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?