More acidic observations

I finished my piece about the BioLogos discussion of the need to reform the doctrine of original sin with a “slippery slope” comment:

In the Bible, sin is an offence against our own inherent nature formed in the image of Christ (the true Image of God), and against God’s good order for the cosmos, both of which are restored in the redemption of Christ. In evolutionary scenarios, sin is an ontological feature of our nature, and nature itself is disordered from the start. Few aspects of Christian doctrine emerge unscathed in the long run.

My interlocutor there expressed pained exasperation at my shroud-waving for orthodoxy: reformulating original sin affects that doctrine, he suggested, and that alone. I’d be more convinced if at the very same time BioLogos wasn’t hosting another series of posts about the need to reformulate the doctrine of atonement, too, in the light of evolution. There is much that one could say on the details of this, but one general observation is that, as the introductory article states, Evolutionary Creationists are only adding their own voices to existing calls to change the theology for other fashionable theological reasons. In other words, ECs are actually part of the zeitgeist for novel teaching and rejection of the old, and evolutionary science may be no more than scientific ammunition for an existing programme.

That is certainly so for original sin, for as I have been examining even recently (as in the first blog cited here) nothing in “orthodox” evolutionary theory compels a new doctrine of the Fall, and the empirical evidence is, at very least, far from settled. If you want a new doctrine, natural selection will give it to you, but as we all know the theory was flexible enough to support racial eugenics oce upon a time, too.

Now, one may say that BioLogos distances itself from any of the particular positions of its writers, and is simply a broad forum for discussion. One recent staff article there seemed to imply that allowing heterodoxy and orthodoxy to grow together is good for everybody – I suppose like teaching Creationism in science lessons would be, only BioLogos doesn’t seem to support that. It is rather an unusual educational principle.

Nevertheless BioLogos has a track record, from the appointment of its first staff theological adviser to the present, of hosting many voices challenging traditional and biblical teachings, and realtively few arguing their compatibility with current science. The whole issue of “free creation” issue (see eg here) back in Darrel Falk’s day is a prime example, and around that revolved a whole raft of theological innovations, including the limited power and knowledge of God in Open Theism, the resulting evils in the whole mechanism and outcomes of evolution (owing to its independence from God), an incoherent semi-deist separation of nature from religious experience, a mere conservationist view of providence against the consensus opinion of theologians down the ages, and so on and so on. I wrote about it extensively at the time.

Behind these innovatory doctrines, and obvious in both the current posts on atonement and the comments thereon, is the perceived necessity not just (as suggested in the introductory post) of re-interpreting Scripture, but in correcting its alleged errors.

For example, for some reason, substitutionary atonement in particular is held to be incompatible with evolution. It is trumpeted that there are many doctrines of atonement in theology, so that rejecting one is a trivial matter. But this covers over what one informed commenter pointed out: that Scripture itself forms the basis for all the orthodox theories, and that they are all aspects of the truth to be retained (for a full discussion of this, see John Stott’s excellent book The Cross of Christ). It has usually been the exaggeration or downplaying of any of these strands that has historically led people astray.

In this case the trouble is that any dispassionate reading of Scripture shows that substitutionary, and even propitiatory, atonement is the prevalent teaching of the Bible itself, prefigured in Old Testament sacrifices, expounded in the gospels and epistles, and remembered eschatologically in the Revelation figure of the slain Lamb of God standing in the midst of God’s throne. And so it is necessary to push the boat out further and claim that, whilst this theme was prominent in the Bible writers’ minds, it wasn’t in God’s mind in sending Jesus.

Nobody nowadays, it is said, can seriously believe that blood sacrifice could be pleasing to God (and we know that how, exactly?), so according to the misleadingly-termed “incarnational view” of inspiration, the entire theological matrix of propitiation is accounted for by the cultural blinkers of the first century writers. It’s the same process by which Paul’s argument for the origin of sin in Adam is – well – just wrong. Inspired, but wrong.

It’s worth noting in passing that in the Evolutionary Creation context, this ubiquitous human tendency to error is inconsistently applied. Evolution itself, even down to the detailed conclusions from questionable statistical models about the exact populations of humanity at particular epochs, gets a free pass. All the adjustment judged necessary in order to bring a rapprochement between faith and science must come from theology. But that isn’t scientistic at all, really it isn’t, because scientism is rejected by all of these people. Nevertheless the Universal Acid, unlike real acids, doesn’t seem itself to suffer decomposition when it reacts with a base. The scientific fire burns, but the bush is not consumed – miraculous indeed.

The process by which it is concluded that Scripture has been conditioned culturally to err even on such matters as the perfection of God is something of a parallel to evolutionary psychology. The current (intellectual) situation is taken as the standard, and by it the biblical statements – historical, doctrinal or whatever – are judged. When found wanting, it is always possible to find a reason in the writers’ culture (they didn’t know about evolution, they believed in sacrifices, they accepted the Exodus as historical, they had a primitive Old Testament view of God, etc).

All one is really doing, in fact, is to identify how their religious culture differed from our secular one and make the culturally imperialist assumption that ours is right, and theirs is necessarily wrong. In practice, it dilutes biblical inspiration to the point where even modern atheists are considered to have a potentially more legitimate point of view on the things of God than the inspired prophets and apostles – even than Christ himself, when the model of his incarnation employed effectively empties him of his authority to teach infallibly (after all, he taught that the altar made the blood sacrifice on it holy – culturally blinkered or what?)

I guess to the jaded academic, perhaps brought up in some kind of strict orthodoxy and keen to kick over the sociological traces, there’s something of an adrenaline buzz in entertaining the idea that even the Bible is full of errors. Sells books too, of course. The logic by which those errors are identified and extracted from the doctrinal framework is clear enough. What is not clear to me, however (coming from a completely different position of growing up believing the Bible to be full of errors and being astonished by the revelation of the Holy Spirit that it was actually God’s word) is how the things that are still accounted true in Christianity come to be maintained.

One example is the Incarnation, considered as a bare fact. More than one BioLogos commenter opined that this is the central truth of the Gospel, atonement being a relatively peripheral matter whatever theory one adopts. But how does one come to know that it is the central dogma? How does one come to know that it happened at all? The Bible, after all, whilst obviously vitally concerned that God became man, pictures the core of Paul’s teaching as “the Resurrection”, to the extent that the Athenians thought it was the name of his god. He himself glories in his stress on “Christ crucified”. But claims about the divinity of Christ, like claims about the efficacy of his atonement, are based on exactly the same Bible whose teachings on substitutionary atonement are regretfully dismissed as mistaken. On what sound principle are biblical teachings rejected or accepted?

None of the revisionists seem to question that Jesus is the Logos of God. But what makes the apostle John right in a few verses of his prologue, when he was wrong in quoting Jesus as claiming that he said only what God himself told him to say, or in teaching about the wrath of God?

Everybody discusses just what we mean by “the image of God” in mankind, when the rest of the Genesis 1 account from which that truth is drawn is so often held by ECs to be, not just metaphorical, but pre-scientific myth, an attempt to account for human experience in primitive terms. Why not simply remember that to the author, an image in a temple contained the essence of the god, and that nobody nowadays can believe that? Discounting the image of God in man altogether fits so much better with evolutionary theory, after all.

So don’t tell me what the incarnational view of Scripture tells me about its errors. Tell me exactly about how it inspires the truths in the Bible, where those truths are to be found amongst the “errors”, and how today’s Evolutionary Creationists and iconoclastic scholars have managed to gain privileged access to that truth, where two thousand years of godly men and women have failed.

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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