Liberal evangelicals and theistic evolutionists – where the conflict really lies (1)

Alvin Plantinga has cited this quote from Langdon Gilkey more than once in connection with divine action:

… [C]ontemporary theology does not expect, nor does it speak of, wondrous divine events on the surface of natural and historical life. The causal nexus in space and time which the Enlightenment science and philosophy introduced into the Western mind … is also assumed by modern theologians and scholars; since they participate in the modern world of science both intellectually and existentially, they can scarcely do anything else. Now this assumption of a causal order among phenomenal events, and therefore of the authority of the scientific interpretation of observable events, makes a great difference to the validity one assigns to biblical narratives and so to the way one understands their meaning. Suddenly a vast panoply of divine deeds and events recorded in scripture are no longer regarded as having actually happened… Whatever the Hebrews believed, we believe that the biblical people lived in the same causal continuum of space and time in which we live, and so one in which no divine wonders transpired and no divine voices were heard.

It comes from a seminal paper Gilkey wrote in 1961, and to me bears not a little resemblance to that overly-quoted piece of Richard Lewontin’s:

We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

To complete the picture, it should go without saying that the historico-critical approach to history is also founded on the same kind of assumptions, and that is the type of history pursued by modern biblical historians.

Now Gilkey was not an untypical theologian. He started in mainstream liberal theology, was mentored by Reinhold Niebuhr, and moved further and further from “liberal orthodoxy”(!) after the Second War, though his salary continued to be paid mainly by schools of Divinity. Like John Hick, he became increasingly pluralistic towards the end of his life, and like Hick remains a major theological influence. Another quote from his 1961 paper is interesting:

My own confusion results from what I feel to be the basic posture, and problem, of contemporary theology: it is half liberal and modern, on the one hand, and half biblical and orthodox, on the other, i.e., its world view or cosmology is modern, while its theological language is biblical and orthodox. … [T]his posture in two different worlds is the source of the difficulties and ambiguities which exist in current biblical theology…

Gilkey himself resolved his confusion by progressively ditching the orthodox, and that’s the common path. His original quote, notice, actually renders theology more secular than natural science. Methodological naturalism simply says that science cannot study the supernatural. Contemporary theology excludes even its possibility, though its actual field of study is, ironically, God. Note also that ones approach to theology is necessarily based on a clear choice: one either excludes the supernatural a priori, or not – there cannot logically be a compromise position, any more than science can exclude miracles except sometimes.

Just consider what effect this inevitably, not potentially, has on ones view of the Bible. Miracles are excluded of course – but so is every providential event, and every answered prayer. Moral teaching is completely suspect. All the mighty acts of God, including the great salvation events like Abraham’s call, Israel’s foundation and the New Covenant, are necessarily excluded as false understandings. But most of the authors are to be rejected too, for every prophet saying “Thus saith the Lord” was wrong or lying, every vision was false, every claim of revelation or appeal to the Holy Spirit erroneous or, more likely, fraudulent. Try an experiment – pick a Bible chapter at random, and tot up how many supernatural assumptions are contained in it. I ended up with a list of temple gatekeepers in 1 Chronicles, and even in that mundane passage they were chosen by lot, on the assumption that God would guide them.

So the foundational basis of critical theology, consistently applied, necessarily makes the Bible merely a record of misguided faith statements. Any true insights about God, then, can only come from human philosophy, on which the Bible is significantly light. And so we see in liberal theology the ascendancy of blue-sky thinking as the basis for faith – it is simply irrelevant if ones new theodicy conflicts directly with the entire biblical picture, whose authors’ thinking was muddled by their misguided supernaturalism. At most it provides a historically shared narrative framework on which to graft philosophical speculation.

The illogicity and conflict, of course, come from any remaining biblical faith commitments, especially of course to “the Christ Event”, which becomes increasingly nebulous, intellectually difficult or, alternatively, mystical depending whose theology you prefer. Jim Packer attributed such remnant beliefs to the surviving traces of earlier, true, encounters with God (how common it is for a Evangelical conversion experience to result, after seminary training by people like Gilkey, in a slow jettisoning of all that is orthodox or, even, experiential).

But retaining Christ within one’s belief system, of course, favours the non-naturalistic conviction that Jesus actually knew something, or did something, beyond the “causal continuum” in which we all live, and that ones methodology has already outlawed – why should Jesus be the exception to the methodology any more than the bacterial flagellum?

Small wonder that it’s so common to sideline even that and become enamoured of godless religions like Buddhism. There one can eat ones cake without having it. Whereas theologians of antiquity battled the world, the flesh and the devil (and sometimes the Pope), the battle of modern theologians becomes a war against the sacred text threatening to drown one in false superstition. On the basis of the theological worldview moderns have adopted, this conflict is as inevitable as death, and more terminal for Christian faith.

Next time we’ll take the short step of bringing current evangelicalism and theistic evolution into the picture.

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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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7 Responses to Liberal evangelicals and theistic evolutionists – where the conflict really lies (1)

  1. Gregory says:

    “why should Jesus be the exception to the methodology any more than the bacterial flagellum?”

    An astonishing statement. Surely you are not asking for reasons, Jon!

    As for ‘the methodology,’ what does that actually mean? One methodology call ‘THE’ scientific methodology? ‘Science’ is One? That view is outdated, overcome, nearing obsolesence. I dare not entertain it as real anymore.

    “the battle of modern theologians becomes a war against the sacred text threatening to drown one in false superstition.”

    Sounds very Spencerian-Darwinian, using ‘conflict’ and ‘struggle’ language. The Eastern Christians I’ve met don’t use such Westernist language as that, Jon. Maybe they find harmony easier than you and your country-man R. Dawkins. Is that a possibility?

    Please do weave an integrative story here of how ‘theistic evolution’ (in your [not yet] definition) collaborates science with theology better than Big-ID or BioLogos-TE, since those seem both continually unsatisfactory to you. It is easy to look back many decades or centuries at evolution & theology for greener pastures, but what matters more is a story that resonates with (young) people today, a majority who live in urban centres.

    ‘Moderns’ is likewise inaccurate. My generation is ‘post-modern’ seeking from folks who live green and proper a positive label other than just defining itself negatively as ‘other-than-modern.’ I doubt anyone posting here except perhaps Cal is ‘other-than-modern.’ So there’s a generational feature in your approach, Jon. That’s not a criticism, just an observation of fact.

    Hope that helps for audience relations.
    – Gr.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Gregory

    “What does the methodology actually mean?”
    Well, as stated from the outset: “The causal nexus in space and time which the Enlightenment science and philosophy introduced into the Western mind … is also assumed by modern theologians and scholars”. Nothing to do with scientific methodology, but theological methodology – though methodological naturalism is common to both. Specific methodologies vary between OT and NT, so I didn’t pursue that: it’s the base assumptions that matter.

    That being so, if “we believe that the biblical people lived in the same causal continuum of space and time in which we live, and so one in which no divine wonders transpired and no divine voices were heard,” on what basis could Jesus be incarnate, or resurrected – or known to be incarnate and resurrected?

    You must surely be aware that even within Orthodoxy, as in Catholicism, higher criticism is still hotly contested. The Orthodox generally have some protection from their esteem for church tradition, and come to that the insistence on the role of prayer and the Holy Spirit in doing theology, as opposed to the stress on academic standing in western Protestantism.

    By and large one doesn’t see Orthodox scholars ceasing to be communicants and espousing Buddhism, as the former Dean of Emmanuel College Don Cupitt has, or like John Hick denying that “the tenets of Christianity are feasible in the present age” . And neither do you find them denying the historicity of Adam and Eve on the basis of their being derived from borrowed Babylonian myths.

    To simplify the case, I have not gone far into postmodern theology, and for two reasons. The first is that higher critical “modernism” is still the established norm in most Western universities, and Evangelicalism has in fact come to it late, only recently having come to shrug off its biblical conservatism. It’s happened in my lifetime, and in my field of study. Besides which, since many of the big hitters in theology are of my age, not yours, their unreformed modernism still matters.

    The second reason is that naturalistic assumptions still underlie much postmodernist theology. Postmodernism is a development, not a revolution.

    Finally, it does matter what resonates with young people in urban centres. But not as much as what is true.

  3. Avatar photo GD says:


    I will continue my previous approach of regarding modern theological statements as various versions of Natural Theology (NT), with the qualifications I posted previously.

    I am constantly surprised by the activities that I now put under the label NT. I have found some interesting writings by Knight, “THE SPIRITUAL IN THE MATERIAL”, which gives a very interesting historical overview of the activities that seem to have underpinned the Natural Theology that we hear from time to time. I provide a section from this writing that seems pertinent to the present discussion(s):

    “Orthodox theodicies, or indeed devotional or systematic writings, are generally less than exciting; but natural theology was a sphere open not only to beneficed clergy of established churches, like Paley, but to ministers and laymen of very various persuasions. Thus Joseph Priestley, whose primary career was as a Unitarian minister rather than a chemist, advocated a Christian materialism that accorded with his view of the particles of matter as mere point centres of forces: we had no immaterial or immortal soul (that idea being a Platonic corruption of Christianity), but awaited the miraculous resurrection of the body when the last trumpet, which would be a hideous horn to some, should sound and call us to judgement. Priestley had famously proclaimed that science was taking a new direction, which Ørsted and others would call dynamical:

    ‘Hitherto philosophy has been chiefly conversant about the more sensible properties of bodies; electricity, together with chymistry and the doctrine of light and colours, seems to be giving us an inlet into their internal structure, upon which all their sensible properties depend. By pursuing this new light, therefore, the bounds of natural science may be extended, beyond what we can now form an idea of. New worlds may open to our view, and the glory of the great Sir Isaac Newton himself, and all his contemporaries, be eclipsed, by a new set of philosophers, in quite a new field of speculation.’

    I add a section of a poem by Sir John Herschel which has for its title the Baconian phrase, “Man the Interpreter of Nature”

    Yet what availed, alas! these glorious forms of Creation,
    Forms of transcendent might—Beauty with Majesty joined,
    None to behold, and none to enjoy, and none to interpret?
    Say! was the WORK wrought out! Say, was the GLORY complete?
    What could reflect, though dimly and faint, the INEFFABLE PURPOSE
    Which from chaotic powers, Order and Harmony drew?
    What but the reasoning spirit, the thought and the faith and the feeling?
    What, but the grateful sense, conscious of love and design?
    Man sprang forth at the final behest. His intelligent worship
    Filled up the void that was left. Nature at length had a soul.

    There were other people who continued to think of God in other terms; “A world with metals, dyes, electric batteries, fertilizers, and explosives is better than one without; and yet to many the heavens and nature’s contrivances seemed better evidence for God’s oversight and provision than were our questing mind and hand—though not to Alfred Tennyson, in one of the stanzas of his great poem In Memoriam, published in 1850:

    I found Him not in world or sun,
    Or eagle’s wing, or insect’s eye;
    Nor thro’ the questions men may try,
    The petty cobwebs we have spun.

    Finding the soul in nature was not perhaps an altogether straightforward business”.

    The Gifford lectures by Sarah Coakley, although somewhat paradoxical in her approach to NT, and her view, i.e. “I hope you may see its important force as the potential epistemological climax to my newly-forged vision of “natural theology”, nonetheless is another voice questioning the position of many present theologians. By this, I try to exclude those theologians who, frankly, are not, as they do not believe in God, nor the resurrection, and so on. The discussion between science and faith, IMO, needs the Protestant tradition(s) to re-examine their ‘roots’, so to speak, that are found in NT.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    I’m not sure whether you consider your broadened view of NT as good or bad, or in between. On the one hand Herschel’s attitude is like the person who receives a gift and finds more and more to be thankful about as he explores its capabilities (I see that as Adam’s proper role of bringing more and more into the sacred space of worship). On the other, the utilitarian idea of improving on nature and (like Bacon) “torturing her for her secrets” seems like the child who immediately takes his expensive present apart and leaves the bits on the floor.

    There is a third aim of NT, which is to find out about God himself apart from revelation (and Tennyson’s words seem to critique that). I wouldn’t say Protestantism’s roots were in that – Aquinas and the scholastics had cornered the market long before. It has its limited place (cf Romans 1) as a preparation for saving revelation and even an aid to understanding it (eg the philosophical reflection that enabled Trinitarian clarification at Nicea, etc).

    However, the more Scripture is marginalised, whether by Protestants or others, the more natural theology in the third sense has to replace it. In that sense, Protestantism needs to lop off some branches, and cultivate its original biblical rootstock, but a naturalistic attitude to theology largely precludes that.

    PS BioLogos is blocking my posts again, so I can’t reply to you there currently.

  5. Avatar photo GD says:


    A couple of months ago I would have agreed with your comments (re Rom 1) as I had assumed that NT would be a continuation of Aquinas (in fact I had begun to think critically of his system and Aristotelian thinking). But I have, as yet, not come accross any evangelical (except this blog) who seemed to look back at these earlier writings. Perhaps my view of NT may change when I read more, but at this point in time, the more I read, the less I like this subject. I am looking though Orthodox writings (recent) which seek to view this area as a dialogue between faith and science – I think this approach makes more sense.

    Why has BioLogos blocked you? I have been sharper with them than you, and yet no-one (except Eddie) has complained!?

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    “Why has BioLogos blocked you?”

    Technical rather than punitive, I think – the same happened last week and the webmaster had no idea why. It sorted itself out, so I’ll be patient for now.

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