Sunday, June 29, 2014

Ignorance Indefatigable: Jerry Coyne Surprised by Divine Impassibility

Jerry Coyne claims to have "spent several years reading theology before [deciding] that it was a mind-numbing and largely worthless exercise." He also claims to have made "extensive incursions into theology and science."

Now Coyne is certainly not a respectable commentator on religion and its relation to science. A certain lack of intellectual rigor for a non-academic is inevitable. But he is a blogger who has something a following online, and he is known as a hanger-on of the New Atheist movement. His ineptitude when it comes to religious matters, then, is a case study of the low intellectual standards of the New Atheists.

I've previously offered several examples in which Coyne shows that he doesn't grasp the most basic claims of Christian theology. Coyne's descriptions of what Christian theology shows pretty clearly that his "years of reading theology" is a fib.

Consider these examples:

  • Coyne claims that Augustine and Aquinas don't think God is the source of being. In fact, Augustine said that God is being itself, "the absolute fullness of being and thus the sole primeval source of all being ...." Likewise, Aquinas held that God is "ipsum esse subsistens" (subsistent being itself).
  • Coyne thinks that the doctrine of the Incarnation says that "God turning himself into his son ...." But Christians don't believe that Jesus Christ is the Father made into human form. This sort of thing has always been rejected as a heresy related to Sabellianism. (Sabellianism was condemned as a heresy upon its appearance around the turn of the Third Century.
  • Coyne claims that "the theological notion of original sin didn’t arise until several centuries after Jesus supposedly lived ...." Coyne's years of studying theology didn't acquaint him with Romans or I Corinthians, apparently.

Divine Impassibility: A Pervasive Christian Doctrine

Coyne has recently been adding more weird claims about theology. In a post entitled "An Eastern Orthodox priest says I know nothing of God," Coyne seems determined to demonstrate that, in fact, he knows nothing of God.

The doctrine that God lacks emotions and is unaltered by the world is called "Divine Impassibility." Impassibility is one of the major attributes Christians believe God has.

The doctrine of Impassibility is grounded in the Scriptures and was formulated at least as early as the Second Century AD. Those who did not believe in it were deemed heretics. Patripassionism, a school that taught that God the Father suffers, was condemned in the Second Century AD.

The doctrine of Divine Impassibility is pervasive in Christian theology: it was held by every major theologian before the modern period and affirmed in official church proceedings such as the Nicene Council.

Surprised by Divine Impassibility

Given Coyne's claims to have spent "years" studying theology, one would think he would be familiar with the doctrine. But Coyne states that he has never heard anyone say that the Christian God does not have emotions. In responding to an Orthodox priest who mentions impassibility, Coyne says:
"In other words, God completely lacks emotion, nor is He altered by the world. Well, Fr. Kimel, that’s a new one to me. You’ve managed to find one theologian who says that."
Coyne apparently thinks few Christian theologians hold God to be impassible. But, of course, every major patristic and medieval theologian held this view. Here are some theologians, just off the top of my head, who believe God is impassible:
  • Augustine
  • Thomas Aquinas
  • Martin Luther
  • John Calvin
  • Origen
  • Ignatius
  • Justin Martyr
  • Cyprian
  • Tertullian
  • Theodoret
  • Gregory of Nyssa
  • Basil the Great
  • Gregory Thaumaturgus
  • Eusebius
  • Anselm
  • Bonaventure
  • Duns Scotus
  • Rufinus
  • Ignatius
  • Irenaeus

The notion that God is without emotion is a central aspect of theism, Christian or otherwise. You can find the notion of divine impassibility in Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus.

This alone would suffice to show that Coyne never spent "years" studying theology. Even had Coyne not shown the basics of Christian theology to be news to him in his previous posts, this would be enough.

A New Trend in the Sciences: Making Things Up

So let's recap. Jerry Coyne claims he has spent years reading theology. Then Coyne goes on to say that he's never heard anyone say that God is impassible. But divine impassibility is held by every major orthodox theologian up to the eighteenth century. It's rejected as a heresy at least as far back as the second century!

Coyne is just making things up. This, it turns out, is the new trend among scientists. Marc Hauser, a famous evolutionary biologist at Harvard, was discovered to have fabricated research data. Hauser's career, incidentally, was largely focused on claiming primates had many human-like cognitive functions.

Another recent case, also at Harvard and also involving a biologist, involved an influential paper in stem-cell research written by Haruko Obokata.

I've wondered in the past how Coyne, as a trained biologist, could have total disregard for the data and for intellectual rigor when it comes to matters of religion. Perhaps, though, it is the case that his sloppy reasoning, refusal to revise his views in light of contrary evidence, and his fabrications concerning his past work are actually bad habits that come from certain sectors of the sciences.

A few years' training in the methods of theology might do wonders for the quality of Coyne's thinking.

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