Thursday, February 13, 2014

Mere theism

The Ham/Nye debate exposed some fissures in Christian apologetics. Some critics resent the fact that, from their viewpoint, Ham created a false dichotomy between naturalistic evolution and young-earth creationism. Critics think that unfairly squeezes out old-earth creationism, theistic evolution, and/or intelligent design theory.

Mind you, I don't think they can really blame Ham. He issued the challenge and he hosted the debate, so he's entitled to present and defend his own position. That's what you'd expect. Nothing prevents others from challenging Nye to a public debate. Of course, Ham is more high-profile, so he garnered more viewers.

On a related note, there were critics who bemoan the missed opportunities to expose the public to other related and relevant issues. To some extent I agree. Of course, there's only so much you can say in one debate. In fact, the Ham/Nye debate already tried to cover too much ground.

What we need are public debates on multiple topics, like methodological atheism, or scientific evidence against macroevolution and universal common descent, &c.

There is, though, yet another issue. Some critics favor a mere Christianity or mere theism strategy.  They think inerrancy is a secondary issue. They think evolution is a secondary issue. As one critic put it:

So let’s make a hypothetical situation here. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument, and I do not believe this at all, that the first two chapters of Genesis are in error. Does that mean the whole NT is untrustworthy? No. It does not. It just means we need to change our doctrines of inspiration and Inerrancy. Note I am taking a scenario that is unfavorable towards us intentionally and using it to show that the central truth can still stand. 
So in that case, I again repeat, if you want to know if Christianity is true, you don’t need to answer the question of evolution. If evolution is wrong, I would rather someone come to Christ with a belief in evolution, than to avoid Christ while having a true belief that evolution is wrong. I am more interested in getting people to Christ and removing as many hurdles from them as I can. I don’t want them to think they have to overcome a hurdle with evolution. Just show them what alone is essential. 
Now if you want to critique evolution, then have at it! Go for it! Just make sure that it is a scientific critique and not a Bible critique. The last thing we need is to have this be the case of science vs. the Bible. As soon as we put that to the world, guess which one they will go with.

I'll return to this in a moment. I'd just like to contrast that to young-earth creationism. They have different priorities. Their aim is to convert people to the Bible. Their aim is to convert people to Biblical theism. The whole nine yards.

Now, you may disagree with their science. You may disagree with their exegesis. But I think their aim is correct. They use scientific arguments to defend their interpretation of Gen 1-11. That's because their ultimate commitment is to Bible history, as they understand it. And I agree with that. 

Of course, an old-earth creationist can have the same agenda. They simply disagree on what the Bible teaches. But (some of them) also believe in converting people to Biblical theism. 

Now let's compare and contrast that to the position I just quoted. It sounds very pious, very evangelistic, to say our priority should be converting people to Christ, and avoiding obstacles which impede conversion to Christ. But is that reductionistic strategy really pious?

Logically, that would mean we shouldn't require people to believe that God called Abraham out of Ur, that God spoke to Moses, that the Exodus really happened, that Isaiah foresaw the future, that God commissioned St. Paul. What if the Bible itself is a hurdle? 

In addition, let's review some versions of theistic evolution. Here's one:

Nonteleological Evolution, the view that, while the supernatural may exist, it does not intervene after the universe comes into existence…This view affirms evolution and shares many similarities with naturalistic evolution because even though a supernatural being may have jump started the process, the universe, as it evolved, did not originate or progress with an intended telos, or plan, in view. Therefore, the randomness that characterizes evolution in philosophical naturalism is preserved, as is the attempt to explain everything from naturalistic causes. M. Barrett & A. Caneday, eds. Four Views On the Historical Adam (Zondervan 2013), 20.

Would it be okay to graft that onto faith in Jesus? If not, why not? On scientific grounds? Biblical grounds? 


  1. Logically, that would mean we shouldn't require people to believe that God called Abraham out of Ur, that God spoke to Moses, that the Exodus really happened, that Isaiah foresaw the future, that God commissioned St. Paul. What if the Bible itself is a hurdle?

    Now that's a pointed question. I lean toward the opposing view which I call the "Minimalist Faith" view which Nick Peters, C. Michael Patton, William Lane Craig and others hold to. Nevertheless, Steve makes a really good point in the question above. Here's how I deal with the issue at present. I use an analogy regarding how I deal with the differences between Calvinism and non-Calvinist Christianity and ask myself the following question.

    Should Calvinists like myself be required to tell non-Calvinist Christians that *they* are required to become "Calvinists"? I think so, since 1. Christians are required to believe all of the Bible's teaching; and 2. Biblical exegesis clearly teaches something like Calvinism (at the VERY least unconditional election). But I don't think we should tell non-Calvinist Christians that they are required to be Calvinists otherwise they can't be or are not in fact saved. They have to become persuaded if it themselves. ,The Holy Spirit doesn't persuade believers of all truths all at once. I suspect that the Holy Spirit intentionally prevents some Christians from believing some truths for some higher purposes. For example, I suspect the Holy Spirit prevents some evangelists from believing in the doctrine of unconditional election since belief in it would have such a psychological effect on both preacher and listeners that it would interfere with God providential plans for history. Maybe less people would be saved. On the other hand, since God is sovereign over regeneration, God could have used Billy Graham to bring just as many people (or more) to saving faith if Graham both believed and preached Calvinism. However, either extreme might have resulted in failed eschatological prophecies.

    The reason why most Calvinists don't require belief in Calvinism for salvation is because:

    1. some things are more central to Christianity and sound Christian doctrine than others (i.e. the distinction between essentials and non-essentials);

    2. some Biblical interpretations are more clear than others;

    3. there's room for disagreement among Christians regarding non-essentials (e.g. even Calvinists disagree among themselves about finer points of Calvinistic theology like the issue of Duty Faith, Common Grace, lapsarian order of decrees et cetera);

    4. the Bible acknowledges the fact that people grow and develop in their knowledge and faith (Phil. 3:15-16; 2 Pet. 3:18).

    So, in a similar way, while Christians should require all non-Christians to believe all that the Bible teaches, I would nevertheless point out what core beliefs are absolutely required for their salvation because there seems to be a distinction between:

    1. the essentials of The Faith (i.e. sound Christian doctrine that the church should teach) and

    2. the essentials of *saving faith*.

    What the Church is required to teach (or defend) need not be coterminous with what a person is required to believe to be saved. Otherwise, one can't be saved until one knows all that the Bible teaches and ALSO believes it. That includes the most insignificant teaching of the Bible including Ehud being left-handed (Judges 3:15).

    1. Logically, that would mean we shouldn't require people to believe that God called Abraham out of Ur...

      We should require Christians to believe God called Abraham out of Ur. But it's not part of the Gospel presentation. Their acceptance of the Gospel doesn't hinge on an explicit knowledge of or assent to this Biblical teaching. Their acceptance of the Bible as God's Word means they should implicitly believe all that the Bible teaches. Which includes their current ignorance of God's call of Abraham. But Abraham's calling is different than whether evolution is true since Abraham's calling is clearly a historical claim. While the issue of evolution's compatibility with the Bible hinges on the correct interpretation of certain Biblical passages that have poetic or stylistic elements (e.g. Gen. 1 & 2) or are passages that don't explicitly and thoroughly expound on origins. For example, Paul's statements in Rom. 5 and 1 Cor. 15 touch on origins, but only in the course of his making a different theological point. In the former Paul's main focus is on justification; and in the latter on the resurrection.

      AND SO.......The next question then is whether belief in the Bible as God's Word requires a belief in Inerrancy. That's where it gets even more difficult. Interestingly, even some conservative scholars agree with liberal scholars that Calvin didn't hold to or even rejected inerrancy. Or at least that the question is anachronistic since our modern understanding of inerrancy was developed in the late 19th and early 20th century. I think it's a legitimate question to ask whether the Biblical writers worked with and assumed a looser understanding of truth than we do in our recently developed philosophical and logical tools. Nor was the Bible written in Plato's Academy or Aristotle's Lyceum. The Biblical writers wouldn't have thought in terms of Aristotle's logical syllogisms. Though, Paul may have been familiar with them. Paul was more familiar with Jewish modes of thought and methods of exegesis (e.g. the use of Pardes).

    2. Typo correction: ["WITH" not "in"] our recently developed philosophical and logical tools

      I'm talking about the development of philosophy since the Enlightenment to the present.

  2. Whilst what you say is true that our aim should be to convert people to Biblical theism, an argument for focusing on other elements of apologetics in our evangelism could be made merely strategic grounds- if we've got better evidence and arguments on the front of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the early church, then we can argue for the entailment of YEC on the basis of what Jesus said.