The Spirit of God in Evolutionary History

Denis Alexander 2012 - from WikipediaThe second chapter in The Spirit in Creation and New Creation: Science and Theology in Western and Orthodox Realms was written by Denis Alexander, a molecular biologist, the emeritus director of the The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge (UK), and the author of many scientific articles in molecular immunology, as well as the book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose?. I’ve had the privilege of meeting Denis a few times and of hearing him talk about science, faith, and evolution. He has much to say worth engagement and conversation.

In his essay Denis looks at the role of the Spirit of God in scripture and in evolution. Although we cannot get from a reductionist study of evolution to the work of the Spirit … “the characteristics of the work of the Spirit known to us through revelation can provide a magnifying glass through which the biological story can provide a richer theological narrative. (p. 12-13)” By this he means that the ways in which we see the work of the Spirit in scripture provide insights into the way in which the Spirit worked in creation through evolution. He starts with the notion of the ruach of God, the wind, breath hovering over the waters in Genesis 1:2, the breath of Genesis 2:7 and moves to the personal Spirit of the New Testament. There are three features Denis draws out from the work of the Spirit throughout scripture, in a very broad brush overview. These features also run through evolutionary history.

Unity and Separation. Denis sees unity and separation as a key thread running through God’s creative work in Genesis, and through the work of God in redemption. Genesis 1 is a separation of waters, a separation of light and dark, and a separation of mankind from the rest of the living creatures as made “in our image”. The creative work of God is a process of diversifying and separating. The creative process of evolution is also a flowering of diversity from a unified source. Biology isn’t a collection of isolated facts and classifications, but a unified whole.

Biology as a diversified whole is not a theological problem. In fact, Denis notes that the theological resources have long existed in the church. Here he quotes from John Wesley in “A Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation.”

There are no sudden changes in nature; all is gradual and elegantly varied. There is no being which has not either above or beneath it some that resemble it in certain characters, but differ from it in others. … From a plant to a man … the transition from one species to another is almost insensible. … The ape is this rough draft of a man; an imperfect representation which nevertheless bears a resemblance to him, and is the last creature that serves to display the admirable progression of the works of God! There is a prodigious number of continued links between the most perfect man and the ape.

We do not need to make John Wesley into a crypto-evolutionist to see that these comments are remarkably prescient of Darwin’s theory, showing in great detail how the whole of God’s great ‘chain of being’ demonstrated the connections and similarities, since all stemmed from the handiwork of the same creator God. (p. 14)

Wesley wasn’t an evolutionist before his time and Denis isn’t claiming that he was. Wesley saw the ‘chain of being’ as static. But Denis is suggesting that the step from a static connectedness to a historical progression does not require a theological revolution. It merely adds a history through the creative work of God to the connectedness of the present ‘chain of being.’ There is a unity and a unifying history underneath the apparent diversity.

Order and Disorder. In Genesis 1 God brings order out of disorder, yet the work of the Spirit is not always orderly from human perspective. This is true in the work of the Spirit in the early church (Denis refers to several incidents in Acts), in the church today, and in the act of creation.

God’s rauch sweeping over the waters certainly brought order out of tohu vebohu, just as Genesis 1 depicts. But God’s rauch also brought creativity, unpredictability, and incredible variation, so that “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.”[1] The Spirit in creation blows where He wills. Evolution is nothing like a human engineering project. There is no fixed blueprint for evolution, although in the dynamic relationship between chance and necessity, it is clear that ultimately necessity has the upper hand. If it were not so, then from a biological perspective the earth would forever have remained in a state of tohu vebohu. (p. 20 – 1with the quote from On the Origin of Species)

In scripture from beginning to end the move bringing order out of disorder isn’t some idealized engineered process creating a mechanical reality. Perhaps the contrast is something like the contrast between engineering and art.

Personal and Impersonal. Here Denis emphasizes the arrow of evolution. The progress of evolutionary history moves from impersonal to personal. He invokes the development of social structures from the very early mats of photosynthetic bacteria (fossils dating some 3 to 3.5 billion years ago) to multicellular organisms to social insects and the social structures and capabilities of primates.

So it seems that personhood was incipient all along, waiting, as it were, for the rauch of God, to keep blowing until the inevitable happened: personhood emerged out of lifeless matter, a 3.8 billion-year-old narrative. With the benefit of hindsight, knowing now that the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, the emergence of personhood through the Spirit’s immanent work in the created order is precisely what one might expect. (p. 25)

There is nothing intrinsically inconsistent with a view of evolutionary creation. Rather, Denis suggests that we seem the same processes of development in creation before and after the beginning of human history and God’s call of humans from Genesis 2 through Revelation.

Gian_Lorenzo_Bernini_-_Dove_of_the_Holy_Spirit dsSo what might this tell us? These three contrasts – unity and separation, order and disorder, personal and impersonal – summarized above don’t really do justice to the whole argument. Perhaps to get a feel for the thrust of the argument it is best to turn to Denis’s conclusion (annotated as I quote).

Had we started with the evolutionary narrative alone, without any other inputs, we would have been forced to the conclusion that “something very organized and special is going on here.”

While the secular scientist might argue that there is no purpose or intention in the process of evolution, there are most definitely constraints and convergences. There is an indisputable direction to the evolutionary arrow of time from simple to more complex.

We might have concluded that there was some force, impersonal, or perhaps even personal intelligence or power, that had brought about such a remarkable history.

But as Christians we do not start with the evolutionary narrative alone.

Starting with the known work of God’s Spirit in both the created order in general, and in human history in particular, however, provides a much a much richer narrative, one in which the resonances can be more finely nuanced. The work of the Spirit in evolutionary history in unity and separation, order and yet disorder, and in both the impersonal and the personal, increases our hope and expectations for our new life in the eschaton. (p. 25)

The work of the Spirit in evolutionary history and in human history leads us forward in the expectation of an entirely new stage of life in the age to come with new creation.

Does this description agree with the way the Spirit has worked in human history described in scripture?

How do you think of the Spirit at work in creation?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If you would like to comment please see The Spirit of God in Evolutionary History at Jesus Creed.

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