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Spring 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 1 · pp. 20–37 

Original Spin: Jesus and Human Origins

Paul Cumin

One might succeed in making every argument that one actually deployed watertight, but one does not usually go seriously wrong in [theology] over the details of one’s argument. One goes seriously wrong in the biggest things, in the things one does not even think of, in one’s whole orientation.

—James Griffin, Value Judgement, 1996 1

Genesis may tell the beginning of the story but the Incarnation shows us how the story should be told.

If we want to begin a discussion of human origins with the Bible, the most Christian place to turn is not the first few chapters of Genesis but the first few verses of the Gospel of John.

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made;
without him nothing was made that has been made.

What this passage says about beginnings is very important. Equally important is why it’s said. In order to tell the beginning of Jesus, John must tell the beginning of everything. And in order to do that, John commandeers {21} the beginning of the Bible. That John deliberately alludes to the opening verses of Genesis is obvious. And I think he’s being more than just clever. John is signaling a profound adjustment to how followers of Jesus are to understand not just human origins, but the origin, purpose, and meaning of everything. By the time he came to write these verses John was very likely a pastor. His job, and I think his intent with his Gospel, was to help people make this adjustment: Jesus changes everything.

Many of us have a similar job, so we might want to ask ourselves: How does Jesus change our understanding of Creation?

The first thing to be clear about is that if Jesus is from God then the one from whom he comes is someone other than the creation to which he comes. Christians are not pantheists. The second thing to be even more clear about (logically prior to the first) is not quite as simple: If Jesus is not just from God but also identical with God, then although the Creator is distinct from his creation he is not ontologically separate from it. Christians are not pantheists but neither are we deists.

“Deism” comes from the Latin deus—God—and it refers to just that, a belief in God. Although it’s based on a recovery of much older Greek thought, the prime movers behind modern Deism were the crafters of the Enlightenment. The summary image is of an Absent Watchmaker who creates the universe in all of its intricate and carefully functioning detail, then winds it up, starts it ticking, and makes his exit. This creator is sometimes called the “God of the philosophers”—he is an explanation for the origin of things and a point of reference for absolute truth, but he does not typically engage with his creation once it’s in motion.

More sentimental forms of deism recognize a creator who occasionally interrupts the self-enclosed mechanics of his creation (for example, in the Flood or the Resurrection), but nonetheless normally remains aloof and entirely transcendent. The presiding theme of deist thought, whether in philosophical or pious form, is this deep-seated dualism. There is God, and there is whatever he has made. And although it might be nice of God occasionally to heal someone or inform us of his desires, the creator and the creation are not bound to one another in any real way.

Now, it hardly needs to be said that such a theology is a perfectly stated denial of the Incarnation. Any discussion about human origins that begins from Genesis is at risk of allowing this kind of unchristian presupposition to set its course. If Jesus really does change everything then our Christology must determine our chronology. Genesis may tell the beginning of the story but the Incarnation shows us how the story should be told.

So, as with John, we must start with Jesus. By the halfway point of his first chapter we find the claim that the Word, the Logos, the reason and organizing principle of everything, is the human Jesus. 2 In the history of {22} the church no item of theology is more central and no item of theology has been more difficult to think. How can a creature who lived somewhere within the flow of history be its source and structure and aim? But for Christians there can be no getting around it. If we don’t think about the Incarnation intentionally we will fudge it unintentionally, and Deism—along with its early-church prequels in Greek thought—is the classic fudge.

And it’s a fudge with a simple theo-logic: We must start from the assumption that God is essentially separate from his creation and try to work out the Incarnation thereafter. Maybe Jesus just “appeared” to be human (this is Docetism). Maybe he was a body animated by the Logos (Apollinarianism). Maybe he was both human and divine in a somehow separate way (Nestorianism). Maybe his finite bits got swallowed up by his divinity (Eutychianism). Maybe we should just skip this theology and get to arguing about evolution (impatientism).

We will come to the disagreeing part soon enough. But first let’s start not, as in Genesis, with “In the beginning God,” but instead like John: “In the beginning was the Word.” After all, we are not first theists (nor even monotheists), we are first of all Christians. And whatever else that might mean, being Christian means we begin with Jesus.

The logical priority of Jesus bears directly on how we understand divine revelation. If Jesus has priority he is not just one occasion of revelation alongside several others—as if God reveals himself in many ways, all of them similar, and Jesus is perhaps the most informative. (Of course, this is true. But my point here is that this is not true enough.) Jesus is not one of the ways to know the Father, he is the way to the Father. He is not just the clearest form of divine revelation, he is the form—the structure, the logos—of all divine revelation. Whatever we come to believe about how God reveals himself through Scripture or nature or reason or the church, it must all be conformed to Christ. A Christian concept of divine revelation will be Christ-o-logical.

Q: What does this mean?

A: If Jesus really is, somehow, both and fully God and man, then revelation is not just God revealing information about himself, revelation is God giving himself. Deism, of course, will have none of this. For those who prefer that God keep his distance, the purpose of revelation is to provide moral guidance (e.g., liberalism) or to deliver religious data (e.g., fundamentalism) or to offer sentimental comfort (e.g., evangelicalism). But for those who begin from the unity of Creator and creation in Jesus, the purpose of divine revelation is radically different. Beginning with Jesus means that God doesn’t just want us to know what to do or think or feel, he wants us (period). 3 {23}

On the one hand, this is a line many of us hear at least once a week: in Jesus we see that God wants to have a “personal relationship” with us. On the other hand, if Jesus is not just our eternal Savior but also our incarnate Creator, then God and creation are somehow personal and relational in their very being. As the “image of the invisible God,” Jesus is the one in whom God reveals himself to us and us to ourselves. And as the Logos “in whom all things hold together,” Jesus is also the one in whom God reveals everything else. God, humans, and the universe have this in common: everything is connected and everything is distinct. It’s the Christological conundrum as an ontological principle.

But the Incarnation is only the start. The gospel is not just the claim that in Jesus the Creator is a creature, it is also that this same Jesus was crucified. Jesus does indeed show us the way things are, and with the cross we see that things are not yet as they ought to be.


If Genesis isn’t the right place to start a Christian theology of creation, isn’t it the place to go when it comes to responding to Darwinism? Again, I think, No. One of the Passion narratives would serve us far better. Christians should reject Darwinism not for how it explains human origins but for the way it contradicts the cross.

An important distinction needs to be made here: there is a scientific theory of evolution which Charles Darwin made popular, and there is an interpretation of that theory now called Darwinism. The science is, or ought to be, description—evidence for change over time. Darwinism, on the other hand, has become an ideology—a metaphysic about change over time. As an ideology, Darwinism has leapt the banks of science to take materialism to dark and distinctly modern conclusions.

A hundred years before Darwin, the Rev. Thomas R. Malthus wrote his Essay on the Principle of Population (1789). His thesis was that “the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence. . . . Population [is] kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice.” 4 Malthus’s concern was the apparent inverse relation between population growth and what we would call sustainability. His solution was that the poor should be allowed to die without the delay caused by charity. In his Autobiography Darwin explicitly cites Malthus as the source from whom he derived the basic principle of his theory:

[In 1838] I happened to read for amusement [!] Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be {24} preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work. 5

As Marilynne Robinson explains, Malthus taught Darwin that “the alleviation of misery only results in greater misery . . . those who die deserve to, as the embodiments of unfavorable ‘variations.’ ” 6 The logic here is simple and dark. People die prematurely because they are weak, and when they remove themselves from our collective gene pool these weak people do our future a service. Darwinism is not, as some think, a theory of the beginning of life, it is an ideology of death: “one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.” 7

We live in a world shaped by Darwinist ideology. It is simply taken for granted, for example, that an economy of unhindered competition is the best and most natural of all possibilities. “There should be open competition for all men; and the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding best and rearing the largest number of offspring.” 8 Darwinist ideology has transformed capitalism into a state-endorsed idolatry of the self with natural selection as is its motive dogma. Ruthless selfishness is now the only sure or hopeful way to survive. 9 Capitalism’s pietistic founders doubtless had a different providence in mind, but their followers in the hyper-capitalism of today are driven by what we might call a Darwinist Work Ethic. 10 Now we strive to prove who among us is most favored not by God but by our genes—and the gross inequality intrinsic in our economy is one consequence of this new zeal. 11

Darwinism is also unabashedly racist. The original title of Darwin’s famous opus is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Why have Aboriginal people all over the planet been subjugated by various euro-american empires? Darwinism has an answer: because intense competition has had a culling effect on the weak within the conquering race and thereby made it stronger, more cunning and superior. 12 Darwinism would not have us tip-toe around the bush of colonialism but frankly gather and admire its murderous glow—“At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.” 13 We would call this cultural and literal genocide but for Darwin it was simply the mechanics of natural selection. “Lesser” races, in his view, were such simply because their brains were smaller, less developed. His views on gender were similar: “It is generally admitted that with women the powers of intuition, of rapid perception, and perhaps of imitation, are more strongly marked than in man; but some, at least of these faculties are characteristic of the lower races, and therefore of a past and lower state of civilization.” 14 {25}

The effects of Darwinism on twentieth-century politics are by now well known. That he chose especially militant and bellicose language to elaborate his theory made the transition from Darwinist biology to totalitarian ideologies all too easy. One can turn at random in Origin and read of “attacks,” “war,” “battle,” “invasion,” “destruction,” “extermination,” and, most commonly, “struggle.” Hitler is not known to have read Darwin but his choice of Mein Kampf—“My Struggle”—as a title for his manifesto captures the Darwinismus mood of his time. Karl Marx found in Origin “a basis in natural science for the class struggle in history,” 15 and millions of people, including tens of thousands of Mennonites, were murdered under Stalin. Pol Pot and Mao also read Darwin, and behaved similarly. Even a sympathetic biographer estimates the number of people exterminated last century under political leaders influenced by Darwin at more than three times the population of Canada. 16

And what about the sacred cow of democracy itself? Darwinist ideology again boosts it beyond reproach. Now we must all believe unquestionably that the stronger, larger, and thereby dominant segment of a population should have power over the smaller, weaker, and apparently inferior segment. This is the short step from survival of the fittest to rule by the strongest. 17 Natural selection is the new power narrative—it is to our modern oligarchies what the divine right of kings was to medieval monarchies.

As modern Bible-readers we attend seriously to the historical-cultural context of the Scriptures we handle, and rightly so. But let the reader understand, we also have a historical-cultural context: Darwinism is an economic, social, and political interpretation of humanity that is exactly inhumane. As an ideology, Darwinism has produced an institutionalization of greed, a justification of malice, a sponsorship of oppression.

Now I must say that if the church’s primary concern with Darwinism is whether or not God created everything in 144 hours then we have slipped our mandate spectacularly. How much of its time and energy does North American evangelicalism devote to so-called “creationism”? A tenth? A tenth of a tenth? At what fraction does it stop inspiring attention to the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness? I happen to be very interested in a theology of origins but I can’t help but think that too much of this conversation is an exercise in grossly unChrist-like gnat-straining.

Here is a case where our Anabaptist instincts would serve us well. Although we do have a modest interest in theology, our primary interest in reading Scripture is to find something to obey. Darwinism on the other hand is an ideological endorsement of ambitious disobedience. Christians aim to follow someone who gave his life for others; Darwinism justifies taking it from them. As Anabaptists we are committed to peacemaking; {26} Darwinism is an ethos of perpetual war. The issue between Darwinism and Christianity, therefore, is not about human origins, it’s about human being. We’re not just talking about conflicting sets of scientific data, it’s the interpretation of the data—the ideologies—that are at odds, and Golgotha is the watershed. The natural selection of Darwinism is an anti-Passion narrative: it is many dying so those who survive can be more efficiently selfish. The cross of Christ is the inverse: it is One dying for all so those who follow might live for others.


As the cross provides a point of contrast between Christianity and Darwinism, the resurrection enables a view of two similarities between a Christian doctrine of Creation and the scientific theory of evolution. The first is the way both affirm the continuity of humanity within the rest of creation and the second is the way they both embrace change over time.

When Jesus rose, he rose bodily. Dualistic interpretations of God would rather he didn’t. For a mind convinced that reality is either spiritual and good or material and less good, the idea that the Creator would become and then retain flesh is embarrassing. But unpalatable as it may seem to some, the resurrection was a demonstration of what the Incarnation in fact is: the Son did not just appear human as if on some temporary stint, he actually was and indeed is human, body and all. The goodness of the material world is thereby affirmed at the very core of our faith. And one theological consequence is this: Salvation is not an exit strategy, it is a recovery project. At the resurrection we discover that the first example of fully realized humanity is not finally about leaving the material creation behind but becoming an eschatologically embodied part of it. In this respect the Christian message exactly contradicts dualizing theologies: if we want to be like God we should follow Jesus’ example and become completely human.

The theory of evolution, in its own way, makes a similar claim: humans are not demigods categorically separate from everything else, we are first of all living creatures and as such classifiable like all the rest according to domain, kingdom, phylum, class, and so on. We and other creatures are part of the same whole.

Any impulsive disgust with the thought that we might have begun in ooze and have monkeys for ancestors doesn’t arise from following Jesus but from a more deeply held assumption that we are bound to our bodies like chained prisoners in a deep cave—as if the best we can hope for is to bust loose from the earth and ascend to the real “spiritual” world above. This is Plato of course and too much of modern Christianity is, as Nietzsche said, “Plato for the people.” 18 {27}

The resurrection is a rebuke to our penchant for dualism, and the theory of evolution functions similarly. This creation—from the ooze to the apes—it’s all the same stuff and we are part of it. As Christians we would want to say that there is an important difference between humans and everything else, but my point is that this difference has been given too much pride of place in our theology. The refusal to see ourselves fundamentally part of creation—as embodied creatures and not transient spirits—has produced deep and destructive consequences. Religious anthropocentricism is to blame for our misconceived and largely unnecessary opposition to science and is even, though often overstated, at the root of Christian culpability for our modern ecological crisis. 19 The uniqueness of humanity among the creatures is our responsibility to care for them and not a justification for their abuse. 20 The resurrection reminds us that the goodness of creation is worthy of dedicated stewardship; not because there is nothing else, no spirit, but on the contrary, because the Spirit has enabled Jesus to rise as what we will one day be: incarnate and consummated homo sapiens.

A second similarity between theology about the resurrection and evolutionary theory is the way both view the passage of time as progress. Deism, as I have already suggested, tends to repeat Greek ideas, and the matter of God’s relation to time is a case in point. The driving question in Greek philosophy was best formulated by Aristotle: “Can it be that all things pass away?” 21 This worry about time came to an especially memorable expression in the Greek myth of Chronos, the primeval father who jealously consumed his offspring. As Robert Jenson explains, “Greek religion was the quest . . . for a place or part or aspect of reality immune to change. The gods’ one defining character was therefore immortality, immunity to destruction.” 22 In short, time for the Greek mind is a problem and eternity is its solution. Needless to say, this theological assumption has found fertile ground in the church. But it puts us in Plato’s cave again, where the moving shadows on the wall mark the grim passage of time. Again, a properly Christological concept of time should not oppose it with eternity because at the resurrection we see God saving us in time not from it.

Irenaeus of Lyons (d. ca. AD 202) was one of the first pastors to quarrel with the Greek tendency to disparage time. He wrote against “gnosticism” or “knowledge falsely so called,” rejecting its idealization of the story of Adam and Eve. For Irenaeus, the first humans were not created perfect and complete but, like children, were made for growth. They were modeled after Jesus, their prototype, and were meant always to move obediently forward in their likeness to him. 23 Irenaeus rejected the way gnostic theology separated God from time; for him time was the ongoing personal activity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 24 Creation was indeed good at the beginning, he argued, but it was just the start of a project that God directs {28} at each moment to a future in which it will be ever more like what it was created to become.

For Gnostics, as for deists in our own era, time is either a strange illusion or an unfortunate effect of the Fall. Either way, it’s not good. Evolutionary theory, by contrast, even in its godless forms, agrees with the gospel that we are on a forward-moving trajectory.

My concern here is that too much worry about our human origins can easily become an eschatology pointed at the wrong garden, a pressing-backward to that from which we have come. And that brings us to an important point of departure from atheistic versions of evolutionary theory. Like our appraisal of materiality, Christians can affirm that time is good. This forward movement is neither an abstract arrow pointed at nothing nor an impersonal spiral into the All. Time is the Spirit enabling all things to become what the Father intends through the Son. In other words, time is not chrono-logical, it is Christological. It did not begin at the beginning; it began where the End broke into the middle. That, admittedly, sounds like crazy talk. And that is what makes arguing instead about days and dinosaurs look so temptingly easy.


Now we can come, finally, to the real issue behind our difficulty with human origins: our Bibles. Should women be in ministry leadership? Is penal substitutionary atonement the primary way to understand the cross? Were Adam and Eve real historical figures? 25 Unfortunately but not coincidentally, the lines along which we are likely to disagree about these and other biblical questions are near or exactly on top of one another. As Christians, as Anabaptists, as evangelicals, we believe the Bible is the place to turn with questions about our genders, our salvation, our origins, and about any other issue we care to consider. But there is an important difference between asking questions and insisting on answers, perhaps especially with respect to human origins. That we should turn to our Bibles can be taken for granted. How we turn to them cannot. 26 This “how” is what’s beneath our pattern of disagreement. So before we can properly consider the question of human origins, we should look first at the relation between faith and science.

Modern science got its start during the same Enlightenment that gave us Deism. Scholars are undecided about who deserves credit for the distinctly Western phenomenon we call modern science, but its arrival in history at the height of Deism makes Judeo-Christian monotheism a strong contender. Our claim for the prize runs roughly like this: First, belief in a single God who is other than creation means that nothing in the created order is divine, making everything in the universe a legitimate subject for {29} investigation. Second, Abrahamic monotheism typically insists that God is good, and exploring the mysteries of his creation became a way to draw attention to this goodness. With our cultural petri dish thus swabbed (summarizing to the extreme), it took only a few political and intellectual spores on the breeze to produce the flourishing of something new: modern science.

At its most basic, science is simply the practice of investigating creation, from the smallest waves and particles to the furthest stars and galaxies. As complex as it all is, the method behind the practice can be explained to school children: ObservationHypothesisExperimentConclusion. And this simple method has proven marvelously successful. So successful that within a few generations it all went to our collective Western head.

By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, philosophers of science were beginning to call Deism’s bluff. The most succinct calling-out came in the middle of the twentieth century in a parable originally told by John Wisdom and later made famous by Anthony Flew. 27 The gist of it goes like this: Two explorers stumble upon a forest glade of weeds and flowers. One says, “Some gardener must tend this plot.” The other says, “There is no gardener.” An argument ensues and they decide to settle the matter by waiting. But no gardener appears. The believer suggests that the gardener must be invisible, so the skeptic sets up barbed-wire fence, motion detectors, infra-red video cameras, and so on. Still no gardener. And yet the believer will not concede: “There is a Gardener,” he says. “He’s just invisible, intangible, inaudible, and he clearly loves this glade very much.” At last the skeptic despairs, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?”

Good question. Nietzsche, writing almost 100 years earlier, made the same point as a statement of fact: “God is dead,” he said. “God remains dead. And we have killed him.” 28 Shocking though that sounds, it is actually a relatively obvious historical observation. The Absent Watchmaker deus of the Philosophers had by his time indeed been rendered perfectly redundant and functionally non-existent.

Why has modern science largely rejected the theism from which arose? Part of the answer has to do with what is happening when we believe that something is true. Science is the agreement to only accept as true whatever passes through the gauntlet of observation, hypothesis, and experiment. A glade is observed; a gardener hypothesis is posed; an experiment involving a fence is conducted. And when the experiment produces no measurable data, the hypothesis must be considered seriously suspect. The point here is that both the believer and the skeptic in the parable had previously {30} and without discussion agreed on the criteria for truth. Both began from the same presuppositions about what constituted reason. As a result, the believer was left with only three options: (1) he could secure evidence for his gardener from other sources, (2) he could bid his fellow explorer a sad farewell, or (3) he could accept their apparently reasonable conclusion and bid an even sadder farewell to the gardener himself.

And so the terms were set for Christianity in the twentieth century. Fundamentalism took the first option. We now have Evidence That Demands a Verdict, biblical texts verified by historical-critical “science,” and an entire sub-economy based on proving the earth is 6,000 years old. Pew-level evangelicalism tends to take the second option. There is now widespread pious resolve to say nothing to godless explorers until they return to the glade and embrace the unreasonable mystery of it all. And liberalism, despite its lingering efforts in social justice, has taken the third option, with its recent decline generally regarded as confirmation that its god is in fact dead.

And here we are, at the front end of the twenty-first century, exploring Genesis 1–3, a text that does indeed describe a garden. 29


Three final observations and then two closing suggestions.

First, the fundamentalist reaction to denials of the divine authorship of the Bible was a natural impulse at a difficult time, and it served the church well enough. Few if any among us today would question our basic belief that the Holy Bible is indeed holy. But, as is often the case with apologetic impulses, the fundamentalist trajectory was set by its target. Rest assured, we were told, our faith in Jesus is solid because it is based on the more foundational reliability of biblical texts. And these texts, in turn, are themselves based on Spirit-inspired eye-witness accounts of literal events in the past. The logic is linear: beliefs rest on other beliefs, which rest on other beliefs, and so on down to the foundation, the most solid belief, the one on which all others depend. The result is an unholy trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Scripture. So much weight is placed on the past inspiration of biblical texts that little if anything is left for the Spirit to do in the present. The Spirit is displaced by the Bible because the Bible has replaced Christ at the crux of revelation. It is as if In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the word was subsequently translated into English. Effectively this is a koranic doctrine of Scripture because the closure of the canon has become an event more significant than Pentecost. 30

The irony here is painfully acute. Contemporary fundamentalism, so often pitted against modern science, is itself one of the few remaining and most zealous expressions of a pre-Einsteinian mode of reason. 31 When {31} the church accepted nineteenth-century foundationalist epistemology it saddled itself with a grammar at odds with its central confessions about Jesus, and twenty-first-century Christian fundamentalism has yet to buck the habit. The irony doubles when we notice that Darwinism and Christian fundamentalism also mirror one another in the way they both displace the Spirit. In Darwinism, natural selection takes the Spirit’s place as the motive force in creation, and in fundamentalism the Spirit is made redundant by a hermeneutical arrogance that prefers objective certainty over personal knowledge.

The pending failure of fundamentalism offers both an epistemic rebuke and a theological opportunity—it’s an invitation to be more modest with respect to our knowledge of truth and more confident with respect to our relationship with Truth. What we must seek is indeed a “biblical” theology of the Bible, by which we must mean a theology that affirms the Bible’s authority without allowing it to trump the superiority of Christ. What is needed, in other words, is a theology of revelation in which the Word of God—the incarnate Logos—informs our handling of the word of God—the Bible—and not vice versa. 32 Our hermeneutical questions must be shaped by their Christological answers. And, yes, that logic is circular—a shape more faithful than a line if Christ is indeed both the Alpha and the Omega.

Second, contemporary evangelicalism also seems inclined to adopt the terms of its age. Our increasing disillusionment today with the shortcomings of fundamentalism has led to an apparently happy coincidence with what is usually called postmodernism. The postmodernist says the skeptical explorer in the parable is surely silly to expect reason to make sense in such a chaotic and fragmented world, and the temptation for us is to agree with him and sigh with relief as we throw off the burden of proof. The result is a kind of cathartic rush in which we are finally free to emerge in the wide world, haply singing our story within a sea of competing voices. But, of course, all this tolerance is fine until someone notices that the gospel is inherently politically incorrect. So there are other voices within evangelicalism, and they are wary of relativism. Some of these, according to our more cheeky commentators, belong to “fundagelicals,” those who would re-package fundamentalism in a blend with hip piety and edgy relevance.

Evangelicalism is thus pulled in two opposite directions. In one direction lies postmodernity, post-foundationalism, post-Christianity, and now also post-secularism, a whole forest of “posts” where all the trees stand for not-things. The danger in that direction is a wandering astray, a theological drift into meaninglessness. It is understandable that we should look back from the edge of that dark wood in the other direction, back to the days when things were simpler and more familiar. That, however, would put {32} us at a stand-still or, worse, it would have us moving forward while looking backward. Behold the stereotypical evangelical: deaf to any voice that does not confirm what he already believes and blind to what’s ahead by a determination to live in the past.

This puts us in a bewildering situation, but one in which the insight of Robert Frost surely applies—“The best way out is always through.” 33

Third, science works and is persuasive because the universe in which we find ourselves is indeed reasonable. And recall that “reason” is one way to translate logos in the opening verse of John’s Gospel. The way “through,” then, is neither backward to a fundamentalist embrace of deist logic, nor headlong into postmodern anti-reason. The way through is the Way himself, who is also the Truth and the Life. It’s the middle term in that triad that needs attention. When we confess that Jesus is the Truth we cannot mean simply that he is truthful, as if he were the conclusion at the end of a linear method, nor can we mean that he is merely true, as if he were one among many truths. To say that Jesus is the Truth is to say that all things only make sense when our thinking begins from, is shaped by, and finds its final coherence in him. This is “reason” Christologically understood. It’s the belief that the structure of everything is personal and relational because Truth is a Person. That sounds strange, but it is nonetheless reasonable because it is a claim to know the universe as it actually is. Foundationalism will always fail because it aspires to a kind of knowledge that does not correspond to the way things really are. Abstract certainty is a wisp. It’s impersonal, and impersonal knowledge is not possible in a universe that “holds together” in a person—Christ.

Let me be clear: creationism is a discussion about how best to prepare the next generation to live in our past. Did God create everything in a couple of days just a few thousand years ago? I find that implausible, but more to the point I find the impulse behind the claim entirely beside the point. The illusion of relevance, the buzz of controversy, the hype and the hand-wringing—it’s bad science based on even worse theology. A more theologically radical and scientifically ridiculous confession needs to be made instead: A first-century carpenter’s apprentice didn’t just build a few pieces of furniture before an interesting teaching career, he built galaxies and quarks, and formed the womb in which he was conceived. He was before it all, with and as the God who made it all. That is a scandalous set of claims. Creationist preachers are connoisseurs of scandal and have gone looking for more when the gospel is sufficient. 34 Jesus, his call, his cross, his resurrection—all that is scandalous. Apes and amoebae and floods and fossils—all that, by comparison, is at best interesting and at worst a distracting spectacle. {33}


Belief in Jesus as the Truth, the Logos, the “reason” all things hold together, has direct implications for us and the question of human origins in two ways: First, it affects how we handle the Genesis account, and second, it determines how we as a conference of Mennonite Brethren churches aim for unity.

On Genesis, one example will need to suffice. The driving question about human origins and Genesis is the historicity of Adam and Eve. Some Christians would like to accept all or part of the theory of evolution and others prefer a relatively literal reading about an original couple. With the Apostle Paul the question comes to a theological point about the origin and extent of sin. If humans have a real ancestral pair, the issue is relatively straightforward: those two made a cataclysmic mistake and passed the habit and its consequences on to us. But if there wasn’t a literal first sin, the problem is again one of shaky foundations.

It would seem that if we concede to science the unlikelihood of a first couple then the soteriological edifice built upon their mistake becomes groundless. Without Adam and Eve, in other words, our theology of the Fall seems to (excuse me) fall. And without a literal fall—so the line goes—a gospel about recovery would be literally pointless. For those who don’t understand why Christians worry so much about Genesis, the matter can be put plainly: if there’s no first Adam there appears no need for a second. But if we apply the idea that our Christology should form our hermeneutics, the issue becomes less a matter of who is and who isn’t undermining the authority of Scripture and more about how best to acknowledge Christ’s lordship over it.

What if the creation narrative in Genesis was not written by Moses thousands of years after a literal Eden but thousands after him by exiled Israelite leaders in Babylon? What if the purpose of the text was not to tell the beginning of humanity but to foster ethnic identity and national cohesion among a people under threat of assimilation by a political and cultural superpower? 35 Does this sound counter-intuitive because it’s wrong, or because it requires the transformation of our minds? Maybe the most faithful way to handle the early chapters of Genesis is not to conform them to the patterns of our scientific age but to remythologize them according to those of its own.

I think that’s what the Apostle Paul is doing—he’s re-telling the story not only according to the terms of his age but according to the newly revealed terms of history itself: Jesus changes everything. His line is not that sin is universal therefore Jesus died for everyone, it’s the other way around: Jesus died for everyone and therefore sin is universal. 36 Paul’s faith in Jesus led him to commandeer the story of Adam and Eve in order to explain the {34} gospel to his churches. Now we have the same choice: do we re-tell this story in keeping with Scripture’s own Christological rubric or according to our age’s distaste for myth and deference to science?


Finally, a few thoughts about how we aim for unity around this and other similar issues. If our unity is based on agreement we are—to skip subtlety for the moment—hosed. But if, on the other hand, our unity is based on being part of the “all things” that hold together in Christ, there is hope. Recall the fundamentalist tendency to emphasize the role of the Spirit in the past at the expense of his activity in the present. When agreement must precede unity there is no on-going need for the Spirit to point us beyond our ideas to the Truth they anticipate. But if there is a role for the Spirit among us in the present then agreement ought to follow our unity, not vice versa. The order is crucial. Any godless body can experience unity after everyone agrees, but only a body united by the Spirit can grow up into agreement because only that body has Christ as its head. The key feature of this kind of unity is anticipation: it can be real in the present and faithful to the past by looking forward to a future that is not yet fully realized. Our agreements will be provisional because some of our questions simply resist complete—or completely satisfying—answers. In this respect, Jayber Crow’s seminary professor Old Grit is correct:

“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.”

“And how long is that going to take?”

“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”

“That could be a long time.”

“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.” 37

Like answers, agreement will come, although maybe only by “living it out,” and even then some of it will need to wait until the End. But unity can’t be postponed. It must be nourished and realized in time by the Spirit. Only then will it require the kind of supernatural explanation for which Jesus prayed in Gethsemane.

Our expectations of church unity should extend beyond differences in the color of our skins to include differences in the frame of our minds. If our confessional unity is based on collective certainty the result is a Spiritless like-it-or-lump-it ecclesiology, a church in which individuals gather only if their religious tastes are compatible. This is not unity but homogeneity. It {35} quickly becomes a smothering of difference, a façade of peace, a flattening of human beauty. Wherever the church promotes this sameness instead of genuine unity it repeats the ideals of twentieth-century totalitarianism. As a matter of obvious fact, this consumer-oriented model of church happens to work very well under our current cultural circumstances—so well that we must be wary of interpreting its success as divine favor.

As Mennonite Brethren we are equipped by our tradition for something much better. We believe in a “community hermeneutic,” which is a way of saying we are not a group in which the strongest or loudest voices prevail. That would be a polis foreign to Christianity, one that finds more support in Darwinism than the gospel. We are rather a body in which the Spirit himself participates in our theological conversations and, we trust, in their provisional results. He is among us, enabling us not just to respect our different beliefs but more importantly to worship God together and cooperate in obedience to him. This is the gospel in action. And it is exactly what our world needs in order to survive.


  1. My thanks to Lincoln Harvey for this citation. My thanks also to Ben Kramer and Victor Froese for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.
  2. Readers inclined to wonder why I’ve said the human Jesus instead of the oxymoronic term ‘pre-incarnate Christ’ can see my forthcoming Christ at the Crux. The Mediation of God and Creation in Christological Perspective (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014).
  3. Divine revelation will always include ethical and theological and existential consequences of course, but so do all relational events. The Western mind has this unfortunate habit of dividing epistemology and ontology. The distinction can be helpful, but when it comes to theology about revelation it is the thin end of an atheist wedge.
  4. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 61 (emphasis added).
  5. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882: With Original Omissions Restored, ed. Nora Barlow (London: Collins, 1958), 120. Cited by Marilynne Robinson, “Darwinism,” in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (New York: Picador, 1998), 33.
  6. Robinson, 33.
  7. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (New York: Dover, 2006), 154.
  8. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (London: Penguin, 2004), 688.
  9. Darwinist ideology and capitalism are now so logically symbiotic that they can even offer a self-serving answer to the anomalous few who want to be kind or generous: the best we can do for those in need is spend as much as possible on ourselves. {36}
  10. “In each well-stocked country natural selection acts through the competition of the inhabitants, and consequently leads to success in the battle for life.” Darwin, Origin, 10.
  11. Today the world’s eighty-five wealthiest people have the same net worth as half of the global population. “Working for the Few” report published by Oxfam, January 20, 2014. Available as a PDF file on the Oxfam website at
  12. “Hence the inhabitants of one country, generally the smaller one, often yield to the inhabitants of another and generally the larger country.” Darwin, Origin, 10.
  13. Darwin, Descent, 183.
  14. Darwin, Origin, 629.
  15. Cited in Paul Johnson, Darwin: Portrait of a Genius (New York: Penguin, 2012), 90.
  16. Ibid., 136.
  17. One of Darwin’s earliest critics, George Eliot, considered his ideas akin to determinism and therefore contrary to the human instinct for freedom. She was surely correct and today’s alarmingly low voter turn-outs are just the easiest available confirmation of her foresight. See Gillian Beer, “Beyond Determinism: George Eliot and Virginia Woolf,” in Arguing with the Past (London: Routledge, 1989), 117–37.
  18. Plato develops the cave allegory in his Republic VII. Nietzsche’s comment is in his preface to Beyond Good and Evil. See also just about anything by Colin Gunton, whose work is, in a way, a career-long attempt to express a theology of creation in which Plato’s forms are finally replaced by Christ as the true mediator of God’s relation to the world.
  19. The scope of this paper does not allow consideration of the possibility that Darwinism should in fact share this culpability. What could be worse for the earth than to have its most intelligent species believe and live as if its own survival should be achieved at the expense of any others?
  20. The literature on this problem is immense. A seminal piece is Lynn White’s The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis, now widely available online.
  21. Metaphysics 1051b29–30.
  22. Robert Jenson, The Triune Identity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982), 58.
  23. Against Heresies 4.38.3; 4.28.2. Cf. 4.11.2; 4.120.6; 5.36.1.
  24. “The Father, in His good pleasure, commands, the Son works and fashions, the Spirit nourishes and gives increase.” Ibid., 4.38.3 (English translation by von Balthasar).
  25. This list could go on. Next in line are questions about homosexuality and the eternal fate of the unfaithful—the former of which, perhaps not coincidentally, also presenting a conundrum to Darwinism.
  26. Luke 10:26: “What is written in the Law?” [Jesus] replied. “How do you read it?”
  27. Flew, “Theology and Falsification,” in Reason and Responsibility, ed. Joel Feinberg (Belmont, CA: Dickenson, 1968), 48–49.
  28. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, section 125. {37}
  29. This paper was originally delivered at a conference that presumed discussion about human origins would begin with the Genesis text. I thank its organizers and attendants for graciously tolerating my rejection of this mandate.
  30. For the summary swipe in the second half of this sentence I thank Jeremy Vogt.
  31. The irony is doubled when we realize that science after the middle of the twentieth century has become much more modest with its epistemic expectations (via Gödel, Heisenberg, Polanyi, et al.).
  32. In his otherwise helpful book, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2012), Peter Enns comes very near but finally falls short on this crucial point. The logical relation between the two natures of Christ and the dual authorship of the Bible cannot be simply analogous, it must be causative. Both Jesus and the Bible are both human and divine, true, so Enns’s instinct is headed in the right direction, but we should push further. The similarity is not simply coincidental, it’s Christological; the duality is not only epistemic, it is ontic. To miss this is to miss the hard work done at Chalcedon and so to repeat, as I think Enns does, an essentially Nestorian hermeneutic. See, e.g., p. 103.
  33. A Servant to Servants (1914).
  34. Richard Dawkins gets far too much attention for arguments that rely on toppling only the lamest of his carefully selected opponents, but his point here is astute: “The more your beliefs defy the evidence, the more virtuous you are. Virtuoso believers who can manage to believe something really weird, unsupported and insupportable, in the teeth of evidence and reason, are especially highly rewarded.” The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 199.
  35. See Enns, 28ff.
  36. Paul is not pedaling a theodicy—an explanation for evil—he’s offering salvation, a solution to it. Theodicies too easily become detours around the cross; they are, in other words, efforts that appeal mainly to the Gnostic or the gnat-obsessed.
  37. Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow (New York: Counterpoint, 2000), 50.
Paul Cumin is the pastor at Pemberton Christian Fellowship (Mennonite Brethren) in Pemberton, BC. His book, Christ at the Crux. The Mediation of God and Creation in Christological Perspective, is forthcoming.

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