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The other day I went to a book-release lecture for Theology After Darwin, open-minded (as I always am these days, you know) and interested in hearing how orthodox Christians have been able to reconcile Christianity with an acceptance of Darwinian evolution, and to learn whether my six-day creationist background hasn't been a bit too dogmatic about things. The Christian Darwinist tent looked roomier and more spacious than the creationist, so I stuck my nose in to check it out, and boy did it smell rotten. At the end of the hour and a half, I had been firmly kicked back into good 'ol Biblical absolutism.


The two presentations, by two contributors to the book, were not so much appalling (though there were certainly appalling moments), as just flat-out boring. At the end, the question I really wanted to raise my hand and ask was "So why'd you write the book again? Did you actually have something interesting to say?" Their main point seemed to be "Theologians figured out how to accommodate Christianity to Darwinism way back in the late 1800s, so we should just listen to what they said." Ok...so how is this an important contribution to the contemporary debate? I hardly heard a new interesting piece of information the whole time (except for a few historical details about the evolution of evolution theory), which is pretty remarkable given that I have barely studied this issue. And the couple times I did hear something new, it was indeed quite appalling.

See, these two fellows did not merely buy into a very old earth, or a very old origin of animal life, but a very old origin of human life as well. They accepted the standard Darwinian account of human evolution (as in the whole ape thing), which raises much more enormous theological problems than merely asserting that God brought plant and animal life into being through the long process of evolution. What becomes of the image of God, the uniqueness of man, Adam, the Fall, if humans gradually came into being, at several places in the world, from apes? Ah, well these two fellows had some very interesting answers to that question.

As far as the image of God, easy, right? Once men had developed sufficiently (Neanderthal, perhaps?), then God decided they were ready to receive "the image of God"; so God entered into a special relationship with man, and superimposed the image of God on man by divine fiat. But what about Adam, what about the Fall? What about "Through one man sin entered into the world"? Well, one of our speakers (the widely renowned Professor of Systematic Theology at New College!!) just waved his hand at the problem and said, "I don't see any reason why a historical Atonement requires a historical Fall; the Fall simply describes an ongoing human condition." The other fellow (who was a scientist, not a theologian) put a little more effort into addressing the problem. His solution was to say that, although when "Adam" was alive, many thousands of men would already be living in various places in the world, so that Adam was in no sense the natural head of humanity, nevertheless, God could constitute him as a federal head and impute his sin to everybody else alive at that time and afterward. Oh, OK, that makes sense. I suppose God could do that after all--I mean, God is God. Thus hath nineteenth-century federal theology gone to seed.

All this got me to thinking just how scary are the potential consequences when theology flings itself headlong into the arms of nominalism, as it had to do in order to consummate its elopement with Darwin. If Creation in itself, even that greatest and most important of all God's works, Man, bears no imprint of God's purpose for it from the outset, has no true nature that properly belongs to it, and God can simply declare for it an arbitrary nature and purpose whenever he wants, then the potential forms of man, the potential uses for nature, can be as varied as the scientist or theologian's imagination. Could we not suggest that, since God saw fit to declare a new nature and moral sensibility for man in the time of Adam, so God has seen fit to declare for man a new nature, a new kind of image, a Nietzschean Superman, for us in the present day? As O'Donovan says "Once we separate God’s purposes in creation from the inherent goods of creaturely existence, there is little reason to hold on to the view that God meant anything at all by making the world."

Another reason why I am not only clinging anew to Biblical absolutism, but to philosophical realism; my youthful love affair with nominalism is fast becoming a distant memory.

6 comments:

I'm curious, Brad, why you equate nominalism with arbitrariness. No doubt some forms of it can be that, but I'm not sure many of the Medieval nominalists would have appreciated being described that way.

November 9, 2009 at 3:58 PM  

Oh dear--I was counting on no experts on nominalism reading that post!

Ha, no, I think I can defend my remarks, though to be sure, the late medieval nominalists tended to be much more conservative in the conclusions they drew from their nominalism than some the later trajectories of nominalism have been.

In speaking of nominalism, I was basically conflating it with voluntarism; they are distinct, I know, but their origins are linked, and they tend to go together. Voluntarism, I take it, puts will prior to essence, thus, God's nature is determined by his will, rather than vice versa; the nature of creation is not regulated by reference to a fixed essence, but depends simply on the fiat of the divine will, and is thus in principle alterable. If the divine will is prior to any specification in terms of a fixed nature, then its decisions are simply the result of pure, "arbitrary" choice. This suggests that, there being no particular reason why things have to be the way they are, God could simply choose, in his unconstrained will, to declare them otherwise, whether or not they are thus by nature (there being no such thing). Thus arises, among other things, a form of federal theology that operates on the assumption of "legal fictions"--it doesn't matter if Adam is actually the head of the human race, only that God declare him so.

But these are deep waters, I know, and you can't really say anything on these matters without having to hedge it with its seeming opposite (so, e.g., I have no desire to deny God's complete freedom). So, yeah...enough for now. If you want to follow up, who knows...I may need to work on a post on all this.

November 11, 2009 at 7:03 PM  

Ha, expert on nominalism I am certainly not. I understand your point now that I've read your explanation, and I think you're correct in suspecting at least some forms of nominalism, via voluntarism, leading to a world based on caprice. But at least in terms of Medieval nominalism - or, more narrowly, those Medieval nominalists I have studied in any detail, such as D'Ailly and Gerson - the conclusion of arbitrariness from voluntarism does not follow because God covenantally obligates Himself to regular (and rational) operations in the world.

However, it has been a few years since I've had a chance to look at anything related to nominalism with any serious attention, so I don't want to be too "dogmatic" myself about these thoughts.

November 11, 2009 at 7:51 PM  

Also, I am interested in any further thoughts you might have about possible connections between nominalism and evolutionary thought. I can see how Modern Science (capitals on purpose) is radically nominalist in its metaphysics (not that it would admit to having a metaphysics, of course). And, of course, without God behind the natural world to guarantee a certain outcome, everything really is a matter of chance (though a kind of "chance" ultimately "determined" by the original conditions of the Big Bang). Yet, paradoxically, Science can only work on the assumption of fixed "laws" of nature (question does this entail fixed essences?), and yet quantum mechanics seems to be aiming to destroy any concept of fixed, regular, rational operations in the world. It's a difficult set of issues to work through, to be sure.

November 11, 2009 at 7:56 PM  

Hey Tim,
Your last set of questions are intriguing enough that I think I'm going to type up another post looking into some of the questions you raise. There's definitely some interesting paradoxes there, and that came up in the talks about Darwin as well.

November 13, 2009 at 6:18 PM  

For the record Tim, there's a new branch of scientific theory emerging that subjects scientific laws themselves to the capriciousness of evolutionary theory. Some scientists argue that the so-called "laws" of nature are evolving. The theory isn't quite as 'random' as quantum mechanics, but it certainly makes nature more physically malleable (and therefore philosophically malleable).

November 20, 2009 at 5:23 AM  

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