Category Archives: theology

Is Covid-19 Evil? A Christian answer?

 

Is Covid-19 Evil? A Christian answer?

 

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The only reasonable answer is NO. Definitely No, the virus is not evil.

It is simply part of the natural order, so can be no more evil than a Koala Bear, a bluebell, a sunset or a beautiful woodland. Some will disagree, but lets consider the universe, the natural world or the creation, call it what you will.

The universe is billions of years old and billions of light years across. Our tiny planet was formed some four and half billion years ago along with the Solar System. Initially Earth was too hot for life and gradually cooled, with volcanic activity, earthquakes and the like. The first life was formed some three or four billion years ago. Grossly simplifying it was some kind of bacteria, which lived and died at a great rate. Viruses appeared as dubiously living things riding piggy-back on any life-form they could and often killed them. Since then the earth has been violent, with bits of crust whizzing round the surface of the planet with earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis. Life has also moved on. New and more complex forms arose and went extinct to be replaced by others. Animals could only thrive by eating up other living things, whether plant or animal. At times fossil animals have been found with the teeth marks of predators. Disease and death was the other side of life and many of these were caused by bacteria or viruses. Animals have a love-hate relationship with bacteria and thus half the human body is made up of – not human flesh – but BACTERIA. Last to appear on Planet Earth were humans and for many millennia their lives were “nasty, brutish and short”. Life expectancy did not top 40 anywhere until the 19th century. Famine, starvation and disease were rampant, with regular pandemics, most notably the Black Death.

All of this is totally natural with suffering and death going on for a few billion years. Triceratops suffered in agony when ripped apart by a T Rex, as much as we do if we suffer from covid-19 or another ghastly disease.

All this is totally natural and is simply the way the world is.

Think of watching an animal in at the kill. Consider a lion bringing down a springbok. Once looking out the kitchen window I saw a sparrow eating honeysuckle berries. In a flash a sparrowhawk appeared and grabbed the poor sparrow. Last autumn I discovered spiders in my garden were catching tortoiseshell butterflies in their webs, wrapping them in silk nd taking them to their food cache. All is totally and utterly natural.

Too often we only consider the cuddly bits of nature and forget the rest. We want to stay with Bambi. Nature is not like that. Neither are our lives and we know most of us will die of dementia, heart, respiratory disease or cancer. Three hundred years ago we never lived long enough to die from those.

I spent over a year living in a mountainous desert, which was as rugged as it was beautiful. Each day was self-indulgence on fantastic scenery, which was even more fantastic when the desert flowered after rains. But I did not keep my social distance with a Cape Cobra, which probably would have been fatal. Before that I was in the Ugandan bush, beautiful in a different way, but I had to take anti-malarial tablets. Mosquitoes kill more humans than any other animal – including humans. Closer to home our enjoyment of snow-covered mountains can end up with hypothermia. Not to mention all the other diseases we can get.

All is totally natural, but suffering and death is never far away

Violent earth processes, predation, disease, suffering and death is usually referred to as Natural Evil, but that seems a misnomer as if it is Natural how can it be Evil – unless some devil put its oar in? Too much Christian theology does just that; the alleged Curse given by God after the Fall of Genesis 3, or due to a very early angelic Fall, spiritual warfare as the devil tries to wreck everything now.

To say that suffering is Natural is not comforting if we see a pyroclastic cloud or tsunami coming towards or a large branch falls on our head or we are struck by lightning. Or even when we get a bad cold and feel like death warmed up. Worse is when we break a bone, get a nasty illness especially if it is fatal or when we witness illness in others. Think of watching the 2004 Tsunami clips on TV.

It is painful, it is sad, but we need to admit it is totally natural and normal so Natural Evil is not a good term.

What about Covid-19 and other suffering?

Is it always natural and not evil?

It seems most likely that it came from a bat at a live, wet, market and jumped to humans at the end of 2019. In a sense that makes it harder as we can’t blame one person or a group.

If suffering was caused by agent then we could blame the agent.

There are those who want to identify the agent. Some say it is God cursing the earth after the sin of Adam and Eve related in Genesis 3. Many evangelicals believe just that. Others, noting that the previous idea can’t be tenable if we accept and ancient earth and evolution suggest a primeval fall of angels, who have been causing havoc ever since. Even today, well over two centuries after the discovery of geological time and extinction before humans, far too many Christians still accept this untenable set of beliefs.

Or else one may claim to believe in spiritual warfare, in that we live in a world where natural disasters, disease and evil are tied up not only with the choices of human beings but with the freedom exercised by spiritual forces in rebellion against God. Despite the victory of Christ is his death and resurrection, there are still lots of spiritual battles of good and evil, whether cancer, a tsumani or a pandemic.

These divide creation into good and evil. But how do you decide which parts of creation is evil? When in Yellowstone some years ago a Ranger told me that some visitors told him to remove all the bad animals from the park. I presume they meant grizzlies and bison who are not very cuddly. Just because they are potentially dangerous doesn’t mean they are evil. I must admit I was a bit jumpy on one hike despite having a bear bell! Some extend this to the inanimate creation and consider earth forces like earthquakes and volcanoes to be bad and with malign spiritual forces behind them. This is totally Manichean with a battle of good and evil and makes people look for the good and the bad, rather like that Yellowstone visitor.

We cannot make this simplistic division of creation into good and bad, but we need simply to accept creation as it is, and realise there are some uncomfortable aspects. I’ll come back to suffering.

More recently some, and not fundamentalist, have stressed the Groaning of Creation from Romans 8. This can be tied into the fundamentalist view of the curse of Genesis 3, or have a curse without a curse, apparently accepting the whole evolutionary picture by saying the cosmos needs redeeming. I have to admit that I do not know what it actually means, and really only makes sense if we believe a literal fall which changed the cosmos. It is also dependent on a particular translation of Romans 8 vs 19ff.

One of the most common theistic explanations which is brought out every disaster is that the event – hurricane or virus – is an Act of God and a judgement on sin. This is a common practice of leading pastors and they single out things like gay marriage. I find it hard to believe in a loving god who’d bump off so many people because a few went for single-sex marriage. It makes God an ogre and a nasty bit of work.

Granted this is an old view and was wheeled out for many natural disasters and pandemics in the past. It does have some roots in the Old Testament but not in Jesus Christ.

None do justice to a loving God (though there are issues why He allows such disasters) or to the brute naturalness of these disasters whether floods or pandemics.

Not all suffering is natural

Much suffering is not from a natural cause and is caused, directly or indirectly, by humans. Human history is full of examples and the Holocaust is the worst of many. I write this close to the 75th anniversary of the freeing of Belsen. Words fail on that. Or take some examples from history; the Thirty Years war of the 17th century, the harrowing of the north of England by William the Conqueror, the blood-bath of WWI for a few.

It is too easy to focus on the evil of the Holocaust and Pol Pot and ignore all the lesser evils like the ones each of us commits – assuming we can grade them. Human evil always hurts others to a greater or lesser extent. Just read a standard history book and think of the human suffering caused by war, revolution, or misgovernment. The most well-known is the history of World War II with its horrific toll of suffering and death. Just read a volume by Max Hastings or Anthony Beevor or Michael Burleigh’s aptly titled work on WWII Moral combat, which is a most unsettling book.

It does not have to be the world at war, it can be within a family, local community or a church community. On the last there is not only child abuse but spiritual abuse Title. Many have left a church totally hurt by “nice Christians” who behaved badly.

Some may try to play down the moral side by insisting that often it was not deliberate. That comes from the common, but simplistic and wrong, view that for an action to be sinful/evil, it must be deliberate. Not all evil is deliberate, but that does not make it not evil. In one of the Anglican prayers of confession we find these words;

We have sinned…..

Through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault…

I confess that when I first used it half a century ago I thought it misguided as I thought sin had to be cold-bloodedly deliberate. I gradually appreciated its wisdom.

Weakness is the failure to do what is right as Edmund Burke said “All that is needed for evil to thrive is that good men do nothing.” In fact, good men become evil. Weakness can often mean lacking the moral fibre or guts to do what is right.

Ignorance comes in various forms. At the simplest it is simply not knowing and there is nothing wrong in that, provided we admit to it. It is wise to realise one’s ignorance. But there is a more serious ignorance when we simply fail to find out something on a vital issue. This can have lethal results if a mechanic is ignorant on fixing a bike, car or plane, because he failed to consult the manual. Ignorance can be deliberate and/or culpable, when a person simply fails to find out what they can. Many years ago there was a ghastly accident on Snowdon. A group of hillwalker out to climb Snowdon in January, and without skill or equipment attempted a snow and ice climb. Halfway up one slipped and broke his leg, they left him there. They carried on, another slipped and died. It was a catalogue of culpable folly and Snowdonia Mountain Rescue were fulsome in criticism, something they do not usually do. You may be ignorant about a route up a mountain and thus when you attempt it you may have a serious accident. But that does not make you blameless, as if you have not worked out the route before by studying the map and guide book and checked whether you and the party are capable of returning safely, you are responsible for everything which goes wrong. Many years ago the Welsh Mountain Rescue ascribed nearly half of accidents one year to folly.

Now the Holocaust is simply “deliberate fault” and unmitigated human evil. There are many lesser examples of bad actions due to “deliberate fault”, and I am sure you can think of many – including your own.

Where does covid-10 come in? The virus itself is totally natural, and, if the present scientific consensus is right, then C-19 had existed for ages in bats. In Wuhan the virus did what viruses often do, especially when its host animal is badly stressed – it jumped to another species and this time to humans and we know the rest and the terrible results.

There is no evil in the C-19 virus itself, though it causes disease, but the evil and sin is in how conditions were formed to enable the virus to jump species. All the evidence points to the live trade in exotic animals, which is illegal in civilised countries. Animals are kept in appalling conditions and if alive are highly stressed and if dead squalid and filthy. It is not a hygenic environment, ideal for spreading diseases and that is what happened. (I am aware that some say it came from a lab – when the same strictures apply.)

Some may try to play down the moral side by insisting it was not deliberate, so we go back to the prayer of confession;

We have sinned…..

Through ignorance, through weakness

The outbreak of C-19 was not deliberate but seems to have been caused by blatant ignorance and weakness in taking part in live markets. The lack of animal welfare could be seen as deliberate. Before too many fingers are pointed, the whole human race has a bad record on treating the earth and the life in it.

We could list many other examples like the drunk or careless driver who kills.

Earlier I gave some of the false explanations for so-called Natural Evil and why they are wrong. They gain traction because they do appear to be explanations and I’ve offered nothing by way of explanation. My omission is deliberate, but it is not an omission, but a realisation that an explanation is not forthcoming. We are simply stymied by suffering, whether on a personal level when we lose a relative, a pandemic or a war.

When suffering strikes many want an explanation, be it “Why is God punishing me?” as if is a result of wrong-doing, either ours or Adam’s. Suffering is often seen as punishment and enough theological spin-doctors down the centuries have spun their tales, which often cause more hurt than comfort.

We live in a world where suffering is guaranteed whether on a large or small scale. Each of us has experienced suffering in the past, more for some than others. From the news or history books we will hear of more. However much we put it on one side we know it will continue to hit us until the day of our deaths. That death will cause suffering to others. My mother, who lost my father at 51, once said to me decades later, “you never get over it.” Move from the family to the wider society.

Suffering is more of a problem today than before when life expectancy was about 40, you’d expect to lose half your children, famine and disease hanging over like a cloud. If you read about 19th century Britain, you find women dying in childbirth, lots of children dying and a life where death was never far away. At the end of the 19th century Sunday School hymnbooks had several hymns to sing to mark the death of a fellow scholar – as that was expected. Then most, Christian or not, were much more acceptive of suffering, as they had to be.

The Bible gives us nothing tangible on the origin of evil and suffering.

On the former it accepts some kind of spiritual evil, which is weaker than the power of God. I am very hesitant to call it in on every occasion but have occasionally come across it.  This needs to be emphasised, especially as many want spin a theology of little biblical basis, whether to explain suffering or to give comfort.

Human evil or sin is a brute fact and common to every person, The Old Testament is weaker on it than the New Testament. And the behaviour in the OT is often appalling! It is almost that the character of Jesus highlights what human evil is by contrast. Each human comes off worst in comparison, thus giving the central theme  – all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God – which on its own would be soul-destroying, but the greater emphasis is on Jesus Christ, whose forgiving transformative powers are presented in so many different ways, like the many facets of a cut diamond.

I suggest the common and popular view of atonement – penal substitution – is very limited and self-centred focusing on the individual’s salvation, rather than the reconciliation and redemption which litter the pages of the New Testament. It also leans to seeing suffering as punishment, and is also rather smugly triumphant.

Focusing just on punishment for sin, it overlooks the fact that we have a mangled Jesus, who was humiliated and beaten up before being strung up. Jesus had entered into human suffering, in a way which most of us won’t. During his life He was not the strong man overpowering his opponents but identified with the unpowerful. Nothing is further from the Jesus of the Gospels than the corruption of the Nazi Churches with their fuhrer Christology. Jesus was no ubermensch superior to everyone else (with blue eyes and blond hair too). Instead he was an untermensch – everybody’s dogsbody. As he made clear in Mark 10 when two disciples wanted to bag the best seats in the Kingdom.

42 So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

He came to serve, not to be served and that is the calling of every Christian. Paul brings this out in Phillipians 2. Where Paul looks to the example of Jesus for a Christian to follow

2If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,

6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess  that Jesus Christ is Lord,  to the glory of God the Father.

12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Here the example of Jesus’s sacrificial service and devotion is something to be emulated and that it something which has come into the wider society through the Christian faith as Tom Holland argues in his book Dominion, even though many would not confess to being Christian. We have seen this sacrifice during the covid pandemic.

Perhaps sacrificial service is the only Christian answer to any suffering on any scale, rather than spinning yarns about god cursing Adam and Eve, or a spiritual warfare. It is probably the only human answer too.

Suffering and death is a given and never explained and that is the theme of Job, a fine religious novel in verse. How anyone can take it a historical beats me as the whole story is artistically contrived and none the worse for that. The writer enjoyed piling it on with a certain black humour in the first few chapters and then introduced the reader to four, well-meaning but wrong-headed advisors (just as we have today from many religious writers).

Job ends up after his four advisors were no help being confronted by God;

“Were you there when I created the universe”

Or rather Job 38 vs1 ff

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 2 ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 4 ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you  have understanding.5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!  Or who stretched the line upon it?

The essence of God’s message to Job was “trust me”,  without the superficiality of today’s usage. Job turned to God in trust and then to action. In the absence of any answers on suffering a Christian who rejects all the dodgy theological yarns spun in despair has only the option of trusting God in Jesus Christ and striving to serve.

As I wrote above the essence of Jesus’s life was to serve others and so that became the mark of the early Christians, as, unlike the Romans, Christians actually cared for those in need, and this became apparent in the pandemics which afflicted the Roman world. This marked out Christians from the beginning and the contrast with the Roman lack of care for others is summed up pithily in the Epistle to Diognetus ch5 vs7 “They share their food but not their wives.” Many Romans did the opposite! This stemmed from the second of the two commandments and other parts of Jesus’ teaching and extended in Paul’s ethical teaching and above all in the letter of James chap1 vs27

 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

And so, despite the Church being sucked into power structures since Constantine, It has always had an emphasis of caring for those in need, heroically in pandemics and more mundanely in the setting up of hospices and the care of the sick. Many of these became hospitals with a legacy of such names as St Mary’s, St Thomas’s and others. With the missionary movement, Christian missionaries of all denominations pioneered hospitals and medical work in areas where there had been none.

However it is wrong to see Christianity as primarily a moral code devoted to good works rather than a faith in Jesus Christ, with all the added religious mumbo jumbo about salvation as Clement Atlee called it. The two are totally intermeshed and cannot be separated.

In his letters Paul often first gives his doctrine and then his ethical teaching.  John in 1 John presents it almost as an oscillation between “religious faith in Christ as saviour” and loving action.

1 John 3 vs23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.

1 John 4 vs 7-117 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

Clarity can be worse than imprecision and can lead to arrogance, whereas if our imprecision comes from not knowing we are more likely to be humble and understanding, and thus more able to help others.

I suggest there is no “answer” to C-19, and all attempts to give an answer are doomed as I demonstrated earlier. Perhaps I should be more dogmatic and say

THERE IS NO ANSWER TO C-19 OR TO ANY SUFFERING.

We have witnessed some arrogance in response to C-19 , like those who scrawl “Jesus is my vaccine” on their trucks, or think their faith will protect them.

Pandemics are not like that and never have been, or else the Black Death would have been neither.

The answer comes in doing the best one can and that means looking for the science, as did the earliest attempt at quarantine or some ways of dealing with outbreaks like typhus in Philadelphia in 1836. Any solutions will be in the scientific knowledge of viruses and how to deal with them. As this is so matter of fact, technical, and apparently soulless, more emotive responses are often preferred. That is doomed. To understand one needs to be practicing a very high de-coupling, and then, and only then, dealing with the personal suffering with skill and care. Many of the daily scientific reports this March and April have been rather cold and distant and some have criticised them for their lack of human warmth. However the best scientific evidence is needed before making moral and political decisions. Those decisions are not easy, as often the least bad option must be chosen.

To those Christians who have to have a “biblical” answer to everything, this will be a feeble and wrong response. It is so much easier to see Covid-19 as God’s judgement on a wicked world or a similar ghastly theological explanation. Using the word correctly and wisely they are heretical and also very hurtful.

We are in the position of Job, in that magnificent Old Testament legend about suffering. No one can give an answer, except that on this planet “shit happens” – there is death, disease and suffering which hits us in so many different ways. Most of the time it is one individual in one family but a Pandemic affects everyone potentially. Corporately we face our mortality and find no answer.

We can understand it partially with our reductionist science and then need to apply that as those who suffer are cared for and hopefully led to the road of recovery.

For a Christian that is to look at the example of Christ and to love one another.

Perhaps this meme quoting an American Old Testament sums up what we shoulf think and above all do.

Image may contain: text

 

Is Covid-19 part of the Curse of Genesis 3?

The Covid-19 pandemic is plain ghastly . As well as killing so many, it has made many people ask fundamental questions about life and death and God.

There have been a variety of responses, but many seem to go for a literalsit view of gensis whereby God afflicted not only humans but the whole creation with a Curse, thus punisheing us all with suffering, disease and death.

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Christian Faith and does a lot of damage and also makes Christianity look utterly absurd and God a nasty litle ogre. I decided not to say that more bluntly.

Over the last week or so Premier Christianity has published three views of a Christian understanding of the coronavirus. ; Justin Brierly in a blog  , John Lennox and now an interview with Tim Keller.

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On the actual pastoral side of caring for coronavirus sufferers they are good, but not when they consider the theology of suffering or theodicy.

I discussed Justin in this blog

https://michaelroberts4004.wordpress.com/2020/04/08/covid-19good-friday-and-the-death-of-christ/

and found his three altrnatives most unsatisfactory and not biblically based. There were

  1. Suffering due to the Fall of Adam
  2. Suffering due to an Angelic Fall
  3.  Suffering is due to spiritual warfere beteeen God and evil spiritual powers.

None can be considered orthodox and have serious consequences for a Christian understanding of suffering.

In this blog Cara Bentley interviews Tim Keller, who is a leading American Evangelical pastor and theologian

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We ask the New York based pastor and author Tim Keller why God is allowing coronavirus and what the pandemic means for the Church and the world

Source: Tim Keller: People will say ‘I came to Christ during the virus’ – Premier Christianity

On the more pastoral and practical side Keller is most constructive and shows how suffering makes one asks the fuindamental question about life, death and God. He refers to America post9/11 , when many looked to God for answers to that evil – but it fizzled out

Thirdly, the more personal answer is, I don’t know the reason for your suffering. But I do know what it’s not. It’s not that God doesn’t love you. Christianity, uniquely among all the religions of the world, says that God actually came to earth and got involved in our suffering in order to someday end it without ending us.

Over the years, as a pastor and a sufferer, that has been the thing that’s helped my heart. Jesus suffers, he understands. I don’t have a God who’s remote. He must have a good reason why he hasn’t stopped it yet. It can’t be that he doesn’t love me, because look what he did on the cross.

Like Keller, in my lack of an answer and understanding I look to the cross of Jesus and especially those words which sum up the whole of Christianity

Eloi, Eloi, Lama sabacthani?

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

That comes out in my blog referenced above

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However I completely diagree with what Keller said here.

Is it correct to say God “caused” or he “allowed” all this to happen?

God did not create a world with suffering in it. Genesis says that was not his original design. The suffering and evil in the world is due to our turning away from him, and he’s going to end it at some point. We don’t know when that’s going to be, but he says he’s committed to wiping every tear away. Everything is happening according to his plan, but that doesn’t mean that he has any pleasure in the suffering of people. Yes, God is not out of control, but that doesn’t mean that he actually enjoys or directly causes anybody to suffer. I think that’s the balance you have to strike.

What Keller is saying here is that there was no death or suffering in the whole of creation until Adam and Eve took of the fruit in Gen 3 and suffering, disease and death came in as a result. From then on not only humans died , but also animals who before that were pain-free and death -free.

This comes straight out of Milton’s Paradise Lost , see this blog

https://michaelroberts4004.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/why-the-apple-didnt-kill-adam-and-eve/

The offending part of Milton to many in the 19th century is to be found in the opening words;

“Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit

Of that forbidden fruit, whose mortal taste

Brought death into the world, and all our woe“.

and

Beast now with beast gan war, and fowl with fowl,

And fish with fish; to graze the herb all leaving,

Devoured each other. P.Lost X 710-12

 

Milton is clear. Had Adam and Eve not eaten the fruit there would be no animal death and suffering. Despite Colenso, Hitchcock, Buckland and many others nearly 200 years ago, (picture of my favourite geologist William Buckland in Wales in 1842)

buckland

this perception has had great influence for over three and a half centuries, although it only came to the fore after 1500. Its history during that time is patchy. Initially it was almost the default position albeit held loosely, probably because there was so little evidence for geology and its implications for animal death.

It is a common evangelical view of early Genesis but it is more eisegesis than exegesis as it reads things out of Genesis which are not there. We end up with the Curse, whereby as a result of Adam’s sin in Genesis 3 God inflicted pain, suffering and death not only on humans but every living thing. This is the standard fare of all Young earth Creationists.

Not only is it bad biblical interpretation, but is contrary to all of science and this goes back at least 250 years. For hundreds of years now geologists, Christian or not, have demonstrated that the earth is not a few thousand years old as a literal reading of Genesis seems to imply. Rather it is much older and that means prehistoric life was living and dying on earth long before the first humans. However dinosaurs were living, dying, getting diseases and attacking each other 100 million years ago.

column+temp

[by 1800 geologists had realised that the earth was millions of years old but could not do precise dating. That came in after 1905 when radioactivity was applied to dating rocks , so now we know the earth is 4.6 billion years old and humans have been around for less than a million. In the 1790s it was realsied that some animals had gone extinct and soon lots of prehistoric extinct animals were discovered going back a good billion years. To accept what Keller said you must say the earth is only a few thousand years old and all gology is wrong!]

The fact of an ancient earth and life and death going back billions of years completely undermines and nullifies what Keller said.

What he said is simply false.

Thus the later sentences in that paragraph are meaningless.

Yet there is hope through Jesus Christ who entered our suffering on the cross and conquered death in this resurrection.

I conclude by lifting the end of my blog on Justin;

 

Suffering reduces us to a position of weakness and humility. This is a major theme of both the Old and New Testament, even though it is often sidelined in Christendom and revivalism, which prefers Christ as Lord and King rather than servant. It can be argued that the New Testament refers to Jesus as Lord and Saviour  to subvert the demand in the Roman Empire to see Caesar as Lord. How could an executed felon be Lord and Saviour?

So consider this felon. His teaching was a development of the prophetic side of the Old Testament Law with the emphasis on love of neighbour.  Apart from their worship of a different god to most Romans, this became their mark along with their keenness to care for the less fortunate. This put most expressively in the Letter to Diognetus (late 2nd cent?), “They share their food, but not their wives.” Holland discusses it in his chapter (V) on Charity in his book Dominion.

This love and service to others is self-emptying, or kenotic. It is hinted at in Isaiah with his suffering servant; Chap 42 vs 1-9, and Chap 52 vs13 to53 vs12, which forms the backcloth of the accounts of Jesus’ death.

Suffering is emptying. Paul develops that in his appeal to be conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ in Philippians 2.vs5-8

4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

Yes, I know I left out the resurrection, but my emphasis is on self-emptying love in action here.

His self-emptying is seen finally in the cross and comes out in his putting down of power hungry disciple Mark 10 vs 43-5

43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

As a result when early Christians after Constantine were not involved in politicking and re-inventing the trappings of the Roman Empire, were in the forefront of caring for those in need. This was manifest during the intermittent plagues and more continually in the foundations of hospices and places to care for the sick.

This is probably where the only “answer” to suffering can be found.

Eloi, eloi, lama sabacthani

 

 

COVID-19,Good Friday and the Death of Christ.

Why did a loving God allow the Coronavirus?

Is this actually true?

The Christian story is of a broken and rebellious creation that is awaiting the renewal of all things.

 

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Little did we think when we heard the reports from China in January 2020 that within two months virtually the whole world would be in lock-down. I shall not deal with all the medical and scientific issues. But what about issues raised for Christians?

How should a Christian think about such a pandemic? Yes, there have been many in the course of history and the worst in Britain and other countries was the Black Death in the 14th century.

A pandemic raises such questions like;

Why did God allow it?

How can God be good?

Which are all variants trying to understand the WHY of suffering.

Most attempts consider what is called Natural Evil and for long I have wondered whether that is both a misnomer and misunderstands the nature of the universe, or the way the world is. One who has taken it head on is Justin Brierly of Premier Christian Radio in a recent blog. I think his alternative understandings are most unsatisfactory.

https://www.premierchristianity.com/Blog/Why-doesn-t-God-stop-Coronavirus-and-mend-the-world?fbclid=IwAR3GbGZtQthH_e0F9pbOlvXgojbbrE3h-W8lXRb7TP6BJWRVk0MuR5r3tQ8

The question of God and suffering is one of the oldest questions ever asked and there are no easy answers. Most often the response needed for those who are walking through suffering is our love and care, not our clever theology and philosophy. However, when the time comes for intellectual answers, I believe there are some helpful way to make sense of suffering.

Justin is right on here. There are no easy answers and I wonder if there is ananswer. He is right to say those suffering need love not theology, clever or not. Some are most unclever. As he continues Justin offers some theology, which is focussed on Romans 8 vs 19ff.

The Groaning of Creation

But when it comes to Coronavirus we may be tempted to ask: Why has God allowed death, disease and natural disaster to exist at all? We may be able to understand the existence of evil caused by our own free will, but what about the ‘natural evil’ that exists in the world? This question can only be answered by a Christian from within his or her own worldview, and means we must expand our perspective to a cosmic scale.

This is the Fundamental question which is almost impossible to answer – I keep failing on it.

 

Out of Kilter?

The apostle Paul states that “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). The Christian story is that the whole created order is in some sense ‘out of kilter’ at a cosmic level. Some theologians trace this to human rebellion – an outworking of ‘the fall’ which acts both forwards and backwards in time. Others point to the existence of an earlier rebellion in the angelic realm that sparked a ‘cosmic fall’ (hinted at in Revelation 12:9).

This is dangerous pinning a certain idea on a few verses, especially as they have long been open to different understandings. There are questions on the translation here, but I’ll leave that. What does it means for the whole creation to be groaning?

Is Creation out of kilter?

Is it actually true that creation is ‘out of kilter’ at a cosmic level.”? Here he seeks to answer

Why has God allowed death, disease and natural disaster to exist at all? We may be able to understand the existence of evil caused by our own free will, but what about the ‘natural evil’ that exists in the world?

Justin does not consider that fact that death and natural disaster i.e volcanoes, earthquakes and floods, were there from the beginning of this planet’s history. Further, if he is right that the creation is “out of kilter”, when was the creation knocked out of kilter? We need to ask

 “When?”

“in what ways “

 “and in what ways was it out of kilter a billion years ago, when there were no humans?”

I never had a sense the created order is “out of kilter” whether in my geological work or as I look around me or when I cycle or walk in the countryside. That is not to say humans are not trying to put creation out of kilter, but that is totally different

What Justin is claiming that a Fall, whether of humans in the Garden of Eden or of an angelic Fall, has put the whole cosmos out of kilter. This is not what either Genesis 3 or Rev 12 vs9 state. It is reading into it. It probably has more to do with Milton’s Paradise Lost than the Bible.

I am fully aware that many theologians have argued for one or the other to get God off the hook for suffering, but succeed in attaching God more firmly to the hook, and making Him an ogre. To afflict the cosmos with a Curse because of the misdemeanours of Adam and Eve seems cruel to everyone and everything else.

He claims; “Whatever the origin, the result is a world that is not as it should be.” I have to ask in what ways is the world not as it should be.

If you mean the physical world, nothing has changed in geological time. The physical laws have not changed. Volcanoes are still erupting four billion years on. Yes, I’ve looked at volcanic rocks one or two billion years old. Viruses also keep attaching themselves to other living things as they did billions of years ago, and at times kill their hosts.

However human behaviour is totally out of kilter and often damages the natural world. I suspect the Coronavirus would have stayed in bats if humans had not mistreated them.

 Yet Paul includes the promise that one day “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).

What does Justin glean from this?

Everybody has experienced living in the tension of this broken world. The groaning of creation brings both good and bad across our path. The natural laws that operate are both a blessing and a curse. Tectonic plate activity renews the surface of the earth with minerals, yet wreaks havoc when humans build cities on the fault lines. Cell replication allows our bodies to grow and develop, yet can result in cancer when natural processes misfire. Death is a necessary part of the cycle of life, yet still remains our “last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

Who says this is a broken world? It is as it has always been. The movement of tectonic plates is just normal and has been going on for billions of years, causing earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis.

Why does Justin not accept this?

The Coronavirus is just one more example of the broken world we live in. Life is a God-given miracle of extraordinary engineering and complexity. Yet the physical process of life itself are subject to viruses, parasites, and disease. The “bondage to decay” that St Paul speaks of reverberates through the cosmos.

This is rather high-flown with an appeal to the bondage of decay from Paul. It sounds impressive but what does it mean?

By creating a world of free creatures – both physical and spiritual – God has granted a level of freedom to the whole of the created order. That means that God won’t simply step in and wave a magic wand to take away the suffering in the world. We are part of the problem of evil, and God has chosen us to be part of the solution too.

Where does Justin think the other part of the problem of evil comes from?

Throughout the New Testament we are presented with a worldview of spiritual warfare in which God has chosen his people to be fellow combatants waging a war, not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual “principalities [and] powers” (Ephesians 6:12) through our prayer, love and action.

How on earth (literally) does Justin see spiritual warfare in plate tectonics?

God hates Coronavirus

I have increasingly seen that this ‘warfare’ view of reality may help those who have experienced great suffering to understand that God is not the author of their pain. One such person is Jessica Kelley, whom I interviewed about the loss of her four-year-old son Henry to brain cancer as related in her book Lord Willing?.  …….Jessica had come to reject what she terms the ‘blueprint’ view of a God who creates pain and suffering as part of his sovereign plan. Instead she embraced the warfare view, that we live in a world where natural disasters, disease and evil are tied up not only with the choices of human beings but with the freedom exercised by spiritual forces in rebellion against God. Although the war was decisively turned towards victory through the death and resurrection of Jesus, there still remains a world of running spiritual battles.  …….. Henry was a casualty in the ongoing battle to redeem a fallen and broken world:……………..

Jessica’s perspective can equally be turned to this present Coronavirus pandemic. God did not will this crisis. Let’s not lay the blame at his door. But he is working through the actions and prayers of those who are seeking to see his Kingdom come on earth.

It is hard to comment on this owing to Jessica’s tragic loss of a child, which I have not had to go through, but to argue “Instead she embraced the warfare view, that we live in a world where natural disasters, disease and evil are tied up not only with the choices of human beings but with the freedom exercised by spiritual forces in rebellion against God.” It is very dubious to tie up what he calls natural disasters i.e. volcanoes etc with spiritual warfare..

Are volcanoes, earthquakes, floods caused by spiritual forces in rebellion against God” There is nothing in the bible to support that and is very Manichaean.

Alternative views

Nevertheless, Jessica’s view is controversial to some. Many would object that a God who isn’t in control of the whole show isn’t the God of the Bible.

Why should we ever believe that God is control down to the last detail? It sounds great but it is not true to experience, though many of us experience a general guidance at times, but not at others. Did God really was in control when you twisted your ankle while out on a walk?

Some e.g. Thomas Oard rightly argue that God does not “interfere with and control” his creation, as in his book The Uncontrolling love of God. He extends the idea from Phillipians 2 of Jesus Christ emptying himself to God emptying himself in creation and often letting things be.

 Calvinist theologians believe that God is the author of both joy and sorrow and, even though we may struggle to see it, works through both for his ultimate purposes and glory. They say the warfare view contains too much of the same sort of randomness in suffering that the atheist must contend with. 

For me, I end up with a certain agnosticism in respect of God’s control but the warfare view is both Manichean and tries to divide creation into good (flowers etc) and evil (volcanoes) and makes Christians see everything as warfare and conflict.

Inevitably, different Christians will come to different understandings of how to reconcile God and suffering. What we can agree on is that God is good, suffering is bad, but that his love and purposes will win out in the end.

Yes, but that does not mean we should tolerate what can only be called extreme views – as is the warfare view, or that popular view of the Curse. What we need to agree on is that God is good, even when things are going badly and don’t make sense. That is found in Romans 8 especially the conclusion

Justin states;

The Christian story is of a broken and rebellious creation that is awaiting the renewal of all things.

This is simply not biblical. Just considering the Bible, there is nothing to support “a broken and rebellious Creation”. It is a variation of the Curse mythology which reckons God screwed up a supposedly “perfect “ creation because of Adam and Eve. The Christian Story IS of a broken humanity who are also stuffing up the rest of creation, but only on this planet but not beyond the Solar System, if that. In what ways are meteors, distant stars and planets “broken and rebellious”? Or even birds and bees and even bats and pangolins? Or, dare I say, viruses? The story starts there with humans stuffing up the earth and culminates with Jesus Christ who “unscrews” humanity and reconciles them (2 Cor 5)

If, and a big if, Justin’s is the Christian story then I wholeheartedly reject it as fanciful and absurd. Further it is not the Christian story held by all Christians over the last 2000 years.

The Christian story in its basics is that humans screwed things up and Jesus thorugh his death and resurrection has shown the way to unscrew it. Forget about warfare with volcanoes, or animal predation.

 How should we see God in the light of the coronavirus?

Above all it is wrong to focus on death and suffering as due to Adam’s misdeeds, and neither of Justin’s alternatives make sense. This is the danger of a self-contained biblical argument and not looking at what we know of the world. Any world view which disregards the science is worthless. If we applied that principle to astronomy we would believe in a flat earth and that seeds actually die before they germinate (1 Cor 15). We need to take note of science and especially the history of the earth and the life therein. Here it is in outline

The Universe was formed 13.4 by years ago with the big Bang (which was put forward by a Christian cosmologist Fr G Le Maitre)

The Earth was formed 4.6 billion years ago and since then its surface has been sundered by plate tectonics. There seemed to be no involvement by naughty angels and it was too early for Adam to cause the eruptions.

Life first formed between 3 and 4 billion years ago. The earliest forms were like bacteria with viruses going piggy-back. Thus from then on bacteria were dying and being infected by viruses. We then have the sequence of life and so to vertebrates, dinosaurs, mammals and lastly humans.

This makes it clear that death disease and suffering were there from the beginning and along with volcanoes. The earth is IN kilter.

So it continues today with volcanoes, earthquakes, animals and people dying.

Every so often the earth is hit with something like the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which some implied had a human origin, rather than being natural. Some want to regard the bits which are painful as Natural Evil. That is a wrong term as those things are simply – – – NATURAL.

Can you call this evil – natural or not? It is simply life and the way the world is .Any belief system or worldview which does not accept this is flying in the face of facts.

Here we come face to face with problem of suffering, which comes out so starkly in Covid-19. All living things die, often after getting a disease. Even the fossil record shows that. At times it is accompanied with great pain. It is a problem because it is downright ghastly and we feel it should not be that way We try to rationalise it and often by one of the three put forward by Justin. We are unwilling to say it’s purely natural and believers don’t want to say God did it.

It is a dilemma, which we all seek to resolve. Not all find a resolution which supports faith and many conclude that God cannot allow the suffering and if He did then He must be the Devil. This alone should stop us from coming out with slick answers, which may help us but repel others.

Suffering was a great problem for Charles Darwin as I discuss here

https://michaelroberts4004.wordpress.com/2015/05/06/parasitic-wasps-and-the-death-of-jesus-with-hat-tip-to-darwin/

What should we say as Christians?

Here we turn to the Christian story – the four gospels, which are odd as they give so much on Jesus’s last week on earth, describing in his public execution in gruesome detail.

As Jesus he died, he shrieked;

Eloi eloi, lama sabachthani!

My God. My God, why have you forsaken me?

There was Jesus, the Son of God, suffering an excruciating death. Imagine those fat, rusty nails hammered through your wrist and ankles. Then being suspended making it almost impossible to breath along with the nails tearing your flesh and broken bone.

The centre of the Christian Faith is on the ghastly death of Jesus and his surprising resurrection. Traditionally Christian have viewed the death of Jesus being purely an atonement without considering that in death Jesus shared human suffering.

Is this an answer?

Yes and no

It is not a simplistic answer.

The Old Testament doesn’t give an answer, but a poem/saga about suffering – the book of Job. Job had suffered badly and all his advisors were useless and then he met God, who asked him if he was present at creation (Job 38 -41). Job realised he did not understand and then trusted God. We can do no more, as we don’t understand as suffering gives no logical explanation and there is no logical explanation for suffering. The message was “trust God”.

This where Moltmann’s insights in The Crucified God are so helpful, as we see that the cross is not only forgiveness and reconciliation but also God in Christ entering into all suffering and shrieking “My God, My God. Why have you forsaken me?” That is what we often do when suffering hits us. Suffering points to the cross.

That is as far as we can go. There is nothing wrong in saying our understanding is partial, but it is very wrong to think we have understood suffering.

This raises the question whether suffering can be called Natural Evil as it is not Evil but just Natural. Volcanoes are just the normal activity in the earth’s crust. OK, some suffering is caused by the evil of others, but that should never be called Natural Evil, but just Evil. It’s a bit tough if you are being eaten by lion, drowned in a tsunami, or suffering a disease, but this is the fabric of creation. For the record I put my foot four inches from a sleeping Cape Cobra!

Many Christians are unwilling to accept that suffering and “natural disaster” is written into the structure of the earth, and thus what some call “Natural Evil” is simply natural. Many perform theological contortions and bad exegesis to explain evil and suffering. The temptation is to explain it away by an appeal that suffering came in at the Curse when Adam fell, or some angelic fall, or spiritual warfare. I would argue that not only are they bad/heretical/false theology but are liable to have very bad pastoral effects.

First, it results in a Manichean dualism, where everything natural is split into good and bad. An amusing example of this is that when we were in Yellowstone National Park, some visitors asked Rangers why they didn’t remove the bad animals – presumably grizzlies and wolves!! It is unfortunate if your hiker’s bear bell is found in grizzly scat, but that is not because that grizzly is bad. It is unnerving to hike in Yellowstone. This negativity spreads to those who want to kill every “bad critter”, especially insects. So the insect spray is always handy. Why zap every wasp and squish every beetle?

Secondly, this can have disastrous results on the environment as we purge it of everything bad from dandelions (weeds) to daddy long legs.

Thirdly, it can easily create a judgmentalism with a tendency to regard suffering and illness as the penalty of sin. An example is a minister I knew telling the parents of a boy suffering from cancer, that someone had sinned in the family. And then most clergy often heard people who are ill or suffering asking, “Why is God punishing me?”

It is understandable why some may think these things, but that does not make them right. Just think that menstruation was once called the Curse.

What about the Coronavirus?

As said earlier, viruses are part of the natural order and have existed as long as life itself. They cause a vast number of serious diseases in plants, animals and humans. Though they are not evil in a moral sense, they cause disease to all forms of life. Simply considering humans they cause an immense amount of suffering and death.

However the damage viruses cause is often made worse by human behaviour whether innocent, reckless or due to a lack of care for the natural world. It seems likely this coronavirus entered humans from a bat in a live animal market in China. That trade is perverse and criminally evil to animals. It also provides the right conditions for viruses to jump species.

cor2

 

Thus, we can say that the coronavirus is a mixture of the natural and human evil. Were it not for the latter – both the live animal market and the cover –up – we may never have heard of it.

The wildlife trade is repulsive. Ultimately we have say that it and other ways of trashing the environment are immor and evil.  The coronavirus is just one of many examples. If we hold to an Adamic or Angelic Fall, or “spiritual Warfare” we are in danger of not recognising the human sin behind it. It removes the responsibility away from those who caused it – and that includes all of us who mistreat God’s creation in any way.

Now my answer is not definite or clear-cut as it starts from the fact that volcanoes, suffering and death are totally natural and written into all creation, without a malevolent being, human or spiritual, causing them. And most definitely not a God after the Fall.

This, and the need to look after the environment in myriad ways, deals with the more general aspects, but suffering is on a personal level we must go beyond that. We need effective action not explanations. To do this involves risk and sacrifice, which we see in those who are on the frontline in the health services and other vital services today. We have seen some of them die of Covid-19.

No appeal to spiritual warfare or the Fall of Adam or angels is of any value here – except to give an attitude of spirituality superiority, which is neither Christian nor humanitarian. If Christianity is not humanitarian it is not Christian.

Suffering reduces us to a position of weakness and humility. This is a major theme of both the Old and New Testament, even though it is often sidelined in Christendom and revivalism, which prefers Christ as Lord and King rather than servant. It can be argued that the New Testament refers to Jesus as Lord and Saviour  to subvert the demand in the Roman Empire to see Caesar as Lord. How could an executed felon be Lord and Saviour?

So consider this felon. His teaching was a development of the prophetic side of the Old Testament Law with the emphasis on love of neighbour.  Apart from their worship of a different god to most Romans, this became their mark along with their keenness to care for the less fortunate. This put most expressively in the Letter to Diognetus (late 2nd cent?), “They share their food, but not their wives.” Holland discusses it in his chapter (V) on Charity in his book Dominion.

This love and service to others is self-emptying, or kenotic. It is hinted at in Isaiah with his suffering servant; Chap 42 vs 1-9, and Chap 52 vs13 to53 vs12, which forms the backcloth of the accounts of Jesus’ death.

Suffering is emptying. Paul develops that in his appeal to be conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ in Philippians 2.vs5-8

4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

Yes, I know I left out the resurrection, but my emphasis is on self-emptying love in action here.

His self-emptying is seen finally in the cross and comes out in his putting down of power hungry disciple Mark 10 vs 43-5

43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

As a result when early Christians after Constantine were not involved in politicking and re-inventing the trappings of the Roman Empire, were in the forefront of caring for those in need. This was manifest during the intermittent plagues and more continually in the foundations of hospices and places to care for the sick.

This is probably where the only “answer” to suffering can be found.

Eloi, eloi, lama sabacthani.

On plagues, judgement, and the Book of Revelation | Psephizo

A useful bog  by an Anglican theologian on the subject

 

Rather sharp on those who see God’s stroppy judgement in every possible disaster.

Some Christian seem think God’s an ogre who delights in sending plagues and disasters to punish us.

I will have more on this in a later blog of my own

 

Source: On plagues, judgement, and the Book of Revelation | Psephizo

Creationism and Calvinism in Britain

A basic Christian belief is that God is the Creator of all that is. It’s there in the first chapter of the Bible, and those churches which use creeds both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds start by affirming God as creator.

calvin

There is frequently conflict among Christians over Creation, which comes out most strongly over the Theory of Evolution. Despite the popular view this is a major issue, apart from the Scopes Trial of 1925, there was little controversy until the 1960s when Young Earth Creationism came to the fore, first in the U.S.A. and then throughout the world. It was scarcely known in Britain before 1968. At the risk of over-simplifying Creationism has split the ever-growing evangelicals down the middle and is almost the default theological position for Evangelicals throughout the world.

In Britain theological colleges have not stressed the teaching of Young Earth Creationism, but some of the more evangelical ones are strongly sympathetic (including one Anglican college) and tend to default to YEC.  But now one college has nailed its colours to the mast. Many will see the newly founded and minute Westminster Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Newcastle as irrelevant. Being a watcher of all things evangelical and American I would disagree. It is an offshoot of the  Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary from South Carolina, which is highly influential among conservative America presbyterians and is strongly creationist. The Newcastle seminary is to serve English Presbyterians, a tiny group with similarities to some of the fissiparious Scottish Presbyterian churches which may have Free in their name!! I can’t follow the realtionship between them, but they are not the same as the main Kirk. I also note how creationism has infiltrated into those churches.  You can read their statement on creation here;  

https://presbyterianseminary.org.uk/about/statements-of-belief/?fbclid=IwAR3kkL7-xYecA7H9T3JxuypHnwDekytSu6lKD92uxf9nXk0VTT5i4jmOYo8

It doesn’t explicitly mention Creationism but its motive is clear, which is too teach only a theology which supports a 6 day 24 hour creation, as is expressed here;.

Accordingly, we believe that when God revealed his creation as ex nihilo and by the power of his word, and when he surrounded the six days of creation with such phrases as “the first day . . . the nth day” and “evening” and “morning”–all phrases which would have been understood in their normal sense by Hebrews in the second millennium BC–that God himself intended to convey that the work of his creation spanned six ordinary days, followed by a seventh and non-continuous day which also spanned 24 hours like the other six days.

This is what Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis has been appealing for over many years.

Were this confined just to a minute college in Newcastle I would not be moved to comment, but this is a widespread attitude among evangelicals and has spread to mainstream denominations including the Church of England, Methodist, Baptists and Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Not to mention the many in Northern Ireland!

So, first, I will consider the importance of the doctrine of creation to Christians (with the implication that this needs to be taught and preached in all churches) and, secondly, I will consider the WPTS statement on creation and where I consider it to be wrong.

The importance of Creation

There is no question on the importance of Creation, but there is great diversity on how Creation should be understood. For most christians the belief that God created out of nothing is vital, though some do question it. For most it is summed up by William Temple’s quasi-equations in his classic book Nature, Man and God

God – Creation = God

Creation – God = 0

 Or we may rhetorically ask the question;

Why is there something, rather than nothing.

  For this discussion I will take God as Creator as read as it is more about how Christians actually understand creation, and especially in relation to modern thought. Or I should ask whether one can consider Creation in a vacuum of theology alone and make no reference to modern (or ancient) thought, thus producing a consistent belief which relates only to the bible.

Important as it is, I will not consider the Christian’s responsibility to the environment or Creation Care  as it is often called. That is because of lack of space. Here the doctrine of creation moves to a vital ethical question as we need to learn how to treat creation properly and consider pressing issues of pollution, species loss, habitat loss, climate change etc. We need to get our doctrine of creation more or less right so we can deal with environmental issues. That includes knowing the age and history of the planet and the inter-relationship of living creatures. I am not a fan of either the Cornwall alliance or Friends of the Earth!! Here is a brief summary of a Christian’s attitude to the care of creation.

https://michaelroberts4004.wordpress.com/2018/01/03/gods-creation-and-the-environment/

By insisting on creation in a mere week the WPTS simply rejects all of cosmology , geology and biology, although they avoid mentioning it , except for the odd aside “Even the secular confidence in earlier cosmologies is declining in some areas.” Rejecting so much science puts a stumbling block before people, Christian or not, who are quite liable to walk away and reject the Gospel.

It is clear that they have no grasp of the development of science over the 3 thousand years or the ancient adage “science is thinking God’s thoughts after him” . There is no awareness that the Bible reflects the thought forms of when that section was written. Thus Gen 1 and Isaiah 40 indicate a flat earth as they were written before the Greeks worked out the earth’s sphericity in about 500BC. Paul uses a scientifically wrong analogy on seeds in 1 Cor 15 vs 35. His argument is very clear today though if we are gardeners we’ll  chuckle at his wrong biology. Both Leviticus and Deuteronomy regard bats as birds. Wise readers of the Bible simply accept that the writers are using contemporary understandings, which have been superceeded. No big deal. Then of course Darwin was clueless about genes and genetics!

There needs to be an awareness that the Bible  is not scientific nor anti-scientific but pre-scientific. Hence we don’t accept its “science” to be correct as with the examples given above.  The whole principle of accommodation of scripture is simply ignored, despite the fact that one of the finest expositions of accommodation is by John Calvin both in the Institutes and his commentary of Genesis.

He who would learn astrology[i.e astronomy] and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.

All considering the doctrine of creation, whether believer or atheist, should memorise that bit of Calvin.

Now for some history.

If traditional dates for the writing of biblical books is correct most of the Old Testament predates any science, as with a flat earth. Who cares that in the magnificent Isaiah 40, verse 22 speaks of a flat earth.

The historical relation of science and Christianity can be muddled by those trying to claim the church opposed every new finding of science. Briefly they need to consider Augustine

Augsutine

and then the scientists of the Middle ages who were mostly priests. There is much written on this and on the whole it was a positive and constructive interplay of ideas. Books by Hannan, Grant andLindberg are very useful here, as is the recent work on Bishop Robert Grosseteste (d1253) expounded by Tom Mcleish and others.

WPTS should be so pleased that Protestants were far more supporting of Copernicanism than Catholics and under Cromwell clergy astronomers were supported like John Wilkins who married Cromwell’s sister, made master of trinity Cambridge, helped to found the Royal Society and became Bishop of Chester, succeeding Pearson, who accepted 4004 BC as the date of creation!

I think it would be fair to say the Westminster Divines both supported copernicanism and the foundation of the Royal Society. Before long in the 1680s some Fellows eg Edward Lhwyd and Rev John Ray were beginning to suggest Ussher rather underestimated the date of creation and soon many more did.

300px-John_Ray_from_NPG

By the end of the 18th century most educated Christian in Britain and elsewhere accepted those dreaded “millions of years” or else just hundreds of thousands as with de Luc. The Westminster Confession supporting Scots were in the forefront here, though in the early 19th century Anglican clergy were very active geologically. What is often overlooked is that by 1859, when Darwin published most clergy accepted deep geological time. (I cannot find one Anglican priest or minister of the Kirk who followed ~Ussher’s 4004BC date.)

As WPTS is presbyterian we need to note that in Scotland nearly all the clergy from the various Presbyterian Churches including the Free Presbyterians totally accepted geological time with relish. Notable were John Fleming , Thomas Chalmers and the wonderful Hugh Miller. They did not see a problem with the Westminster Confession as in chap 4 section 1

In the beginning it pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit 1 to create the world out of nothing in order to reveal the glory of his eternal power, wisdom, and  goodness.2 He made everything in the world, visible and invisible, in the space of six days, and it was very good.

So I cannot see why WPTS and their fellow Presbyterians are so worried.

A major weakness in this statement is that it seems to see Scripture as timeless and not written according to the culture at the time of writing. As a result the statement is an echo chamber in a locked room with no windows. It may seem strong and coherent, but it does not relate to the world either today, human and non-human or the past. It ends up as irrelevant.

It makes no explicit reference to science except referring vaguely to a “secular cosmology” as something we should reject. And so students will be encourage to reject so much of modern science and fall prey to Young Earth Creationism.

 

Now for my comments on the Statement

(Statement in quotation form and my comments in standard form)

Statement on Creation

We the faculty of Westminster Presbyterian Theological Seminary wish to acknowledge publicly our view on creation so that the churches and individuals supporting the Seminary may know what to expect from classroom instruction and faculty writing. In so doing, we note the following as preliminaries:

  1. the issue of creation has long been considered a fundamental Christian belief, one that distinguishes Christianity from other religions;
  2. this particular doctrine has been subject to prolonged attack since the mid-19th century, but continues to be critical for orthodoxy;
  3. although the history of belief on this subject is clear, some fine and notable theologians from our communions have held differing views on this subject; and
  4. that as a Seminary we are obligated not to teach contrary to the Westminster Standards. The Westminster Standards may be changed by the church courts, but, in our view, the seminaries ought not to be teaching contrary to those Standards, so that when there are changes they will occur as a result of the church’s mature deliberation and not in a de facto manner.
  1. yes, I totally agree but Judaism and Islam have a very similar doctrine of Creation.
  2.   The rise of the Conflict Thesis of science and religion has not helped, but here I think they are driving at the general acceptance of evolution, which they wrongly see as attacking creation.
  3. Their view of the history is clear, but they take a very selective and inaccurate view. The fine theologians dissenting to a young earth are legion and from Scotland , Northern Ireland and the USA. The Princeton School were very wise on the science in creation. Charles Hodge and BB Warfield are worth studying today.
  4. But why didn’t those in the 19th century see the problem?

 

Thus, we offer our view on the subject of creation as a school that serves a number of Reformed denominations, especially the EPCEW, PCA and the OPC.

Note EPCEW is the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England and Wales which has 30 churches. PCA and OPC are from the USA. On the surface they and this statement may seem insignificant but the issues raised and stance taken is significant in Britain

I hear they are in contact with Scottish Wee Frees, and many of their views are shared by the FIEC, Reformed Baptists and other evangelical groups. (Not to mention some Anglicans – say 5% of clergy and a retired Bishop)

  • We believe that God’s Word is not only inerrant, but that it is also clear to the learned and unlearned alike; thus, we affirm that when God reveals his mind–on creation or any other matter–he is quite capable of making his thoughts known in ordinary language that does not require extraordinary hermeneutical maneuvers for interpretation.

Inerrancy and geology/evolution was not a problem to the Princeton theologians BB Warfield and the Hodges! Inerrancy takes many forms and has long seen to be compatible with geological time and even evolution.

Inerrancy does not imply literalism of Genesis, despite this being a common misconception

I have to say that many parts of the bible are not clear and especially the Old Testament – even St Peter agrees with me!

See above about accommodation and Calvin’s attitudes!

The language and imagery of the bible is very variable and is open to misinterpretation .

  • Accordingly, we believe that when God revealed his creation as ex nihilo and by the power of his word, and when he surrounded the six days of creation with such phrases as “the first day . . . the nth day” and “evening” and “morning”–all phrases which would have been understood in their normal sense by Hebrews in the second millennium BC–that God himself intended to convey that the work of his creation spanned six ordinary days, followed by a seventh and non-continuous day which also spanned 24 hours like the other six days.

Yes creatio ex nihilo is fundamental. But it is difficult to see what creating by “the power of his word ” actually means. Ultimately God creating is  a mystery and we cannot get beyond physical explanations to the creative power of God behind what we can see..

“Power of his word”  is emotive and explains little. It is simply an affirmation of god’s power.

I have no issue with the days of Genesis being 24 hours but we need to consider what the chapter is telling is.  If we insist that creation must have taken no more than 24 hours then from chap1 vs 6-8 we must also insist the earth is flat with a firmament above us. You cannot have one without the other.

Ancient-Hebrew-view-of-universe

Calvin waxes strong on accommodation here.

I will leave the seventh day……………..

 

  • We believe that an accurate study of OT texts does not support the gap theory, the framework hypothesis, the analogical theory, or the day-age view. Indeed, we find the OT creation texts to be interpreted as normal days, and no passage demands that Genesis 1-2 be re-engineered to yield other interpretations. The long history of rabbinical commentary, the very dating of time by the Hebrew calendar, and orthodox Jewish thought so understands these texts to embrace only days of ordinary length.

Perhaps this is so as all attempts to tie Genesis into scientific findings fail at some point. However most made sense in many ways.

Gap Theory was a recasting of the old Chaos-restitution interpretation which was dominant from 1600 to the early 19th century and had roots in the early church – and was an odd rewrite of chaos restitution going back to early church when ideas of chaos from Heisiod were used to show how genesis has a universal application.

The Framework theory derived from Meredith Kline and allows more “flexibility”

The Day Age goes back centuries and became dominant in the 19th century but always suffered from an inability to harmonise days withe geological eras.

One may say that all were good tries but ultimately didn’t work

Far better is to see that Genesis is more a literary representation and not historical in any sense, except that God created in the past!!

  • The NT church and Scriptures offered no revisions of this view, and nowhere do those texts themselves advocate framework or day-age views. We certainly believe that if the wording of Genesis 1-2 required clarification or modification away from the normal meaning of the Hebrew terms, God would so indicate in the text itself, as well as in NT treatments of Genesis 1-2.

The NT only gives various references to a few verses and says nothing on insisting on a literal view.

 

  • The earliest post-canonical commentaries either advocated a 24-hour view of the days (e.g., Basil, Ambrose) or followed Augustine in a somewhat platonic scheme. Augustine’s view, however, was that creation occurred instantaneously, and he nowhere enunciated a day-age view or a framework hypothesis.

Yet almost all rejected the Flat Earth views of the Old Testament – due to overwhelming evidence.

There was no evidence for geological time!

  • Until the Protestant Reformation, only two views were propagated: (1) the Augustinian view (followed by Anselm and John Colet) and (2) the literal 24-hour view (espoused by Aquinas, Lombard, and others).

see previous comment

  • The magisterial Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Beza) adopted a uniform view, that of 24 hours, and overtly repudiated the Augustinian view.

During the 16th  century with the recovery of studying old literature – Renaissance – commentators from all churches tended to read the bible more literally than allegorically, so the 6/24 hr view was paramount.

However there was questioning, especially over astronomy.

Back to Calvin on accommodation, which bore fruit in later centuries.

  • Prior to the Westminster Assembly, the leading Puritans (Ainsworth, Ames, Perkins) and others repudiated the Augustinian view and taught a sequential, normal day view.

Without any geological evidence for deep time or even a little bit more time that was inevitable.

  • The Westminster Assembly divines either felt no need to comment on the length of days–so clearly was it established–or if they commented, they uniformly (either explicitly or implicitly) adopted the 24 hour view. With 60-80 divines normally attending sessions, at least 20 of the divines who did comment in other published writings indicate that they only understood the creation days to be 24-hour days (or ordinary days), and none have been found who espoused a contrary view. Specifically, there were no divines who wrote advocating a day-age view or a framework view. We continue to esteem them not only as confessional authors but also as faithful exegetes. We deny that certain scientific theories are so certain as to compel us to reinterpret Scripture on this matter.

In a sense only relevant to Presbyterians but the questions raised by geology from 1660s affected all churches, though many never got their knickers in a twist over it.

BUT, the evidence for an older earth was unearthed by many who were Christian. It was not a godless attack on Christianity.

  • Following the Westminster Assembly, the testimony of the American Reformed tradition (e.g., J. Edwards) followed the tradition of Ussher/Perkins/Ames/The Westminster Divines on this question. No debate about this subject arises until after 1800, as the winds of various European views began to circulate.

This is too closely focussed on the Presbyterian tradition with the Westminster Catechism. Edwards wrote little on science after the 1720s and made no comment on geological time. Further even his radical contemporary Benjamin Franklin accepted a young earth in mid 18th century. (This almanack was written by Franklin.)

1739almanac - Copy

In the wider church i.e other Protestant, Anglicans and Catholics, the topic of Genesis and time was frequently discussed from the 1660s with little controversey or sense that geology was undermining the bible

For more details see Genesis 1 & geological time from 1600-1850

  • By the mid-nineteenth century, certain leading Presbyterians (C. Hodge, A. A. Hodge, and later Shedd and Warfield) began to conform their exegesis to the ascendant science of the day. We believe that this was a strategic and hermeneutical mistake, as well as a departure from the meaning of terms in the Westminster Standards.

This ignores the fact that most educated Christians throughout Europe and America had accepted geology as this rather anglocentric article shows;

Genesis and geology unearthed

The geological column was essentially worked out in the early 19th century by geologists such as Rev Adam Sedgwick (seen here) who was a major worker on the Cambrian to Devonian, a mere 180 million years worth of strata

column+temp300px-Adam_Sedgwick

The presbyterians cited followed on from geologists like Rev E Hitchcock and British counterparts. In his Systematic Theology Hodge gives a careful discussion of genesis and geology and was helped by the geologist James Dana. Later in his What is Darwinism he looked to Asa Gray a Christian botanist and populariser of Darwin in the USA.

250px-Edward_Hitchcock

Mention ought to be made of Scottish and Irish presbyterians which are discussed in Livingstone’s Darwin’s Forgotten defenders.

 

  • Leading southern Presbyterians (such as Thornwell, Dabney and Girardeau) however, simultaneously resisted efforts to broaden the church on this point, as is documented in the Woodrow trial and decisions.

These were almost alone in their rejection of geology and evolution and were almost alone in their support of slavery. So much for evolution supporting racism!

 

  • Early in the twentieth century, numerous evangelicals – and some seminaries – became overly concessive to a secular cosmology, departing from the historic view expressed in the Westminster standards on this subject.

This is a very loaded statement.I presume a “secular cosmology” is simply the whole scientific picture from cosmology , geology and biology over 13.4 billion years. It is only secular as it is not overtly Christian, though many of the scientists behind it were Christian themselves. N.B. People were “departing” from the Westminster standards on this with in 25 years

  • Some of us, at earlier times, were willing – due to love of the brethren and respect for esteemed teachers – to declare that the meaning of confessional language on this question was vague. We are no longer able in good conscience to do so. Both the normal meaning of the confessional phrases and the original intent as verified by other writings of the divines is now abundantly clear, with no evidence to the contrary.

It was not so much that the language from another era was vague, but that all the evidence pointed to an earth and universe billions of years old. Maybe WPTS should realise that the Westminster Divines writing nearly 400 years ago were simply wrong. It was only shortly after William Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood.

 

  • Even the secular confidence in earlier cosmologies is declining in some areas.

This is such a vague statement. What and who do they mean? There are always some who reject contemporary cosmologies as Fred Hoyle objected to the Big Bang (put forward by a Christian – Georges le Maitre) before his death. He dubbed it Big Bang to ridicule it. And then some question evolution, and a tiny handful the age of the earth

Featured Image -- 11353

(I dig his sunglasses)

This statement sounds good and may mislead those with no science.

  • Therefore, we declare our view shares the exegesis of the Westminster divines that led them to affirm that God created all things “in the space of six days” by the word of his power. We also believe that this clear meaning of confessional language should be taught in our churches and pulpits, and that departures from it should be properly safeguarded.

The Westminster Confession was written by  60-80 clergy  in one decade nearly 400 years ago. Why ignore all since who have considered the science.

For me, I prefer to follow the myriads of clergy in the last 400 years, who have understood science and the way it develops.

 

  • Accordingly, we reject the following contemporary notions:
    1. that John 5:17 teaches a continuing seventh day of creation;
    2. that violent death entered the cosmos before the fall;
    3. that ordinary providence was the only way that God governed and sustained the creation during the six days of creation;
    4. that extraordinary literary sensitivities must be ascribed to pre-1800 audiences; and
    5. that Scripture is unclear in its use of “evening and morning” attached to the days of creation.
  1.  Not very important
  2. This is a more serious issue. A major plank of creationism is that there was no death before the Fall. Life started about 4 billion years ago and since then there has been a cycle of life and death. Predation, i.e. violent death occurred among trilobites in the Cambrian some 500 million years ago. To deny this is to say all science is wrong and especially geology with all its half-chewed fossils. I am baffled to understand how the fall affected the structure off far-off galaxies.
  3. This is neither here not there and will depend on how you define providence. I don’t see why you need to distinguish between ordinary and extraordinary providence.
  4. In my own historical and theological researches I have read a vast number of works before 1800 in several languages. Many have shown immense erudition, profundity and literary sensitivity. (For those reasons I often go to Calvin on Genesis.) I regard writers like Ussher, Ray, Mersenne, Pantycelyn, Needham and de Luc among many others as having great literary sensitivity. I just accept that some  (or many) of their ideas were modified after their time. I think Ussher was a brilliant scholar and theologian, who, among other things, opened the way for a more critical historical method.
  5. I think the meaning of YOM wa very clear to the writer of Gen 1 – it is 86,400 seconds. But he was also very clear about the earth being flat and a firmament above it with tiny stars tacked on.

Jacobus_ussher

The great James Ussher – a great scholar and theologian

We admit that some Christians have been too lax on this subject, and others have been too narrow. Hence, we hope to enunciate in this statement a moderate, historic, and biblical position. Even should other fine men differ with us on this subject, we hereby announce our intent to remain faithful to the teaching of the Westminster Standards and other Reformed confessions of faith on this subject.

To God alone be glory.

I agree that too often Christians have not been concerned been concerned about the relation of science to theology and focussed to much on a personal relationship to Jesus.

But to insist on a literal Genesis is the opposite of moderate and biblical. It is false and creates a ginormous stumbling block for so many Christians and seekers. To do this you have adopt the whole of Young earth Creationism founded by Morris and Whitcomb, which rejects science by misrepresenting it as we see on websites like Answers in Genesis or Creation ministries International.

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Far better is to read the various writings from https://biologos.org/about-us  and   https://faraday-institute.org/index.php

which have excellent material on Christianity and science.

To conclude I will quote the Lord Protector , Oliver Cromwell (who wrote to the general assembly of the Scottish Kirk four years after Westminster

I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.

 

 

St John Henry Newman, Patron saint of Evolution?

This week my fellow Orielensis John Henry Newman was made a saint by Pope Francis.

In the period 1820 to 1840 Oriel college, Oxford led intellectuals in Oxford and in the Church of England, with leaders like Copleston and Whately. This is given a fiar comment by wiki on Oriel

In the early 19th century, the reforming zeal of Provosts John Eveleigh and Edward Copleston gained Oriel a reputation as the most brilliant college of the day. It was the centre of the “Oriel Noetics” — clerical liberals such as Richard Whately and Thomas Arnold were fellows,[17] and during the 1830s, two intellectually eminent fellows of Oriel, John Keble and John Henry Newman, supported by Canon Pusey (also an Oriel fellow initially, later at Christ Church) and others, formed a group known as the Oxford Movement, alternatively as the Tractarians, or familiarly as the Puseyites. The group was disgusted by the then Church of England and sought to revive the spirit of early Christianity.[18][19] Tension arose in college since Provost Edward Hawkins was a determined opponent of the Movement.[17

Now my preference is for Copleston and the noetics whereas I am sure Mary Moritz prefers Newman and friends !!!! However I have always valued Newman’s writings and had to study his Lectures on Justification (1838) for my degree. He was quite critical of evangelicals of his day and I reckon his ideas are now expounded by scholars like N T Wright and Michael Gorman, where justification is not just the one-off event but part of continuing participation in Christ. Popular justification ends up with what Dylan Thomas described as “got drunk on saturday and saved on sunday”. no wonder the Welsh chapels fizzled out. My favourite quote from Newman’s book is about what he calls Popular Protestantism (forerunner of fundamentalism?) where “the bible, and the Bible alone, is the religion of Protestants.” I.e. centred on the bible , including Judges 11, rather than Jesus.

Am I a heeretic?

Newman was a friend to science and Mary Moritz an Austrian scientist and Roman Catholic has written this excellent blog which I have lifted

Mary has an excellent blog of her own https://sciencemeetsfaith.wordpress.com/2019/07/15/saint-bonaventure-wisdom-on-genesis/ and has three blogs on Newman

https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/a-patron-saint-of-evolution/?fbclid=IwAR13Os9UmI8GyL62zxyCRpxf7Krm1ambHP7gy1ZhGzeHPJLVad5XS3hlJso

A Patron Saint of Evolution?

I mean that it is as strange that monkeys should be so like men with no historical connection between them, as the notion that there should be no course of history by which fossil bones got into rocks.
—St. John Henry Cardinal Newman

John Henry Newman, one of the most consequential Catholic theologians of modern times, was canonized in Rome on October 13. Newman was born in London in 1801 and raised in the Anglican faith. He studied at Oxford and was ordained to the Anglican ministry in 1825. Several years later, with a group of friends, he started what became known as the Oxford Movement, an attempt to bring the Anglican Church closer to its Catholic roots. The movement aroused fierce opposition but had great and lasting influence within both Anglicanism and the Catholic Church.

Newman experienced many hardships, difficulties and disappointments and over time felt himself drawn more and more towards Catholicism. In 1845, after thorough study of the early Church’s history, he entered into full communion with the Catholic Church and two years later received priestly ordination in Rome. Newman said of his conversion, “it was like coming into port after a rough sea; and my happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption.” In 1849, he founded the first Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Birmingham, where he remained, except for a brief period, until his death in 1890. In 1879, he was named Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII.

My first encounter with John Henry Newman was reading his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, a spiritual autobiography he wrote in 1865 as a defense against attacks upon his personal integrity and the sincerity of his religious beliefs. I found it as fascinating as St. Augustine’s Confessions. Both men, each in his particular circumstances, describe their intrepid search for the Truth and testify to God’s redemptive and merciful love. Newman’s search for God’s truth, light and guidance is also masterfully described in the poem “Lead Kindly Light,” which he wrote in 1833 and which became one of the world’s most beloved hymns.

A few years after encountering the Apologia, I discovered Newman’s contributions to the dialogue between science and faith. John Henry Newman was a theologian and clergyman inside and out, but already as an undergraduate he developed an interest in the sciences. He carefully wrote out and kept his notes from a course in mineralogy—they are still at the Birmingham Oratory. He was less impressed by geology, even though that course was given by the same professor, Rev. William Buckland. In the early 1820’s Buckland defended the thesis that the earth had passed through several catastrophic geological events, the last being a global flood as described in Genesis.

But by 1830 Buckland had abandoned this view and adopted the hypothesis of a great continental glaciation event. The idea that the earth was of vast antiquity had been proposed by James Hutton and others in the late 1700’s, and further developed by Charles Lyell. These ideas were well-known to Charles Darwin, who began his career as geologist, and played a role in his development of the theory of evolution. They also influenced Newman, who learned to consider scientific theories and innovations with a degree of caution.

Truth Can’t Be Contrary to Truth

Newman dedicated two of his lectures as rector of the Catholic University in Dublin in 1851/1852—later assembled in his book The Idea of a University—specifically to the relationship of theology and science. A certain tension between science and theology may lead some to wait for the day when science overthrows revealed truths. It may cause others, mainly the religious minds, to fear scientific progress, and, in Newman’s words, “to undervalue, to deny, to ridicule, to discourage, and almost to denounce, the labours of the physiological, astronomical, or geological investigator.” However, Newman explains why this fearful attitude is unjustified:

The Physicist tells us of laws; the Theologian of the Author, Maintainer, and Controller of them; of their scope, of their suspension, if so be; of their beginning and their end. This is how the two schools stand related to each other, at that point where they approach the nearest; but for the most part they are absolutely divergent.

Newman answers the question of truth with an impressive picture: distinct fields of inquiry form distinct “circles of knowledge,” distinct “worlds” of their own, though ultimately comprising one Truth. He compares this with God’s immensity. God is One, but:

. . . any one of His attributes, considered by itself, is the object of an inexhaustible science: and the attempt to reconcile any two or three of them together—love, power, justice, sanctity, truth, wisdom—affords matter for an everlasting controversy. We can apprehend and receive each divine attribute in its elementary form, but still we are not able to accept them in their infinity, either in themselves or in union with each other. Yet we do not deny the first because it cannot be perfectly reconciled with the second, nor the second because it is in apparent contrariety with the first and the third.

We may say with words written by Hans Urs von Balthasar around one hundred years later: “Truth is symphonic.” Newman tells Catholic scientists and theologians:

If [we] have one maxim in our philosophy, it is, that truth cannot be contrary to truth; if we have a second, it is, that truth often seems contrary to truth; and, if a third, it is the practical conclusion, that we must be patient with such appearances, and not be hasty to pronounce them to be really of a more formidable character.

Moreover, if we know our Catholic faith, this will provide us with a sense of security and a peace of mind:

I say, then, he who believes Revelation with that absolute faith which is the prerogative of a Catholic, is not the nervous creature who startles at every sudden sound, and is fluttered by every strange or novel appearance which meets his eyes. He has no sort of apprehension, he laughs at the idea, that anything can be discovered by any other scientific method, which can contradict any one of the dogmas of his religion . . . He is sure, and nothing shall make him doubt, that, if anything seems to be proved by astronomer, or geologist, or chronologist, or antiquarian, or ethnologist, in contradiction to the dogmas of faith, that point will eventually turn out, first, not to be proved, or, secondly, not contradictory, or thirdly, not contradictory to anything really revealed, but to something which has been confused with revelation.

The application of these principles had solved the case of the Copernican system and of Galileo Galilei to everyone’s satisfaction. But while Newman wrote these words, new trouble was brewing: Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Before we turn our attention to the theory of evolution, let us look at Newman’s views on “design” in Nature.

I Believe in Design Because I Believe in God . . .

Unduly melding science and theology while trying to find “intelligent design” in biology, and from there proceeding to the inference of an “Intelligent Designer,” was and remains to this day a great temptation not only for theologians, but also for believing scientists.

In 1802, William Paley published the book Natural Theology: or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. In it, he proposed his famous watchmaker analogy: if a pocket watch is found in a field, it is most reasonable to assume that someone dropped it and that it was made by a Watchmaker; or, in other words, where we find design there must be a designer. This Design Argument for God’s existence (a version of the so-called Teleological Argument) became quite popular in Victorian England. The argument was further developed in the Bridgewater Treatises a series of books funded by the 8th Earl of Bridgewater and planned as a major work in natural theology to explore “the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation.” Most of its authors—all established clergymen and theologians, some of them also scientists—explored Paley’s Design Argument in various scientific fields.

It should be noted that in the English-speaking world, the Design Argument is sometimes confused with Thomas Aquinas’s version of the Teleological Argument. Paley finds design in what might be called the craftsmanship found in complex and purposeful structures, whereas the emphasis in St. Thomas was more upon a general directedness of natural things and processes towards “ends.”

John Henry Newman felt deeply uncomfortable with William Paley’s Natural Theology for three main reasons:

  1. He saw it as reversing the order of understanding. He wrote in 1870: “I believe in design because I believe in God; not in God because I see design.”
  2. It leads to an incomplete notion of God. In the same 1870 letter, Newman argues, “Half the world knows nothing of the argument from design—and, when you have got it, you do not prove by it the moral attributes of God—except very faintly. Design teaches me power, skill, and goodness, not sanctity, not mercy, not a future judgment, which three are of the essence of religion.” In 1852, he said that the “God of Physical Theology [i.e. natural theology] may very easily become a mere idol” rather than the God of Christianity.
  3. Although Paley knew of grief and pain, his Natural Theology paints a happy world. Design, as he describes it, does not leave any space for natural evil, nor for moral evil in a world encompassing the reality of sin, and the need for redemption. We need revelation, says Newman, because the mystery of moral evil, the reality of our sins, can only be elucidated by the mystery of Christ’s Cross. Without revelation, theology would not be in a better shape than it was with the Greek philosophers: it would be unable to answer the question of theodicy.

Furthermore, Charles Darwin had admired Paley’s book in his youth, but during his voyage on the HMS Beagle, he started to realize that nature was not “nice” at all, that there was a constant struggle for survival. In 1860, Darwin wrote:

I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.”

He drifted more and more into agnostic views as he grew older. I would have liked it if Darwin could have read what Pope Francis says in Laudato Si’:

Creating a world in need of development, God in some way sought to limit himself in such a way that many of the things we think of as evils, dangers or sources of suffering, are in reality part of the pains of childbirth which he uses to draw us into the act of cooperation with the Creator. God is intimately present to each being, without impinging on the autonomy of his creature, and this gives rise to the rightful autonomy of earthly affairs. His divine presence, which ensures the subsistence and growth of each being, “continues the work of creation.” The Spirit of God has filled the universe with possibilities and therefore, from the very heart of things, something new can always emerge: “Nature is nothing other than a certain kind of art, namely God’s art, impressed upon things, whereby those things are moved to a determinate end. It is as if a shipbuilder were able to give timbers the wherewithal to move themselves to take the form of a ship”

Evolution Isn’t Inconsistent with Divine Design…

Charles Darwin pondered many years on the theory of evolution, fearing the repercussions of publication. Only when Alfred Wallace submitted a paper with very similar findings, did he decide to move quickly. The theory of evolution via natural selection was stated in 1858 in a joint paper of Darwin and Wallace and, in 1859, Darwin published The Origin of Species.

Newman never analyzed Charles Darwin’s theory in depth, but it was “in the air,” and Newman responded when specifically asked about it. His answers were cautiously positive. And it seems that he was well prepared to discuss the topic. In his book On the Development of Doctrine, written fourteen years before Darwin’s Origin of Species, Newman referred favorably to the 18th century English theologian Joseph Butler. Butler had pointed out in The Analogy of Religion that God operates in the very same manner in the history of Nature as in the history of Christianity:

The Author of Nature appears deliberate throughout His operations, accomplishing His natural ends by slow successive steps. And there is a plan of things beforehand laid out, which, from the nature of it, requires various systems of means, as well as length of time, in order to the carrying on its several parts into execution. Thus, in the daily course of natural providence, God operates in the very same manner as in the dispensation of Christianity, making one thing subservient to another; this, to somewhat farther; and so on, through a progressive series of means, which extend, both backward and forward, beyond our utmost view. Of this manner of operation, everything we see in the course of nature is as much an instance as any part of the Christian dispensation.

When Newman used the word “design” it was not Paley’s notion of it, but what he called “divine design.” He sees “divine design” as God’s Wisdom “to have given certain laws to matter millions of ages ago, which have surely and precisely worked out, in the long course of those ages, those effects which He from the first proposed.” He therefore considers that “Mr. Darwin’s theory need not, then, be atheistical, be it true or not; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and Skill.” God’s action is permanently present, he works in and through his creation. Newman can therefore say that he did not think “that ‘the accidental evolution of organic beings is inconsistent with divine design—It is accidental to us, not to God.”

Darwin was closer to Newman than to Paley on laws in nature and on secondary causation. He wrote,

Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual.

Nonetheless, a key distinction between the two men’s thinking is that Darwin did not share Newman’s notion of a world under the providential care of a God to whom nothing is accidental, a conviction that was deeply engrained in Newman’s mind and soul.

On the question whether Genesis and the theory of evolution would contradict each other, Newman considers the verse “All are of dust” (Eccles 3:20) and concludes: “yet we never were dust—we are from fathers. Why may not the same be the case with Adam? . . . I don’t know why Adam needs be immediately out of dust—Formavit Deus hominem de limo terrae [“God formed man from the dust of the earth” (Gen 2:7)]—i.e. out of what really was dust and mud in nature, before He made it what it was, living.”

Newman was one of the first theologians (together with Rev. Charles Kingsley and Rev. Frederick Temple, both Anglicans) who were positive voices acknowledging that Darwin’s theory did not contradict the Christian faith. Newman’s view is still relevant today and may be well summarized with the words of Benedict XVI in his first homily as pope:

Only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.

Conclusion

Saint John Henry Newman was truly a saint in his life as priest, pastor, and teacher. He was searching for the truth, no matter the costs and hardship it would entail. His wisdom deserves to be further explored. He lived in a society that was turning increasingly secularist, not unlike our own in the 21st century. If Newman had lived in our time, he probably would have appreciated the Society of Catholic Scientists. He knew about the challenges but also about the beauty to be witnesses of our faith in the scientific world. He would have exhorted us, as he did in his time:

I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity . . . I wish you to enlarge your knowledge, to cultivate your reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth to truth, to learn to view things as they are, to understand how faith and reason stand to each other, [and] what are the bases and principles of Catholicism.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This article is part of a collaboration with the Society of Catholic Scientists (click here to read about becoming a member). You can ask questions and join a wider discussion about this piece at the bottom of this page where the original version of this essay, “Saint John Henry Newman: A Co-Patron for Scientists?” is published. Those who wish to read more by Dr. Moritz may go to her blog Science Meets Faith and her Facebook page of the same name.

zzzs