Evolutionary Creation and theology of nature

Eddie Robinson’s piece on Theistic Evolution coincided with a thread on Peaceful Science on the same Crossway critique of that position.

Naturally enough Eddie’s comments discussed Theistic Evolution, especially as represented by BioLogos, in relation to Intelligent Design, broadly in terms of natural theology (that is, what is it possible to know about God from nature).

Coincidentally, I’ve recently been considering Evolutionary Creation’s role from the other end, that is, in terms of theology of nature, that is, what our knowledge about God leads us to expect to find in nature. My thinking was based on the the fact that, whilst ID claims to be a scientific enterprise, BioLogos and Evolutionary Creation do not, and so it follows that they must be essentially theological positions.

The terms used underline that. Francis Collins’ “BioLogos” was originally coined as a position, not an organisation, rebranding theistic evolution as “Bios through Logos” (Language of God p.203), thus ostensibly harmonising “life” as in biology with “logos”, God as the Word. The term never caught on, and theistic evolution (evolution involving God) has tended to become Denis Lamoureux’s “Evolutionary Creation” (creation by means of evolution). You’ll see that all three terms express the role of God in biological evolution – that is, they represent a theology of nature, at least as far as evolution goes.

And that makes it odd that, especially in recent years, BioLogos has been hesitant to make any actual propositional claims about their theology of nature, stressing on the one hand the truth of evolutionary science, and apparently at several removes the Creatorhood of God.

I explored this in a couple of threads there recently. One was not mine, involving the definition of evolution – which to the surprise of nobody I suppose, proved difficult to settle. The second was the first thread I’ve ever started on the BioLogos forum, by which I hoped by a kind of socratic dialogue to get folks to explore just what they mean by “Evolutionary Creation.”

I started by asking people to say what they understood by the word “create.” A surprising number of responses came from atheists, but the believers gave some reasonable answers, most of which had a lot to do with innovation and teleology, the kind of association with artistic or craft enterprise you would expect.

Subsequently, I asked people to say how they’d specifically apply that understanding to evolution, to achieve a clear view of “Evolutionary Creation”. I wrote:

So is it not possible to give a coherent account of Evolutionary Creation, beyond asserting that both “creation” and “evolution” happen somewhere and somehow?

The result was illuminating, first in its sparse responses compared to the first “task,” secondly in that in pretty well all the responses the two were simply held in tension, and thirdly in that one person, who got two “likes”, held that such a synthesis may or may not be possible, but that in any case it is not necessary to live an intellectually and spiritually satisfying life.

To the extent this represents a general trend (and my impression is that it does) this suggests that the theology of nature implied by “Evolutionary Creation” tends to be “We don’t need a theology of nature.”

Independent of this, on the Peaceful Science thread already linked, Daniel Gordon, a graduate physics student, endorsed this impression (in agreeing with Eddie’s piece), but put it down to the narrowly scientific education of people at BioLogos, making them hesitant in areas like philosophy and theology. I agree that there is such a limitation in science education, and that it affects BioLogos to some extent, but that is not the whole answer, because the unwillingness to “do” a theology of nature is only quite recent.

When BioLogos started, it inherited much of its ethos from the ASA discussion boards, which in turn had been influenced by the “Divine Action Project”. In particular, Howard van Till was a regular voice at ASA, promoting an “openness of God” theology which, applied to nature, produced his “Robust Formational Economy Principle”. This strand is evident between the lines in Francis Collins’ The Language of God, the manifesto for BioLogos, and was present overtly in the early years of BioLogos, particularly through co-founder Karl Giberson (an Open Theist), theological adviser Peter Enns and the second President, Darrel Falk.

Now van Till’s scheme is every inch a theology of nature, and one which I found both heterodox and incoherent, leading to my “ideological breach” with BioLogos beginning in 2011. Others in the churches also noticed it – and arguably it lies behind much of the theological critique of BioLogos in the Crossway Tome, behind the Young Earth rhetoric in that book.

Nothing was ever said in public, but it appears that leadership changes at BioLogos were at least in part intended to weaken this theological approach, so that it is not really a large part of the EC picture there now. But for whatever reason, that “free nature” theology has never been replaced with any attempt, or even much attempt at a discussion, of a more orthodox alternative.

My cynical side tells me this is because if you refuse to formulate a position, it can’t be demonstrated to be incoherent. Or perhaps, that realising you can’t make “Evolutionary” and “Creation”, or “Bios” and “Logos”, or “Theistic” and “Evolution” fit together, except as a slogan, you keep mum.

Better still, you make silence a virtue, by cobbling together a doctrine of the “hiddenness of God”, or eschewing the “God of the Gaps” fallacy, or throwing buzzwords like “mystery” and “humility” about to make your critics appear legalistic rather than simply intellectually rigorous. Sometimes, despite BioLogos being a theological, rather than a scientific, project, the reason given is that good science cannot  demonstrate truths about God, which may be true, but is irrelevant to the matter of Christians formulating a theology of nature.

This is how I have read the situation for a long time, but I want here particularly to show that the appeal to science, and its need to avoid reference to God, is inadmissible, because the very foundation of science as we know it was the willingness of early modern scientists to propose a theology of nature, on which all scientific efforts since have built.

It’s true that Bacon and Co. began the move away from “natural theology” that, much later, became methodological naturalism. But we must also remember that their basis for so doing was a radical new theology of nature, to replace the mediaeval theology of nature that had underpinned science up till then.

Scholastic metaphysics, particularly in Thomas Aquinas, provided the framework in which the relationship of God to creation, and therefore the structure of creation itself, had been understood. My own most recent pieces on The Hump here and here touch on that, because scholastic metaphysics is far from dead in the age of quantum physics and evolution.

But the early moderns sought to replace the core Aristotelian concepts of potency and actuality – inherent powers within created substances – with the mechanical philosophy. This viewed matter as consisting of inert corpuscles, with no powers of their own, acting in obedience to divinely appointed and governed laws, analogous to the divine Law of Moses in the human sphere. This was done, in large part, to glorify God’s sovereignty and to “disenchant” nature of rivals to him.

In other words, for theological reasons, nature would be viewed under this new model of theological philosophy, rather than in the old way based on mediaeval theological philosophy.

At the same time, the same theology left room for both the special providence and miraculous intervention of God – probably, I think, without needing to rework the detailed understanding of those categories from their scholastic models. In other words, theological concepts such as divine concurrence and the occasional overruling of “laws of nature” were built into the understanding of nature of early scientists, and positively affirmed by them as the basis of their work.

Evolutionary Creation’s refusal to restate a theology of nature is, therefore, a cop-out that undermines both science and theology – and that matters when there is no other way to understand your project than as a synthesis of science (evolution) and theology (creation).

Remember that the original early modern theology of inert, law-goverened nature will no longer do the job adequately, for one very specific reason: in Evolutionary Creation we have introduced the term “creation” into a process being described as “natural science” – and no Boyle or Newton would have confused creation with nature for one moment, for nature was the end result of creation, not the means by which it was held to have occured.

Joshua Swamidass asks in his review of the Crossway Tome whether there is a theory of theistic evolution that can be theologically orthodox. It remains to be seen how successfully orthodox views on God’s sole Creatorship and sovereignty over nature can be integrated with evolutionary science, particularly under the naturalistic metaphysical assumptions of modern science. The truth is, there appear to be some circles to square in describing “orthodox theistic evolution” which, perhaps, some Evolutionary Creationists have seen and done their best to hide under the carpet of fideism (believing in both Christ and evolution, but not establishing a clear relationship between the two).

Already, though, outsiders have been nudging the carpet with their feet and raising some dust. Why should they accept a concept like “Evolutionary Creation” if it has no solid intellectual framework?

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.
This entry was posted in Creation, Philosophy, Science, Theology, Theology of nature. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Evolutionary Creation and theology of nature

  1. GBrooks12 says:

    Jon,

    This is an EXCELLENT observation! I couldn’t agree with something you wrote more!

    “Sometimes, despite BioLogos being a theological, rather than a scientific, project, the reason given is that good science cannot demonstrate truths about God, which may be true, but is irrelevant to the matter of Christians formulating a theology of nature.”

  2. GBrooks12 says:

    And then you conclude with:

    “Joshua Swamidass [ Readers see: http://www.PeacefulScience.Org ]
    … asks in his review of the Crossway Tome whether there is a theory of theistic evolution that can be theologically orthodox. It remains to be seen how successfully orthodox views on God’s sole Creatorship and sovereignty over nature can be integrated with evolutionary science, particularly under the naturalistic metaphysical assumptions of modern science. The truth is, there appear to be some circles to square in describing “orthodox theistic evolution” which, perhaps, some Evolutionary Creationists have seen and done their best to hide under the carpet of fideism (believing in both Christ and evolution, but not establishing a clear relationship between the two).”

    “Already, though, outsiders have been nudging the carpet with their feet and raising some dust. Why should they accept a concept like “Evolutionary Creation” if it has no solid intellectual framework?”

    I think this conclusion works as a “nudge” against the hesitating BioLogos team. But perhaps it would be better to emphasize that it doesn’t take much to construct a Theology of Nature.

    When I introduce the general idea, especially to Evangelicals who think “Evolution is a Lie”, I usually start with asking if they accept that God sometimes uses Miraculous Processes to bring rain to this or that place on Earth? I am the first to admit, I don’t know the details of what a Miraculous Process of precipitation would be. He might even have more than one. (Jon, do you think I need to know the details, or even could?)

    And then I ask if they accept that God sometimes uses Natural Processes to bring rain to this or that place? Precipitation is well understood by Science. Humans can even “seed” clouds to trigger rain.

    Assuming my correspondent doesn’t insist that “all Natural Processes are Miraculous”, then this becomes the foundation for accepting a natural world full of the Miraculous (using Big “M” for this context), as well as a natural world full of “m”iraculous things (using little “m” for this context).

    What would be lacking, Jon? Or, what is the next logical step after coming to agreement on the two aspects of the natural universe?

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Jon, do you think I need to know the details, or even could?

      First, thanks for the appreciation, George.

      To answer this point, the ordinary Christian – until indoctrinated by materialism – has no problem simply accepting that God can make it rain or not, and they will pray, say, for an end to drought or flood, for good weather for their children’s camp, or whatever.

      They don’t have any need for a deep philosophical study of divine action. But they don’t have any need to know about evolution, either. Not only can they happily say, “Evolution’s no problem, because God did it somehow,” – they don’t need to think about it at all. It’s far less relevant than the weather, because nobody prays for something to evolve in a certain way in a few million years time. Life can be successfully lived in blithe ignorance of evolution.

      They need to think about evolution and how it works if they happen to be interested in science, or in how God runs the world (just as if they want to study meteorology professionally of from curiosity). If, in that pursuit, they set up a “science and religion” organisation, telling people how good and important the science of evolution is, then they’ve put themselves under the responsibility of more rigorous thinking about the how and why of it all.

      Taking the weather analogy. If someone says, “See, we know all the natural causes of rain now, whereas in the old days they thought God threw thunderbolts around,” then they need to be able to give a good answer to “How is God involved, then?”

      The reasons are, firstly, that they’ve been mouthing off about what “nature” does (as distinct from God) and raising doubts in the minds of the folks who might be put off praying for the weather.

      And secondly, the unbelievers are going to say, “It seems to me your God doesn’t do anything, and nature explains it all quite nicely. You yourselves condemn ‘God of the gaps’ arguments’.” There seem to be a good number of such people over at BioLogos, and not only are there few effective answers for them, but few effective responses for those uncertain onlookers who say, “Hey, those atheists have a point – and nobody here seems to have a believable alternative.”

      On the historical reasons for a robust theology of nature, see my reply to GD below.

  3. GD GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    Your interest and others who discuss evolutionary creation (If I may use that phrase to describe the subject matter) to synthesise orthodox theology and evolution will, imo inevitably fail, for the simple reason that the ToE is not a theory of all science, nor is it a theory of life and how it unfolded on earth.

    At the risk making comments outside my field, a synthesis requires a foundation of the two areas that would be used to arrive at the third (new) outlook. Orthodox theology has a thorough grounding of God and creation, albeit not so specific on nature as a theology. It would be appropriate to work towards a similar grounding for the natural/physical science, and incorporating ToE into such a grounding is very difficult – the task should begin with an attempt to make ToE a theory that may be derived from maths/physics/chemistry. If that were ever accomplished, I would think a harmony between orthodox theology and science (faith-science) may be possible.

    I think the early scientists had a grounding in that Christian theology provided the context for their science. The secular and material context of today has removed this, and Christian scientist are required to work these matters for themselves – and also debate their views.

    I cannot see how any atheist could be involved, or would be interested in this enterprise.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      George

      As this piece tries to show, I’m interested in a theology of nature, rather than a theology of evolution. Depending on ones theology of nature, particular sciences may be strengthened, clarified or even, potentially, debunked as unscientific.

      I don’t think addressing particular sciences is a bad thing. For example, I’m reading Heisenberg whose account of quantum uncertainty depends on the Aristotelian concept of potencies. As a devout Lutheran, he was quite aware that he was, albeit gently, challenging a “classical science” theology of nature with a a different one. In his case, it was in order to do better science, ie to make better sense of the world.

      If Heisenberg’s “challenge” were taken seriously, then maybe it would lead to a rethink of the theological and philosophical assumptions underlying the whole of classical science – that broad area of which you write. Downstream of that, such a shift would affect the biological sciences too, just as their current assumptions are very much a product of an atomistic understanding of science, and evolution, as the mere sum of stochastic chemical changes.

      George (the other George) asks why we need a detailed theology of nature, and it’s a good question. It would be interesting to get a historical understanding of why Aquinas thought it necessary to work so intensively on synthesizing Aristotle, Plato and Scriptural revelation. It certainly wasn’t an empty exercise – as Hesienberg alone shows – but there must have been some pressing need for him to be set aside for that rather than writing more biblical commentaries (at which he was extremely good).

      Likewise our present secularised theology of nature arose from Bacon and so on. We remember their aim to achieve more practical results from science, but if we put all their motives together, what was the perceived need and was it a worthwhile response?

      And so to today – are there important probelms arising from the old “theology of nature” that make a rethink, at as deep an intellectual level, important? I’d say the hegemony of secularism and its apparent intellectual high ground makes the answer “Yes.” More personally, I have that kind of Keplerian theological and scientific mindset of wanting to bring glory to God by understanding his work in the world better.

      • GD GD says:

        “I’m interested in a theology of nature, rather than a theology of evolution.”

        We are in agreement on this, Jon. I too have been interested in a deeper understanding of the creation through science, and I was convinced about 40 years ago that the matter requires an understanding of theology, and a general appreciation of the foundations of science. I do not consider myself another Thomas, and the work of that theologian continues to inform us to this day – some feat.

        I have been convinced for some time that we may achieve a faith-science harmony by seeking a understanding of God as creator, and from that contemplate the creation as a gift that requires our intellectual endeavours – in other words, we have been created with intellect, and given a creation that would exercise that intellect. This both glorifies God and benefits us if we are guided by the faith.

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

          I have been convinced for some time that we may achieve a faith-science harmony by seeking a understanding of God as creator, and from that contemplate the creation as a gift that requires our intellectual endeavours

          Yes, I’m sure you’re right – I suspect the more that we truly know of creation (through the right model of nature) the more like worship science becomes.

          • GD GD says:

            This may sound like a strange question, but I feel compelled to ask, “Why terms such as EC or TE?” From what I can understand here and Biologos, the distinction is between those who believe God is creator, and those who either do not, or have a vague notion that God may be loosely involved (or do not believe).

            Those of us who believe God is Creator have a great deal to understand, without the need for culture wars. Would it be better if the discussion was confined to determining what Christianity understands regarding the theology of creation?

            • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

              George

              Any true theology of nature will move beyond those terms, whose shortcomings as terms even in their restricted application I’ve pointed out before. In particular, EC’s claim that God “created through evolution” requires specific evaluation on the nature between creation and natural processes, which was scarcely relevant in former centuries.

              My excuse for starting from there is that one of the things that has shown the shortcomings of the current paradigm is what has been found in biology in the last couple of centuries, and the “question” of evolution raised by it. Quantum theory is another. Deep cosmological time another.

              And on another tack, a new understanding of biblical theology demands setting nature in its context in the salvation history of the world. As does the need for renewed statements on providence and miracle, once more given the new discovery of long ages without human beings as the focus of God’s care.

              • GD GD says:

                I have thought for many years the starting point should be how human intellect acquires knowledge, and how we understand revelation. This requires as a starting point belief in God and the Orthodox understanding of the Trinity, and how we speak; of the attributes of God.

                The current situation seems to me to be chaotic – often discussions start with something new that science has done, and from that modification of some theology, often a home spun version that somehow gets back to Genesis and six days.

                I agree with you in terms of seeing the entire Creation as part of salvation in Christ.

                The achievements of the natural sciences are considerable and often need some education and expertise to comprehend. The Church needs experts to explain these to us.

  4. GBrooks12 says:

    GD,

    You write: “Your interest and others who discuss evolutionary creation (If I may use that phrase to describe the subject matter) to synthesise orthodox theology and evolution will, imo inevitably fail, for the simple reason that the ToE is not a theory of all science, nor is it a theory of life and how it unfolded on earth.”

    This thesis that Jon describes is not limited to Creation, right? Since God is rather more like a “black box” than like a “gear” requiring precision fit … you don’t think it is close enough to simply allow for “Miraculous” and “Non-Miraculous”? Clouds are not everything. Creating life is not everything. Creating Quarks that make Protons is not everything.

    But it does seem that even BioLogos acknowledges in their mission statements that “Everything” comes in two varieties – – Providential Miracles Wrought through Nature … and Providential Miracles that Exceed Anything about Nature Humans can Understand. While I’m sure there are some Natural things that look un-lawful, and would make sense if we knew more, it doesn’t appear to me that being able to sort things out accurately into the two “piles” is particularly important … only that we accommodate the view that God renders things above and beyond our comprehension… and that somethings **are** within our comprehension – – at least on the level of operation we (and Newton) would call Nature.

    • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

      I’m glad you liked Jon’s article, GBrooks12, especially since you presumably know that it agrees with things I’ve said here and on BioLogos for many years.

      In your answer to the other George, you write:

      “But it does seem that even BioLogos acknowledges in their mission statements that “Everything” comes in two varieties – – Providential Miracles Wrought through Nature … and Providential Miracles that Exceed Anything about Nature Humans can Understand. While I’m sure there are some Natural things that look un-lawful, and would make sense if we knew more, it doesn’t appear to me that being able to sort things out accurately into the two “piles” is particularly important”

      Yes, BioLogos acknowledges such a division, but then, when it comes to explaining anything about Creation (as opposed to the Biblical stories of Moses, Jesus, etc.), it behaves as if the whole of Creation were effected only through the first means. That is, even if Venema, Falk, Haarsma, Applegate etc. grant, for the sake of not contradicting orthodox Protestant theology, that God could have used miraculous, primary, direct divine action at some points in the creation of galaxies, planets, life, species. or man, they conduct their science/faith dialogue as if in practice God didn’t do that. I’ve shown this in the past with copious examples of statements by Venema and Falk and others. BioLogos has always written about nature under the assumption that eventually science will show a seamless set of “natural causes” from the Big Bang to man, rendering all appeals to direct divine action unnecessary “God of the gaps” thinking. And the cheerleading squad of commenters at BioLogos, including not a few atheists, has always roundly approved of the mockery of “God of the gaps” and of the exclusive endorsement of natural causation.

      Recent evidence that I have the prevailing ethos at BioLogos right is found in the rebukes of Brad Kramer and Jim Stump to Ted Davis’s suggestion that God guides evolution in a hands-on way, i.e., that some primary causation is involved as well as secondary or “natural” causation. It’s also found in Brad’s irritation at the latest comments of Bilbo, who finds Bilbo’s distinction, between law-bound or “natural” explanations and explanations based on contingent events which might well require direct divine guidance, to be “unhelpful”. At BioLogos any suggestion that direct divine action might be involved at any step of Creation (as opposed to in the miracles of Jesus) is always deemed “unhelpful”.

      In fact, what BioLogos implicitly endorses is the quest for a wholly naturalistic explanation of all events in the universe between the Big Bang and the first appearance of man. It thinks that such an account is not only the only account which natural science can deal with (since natural science can’t deal with miracles or direct divine causation); it thinks that such an account is almost certainly the true one, because (in its theological opinion) God isn’t the sort of God who “tinkers” or fools around doing miracles (except for the purpose of saving Israel and creating the Church).

      The last point indicates that a theological preference drives BioLogos. When it comes to Creation (as opposed the story of Israel and Jesus), that theological preference is for accounts of divine action resembling those of Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant, etc. — everything is done through wholly natural causes.

      And I’m not complaining that BioLogos has a theological preference. Indeed, as an organization whose main subject of interest is science and theology, it certainly ought to have a theological position (or at least, its individual members ought to take theological positions) on how God is related to things that happen in nature (including evolution). What I’ve always complained about is the evasiveness with which it states its theological position (or positions). As Jon has pointed out, here and even more forcefully recently at Peaceful Science, in a pretend-humility it tends to say that it doesn’t understand the divine “mystery” of how God interacts with nature; but that is merely an excuse for not thinking carefully or rigorously about the subject, for not courageously offering particular proposal which theologians of various persuasions can then test for Biblical soundness and systematic orthodoxy. BioLogos hides behind vagueness and a non-committal position.

      Christy, who I like best of all the BioLogos moderators, is unfortunately guilty of this. Repeatedly she has chided me and others for pressing the question of divine action in nature, and has indicated that she personally doesn’t have any clear theory of divine action in nature, and couldn’t care less about the subject, because it doesn’t make any difference to her Christian life. Aside from the fact that the same reason applies to defending evolution (since whether or not evolution is true doesn’t make any difference for most Christians to living a quality Christian life — saints have existed who are both pro- and anti-evolution), I find such a response disappointing, coming from someone with as lively and precise a mind as Christy. Despite her great intelligence in linguistic and literary matters (I often concur with her judgments), and her great common sense, she appears to have none of the intellectual curiosity of the philosopher or systematic theologian, who by intellectual inclination just itch to come up with some sort of relationship between our knowledge of God and our knowledge of nature.

      Venema, too, seems willing to leave unresolved questions (like the rather important one of why a Christian God isn’t intellectually redundant to our understanding of creation, if natural causes require only a remote Deist God to start the ball rolling, if chance mutations filtered by impersonal natural selection can account for evolution without supposing any direct divine action at any point) as matters of “mystery” which he as a Christian is willing to put off investigating indefinitely, as he spends the rest of his intellectual life working out the details of population genetics. God is involved somehow, he thinks, but (in what is sold as intellectual modesty) it’s above his pay grade as a geneticist to say how, and he’s content to leave that to the theologians to discuss. But that’s evasive, as in fact he is working with a tacit understanding of God’s involvement or non-involvement with “natural causes”, whether he articulates that understanding or not. If he were a secular geneticist, he would have no obligation to explain how God comes into the picture, but he’s a geneticist who subscribes to the mission of BioLogos, which is a religious organization, not a purely scientific one, and whose mission is to relate Bios to Logos — biology to theology — in an intellectually coherent way. Not to care about how the two are related, or to duck out the “Mystery” exit whenever that question is asked, is to betray the purpose of the organization. (Unless the alleged purpose is public relations bunkum, and the real purpose is merely to sell neo-Darwinism to the fundamentalists, at any cost.)

      Too often BioLogos folks are happy with compartmentalization: “As a scientist, I believe in the complete sufficiency of natural causes to explain the course of Creation, but as a Christian, I think God was somehow, in some way, involved — but don’t ask me how to put the two together; it’s a totally unreasonable request.” That’s the usual refrain of Brad, Christy, Dennis, Kathryn and many others there, and has been since the start. And the point is, it’s NOT an unreasonable request, GIVEN THAT THE PURPOSE OF BIOLOGOS IS THEOLOGICAL, i.e., given that the purpose of BioLogos is to show the compatibility of the Christian account of creation with the Darwinian account of evolution. You can’t show the compatibility of two things merely by laying them side by side, and saying, “I believe in both, and you’ve got no business telling me I can’t believe in both.” You can only show the compatibility by explaining how the two things are related, how the evidence for the two things dovetails, how apparent conflicts can be resolved, etc. But both at BioLogos and in the ASA before it, the strategy has almost always been to avoid any detailed relation of the two things — evolution and creation — and merely to repeatedly affirm them, side by side.

      Hence, Jon and I have kept hammering away, trying to show the world (a) that BioLogos-TE rests on an implicit theology which is rarely clear or, as far as it can be discerned, very orthodox; (b) that BioLogos, and TE generally, needs to make its theology more explicit, so that it can be properly criticized; (c) that the preferred tactic of many TE leaders, i.e., compartmentalization, believing one thing with the eye of science and another thing with the eye of faith, and dismissing all attempts to related the two things as belonging in the realm of divine mystery which the mind cannot penetrate, is inadequate.

      Already it is clear that deeper discussions of these matters are happening here, on the Hump of the Camel, and now, over at Peaceful Science. The torch of leadership in faith-science discussion is passing out of the hands of BioLogos, to other organizations. And that’s not surprising, given that the BioLogos folks have repeatedly shown that they find the torch too heavy to carry. Happy to answer difficult questions by “it’s a divine mystery how it all fits together, so you’re unreasonable to press the inquiry”, they would prefer to leave the heavy metaphysical and theological lifting to other people. Well, that is what is happening.

  5. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Given the imminent start up of school here, this reply may end up being a bit more of a “hit-and-run”, (…although…who am I kidding? – I’ll be back of course because this has a lot more appeal than a lot of other stuff that calls for my attention!)

    And it isn’t a reply to any one specific comment above, so much as a reply to the general thrusts of the article and comments above, as they have seemed to me. So; as a cheeky American painfully aware he speaks up among his superiors in all the history of patristic development, here goes my reactionary push-back –let’s call it “in defense of ‘vague’ theology” that is here associated Biologos leadership, though I’m more interested in pursuing the concept itself rather than defense of any organization, my involvement in it notwithstanding.

    Much continues to be made here of the ostensibly objectionable lack of clarity — or lack even of any clear position at all rather on how to bring scientific understandings and orthodox theological understandings (specifically including God’s ongoing and involved sovereignty) together into a unified, coherent whole. Eddie pointed out in a comment that …

    “You can’t show the compatibility of two things merely by laying them side by side, and saying, ‘I believe in both, and you’ve got no business telling me I can’t believe in both.’ You can only show the compatibility by explaining how the two things are related, how the evidence for the two things dovetails, how apparent conflicts can be resolved, etc. ”

    And this comment provokes in me now the reactionary thought: Why is the onus on others to bring these two (seemingly disparate) approaches together? Could we not (and probably with much historical, more importantly: scriptural support) see the onus laid rather on those who tried [and perhaps failed] to rip them asunder? Though I am certainly subject to correction here on this, I strongly suspect (I believe under Jon’s good influence here, which must still stand in for my direct reading of the church fathers themselves) that it was only toward the beginning of the “enlightenment” (Bacon and Descartes) that this ostensible rift began to take place, and mechanical philosophy attempted to assert itself as having independence from its own parent: theology. But this is just it: aren’t you all here giving tacit affirmation here that this divorce was a successful one when you ask others for explanations about how they must be “brought back together”?

    Or to put this another way: you make the request: “Please show us how your theology and your understandings of nature can be unified.”

    But my knee-jerk response (perhaps similar to what you see so objectionable at places like Biologos) is: “Please show me how or where they ever got separated.”

    It could well be (in my present thinking) that the entire enlightenment program of alleged separation might be the more appropriate subject of critical interrogation here, rather than those who may well be hearkening back to prior times when such compartmentalized approaches simply did not exist.

    Perhaps we could co-opt Jesus admonition regarding marriage to fit this situation as well: “Let not man separate what God has joined together.” If indeed man has tried (but failed) to alter this reality, that may go a long way toward explaining the confusion on the part of those of whom it is demanded that they need to concoct a “reunification” strategy. I think I would turn to you first and ask: what evidence can you lay out that there was ever a successful divorce – except in the minds of enlightenment enthusiasts that I’m sure none of us here feel overly beholden to lionize?

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Merv

      To begin with, I agree with you that Bacon and Descartes essentially produced the last comprehensive theology of nature, and that it has produced drawbacks (via the Enlightenmnet, particularly) as well as huge scientific gains.

      But simply because it was a theology, it has retained its hold on all our minds as Christians, and particularly with reference to science, and through that to nature. So although the story is a complex one, I think there was a successful divorce of God from nature to which figures as diverse as Alister McGrath and Werner heisenberg (my flavour of the week) have pointed, though we’re not likely to persuade Bacon to come back and correct it (except by the process of doing history to explain it).

      We see the divorce in all kinds of ways, of which the most evident and general is the hesitation of Christians npowadays to see God’s role in natural phenomenon, and/or pray for his influence over them. ‘ve mentioned before that Christians argue over global warming, but a few centuries ago the churches would have called a day of repentance and prayer for it.

      In the context of Evolutionary Creation, I think there is a lack of words and concepts to account for their association as a single idea, and that deficit does arise from the early modern theology of nature. It’s the very coining of that phrase, “Evolutionary Creation” (and cognates like theistic evolution or BioLogos) that brings the responsibility of providing such an account. If you stand up and say God does something that many people say he doesn’t (direct evolution), and that hasn’t historically been attributed to him (creating by natural causes), then you owe the world an explanation.

      In fact, it’s a golden opportunity to improve on the ruling paradigm for the good of the world, as well as the Church. If the atheists over at BioLogos, who tend to say there’s no reason to bring God into nature, come to see that there’s every reason, that might be quite significant.

      However, as you see fromm this post and the new one following, our call is not for others to produce such a theology, but to work on it ourselves. That’s been done on the Hump from the beginning, and raised as a serious discussion on Peaceful Science. It will only be worth doing if people are interested in it, though.

    • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

      Merv:

      I think you are not seeing the problem, because you are speaking very broadly about science and faith, whereas I have in mind very specific science/faith claims.

      Sure, I agree with you that the separation of faith from science in general was an illegitimate move, but I’m not discussing that.

      I’m talking about specifics relating to evolution, and in particular, about claims regarding how evolution works (and also with claims about the ability of chemicals to produce life by sheer accident), and how they relate to the idea that God created things.

      You wrote:

      “Why is the onus on others to bring these two (seemingly disparate) approaches together? Could we not (and probably with much historical, more importantly: scriptural support) see the onus laid rather on those who tried [and perhaps failed] to rip them asunder?”

      But Darwinian evolution and orthodox faith were never found together in the Bible, and never found together in historical Christian thought about nature. In fact, Darwin wrote his Origin explicitly to challenge the thesis of special creation; he understood his theory to be in opposition to special creation. So it’s not the questioner (I) who is pulling things apart here, that were originally together. I’m merely acknowledging the historical fact that Darwinian evolution was asserted *against* the doctrine of creation (as it was then generally understood by educated and uneducated Christians alike).

      Therefore, anyone who says, “I believe in Darwinian evolution and I also believe in Creation”, has some explaining to do.

      I don’t say the explanation isn’t possible, but the “onus” is definitely on the person who says that Darwin and traditional Christian belief go together, when Darwin himself opposed at least one part of traditional Christian belief.

      That the need for an explanation was felt, early on, is evident from, e.g., Asa Gray’s suggestion that natural selection was “led” along beneficial lines; you see there Gray trying to make evolution into a providentially-guided process, rather than autonomous process of a “free nature” (such as Darrel Falk and Ken Miller at various times have affirmed). Gray wouldn’t have offered that suggestion if he didn’t feel some intellectual tension between Darwin’s view and the traditional Christian understanding. And Darwin refused to accept Gray’s compromise, indicating that he thought the tension still remained.

      But I’ve made my own questions even more specific: I’ve asked why TEs should even bother to say they believe “God created through an evolutionary process”, as if God matters, when their actual description of that process (as, e.g., in Venema) makes God redundant; nature is fully sufficient (“fully gifted”, Van Till would say; “as if God were not given”, Murphy would say) to turn a bacterium into a man. There is no need to invoke God for any role at all in the process. So God is involved, or not involved? I’ve asked for intellectual clarity: How is God involved, if he’s involved? Where is he necessary? What does he contribute to the process? And when, and where?

      If someone at BioLogos says, “I don’t believe in any God of the gaps, but that evolution is totally capable on its own — nature is fully gifted,” then the question is, what does it mean to say that God is the “Creator” of bacteria, plants, animals, and man? Let’s have a coherent account. If nature is “fully gifted”, then what is God — an appreciative bystander? Is that what the Christian tradition meant by “Creator”? Is that what the Bible meant by “Creator”?

      A coherent account is what would be expected if, at any university in North America, a philosophy or religion professor posed the essay question, “Are Darwinian evolution and the orthodox Christian doctrine of creation compatible?” If a student wrote a one-sentence answer, “I believe in Jesus and I believe in evolution by random mutation and natural selection, and believe they are compatible; but don’t ask me how; it’s a divine mystery.” The student would get an F. And rightly so.

      But the BioLogos folks seem to think it’s an intellectual virtue on their part to offer an answer that would flunk their paper in any serious university course. I can’t understand that. Are science-trained people like Venema and Applegate and Falk and Haarsma really *that* clued-out about what goes on in university departments outside of science, that they don’t understand that in Arts courses reasons have to be given for what you believe and why you believe it? Is “provide evidence for your thesis” something that they as scientists were never asked to do?

      In astronomy, was Deb Haarsma allowed to argue, “This new data does not fit at all with the Standard Big Bang model, but I still believe the Big Bang happened, and don’t ask me how I put the two together; their compatibility is a divine mystery?” Would she have got tenure if she did science in that way?

      Why then, in the academic field known as “religion and science” or “theology and science” should such evasive answers be accepted, not only as tolerable, but even as praiseworthy?

      The thesis of BioLogos — implicit in its very name, Bio-Logos — is that Christian theology and evolution are entirely compatible. Whatever “current consensus evolutionary science” affirms — that life arose by chemical accidents, that random mutations are capable of generating man from a bacterium without any help — that is, supposedly, compatible with traditional Christian faith as held by generations of American Protestant evangelicals. That’s the thesis of BioLogos. So it’s natural for anyone to ask exactly how the two statements– “God created all of this” and “All of this, science shows, required no planning or intervention, but could easily have happened by random bounces, a bit of selection, a bit of drift, etc.” — go together. To say that the leaders of BioLogos have *no* responsibility to explain *how* those things go together is, as people used to say, “just not on.”

      And it’s not just myself who is making this objection. I already know that the BioLogos folks will not pay attention to *me*. But the millions of American evangelicals who are their target market can’t be shoved aside (or banned) as easily as I can be. They won’t accept “God is still the Creator even if evolution is a literally unguided and entirely natural process, but don’t ask me how; it’s a divine mystery” as an answer. The appeal to divine mystery will not be accepted by pastors or laity as a substitute for an intellectually, theologically coherent account. If the BioLogos leaders think otherwise, they don’t know the culture of their own evangelical brethren.

  6. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Jon wrote:
    ” It’s the very coining of that phrase, “Evolutionary Creation” (and cognates like theistic evolution or BioLogos) that brings the responsibility of providing such an account.”

    And it seems to me also that you have done more than simply object to the perceived inadequacy of other efforts, but have then (rightly) adopted some of this theological responsibility for yourself as well. I think that commendable in a world where so many critics have nothing but demolition in mind, but then are nowhere to be found during construction activities. [not that both skills aren’t needed in their season.]

    You also wrote:
    “In fact, it’s a golden opportunity to improve on the ruling paradigm for the good of the world, as well as the Church.”

    … or … challenge that very paradigm that has asserted itself on its throne for several centuries now. You make good points that we are all pretty thoroughly acclimated to the mechanical philosophy in classroom, shop, and sanctuary. It is a reality in our western society – I can’t argue with that. But so are a lot of other things that we refuse (at least in principle) to sanction or bend the knee to. I guess my continued push-back here is that, there still seems to be an implicit sanction here of that original program of separation. Acknowledgement of (and even considerable success from) the effort? Yes. I do follow that far. I guess I continue to balk at anything more, though.

    And regarding the two “its” above that got separated, I guess I should have discussed those first – but that’s where your comments come in, Eddie.

    You wrote:
    “I think you are not seeing the problem, because you are speaking very broadly about science and faith, whereas I have in mind very specific science/faith claims.”

    Yes indeed. That is one distinction: your specificity and my generality. Your article specifically has its sights set on relatively recent “evolutionary creation” (or its various label manifestations), and my response does not reflect that. If it is a subject switch, then I crave your pardon, but I am taking aim at what I still perceive is a prior fundamental under-girding everything here: that mechanical understandings should ever, in the Christian mind, be pried apart from the divine hand in the first place! That this perceived divorce has actually taken place – I’ll accept. That it can claim a scriptural [or Patristic] foundation to authenticate its legitimacy, I still continue to object against. And it is of no consequence that evolution and scriptures (or prior Christian thought) are not literally mingled. It would have been anachronistic if they had been – making this non-sequitur. What we do find in scriptures (and subsequent Patristic development I’m fairly sure) is an eager willingness to milk such ordinary (we would say ‘mechanical’ today) understandings for everything they’re worth within an entirely presumed divine context. Indeed, they would have wondered to hear anybody suggest that any other context was available. That some moderns have taken up evolution specifically to challenge this age-old divine context should not be regarded (in my view) as being above inspection.

    You also wrote:
    “The appeal to divine mystery will not be accepted by pastors or laity as a substitute for an intellectually, theologically coherent account. If the BioLogos leaders think otherwise, they don’t know the culture of their own evangelical brethren.”

    Sadly, you seem to be right on this. Though if you think that it is merely a “coherent account” that separates deeply divided groups here, then I suggest you may be missing something too. There is a deeper chasm here that any “intellectual coherence” (even when anybody does have it) seems unable to touch or bridge.

    • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

      Merv:

      I’m not sure what you mean by “mechanical” understanding. You may want to explain further, perhaps by giving examples of mechanical and non-mechanical explanations for things.

      You will also need to help me on your last paragraph. What is the “deeper chasm” of which you speak?

      If it helps, here is my fuller exposition of the modern problem regarding theology and science. It’s of course sketchy and without the academic footnotes (which I supply in my books in my day job), but it gets the point across:

      For Aristotle, an efficient-cause explanation (which might be what you mean by “mechanical”, but I will leave you to clarify) doesn’t rule out other explanations; in fact, it requires them to supplement it, since efficient cause explanations aren’t complete explanations.

      For someone like Hobbes or Descartes, however, it’s questionable whether anything is needed beyond efficient-cause explanations for events. Since their day, doubt has been raised whether anything other than efficient causes are “real”, and whether all talk of other kinds of cause is delusional.

      At both the popular and learned level, Darwin’s theory raised objections in its day, and since, along these lines; many felt that Darwin was merely extending the line of thought begun in Descartes and Hobbes, to include the origin of species, including man, under efficient causes alone.

      But Darwin still imagined (on most days) that life probably needed a divine start-up. Well, subsequent thinkers took care of that little defect, that little failure of nerve on Darwin’s part: Haldane, Oparin, etc. strove to show that blind efficient causes could explain even the origin of life itself.

      Later scientists have tried to show that mind, free will, etc. can all be fully accounted for by chains of neurochemical activity, that our notions of self, freedom, etc. are illusions. (Francis Collins heatedly disputes this move, and I’m sympathetic with him, but in fact it’s the logical extension of the previous three centuries of science — why shouldn’t science investigate the possibility that all mental phenomena can be fully explained by the actions of bodies? What, other than certain religious and cultural sentimentalities, blocks us from seriously considering that this might be the truth? He chides the ID people for unnecessarily bringing in God to explain apparent design, but what is he doing but bringing in God to explain apparent free will and morality? If he’s willing to chuck design as an objective cause of nature — as opposed to just the way Christians choose to look at nature, out of faith — how can he fairly complain when bolder and more consistent reductionists are willing to chuck moral absolutes, free will, etc.?)

      But even getting rid of free will and morality would still, in Darwin’s view, leave the origin of the universe to be explained by God. Even Darwin gave the founding of the physical laws to God. But not so, say Hawking and a score of others. You can get universes for free, out of nothing, by fluctuations in the quantum vacuum. No God necessary. God of the gaps must be kept out of cosmology, just as we must keep him out of biology. So once again, post-Darwinian thought corrects Darwin, in the spirit of Darwin, by completing the picture of a universe explicable entirely by blind laws and blind chance.

      So the modern claim — I don’t say it’s a true claim — is that we can in principle explain everything from the origin of matter and energy and the universe itself right down to the rise of the human mind and will, without any reference to anything but chains of efficient causes.

      That’s certainly how the New Atheists interpret the thrust of modern science.

      What bothers me about a number (not all) of the evolutionary creationists is that their response to this problem seems to be to put the blessing of the Church on this reductionist view of the universe and man, but then, out of an arbitrary act of faith, to say, “But nonetheless, even though God is in no way needed as an explanation for anything, God somehow has something to do with all this, because I believe in Jesus and my subjective certainty can’t be mistaken. So somehow we can have souls with free will, even though the best modern neurological science doesn’t seem to leave any opening for that. But don’t ask me how reductionist, materialist accounts from Big Bang to Man leave room for God or free will; it’s a divine mystery.”

      My objection is not to the idea that God creates through an evolutionary process. My objection is to the way that evolutionary process is characterized, which leaves it almost impossible to even imagine where God fits into the picture, and leaves it dubious whether God is even needed for a coherent picture.

      The philosopher is never satisfied with a situation like this. I think the reason that the BioLogos folks are satisfied with it is that they are scientists, not philosophers, and even as scientists, are located on the most unphilosophical, technical, lab-focused wing of science. They aren’t scientists of the type of Hoyle or Heisenberg or Davies or Denton. The latter type of scientist, I get along with intellectually very well; the other type aren’t my intellectual cup of tea. But it’s not surprising that that type of scientist would adopt a religious “solution” to tensions over evolution that is philosophically unsatisfying.

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