Thursday, 1 January 2009

Dr. Denis Alexander in the ET

I've started so I may as well finish... January's "Evangelical Times" ( carried a letter from Dr. Alexander whose book I have reviewed at length here . (Thank you to the friend who e-mailed me this!) He was replying to the review carried in the same newspaper by Professor Andy McIntosh, a prominent creationist and scientist at Leeds University. Professor McIntosh's review, a few months earlier (you could well be able to find it on the website) had pulled no punches. He stated, correctly in my opinion, that Dr. Alexander was "seriously in error", that his book was a demonstration of "how sophisticated we evangelicals have become in justifying our unbelief" and that the spreading of the philosophy promoted by Dr. Alexander really represents "the downgrade controversy of the 21st century".

Unsurprisingly, Dr. Alexander's letter didn't totally agree. In this post, I'm going to begin going through Dr. Alexander's letter, with the hope that it'll shed some more light on the issues for my readers. Here we go.

Do we have to choose?

Dear Sir,

Given the level of angst in Andy McIntosh's article in October's ET (`The Downgrade Controversy of the 21st Century') critiquing my book "Creation or Evolution - do we have to choose? (Monarch, 2008)", the reader might be forgiven for thinking that the theological gulf between us is rather wide.

But this is not the case.

We shall see...

McIntosh and I both believe in the full plenary inspiration of the whole of Scripture as the Word of God; in a literal Adam and Eve; a historical Fall leading to separation from God of all humankind; and our deliverance from both spiritual and physical death through the death and resurrection of Christ.

This letter, then, is aiming to downplay the differences between Dr. Alexander's attempt at a Christian Darwinism, and Professor McIntosh's (in my opinion, Biblical) creation theology. Along those lines, Dr. Alexander then lists a number of doctrines which he says the two of them both agree on.

In fact as I read this, the appropriateness of Rrofessor McIntosh's invocation of the "downgrade" metaphor was impressed upon me. One of the striking features of the decline from evangelical orthodoxy in the late 19th century, and one that allowed it to escape from under the radar of many sincere evangelicals (or often those who should have known better but had no stomach for a fight) until the rot was well and truly endemic, was the use of orthodox terminology by downgraders. The liberals believed in the divinity of Christand the divine inspiration of the Word of God... it's just that by "divinity" they didn't mean "deity" as Christians had historically done, and by "inspiration" they didn't mean "plenary inspiration", that word having now to be added for clarity's sake.

By referring to this, what I mean is that Dr. Alexander is being more than a little disingenuous. By this late stage in doctrinal debate in Christendom, we surely all ought to know that the mere heaping up of phrases to identify doctrines that we can all tick the box for, does not mean much. To make his Darwinian teaching acceptable to evangelicals he needs to minimise the difference between it and the historical faith, but I don't think he's being accurate in doing so. That is:
  • Dr. Alexander and Professor McIntosh both believe in a "literal Adam and Eve"... but the Professor's Adam is the first human being, specially created from the dust on the sixth day of the world's existence, the historical father of all humanity, whose sin brought physical suffering and death into the world, and from whose rib Eve the mother of all the living was created. Dr. Alexander's is a Neolithic farmer who appeared at one second to midnight on the evolutionary clock, the descendent of thousands of years of prior humans who had lived and died with art, culture and religion, and ultimately the offspring of ape-like creatures, fish and ultimately bacteria. He did not bring in physical suffering or death, and is not the father of many people alive today (such as the Australian Aboriginals). Dr. Alexander does also explain in his book that he sees his "literal" Adam and Eve as only a possibility, and also allows that a rank liberal approach, where the whole thing is just a metaphor not referring to any particular couple or set of events is also possible within the Biblical text... but, I presume because it's his aim in this letter to say things that a more conservative evangelical readership in ET will find palatable, he doesn't mention that here. Hmmm.

  • Whereas they both believe in the plenary inspiration of Scripture, Dr. Alexander also brings to the Bible the prior doctrine and hard distinction (as he'll explain later in the letter), that the Bible is a "theological" and not a "scientific" one, and that therefore it simply does not speak of creation as a historical matter. That is, anything it has to say along those lines is screened out in advance by the hermeneutical grid he brings to the text. It's all inspired - but there are also presuppositions that will disallow it from giving us a deliberate history of the world's formation. Dr. Alexander believes that science is a second book, whose results in research into the past, can reach an equivalent level of truth with Scripture such that Scripture is not allowed to contradict it. Professor McIntosh, on the other hand, comes with the classical Christian presuppositional approach - that is, that Scripture is the ultimate and unrivalled source of knowledge, that must be consulted first and gets to set boundaries on all other fields, ruling out certain theories (such as Darwinism) in advance. The Bible is not an equal source of knowledge with Science, but science's lord.

  • Dr. Alexander's "historical" fall is "historical" in the sense that it corresponds to an event in space-time. But to compare this to Professor McIntosh's fall, which agrees with that of historic orthodoxy, is to compare chalk with cheese. Dr. Alexander believes that the physical world, with its thorns and sweat coming from the brows of the sons of Adam, was that way before, during and after Adam's sin. He believes that pain, suffering and death is essential to a physical world of this sort with carbon-based life - "biology is a package deal". The fall was, according to him, purely in the spiritual realm: a relationship with God was offered and rejected. Professor McIntosh, on the other hand, holds that death came into the world because Adam sinned (Romans 5), and the whole creation came into bondage (Romans 8) and now dwells under a curse, suffering, disease and pain not being part of God's original "very good" creation. It is not intellectual integrity to seek to paper over the gaping chasm between these conceptions with the word "historical".

  • Again, when Dr. Alexander says he believes in "deliverance from physical ... death" through the death of Jesus, he means something quite different to both the Professor and historic Christian thought. In his system, death is not (as we've already remarked), an unwelcome intruder, a curse placed by God upon rebels. He explains at length in his book that it was normal, part of reality, embraced by those who came before Christ with little or no realisation that something else would one day come until the apostles revealed that fact. Christ delivers us from physical death, not because that was part of the curse which he has redeemed us from by himself being cursed, but simply because the future creation and future kingdom are something of a different order, something better. Dr. Alexander's doctrine of salvation is basically Gnostic - creation is not redeemed, restored and glorified, but replaced with a different order entirely, an event which in the final analysis makes Christ's physical death theologically incomprehensible; we'll come to that later in the letter. The Professor, on the other hand, holds and teaches that physical death is an integral part of the curse (man being made body and soul, and so bearing the curse in both), and Christ had of necessity to come in the flesh and to suffer and die in it, to redeem us from that curse and eventually to purify the whole cosmos in the future re-creation.
What we have here, then, is that Dr. Alexander has piled together a few short doctrinal labels which both he and Professor McIntosh could accept, whilst giving radically different content to them. The reality is not that they are very close together in their thinking about creation, fall and redemption - the reality is that Professor McIntosh's assertion that he's read in "Creation or Evolution" a new downgrading theology is on the right lines. As with the downgrade theology, though, the purveyors of new truths aren't honest or courageous enough to come out openly and say so - instead, they cash in upon the value of the true currency, hoping to pass off their own coins and notes by trading upon its strength. Why doesn't Dr. Alexander simply come out and state clearly that historic Christian thought about the nature of the Bible, the Fall and the redemption accomplished by Christ has contained major errors which can now be corrected by bringing our thinking into line with modern science? The hunting out of convenient words which paper over these differences is an amusing parlour game for intellectuals of that bent, but not, as the 19th century downgrade controversy shows us, something that will ever yield good spiritual fruit.

To be continued...

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