It does not compute… but use it anyway

If there is a distinctive about the Evangelical tradition of Christianity, it is that Scripture is the highest source of authority for faith and practice. That, if you like, is the filter through which “Evangelical doctrine” has to pass, which is the simple reason Evangelicals don’t believe in papal infallibility or operating thetans. It’s always possible for any individual to hold any belief at all, but some beliefs just don’t sit easy with ones presuppositions and will prove hard to justify using them. A Marxist, for example, running a Capitalist economy is always going to appear rather ideologically compromised (though the Chinese are managing it in the short term). But I’ve been struck by how many contemporary opinions amongst Evangelicals are founded on other principles, and it how much it shows.

I was drawn to this phenomenon by remembering the furore caused in the UK by Rev Steve Chalke, a popular Baptist speaker, when in his book The Lost Message of Jesus he called the theory of penal substitution “a form of cosmic child abuse.” The point is that the offending phrase was not original, being coined by feminist theologian Nakashima Brock years earlier. Brock’s own denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is foundationally non-denominational, as described by Wikipedia:

Hierarchical doctrine was traditionally rejected by Disciples as human-made and divisive, and subsequently, freedom of belief and scriptural interpretation allows many Disciples to question or even deny beliefs common in doctrinal churches such as the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the Atonement. Beyond the essential commitment to follow Jesus there is a tremendous freedom of belief and interpretation… As would be expected from such an approach, there is a wide diversity among Disciples in what individuals and congregations believe. It is not uncommon to find individuals who seemingly hold diametrically opposed beliefs within the same congregation affirming one another’s journeys of faith as sisters and brothers in Christ.

No doubt some would find such diversity admirable – but it is not Evangelical, because the sinbearing Christ is quite clearly found in Scripture, and interpretation, in this case, means simply denying Scripture’s authority on the matter (probably originally by criticising Christianity’s “inherent patriarchalism”). So Chalke’s problem was in trying to justify radical feminist theology as Evangelical. But it wasn’t, actually.

Now I find the same phenomenon within BioLogos (aka Evangelical) theistic evolution. The idea of “co-creation” by … the creation … was not for the first time proposed in this thread, and I questioned it (as I have before), and challenged someone – anybody – to justify it theologically. After 78 posts nobody, until now, has even attempted to do so. The reason appears quite simple. Although the thought may sound attractive, it actually arose in TE from the process theology of the influential Ian Barbour. It makes sense in the context of process philosophy, but is quite incoherent outside it – it is not Evangelical, even when liked by Evangelicals.

The same thing is true of “freedom in creation” for exactly the same reason, but one can see a rather more deep-seated gut feeling about the word “freedom”, because distinguish them as one may, “creation’s freedom” supporters keep dragging in “human free will” as a justification (which is really the only recourse apart from process theology). But although it is almost impossible for Americans in particular to see their cultural bias (they are unique in the world in seeing social health provision as an issue of affront to liberty), “freedom” in that sense is not fundamentally an Evangelical doctrine either. In fact it arises from the Renaissance project to overthrow God’s sovereignty in favour of man’s individual autonomy (the good old Prometheus myth once more). But what Evangelical is going to admit to that as the source for their understanding of Creation doctrine?

Incidentally, Open Theism is widely held to have its roots in process theology as well. Although OTs deny a link and disagree with process theism on many things, once more there does seem to be a paper trail of ideas, with some loss of philosophical rigour along the way. It can hardly be coincidental that OT is so disproportionately popular in theistic evolution, where process theology forms such a foundational layer in the work of Barbour.

A similar tale is possible to tell for kenoticism, which I have critiqued on biblical (“Evangelical”) grounds elsewhere. Once more, the question is not why it exists, but why it is so popular amongst Evangelical TEs when it is regarded with circumspection by the wider Evangelical community. Originally kenoticism was a Liberal doctrine, whose appeal largely faded early in the last century. However, kenoticism is a key feature of the distinctly non-Evangelical outlook of panentheism, particularly when that kenosis involves the created order. And lo and behold, panentheism was the theology of another influential science-faith writer, Arthur Peacocke. So today’s TEs are trying to hold on to the self-emptying God idea, without the heterodox panentheistic theology that gave it a rational basis, and against the teaching of Scripture. And they are surprised when they are held in suspicion by non-TE Evangelicals, and other orthodox Christians.

One could give other examples. Where does the concept of a hands-off God, who sets evolution going but never “meddles”, come from if not from the Unitarian Deism of the eighteenth century Socinians? Were they Evangelical? Ask John Calvin, who knew Socinus personally and agonised (like many other Reformers) over his wild speculations.

Where does the tendency to deny original sin come from if not from the “mutually inclusive inclusivist” John Hick’s influential polarisation between Augustine and Irenaeus in Evil and the God of Love? Is his moral view of Christianity, his denial of the Incarnation or his movement away from theism a good foundation for an Evangelical understanding? Hick did, however, apply his thoughts about evil to evolution, and was a great influence on Ian Barbour the process theologian and patriarch of theistic evolution… and so they became stand-alone statments of authority several times removed from Hick, and even further from Irenaeus or Augustine … or more importantly, the Bible, the source of Evangelical authority, if you’ve not forgotten.

None of this, of course, is to assert that Evangelical theologians alone are capable of discovering truth. But to adopt a writer’s conclusions without either agreeing, or replacing, his train of reasoning is simply naive, and it shows in the facile adoption of slogans without any attempt at theological justification from so many TEs. When ones theology is based on a narrow scholasticism based on the works of whoever happens to have influenced the small band of science-faith scholars, there is a problem.

I once looked into the Watchtower Society when counselling a disillusioned Jehovah’s Witness. One of the things that struck me most is that none of their wilder ideas were original at all. It was as if the Watchtower had hired an investigator to scour the waste bins of every Christian tradition down the centuries for the ideas that were justly marginalised, from Arianism to the belief that the cross was not cross-shaped, and assembled a theology from these dog-ends. I sincerely hope that Evangelicalism in the West isn’t taking the same path.

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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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3 Responses to It does not compute… but use it anyway

  1. Avatar photo GD says:

    I wonder why so many theological opinions keep cropping up? I have often thought that modernism and post-modernism are the correct terms for a ‘strange synthesis’ of philosophical and theological schools of thought. Perhaps science is given a shake from time to time, but post-modernists despise science, so perhaps I had that wrong.

    I am struck by a phrase in K Hart’s introduction to post-modernism, that art and new philosophy may be the way to/of religion these days. One may wonder where these sort of self-referential theological strains will finally end up within a global community that we see emerging.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Why? I suspect “itching ears” (see 2 Tim 4.3-4).

    Where is it going? Where the eagles gather, I think! But no doubt the message of Antichrist will be “Peace, peace.”

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