Christopher LILLEY and Daniel J. PEDERSON, Human Origins and the Image of God: Essays in Honor of J. Wentzel van Huyssteen.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017.  Pp. xiv + 322.  $60.00 hc.  ISBN 978-0-8028-7514-3.  Reviewed by Benjamin BROWN, Lourdes University, Sylvania, OH 43560.


As the subtitle indicates, Human Origins and the Image of God is a festschrift for Wentzel van Huyssteen upon the occasion of his retirement from Princeton Theological Seminary, his academic home since 1992.  Van Huyssteen (vH) is well-known for his fundamental theology, epistemology, and especially his work at the intersection of science and theology.  He takes the distinctness and integrity of both theology and science seriously, but also contends, as he does in many other areas as well, that there can be no separation between them.  As a theologian he insists that theology needs to take seriously the knowledge reached through scientific investigation, while on the other hand also resisting an absolutist scientific foundationalism.

Van Huyssteen’s postfoundationalism, developed in the last couple decades, seeks to bridge the divide between modernist and postmodernist tendencies.  He critiques the naïve and disembodied modernist view of rationality as well as the deconstructivist relativism of postmodernity.  More specifically, he wants to bring theology and science into authentic dialogue, both open to the full truth sought in conjunction, neither coming to the table with unwarranted and non-negotiable presuppositions (foundations), while yet disavowing any form of relativism.  He holds that there are no absolute, indubitable grounds for positions, but yet that we can reach the truth in a way through the messy, contextual, embodied, socially embedded, and dialogical manner of real human thinking.

Contributors to the volume are imminent scholars in their fields, many of whom are in conversation with each other and sometimes have quite different perspectives among themselves as well as from vH, including materialist and atheist ones, but all are friends, colleagues, and/or appreciative dialogue partners of his.  In typical festschrift style, the authors take a variety of approaches, some focusing on the titular honoree’s thought, others on subjects close to his own work but with little direct reference.

After an introduction which provides an intellectual biography of vH, the book is divided into three parts, focusing on science, philosophy, and theology in turn.  The theme of the collection, following one of van Huyssteen’s most celebrated works, Are We Alone?, his 2004 Gifford Lectures, deals with evolution and human uniqueness in particular.

The first chapter, by Ian Tattersall, offers a helpful summary of key parts of what we know from evolutionary research about human origins, recapitulates Tattersall’s argument for the importance of symbolic thought in human evolution, which seems to have exploded on the scene quite rapidly beginning about 100,000 years ago and asks the question: how did this and the various other aspects of homo sapiens uniqueness develop so rapidly?  While much of the puzzle is incomplete, he argues that the answer lies in a coalescence of seemingly random events with the leveraging of material culture that symbolic thinking made possible.

Three of the other chapters by scientists examine the emergence of religion.  Naturally, from a purely scientific-historical perspective which brackets the question of real transcendence and human response to a real supernatural being, the results are limited.

Not surprisingly, several chapters deal extensively with humans in relation to other animals.  What makes humans unique, unlike all other animals; in what specifically is the imago dei to be found?  A couple authors examine the human-animal interrelation as an important contributor in human development.

Interestingly, David Ferfusson, in an effort to avoid anthropocentrism, argues that humans are not really unique.  In the end, he acknowledges that Christianity must entail a “weak anthropocentrism”, but the impression is that he is disappointed.  As with most today who are deeply concerned about human hubris vis-a-vis other animals, he has unexamined presuppositions about equality, hierarchy, unity, and diversity which taint his analysis.

Michael Ruse’s caricature of Christianity is unfortunate and limits the value of his chapter, but it does bring home again the way that the Christian faith is perceived by some, and he certainly does run through several major issues that theology needs to deal with.  As he says at the end, the hard questions, given that we are “creatures made in the image of God, with the ability and obligation to think about the created world, should be reason for celebration rather than fear” (171).  Indeed!

Several essays examine the issue of morality in an evolutionary context: what led to the development of the human sense of ethics, of right and wrong?  Most are not particularly helpful for the theologian, except as foils, given a plethora of false alternatives or self-defeating positions, and I wonder if vH’s position (developed only since 2008) is not ultimately a brand of moral relativism, despite his intentions.

Celia Deane-Drummond acknowledges that the issue of ethics is fraught with difficulty from the outset, for many terms, such as “morality” itself, are unclear or understood differently, but she offers a gentle corrective to vH’s view.  She takes account of evolutionary science and argues for a view in which our moral sense develops over time and in community, including community with other animals.  The same is true for sin and original sin; the human tendency to harm develops gradually, culminating in “self-conscious turning away from God and each other” (224).  At the same time, humans are different from animals in our rationality, our ability to grasp the good as such and choose it consciously, and thus the Christian must hold that there are central, non-negotiable (foundational) principles, such as love of God and neighbor, that cannot be derived merely from biological evolution.

Most even of the Christian contributors seem to have fallen prey to a subtle materialism which is hesitant to discuss the basic distinction (not separation) between matter and spirit as well as God’s real and at times direct, supernatural involvement in human history.  Theologians especially need to have the honesty and courage to introduce the human soul into conversations about evolution and human uniqueness.  Until we take more seriously the fundamental qualitative difference between rationality and mere apprehension, and between rational will and mere desire/affection, neither of which can be explained on the basis of the merely physical, no matter how complex, substantive progress will continue to elude us.

            Nonetheless, this volume is filled with insights and challenges for Christian theology and is well worth the read for anyone working at the intersection of faith and science or theological anthropology.