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Zoom In, Slow Down: “Replaying” Evolution and the Fall

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June 2, 2014 Tags: Adam, the Fall, and Sin, Christian Unity, Evolution & Christian Faith project
Zoom In, Slow Down: “Replaying” Evolution and the Fall
Image credit: J. Glover, Atlanta, Georgia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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

Almost thirty years ago, the National Football League had a kind of Cartesian moment: they decided we can’t trust our senses. More specifically, they decided that we can’t trust the senses of referees and officials who have to make split-second calls in the heat of play as massive bodies collide with one another. (Of course, lots of fans in the stands never trusted the officials!)

The result of this suspicion and skepticism was “instant-replay review.” Now, when a referee’s call is questionable, one of the coaches can throw a red flag onto the field, stop play, and ask the replay officials to review the call. They do so by doing two things: first, they utilize a number of different camera angles and zoom in on the play in question; then they replay it over and over again in slow motion, looking to see just whether the player’s knee was down before he crossed the goal line, or whether he stepped out of bounds before catching the pass.

When they zoom in and slow down, officials notice things they couldn’t have possibly seen from a distance or in the blistering speed of “real time.” Replay review is like hitting the pause button, taking the time to look at the situation again with a new focus and attention. The result is that we can see things we might have missed otherwise.

Zoom in; slow down. These are relevant principles for the conversation between Christian faith and evolution, too, particularly around thorny issues related to human origins and the Fall.

All too often, we see and hear such conversations from a distance, in the heat of “battle,” as it were, and come to hasty conclusions about what we think is at issue. Hasty conclusions are encouraged by sound-bite journalism that has little time for nuance or complexity. So we end up relying on second-hand accounts and are overly confident that we’ve “seen” the issues. But maybe we could use some of the NFL’s healthy skepticism about first impressions? Perhaps we could make time to review the issues and reconsider?

We do well to remember that the introduction of instant-replay review asked a lot of NFL officials. It takes a combination of both courage and humility to be willing to submit your initial judgments to assessment and evaluation by others, especially when they have the advantage of time and technology that you did not. Those virtues of courage and humility—especially the courage to be humble—are also relevant as we reconsider how to think about issues at the intersection of evolution and Christian faith.

I think of our research project as sort of throwing a red flag on the field of the conversation. We’re asking for time to review—to zoom in and slow down so that we can look at the issues from new angles, perhaps seeing connections and implications we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

There are lots of people—on both “sides,” so to speak—who have already hastily “made a call” on issues of creation, evolution, human origins, and original sin. Some have made the call that preserving the orthodox doctrine of original sin and a historical Fall requires a commitment to a historical couple, Adam and Eve. Others have made the call that rejecting the picture of a historical couple and endorsing an evolutionary account of human origins requires jettisoning the historic, orthodox doctrine of original sin.

In a way, I think these are both hasty, “zoomed out” conclusions. From a distance, it looks like this is an either/or, restaging old debates that seemed to require we either affirm creation or evolution. Both sides seem to see the issue in stark terms: either creationism without evolution or theistic evolution without a Fall.

“From a distance,” so to speak, it might seem like there are two clusters that constitute two unified “positions” that hang together. Or it might seem that there are “packages” on offer and that we need to take them as “package deals.” So from a distance, it might seem that the package that includes a historical Fall and an Augustinian understanding of original sin is part of a “package” that requires that we also buy a historical couple and ultimately something like young earth creationism.

On the other hand, “we” know that we ought to affirm theistic evolution, and given that some propose that theistic evolution entails rejecting a historical Fall in favor of something like symbolic fallenness, our commitment to theistic evolution would seem to require that we buy the package that includes an (allegedly) “Irenaean” theodicy [pdf] in which the Fall is merely “symbolic.”

But I suggest this is a mistaken perception of “packages,” an impression we’ve acquired from a distance. If we “zoom in” more closely, I think we’ll begin to see that things are much more complicated, that these are separable elements, and that there are no essential “package” deals.

So we’re throwing our red flag on the field and calling for a time out on these issues. As our team explores the various aspects of this complicated question close up and in “slow mo,” we are looking for things we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise: connections, implications, essentials, and nonessentials.

There’s one other aspect of the NFL’s instant-reply review policy I should mention: it’s communal and collaborative. While we only see the referee “under the hood” looking at the replays, in fact he is in conversation with a team of officials up in the replay booth, and together they re-read the situation. That communal and collaborative aspect is also essential to our research. We are undertaking this as a research team, but we are also a team who recognizes that we are part of an even larger community that is the church. They are not just the audience for our work, they are collaborators. We are listening to their wisdom, “up in the booth,” so to speak, as we zoom in, slow down, and seek to discern a faithful understanding of God’s story.

James K.A. Smith is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, as well as a Senior Fellow of The Colossian Forum. He writes and speaks frequently on philosophy, theology, and cultural criticism. He is the author of numerous books, including Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. His latest book is How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.

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Chuck Sigler - #85596

June 2nd 2014

I haven’t got back to do a more in depth study of Schneider’s 2012 article on “The Fall of Augustinian Adam” in Zygon, but here are some notes I have on Iranaeus and his view tht Adam was a historical figure. I think this complicates Schneider’s Iranean Adam proposal.

According to J. N. D. Kelly, Irenaeus thought the essence of Adam’s sin was disobedience; and that sin had consequences for all humans. Adam’s sin was the source of the general sinfulness and mortality of humanity, and their enslavement to Satan. “What Adam lost, all lost in him.” See J. N. D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines, p. 171. 

So Irenaeus regarded the Adam story as authentic history AND thought that Adam in the Garden “was but a child, not yet having his understanding perfected.” The passage here and the following one taken from The Demonstration of the Apolstolic Preaching, must be taken together in conceiving a true “Irenaean Adam.


Now, having made man lord of the earth and all things in it, He secretly appointed him lord also of those who were servants in it. They however were in their perfection; but the lord, that is, man, was (but) small; for he was a child; and it was necessary that he should grow, and so come to (his) perfection. And, that he might have his nourishment and growth with festive and dainty meats, He prepared him a place better than this world, excelling in air, beauty, light, food, plants, fruit, water, and all other necessaries of life, and its name is Paradise. And so fair and good was this Paradise, that the Word of God continually resorted thither, and walked and talked with the man, figuring beforehand the things that should be in the future, (namely) that He should dwell with him and talk with him, and should be with men, teaching them righteousness. But man was a child, not yet having his understanding perfected; wherefore also he was easily led astray by the deceiver. (Irenaeus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 12)

This complicates John Schneider’s proposal that “Irenaean Adam” should replace “Augustinian Adam.” Schneider said that an Irenaean Adam “fits remarkably well into the larger narrative of a Darwinian World and Darwinian Adam.” (John Schneider, “The Fall of ‘Augustinian Adam’: Problems of Original Fragility and Supralapsarian Purpose”) But  a crucial part of this proposal is the ahistorical nature of the Adam story, which Ireneaus rejected. It seems that a true “Irenaean Adam” won’t do, since it combines the historicity of Adam (rejected by Schneider’s Darwinian Adam) with the idea that Adam and Eve were not morally and spiritually mature when they were in the Garden (proposed by Irenaeus and Schneider).

Eddie - #85601

June 2nd 2014


You make a good point about Irenaeus.  And this is not the first time that writers with TE/EC sympathies have used big names from the Christian tradition in a—shall we say—rather selective manner.  They will cite a famous passage from Calvin in which Calvin indicates that the waters above the heavens need not be taken literally because Moses was not trying to write science; but when condemning ID along with natural theology they don’t mention Calvin’s natural theology found in the Institutes and elsewhere.  They will cite a famous passage from Augustine regarding the need for Christians to respect good science, without mentioning all the things in Augustine’ s reading of Genesis that are incompatible with Darwinian thinking.  They imply that many if not most Fathers did not read Genesis literally, often mentioning Origen in passing, whereas in fact Origen was an outlier among the Fathers (most of whom read most of Genesis literally), and even Origen’s ideas about Genesis were more literal than Darwinian thinking can allow.  They will stress the parts of Aquinas’s metaphysics which have God working through natural processes, without mentioning that, when it comes to origins specifically, Aquinas thought that man and the higher animals were created directly, not mediately through a natural process.  Thus, the traditional writings are used as mines for “proof texts” to sustain the conclusions which TE/EC people want to promote within the evangelical (or in some cases Catholic) churches; the traditional writings are not read in their original context, with proper academic rigor, to give a well-balanced picture of what these writers actually thought about origins.  

A better example of how to read the Church Fathers and other writers (though the subject is not evolution but environmental issues) is found in Paul Santmire’s book The Travail of Nature.  Santmire’s approach is to present the great theologians “warts and all”—to let the reader know fully where the great theologians say things that he doesn’t like, not just where they say things that he likes.  Santmire was dealing with the thesis that Christianity was responsible for environmental devastation, and as a Christian he could have yielded to academic temptation, and proof-texted, discussing only those statements of Christian theologians over the ages which could be construed as environmentally friendly; but he chose the high road, and presented many views of historically important theologians which were not environmentally friendly.

The same should be done regarding origins questions.  What the great theologians believed should be laid bare, so that where they would have been opposed to Darwin is made every bit as clear as the points where they might be compatible with Darwin.  But so far, such an approach has not been that of the majority of the TE/EC leaders.  They have given in to the temptation of proof-texting; and, as you have shown, the selected texts are not always accurate even as proof-texts.

The “Irenaeus is lots different from Augustine” trope seems to go back to John Hick’s masterful study, Evil and the God of Love, in which Hick argues that an Irenaean theodicy is more promising than an Augustinian one.  There is value in Hick’s study; but the tendency to exaggerate the differences between Irenaeus and Augustine (a tendency which Hick mostly guarded against) has led to a whole school of writing in which Irenaeus is treated almost as a modern before his time, enlightened, and open to things like Darwinism and modern science generally.  But it is not Patristics scholars who are writing this kind of literature.  It is people with other concerns, coming from Biblical studies, or biology, or history of science, etc., who wish to dip into Irenaeus in order to shore up a position in some modern debate that originally had nothing to do with Irenaeus.  I can’t emphasize enough how dangerous this sort of advocacy scholarship is.  It is good to learn from the Patristics, but they should be studied properly, not quarried.  The same applies, of course, to the Medievals, to the Reformers, to Wesley, and to the Bible itself.

PNG - #85602

June 2nd 2014

Eddie, of course, it’s even more complicated, since those historical theologians presumably changed their opinions somewhat at different points in their lives. I guess that gives even more opportunity for finding “proof-texts,” but ultimately, should we regard any of the Fathers as infallible? Augustine no doubt has his disagreements with other big names, and if you look carefully enough, maybe even with himself. Even if you choose your quotes carefully and with regard to all their related statements, is it really decisive for what you are arguing? It may be of interest if a proposal was partly adumbrated in an ancient, but how much influence should inter-millennial theological politics have?

Jon Garvey - #85611

June 4th 2014


Eddie and Sigler, in my view, pin down the selective use of Patristic Authority Mining correctly. But in the end the issue isn’t what particular theologians said, but why they said it, and why it came to be accepted by the body of the Church for millennia.

Augustinian (and Irenaean, for that matter) thinking was influential because it was exhaustively biblical, rationally coherent and consistent with the “rule of faith”. As you know, I’ve read Irenaeus, and come to the conclusion that his reasoning on the FAll is nowadays usually twisted out of recognition to deny a historical fall, original sin etc. In fact his position is not at all inconsistent with the later Augustine, who just treats in more depth and with a different emphasis.

If one wants to use the so-called “Irenaean theodicy” to support an evolutionary story of sin, one should therefore do it without invoking Irenaeus’ own standing in the Church, because it isn’t his position. Using his “Brand” implies something along the lines of, “We know Irenaeus must have done the theological leg-work, and he’s been tried and tested down the centuries, so evolutionary sin is thoroughly orthodox from long standing.”

Instead, if one wants to cite an authority, it should be John Hick, whose theodicy is really is, and it should be his theological bona fides, his consistency with Scripture, and his standing in the Evangelical community that are brought to the table for examination.

The Fathers weren’t just gullible literalists: their acceptance of a historical Adam was arrived at by theological reasoning, which must not be bypassed by sticking the “Irenaeus” or “Augustine” label on modern bottles enclosing a different recipe.

Eddie - #85612

June 4th 2014

Hi, PNG.

I’m not arguing that any of the Fathers should be treated as infallible.  I’m arguing that if one is going to try to lend weight to one’s science/theology position (whatever it is, creationist, ID, TE, etc.) by calling upon “great names” from the Christian tradition, that it’s not intellectually honest to suppress all the “great names” from the tradition that disagree with the “great name” one is citing.  Nor is it honest to lean on the authority of a “great name” to establish some theological truth, but then ignore that same “great name” when he utters an inconvenient theological view.

I remember a time on this site when a then-fairly-frequent occasional columnist was making comments (as is the wont of many TE/EC folks) against natural theology, and citing the authority of Newman, Pascal, and Barth (the same trio that gets mentioned ad nauseam by TE/ECs) for his argument that natural theology ought to be very suspect for Christians.  It was pointed out to him that Calvin endorsed a limited form of natural theology, and further that Calvin’s phrasing was definitely Paleyesque in general form.  Dead silence was the response.  Nothing like “I guess I was giving a one-sided view of the Christian tradition on this point” was uttered by way of concession.

Several columns here, over the past 5 years, have said or intimated that many if not most of the Fathers read Genesis non-literally; as a matter of historical fact, that is just plain wrong.  Detailed scholarly studies of the Fathers have shown that the Fathers tended to read Genesis creation stories literally.  Individual Fathers might diverge from the strictly literal on particular points; e.g., Augustine took the six-day timeframe of creation to be a concession to human understanding.  And Origen did take parts of the creation story non-historically.  But the preponderance of opinion of the Fathers was that creation took place in six 24-hour days, and generally that Genesis 1-3 was historical and that events happened more or less as described in the narrative.

Note that I am NOT arguing that we today have to abide by the view of the majority of the Fathers.  (I certainly don’t agree with the majority of the Fathers regarding six 24-hour days.)  I am arguing only that we should not misrepresent the Fathers, or later theologians of great repute, in order to make a particular position look stronger by their alleged support for it.  If BioLogos wants to say that Augustine is wrong, or that Aquinas is wrong, or that Calvin is wrong, on some particular point, I have no problem with that if it’s done forthrightly.  But to imply that genuine or authentic Christianity speaks with one voice against natural theology, or that Thomas Aquinas would have disagreed with modern creationists about the direct production of man, is partisan chutzpah.

If you were defending a doctoral thesis on religion and science at Harvard or Chicago, you would be ripped to shreds for the partisan historical writing often presented by TE/EC writers.  (I’d exempt some historically aware TE/EC writers such as Ted Davis and Owen Gingerich from that criticism, but unfortunately most of the prominent TEs are not disciplined historians of either scientific or theological thought, but scientists who dabble in history and theology on the side.)  But what would flunk one out of the Ivy League in the history of theology/history of science can be passed off as good history in churches, on Christian blog sites, etc., where one is mainly addressing hearers or readers who haven’t read much of Calvin or Paley or Augustine etc.  That is why I try to provide, in these discussions, information that is being ignored or suppressed regarding what the Chirstian tradition has actually said.  Not to coerce anyone to follow Calvin or the Westminster Confession or Augustine etc., but merely to get them to represent the full breadth of the tradition before venturing generalizations that are partisan in their intention.

Ted Davis - #85748

June 14th 2014

Very well stated, Eddie. Thank you for emphasizing the complexity of the historical landscape, and for recognizing that I’m trying to convey that myself in my columns. The crucial question for *all* modern Christians, when confronted with the results of good science or good scholarship, is this: what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? Obviously that’s an old question, raised by Tertullian a long time ago, but my attitude is strongly opposed to his. Where he was a culture warrior opposed to all things Greekish (or so he often appears to this reader), I believe that the truth is often one of the first casualties in culture wars.

To apply this directly to the history of Christianity and science (my own area, and the one about which I usually write for BL), the difficulty is that sound bites make bad history. Everyone on all sides can easily fall into this trap—you don’t have to be a New Atheist (such as Tyson, who falls into this trap all time), or a proponent of TE/EC (such as those who concern you here), or an ID proponent (I’ll leave out names). The historical landscape is complex, regardless of who wants to mine it for their purposes. We all mine it for our purposes, including me and you. As you rightly emphasize, the key is to mine it fairly to the historical actors themselves. I constantly have to fight that battle against historically ignorant secular scientists, but I also have to fight it against many Christians. I recall once having to defend myself against a large group of people who did not want to accept that Calvin executed Servetus—no, he didn’t do the dirty work himself, but he did execute Servetus.

For those who want more on the historical complexities of Christianity and science, and how sound bites (so popular in culture wars and politics) just won’t work, take a look at this;

Steve Sterley - #85606

June 3rd 2014


The fact that Irenaeus thought Adam was a real person is irrelevant and beside the point.

The point of calling on the Irenaean theodicy is that it is an explanation for evil given by Irenaeus that doesn’t actually require a single historic individual to be held responsible for it.

You can read more about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irenaean_theodicy

Eddie - #85613

June 4th 2014

It would be better to read about such things in Irenaeus himself, or at least in a good scholarly book with extensive quotations from Irenaeus.  Since the phrase “Irenaean theodicy” came into vogue with John Hick (and may even have been coined by him), a good starting point would be the book Evil and the God of Love.  After that, Irenaeus’s original works should be consulted, to check the worth of Hick’s interpretation.  I would not be surprised to find that all or most of Irenaeus’s works are available in English translation online.

Steve Sterley - #85614

June 4th 2014

Thanks Eddie,

I have the book and I recommend it to others. Whether Hick has interpreted Irenaeus correctly or not is irrelevant, since the argument is sound in my opinion.

Of course it would be nice to have a church father that we could appeal to, but the only thing that really matters is whether this theory on the reason for sin and suffering is one that is plausible or not.

Eddie - #85616

June 4th 2014


Well, if the only question on the table is “Is the theodicy that is often called “Irenaean” a good one?” then I agree that it doesn’t matter what Irenaeus thought.  But there is another question which I think is just as important, in i.e., “Did Irenaeus himself hold to the theodicy to which people have attached his name?”  Because if the answer is “No” then we should stop calling it “Irenaean” and start calling it “Hickian” or some other name reflecting the persons who are advocating it.  

All kinds of people think that Karl Popper’s discussion of the Republic is about “Platonic” political theory, even though Plato did not believe most of the things that Popper thinks that the Republic teaches.  If someone wants to say:  “The political theory that Karl Popper attributes to Plato is revolting,” that’s one thing; but if someone, thinking that Popper’s Plato is the real Plato, says “Plato’s political theory is revolting,” he’s just picked a fight with me (and many others, including Allan Bloom).  So I think that if there are Irenaeus scholars who don’t like the way Irenaeus’s name is being bandied about, they have every right to say:  “Excuse me, that isn’t what Irenaeus said ...”  

There are two parts of theology.  One part is scholarship:  learning what the theologians of the past have said, and why they said it.  The other is “arguing about theological ideas.”  The latter can of course be done in a vacuum; philosophers do it all the time.  But if one stands within a particular tradition, e.g., the Protestant evangelical tradition, one cannot pretend to be doing theology in a vacuum.  One cannot simply dispense with the key insights of the magisterial Reformers, for example.  And one cannot suddenly decide that the Bible and tradition are co-equal authorities, or that we are justified by 50% faith and 50% works, or that it would be good to bring back limbo, purgatory, and the Stations of the Cross.  If one stands in a tradition one has to know that foundations of that tradition.  One doesn’t just dip into it now and then as the mood strikes one, and pick out only the foundations that one likes.

The problem that bedevils TE/EC is that most TE/EC writers (there are a few exceptions, like George Murphy) don’t work solidly and consistently at getting the foundations of Christian thought (or Protestant thought, or evangelical thought, or whatever) down with precision and historical accuracy.  Rather, they quarry any old branch of the Christian tradition they can find, even branches normally remote from their concerns (when did any evangelical Protestant ever give a darn about Irenaeus until recently, when they started looking for theodicies that fit better with Darwinian evolution, and heard that Irenaeus had one?) and blend it with whatever is the accepted science of the day is (chaos theory, quantum theory, neo-Darwinism, random abiogenesis, etc.).  Theology ends up chasing after science and trying to keep up with it.  That’s no way to do serious theology.

PNG - #85617

June 4th 2014

I haven’t read his books, but my experience with George Murphy from the ASA list is that no one would be harder on natural theology than him. His refrain was “natural theology delenda est,” a al Cato the Elder.

Eddie - #85624

June 5th 2014


You are quite right, but note that I was not endorsing any particular position of Murphy’s.  What I was approving was the fact that Murphy engages in fundamental, constructive Christian theology for its own sake; he does not dip into theology merely to find harmonies with Darwinian evolution, the Big Bang, etc.  Murphy writes about theology in a genuinely academic way, and even though I disagree with some of his conclusions, I respect him for that.  But most BioLogos scientists, and indeed most ASA scientists, who have talked about theology, are clearly whipping up an ad hoc theology—pasting together a single endlessly repeated quotation from Calvin, a single endlessly repeated quotation from Augustine, undocumented claims about Origen’s non-literalness, a theodicy allegedly coming from Irenaeus for which no one has bothered to check what Ireanaeus actually wrote, one-sided approvals of the fideist Christian tradition (e.g. Barth) which slight the the longstanding natural theology tradition (e.g. Calvin), and isolated, out of context bits and pieces from the Bible (e.g., a “random” arrow hitting someone in a battle which makes Darwinian “randomness” OK)—all slapped together in an astonishingly loose form of argument which would never pass muster in a history or philosophy or religious studies department, and all contrived to make Christianity harmonious with Darwin etc.

In all but a few cases (Murphy is one of them, and the handful of others are mostly physicists and astronomers, almost never biologists), these scientists don’t know the Biblical texts in a scholarly way, don’t know the tradition of theological commentary and systematic theology, can’t read the original languages, and don’t know the methodologies of theology, history, and religious studies.  And I wouldn’t blame them for that—scientific learning takes a lot of time and there isn’t time for an active physicist or biologist to become a master of Christian theology or Biblical studies as well.  But at least they could have the decency not to shamelessly proof-text—which is what many of them do—and pass off that proof-texting as a serious harmonization of science and theology.

I would like your response, PNG, to my above clarification regarding the Church Fathers—my explanation—in response to your own question—that I do not take their words as sacrosanct.  My objection was to the cavalier use of their authority to sustain ideas that modern people happen to like, coupled with a dismissal of their views when those seem to speak against other ideas that modern people happen to like.  It’s cherry-picking I’m objecting to.  My complaint is less about contents than about process.  I think that to a large extent the process of citing authorities engaged in by TE/EC writers is arbitrary, and I think it is governed about 80% by the harmonizing conclusions that the TE/ECs want to reach (e.g., that real randomness in nature cannot possibly clash with God’s providence, or that God would never be so tyrannical as to take away from nature’s “freedom” to evolve without interference), and only about 20% by the consistent application of any methodological principles in history, theology, philosophy, etc.  



Steve Sterley - #85625

June 6th 2014

Okay. Well it seems to me that arguing about the name is a little pedantic.

It also seems reasonable to me to call it what it has been called since the bulk of the theory does come directly from Irenaeus. Perhaps he wouldn’t have agreed with the way it is being used (to discount the necessity of an individual named Adam in order to create an alternative to Augustine’s explanation for sin which required an individual to hang the blame on), but then again, he may well have been amenable to the use of natural theology in this way (especially if he had he known what we know today about human origins).

So all in all, it seems reasonable to me that we call it what we do.

Eddie - #85630

June 6th 2014


The kind of qualification you’ve indicated, i.e., “Perhaps he wouldn’t have agree with the way it is being used (to discount the necessity of an individual named Adam)” is the sort of qualification I’m asking for from people who write about these subjects.  When such qualifications are offered, I have respect for the person I’m reading, because I know that the person is trying to be fair and not misrepresent anyone’s view for his own advantage; when they are not offered, I immediately suspect partisan motives.

Different people are in these debates for different reasons, and come from different backgrounds.  My background is scholarly and in the scholarly world acquiring mastery of the subject takes precedence over pushing a particular thesis at all costs, and full treatment of all the sides of an argument takes precedence over scoring a rhetorical or political victory.  That may or may not make me sound “pedantic” to some; but it’s how I get at things, and it’s how I will continue to operate here.  

Steve Sterley - #85626

June 6th 2014

> Theology ends up chasing after science and trying to keep up with it.  That’s no way to do serious theology.

If you say so, but any theology that disagrees with what can be objectively known about the world is nonsense.

If you’re suggesting that the science may one day reverse its position on common descent, then you’re probably a little out of touch with the history of repeated verification that underlies this fact.

What is the point of having a profound theological framework that is based in fantasy?

If theology is an exercise in uncovering the truth, then obviously we should start with what can be known about the world through experiment and verification rather than centuries old ideas that didn’t have the scientific grounding that we have today available to them.

GJDS - #85628

June 6th 2014

If I understand your comment, you ground theology in science - if this is correct, why have theology? If science provides the truth of the world and your experiences, I cannot see why anyone would turn to anything else, let alone theology that goes back thousands of years, when science as we know it would have been unthinkable.

Theology is grounded in a desire for the truth, and it is based on (for the Christain faith) our desire to understand the attributes of God and how this impacts on who and what we are, in our beliefs and our life. This truth is worth pursuing, and if the physical and bio-sciences have something uselful to say, we should give them attention.

If on the other hand, science provides all of this to you, again I ask, why turn to theology?

Jon Garvey - #85631

June 6th 2014

Funnily enough, there is a centuries old unproven and unverifiable belief that science can give objective information about the world. This has been severely challenged by the study of history and philosophy of science, not least by Christian scientists like Michael Polanyi or Christian philosophers like Alvin Plantinga.

In the extreme, this view says that only science can provide objective truth about the world - such was the discredited philosophy of positivism, often described in the closely connected idea of scientism.

I don’t think even the positivists argued that all science shows objective truth about the world - mostly it shows the best approximation we can currently have to truth with our limited knowledge and our imperfect (even culturally blinkered) workers. Nowhere is this more true than in the historical sciences like evolutionary biology. Stephen Jay Gould was well aware of this when he, only half-jokingly, suggested that his punctuated equilibrium theory could only have arisen in an age where gradualism had somewhat drifted out of fashion.

Now, BioLogos has officially distanced itself from scientism, which presumably means that theology should not be dependent on science, any more than science should be subservient to theology. Christians of all people should explore and understand the limitations of science along with its strengths.

“Centuries old ideas”, of course, would include the teaching of Jesus Christ, who is generally considered to have some authority in Christian theology. If that changes so that current science becomes the judge of his revelation, then calling a Hickian theodicy “Irenaean” will seem pretty small beer.

Meanwhile, I dispute that Irenaeus would recognise anything much at all of himself, his faith or his reasoning in the “Iraenaean theodicy”, and challenge people to read him themselves and then provide evidence that I’m wrong.

Steve Sterley - #85649

June 7th 2014

> If I understand your comment, you ground theology in science - if this is correct, why have theology? If science provides the truth of the world and your experiences, I cannot see why anyone would turn to anything else, let alone theology that goes back thousands of years, when science as we know it would have been unthinkable.

I imagine we would both agree that there are questions which science cannot / does not address.

It is for this same reason that we need philosophy for example.

GJDS - #85660

June 8th 2014

“I imagine we would both agree that there are questions which science cannot / does not address.”

Our discussion is on theology - do you and Biologos look to theology to answer questions on the attributes of God and how these impact on our personhood and way of life?

My relatively short (a couple of years) exposure to Biologos and US (various) evangelicals leaves me somewhat bemused, since so many go to so much trouble to emphasise Darwinian thinking (and at times appear to infer that this is all that science provides for us), that theological matters of the sort I and others mention, appear to be ‘put in a corner’ or perhaps modified to fit - I am not trying to be aggressive, but surely a site which seems to support atheists who are Darwinians, agaisnt theists, sends a rather loud message to the world.

Eddie - #85632

June 6th 2014


I think that GJDS has some good comments in reply to you here.  I will add this:

Either you accept theology as a serious intellectual discipline with its own characteristic assumptions, methods, and range of concerns, or you don’t.  If you accept it as a serious intellectual discipline, then you would want it to develop as other serious intellectual disciplines do, i.e., primarily due to its own internal dynamics.  That doesn’t exclude learning things from other disciplines, but it means that the discipline is substantial enough to make progress on its own.

You don’t see chemistry or engineering profs saying:  “Wait! Before we publish this conclusion, we’d better find out if it’s compatible with what the theologians are saying!”  Yet many people, including many of the TE leaders, seem to take it for granted that theologians should be constantly checking out what the scientists are saying, and hold off on conclusions (valid as they might be within theology’s own framework) of which scientists may disapprove.  So it is as if there are first-class disciplines, in which the practitioners can ignore what other disciplines are doing (most of the time) and just do plain good work, and second-class disciplines, which need to be checked up on by people from the first-class disciplines.  Thus, hardcore scientific knowledge becomes the paradigm of “real” knowledge, and theological “knowledge” becomes iffy, subjective, and contingent upon scientific approval.  This seems to be the attitude of many people; I’m not saying it’s your attitude because I don’t know that.

I have no idea whether science will go back on its conclusion of common descent.  It has changed its mind about many major things before.  At present, I think that common descent is here to stay.  That could change.  In any case, I’ve not set up any opposition between common descent and religious truth, and it’s not opposition to common descent that I’m calling for when I say that theologians shouldn’t be slavish in seeking approval of scientists.  I’m saying that for any discipline to slavishly seek the approval of another discipline is a sign of either (a) one discipline’s not yet having reached maturity and thus being unable to stand and progress on its own; or (b) a political situation in the culture in which one discipline is “boss” and the other disciplines are subservient, if they are not ridiculed or discounted altogether.  In modern culture, since the time of Newton, and especially since the time of Darwin, natural science has been “boss” and theology and philosophy have been in steady decline in relative cultural esteem, to the point where many educated people consider natural science to be fully “objective” and hence capable of providing true knowledge, while philosophy and theology are only “subjective” and hence can provide only opinions or prejudices or wishes or hopes etc.  In other words, if a scientist says one thing and a theologian another, ignore the theologian because his learning is pseudo-learning, probably driven by emotions, by culture, and by prejudice, and trust the scientist, who has the purity of Mr. Spock in his dedication to truth. 

The problem would be bad enough if it were just others who thought this way.  But it is compounded when the theologians themselves think of themselves in this second-banana way.  In the Middle Ages they were proud of the fact that they taught the Queen of the Sciences; now they are always apologizing to natural science and social science for treading on their toes, and they are pulling further and further back from any truth claims at all.  They suffer from an inferiority complex, and they are like the little dog in the Bugs Bunny cartoon who wanders around after the big dog like a groupie, flattering him and grovelling in his shadow.  (Until the big dog encounters a ferocious escaped wildcat from the zoo, but that’s another story.)

If the theologians have contempt for themselves, it’s a sure thing the rest of the world will have contempt for them.  If modern theology has descended to:  “Here is the doctrine of Creation, as developed and refined over two millennia by the Christian Church, but if there’s anything in it you scientists don’t like, just tell us and we’ll yank it out of the statement” then Christianity might as well fold up its tent right now. 

Either theology is a body of knowledge, or it’s just a set of pious sentiments with no necessary connection to reality.  If it’s a body of knowledge, it should be behaving with more spine than it currently exhibits—not just in relation to natural science but in relation to social science, and all kinds of modern political, economic, and cultural trends.

Lou Jost - #85668

June 8th 2014

Given the enormous range of theological interpretations among the expert commenters  and posters here, and in the world at large (including non-Christian theologians), our degree of uncertainty about the truth of one or another fine theological point seems to be far greater than our degree of uncertainty about, say, common descent or the roundness or age of the earth. While empirical conclusions are fallible, theological “truths”  are far more so. If we have solid empirical evidence about something, even though the interpretation of that evidence may involve many hidden assumptions, it is far more likely to be reliable and true than a given theological point, so it makes sense to cede these very uncertain theological points when they clearly contradict some well-established (even though fallible) empirical finding.

Eddie - #85670

June 8th 2014


There will always be more disagreement among theologians than there will be among, say, inorganic chemists or civil engineers.  So if the rule is to be, “Claims made in a field in which there is more disagreement must yield to claims made in a field in which there is less disagreement,” then theology is condemned to second-banana status in relation to most areas of natural science.  

Note, however, that evolutionary theory provides an example of a field which is almost as fractious as theology.  While there is general agreement on common descent, on almost everything else there is wide disagreement among certified experts and among those who consider themselves experts whether they are certified or not.  Larry Moran writes arrogantly about other evolutionary theorists as if he is one of the very few who really understands what evolution is about; Lynn Margulis had the same habit.  Coyne dismisses the life’s work of evolutionary theorists of real accomplishment like Shapiro, etc.  Dawkins did not think that Gould’s understanding was sound, and all kinds of evolutionary biologists think that Dawkins’s understanding is hopelessly out of date.  So one might say, given the massive disagreement among evolutionary theorists about mechanisms, Christians might as well go with the solid truth consistently taught by theology for 1800 years, i.e., that if there is an evolutionary process, it is either guided or planned by a supreme mind.  The reasoning would go:  until there is a consensus among evolutionary biologists regarding the mechanisms, there is no reason to assume that the process is unguided or unplanned, and since theology assures us that God is in charge, we should go with theology and let the evolutionary biologists quarrel with each other until they get their act together.

Of course, Lou, I am addressing this not primarily to you, but to TE/EC people who would employ your argument.  You of course think that theology is nonsense, but TE/EC people don’t think this, and can’t think this, as they are Christians, even evangelical Christians.  TE/EC people are committed to the view that there is genuine knowledge to be had from theology, and the fact that theology is based on revealed books, tradition, personal religious experience, etc. does not for them, as it does for you, count against theology’s reliability.

So I know why YOU won’t think my argument above is fair—you will say that there is no reason for assuming that theology is a body of genuine knowledge at all, and therefore that my parallel between scientific disagreement and theological disagreement breaks down.  But TE/EC people can’t make that argument.  They have to believe that there are SOME core theological truths that are reliable.  So they need to justify why the number of these reliable truths keeps shrinking over time, and why it is always theology’s domain that must keep shrinking, while the domain of science keeps growing, rather than the other way around.  To you the answer is obvious:  theology was never sound knowledge in the first place.  But an evangelical Christian CANNOT answer in that fashion.

I’m assuming Steve Sterley is an evangelical Christian, and it is to his evangelical faith that I am appealing in my above argument.  If I’m wrong, if he is an atheist, then there is no point in my saying anything further to him.  All he has to do is read my past exchanges with you, and he will know how my position differs from his, and why.  So if he is an atheist, I hope he will say so outright, and clarify the situation.  But if he is an evangelical Christian, he has not given anything like an adequate reply to the objections raised against his recent comment by myself, Jon Garvey, and GJDS.  Why is science the paradigm of firm and rigorously acquired knowledge, and theology the paradigm of fluffy uncertainty, for an evangelical Christian?

Lou Jost - #85678

June 9th 2014

Eddie, I think you understate the degree of uncertainty in “revealed truth”, and overstate the uncertainty in evolutionary theory. The differences between Hindu, Islamic, Mormon, and Christian “revealed truths”, to name just a few, are immense, and even within each of those groups there are enormous variations, and there is no way to adjucate between some of them (a few can probably be eliminated by internal inconsistencies).  In contrast there is broad agreement that evolution takes place primarily by drift and natural selection; the disagreement is about the relative importance of one or the other. Most importantly, it is in principle possible to resolve most of these disagreements.

But for my argument to hold, it is enough to consider just the scientific conclusions that are already extremely well-established, like common descent (we both agree that this seems very solid). It seems to me that even a believer in revealed truth should reecognize that the amount of uncertainty about what counts as revealed truth is much greater than our uncertainty about common descent, and much more subjective and culturally biased. Such a person ought to be eager to find solid empirical bases, such as common descent, toi use as guides or filters for what is, or is not, a valid revealed truth.

Eddie - #85679

June 9th 2014


Your prejudices as a population geneticist are showing.

A number of major evolutionary theorists would deny, or seriously qualify, your statement that evolution takes place “primarily by drift and natural selection”; see Shapiro, Stuart Newman, Gunter Wagner, Margulis, etc.

But that’s a side issue.  My main point is that AN EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN (which you aren’t) starts from the premise (whether you think it’s a good premise or not) that the Bible is revealed truth (however much latitude there may be in interpreting it), that religious experience (whether of answered prayer, healings, pentecostal-type experience, or something else) conveys genuine knowledge, that tradition (e.g., the Creeds, the Westminster Confession, etc.) conveys truth, etc.  Someone who works from these premises OUGHT to be very concerned when it starts to look as if religion is chasing after the latest scientific views and trying to flatter them by agreeing with them.

And for that matter, it is not just scientific views; the same suspicion should attach to “updating” Christianity to accord with the latest alleged “facts” of social science or the latest political correctness (whether that be feminism or attitudes toward homosexuality etc.).  The moment Christian theology proceeds from the assumption that it has to “keep up with the times” is the moment that Christian theology loses all its power.  This is quite evident from the fact that it is precisely those mainstream churches which have most adjusted Christian doctrine and practice to “keep up with the times” that have seen their membership numbers plummet like falling meteoroids.  If all that Christianity does is take the “truths” of modern, middle-class, educated, liberal folks and slap a thin veneer of Jesus-language on them, Christianity might as well fold up its tent.  Straight secular humanism would be more coherent, and more honest.

Of course that is precisely what you are arguing:  you believe that TE is an inconsistent halfway house, and that TEs such as Collins and Giberson should go all the way and dump Christianity altogether.  But an evangelical can’t argue that.  An evangelical has to believe that there is a core, stable body of knowledge that Christian theology has to offer.  My remarks to Steve Sterley concern that.

Is Steve Sterley an evangelical, or any kind of Christian?  He hasn’t said yet, to my knowledge.  But if he is one, he should think twice before telling Christians that they have to be willing to drastically modify their theology every time “science” or any other form of modern wisdom demands it.  A Christian doesn’t regard theology as nearly so malleable or flabby.  

I don’t say that Christian theology shouldn’t take into account what other bodies of knowledge seem to show us.  But there is a difference between taking the results of the various sciences into account, in a measured and critical way, and simply surrendering whole blocks of doctrine whenever the secular world demands such a surrender.  Steve’s words sounded to me much more like the latter than the former.  But he can clarify, if he wishes.

(By the way, it IS in principle possible to resolve many intra-Christian theological disagreements, once the principle of “individual judgment”—so dear to American sectarian Protestantism—is abandoned.  The more stable forms of Christian doctrine, e.g., the Orthodox, Catholic, and Reformed, have ways of pruning bad branches away.  But in  the modern theological world, just about every theologian (and just about every Protestant clergyman) is an individualist bordering on anarchist, far too proud to accept the intellectual discipline of a well-thought-out tradition.  Thus, while Jon or myself one can show—to anyone who has enough understanding of classical Christian theology—that “God loves nature so much he gives it freedom to evolve in any old random way, and does nothing to ensure any outcomes” is a heretical doctrine, one can’t show that to churchgoing Christian biologists who moonlight as amateur theologians and don’t know the theological traditions of the churches they attend.  And as Jon has repeated so many times, the problem is not that Christians accept evolution, but that, in order to accept so, so many of them have altered Christian theology in drastic ways that are entirely unnecessary to the purpose.)


Lou Jost - #85681

June 9th 2014

But Eddie, your treatment of presuppositions is unjustifiably asymmetric here. You are regularly and rightly asking scientists to question their presuppositions, yet you think that Evangelicals should take their presuppositions as fixed. I don’t think that is justified, nor is it likely to lead to truth in such an uncertain subject.

Eddie - #85682

June 9th 2014

Lou, you perpetually misunderstand my argumentative stance.

I am *not* saying that evangelicals should never examine their presuppositions.

What I am saying is that, *for as long as they hold those presuppositions*, it is inconsistent for them to argue that it should *always* be theology that has to change to accommodate science, and *never* science that has to change to accommodate theology.

And in fact there has *never* (to my knowledge) been any occasion on which a modern evangelical TE/EC has said “scientists need to go back and recheck their figures here; they must have made an error, because this conclusion cannot be compatible with Christian truth” or “scientists need to rethink their interpretation of the data here, because their current conclusion amounts to a theological heresy”; but there have been *plenty* of occasions where TE/ECs have said that Christian theology has to be reformulated because modern science *does not permit* theological view X (e.g., Adam and Eve as ancestors of all human beings).

Note that I am *not* offering to debate any *particular* conclusion of science, e.g., regarding Adam and Eve.  I am pointing out a pattern in TE/EC argumentation that I have never seen broken.

Now it makes perfect sense for an atheist to say:  “This theological conclusion is incompatible with what we know from science; therefore theology must be scrapped or reformulated on this point.”  The TE/EC evangelical is in a different position.  “Scrapped” is not an option for such a person (as long as he/she wishes to retain the self-identification of evangelical, Protestant, and Christian), so only “reformulation” is possible.  But even then, while I’m not against reformulation (e.g. trying out non-historical readings of Genesis 1 is fine with me), it is darned odd that *for an evangelical* the reformulation is *always* on the theological side; the scientists are *never* asked by the theologians to reformulate.  The theologians take it for granted that *they* will be the ones doing the bending, modifying, changing, etc.  They take it for granted that *they* are the ones who have been confused, and that the scientists are the ones who have been thinking clearly.

Yet the TE/EC *formal* position has always been that in cases of clash, it *may* be that the scientists have made an error, misinterpreted their findings, etc., just as the theologians *may* have misread the Bible, etc.  So the TE/EC *formal* position is that theology and science have a sort of parity of dignity; but the TE/EC *actual” position is that it’s 99% certain that it’s the theologians who have made the error.

Now I am sure you would approve of the TE/EC *actual* position, because you agree that it’s 99% certain that it is theologians who are wrong rather than the scientists, in case of clash.  But again, I’m saying that if there is no difference between what an evangelical TE would say about how to handle apparent conflicts, and what an atheist would say about how to handle apparent conflicts, then what distinguishes an evangelical TE from an atheist on science/theology relations? 

There *should* be a difference in attitude that affects how concrete situations of apparent conflict are handled.  But Collins, Falk, Giberson, etc. have always handled apparent conflicts the same way that unbelievers such as Eugenie Scott have handled them:  “The theologians need to think really hard to find ways that they can keep their faith without crossing swords with science.” There’s simply something wrong with this picture.  The TE/EC claim of equal dignity for science and theology is a sham if it’s always theology, and never science, that has to change its tune when the other discipline objects to a conclusion.

I don’t know how I can be clearer, Lou.  I’m here *not* to argue with atheists such as yourself, but with TE/ECs who claim to hold to principles X, Y, and Z, but frequently violate those principles by inconsistent treatment of the issues.  It’s their inconsistency of principle and/or application that I’m objecting to.  You want me to focus on whether TE/EC *principles* (e.g., that the Bible is the word of God) are right or wrong; *I* want to focus on whether they have the courage to apply those principles consistently.  

If I wanted to argue about whether Christian religion itself is well-founded, I would go to a different website, where atheists and Christians duke it out.  I don’t want to argue about that.  I want to establish the epistemological principles of TE/EC and determine whether they are internally consistent with each other, and whether TE/EC proponents apply them consistently in practice.

Have you ever taken a university course on one of the great philosophers, Lou?  Let’s take Kant.  One could argue about whether his notion of synthetic a priori truths is valid.  Or one could argue about whether Kant’s notion of synthetic a priori truths is consistent with other aspects of his philosophy.  Let’s say you want to argue about whether the notion is valid in the first place, and I want to argue about whether Kant succeeds in fitting the notion (valid or not) in with the rest of his system.  Both of these are fruitful things to argue about.  But it would be wrong of either of us to forbid the other person from pursuing his interest regarding Kant, and it would be wrong of either of us to demand that the other person change his interest in Kant to match our own interest in Kant.  Yet that is what I feel you are constantly doing here.

In essence, you seem to be bullying (I don’t mean in a nasty or rude way, because your manners are gentle) me and others here into holding a discussion on whether or not Christianity is true, whereas I and many others here want to discuss whether or not a certain formulation of Christian theology (put forward by many TE/ECs) is internally consistent, given the Biblical and traditional premises accepted by TE/ECs themselves.  And I get weary of being bullied (however politely) into having a discussion I don’t want to have, and of being diverted from one kind of argument to a completely different kind of argument.  

So I’m going to ask you, Lou, that if you comment further on my discussions with others, that you not try to change the discussion I’m having into the kind of discussion you’d like to have.  If you think my argument—that TE/ECs are inconsistent either in their principles or regarding application of those principles—is faulty, I would be glad to hear your objections to my argument.  But if you want me to justify the truth or reasonableness of Christianity from the ground up, I’m not going to do it (not because I can’t, but because it is not my interest on this site, and I have only finite time to pursue a finite number of ends in life).  Here I want to debate and discuss the internal coherence of the TE/EC position with the TE/ECs who hold that position.  I’m not here to play Father Copleston to your Bertrand Russell, even if you play a much more friendly and civilized Russell than your allies (Moran, Coyne, Matzke, etc.) do.



Lou Jost - #85683

June 9th 2014

Eddie, in my comment (85681), I did not ask you to justify your belief in Christianity, and I don’t think I misunderstood you at all. I only pointed out the asymmetry of your treating religious presuppositions as given while (rightly) expecting scientists to re-examine their presuppositions. Your answer above confirms my point, as you say you are taking certain presuppositions as fixed. That’s fine, I suppose, as an academic exercise (corresponding to the analysis of Kant’s internal consistency in your example). But given the enormous uncertainties in theology, and the difficulty of knowing what is or is not revealed truth, it is perfectly sensible for an Evangelical or any other religious person to adjust their beliefs to fit well-established facts. If that makes them impure Evangelicals in the eyes of some, that’s just a semantic problem, hardly worth arguing about.

Eddie - #85688

June 9th 2014


You do not seem to have fully grasped what I was saying about inconsistency in TE/EC reasoning.  I did not, speaking for myself, introduce any “asymmetry” between scientific and religious truth.  My position has always been that both bodies of knowledge need self-criticism and external criticism.  Both bodies of knowledge should be constantly examining their presuppositions, as you say.

I did say that TEs do accept certain foundational assumptions, i.e., they assume that Christianity is true, that the Bible is the revealed word of God, etc.   Should they analyze critically those assumptions?  On some occasions, yes.  I also think that atheists and  Republicans and Democrats should critically analyze their assumptions on occasion, that feminists and male chauvinists should on occasion critically analyze their assumptions, etc.  But no one can or should do that every day, or no one would be able to uphold any position; everyone would be paralyzed in academic indecision, 24/7.

Regarding “asymmetry,” you are not identifying accurately where the asymmetry of TE argumentation lies.  The asymmetry lies in the initial assumption that Christianity is true; but granting that initial assumption, the TEs are *not* guilty of asymmetry when it comes to their *theoretical* position on theology/science relations.

Given their assumptions that both reason and revelation are genuine sources of knowledge, their treatment of science and theology is quite symmetrical.  They say that both science and theology are solid bodies of truth, each with its own integrity and rigor and standards; and they say that since all truth comes from the same God, then what Christian theology, done properly, tells us about nature cannot be in conflict with what  science, done properly, tells us about nature; there can ultimately be only apparent conflict.

The apparent conflict, they say, comes when either scientists or theologians overreach, i.e., draw conclusions that go far beyond what the data (experimental, Biblical, etc.) require.  When that happens, the TEs say, we should carefully reexamine both the data and the arguments of both science and theology, with *no a priori prejudice* about which discipline has overreached.  And I find this position quite reasonable.

The problem is that while this symmetrical treatment is the *official* position of TE on science-religion conflicts, it is not the *de facto* position.  In practice, TEs often (presumably more unconsciously than consciously) treat theology as a rather shabby and second-rate body of knowledge.  Thus, in cases of conflict, the first thing they look to alter is the theology, not the science.  They boast of the parity of dignity of theology and science, but deep down they don’t really believe it, as their actions show.  And this is what I’m complaining about, the gap between TE theory and TE practice.

Whereas, based on TE theory, we would expect a healthy and vigorous mutual criticism in which both scientific and theological conclusions are constantly modified as a result of science/theology dialogue, in practice we find that TE theology *always* changes itself to accommodate TE science.

Neither you nor Steve has yet responded adequately to this very obvious “asymmetry” in TE treatment.  The response, “well, theology is fake knowledge, and science is real knowledge, so it’s right that theology should always be the party that gives in,” will not do, because even if that claim is absolutely TRUE, it is not a claim that TEs would accept, and my critique is based on the inconsistency between the premises that TEs accept and the conclusions that they draw from those premises.

I can perhaps show what I mean by examining one of your own uncritical remarks.  Take your words, “given the enormous uncertainties in theology”; that is LOU’s judgment, not the judgment of an orthodox Christian, whether Catholic, Protestant, or evangelical.  The orthodox Christian does not look at the core doctrines of theology and see “enormous uncertainties.”  YOU do.  And there is no reason that YOUR conclusion of uncertainty should be taken as the starting-point of evangelical reflection upon apparent conflicts between religious and scientific truth.  

I am not here arguing that your conclusion about the unreliability of theology is wrong; I am saying that you are making an illegitimate argumentative move with the word “given,” as if TEs will take as given what you take as given.

You’re wrong to say that the problem I’m raising is “just a semantic problem” and “hardly worth arguing about.”  The problem I’m raising is the problem that has gutted the mainline Protestant churches, and now threatens to gut a good number of evangelical churches.  Either the solidity and reliability of theology as an intellectual enterprise must be reaffirmed, or Protestantism is done for.

I’d now like to hear from Steve exactly how reliable a body of knowledge he thinks Christian theology is.  If Steve does not clarify, I will probably not comment any more on this thread.

Lou Jost - #85693

June 10th 2014

“Take your words, “given the enormous uncertainties in theology”; that is LOU’s judgment, not the judgment of an orthodox Christian, whether Catholic, Protestant, or evangelical.  The orthodox Christian does not look at the core doctrines of theology and see “enormous uncertainties.”  YOU do.”

Of course an Eastern Orthodox Christian may feel that his theology is not uncertain, and a Catholic may feel the same, but they have both arrived at quite different conclusions from the same starting assumption that the Bible is the revealed word of god, and more than a thousand years of debate hasn’t reduced the distance between them (and the other several thousand variations on Christianity) very much, if at all.It’s not MY judgement call, it is history.

Why does this happen? Because the basic data, the Bible, is very ambiguous (perhaps even self-contractory) so there is no clear truth-test for claims. This makes it often impossible resolve who is right about a certain theological point. This is not an atheist’s conclusion, it is a simple observation from history and present-day debates. So even given the acceptance of the truth of Christianity (and I agree with you that gridlock would result if we had to re-examine this constantly), there is still a much greater degree of uncertainty in the truth claims of a given theology than there is in empirical science. Granted that empirical science rests on assumptions and is hard to do properly; theology has all of that too, and more.

Nature, at least, is not self-contradictory.  It is very difficult to conclude that the Bible is completely self-consistent, and you as a logician  know that you can derive anything you like from such a source.

So I think the de facto position you describe for TEs is the correct one to take. The asymmetry is real and is justified, even if one is a believer.

Eddie - #85697

June 10th 2014

Lou, I understand everything you say, and I understand the logic behind your remark about the uncertainty of theological conclusions, but you are looking at Christianity from the point of view of the historian of religion or comparative religion scholar.  That is not how Aquinas or Calvin or Luther etc. looked at their own religion.

You say you have some religious background—I don’t know what kind.  If you were ever involved in a firmly Protestant evangelical church (as opposed to a mainstream denomination), you would have found that the number of “uncertainties”—on important questions, anyway—was regarded as small.

Sure, Protestants grant some liberty to differ over small points of interpretation, especially in the case of difficult, obscure Biblical passages.  But if you look at the Westminster Confession, a standard point of reference for the Calvinist-leaning evangelicals, you will see that the main outlines of doctrine are pretty clearly laid down.  In the past, millions of American evangelicals treated the Confession as next to the Bible in reliability and authority.

I want to stay within the realm of American Protestant evangelical tradition in this discussion, because, let’s face it, that is the arena in which all these creation/evolution battles are taking place, and there wouldn’t be any BioLogos (or for that matter, any ASA) were it not for the context of American Protestant evangelical faith.

For a firm, old-fashioned, American Protestant evangelical, the Bible is a reliable ground of truth—more reliable than any particular scientific theory.  That does not mean that science is to be scorned; it means merely that scientists can make errors, whereas God cannot.

So to the extent that a TE is a Protestant evangelical and is appealing to that tradition when he writes about science and religion issues, the TE is claiming to regard Scripture as a firm and reliable source of knowledge, and to regard theology (at least of the Protestant kind) as a solid intellectual enterprise, not a vague and subjective one.

The evangelical TE will of course be aware that theological conclusions and Scriptural exegesis may from time to time need to be modified; but scientific theory also often needs to be modified.  Errors in judgment and reasoning are common to both scientists and theologians.  And science is subject to the limitations of bad data derived from faulty observations or experiments, whereas the Bible remains always the same.

I retreat not one inch from my position.  The logic of *firm, traditional, evangelical Christian faith* demands that in cases of apparent conflict between theology and science, the scientific claims should be just as closely examined as the theological ones, and there should be NO a priori preference for changing the theology rather than the science.

That doesn’t mean the theology should never be adjusted.  I’m being extremely careful here.  It means that there should be no *a priori* assumption that probably it is the theologian who has made the error or needs to make the adjustment, not the scientist.  The question should be one for investigation.

Note that my position is compatible with adjusting the theology in half the cases of apparent conflict, or even three-quarters or nine-tenths of the cases of apparent conflict.  I set no numbers down.  What is offensive to Christian faith is the assumption that theology is a vague enterprise, preoccupied with poorly defined terms and concepts and largely an exercise in verbal gymnastics, whereas science gives a reasonably clear snapshot of reality, so that where there is conflict the theologians are simply supposed to defer to the conclusions of the more clear-headed scientists.  And that is what you and Steve Sterley seem to be saying should happen.

If theology is so weak as that, then Christianity should be given up altogether.  We should not even bother trying to harmonize theology and science, but should just take the deliverances of science as the likely truth (subject to future revision, but by scientists, not by theologians) and treat theology as a private pursuit like enjoying certain kinds of food, movies, or music, having nothing to do with truth.

I have contempt for any form of Christianity that does not make truth-claims, or makes them but beats a cowardly retreat the moment science or social science or feminism speaks.   If Christianity is that weak, let’s scrap it.

Lou, let’s face it; you think that theology is a very weak form of knowledge—if you grant that it is knowledge in any sense at all, which I doubt.  BioLogos is dedicated to the harmonization of science and theology, where theology is (supposedly) thought of as a strong form of knowledge.  Therefore, BioLogos should display much more of a sense of tension and creative interplay between the two bodies of knowledge than it does.  You and Steve Sterley are therefore wrong—not necessarily wrong about the relative value of science vs. theology, but wrong regarding how an evangelical Christian should handle apparent conflicts between theology and science.  No authentic evangelical Christian would take the attitude you guys are recommending.

To the extent that an evangelical Christian does take the attitude you are recommending, he has drastically modified the original Protestant understanding of the faith in response to the Enlightenment etc.  And as I’ve said here about a million times, anyone has the right to make such a modification.  All that I’m asking for is truth in advertising.

If a Christian takes half of his truth from Protestantism and half from the Enlightenment, Darwin, higher criticism, etc., I’m fine with that, as long as the Christian is up front about it.  What I will resolutely oppose is Christians who pass off modern compromises as the authentic Protestant evangelical tradition.  In Calvin’s Geneva, most modern TEs would meet the fate of Servetus.  I’m not advocating death for heretics, but I am asking people to be honest about where their priorities lie.

You have been honest about your own priorities.  So have I.  So has Jon Garvey.  Not all TEs are so honest, in my opinion.  And we have yet to hear from Steve Sterley.  I’m now ending my conversation with you on this matter, and won’t respond again unless Steve does—which looks increasingly unlikely.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #85599

June 2nd 2014

Interesting article.

However it seems to me that it misses the point.  When talking about suffering, Jesus teaches us that suffering for others is not evil but good, that death is not our enemy but the door to a new life.  We need to look for answers not in Genesis, but in Jesus’ life death, and resurrection.

Instead of concordism in Genesis 1, we need to understand we need to look at John 1 to see that Jesus the Logos is the Meaning of Creation.  Humans were made to work together to worship God and help each other.  There can be no shortcuts such as lassiez faire capitalism or social darwinism. 


Steve Sterley - #85605

June 3rd 2014

I really hope this doesn’t mean that biologos are going to start selling out on their scientific integrity due to pressure from organisations that they might rely on for funding.

There really is little scope for arguing that Adam and Eve were two literal people somehow responsible for all the wicked things that people have done to each other. There is evidence of human on human violence dating back 200,000 years and there is evidence of cannibalism dating back to Homo Heidelbergensis.

James Stump - #85608

June 3rd 2014

Don’t worry, Steve.  Our scientific integrity is not for sale.  I hope that is clear from the series by Denis Venema and James Kidder.  What is not clear yet to us as an organization is how traditional theology best fits with this scientific picture.  We’re happy to give blog space to people who are thoughtfully exploring this.

Steve Sterley - #85615

June 4th 2014

I have to admit I was a little concerned when the contract with Dr. Enns was not renewed. It does make one wonder.

Having said that, you do have a good point regarding Denis Venema and James Kidder.

Chuck Sigler - #85685

June 9th 2014

You guys have read way more on the issue of theodicy than I have. I read Schnieder’s article out of my interest in how it relates to what Peter Enns is writing about Adam. I haven’t read Hick. When I went back and read some pieces of Irenaeus and what Kelly has to say about Irenaeus, it seemed to me that contrasting an “Irenean Adam” to an “Augustinian Adam” was mostly a rhetorical device: “I’ll see your early church father (Augustine) and raise you one (Irenaeus).” There may be a cogent explanation of the origins of evil that fits with evolution, but it shoudn’t be called Irenean.

Irenaeus and his world was 1700 years before Darwin and over 1800 years before us. Even if some are hesitant to apply Denis Lamoureux’s thinking on ancient science to Scripture, I think it can readily be applied to human historical figures such as Irenaeus. He would not have been thinking in terms that would be compatible with a scientific theory that would not be proposed until the mid 1800s. He would have used the then current understanding of De Novo creation. An “Irenaen” Adam does not fit with Lamoreux and others who deny an historical Adam.

Jon Garvey - #85690

June 9th 2014


I agree on all you say here.

But the widespread use of rhetoric in much current science-faith (ie TE) theorising - a political rather than a theological device - is significant. Why would one want to garble the theology of the past if the new theology is compelling in itself?

The same rhetorical approach is seen in the “creation free to make itself” theology, my own particular bugbear, with its hatred of a “puppet-master God”, design snorted at as a stultifying denial of “spontaneity” (read “pot-luck”), “nature” seen as some kind of adolescent son or daughter longing to forge its own adult path, etc, etc.

Karl Giberson has admitted elsewhere that all this is only “analogy” - though “rhetoric” is a better description, as one is expected to take the language of “coercion” and “liberty” seriously - it actually underpins and justifies the whole scheme. But after three years here asking people - anyone, in fact - to answer the charge that the analogy is (a) unbiblical and contrary to 2000 years of mainstream doctrine (b) a dysanalogy and (c) logically incoherent, only silence has resulted, apart from a couple of half-hearted attempts by visitors.

It’s hard to take the BioLogos “conversation” very seriously when those putting new theology forward in articles (though evolutionary challenges to the doctrine of the fall and sin go back to Thomas Huxley, at least, in much the same form) fail to answer criticism, and the one-sided interaction never seems to result in any modification to the positions presented.

GJDS - #85703

June 10th 2014


“.....the “creation free to make itself” theology, my own particular bugbear, with its hatred of a “puppet-master God”, design snorted at.... “

While I agree with your remarks, I want to put the matter in a somewhat different (at the risk of indulging in rhetoric) manner. If we remove the “creation free to make itself” from the Darwinian outlook, what is left of any basis or metaphysical ground for Darwinian thinking? After all, the entire edifice is predicated on “free to make itself”! Remove that and you have a semantic view that essentially is nothing but rhetoric.

I sense that this is the deep dilemma for TEs and other like minded people. The ideas of Darwin have been taken way past that of a biologist who makes numerous observations and provides a descriptive narrative that may provide a coherent outlook of these observations. Indeed the proponents of Darwinian evolution (from at least one paper that I have seen) may even remove Darwin’s name from their next synthesis, for the sole purpose of shoring their metaphysical assumption of “free to make itself”. It is also the major reason why atheists will never deny this basis, because (as has been reported) they now have something to believe in – they are free from the ramblings of Greek philosophers such as their four elements, Pythagorean explanations; they may refer to the idea of atomic entities from Greek thinking, but nothing approaches the metaphysical satisfaction that Darwin provides for them, and this is predicated on the “free to make itself” belief.

I suggest the dilemma faced by TE’s and other like minded groups is profound and the suggestion that they get their theology on a firmer footing is of little value to them.

Jon Garvey - #85706

June 11th 2014


You’re right, of course. Étienne Gilson points out the philosophical incoherence of reinterpreting evolution from its original pre-darwinian meaning of “an unfolding of something already inherent” (in other words, secondary causes made instrumentally capable of change towards an inbuilt goal), to a blind discovery of entirely new things over which even God has no control, by non-teleological natural forces.

I guess it is that essential implausibility that makes it absolutely necessary to invoke “agent talk” like freedom, co-creation, self-fulfilment, spontaneity and all those other candies on which free-process theistic evolution gorges itself.

Your remarks on “firmer footing” are interesting. Evangelical theology is historically based on Scripture>reason>tradition (and the other major Christian streams on the same triad in varying orders). I suppose we should add somewhere the subjective “experience” of mysticism.

TEs now say, triumphantly, that we don’t have to believe Scripture, error having been demonstrated at all levels from history to Jesus’s worldview. Tradition from Irenaeus and Augustine to now is deficient because it is lacking modern science (and anyway, is old-fashioned and passé). As for reason - well, as I’ve repeatedly said, free-process creation is rationally incoherent, and yet the only reply I’ve ever had is a refusal of reasoned engagement. Even if it were argued purely rationally, of course, then the methodology would be classic liberalism, and not in any sense evangelical.

That leaves, I suppose, the likelihood that the theology is worked out on ones personal “experience” of God - quasi-scientific mysticism, in effect. That genuinely seems to be the main basis for formulating theology now, when there are so many arguments here along the lines of “God would not do A or B”, “we experience free-will, so nature must value it too.”

It would be interesting, in that context, to discuss why Hick’s Pseudo-Irenaean theodicy of sin should be so acceptable, while his non-Trinitarian Christology is rejected. Is it because the Bible says Christ is God? But the Bible is full of errors, and Hick claims Jesus never pretended to divinity anyway. Is it because of tradition? But that has no authority. Is it pure reason? Then why do so many rationalists deny Christ is God? Is it then another mystical, experience-based conclusion? Solid foundation - not.

GJDS - #85707

June 11th 2014


I get the feeling that your comments may initially stem from a reaction to modernism and post-modernism, and you counter this by being anchored in scripture and orthodoxy (expressed by the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions – as evidenced by your understanding of Patristic and Reformist writers (Calvin, Luther, Irenaenus, Augustine, Basil, and John of Damascus, etc.)

I am trying to come to grips with the dilemma that confronts those who believe that scripture and established theology (which have been shown scrupulously to be consistent and in agreement) should be modified to accommodate Darwinian based metaphysical assumptions.  I am struck by the both the difficulty this exercise presents to such people, and even more by the fact that it is so unnecessary – if Darwinian thinking is simply taken as another theory (some of them seem upset at the suggestion that it is just a theory!), then it is dealt with theologically as all other aspects of the physical and other sciences. This to me would remove any conflict, as it becomes another of the many intellectual exercises we as Christians are expected to undertake in our quest for what is true, as this glorifies God the Creator of all.


My impression (and comments from you and Eddie are consistent with this; I thin Gregory may have the enormous ambition of reconciling the disparate views, but that is for another discussion) is perhaps a portion of the Protestant tradition may have taken a wrong turn, and is now on the road towards the modern and post-modern world, and facing the consequences. I have found some time to read some of Kierkegaard and so far I am impressed with his intellectual insights and his acceptance of the dilemma and paradox that confronts us as we endeavour to understand the divine.

PNG - #85712

June 12th 2014

“Solid foundation - not.”

In your view, Jon, what is a solid foundation?

Jon Garvey - #85714

June 12th 2014


Scripture>Spirit-led Reason>Tradition of the saints [>>spiritual experience/ Polanyi-type personal knowedge].

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