Gregg R. Allison

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Book Review: “Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique” Part 6: Theistic Evolution and Historical Christian Doctrine

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 chapter on historical theology.

Historical Christian Doctrine

Gregg R. Allison’s chapter is entitled “Theistic Evolution is Incompatible with Historical Christian Doctrine.” As with the chapter on the New Testament and that on the Old Testament, this is a strong claim that requires the author not merely to demonstrate that TE has difficulty meshing with historical theology, but rather that the author show conclusively that such melding is impossible. After all, TE is supposed to not just be difficult to reconcile with historical Christian doctrine, but rather simply “incompatible” with it. As we will see, this claim is far too strong for Allison to carry.

The chapter begins with a rather strange assertion that, of anyone, church leaders cannot hold to TE because they are charged to root out false doctrine (927-928). Yet this is exactly what is at question, right? The question is whether TE is false doctrine; starting a chapter that purports to show this is the case by simply demanding church leaders drop TE because it is false doctrine is question begging from the start.

Remarkably, after a brief overview in which he claims to show that the early church held to ex nihilo creation, Allison then states that “Biblically, the silence of Scripture on how God created the heavens and the earth implied creation ex nihilo” (930). I was taken aback by reading this. Here, in the middle of a chapter with lofty enough goals to claim that TE is incompatible with historic Christian doctrine, we find that one of the key points in favor of a full on doctrine of creation ex nihilo os that Scripture is “silent” on it! Not only is this an argument from silence, but Allison words it as though no one could possibly disagree–the silence “implied” the doctrine he prefers. That’s quite convenient. Moreover, although plenty of TEs would and do affirm ex nihilo creation of the universe, Allison is of course trying to expand this to include, minimally, diversity of life. Yet he doesn’t actually show that, generally, historic thinkers would have agreed or even understood what was meant by such an application of ex nihilo creation. Indeed, that continues to be one of the biggest problems throughout this section and the two previous chapters–the authors simply assert that something is “historical” or make statements that entail ancient thinkers knew about things like the diversity of life (when manifestly they did not–hence the debates over whether fossils were actually vestiges of ancient creatures or not up through the 1600s and slightly beyond [1]).

I was equally surprised by the analysis of Aquinas’ thought regarding creation. I realize that Allison is an expert in church history and so perhaps was glossing here, but he seems to be conflating on the use of the term “creation” regarding Aquinas’ thought (and throughout the essay, in fact). That is, when Allison uses the word “creation,” he seems to take it to mean comprehensive ex nihilo creation of all things, without exception. However, he does not actually do the work to demonstrate that his meaning is the same as that of the historical figures he cites. More importantly, in some cases it seems to not be the meaning  of the original author. For Aquinas, Allison cites a passage that he says shows Aquinas did not give the power to create to any creatures. But of course, the use Aquinas is intending seems to be moving from nonbeing to being, whereas TEs and evolution in general would be movement from being to being, or as Aquinas’ own categories would seem to imply, the creatures are actualizing potency rather than pure act or moving from nonbeing to being. After all, if Allison’s reading of Aquinas here is correct, it would seem to imply that procreation is impossible. But surely Aquinas knew that creatures procreate! Thus, his meaning cannot entail that creatures have no power to move from potential to actual; instead, it is Allison’s rather idiosyncratic use of the word “create” here that he uses to govern what Aquinas could mean. Of course, what Aquinas means according to Allison would, perhaps, exclude TE. But again, though I haven’t read a huge amount of Aquinas and only a dozen or so books about his thought, I am fairly confident that his use of “create” in the passage Allison uses is not what Allison makes it out to be. Potency is exactly that which creatures do have in Aquinas’ thought, so creation in his thought is, yes, ex nihilo but also, no, not meaning that creatures’ forms can never change. After all, if they did, he could simply define that as part of the potency within the creature. And that is exactly what several prominent Thomists have done.[2]

The same use of the word “create” continues through the rest of Allison’s chapter. Time and again he takes “create” to mean something like the ex nihilo formation of all things which now exist (including diversity of species). Yet many, many studies have demonstrated this is not accurate (or, minimally, called into question Allison’s reading). John Walton, for example, has argued quite extensively that creation was a way of expressing order in cosmos. It would be surprising if none of the early church writers held to the same ANE expressions as the Bible in regards to some of this language. But Allison does not engage with these kinds of studies. He simply uses the word create, declares it is unanimously and unilaterally used to mean what he says it does, and moves on.

Allison’s study of pre-Adamite theory is more interesting, but even there he does not acknowledge the questions people have asked about, for example, who Cain was afraid of in the early chapters of Genesis if the only humans on the planet were those of his family group. Allison then goes on to cite many confessions of faith that do state things like having Adam and Eve as the physical predecessors of all humans. From my own Lutheran tradition, he cites Hollaz (though not the Lutheran Confessions) and a confession of the modern Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. I was raised LCMS but am now part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and our confession does not parallel the LCMS. If nothing else, this shows that church doctrine is intended to change and meet new challenges. Alister McGrath has written extensively on this, but I think he has conclusively shown that yes, doctrine forms in response to new ideas. Evolution is one of those new ideas and the debates we are having now demonstrate McGrath’s point. Whether the church as a whole ever settles on this issue is beside the point: it is clear that new explorations of doctrine and new arguments are being made about an issue that had not before been on the horizion of intra-Christian discussion. This ought not to be seen as a concession of Allison’s point–that TE is incompatible with historical Christian doctrine. Indeed, at best he has shown that a selection of confessions of faith are incompatible with the belief that Adam and Eve had contemporaries.

In the next section, Allison asserts that TE is incompatible with specific doctrinal standards of the church. Whence he draws these apparently universal standards is not provided; they are simply asserted. For example, the first point is that TE “does not go far enough” in its affirmations on creation. According to whom? Allison, of course. The second point, that TE holds God didn’t intervene in the creation of life or diversity thereof is “in clear conflict with the church’s historical position” is alarming in that, again, he seems to completely miss the Thomistic possibility of final causation or ends in being, and many TEs from across the Christian spectrum have already done the work showing that a robust view of providence is quite possible on TE.

Finally, Allison briefly surveys a very few of the modern theologians who affirm some form of TE. Rather than seeing this as a rather broad-spectrum demonstration that many, many, many Christians from almost every faith tradition disagree with his analysis of church history, he simply dismisses them by saying that the “overwhelming consensus of church history still argues against following their lead in embracing some form of theistic evolution” (951). This kind of doctrinal hubris is more than a little alarming, but it also goes against the entire point of his whole chapter. If TEs can cite people as broadly based as C.S. Lewis, B.B. Warfield [though there is an appendix claiming Warfield was not TE], Tim Keller, John Stott, John Walton, Deborah Haarsma, Etienne Gilson, N.T. Wright, etc., etc. as advocates for their position, is that not a kind of consensus in its own right? Or at least enough of a challenge to it? Allison says no, of course, but must we?

Once more, we see a chapter fail to demonstrate its thesis. Far from showing TE is incompatible with historical church teaching, the most Allison has done is show that some selected confessions (even having to go so far as picking the  one stream of certain branches of Protestantism) would show that Adam and Eve must be the first humans. This is hardly the kind of broad spectrum consensus-based agreement against TE one would expect when the chapter purports to show incompatibility between positions. But that’s what readers have. Yet even in the analyses we do read, we find that it is Allison’s own use of the word “create” to unilaterally unite people as diverse as Aquinas and Francis Turretin in the same meaning without argument that dominates the conversation. Suffice to say, I, for one, remain unconvinced that  Allison has shown TE really is incompatible with historical Christian doctrine. Is there work to do? Absolutely, but that doesn’t mean no work has been done or that it cannot be done.

[1] See the work of John Ray (1627-1705), for example, to see how the debate over the meaning of fossils. Some great readings can be found on this site (click individual links to read).

[2] One example would be Etienne Gilson, who did not consider himself as a Neo-Thomist, though he has been classified as Thomist in his thought. His work “From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again” is an example of just how easily a Thomist model would be compatible with evolution.

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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