Theology at BioLogos: The Curious Case of the Wesleyan Maneuver – Part 3
|May 29, 2012||Posted by Thomas Cudworth under Intelligent Design|
In Part 2A and Part 2B, we analyzed in great depth the discussion between Crude and Dennis Venema. We discovered that Venema consistently evaded Crude’s questions, and that, even when he finally answered them, his answers were unclear and unsatisfactory. And we discovered the source of the lack of clarity – Venema’s self-contradictory commitment both to God’s absolute sovereignty and to the “freedom” of nature which he thinks is implied by his “non-Calvinist” position. And we discovered that, rather than being much distressed by the incoherence of his position, he excused it on the grounds that “mystery” is allowable in his theology.
Such a position renders the entire BioLogos venture pointless, since its 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. How can it do this, if in the final analysis, all it can say is, “I tend to be OK with a bit of mystery”? The word “bathetic” is not one I use often, but it pretty well describes the theological position of the lead scientific writer on BioLogos.
But the story does not end here. In the same column, Dr. Darrel Falk, the head of BioLogos – who joined in the fray during the two days when Venema was unaccountably silent – at one point answers Crude in the following words (67623):
“Regarding your question about whether God knew of and intended for the existence of each individual species in advance I’ll leave that question for you to think about. I am a Wesleyan. We Wesleyans think about matters like that a little differently than Calvinists…”
“I’ll leave that question for you to think about”? This is a dialogically dishonest way of saying, “I’m not going to answer that question”; or, putting the very best construction on it, “I’m not going to directly answer that question, but I’ll give you the following hint, and maybe you will figure out what I mean and maybe you won’t, and if you don’t, frankly, I don’t really care.”
Falk apparently is under the impression that he has no obligation to directly answer Crude’s question, even though Crude’s question goes to the very heart of what BioLogos is about. Given the pretentiousness of BioLogos’s claim – to be bringing together science and religion in harmony – Falk cannot be reticent about saying what he believes about God’s action in evolution. If God did not intend all the individual results of evolution, momentous consequences follow for Christian theology; and if God did intend every last detail of evolution, momentous consequence follow for neo-Darwinian evolutionary processes (which by their very mode of operation cannot guarantee such details). For Falk to remain silent, or even to answer with hints rather than clear statements, is for BioLogos to duck the theology/science harmonization which is its very raison d’etre.
The most important thing here, however, is Falk’s reference to Calvinists and Wesleyans. The Wesleyans (represented in large numbers in America as Methodists) are historically influenced by Arminianism, as was their founder, John Wesley (1703-1791). Falk is thus hearkening to the same Calvinist/Arminian distinction that was implicitly made by Venema. Falk is implying a major theological thesis – that a “Calvinist” will believe that God intended all the details of evolution, but that a Wesleyan will not, because a Wesleyan will think that God gave nature some “freedom.”
This contrast of Calvin vs. Wesley is not incidental. Many BioLogos columns of the past have alluded to the contrast, and sometimes it has even been made the central focus of a column. And Darrel Falk and Karl Giberson, and several guest columnists on BioLogos, have been ensconced at Nazarene colleges (in the Wesleyan tradition), or Wesleyan foundations like Asbury University (Asbury was Wesley’s lieutenant in America). And there has never been a single regular columnist on BioLogos from the Calvinist/Reformed tradition, even though Calvinist/Reformed Christians outnumber Wesleyan/Methodist/Nazarene Christians in the USA by a very great margin. So what we have had in the leadership and the columns at BioLogos is a theologically skewed segment of American evangelical Christianity, with Calvinism grossly underrepresented, and Wesleyanism grossly overrepresented.
To summarize what I’ve said so far: 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 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.”
Now, let us examine the “theology of freedom” that lies behind the use of the Wesleyan Maneuver.
The polarization which Falk and Venema would like to sell to the evangelical world – between a “Wesleyan theology of freedom” and a “Calvinist theology of divine sovereignty” – seems to work like this. (Note how often we have to fill in these things for ourselves, because of the maddening non-explicitness of the BioLogos theologians.) In a “Calvinistic” understanding of creation, even an evolutionary creation, nature has no option in what it produces. It must supply exactly those creations which a sovereign God has demanded. In a “Wesleyan” doctrine of creation, nature is in some sense “free.” All the details aren’t specified in advance. Note that this is exactly the model of nature – loose, somewhat indeterminate, with outcomes determined by contingency and circumstance rather than “natural laws” – that allows for an open-ended process such as neo-Darwinian evolution, which – coincidentally enough – just happens to be the view of evolution to which Falk and Venema, as the heirs of Darwin and Dobzhansky and Mayr, are committed.
This harmony between a “freedom of nature” theology and the Darwinian model of evolution is rather convenient. Only outright open theism – a heresy which often seems not to be far below the surface in some of the BioLogos columns, and elsewhere in the TE world – could be more convenient. However, the cost of this convenient partnership between maverick theology and naturalistic, anti-teleological science, is deep intellectual incoherence. BioLogos is faced with a gross contradiction – on one hand, its belief that God is creator, all-powerful, all-knowing, and in charge of everything through his Providence, and on the other, its assertion that neo-Darwinian processes, outside of any context of guidance or planning or design or control or purposiveness (all words which Falk and Venema steadfastly refuse to use in relation to the evolutionary process), are fully satisfactory explanations of how God’s ends are achieved.
The problem is that neo-Darwinian processes are not natural laws like those of gravity or electrostatic attraction; they are highly contingent chains of events, very sensitive to initial conditions and to even slight perturbations afterward. There is simply no set of initial conditions that can guarantee the existence of man, mice, or anything else, if neo-Darwinian (or equivalent stochastic processes) are the whole story about evolution. If the goals of evolution are to be guaranteed within a neo-Darwinian framework, there must be intervention (scientifically detectable or not), because otherwise the actualization of God’s will is left to chance. Yet interventions, steering, guiding, etc. are clearly unacceptable to biologists like Falk and Venema. So how does BioLogos respond to this contradiction?
By wallowing in “mystery.” And by invoking the name of Wesley.
Let’s talk for a moment about the “freedom of nature” theology which, by many TEs, is connected with the names of Arminius and Wesley. Is there any historical evidence that either Arminius or Wesley ever held to such a view?
Regarding Arminius himself, it seems that even on the question of human free will, his views were actually very close to Calvin’s, and nothing at all like what many TEs (and others) mean when they speak of being “Arminian.” The “freedom” Arminius gave to the human will was in fact very limited. See, for example, this account. And what were Arminius’s views on the “freedom of nature”? There is a very good discussion of that here. Not much promise for an open-ended evolutionary process, it seems.
What, then, of Wesley? Well, his Commentary on the Whole Bible is public domain, and can be found here. His account of Genesis 1, it appears, is: (a) very literalist – right down to six creation days; (b) in conflict with key BioLogos teachings – he says that all human beings came from Adam and Eve only, not from a “population”; (c) without any discussion at all of the “freedom” of nature to do anything.
Now admittedly this search concerning Arminius and Wesley has been cursory. But remember, it is not up to those who doubt a radical new claim to disprove it. The onus is on those making the claim to prove it. If BioLogos believes that Arminius and Wesley supported a “freedom of nature” theology, it’s their job to show where Arminius and Wesley say so. And not a single such source has been provided during the five-year existence of BioLogos. Thus, the idea that “Wesleyanism” is especially friendly to an “unguided” or “free” evolutionary process is simply without any documentary support. To continue to assert it, without evidence, is both theologically and academically irresponsible.
I have one final point to make. The “clinching” of an argument by the statement “I’m a Wesleyan, not a Calvinist” – if it is done, as it always is on BioLogos, without further elaboration – is completely unacceptable. As it is done on BioLogos, it implies that religious adherences are givens, like an inherited or chronic disease that one is somehow stuck with. Wesleyans all the BioLogos people may indeed be, but it is not as if anyone ever held a gun to their heads to make them so. They are human beings; they can think and reason. They can compare theological systems against the Bible and the tradition of the Church. They can weigh the claims of “Calvinism” and “Wesleyanism” in relation to the Genesis, the Psalms, John, etc., and in relation to Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, etc. They can weigh them in relation to the Creeds and the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. And they can decide which view, the Wesleyan or the Calvinist, is truer to the Christian faith, and they can publish their reasons for choosing one view over the other.
The importance of this research and justification process cannot be overemphasized. All the greatest theologians of the Church agonized over correct doctrine in exactly this way. To say “I kinda like Wesleyanism because it seems to give people and nature more freedom, and I kind of dislike Calvinism because it seems to give God too much power” – which is only a slight caricature of the theology that seems to be promoted on BioLogos – is not to do Christian theology. It’s to invent a private theology.
As Christian leaders, Falk and Venema and all the other regular columnists on BioLogos have a responsibility to something bigger than their own theological tastes and preferences. They are responsible to all the Christians who have ever lived, and all the Christians who will live in the future, to justify their theology in the light of the accumulated wisdom of the Christian tradition. Christianity is not a voluntary association of free-lancing private theologians. It is the teaching of an organic community stretching back to Christ and the Apostles, and forward into the indefinite future. Christian truth is historical and communitarian. Thus, while there is room for internal dialogue, expansion, and even modification of past formulations, there is no room for people who just arbitrarily reject conceptions of God or Creation that they don’t happen to like. It is not within the authority of BioLogos to invent some grand new synthesis of science and theology and present it to the “rubes” in the fundamentalist churches as a fait accompli. It is, rather, the Christian duty of the people at BioLogos to submit all their theological speculations to the discipline of the Christian theological tradition.
This why it is so distressing that, until very recently, BioLogos has shown not a shred of respect for the history of Christian thought. In place of a detailed study of what the great Christian thinkers have said about creation, chance, teleology, providence, etc., it has offered the half-baked speculations of bench-scientists-turned-amateur-theologians, interspersed with at best a handful of proof-texts. It has spoken of a “Wesleyan” view of creation without even bothering to consult Wesley’s writings, or the writings of any of his immediate disciples. It has made cursory generalizations about the frequency of non-literal interpretations of Genesis in the early church without even bothering to check them, and when these generalization have been decisively refuted by actual research (as has been done here, by Vincent Torley), it has simply ignored the testimony of the ancient authors and continued to repeat the falsehood.
In short, BioLogos has acted as if it not only has no obligation to agree with Christian tradition regarding God and creation, but as if it has no obligation even to find out what the Christian tradition is. None of the great Christian theologians – Calvin, Luther, Aquinas, Augustine – were ever contemptuous of the Christian past in that manner.
This is why the “Wesleyan Maneuver” is more than simply a pathetic rhetorical trick to avoid openly and honestly stating a TE’s view of God’s role in evolution. It is certainly that. But it indicates something much deeper – an irresponsible confidence on the part of theologically untrained TE scientists in their ability to create a theology of creation de novo, and an unparallelled contempt for what the greatest Christian minds of the past have had to say on the subject.