RE: Vienna cardinal draws lines in Intelligent Design row

From: Ted Davis <>
Date: Mon Nov 21 2005 - 09:09:19 EST

>>> "Denyse O'Leary" <> 11/21/05 8:08 AM >>>writes:
While we are on this topic, Vatican astronomer George Coyne, who attacks
intelligent design theory, has a rather unusual theological view, which he
is prepared to share with the Catholic press:

"... if we confront what we know of our origins scientifically with
religious faith in God the Creator * if, that is, we take the results of
modern science seriously * it is difficult to believe that God is omnipotent
and omniscient in the sense of many of the scholastic philosophers. For the
believer, science tells us of a God who must be very different from God as
seen by them. "

As it happens, Benedict XVI is running a traditional Christian church, whose
most basic doctrines (omnipotence, omniscience) he is not at liberty to

Ted comments:
Fr Coyne is as far as I know an advocate of process theism, which does indeed deny both omniscience (in the sense that God knows the whole future before it happens) and omnipotence (in the sense that God can do anything short of a logical contradiction, ie, it is not meaningful to ask whether God can make a rock that God cannot move).

I've given my critique of process theism often before, here and elsewhere. Above all it fails IMO b/c it cannot account for the resurrection, the central event (both historically and theologically) of Christianity. A God who is powerful enough to raise Christ bodily from the grave is either omnipotent or something close enough to it, that a distinction doesn't matter.

But omniscience is a different matter, quite a different matter. Classical theism would surely affirm that God knows *everything* before it happens, including the free choices/actions of free agents such as you and I. The difficulties with such a view have long been evident, and are seen among other places in two important areas. (1) how to make sense of biblical statements about God "forgetting" or "repenting"; and (2) how to understand the predestination/free will issue, and other similar issues. It's not possible to go into these more fully here and now, but suffice it to say that quite a few contemporary Christian thinkers are attracted to "open theism," the view that God knows all that can be known by any agent, leaving aspects of the future open even to God. There are some murmerings about such things among some medieval theologians and logicians ("scholastic philosophers" themselves, ironically), but by and large this is a modern view.

The Evangelical Theological Society formally delcared this view heretical a few years ago. I think they acted a bit too hastily myself, although I am sympathetic with some of their hesitations.

Let me note that this view is not an evolutionary view, per se; that is, evolution doesn't lead one to hold such a theology. Another way to say this: one can understand even Darwinian evolution in *classical* theological terms, such as by holding (as does Bob Russell and I think Terry Gray) that God sovereignly uses apparently stochastic events (events that are indeterminate for us, but not for God, such as the casting of lots in the Bible or quantum events) to carry out God's will: it's hard to argue against such a view, since the Bible seems to embrace it; and if many events in the world have quantum causes, then something like this might need to be true if God is really in charge of the world. Open theism seems to be motivated more by a desire to understand some parts of scripture more literally (Calvinist thinkers have tended to dismiss those biblical statements as accommodations to our ignorance rather than literal descriptions of God) and to develop a sophisticated t!
heodicy that appears to me to be an extension of more traditional "free will" theodicies. Another way to say all of this: if there had been no theory of evolution, there probably still would be open theism.

But quantum theory seems more fundamental here, and that might be partly what Fr Coyne has in mind. Yes, one can hold with David Bohm to some sort of "hidden variable" interpretation of QM, a view that might be more compatible with traditional theism; or one can take the Russell route and see God as sovereign over quantum events in some deterministic way that we will never perceive (I am not making fun of this approach, I think it makes quite a bit of sense frankly); or one could take Polkinghoren's route and suggest that God causes events in the universe primarily through "top-down" causation involving the input of "information" at the quantum level (my sense is this amounts to God choosing which quantum states to actualize, if that's the correct language), a view that is close to Russell's and perhaps even the same. P, who understands QM as well as anyone alive, does hold an open theism view--at least partly for reasons of theodicy.

The question of how much classical doctrine one is willing to change, depends on many things. As Kenny Russell sings, you gotta know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em. Lots of influences lie behind classical doctrinal formulations, and as my friends know I am never hesitate to hold 'em when the hand is strong. Greek influences, biblical influences, reason, experience, and (yes) changing scientific conceptions of the world (which influence our philosophical views about reality which in turn influence our expressions of theological reality) all work into this. My sense is that Fr Coyne folded a strong hand, by turning to process theism; but that otherwise the chips are still on the table.

Finally, for Denyse: we both know some folks, Denyse, who think that the classical doctrine of divine impassibility just won't wash, that a God who loves must also be a God who suffers and who is genuinely moved by suffering. Even some YECs I know believe that. It isn't "classical" but it's biblical and very likely true. Some of the questions about "omniscience" in the classical sense are similar to those about impassibility. One might or might not be sympathetic with approaches that challenge impassibility, such as Moltmann's theology of the cross (to identify just one example that has been discussed here), but surely it is hard not to be at least sympathetic with the kinds of questions that motivate the formulations of such theologies. We agree that Fr Coyne takes this too far, but IMO there are others who don't take this far enough.

Received on Mon Nov 21 09:10:46 2005

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