Habit-forming methodological naturalism

All the main participants in the “two person bottleneck” thread on BioLogos have, as I write, gone to lick their wounds in teaching or research. It’s going about as inconclusively as I predicted here.

One thing I noticed as more significant than the discussion itself was a revealing aside from Dennis Venema, in which he suggested that, if one took literally the creation of Eve from Adam’s side, one really ought to be discussing a bottleneck of one, not two.

Now the remark was facetious, but I think it was intended to show the folly of the literal view underlying the main discussion by showing to what biological problems it led. In other words, he was genuinely suggesting that Eve’s special creation from Adam poses an extra genetic problem. This, to me, exemplifies how those who are wedded to methodological naturalism all too easily slip into metaphysical naturalism. The habit of sidelining the theological tends to impact ones own theology.

The thought process appers to be this: Dennis postulates that a miracle indeed happened. But then he draws conclusions from it as if a natural process had happened instead – some kind of cell culture from Adam, I suppose. Eve, “manufactured” from Adam in this mechanistic way, necessarily has the same genotype as Adam, and therefore contributes no new genetic material to the race. Presumably the idea includes the assumption that God duplicated Eve’s X-chromosome in order to, at least, allow her to be female, even if a clone.

There is no apparent recognition in this that God might have, in such a scenario, been doing, you know, a miracle – or rather, an act of de novo creation. It reminds me (very closely, in fact) of the liberal Bishop John Robinson who (in Honest to God, I believe) wrote that if the virgin birth were true, Jesus would have had to be a female as that’s what happens in parthenogenesis, there being no Y-chromosome to use.

But Jesus was not born by parthenogenesis, but by the power of the Spirit. He had a Father – God himself. But he was also, according to Scripture, the son of David, and indeed the son of a whole family tree back to Adam, in Luke’s Gospel. Naturalism should have been left at the door from the start in discussing such a supernatural event as the Incarnation – especially by a bishop of the Anglican church.

God had no problems doing Y-chromosomes or whatever else was necessary for the fully human body of Jesus. Nobody can guess at Jesus’s genome, but it was certainly contingent and unique, like those of any of us: and God’s right to direct that contingency to its proper end is the prerogative of the Creator, just as it would have been in the case of an Eve created literally from the rib of Adam. That much should be immediately obvious, unless naturalism has clouded ones vision for other possibilities.


That leads me to consider more widely the matter of God’s contingency in creation, miracle and revelation. It may well be that the description of Eve’s creation is part of the “mythic” genre of Genesis 2 rather than a physical description of events. John Walton, for example, points to the deep sleep of Adam as a typical scriptural indicator of a visionary experience, in which case the vision (equally supernatural) would be intended to teach Adam truth about the role of his wife as his counterpart and “helpmeet”, rather than merely as a servant or pet (as would have been the case had any of the animals been deemed suitable as his helper). But whether a literary truth or a literal one, the point about Eve’s origin from Adam’s side is nothing to do with raw materials (material causation) and everything to do with meaning (final causation).

God could have created Eve from the dust of the ground like Adam, or indeed ex nihilo. The reason the text says he did not is because her origin from Adam himself has a meaning, which has been fairly consistently understood by interpreters down the millennia, whatever the natural philosophy of their culture, because the text goes out of its way to explain it.

In the same way, it’s a sign of the habit-forming character of materialism when people start looking at the chemical composition of the dust of the ground from which Adam was made, whether that be in order to marvel at how chemically similar dust is to flesh or, more realistically, how unlike the two are. Once again, God could easily have made Adam ex nihilo, or from a tree or a lion, or by evolution. The fact that the text refers to creation from dust – whether as a literal act, a derivative act such as common descent, or simply a rhetorical device – is nothing to do with raw materials, but the meaning that derives from Adam’s (and man’s) close relationship to the earth, and (more polemically) his similarity to mere dust when he gets above himself.

In considering the Scriptural treatment of Adam and Eve’s origin, I leave open here the question of whether the events are literal or not, but stress that in either case it’s the teaching that is most important – we learn the same lessons whether God formed Adam from dust, or authoritatively describes him as formed from dust. Likewise we learn the same lessons whether Eve was formed from Adam or is simply revealed to be created in such a relationship to him.

This does not by any means imply, however, that the interpretion must be non-literal simply because of the physical dysjunction between “raw material” and “created product”. For the theological significance of God’s creative acts, as opposed to their scientific logic, occurs also in uncontroversially (I speak to Christians!) historical texts. I mentioned the Virgin Birth. Jesus did not have to come into the world in precisely that way – I would argue that the main “function” of the event was as a sign of his uniqueness, not because his Father was really God, or because he’d have inherited sin from any earthly father. But whatever the theological significance, it is that significance (final causation) that is the sole determinant of the efficient causation God chose to use.

The same applies in the works of Jesus himself. Why did he change water into wine, when he could have created several cases of Château Mouton Rothschild ex nihilo and left the bottles as helpful relics in Cathedrals across the world? It was not because water is a necessary raw material of wine, and neither can methodological naturalists suggest that the miracle is in doubt because water does not contain all the necessary ingredients.

John himself supplies, none too obliquely, the significance. It was the replacement of the old way of the law (with its ritual purification) with the wine of the New Covenant that was signified by the miracle – and that is the reason John names it as the first of his “signs”.

Similarly in the feeding of the five thousand Jesus could have made bread from stones, or from nothing, or in fact laid on a seven course gourmet banquet served by angels, when he chose to multiply the loaves and fishes. Liberal anti-supernaturalists have implausibly suggested that the example of Jesus sharing out such a small feast as five loaves and two small fishes shamed the crowd into breaking out, and sharing, the hampers of good things they’d kept concealed under their middle-eastern tea-towels. But they are right in one thing – it was the lesson of God’s being able to use the limited resources of his disciples to feed his whole kingdom that governed how he fed the crowd, and not because it was easier to make self-reproducing bread than some other miracle.

I read the other day a quote from someone (I think Robert Rosen) to the effect that since the material of the body changes almost completely every 80 days, studying efficient biochemical causes instead of formal and final causation blinds one entirely to the actual nature of life. He said (rhetorically, of course) that one “can throw away the matter and study the organization order”. His insights led to the development of systems biology and the increasing realisation that reductionist approaches don’t only fail to bring understanding of the object of study in biology, but actually impede it. Molecular biology has yet to appreciate that – and it may have a bearing on the Venema-Buggs debate, if only we knew it.

The same is true in the wider field of the Christian studying God’s world. If, as a matter of professional principle, you make a habit of excluding formal and final causes, both in the biological realm itself, and in considering God as Creator of the world, it is a rarely dispassionate individual who is going to be able to break down those mental barriers when not doing the day job. Consequently, most will concentrate all their attention on how God does things (which, as we’ve seen, isn’t always what the end results suggest – wine comes from grapes, not water, and mass, even of bread and fish, is usually conserved, not multiplied); and they will tend to miss entirely why he does things, in the sense of their meaning.

They might even unconsciously deny there is any meaning by invoking “chance” and “necessity” as causes, instead of God’s creative will.

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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2 Responses to Habit-forming methodological naturalism

  1. Jay313 says:

    A big “amen” to this:

    But whether a literary truth or a literal one, the point about Eve’s origin from Adam’s side is nothing to do with raw materials (material causation) and everything to do with meaning (final causation). God could have created Eve from the dust of the ground like Adam, or indeed ex nihilo. The reason the text says he did not is because her origin from Adam himself has a meaning, which has been fairly consistently understood by interpreters down the millennia, whatever the natural philosophy of their culture, because the text goes out of its way to explain it.

    In thinking about “meaning,” we have to recognize something important, which is that one must have the proper authority to assign meaning. For example, I could not decide that tomorrow “red” would mean “go,” and “green” would mean “stop.” I lack the authority to assign that meaning. Along similar lines, only God has the authority to assign meaning to history, which is the purpose (if I may use that word) of Scripture …

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      This is true – but partly true, I think, since making meaning is surely one of those things in which we most resemble God over against every other creature.

      For example, Israel were told that God would bless their nation if they were obedient, and curse it if not, as well as God’s teaching in diverse places about how other nations were being punished for sins or blessed by grace.

      Accordingly, it was application of principle as well as prophetic insight that justified the interpretation of “the hard times of old Israel” as an indicator both of God’s displeasure and of their own sin.

      Nevertheless, even the fact that history has a meaning and a trajectory (rather than repetitive “great year” cycles), and especially its eschatological goal, is indeed a matter for revelation, as human theories of progress such as Marxism have demonstrated in our own times.

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