It’s all about sovereignty

In my last post I alluded to the hardening in the attitude of American Fundamentalists towards evolution after the Great War. And I mentioned that some of the authors of the Fundamentals had previously been sympathetic to evolution. Here’s a quote I turned up from one of them, G F Wright:

If only the evolutionists would incorporate into their system the sweetness of the Calvinistic doctrine of Divine Sovereignty, the church would make no objection to their speculations.

Alongside this was a quote from fellow-Fundamentalist R A Torrey:

[It is possible] to believe thoroughly in the infallibility of the Bible and still be an evolutionist of a certain type.

I’m not familiar with Wright, but Wikipedia says he was a geologist as well as a pastor and was in his youth friendly with Asa Grey, whom he encouraged in his synthesis of Darwinian evolution with Christian faith. Wiki says he subsequently suffered a crisis of faith over the “heresy trials” involving Charles Augustus Briggs, which moved him towards a more literalist position on Genesis. I’m not clear whether this “crisis” involved simply seeing the destructive tendency of Higher Criticism, or linking it to evolutionary theory. But it doesn’t really matter here. When he wrote a chapter for The Fundamentals he still accepted geological time, and affirmed that variation causing new species would be evidence of design. To quote Wikipedia again:

He stated “By no stretch of legitimate reasoning can Darwinism be made to exclude design. Indeed, if it should be proved that species have developed from others of a lower order, as varieties are supposed to have done, it would strengthen rather than weaken the standard argument from design.” That is, he subscribed to theistic evolution.

Well, by today’s standards what he actually seems to have subscribed to was Intelligent Design – have the Discovery Institute picked up him yet, I wonder? Even so, here is a founding Fundamentalist who was a supporter of Asa Gray and remained open to descent with modification, only provided that God’s purposeful, sovereign, role was behind it.

Now for such a man, I very much doubt that my initial quote was an insistence that all scientists should become Calvinists and enshrine divine sovereignty in science. I don’t even think he was saying “Calvinists are the only ones to see the light”, so much as putting Reformed teaching forward as the branch of the faith that had most clearly preserved the kingly role (to use Wilcox’s idea) of God. Any orthodox Christian, and certainly any biblically-informed evangelical, would have seen God’s role in creation thus.

So once more it seems clear, as I mentioned in the previous post, that the body scientific had, in Wright’s time, so insisted on the incompatibility of God’s designing role with the process of Darwinian evolution that the theological positions of Gray, Warfield or Wright himself were ruled out of court. There was no acceptance that naturalist materialism was a metaphysical “add-on” to science, and no negotiation allowed at all. Scientists as a sociological force had so polarised the issue that one had to choose either science or the biblical God, but not both. As we saw yesterday, it is hardly surprising that Fundamentalism responded (though not fully until a war fought partly in the name of evolution had further hardened their position) by accepting that polarisation.

Now, seeing this as an issue about divine sovereignty casts a lot of light on the contemporary debate, to which the issue of biblical literalism is something of a distraction. We still have our naturalist Establishment in the guise of the Dawkinses, the Coynes and so on, making it as difficult as possible to see that evolution (understood as metascience) and orthodox Christian faith are quite compatible. But we also have, in much theistic evolution and especially in its BioLogos form, an abandonment of divine sovereignty that alienates not only Calvinists, but many who have a clear grasp on classical theism.

All the talk of creation’s freedom, the fudging of what “randomness” means, the Socinian incarnational and kenotic views of creation, the calumnies against a “coercive” or “micro-managing” God – all these are re-runs of the Victorian desire to escape from divine sovereignty (and, I would say, merely an unconscious expression of the Prometheus myth that has expressed our society’s attitude of rebellion against God for half a millennium).

Why do people prefer both forms of Creationism, or Intelligent Design, to evolution? There can be many individual reasons and arguments, of course, but the instinct of the believer that God should be acknowledged to be God must be one of the strongest motivations. Because the Sovereign God is actually the only one worthy of our worship, and many people know it.

It was Wright’s understanding of Divine Sovereignty, no doubt, that also committed him to opposing the higher criticism as well, whether or not he saw it as based in evolution. For that denies God’s sovereign ability not only to give us a reliable Scripture, but even to establish Old or New Testament faith apart from the fortuitous and blind evolutionary history of human choices. Maybe we could adapt Wright’s first quote for our times, though it is, perhaps, just as unlikely to be heeded now as it was in his:

If only the theistic evolutionists and critical theologians would incorporate into their system the sweetness of the Calvinistic doctrine of Divine Sovereignty, the church would make no objection to their speculations.

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, Politics and sociology, Prometheus, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to It’s all about sovereignty

  1. James says:

    Excellent column, Jon.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks James. Some may object to the calling the objection to divine sovereignty “rebellion”. But if denying a sovereign his right to rule isn’t “rebellion” I’m not sure what is!

  3. GD GD says:


    Your previous comments on WW I (and II) and the impact of this on our social consciousness overlap with our view of sovereignty. So much of what we as a community think of a sovereign is mixed with earthlly kings (and Kaiser or Ceasar) and these have lost all credibility as they display their lust for power. It is difficult for human beings to equate a king who serves, who gives his life for the sake of his subjects, and considers each one of us as infinitely valuable. That type of sovereign is not know to us in this world.

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Absolutely, GD.

    And yet it was the ideal for kingship in the OT as that foreshadowed the coming of Christ. The Books of Samuel and Kings were at least partly to set out that ideal and how the actual kings all failed. And yet, of course, the fulfilment in Christ eclipsed even the OT idealisation.

    Even now, it’s hard for people to equate Christ’s example with “kingship” rather than “democracy”. That seems to be a lot of Roger’s problem over at BioLogos – he can’t conceive any concept of real power without the abuse thereof, so neither Christ nor God can be a king at all.

  5. James Penman penman says:

    Hi Jon

    There is a lot about Wright in Livingstone’s superb book “Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders”. You’ve characterized him aright (pun intended)…

    Even Charles Hodge, often quoted as anti-Darwinian, was not opposed in principle to the bare concept of evolution but to the “atheism” he believed to be implicit in the metaphysical randomness that so often was (and is) bracketed with the theory. Livingstone brings all this out.

    His son A.A.Hodge was even more sympathetic to evolution (tell it not in Gath).

  6. GD GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    Indeed! Yet I am still (impressed, staggered) by the wisdom brought to Isreal by Moses, shown in his initial admonition of the rulership by the Law and God’s chosen prophets. To this day, we are far from the ideal of the rule of law, in which everyone and his family form a kingdom under God. To think these people a few thousand years ago were considered ‘ignorant (???!!) slaves from Egypt. What to say? Here is democracy at a level we still cannot imagine, with justice and peace placed at a nation’s feet.

    I note that in the Orthodox tradition, the wedding ceremony crowns the bride and groom as king and queen, as they are part of the kingdom of God.

  7. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi penman – haven’t heard from you in awhile. Thanks for the info. Your general point seems absolutely right. I can’t help but link to this new column by James Shapiro, not at all religious himself, but whose far more structured (wise!) account of evolution is already appealing to many religious people. Look at the tone of the comments. On another column, a Christian commented how sympathetic even YECs were to the new approach as it was explained to them.

    Now I note that, although there are “Gaps” in the new account into which God’s direct action might be said to fit, that has not been particularly emphasised in discussion about Shapiro, or in comments on his columns. It seems that believers can live with even a “natural” system that is ordered, rather than merely fortuitous. In other words, they seem to have an instinctive grasp of primary and secondary causation, despite the polarisation that has been so apparent between “creation” and “evolution” in popular debate. I have an idea for a blog on that soon.

  8. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


    Thanks for comments. I’ll have to tell my daughter and son-in-law about their royalty at their wedding next week!

  9. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


    PS – out of print now, but a good study on the wisdom of the OT Law is by an old acquaintance of mine, Chris Wright. Well worth reading if you can find a used copy:

  10. James Penman penman says:

    Thanks for the Shapiro link: very helpful.

    The hostility to Shapiro seems akin to the hostility to atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel for his recent folly in abandoning materialist naturalism (without embracing theism). It hits too hard for some at their philosophical commitments rather than their actual science.

  11. James says:

    Good point about kingship and democracy, Jon.

    I think that the conception of “authority” rubs a good number of modern Christians the wrong way. One would think that a reading of C. S. Lewis would counteract that — and a good number of American evangelicals love Lewis. But then, the American Revolution is still a huge landmark in the American psyche, and the very notion of monarchy is something Americans find hard to swallow. And that’s reinforced by the highly individualistic understanding of Protestantism that prevails in the USA. If you don’t like your preacher or your elders, or their reading of the Bible, you can just found a new denomination. The voice of God is seen as something which is heard by individuals rather than communities, and therefore tends more often than not to be seen as supportive of the rebel or the maverick, rather than of those who accept traditional structures of authority.

    The people over on BioLogos are not only mostly American, with all the political baggage that comes with that, but are also mostly Protestants of the more individualistic temperament (pietists, Wesleyans, and so on). This causes them to react irrationally to any idea that God controls nature — they start blubbering about how God must not overrule free will. As if human freedom depends on the freedom of lower nature! But “freedom” is not, for these people, a precise concept with clear contents; it’s a shibboleth, a symbol, an existential affirmation of independence. Thus, the moment “freedom” is introduced into discussions of creation, all rational theological discourse stops, and cultural reflexes going back to the American Revolution and even beyond, to the Mayflower, kick into high gear.

    I’m with C. S. Lewis. I just take it for granted that obedience, rather than freedom, is the primary Biblical teaching. We are meant to be ruled by something greater than ourselves. And if that’s true for human beings, it’s certainly true for the lower creation — which is why all this TE stuff about “Calvinist” tyranny over nature is sheer nonsense.

  12. GD GD says:

    I think I read somewhere that the least in the kingdom is greater that the greatest on this world of ours – who is greater than any king here; a son or daughter of the Most High. My best wishes to your daughter and son-in-law Jon.

  13. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


    Your general analysis is rigght, of course. Taking obedience “for granted” is, I assume, shorthand for “Scripture is as full of the emphasis on obedience as the sea is of water”! The astonishing thing, really, is how one can have a faith based on the Bible and, presumably, read it a bit, and then say things like “God’s greatest priority is freedom.”

  14. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


    Many thanks. I’m trying to orgainse the crowns now! 😉

  15. James Penman penman says:


    Quite so. Those rebellious colonies need to repent & return to their rightful master, the British crown. My favorite American fiction writer H.P.Lovecraft was always saying so.

    Humor aside, you’re probably onto something….

  16. GD GD says:

    Jon, Penman, James,

    Interesting – but can we have obedience without freedom? I am not sure that liking or disliking a pastor is a basis for starting another denomination. I have asked myself many times, why the Christian faith seems to lead to so much debate, dispute and even disharmony – even though everyone seems equally sincere and insightful re scripture.

  17. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


    On the nail again – it’s freedom that makes willing obedience possible. The western misunderstanding is that freedom means autonomy. Somehwo they never consider Jesus as their example…

  18. James Penman penman says:


    I think the “freedom” that Jon & James are questioning is not the voluntary character of our obedience (in that sense, unfree obedience would be worthless), but freedom defined as the autonomy of the created. There is a notion of freedom around that cuts creation loose from the providential sovereignty of the Creator, so that He just watches things spontaneously happen. And THIS freedom is then deemed to be His greatest priority, the supreme value.

    This concept of freedom seems to be attractive to many TE/EC folk as a way of “absolving” God from the unpleasant aspects of creation. They are just the price He pays for its freedom – death, pain, carnivores, parasites, volcanoes, etc.

    To me it seems flatly contradictory to scripture. I’m prepared to say why if necessary, but it would require another post….

  19. James says:


    Obedience surely requires a degree of freedom. One can refuse obedience. My point was not that human beings have no freedom, but that the teaching of the Bible is focused more on obedience than on freedom. Of course, there is a certain streak in Protestantism that would deny this, based on a sharp polarization between the “Gospel of freedom” and the “bondage of Law.” I think that polarization doesn’t do justice to the overall sweep of the Bible, and that is one of the places where I think the Reformed tradition is wiser than the Lutheran and wiser than most of the sectarian traditions that arose afterwards. (Which is not say that the Reformed tradition is right about everything!)

    As for starting new denominations, I’m told that in America there are 2,000 of them. And if merely disliking a pastor has not often been the cause of a split, things almost as trivial have been — a differing interpretation of some verse in the book of Revelation, or whether the Sabbath should be changed to Saturday rather than Sunday, etc. The anarchistic psyche of American Protestant sectarianism is one of the strangest things in the history of any religion in the world.

    I agree with you about the combative history of Christian faith. It goes back as far as the early Fathers, many of whom aggressively attacked the theological positions of others, and did not always take care to represent those positions carefully, and tended to impute uncharitable motives to those holding positions different from their own. The Reformers were no better; most of them had massive egos and were supremely confident that they understood Scripture better than, not only Roman Catholics, but also Reformers with a different interpretation. I actually find the Medieval Scholastics the least arrogant and uncharitable of the whole bunch, due to the Aristotelian emphasis, which tended to force people to argue against the point rather than against the man. Nonetheless, Christianity has been a very combative faith from the beginning. When you compare it with, say, Hinduism, in which theological combat was generally restricted to upper circles of the highly educated and did not usually touch popular worship, or with Judaism, in which the compulsory part of theology was mainly around legal and liturgical matters, with speculation about God being relatively freer and generally unpoliced, or with Taoism, in which the idea of arguing angrily over the interpretation of a book is an alien concept, Christianity has had a propensity for internal conflict that is unmatched. This seems incongruous with the teaching of Christ about humility; nonetheless, it is a historical fact.

  20. GD GD says:

    Penman, Jon, and James,

    The notion of freedom is both fascinating and wide-ranging, and I try to avoid using short, sharp phrases, which are worse than slogans. I do not discuss freedom per se within the context of nature, and thus have not made comments about ‘nature making itself’ (an odd phrase). Instead I commence with communities as a collection of human beings. The overall interactions within a community are complex and unstable. History has indicated such complexity more often leads to situations typified by the two extremes of (i) nihilism, in which no factor is considered valid, and (ii) totalitarianism, in which only an external factor is valid. As communities increase in number, these unstable interactions are known to actualise as cycles in the dynamics of an unstable, structured system, such as for example, a class system; such fluctuating systems attempt to achieve stability through the creation of power centres which are often a mixture of nihilism and totalitarianism, and this increases the complexity and instability of the particular community. The activities of these communities inevitably include conflict, resulting in crime, war, and various other forms of destruction, which are often the surface aspects of tendencies to death.

    The counter to this has been for human beings to look to law as a means of achieving some measure of stability and communal peace. It is here that I look to the Law of God as a means to understand freedom within a stable and peaceful community. The discussion would get lengthy without being all that informative within our discussion – nonetheless I would state that human freedom, the human spirit, and guidance by the Holy Spirit are the means by which the apparent/real conflict between law and freedom may be addressed. This means that we human beings should live as God had intended us from the beginning (before the fall) and subsequently the discussion would become theological. However I think I am clear when I say that nature, evolution and scientific theories do not play a big role in such thinking (I am not suggesting they are irrelevant, just not central).

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