Classic providential naturalism – towards a manifesto

When The Hump was relaunched with multiple authors around last October, after various events at BioLogos, I cobbled together a kind of working brief to the prospective writers whimsically entitled The Hump Strategy (or “Evolutionary Creationism in a cheap camelskin coat”). The reference to a certain infamous wedge should be obvious to those in the know. In the light of Sy Garte’s call to arms in a comment yesterday I fished this document out for inspiration (rather than reading through the whole of what is now approaching a million words on the blog). The summary with which I concluded was this:

1 – A commitment to a classical theological basis
2 – A commitment to good science, and a realisation that good science is hard to find
3 – A commitment to broadness of approach and of knowledge
4 – A commitment to Christian respect for those providing content, and for those visiting and posting
5 – To develop and propagate in these ways models for integrating God’s two book of “nature” and “Scripture”, through the integration of science and theology in an effective way.

You’ll see there’s no direct reference to evolution, because I see our concern as being wider – actually as wide as science itself. But what is at its core, and how can it be expressed in a way that is clear and programmatic, if indeed there is a need to spread the concept wider? So, after waking early today and tossing things around in my mind, I now suggest that what we’re about could perhaps be summarised in the term Classic Providential Naturalism, or CPN in abbreviated form.

I hope, that if this handle proved agreeable, we could overcome the handicap that CPN also stands in the UK for “Community Psychiatric Nursing.” But let me unpack the term for you, before relating it to the world in which we’re trying to set it.

It’s Classic because it’s a reforming, rather than an innovative, movement, seeking to restore science to the classical Christian theology which launched it in the first place. Being therefore the historical default position from which other approaches have deviated, it doesn’t really deserve to be called an “ism”. As #1 in The Hump Summary implies, I’ve long been convinced that the historical structures of Christian doctrine are a perfectly adequate basis by which to pursue science, including origins science. By “classic” I mean the baseline theological principles expressed in the Bible and developed in the Patristic age including the early church councils, which were carried through into mediaeval scholastic theology, and continued in the teachings of the Reformation. Some of those are still commonplace, but some have been largely forgotten by many Christian scientists and in many churches. There are many aspects of this, such as varieties of causation beyond the efficient and material types that current science recognises, the role of Christ the Logos of God in creation, and most relevant of all, a strong doctrine of providence.

I should add here that CPN is at root a theological position, and so thoroughly and non-negotiably Christian. However, I see it as being of some theoretical service to other theists such as our Jewish brethren, whose doctrine of creation is traditionally of the same classical type.

So “classical” here stands distinct from, and in inevitable opposition to, both secular materialism and the non-classical forms of Christianity which sit loose to, or openly deny, traditional theology. Conversely it is in solidarity with all the historic traditions: Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed amongst them.

Secondly, it’s Providential because it is underpinned by a strong doctrine of divine providence. Thomas Aquinas, for example, like John Calvin, argues that Scripture teaches, and reason demands, that God’s active providence covers all events, governing and directing them towards his own ends. This includes lawlike events, chance events and events caused by voluntary agents like ourselves. Active providence therefore includes all the events studied by science as “secondary causes”.

This theological commitment predisposes towards certain theological or philosophical positions. For example, it requires opting for a concurrentist view of divine action rather than a mere conservationist one, placing it squarely against the definition of theistic evolution in the list cited by Sy Garte in his comment. Similarly it opens the way to, and even demands, some coherent understanding of where and how God might act within nature apart from the usual secondary causes: are some events, the origin of life say, necessarily acts of divine creation rather than just the result of divinely-sustained secondary causes?

One positive result of such a commitment is the removal of the unstable and rather incoherent tension in current theistic (actually, semi-deistic) evolution in which God does not, and may not “interfere” in nature, but somehow does, and may, do biblical miracles or answer prayers.

Thirdly, it’s Naturalism. It seems odd (even to me) to be promoting naturalism, not only given the secular climate, but also the rather doubtful orthodoxy of some of what is currently called “theistic naturalism”. But it seems to me that the term, qualified by the preceding “providential” is a necessary one, used in the sense of the reality of God-given “natures” within his creation. Science as we know it depends on the reality of secondary efficient causation, that is the genuine (though not, in this view, autonomous) actions of material natures. This flows from concurrentism, which does not however lose sight of God’s own purposeful activity before and behind those secondary causes. The term naturalism, then, enables science to happen, and CPN is a theological position that applies especially to science, through it is broad enough to be a valid overall approach to the whole created order.

This last point is important because, I would argue, the doctrine of creation is of equivalent importance to the doctrine of salvation, and interacts with it at key points. For instance, it is only when we understand how God interacts with us as creatures that we can makes sense of how he intervenes in salvation, through grace. It is only in understanding the true nature of the created order in relation to God that we will also be able to comprehend our own responsibilities towards it (hence some posts on ecology here), or the nature of our eschatological hope for the new creation.

And so I commend for discussion this term, and concept, namely Classic Providential Naturalism.


How does CPN relate to current players in the origins question? Though the term is newly-minted, I have argued before that its substance was the position of the first theistic evolutionists like Asa Gray, Charles Kingsley and Benjamin Warfield, to the extent that I have previously termed it, referring specifically to evolution, “Warfieldian Theistic Evolution”. That was, and is, fair enough as a description, for these Christians were modifying a new biological theory, rejecting any metaphysical naturalism tacked on to it, being willing to critique its evidence, and daring to make exceptions in subordination to core theological doctrines.

But I dislike it as an overall term because (as our own GD has often pointed out) to tie ones theology to a scientific theory is poor theology. Evolutionary theory is in flux. Who knows but that one day, like Newton’s physics, it might turn out to be of restricted application or even mistaken? In which case, one would have to become a theistic-something-else. Theistic Newtonianism would be time-expired now, whereas one could remain a providential naturalist whatever direction the science might take.

Since Warfield’s time, materialist metaphysics has become, frankly, an oppressive force within academia. To hold Asa Gray’s position now would not only make publication of theistic evolutionary papers impossible, but it is likely he might fail to be published at all. And he would almost certainly not gain tenure or grant money. If you doubt that, ask any scientist, biologist or not, who happens to be a Creationist or Intelligent Design advocate. Or ask Francis Collins, whose appointment at the NIH was disputed on the grounds of even his semi-deistic TE. Or journalist David Dobbs, who was accused by prominent academics like Pinker, Coyne and Dawkins of creationism even for supplementing Neodarwinian orthodoxy.

My point is that since there is, currently, no room in academia for any truly theistic views, those who agree with CPN will have to bite the bullet and accept they will face stiff opposition. They will have to employ the strategies that Christians have employed over 2 millennia, of concealment, or subtle strategy, or courageous opposition, or least honourably, compromise or choosing another profession. All these are evident in varying ways in the current Christian or Theist options.

Creationism (Young and Old Earth) arose out of US Fundamentalism in quite a complex way, but the motive was to honour God’s revealed word, and subsequently to seek to avoid dichotomising truth through the endeavour of Creation Science. It’s widely felt that the latter endeavour has done injustice to science (though it’s easy to forget in the propaganda wars that some bright, honest and competent scientists are Creationists, and that non-scientist Christians are even more likely to be educated, intelligent and yet Creationists). But historically the interpretation of Scripture in relation to natural philosophy has been broader, even in Evangelicalism, and I take it that CPN is closer to this tradition. So in that sense it stands against creationism. But the dichotomy is not too sharp, because creation doctrine ought to be axiomatic to all Christians, and any belief in divine, creative, activity within the history of nature cannot be conceptually distinguished from forms of creationism that include natural secondary causes in nature.

Intelligent Design arose as a direct response to the metaphysical pretensions of a dominant materialism in origins science. Stephen Meyer says the name was chosen as the antithesis of materialist biologists’ “Apparent Design”, which is worthy of long consideration. ID is intended (whether justifiably or not doesn’t matter here) as a one-issue (origins), scientific (+/- philosophical and metaphysical) rather than theological enterprise. It’s therefore orthogonal to CPN, which is intended as a theological approach to the created order, relevant to science and origins, but independent of either. We can endorse their insights and reject their errors without any sense of self-contradiction.

Theistic Evolutionism (aka BioLogos [Collins] or Evolutionary Creation [Falk]) is the re-branding, with a completely new recipe, of Warfieldian Theistic Evolution, which for various reasons scarcely survived the twentieth century. All its titles are arguably misleading, since (to cut the long story we all know short) it is more deistic than theistic, has little place for the Logos of God (and often a marginal one for the Bible as logos) and delegates much of creation to “Nature” as an unacknowledged Demiurge.

I encompass within this category not only the core of BioLogos itself, but many working scientists (eg those in ASA or the British equivalent CiS) who have read the popular TE literature, and much of the science-faith and divine action work in academia. Apart from what I regard as the intellectual and theological shortcomings of this view, unlike CPN it has, by its nature, tied its theological cart to an evolutionary horse, both narrowing its legitimate field of view and rendering it guilty of allowing a scientific theory (a narrow Neodarwinianism) to direct its theology.

Yet I strongly suspect that something like Classic Providential Naturalism is common both inside biology and natural science, and amongst pastors and lay people. For example, a population geneticist like David L Wilcox makes his belief in a strong doctrine of providence and biblical reliability clear in his book God and Evolution. I suspect that if we make it clear and well-defined as an approach, it may well enable people to articulate, and act on, their existing convictions. If we, or others, provide materials to teach and refine the concept, a significant educational purpose will have been served, to the benefit both of science and faith, and to the disadvantage of their genuine enemies.

Which would seem to be a call to “get the word out there.” Your contributions?

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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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18 Responses to Classic providential naturalism – towards a manifesto

  1. Avatar photo GD says:

    Interesting development Jon. I wonder what “Classical Providential Understanding of Nature” may seem – as an acronym it may not be as powerful (CPUON) – or may be a reminder of a coupon we can cash at some future event (!!??)

  2. Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

    Hi, Jon.

    I’m broadly sympathetic with the main ideas set forth above. I’ve watched as your position has taken shape over the past couple of years, and I think it is a strong position that can hold its own in world where these discussions have often become bogged down in the three-way war between creationists, ID people, and TE/EC people. I’m happy to be a supporting player of a sort on a site where you are making such an argument.

    At the same time, I’ve always been by temperament an ally rather than a joiner, so I’m perhaps not as keen as some others to establish a formal name or position, even one that corresponds for the most part to my own views. I’m more comfortable in a setting where a family of related positions works together for common ends.

    The common ends, as I see them so far, seem to be:

    Working out positions on creation/evolution and more broadly religion/science matters that transcend the “camps” of TE/EC and ID and creationism as they have been defined thus far.

    Trying to ground the such positions in theological conceptions found in the Bible and the Christian tradition, where the latter is understood broadly so as to include ancient, and Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic, and Protestant (that ever-unclear umbrella term) traditions as legitimate reference points.

    Respect for all genuine accomplishments of modern science (e.g., the atomic theory of matter, the germ theory of disease, the structure and operation of DNA and other parts of the living cell, the structure and operation of our solar system), but more skepticism than is generally allowed by the modern world regarding some of the alleged achievements of modern science, and a suspicion of theories in the more speculative realms of science (whether in certain areas of theoretical physics and cosmology, or certain parts of the historical sciences, or climatology, or whatever) that are often pushed upon the world as “settled science” and that appear to demand political or social obeisance more than voluntary and rational adherence.

    I see the suggestion of “classical providential naturalism” as a good example of the kind of position that addresses the common concerns I’ve just listed. I’m just hesitant to jump on the bandwagon for the term itself, partly because I’ve seen how any label, no matter how good it seems at first, can quickly run into problems, and partly because I want to chew a bit more on the component parts before I would want to subscribe in a formal way.

    For example, I’d like to think more about “concurrentism.” You’ve made a good case for your own understanding of the term, and you’ve in some ways rehabilitated the term for me, as I have disliked the application of it in some quarters, including some TE quarters. For that I am grateful. But I feel a need to do some more study of this conception, the history of both the term and the idea, before I would feel comfortable saying that it is THE Christian way of thinking about God’s relationship to nature. Indeed, I have thought of writing a column here on the subject, laying out what for me are the advantages and disadvantages, both scientific and theological, of “concurrentism” as a term or concept. But such a column is a couple of months away.

    Again, while I admire your determination to avoid the sort of arbitrary theologizing that goes on in TE/EC, where selected ideas from the Bible and tradition are irresponsibly dragged out of context and mixed in with all kinds of alien modern conceptions, and while I support your attempt to try to restore the “classical Christian view” on the subjects of nature, providence, etc., I find isolating the “classical” Christian view a more daunting and difficult task than you do.

    For example, if the American TE/EC community goes to one extreme (turning Christian theology into a grab-bag with no clear boundaries and principles), someone like, say, Edward Feser, seems to me to sometimes go too far to another extreme, and speak as if it is just obvious what “classical theism” requires and that there can be no debate that “classical theism” means what Edward Feser says that “classical theism” is. I think there is more diversity within “theism” than Feser would like to see; I also think that Feser uses the word “classical” with a normative flavor that requires some justification (where is the intellectual authority that gets to lay down the law of what counts as “classical,” especially since the term seems to cross the boundaries of Greek, Christian, Jewish and perhaps even some Muslim territory?); I sometimes find that Feser’s way of formulating “classical theism” is more philosophical than Biblical; I’m not always convinced that he has conceived of “Greek” and “Hebraic” elements in the right balance; I’m not convinced that he hasn’t slanted the “classical” in “classical theism” in such a way that it will tend to favor Thomism.

    And just as I find “classical theism” a label that is easy enough to brandish, but harder to pin down, so I find isolating THE classical Christian position, on many questions, hard to pin down. And I say this not as some sort of liberal relativist, but simply out of a sense of the breadth and diversity within historical Christianity.

    Certainly there are obvious places to look for core theological assumptions, e.g., the ecumenical Creeds. But even there, there are Eastern Churches outside the ambit of Constantinople who dissent from or qualify those Creeds in various ways. And much as I admire parts of Augustine, I’m not sure that he, along with others, didn’t take Western or Latin Christianity partly down unwise paths. Such doubts are connected in part with questions arising out of Greek philosophy, and in part with questions about Eastern Orthodoxy, a tradition of which I claim little knowledge. On the latter point, until I have done some more study in the Orthodox tradition (meaning not merely the Greek Fathers but medieval developments as well), I would want to hold off on endorsing in detail all of your remarks regarding the harmony of the Greek and Latin Fathers, or your remarks regarding modern disputes between Orthodox writers.

    I guess all of this is to say that I regard recovering “the classical Christian position” as (for me at least) a work in progress, a work of sifting and discerning, rather than a work of straightforward return to a unanimous theological doctrine held by the past from which modern liberals have departed. I don’t find it easy to locate the supposed “catholic” truths that have been held “always, and everywhere, by all.” I agree that modern liberals have gone wrong, but I think that correcting the error via return to tradition, while in principle the right approach, is hard to execute in practice, because of the many-sidedness of the tradition itself.

    So my main fear about getting behind a label such as Classical Providential Understanding of Nature is that, while I have a broad general agreement with it as it sits now, I have no control over what will be counted as “the” classical understanding or “the” doctrine of providence as discussion carries on, and I don’t want to endorse in advance all views that anyone might care to insist upon.

    I think you can appreciate this regarding the term “theistic evolution.” As originally used, over 100 years ago, I think, the term was something that I could have subscribed to. But now the term, thanks to the cultural and theological wars in America, the term has come to mean something narrower, and something to which I cannot assent.

    In sum, I’m not enthusiastic about the proposed term as a label, a war-cry, or creed, or a binding theological or theology/science statement for Hump contributors, but I have no objection to it as a broadly practical framework, a statement of tentative working principles that seems fruitful and more constructive than what the ID/TE/creationism wars have so far produced.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks Eddie

      I certainly concur with the hesitation about forming the definitive organisation or official school, not least for the reason that you give: a generation down the line some fool uses the cachet of the thing for some completely alien cause (as with much Evangelicalism today).

      I think my interest is more to outline an identifiable agenda around which people can work, rather than simply reading a good point someone made on a blog somewhere, that’s a bit like what that book by some philosopher said. As we’ve found on the Hump, and even to an extent on BioLogos, it’s as arguments are brought together in a coherent way and driven home repatedly that they begin to be a framework on which ordinary people can build. That the ideas lead to varying conclusions is not the big deal – breaking monolithic and wrong ways of thought is. Labels help in that respect.

      Saying one is “Reformed” or “Aristotelian” doesn’t turn one into a clone, but gives one a rule of thumb by which to assess sense and nonsense. If you take “concurrentism”, for example, it’s something to push against: would either of the two usually accepted alternatives fit as well or better – or is there a completely different philosophical approach that would lift the same weight? All that’s better than blundering around inside an incoherent system where God does things but doesn’t do anything.

  3. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    I share in Eddie’s reticence to quickly bond to a “new movement” — though that said I would wear a “Garveyite” shirt with pride. In fact I recognize that you don’t put this forth as a new movement as you explain about your first modifier “classical”. I really appreciate your stress that it is reformation rather than innovation that is needed –so what I get excited about is our shared thought that we are returning to something quite well established.

    I’m not sure we agree on everything and that is a healthy part of this exchange; so I enjoy this as a continuing conversation –and one that I freely and positively bring elsewhere.

    You use strong language such as “…seeking to restore science to the classical Christian theology which launched it in the first place”. While I agree with the well established history demonstrating the strong essential connection between early church and scientific thought, it would still be interesting to tease out what you mean by this “return of science to these classical beginnings”. Most of us would just be happy to see new atheists stop trying to hijack science to turn it into a dogmatic anti-religious weapon. Once science is free again to just be ordinary science with a small ‘s’, what else can it do but be a good and contributing citizen at the table? In fact the smaller the ‘s’ the more invaluable it becomes. It is when its practitioners make a power grab, trying to claim authority over all others in the conversation that it becomes the dangerous religious dogma of Scientism. It would be good for science (not to mention the world) to be rescued from that, but rescued in the sense of freeing it to become ordinary science again –an independent contributor willing to follow God’s second book wherever that leads and then humbly bringing that to the conversation. There it comes into its own as an important contributor. The church has been learning this hard lesson for centuries with some factions learning it still.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Let’s lose the T-shirts, shall we? And the Garveyite, except the green version that kills self-promoters.

      You use strong language such as “…seeking to restore science to the classical Christian theology which launched it in the first place”.

      Just getting into manifesto mode there, Merv. Sometimes, rightly or wrongly, I feel the answer to polemics may be counter-polemics, at least to provoke serious thought. From a scholarly point of view (and from your admirably fair-mided one) the situation of science’s foundation is complex, but I wanted to remind ourselves that it was inextricably linked to Christianity, and that many of its main players had, and thought through, Christian views of the relationship of science and nature, and in most cases along classical lines (I’d even include the heterodox like Newton in that).

      Here’s one thought about that which may cast some light on how I think science (or PoS at least) might need to become more than “simple”, though your plain suggestion of its ideally being a humble tool rather than a god is right – but we can’t just wish it were so and not do anything to help bring it about.

      Here’s the thought. Those like Boyle were breaking the ground for empirical science and so were concentrating on efficient causation in gases, heavenly bodies etc. They were also reacting against the former lack of that worthy “materialist” emphasis. That quest was valid.

      But to be honest, they were looking only at the small scale: things like the creation of matter, the origin of life, and the creation of species were not on their scientific radar, and were quietly assumed to be part of God’s 7-day creation, I suppose. But now those areas of true creation have come within science’s view, and core theology becomes far more essential. One could compare it to the need to consider the mysterious relativity and quantum theory, which Newton could ignore because he didn’t know about them.

      So that’s why I have in mind close examination of methodological naturalism, for example – unlike the early theist scientists, we’re examining areas where there may be good grounds for thinking that God’s direct providence is involved, and so someone needs to think through what that means for research and theory.

  4. Avatar photo GD says:

    I don’t think that the Hump has the resources (or I would guess the inclination) to create and establish a ‘new’ or ‘classical’ school of thought. I took the original suggestion to mean that Jon has expanded the writers to his blog and with this, he may seek another ‘catchy phrase’ for cyberspace.

    On the major points discussed on this site, I think the major thrust has been to seek detailed discussions related to God as Creator, and to examine the various points of view that have existed in past Christian teachings, and compare these with current fads, and anti-Christian activities. I think it is a good thing to avoid becoming obsessed with Darwinian thinking, be it the accepted and controversial forms, and instead look at the general range of physical sciences, to examine any harmony or conflicts with faith.

    For people to want to examine a school of thought (a much larger project) we would need to consider history of philosophy, theology, sciences, and also have a good grounding in the many and varied outlooks from theists and atheists – a huge task, and I have not mentioned sociological and physiological ‘schools of thought’.

  5. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Your last paragraph is an important one. As I said to Pete Harris, I’ve never had to read so widely as I have since this “project” started. If the subject is “God and the Universe” there aren’t too many irrelevant subjects. Possibly one could give origami or history of football a miss.

    If The Hump has opened any new horizons for people it’s probably by bringing together things that were separate before. Scientists should, by nature, be magpies interested in how everything fits together – remember Richard Feynman investigating ant behaviour and safe-combinations at Los Alamos. And Christian scientists (like all Christians) should be competent theologians so they can ask, and answer, “How do I do my job Christianly?”

    The Hump and resources (or the hump and pretensions) is also a good question raised by you, Eddie and Merv. The question we need to answer, if there is value in what we discuss, is how best to be salt and light. Questions of lamps, bushels and so on are relevant, too.

  6. Avatar photo GD says:


    I now indulge in reminiscence during these comments – I started my poem “Salvation” at about 1975. The project seemed straightforward, and should have taken me a few months. But as I meditated on this and that, and decided I need to read more from various sources, I found myself reading more, and writing less. Now so many years later, the poem is many, many, pages (far more that I had envisaged), my notes bulge to many thousands of words, and I still feel that eventually I will finish it.

    I get a feeling that your project may be similar – just a thought (for what that is worth).

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I guess on that basis the blog could turn into something like mad Mr Dick’s memorial in Dickens’ David Copperfield, in which King Charles’ head kept imposing itself so it was never completed. In my case it would have to be a camel’s hump, of course! CPN in the form of community psychiatric nursing would have to come to the rescue of CPN the classical providential naturalism.

  7. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Well, three days on there’s no great rush to man the barricades. This piece has had about the usual number of hits from the usual places. So I take it that, for the moment, we should continue to develop our ideas here and lob occasional grenades amongst our various friends.

    The exercise was, I felt, helpful in encouraging me to coin the label classic providential naturalism if anyone wants a concise summary of our approach, that can be usefully unpacked from such grenades.

    To answer Sy’s question about the descriptor to use, in relation to origins science, and also Ian’s annoyance that “theistic evolution” has already been hi-jacked, I would still advocate “Warfieldian theistic evolution”. This encourages people to question what is wrong with the unqualified usage, and to go back to a respected, orthodox and conservative name from Darwin’s own time whose approach still makes sense.

  8. I am a latecomer to this discussion, but I’m utterly fascinated by what I’ve been reading at the Hump and want to learn from the expertise of those who are specialists in areas where I am a neophyte.

    Maybe a word of introduction is in order: I’m a biblical scholar/theologian by training, who has always been interested in creation (conceived theologically, but also as studied by the sciences), and especially anthropology (in biblical studies, the humanities, and paleontology).

    I’m currently part of an interdisciplinary research group of ten scholars tasked with bringing the classic, orthodox Christian doctrine of the “fall” or “original sin” into conversation with what we know (or think we know) of the evolution of humanity. It’s a three-year project entitled “Beyond Galileo – to Chalcedon: Re-imagining the Intersection of Evolution and the Fall.” (“Chalcedon” in the title is a reference to the two natures of Christ affirmed at the Council of Chalcedon, which we take as paradigmatic for the need to affirm the truth of both Christian theology and science.)

    The group’s expertise includes philosophy, history, biology, neuroscience, ecology, theology, ethics, and biblical studies (among which I am the only specialist in Old Testament).

    The project is sponsored by the Colossian Forum (headed by Jamie Smith and Bill Cavanaugh), and funded by a grant from BioLogos (I hope that doesn’t serve to anathematize the project too quickly).

    We have three overarching commitments. The first is to orthodox, Nicene Christianity; the second is to the biblical claim that in Christ all things (including all knowledge) hangs together (Colossians 1:17); and the third is that Christians can engage in irenic and vigorous investigation and dialogue on matters where they disagree.

    The group is planning an interdisciplinary conference on the subject of our research to be held at DePaul University in Chicago, March 26-28, 2015. Papers on the subject are invited from interested parties. And we’re hoping a book would come out of the conference.

    The paper I am working on is tentatively entitled: “Reading Genesis 3 Attentive to Human Evolution: Beyond Concordism and Non-Overlapping Magisteria.”

    Any feedback on my abstract (below) would be welcome (especially guidance on what I should read). Here’s the (current) abstract):

    Although there are divergences of opinion on details, most paleo-anthropologists date the first homind remains to some six to seven million years ago and think the first humans appeared just under two million years ago. The most likely hypothesis for the evolution of anatomically modern homo sapiens places their origin some 150,000 to 100,000 years ago, with an original population of perhaps 10,000.

    While many Christians have thought this account incompatible with the biblical account of the origin of “Adam,” some theologians today are attempting to hold both to orthodox tenets of the faith along with the findings of modern science.

    Certainly one of the most problematic dimensions of biblical origins and modern science is the question of the origin of evil, since the Bible seems to teach (in Genesis 3) a punctiliar event in which an original couple transgressed God’s commandment after an initial paradisical period. This has led many theologians to view biblical/theological truth and scientific truth as Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA), belonging to different domains, which guarantees no contradiction between them.

    As an alternative to a naively concordist attempt at reconciling Scripture with science (or vice versa), this approach is fully understandable. But is that all there is to be said? Is an Old Testament scholar simply to ignore the scientific account of human origins as she interprets the biblical text? Certainly, the assumptions and presuppositions of the scholar will affect what he sees (and doesn’t see) in the biblical text.

    This paper will therefore engage in a re-reading of the narrative of Genesis 3 (in the context of the Primeval History, Genesis 1-11) in order to see if awareness of hominid/human evolution might open up new avenues of interpretation. I conceive of this paper as an experimental probe to see if what we know of the evolution of homo sapiens in the context of the development of hominids might illuminate aspects of the text that readers have previously missed.

    The paper will briefly examine the two divergent accounts of human creation in Genesis 1 and 2 as necessary context for Genesis 3. But the focus of the paper would be a developmental or process-oriented reading of the famous account of the “fall” (as it came to be known in later tradition). This would involve exploring the prohibition of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the subsequent narrative of transgression and judgment, and the spread of violence in Genesis 4. This reading would be in dialogue with a virtue ethics approach to the development of moral consciousness and with evolutionary anthropology. The primary question would be whether thinking of Genesis 3 in connection with human evolution might shed light on conceptualizing the origin of moral evil, including the notion of a “historical” or “eventful” fall.


    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Richard, and welcome to The Hump. It sometimes seems like we’re ploughing a lonely furrow here, but it’s good to know that others committed to Nicene and Chalcedonian positions are engaged in exploring the interface of orthodox Christianity, and especially Bible, with science.

      I hope some of the specialists who lurk here in one guise or another may respond to your post, though we lack palaeoanthropologists and …well, most things really. We have a geneticist who’s done a fait bit of reading on human evolution. You’ll appreciate that there are no real experts in what is essentially an interdisciplinary investigation about the existence of everything.

      My own beef about “applied evolution” in general is that we nearly always assume we know more than we do about the past from a scientific approach. You may have noticed the rapid transition in the recent status of Neanderthal Man from “evolutionary link” to “one of us”, with an accompanying shift even in the reconstructions. If he can be a brute one week and an accountant the next, then we draw historical and theological conclusions at our peril. You find an ancient victim of violence – moral evil, animal aggression or hunting accident?

      That (I suppose) is my major disagreement with the common BioLogos approach – evolution barely understood becoming the arbiter of theology. Indeed, the evolution gets more settled the farther from the research it gets, and theologians seem to have most faith of all in it when they don’t anathematize it altogether!

      Accordingly, whilst rejecting a NOMA approach, I’ve tended increasingly to see Genesis 2-3 in a cultural, rather than an evolutionary setting. One does, after all, have to consider the author’s vision: did he merely see sin, and make some plausible account of it, or did he know something from the (proto-)history of his people? One can only sin against Yahweh if Yahweh gives a command – and the idea of “moral fall” in Genesis is seen as an extrapolation of that rebellion against divine revelation. So the development of religion is as relevant as that or moral consciousness, unless one is subtly rewriting what Genesis actually teaches.

      Sure as eggs is eggs, the author had no concept of evil as a product of evolution – and I guess we’re beyond seeing Genesis as God’s secret science book: evolution is no more likely to be concealed there than the Big Bang. But what do I know – I’m just a doctor!

      One question your abstract raises to me (because it’s formed the basis of much confusion in discussions I’ve had) is whether you’re looking at “sin” in Genesis as human sin, or making the assumption that there is some close connection between “sin” and “natural evil”? The common (though not classic but modern, as my own research has found) position was that the Fall corrupted nature. That being untenable in a deep time context, natural evil has tended to be seen as the root of the Fall, and therefore as an inherent part of God’s creation (usually through the nebulous concept of natural autonomy, tied up with an ontological sense of God as the God of suffering).

      Neither Nicea nor Chalcedon are explicit in saying that sin is man’s sole responsibility, because nobody that mattered ever thought otherwise. Unless evolution is made a voluntary process (and some ET is going that way, cf James Shapiro), then an evolutionary root of sin changes that fundamental dynamic of responsibility on to God.

      I’ve rattled on too long.

    • pngarrison says:

      Hello, Richard. I’m an occasional commenter here and Texas internet friend of Jon’s. I should actually be asleep at the moment, and soon will be whether I want to or not I think, so my comment will be limited at the moment to a bit of terminology. I’m just a retired biochemist who occupies himself some of the time by trying to keep up with what’s going on in human genomics/evolution and related things, but I think “hominin” is the current term for the various lines along the human branch after the split with chimps. “Hominid” is still used for some larger classification, but you should ask an anthropologist for the current usage. I think they change it regularly just to keep outsiders off balance.

  9. Jon, your response is most appreciated.

    I’ve been searching for an intellectual “home” for thinking about origins, and so far haven’t found one (except maybe the group I’m doing research with). But then there’s something biblical about being an exile and sojourner in this world. However, I do know that walking with a bunch of fellow-travelers can be helpful, for the encouragement, and for the challenge and mutual criticism.

    Let me respond to a few of the things you said in your response to my post (this will show you that I’m very close to you on lots of issues). However, then I’d like to raise a few questions about some things I myself am not quite settled on (but some of your posts suggest you are).

    The Changing Face of Science

    First of all, I agree with you that it is important not to reify current science, since in the nature of the case things are constantly changing. Just as an example, back in the eighties I was avidly following new developments in paleo-anthroplogy; now that I have begun to try to catch up on where the science is at, I am astounded at not only new discoveries, but also the way the data are configured and interpreted. The changing face of science is a given for me (which is why I tend to say things like “what we know (or think we know) about evolution”).

    This relative tentativeness about the current state of evolutionary science is one of the differences between the working group I am part of (especially Jamie Smith and the Colossian Forum) and BioLogos (despite the fact that they are funding us). You can see this approach in Smith’s article in Christianity Today called “What Galileo’s Telescope Can’t See” (

    Genesis 3 as Cultural

    I’m also absolutely convinced that Genesis 3 is (as you put it) “cultural” and must be read for its genre in terms of ancient Near Eastern ideas; and that it specifically doesn’t have evolution in mind. I’ve done a lot of work on this text (Genesis 2-3), teaching it in academic and church settings, and giving papers on it at conferences (though I haven’t yet published anything specifically on it). It is a brilliant narrative, with a great deal to teach us today both in terms of theology and ethics. I certainly don’t want to read evolution anachronistically back into the text.

    Rather, my question has to do with the multiple lacunae in the text, which readers tend to fill in with their assumptions and preunderstandings; I’m also attentive to the generally quite simple narrative which many readers tend to over-interpret in terms of their own theology. I don’t think we can avoid doing this at some level; subjectivity is inescapable.

    Although I have typically tried to read the text for its own intrinsic theological and ethical claims, I have also tried to show how this coheres with orthodox Christian theology (that’s my own subjectivity). I don’t intend to go back on that.

    However, I am also aware (as a biblical scholar) that Christians often make assumptions about what is non-negotiable (for example, a six-day “literal” creation week, an original human couple) and then read these back into Scripture. Besides not wanting to do that, I wonder if an awareness of hominin (not hominid!) evolution might allow us to live with certain lacunae and not fill them in too quickly; this awareness might even allow us to see different meanings to some aspects of the story that we might have closed in on too quickly previously (I know this is already my experience with this text, even apart from the question of evolution).

    Natural Evil and Human Sin

    Here is an area in which I have more questions than answers. I have typically understood “sin” as evil that humans do, wither intentionally or not, either individually or systemically. “Evil,” it seems to me, is a broader category, and (drawing on Aristotle) I have thought that “an evil” is something that from our point of view impedes what we think is the good life. That is why we use the term “natural evil.”

    However, based on my reading of the book of Job, I’ve come to the conclusion that what we think of as natural evil isn’t evil at all from God’s point of view; God celebrates the wild (even dangerous) character of creation (including birds of prey in his first speech to Job, and Leviathan and Behemoth in his second speech). Here I tend to side with Terry Fretheim, who regards what we call “chaos” as an integral part of creation, yet without it being evil.

    I was intrigued when you said that you found that the common idea that “the Fall corrupted nature” was modern. I would love to see that research. I would agree that this is indeed untenable from a scientific accounting of deep time.

    However, the Bible itself is the source of this idea, in the cursing of the ground in Genesis 3, which was universalized to the suffering/groaning of the creation itself by Paul in Romans 8 (Paul didn’t invent this; he simply draws on the universalizing tendency of Second Temple Judaism; other examples of this universalizing include the promise of land to Abraham being transformed into the idea that Abraham’s descendents would inherit “the world” in Romans 4, or that the meek inheriting the land in Psalm 37 becomes the meek inheriting the earth in the Beatitudes, or the Isaianic promise of “a new heavens and a new earth” in chap. 65, which originally was a poetic way of speaking of the radical changes God would bring after the exile became taken quite cosmically both prior to and within the New Testament).

    So, apart from the modern framing of this idea, I would like to understand what we can legitimately take from Scripture here and how it relates to a scientific account of the cosmos. So how do we think them together, if we avoid both naive concordism and NOMA?

    Classical versus Biblical Christianity

    Here is where I may differ the most from what I’ve seen posted on the Hump.

    I am a biblical scholar trained in the history of philosophy and theology. This has made me very aware of aspects of classical Christian theology that depend as much on the philosophical contributions of various “pagan” philosophers, like Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus) as on biblical revelation. After all, no-one just reads their theology straight out of the Bible; the text has to be interpreted, related to our prior knowledge (either theological or otherwise), systematized (to some degree), and articulated in some understandable language and categories (theology isn’t just restatement of the Bible).

    By doing detailed exegesis of the Bible and by the daily work of teaching courses on particular texts (as well as more integrative theological courses) I have come to see that in many cases what the Bible actually says is not quite the same as our theological framing of issues. It then becomes a real question about the relative weight we give to what we have come to think the Bible says vis-a-vis what our prior theology says. Should we change our reading of the text to fit our theology (sort of like concordism) or change our theology, or (more typically) nuance our theology to make it more biblical?

    This is an important question for me because I’ve gathered from things I’ve read on the Hump a certain disdain for theological novelty (such as Open Theism, or Moltmann on the suffering of God, etc.) Without affirming novelty for the sake of novelty, I want to make a case for our fresh encounter with the Bible as a resource to renew our theology (here I dissent from Tom Oden’s principled disdain for theological novelty, in favour of Tom Wright’s claim that we can learn new things theologically from Scripture while still being orthodox; this doesn’t mean I agree with all of Wright’s theology!).

    So there are a lot of matters relevant to how we relate Christian faith to biological evolution that are for me at this stage genuinely open questions. For example, how are we to envision God’s providence? What understanding of God are we assuming? The God of the Bible often looks quite different to me from the God of classical theism (a la Aquinas, for example). Should we assume divine simplicity and atemporality? Not just because they are in the tradition, since thes ideas are radically dependent on external philosophical assumptions.

    To bring matters closer to the topic at hand, I’d be very interested to explore exactly what you mean by concurrentism, and how it is different from (and superior to) related notions. Is the critique of other theological positions an extrinsic critique, simply that they don’t agree with some classical Christian formulation? Which formulation? Can that formulation stand up to comparison with responsible detailed exegesis of biblical texts?

    Well, now I’m rattling on . . .

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks for detailed reply, Richard. We seem to have much in common. There’s a lot to pick up on it it, which probably means I won’t, adequately. Come back on what I miss.

      Natural evil: I too began to question “natural evils” through Job, Psalm 104 and other scattered scriptures when I started delving more into origins teaching, and came to the sudden realisation that “whole world ruined in fall” was an assumption I’d applied to very meagre Scriptural evidence. One of the early pieces I did (pre-Hump, 2010) was addressing the Romans 8 passage. I wouldn’t argue all the same things now, but would still feel drawn towards a view either of nature’s (anthropormorphised) yearning for the new, spiritual, created order over the old (even before sin), or perhaps for the ritual corruption that sin has brought to bear – the cosmos can’t get on with worshipping God by what it is whilst what it is contains the corruption of its highest member, mankind.

      How that gels with Paul’s cultural setting I’m not sure, but it sure accords with Patristic developments (see below).

      Anyway, I then got in a conversation with “Edward Penman” (false name to protect Church Historian in YEC enclave!) in which we started swapping references in the old sources suggesting creation hadn’t fallen with man. At some stage Ted Davis from BioLogos said I should write a book – a laughable proposition – and slipped my name to someone who was compliling a book on natural evil. Writing it up in earnest led to some surprising conclusions about the history of the doctrine. Unfortunately the book seems to be on hold, so my chapter is somewhat in limbo and I can’t post it. But I’ll e-mail you a copy privately forthwith.

      That’s enough for one post. More to follow.

  10. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Rats – I’ve just lost half a long post because the new version of Firefox interprets all typos as admin keystrokes – in this case to lose everything to set up some unwanted toolbar. Newness? Bah, humbug!

    OK, to theological innovation.

    My own attitude is summed up in two principles, both of which, of course, I fail to follow consistently. The first is a receptivity to the primacy of Scripture over presupposition. This arises both from spiritual experience – I’ve studied the Bible independently since 1965 – and (surprisingly) from the discipline of the local church where I learned to teach over 20 years or so, where several of us foolishly agreed to engage in serial expository preaching.

    We met to criticise each other, largely on the basis of what the text actually said as opposed to what we assumed about it. Job, I remember, was particularl.y life-changing, as was Genesis 1-11. Our relative ignorance protected us to some extent, I think, from the authority of received wisdom, as did our non-denominational status that drew on input from Anglicanism, Brethrenism, House Churches, Church of Scotland etc.

    Certainly since then I’ve seldom addressed a passage that didn’t challenge in some way my previous understanding. It annoys the hell out of my pastor, who never gets quite what he’s expecting if I’m asked to preach. I should add that formal theological training added some value too 🙂 .

    The second principle is catholicity, in the sense that the Church is Jesus’s ongoing project, and we are mainly commissioned to preserve and refine a tradition rather than overturn a pile of error. My amateur interest in church history convinces me of the validity of that to all orthodoxy, including the Reformed tradition with which I have most sympathy. The overall tradition can be mistaken, but usually on more peripheral matters – for example, pastorally David Instone-Brewer’s work on biblical marriage/divorce teaching is new and significant to how churches operate. But even that is an attempt to restore an original apostolic model, not to move beyond it.

    So I’m aware of Greek philosophical input to doctrine – but also aware that it’s been much exaggerated, that the Jewish context of the New Testament was not opaque to Hellenism, that the Fathers radically subordinated their philosophy to what they found in Scripture, etc. So although I grew up with the idea that Aquinas was the guy who kept Catholicism chained to Aristotle, when I actually discovered his thought a couple of years ago I realised how faithful to Scripture much of it was compared to much of what I was reading from the modern era – and also how his metaphysics casts light on some of what science is turning up.

    So when I come across Moltmann, even when he is lauded by my Cambridge contemporary Richard Bauckham, I eventually conclude that his emphasis on the suffering God just doesn’t quite mesh with the Bible’s view of the same. I trace the influence of Enlightenment views on autonomy, of Marxism and of the recent events of the Holocaust, and it seems a long way from the thought-forms I find in NT. And suddenly I’m swimming against the tide.

    Similarly with the question of Kenotic Theory – in the end, specific arguments about Philippians aside, my feeling that it’s just not woven into the warp and woof of Scripture is a personal conviction, but such are all convictions, and I can justify it.

    Open Theism, again – I read the arguments for and against, consider the sociological context in which it’s arisen – and most of all come to Scripture and say, “That’s neither the God I find here, nor the God I put my faith in.” And there are reasons why it hasn’t figured in Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant traditions before.

    Concurrentism in a third post, before Firefox devours this one.

  11. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Concurrentism: one of the overwhelming things I’ve found since retiring and considering origins questions, and latterly creation doctrine more widely, is that nearly everything, apart from the sports pages, is essential reading. Science, faith’s reactions to science, the sociological and historical context of these, doctrine modern and historic, the Bible itself, the philosophical and metaphysical background to all these in historical context … that’s before we get to conservation, issues of justice and on and on.

    For that reason, The Hump has been deliberately magpie-like. Predestination is relevant to creation. Epistemology is important to anthropology. Music or poetry give insights that arguments can’t. Sometimes those connections make things click.

    Concurrentism came in because I’d got into a classical philosophy kick, seeing the importance of Aristotelian models of causation to a science-faith rapprochement. Theology (even theistic evolution) without final causes is futile because Scripture is nothing but final causes. Formal causes tie in to the modern information explosion, but also are deeply linked to biblical ideas of the divine dabar and the Λογος.

    Reading Aquinas on that (if I remember) led to investigating possible models of divine action – highly relevant to R J Russell, BioLogos free process theology and whatnot. Darrel Falk of BL had pointedly opted for what the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy calls “mere conservationism”, though not in as many words, in arguing for an autonomous creation. I’d reacted to that at the time as less than a Scriptural description of God’s providential government, and my Reformed friend Penman told me I was endorsing the traditional view called concurrentism. Sure enough, Stanford and other reading suggested that (mere) conservationism had been rejected by most of the old theologians as unscriptural, the debate being between concurrentism and occasionalism (which I thought I could more or less ignore in today’s climate).

    Using that label was only a handle on which to hang a theme I have long found to be one of the ubiquitous and deep themes of Scripture. Concurrentism may be a philosophical term for divine action, but in my view you need some such concept to make sense of the unformalised philosophical descriptions of God’s interaction with both people and the rest of Creation in the Bible.

    I’m not sure if that tells you what I mean by “concurrentism”, but it may indicate that I came to it from the Bible and not vice versa.

    I too have rambled on…

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