Friday, February 26, 2016

Murphy's Review of "In Christ All Things Hold Together"

Just about a year ago, right around the time that Pr. Terry Forke, an LCMS pastor and district president in Montana, was preparing to file a formal charge against me for "teaching false doctrine" with respect to "six-day creationism" and evolution (cf. esp. "The Scandal of the LCMS Mind" here; and "Talking Points about Doctrinal Authority in the LCMS" here), the Synod's Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) published its own study of "the intersection of science and Christian theology." I had planned to review this 139-page document last summer, but my expulsion from the clergy roster of the Synod in July interfered with that plan. After I had returned from Germany that month, I really wasn't in the mood to devote any time to such a problematic study of theology and science.

I may still post such a review of it in the near future, but for now I'd like to draw attention to a fine online essay that analyzes it superbly. The essay's author is the Rev. Dr. George L. Murphy, who grew up in an LCMS congregation. In the late 1960s he joined a Slovak congregation, when the Slovak Church was in fellowship with the LCMS (but a few years before it became the non-geographical "Slovak District" in the latter). During several years when he lived "down under," he was a member of the Lutheran Church in Australia. After returning to the US to begin teaching at Luther College, he and his family joined the American Lutheran Church, which later was a key player in the formation of the ELCA. So he has been a member of five different Lutheran church bodies over the course of a few decades--something of a record, I would think!

Dr. George L. Murphy
Dr. Murphy received his Ph.D. in physics from John Hopkins University in 1972. His focus was on Einstein's theory of general relativity. After teaching and conducting research in physics for an apostolic number of years, he matriculated to Wartburg Seminary, where he received his theological education. Ordained in 1983, he has served Lutheran and Episcopal congregations. He has also written numerous articles and books on the interface between science and Christian theology (from a distinctly Lutheran perspective). Since getting to know him (mainly through his wonderful books on science and theology, but also through regular email communication with him), I like to think of him as our North-American version of John Polkinghorne (who earned his Ph.D. in mathematical physics before becoming an ordained Anglican clergyman). George's books and writings on "science and theology" continue to be important resources for me and the students who take my summer-semester course on the Christian doctrine of creation (a course that leads us to engage Christian-Lutheran theological understandings in relation to mainstream scientific theories about nature and other issues in the natural sciences). For more details about Dr. Murphy, go here and here.

What about his review of the CTCR's report, In Christ All Things Hold Together: The Intersection of Science and Christian Theology (St. Louis: CTCR, February 2015)?

After a brief introduction, Dr. Murphy highlights its few positive features:
(1) The report addresses an important topic, one that many churches tend to avoid;

(2) The report's criticisms of "scientism" and philosophical naturalism are generally "on target";

(3) The report is right to note how Christian theology (and specifically the Lutheran teaching about "vocation") can support scientific work.

These features aside, Dr. Murphy finds a lot more negative ones than positive:

(1) The report sets forth a problematic understanding of "natural theology"; (Here I actually disagree with Murphy's Barthian-tinged criticism, since I think there needs to be proper attention to questions about human experience that arise in what has traditionally been called "natural theology" before one can turn properly to address God's clearer response to that situation in Christ (the gospel!), i.e., to our human condition, to life under the divine law, to the deus absconditus--cf. my book, Fundamental Theology, pp. 129ff.)

(2) The report affirms a flawed understanding of "intelligent design"; (This is not surprising, since the report's principal author is Angus J. L. Menuge, a professor of philosophy at Concordia University, Wisconsin, and a proponent of ID theory. You can learn more about him here.)

(3) The report does not understand how scientists actually conduct their work according to standard principles of methodological naturalism;

(4) The report fails to draw upon any of the leading Christian theologians who are engaged in discussions about "science and theology." (I mention several of these, including George, in my chapter on "Christian Theology and the Sciences," Fundamental Theology, 433ff.) I would add that as far as I know, the leading scientists in the Concordia University System were not consulted in the process of writing this CTCR document. I know of several practicing scientists at Concordia, Portland, and elsewhere in the CUS who take issue with many statements in the report that belie a wrong understanding of how science is actually done.

(5) The report does not seriously engage the leading, mainstream scientific theories that it opposes (e.g., neo-Darwinian evolution; theistic evolution);

(6) The report supports six-day creationism, which is quite different from today's mainstream scientific understanding of a 13.7-billion-yr-old universe, a 4.5-billion-yr-old earth, a very long process of evolution in the very, very long natural history of the planet, etc. "How are scientists – and indeed any interested people – in the Missouri Synod supposed to deal with the massive array of data, connected by well tested theories, that astrophysicists, geologists, geophysicists, paleontologists, evolutionary biologists, geneticists and workers in other areas present in support of the current scientific picture of the world? No help is given with that." To me, this is the fatal flaw of the document.

Dr. Murphy ends his review by identifying the core problem with the CTCR report, namely, its misguided understanding of the nature of biblical interpretation, an issue to which I have also drawn attention and which contributed, at least in part, to my being given the LCMS boot.

Neither of the two (!) creation accounts should be read as "straight historical narrative." That way of reading them does violence to their genres. Murphy: "And why not consider what we know with some certainty about the physical world and its processes" in deciding what "the plain meaning" of a biblical text is? "Pascal had some worthwhile comments about that in the Eighteenth Provincial Letter." Neither creation story should be read as "scientific accounts but as different types of texts that compliment such accounts."

Bottom line: "Perhaps instead we should pursue a parallel Luther drew between the Word of God made flesh — a male Jewish human in a particular cultural setting — and the Word of God written by humans in a culture with a certain level of understanding of the world. In inspiring the writers of the Genesis accounts, God apparently did not feel it necessary to correct what we now know to be an erroneous picture of the world."

The entire review by Dr. Murphy can be read here. It nicely complements the review essay that my friend, Dr. Robert Sylwester, emeritus professor of education at the University of Oregon, wrote last year. You can read Bob's critical analysis here.

I hope both essays receive wide and attentive readings in LCMS circles--and beyond.

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