Re: The state of suburban theology

From: Ted Davis <>
Date: Sun Jun 13 2004 - 16:11:59 EDT

Hello, Howard, sorry that the sarcastic tone of my comments on Enlightenment
deism was not to your liking. I do recall many occasions when you have
written with comparable sarcasm about some ideas prevalent today that you
have appreciated no more than I appreciate deism. I doubt that you have
much love for it either, since David Griffin's theology (to mention just one
example I know you do like) represents a rejection of deism in favor of a
much more immanent concept of God.

My tone aside, however, the substance of what I wrote was meant quite
seriously. I do think I identified three basic characteristics of the real
historical animal we call Enlightenment deism--rejection of special
revelation, rejection of the incarnation (a God who cares, if you will), and
rejection of miracles (a God who breaks his own laws). Also, I would say
that I have accurately identified some of the motivations for these
positions, esp in the case of rejecting God as absolute monarch--it's
impossible not to see a political motivation in those most political
thinkers for this particular theological move. The divine right of kinds,
recall, was still widely defended in 18th century France.

To go to your specific questions, IMO the deists just did not think about
divine action in the world, as we find it now. They found abundant evidence
for divine action in the creation of things--but God had (according to their
theology) been obliged to create the best of all possible worlds. Hence,
there could not be any reasons why God would interact with that best world,
once created; or else it would not have been the best possible world when he
created it. I hope this is clear enough, I'm not sure I've explained it

Yes, "God" is distinct from the world for deists, so for God to act in the
world requires God to interrupt a creation that was made as well as possible
in the beginning.

As for this question:
To focus even more, what is the relationship between today's supernatural
interventionism (say, as embodied in YEC and ID viewpoints, and as preached
from many suburban pulpits today) and deism?

Here is my answer:
Deists would have rejected utterly any form of theism in which God does
things after the original creation has been completed. See above. On the
other hand, they would not have any intrinsic problems with the "design"
part of ID; they generally held that there was abundant evidence all around
us for the existence of a wise and powerful creator.

I've *often* seen ID and YEC, or conservative types of TE (in which
adherents affirm many biblical miracles), implicitly equated with deism.
Your question implies this equation, unless I'm misinterpreting it. This
line of thinking cannot be defended, either historically or theologically.
Those who label "interventionist" theism as "deism" are forgetting two
obvious facts about genuine deism: its denial of miracles after the
creation; and its denial of revelation. Indeed, scepticism about special
revelation is perhaps the single most important aspect of genuine deism.

Ironically, then, many thinkers on the liberal end of TE (I think here of
those who deny biblical miracles and special revelation, in the name of
"divine immanence") are actually closer to deism than are advocates of
"interventionist" theism. What has happened here, historically, is that a
certain definition of divine "immanence," in which immanence is seen as a
*denial" of divine transcendence, has been widely used since the late 19th
century. On this revised definition of immanence, those who defend a
traditional understanding of transcendence (alongside a traditional
understanding of immanence) are seen (wrongly) as "deists." It's patently
ridiculous--a real case of Orwellian doublespeak--but I've seen it quite

I hope these comments are better for generating conversation, and I welcome
the chance to hear Howard's views on them.

Be well, my friend,


ps. I don't have an entirely negative view of the Enlightenment, but I
certainly am a pre-Enlightenment thinker myself in many ways. It was a good
thing to challenge political tyrrany in the form of absolute monarchy; but
as CS Lewis has said, heaven isn't a democracy. If God isn't an absolute
monarch, or at least Lord of heaven and earth, then there isn't much basis
to criticize our own forms of absolutism here on earth.
Received on Sun Jun 13 16:59:25 2004

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