Thursday, April 24, 2014

Jerry Coyne, Theologian

Anyone who wishes to assess Jerry Coyne's credibility may wish to start with his claim that "I spent several years reading theology ...." And elsewhere, Coyne invokes his "extensive incursions into theology and science."

Statements Coyne has made subsequent to this claim make it about as credible as Al Gore's invention of the internet. Let's consider a few:

Coyne claims that the Roman Catholic Catechism "hardly paints the picture of God as a ground of being ...." But of course, the Catechism directly portrays God as the source of being, not only in the sense that he initially created all things, but also that he sustains them in their being. Paragraph 301 says that God "not only gives [finite things] being and existence, but also, and at every moment, upholds and sustains them in being ...."

Coyne claims that "the Christian morality tale of the crucifixion and resurrection" involves "God turning himself into his son ...." Of course, Christians don't believe that "God turned himself into his son." The notion that God turns himself into his son is modalism, which Christian orthodoxy has always rejected as a heresy.

Coyne claims that "the theological notion of original sin didn’t arise until several centuries after Jesus supposedly lived ...." St. Paul, of course, stated "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come."

What has got Coyne confused is that some claim that the predominate interpretation of original sin in the West arose with Augustine. Even if that is true, that's just one way of understanding Paul's notion of original sin. And even if Paul hadn't considered original sin theologically in Romans and Corinthians, Irenaeus wrote about it in his Against Heresies around 180 AD--hardly "several centuries" after Jesus' life.

Coyne thinks St. Thomas Aquinas is a "Church Father." But of course, the period of the church fathers was the period before the Scholastic age. St. Thomas Aquinas is as much a church father as Einstein is a renaissance natural philosopher.

Coyne claims that "if there was a conflict" between the metaphorical and literal sense of Scripture, "people like Aquinas and Augustine" took the literal sense over the metaphorical sense. Augustine, of course, rejected a literal six-day creation, and said that when statements in Scripture about the physical world conflict with reason, those statements in Scripture should be construed non-literally.* (Coyne is also unaware that for Aquinas, metaphor is one type under the literal sense.)

Coyne claims that the notion of "God [as] the unconditioned cause of reality ...," and as "what grounds the existence of every contingent thing" is not how "Aquinas, Luther, [and] Augustine" saw God. This one is quite baffling: any theologian who believes in the doctrine of creation believes that the universe exists because God created it, and would not have existed had God not created it. Aquinas, Luther, and Augustine all held to a doctrine of creation. Furthermore, they all held that God sustains the universe in its existence. See for example, Augustine's Confessions, VII, 7. Or take Aquinas, who said "every being in any way existing is from God.... [A]ll beings apart from God are not their own being, but are beings by participation." And again: "Now it has been shown above (44, 1,2), that nothing can be, unless it is from God, Who is the universal cause of all being. Hence it is necessary to say that God brings things into being from nothing."

In fact, virtually every instance where Coyne describes the beliefs of Christians or of theologians he does so inaccurately. I'm not necessarily saying Coyne is lying about spending years reading theology. There is one other alternative: the he cannot understand basic theological claims well enough to restate them. But this is no ordinary misunderstanding. When I read Paul Cohen's proof that the continuum hypothesis is independent of the ZFC axioms, I know that I do not understand what Cohen is saying. Because I know this, I would not assert my own misunderstanding. Coyne, on the other hand, doesn't seem to know enough to know that he doesn't understand.

For instance, it could be that Coyne reads a Christian account of the Incarnation (saying something like "the Word of God became flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit"), he is only able to conceive this as the claim that "God became his son." This is not what is objectively on the page of course, but that is not the point. It may be the case that Coyne's mind experiences some kind of process whereby semantic content Coyne receives is so altered that he literally cannot perceive the content on the page in front of him, nor understand why it is that others do understand what is said.

Or Coyne it could be that Coyne was simply making the "years of theology" thing up. In the end it doesn't much matter.

* The quote is: "[I]f anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical world] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation."

No comments: