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Book Review: “Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique” Part 3: Philosophical Critique

Crossway has published a book entitled Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique edited by J.P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, et al. The book is mammoth- right around 1000 pages of text. As the title suggests, it purports to give a comprehensive refutation of the position of theistic evolution. Due to its huge size and scope, I’ve decided to break my review up into multiple posts. I do not claim to be an expert in every field this book touches upon–that would be impossible. Instead, I’ll offer comments on those areas I took notes and had interactions with in my own reading.

For this part, I will focus on the philosophical critique offered in the book.

Philosophical

As I read through the chapters on the philosophical critique of Theistic Evolution, I found that although each chapter was thoughtful and interesting, there was little by way of actual refutation of TE in the chapters.

Stephen C. Meyer and Paul A. Nelson, in a chapter entitled “Should Theistic Evolution Depend on Methodological Naturalism?,” state that TEs “accept a philosophical rule known as methodological naturalism… [which] asserts that, to qualify as scientific, a theory must explain by strictly physical or material–that is, non-intelligent or non-purposive–causes” (561) and then argue that “…no sound justification exists for holding methodological naturalism… Christians should not use [methodological naturalism] as a reason for adopting theistic evolution, or excluding other theories” (561-562). The chapter is extremely long and filled with a number of analogies and parallels, but the thrust of it is of course centered around these theses at the beginning. But suppose that Christians don’t use methodological naturalism as a reason for adopting theistic evolution or excluding other theories? Indeed, that is the case for myself. I am still not entirely convinced of methodological naturalism as the only way to do science; but I am leaning that direction. However, the reason I began to lean towards TE was because I found time and again that evolutionary theory seemed the best explanation for the observations we have. So I suppose it is possible that methodological naturalism is a poor reason for adopting TE; but that doesn’t mean TE is false, nor does it mean methodological naturalism is false. Indeed, in my reading, this methodological naturalism is an operating assumption. Indeed, I doubt that many TEs would say it is impossible for some natural feature of life to be designed; rather, the argument would be that we have yet to see evidence thereof, and time and again natural explanations are better. This latter point allows scientists to feel justified in looking for natural causes for the features of life rather than going through something like Dembski’s explanatory filter and positing design when current research comes to a dead end.

The very next chapter of the book, by Stephen Dilley, simply argues that “Theistic evolutionists should reject methodological naturalism” (593). Again; suppose this is true. If true, does it show theistic evolution is false? No. Maximally, it just means that methodological naturalism is not the best way to go about things as a TE.

J.P. Moreland’s chapter’s lofty title caught my attention: “How Theistic Evolution Kicks Christianity Out of the Plausibility Structure and Robs Christians of Confidence that the Bible is a Source of Knowledge.” Certainly, Moreland’s chapter appears to be a broadside against TE. In his “summary” of the chapter, Moreland puts his argument thus: “…given the widespread scientism–the view that the hard sciences are the only or the vastly superior way to know things…–in our culture, theistic evolutionists reinforce this view by constantly revising biblical teachings and interpretations because science says so. Thus, by adopting this unbiblical epistemological outlook, theistic evolutionists weaken the rational authority of biblical teaching among Christians and non-Christians” (633). Moreland’s concern, then, is not that TE actually inherently destroys Christianity, but rather that because TEs allegedly continually change what they think the Bible says [which part? where? why?], it undermines confidence in the Bible.

Moreland argues, for example, that TEs have changed their position on the soul because of science, turning towards physicalism as opposed to dualism regarding the mind-body problem due to advances in neuroscience. Alongside blithely noting that “Jesus believed in a soul” (655) (what did Jesus mean by “soul”? Does physicalism truly deny the possibility of a soul or does it say that the soul is emergent or part of the physical self? Are our ideas about the “soul” so advanced or perfect that we can easily claim Jesus is certainly in agreement with us?), Moreland’s broader claim is that TEs willingness to change what the Bible says about the soul (which, as I’ve read on this issue, is not very much and rather vague–this, coming from someone who would consider himself a Thomist regarding the mind-body problem) demonstrates that TEs are willing to undercut dualism in behalf of science.

Though Moreland does briefly acknowledges that theology may change, he quickly goes on to state that “we should be very careful and reluctant to revise what the church has held for centuries…” (657). He goes on, “…it seems hardly a coincidence that just when the naturalistically informed culture puts pressure on us to believe a certain thing, even though the history of biblical interpretation supports the exact opposite, we conveniently discover that we have misunderstood the Scriptures all along!” (658). Indeed, that would be convenient if that were what is happening, but before there was cultural pressure from the “naturalistically informed culture,” Christians like George Frederick Wright were noting that God’s special divine interaction with the world is not appealed to for the movement of planets and need not be for things like the diversification of life. Wright wrote at a time when evolution was still a theory very much debated, so he can hardly be accused of caving to cultural pressure. The TEs we see today are in that same line of tradition that stretches back more than 100 years, seeking to understand the teachings of Scripture and what God has revealed to us by nature. Moreover, as Alister McGrath notes, “Christian theology undergoes periodic revision, often in response to particular situations within the culture at large, even if it could be argued that it nevertheless keeps certain core ideas at the centre of its vision” (Alister McGrath, The Science of God, 27-28). Whether it was the development of Nicene orthodoxy, the condemnation of the Donatists, or the rejection of the prosperity gospel, Christianity has often changed or clarified issues in response to cultural pressures. That’s because we don’t have the full picture. Now we see through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12), so we must constantly seek for truth and revise our ideas as we run into more evidence, no matter where it comes from.

Moreland also turns his sights against non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) and claims that TEs largely hold to this view and that it undercuts Christian doctrines and ethics. How? Because if we say that science can only test some claims, apparently that means that we would automatically assume that other doctrines or ethical positions are merely subjective. This unfortunate non-sequitor is the kind of argumentation I’d expect to be beneath Moreland, a scholar I respect. In no way does NOMA entail that there can be no objectivity outside of science, unless one then pairs it entirely with scientism. But very few TEs would embrace full-on scientism, because, after all, they remain theists and so affirm that God exists and is the ground of reality. Thus, this fanciful tale in which scores of TEs are out there undermining Christian doctrines and ethics and calling them subjective seems fear-mongering. Indeed, some TEs are among the most steadfast and brilliant theologians of our time and certainly do affirm objectivity in theology and ethics (for example, John Walton and Alister E. McGrath).

C. John Collins’ chapter on God’s action in the world largely seeks to say that we should allow for miracles in the workings of the natural world, something that I doubt many TEs would deny. The difference is that many TEs (though certainly not all) would see things like the emergence of life or the way nature is set up to allow for evolution and lead to humans as miraculous, while leaving the individual workings to “natural” processes. Again, very few people today would demand Christians affirm that the movement of the planets is an act of special divine intervention, even though historically many Christians did affirm that and the Bible explicitly states that the “heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). Yet we don’t have books arguing against Christians who don’t believe that the movement of the stars or weather patterns are the direct acts of God? Why not? Because we have accepted that God may use natural processes, and that this, too, is glorious.

Other chapters argue about the origin of conscience, the problem of natural evil on evolution, and the interaction of science and scripture. These are interesting, but again seem to do little to undercut the position of TE.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

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SDG.

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