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The Biologos Foundation and “Darwin’s Pious Idea”,  Part 1

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January 4, 2011 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now
The Biologos Foundation and “Darwin’s Pious Idea”,  Part 1

Today's entry was written by John Wesley Wright. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

One should not underestimate the importance of the Biologos mission. For years I have spent Tuesday nights distributing food to those who live on the streets and hotels in downtown San Diego. In order to show that it is the church present, not some benevolent humanism, I always wear a clerical collar when I am on the streets. Many of these are my dear friends and brothers and sisters in Christ; many, however, move in and out of the neighborhood anonymously. Two weeks ago I handed sandwiches to a newcomer. He looked at my collar and said, “Why are you guys so against science? You know, how you suppressed Galileo?”

The church has lost the ability to tell a coherent story about the relationship between its history and convictions and empirical discoveries of the modern sciences. We have lost the credibility of witness even to those who receive its charity. If this is so, how can we expect to be heard in certain bio-tech corporate board rooms that seek commercial advantage by moving to the “post-human”?

The mission of The Biologos Foundation, to explore, promote, and celebrate the integration of science and Christian faith, recently took a huge step forward. A historically evangelical press, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, has just published a landmark volume: Conor Cunningham’s Darwin's Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong. The work deeply explores the integration of Darwinian evolutionary theory and Christian faith. Cunningham feels no compulsion to defend Darwin at all costs; there is no bowing to irrational claims of scientific reductionism, no tossing of the Christ child to save the scientific bathwater. His commitment is to the truthfulness of the Christian faith in its deepest, fullest, most historically authentic evangelical and catholic sense.

Yet Cunningham refuses to set the Christian faith at odds with the empirical results of biological science. Unlike Daniel Dennett, he finds Darwinian empirical results “pious” rather than “dangerous.” Cunningham separates the empirical results of biological science from the reductive philosophical and (a)theological commitments that often silently accompany them. When the Christian faith is properly articulated in its deepest orthodox, catholic, and evangelical form, the so-called war between “science and the church” dissolves. Properly articulated, the Christian faith, not Darwinian theory, is the “universal dissolvent.” All creation finds its origin and end in the eternally Triune Creator God. Cunningham shows one way that human beings as rational creatures may recognize by faith the beauty and goodness in creation, even as explicated by Darwinian theory, to the praise of our Creator.

Cunningham’s book is an amazing accomplishment. The book has already gathered acclaim. Christopher Benson at the First Things Blog (Dec 21, 2010) has named the book as one of the two most important science books of 2010 (“a rare combination of scientific competence and theological erudition”) and Scott Stephens at the ABC Religion and Ethics blog mentions the book as one just outside his top ten list of his “Books of the Year” for 2010.

I know of no writing that more successfully addresses a particular issue in the interface between the claims of revelation and the human observations that we call science. To explore the integration of “science and Christian faith” with Cunningham requires languages that cross what have come to be understood as “disciplinary boundaries.” It reveals an extensive reading that is humbling in its judiciousness, wisdom, and learnedness.

But the book is not erudite stuffiness. From Irish Methodist stock, Conor is as whimsical, gregarious, and gracious in print as he is in person. Cunningham freely quotes from Lewis Carroll, Monty Python, C. S. Lewis, and G. K. Chesterton; this is no ivory tower egghead. The book is a joy to read.

But the book is work to read, at times hard work, hard and rewarding work. The book begins by reviewing the standard story of Darwinian theory. He quickly plunges into the contested, suggestive, and problematic areas arising from this “received view.” The fifth chapter looks to “examine and critique the application of Darwin’s theory of evolution beyond the confines of biology” (p. 179), in an at times laudable, at time pernicious enterprise. The sixth chapter provides an all out assault on ontological naturalism*, and ironically, some of its likeminded theological partners in movements like Creation Science and Intelligent Design. The last chapter seeks to re-order the empirical results of Darwinian science with the biblical witness, particularly as understood within the first five centuries of the Christian traditions interpretation of Genesis 1-3.

The book therefore moves from contemporary biological sciences to high levels of philosophical and theological thought. Ultimately, however, the book finds its end in the Scripture’s witness to the eternally Triune God in Christ as found within the depths of the Christian tradition. This structure itself bears the form of the ancient, biblical structure of thought. With the Apostle Paul, Cunningham’s argument is simply, “For from God and through God and to God are all things. To God be the glory forever! Amen” (Rom. 11:36). If one at times finds oneself alienated as one moves through the technical aspects of the book, one will still find oneself fascinated and enriched by the journey.

Western culture now suffers deeply from how its cultural institutions have built a wall between “faith” and “reason.” Philosophers have long shown that philosophical rationale for such a divide is, at the very least overdrawn, if not completely false. Dominant institutional and legal categories, however, end up thinking for us and repeating the distinction. Networks then have developed that benefit from an antagonism between faith and reason to bolster their own institutional authority. Such fundamentalisms, religious and atheistic, use irrationality, fear, and power to pull their particular publics political and financial support to expand their own realms of influence.

For the church such a situation is intolerable. Such a divide between faith and reason places the scandal of the cross at the wrong place. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross demands faith and obedience; His sacrifice makes all other sacrifices, including the sacrifice of intellect, unnecessary. To allow false stumbling-blocks to be set up for our youth by intellectual sloth or its close cousin, apostasy, is unacceptable. Moreover, a continuation of the situation promises to lead to tragedy for North American culture. As even a secularized Christian culture has withdrawn from public discourse, North American society continues to reduce human life and even life itself to a commodity to be bartered on the free-market by the financial, political, and technological cultural elite. The unnecessary withdrawal of the Christian witness as yeast and light takes away options that the world does not have tools to conceive, yet alone implement. Into this cultural abyss, Biologos has stepped. At some times, it must find itself very lonely. But in the abyss that refuses a dichotomy between faith and scientific reason, however, it finds friends, unexpected friends like Conor Cunningham.

In order to explore, promote, and celebrate Cunningham’s work, I would like to provide a summary, analysis, and guide through the book in several blog posts in the coming weeks. I would encourage interested readers to purchase the book and follow the discourse together – a cyber reading group, if you will. Cunningham’s work needs not serve as the final word on the subject, but it represents an intellectual program that we cannot but take seriously. Too much is at stake in a refusal to do so.


* Cunningham writes, “There are two types of naturalism: methodological and ontological. The former is the approach science must take when it engages with the universe insofar as it will fail to make any progress unless it brackets the divine. The latter holds that bracketing the divine is not merely methodologically necessary but constitutive of reality as such. . . . While methodological naturalism issues no philosophical or metaphysical opinion on what exists, ontological naturalism suffers no such shyness. It tells us not only that science must stick to what we take to be natural but also that the natural is all there is, indeed all there ever could be. Moreover, ontological naturalism deposes philosophy’s ancient position as the final arbiter of our understanding of existence to which even science is subjected (what is called first philosophy)” (pp. 265-6).

John Wesley Wright, Ph.D. is Professor of Theology and Christian Scriptures at Point Loma Nazarene University. Dr. Wright has published numerous articles and edited a number of books, including Priests, Prophets, and Scribes: Essays on the Formation and Heritage of Second Temple Judaism in Honor of Joseph Blenkinsopp, which he co-edited with Eugene Ulrich, Robert Carroll, and Philip R. Davies. (JSOT Press, 1992) and Conflicting Allegiances: The Church-based University In A Liberal Democratic Society, co-edited with Michael Budde (Brazos Press, 2004).

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Steve Ruble - #45972

January 5th 2011

In the footnote, Cunningham is quoted as writing

...ontological naturalism deposes philosophy’s ancient position as the final arbiter of our understanding of existence…

Nonsense. Ontological naturalism is a philosophical position, held by many professional philosophers. It makes no sense to say that it “deposes philosophy”.

Obviously, Cunningham holds to an ontological supernaturalism. If he wants to debate its merits, there’s a rich philosophical (note: not theological) literature he could engage with. Unfortunately, like pretty much everyone praised by BioLogos, he appears to shy away from confronting philosophy on its own terms, and instead pretends that the ontological assumptions of scientists and atheists are the only arguments for ontological naturalism. This is false.

Cal - #45974

January 5th 2011


I think his point is rather than fighting in the field of philosophy, those who adhere to ontological naturalism disguise it as the only real position of “science” and above philosophical scrapping. This isn’t done intentionally, but rather out of ignorance at noting the difference between the two.

Cal - #45975

January 5th 2011

As a correction: Not everyone who adheres to ontological naturalism does this, but most who are polemical on a popular scale do not debate it as a philosophy v. philosophy but reason against anti-reason.

Argon - #45982

January 5th 2011

Daniel mann - #45914: You might be right about souls saved through a culturally refined Gospel. However, these results are notoriously difficult to assess. Besides, it can also be argued that these would later become believers without the evolutionarily-modified message. [...]

OK, contrary data and testimony don’t convince you. What would?

In any event, these considerations must be paramount:[...]

Now you add a complaint against the compatibility of Gospel with ‘macroevolution’.

These are two separate issues:
1) Is evolution (and an old Earth) compatible with Scripture? Daniel, you say no, others say yes.

2) Does antievolutionary (& young Earth) dogma drive some people away who might otherwise accept the Gospel (regardless of Scriptural compatibility)? Yes, there are many testimonials to that effect. But Daniel, you are unconvinced. Is it possible that your doctrinal opposition to evolutionary theory is ‘bleeding over’ to color your judgement about how cognitive dissonance from claims about YEC affects potential believers?

Paul Bruggink - #45991

January 5th 2011

Re Argon - #45982,

I like the way you broke the problem down into two separate issues.

Re 1), I would suggest that theologians still have a lot of work to do, both in sorting it out and then in disseminating their views. I am currently working my way through “Darwin’s Poius Idea” in the hope that Conor Cunningham will have a contribution to that effort.

re 2), I agree that there is much evidence to that effect, which is the primary reason that #1 needs to be worked on and then disseminated.

dopderbeck - #45992

January 5th 2011

My goodness.  You guys need to actually read Conor’s book.  It is not at all of the “Church must adapt to Darwinism or it will perish!” variety.  It is in fact a very deft and strong critique of philosophical naturalism and hyper-Darwinism.  But it is also a very deft critique of Paley’s natural theology and creationism. It offers a robust philosophical theology of creation rooted in the Church Fathers that takes Darwin and evolution out of the hands of both the hyper-Darwinists and the creationists.  It may or may not totally succeed in this, but at least its a sustained, systematic, historically rooted effort.  Anyway—actually read the book and interact with its arguments.

LLBJ - #46093

January 6th 2011

Daniel mann - #45887 states:  “There is nothing pious about compromising Biblical revelation in favor of a deistic god who better accords with Darwin.”

There is nothing pious about stating scientific falsehoods in favor of protecting a VIEWPOINT/ interpretation of the Bible.  When Christians deny scientific observations in favor of falsehoods we lose credibility.  God is great.  God does not need us to “protect” Christianity by denying observable facts and promoting falsehoods.  One can certainly disagree with conclusions, but not by supporting ones viewpoints with falsehoods.  This is what I see occurring with many proponents of ID and creationism.  This is what people pick up on and use to discredit Christianity.  This is why some young people who grow up Christians leave the faith believing that the alternative is to park their brain at the door.

Jon Garvey - #46332

January 8th 2011

@LLBJ - #46093

Whilst I wouldn’t endorse Daniel’s statement in context, I think he states a key point which, maybe, doesn’t get sufficient emphasis in these discussions.

EC/TE/Biologos approaches to origins actually can differ hugely according to whether one has a high doctrine of providence, or not. For those who hold a high view of providence the basis for accepting evolution by whatever mechanism is that God’s hand upholds the universe second by second, and that nothing that happens, even under the observational category of “chance”, is independent of his will.

Evolution is therefore no more independent of God thatn the fall of a lot in Proverbs, whose every decision is “from the Lord.”

Some ECs, however, seem to have the lower view of providence common throughout Christianity today (not least amongst Creationists). In their view God “lets” evolution happen, or “gives creation freedom to evolve.” When you consider that view carefully, it only differs from Deism in that the outcome is completely indeterminate. At least the time on the Deistic God’s watch could be predicted.

Cal - #46403

January 8th 2011

Jon Garvey:

One thing to note:

When we speak of the Lord’s sovereignty, we must also remember His love. I don’t think you intended but we can not slip into the disturbing implications of indifferent sovereignty (ie. the allah of islam wills every sin to occur because it is his will, everything that happens he ordains). If God chose so, He could withdraw Himself and Humanity would dissolve into nothingness, but He sustains existence because He loves us.

So one idea when looking at the bloodied past, is that while He sustained evolution, perhaps princes and powers to mar and distort His creation, but God allowed it, it would suit the task at hand, His creation was “good”. Good enough to redeem it all and allow choice for man.

Just a thought.

Jon Garvey - #46552

January 9th 2011

@Cal - #46403

My kneekerk response to the “demonically flawed” creation idea is that the whole tenor of the creation accounts is calculated to dismiss the idea of any power involved other than God himself.

For the writer the idea is to dethrone the pagan deities (so the sun, stars, sea monsters etc don’t get names as they do when designated gods in the ANE). But surely that dethrones the demonic powers as well from a hand in the creative process?

Even the snake is not said to be evil as such - the demonic connection being much later - but he only has the power in the story to tell lies, not to corrupt the creation itself.

Cal - #46564

January 9th 2011

Jon Garvey:

It is true that the writer does attempt to dethrone pagan deities, for the idols did not make the world, God did. God spoke and so creation occurred! However, I’ll use an example from Tolkein’s work to explain my position. Melkor decided to war against Illuvatar (God) and tried all in his might to destroy his works. However only Illuvatar could create, only he gave life, so Melkor at his worst, he attempted to twist his creation, but that was all he could do, deform and mar, not make anything of his own (thus resulted the orcs).

Fantasy aside, could this not be what Satan and other princes who decided to war against Heaven did? I’m not saying it had to be, just a possibility to consider.

Also, since the account of Genesis is to remove idols from the mind of the Israelites and direct an arrow to God (to Jesus), its story does not focus on the marring. When God comes to earth, He is there to explain that man is a captive and He is there to free them and that the devil “Who was a murdered and liar from the beginning”, has been trying to destroy God’s creation since the beginning (before time?). That is why it is mentioned there rather than before.

gingoro - #46579

January 9th 2011

Jon Garvey@46332

“EC/TE/Biologos approaches to origins actually can differ hugely according to whether one has a high doctrine of providence, or not. For those who hold a high view of providence the basis for accepting evolution by whatever mechanism is that God’s hand upholds the universe second by second, and that nothing that happens, even under the observational category of “chance”, is independent of his will.”

Your point is very valid that those Christians of the reformed persuasion tend to react differently to evolution than those who are not reformed.  The doctrine of providence makes a big difference in how “chance” is viewed.  This same observation was made a couple of years ago on the ASA email list.
Dave W

Rich - #46862

January 10th 2011

Jon Garvey (46332):

Your comments are helpful.  I think that if one were to poll EC/TE people individually and sound them out on how they construe God’s relationship to nature generally, and to evolution in particular, one would find a very wide range of views, some of them incompatible with each other.

These distinctions are concealed whenever an ID person is in the room, because at that point the TE/EC conditioned reflex is to gang up on the ID person.  Just as all Republicans will gang up the Democrat in the room, even though the “business” Republicans and the “religious right” Republicans and the “crunchy con” Republicans have very serious differences with each other, and on some issues may agree with some Democrats more than other Republicans, so the considerable overlap between the ID of Behe and Sternberg and some versions of TE/EC is overwhelmed by the culture-war whoops.

Karl Giberson once said that TE/EC sometimes has a tendency to turn into Deism.  I agree with him, and it sounds as if you do, too.  Many ID proponents are devout Reformed people, and are concerned precisely about that tendency of TE/EC.  Unfortunately this aspect of the ID critique is not usually addressed by TE/EC people.

Cal - #46866

January 10th 2011

As a follow up to my last comment (I did some reading!):

In brief references to Creation, Psalms and Job mention God warring against a “sea-monster serpentine”.
Now, I’ll come back to that. Another fact is that the Old Testament was a slow, progressive revelation of God, Jesus being the full expression of God (Heb 1:3) and with Him, the Spirit revealed Truth to disciples. Before, the Law and the Prophets served as a Pedagogic teacher, slowly moving the children (who had to be fed milk) towards the Father, fully expressed in Jesus (now eating meat).

Now throughout the Old Testament, Satan’s references can be counted on 1 hand (He’s in Job and he is said to have made David census in Chronicles). However in the New Testament, Jesus clearly reveals all evil is from the “evil one”, that God is wholly good. Death, destruction, disease all come from demons. That Satan is described, by our Lord, as “prince of this world, god of this age”. That is a lot of power!

Now weaving back, is it not possible, compatible, to understand as throughout Creation, an evil serpent has warred and tried his best to kill all and destroy. Jesus, in all His love and power, finally crushed the head of the serpent and creation is now being redeemed.

Jon Garvey - #46935

January 11th 2011

@Cal - #46866

‘Satan is described, by our Lord, as “prince of this world, god of this age”’

Sure, but how did he get to be that? Genesis says God made man to rule the earth, which is hardly compatible with there being an angel in post already!

But in that Adam and Eve rejected God’s word and allowed themselves to be ruled by one of the animals they had been given to subdue (and in so doing, presumably, to be ruled by the Spiritual power that put the words in its mouth), they rather handed their sceptre over to him, it seems.

And if men abandoned the worship of the true God and worshipped demons (as per 1 Cor 10.20) it’s that, rather than any baleful influence over nature, that makes Satan the god of this world.

Exactly how the references in Psalms etc to Leviathan relate to Genesis, the ANE myths, and Satan is hard to pin down - but it’s notable they all involve God’s having decisively defeated ther monster. I doubt one can find room there for a Demiurge messing up the creation. Though of course Marcion, Valentinus and the other neoplatonist Gnostics did their best, without persuading the Church.

Cal - #46948

January 11th 2011

Jon Garvey:

I’m not arguing for anything neo-platonic or gnostic, material is not inherently evil. They were saying the Demiurge created the world, but I woulnd’t say that, it’s un-biblical. Only that Satan had disrupted and tried to twist God’s Creation.

Scripture says God told Adam and Eve to subdue the world, could that not mean that this world was in need of being subdued from the rebellion. But God allowed the choice and Man was deceived and fell into the rebellion with Satan and God came to set man free and bring forgiveness. Now In Christ we are now to trample Satan and subdue the world anew (Jesus was the second Adam).

I’m not entirely sure of this line of thinking, but I’ve been investigating its biblical precedence and I have not found anything contrary yet. Thanks for dialoging with me Jon, Iron sharpens Iron. Christ bless us brother!

Jon Garvey - #47009

January 12th 2011

@Cal - #46948

OK Cal - let’s pursue this. You’re postulating a pre-Adamic fall of creation, but the net result is the same as those suggesting creation fell because of Adam, ie that stuff we find problematic in creation is due to evil.

The latter position fails because of the passages where God is praised for those same aspects of creation: eg psalms where God provides the eagles with their prey, and especially Job, where God puts Job in his place by pointing to the fierce and uncontrollable leviathan and behemoth, and essentially saying “I made them that way, you can’t tame control them but I can, and what are you going to do about it?”

I’d also add that whilst the “it was good” figure in Gen 1 refers to “fit for purpose” rather than “morally perfect”, it does show creation came out as God planned, and there seems no room (nor any hint) for subsequent demonic sabotage before Adam’s arrival.

I take the commission to “subdue” indeed as a sign that finished creation had elements of wildness remaining, but since creation is shown as the progressive taming of chaos, I see it as God’s leaving some finishing work to be done for man, his viceregent in the world. Instead, man pushes things back toward chaos.

Cal - #47027

January 12th 2011

Jon Garvey:

Yet Satan and the powers and principalities hold the keys of death, which Jesus removed. Just because creation is disfigured by sin does not mean the Lord does not love it nor does it mean all the majesty poured into it is gone. Though Satan has the reigns of death, God still provides for the eagles and still has respect for the mighty nature of the behemoth and leviathan, His creations.

I agree that God has Creation good as in “fit for purpose”. And there is still the gap theory reading to Genesis (though I do agree it is an imaginative and extreme packing of one verse). The fact it is not mentioned however is not too consequential, as most domains of demons (disease, destruction, death) are not attributed to them throughout the Old Testament. Perhaps the Israelites, who were babes struggling against idols and other nations, were not privy to this information. When God shone in His brightest (Himself) in Jesus,  the nature of things was revealed.

I do believe that some of the wilderness of Creation is a reflection of the “wildness” of God, He can’t be contained! I agree man pushes things towards chaos, but in that he joins the rebel party of the enemy. Where God intended man to subdue, man became subdued.

Cal - #47036

January 12th 2011

Jon Garvey:

Also, just to add so I don’t cause confusion. I’m not saying that the eagle taking prey is sinful. But it’s nature has been effected in that mortal death is necessary, but God provides anyway. Whereas where Adam, still mortal, disobeyed God and followed the serpent, He placed Himself under the Devil’s paradigm and died (separated) from God. If Adam had followed God and remained with the Tree of Eternal Life, He would have not fallen under demonic control, and perhaps be put in the first step towards erasing all death. This is just a guess.

Also here’s a Q&A I thought was interesting:http://whchurch.org/blog/1305/god-must-be-angry ; What do you think of that in light of this topic?

ha - #47041

January 12th 2011

@Cal - #47036

Cal, I took it that you meant the guy’s reference to Jesus’ calming of the storm. Agreed with his general point on reading omens, by the way! What is demonstrated about Jesus by this act?

I find it interesting that nowhere are natural phenomena attributed to demons in NT (eg though Paul’s storm is clearly inimical, it’s presented merely as a demonstration of God’s sovereignty in getting the gospel to Rome.)

So I take the miracle as showing creative power over the forces of chaos (as in Gen 1.2) either as God does, or maybe more likely, as the 2nd Adam does (harking back to our discussion of creation as left unfinished for Adam to work on). If storms were demonic I doubt they’d be God’s preferred means of transport (Ps 104.3, Job 38.1)

It seems to me that the doctrine of a corrupted natural realm, though so entrenched it’s almost axiomatic, lacks any real Scriptural support. Its fall is not described, and its fallenness not referred to afterwards. It seems to arise from generalising human death in Gen 3 to animals (which wouldn’t account for it before the fall anyway) and the curse on the serpent and the soil to - well, everything. “Nature seems cruel - it must be corrupted” is rather weak theology.

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