Matthew Nelson Hill. Evolution and Holiness: Sociobiology, Altruism and the Quest for Wesleyan Perfection. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. See here to buy the book.
Matthew Nelson Hill is an elder in the Free Methodist Church, and he teaches philosophy at Spring Arbor University. In Evolution and Holiness,
Hill explores possible connections between evolutionary views on human
morality and John Wesley's views on how Christians can become holy.
Essentially, Hill argues that, even if humans have a selfish gene that
drags them down morally, they can still overcome this selfishness
through God's grace, a personal and conscious pursuit of holiness, and
an environment that challenges and encourages them to be altruistic. An
example of such an environment would be John Wesley's small groups.
Here are some of my thoughts about this book:
A struggle that I had in reading this book was identifying where Hill
believes that supernatural grace fits into the Christian's growth
towards holiness. To his credit, Hill does try to address this
question: he says that God works through nature and our efforts. But
Hill seems to present a picture of God trying to bring the best out of
who we naturally are, since we are a mixture of selfishness and
altruism. That sounds different from God giving people the Holy Spirit,
which enables them to desire and to do good. Where, for Hill, does the
natural end and the supernatural begin, in the area of Christians'
growth towards holiness? And how would Hill distinguish his view from
Pelagianism? Hill mentions Wesley's belief in prevenient grace, but is
not prevenient grace supernatural, or apart from nature? How can that
be reconciled with Hill's scenario of the Christian life, which stresses
nature (and environment, which can influence nature)?
As Hill narrates, John Wesley was controversial in his time because he
believed that a Christian could become perfect in this life. For
Wesley, perfection meant being like Christ in one's love for God and
neighbor. Other Christians, such as Lutherans and Calvinists, denied
that such perfection was a possibility in this life. My understanding
is that they tended to portray the Christian life as a continuous uphill
battle with sin until one's dying day. What puzzles me is that,
according to Hill, Wesley may have held to a combination of these two
views. Wesley acknowledged that temptation would always be present in
the life of the believer, even after the believer arrives at a state of
perfection. Wesley also said that a believer needed to continue
actively in the spiritual disciplines to stay on the straight and
narrow, and that a Christian could even fall from a state of
perfection. That is more in line with the second view, and also with
Hill's presentation of the Christian life as a continual, perhaps
lifelong, attempt to rise above one's selfish gene. Hill does not
believe that God overthrows how we naturally are.
But how does a
continual struggle with selfishness co-exist with being perfect? Does
not the existence of the weight of selfishness in a person imply
imperfection? One could perhaps retort that Wesley thought that
perfection meant having the right intent, even if one made mistakes.
That could be. It just seems to me that being weighed down by sin and
being perfect are contrary notions, and identifying how Hill and Wesley
hold them together is difficult.
C. Can the Fall be reconciled
with evolution, according to Hill? Hill did not answer this question
explicitly, but he did raise issues that are relevant to this issue.
Hill discusses the influence of Eastern Orthodoxy on John Wesley's
thought, as well as the differences between Wesley and Eastern
Orthodoxy. According to Hill, Eastern Orthodoxy tends to hold that Adam
and Eve were incomplete at creation (prior to the Fall) and were on a
path of becoming more and more like God. Within Western Christianity,
by contrast, there is more of a view that God made Adam and Eve perfect,
the Fall disrupted that, and God wants to return creation to pre-Fall
perfection. According to Hill, Wesley leaned more towards the Western
idea, even though Wesley's belief that Christians could become perfect
in this life was influenced by Eastern Orthodoxy. The Eastern Orthodox
view that God created Adam and Eve incomplete, however, may be one way a
Christian can reconcile evolution with the Fall.
extensively discusses scientific questions of whether there is a
biological or evolutionary basis for selfishness, altruism, and free
will. As far as I remember, Hill did not address an argument that
atheist physicist Victor Stenger made in his 2012 book, God and the Folly of Faith:
that free will may be an illusion because our brains act in a certain
way before we consciously make a decision. Hill should not necessarily
have responded to Stenger, per se, since Stenger was a physicist, not a
biologist. But Stenger is basing his argument on other sources, and
Hill would have done well to have engaged them. Hill does say that,
from our perspective, we do have the ability to make choices. There is
something to that, but, considering John Wesley's aversion to Calvinism,
perhaps Hill should have been more rigorous in addressing the case some
have made for biological determinism. (Hill does address determinism,
but I do not recall him addressing Stenger's argument. I apologize if
Hill did address it, and I fail to remember it.)
reading Hill's book, I wondered if I would want to be in one of Wesley's
band societies. From Hill's description, they came across to me to be
nosy, pushy, controlling, and legalistic. (Hill may have a positive
stance towards them, but I am talking about my reactions.) I could
identify with the many Christians who chose to be in Methodist classes,
but not Methodist band societies! At the same time, Hill did say
things about Wesley's approach that I found intriguing and appealing.
First of all, Wesley started accountability groups because he himself
struggled to be consistent in performing spiritual disciplines. As Hill
says, Wesley did not ask people to do anything that he was unwilling to
do himself! Second, Wesley's groups allowed converts to continue on
the Christian path. By contrast, George Whitefield's approach of
preaching to people and failing to do any follow-up resulted in less
substantial fruit, as even Whitefield admitted. Third, Wesley
consciously pursued people who were not particularly altruistic, in an
attempt to move them towards altruism. Wesley looked for lost sheep, in
short! Fourth, the donations that people in Wesley's groups regularly
made really did help the poor: orphans, widows, the unemployed, etc. I
may recoil from being in a group like Wesley's band societies, but I can
understand the importance of accountability in encouraging me to do
good, and in providing me with opportunities to do so.
discussion of altruism was appealing to me, since I tend to recoil from
Christian statements that we should put others ahead of ourselves. Hill
explores whether taking self-interest completely out of the equation is
even possible, from the standpoint of how we biologically are, and what
has served us in the past. At the same time, Hill questioned whether
our beneficent, outwardly-focused actions are purely a matter of
quid-pro-quo: you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. Hill's insights
on these issues were especially helpful to me.
Although I still
have questions and areas of confusion after reading this book, I still
give it four stars. Hill did wrestle with questions, and he did so
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.
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