Methodological naturalism never knows when to stop

There were a couple of recent references to Peter Enns on the usual blogs recently. Ted Davis cited him in his article on theistic evolution, and in reply to a comment added some background about his departure from Westminster Seminary, to which I’ll return. Uncommon Descent  linked to his reply to a review of his book The Evolution of Adam in Themelios, largely it would seem to discredit BioLogos by association with Enns’ views on Adam (though BioLogos‘ taking him on as their house-theologian after his removal from Westminster was surely making a statement too). That should be more than enough links for now. Neither reference was of much import alone, but tying the two together does, I think, teach us something beyond the controversial views of one scholar.

My reading both by and about Enns suggests to me that he likes to position himself as something of an honest whistleblower on Evangelical hypocrisy. In his reply to the review he accuses his opponents thus:

Where dogmatic tradition is threatened by science or historical biblical scholarship, the latter should be held at bay, for they are the product of unstable and fallen human inquiry. When conflict is unavoidable, “Scripture” (i.e., the dogmatic tradition that flows from a “proper” reading of Scripture) will always have priority, regardless of the nature of the evidence to the contrary.

How he avoids this evil himself emerges throughout his writing, from a book like The Evolution of Adam which actually belies its title by denying Adam’s historicity, to his former contributions to BioLogos, in which not only the scientific knowledge of Paul or Jesus were presented as plain wrong, but in some cases their theological teaching as well. His balancing of that with Scriptural inspiration is a balancing act worthy of Blondin.

But it is not so much the fact that he opposes conservative treatment of Scripture that is notable, but that he frequently implies that his opponents only take their position to assuage their own doubts and remain in good standing with their untrained congregations. He implies that everybody really knows that what he says is true, but can’t bring themselves to face up to the hard truth. This may not be entirely mistaken. Ted Davis implies that when Enns departed from Westminster Seminary it was because of the action of one senior, his faculty maintaining his orthodoxy by a majority but, apparently, afraid to speak out. That’s interesting – if he were simply orthodox he would not be controversial, so one suspects that his colleagues, if anything, share his unorthodoxy but would be unwilling to label themselves as “heterodox” along with him. Or maybe “orthodox” is just a Dumpty word with a post-modern elastic meaning.

This would compare with the time when theological liberalism was in the ascendant (I mean the previous liberalism, which swept through Evangelical denominations in the 19th century, rather than the current wave sweeping it as if the former hadn’t happened). Ministers trained in and convinced by Higher Criticism were afraid to admit to their faithful congregations their true beliefs, and either preached hypocritically and uselessly, or tried to educate their flock in the new ways. I myself remember visiting an Evangelical Anglican church in London in 1974, when a senior churchman in the diocese was officially visiting. Knowing his congregation to be benighted Fundamentalist simpletons he took his text (one of the Lord’s parables) as an opportunity to talk about the literary form of parables in the early Church. The simpletons gained no spiritual benefit.

But the key thing is that the source of this “emancipation” from a conservative treament of Scripture was the same in both movements of the spirit of the age, and I’m grateful to a couple of sentences in Hans Maduene’s Themelios review (linked above) for concentrating my mind on this:

The two main options in biblical studies are the methodological naturalism of standard biblical criticism or a more robust, theistic, Augustinian supernaturalism. My problem with Enns and the biblical scholarship that he relies on is that his assumptions in the study of extratextual history are typically constrained by methodological naturalism.

The arguments about methodological naturalism in the origins debate are to do with the natural sciences, but we need to remember that both Biblical Studies and History have been dominated by methodological naturalism for the last two hundred years as well. Ted Davis writes about the rise of both philosophical and methodological naturalism in science on BioLogos:

I’m familiar with precious little literature about this question, but my sense is that “God” disappears gradually from scientific literature from the 18th century onwards, and that it probably starts in the physical sciences before moving into biology in the 19th century. Darwin himself (as seen in some of the notebooks and the early versions of the “Origin of Species”) suffered heavily from what I call “physics envy,” i.e., he sought consciously to make natural history as lawlike as astronomy and physics. The final paragraph in the published version of the “Origin” has a loud hint about this, with the reference to “the fixed law of gravity,” and I strongly suspect that for the same reason he added the quotation from Whewell’s Bridgewater Treatise opposite the title page.

Christian apologists for MN argue that it does not jeopardise faith, being merely a way of ensuring that science is done properly. Such people might be a little more surprised to learn that methodological naturalism is applied just as carefully to theology – the science of God – as well. How can you explore the things of God without admitting the supernatural, you might wonder? But mainstream contemporary theology does just that. All higher criticism, as practised in the Academy, depends on it, and I’ve already alluded to its Baconian roots here. What should be noted sociologically is that, as the liberal denominations have largely strangled themselves to death on their own arid doctrines, the more conservative institutions have become increasingly open to the fruits of two centuries of such studies, with the rather odd result that Evangelical students are being trained in the methodology that decimated Evangelicalism a century ago.

Now, reading any of Peter Enns’ output on Genesis it is clear that he accepts the findings of methodogically naturalistic theological scholarship more or less without question. One personal example I treasure, and may have cited before, was when I pointed out to him at BioLogos that the supposed patchwork of competing incomplete sources in the Genesis flood narrative results in a coherent narrative containing all the essential elements of the older Babylonian accounts in order. Peter replied that this shows how clever the numerous redactors were, rather than any suggestion that the source hypothesis itself might be suspect. The same is true of his history, and in particular his finding of “mistaken science” in the Bible, which is at least in part an imposition of methodological naturalism on a text that doesn’t admit it.

His science too depends, of course, on methodological naturalism, though indirectly. As a non-biologist he simply accepts the broadly accepted findings of biology as metaphysically neutral – an assumption that is no more true in natural science than it is in theology. But the truth is, if you combine naturalistic science with naturalistic theology and history, you are simply not going to end up with a supernaturalistic synthesis. An Adam whose creation, or even spiritual endowments, were in any way supernatural could not possibly have existed. So there would be no point in even engaging with Anne Gauger’s book , for example. Its demerits are assured by ones methodology.

So I have much sympathy for those like Steve Fuller who want to see the end of methodological naturalism in biology. I agree with those too who want to see it purged from the social sciences. But most of all I want to see it ended in theology, which it has corrupted for 200 years too long.

Avatar photo

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 Adam, Creation, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply