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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Evolution (Christ And)

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EVOLUTION (CHRIST AND).—The widespread acceptance of the Evolutionary philosophy, and the endeavours of its leading exponents to include the phenomena of religion within the sweep of its categories, have greatly accentuated the problem of the place of the Incarnation in the cosmic order, and of Jesus Christ, His Person, His work, and His redemptive function, in human history.

1. The basis of discussion.—At the outset we must distinguish sharply between the Materialistic type of the Evolutionary philosophy on the one hand, and the Theistic type on the other. The former may be described as including all efforts to explain the highest phenomena of the cosmos—including those of life, consciousness, and all forms of spiritual activity—in terms of mechanical motion and force. Such a philosophy rules out all recognition of the Divine Personality, of the possible independence of mind over matter, of the ethical responsibility and free spiritual activity of man, and of his capacity for immortal life. This disposes of the problem of the Incarnation as irrelevant, and throws us back on a purely ‘naturalistic’ explanation of the Person and life of Jesus Christ. The Theistic type of the Evolutionary philosophy, however—the central idea of which is that the goal of Evolution and not its beginnings provides us with the principle of cosmic interpretation, and that spirit and not matter furnishes the key to the riddle of the Universe—leaves us free to deal with the Supreme Person and Fact of history with open minds. Theism presents us with a conception of God as immanent in the Universe, but not as imprisoned within its material or psychical manifestations; as transcendent, living a free, self-determined life in virtue of His own eternal Being, yet not separated from the forces and phenomena of the cosmos, which are manifestations of His creative activity and expanding purpose. It also presents us with a conception of man as a created but free spiritual person, physically a part of nature, but ethically above it, and capable of coming into conscious personal relations with his Creator.

2. Theistic theory of Evolution compatible with a process of Incarnation.—It is manifest that the idea of Incarnation is not a priori incompatible with such a philosophy of God and man. It represents the Universe as God realizing His creative purpose; impersonally in Nature, personally in Man. Creation awakes in man to the sense of its own origin and the possibility of its own consummation in a life of free spiritual communion with God. Incarnation means that this fellowship is actually sought after and objectively consummated by an act of self-realization on the part of God. It implies the special compatibility of the Divine nature and the human personality. ‘God is, as it were, the eternal possibility of being incarnated, man the permanent capability of incarnation.’ ‘The nature that is in all men akin to Deity becomes in Christ a nature in personal union with the Deity, and the unio personalis, which is peculiar to Him, is the basis of the unio mystica, which is possible to all’ (Fairbairn, Christ in Modern Theology, pp. 473, 475; see also Clarke’s Outline of Christian Theology, p. 275).

3. The Person and work of Christ in such a theory.—The historical realization of this possibility of Incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth raises the further question of His place in a philosophy of history, and in Christian theology. The Christian contention is that in Him the Evolutionary process finds its consummation on the one side—He was the Ideal Man made actual; and that a fresh Evolutionary start was made by the fusion of the Divine and human natures in Him on the other—He was the Son of God Incarnate, ‘manifested to take away sin’ (1 John 3:5), and to project the race on the lines of its true development and life, which had been interrupted and swerved aside by the intrusion of sin into the world. This conception of the Person and work of Christ, while it falls into line with the Evolutionary idea in one direction, appears to fall foul of it in another, because of the claim it makes that there was in the nature of Christ an incommensurable factor, incapable of being explained by the laws of organic life, or by human psychology,—manifesting itself in a life of unique goodness and power, begun by a free special act of God in the Virgin-birth, and consummated by the objective Resurrection of our Lord from the dead.

This difficulty, however, on deeper consideration is not incompatible with a wider view of the Evolutionary process. There were several stages in the known pathway of the upward movement from the star mist, in which the process began, to man, in whom terrestrial evolution finds its consummation, when fresh phenomena appeared which cannot be explained in terms of those that preceded; e.g. at the emergence of organic life, of sentiency, and of ethical self-consciousness. So far, no rational bridge of theory has been found to span the gap between these diverse facts. It is, therefore, not unthinkable that there was in the Person of our Lord a superhuman element, which in Him mingled with the stream of human life, and started a fresh and higher line of evolution for the race. The question whether this was so in point of actual fact is thus purely one of evidence, and, if historically substantiated, must be accepted, whether we are able ultimately to ‘account’ for it theoretically or not. Our canons of Evolution must make room for all the facts of life and history, or be finally discredited as inadequate and obscurantist.

4. Jesus Christ not explicable on naturalistic grounds.—It is certain also that, so far, the innumerable efforts which have been put forth during the past century, from almost every conceivable point of view, to give a naturalistic explanation of the life and Person of Jesus Christ, have not, in whole or in part, disposed of this problem. There is no single theory or combination of theories which meets with general acceptance, even among those who take up a purely critical attitude; and when we confront them with the Christian consciousness which is the historical outcome of faith in the Divine nature and mission and work of Christ, they fail utterly to carry conviction. (This last fact has so far not had its true place in the settlement of the problem). The Personality of Jesus Christ is thus still the unsolved problem of history, and it is more than doubtful if any fresh treatment of the question will succeed in bringing Him within the categories of an Agnostic Evolutionary Philosophy.

5. Cur Deus Homo?—The Theistic Evolutionist has next to face the old question of the purpose and aim of the Incarnation in the cosmic order. ‘Cur Deus Homo?’ becomes a more burning question than ever in a scheme of Evolutionary thought. Two hypotheses present themselves, according as we take an a priori or a posteriori standpoint, which may be called the Evolutionary and the Redemptive. The first makes the Christ the consummation and crown of the process of cosmic Evolution, and postulates the Incarnation as its necessary climax; the second occupies the old standpoint of Christian theology from the beginning, that, whether the Incarnation lay implicit or not in the process, it was historically conditioned by the fact of the sinful and ‘fallen’ state of humanity. The two views are not incompatible with one another, and both in combination are quite consistent with the teaching of Scripture. The upward striving of humanity for union with its Creator as personal finds its historical witness in (1) the universal function of worship, prayer, and sacrifice, and (2) the Hebrew prophetic vision of the Ideal Servant of Jehovah, and the Messianic hope; and it suggests, as God is personal, a corresponding act of self-revelation in a historical Person who would unite in himself the human aspiration and the Divine manifestation; while the gradual revelation consummated in the coming of Christ, and recorded in the Old and New Testaments, is in line with all the known laws of God’s evolutionary methods. On the other hand, it is unquestionable that the Scripture doctrine of the Incarnation is indissolubly associated with the redemptive purpose of God. This is its historical aim and character: ‘He was manifested to take away sin’ (1 John 3:5, cf. 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 etc.). While, therefore, we are justified on a priori grounds in believing that ‘the Incarnation was no after thought’ (Dale, Fellowship with Christ, and Other Sermons, pp. 10, 252 f.), but that it would have taken place even if sin had not entered the world, the form which it took was historically conditioned by the actual condition of humanity; i.e. it was soteriological in its manifestation.

6. Three pregnant aspects of the historical Incarnation.—More particularly, the significance of the historical Incarnation as a redemptive and perfective process may be described under three pregnant headings. It was (1) the realization of the perfect type of humanity—Christ as the Ideal Man; (2) the achievement of a great restorative or saving work—Christ as the sufficient Saviour; (3) the beginning of a fresh departure in the upward Life of the Race—Christ as the Founder and Head of His Church, and the source of the higher spiritual movements of history. These three aspects of His work are specially related to His human life as our great Exemplar; to His Cross and Passion as our Sacrifice and Reconciler; to His Resurrection and Ascension into the unseen world, and His influence through His Spirit on the individual and wider life of mankind.

(1) As the Ideal Man, Jesus revealed the possibilities and determined the type of perfect manhood for the race. This was done under special conditions, and at a given moment of time and place, race and environment. He was born in Palestine, during the reign of Herod, ‘of the seed of David’ (Romans 1:3); i.e. He was a Jew, conforming to the special conditions and demands of His own times, and limited by the intellectual and social horizon of His day. There was much, therefore, in the outward life of Jesus which was temporary and local in its manifestations. Yet beneath all this we see a true revelation of the Perfect Man, universal in its scope, yet appealing to each individual man as his exemplar; Ideal in its purity and holiness, yet throbbing with contagious life; beyond the reach of literal imitation, yet quickening each of His followers to the realization of his own individual life and personality. Looked at from within, His life is depicted in the NT as one of perfect and joyous obedience to the Father’s revealed will (John 5:19), unbroken communion with Him (John 10:30), and supreme self-forgetfulness in the service of His brethren (2 Corinthians 8:9). Whatever transcendent elements may have been hidden (and sometimes patent) in the spiritual consciousness of Jesus, He is represented as truly temptable (Matthew 4:1 etc.), as depending entirely on Divine help and grace for conquest over temptation (John 5:19 etc.), and as having triumphed absolutely over evil, so that He was ‘without sin’ (Hebrews 4:15). The impression left on those who knew Him best by this life of filial obedience and service was that it was of unique beauty and attractiveness (John 1:14), and yet capable of emulation by all, under their own individual conditions of life and service (1 Peter 2:21). And this NT picture of Jesus as the Ideal Man is one that the noblest minds of Christendom throughout the centuries have accepted. There is no historical character that has ever threatened to divide the sovereignty of Jesus in the spiritual homage of men; and such ‘detached’ thinkers as Goethe and Carlyle, Strauss and Renan, Richter and Lecky have borne unqualified testimony to the solitary and unapproachable grandeur of the moral ideal incarnated in Him.

In the fulness of the time.’—From the Evolutionary standpoint the question is often asked, whether such an ideal life must not necessarily have appeared as the consummation of the spiritual development of the race,—as the last link in the series. This a priori objection is of doubtful application, however, even in the lower ranges of organic life; and as regards the self-conscious aspiring life of men, it is demonstrably lacking in cogency. Jesus, according to Scripture, appeared in the ‘fulness’ of the time, and at that precise moment in the order of history which enabled Him best to fulfil His mission (Galatians 4:4, Hebrews 1:1-4). The best minds of previous ages had been eagerly looking forward to a manifestation of the saving power of God (Matthew 13:17, Luke 24:25, Acts 3:18; 1 Peter 1:10 etc.), and, if the actual historical manifestation of the Messiah for whom they waited was not in accordance with their literal expectations, it was the true fulfilment of the spiritual movement of which their ideals and prophecies were a part. In Evolutionary language, the ‘embryonic’ Christ of prophecy became in due course the actual Christ of history, or, less figuratively, the dimly outlined Ideal Life of aspiration took objective form in the manifested life of the Son of God. Or, we may say that the right time for an ideal to be actualized in the life of humanity would be, at that precise moment when the capacity for conceiving and recognizing an ideal had been sufficiently developed to appreciate it. Before this, it would be wasted; later, it would have been belated; and Jesus came and embodied the Ideal Life just when humanity was capable of profiting by it, and of being stirred by it into higher aspiration and endeavour.

(2) The Redemptive work of Christ finds its place in an Evolutionary scheme of thought on cognate lines. It presupposes that a lapse, or at least a fatal halt, had occurred in the upward spiritual development of the race, and that all further progress was barred by the poisoning of the wells of progress by sin (see Fall). Before humanity could be released from this disability, which had interfered with the free interflow of the Divine and human fellowship, in the unrestricted action of which alone the spiritual life of man can develop, a process of reconciliation and at-one-ment with the source of the spiritual Life must be initiated. Apart from this, the presentation of an Ideal Life would be a mockery, for its realization would be impossible. Thus, as already stated, the historical Incarnation took a redemptive form, and it was consummated by an act of supreme sacrifice.

The process of ‘progress by sacrifice’ (see Bruce’s Providential Order, ch. xii. p. 345 ff.) is deeply embedded in the organic world. The so-called cruel Law of Natural Selection is but another name for a rudimentary fact which finds its finest and most perfect realization in the Cross of Christ. In nature we find three grades or stages of this process. (1) The sacrifice of the weak for the strong, as when those creatures in every species which are ill-adapted for the propagation of their kind are elbowed out of existence by the vitally strong and efficient, and made ‘subservient to another’s good’ in the way of food. (2) The sacrifice of the strong for the weak, exemplified in the action of the imperious parental instinct which is manifested by every living species above the very lowest, and which gradually increases in its range and its delicacy till it arrives through the higher mammals at man. Here there is more or less conscious self-denial on the part of the vigorous and capable organism on behalf of the helpless and the weak. (3) The sacrifice of the good for the bad, a fact manifested (in the necessity of things) only among ethical persons, and exemplified throughout history as one of the most potent forces for the uplifting and perfecting of humanity. These various stages of the sacrificial element in Nature do not exhaust the meaning of the Redemption wrought through the Cross of Christ, which has a unique character of its own as an ‘atonement’; but they serve to link it with the world-process, and to make it more or less evolutionally intelligible. (See further on this subject Griffith-Jones, The Ascent through Christ, bk. ii. ch. iii. pp. 283–306).

(3) The Risen Life of our Lord initiates the final stage in the spiritual evolution of the race, and completes the range of forces that work for the perfecting of the human soul in its upward march. The Resurrection and the Ascension indicate a fresh epoch in the history of mankind, both in the development of the individual soul and in the progress of society. A new type of character emerges, and a new community is born; each marking a higher achievement and indicating a further advance in spiritual life. Historical Christianity rests on the faith that Jesus rose again and passed into the unseen world, whence He continues to send forth His personal influence and saving grace by His Spirit among believers, and through them into the world at large. This He does first by quickening individual men in the New Life, enabling them to conquer sin, and to put forth the distinctive Christian virtues; and, secondly, by the perpetual renewal and invigoration of the Christian society or Church, which is composed of those believers who join in brotherly love in the active service of mankind in the name of their spiritual Head. This new force has leavened and in a measure created modern Western civilization, and though it has so far not succeeded in permeating it through and through with the Christian spirit, it is demonstrable that its finest and most potent elements are those derived from the Christian Ideal and ennobled by the Christian graces. The slowness of the world’s spiritual development along Christian lines is undeniable, it is marked by ages of stagnation and by periods of unmistakable reaction; this, however, is entirely consistent with the laws of evolution through all its upward stages, and is inevitable when we remember the potent forces of spiritual degeneracy and inertia which oppose its march. It is clear that there is no rival directive or inspiring ideal among mankind that could take the place of Christianity without crying halt to all that is noblest in the life of the race. The future of the world lies with Christ, unless it is to fall back on a lower stage of ethical and spiritual development on its way to utter disintegration and decadence. Since the lines of cosmic development have so far been on the whole in an upward direction, and since there is no indication that the Christian ideal has lost its hold on the best minds of the race, or is less potent than formerly in regenerating individual souls and in inspiring the Church to ever fresh activity and influence, there is reason for confident belief that at last the race as a whole will be raised to the Christian level, and that the future is with Him of whom it is prophesied that He shall reign in undisputed sway over the affections and command the obedience of all mankind (Philippians 2:9-11, Revelation 11:15 etc.). See, further, art. Incarnation.

Literature.—Griffith-Jones, Ascent through Christ; Gore, Bampton Lectures on The Incarnation; H. Drummond, Ascent of Man.

E. Griffith-Jones.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Evolution (Christ And)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/e/evolution-christ-and.html. 1906-1918.

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