BioLogos was ostensibly, as far as I can see, constituted to deal with one main problem. And that is, the problem that Evangelicals, especially in America, did not accept evolutionary theory. This was perceived to lead to two main problems. Firstly, in apologetics, Evangelical Christianity was in danger of being intellectually sidelined, unnecessarily alienating the educated community by denying the evidence of science. Secondly, pastorally, Christians brought up in Creationist churches were liable to be stumbled on encountering the strength of the evidence for evolution when they studied science, thus leading unnecessarily to abandonment of their Evangelical faith.
Now I first engaged with BioLogos some six years ago, with an already settled conviction that orthodox faith, specifically orthodox Evangelical faith, has no major problem with evolution. My interest in BioLogos (as an online source dedicated to “Evangelical Theistic Evolution”) was in finding good arguments to sustain that conviction, and seeking out ways of dealing with remaining problems.
Mainstream Catholicism has no serious problems in maintaining its core doctrines together with an evolutionary account, even though those non-negotiable dogmas include original sin, the special creation of Adam and the individual creation of each human soul. But mainstream Evangelicalism too, especially in Britain, has long been open to evolutionary ideas, without feeling the need to compromise the historic doctrines of the faith (though usually also cautious enough not to baptize current science as infallible truth – B B Warfield was an intellectually thorough Bible inerrantist, but not a Darwin inerrantist, from the same intellectual considerations).
The accommodation of evolution to biblical faith goes back to Darwin’s own day and beyond. Three years ago I documented the approaches of Asa Gray (a Presbyterian), Benjamin Warfield (a Calvinist Presbyterian) and Charles Kingsley (a Universalist and Arminian Anglican). All held a providential and teleological view of evolution within their various existing doctrinal frameworks.
The situation right at the heart of contemporary British Evangelicalism is, in my own experience, similar. The very first commentary I bought was one of the Tyndale Commentary series much promoted by the (then) Inter-Varsity Fellowship of Christian Unions – the wellspring of Britain’s postwar Evangelical movement. Covering Genesis, the book was written in 1967 by Derek Kidner, who coincidentally was my neighbour in Cambridge, being warden of the Evangelical research centre Tyndale House in Selwyn Gardens. This entry-level commentary argues that there is no essential conflict between Genesis and some kind of evolution, including that of mankind.
A key figure in the resurgence of Evangelicalism in Britain was Rev. John Stott, and his Wikipedia entry reminds us of his later worldwide leadership role. In my university days his Basic Christianity had been since 1958 the recommended primer for new converts. Yet Stott, like Kidner, was entirely comfortable with affirming evolution within a soundly Evangelical doctrinal framework. I was privileged to get something like a year of his teaching at Christian Union Bible readings in my time at Cambridge, so respected was he there.
A third pivotal Evangelical figure was J I Packer, whose Fundamentalism and the Word of God was on the CU bookstall at Cambridge in my day, but whose 1973 Knowing God became the go-to devotional doctrinal handbook for Evangelicals. But I first got to know of him through the pastoral care he gave to my best friend at a time of personal crisis down in Bristol. Later, of course, Packer settled at Regents College in Canada. His roots are firmly grounded in Puritan Calvinism, yet he too is comfortable with evolution.
Another, younger, formative name from the Reformed tradition is Os Guiness, first emerging from the tutelage of Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri, whose Dust of Death was the first serious Christian book I bought. Once more, his commitment to the historical doctrines, deeply thought through for today’s society, underlies his work – but he too sees evolution as perfectly compatible with that.
The reason that these prominent Evangelicals have taken evolution in their stride is that the traditional Evangelical movement in Britain, like the Catholic Church at its best (in Aquinas, for example), and like Warfield, has maintained a strong view of providence. This has been maintained through the classic conception of God as of a different order of being from his Creation, but as active in every part of it through divine concursus. In this way, since no dichotomy has to be insisted upon between primary and secondary causation, it is metaphysically quite unproblematic to conceive of God working (if not strictly “creating” as such) through some “natural” evolutionary process, just as he works daily in normal processes to answer prayer or to guide history. Any problems come from resolving apparent discrepancies between the biblical narrative of creation and the scientific, but that is simply a question of work-in-progress, and is by no means a crisis, even though it may divide opinion.
This is primarily a Calvinistic approach, but as my recent piece on Wesley clearly shows, Arminian “middle knowledge” theology allows just as much for a strong doctrine of providence in nature. There were plenty of evangelical Arminians in the Christian Union at Cambridge! Both main doctrinal streams in Evangelicalism, then, have been able to live comfortably with evolution for at least as long as I have been a Christian. Of course, Anabaptists of various kinds have also historically held a high view of providence (if not always holding a high view of the natural realm itself).
All this being so, the task of BioLogos (to bring evolutionary theory within the compass of Evangelical theology) ought to have been easy. So many respected thinking Evangelicals were already on-board, together with their reasoning to be drawn on, expanded, and focused on the particular subject of origins. One would have expected thoroughgoing treatments of the classic doctrine of providence in the Reformers, perhaps going back to Aquinas and even Augustine. One might have even expected much attention to be concentrated on Alfred Russel Wallace in the scientific field, who for all his spiritualism (which in the evolutionary context was really more “angelism”) saw evolution overall in providentially guided terms. Certainly the early theistic evolutionists of Darwin’s day would be expected to feature prominently in discussion as pioneers in wedding orthodox doctrine to the new science.
But none of this, in my experience of BioLogos over these years, has been the case. Those I have mentioned are conspicuous by their absence. The most recent series on divine action, for example, featured three alternative approaches. Alvin Plantinga, though from a Reformed background, does not really work in the sphere of providence. His argument, that the Enlightenment idea of the universe as a closed causal system is flawed, is a good justification for belief in miracles, but does little to address the daily role of God in nature.
R J Russell’s idea that God may guide quantum events grew out of the “divine action” project of a couple of decades ago, and seeks (in effect) to find a small gap outside the “inviolable” laws of physics which would leave room for God to work legitimately. It has none of the richness of the traditional concept of the sovereign God acting creatively and imminently in all things through concursus.
The third view presented, from Thomas Jay Oord, is an extreme Openness approach (even for openness aproaches) that, to be frank, owes very little to historic Christian doctrine, whether or not it meets somebody’s definition of “Evangelical”. Openness theologians are prone to complain of harsh treatment from “conservatives”, but that is not the issue here. It’s a question of that advertised mission of BioLogos – to make Evangelicals more comfortable with evolution. BioLogos is not, according to its literature, an organisation dedicated to redefining Evangelicalism altogether, still less to debunking the Christian doctrine of God.
After all, BioLogos has been noticeably reluctant to examine “alternative” views to Neodarwinism in evolutionary theory over the years, as we’ve often pointed out here. Perhaps they wish to stick to basic consensus science to keep their message to readers simple. If so, why do they not also stick to basic consensus Christianity? There are, I would suggest, far more dissenters from Neodarwinism in universities than there are dissenters from traditional doctrine in Evangelical pews.
Would one not be better advised (to use an historical analogy) to examine how Calvin’s doctrine of providence can accommodate evolution (via Kidner, Stott, Packer or Guinness perhaps) rather than trying to argue that the troublesome Socinus really had a valid Evangelical theology after all? Would it not be worth looking at how Arminius resolved free-will with creation and with providence (via Wesley, maybe) rather than seeking to persuade Christians that their leaders are blinkered or ruled by “fear of the truth” if they reject postmodern (often Anti-Nicene and Anti-Chalcedonian) exaggerations of Arminian “free will” doctrine?
The comments on another current BioLogos series, on the history of the American Scientific Affiliation, give the impression that only Open Theists like Karl Giberson and Biblical Errantists like Kenton Sparks and Peter Enns were flying the flag for evolution just a few years ago against the entrenched Creationism of conservative Evangelicals. One would think that to be the case judging by the platform given to them over the years at BioLogos, as compared to those theologians with less controversial theologies.
But the examples I have given from nearly half a century ago from some of the great names of Evangelicalism, not to mention the nineteenth century theistic evolutionists, give the lie to the idea that only those cutting at the roots of traditional theology are enlightened enough to be open to what science is saying.
My own experience has been that arguing from traditional doctrine to support evolution has not been that welcome. For example, in the R J Russell thread, I was made to feel that my suggestion, that Russell’s “quantum-tinkering” would be in keeping with the traditional doctrine of universal providence, was an extreme view – that is, that universal providence itself was an extreme view. But the next open prayer session at my church reminded me that universal providence is the utterly orthodox prequisite for all intercession (and even for praying the Lord’s Prayer – how else can we depend on God for “bread for the morrow”?). Saying that God, because of his loving nature, is powerless to answer prayer – that’s extreme.
In the essay to which I linked in the last post, a long account of the “meliorist” theologies being harboured within Evangelicalism nowadays is interrupted by a paragraph on the controversy of evolution. The controversy turns out to be something of a storm in a teacup (Alister McGrath is quoted saying that opposition to evolution is, as I have been suggesting, “neither essential nor typical of Evangelicalism”). What is noticeable is how the author finds no connection between this issue and the new theologies he has been mainly considering: in fact he ends this paragraph with a mention of John H Walton, whose work on Genesis holds to a high view of its inspired authority.
And indeed, there is nothing in openness theology, kenoticism, panentheism and so on that renders theistic evolution any more congenial to Christianity than does “the faith of our fathers”, from whichever historical Evangelical stream they come (barring, I suppose, the extreme biblical literalists influenced by American Fundamentalism). The proviso to that statement would be that the common definition of theistic evolution as “creation allowed to make itself” (Polkinghorne) doesn’t really accord with any true theism (for “theism” implies divine personal immanence as well as transcendence), let alone with the Nicene doctrine of creation*.
The fact that BioLogos habitually gives so much space to the advocacy of minority positions which radically redefine doctrines as fundamental as the nature of God suggests that its agenda of “Evangelicals, meet Evolution and make friends” is less than the whole story. Its sometimes seems as if theistic evolution is little more than tasty bait for the barbed hook of a profoundly non-Evangelical theological system.
*”We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,] Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father … by whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth].”