Oct 22 2010

Gen fight at the Baptist corral

A battle has broken out in the genteel world of Baptist theology over the proper understanding of the book of Genesis.

It began with the publication in 2009 of the book The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World by William Dembski. Dembski’s name will be a familiar to those who followed the controversy over so-called ‘intelligent design’ (ID) because he was one of their key leaders. He is a clever and well-educated man, a glutton for formal education whose bio says he has a B.A. in psychology, an M.S. in statistics, a Ph.D. in philosophy, a doctorate in mathematics, and a master of divinity degree. Much of his work during the ID debates was aimed at producing mathematical and statistical arguments for god using information and complexity theories. He is also a prolific writer, churning out books and papers at a prodigious rate, which made him a moving target. By the time scientists and mathematicians had analyzed his latest book and pointed out flaws in his arguments, he would have a new book out where he would claim that he had addressed them.

The high point in his career was when he was appointed head of the Michael Polanyi Institute at Baylor University. Baylor is a research university with Baptist roots and the Polanyi institute was a think tank specifically created by president of the university (himself a theologian) in 1999 to promote ID. But the faculty of the university rose up in revolt at what they considered an end-run around faculty governance on academic matters by their president to advance his personal religious agenda, and demanded the closing of the center. Dembski was removed as the head of the center in 2000 and left Baylor in 2005 to his present home as a faculty member at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Given that Dembski craves acceptance by mainstream scientists and academics, going from a research university to a fairly obscure regional seminary must have been a blow.

As one can see from the subtitle, his latest book attempts to address the age-old problem of theodicy but Dembski tries to do it within the framework of an old Earth. Why this is a problem is because orthodox Christianity teaches that sin and suffering were caused by Adam and Eve’s shenanigans with the serpent and the fruit in the Garden of Eden that resulted in their fall from grace and created the original sin that taints all of us even from birth. It is this belief that leads to the doctrine that Jesus had to die as a vicarious sacrifice to absolve the world of its sins. (Ok, I know that none of this makes any sense but it is what Christians are required to believe so bear with me.)

The doctrine of original sin requires original sinners and thus requires Adam and Eve to be real people who were the first humans and consequently a young Earth. Dembski seemed to have been persuaded by scientific evidence that believing in a young Earth was deeply problematic. But since he wanted to retain the idea of salvation through Jesus’s death, he tried to find a way to insert the doctrine of the fall and original sin into an old Earth framework in which evolution had occurred. He also allowed for the possibility that Noah’s flood may have been a local phenomenon, not a global flood, again based on the scientific evidence.

Even these slight concessions to what the rest of us might consider incontrovertible science were too much for his colleagues and ticked off the young Earth biblical literalists. He got some strong criticisms from some of his Baptist colleagues, especially a highly negative review from Tom Nettles, a faculty member of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky who claimed that Dembski was rejecting Biblical literalism and inerrancy because of scientific arguments. The idea that scientific evidence should take precedence over the ‘plain text’ reading of the Bible is a big no-no for these people.

Paige Patterson, president of the seminary where Dembski is a faculty member, is an unabashed young Earther who rejects evolution and thinks Noah’s flood was a global one. He was concerned by the possibility that one of his faculty members was straying from the fold, rejecting orthodoxy and espousing an old Earth heresy. Patterson commissioned David Allen, the dean of his school of theology and Dembski’s immediate superior, to write a lengthy rebuttal to Nettles’ review, in which he argued that Dembski was truly orthodox and that Nettles had misunderstood him.

Patterson also summoned Dembski to a meeting and as a result, a chastened Dembski issued an abject mea culpa, saying that he had not actually thought through some of the things he had written in his book and laid out what he says he actually believes, and outlined what he would have done differently if he were to write the book now. He now says that he does believe that Noah’s flood was a global one and that his assumption of an old Earth was not a belief he was committed to but merely a speculative exercise purely for the purpose of seeing how it could be reconciled with ideas of the fall and original sin. It is a great example of a coerced retraction. His apologia ends:

Yet, in a brief section on Genesis 4–11, I weigh in on the Flood, raising questions about its universality, without adequate study or reflection on my part. Before I write on this topic again, I have much exegetical, historical, and theological work to do. In any case, not only Genesis 6–9 but also Jesus in Matthew 24 and Peter in Second Peter seem clearly to teach that the Flood was universal. As a biblical inerrantist, I believe that what the Bible teaches is true and bow to the text, including its teaching about the Flood and its universality.

In writing The End of Christianity today, I would also underscore three points: (1) As a biblical inerrantist, I accept the full verbal inspiration of the Bible and the conventional authorship of the books of the Bible. Thus, in particular, I accept Mosaic authorship of Genesis (and of the Pentateuch) and reject the Documentary Hypothesis. (2) Even though I introduce in the book a distinction between kairos (God’s time) and chronos (the world’s time), the two are not mutually exclusive. In particular, I accept that the events described in Genesis 1– 11 happened in ordinary space-time, and thus that these chapters are as historical as the rest of the Pentateuch. (3) I believe that Adam and Eve were real people, that as the initial pair of humans they were the progenitors of the whole human race, that they were specially created by God, and thus that they were not the result of an evolutionary process from primate or hominid ancestors.

The statement by Patterson, Allen’s defense of Dembski against Nettles, and Dembski’s apologia can all be seen here.

Nettles, however, is not buying this revisionism. He seems to suspect that Dembski really believes in the heresies he expounded in his book, and wrote a lengthy rebuttal to the Patterson/Allen/Dembski response. Will they fire back? Or will they fire Dembski? The Baptist world waits agog.

In my book God vs. Darwin, I wrote about how the intelligent design people tried to make us think that they accepted all of modern science (including evolution and an old Earth) except for a few biological systems which they said required a designer. They stoutly resisted any attempt to lump them in with religious fundamentalists who took the Bible literally. Many of us had strong suspicions at that time that this seemingly liberal interpretation of the Bible was just a charade in order to disguise their more rigid religious agenda and make ID acceptable to the courts as an alternative to evolution. P. Z. Myers, whose blog first alerted me to this new Dembski story, seems to think that what this recent episode reveals is that Dembski was a common-or-garden creationist all along and that this controversy has forced him to publicly admit it.

I think that what is going on is more interesting. I have not read Dembski’s book and have no plans to do so, because life is too short to read books that use biblical texts to address empirical questions. But reading this back-and-forth over the book suggests to me that while Dembski may or may not have been a true-blue creationist at one time, he now finds the scientific arguments against at least a few of its orthodoxies persuasive. Dembski is a clever man, even arrogantly so, and I suspect that it must galling to him that in order to keep his job, he has to publicly recant under pressure from his religious bosses, people whom he must consider to be his intellectual inferiors. Who would have thought that Dembski, of all people, would experience what it is like to walk in Galileo’s shoes!

I suspect that what has happened is that Dembski has started down that dangerous road in which he starts to value evidence and reason and secretly tries to integrate science with his religious beliefs. Beware, Bill. That way leads to atheism!


  1. 1
    Steve LaBonne

    After getting himself fired at Baylor by acting like a complete jackass, Dembski now has to grovel to keep his job at a fundamentalist seminary. I could almost feel sorry for him.


  2. 2
    Jared A

    “I suspect that what has happened is that Dembski has started down that dangerous road in which he starts to value evidence and reason and secretly tries to integrate science with his religious beliefs. Beware, Bill. That way leads to atheism!”

    Look, now you just spoiled the ending for Dembski. It was supposed to be a surprise!

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