What makes humans distinct from animals?

Baptist Press
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Posted: Jul 24, 2012 5:22 PM
What makes humans distinct from animals?

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fifth story in a series of Baptist Press articles about an ongoing dialogue about evolution on the BioLogos website. To read BP's initial story, visit http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=37901 .

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- Jesus' human life in Scripture indicates that the divine image is a special relationship rather than basic qualities that particularly mark humans as distinct from animals, a representative of The BioLogos Foundation said in an ongoing exchange with Southern Baptist professors.

"... Jesus's humanity is never depicted as exercising extraordinary powers of rationality, freedom, creativity, and so forth," Robert Bishop, professor of philosophy and history of science at Wheaton College, wrote for BioLogos in an online series at BioLogos.org titled "Southern Baptist Voices."

Bruce Little, senior professor of philosophy at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, opened the discussion with the concept of essentialism, which is the idea that for any particular entity, there are specific traits which entities of that kind must possess.

"It seems that essentialism (I use this term with Christian emphasis), if true, would seriously challenge any form of evolution where different species evolve through common descent," Little wrote. "... Generally speaking, essentialism teaches there is more to reality of the thing than what is presented to the senses, which is to say there is more to reality than the biological dimension (we might say DNA). It is the material that provides a means of expression of the essence."

The fact that a being is determined by its essence finds support in understanding who Jesus is, Little wrote. What made Jesus the God-Man, he said, was that He had both the essence of God and the essence of man. Genesis 1:20 notes that living creatures were created according to their own kind, which supports the idea of fixity of species, Little said.

Modern science, Little wrote, has "unjustifiably marginalized essentialism because it does not fit within a purely physical understanding of reality." Metaphysical naturalism, he said, "disallows anything beyond the physical as part of any explanation of reality."

"Science is good at understanding functional matters within creation but impotent to give answers of meaning," Little wrote.

When Christians study science, he said, a compartmentalizing of reality "effectively translates into the idea that science is the primary agent for interpreting the truth of creation even though the transcendent is affirmed."

"Practically speaking, this disallows for any serious connection between that which transcends experience and how one should understand the true nature of reality -- not just how it functions in our experience. This does not mean that the Bible is left out of any explanation, but only as an addendum made to fit what the tools of science have found. It is as if understanding of reality is shut up to the scientific method," Little wrote.

In response, Bishop said metaphysical naturalism is not necessary to the practice of science, and he said essentialism is only one of the historically Christian ways to think about being human. Important intellectual developments within theism led to essentialism's replacement, Bishop said.

The early church fathers believed the three persons of the Trinity were what they are and who they are "in virtue of their relationships with each other, not based on some intrinsic properties that ground their uniqueness as persons in the Godhead," Bishop wrote.

"By analogy of relationship, humans are what we distinctly are in our being and personality in virtue of our relationship to God, creation and each other," Bishop wrote. "Our involvements with others necessarily shape who we are as particular persons."

Bishop pointed to Jesus as an example of the image of God being based on a relationship, not on certain qualities.

"If to be the image of God is to be sustained in a special relationship with the Father, each other and creation through the Spirit, then the imago Dei is not grounded in intrinsic qualities that particularly mark humans as distinct from the rest of the animals, as essentialism would have it," Bishop wrote.

"... Evolution does not threaten human specialness before God unless it is viewed as a replacement for divine creative activity," he added.

Christians have two options for how to understand what it means to be human, Bishop said, if they accept evolution as a "broadly right" account of the creation of all living things and if some form of essentialism is found to be consistent with such an account.

"We can look for some stable, unique intrinsic features in virtue of which we are human; or we can look to the special Spirit-sustained relationship we have with God, creation and each other," Bishop wrote. "Both are biblically consistent, though I judge understanding the imago Dei as special relationship to make better sense of the whole of the Bible, as well as our experience in the world," Bishop concluded.

In comments to Baptist Press, Little of Southeastern commended the BioLogos team for making such a dialogue "among concerned Christians" possible.

"I think both subject matter and tone of the project speak well of how it has been organized," Little said. "I am appreciative for Robert Bishop's thoughtful and kind interaction to my article on 'Essentialism and Evolution.'

"However, if I understand his rebuttal correctly to the main point of the article, I think it does not address the idea of essentialism as discussed in relationship to the uniqueness of Jesus -- true God and true man. The point being that what made Jesus God was that he had the essence of God -- He is one (ontologically) with the Father (John 10:30)," a matter that agrees with the Nicene Creed, which says the Father and the Son are of one substance (essence), Little added.

"If essences do not exist, then what is to be done with the Nicene Creed? If they do exist (essentialism) this would appear a barrier to the idea of evolution," Little said. "I think Bishop shifts the discussion to person (as opposed to essence) when speaking of the Trinity in relational terms. Certainly there is a relational aspect in the Trinity, but that is another discussion. So at this time I think my point stands."

Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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