Jim Packer, fundamentalism and time warps

I’ve just been re-reading Jim Packer’s Fundamentalism and the Word of God, partly from nostalgia as well as from a desire to see how the concept of fundamentalism might have changed since 1958. “Nostalgia” because the book was lent to me by an older Christian when I took over the leadership of my school Christian Union back in 1968. I didn’t read it for about five years, but it did at least leave me with the rare privilege of knowing what the word “fundamentalism” originally meant. And that is simply affirmation of the five “fundamentals” of historic Christianity identified in a series of documents in the USA early in the 20th century, over against the current liberal theological claims: the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture, the deity of Christ, his virgin birth and miracles, his penal death for our sins, and his physical resurrection and personal return. Not quite “bomb them into theocracy,” then.

Packer wrote against the background of Billy Graham’s first evangelistic “crusade” to Britain, which raised churchmen and other worthies into a lather against the whole (minority) Evangelical movement under the cry of “Fundamentalists!” What caught my attention this time round was his description of the word as nothing more than  “a theological swear word” (p30). He accurately describes how a form of insult develops:

…as its derogatory flavour grows stronger, it is used more and more widely and loosely as a general term of abuse, till it has lost all value as a meaningful description of anything.

How close that is to Alvin Plantinga’s similar conclusion on “fundamentalism” as used nowadays:

The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’.

Now, after half a century of abuse “fundamentalism” has escalated to include political Islamist bombers – and yet, you’ll note, it still applies handily in the evolution debate to those who accept those five historic doctrines, whether used by New Atheists or Evolutionary Creationists.

A sense of déjà vu began to encompass me throughout the whole book. Packer admits that Evangelicals have sometimes strayed into anti-intellectual attitudes and other faults, and so distances Evangelicalism from the word “Fundamentalist” as applied with some propriety to sections of the American Church (then, as now). But the accusations made then, and the misunderstandings perpetrated, against Evangelicals were precisely those arguments used in science-faith polemic now. Nothing, and I mean nothing, has changed in half a century.

To take some examples at random, on p60 he deals with both the claim that Jesus cited Old Testament authority, knowing it to be erroneous, to accommodate to the common people; and with the idea that Jesus’s kenotic assumption of humanity included falling “victim to the prejudices and errors of his own age.” I’ve seen such ideas pushed on BioLogos as if they were radical and postmodern. But actually they’re just liberal and limp. As Packer points out in relation to the joint divinity and humanness of Scripture, a distinction often used to assert the fallibility of the Bible, the denial that it can be fully both is based on a false doctrine of God (as, he says, all theological errors ultimately are):

For it assumes that God and man stand in such a relationship to each other that they cannot both be free agents in the same action. If a man acts freely (ie voluntarily and sponatenously) then God does not, and vice versa… But the affinities of this idea are with Deism, not Christian Theism.(p81)

All those UD discussions on free-will are simply missing the point that truly evangelical doctrine had sorted centuries ago! But even that key TE theme of kenosis as creation’s freedom from God’s “dictation” is old currency, arising from the same false dichotomy and mentioned in passing by Packer as the cause of the false view of Scripture mentioned above:

…the prevalence of this mistake should be ascribed to the insidious substitution of deistic for theistic ideas about God’s relationship to the world which has been, perhaps, the most damaging effect of modern science on theology.(p81)

That kind of deism informs much of what we see in TE discussion. Packer deals with many other such supposedly recent controversies. He distinguishes Scriptural inerrancy from contempt for scholarship and woodenly literalistic interpretation. Indeed, after discussing genre, he says that infallibility and inerrancy:

…are not hermeneutical concepts, and carry no implications as to the character or range of biblical teaching. Those matters can be settled only by honest and painstaking exegesis.(p98)

In other words, genuine genre considerations do not preclude a properly literal interpretation, though they will veto a literalistic one. In this connection he even draws attention to the old (much older than we think) chestnut of ANE cosmology, pointing out both that Bible writers may well have been considering theological, rather than physical, reality (anticipating John H Walton), and that modern readers may well not see what the ancients saw in such descriptions (anticipating me!):

…often the mental picture of the created order which their phraseology suggests to the twentieth century mind differs from that of modern science…” (p97, my italics)

I’ve said enough to show that what goes around, comes around. But the difference is that the arguments being made in 1958 against “fundamentalism” (aka evangelical doctrine) by liberal theologians are nowadays being made by those who call themselves Evangelicals. You may well ask how how the selfsame arguments used against Evangelical teaching then can now be used by Evangelical teachers, and you’d be right in thinking that someone has shifted their ground.

The short reply is that Evangelicals are now teaching straight, old-fashioned liberal theology, whilst denying being liberals and claiming to be at some kind of cutting edge of thought. Supposing them not to be aware that they are pursuing the work of the worst critics of historical Christianity half a century ago, can one offer a reason for the lack of conscious continuity with them?

Here’s my starter for 10: liberal theology actually contains the seeds of its own destruction. Once the Bible’s authority has gone, the life of the Spirit does not continue for long, and churches slowly decline. Liberal teaching may still rule the academy, but it doesn’t fill the pews. Whole denominations have withered after embracing it: I would challenge anyone to find an example of where one has grown.

It’s certainly true in this country that a majority of candidates for Protestant ordination now come from Evangelical churches of various stripes, because that’s where the life is, if not always the sound teaching of a man like Jim Packer. I suspect many coming through the colleges are simply not aware that the new and radical ideas they bravely embrace in the face of the conservative “establishment” were tried, and failed, last century. They will fail in just the same way this time round. It’s just a great pity that they’re so prominent in the science-faith discussion, because paradoxically, they keep it going by endorsing science’s false metaphysical ideology.

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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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19 Responses to Jim Packer, fundamentalism and time warps

  1. Gregory says:

    Hi Jon,

    Interesting comparision of “radical and postmodern” with “liberal and limp.” I think I once called ID ‘bang’ (or poof!) theology and TE/EC ‘whimper’ theology, echoing T.S. Eliot.

    Everyone seems to wish that their approach is cutting-edge. This includes the ID people and the EC people. The language of ‘revolution!’ is rampant in ID-talk. Likewise, BioLogos speaks as if it is creating some kind of rennaissance in evangelical USAmerican Christianity, by freeing people from ‘the scandal of the evangelical mind’. The conversion rates on either side, however, seem not of first importance to matter or expose, as both groups cater to evangelicals (e.g. ID’s funding channels) in attempt to sing-conduct to their identified home-choirs.

    Goodness, I am thankful not to be a USAmerican citizen in such a tug-of-war teetering in the balance of political-religious ‘freedoms’ and educational ‘rights.’

    ‘BioLogos’ as a term doesn’t really seem to offer much of a positive meaning, other than to suggest that the living biosphere was created by God, just like everything else (which is obviously already a Christian doctrine). They haven’t added much new to how ‘evolution’ is guided, at least not with natural scientific language. But then again, as long as they return their religious apparel after they leave the science laboratory, aren’t they suitable to evangelize just like IDists do, suggesting the opposite of kenosis via visible ‘design’ in bioLogy?

    Less on a culture war theme, I wonder how far or even if every Christian needs to defend ‘evangelism’ or ‘evangelising’ in one way or another in their view of the Church? Is there something like ‘some are called to be evangelicals, while the rest are called to be boring, self-, family- or tribe-absorbed or simply world avertive’? Are there not both liberal and conservative ‘evangelicals,’ and if so, who is to decide the ‘right’ ones, without a common ecclesial authority (i.e. no parallel authority to the Catholic and Orthodox Churches in Protestantism)?

    From your recent comment on BioLogos: “They [the Reformers] understood God’s will as acting concursively with the human authors…”

    Would it make any sense in your view then, Jon, to speak of Scripture as ‘intelligently designed’ or would that sound too reductionistic in the tradition (to) which you are witnessing? The unreasonableness of being a young earther in the 21st c. seems like only half the problem for BioLogos (cf. study of processes), while ID studies the other half of the same coin (cf. origins).

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Gregory. “Biology”, as far as I know, was coined by the theist Lamarck with conscious reference to “life” and “God’s logos”, so “BioLogos” is not a neologism and probably less apt than the original use, in my view. I’m disappointed by it’s fuzzy view on “logos”.

    Your next paragraph is suspiciously like the hypercalvinist nonsense – God decides who is what, so persuasion’s a waste of time. All I know is that (a) God calls all men to the gospel and (b) God calls all followers of the Gospel to call men (translate that into inclusive-speak as you wish!).

    I believe, despite your misgivings, that an Evangelical approach to the Bible does provide substantially consistent authority, which is in fact the main theme of Packer’s old book. Indeed, even back in ’58 he pointed out that “liberal evangelical” is an oxymoron – one cannot really both accept the overriding authority of scripture and also subject it to human criticism – that’s like calling the Pope infallible except when you think he’s wrong. All I can say is that the measure of unity I’ve experienced across mumerous denominations for 50 years, despite their distinctives, is huge. And you’d surely agree that there’s also some distinction between Tridentine Catholics and their radical charismatic brethren?

    To take last para seriously, “intelligent design” would not be specific enough to be useful in two ways. Firstly, even if fully human Scripture would be ID – God’s authorship is, ultimately, a question of faith. Secondly, ID in biology can range from special creation to fine-tuned physics. The true parallel is how Jesus can be fully divine and fully human in one person (another thing some BioLogians like Peter Enns screw up by dividing him into an error-prone human and a divine spirit). At the same time, inasmuch as my kind of Warfieldist TE says nature can be fully planned by God yet fully subject to natural processes, there is a parallel – neither nature nor SCripture ends up as other than fully planned by God’s wisdom.

    By the way, are you going to answer Timaeus’ challenge about your own views on that, on UD? I had to agree with his and nullasalus’ points about the evasiveness of BioLogos on the matter!

  3. Gregory says:

    “neither nature nor SCripture ends up as other than fully planned by God’s wisdom.” – Jon

    If I understand you, then, ‘fully planned’ just doesn’t mean ‘fully determined,’ which is what saves this position from being deterministic. Iow, there is also ‘freedom in creation’ in your position, right? Reformed sometimes means ‘hyper-Calvinistic.’

    “By the way, are you going to answer Timaeus’ challenge about your own views on that, on UD? I had to agree with his and nullasalus’ points about the evasiveness of BioLogos on the matter!” – Jon

    Are you suggesting I don’t think BioLogos is evasive on the matter?! Goodness I must have written so incoherently there, given our previous conversations. Of course BioLogos is evasive!! I do notice however, that you participate at BioLogos (evangelical Christian) more than at UD (welcomes all religions).

    This is where I get confused about where you’re coming from, Jon. You challenge your fellow (BioLogos) evangelicals for leaning towards ‘Open Theism,’ and yet yours is surely not instead a ‘Closed Theism,’ merely anti-liberal conservatism, anti-freedom of will, or “Reformed, never to continue Reforming” view of the Church and Christianity, is it? Please forgive, it’s not that I’ve got it all figured out either! ; )

    “Evangelicals are now teaching straight, old-fashioned liberal theology, whilst denying being liberals and claiming to be at some kind of cutting edge of thought.” – Jon

    Does this hold in the U.K. also? Are there not ‘liberal’ evangelicals there who inform your view, who might simply not be promoting the convoluted ideology of evolutionism? The majority evangelicals I met at the DI’s summer program kept mainly silent about theology wrt ID, pushing instead an ID-is-science approach, as if holism was an incoherent utopian dream (e.g. medicine, music, science and theology working cooperatively, heaven forbid!).

    ID has become an ‘opiate of evangelicals in the USA’ – this is partly why BioLogos was formed. Christian scholars, following Francis Collins decided ID was not healthy from a theological standpoint. Enough theologians have spoken about the dangers of ID, perhaps we need some ‘conservative’ theologians who are not YECs to speak about the ‘dangers of BioLogos,’ as you see them?

    “liberal theology actually contains the seeds of its own destruction” – Jon

    One could likewise argue that conservative theology contains the seeds of its own irrelevance. I take it that your point is that extremes on both sides lack credibility and that BioLogos is perhaps pushing towards an extreme.

    Apologies for straying from the thread’s main topic – I haven’t read British-Canadian James Packer, though it appears he sides with ‘TE’ rather than ‘ID’.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    “Iow, there is also ‘freedom in creation’ in your position, right?”

    True freedom in human action, yes – yet not independent of God: that’s concursiveness. Judas freely betrays – and yet it had to happen to fulfil the prophecy. I’m not sure what “freedom in creation” other than that actually means, but I know it’s not that “stuff just happens”.

    To be honest I post (a little) more at BioLogos because I got there before UD, and had been seduced by anti-ID propaganda. Theistic evolution made sense from a Reformed viewpoint – but then I found that BL seemed to find it necessary to turn historic Christianity on its head to meet its vision. Sometimes I think it’s a desperate attempt to avoid Calvinist ideas at all costs (like the Darwinian contortions to avoid obvious design) but that’s probably paranoia. However, I’d distingusih between semper reformans and semper mutans. Reformation is intended to restore the doctrine of Jesus and the apostles, even when applying it to new circumstances and science, since it’s divine revelation for all time.

    “Liberal Evangelicalism” is certainly strong over here, though I’ve not seen it involved in faith-science issues. I do note, though, that the UK “Christians in Science” forum carries many of the familiar BioLogos thought-forms, so they at least read the same books. I’m not over-worried – I’ve been in a minority all my Christian life and that’s unlikely to change: and yet to answer your last point the scriptural Gospel has also been termed “irrelevant” for centuries and yet survives and meets people’s needs as its fashionable opponents come and go.

    Packer has no public position on evolution, AFAIK, as his concerns are elsewhere and he’s pretty much retired, I believe. I’ve little doubt that he’d have little truck with the heterodoxies prevalent in TE now, nor that he’d demur too much from a belief that directed evolution and Reformed faith are compatible. I suspect he’d echo Warfield, though, in insisting on God’s active involvement in, at least, mankind’s spiritual origins, which tends towards ID. He endorsed Denis Alexander’s Book in 2008.

  5. Gregory says:

    “I suspect he’d echo Warfield, though, in insisting on God’s active involvement in, at least, mankind’s spiritual origins, which tends towards ID.” – Jon

    Actually, that’s the RCC & OC’s position, before it is Warfield’s or ID’s. & lest we forget, ID-as-science-only is *not supposed to* talk about ‘mankind’s spiritual origins,’ except for when it talks about them. 😉

    To speak of ‘mankind’s spiritual origins’ is the Orthodox Christian, Jewish and Muslim position involving (continuous) Creation.

    Wrt heterodoxies prevalent in TE/EC now, there is something to be said about those who claim BioLogos is ‘taking over’ the meaning of TE/EC. (One must remember that Falk considers himself EC, rather than TE, on the basis of Lamoureux’s ‘logic.’) There is an attempt to over-exaggerate BioLogos’ significance, due mainly to its rejection of ID. However, the Faraday Institute (UK) is more important, so is the International Society for Science and Religion, so is the European Association for the Study of Science and Theology and the Centre for Theology and Natural Sciences. BioLogos is just one of the lastest recipients of a Templeton grant, which happens to focus on USAmerican evangelical Christians in particular.

    What is found in BioLogos vs. RTB, AiG and ID/DI, is a ‘very USAmerican’ stand-off, which now happens to involve several Canadians too (Falk, Giberson, Lamoureux & Venema, among the most active at BioLogos) and which has drawn in Brits, as part of the English-language orbit.

    The vast majority of TE/ECs are mainstream Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant (in the Christian religion) theologians and lay people. If all TE means is ‘G-d creates through/using evolution,’ and that ‘natural evolution’ is a ‘fact of history,’ then since ‘truth cannot contradict truth,’ it makes no sense to be a theist who opposes biological, geological, botanical, etc. ‘natural evolution.’ The vast majority of TE/ECs are thus obviously not YECs, just as they are not flat earthers.

    TE/ECs – John Haught, Ernan McMullin, Alistair McGrath, John Polkinghorne, George Murphy, Ted Davis, Thomas Jay Oord, Keith Ward, Wolfhart Pannenburg, Michael Heller, et al. – the list goes on and on and on.

    If you’re being seduced by those who speak of Ayala and Kenneth Miller as ‘top representatives’ of TE/EC, mainly because they speak against ID, don’t bother with such propaganda.

    In the realm of theology, ID is tenuous at best. ID would change scripture to say “In the beginning God ‘designed’ the heavens and the earth…” But of course, ID has is *not supposed to* have *anything to do* with theology, except when it does, by implicationism.

    As Fr. George Coyne says:
    The IDM is a “Mistaken attempt to try to use science to establish the implications of science – going beyond science to the philosophical and theological implications.” … “The fault of intelligent design, the fundamental fault, is that it steps outside of scientific methodology and will not admit it’s doing it.” … “It creates a God who is a Designer.”

    But of course, it’s *not supposed to* do that! 😉 BioLogos at least puts its religious identity up-front and visible. Yet its relationship with Darwinism and evolutionism is highly problematic.

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Yes, BioLogos and ID are not just different positions but different beasts. In principle I’m favourable to both approaches, ie, Biologos’ “We are Christians who accept mainstream science and want to integrate them”: ID “We believe mainstream science is wrongly bound to materialism and therefore misses clear evidence of design. We want to chase that evidence without depending on faith commitments to do it.”

    Whether either succeeeds is another matter – and theologically nobody gets to heaven either by adopting mainstream science into the Gospel or by ignoring theological disagreements to demonstrate design. Yet few get to heaven by baking bread, either, and it’s still useful in the scheme of things.

  7. James says:

    Some of Gregory’s comments I agree with, some I don’t.

    Agreed, Gregory, that Biologos overrates its own importance and that it is America-focused.

    Agreed that not all TE/EC people are like Biologos TEs. Agreed that many of the people you named are much preferable to Biologos and to Ken Miller and to Ayala.

    However, you should be careful about pronouncing all of the people that you named “mainstream.” I don’t believe that Murphy considers himself a mainstream Lutheran, for example. And from what I understand, Polkinghorne (whom I generally like as a person) has strong leanings toward a view of God in which God does not know the future, which is not “mainstream” Anglicanism — if by “mainstream” you mean traditional, orthodox Anglicanism. Ted Davis is mainstream on the Creeds and the Resurrection, but is not mainstream evangelical in his understanding of the Bible. From what I understand, John Haught is an ultra-liberal who denies or strongly implies the falsehood of the Resurrection. I can’t speak for most of the rest, but I suspect that McGrath is the only one on your list who is a mainstream conservative evangelical with traditional orthodox beliefs about both the Bible and the Creeds.

    If you are saying that all of the people on your list are more theologically educated and thoughtful than the people at Biologos, I would wholeheartedly agree. But they are not all more orthodox. Some, like Haught, would be even less orthodox than Falk or Lamoureux.

    However, if you speak of many quiet, churchgoing TE/EC people who are not among the vocal leaders, I agree with you that many of them are probably much more orthodox and traditional than Biologos. Indeed, it is quite often the leaders in these debates, not the common folk, who polarize things. I would bet that the average churchgoer who doesn’t get embroiled in these debates would have a hard time distinguishing the position of Behe and Polkinghorne (both believe in evolution, both believe God is behind it), or between the position if id proponent Denton and TE Conway Morris. And if they weren’t egged on by the leaders to choose “camps,” and told that one side or the other was bad and evil, with poor theology and bad science etc., they would probably read bits of both ID and TE stuff and find both bodies of literature useful to an extent. And I would bet that a good number of quiet TE/EC people are less skeptical about Biblical miracles than Murphy and Enns and Giberson are, and in that respect would be closer to ID attitudes than to Biologos attitudes. (By which I don’t mean that ID in itself requires belief in Biblical miracles, but only that those ID proponents who *are* Christian are much less evasive about affirming miracles than several of the leading TEs.)

    “In the realm of theology, ID is tenuous at best.” You are correct, because ID isn’t about theology. The most ID itself could support is a limited natural theology. (And a limited natural theology has long been part of mainstream Christian tradition, no matter what Biologos says, so that is no problem.) But ID people don’t insist — when they are talking about design theory — on even that. Behe openly denied to Barr that his argument was intended as an argument for God. Of course, other ID proponents do use the mathematical, biochemical and fine-tuning arguments for the purpose of natural theology. But never to argue for the truth of Christian revelation. So in fact, when ID proponents are doing ID theory strictly, they are not merely tenuous, but silent, about revealed theology.

    And that’s as it should be. Design inferences cannot detect the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, Atonement, the body of Christ in the bread, etc. No ID proponent would be so stupid as to claim that they could. And if they did, you’d be angry with them for trying to put theology into the power of science — wouldn’t you? So aren’t you *glad* that they keep “irreducible complexity” and “specified complexity” separate from their private theological opinions? I sure am, because I don’t agree with half of their private theological opinions, but I do agree with them about the design/chance business.

    “ID would change scripture to say “In the beginning God ‘designed’ the heavens and the earth…” ”

    Incorrect. First, ID has nothing to do with Scripture, and second, to the extent that ID people are Christians, they would never tamper with Scripture — they have a much more conservative attitude toward not only the meaning but even the bare words of Scripture than TE/EC leaders do.
    Finally, it is unnecessary to put the word “designed” in when the story in Genesis 1 clearly implies that the created things were designed. That’s the unmistakable sense of the passage. Everything’s form and function is conceived by God before the thing is made. What is that, but design? The alternative to design is not “creation”; it is “lack of plan, lack of foresight, lack of clear intention, lack of goal”. Your opposition between designed and created makes no sense, either theologically, or in terms of everyday English. There is no such opposition. If you doubt this, find me a significant orthodox theologian prior to about 1900 who did not think that God designed all that he created.

    I’m really not interested in what liberal Vatican scientists like Fr. Coyne have to say. Any Catholic spokesperson who says that God did not design the world ought to have a little chat with Mr. Torquemada; Besides, it’s ten to one that Fr. Coyne, like Francis Collins, has hardly read a word of ID writings, and bases his view of it on rumor and hearsay. Anyhow, he’s retired, out of the picture, a non-factor in the current debates.

  8. James says:


    “However, I’d distinguish between semper reformans and semper mutans.”

    Lovely! Unfortunately, the appreciation of wit is not one of Biologos’s strong points, so if you posted that comment on Biologos, I doubt it would be appreciated. (Assuming anyone there can read Latin, which is not a sure bet.)

  9. Gregory says:

    “mainstream science is wrongly bound to materialism and therefore misses clear evidence of design…without depending on faith commitments…” – Jon

    Let’s look at this another way, Jon, because I think you’ve fallen back into the science = natural-physical science problematic. And like I said in a previous thread, ‘materialism’ is accepted by some religious people. Besides, chasing away faith commitments from the praxis of ‘doing science’ seems to demonstrate its own kind of materialism or anti-holism.

    It isn’t materialism which obscures ‘design’. Indeed, ‘clear evidence of design’ is already available in many disciplines in the Academy. Graphic design, set design, costume design, fashion design (fine arts), organisational design, architectural design, systems design and planning. Techne – a field of ‘design’ *and* ‘creativity.’ One could be an idealist or a materialist, a relativist or a relationist and accept limited ‘design’ quite easily.

    The main issue is what field(s) are we talking about? Do graphic designers design? Do computer programmers program? Do builders build? Do composers compose? Yes, of course.

    Why then make the category error of attributing ‘design’ with immeasurable ‘intelligence,’ in (a) field(s) where it doesn’t belong? Is biology a field in which ‘design’ belongs? Why or why not?

    It seems to me that ID is trying to force ‘design’ in the back door of biology as a neo-Paleyian gambit (trying for a leg trip). ID proponents seek to philosophically insist on ‘design in natural science’ and ‘design in nature’ & that it has *NOTHING* to do with personal faith. Otoh, BioLogos is saying it is obvious to them by faith that ‘nature’ is ‘created by G-d,’ just don’t ask them to get all scientistic about it and to prove the ‘guidance’ or ‘divine role’ in on-going Creation.

    On ‘origins of life’ topics is where Big D = Design (informed by faith) is equivalent to Big L = Logos (informed by faith). *All* of BioLogos believes the Logos was created by G-d. Most of the IDM and *all* of their evangelical Christian funding bodies believe exactly the same thing. Two USAmerican beasts enjoying a tussle, drawing attention to their ornery behaviours.

  10. Gregory says:

    I wrote: “In the realm of theology, ID is tenuous at best.”

    “You are correct, because ID isn’t about theology.” – James (from perhaps the longest ‘response’ yet at The Hump of the Camel!)

    Thanks for confirming that ID is tenuous at best in the realm of theology, James. You say it isn’t about theology, but what makes you qualify as a spokesperson for ID? Are you affiliated with the DI or IDEA? Have you written papers published in peer review about ID? Have you written a book or books about ID or defended a thesis or dissertation in front of an Academic board? Have you given interviews on radio or t.v. programs or for the popular press about ID? Why should I trust you speaking on behalf of what ID is and isn’t instead of just imagining (as I currently do) that you’re speaking for nobody’s view of ID but your own?

    Let’s take William Dembski, for example, one of the current leaders of the IDM. He wrote a book called ‘Intelligent Design: THE Bridge between Science and Theology.” The analogy of a *bridge* that doesn’t touch down on both sides seems flawed. What good is ID if it doesn’t trade over a completed bridge?

    Thus, in Dembski’s understanding of ID, it does have to do with theology. Call it ‘natural theology’ rather than ‘revealed theology’ if you’d like; it is still theology. According to one of the top leaders of the IDM, ID *is* about theology, as well as science. And like I said, with which James agreed, “In the realm of theology, ID is tenuous at best.”

    BioLogos may be faulted for being ‘liberal’ (which it must look like to someone ‘more conservative’ on the political spectrum) and rebuked for this, but not for avoiding or evading theology, as ID oftentimes pretends to do…in the name of ‘nobody here but us scientists.’ This is why they tussle.

  11. James says:

    Hi, Gregory. Thanks for the reply.

    I don’t claim to “speak for” ID. I claim only to report what the main ID proponents have said umpteen times on the Discovery site, on UD, on Telic Thoughts, etc., and what the leading ID proponents have said in their books, on podcast debates, etc. Since they say over and over again that the science of design detection is no part of theology, and since they practice what they preach by not, as far as I can tell, employing any theological assumptions, I find their position entirely straightforward. But I’ll change my mind if you can provide counterexamples. If you can show me a theological assumption made in No Free Lunch or Darwin’s Black Box or The Myth of Junk DNA or The Design of Life or The Edge of Evolution or Signature in the Cell, please do. If there are any there, I’ve missed them. I have those books here; just give me the page numbers.

    Have you read the Dembski book which you mention, or are you just reasoning from the title what its contents probably say? It seems to me to be very unsafe to reason from a title alone.

    You write as if the difference between natural theology and revealed theology is trivial. It isn’t; it’s huge. According to those Christian traditions (the majority, until recent times) which accept a limited natural theology, natural theology can convince the unaided reason that God exists, but cannot provide the knowledge which yields salvation. Only revelation can do that. And every single ID proponent known to me, from the most famous leader down to the little nobody in the church pew, would agree with that. So even if ID *is* used to promote natural theology, it neither adds to nor subtracts from Christian faith. There is no issue here, Gregory. What are you worried about?

    I never claimed that Biologos evaded theology, nor on the other hand did I criticize the Biologos people for being explicit about their theology. Nor did Jon Garvey. What Jon and I (and penman) have criticized them for is inadequate theology. At least, inadequate, if Biologos cares in the slightest about harmonizing its beliefs with 2000 years of previous tradition.

    In your reply to Jon, you said “it isn’t materialism that obscures design.” Actually, materialism in biology does more than obscure design, it utterly denies it. You also said: “Why then make the category error of attributing ‘design’ with immeasurable ‘intelligence,’ in (a) field(s) where it doesn’t belong?” How do you know that design does not belong in biology? How do you know the concept of design isn’t central to understanding biology?

  12. Gregory says:

    James, please don’t dodge simple statements with convoluted, deflective sophistry.

    I wrote: “in Dembski’s understanding of ID, it does have to do with theology. Call it ‘natural theology’ rather than ‘revealed theology’ if you’d like; it is still theology.”

    I’ve read the book I mentioned (and used it in my masters thesis), so please quit your condescending attitude (I didn’t say “the difference between natural theology and revealed theology is trivial,” you unfairly imputed those words into my mouth) and give your dialogue partner some respect.

    Dembski speaks about THE BRIDGE between ‘science and theology.’ Are you suggesting *there is no such bridge* called ‘intelligent design’? Both natural and revealed theology are still ‘theology,’ right?

    To say ID “isn’t about theology” discredits you, James. The irony is, I doubt in your heart of hearts that you think ID qualifies as ‘natural science’ either! I am not convinced that it does.

    Sorry for the departure from Packer, Jon!

  13. James says:


    You seem suddenly angry, for reasons I cannot grasp. I say with all sincerity that I was not trying to provoke you, but merely to answer your questions and to criticize some of your statements about ID that I thought were false or misleading. I did not mean any personal attack of any kind.

    Your previous position, on Biologos, was that ID arguments are motivated by or built upon or in some way conditioned by the Christian theology of ID proponents, but that ID proponents are not honest enough to admit it. I’ve asked you on Biologos and I’ve just asked you again here to show a single passage where the argument of a theoretical ID book depends on a theological assumption or belief. I don’t see why that question should make you angry, but if the question does make you angry, I would rather drop it than ruin the decorum here on this site, which is unsurpassed on the web for relaxed intellectual conversation.

    We must have misunderstood each other re natural vs. revealed theology. I took it that you were saying that the difference was not important for what we were discussing. But it was very important for what we were discussing, because ID can at best provide only a natural theology, never a revealed theology, and you had been talking about Christian theology, which is a revealed theology. If the way I expressed this sounded condescending to you, I am sorry because I did not mean it that way at all.

    You complain that I have dodged a simple statement. I did not dodge; I cannot answer what Dembski meant by the title of a book that I have not read. The title alone does not tell me whether by theology he meant natural theology or revealed theology or both. If you are asking me to guess what Dembski meant by that title, I don’t want to do that; it’s unscholarly. However, I can tell you, from the many writings of his that I have read, that whatever he meant by that title, he does not regard ID as resting on Christian presuppositions. He regards it as compatible with Christian faith, and as translatable into the Christian understanding of the Logos, but not as dependent on Christian faith. He would say tha tID is a free-standing endeavor that can be undertaken by any rational human being with an open mind to the possibility of design in nature. No prior religious belief is necessary.

    That is the difference between ID and Biologos. Biologos thinks that we can’t legitimately talk about design in nature outside of faith. I think Biologos is wrong.

    I have asked you here for many defenses or clarifications of your statements. Almost all my requests have gone unanswered. I won’t press you about them. I think they are good and fair questions, but if my asking them makes you angry, I would rather just let them all go. Best wishes.

  14. Gregory says:

    “Your previous position, on Biologos…”

    Sorry, but I don’t recall ever having had a conversation at BioLogos with someone named ‘James,’ as you are named here. If you’d like to identify what your name was at BioLogos if you used a different name there, then be welcome; otherwise this is a lop-sided and uneven conversation, since you seem to know me (although you put inaccurate words in my mouth even in this most recent post!) and I don’t know you. If you check the archives, my name at BioLogos was also ‘Gregory;’ I don’t participate there anymore.

    There is no anger to detect. I just don’t understand why you won’t answer a straight question with a straight answer, now that you’ve split into qualifications. Maybe you’re reading into things too much?

    I asked: “Both natural [theology] and revealed theology are still ‘theology,’ right?”

    Sorry to be persistent, but a Yes or No will do just fine, without over-shooting.

  15. James says:


    Of course natural theology and revealed theology are both forms of theology! That goes without saying. So there is your “Yes” answer. And it’s short, as you requested. So I’ve discharged that obligation.

    However, this answer does not help the argument you were making. The further explanations I offered — which you seem to think were unnecessary — explained precisely why.

    To restate:

    1. Individual ID proponents may discuss, or even write books expressing, their personal theology, but ID as such has no theology.

    2. Most ID proponents are Christian, but they get their Christian faith not from ID reasoning but from revelation.

    3. ID arguments can be used to generate a teleological argument for the existence of some sort of God, but can’t produce belief in any particular God, e.g., the God of Christianity or of Judaism or of Islam.

    4. I have no idea what Dembski meant by his title, but ID could (but need not) serve as a bridge between science and theology in the sense that it could convince an atheist or agnostic to believe that there was a Designer of the world, or of cells, etc., and that this Designer was God. But God is just the foyer of theology. ID can’t take one farther into the home. Only revelation can do that.

    You seemed to be asserting that ID people are covertly theologizing under the guise of science. I was contesting that. The science part of ID is not about God at all. But I cannot convince you of that if you have not read No Free Lunch, The Edge of Evolution, The Design of Life, etc.

    Sorry, for the mixup about Biologos. On Biologos I participated in a number of debates, but also lurked for a couple of years, reading the debates of others. I remember debating someone who had a position like yours, but also I read some of your old debates with other people, and I must have confused one or more conversations I was involved in with one or more conversations that I only read. In any case, it doesn’t matter what you used to think; you may have changed your mind. I’m only interested in what you think now. Is it now your view that ID as a theory of design detection is filled with Christian theology, or built on Christian assumptions? If so, we disagree. If not, then we don’t.

    As for my many other questions, since you say you aren’t angry with me, I would like it if you would answer them.

  16. Gregory says:

    “On Biologos I participated in a number of debates…”

    What was (or were) your screen name(s) on BioLogos? Telling this might help serve to re-balance a lop-sided conversation.

    “I remember debating someone who had a position like yours…”

    Surely you don’t know me or my ‘position’ that well, James! In any case, I don’t come to The Hump of the Camel with the intention to ‘debate’ people about ‘intelligent design/Intelligent Design’. Dialogue and discussion sound more civilised and properly British. 😉

    This thread, for example, was about Jim Packer, fundamentalism and time warps. Probably I also helped lead it off track, knowing little of Packer. Gladly, at the host’s discretion…

  17. James says:


    My reference to Biologos was purely for historical background. It wasn’t necessary in order to discuss the matter at hand, i.e., your comments about ID above. So I’m dropping all further discussion of Biologos and, as they say, cutting to the chase.

    You say you didn’t come on to the Packer thread to debate ID. Yet you stated things about ID which were either (a) false or (b) misleading. It is unreasonable of you to make charges against ID, and then, when challenged, say that you didn’t come to debate ID. As for the distinction between “debate” and “discuss”, that is irrelevant, since you clearly don’t want to even “discuss” my objections to your views. So, since you are not going to answer my questions or otherwise clarify your discussion of ID, I will let the matter drop and will not reply further here.

    I will, however, follow any further discussion you have over on Uncommon Descent. Last I checked, a few days ago, people named nullasalus and StephenB were awaiting replies from you. I assume that you are preparing your defense of your position for them, and that it will appear soon. I will read with interest what you say. Perhaps your answers to them will cover all the objections I have made here.

  18. Gregory says:

    Here is now a longer response, taking into account James’ claim that his questions were not answered. In the last couple of days I’ve done some research checking BioLogos archives and perhaps have discovered who James is. It would be dubious of him to say ‘I know you, but you don’t know me and so let’s have an open conversation, nothing personal.’ This is a communications issue between actual living people first and foremost, though we correspond here on the internet. In my worldview at least, ‘personal’ means something important, not just a retreat to objectivism and neutrality.

    “Your previous position, on Biologos, was that ID arguments are motivated by or built upon or in some way conditioned by the Christian theology of ID proponents, but that ID proponents are not honest enough to admit it. I’ve asked you on Biologos and I’ve just asked you again here to show a single passage where the argument of a theoretical ID book depends on a theological assumption or belief.” – James

    No, this is not my ‘position,’ nor does it accurately represent my views of ID and/or ID proponents, especially the IDM. You said you ‘asked me on BioLogos,’ but you’re not catching the context or main points, if you’ve even spoken about the right person. Here is the key: without the theological pre-commitment of its ‘inventors’ there simply would be no ‘intelligent design’ theory. ID was ‘coined’ by theists (as a group).

    I’ve never questioned the honesty of ID leaders in public, most of whom mean well, even as their PoS distorts their message. This recognition fits properly on a site that promotes cooperation between science, philosophy and theology. If I understand him, this is why Jon is also favourable to both BioLogos and ID and discusses them here on his blog.

    From what I’ve read at UD, neither nullasalus nor Timaeus (my dialogue partners on the thread James mentions) would go so far as to call ID ‘scientific,’ like ID leaders do. nullasalus is explicit in saying he doesn’t think ‘detecting intelligence’ can be considered ‘scientific.’ Yet both persons seem to want to defend ID (from distortions) as ‘potentially science’ and to challenge BioLogos on theological terms. This seems to be a kind of defensive activism for academic freedom on the internet by two persons within a big tent of views about ‘intelligent design/Intelligent Design’.

    As Christians, Timaeus and nullasalus are thus caught on horns (or pushing a wedge); they challenge BioLogos on theological terms and defend ID on pseudo-scientific terms. The fact remains that ID (both big ID and small id) is broadly rejected in biology, geology, botany and other natural sciences as ‘religiously-oriented.’ In fields where design is already accepted, however, they offer no commentary; they want to focus on Darwin’s relation with the ‘argument from design’ (which is/was theological, of course).

    “you should be careful about pronouncing all of the people that you named ‘mainstream’.” – James

    If you’ll check the record, I said simply that these scholars and theologians are TE/ECs, not that they are ‘mainstream.’ Most TE/ECs are simply mainstream Christians who have no problem both with accepting biological evolution (Darwin aside) and believing in Creator G-d. For me TE/EC is simply the default position if one accepts ‘biological evolution’ and believes in G-d. I reject the ideology that informs TEism/ECism.

    Challenging BioLogos’ ‘liberalism’ otoh seems to be either a convenient pastime as substitute for failing to ‘validate’ the ‘natural science’ of design or reflects a genuine interest in the proper image and constitution of ‘evangelicals’ and/or ‘evangelicalism’ in the contemporary world. Since I am not an ‘evangelical,’ or an IDist, my analysis of both UD and BioLogos attempts to be critically realistic.

    “McGrath is the only one on your list who is a mainstream conservative evangelical with traditional orthodox beliefs…” – James

    Yet McGrath seems (from the video on BioLogos) not to believe in real, historical Adam and Eve, which is a traditional orthodox belief. And since the person I saw at BioLogos who James represents here has said he personally rejects real, historical A&E, we have a paradox of the liberal defending the conservative and vice versa. Go figure!

    “ID isn’t about theology…Of course natural theology and revealed theology are both forms of theology!” – James

    Thank you for admitting that both theologies are still ‘theology.’ This demonstrates that at least in the work of Dembski, ID *is* about theology, since he includes ‘theology’ in his popular works. Suggesting ID is ‘the bridge between science and theology,’ makes this obvious.

    What surprises me as a social scientist is when people try to avoid the implication(s) by pretending that personal beliefs have no influence on *doing* science or philosophy. Indeed, wrt IDs inherent ‘implicationist’ ideology, here I happen to agree with Fr. Coyne (whether he is retired or not, the point is still relevant) that it compromises the ID approach. Steve Fuller is more direct and active today in showing the lessened explanatory power of ID because it doesn’t/won’t discuss the ‘design process’ or the ‘designer/Designer.’

    Fuller is actually pushing for ID to ‘come clean’ with its theological presuppositions, in order to build a more holistic approach to creation and evolution, particularly as seen through the lens of science and technology studies (STS). For Fuller, ID posits nature as ‘divine technology.’ But of course, Fuller is not an IDM-ID guy and speaks much more candidly about and interdisciplinarily with theology than does the IDM.

    “ID can at best provide only a natural theology, never a revealed theology.” – James

    This nevertheless demonstrates that ID still *is* in the proper sense ‘about theology.’ As Fuller asks, and as I asked to Dembski personally in audience (2008): why is ID not more openly discussing theology because the implications of Mind and Intelligence are obvious to everyone? Dembski dodged the question, suggesting simply that ‘design in biology’ has much (clique) support, iow, retreating to a reduced position. A possible reason for this: in a highly individualised society (like USA), religion is privatised and science made to serve the individual, whereas in a communally-oriented context, the sacred cannot be drained from science without losing the community meaning of science serving humanity made in the image of God.

    BioLogos is more credible that ID on this point: it openly participates in a dialogue between science and faith. Perhaps this is what has attracted Jon, penman, Cal, James and I to their site? That said; imo BioLogos fails by no including philosophy, with the idea that ‘science, philosophy and theology’ could be the more important discussion than ‘science and faith’ (maybe that is the way evangelicals prefer to speak?). And indeed, many criticisms have been made of BioLogos’ theological commitment or position, without thus far a clear statement by ‘evangelicals’ who accept an Old Earth speaking out against what BioLogos is attempting to do to US evangalicalism and to the meaning of TE/EC.

    If it would help James to understand where I’m coming from, I see science, philosophy and theology working cooperatively. This is what it appears to me that Jon is also suggesting in saying that he is favourable of both ID and TE/EC, at least in regard to their motivations and intentions.

    “What Jon and I (and penman) have criticized them [BioLogos] for is inadequate theology.” – James

    I disagree with BioLogos’ theology, especially in the persons of Venema, Lamoureux, Enns and others contracted to publish on BioLogos.org, in so far as they reject real, historical A&E (and thus compromise the notion of historical-original sin), which can be attributed in large part to their tight interweaving of ‘evolutionism’ with their theologies.

    Once one sees that the problem with BIoLogos is not ‘Darwinism,’ but ‘evolutionism,’ progress can be made. IDists have demonstrated a particular fetish with Darwinism, launching most of their arsenal against it, instead of against evolutionism. Johnson’s challenge was to ‘naturalism’ as well as ‘materialism,’ which partly accounts for the ‘Renewal’ name in the original title of the DI’s central headquarters funding ID proponents. But the arguments against naturalism and materialism are shared by IDists and TE/ECs, if not usually displayed at BioLogos. They just don’t have the philosophical power; even Hutchinson’s challenge to ‘scientism’ imo widely missed the mark.

    Yes, ID is about theology, just as much as it is about science. It should be understood within the context of USAmerican attempts to teach ‘creation’ in public schools.

    “First, ID has nothing to do with Scripture, and second, to the extent that ID people are Christians, they would never tamper with Scripture…” – James

    For those who are Bible-believing Christians, ID has a lot to do with Scripture. The issue I was trying to point out is that ‘design’ is substituted as the new term for ‘creation.’ The 20th century USAmerican discourse displays two poles: creationism and evolutionism. Late 20th c. ‘design/Design’ advocates have been seeking a 3rd way, a narrow path, trying to avoid involving their personal beliefs (except when speaking in churches) in a push to make ‘biological design’ into a ‘science’ (e.g. D. Axe) as they’ve been promoting it.

    At issue is not that ID proponents ‘insist’ on the implications of ‘design’ for ‘natural theology,’ it’s that they assume it. They are ‘doing natural theology’ and approaching ‘theodicy’ while suggesting they are doing nothing but pure natural science or engineering. Such a position is easily visible and betrays the ‘nobody here but us neutral scientists’ approach. So the IDM should best be understood as promoting both ‘science-only’ and ‘science and theology,’ depending on the audience and when it suits the purpose of the speaker.

    “Since they say over and over again that the science of design detection is no part of theology, and since they practice what they preach by not, as far as I can tell, employing any theological assumptions…” … “The science part of ID is not about God at all.” – James

    Though it may sound good ‘objectively’ speaking, it would be an impossible reality for anyone, natural scientist or not, who acts on holistic principles to behave as if worldview does not matter for reflexive persons. Worldview matters, religion matters ‘in doing science.’ We simply *do* bring our (a)theological assumptions to the table whenever we approach questions of ‘the science of science’ or of ultimate origins. The falsity and weakness of 20th century natural science, medicine, social science, law, etc. that one’s ideologies and presuppositions *don’t matter* is worth criticising today. If James would promote further disciplinary compartmentalisation instead of seeking union through interdisciplinary thinking and understanding (i.e. science, philosophy & theology), this makes no sense to me.

    The so-called ‘design/chance business’ that James suggests, is in fact already pretty much solved in a significant chunk of the Academy. And yet he does not (for DI/UD loyalty reasons?) (willingly?) acknowledge those legitimate design and planning theories. It makes any conversations with him problematic because he is defending a narrow USAmerican view of design, when wider and more mature views are available. Reading more and more ID books will not bring Enlightenment, but ideological stasis – intelligent designism, digging in one’s feet, just as universal evolutionists do.

    “Actually, materialism in biology does more than obscure design, it utterly denies it.” – James

    This may help bring the topic back around to Jon’s comments. Materialism involves a single aspect or dimension, the material, which include the biosphere, but not the noosphere or socium. It is possible however, to speak of ‘material design,’ so at least in that sense materialism is not necessarily opposed to ‘design’ or ‘designism.’ One must elevate the discussion beyond natural sciences like biology to enable fruitful conversation about the limits of materialism or the venues for idealism, energetics, informationalism, etc. From what I’ve read, ID literature is anything but enlightening on this topic, though James would probably wish to contend otherwise.

    The ‘design’ theorists I’ve read in the systems literature are predominantly materialists or at least non-theists. This is probably why the IDM hasn’t embraced systems or cybernetics literature in their promotions of a ‘revolution’ for natural sciences. Where is Weiner in their information renaissance, where is Bertalanffy, where is Bogdanov? Scholars in Eastern Europe are well ahead of the IDM, for example, the Club of Budapest’s Ervin Laszlo.

    When James speaks of narrowly USAmerican philosophy of science, one might ask if he is simply not aware of these ‘design’ thinkers or if he is purposely avoiding them.

    “Biologos thinks that we can’t legitimately talk about design in nature outside of faith. I think Biologos is wrong.” – James

    I think BioLogos is right. ID makes a category error, using analogues with human-made things (e.g. Easter Island, Mt. Rushmore and mousetraps) to explain information in non-human made things found in the biosphere. Genetic modification is an alternative topic; ID is speaking about the ‘origins’ of biological information on the basis of information originated by human beings. This is a different realm of discourse and as such requires different terms.

    “ID arguments can be used to generate a teleological argument for the existence of some sort of God, but can’t produce belief in any particular God, e.g., the God of Christianity or of Judaism or of Islam…ID as such has no theology.” – James

    Let it be clear that ID *is* a teleological argument. We are agreed about ID’s lack of particularity between religions. This is why BioLogos’ appeal to ‘evangelicals’ is more coherent in the realm of theology. If only BioLogos could elevate its work to discuss teleology in TE/EC while rethinking its position of embracing ‘evolutionism’…and if ID could elevate its work to involve theology in a more holistic conversation with science *and* philosophy, there might then be more common ground for cooperation. The anti-IDists such as Dawkins, Ruse, Harris, Dennett, et al. that James loves to mention, wouldn’t make much if any difference to those parties who wanted to be involved in such a triadic ‘science, philosophy, theology’ conversation.

    Re: ‘producing’ belief, there is so much overlap with apologetics and the ‘argument from design,’ that ID cannot hope to break free entirely from the religious sphere (especially if it pays no attention to ‘design’ arguments by the non-religious!). Here’s a recent example of ‘design’ apologetics: http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/design.htm

    In this case, ‘design’ is openly about theology, even Christianity. Can ID hope to break free from its association with such apologetics and if so, how? What could break ‘intelligent design/Intelligent Design’ free from its obviously related apologetic past, such that it may qualify, as most ID leaders say they desire, to be ‘just a science?’

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