19 April 2010

Strawmen: A Fundamentalist’s Trojan Horse

My head is about to burst into flames.

I don’t publicly disagree with friends lightly, but here goes: the resignation of Bruce Waltke from Reformed Theological Seminary is a blemish on an otherwise decent history, at least in my experience there (as a full-time student from 2000 to 2002 at the Orlando campus). Equally distasteful are the majority of reactionary blog posts—for and against (view this for a good illustration that depicts why). One more thing, in the interest of transparency, I'm fairly ignorant about modern scientific theories, and still I remain unconvinced of the entire neo-Darwinian synthesis, yet I am even less convinced of young-earth creationism—for both biblical and scientific reasons.

Interestingly, Modern Reformation's upcoming May/June edition has an Ad Extra article titled "PCA Geologists on the Antiquity of the Earth" (pp. 6–9). "In this article," the eight Reformed geologists write, "we wish to provide our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ with a few general observations, some clarificaton of a common misconception about our science, and two specific examples that speak convincingly that God's earthly creation has been around for a very long time" (about 4.6 billion years, p. 6). Anyway, back to the point.

In Old Testament Theology, Waltke wrote that “the best harmonious synthesis of the special revelation of the Bible, of the general revelation of human nature that distinguishes between right and wrong and consciously or unconsciously craves God, and of science is the theory of theistic evolution” (p. 202). It was published in 2007, and he had been working on this book for over a decade. I sat under him in 2002, and the statement from OT Theology came as no surprise; he vocalized openness to theistic evolution at various points (as did at least one other of my old professors). Why, then, the sudden dismissal? Simply because the video gained so much attention? Maybe. Any further speculation wouldn’t be wise on my part.

Instead, let’s look at a few points raised in the various posts floating around out there, points that are causing my eyes to bleed:
  • Bruce Waltke has insisted that evangelicals must accept evolution or be considered a "cult." 
This strawman, through which the reactionary fundamentalist sneaks in, is at best a result of inability to listen carefully, or at worst just plain deceitful. Unfortunately, BioLogos titled the original video snippet that has since been pulled, “Why the Church Must Accept Evolution.” Waltke nowhere stated such a thing. In fact, he wrote in response to the ruckus that he “would have entitled it ‘why the church should accept creation by the process of evolution,’ not ‘why the church must accept evolution.’” He goes on: “Also I would have emphasized in writing that the introductory ‘If’ is a big ‘if' . . . .”

This should stop every keyboard from typing the lie once and for all. But just in case Waltke’s point was missed: If (a big IF) our observation of the empirical data leads, as conclusively as it can in this fallen world, to the affirmation of something akin to the neo-Darwinian synthesis, then to deny that conclusion would be tantamount to sticking one’s head in the sand, much like we see in the practices of cults (in its gnostic mistrust of the phenomenological). In other words, given that all truth is God’s truth, and given that a truth can be known in this world through the observation of empirical data (so-called “general revelation"), then to deny that truth once it has been verified (which admittedly isn’t an infallible verification), is an implicit denial of nature as a valid revelatory sphere (i.e., it is capable, at least in theory, of revealing real history). In short, it runs the risk of calling God a liar.
  • Ironically, Bruce Waltke, an eminent Old Testament scholar, doesn’t base his arguments on the Old Testament at all. 
Contrary to this oft-repeated criticism, Waltke’s entire statement on the BioLogos video and in his chapters on Genesis 1–3 in An Old Testament Theology are informed by the Scriptures; indeed, one can take his comments to be the tip of a biblical iceberg. He couldn’t have said what he said about science and archaeology if he hadn’t first come to a few exegetical conclusions. One can no doubt refuse to give him the benefit of the doubt, of assuming the worst with respect to his motivations, that his “first priority is to look intellectually cool and hip before the skeptical world” (as one blogger put it with respect to BioLogos, and, by extension, Waltke), but of course the burden of proof rests with the accuser in this matter. You’ll find none, however, for it’s a Trojan horse designed to get the fundamentalist behind the gate.

For those disinclined to give fellow Christians the benefit of the doubt, let’s take a gander at what that might look like: Giving Waltke the benefit of the doubt means assuming that he has already done the hard interpretive work, Hebraist that he is, and has found that a proper exegesis of the creation narrative does not conflict with or contradict certain aspects of what physicists, geologists, paleontologists, biologists, etc., are saying today (nor is his exegesis concordist in nature; rather, it’s complementary, which recognizes consequently that “the Bible does not make scientific claims and therefore we should not be biblically dogmatic when it comes to this topic” as another blogger admitted).

Often what follows this truth regarding the Bible and scientific claims are the questions: But does not Scripture make historical claims? And is not the creation narrative intended to be a record of history? Indeed. It's a good question. But just asking it doesn't damn Waltke. The better question is what does the creation account presume to be a historical record of—material creation or functional creation? The literal creation of the cosmos, or the arranging of an already created cosmos to serve the purposes of the creator God and his human creatures (as John Walton suggests)? Or, maybe as John Sailhamer argues, the creation account records the preparation of the Promised Land, the origin of God’s people, Israel?

Regardless, this one point must be pounded in, apparently: granting the basics of the neo-Darwinian synthesis does not necessarily preclude the historicity of Adam and Eve. N.T. Wright, in his commentary on Romans 5, helpfully summarizes this point: 
Paul clearly believed that there had been a single first pair, whose male, Adam, had been give a commandment and had broke it. Paul was, we may be sure, aware of what we would call mythical or metaphorical dimensions to the story, but he would not have regarded these as throwing doubt on the existence, and primal sin, of the first historical pair. …Each time another very early skull is dug up the newspapers exclaim over the discovery of the first human beings; we have consigned Adam and Eve entirely to the world of mythology, but we are still looking for their replacements. (NIB p. 526)
Waltke, as he has said implicitly, if not explicitly (see OT Theology, pp. 184, 203, 223, 259, 277-79, and his commentary on Genesis, pp. 66–67, 70, 85), along with the whole of Christian history is on the other side of the fence than those who would deny this biblical-historical point: there was a single, representative first pair.
  • Waltke doesn’t present his argument for evolution as a result of biblical reflection.
This strawman is intended, of course, to cast suspicion on his conservative Christian credentials. But it betrays a rather shallow thought pattern: can any modern scientific theory be based on one’s reflection of the Scriptures? To answer in the affirmative is to cast doubt on the very hermeneutic one presupposes can do this.

The fact is, Genesis 1 exhibits an ancient cosmology. It does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions. How, then, could Waltke present his argument for evolution based on a reflection of Scripture? He knows better than that—better than the sloppy thinking that produces many of the reactionary blog posts being written over the past two weeks. To be sure, Waltke could say this or that portion of Scripture doesn’t contradict this or that point of evolution, but he can’t say this or that portion of Scripture supports an evolutionary view of the cosmos (a la Glenn Morton, or, in the opposite direction, Henry Morris).

Waltke knows that such an approach to the biblical text ends up changing the very meaning of the text itself, since it attempts to make the text say something it never intended for it to say. In short, he knows how to read the Bible according to its various genres, something anti-intellectualists have notoriously derided.

What follows the last criticism is often a question as to whether Waltke really affirms the divine authority of Scripture (because he’s supposedly denying the historical claims of it). But this point rests entirely on a presupposed way of reading the text (in the young-earth creationist direction), and Waltke doesn’t share that hermeneutic. In other words, it won’t do to accuse someone of undermining the authority of Scripture if they don’t at all affirm your particular reading of it; that’s a classic fundamentalist and biblicist tactic, and ought to be avoided by thinking people everywhere.

Another classic tactic is the imputation of ill motives to the opposition:
  • Waltke apparently presupposes the predominance of science over Scripture. 
This point has already been dealt with, in that Waltke’s approach to the issue of science and Scripture is that they are complementary, not concordist (the view that suggests Scripture does make scientific claims. But the question always is, which science, and when? That of the nineteenth century? Or maybe the twentieth?). So, in fact, Waltke does not assume the hegemony of science over Scripture. That is, ironically, exactly what creation-science types are guilty of, in their pursuit to provide an alternative science and thus import into the ancient text modern scientific notions.

Do reactionaries think they can avoid heavenly scorn merely by avoiding the hard questions generated by our increase in knowledge about the cosmos (a kind of modern gnosticism), while still holding to even more obnoxious “doctrines” like divisiveness for the sake of the church's “purity”?  Waltke was right, the hermeneutics behind anti-intellectual fundamentalism are a Trojan horse that, once inside our gates, must cause the entire fortress of Christian belief to fall under the cultic sword.

And no equivocating on the word
cult here. There’s good cult, and there’s bad (just like there are good and bad kinds of fundamentalism). The good kind of cult, to quote John Howard Yoder, knows that "the believer's cross is, like that of Jesus, the price of social nonconformity." It inclines us "to take the world's wisdom with a pinch of salt and not be too worried if they find [us] 'unloving' or [dismissive of the] church when she refuses to conform to their view of reality simply because they tell [us] it is true" (well said, Carl). However, the kind that exists under anti-intellectual and demagogic fundamentalists can only lead to “spiritual death.” I'm not suggesting that every opponent of Waltke's embodies this (even if I've alluded to your blog post here). But I am suggesting that the confessional Reformed camp is on the verge of being hijacked, and one major way this is happening is through the Trojan horse of fundamentalism.


David said...


Good post Chris.

Blogging can be disguised gossip on steroids.


Wesley said...

Forgive a trivial comment to your serious post: Where do you find these pictures?! I couldn't help but chuckle.

Chris Donato said...

Wesley, that's a perfectly appropriate question. I hope the pictures bring the necessary levity to a topic such as this.

The short answer is that since I work in print, I'm always catching glimpses of various stock images, etc. But mostly, I just know where to look. Trade secrets and all.

@ David, thanks for reading. The blogosphere is like the ultimate backyard fence, huh?

Bobby Grow said...

Good post, Chris.

I wonder why Waltke has opted for neo-Darwinian evolution vs. Intelligent Design. Natural selection is simply an out-moded mechanism in order to do the heavy macro-evolutionary processes the ND's assert. I think Behe and others have made this very clear. Of course this post isn't about these finer points.

I have a question though, Chris. By-and-large, as Marsden has pointed out; Fundamentalism through folks like Warfield and Machen who both were 'Confessionally Reformed, was forwarded by and took shape within the walls of the 'Reformed'. So when you say: ". . . But I am suggesting that the confessional Reformed camp is on the verge of being hijacked, and one major way this is happening is through the Trojan horse of fundamentalism." What do you mean?

I suppose you could be saying that the Conf. Ref. are being hijacked by the cultural/socio aspect represented by Fundamentalist attitude which is highly sectarian (vs. the doctrinal side of Fundamentalism, or maybe you see these two: social/doctrinal intertwined). I'm just curious how you would parse a definition of Fundamentalism, and how that fits into the history and now into the present situation with the Conf. Ref.?

Chris Donato said...

Hi, Bobby.

Regarding the first point, I'm not that familiar with the problems posed by Behe and others about natural selection. Maybe this is where Gould's "punctuated equilibrium" idea comes in?

With respect to ID, though, I think the basic problem with is that it often devolves into a God-in-the-gaps apologetic. Even more, it cannot adequately explain the far-less-than-perfect biological systems in the world today without impugning the Creator. In other words, could he not have done a better job when creating the eye?

Its major contribution, it seems to me, has to do with philosophy, not laboratory science—the "fine-tuning" argument is helpful, indeed.

Chris Donato said...

Now, regarding fundamentalism, I wrote in the last paragraph that "there are good and bad kinds of fundamentalism." The Reformed insider will know that I'm referring to Warfield, Machen, et al., as the good kind, and the movement spawned during the early 20th century (Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy) as the bad kind.

Not having read Marsden on this, does he conflate the two—that the one led to the other? Or that the two are inextricably bound? Surely not.

It was during that controversy that the confessional Reformed churches distinguised themselves from the pan-Fundy movement, making common cause on only a highly selected list. I'm lamenting the fact that what I see around me is that the bad kind of fundamentalism has actually made serious inroads into Reformed churches—more than I had expected. So, I guess your first analysis is what I'm saying: "the Conf. Ref. are being hijacked by the cultural/socio aspect represented by Fundamentalist attitude which is highly sectarian (vs. the doctrinal side of Fundamentalism)…."

We need to be careful, of course, about the moniker "fundamentalist" when it comes to doctrine. That is, Warfield's "fundamentalist doctrine" is nothing like, say, John MacArthur's "fundamentalist doctrine."

Bobby Grow said...


ID is much more robust than you give it credit for. I don't buy the God-of-the-gaps charge; it's not filling anymore "gaps" that neo-Darwinianism is (except they fill it with metaphysical materialism). They offer a working scientific model; and its proponents are actually true blue PhD'd scientists who came to their conclusions through their research.

It looks like the PR is working though, ID is not a mask for "Creationism."

I wonder what you think captures the "good Fund."? Is it the the 5 'fundamentals'? Inerrancy is included in the fundamentals; yet would you attribute its form to the culture of reaction (or socio/cultural), or something that is healthy and continous with the belief of the church through the centuries?

Marsden, is good. You should read him on this in is book: Fundamentalism and American Culture

Jesse J Hake said...


I ran into you through your comments over at Creed Code Cult. I teach theology at a Christian high school and found your post on the Bruce Waltke case to be a breath of fresh air (and wonderfully informative). I recently read Walton on the OT conceptual world but have not read his book on Genesis one. I also appreciated the care you took in pointing out that "granting the basics of the neo-Darwinian synthesis does not necessarily preclude the historicity of Adam and Eve."

Thanks for taking the time to put this material together.


Chris Donato said...

Jesse, thank you for stopping by and for those kind words. Thanks also for the good work you're doing at The Potter's School.

I know the bad kind of sectarianism will always be with us; I just hope it becomes more rare.

Chris Donato said...

@ Bobby, you make some good points there. I need to make sure I give the benefit of the doubt to the real-life scholars (like Stephen Meyer and John Lennox) who have come to their conclusions scientifically and who embrace ID.

Still, I think it's helpful, at this point, to keep ID in the realm of philosophy/theology, since that's where, it seems to me, it has proven itself most beneficial.

Regarding the fundamentals (of the faith); it doesn't seem to me at all that holding to the "fundamentals" necessarily leads to the reactionary 20th-century movement called "fundamentalism." To be sure, there's overlap. So I'd say the latter: Holding to the fundamentals is "something that is healthy and continous with the belief of the church through the centuries."

Since the so-called "5 fundamentals" were discussed in a specific historical context, in response to modernists, there are other "fundamentals" worth discussing (and maybe even some nuance with respect to how "inerrancy" was framed at that time in history).

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