"Evolution and Holiness" by Matthew Nelson Hill. A Review

Evolution and Holiness: Sociobiology, Altruism and the Quest for Wesleyan Perfection
Matthew Nelson Hill
IVP Academic (InterVarsity Press)
PO Box 1400
Downers Grove, IL 60515
ISBN: 978-0-8308-3907-0; $30.00; February 2016
Reviewed by Rev. Dr. Michael Philliber for Deus Misereatur

Intriguing. 3 Stars out of 5

There you are at a huge family reunion and everyone is related in some way. Many have the same family name, though there’s a mixture of other names through marriage, along with a plethora of body shapes, sizes, colors and regional dialects. Each group slowly huddles around folks they’re familiar with, and the reunion becomes a band of clans, all related but different. As you take the bold step to meander between clusters, you happen on one knot of people and come to the awkward realization that though this particular crowd is linked to the larger family, their assumptions and approaches to politics and religion are clearly different and outside of your purview. Something like this happened as I picked up and began reading “Evolution and Holiness: Sociobiology, Altruism and the Quest for Wesleyan Perfection” by Matthew Nelson Hill, assistant professor of philosophy in the department of theology at Spring Arbor University and ordained elder in the Free Methodist Church. Instead of the subjects covering politics and religion, they were about evolution and Wesleyan holiness, both of which were beyond my normal horizon. It’s a book that has the feel of a doctoral thesis, but is readable by most.

“Evolution and Holiness” covers both of these subjects, with the first four chapters on evolution, and the final three on Wesleyan holiness. It is immediately clear that the author is writing from within the context of Darwinian evolution. As Darrel R. Falk, professor of biology and dean of graduate students at Point Loma Nazarene University in Point Loma, California, states things in the forward, “Biologists have demonstrated with near certainty that humans were created through the evolutionary process” (9).  Therefore, the author himself affirms, “In my view, God and evolution are not antithetical. There is no reason that God could not have used the process of evolution to create free will, or even morality in his creation...” (107, fn 2).  From within this framework Hill does two things. First, he challenges the assumptions and inconsistencies of certain sociobiologists, like Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson, repeatedly emphasizing that humans “are not slaves to their genes, they are free to overcome and ignore them” (131). Next, the author builds a case for the moral-forming dance between evolution, genetic proclivities, environmental factors and community for humankind; “It is precisely this concoction of genes and environment that creates the freedom of human nature to transcend the biological and cultural” (104).

After having favorably interacted with evolutionary biology, and setting the stage that humankind can rise above the tyranny of their genes (127), the author next draws the reader into the interaction of John Wesley’s program of holiness and “perfecting perfection” (143) and evolution. Hill informatively and knowledgably explicates Wesley’s perspective on original sin, holiness, and theosis. He spends considerable time and ink exhibiting how, “through a combination of human choice and the grace of God, humans possess the ability to continually “overcome” their genes and achieve Christian perfection in this life” (161-2); that even though genetic urges toward selfishness do not go away, a person “has the grace to overcome the genetic urges and achieve Christian perfection, as well as the grace to continue in the process of overcoming the genetic urges after perfection” (Ibid.). To move beyond genetic proclivities of selfishness requires not only the grace of God, but also the aid of others, where there is a marriage between “a personal encounter with Christ and a shared experience within a close Christian community” (193). Here the author explains and shows the importance of Wesley’s communal structure of classes, bands and select societies, where there is not only a strident accountability structure, but also an active approach to altruism.

Evolution and Wesleyan holiness are not on my normal horizon, and I would seriously dispute the author on both counts, most especially as I found the author’s evolutionary assumptions troublesome. To embrace the position, seems to me, undermines not only sacred Scripture but also the active role of God in creation, the created order and the creature. The material regularly left me cold and perplexed, especially with statements such as, “At what point morality actually burgeoned from social life is impossible to determine, and there is no comprehensive convincing argument that completely “explains” the origin of morality” (98). Most astute Christian readers will immediately catch why this statement, and others like it, is extremely awkward and alarming.

Nevertheless “Evolution and Holiness” was an informative work. I appreciated the historical background on Wesley, his program and rationale. And I was quite pleased with the author’s emphatic reminder that we are not the sum total of our genetic make-up and biological tendencies, but that by the grace of God a person has the ability to act in spite of those influences. With my concerns and disagreements voiced, I think the book is worthwhile, especially for those interested in Wesley’s holiness program.

Thanks to IVP Academic for providing, upon my request, the free copy of “Evolution and Holiness” used for this review. The assessments are mine given without restrictions or requirements (as per Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255).

Feel free to re-post or re-publish this review; just please give credit where credit is due Mike


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