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Thomas Cudworth on the “Wesleyan Maneuver”: A View from the Pew

As a member of the United Methodist Church, the recent four-part analysis of BioLogos by Thomas Cudworth sparked my interest. I have no special training in theology and certainly no office within the UMC, but common sense and my historical sense of the church prompted me to wonder, is this a legitimate application of Wesleyan theology or is it merely an attempt to gain standing for a Darwinian brand of theistic evolution by invoking the argumentum ad verecundiam? Here’s a view from the pew.

John Wesley (1703-1791)

As Cudworth explains, “BioLogos has an ‘Arminian’ emphasis on human freedom, which, without explanation of any kind, it extrapolates to produce the notion of a ‘freedom’ of nature; and this ‘freedom of nature’ theology, while not formally labelled by [Dennis] Venema, is labelled generally by BioLogos as ‘Wesleyan.’ It is for this reason that I have called the climax of Venema’s performance ‘the Wesleyan Maneuver’.” Cudworth points out that the BioLogos “goal is to convince the public, especially Christian evangelicals, that the ‘free’ nature of neo-Darwinian evolution is not incompatible with the ‘determined’ ends of a sovereign, providential God.” So that’s the crux of the matter–and it is no small one–particularly for myself and many of my fellow congregates who have had to bear with longsuffering a minority leadership’s backing of the UMC ’s misguided endorsement of  The Clergy Letter, a singularly outstanding imposition upon the venerable Quadrilateral–Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

I, therefore, must thank Cudworth for exposing this issue. Most importantly, he makes the critical point that historically and theologically speaking the “Wesleyan maneuver” is not really Wesleyan at all. Thus it provides the perfect opportunity to examine the deeper theological and historical confusions underlying this false attribution of Wesley to a ”freedom” in nature that makes room for Darwinism.  To do that we may leave BioLogos behind and find a more immediate source of the difficulty, not in the biology department or the pulpit but in the lofty perch of the religious academy.

The Maneuver as “Perspective”: Randy Maddox as a Case Study in  Confusion, 5 Basic Problems

This kind of thinking has been most notably exhibited by Duke Divinity School professor and UMC elder Randy Maddox. At a Darwin Symposium hosted by Seattle Pacific University on April 22, 2010, Maddox delivered a lecture titled “Darwin’s Challenge to Christian Faith: A Wesleyan Perspective” (available as an iTunes download under “More from the Darwin Symposium” ). After cautioning against treating complex subjects too simplistically, Maddox proceeds for more than an hour to conflate evolution with Darwinism and presents evolutionary theory as little more than common descent. While Maddox dismisses the New Atheists’ attempts to enlist Darwin on their behalf as agenda-driven misuses of the theory, he gives not even a hint of Darwin’s own rank materialism. Like his kindred spirits at BioLogos, Maddox attempts to enlist John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, on behalf of Darwinism.

Despite the fact that Wesley died 18 years before Charles Darwin’s birth, several writers have tried to associate the cleric with Darwinian evolution. The connection is often drawn from Wesley’s own interest in science as presented in his Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation, Or a Compendium of Natural Philosophy first published in 1763. Modern scholarship, however, has shown this to be wholly inaccurate wishful thinking (e.g. Robert E. Schofield, “John Wesley and Science in 18th Century England,” Isis v. 44, n. 4 [Dec., 1953]: 331-440; Laura Bartels Felleman, “John Wesley’s Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation: A Methodological Inquiry,” Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith v. 58, n. 1 [March 2006]: 68-73; and Felleman, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen: John Wesley’s Faithful Convictions; Charles Bonnet’s Inferential Conjectures,” Wesleyan Theological Journal v. 42, n. 2 [Fall 2007]: 52-64 ). Maddox is standing on well-established scholarship when he says that Wesley’s view of creation was more akin to the Chain-of-Being dating from the Middle Ages than the progressive transmutation ideas of the generation that followed him.  For Wesley and all of his generation biological life was a fixed and static scala naturæ. Maddox points out that Darwin “tipped the Chain-of-Being on its side” into a theory of historical descent from a common form.

Maddox goes on to say that Wesley approached God in themes of love, more in terms of God the Father as a loving parent than as an omnipotent ruler compelling submission. Quoting Wesley, Maddox notes that “God works strongly but sweetly,” one that allows the expression of individual free will. All of this, he insists, causes Wesleyans to adopt a position away from strong concordism (i.e., matching Scripture to the model or drawing the model literally from Scripture). To Maddox the Wesleyan way is easily compatible with Darwinian evolution and indeed may even be “helpful” to Methodists. He particularly notes Wesley’s linkage of animals and humans with a fallen creation, and if we are repelled by notions of our animal affinities insisted upon by Darwin, we should remember that the Bible admits we were created from dust and to dust we shall return. He furthermore suggests that Darwin’s linkage of humans with the animal world may help re-establish a biblical sense of stewardship with nature. “For too long we’ve been drawn to how we are different from creation,” he declares. As for ethics, Maddox insists that our “ethics are drawn not from how nature is, but from what God makes possible.” In the end Maddox sees a Wesleyan reading of evolution as one of rejecting a literal concordism in favor of a nature that works more freely with God in the background allowing us to freely respond to the prevenient grace He has offered.

There are at least five major problems with Maddox’s presentation:

1)     Suggesting that the issue is one between a misplaced concordism and evolution is a false dichotomy;

2)     Equating evolution merely with common descent disingenuously creates a non-controversial sanitized Darwin significantly distanced from the most significant aspects and implications of his theory;

3)     Enlisting Darwin on behalf of Wesley can only be done by a highly selective reading of Origin and completely ignoring Descent of Man;

4)     Enlisting Wesley on behalf of Darwinism can only be done by a highly selective reading and interpretation of Wesley’s theology;

5)     Far from allowing a full expression of human free will in Wesleyan fashion, the logical conclusion of Darwinism is to actually deny it.

In addressing the first issue, it is wrong to suggest that Scriptural literalism forms the only basis for rejecting evolution as Darwin construed it. It certainly has nothing to do with whether one views the earth as 6,000 years old or as 4.5 billion years old. Genesis can be viewed literally or from metaphorical or phenomenological perspectives, both can still have serious issues with a theory that rejects all purposefulness in nature and that straitjackets epistemology into methodological naturalism.  The real question isn’t between Scripture and evolution but between Scripture and materialism.

This leads directly to the second major difficulty with Maddox’s approach. The “evolution” he equates with Darwin focuses only on the least controversial aspects of his theory—adaptation and common descent. There were many theories of common descent before Darwin. As early as 1745 Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertius (1698-1759) suggested it in his Venus Physique, and even Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus, gave a version of common descent in his two-volume Zoönomia (1794-1796). In 1809 Lamarck (1744-1829) presented a complete evolutionary scheme, and by the mid-nineteenth century transmutation theories abounded. One of the most influential came from Robert Chambers (1802-1871), whose Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) prompted the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), to launch his own quest to unlock the mysteries of organic evolution. If all Charles Darwin had ever given us was yet another version of transmutation/evolution, he would hardly be remembered today. Historian Jacques Barzun paints a more accurate picture:

Contrary to popular belief, Darwin’s distinctive contribution to this movement is not the theory of evolution as a whole, but a theory which explains evolution by natural selection from accidental variations. The entire phrase and not merely the word Natural Selection is important, for the denial of purpose in the universe is carried in the second half of the formula—accidental variation. This denial of purpose is Darwin’s distinctive contention. By an automatic or natural selection, variations favoring survival would be preserved. The sum total of the accidents of life acting upon the sum total of the accidents of variation thus provided a completely mechanical and material system by which to account for the changes in living forms.

In this way the notion of Deity or Providence or Life Force having a tendency of its own, or even of a single individual having a purpose other than survival or reproduction, was ruled out. . . . Exaggerating for the sake of brevity, one could interpret Darwinism as meaning that the whole of animal evolution had taken place among absolute robots, which reproduced their kind with slight, purposeless variations of form. Whence the common notion that man is the outcome of a long catch-as-catch-can beginning with an amoeba or one-celled animal, which has had advantageous faculties added to itself by a series of happy chances. (Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage, pp. 10-11).

This is not just a historical judgment it was noticed as soon as Origin issued from John Murray’s Press. Some were appalled, but when Comte’s translator Harriet Martineau (1802-1876), England’s secular savant, read Origin she was swept off her feet: “What a book it is! – overthrowing (if true) revealed Religion on the one hand, & Natural [religion] (as far as Final Causes & Design are concerned) on the other. The range & mass of knowledge take away one’s breath” (Quoted in Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin, p. 486). Darwin’s theory didn’t have to elicit this response but it often did and the reasons were abundantly evident on nearly every page.

Evolution defined only as common descent, however, yields a number of options. For example, genuinely theistic evolution options are available in English zoologist St. George Mivart’s Genesis of Species (1871) and physicist Sir Oliver Lodge’s Evolution and Creation (1926). But the most significant has already been mentioned, Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently discovered natural selection and actually sent a letter outlining his theory to a shocked Darwin who then rushed his own theory to press. More importantly Wallace broke with Darwin in 1869 to usher in his own version of intelligent evolution, which may be defined as directed, detectibly designed and purposeful common descent. Wallace became a prescient figure who presaged the modern ID movement. More recently, molecular biologist and leading ID proponent Michael Behe has written, “Common descent is true; yet the explanation of common descent—even the common descent of humans and chimps—although fascinating, is in a profound sense trivial. It says merely that commonalities were there from the start, present in a common ancestor.  It does not even begin to explain where those commonalities came from, or how humans subsequently acquired remarkable differences.  Something that is nonrandom must account for the common descent of life” (The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, p. 72).

In searching, then, for a viable theistic answer to the question of evolution, Maddox doesn’t even offer the best and most reasonable versions of the theory.  Instead he offers a Darwin that never existed, a Darwin whose theory was merely a proposal of common descent offering a comfortable fit with orthodox Christianity in general and with John Wesley in particular. Darwin’s theory, however, was never intended in the least to accommodate either.

Exactly how inimical it was to both brings home the third point, namely, that Maddox gives a rendering that largely ignores Darwin’s own writings on the things that bear most intimately upon Christian belief. Origin with its emphasis on natural selection is problematic but it is only in the Descent of Man that the full force of Darwin’s theory is brought to bear on orthodox Christian belief in its applications to the human condition. Maddox suggests that Darwin’s association of man and ape offers little problem for the Christian, but Darwin insisted upon an unbroken lineal descent in which man and animal was different merely in degree but not kind, a consequence not of design but of chance and necessity. Furthermore, Darwin made a mockery of Scripture (especially Genesis 1:26, Psalm 8, Phil. 2:5-9, and Hebrews 2:6-8) when he wrote: “The Simidæ then branched off into two great stems, the New World and the Old World monkeys; and from the latter, at a remote period, Man, the wonder and the glory of the Universe, proceeded. Thus we may have given to man a pedigree of prodigious length, but not, it may be said, of noble quality” (Descent of Man [1871; reprinted, New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004], p. 141). Maddox mires himself more deeply in the problem when he claims that “ethics are drawn not from how nature is, but from what God makes possible.” That may be true, but that is precisely what Darwin denied! In fact, Darwin saw religion and ethics itself not as a product of divine inspiration and revelation of God to humankind but quite the reverse.  “The idea of a universal and beneficent Creator does not seem to arise in the mind of man,” he insisted, “until he has been elevated by long-continued culture” (p. 556). Darwin didn’t seem to understand why this should be considered “irreligious” but even a cursory reading of his statement will explain why: the direction of religious thought is specifically from man to God not from God to man. In Darwin’s scenario all religion—and ethics—are indeed located in nature and in the natural cultural development of humankind. God, in effect, becomes not a revelation to His creatures made in His image but simply an invention of man.

A fourth problem is Maddox’s noticeably selective reading and interpretation of Wesley. Despite his suggestion that Wesley emphasized the oneness of humanity with all of creation (including animals), the theologian’s own words must be remembered in relation to Gen. 1:26:

We have here the second part of the sixth day’s work, the creation of man, which we are in a special manner concerned to take notice of. Observe, That man was made last of all the creatures, which was both an honour and a favour to him: an honour, for the creation was to advance from that which was less perfect, to that which was more so and a favour, for it was not fit he should be lodged in the palace designed for him, till it was completely fitted and furnished for his reception. Man, as soon as he was made, had the whole visible creation before him, both to contemplate, and to take the comfort of. That man’s creation was a mere signal act of divine wisdom and power, than that of the other creatures [emphasis added]. The narrative of it is introduced with solemnity, and a manifest distinction from the rest [emphasis added]. Hitherto it had been said, Let there be light, and Let there be a firmament: but now the word of command is turned into a word of consultation, Let us make man – For whose sake the rest of the creatures were made. Man was to be a creature different from all that had been hitherto made [emphasis added]. Flesh and spirit, heaven and earth must be put together in him, and he must be allied to both worlds. And therefore God himself not only undertakes to make, but is pleased so to express himself, as if he called a council to consider of the making of him; Let us make man – The three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, consult about it, and concur in it; because man, when he was made, was to be dedicated and devoted to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. That man was made in God’s image, and after his likeness [emphasis added] . . . (Genesis in John Wesley’s Notes on the Bible).

An examination of Wesley’s sermon 60, The General Deliverence [sic], also makes the distinction between man and animal quite clear:

What then is the barrier between men and brutes? The line which they cannot pass? It was not reason. Set aside that ambiguous term: Exchange it for the plain word, understanding: and who can deny that brutes have this? We may as well deny that they have sight or hearing. But it is this: Man is capable of God; the inferior creatures are not. We have no ground to believe that they are, in any degree, capable of knowing, loving, or obeying God. This is the specific difference between man and brute; the great gulf which they cannot pass over [emphasis added]. And as a loving obedience to God was the perfection of man, so a loving obedience to man was the perfection of brutes.

This is not a difference in degree but a true difference in kind in which God’s creative act was perfected.  This is about as unDarwinian a formulation as one could have.

Maddox tries to make his man/animal association more palatable for Christians by pointing out that the Bible itself proclaims that man is from dust and from dust he shall return. But this simply confuses the ingredients with the thing itself and misses the point. True we are material creatures and we will physically return to material elements in our death (something we remind ourselves of each Ash Wednesday), but that in no sense means we are dust different in degree only but not kind. A cake may be so many eggs, flour, sugar, vanilla, etc., but hardly anyone would argue these ingredients are a cake. It takes an intelligent agent to turn the ingredients into the finished product quite different from what it started. In Darwinian terms the cake (like man) is something that could self-assemble. Maddox’s attempted biblical analogy is ill-suited to Darwin’s example for the essential difference is intelligent agency.

The fifth and final problem with Maddox’s “Wesleyan perspective” is his suggestion that Darwinism gives expression to human free will. This is manifestly false. As John West has shown in “Is Darwinian Evolution Compatible with Free Will and Personal Responsibility?” Darwin’s reductionist account of human attributes arising from nature itself forces upon Homo sapiens a conglomeration of deterministic influences and impulses. Darwin’s outspoken champion William Provine of Cornell University said it most bluntly: “Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear—and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either” (see Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy?).

Bad Theology Chasing After Questionable Science

Beyond these five issues a few additional comments regarding Maddox’s special pleadings for his Darwinist “Wesleyan perspective” may be offered. The first and most startling is his claim that following Darwinism should in any sense foster an enlightened stewardship of nature.  The fact is we don’t need Darwin to tell us what the Bible itself plainly states, namely, that we are given nature to use but not abuse; our dominion over nature is not a license to own it outright. The earth belongs not to us but to God (for details see Steve W. Lemke, “Does the Bible Teach Abuse of Nature?”  The Apologetics Study Bible, p. 777).

Non-Christians too have been skeptical of Darwin’s relationship with nature. Marxist social critic Max Horkheimer observed that Darwinism fostered a

tendency to real domination of nature . . . and for that reason the structure of American thinking also reveals the fatal intimate connection between domination of nature and revolt of nature. . . . Darwin broke with a fundamental dogma of Christianity–that God created man in his own image. At the same time he struck at metaphysical concepts of evolution, as they had prevailed from Aristotle to Hegel. He conceived of evolution as a blind sequence of events, in which survival depends upon adaptation to the conditions of life, rather than as the unfolding of organic entities in accordance with their entelechies. . . . Thus his name has come to represent the idea of man’s domination of nature in terms of common sense. One may even go so far as to say that the concept of the survival of the fittest is merely the translation of the concepts of formalized reason into the vernacular of natural history. In popular Darwinism, reason is purely an organ; spirit or mind, a thing of nature. According to a current interpretation of Darwin, the struggle for life must necessarily, step by step, through natural selection, produce the reasonable out of the unreasonable. In other words, reason, while serving the function of dominating nature, is whittled down to being a part of nature; it is not an independent faculty but something organic, like tentacles or hands, developed through adaptation to natural conditions and surviving because it proves to be an adequate means of mastering them, especially in relation to acquiring food and averting danger. As a part of nature, reason is at the same time set against nature–the competitor and enemy of all life that is not its own (The Eclipse of Reason, pp. 123-127).

This is not just a Marxist’s view. Oswald Spengler upon reading Origin of Species thought it “reeked of the atmosphere of the English factory” (Himmelfarb, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, p. 418). Later, William Irwin Thompson pointed out the social context in which Darwinism was born, admitting “if one lives in an economic system in which the market is red in tooth and claw, it is tempting to think that laissez faire and survival of the fittest are part of nature’s way” (At the Edge of History [New York: Harper & Row, 1971], p. 133).

Maddox might argue that these are unwarranted applications of social Darwinism, but according to John F. Cornell they are virtually hardwired into Darwin’s own theory. The reason stems from Darwin’s own use of breeding examples to support his thesis (see esp. chapter 1 of Origin, “Variation under Domestication”). Calling the artificial selection analogy to natural selection a “hallmark” of Darwin’s theory, Cornell points out that this use of human technology in support of biological diversity and evolution logically implies an application in the natural world of what man might “wish to alter” and indeed a technocratic fascination with how that alteration “can be effected.” It was, after all, the immense “agricultural achievement” of breeding under conditions of domestication that he wove directly into his theory thus underscoring “his [Darwin’s] implicit belief that the understanding of nature is a matter of acquiring mastery over it” (see his “Analogy and Technology in Darwin’s Vision of Nature,” J. Hist. Bio. v. 17, n. 3 [Autumn 1984]: 303-344). Maddox’s suggestion that Darwin can bring us a renewed sense of stewardship is simply not the case unless one uses “stewardship” as a kind of Orwellian Newspeak for mastery, manipulation, domination, and control.

Maddox also overemphasizes concordism as if that was the only problem and then quickly moves on to ask, how is it that a “Wesleyan perspective” can make peace with Darwin? Here is where the “perspective” most clearly becomes the “maneuver” for it refuses to ask a more germane question, exactly how good is Darwin’s purported science? Johann Bolhuis and Clive Wynne in “Can Evolution Explain How minds Work?,”  Nature (April 16, 2009) recently chided the research community for two decades of poorly designed studies purporting to show human/primate affinities resulting in “a flurry of anthropomorphic overinterpretation.” The authors admit a profound limitation that Darwin’s evolutionary theory may speculate about human cognition, “but it cannot be used to actually study these mechanisms.” Calling human cognition “Darwin’s unsolved problem,” Chris Smith in the Journal of the History of Neurosciences (April 2010) similarly concluded, “how it [the human mind] is that it includes qualia, that is phenomenal or sensory consciousness, we are no nearer understanding than Darwin was a century and a half ago.” (For more on this, James Le Fanu’s Why Us? is highly recommended.)

Even atheists can be Darwin skeptics when it comes to human cognition. Philosopher Thomas Nagel believes that it all rests upon an unwarranted assumption that every human characteristic “must have a Darwinian explanation. But what,” he asks, “is the reason to believe that? Even if natural selection explains all adaptive evolution, there may be developments in the history of species that are not adaptive and can’t be explained in terms of natural selection. Why not take the development of the human intellect as a probable counter example to the law that natural selection explains everything, instead of forcing it under the law with improbable speculations unsupported by the evidence?” (The View From Nowhere, p. 81).

Darwin’s “science” has other problems. If, for example, random mutation serves such an important role in creating evolutionary change and biological diversification, why, asks Michael Behe, are the vast majority of adaptive changes at the molecular level achieved through a loss or modification of pre-existing molecular function? Far from a building process, his article in the prestigious Quarterly Review of Biology  (December 2010) appears to indicate more of a subtractive process that is “the first rule of adaptive evolution.” There are practical issues as well. Matti Leisola and Ossi Turunen have pointed out in Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology (July 2007) that protein engineering suffers from an “overreliance on the Darwinian blind search to obtain practical results. In the long run, random methods cannot replace insight in constructing life-like proteins.” Finally, life itself is not amenable to blind Darwinian law-like processes.  Darwin’s much hoped for “warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity” that could create life from chemical necessity has eluded science.  David Abel in his recent peer-reviewed article, “Is Life Unique?”, has demonstrated that life is autonomous in ways that the mere physical operations of chance and necessity cannot explain. NASA’s definition of life as a “self-sustaining system capable of Darwinian evolution,” Abel calls “painfully naïve, simplistic, and wholly inadequate for biological research.”  Is this the “science” Maddox would have us follow?

Perhaps the greatest issue for purposes here is that Darwin’s theory is based on poor theology. Wesley, like most of his generation, was convinced that nature gave abundant evidence of God’s creative handiwork; that was the main intention of his five volumes on natural philosophy. But Maddox is being disingenuous in claiming that Darwin merely took the Chain-of-Being and tipped it on its side. Darwin did much more. Cornelius G. Hunter has shown that the essence of Darwin’s argument is that naturalistic, unguided evolution is true because divine creation is false. “Negative theology was a consistent theme for Darwin,” writes Hunter, “and it remains popular with today’s evolutionists. The theory of evolution is true not because species obviously evolved from each other but because of the failure to reconcile God and nature” (Darwin’s God, p. 47). Jonathan Wells has extended this thesis with telling effect. Noting that Darwin repeatedly suggested that God wouldn’t create this way or that way either because of “poor design” or that a beneficent and omnipotent God would never have created such “cruelty” in nature, “the theological target of Darwin’s ‘one long argument’ was not the God of traditional Christianity,” he writes, “but a caricature. Darwin fabricated a ‘god’ who did not exist, a deity who engaged only in arbitrary and unrelated acts of creation, then he argued against this fictional god. Rhetoricians call this a ‘straw man argument’—though in this case ‘straw god argument’ would be more appropriate” (Darwin’s Straw God Argument). This is evident in Darwin’s publications, his correspondence, and especially in his private notebooks.

 In the end a John Wesley cast in the image of Randy Maddox is bad theology chasing after questionable science. This is the kind of thinking behind The Clergy Letter in general and the UMC’s endorsement of it in particular, and it appears to be the principle spirit at BioLogos. Here Maddox fits right in. Taking Wesley out of context, Maddox has this God-centered theologian enlisted on behalf of a completely antithetical Darwinian notion that God is superfluous to creation.

Maddox’s agenda is quite clear. In “John Wesley’s Precedent for Theological Engagement with the Natural Sciences” (2009) Maddox insists that “Wesley’s present heirs will find themselves resonating in the renewed debates over natural theology more with modest approaches like that of John Polkinghorne than with the evidentialist agenda of the Intelligent Design camp.” This seems an odd statement. John Polkinghorne, whom Maddox cites, has defined natural theology as “the attempt to learn something of God from the exercise of reason and the inspection of the world—in other words, from reflection on general experience rather than from specific revelatory events” (see his published lecture on the bicentennial of William Paley’s death given in Carlisle Cathedral on May 22, 2005, “Where is Natural Theology Today?”). If one accepts this definition, then it would be fair to say that ID adopts an even more minimalist posture, namely, that an inspection of the world suggests some form of guiding intelligence the nature of which cannot be determined alone from ID. Thus ID is neither natural theology nor an apologetic. What ID does do is relocate theological implications within the general scientific project itself in explicit contrast to the present view of science as being bounded by methodological naturalism and contextualized by a NOMA which privileges a wholly naturalistic epistemology. So ID is the claim that science needs religion just as religion needs science. Until science can enlarge itself sufficiently to admit the theological implications instantiated within it, it will be incomplete and impoverished by a priori assumptions that as we have seen are not in themselves scientific.

When Stephen Meyer, one of the most important ID proponents today, refers to intelligent agency he is not alluding to the intelligence of some divine tinkerer, actively manipulating and adjusting the natural world, but to intelligence as a “quiet cause” that is pervasive in nature (Signature in the Cell, pp. 340-341). The presence of that intelligence is “tell-tale” and discerned by a forensic inference from available evidence. In effect, complexity of the kind we see in nature in any other context would demand an intelligent cause. While in and of itself this needn’t suggest God per se, it’s a very logical if not compelling fit. Far from ID lacking modesty, subtlety, and nuance, David Klinghoffer has even suggested A Quality of “Shyness” in the Evidence for Intelligent Design.

 What is the Proper Wesleyan Perspective?

Thus far we have seen what a “Wesleyan perspective” clearly is not, and it is not something that fits comfortably with Darwinian theory.  It is, as Thomas Cudworth has accurately described, a maneuver. Despite Maddox’s claims to the contrary, it most surely finds no support within the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. This has little to do with the age of the earth or of one’s exegesis of the Genesis account of creation. It is also not an issue of common descent. It is a question of comporting one’s theology with a view of the natural world that implicitly permits a role for intelligent agency and the uniqueness of human beings rather than one that writes nature out of the hand of God and rests it upon notions more confortably resting upon the insubstantial shoulders of philosophical materialism.

I suspect that the source of the Wesleyan maneuver stems from a conflation of what Wesley understood to be the two aspects of an omnipotent God: His role as Creator and His role as Governor. Human freedom simply cannot be morphed into a “freedom of nature” theology. For Wesley, the Creator God acts absolutely. It is not a creation given over to the whimsy of chance by a purposeful God, for although the Creator can do what He will, it is good to remember C. S. Lewis’s admonition that “meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’. . . . It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God” (The Problem of Pain, p. 18).

Let’s be clear: the intelligent agency in creation can only come from the design God the Creator imparts to it; the intelligent agency of humanity is unique in that once imparted we are freely interactive with God and in that interaction our Lord functions as Governor. These two aspects cannot be conflated. The Wesley maneuver uses the intermutual freedoms of God and humanity (whereby the former acts as Governor over the latter) as a spurious rationale for “freedoms” in operations rightly reserved to the Creator. This is not Wesleyan at all but a gallimaufry of agendas and theology.

So I will leave BioLogos, Randy Maddox, and all purveyors of the “Wesleyan maneuver” with the words of Wesley himself:

God reveals himself under a two-fold character; as a Creator, and as Governor. These are no way inconsistent with each other; but they are totally different.

As a Creator he has acted in all things according to his own sovereign will. Justice has not, cannot have, any place here; for nothing is due to what has no being. Here, therefore, he may, in the most absolute sense, do what he will with his own. Accordingly he created the heavens and the earth, and all things that are therein, in every conceivable respect, “according to his own good pleasure. . . .”

Whether therefore we can account for it or no, (which indeed we cannot in a thousand cases), we must absolutely maintain, that God is rewarder of them that diligently seek him. But he cannot reward the sun for shining, because the sun is not a free agent. Neither could he reward us for letting our light shine before men if we acted as necessarily as the sun. All reward, as well as all punishment, pre-supposes free-agency; and whatever creature is incapable of choice, is incapable of either one or the other.

Whenever, therefore, God acts as a Governor, as a rewarder, or punisher, he no longer acts as a mere Sovereign, by his own sole will and pleasure; but as an impartial Judge, guided in all things by invariable justice.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Let then these two ideas of God the Creator, the sovereign Creator, and God the Governor, the just Governor, be always kept apart. Let us distinguish them from each other with the utmost care. So shall we give God the full glory of his sovereign grace, without impeaching his inviolable justice (“Thoughts Upon God’s Sovereignty,” in The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., v. 10, Letters, Essays, Dialogs, and Addresses (1872; reprinted, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), pp. 361-363.

 

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5 Responses to Thomas Cudworth on the “Wesleyan Maneuver”: A View from the Pew

  1. Excellent commentary. I should say, I was a methodist for most of my life, and went to seminary originally planning on being a methodist minister – which had been my goal from childhood. I left the Methodist church during seminary for a variety of reasons. It was triggered by problems with my local congregation, but the reason I did not look to go to another methodist church after it was because of the dramatic shift in the Methodist church, especially signified by the signing of the Clergy Letter. The Clergy Letter was not *the* problem, but it made it very clear that the problems in Methodism were getting to be more and more systematic across the denomination.

    When you add to that the fact that Methodist ministers serve according to the will of the Bishop (who is almost universally of a more secular persuasion), the reasons for staying within methodism dropped to zero. I had been a lifelong Methodist, and still consider myself to be Wesleyan, but I realized that the United Methodist Church is on a downward slide, and the leadership is simply pushing us down the slope.

    While I could serve most Methodist congregations, I could not in good faith serve under a leadership that was so antithetical to the use of theology and reason together in a helpful way, but instead insisted on sacrificing theology to secular ideology at every point it could.

    Anyway, it’s probably all for the better anyway. I probably would have wound up being a bad pastor, and am putting my theological training towards more productive ends. I actually miss the Methodist church quite a bit, but I don’t suspect that I’ll be back.

  2. “When Stephen Meyer, one of the most important ID proponents today, refers to intelligent agency he is not alluding to the intelligence of some divine tinkerer, actively manipulating and adjusting the natural world, but to intelligence as a “quiet cause” that is pervasive in nature. The presence of that intelligence is “tell-tale” and discerned by a forensic inference from available evidence. In effect, complexity of the kind we see in nature in any other context would demand an intelligent cause.” – Flannery

    When you use the term ‘forensic inference,’ Flannery, could you be more precise with what you mean; does it have to do with crime and the legal system? I’ve read several statements about it by Meyer, though not in SitC, and it was not clear to me what he meant. Usually, ‘forensic’ relates to a criminal case, meaning not ‘in nature’ but rather ‘in the artificial’ realm, some crime a person has committed. Or do you just mean the weaker, broad meaning of ‘forensic’ as a ‘public discussion, debate, argument, etc. suggesting a type of detectivistic approach to natural (i.e. human) intelligence?

    The work above regarding Wesley’s attribution of a difference in ‘kind’ not ‘degree’ between human beings and animals should be applied in this case also. To speak of a ‘quiet intelligent cause in nature’ could serve to fully naturalise humanity if ‘forensic inference’ is what is meant. Thus, is not to use the term ‘forensic’ itself to imply or presuppose a discontinuity between human beings and ‘nature’?

    Btw, I find this an intriguing perspective on ‘what ID means to Flannery’ and perhaps also to ‘what ID means to the IDM,’ given the reluctance of many ID proponents to acknowledge or to identify the influence of religion on ID:
    “What ID does do is relocate theological implications within the general scientific project itself in explicit contrast to the present view of science as being bounded by methodological naturalism and contextualized by a NOMA which privileges a wholly naturalistic epistemology. So ID is the claim that science needs religion just as religion needs science. Until science can enlarge itself sufficiently to admit the theological implications instantiated within it, it will be incomplete and impoverished by a priori assumptions that as we have seen are not in themselves scientific.”
    p.s. I agree that Meyer is “one of the most important ID proponents today”

  3. 3
    Thomas Cudworth

    Mr. Flannery:

    Thanks very much for your supportive words about my columns on this subject, and for your substantial expansion of my very limited research efforts on Wesleyanism. We need to continue to challenge BioLogos whenever they misrepresent the views of the great names of Christendom.

    Your remarks are more authoritative than mine, as you know the Wesleyan tradition from the inside. For this reason, your critique will likely be more influential than mine on TE/EC people of the Wesleyan persuasion. I hope that many of them will read what you have written with an open mind.

    We have to drive home the point that “theistic evolution” in the generic sense is not necessarily opposed either to ID or to historical, orthodox Christian doctrine. The problem is that the predominant form of theistic evolution today, TE/EC, as represented by most BioLogos columnists, and by many aggressively anti-ID members of the ASA, and by influential popular writers like Ken Miller and Francis Collins, is stubbornly unwilling to make any clear statement on whether God determines and guarantees all or even some of the ends of the evolutionary process. It is this unwillingness which has caused TE/EC to fall afoul of a good number of moderate evangelicals who otherwise would find “theistic evolution” unobjectionable. They simply are not sure what theology they would be buying if they signed on to contemporary TE/EC.

    I won’t comment in detail on your post, but you have made many excellent points, and have expanded my understanding in several areas. I hope you will write more columns for us in the future, both on Wesleyanism and evolution, and on the history of alternate (i.e., non-Darwinian) evolutionary doctrines, a subject on which you seem very well-informed. Much of the public discussion on these questions is defective due to an inadequate knowledge of history (both the history of science and the history of Christian doctrine), and you are just the right person to help correct that defect.

  4. I found this piece, like those of Thomas C, very insightful. In my own thinking I had located the “freedom of nature” concept found at BioLogos in the influential process theology of Howard van Till, and some of the science and religion authors, and in the Open Theism of many of the popular TE writers.

    But the denominational aspect you bring to the fore is particularly important when so many of those at BioLogos profess Wesleyanism. A good piece of work, and a reminder that Christian “laeity” has as much responsibility to hold its leadership to (Scriptural) account as the latter does to exercise responsible authority.

    On a small point the paragraph quoted by Gregory in #2, on the role of ID in addressing deficiencies in naturalistic science, struck me as somewhat parallel to the approach of the TE Robert J Russell – who seems overall to come at things from a different tangent to other science religion thinkers. He too, though couching things more in terms of “dialogue”, looks to seeing the science-religion interface as more of a two-way street, theology informing science as well as vice versa.

    In the end that has to mean that the inclusion of God in the equation provides for better explanations of scientific data than leaving him out. That is a marked contrast to the God whose influence is forever undetectable and embraced solely by faith.

    That area, it seems to me, is where the main debate has to lie, and bringing it into the open is a valuable contribution to making it happen, and perhaps in the long term for bringing a true rapprochement between genuine science and orthodox theology.

  5. Thank you all for your comments. To Gregory, by forensic inference I mean an inference to past events as opposed to a direct obervation of phenomena made in real time. Meyer makes the point that forensic and observational sciences can be quite different. For example, the analysis of a chemical reagent is quite different from analyzing and drawing conclusions about the Cambrian explosion since we cannot observe the Cambrian explosion directly. Meyer’s chapter 7 “Of Clues to Causes” and his discussion of the late Peter Lipton’s abductive reasoning and what Lipton called “the inference to the best explantion” lays this out in some detail. By the way, I wouldn’t define “forensic” as “not in nature”; in fact, that is (for example) precisely what a forensic pathologist needs to determine, namely, is the evidence before me likely due to natural causes or to intentional causes? To define forensic as “not in nature” rules out precisely the reason for the forensic investigation in the first place. So, yes, I suppose a “detectivist” approach is more akin to the meaning here.

    As for what ID means to Flannery, I don’t think any ID proponent has ever denied that there are profound theological implications to ID, but ID in and of itself needn’t demand an explanation in a God rooted in Judeo-Christian terms. I openly admit (as has William Dembski, Mike Behe, and others) that for me the best explanation for the nature of the intelligent design found in nature is God as traditionally conceived in orthodox Christianity, for others like Michael Denton and Fred Hoyle a broader form of vitalism seems the answer.

    To Thomas Cudworth,

    Thanks for your reply. I am most gratified to know you feel I’ve carried the discussion constructively further, which was my whole intent. Again, I thank you for opening up this opportunity with your excellent, thought-provoking posts.

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