Evolution and the Fall

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William T. Cavanaugh, James K. A. Smith
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , February
     261 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Evolution and the Fall is an edited work and the result of collaboration in The Colossian Forum provided by a grant from BioLogos. It is broken into four sections of differing topics and, as with all edited works, its strength—and weakness—lies in its contributors. Each contributor to this volume is highly qualified, each holding an academic faculty position.

The first section lays the groundwork for the important questions in this book. The first chapter, by Darrel Falk, gives a broad outline of the scientific evidence for descent with modification as well as using population genetics to show that the minimum population size of homo sapiens could not have been less than 2,000-12,000, as he has done in his other writings. He also spends half the chapter stressing the unlikelihood that naturalistic causes could have brought such descent about. This is a theme throughout the whole book—that evolution does not mean methodological naturalism. The next chapter in this section, by Celia Deane-Drummond, seeks to understand how all can “die” in Adam. She rejects the Augustinian understanding of original sin, instead proffering that sin is the spreading of human destruction, and “original sin” is that each person is born into a distorted social context where it is impossible not to be a sinner. James Smith provides the final chapter in this section and attempts to stay closer to the reformed tradition than Deane-Drummond. Smith argues that the “event” nature of the fall must be kept, and therefore there must have been an “original sin,” even if it occurred within a community or a larger population group.

The second section deals with biblical studies and theological implications. J. Richard Middleton attempts to read the account of the origin of evil in Genesis 3 in light of evolution. Joel Green takes on a similar task, looking at original sin in the New Testament and then focusing mainly on works from the second temple era. He also argues against the Augustinian notion of original sin, stating that Paul does not tie our guilt back to Adam, but focuses on the fact that we are punished only for our sin. Aaron Riches finishes out this section with a chapter arguing that a poetic understanding of paradox can be helpful in the discussion. Not only might a clear-cut solution be hard to find, but also that this paradox should be preferred.

The third section deals with the cultural implications of “origins.” Brent Waters deals with recent arguments of post- and transhumanism. He shows that these ideals of a scientific solution to the human condition are, in fact, faith and belief in technology and science. In this way, it is simply a distorted and poor retelling of the Christian myth. Norman Wirzba argues that we should seek to “see” the world in ways that both point to creations fallenness, but also its flourishing.

The final section offers ways to move forward in the conversation. William Cavanaugh makes a compelling case that the “secularizing” of science did not occur due to the fact that religion was removed from science but rather, the Fall was first removed from political science. In this way, the idea of a coercive government was tied not to the sinfulness of man post-Fall, but to nature itself. Peter Harrison concludes the volume by taking a fresh look at Augustine and how his thoughts on the interaction of science and religion might be useful today.

As with all edited works, the value of the individual chapters is not all equal. Falk’s chapter is very useful for looking over the biological and genetic data for evolution. However, Deane-Drummond and Smith seem to make conflicting arguments for how we ought to think about “original sin,” and there does not appear to be a resolution. Green has made similar arguments elsewhere and has been critiqued. However, he does not address these criticisms in this volume. Again, some chapters are very good at dealing with arguments against their positions; others are not.

I believe that the most helpful chapter is, by far, the one by Peter Harrison. He is the only contributor to deal with the philosophy of science and try to think about what it means for an inductive, historical claim to bear weight. He offers guidance for how to navigate issues by both thinking critically, on a case-by-case basis about the truthfulness of scientific claims, and also warns that theology should not be tied to the science of the day. In the “big history” sense, scientific theories are inevitably overturned for new ones. Harrison also helpfully distinguishes between the claims of a theory, and the ethical and theological implications of it. The latter usually has theological presuppositions and is more speculative.

Though some chapters are indeed better than others, this work as a whole is useful for those engaging in the realm of theology and science.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul Gesting is a doctoral student in theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William T. Cavanaugh is director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology and professor of Catholic studies at DePaul University. His other books include Being Consumed and The Myth of Religious Violence.

James K. A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College, where he also holds the Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. His previous books include How (Not) to Be Secular and You Are What You Love.


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