Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Book Review: The Theistic Evolution of William A. Dembski of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, "The End of Christianity"


This book introduced me to the heretofore unknown (by yours truly) author, William A. Dembski, even though I am a Southern Baptist pastor and a graduate of a Southern Baptist seminary (Southeastern in Wake Forest, class of '94). Dembski “is research professor in Philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and a senior fellow with Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture in Seattle, Washington.” The book was recommended on the Web, the site I cannot remember.

The subject matter of Dembski's book, theodicy, drew me to purchase the book; I see this issue as one of the “questions being asked” by Christians and non-Christians. Many books as well as Sunday morning sermons are answering questions that are not being asked; preachers often just preach because it is what they do on Sunday morning; writers often write because they have a contract. But this particular topic matter is a question, in fact, being asked these days by so-called “seekers” as well as by the “new atheists.” It is one subject that the church will do well to prepare itself to answer.

WHAT IS "THEODICY?"

“Theodicy” is man's attempt at answering the question, “If God is so good, how can He allow all the evil we see in this world?” How can Christians justify the “God is good” mantra while we witness the wholesale genocide in much of Africa and the Middle East, crippling diseases, incurable diseases, horrific accidents, etc. ? How can we defend our belief that God is good in the face of a hate-saturated planet? Where can we place the blame for an evil world other than on the shoulders of the God who created this world and seems totally responsible for the chaos? That is the task Dembski undertakes in this treatise.

“The End of Christianity” was published in 2009 by the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, B&H Academic, Nashville, Tenn. The text of the book is 195 pages long, 238 including the notes, the “foreword,” and “introduction,” etc. Dembski has divided his book into Five Parts, comprising twenty four chapters:

PART I, “DEALING WITH EVIL;”

PART 2, YOUNG- AND OLD-EARTH CREATIONISM;

PART 3, DIVINE CREATION AND ACTION;

PART 4, RETROACTIVE EFFECTS OF THE FALL;

PART 5, LOOSE ENDS.

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: SOUTHERN BAPTIST AND THEISTIC EVOLUTIONISTS

I am rather puzzled/surprised by Dembski's approach to theodicy considering his prominent place on staff at the SBC's largest seminary where ultra-conservative Dr. Paige Patterson is President. William Dembski is a practicing “theistic evolutionist” and proposes a theodicy that is quite contrary to orthodox SBC theology. Dembski's theodicy is not only contrary to SBC theology, it is really quite bizarre. That Patterson has tolerated this man's views while terminating the employment of another prof who believed in “speaking in tongues” is the source of my puzzlement.

DEMBSKI AND THE CROSS OF JESUS CHRIST

Throughout his early chapters (1-4), Dembski is all that a good Southern Baptist would expect. “By the Cross, an infinite God forms a relationship of love and friendship with infinite creatures.” (P.22). “Christ, by going to the Cross and there taking on himself the sin of the whole world, fully demonstrates the love of God.” (P.23). And, “Additionally, we will fail to recognize the enormity of Christ's suffering on the Cross to redeem us.” (P.45). However, as Dembski pits “young earth creationists” against “old earth creationists” and both against theistic evolutionists, suggesting that our original parents aren't to be taken literally, obfuscating the literalism of the Fall, SBC'ers will find themselves having serious questions even about His theology of the Cross. I personally question his stated belief in the Cross and its necessity.

YOUNG EARTH CREATIONISTS VERSUS OLD EARTH CREATIONISTS VERSUS THEISTIC EVOLUTIONISTS

Beginning with chapter 5, the author lays the foundation for his proposed theodicy based on theistic evolution. The challenge of the fossil record as presented by Dembski is fascinating (p.48). The question of how evil could have been present in the pre-Fall world as demonstrated by the evidence of violence and cruelty in the fossil record seems to leave young earth creationists facing an insurmountable object. Dembski proposes a “retroactive effect of the Fall” as the answer to this dilemma. The notion presented by some young earth creationist that the earth was created with the "appearance of age" presents a greater problem for the young earthers, a God who created the earth in such a way as to deceive its inhabitants into believing that it is indeed old ... when in fact it is not. That would make it a God-created hoax (chapters 7 and 9).

AN ALTERNATIVE WORLDVIEW

Perhaps the most fascinating argument by Dr. Dembski is his perspective on time. The author lays out the differences between the Greek words for time, chronos and kairos. Chronos time is the time we deal with on a day to day basis, the time we see on our clocks, etc. Kairos time, on the other hand, is God's time, it is the time in which God works to bring about His will in chronos time. Chronos has to do with the visible; kairos with the invisible. The two times intersect as God wills. And like much of what Dembski writes in this book, I found this very helpful with the ring of truth about it. Chapters 16-20 address the matter of time.

THE “RETROACTIVE EFFECT OF THE FALL”

“The underlying assumption here is this: Human sin must precede all appearance of evil in the world; otherwise it cannot be responsible for it.” Dembski counters with this, “Why, in the economy of a world whose Creator is omnipotent, omniscient, and transtemporal, should causes always precede effects? Clearly, such a Creator could act to anticipate events yet to happen.” Evolution, then, preceding the Fall in the theodicy of William Dembski, is the result of the Fall, the “retroactive effect of the Fall.” “Accordingly, the Fall could take place after the natural evils for which it is responsible.” (p.50).

“For theistic evolutionists, by contrast (with “young earth creationists”), primate ancestors evolved over several million years into hominids with full human bodies. What happened next? In the theodicy I am proposing, these hominids initially lacked the cognitive and moral capacities required to bear the image of God. Then, at the moment they entered the Garden, they received God's image and became fully human.” P.158. Hominids, “with full human bodies,” were the direct, albeit retroactive, effect of man's sin, man's fall in the Garden, as was the cruelty between animals and the natural disasters which occurred before the Fall.

This idea of a retroactive effect of the Fall is not a new idea, it was proposed in the 1850's by J. Jay Dana, William Newcomb in the 1960's, then by Harvard philosopher, Robert Nozick. And Albert Einstein remarked "the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion." God, being omnipotent and omniscient, "responds to the Fall by acting not simply after it...but also by acting before it." (p.126).

This theory/thinking/reasoning seems to align itself with classical Arminianism that teaches that God looked into the future, saw those who would freely choose to believe in Him, and then chose them to be His. He "anticipated" their choosing of Him and then acted on that choice and sealed that choice. William Lane Craig argues "my freely chosen actions...supply the truth conditions for the future contingent propositions known by God." (p. 129).

BUT WHAT ABOUT “ADAM AND EVE” IN WILLIAM DEMBSKI'S SCHEME OF THINGS?

In chapter 20, “A Kairological Reading of Genesis 1-3,” Dr. Dembski writes, “The theodicy developed in this book is certainly compatible with a literal Adam and Eve. But it does not require a literal Adam and Eve.” And, of course, setting this beside the theory of hominids as proposed by the author, Adam and Eve were clearly not literal beings. This is, of course, according to the Bible, a dramatic departure from orthodox Christian theology. (See, e.g., 1 Cor. 15:45-49; 1 Tim. 2:13-14).

QUESTIONS THAT OCCURRED WHILE READING THIS BOOK

On several occasions during the course of my reading Dr. Dembski's book, I had one question, “Is this in fact what happened;” the whole idea of the retroactive effects of the Fall, the existence of “hominids,” God's anticipating the Fall by the evolutionary process as opposed to the literal creation of man, Adam and Eve? Evolution was the effect of sin, the “consequence of sin,” occurring before true man existed, before the Fall?

Is this in fact what God actually did?

CONCLUSION

“The End of Christianity” came recommended through a “Christian” website somewhere out there in cyberspace. It was almost a complete waste of my time. Even with the great information provided by Dr. Dembski and several fascinating arguments as he developed his thesis, I found myself frustrated by what I perceive to be the compromise of Biblical integrity coupled with a return to the Liberal apologetic of the early 20th century. I do not know the impact this book is having or will have on the church; it may be that it is only read in “ivory towers.” Nonetheless, the book is at once, disturbing, challenging, and intellectually stimulating.