The Wright stuff

I’ve just been re-reading Tom Wright’s excellent book on eschatology, Surprised by Hope, for the first time since 2009, a couple of years before I began to think more intensely about the doctrine of creation in relation to science and all things modern, culminating in this blog. I’d quite forgotten how much the book focuses on the goodness of the current creation, and the stress of the gospel on ushering in a whole new creation, which burst into the world for the first time at the Resurrection and begins to transform it, in preparation for the parousia, by the Spirit’s work through the Church.

In retrospect the book must have been a subconscious prompt to the work I did on the positive view of the natural creation in historic Christian teaching (and in the Bible). It’s interesting how Wright describes the disruptive effect of evil being imposed upon a good creation through historic human sin, rather than being a feature of the creation itself, either originally or after the fall:

Mysteriously, this out-of-jointedness seems to become entangled with the transience and decay necessary within the good-but-incomplete creation, so that what we perhaps misleadingly call “natural evil” can be seen as… the advance signs of that final “shaking” of heaven and earth which the prophets understood to be necessary if God’s eventual new world was to be born.

The affirmation of the goodness of present creation isn’t the only point of contact with the viewpoint of The Hump that I found. I was surprised to find another of my hobby-horses, the centrality of the Promethean myth to the spirit of our age (and of several ages back to the Renaissance). Wright debunks the “myth of progress”:

Like the mythical Prometheus, defying gods and attempting to run the world his own way, liberal modernism has supposed that the world can become everything we could want it to be by working a bit harder and helping forward the great march into the glorious future.

Immediately after this he links this myth to the global principle of evolution, which he identifies as predating Darwin and, indeed, largely explaining him as “the exact product of his times, one particular high water mark of the liberal modernist optimism”:

Darwin gave it some apparent scientific legitimacy, which was quickly seized upon and which, within half a century, had been used to justify everthing from eugenics to war.

I was surprised at that rather half-hearted support for Darwin himself as a scientist, because Wright is one of the big-name theologians often trotted out by theistic evolutionists as a supporter of their program to embrace mainstream evolutionary science as entirely compatible with Christianity, or even a sufficient reason to modify the latter. Now it’s true that Wright has in his sights “evolutionism” as a philosophy of of everything, rather than as biology. He next describes somewhat critically evolutionary theologies like that of Teilhard de Chardin, but then goes on:

…all the evolutionary optimism of the last two hundred years remains helpless before world war, drug crime, Auschwitz, apartheid, child pornography and the other interesting sidelines that evolution has thrown up for our entertainment in the twentieth century.

He clearly means to suggest, sardonically, that all these modern evils are the direct product of misguided evolutionary thought, rather than arising from an actually evolutionary cosmos. It hardly seems the argument of someone particularly committed to evolutionary theory. The following YouTube clip repeats his view of Darwin as a symptom of nineteenth century thought, and you’ll see again that his espousal of evolution is much like that of C S Lewis – he’s not a scientist, but has no particular theological problem with evolution if that’s the way God chose to do things.

Although this clip is far from being a ringing endorsement of current science, some people have taken it to be so. The same clip is included elsewhere on YouTube in juxtaposition with snippets from R C Sproul and Albert Mohler, with a title suggesting that Wright has trounced their creationism. But both those two speakers, actually, are shown as rejecting as incompatible with Christianity “evolution as currently prevalent”, ie without reference to the guidance and direction of God. They reject it on those very grounds, and not because it conflicts with biblical literalism. Wright actually does exactly the same, but shoots above the heads of some hearers, it would seem, by his reference to “Epicurianism”.

This is explained from about 0′.40″ onwards: he describes how this “Epicurianism” doesn’t actually deny God’s existence, but denies his active involvement in earth’s natural processes which “rumble along” on their own. Evolution, then, “is basically an Epicurian idea”:

Once God gets pushed out of the process, then of course what happens must happen from within rather than from outside.”

This leads to a caricature of divine action as occasional intervention – a view that Wright says came even to biblical Christians by osmosis from the prevailing Deism rather than from the Bible. Now this seems to me exactly what was characterised on a recent BioLogos thread, in which Eddie Robinson and Merv Bitkofer both played a part, as God “pushing the start button” but keeping out of active management of the process of evolution. Wright is decisively dismissive of such a position. Having thus placed Darwin in sociological and philosophical context, he does concede that:

None of this means that Darwin’s scientific observations were wrong, or that his conclusions from those observations were wrong (necessarily).

In other words this theologian, philosopher and historian says he is unqualified to judge the science, but variation with natural selection is not (necessarily) incompatible with a biblical, hands-on, God. It’s just that scientific rectitude doesn’t account for Darwin’s popularity, but rather that it concurred with what people wanted to hear about God.

Later in the clip he talks of the biblical passages where God feeds the animals, and significantly, instead of speaking of them as symbolic, or the outcome of an ancient worldview, labels our explanation – instinct – as “typically Epicurian”, that is as wrongly excluding God’s direct, caring, and designing activity. What he has in mind, then, is far closer to Wallace, David L Wilcox, or me than than to Darwin, or many in BioLogos, the ASA or CiS.

Without wishing to pin him down to a rigid philosophical position he hasn’t actually mentioned, of the three live options for theories of divine action, Wright is clearly not an occasionalist, for he agrees there is true creaturely cause and effect in the world. But neither is he a conservationist, for he dismisses the distant God who gives nature autonomous independence and merely sets it going and provides the power (for even many Deists held the doctrine of divine sustenance of the cosmos). The world, he says, is what God created it to be – very good – and not a chimaera of good and bad due to a wayward, intrinsically vicious, evolutionary process.

That leaves him clearly in the concurrentist camp – what from a biological viewpoint might be a natural evolutionary process is, from the heavenly viewpoint, God’s designed creation. What is seen by us as “instinct” is equally, or more, validly seen as God’s individual care for what he has made. He spells it all out pretty clearly, so why can’t TEs do the same – if they’re not, actually, wedded to Epicurianism and Deism rather than to the biblical worldview?

A final word on the contrast between the existing and the new creations. Wright appears to take the same general position I have about the “groaning creation” of Romans 8. Though this is often taken as a proof text that creation has fallen into death and decay through sin, I see it is as being subjected to “corruption” (the actual word used) in two senses.

Primarily it was created to be empowered by the physical (psychikos in Greek) and therefore perishable, but always with the intention that it would, through man’s commission to rule, eventually be transformed to be empowered by the spirit (pneumatikos) and therefore imperishable. Mankind’s failure has both stained it with sin’s corruption (not by any change in its basic function, but because it was man’s domain) and delayed its transformation. Hence its metaphorical groaning. The Resurrection of Christ augurs in the eventual triumph of the new creation, but as Wright notes, this will still be completed through mankind, since what the creation eagerly awaits, in that chapter, is the revealing of the sons of God.

So the creation is still, in itself, good as it was created. But it is also incomplete (as was also God’s original intention) until heaven and earth unite, and God becomes all in all not only to the saints, but to the whole cosmos. That’s, obviously, unimaginable, but I like one of Wright’s analogies: the natural creation is like a Stradivarius violin, and worthy of admiration and thanksgiving just for being that. But in the age to come, it will be a violin playing the music of God’s Spirit.

You should read the book.

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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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