Liberal evangelicals and theistic evolutionists – where the conflict really lies (2)

Metaphysical commitments have consequences, obviously. Imagine you were once taken to an evangelistic service, and to your agnostic surprise it seemed God was speaking directly through the speaker to you. Your heart, like Wesley’s, was strangely warmed and you become a Christian. Time went by. Like most Christians, you perceived a few remarkable answers to prayers. You had some numinous experiences of God’s presence, or a new conviction of sin, or a new sense of the truth of Scripture – the kind of thing most believers will report from time to time. Finally, you become firmly convinced that God wants you to enter the ministry, and you end up at a seminary. There, you begin your academically highly respectable training, based of course on Langton Gilkey’s previously cited methodological/metaphysical dictum: “Contemporary theology does not expect, nor does it speak of, wondrous divine events on the surface of natural and historical life.” Where does that leave your faith, your experience and your call?

Maybe it was an Evangelical university (or let’s broaden it – a Catholic or Orthodox one), but one where they take due account of the fruits of 150 years of critical scholarship. After all, you could not be left in a fundamentalist backwater because, in Gilkey’s words, “since they participate in the modern world of science both intellectually and existentially, they can scarcely do anything else.”

But here’s a paradox: the very thing that distinguishes critical scholarship in all its forms is its commitment to naturalism. After all, critical study as such – taking into account textual sources, historical background and so on – was part of theology centuries ago. Naturalism (branded as “reason”) was the big change. But your college is institutionally committed to theological supernaturalism. In theory, then, it will take what’s good from the critical studies and reject that which depends on a false metaphysical stance. But how is the student, or even the college, to sort which is which when naturalism has been assumed since the nineteenth century, especially if members of the faculty have become quite enamoured of, or conditioned by, the whole critical academic ethos?

As a small example, there are some foundational teachings that inform both Old Testament and New Testament studies. In the Old, for instance, one could take the basic integrity of the JEDP hypothesis, and in the New, the usual dating of the Gospels. For most Evangelical scholars they are working assumptions. But would either have become established without naturalistic foundations? And would either survive the cutting of those roots? The documentary hypothesis, and its modern descendants, nearly all assume the forgery of the Book of the Law, identified with Deuteronomy, during the reign of King Josiah. The principal evidence for the dating of the gospels, as J A T Robinson was surprised to discover, is the supposed retrospective knowledge (and hence fraudulent prediction) of the fall of Jerusalem in 69AD, linked to the need for a sufficient passage of time for form criticism’s alleged traditions and accretions to develop, diverge and be variously redacted across the Synoptics.

Such things can be accommodated to a belief system, of course, but only by complicating the simplicity of faith: for the God of truth to speak truly is a pure concept. For the God of truth to speak through lies takes some subtle theological footwork. One example of this might be Peter Enns’ incarnational model of Scripture. He starts, it appears, from the problems caused by scholarship’s uncovering of error in the Bible, though without any real acknowledgment that at least some of that error might be down to scholarship’s starting assumptions. He then seeks to maintain a concept of divine inspiration by comparing the Bible to the Incarnation of Christ. YThis is not unique, nor necessarily invalid, in theological history. The Bible is God’s word mediated through human authors.

But his concept of Incarnation itself is contaminated by naturalistic presuppositions. Whereas in the past, the sinless perfection of the human Jesus was used to point to the equally pure truth of Scripture, despite its human authorship, in Enns’ case the “indisputable” errors in Scripture if anything demonstrate that Jesus himself must have committed error. Indeed, as much is “proven” by Jesus’ apparent belief in a historical Adam and Eve when he quotes the nature of marriage “in the beginning.”

But Enns is not unique. His own unfortunate experience appears to have been recently repeated at another Evangelical US college, where a scholar’s job is apparently on the line for dismissing the validity of the Bible’s teaching on women (a value judgement, rather than a scholarly one, of course). The prevalent mood of his peers seems to be that the college is wrong to limit his academic freedom to attack the Bible where it is in error. Once, Evangelical scholars would have been striving to defend the Bible’s truth as God’s revelation. In current Christianity, it seems, the spirit of Prometheus’ challenging of the gods’ folly is more attractive than the spirit of Adam’s submission to Yahweh’s judgement.

What is less clear, once reason has identified the errors, is what actual truth these Scriptures can teach, and how one can distinguish truth from error on other than purely subjective grounds. That appears to matter less as modernism morphs into postmodernism, but only because that movement has spread existential doubt even into the material realm. Postmodernists ought to be happy with any subjective view of God, yet the evidence is that this is fundamentally unsatisfying.

There is a steady trickle of western Evangelicals towards the Orthodox Church, the Catholics report (in the UK at least) that young people are gravitating towards its more traditional expressions, and I know from personal experience that numbers among young and old are growing where Evangelical churches have a strong Bible ministry. The church I helped lead before my retirement has grown from 80 adults and a dozen youngsters when I joined to 300 adults and 200 regularly attending young people.

As I showed in the previous post, even the Bible’s fundamental view of God’s nature cannot be supported by a truly critical approach, other than possible confirmation from philosophy (provided one chooses a non-materialistic philosopher … and how to choose?). Alaster McGrath suggests that scientific evidence alone tends to favour agnosticism about his existence, let alone hisattributes.

The fact is that the confusion of trying to hold together methodological naturalism and Evangelical faith is every bit as doomed as Gilkey suggested back in 1961. And the final result on individual and corporate faith is just as inevitable – where is the rationally-founded liberal church of yesterday now? Liberal evangelicalism is no more than the attempt to hold naturalism and supernaturalism in creative tension, when both simply cannot be true at once.

Turning at last to natural science, Christian biologists (at least, the vocal American Evangelical sort) are used to working with methodological naturalism, so liberal evangelicalism would be expected to appeal to them as familiar ground. Biblical errancy is a popular topic for them – Scriptural authority is not. This explains Peter Enns’ former employment by, and continued contributions to, BioLogos.

For the most part MN in natural science is innocuous: the same science results if one discounts teleology and ignores primary causation. But of course, theistic evolution is not science, but science with theology – how God created living things, and therefore also why he did so, and also how mankind’s spiritual situation arose. Doing theology without teleology is like trying to be a materialist Young Earth Creationist. The attempt is bound to end in tears, because the combination of naturalism and supernaturalism is inherently unstable.

We can see this instability in the TE insistence on divine non-intervention in nature, jostling with belief in the bodily Resurrection of Christ, biblical miracles and answered prayer. We see it in the rejection of Biblical inerrancy at the same time as dependence on Scriptural concepts like the Image of God, the Creation, the Incarnation and so on. It’s a chalk and cheese sandwich.

At least the original liberals realised that there is only one reality – if naturalism was true in science, it was also going to be true in theology. “Liberal evangelical evolutionism”, if one may temporarily coin the term, appears to be attempting the impossible task of dividing the world into naturalistic and supernaturalistic portions, with some parts (like the Bible) hopelessly torn between the two. The result can only be incoherence, and eventually, some kind of meltdown.

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.
This entry was posted in Creation, Prometheus, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Liberal evangelicals and theistic evolutionists – where the conflict really lies (2)

  1. James Penman penman says:

    Hi Jon
    One thing I can’t discern the roots of is the apparent shyness among the egregious “TEs” towards any idea that God may even possibly have done something, in the pre-Adamic history of the cosmos, that stepped beyond the energizing & guiding of created natures according their natural properties.

    As you know, I think the GENERAL theory of evolution is plausible on the whole, but I don’t see why the Creator might not have acted “supernaturally” in the strict sense in the first emergence of life, & I would assert dogmatically (in the technical sense – a dogma of faith) that He so acted in the emergence of Homo Divinus.

    And who am I to rule out absolutely the very possibility that at other key junctures in life’s history He might peradventure have done the same?

    When this shyness about pre-Adamic creation is coupled with a robust belief in the miracles of the Saviour, I think something must be going on philosophically that I can’t yet parse. Any ideas?

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Penman, I do suspect it’s the clash of methodological naturalism in science with a less-than-wholeheartedly theological naturalism in faith.

    Jesus is “religion”, so miracles are fine. Adam is “science” as well as religion, and is origin of life is just “science”, so that’s got to be naturalistic. At some stage, if they come to realise the confusion of this, they’re in danger of concluding that John Hick was as correct about “the myth of God incarnate” as they now say he is about Irenaean theodicy.

    What I’m still unclear about is what the fine difference is between today’s evangelicals and yesterday’s liberals.

  3. James Penman penman says:

    Ah, that’s a good way of putting it – I think I see some light dawning. Jesus is “religion”, so we can have the supernatural there. But Adam is “science”, so we can’t have the supernatural there because our whole vision of science makes us refuse on principle to see miracles in the scientific sphere.

    I suppose they would have to say that the origin of the universe is also “not science” but religion/metaphysics so that they can have a divine creation.

    I guess the trouble is that I think Adam is “religion”….!

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    “I guess the trouble is that I think Adam is “religion”….!”

    Ah penman – a reasonable decision, but it must have a been touch and go decision.

    But what about Jonah’s whale? Did God provide it miraculously, or did it swim past naturally? On the one hand, it’s in the Bible. On the other, it’s nature.

  5. James Penman penman says:

    Touch and go, Jon, touch and go. I got some help from a little known work of theology by some fellow called Saul or Paul or something – I fancy the title had some reference to an Italian city, & I think it was ch.5. Perhaps you know the work?

  6. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    I think I have it here … “Paulo Franzoni – Rough Guide to Naples”. Ch 5, “Museums, Art Galleries and Commentary on Genesis.” Is that the one?

  7. James Penman penman says:

    Exactly. Good stuff, eh?

  8. Bilbo says:

    I think the problem for Evangelical Christianity is how to accept findings of science which seem to contradict the Bible:

    4.5 billion as opposed to 6,000 years.
    Descended from ape-like creatures, as opposed to specially created.
    Original population of thousands, instead of just two.

    YECs just reject all of the above. But if one accepts it, the question is how to reconcile it with traditional understanding of Christianity. For example, I found it interesting that Ted Davis finds the doctrine of the Fall to be problematic (and doubtful?). I would consider that doctrine to be nearly indispensable to Christianity, yet there seems to be a readiness among evangelicals to dispense with it, without replacing it with something that works as well.

  9. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Bilbo

    You probably describe two sets of evangelicals: the YECs, stemming largely from the early 20th century reaction of the Fundamentals, try to jettison naturalism by marginalising science (and they’ve a point there – I’ve criticised theology for naturalism here, and one must also wonder how much naturalistic presuppositions affect the science. Not as much as the YECs think, it seems to me). They still, as has often been said, find themselves tied to a materialist view of what creation means.

    But your latter group is what I’m talking about in these articles, often coming from scientific training but Evangelical churches. Sometimes I think the science is almost an excuse: “Hmm, evolution poses a problem for the Fall … Hooray! We can ditch the fall like we always wanted to anyway!”

    Ted’s position is more nuanced (as per his latest post on the TE thread). But I chased the Collins article he cites, and I’m not sure it solves the problem. Adam as everyman (even “every-paleolithic-man) still makes the fall a predictable direct effect of God’s design of human nature, as opposed to a fall with consequences.

    I can go with the idea (somewhere in Aquinas, I think) that the good within God’s allowing of sin was the greater good of saving us from it than our never having been there, but there is a big difference between the secret counsels of God (in which are hidden all the mysteries of “why?”) and a race overtly set up to fail (which is also George Murphy’s view).

    Unfortunately I can’t post on BL at present because of some glitch.

  10. James says:

    Good points about Adam, Jesus, and “religion,” guys. Here is perhaps another way of making the same points:

    Most BioLogos-style TEs give a de facto endorsement (though they repudiate it de jure) of NOMA; i.e., they take it for granted that there are two “spheres” of reality, a sphere of physical/chemical/biological causality, and a sphere of “meaning, values, purpose, ultimate reason for things.” To them, faith addresses or reveals truths of the latter sphere, whereas science addresses or reveals truths of the former sphere, and confusion of the two kinds of activity, faith and science, is disastrous.

    So Genesis, belonging to “faith,” for a TE has nothing to do with sequences of past events causing other past events; the creation of Adam, then, is not an event that has anything to do with the external world studied as studied by science (anthropology, paleontology). But the problem is that 2,000 years of tradition appears to regard Adam as having something to do with the external world. So 2,000 years of tradition would appear to have been confused, mixing up NOMA categories. The Church should have realized all along — but didn’t — that Adam the Genesis character was never meant to be part of any physical account of origins. So now the TEs come along and set theology right, dispelling the confusion by putting the religious character Adam back in the religious realm where he belongs, and the real first man (who was probably called “Gronk,” or maybe “Wiley” or “Clumsy Carp,” not “Adam”), in the realm of science, where he belongs. God bless TEs, NOMA, and Stephen Jay Gould.

    The problem with this is that it doesn’t ring true. I’m willing to entertain, for the sake of argument, that 2,000 years of Christian tradition could have misinterpreted Genesis. But the Genesis author seems to me to believe that the Biblical character Adam has *some* touch-point with the world of physical cause and effect. So even if Christian tradition is wrong, is the author of Genesis also wrong? It’s one thing to say theology can be faulty; it’s another thing to say the Bible is faulty — if you are a traditional Protestant.

    So what next? In comes Mr. Walton. Walton makes a persuasive case that Genesis 1, and Genesis 2-3, are not meant to be read as straight historical accounts of cause and effect, but as functional accounts and/or archetypal accounts of the role of the various parts of creation, including man. I don’t have any problem with his arguments in themselves. But we can’t be under any illusions why BioLogos likes Walton, and keeps featuring his articles or discussions of his thought. Walton reads Genesis in a way that leaves people like Venema and Falk a free hand to come to literally any conclusions they wish about the physical origin of man. If “science” tells us that man is the product of random mutations, and that the wrong bounce could have stopped man from ever appearing, then, according to Walton, Genesis is quite happy to allow that. He thus reinforces what Pete Enns did, with the advantage that his columns and talks are written in a tone that sounds more traditionally religious than the detached, critical tone taken by Enns. So he is the better guy to sell such a reading of Genesis to moderate evangelicals than Enns. That is why he is being used.

    Does that make his reading of Genesis false? No. But it puts me on guard. I have no problem with what he argues. But I still think he leaves much unclear. Is there *no* touch-point between a “functional” account and “what actually happened” in Genesis 1-3 for Walton? If there is none, then it seems to me that Walton is not different from Enns, and that both offer NOMA readings of Genesis which allow one to hold schizophrenically to neo-Darwinian randomness in biology and a God-planned, orderly creation in theology.

    I haven’t read Walton’s book, so maybe others can fill me in: does he carry on this “functional” and/or “archetypal” reading all through Genesis 1-11 — to the Flood and Babel stories? And if he stops there, how does he justify doing so? From a stylistic point of view, the Genesis narrative is very similar from 12-50 to what it is in 1-11. Indeed, there are constant verbal recalls of the language of 1-11 in 12-50. (The recalls even continue into Exodus.) So are we to conclude that Genesis 12-50 aren’t about “what actually happened” but contain a series of archetypes, or the like?

    But let’s say that Walton finds some way of justifying treating 1-11 differently. Hmmm … that means, when the Bible suddenly starts narrating the history of Israel, it is meant to be read as history, but prior to that, it is not. Now this division fits in exactly with the agenda of TE: to hand over the study of nature, *including the origins of life, species, and man*, to unregenerate secular science, which TEs can do in good conscience along with the atheists, while insisting that the story of Israel, and hence of Jesus, is “real history.”

    But as we know, even this position breaks down in TE, as many TEs have been very evasive about whether many of the Old Testament and even New Testament miracles really happened. Thus, they imply either that the Biblical writers are piously lying, or that the Biblical writers witnessed natural events but mistakenly imputed supernatural causes to them (an untutored Galilean, not knowing natural science, could of course easily infer that feeding 5,000 with seven pieces of food would require supernatural intervention, but we know better), or, that some of the New Testament and other miracles were never meant to be taken as historical. But the first option puts TE right outside of any orthodox Protestantism, the second position is too idiotic to dignify with a reply, and the third position means that the division between “scientific” (about physical origins) and “historical” (about Israel and Jesus) parts of the Bible, which the TEs invoke to dump the historical Adam and keep the historical Jesus, cannot be sustained.

    So what we need to know is whether Walton agrees with those TEs who refuse to talk about whether Jesus walked on the water, or who think the Red Sea event was caused by a one-in-a quadrillion (but wholly natural) freak wind and some weird, one-in-a-quintillion (but wholly natural) form of tectonic activity, both of which *just happened* to last just long enough to save every Israelite, and destroy every Egyptian soldier, but which later generations *misunderstood* as a miraculous disruption of the normal course of nature. (I’ve heard British TEs — some comfy Oxbridge science profs among them — in a taped conference, explain away several Biblical miracles in this fashion.)

    If Walton endorses this kind of stuff, then I don’t see him as part of the solution, but as part of the problem. And if he doesn’t, then he needs to be less naive, realize how he is being used by BioLogos, and make some public statements indicating where he disagrees with the extreme Enlightenment rationalism of many of the TEs. But maybe he does so in his books. If anyone knows, I’m all ears.

  11. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


    I’m sure you’re right about TE’s attraction to Walton. I sense his main apologetic is directed towards academic evangelical YECs – much as penman has described in some of his own dealings in this country. He’s not a scientist, nor a science-faith buff, so I suspect some of the issues we discuss are not on his radar.

    Also, he’s only really an apologist at all because of the clear implications of his work – which is to be a researcher on the relationship between Bible and ANE. His thinking is still developing on how to apply his insights doctrinally.

    That said, his other writing makes it clear that he sees Adam as a historical archetype with a “unique priestly role”. So his Genesis commentary, building on that assumption, has a background thought that the genalaogies, for example, reflect reality in some way.

    He looks at the Flood from the point of view of what the ANE parallels can teach us about how it would have been understood, largely (interestingly enough) regarding its extent. In other words, again he seems to presuppose a historic basis, whilst looking at how it would have been conventional to use it. He doesn’t get as far as a hypothesis after this process.

    But in short, I don’t think he interested in accommodating Scripture to natural science except at the most obvious lay level – ie we all know there’s a problem. I think he’s found (maybe to his surprise) that his niche field is recognised to have a lot to say about it.

  12. GD GD says:

    I have tried to post this at BioLogos but I am now having trouble logging in. There has been a suggestion that pilosophy may ‘mediate’ in the difficulties faced by TE and similar outlooks.

    For philosophy to fulfil this role, it must come to terms with the language of theology (by this, I mean the Orthodox view of God and His attributes) and the latest advances in Science. Thus far, the use of words and sentences that by some have been to modify current and well accepted understanding (e.g. Open Theology, Process Theology). This to date has been re-definition or unorthodox/heretical; God is now given roles by us to “do things in a particular way”.

    Instead, we need to commence with a fuller understanding of the attributes of God as creator who created from nothing; this is not the same as a Sovereignty attributed to God. Philosophy may grapple with meanings of the terms ‘nothing’, ‘act of creation’ and ‘freedom’, but to include the Sciences in this is a dubious exercise. Philosophers with a strong grounding in maths and theoretical physics may be able to do something, but after this we need theology to come in – a daunting task by any measure.

    There are a number of notions that are plaguing poorly considered outlooks such as TE, particularly that of ‘freedom’. On the ‘act of creation’, science would provide meaningful terms and sentences, such as in theoretical/particle physics, to understand the basis of a created thing. ‘Nothingness, however is a problem; so far, I think existentialist (e.g. Satre) have been woefully poor in grappling with ‘Nothingness’; a consciousness that transcends a ‘concrete’ being, and in so doing encounters nothingness. The notion of freedom, within a creation that is comprehendible to God, can only be understood as a singular attribute that is added by the creator to the creation – it cannot be simply a human construct that is reduced to ‘choice by intelligent agents’, nor choice as an existential burden in that there is no choice but to choose. It is not randomness as encountered in nature; I am staggered at the unintelligent way this term is discussed in these exchanges.

    These scant remarks point to difficulties that are imbedded in the naïve view of random, predetermined outcomes to Nature, and similar problems faced by those who take an poorly developed hypothesis such as evolution, and than, in an almost imbecilic manner, place it over a theological/biblical outlook that is itself, poorly fashioned.

    IMO a good starting point is to obtain a better understanding of Orthodoxy as this has been the result of hundred of years of effort by some of the best minds in our civilisation, and once we have understood this, we may look to philosophy more as an exercise in reason, and to science as providing some insights into the creation. These things are useful if they strengthen our faith – if they lead to greater confusion, they are of little use.

  13. James says:

    I’m not sure I understand your comments, GD.

    You speak of the Orthodox tradition. Are you speaking of, e.g., the Greek Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox? If so, you must be aware that in those traditions, built on the Greek Fathers, philosophy has a respected place in theology. The early Trinitarian debates and other theological discussions were couched in Greek philosophical language. So from that we can see how philosophy is relevant to theology.

    Also, that philosophy is relevant to science is undoubted. Modern science was in fact the project of certain early modern philosophers who were in revolt against Christian Aristotelianism — Bacon, Descartes, Locke, etc. The foundations for modern science — empiricism arising out of theological voluntarism — were laid by philosophers, as the arguments of Collingwood, Jaki, and many others show.

    Philosophical thought is about foundations. Philosophers discuss foundational assertions of anything — religion, science, art, politics. Once individual disciplines become highly specialized, their special investigations do not need philosophers, but whenever the foundations of a discipline or a theory are called into question, philosophy becomes relevant again.

    Philosophy is relevant in discussing evolution because it now becomes apparent that a good deal of the argument in favor of the Darwinian model of evolution has always been metaphysical rather than scientific in the narrow sense. And philosophy is relevant in discussing the various heresies advanced by theistic evolutionists because philosophers can smell where a line of reasoning will lead; e.g., speaking of the “freedom” of nature is going to lead to Open Theism or Process Theism.

    The case for philosophy is made clear where philosophy is absent. The incoherence of the views of theistic evolution expressed by Ayala, Collins, Miller, Falk, Giberson, etc. is due to the lack of philosophical substance in the understanding both of evolution and of Christian theology.

    I do not understand what you mean by “the naive view of random, predetermined outcomes to Nature” — if the outcomes are random, they are not predetermined, and if they are predetermined, they are not random. In any case, it appears that most TEs are much more favorable to random than predetermined, because of their obsession with “freedom” which in their mind is somehow facilitated or promoted by randomness. But I certainly agree with you about the confusion of the theistic evolutionists.

  14. GD GD says:


    I am not saying philosophy is irrelevant, nor that philosophy has not been important to western civilisation and the Sciences – anything but! My post is to point out that philosphy is in fact a systematic treatment, and it also has a critical component – logic. Within the context of the present debate/discussion, if philosophy were to play a ‘mediating role’ (and I do not think present philosophical systems have been developed for that purpose) regarding such a role wrt Orthodox beliefs, and mixing these with TE (or various forms of liberal theology).

    I have breifly mentioned it the central themes that a hypothetical systematic philosophical treament must cope, if it were to fulfil such a hypothetical role.

    The central notion regarding random and determined, is that of God and how we may discuss the attributes of God when dealing with these matters. I do not know of any philosophy that can deal with freedom as something the creator has added to his creation (while being the total creator) with our ability to discuss what is intelligible in nature. Orhtodoxy acknowledges that we are unable to understand, and discuss, some of God’s attributes, and we except these on faith. This does not mean we do not discuss such things, but it is a long way from claiming we can develpoe such a philosophy. Open theism, process theology, and other such attempts, show the inadiquacies in such effort.

  15. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    GD & James

    Thanks for comments – especially relevant as I’m locked out of BioLogos too (but will try again later). The rum thing is that whilst philosophy informs ones understanding of theology, it too is subject to the vagaries of human nature.

    I was reading a piece by Reformed philosopher Paul Helm on Open Theism yesterday, pointing out that by claiming Classic Theism was the result of Greek philosophy OT’s leaders were necessarily admitting they just brought a different philosophical approach to the Bible to reach different conclusions.

    Philosophers starts with basic principles and human reasoning – and end up in a million different places. So one still ends up choosing where the truth lies on some other basis. Quite where that takes us I’m not sure: my own basic position comes from gradually seeing the glory of God through applying faith to science, theology, philosophy and more. At core it seems to be as much a gut feeling of “They are not talking about the Lord I know” as anything else.

  16. James says:


    I agree with you about present philosophical systems, or more generally, present-day academic philosophy. It doesn’t much impress me, and isn’t in most cases very useful for the purpose we are discussing. But I had in mind the classical metaphysical tradition — Classical and Medieval philosophy, and its later derivatives. It’s out of academic fashion now, but it’s the only thing worth calling philosophy.

    Regarding things philosophy can’t deal with: it may be that revelation provides premises that philosophy could never discover on its own. However, it doesn’t follow that, once those premises are given, philosophy cannot discuss them, elaborate upon them, draw inferences from them, etc. Thus the Fathers could make use of Greek philosophy to articulate the Christian faith; and so the Scholastics, after the recovery of Aristotle, could make use of his ideas; and so again the Renaissance theologians could make use of Plato again.

    The problem with the faith of most TEs is that it is very much fideistic or pietistic (choose what word you will); it really has very little need of philosophical elaboration. It’s more like a feeling that Jesus loves you, and therefore you are saved and the “big questions” of life are taken care of, and so you can go on using your mind to do science, engineering, law, medicine, accounting, or whatever else, and you don’t have to be very reflective about them, as long as you use them for Christian purposes; whereas a traditional Calvinist or Thomist or Anglican or Greek Orthodox theologian will wrestle with the philosophical formulation of the contents of faith, and that will spill over into philosophical reflections upon the foundations of science, evolutionary theory, etc.

    When we are dealing with the theological implications of evolution, the traditional philosophical theology approach can be very helpful, whereas, as we see from the shallow answers given by TEs, a purely pietistic or fideistic theology seems to leave scientists vulnerable to accepting evolutionary theories that are loaded with hidden metaphysics (naturalism, randomness, etc.), and it seems to produce scientists who are very clumsy at thinking out how to integrate an evolutionary account with God’s omnipotence, providence, governance, etc.

    I don’t see this changing until a TE emerges on the horizon who has a really deep love of philosophy as traditionally understood, and a deep knowledge of the tradition of philosophical theology. A scientist who bones up on definitions from an online encyclopedia of philosophy will not cut it. It has to be someone who has philosophy in his bones. If Aquinas were alive today, he could probably find an orthodox way of understanding evolution. Or maybe Nicholas of Cusa, or Scotus Erigena, or John Philoponus, or Ralph Cudworth. But not the current personnel of TE. They don’t think rigorous, consistent theological thought is all that important. They think that religious feeling and good intentions are all that matter.

  17. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


    I’d agree that philosophy is useful – even essential – but one still has to make choices between them. Wading through stuff about Cusanus at the moment, it’s clear he was reacting against the scholastic tradition. That reaction gives new ways of looking at things (like making a physics of the universe possible), but raises its own problems too. And in the end, the very existence of both Platonists and Aristotelians shows that reason alone cannot produce certainty.

    Fideism I agree to be inadequate for an intellectual project – that’s what I find frustrating about even people lauded as intellectually rigorous like Peter Enns – he provides a case for the error-laden nature of Scripture, and then expresses unshakeable faith in the core truths of the death and resurrection of Christ.

    Yet his own methodology in the hands of NT scholars casts doubt on that – even neo-evangelicals have redefined the meaning of Christ’s death and, in some cases, spiritualised the resurrection away. So if it’s legitimate to accept the truth and meaning of Easter by faith (and I’m sure it is, that faith being rational and supported by adequate evidence), then why is it wrong to accept, say, a historical Adam on the same basis?

    It’s of course true that philosophers, scientists, theologians, Popes, councils and traditions and even majorities have all erred. But I think we’d agree that coming to a position that takes all of these adequately into account is far superior to one that boldly goes where no man has gone before and calls it progress.

  18. GD GD says:

    James and Jon,

    This discussion is wide ranging – yes it would be great if another Aquinas or Calvin was working on present day thinking – but we are in the age we are in, and have to accept this. Our present culture is ‘saturated’ with scientific and technological thinking and artifacts, and these are embedded in the day-to-day consciousness of us all. The essence of my comment(s) is that it is a mistake to focus on evolution when in fact our central concern is understanding the Faith within our present context. Instead we need to consdier some of the ‘words’ (or concepts) and the meaning (freedom, determined, random, created, phenomina etc.) in a way that is relevant to the Faith, and ALSO in a systematic manner (philosophy), while keeping the central tenets of Science.

    Such an undertaking would challenge a modern day Aquinas and Calvin and Augustine. However these comments are meant to indicate just what is needed – seeking a mediating role for preesnt day philosophy is wishful thinking. Perhaps a system information approach (I think Gregory has suggested something like this) may be useful.

    I have taken an approach which has required my own thesis regarding humanity, reading (as much as time permits) classical philosophy, looking carefully through writings of major figures in the Orthodox tradition, and ‘sidesteping’ the realy difficult work of dealing with words and sentences, by using the medium of poetry. This si an attempt to express faith within the present day, but is hardly a systematic approach. In any event, the hard work for me has still that of understanding the meaning of words and ideas such as: God, Law, Freedom, Community, revelation, faith, self, soul.

    Once such language (and ideas) have become meaningful within oneself (whatever any philosopher(s) may say), we may include in our thinking any tension between Science, Reason, Faith, and from there, work down to scientific facts (constants), evolution, our existence, and so on. Ultimately I suggest we come to a deeper appreciation of the Gospel and indeed all that is found in the Bible. The remaining aspects I find, tend to fall into place.

  19. GD GD says:

    James and Jon,

    Your comments have been stimulating, and I will add the following.

    I like this phrase: “If Aquinas were alive today, he could probably find an orthodox way of understanding evolution.” I must find time to read Alvin Plantinga and one or two other current philosophers – whatever their outlook, they articulate their ideas very well and seem to look at science ‘from a convenient distance’. We would all be well served with the likes of Aquinas, Barth, Augustine, John of Damascus, and a others.

    I had forgotten Whitehead and others with their version of theology; I have noticed however, that no matter who I read, when I get down to thinking on these matters, I find myself acting like a scientist – and this means I start with, “What is the question?”; .. what terms am I using; how is that term defined; is that word used in a specialist way, or as the ‘man in the street’, and so on.

    My comment in this post is to address Ted’s suggestion of a mediating role for philosophy, in the current discussion of TE. I am questioning – can philosophy fulfil such a role?

    On the development of Orthodoxy and traditions of Christianity, I understand the major figures were intellectually capable, and most of them were well educated (which meant studying philosophy); this approach continued when Aristotle was introduced to the West. I think we are in a different age.

    How then can current philosophy play a useful role in dealing with the current atheistic, heterodox, and heretical, teachings? We cannot look back at Newton and others, and hope for Aquinas and Newton to come and provide a clear understanding of science and religion for this age. There is a general view in some academic circles that the ‘battle’ between science and faith is over and science is the winner. In this, Christian scientists may provide a counter, but at a fundamental level, I still ask, “what is at stake?” Should we look to philosophy to play a role in winning this war (if there is one)?

    I agree with the view that whatever the conflict (or not) all questions of faith rest on accepting that it is a gift from God. It is not a compelling argument, but the conclusion nonetheless is, an atheist by definition cannot have faith. WE may ask why this is so, but the Bible says that it is, so what would we argue?

    Because of this, I have taken an approach which begins with a thesis that asks, “What is a human being?” I accept that atheistic and heterodox views may have a different view, but that is to be expected. Based on this, I address meaning when using words such as God, freedom, law, community, revelation, faith, and so on. This commences with an Orthodox view – in this way, I hope to place my thinking and belief in the present context.

    I agree we are in an age that is dominated by scientific and technological aspects and these permeate our communities. It is important to achieve a peace within regarding scientific thinking and faith. Consequently, I place most of the emphasis on Science, and than look at evolution as a secondary matter. For me, reading the works of great philosophers has been both a challenge and an extraordinary exercise that has (I believe) provided great intellectual benefit. I honestly cannot identify great benefits regarding faith, with the exception that I have had to read more of the Bible when I run across critical comments from philosophers – that has been beneficial.

  20. Gregory says:

    Hi Guys,

    Interesting conversation! Unfortunately, I have not enough time to join in much right now, though questions of science, philosophy and theology/worldview/religion/faith are almost always gravitating.

    Let me only add that Ted Davis surely does not hold a significant ‘third way’ (between “liberal” heterodoxy and “conservative” orthodoxy) that has any hope of traction. That has been clear for years. The duo ‘theistic evolution’ is really quite problematic. The combination ‘evolutionary creation’ is imo worth acknowledging more than ‘theistic evolution,’ but it too has a danger of turning into an ideology of ‘creationism.’ In both cases, the notions are not backed by strong philosophy (if there is much of that outside of the narrow analytic tradition in N. America to speak of). Davis is caught on ‘evolutionism’ like most TEs and doesn’t have the foggiest notion of where to turn, except to pop genetics and Christian anthropological heterodoxy.

    In regard to philosophy mediating between science and theology, we should ask what kind of philosophy it might be. Philosophy that is really only history of science or history of religion (especially even narrower: history of western religious thought) or even history of ideas is not going to take us far enough. It has self-limitations that don’t do justice to the broader philosophical conversation, which indeed is mainly explored in Eastern or non-Atlantic traditions, including Christian ones.

    Roger Sawtelle’s ‘philosophy’ is obviously likewise not going to take us far enough, though it hints of such ‘non-Western’ contributions.

    Here’s an option perhaps worth consideration:

    And don’t forget that BioLogos is just one blip on the radar of those interested in science, philosophy and theology conversations:

    GD – thanks for the shout-out. Your posts in this thread sound very much like those of a scholar I heard and spoke with today, who cited the importance of language and levels of meaning and of not getting lost in translation when the greater prize remains through a glass darkly to all of us mere mortals.

    I’m not sure, but be might be Orthodox too!

    Warmly in action,

  21. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Interesting article, Gregory. Of general application was the observation near the end that questions relating to philosophy in science were so interesting that they’d be addressed whatever restrictions and boundaries werre put on them. The same is true for the “life, the universe and everything” character of biological science, theology, philosophy discussions.

    Viewing your 3rd para wrt my original post, there is a broad, but recognisable, divide between “modern philosophy” of all flavours and the “traditional philosophies” whether Platonist, AT etc. Recognising this is an oversimplification, the latter seem potentially more capable of accommodating science and historical faith, suggesting there’s a more general kind of “meta-philosophical” division present.

    My OP was about naturalism (especially in theology) but the division I suspect is bigger than that: one can believe in God and still fail to integrate science and Christianity without mutilating one or both.

    My tentative suggestion: the root division is between philosophies centred on the self-individual-freedom axis and the God-community-accountability axis. Maybe I’ll try and justify that, but not in “comments”!

  22. James says:


    Academic philosophy seems to be dominated these days by two broad approaches: first, the “analytical-logical” — characteristic of 20th-century British philosophy, and still quite strong in many philosophy departments in Britain and North America; second, the “relativist-deconstructionist” — which dominates many other philosophy departments, and is hugely influential these days in departments other than philosophy: English literature, religious studies, etc. are all soaked in it. Neither one of these approaches has been very helpful to religion-science dialogue, and in fact, it is hard to find either an analytical philosopher or a deconstructionist who is religious at all, and many from both camps are actively hostile. Further, the relativist/deconstructionist camp in philosophy is often quite hostile to the very idea of science, branding it as a cultural or social/political imposition which has nothing to do with the truth about the way things are.

    The older approach to philosophy, on the other hand, is quite open to natural science (because of its intrinsic rationality) and quite open to religion (because it does not deny the possibility of realities beyond matter and energy). So you see religious Platonists, Aristotelians, Hegelians, and even religious Spinozans (taking the pantheistic rather than the atheistic reading of Spinoza).

    To connect this discussion with your new column on “kenosis”: we hear lots from TEs about Christ as “emptying himself” (to make nature “free” to evolve on its own), and precious little about Christ as “Logos” (logos: orderly speech, hence rational speech, coherent argument; more important, *ordering* speech (in relation to creation) which commands particular arrangements (Hebrew dabar); the rational/mathematical structure of the world; systematic thought, “science” in the original broad sense) — and the Logos-conception was one of the crucial notions that made Christianity compatible in many respects with traditional philosophy. Nature is rationally understandable, both in its material and its teleological aspects, because it is divinely informed by the will and reason of the Triune God. No Christian theologian who started from that premise would spurn the aid of traditional philosophy in his conversation with scientists. And vice versa.

  23. GD GD says:


    Thanks for the link to Heller – we have an intellect that identifies both the subject matter requiring discussion and intellectual effort, and the ability to be grounded in reason (and I assume the solid foundation of Orthodoxy)

  24. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    James: logos and dabar both given full reign 5 posts on. Investigating the Bible’s own view of creation shows it says almost the opposite to most of the theologically-orientated TEs. Why would that be, I wonder (cf original post!)

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