Minor Theological Footnote to a Good Series on BioLogos from Snobelen and Davis

I’ve often criticized BioLogos on this site, but, wishing to give credit where credit is due, I can recommend the latest series hosted by Ted Davis, written by historian of science Stephen Snobelen with some bits of introduction and commentary by Ted. It examines the claims of the New Atheists and connects their work to the “Warfare Thesis” of White and Draper. There are plenty of quotations, links, etc. to enable non-historians to get up to speed on what Snobelen is talking about. It’s a great takedown of the New Atheists as well as of the Warfare Thesis.

You can follow forward or backward from any point in the series. Here is the link to the column on Francis Collins and the New Atheists:

My comments here are not directly about Snobelen’s writing, but more like a theological footnote on a comment of his. Here is one interesting passage from the column:

It is rather striking how Dawkins and other New Atheists echo (consciously or not) the views of the second-century theologian Marcion, who condemned the God of the Old Testament as morally evil and guilty of acts of evil, such as violence and war…. Atheist biblical studies scholar Hector Avalos penned an entire paper on this theme and entitled it, “Yahweh is a moral monster”…. Ex-evangelical pastor Dan Barker uses the Dawkinsian line in the title of his 2016 book God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction, for which Dawkins penned the forward. It is a common claim, often repeated.

Yes, there is a Gnostic strain in much of the New Atheist literature. Of course, it is selective Gnosticism, because the Gnostics affirmed that while the Old Testament God was a wicked Demiurge, the God pointed to by Jesus Christ is good and should be followed. The New Atheists love to denounce the Old Testament God, but instead of replacing that God with the higher God who is love and who offers freedom, they opt for no God at all. But Snobelen knows this. He is not claiming that the New Atheists believe the whole scheme of ancient Gnosticism. He is merely noting a significant thematic similarity between the two views.

What Snobelen does not note, however — and for this I don’t blame him, because his column’s focus in not on EC/TE as such — is that evolutionary creation / theistic evolutionism often makes use of arguments with a similar Gnostic feel.

Francisco Ayala, who used to be one of the darlings of BioLogos (for unclear reasons, they have distanced themselves a bit from him lately, rarely quoting or referring to him any more), argued that Darwinian evolution must be true, because if God created the world we see directly, he would be a moral monster. What kind of God would deliberately design, and directly will, the creation of something as horrible as malaria? Therefore, not merely creationism but even “intelligent design” (ID) is theologically unacceptable. Pain and suffering in the biological world not only were not directly created by God; they were not even designed by God. So “evolution” must have done it. God sits back at a distance, keeping his hands clean of all nastiness, while his lieutenants (natural causes, randomness, natural selection, evolution, etc.) do the actual work of making life, species, etc. Thus, as in Gnosticism, the stainless reputation of the good God is preserved, because he doesn’t directly make anything nasty, but merely allows evolution to produce it.

Now one might say that Ayala is not a good example to use, because he is no longer Christian and at best some kind of pantheist. (Which may be why BioLogos has in recent years mentioned his name much less.) But Kenneth Miller, who claims to be “100% Darwinian and 100% Catholic”, is still a Christian and he has used exactly the same argument: if God designed nasty things like malaria, God can’t be good; therefore such things must be non-designed, a blind product of Darwinian processes. So nature can be bad, but God is always good.

No BioLogos columnist, from the founding of BioLogos to the present, has ever challenged this Miller/Ayala argument on theological grounds. And yet it’s essentially a Gnostic sort of argument. There is the good God who wills only good, and there is the Demiurge (in this case, “evolution”) in charge of the actual world, and he can and often does will the bad. So in effect, natural science is studying the work of the Demiurge, not of the good God; and this of course fits in very well with the science/faith compartmentalization so often displayed in BioLogos TE/EC.

The problem with this division, of course, is that BioLogos also claims to be representing traditional, orthodox, Protestant evangelical faith. But in that faith God created the world and found it good. All those critters created in Genesis 1 are good. There is no suggestion that God created the world by hiring some incompetent Demiurge, a Demiurge who was unable to make a world free of bad lower backs, poorly wired retinas, parasites that attack little children, etc. And BioLogos columnists repeatedly exhort their readers to praise God for his beautiful, marvelous, wonderful universe. So they are sending a self-contradictory message: (1) We mustn’t expect to see God in nature, because nature is a series of blind processes which often produces bad design and suffering; (2) We can see God in nature because nature is so complex, marvelous, beautiful, etc. As scientists they write as if God created entirely by hiring out a Demiurge; as believing Christians they write as if God is responsible for every last bit of creation himself. We are supposed to praise God on Sundays, but then, back in the lab on weekdays, treat Creation as the product of the bungling Demiurge. The BioLogos folks (or a good number of them; I don’t say all) are thus torn between an orthodox and a Gnostic view of creation.

Again, this does not take away anything from Snobelen’s excellent series or Ted’s work to bring Snobelen to BioLogos. But I wish that the BioLogos folks would start to connect some dots between the claim that evolution is a blundering, blind search, yielding much inefficiency, pain, and cruelty, and the claim that “God creates through a process of evolution.” They cannot consistently argue that ID is theologically horrendous for making God the designer of malaria, while exhorting us all to praise God for the wonders of evolutionary creation. “We praise Thee, O God, for in Thy wisdom not designing anything directly but instead leaving the task of design to heartless, ruthless chance processes which can produce good results only irregularly, and only at the cost of much dysfunction and horrible suffering” does not exactly sound like a rousing American evangelical hymn.

I anticipate that one or two people on BioLogos, perhaps Joshua Swamidass for instance, may write in here to say: “I absolutely reject the position of Miller and Ayala; it’s bad Christian theology.” If so, that’s great, and I will applaud any such gesture. But why should TE/EC folks wait until critics of EC/TE point out these heresies? Why aren’t they regularly policing their own camp theologically without any prompting from creationist or ID critics? For example, when Oord uttered his string of heresies in the Divine Action series, why didn’t Applegate, Venema, Schloss, Haarsma, etc. jump in (politely of course, and without any nastiness) to state that while Oord was entitled to his opinions about God, those opinions did not reflect their own personal Christian theologies and in no way should be regarded as normative for EC/TE, or even typical of EC/TE? For that matter, why weren’t there protests from apparently evangelical commenters like glipsnort, socratic.fanatic, etc.? Does their silence imply agreement with Oord? Or are they more or less indifferent to accurate theological characterizations of God, and thus willing to treat both orthodox views such as Plantinga’s, and heretical views such as Oord’s, as part of a range of views acceptable within evangelical faith?

Again and again it looks as if BioLogos sees its mission as to promote evolution to evangelicals, with at best a secondary concern to make sure that evolution is incorporated into a traditional and orthodox form of Christianity. If one makes a slight slip in biology, the BioLogos columnists and commenters are all over one, denouncing one’s bad science; but if a columnist blatantly rejects the mainstream Protestant and Catholic conception of God, they treat it as no big deal. Their priorities seem clear.

My extended footnote now being complete, I can return to the beginning and again recommend Snobelen’s series, and in fact just about any of the series on BioLogos written by, or sponsored by, Ted Davis. The columns are good, and often the comments section is very good, too, because Ted always sticks around for a while to keep things on a high intellectual level, even when certain of the usual suspects try (as in the present case) to drag down the discussion by constantly introducing their pet religious peeves. But that’s just part of life at BioLogos, that a core of theologically unorthodox commenters with infinite time to kill tends to dominate the comments section. And Ted is better than anyone else on BioLogos at stopping such people from drawing the discussion off into unprofitable directions.

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About Edward Robinson

Edward Robinson (Eddie) started his university career on a science scholarship, but ended up as a philosopher/theologian researching the relationship between religion and natural science. He has published several books and articles on religion/science topics in both mainstream academic outlets and denominational and popular periodicals. He has also taught courses in various departments in several universities.
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7 Responses to Minor Theological Footnote to a Good Series on BioLogos from Snobelen and Davis

  1. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Thanks for this column, Eddie — and it’s great that you can air your views freely here at least. You wrote:

    ” If one makes a slight slip in biology, the BioLogos columnists and commenters are all over one, denouncing one’s bad science; but if a columnist blatantly rejects the mainstream Protestant and Catholic conception of God, they treat it as no big deal. Their priorities seem clear.”

    Ouch. Those words strike their mark I think, and along with your more general criticism (thanks for extending the credit as well — criticism goes down so much easier when one knows that the critic is not hell-bent on avoiding anything that could be mistaken for charity) –anyway, along with your more general criticism I think I may have at least part of the answer. We Mennonites are not the only group that excels at conflict avoidance. Where conflict is probable, we tend to flee — and probably not alone. This doesn’t justify it, of course. So when somebody makes an obvious theological gaffe (okay — heresy) we strain to even just stop our vigorous polite nodding affirmations that we had been gushing for everyone else before and after, and after such valiant restraint we feel we have succeeded in at least keeping ourselves “pure” while dodging the bullet of needing to say anything nasty or judgmental. What?!!? –we look up with horror at the suggestion: you actually expect us to confront others with their theological error? We quickly remember the logs in our own eyes and scramble to put down these errant urges to go round searching for the splinters. Never mind if they happen to be running around with virtual timber mills sticking all directions out of their own heads. Our “humility” cleanly excuses us from thinking we are in a position to exercise such prerogatives in the first place. But on the science front — *that* is so much simpler. If someone mistakenly misuses a mathematical equation, I spring into teacher mode and do my level best to bring more light to his/her situation. It seems so much more clear-cut. Science, after all, as hard as its biggest questions may be, pales in comparison to the biggest questions faced by theology/religion/philosophy. Those questions jump to a whole ‘nother level of difficulty. It’s safer to be dogmatic about an arithmetic solution than it is about questions of theology. Atheists love to trumpet that difference as if those were two competing realms when in reality religion is “just beginning” so to speak right where the science is forced to give up with its last desperate gasps. Science is dabbling about with all the easy stuff in the nursery while religion is out taking on the big-boy problems –and maybe not doing a great job, mind you, perhaps even a lousy job over all, but it is the real main job that needs doing. Most of us just feel safer and more comfortable in the nursery.

    What I see in your post here, Eddie, is a summons for us to try on our “big-boy” pants at least a little just so we don’t fear to tread there so much. My analogy of condescension breaks down totally and quickly, of course, in that of course “childishness” is not a real characteristic of good science –and nor is it never a characteristic of religion. But with the many of us who have feet firmly planted in the whole messy mix, we will tend to get more pedantic about the things it is easier to be sure of (i.e. — empirical stuff) just because those are the easier questions to address. So just imagine it this way: If someone declares to us that “We should all behave in thus and such a way because of [insert some incorrectly expressed evolutionary proposition here]”, it may be understandable if biologists present set about patiently disabusing the polemicist of his/her demonstrably incorrect scientific understanding since that the easier part of the argument to wipe out of the way. Let science at least do its easy (easier) tasks. As long as the theologians (which often should be the same people) don’t shy away from attempting the harder and higher tasks as well.

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

      Thanks for your genuine engagement with my writing, Merv. I think you have captured some of the explanation for the behavior that I noted.

      I agree that scientific statements are often more straightforward and easier to deal with quickly than theological statements. I also agree without your suggestion that the reason for TEs not publicly criticizing other TEs is that it might be taken as impolite, judgmental, etc. But I think there is something more going on.

      In theology, when one criticizes the theological position of another, one inevitably has to tip one’s own theological hand. One has to lay out one’s own theological axioms, commitments, etc. And I have the impression that a number of TE leaders just don’t want to do that.

      I understand the reticence where practical matters are involved, i.e., a teacher may be worried about losing a job for being too frank about his Biblical theology. On the other hand, this problem is wider than that, because even TEs who are retired university professors and cannot be fired, denied promotions, etc. regularly avoid “mixing it up” with other TEs. And yet one *knows* that the strict Calvinist TEs can’t possibly agree with the so-called “Wesleyan” TEs who think that God has given nature free will (I exaggerate to make the point) and therefore will not decree evolutionary outcomes lest he violate that free will. So why aren’t the Calvinists speaking up? Why don’t we hear things like, “Well, if I may differ, not *all* TEs are committed to the notion of ‘the freedom of nature’, and I myself do not read Scripture as teaching any such thing.” But not a word is ever said. Maybe behind closed doors, but not in public places when non-TEs are watching the conversation.

      At least in ID you get people openly disagreeing over, say, common descent, with Nelson saying No and Behe saying Yes. I have yet to see a disagreement of that magnitude on a theological issue among the regular players on BioLogos. (Though occasionally on guest posts — by people largely outside the BioLogos orbit, such as Plantinga or Polkinghorne or Russell — sometimes theological differences are evident.)

      Of course, it could be a tactical decision. The TEs may judge that in order to keep solidarity on the key issue — evolution — they had better present a unified front on theological issues as well, by not openly disagreeing with each other. But that in itself would not be a traditional thing to do for American Protestants. Traditionally, American Protestants were the most fractious bunch of people on the planet, ready to quarrel over systematic theology or Biblical exegesis at the drop of a hat, with the resulting creation of approximately a new denomination every month over the lifetime of the country. But when it comes to evolution, suddenly they seem to have kissed and made up, as if the old and once-thought-to-be-serious differences between Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Hooker, etc. don’t matter any more. To minimize those differences merely in order to defend a scientific theory — that’s, well, that’s downright un-Protestant!

      It may seem odd that I’m asking TEs to be more *quarrelsome* in their theological discussions. But I think that quarrelsomeness (as long as it is limited to intellectual debate, and without personal rancor) is an index of how much one cares about getting Christian doctrine right. If it’s important for a Christian scientist to get information theory or genetics right, why isn’t it even more important for a Christian scientist making theological claims to get Christian theology right? Why isn’t it important to carefully analyze half-baked ideas about God giving nature a “Wesleyan” freedom? Or to theologically test the claim that God would never will the existence of a harmful microorganism? The indignation that causes BioLogos scientists to write multi-column attacks on alleged “bad science” in ID doesn’t seem to be present in the case of “bad theology.”

      I must have come from an odd experiential base. My first exposure to Calvinists was to Reformed people who would walk five miles in a blizzard to have a good theological fight with a Baptist or Catholic. But the Reformed people within the TE movement seem positively theologically anemic. They sit by quietly while other TEs (e.g., Nazarenes) say things about God, about Scriptural hermeneutics, etc. that they can’t possibly agree with, and while the ID opponents of those TEs are actually endorsing a theology of divine sovereignty or a doctrine of Scripture much closer to their own traditional Calvinism! It just makes no sense. Where are the old-time Reformed people who used to eat, drink and breathe Reformed theology, and were quick to correct minor theological deviations even from other Reformed folks, let alone (gasp!) Baptists? Apparently, not in the TE movement.

      In the early Church, the doctrine of Trinity was clarified in the context of lengthy theological conflict, and I believe the same thing should be happening today, regarding God and evolution. We need the modern equivalents of the Pelagians, Nestorians, Arians, Monophysites, etc., to boldly lay their cards on the table, explaining and defending their doctrines of God, omnipotence, sovereignty, providence, etc. But instead, all theological tensions among TEs are masked by a superficial appearance of amiable agreement, by a tacit truce that TE leaders will not disagree with each other over theology in public. I don’t think that theological truth is served by “detente” of that kind.

  2. Avatar photo GD says:

    I agree that the theology expressed (even indirectly and often crudely) by proponents at BioLogos borders on the inane and I too feel they go to inordinate lengths to promote a Darwinian view, resulting in a childish theological view.

    Yet we need a serious attempt at understanding why there is evil in our world, and how a Christian can have faith in God’s infinite goodness and mercy, while confronted with enormous horrors in this world, the worst often carried out by human beings.

    So Edward, my suggestion is that at least on the Hump, we may undertake such a serious discussion, and we leave evolutionists and atheists to their inane rhetoric.

    As a starter, why not consider the crucifixion and horrifying death of Christ as a starter on discussions of what we consider as good and evil, and we discuss God’s role in that event, and equally appalling events such as we witness nowadays?

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

      I agree with you, GD, that crucifixion is a horrible death and that it might be wondered why God would include such a death in his plans. However, I would prefer to let others here lead a discussion about the crucifixion. But I would note that crucifixion as a punishment was not invented by God, but by man, and much of the evil we experience comes from other human beings. The TEs, on the other hand, are talking not about human-instituted evil, but about “natural evil”, and their claim is that God would not institute any “natural evils” — and therefore evolution must operate partly outside of his direct supervision.

      But how do we know that God would not institute any natural evils? Where does that axiom come from? Not from the Bible, as far as I can see. The Bible leaves God free to dispense good and evil (evil in the sense of harm), as he sees fit (Isaiah 45). Yet I have the impression that many TEs have a checklist of things that God would and would not do, and that this comes into their reasoning about origins.

      On this point, it is interesting to note that the sentiment behind the Miller-Ayala argument is (ironically) the sentiment behind the Young Earth Creationist insistence that all evil came from the Fall and is therefore man’s fault, God bearing no responsibility. The idea of YEC is that God would never have created horrible parasites, carnivorous animals, etc., so they must be a result of the Fall. The idea of TE/EC is that God would never have directly created horrible parasites, bad human lower backs, etc., so they must be the result of an evolutionary process which God ordained but has no direct control over. But it seems to me that the traditional Christian notion was that God is free to will the helpful and the harmful, in any proportion that he desires, and so there is no need to appeal to the Fall to explain carnivorous animals, and no need to appeal to undirected evolution to explain the existence of malaria.

      Once one accepts the basic notion that the universe is God’s, that he is Sovereign, and that he does not have to answer to anyone’s notion of nice and nasty in deciding what he will create, one no longer has to resort to convoluted explanations to “keep God’s hands clean” of evil. It seems to me that this traditional view of the divine freedom can be found in Calvin, Aquinas, and scores of other theologians, and in the book of Job as well, in Isaiah 45, etc. But some systematic set of preferences guides the YECs and the TE/EC folks alike not to accept that traditional view.

      On the other hand, the OECs are quite happy to embrace the traditional view, and so are most of the ID folks. This tells me that not *all* of the debate between TE/EC and ID is simply about scientific evidence for common descent etc. Differing theological proclivities are involved.

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        I think natural evils, so called, tend to deflect the argument from weightier theological matters, but nonetheless, I agree first and foremost that God has created everything, and that is that.

        I tend to read into Genesis the following – God created the earth as we know it and He declared it good. However, the Bible teaches us that He also created a garden and placed two humans in it, and this garden was (in no uncertain terms) different from the surrounding areas (and I assume no “natural evil” existed in there, but God allowed the tempter to exert his influence on Adam and Eve). This surely points to an earth that included all that we see today, while Adam and Eve were shielded from the elements, so to speak.

        Thus natural events and hardships may be understood as that, and I am inclined to believe that has Adam obeyed, all humans with God’s image would have also obtained this “shield” and eventually we would be discussing a transformed world. As it is, Christ has corrected the error and we wait for the new heavens and new earth.

        Instead, Adam and Eve disobeyed, and were taken out of the garden, and told to live in this world.

        I will not elaborate as the theological teachings are readily available.

  3. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:

    Eddie you said, “The idea of TE/EC is that God would never have directly created horrible parasites, bad human lower backs, etc., so they must be the result of an evolutionary process which God ordained but has no direct control over.”

    I guess some people believe this, but not me, and I would expect a lot of other ECs dont either. The theologian Roy Clouser has published his ideas on the question of the “good creation” in the December 2016 issue of PSCF. I tried to publicize this paper on facebook and Biologos, and sent a number of pdfs out to folks. In that paper, among other things, Clouser points out that the concept that the original creation was perfect and paradisical, and that death did not exist in it, is Biblically untenable.

    I (as a total non-theologian) have always wondered that God pronounced his creation as good and very good, but never perfect. I am assuming there is a word for perfect in Hebrew. So, I (and other ECs) dont necessarily see the problem. If God created the universe (and perhaps also life) to evolve according to the laws of nature (biology), what we have is also good, but far from perfect. Some time ago, Jon posted here a description of the world that is far less horrific than everyone is currently so fond of saying. It aint perfect, but it sure could be a whole lot worse. And it has been. I happen to see God’s hand in the evolutionary history of the planet (and again I am not alone). I do not bemoan the terrible state of the world; I give thanks to God for the wondrous miracles I see every day.

    As for the so called uniformity or reluctance to challenge the theology of ECs, its quite clear to me that EC is in fact as broad theologically as ID, and if there are no major battles over the “correct theological stance” for EC, it is, as you propose, by design. Biologos often says that it represents a big tent for Christian theology. I dont even know the denominational status of the officers or advisors of the Foundation. It isnt terribly relevant. I agree with your supposition that the avoidance of such arguments is deliberate in order to foster a sense of unity in the larger struggle, namely to propose that the science of evolution is not theologically discordant with mainstream Bible based Christianity.

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

      Thanks, Sy. We seem to agree on the “tactical” explanation for much of what goes on in these debates.

      You’re correct to say that not all ECs have endorsed the Miller-Ayala view to which I referred. And if you take the words you quote in the context of my whole article, I wasn’t saying that, either. But wherever that theme is found in EC argumentation — whether in Miller or Ayala among the leaders, or in the endless complaints of commenters like beaglelady (on how horrible it is that certain parasites eat out the stomachs of African children, so if parasites are designed, God must be evil) — we see a modern, secularized version of a Gnostic doctrine (i.e., the evil Demiurge, not the good God, created the natural world), with “evolution” playing the role of the Demiurge. And that “gnostic” view of evolution (God isn’t responsible; blind, pitiless Darwinian processes are) doesn’t fit very well with the positive evaluation of evolution in the “motherhood” columns on BioLogos (“how we should praise God for creating us through this wonderful, marvelous evolutionary process”).

      And of course this particular “Gnostic” example is only one case of a *general* pattern I have observed: (1) One or more particular TE/EC leaders enunciates a particular theological position regarding God and evolution; (2) The theological position is historically, even by American Protestant evangelical standards, let alone by Catholic or Eastern Orthodox standards, heretical or at best highly suspect; (3) No other TE/EC leader bats an eye — no critical comment about the theology is offered on BioLogos, in the ASA journal, etc.

      Thus, instead of the “Gnostic” theology of Miller, I could have used the “God leaves nature free” theme (found in Miller and Falk) or the “open theism” theme (found in Polkinghorne and Oord) or some other theme. The point is that these ideas are put out in a TE venue, such as BioLogos, and the *only* people questioning the orthodoxy of them are ID folks, or YEC folks, or OEC folks. The other TE folks remain silent. And this is really strange, when one considers the Bible-centered, conservative roots of American evangelical religion; it wasn’t that long ago that some of the ideas being floated on BioLogos would have been widely denounced by evangelical Protestants of all parties, denominations, confessions, etc. It is as if theological orthodoxy itself is no longer considered a very important matter by evangelicals — or at least, by the sort of evangelicals who are into Darwin and evolution.

      But that’s of course part of the problem. The more conservative evangelicals can be divided into two groups: (1) Those who are committed to a rigidly literal reading of Genesis and want no truck or trade with evolution, period; (2) Those who are less rigidly literal and therefore might be induced to accept common descent, if their nagging suspicions that common descent is a Trojan Horse for unorthodox theology could be dispelled. There is nothing that BioLogos can do to bring over the conservatives of the first type, but there is much that it could do to bring over conservatives of the second type. One thing it could do would be present columns (or at least comments) in which orthodox evangelical TEs correct the bad theology of unorthodox evangelical TEs. But so far, that hasn’t happened.

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