Biologos – infinitesimal change or stasis?

It seems to be rather quiet over at BioLogos recently. Two things to note, though, about themes that particularly interest me. On an apparently uncontroversial thread, the failure of those influential at BioLogos to engage with the questions raised by many of us, about its ongoing fudging of the issue of God’s involvement in evolution, was noted.
The gauntlet was again laid down by Eddie, Chip and myself, and was even seconded by usually pacific Merv. Ted Davis, a board member of course, did chime in to remind us that his series on John Polkinghorne had raised such issues, and named other published writers who have. But he was as usual a lone voice – neither the original poster nor anyone else on the staff of BioLogos felt it worth responding, any more than they had pitched in on the Polkinghorne series on either side of the question.

I know that another regular BL supporter, also a reader here, alerted them back in the spring to my 6-part series  on early TEs and their profound theological differences from current TEs, and suggested they might reproduce or link to it, but that too produced no response. Once more, given the ongoing trickle of references to “free creation”, and to the evils in nature for which this free nature, rather than God, is responsible, the failure to answer the repeated challenge speaks volumes: there can be no credible response from an Evangelical viewpoint. BioLogos is, theologically speaking, limping along and apparently hoping nobody will notice. But they have noticed. Maybe that’s why it’s quiet there.

The second theme is that BioLogos recently carried an excellent short series by John H Walton, giving not an exposition of his views on Genesis (much lauded here at The Hump), but some new streams of thought and detailed responses to things that came up on his recent speaking tour. The content and tone of the pieces, and Walton’s interaction with commenters, suggests that he feels quite closely associated with BioLogos, and that they endorse his views.

My suspicion is that their support is based on the fact that his understanding of the Genesis creation stories all but removes the conflict between the Bible and the science of material origins. As I’ve reported frequently, he argues that Genesis is a functional, not a material, account. It tells how God organised the cosmos as his own dwelling-place, with mankind as his image and vice-regent. It can be taken quite literally (that is, in the intended sense of its author) without any treading on scientific toes.

This is a very good reason for giving Walton column-space: part of BioLogos‘s brief is, quite properly, to show the compatibility of biblical faith and science. But the problem comes, as I hinted briefly in a post earlier this year, if they really do espouse the “freedom of creation” theology we have critiqued. BioLogos‘s continued equivocation, and lack of direct dialogue, on the matter of God’s control of evolution suggests that to be the case.

Now taken in isolation, taking the Genesis accounts functionally might countenance an original material creation that was wild and ungoverned by God. This would be signified by the tohu wabohu (formless and void) description of the world on which God began to work in 1.2. But taking such a view would actually necessitate denying the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Walton points out that, like other ANE accounts, Genesis is simply unconcerned with material origins, and perhaps they all share a worldview in which “raw matter” is not considered as coming from nothing, mainly because the matter isn’t considered at all. He also points out that, if this is true, it is neverthless strongly modified by later biblical writings, which make it quite clear that God is the maker of all things whatsoever – and one who from the start exercised his wisdom and judgement in that creation.

The Genesis accounts, then, do not intend to say anything to the effect that God was at all hands-off in the formation of the cosmos, but just that at some stage he ordered it specifically for the benefit of mankind and for his own “occupation” as Lord. And therein lies the big issue as far as BioLogos theology is concerned. Whatever silence Genesis may have about the relationship of the “raw cosmos” to God’s will, its core, original – and from the Evangelical point of view inspired – message is this: the universe that we see around us now, in this world of humanity, is ordered in its entirety to serve God’s purposes towards man. In other words, it is “very good”, and functions exactly as God ordained in the Genesis accounts.

TEs, including myself, dispute the YEC claim that “natural evils” – disease, predation, parasitism, tsunamis and so on – are the result of the fall of man. They are instead part of the natural order of the original universe. To say that they are nevertheless outside God’s control is a straight denial not of some modern interpretation of Genesis, but of its key message according to the best scholarship. That God has ordered the world’s function for his good purposes was always central to Christian teaching, and John Walton’s work has only confimed its biblical foundation, whilst rightly drawing attention away from the merely material existence that science studies. It makes “free creation” theology even more precarious than it already was, unless one wishes to claim that it is not the Bible’s science that is radically errant, but its theological teaching too.

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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9 Responses to Biologos – infinitesimal change or stasis?

  1. James says:

    Hi, Jon.

    I read all your columns, or just about all of them, and enjoy them, but rarely chime in, mainly because I agree with so much of what you say, and often even with the way you say it, that my comments would amount to little more than, “Great column, Jon!” And then it would sound like the near-Pavlovian reaction of beaglelady to Dennis Venema’s columns. And it might look as if you paid me to be your groupie.

    This time, however, I’ll throw in an amplifying discussion to your last sentence.

    I think that many (not all) TE leaders do believe that not only the Bible’s science but even its theology are at times in serious error. But of those TEs, there are two groups: the cautious ones who say so only indirectly and tentatively, and the bolder ones who say it outright.

    Kenton Sparks, who was sacked by BioLogos about the time that Enns and Giberson vanished, is obviously one of those more prone to say that even the theology of the Bible sometimes appears false. But Pete Enns, in a much more guarded way, came close to that position a few times — close enough to be part of the housecleaning that BioLogos undertook in Falk’s last days, when it realized that it was alienating not merely the conservative but even the moderate evangelicals. Giberson himself made the odd remark which suggested that the Bible was sometimes theologically wrong — near the end one of his columns sported a remark to the effect that the Old Testament God was sometimes savage and not to be accepted by Christians. He, too, vanished from BioLogos with the others, also giving up his job at his Nazarene college at about the same time (though his age would suggest that it was too early for retirement). And of course, Van Till used to be a TE, before his trajectory pushed him beyond that into wherever he is now — agnostic, pantheist, or whatever it might be. So clearly there is a streak within TE of doubt about the theological truth of parts of the Bible.

    As you’ve pointed out, people like Falk and Venema seem to dance around the question whether God is actually in control of the evolutionary process. Ken Miller has suggested that maybe God would have been satisfied with a smart dinosaur or octopus or the like, meaning that “let us make man” can’t be taken seriously. A number of TEs have expressed doubt about Biblical miracles, and I don’t mean mere literary doubt about whether a given account is to be read literally, but doubt about the historical veracity of accounts which appear to be meant literally. A TE who is a Protestant clergyman has evaded the question whether Jesus walked on the water, and another TE leader (who shall remain nameless) told me that “he didn’t know or care” whether Jesus actually walked on the water. It seems to me that if one is not sure whether or not Jesus walked on the water, one is either (a) not sure whether the account is meant historically; or (b) sure the account is meant historically, but not sure he believes that it happened. If it’s the latter, then the person doubts the possibility of miracles, and that surely would count as thinking the Bible’s theological teaching could be wrong.

    The thing is, an *open* claim that the Bible’s theology is in error is in some ways easier to deal with than a masked claim of the same thing. When someone is being frank, one can find out why the person thinks that Teaching X of the Bible is theologically false, and have a discussion about it. But when someone is being cagey, it is impossible to have such a discussion. One doesn’t know what one is arguing about if the person “doesn’t know or care” about the truth of the Biblical doctrine in question, and tries to change the topic whenever that doctrine is brought up.

    I suspect that at least *some* TE leaders would like to more *openly* challenge some of the Bible’s theological teachings. I suspect that some of them think that Christian theology has to be partly rewritten to respond to the challenge of evolution, cosmology, historical-critical Biblical studies, etc. And if they were in mainstream North American churches, they would have no problem saying this out loud. You can believe pretty nearly anything, and practice pretty nearly anything, if you are a member of the United Church of Christ, the Episcopalian church, etc.

    But the TE leaders are in *evangelical* churches. And evangelical churches have long had the conception of themselves as holding out against liberalism, modernism, Biblical criticism, evolution, etc. To say that the Bible might be wrong on a theological matter is to bring down upon your head the wrath of church elders in your local congregation, the trustees of your liberal arts college or seminary, etc. It could cost you your job (as ID has cost its proponents their jobs in some cases). And not all TE leaders are quite ready to lose their jobs for the cause. They seem to wish to lead the evangelical community toward *seeing* the “errors” of the Bible, without actually *saying* there are errors in the Bible. Their formal professions thus remain those of their colleges and denominations: the Bible is wholly inspired, etc. But I think they want a new Christianity for the 21st century.

    And again, that might not be a bad thing if it were done openly. After all, if there really *are* theological errors in the Bible, Christians should want to know where they are, so they can leave those parts of the Bible out of their systematic theologizing. But the reluctance of many TEs to “come clean” and state, rather than hint, what the errors are, creates many problems. It’s as if the TEs want to stage a second Enlightenment, parallel to the one staged 200 years ago, but that, constrained by their American evangelical base, they have do carry out the project in a much more guarded way than the Enlightenment thinkers did.

    And I’m not sure that this desire for a changed Christianity is limited to TEs. At Messiah College in Pennsylvania, there is a professor, Eric Siebert, I think from a Mennonite-pacifist sort of religious tradition, who is writing about Christian ethics, and has more or less said that parts of the Bible teach bad ethics. There is a great hubbub at his college, and it would not surprise me if he eventually is fired; but the point is that for all I know, this guy is not a TE, yet is an evangelical Christian who doubts the truth of parts of the Bible. So the issue here is not simply evolution. The issue is what direction evangelical Christianity is going to take. If it starts to pit “Christian teaching” against “Biblical teaching” then everything becomes wide open, and traditional American evangelicalism is on the way out.

    In the end, if the more liberal TEs, and professors like Siebert, get their way, it is hard to see how American evangelical Christianity will look any different from American mainstream Christianity. It will end up being pro-evolution, pro-Biblical criticism, politically and socially liberal, etc. It will get to the same place as the mainstream churches, only about 100 years later. I’m not sure how evangelical Christianity gains anything by such a result.

    I’m not saying I have any easy answers to the difficulty which is causing liberal evangelicals to say the things they are saying. I’m not saying that science and Biblical criticism haven’t raised some thorny questions for traditional Christian faith to address. I’m not trying to say that these are bad people or that they are out to undermine the Bible or faith in Jesus etc. I’m saying that I don’t think they are completely clear in their own mind what role the Bible is to play in the future of evangelical Christianity, how the Bible is to be conceived, etc. And TE, with its strong emphasis on the certainty of Darwinian evolutionary biology (and its related claim that we *have* to read the Bible differently, to make room for that biology), certainly has added to, rather than reduced, the confusion of the evangelical community. The question is whether the TE and other liberal leaders have enough historical perspective (i.e., have really learned the lesson of the Enlightenment) to lead the Bible-doubting evangelical movement that they have initiated, or whether they are, theologically speaking, the blind leading the blind to a place where none of them. *qua* evangelical, should want to go.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi James

    Your overall thesis – that many TEs are actually unhappy to be under the Evangelical umbrella as it has been historically understood, may be right or wrong, since there seem few willing to say that’s where they stand or that’s not where they stand. But I suspect you’re more likely to be right than wrong.

    If so (remembering there is no way of knowing for certain when folks refuse to be open about their beliefs) we have in BioLogos an organisation set up to show the compatibility of mainstream evolutionary theory with a specific tradition of Christianity – Evangelicalism – which doesn’tactually believe they are compatible and wants to change the latter. Yet out of fear, or strategy, or whatever reason, rather than realign the movement or themselves more broadly, they keep quiet (to the point of embarrassment) about their real theological position.

    There is a word for that – subversion. There may be others, too.

  3. GD GD says:

    Jon,

    After all of the (mostly valid) criticisms of Biologos, I cannot help but ask, why should we bother with the site? For all of Gregory’s style (or perhaps lack of it) he made some useful points regarding this approach – be it subversive or just plain silly, why do Evangelists spend so much effort with such an inadequate outlook?

    I wonder if some more effort would be worthwhile in examining the Evangelical tradition of the Protestant view, and perhaps question the eager acceptance of Darwin? I think we are better served if we focus on ALL of the sciences, with emphasis on philosophy that you and Eddie/James bring to these discussions. This obsession with Darwin will inevitably get the theological discussion of the rails, so to speak. Darwin does not transcend the sciences – he and others need to be part of the scientific outlook.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      GD – first a quick nitpick: “Evangelist” is someone who proclaims the gospel, which should be every Christian. “Evangelical” is the position/party/ideology.

      I agree with penman below that what is at issue is an organisation bearing the badge “Evangelical” whilst diverging greatly from what, historically, makes Evangelicalism evangelical. As James has pointed out above, that reflects the parlous state of American Evangelicalism, which (not to put to fine a point on it) has been losing its roots, together with much of the rest of its Church.

      So why contribute to, or comment on, BioLogos? My answer would be that it is the largest and best funded popular site addressing the interface between science and religion, and being in the US it has international influence.

      If there is no debate within and about it, its stance will be accepted publically as the sound Evangelical – or even mainstream Christian – one. Worse still, if it is coy about where it really stands theologically, it will maintain the support of sound Evangelical and mainstream Christians whilst potentially undermining not only their theological positions but their individual faith.

      But – it could reform (or demonstrate by an open stance that it doesn’t need reform), and if it does it will be because it continues to be called to account by those from the Evangelical and mainstream traditions.

      And if not, then I would endorse what I take to be your wish for a forum as prestigious where science and orthodox (small “o”) meet. But I think it would take someone with the public profile of a Francis Collins (and maybe a Templeton grant) to make it happen. Meanwhile, the little guys shouting on the sidelines may not be completely without influence.

      • GD GD says:

        Jon,

        I accept the distinction you make regarding the ideological evangelical position – my point has been to question a tradition in which evolution appears to have been given a ‘privileged’ position, while science and reason almost appear to be ‘add-ons’. I think this is backward thinking. I would prefer all aspects of science to be classified under the label ‘reason’, and biblical matters under the label ‘faith’. I acknowledge that all labels can be a distraction in these type of discussions, but nonetheless an attempt is needed to take us out of the endless ‘evolution vs theism/atheism’ conundrum. I have, without success, brought up the point of non-belief as a contradiction when discussing the objections of atheists, and I feel this point has not been appreciated, even though the use of ‘isms’ regarding Darwin and evolutionary speculations are often invoked in this confused debate. While I acknowledge that my understanding of the Protestant tradition may not be very deep, I gather that TE has a long history in which various views have been put forward to reconcile Darwin with those who had a particular outlook regarding Genesis. Thus I try to make a (fairly) simple point – for those evangelists whose major purpose is to proclaim the Gospel, it may be worthwhile to put Darwin thinking within the category of speculation in the bio-sciences, and while we consider all of the Sciences and indeed philosophy as relevant to the Gospel message, we also state that evolution is a sub-set of scientific thought, which needs to be examined in this diminished way.

        I am not suggesting that any interested person should not debate any aspect of current thinking, and this includes comments on BioLogos. I am stating that the Evangelical tradition that emphasises the Gospel should lower the importance of Darwinian thought, while continuing to emphasise the harmony of faith and reason that has been in place for many centuries. In this sense, I think you and others are doing this – I am simply emphasising this point. I have my doubts on reforming anyone, especially those who express the odd mixture of views on BioLogos. I have recently questioned myself in becoming involved in the lengthy exchanges, mainly because I cannot see any real interest in the BioLogos organisation in engaging in serious discussion. Am I (and perhaps others) simply helping them promote their odd heterodoxy by adding comments? I guess I want to hear from others who may have asked themselves similar questions.

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

          GD

          Am I (and perhaps others) simply helping them promote their odd heterodoxy by adding comments?

          If you look at the BioLogos member list here (http://biologos.org/member/memberlist) and make an assessment of how many of the most frequent posters have problems with the”official” BioLogos position, you may conclude that there wouldn’t even be discussion by those “outside” the management without those like your good self.

          Another way of viewing it is that there’s very little contribution to discussion at all by most of the writers. Not impressive at all.

  4. James Penman penman says:

    This is probably one reason why I stopped posting on BioLogos. The “Evangelicalism” it wants to marry to an evolutionary account of life does not square with the old, historic Evangelicalism that marked the original exponents of Theistic Evolution / Evolutionary Creation. You know all about it – James McCosh, B.B.Warfield, A.A. Hodge, etc, etc.

    The whole point of the original TEism was that an evolutionary account (the scientific account, not metaphysical assumptions added on) doesn’t threaten Christian theism because Christian theists have a robust doctrine of providence. God is in control of everything. Therefore the end-product of evolution was not open, or free, or whatever, but preordained, eternally foreknown & “forewilled”.

    But as you say, BioLogos seems so wedded to Open Theism in one form or another, in order to accommodate a metaphysics of randomness, that historic Christian views of God’s providential sovereignty get ignored to the point of annihilation.

    So, humble apologies, but I prefer McCosh, Warfield, & Hodge. I’m still a TE, but I’m not about to ditch my belief in a robust providence for the sake of explaining away everything in the world that offends atheists as the result of chance, freedom, openness, et al. It lets God off the hook at the cost of redefining Him in a deist/humanist fashion. It makes nonsense of a vast array of biblical material about His governance of history.

    I’ve said it all before: sorry to say it again.

  5. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Note – Ed Feser has the same issue in philosophy that we seem to have in science: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/why-is-there-anything-at-all-its-simple.html

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