Crude comes back one more time for clarification (67718):
“So then, you believe God knew what evolution would result in, in advance of His beginning the process. And of course, He had and has complete power over that process – He chose what would result. So you’d hold evolution to be – ultimately, and not necessarily in a way that requires intervening miracles – guided and purposeful. Do I have you correct?”
Again, a set of clear statements to which it should be easy to respond. Yet, when Venema returns, he again refuses speak to the word “guided” (nor will he speak to “purposeful”). He also does not confirm that God “chose what would result,” and he never confirms that Crude has understood him. Venema’s answer (67748) runs as follows:
“For me these questions are a subset of the larger free will / predestination question. I hold that God ordains and sustains all things, and that he is all-powerful. I also feel that he values freedom greatly – I am not a Calvinist. I believe God has given humans free will, and I also believe that he has given his creation freedom within the bounds he has set for it through natural law. How God balances his sovereignty with his delight in freedom is something I do not claim to fully understand. I tend to be ok with a little mystery.”
Notice the repetition of the ill-defined “sustains,” and the introduction of a new term, “ordains,” which Crude had not asked about. What does “ordain” mean for Venema? If it has its usual English meaning, then it implies purpose, so why would Venema not simply confirm Crude’s term “purposeful”? Or is “ordains” an attempt to avoid speaking of God’s “purposes” in evolution? We can’t tell. The evasiveness continues.
Is there any justification for this evasiveness? If there is, it is perhaps to be found in the claim that “these questions” belong to “the larger free will / predestination question.” That is, we can’t answer Crude’s questions about God’s control over the evolutionary process – which concerns subhuman nature – until we have an answer to the question of free will vs. predestination – which concerns human nature. Why is the one necessary to the other? Why do we need to know how God relates to the will of human beings in order to understand how he relates to rocks and genes and atoms and mushrooms? Venema does not say. He makes a theological claim, and expends no effort to defend it.
One thing is clear, however: Venema is lining up two opposing theologies. One, which he characterizes as “Calvinist,” emphasizes God’s power and sovereignty; the other, which he does not give a name, emphasizes God’s concern for “freedom.” This “freedom” includes the freedom of the human will, but it also includes the “freedom” of creation “within the bounds he has set for it through natural law.” What sort of “freedom,” we might ask, does a stone or a creeping fungus or a bolt of lightning have “within the bounds of natural law”? Venema does not say. But apparently God wants non-human nature to be “free,” too.
Why is Venema setting up this contrast between “Calvinism” and a “theology of freedom”? In terms of the history of Protestant thought, the answer is clear. For centuries there has been battle within the Protestant fold between the “Calvinists” and the “Arminians.” We will state this conflict in crude and unscholarly terms. According to the “Arminians,” the heartless “Calvinists” hold a doctrine of predestination (to salvation or damnation) that is so rigid that it leaves no room for genuine human free will; according to the “Calvinists,” the Arminians are soft on God’s omnipotence and sovereignty, and therefore end up with a doctrine in which human beings might be mistakenly thought to “save themselves” by their choice for Christ. Of course, these characterizations are oversimplified, and both sides generally deny the charges against them; and further, neither “Arminian” nor “Calvinist” is an unequivocal term, since there are many varieties of each type. But this is the popular conception, and it’s the one Venema seems to be operating under. He’s against the “Calvinists” and he’s for “free will”; and somehow that means he’s for “the freedom of nature” as well.
This may explain why Venema refuses the term “guidance.” Guidance implies that God somehow pushes or steers or impels nature toward an end which is God’s, not nature’s; but Venema wants nature to be “free.” So it seems that it is because he is “anti-Calvinist,” or in the “Arminian” camp (though he does not use the term), that he cannot accept the idea that God “guides” nature. At least, that is what we may infer, based on the sketchy theology he provides. And he probably objects to Crude’s notion that God “chose what would result” on similar grounds – that would be God overruling nature’s “freedom.” Even to speak of God’s “purpose” suggests that nature is subservient to ends defined by God, so Venema avoids that word, too. He prefers the more archaic-sounding “ordain” – a word not used often in daily speech, and therefore vaguer to the modern ear, and perhaps, for Venema, not as clearly suggesting direct control as Crude’s other words do.
So apparently, if “Calvinism” is true, then free will would be undermined; so we must deny “Calvinism” in order to preserve free will; but by doing that, we somehow free up “evolution” from strict determination by God. So, as a result, we should not speak of evolution as “guided.” This seems to be the logic of Venema’s position – at least, this is about the best sense we can make of the theological dog’s breakfast that he offers us.
Note that Venema himself seems to be aware of what a dog’s breakfast it is. He ends up almost apologizing for it, by saying that he doesn’t actually know how to reconcile God’s sovereignty over creation with God’s supposed desire for the freedom of nature. He says it’s a “mystery,” and his lame final comment is “I tend to be ok with a little mystery.” This is the best effort of the top-ranking (after Falk) Christian biologist at BioLogos, five years into the existence of the project, about how God controls evolution? That he doesn’t know how evolutionary contingency and divine sovereignty relate, but he’s “ok” with a little mystery?
Crude rightly (but politely) seizes upon this, in his follow-up comment (67758):
“Yes, there’s nothing wrong with mystery. Still, Biologos – understandably – puts limits on mystery. I’m sure you do not defend saying, “Well, earth is 6000 years old and all creatures were created fully formed rather than in a way involving common descent. How? Well, that’s a mystery.” or anything similar.”
Well said. BioLogos would not allow any appeal to “mystery” as a means of holding on to YEC in the light of the overwhelming (as BioLogos sees it) evidence for an old earth and common descent. They would not accept the incompatibility of, say, the results of radioactive dating with Biblical genealogies and creation days as just one of those “mysteries” that believers can be “OK” with. They demand a clear explanation of how YEC can be true, one free of contradictions. So how, then, can Venema duck the same demand for clarity regarding the contradiction espoused by himself – that God is sovereign over nature, ordains everything, yet does not guide evolution or impose his purposes on it?
In the appeal to “mystery”, Venema has, essentially, abdicated any responsibility, not only for answering Crude’s questions, but for saying anything non-trivial about the relationship of God to evolution. He absolves himself of any duty to the evangelical world to show that the BioLogos position on God and evolution is rationally coherent or logically self-consistent.
And that is the very last word he says on the subject. For, though Crude repeats his questions again, offering Venema all kinds of options for “picking and mixing” some things as determined, and others as not determined, by the will or guidance of God (67758), Venema will not speak again. Though his “non-Calvinist” theological position amounts to an assembly of undefined terms, stitched together by speculation, grounded in no traditional texts, and advanced as sheer assertion, “mystery” exempts him from having to defend or explain his position any further. And thus, an argument that would warrant an F in an undergrad philosophy class is allowed to stand as serious theological thought on the world’s prime TE/EC website.
We can see from the above analysis how closely the Crude-Venema conversation exemplifies the pattern of argument – evasion, obfuscation, misdirection, and finally an answer that is at the very best incoherent, and at the worst some form of heresy – that I’ve identified as the lead-up to “the Wesleyan Maneuver.” But so far we can call it only the “I’m not a Calvinist Maneuver.” The next question, then, is how Venema’s position connects with Wesleyanism. I’ll turn to that question in Part 3.