LCMS Lutherans and Evolution

As to Lutheran theologians from the Age of Orthodoxy:

“Scholastics” is something of a pejorative term in the history of Lutheran theology… That being said: Yes, there is plenty of discussion amongst Lutheran dogmaticians down the ages who have affirmed and discussed what the limited, natural knowledge of God is. And it is a live discussion. I and my comrades certainly affirm Paul in Romans 1:20, but I (and others in my tradition) do not think it opens to door to a Christian use for the scientific investigation of ID. If for no other reason than because it sounds awfully scholastic :wink: (that is, overly speculative). My description of our theological history is hardly flawless or full! But I’m interested in what your sources are on the subject? Always fun when non-Lutherans know that Lutherans exist!

As to the argument about the diminishing of God, I’m sensing some internal influence on my part from William Placher’s The Domestication of Transcendence. Sadly, his book is not on me at the time. Something about modernity and its ability to put God in a box. I have no doubt theologians (professional and lay alike) from every body, movement, and creed are tempted to domesticate and diminish transcendence; EC and ID, no less. My argument was that there is, in fact, a risk of it in ID (something I don’t think you’d discount). I’ll leave it there as I agree with Dr. S. This isn’t the place and I frankly haven’t the time to flesh out each thought. Advent/Christmas-tide are busy times at a church, as you can imagine! (Convenient excuse, eh?)

As to Luther, however; I quote:

”Men see that the heavens and the earth are so wisely governed and then, on the basis of this external government and the nature of creation, they draw the weak conclusion that there is one God… Such a knowledge of God, which is based merely on the fact that the earth remains and the heaven does not fall down, is weak and superficial.” (WA 45, 90; Luther quoted from Oswald Bayer’s The Theology of Martin Luther, page 17, footnote 11)

He is for a type of natural knowledge of God and affirms the reality that some characteristics of God can be sensed, somehow, by humanity in nature; his power and divine otherness. But this knowledge is always weak and superficial. You rightly point out it cannot give knowledge of salvation. But what Luther adds to this is that any knowledge of God given in creation is not certain. One must then ask what sort of claims ID (as you being a Christian, and those you align with, see it) makes. Is it your assertion that ID is seeking a weak and superficial knowledge of God? If so, then yes, you and Luther are not so far apart. And if your skepticism on the subject is as pervasive as mine, then we are not so far apart either!

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I think this is always an interesting line of thought, and I’m reminded from this excellent post on @Sy_Garte’s (equally excellent) blog. The author (a guest writer for the site) draws a fantastic conclusion: nature is so awesome and wonderful, that you wind up worshipping something, whether that’s the one true God, an idol, or in the case of reductionist materialists, nature itself (to which he quotes Dawkins). It reminds me of the old Bob Dylan song.


And out of respect for @Swamidass, I say to @Eddie, I must stop short of responding to my first assertion about ID being theological. Dr. S. had some particular parameters for this conversation and I played a part in wandering afar. Even so, it did give me a chance to peruse some Luther sources. Not a bad thing.

So, to Dr. Swamidass’ final question:

The “right” theological way, so far as I can tell right now, is indeterminate. I imagine it’s related to the “right” theological way to affirm the vastness of the universe from the foundation of LCMS theology. BUT that affirmation has not been, to my knowledge, thoroughly and consistently vetted. As I said earlier, Pieper (in 1924!) was convinced the solar system revolved around the earth. It seems almost as if the shift (theologically speaking) into a 20th and 21st century view of the universe was something of an uncritical slide on our part. One which we have yet to reflect fully on. But that reflection, I suspect, will be a fascinating part in our future conversations about evolution.

My superficial thoughts!

I like it! Especially the bit about wanting God to advent among us again. Apt for the season. (You proposed a song, so I must propose a song as well!) @Sy_Garte does a good job of describing the need for an explanation (stuff about God) to drive toward a proclamation (God telling you, specifically you, something about his disposition toward you). The only way to evoke faith - and this is thoroughly Christian (see Lesslie Newbigin and his Open Secret) - is to make the promises of God again: "I am here, and I am telling you that everything will be all right.”

In the face of the evolution question, it must be emphasized (without ceasing) that Christ is our hope, not answers to questions. Not that this is an excuse for ignorance! Any more than it is an excuse for not loving others: We love because he first loved us; we seek answers because he first answered us. Or something like that…


Amen, and amen!

That’s a wonderful song; we sing a similar one at my church from time to time. I’m also reminded by your point about proclamation of Go Tell it on the Mountain, a song I’d always been ambivalent towards until our band closed out the service last week with a particularly rousing, up-tempo, and joyful version of it. My friend who came to church with me that week said it was the first time he’d felt actual joy in a church service in a really long time, which is weird because his old church growing up is quite charismatic (I submit that as evidence that reformed churches aren’t all boring!).


“…made the idea of God obsolete [as an explanatory force]” seems to be the uncommunicated part of that sentence. Since (1) the earlier part of your post speaks about “strong hints” of “apparent design in nature” (places/gaps where a non-design explanation fail in your thinking) and (2) since the designer of this design is overtly, in your comment and in your rendition of ID, God.


You shouldn’t be abusing a good Lutheran with that nonsense about Aliens.

We aren’t discussing some other planet. We are discussing Earth. And there just isn’t anyone in this discussion about religion who thinks Aliens had anything to do with it.

You are just further impairing your credibility as someone who understands the BioLogos context of discussion…

And it very much depends on who you’re talking to in the LCMS and the wider Lutheran community. There are people who affirm the efforts of the ID movement, like former LCMS president [Dr. A.L. Barry](file:///C:/Users/jrvog/Downloads/WA%20Creation%20and%20Evolution%20(1).pdf). But there are other voices such as Matthew Becker (who was ousted from the Synod in '15 for several stances, including him being an EC) and Robert Sylwester who see theological and scientific problems with ID/designer/god of the gaps and YEC movements, and who would say the LCMS as a system has not handled this topic well at all during the past 50 years. I, for my part, am still finding my voice. But I - without qualification here due to the subject of the thread - find ID (as proposed, for example, by Behe) and YEC (as proposed, for example, by AIG) theologically unsatisfying and scientifically deficient.


Back to @Swamidass. Part of what angers me about this topic (LCMS Lutherans and Evolution) is that the LCMS has a system of universities, many with well educated science faculties; a ready resource for input and conversation which has gone untapped. I can guess as to some of the reasons why; some are valid and others are reactionary. But one of my goals, therefore, has been to engage that need for conversation. Otherwise, we run the risk of another faux pas akin to Pieper’s, and we may be unwittingly though actively putting a stumbling block in the way of others. I do not know what sort of service I will be able to offer, as there are numerous challenges (whether I’m limited by intellectual deficiencies or governmental roadblocks etc.). But I’m hoping this forum might be an apt place to (safely) try out some thoughts and experiment with theological reflection.

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I think this too. That is not the only part of the ID position. They also hold that these hints are recognizable by science, and that several specific arguments are valid scientifically. This is where I part ways. Of course I believe there are hints in nature that a mind is behind it. My differences with ID is with all the baggage they add to that basic truth.

I can comment on my conversations with LCMS seminary faculty about Lutheran theology, and ask for @JustAnotherLutheran’s follow up too.

Lutherans are not opposed to natural theology in all senses. However, they are very very skeptical about trying to understand anything of God outside of what He has self-revealed through Scripture. Among the faculty, there is real concern that any proclivity to the ID movement and YEC creation science in LCMS is a due to the negative influence of fundamentalism on LCMS.

For example, they find Ken Ham’s theology to be deeply in error. He argues that we can trust the Bible because what we find in nature confirms it is trustworthy. This is a type of natural theology. In their LCMS understanding, this is gravely mistaken. “We do not trust in Jesus because we trust the Bible; rather we trust the Bible because we trust in Jesus.” They say. This ordering of epistemology, rooting it in the revelation of Jesus first before any other source of knowledge is important. They argue that tendencies to AiG and ID in their denomination might be a consequence of losing sight of (what they would say) is their “distinctly Lutheran voice.”

I’ve see echoes of this in @JustAnotherLutheran many thoughts, when he talks about the Divine Hidden vs. the Divine Revealed (in latin).

So it is not that they are opposed to natural theology. But they do think of it much differently than the ID movement. I do not think ID notions of natural theology are compatible with LCMS Lutheranism without first injecting some foreign fundamentalism.

What do you think @JustAnotherLutheran? @Eddie, I know you are probably chomping at the bit to answer, but let our friendly Lutherans answer first =).

There’s so much going on here; clearly a lot of feelings and thoughts swirling around and plenty of history between commentators. Again, I have to vivisect and respond only in part.

Dr. S. is correct and valid in his comment about Lutherans historically affirming some indefinite knowledge of God and our being very skeptical of claims concerning knowledge of God beyond the purview of Scripture. You were too hasty in deeming his comment nonsense. To affirm yet remain skeptical on matters of natural theology is very much a part of the Lutheran tradition. Practically speaking, inasmuch as ID makes claims about God/inasmuch as you have related the “designer” of ID to the God of Christianity, Lutherans ought to be antagonistic. People make numerous claims about God in the world and most, if not all of them (which are not illumined by the eyes of faith in Christ and informed by Scripture), turn out false or inconclusive. Therefore, it is an unnecessary risk to place any “eggs” in the “basket” of ID. It has no positive function for Christians and very likely is a negative/false and therefore a stumbling block to the proclamation. I say “very likely” because, another facet of Lutheran theology, is respect different realms of knowing and not seeking a unified “theory of everything”. Thus, when the majority of scientists engaged in discussions about evidence for ID, who are experts in their realm/way of knowing, state that ID has no ground to stand upon (here, @swamidass becomes more an expert than myself), a Lutheran theologian is apt to defer to the opinions of the scientific “jurists”. All of this to say, Dr. S. is right about the trends in Lutheran tradition. We are skeptical because, not only does it not drive toward saving faith (as you, yourself, agree), it hinders proclamation by making inflated and speculative assertions about God (inasmuch as an ID’er like yourself connects the designer to the Christian God, which you have above) which are very likely to be false. (Recall an earlier comment I made: ID makes assertions about God which I need not accept and it makes assertions about God which may, in fact, be well worth rejecting.)

You are right to point out that Lutheran theologians have been less than friendly to permutations of the Fundamentalist Movement. We have always been for symbolic/creedal summaries of faith; for succinct confessions and confessional subscription. But the Fundamentalist movement, from its outset, was always suspect in the eyes of Lutherans. If I could use a broad, sweeping, generalization; it leaned too heavily on the capabilities of human reason and empirical investigation in an attempt to counterbalance the “liberalizing” trends emerging in the mainline church bodies.

As applies to ID, again, we are infinitely cautious because ID is an attempt to bring something about God (the designer) into certitude and outside Christ. Some have used it to assert we can know with empirical certainty where God acted in history (see my reference to Dr. Barry above). To those less enamored, such as myself, the risk and temptation is apparent: to begin founding one’s faith not on the “Rock” but on “shifting sands” and speculative connections between theology and science. For example: what happens if Dr. Barry’s very confident claims about ID backing up creationist stances based on the second law of thermodynamics is demonstrated to be fallacious and bad science (and fallacious it very much is)? What happens is that Christianity is unduly scandalized and people are given what they think is a good reason to ignore the proclamation. @eddie unabashedly connects ID to the Christian God, even if he says ID is not, of necessity, religious in its claims. He proposed the existence of scientifically verifiable evidence of a designer of the gaps and ascribes to God the accolade of this Designer. But what happens to the Christian proclamation when these gaps are shown to not be gaps? I would remind you that we are dealing with eternities here.

But I will say I am likewise skeptical of people who think they can mesh science and theology in different ways, as well. Like those who think they can fit evolutionary theory, without conflict, into the Christian worldview. Instead of peaceful coexistence, instead of founding one on the other, instead of bringing a unity to them (as some EC, ID, and, even more so, YEC people are prone to do), Luther and Lutherans draw a deep line between theological claims and scientific claims and let the tension abide.

When Luther looks at the fields of the jurists, the economists, and the doctors, as a theologian, it is not with the intention of justifying their concepts anew, reordering them, or even aligning them with Christ and the gospel. Rather, just as he vigorously demanded concepts transferred from the secular realm into the spiritual be critically examined, so too he equally insists that secular things be allowed to remain secular and not be qualified anew retrospectively, on analogy with soteriology.
Theology the Lutheran Way, page 78

”For all created things such as the sun and moon, are for Christ and are not against him, because all things work together for good with the godly, even the evil, death, and hell. But you cannot conclude from this that truth is the same in theology and philosophy, for they will continue to be different in kind and in matter,” until the eschaton.
Page 79



And it is statements like this that have greatly clarified my thinking by exposing real theological objections to natural theology as is currently emphasized in science. Of course, I am not a theologian, but it is remarkable how often ID people have played the “theology card” in dismissing my concerns, without understanding why orthodox Christians (like Lutherans) might be skeptical of confident natural theology.

Any how, as I have told Concordia Seminary, I really hope that the Lutheran voice in science can be recovered. I think it is valuable for all Christians in this moment as we move past ID at this juncture. As denomination that rejects evolution, I think LCMS could have an important role to play here.

And I think I am turning Lutheran. But I’m not German enough =).

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@JustAnotherLutheran I’m curious your thoughts about Prof. Tim Saleska’s comments on the Lutheran Theology of creation and natural theology…

I thought he put it all quite eloquently.

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This a false dichotomy. Those that emphasize faith on the evidence of Jesus are not fidelistic. It is still an evidence based faith. Rejecting natural theology as a foundation for faith does not make one a fidelist.

This too is odd all or none thinking. Of coruse we can affirm things on one sense or in another. As it is pursued by the ID movement, for example, it seems ineffective and theologically suspect. Though as it exists already among our society, independent of the work of the Church, it is evidence of God’s work to draw people to Himself.

Very true. Though I think my understanding Lutheran thought is that ID gets natural theology almost entirely wrong. I don’t think they entirely reject natural theology though: see this article by Saleska: A Lutheran’s Artistic Tree.

I suppose that might be right, except I think part of the point is that (as I understand it) that ID does exactly overplay itself and threaten the core of the Lutheran emphasis. While many LCMS laity are drawn to AiG and ID, many of the theologians see this as the dangerous influence of fundementalism subverting the true Lutheran voice.

True that. =).

You are describing one way of taking ID arguments too far. But…

But this is also an important way of taking this to far. If it cannot get us to Christ, we might ask in our Lutheran theology, why is so much energy and effort placed on it? This is taking natural theology too far, into arguing from science, rather than emphasizing the centrality of Jesus. Emphasizing the designer, rather than the Redeeming work of Jesus.