The Necessity of Extra-Theological Norms
September 11, 2008
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.