Re: The state of suburban theology

From: Howard J. Van Till <>
Date: Mon Jun 14 2004 - 09:34:34 EDT

On 6/13/04 4:11 PM, "Ted Davis" <> wrote:

> 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.

You're right, of course. And when I do that, I hope that I respond to
criticism of it as well as you did.

> 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.

Correct. I was not at all trying to defend deism. Rather I was trying to
understand its relationship to the rise of interventionist concepts of
divine action, especially the various forms of episodic creationism that
flourish today.

The rhetoric of episodic creationism (young-earth creationism, old-earth
creationism, progressive creationism, & the intelligent design movement)
seems to so minimize the role of divine action within the system of natural
causation as to equate 'natural' action with 'material' action (mechanistic
in nature). As I noted recently, perhaps traditional Christian theology
suffers from having a severely underdeveloped concept of non-coercive divine
action. (In place of 'non-coercive' I prefer the positive term
'contributive,' in contrast to 'determinative' divine action.)

Once 'natural' action has been equated with 'material' action (devoid of
divine influence or participation), the only way to get divine creative
action into the universe's formational history is to break the chain of
natural action and insert occasional episodes of form-imposing supernatural
('coercive,' or better, 'determinative') divine intervention (perhaps to
introduce a new species or to add a flagellum to an E. coli bacterium).

In other words, the style of divine interventionism espoused by episodic
creationism strikes me as nearly indistinguishable from what I would call,
"punctuated deism."

...skip a paragraph...

> 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
> well.
> 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.

Episodic creationism: God made a world equipped in the way God chose, which
evidently did not include a robust formational economy. Consequently, in
order to bring about the formation of certain structures and forms, God had
to punctuate the chain of (inadequate, by divine choice) natural formational
processes and events with occasional episodes of form-imposing supernatural
> 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.

Right. That's why I use the term "punctuated" deism. The chain of natural
causation (without divine influence or participation, as in deism) is
occasionally punctuated by supernatural action (in miracles, in occasions of
divine inspiration, and in form-conferring interventions or acts of special

The point I'm thinking about at the moment is this: Perhaps the need for
punctuating the natural causal system with occasional interventions could be
made unnecessary by a more robust concept of non-coercive divine action
(what I'm inclined to call 'contributive' divine action that is evidence of
God's active immanence).

> 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
> often.

Where would you place David Griffin's 'naturalistic theism' in this
categorial spectrum?

> 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,

And you also.....
Received on Mon Jun 14 13:27:50 2004

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