The summer I went up to University I had a job decorating somebody’s house. Hearing I was a Christian and that I was going to Cambridge to study medicine, the owner tut-tutted and said it would be hard to keep my faith. I’m not sure if that was because religion has no answer to suffering, or because it has no answers period. One reason I didn’t lose my faith, though, apart from the stubborn desire to prove her wrong, was that I expected to run into all kinds of different belief-systems, promoted by people far cleverer than me, but I told myself that all other things being equal my beliefs were no less likely to be right than theirs. It actually worked, preventing me from being overawed by an idea’s sheer novelty – or its plausibility, in the sociological sense.
One of the things that repeatedly cropped up over the years was the theme that biblical Christianity is just, well, passé. That was succintly and typically expressed once as “You can’t turn your back on the Enlightenment.” I’d come across that idea well before University, actually. I had read John A T Robinson’s Honest to God
in the school library, whose central theme was that “modern man” couldn’t believe in a God “out there”, and certainly not one who performed miracles and other magic. It annoyed me slightly that at the age of sixteen I had peremptorily been excluded from the class of “modern man” because I could.
Mind you, a few years later it the next brief, but significant upsurge in religion came from the Charismatic Movement, as miracle-minded as any pre-Enlightenment savage would wish. That alone showed me that it was, indeed, eminently possible to turn your back on the Enlightenment, or on any seemingly unassailable philosophical given. Not infrequently it is an advantage to do so. For example the academic establishment had firmly decided in my day that Marxism infallibly held the world’s future in its hands. Even now they haven’t quite got their head round the possibility that they may end up with a universal caliphate rather than a socialist internationale. The truth is, as far as my own experience goes, that prevailing ideas seldom gain their hegemony in society by their intellectual strength, but by something more akin to fashion. “Postmodernism is the new black – discuss.”
I was reminded of all this as I’m ploughing through John Sailhamer’s magnum opus on the Pentateuch, which has nothing to do with creation or evolution at all as such but is fascinating. There’s a chapter on the interpretive history of the Old Testament, in which he points out that as soon as the Enlightenment began to influence Bible Scholarship, the first thing to go in Old Testment Studies was the doctrine of providence.
The Bible writers themselves, and pretty well all Christians up to that time, believed that God personally and freely influences many, if not all, events in the world. So the sacred history of Israel in the Old Testament, whilst it had special significance as the calling of a nation into covenant relationship with God, and whilst it involved very
particular signs and wonders, was not special for God’s directing its history.
But Enlightenment Deism axiomatically scorned not only the miraculous and the truth of the traditional stories of God’s involvement, but on the grounds of the primacy of reason, it rejected the idea of God’s provident involvement in the world. Since the work of Newton and his like was showing the world to function, like a clock, by rational laws, the God of reason could by no-means stoop to lesser means like contingency (ie choosing to change things).
Paradoxically it was against Newton’s own espousal of both law and divine choice that Leibniz made his accusation:
Sir Isaac Newton and his followers have also a very odd opinion concerning the work of God. According to their doctrine, God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion.
Sailhamer describes how, in rejecting Deism, Evangelical scholarship nevertheless absorbed enough of its rationalism to have two particular results. Firstly, the doctrine of providence shrunk to God’s “miraculous” intervention in the history of Israel or the life of the Christian believer. God may well have delivered Israel from Egypt and given them Canaan, but that was “salvation history”, and he usually leaves the world to itself.
This actually flies in the face of the Bible. For example, in Deuteronomy 2 Moses says that the Lord had given the Ammonites the land of the Rephaites, driving the latter out before them, and likewise he gave the people of Esau the land of the Horites and the Caphtorites (from Crete) the land of the Avvites. Passages in Leviticus imply that all these movements were because of the wickedness of the displaced nations, just as was the case with Israel and Canaan. In fact both Deuteronomy 32 and Acts 17 say that God himself decides the boundaries of all the nations, the latter affirming that he determines “the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.”
The second effect on Evangelical thinking was the tendency – very dominant in the nineteenth century but common in my own lifetime – to rationalise miracles away: the turning of the Nile to blood was an influx of silt from upstream flooding, and the other plagues followed naturally from that; the crossing of the Jordan was possible because of the known phenomenon of landslips further up; psychosomatic disease explains Jesus’s healings etc.
Now Deism went the way of all fads, and I’ve remarked before on how, amongst Evangelicals, biblical miracles are taken far more for granted than when I was younger. Perhaps the Charismatic Renewal influenced that – but perhaps it’s also the fact that, Hume’s parochial claims notwithstanding, accounts of miracles remain pervasive throughout the world .
Yet the echoes of Deism live on. Take, for example, this quotation from Deborah Haarsma of BioLogos about the survey which Edward Robinson dealt with here recently:
But we’d need a much more nuanced survey to separate out those who believe there are gaps in the natural order of things that need constant intervention from a divine agent (the typical Intelligent Design position), and those who affirm that God set up a natural process and actively sustains it without needing to intervene miraculously to bring about his desired goals (the typical evolutionary creation position).
Now, to me that position, given as that of most of BioLogos, seems indistinguishable from the position of Leibniz against Newton. It assumes that it is preferable for God to act through “natural law”, and that if he didn’t it would be through inability to “get it right first time,” (in Leibniz’s words, “make it a perpetual motion” ).
Similarly, much TE writing does what Sailhamer describes Evangelicals doing in response to Deism back in the day: accepting divine action in biblical miracles like the resurrection (but not necessarily the creation of Adam and Eve, or in the divine superintendence of Scriptural inspiration), and in the conversion and life of believers, but not in the governance of the rest of the world.
Evolutionary Creation treats divine action as a problem that nobody is quite able to solve, but without a strong doctrine of divine action (whether or not you have a philosophical theory like concurrence to intellectualise it) there cannot be the kind of doctrine of providence that underpins the biblical worldview.
If God does not act directly in nature, how can he determine the boundaries of nations? The subject isn’t brought up in origins questions, so it’s hard to know whether the question is left unanswered, or whether it is concluded that God doesn’t govern the nations that way, but that all is explained by secular historical concepts. Conversely, if God answers prayer directly, even on rare occasions, on what principle is it inappropriate for him to act beyond what natural law alone will accomplish in the created order?
My conclusion is that the principle involved, though buried by now in the subsconscious, is the same as that which led to the rise of Deism in the first place: that somehow for God to act in “personal” ways is messy and unsuitable to the cool loftiness of pure reason. A mathematical law looks beautiful: multiplying loaves and fish and leaving leftovers is messy. Or perhaps in the “religious” sphere such untidiness is acceptable. But in science, though it takes place in God’s world just the same, the equivalent would be that God himself determines the natures of the fish (perhaps they are Cichlids?) or influences their natural multiplication as he caused their miraculous increase. That’s just unreasonable.
And if that’s the case (and I can’t think of any more solid reason – just the very much less solid reasons of “free-creation” theodicy) then restricting God to “natural causes” in evolution is just an attempt to keep Deism on life support for a bit longer. Which is a bit passé, isn’t it?
A half-appropriate song to round off.
Let’s Go Back – Jon Garvey 2003