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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Let’s Break Off This Engagement!

Posted by jlwile on February 22, 2011

Creation Made Free: Open Theology Engaging Science is an attempt by open theism to grapple with the issues of creation, evolution, and the scientific process. It contains many chapters, each authored by a well-known voice in modern Christendom. If you have read my blog from its early days, you know that I am sympathetic to open theism. I am not an open theist, but I certainly think that open theism takes the Bible more seriously than most other theologies in modern Christendom. I also think open theologians have displayed some truly original thinking when it comes to understanding many Biblical passages that most Christian theologies would rather ignore. Thus, I was excited to get the chance to read this book on my vacation. Unfortunately, my excitement quickly gave way to disappointment.

When it comes to the issue of origins, this book takes a theistic evolutionary position. Now I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. While it is a very weak scientific position to take, a Biblical argument can be made for it. I consider that argument to be rather poor, but not as poor as the scientific argument. Nevertheless, theistic evolution itself doesn’t bother me all that much.

Here’s the source of my disappointment: There are some wonderful ways that Christians have addressed the origins issue throughout the history of Christendom. However, this book shows that the same people who demonstrate incredible originality of thought when it comes to theology and philosophy subscribe to the most mundane, worn-out modern view of origins: that God “set everything up,” and evolution then took care of the rest.

Worse yet, at least some of the authors display a stunning level of ignorance when it comes to the various views of origins within the Christian church. Consider this statement about theistic evolution, scientific creationism, and intelligent design.

Theistic evolution can [be] more helpful than the other two, because scientific creationism seems to ignore many truths about the universe – such as the age of the cosmos and deep time – while intelligent design brings back a “god of the gaps” kind of thinking and relies too much on episodic divine interventions. (p. 103)

The ignorance contained in this passage is truly breathtaking. First, far from ignoring many truths about the universe, scientific creationism takes great care to look at all the data related to the universe. Those who believe in “deep time” must ignore the data that indicate a young earth as well as the significant problems that exist in the data which support an old earth. Second, not all young-earth creationists believe in a young cosmos. Indeed, if one subscribes to Russell Humphreys’s cosmology, the earth is young, but the cosmos is progressively older the farther one gets from the earth. Third, intelligent design is anything but a “god of the gaps” view. It is, instead, an attempt to honestly look at the data related to nature to see if there is a way to detect design. Finally, the vast majority of intelligent design advocates do not suggest “episodic divine interventions.” That idea comes from progressive creationists, which this book leaves out of the discussion altogether.

Now here’s what really disappoints me about this exceedingly ignorant statement. It comes from a theologian I admire and respect: Dr. Clark Pinnock. This statement alone indicates to me that Dr. Pinnock should stick to the area in which he is trained. When he strays into science, he seems to just embarrass himself.

Of course, Craig A. Boyd fares no better when it comes to stepping out of his area of expertise. In the following statement, he shows that he hasn’t even bothered to investigate the basics of radiometric dating:

Of course young-earth creationists might protest that God could have changed the rate of breakdown of isotopes in the past 6,000 years. But is there ANY evidence whatsoever that would lead anyone to hold such a position? The burden of proof is clearly on those who say that God changed the rate of decay. But no such proof exists. This vacuous logic has a name: the fallacy known as “an appeal to ignorance”…Spurious arguments like this only serve the purposes of atheists who see the god of the creationists as a charlatan. (p. 118, emphasis his)

Of course, the only ignorance on display here is Dr. Boyd’s. Indeed, there is evidence that radioactive decay rates have changed in the past. There is also evidence to indicate that natural processes can produce such changes. It is truly unfortunate that Dr. Boyd didn’t bother to investigate this issue before writing such nonsense.

Probably the most disappointing aspect of the book, however, is editor Thomas Jay Oord’s statement (on pages 101 and 102) that open theology is most compatible with the hypothesis of general evolution (the “molecules to man” sense of evolution) because in open theology, God is one Who “works things out on the fly”* so as to preserve both His goals for the universe and the free will of the people He created. However, that’s not really true. It seems to me that open theology is most compatible with young-earth creationism.

In open theology, God has a general plan and some specific goals. The “working things out on the fly”* comes when free will causes minor deviations from that plan and those goals. This is, in fact, the way young-earth creationists view the living world. God created archetype creatures that have the ability to adapt to changes which occur in their environment. The archetypes represent the general plan, and the specific goal is to provide a haven for life in general and people in particular. The created archetypes are free to adapt within this general framework towards that specific goal, but those adaptations are minor variations. The hypothesis of general evolution does not allow for any significant kind of framework or goal. It allows for a certain set of rules, but that is all. It also requires mammoth variations. Young-earth creationism allows for a framework, a goal, and only minor variations. This makes it a much better fit to open theism.

Now, even though most aspects of this book were particularly terrible, there were some nuggets of gold buried in the muck. Probably the best was the discussion by Alan R. Rhoda entitled “Game Theory and Divine Providence.” He starts with some analogies that open theists have given to explain how God works so that His goals are met but His people have free will. Probably the best he gives is by Richard Rice:

We can think of God as a composer of infinite skill and ourselves as producing the most rudimentary form of music. But He responds to our halting efforts and incorporates each of them, even the mistakes, into a symphony of transcendent grandeur. So great is His creative genius that nothing we do is cast aside. Every note, however discordant, receives a fitting place in the final work. (p. 157)

Rhoda starts with such analogies and then incorporates game theory to give a more rigorous explanation of how God “works things out” even though people have free will. He even gives a specific example of how this applies to Jeremiah 18:7-10, one of the many passages of Scripture that open theists take more seriously than most other Evangelical theologians. While I regret spending so much time in this book, I think Rhoda’s discussion was probably worth it.

There was one other nugget in this book, and it is one that every young-earth creationist should read. Too many young-earth creationists think that before the Fall, Creation was perfect. That idea sounds wonderful, but it is not at all Biblical. Craig A. Boyd managed to redeem himself a bit in my eyes by making this point very clearly in his chapter:

…the more interesting word in the [creation] narrative is tob. This word is Hebrew for “good.” Tob does not mean “perfect.” The Hebrew word for “perfect” is shalom. The authors of Genesis could have used shalom in these first three chapters of Genesis, but they chose not to. (p. 116)

He says that the best way to interpret the use of tob in the creation narrative is to realize that something is “good” when it serves its purpose well. Thus, God pronounced individual parts of His creation “good” and His creation as a whole to be “very good” to indicate that they served their purposes well. There is no indication that the initial creation was perfect. Indeed, the absence of tob shalom strongly indicates the initial creation was not perfect.

I am not surprised that the only things I found useful in this book were some theological and philosophical concepts. The science in this book is just hopelessly muddled and deeply flawed. I think open theists should stop engaging science until they have seriously educated themselves on the various scientific views of origins that exist within Christendom.

*Please note that the quote marks in the phrase “works things out on the fly” do not indicate a quote from the book. As is my custom, quotes from the book are in italics and set off with a gray box. These quote marks indicate a phrase that encapsulates a concept.

Comments

8 Responses to “Let’s Break Off This Engagement!”
  1. JD says:

    Dr. Wile,

    I must say that you are one of the most interesting people I have come across in the blogosphere! You are impossible to pin down…you have YEC sympathies, but also criticize bad creationist arguments. You are a firm Christian and wonder how anyone could study science and not believe in God, but you also admit that some writings by intelligent atheists make you uncomfortable. And you are attracted to open theism for many of the same reasons I am. In short, you are a truly original thinker unafraid to follow the evidence where it takes them. I don’t follow you in everything (I’m inclined to theistic evolutionism myself), but your blog has become a must-read for me. Plus, you write incredibly lucidly about science, which provides a model for me as I teach physics. So thanks for all your writing, and keep up the good work!

  2. jlwile says:

    JD, thank you so much for your very kind comment. I guess I am hard to pin down because I follow the evidence. Too many people follow specific theologies, specific views, or specific people. That makes them easy to pin down, but it does not make them consistent with the evidence.

  3. Irene says:

    Thank you for pointing out the difference in the Hebrew word for good/tob and perfect/shalom.
    Is the use of the word “tob” in this sentence in the third-to-last paragraph an error that should be corrected?
    “Indeed, the absence of tob strongly indicates the initial creation was not perfect.”

  4. jlwile says:

    Thanks so much for pointing that out. I will correct it now.

  5. Enoch Heise says:

    The concept of creation not being perfect before the fall is one that I personally had not thought much about before. Would you mind giving some explanation or a link to such on how you believe creation was before the fall, and what your reasons (scientific and theological) are? And why is it that most Christians think of earth being perfect before the fall? Thanks for maintaining this blog! While I don’t agree on everything, it certainly gives me some ideas and provokes thought on my own.

  6. jlwile says:

    Thanks for your comment, Enoch. I am glad that you find this blog useful. You certainly needn’t agree with everything (or even most things). As long as what you read causes you to think, my goals have all been met!

    In answer to your question, as I scientist, I tend to focus on evidence. Since there is very little Biblical evidence and no scientific evidence (of which I am aware) regarding what creation was like before the Fall, I think we know very little about what creation was like before the Fall. For example, there are those who claim there was no animal death before the Fall. However, the Bible clearly doesn’t say that. Based on the Biblical evidence, all we can say is that all consumers ate plants, but it is not even clear they exclusively ate plants. We can also say there was no HUMAN death before the Fall, but that is as far as the Biblical evidence can take us. Here is an explanation of what the Bible does and doesn’t say about death before the fall.

    I think the reason people believe creation was perfect before the Fall is simply because it has been incorrectly taught for a long time. It turns out that modern Christians believe all sorts of things that they think are Biblical but go far beyond the Bible. Ironically, Answers in Genesis had a wonderful series of articles during Christmastime showing that many of our ideas regarding Christmas (Mary and Joseph looking for a commercial inn, angels singing, three wise men, etc.) all go beyond what the Bible says. This is because in many people’s minds, tradition trumps Scripture. What’s ironic about this? One of AiG’s central teachings (no animal death before the Fall) goes WAYYYY beyond the Biblical evidence.

  7. Lindsey H. says:

    I find the theory that Creation was not perfect but instead “very good” a very interesting insight into the debate over what life was like before the fall. However, while I am intrigued by the idea, I am also confused: if God, being perfect, created something, why would that thing not also be perfect, instead of just “very good”? Isn’t the perfection of God an indication that His creation would also be perfect?

    Does not logic imply that a perfect being cannot create what is imperfect? If God’s creation was not perfect, but instead just “very good,” would that not mean that God Himself is not perfect? And if it is somehow logically possible for a perfect being to create something imperfect (though still “very good”), why would He do it?

    It seems to me that this is the Problem of Evil restated… I would really like to know what you make of these questions.

  8. jlwile says:

    Thanks for your comment, Lindsey. A perfect being need not create something that is perfect. He certainly COULD create something that is perfect if He wants, but He need not. Since he is perfect and omnipotent, He can create any way He wants. The very fact that Scripture avoids using the word “perfect” in its description of God’s creation indicates that God’s creation was not perfect.

    Now…as to why He would do that, I can only speculate. However, I would think that a perfect world could not contain beings of free will. Since God gave us free will by making us in His image, He had to include the possibility that we could choose to do evil. That cannot happen in a perfect world. Thus, in order to make us in His image, the world could not be perfect. After all, if you really want to think that Creation was perfect, how do you reconcile that idea with the fact that the Fall happened? Would a perfect creation have the possibility of the Fall?

    I expect any number of competent philosophers could tear that reasoning apart. However, the reasoning is not the important part – the Scripture is the important part, and that seems pretty clear.

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