Further thoughts on the closed Universe

In reply to my last post Gregory downplays the importance of Howard van Till in the question of theistic evolution. Whether or not he is important isn’t of major importance itself, but the ideas he proposes, covering the spectrum of Open Theism, Process Theology and what I have called “hyperkenotic” views of God do seem to have a great influence on “big players” in the scientific community who subscribe to Christianity .

Today I want to concentrate on one particular aspect of this spectrum, however, which is the belief that nature is a closed system, and that therefore science ought to be able to explain everything that happens within it. Most commonly it takes a rather stronger form, in that science is said to have demonstrated this to be true.

Van Till, as I’ve said, has proceeded simply by stating this as the view of the scientific community, opposed it to “The God of the Gaps”, and built his theology on the premise that the latter is unsatisfactory. Note that the assumption of the correctness of the prevalent scientific metaphysic leads (necessarily in his view) to the radical readjustment of theology. I’ll return to that idea. It does not seem, though, that he sees that assumption to be a metaphysical one, making it appear more as an empirical finding of science, which is questionable.

I’ve said more than enough about those involved, and formerly involved, in BioLogos, not just because of my own involvement there but because it is currently far and away the most visible expression of theistic evolution. This presumably is partly because of the high profile of its founder, Francis Collins, who espouses Open Theism himself. Regarding the question I’ve raised here, the prevalent view there seems to be be a softer (= less consistent?) form of van Till’s argument. Science seems to do very well as a closed system, and is certainly assumed methodologically to be one, and if one accepts this as truth, one can propose a number of reasons why it would be unsatisfactory for God to have it any other way. More often than not, the whole baggage of hyperkenosis and Open Theism seems to rank amongst these reasons. However, most BioLogians seems to make an exception to the closed system for Biblical miracles – that is why I have tried to pin them down on the justification for this sole exception, so far without much success. Once again, though, it seems that a background in science tends to the belief that its underlying assumptions are true, and hence to a move away from classical theology.

A couple of other non-BioLogian examples may be of value. The first is Steve Mathieson, who is not on the BioLogos team, though he has written for them. He is particularly interesting because, unlike many BioLogos contributors, he comes from the Reformed mainstream, which of all the main traditions is most comfortable with God’s use of secondary means. Most of the Reformed, however, see no theological reason to restrict God’s creative activity to secondary means. Mathieson describes van Till as “one of my heroes” , mainly, it would seem, because of his intellectual integrity and gracious manner with those with whom he disagrees. The link (from 2008) shows that he does not buy into van Till’s Process Theology but does accept his “robust formational economy” (popularised as the “right stuff priciple”), agreeing with van Till’s assessment that :

The “hybrid” approaches [ie allowing some supernatural causation] were discontinued because they were inadequate to explain formational histories. The “right stuff” principle was adopted because it worked.

It would be interesting to see that “inadequacy” unpacked, both in terms of why, and to whom, it is inadequate and also in terms of the fact that science itself has failed, as yet, to provide complete explanations of formational histories.

A second example is John Polkinghorne, whose high visibility as a physicist is matched by his high visibility as a physicist who jacked it in for the Anglican ministry. For all his Anglicanism, Polkinghorne supports Open Theism. To quote John Sanders, of Huntington College:

Polkinghorne is an open theist. It must be noted, however, that the term “open theism” has not been used by European thinkers. In a discussion with Polkinghorne in the summer of 2001 I asked him if was an open theist. He was not familiar with the term and asked me to define it. When I did he replied: “Yes, I affirm that position.” You can read his affirmation of openness in a book he edited “The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis” (Eerdmans, 2001).

It must be said that Polkinghorne’s view of the “closedness” of the Universe differs from van Till’s (it’s more nuanced, or less consistent, depending on ones viewpoint):

The reaction of Polkinghorne to the “God of the gaps” is very different from that of van Till. Lennox’s comment in God’s Undertaker pp.189-190 is that Polkinghorne “emphatically rejects a God of the (bad) Gaps theology, nevertheless insists that we not ‘rest content with a discussion in such soft focus that it never begins to engage our intuitions about God’s action with our knowledge of physical process’ ‘if the physical world is really open, and top-down intentional causality operates within it, there must be some intrinsic “gaps” (“an envelope of possibility”) in the bottom-up account of nature to make room for intentional causality … We are unashamedly “people of the gaps” in this intrinsic sense and there is nothing unfitting in a “God of the gaps” in this sense either.’
And on the nature of God’s interaction, it is ‘not energetic but informational.’ “The Laws of Nature and the Laws of Physics” in Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature:Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, Robert John Russell, Nancey Murphy and C. J. Isham, Eds., Vatican City and Berkeley, The Vatican Observatory and The Center for Theology and Natural Sciences, 1999, p.438.

I would want to dig deeper to find just what he means here; Lennox’s sympathy for ID may have coloured his citation. But it would seem to suggest that, if God has any input into the Universe, it must in the end be inherently distinguishable from “nature” itself. Nevertheless, Polkinghorne’s attraction to Open Theism has a lot to do with a trust that nature is able to deliver at least most of what we see from its own resources. Gordon C Mills cites Polkinghorne:

This [built-in creative capacity of molecules] is the built-in creative potentiality of all-that-is, which we have now to see as God at work, continuously creating in and through the stuff of the world he had endowed with those very potentialities.

Mills points out the lack of evidence for such capacities: they are an assumption founded, one supposes, on a metaphysic of the self-ordering of the creation, the scientist’s belief in the self-sufficiency of nature.

Now to the application. As I have said, Howard van Till started with a question:

What if contemporary cosmology and biology are correct in this assessment [ie that the Universe is a closed system]?

This takes him down a path that leads, as I have shown, to a radical revision of Christian theology, even to the point of a very different God from that of the major traditions. But I (and of course many others such as Alvin Plantinga) would argue that the case for the original assessment of nature’s capability is very far from secure. We are equally entitled to ask “What if contemporary cosmology and biology are incorrect in this assessment?” or, given that one can be at best agnostic on the issue, we might start with a different question:

What if the historical Christian traditions are correct in their assessment of God as Sovereign Creator of all things?

In that case, although it would not necessarily follow that any of the findings of science need to be revised, it’s at least as likely that they would as that the original assumption necessitates a rewriting of theology. That is why, for me, although Reformed Theology can sit pretty comfortably with mainstream science for the most part, as B B Warfield held, there are good reasons for suspecting that it has, at some points, been thrown into error by its metaphysical (or even its methodological) assumptions

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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4 Responses to Further thoughts on the closed Universe

  1. Gregory says:

    “Open theology suggests to us that we should think of the world neither as the perfect unfolding of an already eternally-written history, nor as a meaningless world, but as something much more like unfolding improvisation, in which the Creator and creatures interact in an unfolding process, in which each have their parts to play and each have their independence in playing their parts.” … “creatures are given by the God of love the gift of freedom, the gift of freedom to be themselves and to make themselves.” … “I think it is certainly the theology to which I commit myself and which I wish to commend to you.” – Rev. John Polkinghorne (2007)


    G-d’s “perfect knowledge extends to all things, past, present, and future, including the future decisions of His free creatures.” (Southern Baptist Convention, 2000)

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Quite. The second quote is from section I (God) of the Southern Baptist Statement of Faith. Section III (Man) illuminates the definition of “free creatures” thus:

    Man is the special creation of God, made in His own image. He created them male and female as the crowning work of His creation … In the beginning man was innocent of sin and was endowed by his Creator with freedom of choice.

    Further illumination (incidentally illuminating my own position on human freedom) comes from the original Abstract Of Principles of 1858, on which the current statement seems to depend, though the latter may have been diluted to encompass Arminian sensibilities:

    IV. Providence.
    God from eternity, decrees or permits all things that come to pass, and perpetually upholds, directs and governs all creatures and all events; yet so as not to destroy the free will and responsibility of intelligent creatures.

  3. Gregory says:

    From another BIoLogos member who espouses a ‘kenotic’ perspective, in this case, “Essential Kenosis,” which down in the comments is distinguished from “Voluntary Kenosis”:


    Also, it may be worth noting that BioLogos no longer lists (i.e. they have removed) Howard van Till on (from) its Perspectives page: http://biologos.org/resources/perspectives

    It had been several months since I visited this page; impressed with the improvements and additions, e.g. officially affiliated with ASA, CiS and Faraday Institute.

    Perhaps this “rewriting of theology” makes sense to some people in USA, as a way to move beyond the ‘scandal of the [US]evangelical mind,’ rather than to accept a Closed Theology, written in the past tense.

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Gets everywhere doesn’t it? One of the interesting things is how for some reason it’s only in the last 20 years (since Open Theism came to the fore) that Christians (and before them Jews) have understood anything about God’s love.

    They thought that God’s bringing things into existence, sustaining them and providing for them was a loving thing to do – they rejoiced in Psalm 104. Now we know that such things are selfish and coercive, unless the creatures themselves do it.

    They thought that God’s love was Trinitarian – that it was the love within God that overflowed into the world, even as far as to save us despite ourselves. Now we know that God is not love, without us. Before the Big Bang, heaven was a cheerless place indeed.

    It would be interesting for a sociologist of religion (maybe) to work out why this new view is so congenial today, when it was dismissed as heresy for two millennia or more. Doesn’t it sound a bit like the spoiled kid who moans to his parents that he didn’t ask to be born?

    But there are still problems – even if creation creates itself now, God still kicked off the initial bang without asking anyone’s consent: no doubt the “groaning” of creation in Romans 8 actually consists of the rocks and trees grumbling that nobody asked their permission to be made self-creating…

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