Evolution and Holiness

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Book Review: “Evolution and Holiness: Sociobiology, Altruism, and the Quest for Wesleyan Perfection” by Matthew Nelson Hill

eh-hillMatthew Nelson Hill’s book, Evolution and Holiness might cause a great number of double-takes when it comes to the subject matter revealed in the subtitle: Sociobiology, Altruism, and the Quest for Wesleyan Perfection. Indeed, this is one of the more unique studies I have read.

Hill’s thesis is essentially that, granting the truth of human evolution, it is still possible to maintain the highest possible levels of belief in sanctification and holiness. To support this thesis, he examines the Wesleyan concept of holiness, which is essentially that humans can be made perfect in this life. He argues that, if evolution and Wesleyan holiness are not incompatible, then effectively any view of sanctification can be compatible with evolution. The reason for this conclusion is that Wesleyan holiness is largely agreed upon as the most stringent type of holiness, and so if it can past the test put forward by human evolution, other views ought to be able to as well.

Now that we have looked at the thesis of the book, it is important to take a step back. Hill is not concerned here with whether evolution is true, though it seems that he certainly would say it is. His concern is, instead, to see how this might impact the specific doctrine of sanctification. Thus, the book is not a critical analysis of either evolution or Wesleyan holiness (or any other variety). Instead, it is put forward as a defense of their compatibility.

Hill analyzes various theories of evolutionary psychology and the notion that we have “selfish genes” which determine our behavior. Though he offers a few critiques of these theories, his main aim is to see whether the truths of Christianity might overcome the deterministic aspects of these ideas. The filter through which these questions are analyzed is the concept of altruism. Hill argues that naturalistic evolutionary accounts cannot fully explain human altruism. Various proposed naturalistic mechanisms are examined and found wanting, though Hill admits they may offer partial explanations. Ultimately, however, Hill argues that Christianity offers a way around the alleged determinism of our behavior by genes. The power of the Holy Spirit may enable us to overcome the “selfishness” of our genetic lineage and the evolutionary struggle in order to seek to live holy lives. Christianity therefore offers a superior explanation of altruism, even within the strictures of evolutionary theory.

One difficulty throughout the book is the number of assumptions made that will be unpalatable or even irrational to readers. At one point (123-124), Hill simply states that mind is the product of the brain without any argument. He cites in a footnotes Daniel Dennett’s work, but that seems a weak reason to think that such an assumption is worth carrying on, particularly in light of powerful, convincing reasons to think that the mind not only is not but cannot be merely the workings of the brain. Of course, Hill may simply be making this assumption (one he seems to agree with) without argument because the stated purpose of the book basically grants the whole narrative of evolution, which most often includes some form of denial of substance (or other) dualism. Another place this happens is when Hill refers to a number of arguments from natural theology and apologetics as “God of the gaps” type arguments. He doesn’t specifically cite any argument, but it seems odd for him to throw out that phrase without singling out any specific argument as an instance of the type.

Evolution and Holiness is a book that stands unique in my reading experience. It meshes ideas that seem completely disparate into a coherent whole and challenges assumptions we might make regarding these differing ideas. Readers looking for critical interaction with these ideas will have to look elsewhere. Hill offers a synthesis, not a critique. Whether one agrees with his conclusions or not, I suspect they will find the book an interesting read.

The Good

+Unique topic exposes readers to many new ideas
+Deep look at central theses

The Bad

-Assumes without argument many unconnected points


Matthew Nelson Hill, Evolution and Holiness (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2016).


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Made Perfect in this Life?- A Lutheran reflection on Methodist sanctification– I analyze the notion of Wesleyan perfection from a Lutheran perspective.

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