Excommunicated Gnats, Ordained Camels

So let us talk about C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright and the topic of human evolution. I have recently taken N.T. Wright to task for his take on those who oppose his approach to theistic evolution. As it happened, just after posting that well-thought out epistolary sunbeam of mine, I was listening in my truck to C.S. Lewis’s treatment of theistic evolution in The Problem of Pain. And lo! His was a position like unto Wright’s. What now, Dougie?

Well, it seems to me the thing to do is offer up a blog post touching on the three key differences between Lewis and Wright related to this issue.

In outlining these differences, I do not mean to indicate that theistic evolution is okay for anybody. It is not okay when C.S. Lewis does it, it is not okay when Tim Keller does it, and it is not okay when N.T. Wright does it. But apart from the general not-okayness, it remains true that when C.S. Lewis does it, we generally don’t get an entertaining (to some) blog rant from me about it. So why is that?

Let us begin by ruling out, in a spirit of Christian charity, personal inconsistency on my part.

1. The first and most obvious difference is that Lewis spent his public career as a Christian apologist extricating himself from evolutionary assumptions. Wright is crowning his scholarly career by doubling down on a weird form of aggressive evolutionary dogmatism. In short, Lewis was coming out and Wright is going in.

As he grew older, Lewis became increasingly uncomfortable with the claims made on behalf of biological evolution. A good example of where he started can be found in The Problem of Pain, mentioned above, published in 1940. Here is one problematic excerpt.

“For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. He gave it hands whose thumb could be applied to each of the fingers, and jaws and teeth and throat capable of articulation, and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all the material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated. The creature may have existed for ages in this state before it became man . . .”

But remember that Lewis had been converted as an adult, less than a decade before this, and was converted in stages out of strident atheism. The longer he was a Christian, the more we can track his distance from evolution. In 1942, he published Perelandra, which he considered mythic, but his mythic treatment included a very historical Perelandrian Adam and Eve. And another good place to look is his essay “Funeral of a Great Myth,” which can be found in Christian Reflections. There Lewis says that evolution appeals to every part of him except for his reason.

Specifically to the point, over a period of years Lewis was a correspondent with a man named Bernard Acworth, a creationist who had sent Lewis his book on evolution. This excerpt comes from a letter written by Lewis to Acworth in 1951.

“I must confess it has shaken me: not in my belief in evolution, which was of the vaguest and most intermittent kind, but in my belief that the question was wholly unimportant. I wish I were younger. What inclines me now to think that you may be right in regarding it as the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives is not so much your arguments against it as the fanatical and twisted attitudes of its defenders. The section on Anthropology was especially good. … The point that the whole economy of nature demands simultaneity of at least a v. great many species is a v. sticky one.”

And by 1954, he had penned a fine satiric poem mocking evolution called Evolutionary Hymn. “Lead us, Evolution, lead us, up the future’s endless stair . . .”

I also wish Lewis had been younger when he first encountered some very solid arguments against biological evolution. But regardless how old he was, a very definite movement away from the dogmas of biological evolution is obvious.

2. The second thing is related to the first one. In making this point, I am referring to public ethos, and am not in the least pretending to know the actual state of anyone’s heart. But in print Lewis is humble and Wright is proud. You cannot turn around in Lewis’s writing without him issuing a general invitation to real theologians, inviting them all to correct him at any time. At the same time, he also knew when certified theologians, to be distinguished from the real ones, were busy giving away the store. In Fern Seed and Elephants, Lewis says this: “Missionary to the priests of one’s own church is an embarrassing role; though I have a horrid feeling that if such mission work is not soon undertaken, the future history of the Church of England is likely to be short.” In contrast to this clear-sighted evaluation, Wright seems committed to maintaining a uniquely Anglican myopia through which he may view the Anglican Götterdämmerung with equanimity.

I hope you liked Anglican Götterdämmerung. The phrase, I mean, not the actual meltdown.

Lewis lays no claim to originality, and labors to work within the orthodox parameters of the historic Church. This is one of the traits that enables him to be so refreshingly original. In contrast, Wright is constantly claiming originality — even when he is arguing for positions that have had a long legacy in the church. I wrote about this off-putting problem before.

What this all means is that we want to work with Lewis, even when he is guilty of a howler, and the inclination to work with Wright is not nearly as thick. Wright’s very real contributions mean that we have some impulse to overlook howlers. But it is not nearly as strong, and when the howlers are also belligerent broadsides against nearly the whole length of Christian intellectual history, and nearly the whole breadth of faithful Christian belief today, we find that our howler-overlooker is just plain busted.

3. And last — related to the previous point, Lewis correctly identified the general outlines of mere Christianity. He knew what the really important issues were, and was more than willing to identify with those who shared those fundamental tenets, despite disagreements elsewhere. In short, Lewis knew that if someone denied the resurrection, they were simultaneously denying the Christian faith. Wright, by way of contrast, has declared a heresy war on those who differ with him about the age of the earth (seriously?) and yet is willing to remain ecclesiastical chums with men who deny the bodily resurrection of Christ.

In my previous post, I noted that N.T. Wright defended the Christian faith of Marcus Borg, despite Borg’s denial of the resurrection. I should have noted where that information came from — in 2005, Wright spoke at the Auburn Avenue Pastor’s Conference, and I was with a group of men who had lunch with him there. At that lunch, he said that Borg was passionately devoted to Jesus, and was a Christian. He thought him a mixed up Christian, but a Christian. If you want to chase down a written treatment of the same issue, there is more here.

This was of a piece with something else I learned at this lunch. I asked Wright if Paul’s “blameless according to the law” (Phil. 3:6) and Zecharias and Elizabeth’s “blameless according to the law” (Luke 1:6) were the same kind of basic thing, and Wright said yes. He said that Zecharias and Elizabeth would have thought that the pre-Damascus road Saul of Tarsus was something of a hothead, but that they were, all of them, faithful Jews together. This runs clean contrary to Paul’s later testimony that he had been an insolent man and a blasphemer (1 Tim. 1:13). Yet another crucial reason why authorship claims are important, but whether Paul says that he himself had been a blasphemer, it remains the case that the Bible says that Paul had been a blasphemer. Yet another crucial reason why inerrancy claims are important.

Now I am quite prepared to acknowledge that Borg is to the Christian faith what Saul was to Judaism — a Christian outwardly, just as Saul was a Jew outwardly — but that is not what Wright was saying.

Because he has identified young earth creationists as gnostics — a deadly heresy — and as those who collude with evil because of their concern with otherworldly salvation, and has affirmed the bonds of his fellowship with deniers of the resurrection, we may therefore conclude that something is, to use the technical parlance, screwed up somewhere. He is willing to drum faithful believers out, and welcome unbelievers in. This is not Mere Christianity; it is Mere Unbelief. Christians who affirm that God made Adam, a material being, out of the dust of the ground, and Eve from his physical rib, are called gnostics, for pity’s sake, and a man who believes that the body of Jesus rotted in the ground but who somehow continued His existence as a Giant Sky Vapor, is well within the pale.

In short, Wright has excommunicated the gnats and has ordained the camel.

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Benjamin Bowman
Guest

Would it be more exact to say that the story of Creation is more concerned with order than time?

ashv
Guest
ashv

The primary controversy is over whose testimony should be accepted unquestioningly, and whose testimony should be interpreted in terms of the former. The origin of “young earth creationism” is a desire to accept the testimony of Scripture first and figure out how other evidence corresponds to it. Its opponents seem willing to accept the testimony of unbelieving scientists first and then look for a Scriptural interpretation that fits.

timothy
Guest
timothy

Yes…but.

Silviander’s expositon on six-day science posits both a literal YEC interpretation and OE depending on where you are in space-time. I find this appealing* because of the ‘yes-and’ nature of our God. http://sixdayscience.com/

*I am not arguing for it, just pointing out that it exists and could be a fruitful avenue for somebody with some serious astrophysics chops.

ashv
Guest
ashv

Thanks for the link! I remember hearing this mentioned a while back and have been meaning to look it up.

timothy
Guest
timothy

Please let us know what you think should you get a chance to read the material.

cheers.
t

Rob Steele
Guest
Rob Steele

Not a young earther myself but I trust a faithful young earther more than an unbeliever, however subtle.

Unrelated link.

Jon
Guest
Jon

“has declared a heresy war on those who differ with him about the age of the earth (seriously?)”

That could be misinterpreted as you saying that the Darwinian question is of relative unimportance to orthodoxy, and that TE is well within the pale of that orthodoxy. Which I assume you’re not saying..

Barnabas
Guest
Barnabas

I’ll probably drop into the local Reason’s to Believe meeting this Friday. I appreciate being around a group of Christian intellectuals but I don’t know how they stay perpetually interested in the age of earth controversy. I’m hoping to peel a few away for a book club focusing on other issues.
Pastor Wilson, have you read “The Righteous Mind”? Any thoughts?

Willis
Guest

For the record on the gnats and camels questions….. Wright wrote whole books detailing the truth and the importance of the real bodily resurrection. And he did so in a way that was amazingly powerful and useful for all Christians. I don’t think there is any part of Wright that views it as unimportant. And I know for a fact that Wright respects and considers Christian many creationists (he has kind words for John Piper despite their book wars). It is true that Wright has a VERY broad definition of who is in the invisible church (and it approximately matches… Read more »

David
Guest
David

But in print, Wright calls young-earth creationists “gnostics.” Given the historical significance of that word, how is that not excommunication?

Willis
Guest

Well, if you read Wright…..he calls everyone gnostics almost. Anyone who doesn’t have a very robust understanding of the final bodily resurrection (versus some nebulous understanding of heaven) he thinks has gnostic thinking. If you pinned him down, I am sure he would acknowledge that a denial of the resurrection was gnostic as well. But I don’t want to argue too hard here because it is true that Wright tends to be harsher with orthodox Christians who are to his right than with liberal Chrsitians who are clearly to his left. I am not sure why that is the case.… Read more »

Mark Hanson
Guest
Mark Hanson

By the way, Lewis also took on evolution as an “ism” in his essay “Historicism”.

Jane Dunsworth
Guest
Jane Dunsworth

I do very much like “Anglican Götterdämmerung.”

Andrey Bulanov
Member

This discussion is a testament to the importance of careful and precise theological thinking, which today is so often lacking.

Christopher
Member

So where does Francis Collins fit into this?

Willis
Guest

Francis Collins is a very pro evolutionist. He wrote a whole book promoting theistic evolution and opposing all forms of creationism including intelligent design. Both he and Wright would be in the Biologos camp.

I think Collins seems like a fine person and a nice guy. Whether he is right or not is another question.

Mike
Guest
Mike

This is from the only N.T. Write book I have read (actually, almost finished): What I am suggesting is that faith in Jesus risen from the dead transcends but includes what we call history and what we call science. Faith of this sort is not blind belief, which rejects all history and science. Nor is it simply- which would be much safer! – a belief that inhabits a totally different sphere, discontinuous from either, in a separate watertight compartment. Rather, this kind of faith, which like all modes of knowledge is defined by the nature of its object, is faith… Read more »

Willis
Guest

You really should read more Wright. I think Doug Wilson would agree with me that there is some very excellent work done by Wright that every Christian would benefit by reading. The New Testament and the People of God is so very good and so very brilliant and helpful. I highly recommend. Other great books are Jesus and the Victory of God and The Resurrection of the Son of God.

Mike
Guest
Mike

I’ll give it a go – thanks for the list.

Randy Greene
Guest

“…in print Lewis is humble and Wright is proud. You cannot turn around in Lewis’s writing without him issuing a general invitation to real theologians, inviting them all to correct him at any time.”

I find it interesting that you seem to so value Lewis’ humility, and yet everything I read from you reads as intentionally arrogant. In this regard, I would even go so far as to say that you come across as far more arrogant than even Wright does.

Jon Swerens
Member

I’m not sure you know the meaning of the word “arrogant.” It doesn’t mean “being certain of one’s opinion.”

Randy Greene
Guest

Google defines “arrogant” as:

“Having or revealing an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities.”

Wilson’s statement “I have recently taken N.T. Wright to task…,” taken from this very article, seems to satisfy that definition remarkably well.

And, because this is probably the next logical step in the discussion, let’s compare it to Wilson’s description of Wright. Google defines “proud” as:

“Having or showing a high or excessively high opinion of oneself or one’s importance.”

Yep, sounds like pretty much the same thing.

Jon Swerens
Member

And you have taken Wilson to task. So, your application of the definition marks you as more arrogant than either of them. But no, the word “arrogant” is used by this world to accuse the confident man of God so maybe he will stop being so confident. Since you’re good at Googling, try this: Type the word “arrogance” in the ol’ search bar above. Hmm, has Wilson ever addressed the issue of arrogance? I wonder if you’ll find: “The biblical preacher is a herald, a steward. He has been entrusted to declare something that would have been true if he… Read more »

Randy Greene
Guest

I didn’t claim to highly value Lewis’ apparent humility. And there is certainly a great difference between arrogance and confidence.

Not even sure what the rest of your comment is supposed to mean…. I didn’t make any question about whether or not Wilson has addressed arrogance, and it actually seems like it confirms my original comment (that Wilson himself writes with intentional arrogance – or pride, if you prefer – a quality that he claims to disapprove of in the writings of others).

Jon Swerens
Member

This is Wilson, addressing your concern, from a book more than a decade ago:

“The biblical preacher is a herald, a steward. He has been entrusted to declare something that would have been true if he had never been born. He is to preach it with a strong view of his own ultimate irrelevance. He is to get into the pulpit and say, ‘Thus says the Lord . . . .’ And to the modern world, this is insufferable arrogance.”

It isn’t arrogance, but the world wants us to believe that it is, so maybe we’ll turn down our voices a notch.

Randy Greene
Guest

Thanks for the context.

How, then, does he justify criticizing Wright for his perceived pride/arrogance?

Jon Swerens
Member

Well, Wilson wrote four entire paragraphs justifying his criticism, including actual personal interaction. If that’s not enough, I’m not sure what to add.

How, then, do you justify criticizing Wilson for his perceived pride/arrogance?

Jon Swerens
Member

I mean, you do realize that Wilson took a chapter-by-chapter review of one of Wright’s recent books and praised where he could but railed against what he had to, right?

And here’s the link: https://dougwils.com/tag/c65-nt-wrights-and-wrongs

Willis
Guest

Wilson is actually pretty humble. I love Wilson because he is willing to learn from anyone. He is critical of Wright here but I think he would be the first to admit that Wright has a lot of interesting and good things to say. Wilson is wiling to engage and read any author. I do not think he is arrogant.

Randy Greene
Guest

Perhaps that’s just my limited exposure to his works, then. I’ve only read about half a dozen of his pieces, and they have all seemed to rail against either liberals in general or a particular (perceived) liberal, like Wright.

Matt
Guest
Matt

Yep, that’s pretty much it. Hey, he knows the script and sticks to it.

Jon Swerens
Member

Or, he knows where the battle lies, and does not shrink from it.

Katecho
Member

Let’s not get carried away. Wilson is hardly a railer against anyone. Liberalism needs to be resisted boldly, so doing so is not a strike against Wilson.

Randy Greene
Guest

Describing Wright, “…the howlers are also belligerent broadsides against nearly the whole length of Christian intellectual history, and nearly the whole breadth of faithful Christian belief today.”

Yep, doesn’t seem like he rails against anyone.

And I don’t understand this idea that we need to defend the Bible against liberalism. If we believe them to be false teachers, it seems that we would take 2 Peter 2 to heart, and let God stamp them out. Instead, it seems like we are just lashing out in fear.

Jon Swerens
Member

The fact that 2 Peter 2 exists tells you how God stamps them out: Through the proclamation of the Word. Peter calls them out kinda arrogantly:

“They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing.” 2 Peter 2:14-15 ESV

God uses the means of preaching and proclamation of his Word to defeat false teaching.

holmegm
Guest
holmegm

What if Wright’s howlers really are “belligerent broadsides against nearly the whole length of Christian intellectual history”?

Then what? Is it OK to point that out? Or is it “arrogant”?

holmegm
Guest
holmegm

When there are barbarians at the gates, they tend to get what might seem to be inordinate attention.

This attention is not evidence of “arrogant” obsession with putting down barbarians.

Benjamin Bowman
Guest

The only real criticism I could offer up to Wilson’s writing “or how he comes off” is that he doesn’t follow his own advice enough when it comes to winning over the man first and then the argument. From what I have seen this is not true in person, but I agree that he does fancy himself an agitator, or as the Grandpa was referred to in “A Hard Days Night.” A king mixer.

bethyada
Member

Lewis also discussed this in his book Mere Christianity (1943). He makes an interesting aside

Everyone now knows about Evolution (though, of course, some educated people disbelieve it)

PerfectHold
Guest
PerfectHold

A little help!! I’m having the hardest time finding a Bible version where Zecharias and Elizabeth’s are said to be “blameless according to the law” (Luke 1:6)

RFB
Guest
RFB

Luke 1:6 English Standard Version (ESV)

6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.

PerfectHold
Guest
PerfectHold

So, no “blameless according to the law” then?

RFB
Guest
RFB

“walking blamelessly in…all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.”

Are you suggesting that there is any ambiguity or difference in or between “blameless” and “blamelessly”, and “all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” and the “law”.?

PerfectHold
Guest
PerfectHold

RFB — I suggest that the use of quotation marks usually denotes quoting something.
And yes, there’s a world of difference between the two passages, and the meaning behind the words used.

Katecho
Member

That was Doug’s point in asking Wright the question about those two passages. Wright apparently thinks they were all blameless in the same sense.

PerfectHold
Guest
PerfectHold

Correct, but Doug undermines his argument and strengthen’s Wrights by misquoting the two passages to make both predicates identical, when they are not.

Katecho
Member

PerfectHold sees a difference in the two passages. PerfectHold, like Doug, says the two passages don’t predicate the same thing. However, Wright thinks that both passages do predicate the same thing. Yet somehow PerfectHold still thinks Doug is weakened and Wright is strengthened. Go figure.

PerfectHold
Guest
PerfectHold

katecho — do you find that inaccurate quotes favor your arguments? When the predicate words are stipulated to be identical, can you see how Wright might make the argument that they mean the same? But why stipulate that the words are identical, when in fact they are not?

Katecho
Member

PerfectHold certainly hasn’t shown any inaccurate quoting by Wilson. Nor that Wilson stipulated anything to Wright. Wilson simply asked if the two passages predicated the same thing, and Wright said they did. Not sure how PerfectHold can dig his way out of that fact. Perhaps he thinks that Wright is unfamiliar with these two passages and was shooting from the hip.

Benjamin White
Guest
Benjamin White

Richard Dawkins must have snuck something into Wright’s drink.

James Jordan
Guest
James Jordan

Doug, I agree with all except that Saul was probably not a true OC believer. I think he was, but that he fell at the Stephen event. I think NTWright is dead wrong in thinking Paul was already a zealot Shammaite. Paul says he followed moderate Gamaliel. He stands to the side while Stephen is stoned. But he is inflamed by Stephen’s vision, and goes berserk. I see this as one more recap of Adam’s fall, and like Peter’s betrayal. I think Romans 7:7-11 is a virtual biography of this event. I think the second half of 1 Tim. 1:13… Read more »

holmegm
Guest
holmegm

Thank you for that pointer!

http://fpb.livejournal.com/297710.html

Lewis had indeed saw through the myth, later on.