The problem with RFEP

From: George Murphy (
Date: Tue May 27 2003 - 15:01:00 EDT

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    I agree with the concepts that Howard has described as the functional integrity
    of creation &/or Robust Formational Economy Principle (RFEP) - as far as they go. The
    theological problem with them is that they don't go far enough. By this I don't mean
    that they aren't sufficiently thorough in the ways in which they speak about things
    happening in the world through natural processes. The difficulty lies in the other
    direction: These principles, as Howard has expressed and argued for them, do not have
    adequate theological grounding. In particular, I believe that their major problem is
    that they are not properly grounded in christology.

            Positively, I think that it is possible to develop these principles, or
    something like them, from an appropriate christology. I have tried to do that in -
    among other places - an article in the March 2001 Perspectives. It seems though that
    Howard is not prepared to accept such an approach, and without it RFEP is a structure
    without a satisfactory foundation.

            In explaining this further I'll refer to a couple of Howard's recent statements
    in the "Response to Howard ..." thread.

    > In effect, his [Griffin's] question to me
    > was, If supernatural intervention is unnecessary for the whole of the
    > universe's formational history (as I believe it is) , then why not be
    > consistent and dare to generalize to the position that supernatural
    > intervention is not only unnecessary, but totally out of character for
    > God. Reject supernaturalism altogether and adopt a naturalistic
    > theism.

    > You are correct to presume that my Christology differs in substantial
    > ways from the Christology associated with traditional supernaturalism. So
    > does my concept of the character and authority of the biblical text. (On
    > Christology, I presume that if I were placed back in the 4th century I
    > would have sided with Arius over Athanasius.)

            In the first statement, Griffin is cited as appealing to the "character" of God
    in support of "theistic naturalism." We then have to ask how we can know the divine

            I would say that we can claim to know the character of God only on the basis of
    God's self-revelation. If we are to speak of God's "character," the concept must be in
    some kind of analogy with the way we use the term for human beings, and people reveal
    their character by their actions in specific situations. We can speak reliably about
    John or Mary's character (I.e., what kind of people they are) to the extent that we know
    something about the way they act in dealing with other people and with the world around

            Now Howard and I agree (I think) that God acts in the world all the time (though
    the way we describe that action differs). But we also agree that that action takes
    place in such a way as to make it possible for what happens in the world to be described
    in terms of natural processes: That is one of the clear implications of RFEP. This
    means that in a sense natural processes conceal God from our direct obvservation. Thus
    observation of the ordinary course of nature cannot reveal the character of God. (It
    may lead some to infer that there is a creator, but it cannot tell us who that creator
    is - i.e., it cannot show us the character of God.) In any case, an appeal to what
    happens in the ordinary course of nature to establish the character of God would make
    the argument here circular.

            So where does God reveal the divine character? Howard may want to present his
    own answer. My belief is that God's character is revealed most fully in the event of
    the cross where - most significantly for the present discussion - God is willing to
    forego the privileges of divinity and enter into death for the sake of God's own
    creation. This is not to be understood simply as suffering and death of a righteous
    human being like the deaths of the martyrs, but in an important sense death in God
    himself. And if this is the case it is possible to say (as Gordon Fee does in his
    commentary on Phil.2:5-11), "In 'pouring himself out' and 'humbling himself to death on
    the cross' Christ Jesus has revealed the character of God himself."

            If the one who "was the form of God" thus acts kenotically - i.e., to some
    extent voluntarily divesting himself of divine power and limiting divine action - in
    this central revelation, it seems reasonable to suggest that God acts in the same way in
    general in the world, choosing to limit his action to what can be accomplished through
    lawful natural processes. And here something like RFEP becomes relevant.

            But if one "side[s] with Arius over Athanasius" (cf. Howard's 2d statement
    above), this line of argument isn't an option - or at least will be much less probable.
    For then the event of the cross does not reveal the character of one who is "one in
    being with the Father" but only of the first of God's creatures, who may be unlike God
    in various ways.

            Process theology argues for a limitation of God's action in the world and may
    draw some inspiration from the example of Jesus and particularly the cross for so doing.
    But this differs from the idea of kenosis in a significant way. With the latter
    approach we are speaking of God choosing to limit divine action. God _could_ intervene
    arbitrarily in the world but doesn't. In process theology God's influence on the world
    is limited by the very nature of the God-world relationship. God can "lure" creatures
    forward with greater or lesser persuasiveness but is not the sole cause of anything that
    happens. In the former case we can speak of this limitation as revelatory of God's
    character but not in the latter. Analogy: If I could embezzle money from my employer
    & get away with it, the fact that I didn't would say something about my character. But
    if my employer's surveillance and security systems are so good that I know I'd get
    caught if I tried to steal, it says nothing about my character (though perhaps
    something about my intelligence) if I decide not to try it.

            One may ask what difference this makes. Waiving important questions of
    theological truth, it seems to me that a statement of RFEP without explicit
    christological grounding is much less likely to be persuasive to many Christians than
    one with such grounding. The arguments of creationists and IDers rely to a great extent
    anyway on the sense of many conservative Christians that the theology of people who
    accept evolution &c is defective if not outright non-Christian. Of course I'm not so
    naive as to think that they will automatically be won over by the sort of argument I've
    presented for the ability of science to understand the world "though God were not
    given." But I think it's much harder to deny the Christian character of such an
    argument than it is of an approach which doesn't give Christ an important place in the


    George L. Murphy

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