Paradigms and thinking the unthinkable

When Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg it heralded a paradigm shift in the Church (and at that time therefore the culture) of Western Europe. Once there was widespread rejection of the assumption that the ultimate arbiter both of salvation and state power was the Roman Church, everything changed.


The first thing to consider is that, within the Reformation, the conscious aim was the abandonment of Catholic Christendom’s fundamental assumptions, and a return to something that, it was perceived, had gone before. In practice, of course, it is easy to see that Protestantism was not simply a return to primitive Biblical Christianity – it was influenced by all that had gone before, by the Renaissance and, particularly in the case of Calvinism, by the Humanists. Nevertheless, a return to the Bible was its aim and that is what it achieved, for all the aberrations. It affected everything, including even the Catholic Church’s attempt at self-reformation at the Council of Trent.

If I may begin to draw parallels, like me you may remember statements like, “The world can never be the same again after the Enlightenment.” It is true, as Aslan said, that things never happen the same way twice, but the Reformation shows that it is, in fact, perfectly possible for the world to reject an entire episode in its thought not to reach forward in some new revolution, but to recapture something that was lost.

The main thing, however, that I wish to emphasise is the heady, productive but also dangerous freedom that paradigm shifts inevitably bring. In Luther’s case this was an early trend. He started simply by criticising the abuse of plenary indulgences and calling people to simple Christianity. But as the Establishment reacted against him, he began to question the entire edifice, concluding famously that the whole Church was in “Babylonish captivity.” Once the central edifice of Rome’s authority was replaced with sola scriptura, everything had to be questioned, because it began to be clear that many central beliefs had depended not on Scripture, but on Catholic tradition.

This led (as far as I am concerned!) to the wonderful fruits of writings like Calvin’s Institutes and the corpus of Puritan divines like John Owen or Richard Baxter. But inevitably it also led to disorder. Even in Luther’s time, his less-than-wise colleague Carlstadt opened the door to the ultra-charismatic Zwickau prophets, who rejected the Bible in favour of the direct witness of the Spirit. What goes around comes around! Luther was able to return to Wittenberg and restore order, if not persuade the prophets of their error, though I have always loved the the story that when the Zwickau people prophesied, wrongly, what was in his mind, and at his rebuke cried in horror, “The Spirit!
The Spirit!”, he simply replied, “I slap your spirit on the snout!”

Nevertheless disorder increasingly characterised the Reformation, and reading the documents of the English Civil War, when there was maximal opportunity for the ignorant to speculate and organise, the bewildering range of heretical and extreme groups like the Fifth Monarchy Men, the Levellers, the Diggers and so on, as well as the more orthodox but not-always companionable denominations, helps explain why many were heartily sick of enthusiastic religion come the Restoration. Yet theologically, there was a net gain that has lasted the centuries, despite the pressures from post-Enlightenment skepticism.

It is the Enlightenment, and its apotheosis, Darwinian evolution, on which I want to concentrate now. For reasons that are fairly clear, the condensation of the Enlightenment project into materialism and atheism has depended heavily on Darwinism. Dawkins and intellectual respectability come to mind. But if, as I have argued, the heart of Darwin’s variation and natural selection is essentially no more than a mental back-flip, a plausible way of conceiving creation without God, then its rejection does much more than demand a modification to evolutionary theory. If Darwinianism is at heart metaphysical, then its rejection (whether at an individual or societal level) leads to the questioning of everything that depends on it, just as Protestantism did in its time.

How much biological science, for example, relies on the Darwinian perspective rather than the evidence itself? Reading William Dembski’s interview, for instance , he self-describes as an
Old-Earth creationist, and would appear to do so not from any theological conviction but because he doesn’t see the evidence for common descent as convincing. And that despite his colleague Michael Behe’s disagreement. I find the same questions arising in my own mind – if one takes away Darwinian presuppositions, how much of the evidence for anything else is found to depend on it?

The answer is, “Some.” The fact is that a paradigm shift calls into question everything associated with the old order – though it doesn’t necessarily overturn it. Once teleology, even at the level of the organism, is accepted into science, then a re-exmination not only of biology, but of all the sciences that have embraced “blind evolution” will be mandatory. And I have little doubt that would lead to as much of an appearance of anarchy as the Reformation did, until the new paradigm became fully established.

I have to say that one field in which this might be as radical as any would be theology. It is difficult to underestimate how much of contemporary theology is dependent on Enlightenment interpretations of both Scripture and history, from the evolutionary view of religion that underpins most Old Testament studies to the whole quasi-scientific approach that is an unspoken assumption in higher criticism. Just as the Reformation could not but be affected by a millennium of Catholic thinking, yet found it necessary to reject great swathes of it, so the rejection of the Darwinian metaphysic would transform Christian thinking. That would often be for the worse, and definitely would not lead to a general consensus. But in the end, in my humble opinion, it would be for the good of everyone.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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13 Responses to Paradigms and thinking the unthinkable

  1. James Penman penman says:

    No egregious errors, Jon! Merely an add-on: the Magisterial Reformers also sought some coordination between their interpretation of scripture & the general theological contours of the patristic era (especially the deliverances of the ecumenical councils). They wanted to avoid an “unchurched” bible – the trap into which many Anabaptists fell. Our Reformed Baptist forbears were of course far more catholic.

    To apply historical thinking to the Darwin question – the “evolution of evolution”: first came the geological consensus for an old earth (that had its origins deep in the 18th century). Then came “general” evolutionary ideas – the genealogical linkage of life, without any mechanisms proposed, as hugely popularized by Robert Chambers in 1844. It was Chambers, not Darwin, who made the mighty popular impact. Then thirdly came Darwin’s proposal of a mechanism – random mutation plus natural selection. Then finally came “universal Darwinism”, Gregory’s bugbear, where all of reality is subjected to a Darwinian lens, coupled with Metaphysical Chance as the new deity.

    In my opinion, these four stages should be ranked with a decreasing proportion of intellectual plausibility. I think the geological stage got it pretty much right. The general evolutionary stage retains, to my mind, a high level of plausibility (but I choose my words carefully: “plausibility”). The third stage – Darwin’s mechanism – is only plausible, I think, within strict & narrow limits – all dogs descended from the wolf, etc (what some call microevolution, or what YECs and OECs call evolution within kinds). But as a universal explanation, natural selection is to me fundamentally implausible as a mechanism. The final stage, universal Darwinism, is atheism-as-substitute-religion.

    That’s my wisdom for today, as charged up by coffee and super-guarana.

  2. Gregory says:

    How about let us call it my koala bear concept, Penman : ))

    I’m curious what then do you do with the Cambridge Platonists (e.g. Henry More), who introduced ‘evolution’ into the English language, i.e. long before the geologists & biologists got ahold of it? Why do ‘theistic evolutionists’ not more regularly hark back to them in their contemporary writings?

    I don’t mind the ‘stages’ approach (e.g. R. Carneiro), though this has also been criticised by some. Yet pressing a button on an elevator nowadays requires choice and planning, not just blind ‘change-over-time’ & gradualism. My Koala hug to universal evolutionists embraces (and exposes) their dependency on a philosophical inversion and exaggeration of evolution’s proper communicative realm(s). I’m not just meeting them half-way; I’m also offering a new ‘stage’ or ‘playing field’ for discussion (communication).

    Was Gutenberg’s printing press a mere ‘evolution’ based on what came before, or a fundamental-intentional ‘discontinuous’ launching pad for the ‘reformation’? Weber’s Protestant Ethic – Birth of Capitalism thesis is a case in point. Once the technology enabled mass printing of the Bible into vernacular, was it not inevitable that a ‘reformation’ of some sort (in both society and religion/theology) would occur? This distances ‘reformers’ from moral superiority by highlighting the power of technology to actually ‘drive the reformation.’

    Let us also not forget that ‘sola scriptura’ is near the heart of USAmerican ‘biblical literalism’ and ‘young earth creationism.’ So, wouldn’t it be unwise to celebrate the Reformation and to bash the Enlightenment too completely?

    To say Enlightenment = materialism & atheism *only* is too narrow a conclusion to make. This is similar to how people dismiss PostModernism today.

    p.s. the Protestant Reformation also *accepts* ‘great swathes’ of Catholic Christian teaching, does it not?

  3. James Penman penman says:

    Give us some more about evolution & the Cambridge Platonists, please, Gregory! I recently write up a potted account of the CPs, & I occasionally quote Benjamin Whichcote for edifying purposes.

  4. Gregory says:

    Jaroslav Pelikan traced the term ‘evolution’ back to CPs Henry More and Ralph Cudworth:

    More wrote: “evolution of outward forms spread in the world’s vast spright,” 1647, and later, “the whole evolution…of ages, from everlasting to everlasting, is…represented to God at once.” (1667, Divine Dialogues)

    Cudworth: “The periods of divine Providence, here in this world, are commonly longer, and the evolution thereof slower.” (The True Intellectual System of the Universe, 1677)

    I don’t have access to the books mentioned by Pelikan for more context or usage, though perhaps one of you does?

    Obviously these are ‘pre-biology’ references to ‘evolution,’ since that natural-physical science was coined as a term/field only in the early 19th century; biological evolution attributed to Charles Lyell (1832).

    Etymological dictionaries trace the word ‘evolution’ usually to the 16th or early 17th century Latin – evolvere, which is probably where the CPs got it from.

  5. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    My two penn’orth – my Latin dictionary states the etymology of evolvere as “to unroll” or maybe “roll out”, like the queen’s red carpet. Which would seem to give it very teleological roots – it’s not to do with new changes, but the unfolding of those already implicit. Try telling that to Jerry Coyne, though!

  6. James Penman penman says:

    I’ll try to track down the Cambridge Platonist references, although I’m a bit busy just now (as usual!). Interestingly, my previous researches suggested that in the earlier part, at least, of evolutionary biology, writers preferred to use the terms “development” – the Theory of Development. When I’ve spoken about my mild acceptance of some general evolutionary biology (without commitment to mechanism), I’ve used the word “development” & it has not aroused the slightest antagonism from people who would have shot me for using the E word. So much lies in terminology….

    To pick up on another point made by Gregory: yes, the Protestant Reformers accepted vast swathes of catholic theology. They accepted the formulations of the ecumenical creeds, & were often steeped in the writings of the fathers. Luther virtually idolized the Council & Creed of Nicaea. Calvin bristles with patristic citations; indeed he even planted his theology in the Greek East rather than the Latin West, in embracing the essence-energies distinction as articulated by the Cappadocians. (I owe this in part to a learned Greek Orthodox bishop who pointed out how deeply steeped in the Eastern fathers Calvin was, lamenting that so few Protestants realized it.)

  7. Cal says:

    I must jump in and give some defense for the Anabaptists!

    First, we must lay down the fact that there existed many other ‘non-Catholic’ groups that have existed from the beginning all across Europe. It was not until the Papacy took on its Imperial flavor that all sorts of ‘heretics’ were discovered. Some were dualist gnostics, others trying to live a simple New Testament eccleisiology without the edifices provided by the West in Rome.

    Second, the Anabaptists weren’t an ‘unchurched’ bible reading fellowship, rather they defined the Church in different terms. They did not think that the temporal, government authorities had a right to intervene in the Church nor did they want them there. The same applies to the Church in the governing authorities. This brought them the charge of “anarchy’ since in the medieval catholic mind, to deny the Church being apart of the State was in essence saying there ought to be no State at all! That is why the Anabaptists were hated by Catholic and Protestant prince alike, they rejected the idea that there can be a “state church” to do so is to pollute the Church.

    It was the quiet voice and shed blood of these men and women that got us to ‘separation of church and state’ and ‘religious tolerance’, not the Enlightenment. Indeed, did not Robespierre build a cult to Reason? That’s the fruit of the Enlightenment, a god in the image of man.

    That’s the major paradigm shift! I recommend Leonard Verduin’s “The Reformers and their Step-children” as an excellent look at the history of the times of both the pre-reformers (like the Waldenses), the reformers and then the ‘radical’ reformers (anabaptists).

  8. James Penman penman says:

    Since I was the guilty party who said that too many Anabaptists had an “unchurched” bible, I should probably exp-lain what I meant. My explanation, of course, may be even more objectionable than my original turn of phrase…

    What I meant was that a pervasive vein of Anabaptist piety refused to accept the corpus of catholic (small c) theological tradition as a safe or helpful guide to the interpretation of the bible. The Anabaptist ideal was to read the bible as it were through fresh eyes: as though no one had read it before. Too often that led, I think, to a junking of traditional theology in favor of what ended up as merely early-church heresies being recycled, notably the quasi-Gnostic “heavenly flesh” Christology of Menno Simons & others, which was really Docetism Part Two. When the Magisterial Reformers interacted with Menno & his associates, it was far more the heretical Christology that concerned them, than anything about baptism or religious toleration.

    The three positions on tradition that were taken in the 16th century have been articulated thus (I think by Jaroslav Pelikan):

    Tradition 1 – critical reverence for tradition. The position of the Magisterial Reformers (Luther, Calvin, et al).

    Tradition 2 – authoritarian reverence for tradition. The position of diehard Roman Catholics.

    Tradition 0 – rejection of tradition. The position favored largely within the Radical Reformation.

    Since I self-consciously identify with the Magisterial Reformation, I suppose I regard Tradition 1 as axiomatic for biblical hermeneutics. I could say more but I’ll restrain my post-prandial verbosity.

    As a Reformed Baptist, my view on the Anabaptists is that they were great on believers’ baptism & church-state relations, but ropey on almost everything else. The roots of the English Reformed Baptist movement were not in Anabaptism, but in English Puritanism & Separatism.

    I’ll get my coat….

  9. Cal says:

    Perhaps we have different views of the councils and assessments of the past.

    I don’t blame Simons or Chelcicky for what they did in regards to the Scripture. Sometimes you must go through a process of ‘junking’ after there is so much tradition that scraps what the text is plainly saying. It’s not that the creeds were worthless, rather they must be examined over and over again, they’re not infallible (unless you believe they are!).

    It wasn’t necessarily that the radical reformers rejected tradition, but rejected it as authoritative. Take what the fathers said and subject it to Scripture. The spirit of “Semper Reformanda” should always be alive and never allowing tradition to set the final stage. Are the creeds restraining chains or guiding lights on the map of Scripture? (Not my expression, but one I borrow)

    As for Simons, perhaps why some wrote against him, but the common thought for anabaptist was to give them “the third baptism” aka. drowning them. Yet if you look at the Waldenses, it is interesting that some of them practiced infant baptism as well but re-baptized outside of the Roman Catholic structure because that baptism, that order of christendom (deemed heretical, anti-christ and corrupt) did not count as a baptism into Jesus Christ. Many fell into Luther and Calvin’s parties but others joined the Anabaptists.

    If you haven’t read Chelcicky’s Net of Faith, I’d advise that too. He stood up against the Roman Catholics and the Taborites, a pre-protestant czech nationalistic group that did quite well militarily against the Pope’s armies.

  10. James Penman penman says:

    Hi Cal

    Well, at the risk of being deemed a papist (heaven forbid), I do think the ecumenical creeds are inerrant, but not infallible. “Infallible” is the stronger word – INCAPABLE of error – and that is strictly the property of the speaker rather than the thing spoken. “Inerrant”, the weaker term, just means “not containing error”, a property I would indeed ascribe to the creeds. If they are not inerrant, I suppose I’d want to know what their errors are…

    Maybe we attach ourselves to different positions on tradition, as per the Jaroslav Pelikan scale. I can’t see myself ever leaving the Tradition 1 camp. If one embraces Tradition 0, the immediate problem I would foresee is that each individual must then re-evaluate the canon of scripture. How can he go about doing so? Menno Simons re-evaluated the canon & ended up accepting the Roman Catholic apocrypha as divinely inspired & infallible….

    I would think that Tradition 1 actually gives you all you want in terms of being able to take an intelligent, discerning approach to tradition – it is after all “critical reverence for tradition”. The Magisterial Reformers purged from the late medieval tradition elements they regarded as distortions of the earlier patristic, creedal tradition. Quite right too. But what they were doing was, if you like, an internal readjustment of tradition, rather than a stepping outside it.

    Thanks for the Chelcicky reference! I’ll chase it up. With Gregory’s insights on the Cambridge Platonists, & yours on the Anabaptists, we’re becoming quite a learned little forum here…. And maintaining a higher level of civilized discourse than a certain other forum (unless Jon is planning to cast any of us into the Red Light Zone).

  11. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    “unless Jon is planning to cast any of us into the Red Light Zone”

    Nothing so mild. I have only the technology to annihilate you from the memory of man.

  12. Cal says:

    I guess I don’t like the scale. Using those terms I’m a 1, I look at tradition as very helpful. I don’t say “Oh, after the apostles they got it all wrong!”. By no means, but it is the Apostle’s authority which I call the final movement. What we have in Scripture is the “Tradition of the Apostles” and most of the books were all accepted very early on. I guess I can say there may have been some providence in that, but a standard of canon is different than a decision on council. I’m not a biblicist, and I’m not trying to take a fundamentalist, psuedo-Koranic approach. I just think that most Christians accepted what we possess today early on (in terms of NT, OT is different story with Jews).

    As for creeds, the same goes. The main problem is where you say, “This is quite far enough!” when accepting authority. You may say ‘Yea’ to Nicea, Chalcedon, Constantinople(?) but I don’t imagine you thinking the same authority in Trent. Is that the line in the sand? What do you think of the different creeds of the Reformers (Dordt, Heidelberg, Westminster) To me, if one carries in the traditions of the Apostles we’re all well; but no Bishop or council of Bishops can add anything to Scripture. I’m even wary of ‘Theotokos’ for Mary just because it doesn’t say such a thing. Not saying it’s not true, just wary to give titles to when they’re not ascribed.

    So summed up: Nicea may be all right or it may have an error (besides the error of letting an Emperor preside, but that’s not doctrine). I can’t think of one existing (perhaps the idea of Trinity presented is elementary, perhaps best illustration of it for man), but I’m not willing to say it is without error. If it conforms to Scripture, then it is by that standard.

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