The Necessity of Extra-Theological Norms

©2007 Tenteri,
©2007 Tenteri,

Kent at Theology Forum has posted a quote from John Webster’s essay in The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology. It’s a good, succinct statement of Webster’s approach to theological method. It ends with, “In particular, dogmatics can help to prevent the distortions of perspective which can be introduced into an account of the faith by, for example, pressure from polemical concerns or excessive regard for extra-theological norms.” I doubt anyone reading this blog would have any problems with that. Of course, actually implementing this, trying to form a standard, is a bit harder. This was especially brought to my attention when reading that R. C. Sproul has become a Creationist (6-day YEC) after a career of openness to evolutionary claims. This is tragic. It would not be quite as tragic if Sproul’s reasons were actually scientific. What were his reasons? Pretty much, the Bible says so and the WCF says so — biblicism and confessionalism, in the bad sense of those terms:

For most of my teaching career, I considered the framework hypothesis to be a possibility. But I have now changed my mind. I now hold to a literal six-day creation, the fourth alternative and the traditional one. Genesis says that God created the universe and everything in it in six twenty-four–hour periods. According to the Reformation hermeneutic, the first option is to follow the plain sense of the text. One must do a great deal of hermeneutical gymnastics to escape the plain meaning in Genesis 1-2. The confession makes it a point of faith that God created the world in the space of six days. (Truths We Confess, vol. 1, pp. 127–128)

So, the plain sense of the text proves it. Not the plain evidence of nature, as attested by 99.9% of the scientific community. Nope, we got to go with an account that is followed by a talking snake and a fruit of “the knowledge of good and evil.” Now, most would say that we’re obviously dealing with a mythological account intending theological truth. That’s what I say. That’s what real Christian scientists say. But, wait, theologians have a different standard, so they can justify their scientific claims with their “higher” biblicist and confessionalist committments. So, what is Sproul doing? He’s taking the dual paths in our acquisition of truth — revelation for divine truths; nature for scientific truths — and collapsing the latter into the former, creating a false dualism at the natural level where our apprehension of nature becomes fundamentally suspect and untrustworthy.

Sproul is not alone, of course. Al Mohler and Russell Moore at Southern Seminary have said the same thing. They don’t — and can’t — offer scientific evidence for their Creationism. They point to Genesis 1-2, they point to Romans 5, they don’t point to creation itself. That’s a problem. It’s a problem because our commitment to truth is a commitment to reality as a whole. The natural sciences thus produce extra-theological norms to which we must be committed and which we cannot bracket off when we do our exegetical and dogmatic work, not as competitive norms but as complementary in a single reality. This, of course, is easier said than done, as witnessed by those who have (rightly) re-worked protology in light of contemporary science, but it is a necessary task. The alternative is to throw off science (real science) and, thus, throw off truth — retreating from God’s glorious creation and into an ecclesial hermitage. Webster is right in that we need to be aware of an excessive regard for extra-theological norms (e.g., we need not reject Original Sin entirely or make it purely existential with a purely existential solution), but we cannot just say F.U. to science.



  1. Have you read Alvin Plantinga’s “Science: Augustinian or Duhemian?” (Faith and Philosophy, 13:3, 368-94)? Whether or not one shares his assessment of the probabilities for evolution and common ancestry, I think it is a notable example of how to grapple with the task of engaging modern science in a serious fashion without disallowing all inference and criticism based on what is known through faith and revelation.

    I’d be interested, too, to know what you think of the balance struck in Humani Generis, 35-37. The last of the three sections is the most difficult. It appears to take Paul’s parallel between the one man Adam and the one man Christ as rendering the historicity of a single progenitor Adam non-negotiable, even if the creation narrative in general is to be read in an other than strictly literal sense. And so CS Lewis’s (or Francis Collins’) suggested way of understanding of the fall, to the extent it is open to plurality of persons in ‘Adam’, seems to be excluded.

  2. PS I have in mind the chapter on the fall in The Problem of Pain where Lewis offers his Socratic “myth,” which includes the statement: “We do not know how many of these creatures God made, nor how long they continued in the Paradisal state. But sooner or later they fell.”

  3. I was thinking of Lewis when I was writing this (I read The Problem of Pain a few years ago), so, yeah, I think his approach is a good way to go about it. I haven’t read the Plantinga article, so I can’t comment.

    As for Humani Generis, I agree that the monogenism is problematic. I know Karl Rahner disputed this part of the encyclical, arguing that monogenesis is not dogma, only a dispensable framework for understanding the Fall and Original Sin. Paul, of course, believed in monogenesis, but I’m inclined to agree with Rahner that this is not essential to the dogma of Original Sin. Of course, Calvinists who believe in a personal guilt through Adamic headship would have a harder (=impossible) time accepting polygenesis. This is partly why so many Calvinists are Creationists — the logic being, since Paul was a Creationist, I have to be a Creationist. I disagree. Paul also probably believed in a three-tier view of the cosmos (heaven above, hell below, earth between), but not too many people are going with that anymore (even though it was likely presupposed in the Ascension accounts, and elsewhere).

  4. This is a fascinating if slightly depressing post, as a Catholic boy in the Presbyterian church. How can YEC be considered a plain reading? How can there be a day before there is a sun? Is it ex-nihlio? Don’t even get started on Gen 2-3.

    If Sproul and the Reformed elite continue down this line how can we make a compelling case for the Gospel amongst are friends who are practicing scientists or applied scientists? Or more in keeping with the post, how can we proclaim the Good News from the God of Truth if we have such casual disrespect for reality?!

  5. Thanks for the answer. I guess Humani Generis might leave a door open by saying “it is in no way apparent,” etc. If a plausible way of reconciling the facts were by happenstance to appear, then that part of the statement might lose its force. Still, it looks pretty intractable to me. But then again, so also do a lot of other old statements from Rome…

  6. I think a close and narrow reading of Humani Generis could interpret it as stating precisely that it is “difficult” to see how to make sense of original sin without monogesis. It *is* difficult. HG doesn’t seem to say it is impossible but that it is difficult, and therefore that polygenism should not be taught in seminaries. The efforts which I have seen, eg Mary Midgley, and Walker Percy all effectively ascribe sin to the created order. I don’t currently see how, without making the fall an ‘arbitrary’ detour into history, one can keep it out of the good order of Creation. I’m open to an attempt to do so, but I have not yet found one. At the same time, I can’t believe that Genesis itself is telling us there was only one couple. There’s plenty of writing that’s intended as historical in Scripture eg I-II Samuel & Kings, and Genesis 1-3 doesn’t look like that kind of writing. It looks intentionally symbolic and poetical. The authors were not fools, and the question who did Cain marry would have entered their minds if they had intended to be giving a literal, historical account.

    I’ve always thought Calvin was slightly more open on the monogenesis question, because of his relative voluntarism – unlike Aquinas, he says that the fact that sin was transmitted by Adam was not merely natural, it was by the will of God. But I’m not an expert.

    Ratzer treats Gen 1-2 symbolically, in ‘In the Beginning’ but, to my recollection, he steers clear of Gen 3.

    I have a certain kind of intellectual respect for those who commit themselves to taking Gen 1-3 literally at the price of insanity. The rest of us cheerfully ignore “apparently” insuperable intellectual problems, such as that death is supposed to be the result of the fall, but the fossil record shows millions of years of animals dying before humans came along. The seven day people treat the internal logic of revelation as an absolute requirement, even as the cost of believing something insane. Theologically it is nonsense, but on a human level I can’t help liking them.

    BTW Kevin, I’m sitting and reading Newman on the Biblical miracles.

  7. Francesca

    Yeah, when we went over this stuff in the Pannenberg seminar, the problem of ascribing evil to creation, and thus God’s will, was the rather insurmountable difficulty. Pannenberg even outright says that God created the world with good and evil, and, thus, God is responsible for the evil. The very existence of a free will is evidence for this:

    “To the extent that it [the will] can choose differently face to face with the given norm of the good, it is already sinful because it is emancipated from commitment to the good. …The will that can choose other than the good is already entangled in evil.” (ST, vol 2, pp. 258-9)

    “Responsibility for the coming of evil into creation unavoidably falls on the God who foresees and permits it, even though creaturely action is the immediate cause.” (p. 169)

    “This points to its [the will’s] ontological deficiency. That which can turn from the good will at some time really do so.” (p. 170)

    This goes a bit far. I think the full blame can fall on humans even if we always do opt for evil. Still, the existence of suffering and death, apart from “sin” and “evil,” is a problem. Unless we are to think of the first humans as somehow preserved from entropy, unlike their biological predecessors, then we have to grant that humans have always found themselves in the “toil of the earth” and “birth pangs” that is the curse for a sinful nature we only take responsibility for at a later stage in our life.

    I’ll have to check into Calvin on Original Sin. As for Newman, I think I read that he was open to evolution, but he certainly had no problem with miracles.

  8. If Sproul and the Reformed elite continue down this line how can we make a compelling case for the Gospel amongst are friends who are practicing scientists or applied scientists?

    You can’t. They shut themselves off from the scientific community. It’s classic fundamentalism=sectarianism. They’re playing to their conservative base which still includes a majority that thinks you’re suspect if you’re not a Creationist. I know this for sure in the SBC. It’s not a surprise to many of us that the “conservative resurgence” (=”fundamentalist takeover”) of the 80’s and 90’s included a renewed Creationism in SBC seminaries. Kurt Wise is now a professor at SBTS. That would have never happened before Mohler and his fundamentalist friends took it over. They’ve got the power, and all the good ole SBC boys will follow along. But at least there’s still Baylor and Beeson.

  9. I wasn’t sure if I had heard of this man Sproul, but then I realized that I was thinking of Spurgeon, who was in the 19th century.

    I’m only 30 pages into Newman on miracles, but already he said you just have to lump the talking snake although it sounds anamolous for an irrational brute to speak, because it is part of the whole moral system.

    I wasn’t thinking of anything as deep as Pannenberg (loved JGAM as an undergrad, but the Systematic Theology is boring). In ‘Lost in the Cosmos,’ which is a good book, Walker Percy suggests that people ‘fall’ when they acquire language. In her book on Evil, which is also good, Mary Midgley argues that animals are one track minded and humans are multi-trackers. Having evolved into multitrackers, humans slide into evil when they become single track minded. It’s not evil for animals to be single track minded, she says (she was never woken at 4 am by a cat who thinks it is breakfast time all the time), but it is so for humans to regress into single tracking. Both ideas sound OK to start with, but if you think about them they imply a design fault not simply free will on the part of humans. It’s part of the genius of the old Augustinian/Thomist theory that it put all the blame on the created agents – the fallen angels and Adam, via the idea of the misuse of free will.

    I know RCs who maintain monogenesis very firmly, but not on the basis of a literal reading of Genesis 3 or HG. Rather, it’s a question of the unity of the human race, our all being brothers. I know different kinds of RCs who follow Basil of Caesaria and think the human race beamed down after Adam, but that just makes me laugh. I just recalled that recently, someone from Ceylon got in trouble with the CDF, when Ratzer was still there, for denying original sin. Chap’s name was Tissa something.

    I love the book Darwinian Fairytales by the Australian atheist philosopher David Stove. He shows all kinds of ways neo-Darwinism can’t apply to humans. I suspect the holes in neo-Darwinism apply to humans far more than to animals, and that, in the future, Gen 1-2 will continue to be read by RCs allegorically except with respect to the special creation of humans, and likewise that a broadly literal reading of Gen 3 will be maintained. I think the philosophy and science will come to support that theology. IE, there are several different ideas within the term ‘evolution’ and a theology which is in tune with philosophy and science, ie which upholds the unity of truth, will take some on board but not others.

    You should go over to Philosophia Perennis sometime, they have good converstions about free will etc.

  10. Yes, Pannenberg’s ST is very boring, but every few/several pages you get interesting (albeit possibly heretical) bits like those I quoted. I’m actually not quite as committed to correspondence with the latest science as Pannenberg is. The whole field theory thing is bizarre. Plus, I don’t have a great amount of interest in science (relative to my interest in humanities); I mainly just want to know what the basic conclusions are. I trust the basic conclusions like I trust that Great Britain is an island. I’m open to monogenesis — I don’t have any naturalist/materialist objections to a special creation — but I would need to be more convinced of its dogmatic need. Of course, if genetic research concludes for polygenesis, then that would have to be taken into account. I’ll have to check out the Stove book.

  11. Kevin,

    I didn’t know how else to contact you. I appreciate your comment on my blog Informed Judgment. Have you read Fred Aquino, “Communities of Informed Judgment: Newman’s Illative Sense and Accounts of Rationality”? Aquino here is mining an epistemology of theology here from Newman.


  12. Just one mistake in taking Genesis 1 & 2 Literally is to assume that a 2nd or 3rd century B.C.E. Bedouin goat herders were doing science (ridiculous?). I think the point of Genesis is noticed in contrast to something like Babylonian theology which says that the world was made in Chaos and Violence, the gods are distant and indifferent to humanity, and life is a circle of life and death and meaninglessness. From that perspective the Genesis account really POPS! God brings order out of Chaos, God is intimate and imminent with creation, and creation has a point. It’s not circular, God is moving creation to the Eschatos. There is meaning in the world.

    A case can also be made for Genesis squaring nicely with evolution. Adam (humanity) Adama (the earth). You miss this play on words if you dont read Hebrew. God creates Adam out of the Adama. Out of the earth, humanity is formed. Seems to me this is exactly what evolution is saying… it just took a few million years.

    A literal reading of Genesis is to confuse epistemology with theology. Check out Canonical Theism.

  13. If Sproul and the Reformed elite continue down this line how can we make a compelling case for the Gospel amongst are friends who are practicing scientists or applied scientists?

    You can’t. They shut themselves off from the scientific community. It’s classic fundamentalism=sectarianism.

    I’m way over my head considering all the technical theological terms in these comments, but as a storyteller, here’s one line that says it all:

    “The Dwarfs are for The Dwarfs! We Won’t Be Taken In!”
    — C.S.Lewis, Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle

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