Natural Theology, ID, and Lutherans: A Response to Davis, Murphy and Swamidass

Over at BioLogos, Joshua Swamidass has started a new discussion, entitled “The Lutheran Option”. In it, Joshua makes the point that the Lutheran voice has rarely been heard in origins debates in the USA, and calls for a more balanced discussion in which characteristically Lutheran theological emphases are heard, alongside the more commonly heard Calvinist/Reformed and “Wesleyan” points of view.

I certainly have no objection to greater participation by Lutherans in origins discussions, but I want to focus on the subject that came up in response to Joshua’s post. It’s a subject that always seems to come up wherever BioLogos or ASA types are to be found, i.e., the alleged perverseness and danger of natural theology. In this case, both Ted Davis and George Murphy have surfaced to weigh in on the subject. I’d like to comment on their handling of the question.

The drift of the comments of Murphy and Davis is that Christian theology could be greatly improved if Creation were viewed Christologically. In the context of Joshua’s discussion, this implies that Lutheran theology could greatly improve the origins discussion, because the other Protestant denominations, unlike the Lutherans, have failed to couch the doctrine of Creation in Christological terms.

Of course, George Murphy has dedicated much of his life to arguing for an extension of Lutheran theology which would recast the doctrine of Creation in a more subordinate role, largely governed by Christological concerns. In Murphy’s theology, the Creation of the world is not primarily an expression of God’s overwhelming power or will or wisdom, but of God’s self-sacrifice or self-emptying (kenosis); nature, then, will in a sense display an “absence of God”; God has surrendered his right to self-assertion, as Christ surrendered self-assertion by submitting to the Cross, and so nature does not directly reflect God, but has a quasi-autonomy of its own. In nature’s workings we cannot directly see the wisdom or plan of God, but only the chains of secondary causation which God, by his self-surrender, has bequeathed to the world. The Christian scientist (if of Murphy’s “Lutheran” bent) can therefore study nature “as if God were not given” (to use one of Murphy’s favorite phrases). God, as it were, “hides” himself behind nature, and it is fruitless for human reason to attempt to discern Him from nature.

It would not be fair to Murphy for me to launch into a criticism of his work without a careful consideration of his published arguments; he is a highly intelligent man with great learning in both the Bible and theological tradition. So I will not make any claim to have refuted his position. However, I will say that I am not persuaded by it, and do not believe that Christology is the key to understanding the doctrine of Creation. But be that as it may, it is Murphy’s attack on natural theology which is of greater interest to me here.

Murphy’s position has often been accompanied by a disparagement of natural theology, at least as natural theology was traditionally understood. As traditionally understood, natural theology was the effort to show the existence, and even some of the attributes, of God, by reasoning from nature. The claim was that even without the aid revelation, human beings could come to a knowledge of a generic God, a designer and maker of the world. That knowledge was not of the specifically Christian God, and it was not “saving” knowledge; for saving knowledge, one needed knowledge of Jesus Christ. But it was nonetheless genuine knowledge of God. This view was held by several noteworthy Christians, including Aquinas and Calvin. (It may, in fact, have been held even by Luther, thought I don’t know Luther’s writings well enough to document that.) However, this view is anathema to the sort of Lutheranism which Murphy endorses. Murphy, like Barth (who was partly of Lutheran inspiration), denounces the whole project of natural theology (as natural theology was traditionally defined). He not only sees no value in natural theology, but deems it positively deleterious to Christian thought.

Of course, Murphy is not alone in denouncing natural theology. Many leaders at BioLogos and in the ASA have published attacks on natural theology. These attacks are normally more in the style of sideswipes than systematic refutations: little digs here and there found in articles in the ASA journal, in BioLogos columns, etc. Often the TE/EC leaders making these swipes invoke a sort of Trinity of Pascal, Barth, and Newman to justify a blanket condemnation of the enterprise (as if they expect all Christians to bend the knee to the judgments of Pascal, Barth and Newman). But when one probes into these objections to natural theology, one finds that with rare exceptions (Murphy and Davis being two of the exceptions, they being among the very few ASA or BioLogos leaders who know very much about theology) they are ill-informed. Most of the swipes are made by biologists, biochemists, computer programmers and astronomers whose dislike of natural theology is based on a secondhand or thirdhand understanding of what natural theology is, and what it claims. So for the most part — as is often the case when dealing with TE/EC leaders in the ASA or on BioLogos — theological discussion is pointless; these evangelical scientists have often simply not done their theological homework before forming their opinions, but have chosen to repeat mantras they have heard from other TE/EC leaders. They aren’t interested in discussing the primary texts of the Christian tradition, and when such texts are raised, they exit the discussion rather than wrestle with them.

However, one TE/EC leader who does know something about theology is Ted Davis, and I now want to focus on his response to Joshua’s column. I will deal first with some comments of Ted’s which deal with what I consider merely incidental matters, and then move to what I consider his more substantive statement.

Ted makes this complaint about ID proponents and natural theology:

“Many proponents of ID have indeed written the sorts of things I was told: that Romans teaches the need to do natural theology, and that any type of TE (including EC) that de-emphasizes design arguments is actually heretical, or at least in defiance of clear biblical teaching.”

As usual, I find the concern with what “many ID proponents” say to be immaterial. There are “many ID proponents” who don’t understand ID at all, but merely use it (as did the school board in the Dover case) to buttress various versions of creationism. The important thing is what ID, strictly defined as an intellectual position, commits one to. And ID commits one to no interpretation of Romans, or of any Biblical passage. Many ID proponents aren’t even Christian. But more important, I haven’t read any passages in ID writings where Romans is interpreted as requiring Christians to do natural theology. In virtually every case where I have seen an ID writer bring up Romans, the context is defensive; certain TE/EC writers have been bashing natural theology, saying it isn’t Christian, that it is never found in the Bible, etc., and the Romans passage is called on by ID people to show that Paul regarded natural theology as a legitimate (not mandatory, but legitimate) intellectual activity. As for de-emphasizing design arguments, there may be good philosophical and theological reasons for doing so, but if we restrict ourselves strictly to Biblical passages, there are so many cases (not just Romans 1) where the connection is made between the order of the world and God, and where the ability of human beings to perceive the order of the world is connected with their recognition of God, that it is hard to argue that the Bible forbids or opposes design arguments. So, given that TE/EC writers have so many times implied or even said that design arguments for God are sub-Christian, non-Christian, bad theology, etc. it’s only natural that the ID folks would throw back some Biblical verses in their teeth. If the TE/EC writers are going to hurl the “bad theology” charge then they had better be prepared to back it up. But this is all trivial stuff, having to do with the culture-war aspect of ID/TE relations, and not with serious theological thought, so I move on to Ted’s more substantive comments.

Ted, in his comments on Joshua’s columns, indicates his agreement with George Murphy that Paul in Romans 1 is not teaching natural theology, and this is what Ted writes:

“Paul was making common ground with his pagan Roman audience. As a highly literate Greco-Roman Jew, Paul knew perfectly well that the Stoics and other Roman writers (such as Cicero) were natural theologians. For example, Cicero argued that the great regularity and swiftness of celestial motion (remember that for the ancients, the starry heaven revolves daily about the Earth) is powerful evidence for a transcendent wisdom behind nature. Paul knew that many in his audience believed that, and he reminded them of it: “they are without excuse,” they already know that God exists. In other words, Paul wasn’t teaching the need to do natural theology; he was assuming that his audience already accepted the validity of inferring God from nature. The problem he was addressing was idolatry, not atheism: they already knew about the divine power, but were worshiping the wrong kind of divine power(s), false gods that they created for themselves from the creation, failing to see the true Creator.”

Now, I am not going to make time at the moment to dispute Ted’s overall reading of Romans 1. I will for the sake of argument accept his account above, and allow that Paul is not teaching natural theology. But that really doesn’t help matters, because on Ted’s own account, even though Paul isn’t telling Christians to go out and do natural theology, Paul is allowing that the pagans weren’t wrong to reason from nature to a God behind nature; Paul is conceding that their conclusions from reason were (up to a point) sound. Paul is disputing only the inadequate conception of the God to which their natural theology has pointed them. Paul is not saying that natural theology as such is a bad thing; he is saying that it is insufficient to get one to the Biblical conception of God. He is not condemning natural theology as an anteroom to Biblical faith. He is saying that the pagan thinkers have got partway to the truth, but need help — the help of revelation — to get the rest of the way. So, even if Paul is not telling Christians to run around doing natural theology, he provides no basis for the near-vendetta that some ASA and BioLogos TE/EC leaders have displayed against natural theology.

One of the most revealing comments of Ted is this one: “The problem he was addressing was idolatry, not atheism.” Well, I grant this for the sake of argument, but it hardly follows (as Ted seems to be trying to prove) that any purported ID natural theology would be damaged by Paul’s discussion. For ID is, unlike Paul, addressing not idolatry, but atheism. Its arguments are public responses to the writings of Dawkins, Myers, Coyne, Stenger, etc., who claim that the facts of nature disprove the existence of God. Insofar as ID does theology at all, it is done to move public sentiment from atheism to a generic theism, not from polytheism or idolatry to Christianity. And this is understandable; Paul lived in an era in which the burning religious question was “Which God is the true one?”, whereas ID was born in an era in which the burning religious question is “Does any God even exist?” So ID’s aim would be different from Paul’s, and in fact not even in conflict with Paul’s. If Paul had lived in a world in which his main opponents were not worshippers of pagan idols, but prestigious scientists who claimed that the facts of nature disproved the existence of God, he might well have welcomed the efforts of ID people.

But even in Paul’s era there were some atheists; and of course there were polytheists crawling all over the Roman Empire. So any argument which took a pagan person from belief in no god at all, or from belief in many gods, to a belief in one God who was behind the order of nature, could hardly have been offensive to Paul. Any such argument, if successful, would bring the pagan to a conception of God close to that of the Hebrew Bible, of a God who is maker of heaven and earth yet above and beyond it. So even on Ted’s account, there would be no reason for Paul to preach against natural theology. His Jewish listeners would not need it, but it might do his pagan listeners some good.

And of course, the vast majority of Christian theologians did not attack natural theology, either. The number of notable theologians who have utterly rejected natural theology is minuscule, and almost all of them are modern and Protestant, and of a particular type of Protestant — fideist and/or pietist. The greatest thinkers in Christian history on both Catholic and Protestant sides almost all accepted at least a limited natural theology as a sort of “protevangelium” or vestibule through which pagans might be led into the house of faith. Aquinas, Calvin, Augustine — none of them uttered a peep against natural theology, and Calvin in fact openly endorses a limited natural theology in the Institutes. (In a passage which the Reformed astronomer Deb Haarsma has never once even mentioned, let alone accounted for, during her multi-year tenure as head of BioLogos; is she unaware of it, or would she rather not have to deal with it?) I would not speak with certainty about Luther, but I would bet that someone who knows his complete writings would find passages endorsing a limited natural theology in Luther as well.

The hostility toward natural theology among EC/TE proponents continues to be puzzling. Historically speaking, such hostility is not only a minority position within Christianity overall; it is even a minority position within specifically American evangelical Christianity. But within the small subset of evangelicals who endorse TE/EC, especially among the university-educated scientist leaders of TE/EC, it is a very common position. Something about the mindset that predisposes one toward TE/EC appears also to predispose one to dislike natural theology. And I’m as yet unsure whether the best route to explaining this connection lies in the analysis of theological ideas as such, or the analysis of the personal religious psychology of TE/EC followers.

But back to Lutheranism. If Joshua’s call for more involvement by Lutherans is nothing more than a call for broadening the discussion among Christians, I’m all for it. But if the call means that a Lutheran injection would help TE/EC evangelicals to fight off both natural theology and ID, and that Lutherans should be encouraged to join the TE/EC side for this reason, then I’m not impressed with the motivation.

I close with a more meat-and-potatoes consideration. The claim is being made that the “Lutheran” position is hostile to natural theology and/or that the “Lutheran” position on Creation is more sound than other positions because it is more Christ-centered. I would like to register a few vulgar empirical requests here. Can anyone who supports these claims cite any passages from the foundational Lutheran texts to defend them? For example, did Martin Luther ever write: “There is no natural knowledge of God”? Or “Reason is powerless to know anything at all of God’s existence or attributes”? Or “God’s action in Creation was like Christ’s self-surrender on the Cross”? Or “Creation does not manifest God’s glory but God’s self-imposed weakness”? Or did Melanchthon, Luther’s right-hand man, ever write anything like these statements? In other words, is this “Lutheran” position on Creation actually grounded in the stated views of Luther and other authoritative Lutherans, or is it an invention of very recent theologians, called forth by modern concerns (for example about harmonizing faith with evolution)?

We’ve already seen how TE/EC leaders such as Darrel Falk were at one time willing to present an entirely fictional “Wesleyan” theology of “the freedom of nature”, a view not only utterly without grounding in the writings of Wesley and his major lieutenants, but actually in conflict with Wesley’s actual writings on the doctrine of Creation — all in the interest of harmonizing faith with evolution. Is this new fascination with “Lutheran” theology another example of the same TE/EC phenomenon, in which a tradition is alleged to hold to some position when in fact the founders and greatest thinkers of that tradition never held any such thing? Or is there in fact textual evidence that classic Lutheranism despised natural theology and thought that all previous theology of Creation, from the Fathers through the Scholastics, had to be tossed out in favor of a Christological model of Creation? I hate to be pedantic, but I would like to see some primary texts. Has anyone in TE/EC-land got any such texts to show?

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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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17 Responses to Natural Theology, ID, and Lutherans: A Response to Davis, Murphy and Swamidass

  1. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    I haven’t followed the BioLogos thread at all – just noticed that Joshua had raised the subject. But I suggest that any Lutheran contribution to origins theology is likely to be as mixed as any other.

    I have mentioned in comments on other posts the work of Lutheran Terence Fretheim, in his book God and World in the Old Testament. This I find to have some great insights on the OT teaching, many of which reflect what I’ve gleaned from other recent writers in other traditions than the Lutheran. But I also find it marred by some of the very teaching that you have seen in Murphy, but which is reflected in the historical theological biases of BioLogos – again, coming from other theological tribes such as the Nazarene.

    Three things in his work strike me as relevant to your post, that question whether lutheran scholars have a particularm unique, contribution to make.

    The first is that, as indicated above, Fretheim takes an Open Theist/Process theology view of nature’s autonomy, and follows Moltmann (and so many others) in seeing the act of creation as necessarily implying God’s retreat from an area of reality, as if God were in space and time. Indeed, he comes close to saying that God, through creation, becomes so restricted, being changed by the spontaneity and freedom of creation. So much, so George Murphy and Darrell Falk or Karl Giberson. This God is the kenotic construction of recent decades, as opposed to the Lord of Christian tradition.

    On the other hand, his presentation is not Christological at all. Fretheim’s kenoticism comes across as independent of Christology, and Christ is barely mentioned except in rather abstract considerations of Logos and Wisdom. It’s almost as if Christ is “New Testament”, which is outside his brief – a far cry from Murphy, or Ted Davis.

    The third aspect speaks to your main interest here, natural theology. In complete contrast to EC thinking generally, he majors on the active role of God within nature, and by implication the ability of nature to reveal God, for example in the character of things that have been created, revealing facets of God’s character as in the most classical theology, and affirming a general link between blessings and curses from nature and the moral order, actively (to some extent) governed by God. This really doesn’t engage with science to speak of, but denies utterly nature as an independent and autonomous agent, though his Open Theism gives it some kind of “co-creation” role.

    So this Lutheran, Fretheim, is apparently pro-natural theology, pro-open theism and oblivious to christology in creation: a mixture of ingredients found in other denominational contributors to creation thought nowadays.

    I must ass something from my own perspective: I see creation as utterly Christological, and specifically even the early chapters of Genesis closely linked to God’s eternal plan in, through and for the Son. But I don’t see “kenosis” (as opposed to divine generosity and grace) playing a part in that at all, “kenotic theory” being something read into the Bible from a very modern or post-modern theological stance. To me it’s a shame that people can get away with assuming that the only Trinitarian approach to creation theology is that of Open Process theology, whether its source is Lutheran, Wesleyan, Anglican or anything else.

  2. swamidass says:

    Eddie, thanks for engaging.

    Have you read my article on the Lutheran Voice yet? That will clarify my point.

    It may render somewhat moot much of your concerns.

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

      Hi, Joshua. I followed your link, but it takes me only to the Concordia journal main page. I don’t see any further links to an article specifically by you. I did find one link to the article by Arand, but I had already read that one. You will need to give a more exact link for me to find the article. (Or you can send the article privately to my gmail address, which you have.)

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        Eddie – it’s set up like my Cambridge alumni magazine – you can sweep pages and other cool things in the top window, then magnify using the controls. Joshua’s article may be found in the contents page and linked from there.

      • swamidass says:

        Jon is right. If it helps, try this link.

        I’m the last article.

        • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

          Thanks, Joshua and Jon. The second link was the one I needed.

          Joshua, the focus of your article is different from that of Ted Davis and George Murphy. You are making a more general point about Lutheran tradition in theology and theology and science, whereas they are taking the “Lutheran perspective” and turning it into a sort of polemical weapon against ID and/or natural theology. I don’t think either your Concordia article or your BioLogos piece does that, and I didn’t mean to imply that you were saying exactly the same thing as Davis and Murphy.

          I find one of your comments quite promising, the one about (from a Lutheran perspective) believing in the Bible because one believes in Jesus, not the other way around. I would agree that many Protestants in the USA (and not just Calvinists or Reformed) do things the other way around. They try to establish the Bible as some sort of objective authority which history, etc. vindicate (“evidence that demands a verdict”), and then from that try to persuade people to accept Jesus. But it has always been my personal experience that my admiration for Jesus stands above any concern for “the authority of Scripture”; if I thought Jesus was an arrogant jerk, or a sniveling snake-oil salesman of religious quackery, I wouldn’t give two cents for the “authority” of the Bible. It’s the personality of Jesus, coming through in the Gospels, that makes me inclined to think that the Gospels are more than ordinary human books.

          However, there is one statement you made which made me smile:

          “I also aspire to Luther’s graceful forbearance of those who disagreed with him.”

          Assuming that you actually meant Luther and not Kepler (the paragraph had previously been about Kepler), I wonder which writings of Luther you had in mind. He does not show “graceful forbearance” to Erasmus, as you will see if you read the free-will/grace dialogue (available in paperback). Erasmus is much more civil than Luther in that debate; Luther is virtually foaming at the mouth. And after one of the great intra-Protestant meetings during the Reformation (I think the Marburg Colloquy, but I haven’t checked), one of the non-Lutheran participants said of Luther, “I think we have met with another Eck”; Eck was the dogmatic Catholic apologist whom Luther opposed and was the bete noir of the Reformers. Luther’s comments on Jews and Anabaptists are also to be noted in this connection. Luther certainly would not have passed muster under the “gracious dialogue” policy of BioLogos! And he does not appear to have believed that tolerance was a religious virtue. When he thought he was right, he could be as hard and intransigent as Calvin, and just as dismissive, or even more dismissive, of opposing views.

          My challenge, at the end of my article, was really addressed not to you, but to any ASA or BioLogos TE/ECs who would latch onto “Lutheran” theology and use it as a weapon against ID and/or natural theology, or who would claim “Lutheran” authority for a radical rewriting of Creation doctrine to make it more Christ-centered. I’d like to see some texts.

          I have noticed that TE/EC leaders generally shy away from producing texts, and prefer to speak vaguely of “being in the Lutheran/Wesleyan/etc. tradition.” They seem to prefer loose theological talk to disciplined theological argument. Probably this is because most of them are trained as scientists and not theologians, and most of them don’t know what the key primary sources are or where to find them, and so have to stick with generalities borrowed from other evangelical writers. But whatever the reason, I would like to see texts from the classical Lutheran tradition to back up these claims.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    I find one of your comments quite promising, the one about (from a Lutheran perspective) believing in the Bible because one believes in Jesus, not the other way around.

    Sometimes I find it hard to understand what is actually meant by sentiments like this, other than straw-manning certain fundamentalist US views. I suspect that even the worst fundamentalist “bibliolatry” arises from (a) encountering the living Jesus through the Bible, directly or though the witness of others and (b) saying that since this is virtually the universal way that people encounter Christ, it is to be revered, defended etc.

    That would apply to you, Eddie – you were attracted to the Jesus who is revealed in the gospels, and so take the book seriously as more than human. And yet it’s hard to think of any faith in any Jesus that is not, in practice, attributable to the Bible.

    Take the liberal scholar with a humanistically-tinged picture of Jesus. His efforts are directed to showing that whatever disagrees with that view in the Bible is the result of later accretions, misunderstanding by the early Church etc – in other words the Jesus he espouses is to be found hiding behind the distorted words of Scripture. That’s even so for the “Quest for the Historic Jesus” guys, whose minimalist beliefs about Jesus are confirmed by a methodology that leaves only a few scraps of “authentic” Jesus in the Bible – but that’s the authority they cite, still.

    This is also shown by recent arguments about translations of the NT, between N T Wright and D B Hart, both of whom have produced translations, and who (sadly) accuse each other respectively of theological bias towards Reformed theology and towards Universalism. Who is right is irrelevant here, but the point is that both believe the Jesus they have encountered in person is the one they encounter in Scripture, once that is properly understood. I would also question whether either came to faith in Jesus apart from accepting the testimony about him read in Scripture.

    The Catholic believes that the Church’s tradition authoritatively interprets Scripture (so that it will reveal the Jesus of encounter): the Orthodox that the Fathers have rightly understood Scripture. There are some ultra-charismatics who maximise the personal witness of the Holy Spirit at the expense of Scripture – and how many in that school stay true to him? Usually the floppy Bible is being waved, at least, in support!

    Martin Luther, of course, had his own angle: In 1539, commenting on Psalm 119, “In this psalm David always says that he will speak, think, talk, hear, read, day and night constantly—but about nothing else than God’s Word and Commandments. For God wants to give you his Spirit only through the external Word.” And in 1545: “Let the man who would hear God speak, read Holy Scripture.” Not only did the Spirit come through the “external Word”, but the role of the indwelling Spirit was to interpret that Word, and so (in Luther’s view) be the antidote to spiritual error.

    • Jay313 says:

      I would also question whether either came to faith in Jesus apart from accepting the testimony about him read in Scripture.

      I agree. We have to recognize the fact that Jesus intentionally chose to entrust his message with others, rather than writing it all down himself. To my mind, “nature” is ambiguous. For every argument that points to a theistic conclusion, there is a counter-argument that points to an atheistic conclusion. In the end, it all comes down to this: Do we believe the testimony of Christ’s chosen witnesses, or not?

      “Lord, who has believed our report, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

      “But you refuse to believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep hear my voice … and they follow me.”

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

      Your objection is fair, Jon. I wrote too quickly, and in the spirit of reaction against a certain mechanical understanding of how the Bible produces faith. I should have taken more time, and reflected more clearly on exactly what it was that I was trying to understand and articulate.

      What I was trying to deny was the view of the Bible which American Protestants often seem to be upholding, i.e., a view that the Bible, as it were, floated down from heaven, context-free, and, without any connection with the historical traditions of the Church, or the life of our culture, can be “proved” to be divinely inspired and true by methods that even an agnostic, if a fair-minded one, would be compelled to accept. People who seem to me to hold this view often argue things like: “The Bible exists in more manuscript copies than any other ancient work (Homer, Plato, etc.) and therefore anyone who trusts the authenticity of those manuscripts of those other works is logically bound to trust the manuscript of the Bible”; or “Every ancient city named in the Bible has been dug up by archaeologists on exactly the site where the Bible predicts, and therefore, the Bible is trustworthy about history, and therefore everything it says about miracles and salvation etc. must also be true”; or “No one would ever tell a story about a man who died and came back from the dead to save us from our sins, and go around the world risking martyrdom for this story, unless he believed it to be true, so therefore the disciples really did see Jesus rise from the dead and therefore all rational persons must accept the Resurrection as true history and become Christians.”

      Notice that all such arguments have the smell of “externality” about them. The attempt is to vindicate the teaching of the Bible by somehow “proving” (by means independent of the effect the story has on the reader one is trying to convince) that the Bible has been verified by experts or logic or evidence as a true history; and from there, so the logic seems to flow, “And since this book has been proved to be reliable by means even secular thinkers must accept, shouldn’t we look at the claims made by/about Jesus and accept them, too?”

      I find this approach topsy-turvy. I can’t think of another religious work — the Upanishads, the Koran, etc. — for which so much effort has been expended, irrespective of the value of its contents, to validate its historicity, accuracy, reliability, etc. You don’t find Hindus and Muslims doing this sort of “external reliability check” to nearly the same extent as “Biblical” Christians do. And when I analyze the religious psychology behind this mania for “objectively validating the book”, I find it downright peculiar.

      I would say that as a point of religious fact, what the “Biblical” Christian really does, 95% of the time, is encounter the Bible in a context, a context which makes the Bible at least possibly a source of truth, and then finds himself/herself moved by the contents of the Bible. One Lutheran minister I knew who had been an atheist described his conversion in this way: He started reading the Bible again (certainly aware of the general nature of its contents from his original Christian background, and not treating it merely as some strange object to be analyzed by historical science for “reliability”), and what brought him to faith was his perception (of a particular passage) that “It was speaking to me.” It was not some external test of product quality that caused him to be open to the Gospel message; it was the Gospel message itself that struck him right between the eyes. Any historical, apologetic stuff he might have later learned (and I’m not sure how much Lutheran seminaries stress that stuff, anyway) for the purpose of defending the Bible against secular attacks on it, did not factor into his initial belief. They were post hoc rationalizations, not the cause of his belief.

      I once attended a Billy Graham crusade. I saw scores of people going up in response to Graham’s “altar call” (if one may call it that in the case of a “low” Protestant tradition like Graham’s). His talk leading up to the call was not about the reliability of the Bible in objective terms, how there were more manuscripts, how we had found the city of Jericho and the ruins of the walls looked rather odd as if they had collapsed in an unusual way, etc. There was none of that. His talk was about sin, about weakness, about human failure, about the cowardly and selfish acts that we human beings commit and would like to be free from. He had talked about the possibility and even probability that many of those present had beaten their wives, cheated on their spouses, betrayed their friends and loved ones, abused their children, and in all kinds of ways lived debased and unloving lives. Those people were not walking up to make their confessions of sin and of faith because Graham had proved to them by clever historical argument that the Resurrection must be true because no one would write the Gospels in the way they did if it weren’t. They were there because they felt rotten inside and wanted to express repentance and the desire for a new life. They were there because they felt a personal invitation from Jesus. Any historical apologetics any of them might do later, in the course of converting others, had nothing to do with their decision.

      I actually have encountered a few Protestants who claim (though I doubt their self-interpretation) to have become Christians solely because of “objective” investigation into “the reliability of the Bible”. I actually find it hard to believe that centuries of Christianity in their surrounding American culture and the previous European culture had no effect in predisposing them to wish that the Bible was reliable, so that they could believe in it, but even supposing that such a feat of religious detachment is possible, it strikes me as the most cold-blooded way of deciding that a religion is true that anyone could conceive.

      Am I going to adopt anything a religious text affirms, simply because the manuscripts seem to be untampered with, because it refers to events which have since been confirmed by archaeology, etc.? If a religious text tells me to cut off the hand of a thief, am I going to carry out that action merely because of some “evidence that demands a verdict” sort of analysis that claims to have proved that this text comes from God? Does one’s sense of the promptings of the Spirit not have any role to play at all when we decide whether or not a religious teaching is true?

      Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the “objective” evidence for the story of Joseph Smith’s golden tablets were greater than the evidence for the story of the Exodus or the Resurrection. Would I therefore convert to Mormonism? I can’t imagine that I would, because when I read the book of Mormon I find it fantastic drivel, the product of a deranged mind, and unbelievably boring and tedious to boot. The idea that one should adopt a religion because of some “objective” external proof that the book of that religion is more historically reliable than other religious books seems absurd to me. If a text taught something that my “inner light” found repugnant, I would not live by that text’s teaching, not even if the external evidences for the transmission of the text were ten times as strong as in the case of the Bible.

      Of course, I put this in the wrong way in my comment to Joshua. I appeared to be denying any connection between the Jesus that actually moves one and the text of the Bible in which the story of Jesus is told. I shouldn’t have written in that way; I was too eager to make a negative point and didn’t fully think out what I was saying before I went to press. Of course you are completely right to say that we wouldn’t know of Jesus except for the Bible and that the things that attract us to Jesus are the things seen in the Biblical presentation of Jesus.

      I didn’t make the contrast I should have made. Instead of pitting the question of the reliability of the Bible against the question of the reliability of Jesus, I should have put the contrast this way: One doesn’t (at least, I don’t, and I don’t think most Christian believers do, either) decide after cold-blooded scientific or historical investigation, conducted with complete emotional detachment, that the Bible is reliable, true, etc., and then allow the Bible’s message into one’s mind and soul, and adopt it; rather, it is because one already finds something in the Bible’s message that resonates in one’s soul, that one is inclined to think that the Bible contains truth. From there, of course, one might well be induced to go beyond “the Bible contains truth” to “the Bible is entirely true, revealed, inspired, etc.” But the normal order in the religious lives of individuals (as opposed to the order adopted by the writers of American apologetics books) is to find truth in the Bible first, and to undertake a systematic vindication of the Bible’s reliability only later.

      This is parallel to what is sometimes said about scientific discovery: many have said that the “order of discovery” is frequently not the same as the “order of justification”; i.e., a scientific truth sometimes just “flashes” unbidden before the scientist’s eyes, maybe when he’s not thinking about the scientific problem at all, but just getting on a bus, and that the later write-up, to convince the reader of the certainty of the scientific truth, is set forth in steps which don’t correspond historically to the order in which the scientist came to illumination. It seems to me that often American writers of apologetics books think that in religious matters, the order of discovery and the order of justification should be the same, and I think that’s an error.

      Do you object to anything in this restatement, Jon?

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        Do you object to anything in this restatement, Jon?


        a view that the Bible, as it were, floated down from heaven, context-free, and, without any connection with the historical traditions of the Church, or the life of our culture

        That’s not true even of Jesus himself, of course – another subject for discussion one day when talking about divine truth!

        My own reasons for trusting the Bible are parallel to your Lutheran friend’s, and once more involve that annoyingly subjective self-validation, through the Holy Spirit if one believes, or through whatever psychological weakness if not.

        I responded as a teenager to a gospel appeal from a much lesser preacher than Billy Graham – though having subsequently heard the latter, I don’t think there was anything humanly more powerful in Graham’s preaching. Dutifully, in the Christian context I was in, I started reading my Bible daily, and eventually ploughing through it at a chapter a day and making notes. Good discipline, hard work, sparse rewards.

        Six years later, in circumstances that don’t matter much here, I had a “spiritual experience” in which I sensed the presence of Christ as never before. The most tangible effect of that was that from that moment on, the Bible “spoke to me”. I even at some stage checked out my old notes on Leviticus, or whatever, and found that what had been written as a duty read as a thrill.

        So now I read one of the early Church Fathers, say, describe the trustworthiness of Scripture in a distant culture and time, and immediately recognise someone who’s been where I have. But then I read some modern Evangelicals equivocating about the theological errors and the human authors feeling their way towards God, and I feel like I’m from another world.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Can’t edit my own comments on your posts, so another PS: I like your parallel with the true nature of scientific insight: I wrote at some stage about Einstein, who knew relativity was true long before any evidence became available to him.

          Perhaps in both spiritual and scientific matters, in practice imagination of ten trumps reason!

      • Jay313 says:

        Your last paragraph states it well. The same thing happens in our moral judgments, as well. We react to a moral situation according to our “gut reaction,” and only later do we apply moral reasoning to justify our initial response.

        Reacting to Jon (below), my own story is the same, yet different. At the age of 10, I found a “Good News for Modern Man” New Testament in my father’s bedside drawer and began reading it on the sly. The words spoke directly to my heart, as they still do. The next Sunday, after I finished the Gospel of John, I took my little sister by the hand and said, “Let’s go get baptized.”

        My favorite passage about God’s word from God’s word:

        As the rain and the snow
        come down from heaven,
        and do not return to it
        without watering the earth
        and making it bud and flourish,
        so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
        so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
        It will not return to me empty,
        but will accomplish what I desire
        and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

  4. Avatar photo Mark says:

    Excellent article. I attend a MSLC and I do think the Lutherans could bring something to the debate because I believe that early Genesis can only be correctly seen through the lens of Christ, and that is what they do with all the scriptures. So far though, they have been content to just do what has been handed down to them and ignore all squabbles.

    From my own studies I have concluded, and this fits with Lutheran theology as well, that this universe was created a fit place for people like us. Laws have been established, but they don’t produce a good outcome on their own. In other words, the natural universe can’t do God’s will without God’s help any more than we can. It is “supposed to”, just like the land above, but it can’t pull it off anymore than we can. Up there, He speaks and “it was so”. Down here, other things have to happen subsequent to that in order for Him to even see that it is “good” (towb- suitable).

    So I guess one could say, as you have said, that one can get the idea there is a Creator from the natural universe, but its not a reliable guide as to His nature, because He subjected it to futility so it would be a suitable place for beings with OUR nature. Much of the “evidence” these scientists have which they think shows that the natural universe disproves God is really just them spotting the futility in it and assuming that a perfect God wouldn’t do it like that. Well, He can and has done better, but for reasons explained in the Bible, this world isn’t that!

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

      Thanks for taking the time to read my article, Mark, and thanks for your comment. Could you share a bit more of your experience with the LCMS? For example, is there a tendency of ministers to give sermons in which more is said about the doctrines of grace, faith, salvation, etc. than about the doctrine of creation? Or is the doctrine of creation frequently a subject of direct attention? And if so, what things are said about creation?

      • Avatar photo Mark says:


        I am sorry I missed your question earlier. Its a bit harder to track on this site than some others.

        What the Lutherans (Missouri Synod anyway) is the “Law-Gospel Framework”. Basically every message that gets delivered is in that framework. So they may read a passage from the Old Testament pointing to a law, then an epistle from the New Testament regarding some aspect of it, and then a passage from the Gospel. And they don’t back away from the teaching the Law. Even the touchy subjects that most churches now avoid such as divorce. Whatever the topic, they come right out and say “this is a sin to do (or not do)”.

        But then they go right back to the gospel- “is the answer for you to start doing this? Not to get saved. The answer is for you to believe that Christ has already paid the price for your very real sin. Hopefully the knowledge of that will help you do better for Love’s sake, but its no longer a matter of salvation- good works never is because He did the good works that we could not.” And that’s how it goes, pretty much every week.

        You would expect this to get old but it never does, and it doesn’t let us get away from what we are outside of Him and inside of Him. I have found that once churches get away from reminding parishioners of the unpleasant reality of their own sin very quickly we fall back into works-based do-goodism and we don’t think we need God to save us from our sins any more, just our circumstances. It also leads to a “win are the good guys and the other people are the bad guys so let’s win this next election and take America back for God” as if we weren’t all the bad guys and God had more interest in the nation than the people in it. Once a church starts de-emphasizing our own sinfulness, this is how it starts going.

        Regarding the debate over creation and natural theology, they would invoke the primacy of scripture over natural theology, because the consider scripture the sole authority on any matter of faith (one of the five “solas” is “sola scriptura”). But since the scripture does mention what is basically natural theology in a positive way I doubt they would discount it as much as JS and Mr. Murphy want them to. Psalms 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork.- so its not just Roman’s 1. God also resorts to natural theology in Job in a way when He references things in the natural universe to demonstrate they should understand that men are not in a position to question Him.

        To the extent they talk about creation passages, the mostly stick to the theology as to what it says about our sinfulness and need of redemption. The age of the earth, evolution vs. creation, they pretty much ignore that completely, though I did see a pastor in Toledo bring out a chart with Young Earth dates on it. He just brought it out and left it in the sanctuary one Sunday but did not ever reference it directly in the sermon.

        So I don’t think that their CURRENT POSITIONS will be enlightening on the questions we grapple with. Rather their focus on Christ and the Law/Gospel framework will help us once it is applied to these questions. In other words, they treat the whole of the Bible as something that is pointing to this framework.

        Additionally, the way Luther challenged the prevailing orthodoxy with his 95 thesis provides a precedent for taking a new look at what scripture says about creation issues. In fact I mimicked him when I laid out “Twenty-Five Theses Where the Church Has Early Genesis Wrong”.

        At the heart of that article, and the book it is based on, is that early Genesis was meant to be viewed through the lens of Christ and cannot be properly understood without that- and that therefore the traditional view of the account handed down to the church from Jewish tradition is incorrect. It is shocking how much better the account fits with what science is telling us about the natural universe once we see it through the lens of Christ. It’s a powerful testimony that its what the Church claims it to be- inspired by God.

        So when I say I think the Lutherans can help, it is their approach to scripture that I think can help, not anything they have though of specifically. They just do what has been handed down- leaves a bit of a vacuum really.

        • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

          Thanks for this excellent reply, Mark; it’s both thoughtful and clear.

          I will look at your linked article later and, if I have any intelligent comments to make on it, will reply here.

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