Consensus science, fringe theology

BioLogos was ostensibly, as far as I can see, constituted to deal with one main problem. And that is, the problem that Evangelicals, especially in America, did not accept evolutionary theory. This was perceived to lead to two main problems. Firstly, in apologetics, Evangelical Christianity was in danger of being intellectually sidelined, unnecessarily alienating the educated community by denying the evidence of science. Secondly, pastorally, Christians brought up in Creationist churches were liable to be stumbled on encountering the strength of the evidence for evolution when they studied science, thus leading unnecessarily to abandonment of their Evangelical faith.

Now I first engaged with BioLogos some six years ago, with an already settled conviction that orthodox faith, specifically orthodox Evangelical faith, has no major problem with evolution. My interest in BioLogos (as an online source dedicated to “Evangelical Theistic Evolution”) was in finding good arguments to sustain that conviction, and seeking out ways of dealing with remaining problems.

Mainstream Catholicism has no serious problems in maintaining its core doctrines together with an evolutionary account, even though those non-negotiable dogmas include original sin, the special creation of Adam and the individual creation of each human soul. But mainstream Evangelicalism too, especially in Britain, has long been open to evolutionary ideas, without feeling the need to compromise the historic doctrines of the faith (though usually also cautious enough not to baptize current science as infallible truth – B B Warfield was an intellectually thorough Bible inerrantist, but not a Darwin inerrantist, from the same intellectual considerations).

The accommodation of evolution to biblical faith goes back to Darwin’s own day and beyond. Three years ago I documented the approaches of Asa Gray (a Presbyterian), Benjamin Warfield (a Calvinist Presbyterian) and Charles Kingsley (a Universalist and Arminian Anglican). All held a providential and teleological view of evolution within their various existing doctrinal frameworks.

The situation right at the heart of contemporary British Evangelicalism is, in my own experience, similar. The very first commentary I bought was one of the Tyndale Commentary series much promoted by the (then) Inter-Varsity Fellowship of Christian Unions – the wellspring of Britain’s postwar Evangelical movement. Covering Genesis, the book was written in 1967 by Derek Kidner, who coincidentally was my neighbour in Cambridge, being warden of the Evangelical research centre Tyndale House in Selwyn Gardens. This entry-level commentary argues that there is no essential conflict between Genesis and some kind of evolution, including that of mankind.

A key figure in the resurgence of Evangelicalism in Britain was Rev. John Stott, and his Wikipedia entry reminds us of his later worldwide leadership role. In my university days his Basic Christianity had been since 1958 the recommended primer for new converts. Yet Stott, like Kidner, was entirely comfortable with affirming evolution within a soundly Evangelical doctrinal framework. I was privileged to get something like a year of his teaching at Christian Union Bible readings in my time at Cambridge, so respected was he there.

A third pivotal Evangelical figure was J I Packer, whose Fundamentalism and the Word of God was on the CU bookstall at Cambridge in my day, but whose 1973 Knowing God became the go-to devotional doctrinal handbook for Evangelicals. But I first got to know of him through the pastoral care he gave to my best friend at a time of personal crisis down in Bristol. Later, of course, Packer settled at Regents College in Canada. His roots are firmly grounded in Puritan Calvinism, yet he too is comfortable with evolution.

Another, younger, formative name from the Reformed tradition is Os Guiness, first emerging from the tutelage of Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri, whose Dust of Death was the first serious Christian book I bought. Once more, his commitment to the historical doctrines, deeply thought through for today’s society, underlies his work – but he too sees evolution as perfectly compatible with that.

The reason that these prominent Evangelicals have taken evolution in their stride is that the traditional Evangelical movement in Britain, like the Catholic Church at its best (in Aquinas, for example), and like Warfield, has maintained a strong view of providence. This has been maintained through the classic conception of God as of a different order of being from his Creation, but as active in every part of it through divine concursus. In this way, since no dichotomy has to be insisted upon between primary and secondary causation, it is metaphysically quite unproblematic to conceive of God working (if not strictly “creating”  as such) through some “natural” evolutionary process, just as he works daily in normal processes to answer prayer or to guide history. Any problems come from resolving apparent discrepancies between the biblical narrative of creation and the scientific, but that is simply a question of work-in-progress, and is by no means a crisis, even though it may divide opinion.

This is primarily a Calvinistic approach, but as my recent piece on Wesley clearly shows, Arminian “middle knowledge” theology allows just as much for a strong doctrine of providence in nature. There were plenty of evangelical Arminians in the Christian Union at Cambridge! Both main doctrinal streams in Evangelicalism, then, have been able to live comfortably with evolution for at least as long as I have been a Christian. Of course, Anabaptists of various kinds have also historically held a high view of providence (if not always holding a high view of the natural realm itself).

All this being so, the task of BioLogos (to bring evolutionary theory within the compass of Evangelical theology) ought to have been easy. So many respected thinking Evangelicals were already on-board, together with their reasoning to be drawn on, expanded, and focused on the particular subject of origins. One would have expected thoroughgoing treatments of the classic doctrine of providence in the Reformers, perhaps going back to Aquinas and even Augustine. One might have even expected much attention to be concentrated on Alfred Russel Wallace in the scientific field, who for all his spiritualism (which in the evolutionary context was really more “angelism”) saw evolution overall in providentially guided terms. Certainly the early theistic evolutionists of Darwin’s day would be expected to feature prominently in discussion as pioneers in wedding orthodox doctrine to the new science.

But none of this, in my experience of BioLogos over these years, has been the case. Those I have mentioned are conspicuous by their absence. The most recent series on divine action, for example, featured three alternative approaches. Alvin Plantinga, though from a Reformed background, does not really work in the sphere of providence. His argument, that the Enlightenment idea of the universe as a closed causal system is flawed, is a good justification for belief in miracles, but does little to address the daily role of God in nature.

R J Russell’s idea that God may guide quantum events grew out of the “divine action” project of a couple of decades ago, and seeks (in effect) to find a small gap outside the “inviolable” laws of physics which would leave room for God to work legitimately. It has none of the richness of the traditional concept of the sovereign God acting creatively and imminently in all things through concursus.

The third view presented, from Thomas Jay Oord, is an extreme Openness approach (even for openness aproaches) that, to be frank, owes very little to historic Christian doctrine, whether or not it meets somebody’s definition of “Evangelical”. Openness theologians are prone to complain of harsh treatment from “conservatives”, but that is not the issue here. It’s a question of that advertised mission of BioLogos – to make Evangelicals more comfortable with evolution. BioLogos is not, according to its literature, an organisation dedicated to redefining Evangelicalism altogether, still less to debunking the Christian doctrine of God.

After all, BioLogos has been noticeably reluctant to examine “alternative” views to Neodarwinism in evolutionary theory over the years, as we’ve often pointed out here. Perhaps they wish to stick to basic consensus science to keep their message to readers simple. If so, why do they not also stick to basic consensus Christianity? There are, I would suggest, far more dissenters from Neodarwinism in universities than there are dissenters from traditional doctrine in Evangelical pews.

Would one not be better advised (to use an historical analogy) to examine how Calvin’s doctrine of providence can accommodate evolution (via Kidner, Stott, Packer or Guinness perhaps) rather than trying to argue that the troublesome Socinus really had a valid Evangelical theology after all? Would it not be worth looking at how Arminius resolved free-will with creation and with providence (via Wesley, maybe) rather than seeking to persuade Christians that their leaders are blinkered or ruled by “fear of the truth” if they reject postmodern (often Anti-Nicene and Anti-Chalcedonian) exaggerations of Arminian “free will” doctrine?

The comments on another current BioLogos series, on the history of the American Scientific Affiliation, give the impression that only Open Theists like Karl Giberson and Biblical Errantists like Kenton Sparks and Peter Enns were flying the flag for evolution just a few years ago against the entrenched Creationism of conservative Evangelicals. One would think that to be the case judging by the platform given to them over the years at BioLogos, as compared to those theologians with less controversial theologies.

But the examples I have given from nearly half a century ago from some of the great names of Evangelicalism, not to mention the nineteenth century theistic evolutionists, give the lie to the idea that only those cutting at the roots of traditional theology are enlightened enough to be open to what science is saying.

My own experience has been that arguing from traditional doctrine to support evolution has not been that welcome. For example, in the R J Russell thread, I was made to feel that my suggestion, that Russell’s “quantum-tinkering” would be in keeping with the traditional doctrine of universal providence, was an extreme view – that is, that universal providence itself was an extreme view. But the next open prayer session at my church reminded me that universal providence is the utterly orthodox prequisite for all intercession (and even for praying the Lord’s Prayer – how else can we depend on God for “bread for the morrow”?). Saying that God, because of his loving nature, is powerless to answer prayer – that’s extreme.

In the essay to which I linked in the last post, a long account of the “meliorist” theologies being harboured within Evangelicalism nowadays is interrupted by a paragraph on the controversy of evolution. The controversy turns out to be something of a storm in a teacup (Alister McGrath is quoted saying that opposition to evolution is, as I have been suggesting, “neither essential nor typical of Evangelicalism”). What is noticeable is how the author finds no connection between this issue and the new theologies he has been mainly considering: in fact he ends this paragraph with a mention of John H Walton, whose work on Genesis holds to a high view of its inspired authority.

And indeed, there is nothing in openness theology, kenoticism, panentheism and so on that renders theistic evolution any more congenial to Christianity than does “the faith of our fathers”, from whichever historical Evangelical stream they come (barring, I suppose, the extreme biblical literalists influenced by American Fundamentalism). The proviso to that statement would be that the common definition of theistic evolution as “creation allowed to make itself” (Polkinghorne) doesn’t really accord with any true theism (for “theism” implies divine personal immanence as well as transcendence), let alone with the Nicene doctrine of creation*.

The fact that BioLogos habitually gives so much space to the advocacy of minority positions which radically redefine doctrines as fundamental as the nature of God suggests that its agenda of “Evangelicals, meet Evolution and make friends” is less than the whole story. Its sometimes seems as if theistic evolution is little more than tasty bait for the barbed hook of a profoundly non-Evangelical theological system.


 

*”We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,] Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father … by whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth].”

...a theory of  the effect of the environment on the evolution of God.

…a theory of the effect of the environment on the evolution of God.

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 Consensus science, fringe theology

  1. Ron S says:

    Having read the essay you linked in the last post – I’d have to agree with what you say. Especially liked your reference to the Lord’s prayer – the implications are most profound for many current theories.

    It seems many people tend to make up their minds relatively quickly and then use facts to support their position. Rare is the one who can sift the facts and THEN reach a conclusion.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks Ron

    I guess there are reasons for the unnecessary linkage between “evolutionary creation” and theological heterodoxy (or at least, a taste for doctrinal smörgåsbord) in conjunction with a marked scientific conservatism.

    Tossing out a few factors at random, they might include the panentheism and process theology of many of those academics involved in the old “divine action” project rubbing off at the popular level; a knee-jerk hatred of a caricatured Calvinism; a lack of historical awareness; the preference of scientists for metaphysically simple theology that doesn’t complicate the science; an emotional reaction to Creationism and an ID perceived as its bedfellow; a lack of realisation that one can’t insulate ones science from ones religious praxis (hence praying to God though you believe the Creation to be autonomous) and so on.

    But whatever reasons may operate, I can’t see the virtue of trying to resolve uncertainty about a small issue (science of life) by fostering uncertainty about everything else in, and outside, the created realm. But maybe that’s just me – I see creation as a gift to be enjoyed to the glory of God, not as a challenge to all we believe about him.

  3. Robert Byers says:

    Arer there evangelicals in Britain/ Just kidding. I know there are a few.
    I see no need to question the clear boundaries of scripture on origins.
    I do see a need to question human competence on figuring out these past and gone processes and results.
    I am sure North american evangelicals will never be persuaded Genesis is wrong, or wrongly read, about basic boundaries. We are persuaded humans know very little and thats why sickness, blindness, like Chris rock the comedian says, still exists.
    Genesis believers do not reject science. We reject error and incompetence in the small circles that study origin subjects.
    We take them on and beat them up.
    We shall prevail and not the fish to fisherMEN crowd.
    Is thewre biological scientific evidence for evolution??? Never seen any yet.

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Are there evangelicals in Britain?

    There are indeed more than a few evangelicals, and there are a lot fewer Unitarians, Deists, Open Theists, Emerging Christians, Joel’s Army, Mormons, Moonies and so on as well. You should try it…

    Is there biological scientific evidence for evolution???

    Yes of course there is – just as there is evidence for a young earth and instant creation. The question is what one accepts as evidence and how one interprets it. It should be left to the atheists naively to mistake “I am not persuaded by the evidence” with “There is no evidence.” The question is what evidence exists for any position, and the mindset one brings to examining it.

    But as an ID supporter you’d know how differently people interpret the evidence even in that community.

    As for my personal position, I declare as a Genesis supporter, having started studying (if memory serves) around 1967, two years after my conversion, and continued doing so ever since: though I remember discussing it at primary school in connection with my interest in dinosaurs several years earlier.

    • Robert Byers says:

      I am YEC and include iD where it doesn’t interfere with YEC.
      HMMM. Your comment about evidence takes me back a bit.
      I say that things that are true have evidence and things that are not true do not. The so-called evidence for untrue things is just data being interpreted wrongly.
      Yet I’m not sure about this. Is evidence a truth neutral term? Is it this way in court?
      Thats why I say there is no biological scientific evidence for evolution. I don’t mean they don’t present data and interpretation but that its not accurately evidence under analysis.
      Hmmm.
      I think evidence for a conclusion is real. So I don’t think evidence is a generic term for perceived evidence.
      I can’t see there is EVIDENCE I am a man and/or a woman. There is evidence for the truth only. The rest is false data or something.
      Evidence is conclusive I am a man.

      • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

        Robert

        In legal terms, “evidence” is what each side presents to make its case. The judge or jury makes a judgement on which evidence they prefer – and it’s usually a less than slam-dunk matter, or you wouldn’t need the court process, just a lynch mob.

        The reason that’s a good way of looking at evidence is that if “evidence” just means whatever you decide is true, then you can’t in theory overturn a wrong verdict – which in practice happens all the time, because courts make mistakes.

        Scientific and theological questions, of course, aren’t law cases – but we still need to remember we’re as fallible as any jury. As Proverbs 18.17 says, “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines.”

        The flip-side of that is that those hearing the case need to be willing to look at their first impressions very carefully and modify them. A very wise Christian when I was a teenager (he went on to be an army briagdier, as it happens) challenged me to look less at what I believed, and more at why I believed it.

        That helps me understand my core commitments. For example, in any particular instance am I trusting that God is speaking through the Bible, or just in my own opinion of what the Bible says? In preaching, you’d be surprised how often a passage turns out not to be saying what you always assumed it did.

        By the way, I see an Uncommon Descent column is on the same theme, directed at atheists.

        • Robert Byers says:

          So evidence , you say, is irrelevant to its accuracy as details of truth. Its a verb of collection of data for one side.
          This would correct my impression of what evidence is.

          I always preach and insist there is no biological scientific evidence for evolution.
          I start from the premise that a erroneous idea couldn’t possibly have bio sci evidence to back it up. Like evolution.
          Then press them to show me bio sci evidence.
          Then i strive to show why they failed.
          My big point is that biology in origin subjects is about biological processes. They don’t show the process, can’t anyways, but show ONLY bio results. Then presume the process BUT proclaim they showed the process evidence.
          They didn’t.
          SO i insist there is no bio sci evidence.
          Despite the evidence issue I still say I can say this.
          Anyways thats why i ask people what they think evidence is.

          • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

            Its a verb of collection of data for one side.

            That’s pretty fair. But you need to go further and see that it’s only evidence for a particular “side” because of the assumptions that side brings to it. And that means you have to look at the justification for those assumptions as well.

            For example, the gospel accounts are evidence for the resurrection of Jesus… or evidence of ancient fraud, to a convinced atheist. Why does he say it’s a fraud? Perhaps he’ll reply, “Dead men don’t rise.” And then you have to ask what evidence he has for that assumption (there’s quite a lot in the world, seeing death is universal!), and why it’s an unjustified assumption in this case.

            Conversely, you and I have to be ready to say why we believe Christ is risen in the face of the overwhelming experience of the human race about death: to say “The Bible teaches it” isn’t evidence to an unbeliever – though the Holy Spirit might well bring conviction to someone who is told that. But then the “evidence” would be the power of the Spirit more than just the testimony of Scripture.

            My own testimony is that my trust in the Scriptures as God’s own word came through a spiritual experience that brought them alive to me, some five years after I became a Christian and had been reading the Bible regularly. But I don’t often mention that here or on other blogs, because it’s evidence only to my own heart.

            Strangely enough, though, that spiritual conviction in the total reliability of God’s word has never led me to embrace young earth chronology or rule out evolution, though it’s been with me for 45 years now.

            Complicated old world, isn’t it?

  5. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Note: coincidentally BioLogos has just put up a column by Peter Enns on the so-called deep problem Evangelicals have with evolution.

    It would seem to confirm the attempt – at least by Peter Enns, though it was BioLogos that opted to post it – to make theistic evolution of a piece with radical theology.

    I’ve replied largely summarising my own OP above and adding some more evidence, to show that this is a false connection, not to mention a quite deliberate straw-man. But I really shouldn’t have to, given the publicly available facts of the matter.

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