Convergent theology

After writing about the abuse of Irenaeus’s thought, and the resulting re-packaging of the doctrine of sin, I thought it would be good to check up on the history of that doctrine, and pulled out Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. It’s written from a Reformed position but always covers other views pretty thoroughly. To my surprise, I found immediate support for my reading of Irenaeus, even though I was aware Berkhof wrote before “the Irenaean theodicy” had been invented by John Hick:

The earliest Church Fathers do not speak very definitely on the origin of sin though the idea that it originated in the voluntary transgression and fall of Adam in paradise is already found in the writings of Irenaeus.

With no dog in the fight, his assessment is, I think, trustworthy. In fact it obviously is, because Irenaeus himself makes it abundantly clear to those bothered to read him. As I read on, though, I was surprised to find a full critique of the “new” hamartology (theology of sin) being offered by theistic evolutionists, apart from their distortion of Irenaeus. Berkhof goes on to say how his view became the prevailing view of the Church in opposition to Gnosticism, which regarded evil as inherent in matter, and as such a product of a Demiurge. What was that about a self-creating secondary power, and manifold evils, in the process of evolution?

“This theory” continues Berkhof, “naturally robbed sin of its voluntary and ethical character.” Well yes, I seem to remember arguing that against George Murphy on BioLogos, as well as in my previous post here. I somehow don’t think Berkhof depends on either source, though.

Whilst in the west, he continues, there was an increasing stress on the origin of sin in Adam, in the 3rd and 4th centuries the eastern Church tended to discount it, a trend culminating in Pelagianism, condemned in ecumenical councils at 418 (Carthage) and 431 (Ephesus). West and East were thereafter agreed on the fall, and on birth-sin (east) or original sin (west).

In mediaeval times the Church was sometimes Augustinian (holding that both guilt and pollution came through Adam), but often “Semi-Pelagian”, holding only the latter, despite the fact that the western Church had condemned this as heresy at Orange in 529. The Reformers, majoring on Scripture’s primacy, agreed with Augustine, and only the Socianians with Pelagius. Later, when the Arminians appeared, they “moved in the direction of Semi-Pelagianism,” a fair description seeing that Arminianism arose within the Reformed movement.

Fast forward to the Enlightenment, when rationalism, and then evolutionary philosophy, began to discount the fall of man altogether. And here’s a familiar theme echoed in the current debate:

The idea of sin was replaced with that of evil, and this evil was explained in various ways.

Nowadays, too, we see the issue of sin being bundled together both with “natural evil” and “suffering” as a theodicy issue rather than one of human guilt, the “sin” component being subsidiary. A little later on:

Naturally, a consistent theory of evolution cannot admit the doctrine of the fall, and a number of liberal theologians have rejected it as incompatible with the theory of evolution.

It’s worth considering what assumptions underlie the first part of that – is it the science of evolution or the metaphysical asasumptions now associated with it that exclude the fall? Be that as it may, at this point it all begins to look exceedingly familiar, except that the theological innovators are described by Berkhof as “liberals”, rather than “evangelicals”.

Berkhof’s book was published in 1939 – that’s exactly three quarters of a century ago. Now in biology, Simon Conway Morris’s theory of convergent evolution, at least in part, suggests that given the same environment evolution is pretty likely to repeat itself. Here we seem to have a similar process in theology, with the evangelical scholars following just the same path that the liberals who had abandoned evangelical faith did long ago. It is pretty likely that whatever assumptions – theological, metaphysical, philosophical and epistemological – guided the course that the old liberal scholarship took, they are also guiding the modern evangelicals in their thinking. That raises the question of whether the label “evangelical” is being used nowadays for anything more solid than “a denomination or institution that has that word in its title”. Whatever, it’s a classic case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Berkhof’s most developed example of evolutionary doctrines of the fall is that of Cambridge theologian Frederick Robert Tennant, whose interest in religion was (paradoxically) awakened in 1889 by “Darwin’s Bulldog”, the agnostic Thomas Huxley, and his claim that the fall was incompatible with evolution. In his 1902 lectures Tennant presents a scheme very similar to those we have recently seen on BioLogos, minus the mangling of Irenaeus (so the brave new theology was commonplace amongst liberals 112 years ago, no less!).

Seeing “natural evil” as inherent in the animal instincts produced by evolution, Tennant nevertheless had insight enough to see it was not “sin”. “In the course of evolution moral conscience began to awaken in man” (he didn’t explain how evolution pulled this trick off). At that point, following animal impulses, against the new sense of conscience, became “sin”, but the basis on which opposing conscience is an objective offence against God is not clear. For example, if social Darwinist reason suggests that we should put aside our scruples in order to  destroy less-evolved (ie evil) races, right would seem to be against conscience.

The sinful environment added, Tennant said, to the difficulties of refraining from sin – so we see the same inevitability in sinning that arises from the “immaturity” implicated in the “Irenaean theodicy”. Tennant specifically repudiates the doctrine of the fall – “evil” animal instincts are inherited, but morality is an indeterminate libertarian choice.

Tennant’s theory is, in fact, not merely “homologous” to modern TE theology, but “ancestral”, having been cited, at least, by Daniel Brannan in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. At this point, though, Berkhof quotes W H Johnson:

Tennant’s critics are agreed that his theory leaves no room for that cry of the contrite heart which not only confesses to separate acts of sin, but declares: “I was shapen in iniquity; there is a law of death in my members.”

No doubt his supporters would regard such a cry as pathological anyway. Berkhof sums up Tennant’s theory – and thereby by implication many of the new evangelical theories:

As a matter of fact, it is merely the old Pelagian view of sin grafted into the theory of evolution, and is therefore open to all the objections with which Pelagianism is burdened… The radical defect in all these theories is that they seek to define sin without taking into consideration that sin is essentially a breaking away from God, opposition, transgression of the law of God. Sin should always be defined in terms of man’s relation to God, and His will as explained in the moral law.

Returning to the analogy of convergent evolution, although the old liberal evolutionary hamartology and the modern evangelical ones are clearly not independent, it’s still the case that theology depends on more than just shared preferences in ideas. Theology, like the puruit of science, depends on presuppositions, and these pressuppositions (as in scientific theories) more or less constrain the direction theology will take. There were identifiable principles in nineteenth century liberal theology, just as there were evangelical principles that led evangelicals to remain apart from the changing current..

For example, if it should be that ones foundation were that the Church Fathers have divine authority, Irenaeus and Augustine would have to be reconciled rather than pitted aginst each other (that reeconciliation not being a hard task, as I said in my previous post), and original sin would be indisputable. In fact, even the greatest traditionalists hold back from such a position, but they may well consider that when the Fathers agree with what the Church has always taught, it is risky to overturn it lightly.

Historically Evangelicalism (indeed, Protestantism itself) stood on the foundation that Scripture has supreme authority. They tended to view the Fathers in that light – since they too took their arguments from that supreme authority, where these arguments could be sustained they should be endorsed. So indeed should the tradition of the catholic churches, which admitted the divine authority of Scripture even when they departed from that in practice, where tradition could be endorsed by Scripture. And so Evangelicals concluded, whenever they worked on the sola scriptura principle, that Scripture teaches the fall of man in Adam, as had the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican streams of Christianity. Nevertheless Evangelicals have, on the same principle, allowed for flexibility about the history represented by that doctrine.

That appproach seems, to me, to be notably lacking in the “Irenaean theodicy” issue. There, the Fathers are used purely as a mine for ideas in the abstract: Irenaeus’s “immaturity” idea can be usefully dropped into evolution – the context and Scriptural reasoning he used to arrive at it being more or less ignored. Likewise Augustine is “just a different view”, whose position on original sin doesn’t appeal, and whose reasoning that it follows necessarily from the biblical revelation is just sidelined, rather than countered on Scriptural grounds.

In summary, convergence in theology needs to be seen as evidence of common ancestry of presupposition and methodology, even if not (though it is so in this case in this case) the actual continuity of thought. We ourselves therefore need to examine our working presuppositions, not just express our empathy with any particular theological conclusion. If we choose to be a duck, we will inevitably end up quacking. And, of course, the converse is true.

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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4 Responses to Convergent theology

  1. pngarrison says:

    Jon, I’m going to be the pesky philosopher again asking questions. Can you tell exactly what you mean by Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian?

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Rats, pngarrison – I deliberately put in a link to good old Wikipedia to save myself the trouble on Pelagius. There is a massive amount on the issue by Augustine and other contemporary writers, modern attempts to exonerate him etc, partly because he seems to have been the kind of guy to say what his critics wanted to hear, and then subtly change his emphasis in practice. Augustine’s Anti-pelagian corpus and the councils are available online and cover the ground better than I could, as well as being interesting reading!

      Pelagius the monk, British export to Rome. Didn’t like the general (pre-Augustinian) teaching on God’s grace, thinking it led to laziness and presumption. So the most important points in his teaching (from memory):
      1 – Sin is always a voluntary, uninfluenced choice, or God would be unfair to judge it.
      2 – Ergo there was no fall, and no corruption of human nature. Sinners just copy Adam’s example. Likewise there is no representative character to Adam that imputes his guilt to his progeny as per Romans 5. Each of us is in just the same position as Adam in Eden.
      3 – So the law and the gospel are equally uncomplicated, even equivalent: God gives commands, and we are either righteous enough to believe and obey, or wicked enough not to. Salvation is therefore entirely up to us and our good sense.
      4 – Therefore it is quite possible for man to remain sinless throughout his life, if he only sets his mind to it… and no doubt many have achieved it, with or without God’s help.
      5 – But far be it from him to deny God’s grace… only what “grace” means turns out to be nothing more than the general provision of moral conscience, ears to hear, commandments from God, the existence of the Church etc as helps to free choice. This is because for grace to be a supernatural gift, that changes the heart and will to repentance and faith, would be interference with free will’s neutrality. Not to mention the fact that if only given to some it would be unfair.

      In passing I should mention that the debate, as so often these things do, actually raised a bigger discussion about free will and divine determinacy – there seems to have been a common but ill-defined idea in the Church that God dictated all things, maybe in an early kind of occasionalism. That jostled with a more general sense of God helping and directing our free will, such as one finds in Josephus (see my pieces here and here). Pelagius saw both as taking away from man’s self-sufficient responsibility to do good.

      Augustine’s work was actually a careful biblical and philosophical middle way, holding together God’s sovereignty and grace with a true freedom of choice and accountability for sin. Freewill was a subject he’d already been writing on for separate reasons when he heard what Pelagius was teaching. That’s often poorly appreciated today.

      The original Semi-Pelagians were the dissenters from the Council of Carthage, mainly in the east, who admitted that grace must, scripturally, be supernatural and personal, but who wanted to retain Pelagius’s stress on human responsibility. So they said that conversion itself was man’s own free choice, but that God’s grace was added afterwards to help faith and growth in righteousness. Free-will was attenuated by the fall, but is not in bondage to evil, so that by cooperating with the grace of God (given to all men equally) a person might be saved. Equally, though, by freely choosing sinful ways after conversion he might just as easily be lost again.

      Augustinians have always objected that, not only does this sit loose to the Scriptural teaching on grace and sin, but means that all that differentiates the saved from the unsaved is, in the end, human merit. I had the sense to believe the gospel and do good, but you persisted in the sins of stubbornness and unbelief. Passages like John 6.44, 1 Cor 1.28-31, 1 Cor 4.7, Ephesians 2.1-10, 1 Tim 1.15 etc seem to sit uneasily with that.

      If God throws a superfluity of lifebelts to a sea full of drowning people, and some people grab them and paddle to shore, whilst others don’t bother and perish, who was the saviour? And what is the difference between the Old Covenant which Israel broke, and the New in which God himself will make them obedient?

      Those issues resurface again in mediaeval Catholicism and the Arminian controversy, as well as pretty universally today. Most Evangelicals want to retain some idea that we are saved and perfected by God’s grace, not by our own efforts; and yet want to keep the idea of free-will and human effort. This is an intrinisically unstable situation as they are mutually exclusive, unless one is willing to move away from “commonsense” either-or thinking to some form of concurrence: God initiates, I respond to his grace through faith and obedience, and though the latter remain mine, I also give thanks to God for them… and account myself undeservedly a child of God.

      And that’s Augustinian thinking, really.

  2. pngarrison says:

    Speaking of rats, I made a very rare, for me, comment at UD today, relating to a post on regret in rats. I just made the observation that it’s hard to tell if a rat is expressing regret, because if he names his own species, using the plural, it sounds like regret.

    On the more substantive issue, here’s my own construction. You can tell me what category I fit. It seems to me that as a matter of experience (and theology) we come into the world not knowing God. We do have animal desires, passions, etc., but if we started out knowing God, dealing with those things would be entirely different. Given that we start out alienated from God and we face our passions alone, there’s no realistic way that we could remain sinless. I’m not sure that it makes sense to say that we have a “sin nature,” since we don’t inevitably sin. Even a small child may offer a touching childish gift or tribute to his mother or father. In that instance they were inclined to do something loving and good, even if only in a child-like way.

    Of course, the great issue in life in this world is what will we do about God. Will we respond to whatever we know about Him and sin and forgiveness, or won’t we, and the funny thing is that even people who are clearly God’s children don’t fully understand how they got that way. I’m inclined to think that, at least at the outset there is some libertarian choice about it, although that may not have happened at the moment that seems subjectively to have been the moment of conversion. Of course, I have no way of demonstrating this. We don’t even fully understand our own lives, let alone other peoples’.

    I would guess this means that I have suspicions of Semi-Pelagianism. What do you think?

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      A good answer on UD 🙂 . Some, of course, might say that you’re worthy of more a substantial contribution there…

      Para 2 – well, alienation from God implies a universal fall at some stage, so no quibbles there (does have some reflection back on the previous question of neonates and judgement – alienation and all that meaning cut off by definition).

      Let me pick up on the “sin nature” and “inevitability of sin” bit. The Post-Dort Calvinists didn’t help their cause by using the phrase “total depravity”, which suggests that everyone is as bad as they could possibly be. In fact all it means (and the concept behind it is) that every part of our nature is touched by sin, so that even our best works do not make us worthy of salvation. If they did, we wouldn’t be alienated from God in the first place.

      Consider that sin is specifically “rebellion against God’s law” and that leaves room for a remaining natural morality (conscience), for biological love, for philosphical ethics, for fear of sanctions and every other source of good behaviour that doesn’t stem from, and aim at, the love of God. Practically, sin also tends to taint even those (and religious duty too) with autonomy – so I’m proud of my humilty, and tend to despise those less selfless than me, look for praise when I do good etc – who will deliver me from this body of death??

      Last para – the “don’t understand how they got that way” bit gives away your orthodoxy, I think! I remember the staunch fundamentalist who told me the whole issue was simple: “I chose to believe in Christ, and so I’m saved.” I think he was, but I think his belief was a snare to him.

      “How come I ended up forgiven?” is more like it, I think. Whether you’re “Semi-Pelagian” depends, I think, on the understanding of that term “libertarian free will.” If it implies, as I’ve tried to show in other posts, an independence of all other causes and influences, then God is not allowed to have had any substantial part in your free decision – it’s inalienably your own work. Rigorous libertarians would even say it must be an arbitrary decision, or it would be determined (oh horrors!) by the reasons, habits and influences with which God had surrounded you – good antidote for pride, but makes salvation a complete lottery.

      If however it just means that you made a choice (or indeed, many choices) in moving from unbelief to faith, and that it wasn’t coerced, then perhaps it leaves room for what the Catholics called “prevenient grace”, ie that God’s saving grace precedes human choice in logical order – and faith is then not ones own, but the gift of God, even though it is you who believe (which is after all what the choice to believe is), and your faith that is rewarded.

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