine to produce off-spring? Contemporary biology paints picture of human flesh and human procreation very different from that assumed in the early Christian era. There is no going back.
The origin and goal of humanity and the purpose of the incarnation also received expression in a manner appropriate for the time and place. Thus Augustine portrayed the original humans as “glorious and beautiful. ???wholly righteous and in a state of beatitude” (p. 38). The unholy act of disobedience brought pain and death into paradise – into God’s perfect creation. The incarnation is explicitly a response to the inexplicable sin of Adam and Eve. This same line of reasoning dominated in western theology through the reformation ??? although it was never possible to explain how such a glorious and perfect creation could and would sin, and it is difficult to resolve the omniscience of God with the need for a ???plan B???. A strain of thought with the plan of the incarnation logically prior to the sin of Adam and Eve has dominated in eastern theology, beginning with Irenaeus and extending through the Orthodox view of theosis.
As all expression of God’s truth is culturally formed, should not our expression of the incarnation be reformed in the light of our late modern understanding of paleobiology and evolution? Should not our evolving understanding of human biology and the nature of the world around lead us to reshape and reform our articulation of biblically founded Christology? The answer is not to deny the incarnation, to take refuge in natural materialism or a weak deism. Neither is the solution to the modern problem to continue to defend articulations appropriate for the late patristic period, the Middle Ages, or the reformation. We should mix some of west, some of east, with 21st century understanding of evolution, biology, and anthropology.
The manifestation of Jesus as the Christ is the divine Wisdom and the divine Word. Our Christology must take scripture seriously. Jesus is the Christ ???who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men (Philippians 2:6); the Christ of whom it is said: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. ??? And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1: 1,14); the Christ who answered Pilate saying: You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice. (John 19:37)
Shults says “The incarnation is not an emergency response to the sin of a primeval privileged pair, but a display of the eternal creative intentionality of God, in whose presence our responsibility emerges. The relational union of Christ with the divine Logos disclosed an eternal (perichoretic) interdependence in the life of God that the biblical tradition refers to as the relation of the Son to the Father in the Spirit” (p. 60). As such we do justice to the creator God by expressing our understandings of his act and his faithful tending of his creatures in light of the best ???science??? of our day as the early church fathers did in theirs.
Taking Shults’s challenge seriously — How do we articulate the Gospel of the identity of Jesus Christ for our day and age?