Re: [asa] Deism, Apologetics, and Neglected Arguments

From: George Murphy <>
Date: Tue Aug 18 2009 - 21:45:46 EDT

I appreciate Ted's kind words here. Just 2 brief comments. (1) I do not
reject natural theology entirely, a la Barth, but think that a good natural
theology has to be developed in the context of distinctively Christian
theology, as Torrance argued. (2) Luther's understanding of creation was
trinitarian but he (like virtually everyone else in the 16th century)
thought that suffering & death were consequences of the historical fall of
Adam & Eve. Thus questions of theodicy & thought about the suffering of God
in the creative process didn't really arise.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Ted Davis" <>
To: <>; "Schwarzwald" <>; "George Murphy"
Sent: Monday, August 17, 2009 12:33 PM
Subject: Re: [asa] Deism, Apologetics, and Neglected Arguments

This conversation is a very important one, and touches on many aspects of
ID, theology, and the history of science. I need to get a lot of writing
done this week or I would do a lot of writing, right here, on this topic. I
will still say more than many may want to read.

First, I should say that my own view of natural theology is intermediate
between George Murphy's view and the view that I think is generally held by
many in the ID movement -- that is, the view that it's essential to both
Christian faith and the culture wars (sorry, Cameron, I can't separate the
latter from this conversation, given what a lot of ID leaders have written)
to have something very close to the old style natural theology, a
"knockdown" proof of God's existence to use vs "Ditchkins" and on which to
ground assaults on moral relativism in legal and educational contexts.

I have learned a great deal from George, and for the most part I resonate
with what he calls (citing Luther) the "theology of the cross," rather than
the "theology of glory." This is very similar to what Polkinghorne calls
(citing Moltmann) "the crucified God." With Polkinghorne, I would say that
the very possibility of my Christian faith depends on seeing Christ as "the
crucified God," holding out to us an answer (more existential than
philosophical) for what Lewis called "the problem of pain." Indeed, the
epigram that book by Lewis, borrowed from George MacDonald, eloquently
summarizes just such a theology of the crucified God: "The Son of God
suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their
sufferings might be like His." In my view, the objections often raised
against a TE position, in terms of why a good God would use a process like
evolution to create us and all other living things, are best met by a
christological doctrine of creation (as vs one looking only to God the
Father as Maker of Heaven and Earth), in which the Creator is understood to
be the twisted figure on the cross, the suffering servant who brings new
things out of old. And, like Polkinghorne, such a view has real value only
if involves an ontological view of the Incarnation: that God really did take
on human form, that Jesus really was and is the second person of the Trinity
and not merely a human being who trusted God more fully and deeply that most
of us can. This view, with its emphasis on divine "kenosis" (self-emptying,
or "pouring out"), is IMO theologically superior to the older theologies of
creation, emphasizing only God the Father, or at least not seeing the LOGOS
of John's gospel as the suffering servant. IMO, most ID advocates either do
not understand this view (most ID advocates do not read any modern
theology), or think it heretical for some reason (perhaps b/c it suggests
like the book of Job that suffering and evil are ultimately part of God's
choice not to create heaven now and cannot simply be blamed on the "fall"),
or b/c they believe that it results from an erroneous acceptance of
evolution. But, as I say, on theological grounds alone, entirely apart from
whether evolution is true or not, I think this is the best route to take
relative to theodicy.

I do not extend this view as far as George does, however, when it comes to
natural theology. I agree with George that God is very often "hidden" in
the world, and I also agree with George that the truest and best revelation
of the divine is in the events of the passion week, not in the creation.
However, I give more value to natural theology than George does. I do think
that God has displayed wisdom and power in aspects of the creation. (I
leave aside here the question of why some do not see it, except to note that
the dark side of creation, if I may call it that, does raise questions about
divine goodness, completely independently of human wickedness, questions
that were largely or entirely ignored by the classical natural theologians.
For Darwin this aspect of creation was clearest in parasitism.) I don't
think that God is completely hidden, in other words, but at that same time I
don't think that God wears his heart upon his sleeve, to borrow Einstein's
words. I do sometimes think that ID aims at writing God's name on the
sleeve of creation, and certainly the classic natural theologians believed
that God had done precisely that, from Boyle right down to Paley.

George quotes the following passage from Richard S. Westfall's Science and
Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (Yale, 1958), pp.106-107:

"While the virtuosi [scientists in today's parlance] concentrated vigorously
on the demonstrations of natural religion and proved to their own
satisfaction that the cosmos reveals its Creator, they came to neglect their
own contention that natural religion is only the foundation. The
supernatural teachings of Christianity received little more than a
perfunctory nod, expressing approval but indicating disinterest. Although
the absorption in natural religion and the external manifestations of divine
power did not dispute or deny any specific Christian doctrine, it did more
to undermine Christianity than any conclusion of natural science."

As I've said sometimes, the late "Sam" Westfall was my mentor in graduate
school. This passage very fairly summarizes his position, which has been
reinvigorated by the contemporary Catholic scholar Michael Buckley, in his
book, At the Origins of Modern Atheism. I think this view is at least
partly correct. Among other things, it very accurately cautions against the
dangers of an independent natural theology -- here I would agree with
George. On the other hand, Westfall's view is fairly heavily based on
serious misunderstandings of the views of both Robert Boyle (to whom I
devoted many years of study, starting when I was Sam's student) and Isaac
Newton (to whom Sam devoted much of his life, yet Sam's view of Newton on
theology and science is not shared by me or by most modern Newton scholars).
To see what I mean, relative to Newton, read one of the Newton pieces listed
on my web site ( On Boyle, it would be
instructive to compare what Sam said about him on pp. 124-27 of the book
cited above to what I wrote about Boyle's religious life and attitudes in
Science & Christian Belief (Oct 2007). Suffice it to say that I do not at
all accept Sam's statement (126), "Apparently Boyle did not keenly feel the
need for divine redemption in his own heart. The even tenor of his life was
seemingly unbroken by violent temptation, and he pursued a steady course of
virtue unmarred by even the faintest breath of scandal. The problems of
morality were not pressing concerns in personal life. He talked about sin
like an American discussing cricket; he had heard about it but had never
seen it close at hand. The Christian doctrine of redemption rang no
response in his soul."

To the contrary. As I argue in my essay, it was the depths of depravity
that Boyle saw all around him, esp in the lives of his family members and
their spouses, that drove Boyle to reject courtly mores and to remain chaste
his whole life. It was deep struggles with his own religious doubts that
led him to write so much about the positive functions that natural
philosophy and the experimental life had for the Christian. And, it was
Boyle's own religious experience of redemption -- through the sacrament of
the Eucharist -- that provided the antidote for the despair that had driven
him to contemplate suicide as a young Christian. Sam was put off by Boyle's
deep piety -- he saw Boyle as "priggish," I recall -- and unable to see the
positive role that doubt played in Boyle's spiritual and intellectual life.

Nevertheless, I agree with Sam's observation, that "Boyle never considered
natural religion a substitute for Christianity." (124) Some others probably
did, and I very much agree with Sam's point that "In the hands of men who
were less devout [than Boyle] his religious expressions could readily have
been turned into deism." (127) It is to Boyle more than anyone else that we
owe the clockwork metaphor (which Newton rejected); it is to Boyle more than
anyone else that we look for inspiring the Anglo-American tradition of
natural theology, culminating in Paley and leading directly to Dembski and
Behe. I do not intend to imply anything here about any lack of piety or
genuine Christian faith on the part of Paley, Dembski, or Behe; but there
can be no doubt that lots of others who followed after Boyle accepted the
full force of the design argument while rejecting the redemptive power of
God in Christ. I don't blame Boyle for this, any more than I blame Darwin
for Hitler. But in his public and private writings Boyle certainly put more
emphasis on creation than redemption.

I can't blame him for that, either. I hope George will correct me if I am
mistaken, but as far as I can tell it has only been in relatively recent
times that anyone has developed the kind of christocentric theology of
creation that I outlined above. Boyle and pretty much anyone else --
Calvin, Thomas, Augustine, Wesley, and probably even Luther most of the time
(is this correct, George?) -- did not join creation and redemption to the
degree that has been done by George, Polkinghorne, and some other recent
authors. True, some 17th century Lutheran theologians took a kenotic view
of redemption; but no one took a kenotic view of creation until quite
recently. No one, that is to say, tried fully to integrate the passion week
into the creation week, such that conversations about God the Father, Maker
of Heaven and Earth, were not simultaneously conversations about God the
Son, whose suffering has redeemed us and whose resurrection is the first
fruits of the new creation.

That is where I would try to get people to go: to the cross, where the
Creator died before being raised again. When dealing with Ditchkins,
however, all of that is (as Paul said) just so much foolishness to the
Greeks. For conversations in the public square, sometimes it can be helpful
at least to blunt the point of the Ditchkins spear, aimed not at the side of
the suffering servant (whom Ditchkins cannot even see) but at the head of
the believer, in order to show the foolishness of a reason that ultimately
denies the basis of its own rationality. To that extent, and only to that
extent, I think natural theology has some value, independently of

On the other hand, I do have the impression, a very strong impression, that
many ID thinkers believe that getting Ditchkins to admit the possibility of
genuine design will thereby result somehow in cultural renewal. IMO this is
to miss the "lesson" of people like Robert Hooke, a close friend of Boyle
who absolutely believed in the reality of divine design in the world, but
who went on his merry way of living a rather licentious nocturnal life
(Hooke's diary provides abundant evidence for the curious). I sometimes
wonder whether Hooke was in the front of Boyle's mind, when he thought of
"practical atheists" as he did on at least one occasion, or when he spoke of
baptized infidels of various types as he did quite often. In any case,
Boyle really believed that natural theology could move hearts as well as
teach minds; I can't agree with him on that, in most cases. To that extent,
I think ID is barking up the wrong tree.


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Received on Tue Aug 18 21:46:45 2009

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