Evolutionary Dogma and Christian Theology III

The admonition, that all things, including Christianity, must change or perish, has, it would seem, been taken seriously by many theologians. It is, indeed, true that even prior to the epiphany of Darwinism theological circles had not been entirely free from feelings of embarrassment because of the prominence of the supernatural element in historic Christianity. The humanism of the Renaissance and later the rationalism of the Enlightenment had not failed to plant seeds of uneasiness in theological breasts.

The German theologian, Schleiermacher, for example, who died in 1834, a quarter of a century before the appearance of The Origin of Species, while attributing the holiness of Christ to the perfect union of the human and the divine in his person denied that Christ has been miraculously born, explained away Christ’s resurrection on the third day as an awakening from a state of lethargy, and suggested that, subsequently so far from having ascended into heaven, Christ had succumbed to death like all other men.

It was the promulgation of the Darwinian doctrine of Evolution, however, which was greeted as having at last rendered the old belief in the miraculous altogether obsolete. D.F. Strauss, who had listened with critical interest to Schleiermacher’s lectures in Berlin, and who, shortly after Schleiermacher’s death, had published his Life of Jesus—a violent assault on supernatural Christianity, in later years extolled Darwin as one of mankind’s most notable benefactors. “We other philosophers and critics,” he said, “had vainly decreed the downfall of miracle; our sentence made no impression, because we did not succeed in rendering miracle superfluous by putting in its place a natural force wherever its presence hitherto appeared indispensable.” Strauss was captivated by the conception of the whole history of nature as a gradual and imperceptible ascent, an inevitable and unspectacular advance, from inorganic matter to organic life, crowned by the grand achievement of the human species. The evolutionary thesis was, for him, proof sufficient that nothing happens except in accordance with natural law. This being so, it became obligatory to discard the articles of the Christian creed, which were supernatural through and through, as being out of harmony with enlightened modem thought.

Strauss, of course, represents the complete capitulation of theology to evolutionary dogma; for him and for others of like mind Evolution both justified and demanded the elimination of all supernaturalism. But there were others who wished to retain a supernatural Christ and at the same time to fit Him into the evolutionary scheme of things. In 1889 a symposium entitled Lux Mundi appeared in England under the editorship of Charles Gore. The purpose of its contributors was to re-examine and re-assess Christian theology, and in particular the doctrine of the Incarnation, in the light of “modern knowledge.” The aspect of this modern knowledge which they felt it most important to take into account was the concept of Evolution, and the main problem which they sought to solve was that of accommodating theology to this concept without relinquishing faith in the supernatural. The effect of their theorizing, however, was to evacuate the supernatural of its unique character and to equate it with or accommodate it to the natural. Gore’s outlook may be summed up in the assertion that Christ is the Consummator of creation—Consummator Mundi. He believed it a necessity that Christ should be shown to fit neatly into the pattern of nature, which he accepted as an evolutionary pattern. As Gore saw it, this required, firstly, a thoroughgoing doctrine of kenosis whereby the Son, as incarnate, experienced every human limitation, both mental and physical, and, secondly, the assumption of a natural affinity between manhood and Godhead such as exists between two neighboring levels in an ascending series. “So akin are God and man to one another,” he wrote, “that God can really exist under conditions of manhood without ceasing to be and to reveal God; and man can be taken to be the organ of Godhead without one whit ceasing to be human.” Evolution, so far from being a merely materialistic process, was viewed as a progressive revelation of the divine mind; each successive stage revealing more adequately the character of the Creator. Hence the lower forms of life were to be understood and interpreted in terms of the higher, and particularly in terms of the highest, the human, which is a manifestation of personality and spirit. And, because of man’s moral imperfection, the human receives its crowning expression in the Incarnation, the becoming human, of Christ whose personality was one of moral perfection. In him the whole range of creation reached completion: He is its Consummator. Thus creation, development, and incarnation are regarded as cognate concepts, so much so that the Incarnation is expounded as the necessary climax of creation, rather than as, in any primary sense, directed towards the recovery of fallen mankind. In this sense it may be described as redemptive, but it will be observed that the keynote of redemption has, under this system, become that of fulfillment rather than of reconciliation.



It may be said that Gore’s theology of the Incarnation was an attempt to christianize Bergson’s philosophy of creative evolution. Each advance in the natural process was a creative advance, and the whole cosmos had been moving of set purpose towards the climax of the Incarnation. Not that Gore was the first theologian to propound this view; others had anticipated him—B.F. Westcott, for instance, who had given one of his books the significant title of Christus Consummator. But Gore was the most effective advocate of the doctrine that the Incarnation is implicit in creation and would have taken place even if man had not sinned. It is a theme that has been developed since, not without variations, but whatever the texture of the variations its form is lurking underneath, like a body under the bed-clothes.

There was nothing startlingly original in suggesting that the Incarnation would have taken place even if man had not sinned. One of the celebrated Nine Hundred Theses proposed by Pico della Mirandola four hundred years previously, in 1486, for public disputation in Rome had stated that, “had Adam not sinned, God would have been incarnate, but not crucified.” The reason for this assurance was the unique dignity of man in the universe a subject elaborated by Pica in his much admired Oration on the Dignity of Man. Man is the microcosm—a concept as old as philosophy itself; he is paruus mundus, the world in miniature, and the universe is magnus homo, man writ large (Heptaplus); it is in man that the key to the understanding of the universe is to be discovered. It should perhaps be added that other Renaissance scholars before Pico (for example, Marsilio Ficino, Nicolas Cusanus, Gianozzo Manetti, and Bartolomeo Fazio) had held that the nobility of man was such as to make the Incarnation entirely congruous with the splendor of human nature: for God to become man was something altogether fitting for both God and man. This estimate was not, of course, governed by evolutionistic presuppositions, but it is obvious that so anthropocentric a concept would have proved readily adaptable to the framework of Evolution.

It is contemporary Anglo-Catholic theologians in particular who have taken up and expatiated on the theme of the Incarnation as the necessary consummation of the cosmic process. L.S. Thornton to mention but one, expounds the universe as being constructed in accordance with a progressive organic pattern. He postulates an ascending series of organisms, each characterized by its own particular form of structure, and each essentially linked to the organic forms immediately below and above it in the series. Each organic form is not only superseded by but also included in that which is above it. Thus an organism at any level is founded upon and embraces within its own structure all those organisms which are inferior to it, and the universe is seen as a progressively ordered entity whose component serial parts are related to each other and to the whole. At each new organic level a more advanced law of being becomes operative. We are, in fact, presented with a theory of recapitulation whereby nothing in the evolutionary series is abandoned, but all is preserved and enhanced in harmony with the function of the highest organic stage of the series. This highest stage is man, and the particular characteristic which distinguishes man from all the organic levels that have preceded him is that his is a spiritual law of being: his functions are governed by spirit. This not only distinguishes him from the rest of the created order, but explains his dominion over it.

In man, however, the process has not yet reached its goal; for even man is conscious of his finitude and reaches out toward the eternal order of being—a fact which, ex hypothesi, demonstrates his affinity to the eternal order as the next stage into which he is to be integrated. Though man is the head and sum of the created order, yet the cosmic series is not complete in him; else he would not be conscious of his need to be included in an order which is beyond himself. And so the Incarnation is introduced; Christ assumes human nature and thereby elevates and integrates it into the level of the divine. In Christ the whole created order, including man, is united and consummated; in him it achieves its highest principle of unity; in him the complete organic series finds its recapitulation.

Indeed, according to Thornton, the whole cosmic order from beginning to end is impressed with the likeness of the Incarnate Son who, as such, fulfills the function of the Servant, for it is stamped throughout with the pattern of self-sacrifice, of subordination of the lower to the higher, which is none other than the mark of the Servant. It is in Christ alone that the pattern of sell-sacrifice and filial response finds its perfect and final expression. He is thus both the archetype of creation and its completion. and the cosmos may properly be described as christological in essence. All—commencement. development, and fulfillment—is impressed with the likeness of the Servant. “The whole design of creation was Christ-centered from the first,” says Thornton. “It is in its very essence Christological, Jesus is the goal towards which creation moves, because he is also the source of its movement.”

There are certain objections which must be urged against this evolutionistic theology. In the first place, it is at its most vital point inconsistent with itself. Its basic concept is that of progressive development from the material to the spiritual, from the impersonal to the personal, from the imperfect to the perfect, from the finite to the infinite. All is seen as leading up inevitably to the crowning event of the Incarnation. Yet the advocates of this type of theology do not envisage the Incarnation itself as being introduced as it were from below upwards. It is something superimposed from above downwards; and inasmuch as the Incarnation originates from above instead of from below it may rather be described as a reversal of the evolutionary mechanism, and as indicative of the ultimate incompetence or failure of the evolutionary principle. It certainly seems quite incongruous that the all-important culminating stage should be achieved, not by mounting the last triumphant rung of the evolutionary ladder, but by resorting to the device of a deus ex machina.

(To be continued. This second lecture by Mr. Hughes was given to torch and trumpet with the understanding that it would also appear in the Westminster Theological Journal, where it appeared in the November issue.)