Evolution difficulties and theological traditions

Well, the BioLogos thread to which I pointed two days ago has been abandoned by the questioners with, predictably, no reply from the hosts. The same conversation passed to another hopeful thread, a re-post of an old call to Evangelicals to engage courageously in rethinking their comfortable assumptions etc. Unfortunately nobody has been on hand to dialogue with those who did think, and also posted.

Poster hanan-d suggested sympathetically (and seriously) that the silence from BioLogos staff is due to their sense of spiritual doubt from cognitive dissonance – they want to retain their faith in God as Creator, but the science suggests blind chance as the cause of living things, and so they’re suffering doubt. It would be pretty bizarre if the organisation funded to show Evangelicals the way to resolve science and theology were racked by loss of faith. But odd though this hypothesis is, the lack of engagement with posters leaves it as a possibility, I suppose, and indeed there is some evidence in its favour.

After all, many of us have pointed to the inconsistent ideas being promoted by BioLogos – even incoherent ones. My comment on the first thread mentioned was about the apparent inconsistency of attributing a sophisticated stress mechanism to God’s wise provision, whilst attributing the overall human form to contingency. And, as regular readers will know, I have long been trumpeting the incoherence of the prevalent idea of a creation “left free to create itself” by a self-emptying God whose power is shown in refusing to do anything at all to limit the liberty of, even, an unconscious atom. The lack of reply is suggestive, at least, of lack of ability to reply.

BioLogos‘ coyness may have an alternative, though related, motive. Its repeated calls for bold theological reappraisal in the light of science mean, in the end, abandoning core Evangelical doctrines about Scriptural truth, creation, God’s sovereignty, sin, salvation … in fact, everything distinctive. This would only be necessary if there were cognitive dissonance of the first water prompting it. And apart from fear of exacerbating this by dicussing the inconsistencies, it would perhaps be impolitic to alert the Evangelical constituency too much to just how much has had to be given up to resolve the dissonance.

Today I want to attempt to show the centrality, to this whole dilemma, of the only answer consistently given to my theological criticisms at BioLogos, which is “I don’t come from your tradition.” Thomas Cudworth, observing such discussions from common Descent a while ago, dubbed this “The Wesleyan Maneuver”. This captures some, though not all of the background I will offer to this.

Let’s go back to the very beginning. In primitive polytheism, the traumas and misfortunes of the world were attributed to the differences between the interests of deities. The glory of Israel’s monotheism was to deny any totally independent causative principle apart from the will of Yahweh. Let’s leave aside how the prophets resolved the issue of human freedom in relation to God – except to say that it too was subordinated to his Lordship.

But everything in creation – including that which seemed inimical – became subsumed in the Bible in God’s providence. The first peg on which this hung was the radical new Genesis doctrine that creation is “very good”, not tainted, gross, or in conflict. Additional pegs were God’s administration of justice against sinful people by sometimes turning that good creation to destructive use, and his wise (even cunning) deployment of evil people to fulfil his purposes, including spiritual beings like Satan. But the most crucial fastening of all was the refusal to allow God to be treated as if he were a person to be judged by us. By faith we believe his own word that he is good and holy, we experience his covenant love to us and our people – but we acknowledge, in fear and trembling, that he is in heaven and we are on earth.

Classical Christian theology, formulated in Patristic and Mediaeval times, built on those insights and integrated them seamlessly with the new revelation of the gospel. Although the Reformers criticised scholastic theology, in practice they too carried forward most of these central themes into their own doctrine, simply because they were clearly found in Scripture. One exception, as my own research has found, was their new teaching (influenced by humanism) that the natural creation itself fell through Adam’s sin, and so is no longer good as God intended. In this way many features of creation – such as animal death and predation – were deemed “evils” rather than “goods”, and in this way their causes were divorced from God’s good, though often mysterious, providence, and attributed to human sin. In a pre-evolutionary age this was not a crucial error, and not far removed from the ancient doctrine of God’s using creation in judgement. But it grew over time to a serious disenchantment with nature. John Wesley is, indeed, a good example of the peak of this development.

But Wesley, amongst others, helped to popularise a move away from Reformed – and Classical – doctrine more generally. Wesley and his followers combined Arminian and pietist thinking that focused faith on the experience of the individual – particularly the poor and powerless individual . That was no bad thing in itself.

But over time, although one might attribute ones personal misfortune to God’s chastisement or testing, it became less common to see national or global events in such a providential way. When informed by the new Enlightenment division of things into “natural” and “supernatural”, the tendency was to restrict the latter to the personal realm. If I fall ill, perhaps God has witheld his Spirit or tested my faith. But if cholera breaks out in London, “These things just happen.” You can blame the sewage (and ultimately the fall), but you can’t blame God.

In America, Evangelicalism then took the direction led by Charles Finney, who despised theology and popularised the idea that what the Bible means is what any simple American understands it to mean from a superficial reading. This extreme individualism explains such aberrations as the enthronement of the KJV as uniquely inspired – God cares so much for me that he wrote and even translated Scripture so that I – not those ancient guys – would understand it easily.

So the bulk of US Evangelicalism – and through their influence, much of Evangelicalism worldwide – developed:

(a) a conviction of the fallenness of nature through Adam, resulting in all death, predation, suffering, disease, and disaster (as opposed to the biblical and classical belief that nature remains good and directed by God in all these things).
(b) a strong dichotomy between the Spirit-led individual and independent nature (as opposed to the biblical, classical and Reformed belief that God’s providence covers all things).
(c) An increasingly personalised view of God, in the sense that he is seen as interacting in a morally comprehensible human way with me (rather than being the One who inscrutably oversees the government of the whole Universe in an incomprehensible way – even speaking in moral terms – as in biblical, classical and Reformed teaching).
(d) a post-Enlightenment type of simplistic biblical literalism that saw the birth of biblical Creationism as understood today (as opposed to the philosophical and scientific sophistication of the classical and Reformed traditions and the very different cultural context of the biblical text).

I must add that to a greater or lesser extent, such popular cultural ideas influenced even the other traditions, both within and outside Evangelicalism. But see now how the tenets of Darwinian evolution threatened the newer and older traditions to quite different degrees.

(a) A natural world with all the “evils” we see now, millions of years older than Adam’s sin, has to be explained – either the science is lying, the Fall is untrue, or God can’t or won’t control nature. All these are problematic. Since most of the Church had come to believe in fallen nature over a 350 year period, these doubts were to a degree universal. Yet there had always remained some strands of “good creation” theology for those not too bound to the modern tradition – people still read Job, though not many because it wasn’t easy for the average Joe to understand. For example Anglican Charles Kingsley, one of the first theistic evolutionists, boldly prioritised the Scripture witness over the common teaching.

(b) To Christians already shy of attributing natural disasters to God, the idea of a creation built not only on animal death, but on chance, seemd to remove God from the equation. Within Evangelicalism, it was the Reformed who still maintained a strong doctrine of Providence, even within the scientific domain. That is why the first TEs like Asa Gray and Benjamin Warfield  found evolution no great threat, and indeed a support, to biblical faith. It’s the same reason that more recent conservative Reformed evangelicals like Derek Kidner were happy to embrace it, provided it was understood as being under God’s direction. For the same reason the offical positions of both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, though deeply conservative, have remained open to the concept of evolution.

(c) Similarly, for those comfortable that God acts in mysterious providential ways, on the cosmic scale, the concept of so-called “natural evil” not being exclusively the result of human sin was far less problematic than for those for whom “Good God” means “Nice God.” For the Reformed and classical theologians, judgements in Scripture were comprehensible from the inter-relationship of God’s attributes of love, mercy, holiness, wisdom, wrath and righteousness, particularly when combined with the conviction that God’s ways are higher than ours. But for those whose theology had absolutised God’s personal love (and reduced even that to perpetual universal benevolence), a God who created a world their tradition considered evil must himself be evil, or else in some way not responsible. Cue the demiurge of “free nature”.

(d) Literalism has probably been covered more widely than the other points in many places. But the classical and Reformed traditions have always been nuanced on literalism – Warfield, for example, though the father of the modern teaching of Biblical Inerrancy, was not a crude literalist, and neither were his ancient predecessors like Calvin, nor his recent heirs like Jim Packer, who in Fundamentalism and the Word of God quotes William Tyndale saying that “literal” means “what the writer intended”, not a crude historicism. Packer too – another conservative Evangelical – has no fundamental problem with evolution if it does not make false metaphysical presumptions.

I notice a pattern in all this. My longstanding complaint is that Evangelical TE’s now are calling for – even demanding – radical revision of the faith. Even when you factor out the beefs about Young Earth Creationism, so many of the writers – Ken Miller, Denis Lamoreux, Peter Enns etc – are belabouring Christians for holding on to untenable doctrines in the face of the scientific evidence.

However, there are exceptions, one being David Wilcox, who seems equally supportive or orthodox versions of evolution, but critiques not the Church, but those who smuggle non-Christian metaphysics in with the science. He’s happy with science and happy with the theology, and is suffering no obvious cognitive dissonance. He’s also in line with the original doctrinal basis of the Reformation and historic Christianity.

Yet when I quoted him in the aforementioned BioLogos thread, citing what is essentially his restatement of the classical doctrine of providence:

Theistic evolution by definition means the directed realization of God’s eternal decrees by his absolute control of all natural processes,

James Stump replied:

I would reject Wilcox’s definition about absolute control. Again, I recognize there are theological traditions for which this point is non-negotiable. But that’s not my tradition, and I don’t feel saddled with incorporating that into any explanations.

As a result of rejecting a longstanding Christian tradition, TEs instead feel it necessary to rewrite theology wholesale, in particular with regard to the authority of the Bible. Yet – and here’s the odd thing – the traditions that take the Bible most seriously and reject the layers added to it by pietism, revivalism and the like, find that its teachings are completely compatible with even the most conventional science. So wouldn’t it make more sense to abandon the newer traditions for the older one? Or would that be too simple?

The alternative is to change their diluted Evangelical tradition to something even more “of men”.

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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