Re: [asa] an Archimedean point in theology? (was: natural theology, bad and good)

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Fri May 15 2009 - 21:46:34 EDT


Thanks for these remarks, which advance the discussion in a conversational way.

I wasn't so much asking you to defend your theology of the cross in relation to creation, as merely to evoke an acknowledgement from you that it is "a" Christian theology of creation, not "the" Christian theology of creation. (By the way, I did read your piece in the PEC book on the subject, and thought it was a good, balanced scholarly piece -- though a bit thin on the exegetical details.)

I put "heresy" in quotation marks because what is "heretical" depends on the "orthodoxy" one takes for a reference point. If orthodoxy regarding the nature of God means accepting the Nicene Creed, then tens of millions of Christians are heretics, simply by definition. But does being a heretic by formal definition mean that one's doctrine is actually incorrect? Or only that one's doctrine was outvoted? Presumably the Roman Church teaches that the Baptist doctrine of the Lord's Supper is heretical, and vice versa. If we held a Church council today on the doctrine of the Lord's Supper, with delegates assigned on the basis of the world's denominational populations, the Baptist delegates would be outvoted by the Catholic ones. So would the Baptist doctrine therefore be formally heretical? And, if formally heretical, therefore bad Christian teaching? In all such cases of doctrinal disputes between Churches, on what Archimedean point does one stand to decide whose doctrine is correct? It cannot be the Bible, because it is precisely over the interpretation of the Bible that the opponents disagree. (If the Bible were utterly clear on the matter, the dispute could never have arisen in the first place.) It is considerations like these which lead me to the sad conclusion that the application of the word "heretic" cannot escape the charge of circular reasoning. The most intelligent, most thoughtful heretics, with the greatest command of the relevant Biblical texts, will always be able to defend their position by saying that the very grounds upon which they are being called heretics are themselves heretical, i.e., are doctrines which depart from the teaching of the Bible in some crucial way.

Yes, I grant you that it is not only Protestants who have been given to killing other Christians for unbelief. They learned that habit from their predecessors in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church which preceded Protestantism. The important question to me is whether or not Jesus would have endorsed this behaviour, in either case. I assert that he would not have. And I assert that not on modern liberal grounds, but on the basis of the portrait of Jesus given in the Gospels.

I agree with you that on some issues, including some of the ones that Luther felt compelled to take a stand on, Christians must take a position. However, I *don't* agree that speculative questions about how God and evolution are related -- whether via front-loading, or invisible interference via quantum indeterminacy, or through "miraculous" breaks in the causal nexus, or through some immanent intelligence -- are in that category. Therefore, while I can understand why Luther might actually get angry if someone insisted that one could earn one's way to heaven through ethical brownie points, without the aid of divine grace, I see no reason why any TE should be angry (personally or theologically) with an ID proponent for suggesting that God's design *might* be detectable. Christianity does not stand or fall on the indetectability of design in God's creation, any more than it stands or falls on unleavened versus leavened bread. The indetectability of God's intelligence in the world is simply not a doctrine upon which the Bible or the Church (at least, any Church known to me) has ever clearly pronounced. Nor does Christianity stand or fall on the proposition that creation takes place through kenosis rather than through the exertion of God's will as more traditionally understood. Etc. Therefore, it is possible to have a sincere personal Christian faith, to accept the authority of the Bible, to affirm the Creeds, to adhere to the decisions of the seven ecumenical councils, to affirm the Westminster Confession (or the Council of Trent, or the Thirty-Nine Articles, etc.), and also to accept or reject design detectability, accept or reject the creation/kenosis connection, accept or reject the divine action/quantum indeterminacy connection, and more generally, incline towards either TE or ID, or towards a combination of the two (which is, as far as I can tell, the inclination of Mike Gene, and is also my own). Therefore, it seems to me that on the theological front, the TE/ID dispute is more rancorous than need be.

And while charges of heresy fly from the lips of people on both sides, it seems to me that ID people are more often on the receiving end.
But even if I am wrong about that, even if ID people are just as quick to scream heresy as TE people are, it seems to me that an easy way to make peace on at least one issue would be for TE people to acknowledge that neither the Bible nor the Christian tradition has spoken decisively on the question of design detectability, and therefore the proposition that design *might* be detectable in nature is not to be condemned as un-Christian, heretical, unorthodox, erroneous, etc. on theological *a priori* grounds. That one concession by TEs, especially if coupled with a resolve by TEs to refrain from the charge (frequently repeated by members of this group) that ID people claim that design *must* be detectable (which ID has never claimed), could go a long way toward reducing the rancour and turning the theological discussion into one of an exploratory nature, which is what it should be. Where fundamental, core doctrines of the faith are not at issue, Christians should be exploring theological possibilities together as intellectually curious friends, not shouting angrily at each other as implacable enemies.

The only serious disagreement I have with your post is in the last paragraph. I certainly agree with the statement that the doctrine of creation is supposed to talk about the real world, but I don't agree out of hand that "the scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming", because the term "evolution" is equivocal. If it means "the descent of species from predecessor species", I would say that the scientific evidence is moderately strong, and that I personally am inclined to accept the theory, even though the fossil record is somewhat askew (cf. Gould), and even though the detailed genetic mechanisms of evolution are far from clear. But if it means "the descent of species from predecessor species exclusively through neo-Darwinian (and kindred) means, i.e., entirely through natural laws and chance alone, with no role for intelligence or mind in the process", then I would say that the scientific evidence is extremely scanty, that the arguments are mostly speculation and bluster, and that the motivation behind the theory is metaphysical rather than scientific.


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: George Murphy
  To: Cameron Wybrow ; asa
  Sent: Friday, May 15, 2009 3:23 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] an Archimedean point in theology? (was: natural theology, bad and good)

  Cameron -

  I appreciate very much your statement of your position & its rationale. Here I'll make a few comments on your points. In a later post - I hope soon - I'll respond to the challenge you posed earlier as to why a theology of the cross should be a preferred "Archimedean point" for theology.

  In discussing the variety of Christian views at the start you put "heretics" in parentheses, suggesting that this is a dubious concept. Yet in an earlier post you referred in a straightforward way to Teilhard's "heresies" (without quotes). Maybe you just meant that Rome considered them heretical? Or is heresy a legitimate concept after all?

  & connecting with that, you state your preference for a humble & irenic approach to theology. I agree that humility and peace are desirable but surely at some point one has to say with Luther (whether or not on the issues in question at Worms) "Here I stand." To say "Here I stand but maybe I could stand somewhere else" seems hardly satisfactory. Of course some issues are worth fighting for and some aren't. Whether or not the body and blood of Christ are really present in the sacrament is in the former category, while fighting about whether or not leavened or unleavened bread should be used - the azyme controversy that helped to divide East & West - was stupid.

  & further on heresy - I hope it would be superfluous in me to say that I don't approve of executing heretics! But it's hardly fair to pick on Calvin for criticism for burning Servetus. He was enforcing the provisions of imperial law & had the opportunity to do so only because Servetus had escaped from roasting the Roman Catholic authorities in Lyon. & Aquinas, for whom you've expressed some admiration, argued that it was appropriate for heretics to be executed if they refused to recant (Summa Theologica, Part II of 2d Part, Q. xi, Art.3).

  On more cheery matters, first I should say that I have a great appreciation for Plato, especially from a scientific standpoint. The Timaeus is the first real text of theoretical physics, or at least the first one extant. It's influence on Heisenberg was quite explicit, & writings of a number of other physicists have a platonic character. I've written about this several times, including Ch.5 of The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross. However, both science and theology demand some changes in the platonic picture.

  & in line with that, I would not want to pit Logos theology against a theology of the cross. Justin Martyr's statement about those who live by Reason being Christians even if they are accounted atheists had a strong impression on me from the time I encountered it in my father's Bettenson back in high school. But the critical question is how we know who the Logos is. Against some modern theologians whom I tend to sympathize on other matters I think it's necessary to retain the concept of the logos asarkos. But that we can know the logos asarkos by observation of the world and our own reasoning is something else. I make the same distinction here as with a supposed natural knowledge of God in general - between simply knowing that there is some "World Reason" and knowing who it is, let alone having personal knowledge of the logos. It's a mistake to think that the 4th Gospel presents us with a theology of the logos asarkos. Rather, "the Word became flesh" and "we beheld his glory" - which in the language of that Gospel points to the cross-resurrection event. If you read one of the articles on ID that I referenced earlier you'll recall that this is one of the criticisms I made of Dembski's statement that "ID is just the Logos theology of John's Gospel in the language of information theory."

  Then I want to clarify your statement that my theological focus is "Christ the sufferer." The theology of the cross is not just about Good Friday but about the whole triduum, the passion-cross-resurrection event. Suffering & death don't have the last word. But language about the resurrection should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the risen one is the crucified. Easter intensifies & in a way makes permanent the scandal of the cross.

  Finally, I would agree that mine is not "the" Christian view, the only Christian view, of creation. The claim that Christ is the agent of creation, however, has pretty solid ecumenical grounding - i.e., the Nicene Creed. & in another way one can maintain that TE, understood as a very general statement that biological evolution has occurred & that God has been active in the process, is correct & views that deny this are wrong. That's simply because the scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming & the doctrine of creation is supposed to talk about the creation of the real world. I would not, however, say that YEC in itself is heresy.


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Received on Fri May 15 21:47:25 2009

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