Tom Nettles Responds to Paige Patterson and David Allen

In what will go down in Southern Baptist history as the introduction of a new genre of academic literature, last month Paige Patterson, David Allen and William Dembski combined to give a written response to Tom Nettles‘ review of Dembski’s latest book, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World. Dembski, Research Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas, is well-known for his work in intelligent design.

The End of Christianity was written as “a theodicy that is at once faithful to Christian orthodoxy … and credible to our mental environment” (4). The book was widely promoted by its publisher, B&H Academic when it was released last year. Nettles’ review of Dembski’s book was published in the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. The review is engaging, respectful and takes Dembski’s book seriously. Nettles raises some serious questions theological positions expressed in the book–one of which (regarding Noah’s flood) caused the administration to have a heart-to-heart with Dembski for clarification and resulted in the author “abandoning” the view he argued in the book.

Because Patterson, who is President of Southwestern, did not think that Nettles’ evaluation of Dembski was quite right, he commissioned David Allen, Dean of Southwestern’s School of Theology, to write a review of the review. Patterson added a preamble to that document and Dembski added a “Clarification” resulting in, as far as I know, the birth of the first Southern Baptist “Review of a Review with a Preamble and Clarification.” In it, Allen accuses Nettles of misreading and misrepresenting Dembski, of engaging in “fallacious” arguments that results in a “less than charitable” review that is “significantly skewed.”

This document got a few bloggers excited. One “Baptist Identity” blog team even held a podcast to discuss it and the issues it raised. Only one of the participants owned Dembski’s book and none had even seen Nettles’ review. That, however, did not hinder their offering their opinions that Allen did a good job in correcting Nettles. Such is the state of intellectual integrity in certain quarters of the SBC Today.

Nettles, Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has responded to this document in a letter that I am posting below with his permission. Since Patterson & Allen published Allen’s review of his review, those who have read that document have a right to read Nettles’ response. As you can see, Nettles finds no reason in anything Allen has written to change any of his evaluations of Dembski’s book. The contrast between the two documents is stark and represents two different ways to engage issues of theological importance. And the issues raised in Dembski’s book are of vital importance.

One of the major concerns that Nettles raises is that Dembski “has subdued the gown of theology to the lab robe of the scientist. He has given to natural revelation the task of tutor to special revelation” (p. 81 of Nettles’ review). Allen chastises Nettles for this critique, calling it “inaccurate,” leaving one to wonder if he even read these words written by Dempski in the opening paragraph of chapter 6:

The young-earth solution to reconciling the order of creation with natural history makes good exegetical and theological sense. Indeed, the overwhelming consensus of theologians up through the Reformation held to this view. I myself would adopt it in a heartbeat except that nature seems to present such strong evidence against it (55, emphasis mine).

Dembski freely admits that what nature seems to indicate trumps “good exegetical and theological sense,” what he also calls “the most natural reading of Genesis” (54).

In the early years of the Conservative Resurgence we were regularly told by the bureaucrats in charge that we simply did not understand the nuances of the positions of those who put their theological views in writing. The keepers of the academy were ruffled when anyone challenged the published views of professors, no matter how well-documented and gracious the challenge may have been. It is both strange and disconcerting to see the same kind of response coming from those same academic corridors thirty years later.

Read Dembski’s book. Read Nettles’ review. Then read Allen’s review of the review. After that, read the response below. Ask yourself which approach to theological discourse and debate you desire to characterize SBC and evangelical life today.

Tom J. Nettles
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
2825 Lexington Road
Louisville, KY 40280

Dr. David Allen, Dean
School of Theology
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, Texas 76122


Though I have never given a public response to reviews of my books and chapter contributions [that I remember], I can appreciate several reasons that you might feel obliged to defend the work of your honorable colleague, Dr. William Dembski. Your reply to my review of The End of Christianity has raised several points, however, at which you seek unjustly to discredit my critique and call into question my fair-mindedness as well as my scholarly care. I thought that you and others interested in this exchange ought to see why your reply has not changed my mind on the issues with which I dealt nor has it presented the issues accurately.

I understand why you would wonder if I believe “the old-earth position is a legitimate Christian option.” You go a bit far, though, in suggesting, “Though he does not state it overtly, he seems to deny that one can be an orthodox Christian and subscribe to an old earth creationist position.” First and most relevant response: I do not deny that William Dembski is an orthodox Christian. I will not enumerate the many central doctrines of the faith in which he and I would be in total agreement. The list would be too long. In my 34 years of teaching I have known and
counted as friends many men that hold an old-earth position who are confessionally orthodox and deeply concerned with the defense and propagation of Christian truth. Dembski’s book was written to elicit response. Neither he nor you would think that it would be ignored. He has helped clarify what is at stake in the old-earth hypothesis. He has seen clearly what must be put in context from an orthodox Christian perspective. One, the relation of death and destruction prior to the time of human existence must be explained. Two, how does Genesis 1 relate to that explanation, and consequently to Genesis 2 and 3. These are the two issues upon which I have focused and at no point have questioned his orthodoxy.

You refer to my “assertion that Dembski believes the universe is 13 billion years old and the earth is around 4.5 billion years old,” and that I view Dembski as treating this as “an undeniable conclusion that provides an infallible scientific framework for theological discussion.” Then you ask where Dembski says it. I merely assume that Dembski says this, you claim. On top of that, I have missed “the fact that Dembski’s book is an exercise in speculative theology.”

You are right, on the basis of Dembski’s material, I assume this. What other assumption could I have? I have invented neither these numbers nor the impression that they are so certain as to warrant his theory of retroactive-effects-lapsarianism. They were provided by Dr. Dembski. I am willing to look at others if he, or you, will provide them. If Dembski does believe that, do you think it is a problem? The only other option he provided was the young-earth chronology, which he obviously does not accept. He introduces, in the form of questions, these other figures and proceeds to develop his thesis with that as the model before the reader (49). “In that case, for hundreds of millions of years, multicelled animals have been emerging, competing, fighting, killing, parasitizing torturing.” He never gives any other option, or no other case. He leaves us to assume that his theodicy, including his interpretation of Genesis 1, will keep this scenario intact, while demonstrating that it is a way to maintain this science and Christian theology too.

You are concerned that my use of the word “solely” compromises my meaning and misrepresents the overall project of Dembski. His reinterpretation, by his own admission comes solely because of science. The motive that he attributes to the friends of R. C. Sproul that have not followed him into young-earthism is “One thing and one thing alone: Science.” (54) When a friend provides a possible exegetical explanation [footnote 19, 205], Dembski, probably accurately, rejects the nuanced genre and etymological studies as a sufficient explanation and contends that they were introduced under the pressure of modern science’s conclusion on the age of the earth. If we have as a common starting point that evil is a result of Adam’s fall, what would drive such a reinterpretation as Dembski gives? That he seeks to reinterpret does mean that he believes that any alternate view must be shown to be consistent with the Bible. He is not dismissive of the Bible. That is right and that issue drives him also. If you look at my context, however, you will see that the purpose of the word was to emphasize that Dembski’s re-interpretation of the chronology between evil and the fall, and the consequent use of Genesis 1, comes solely from his acceptance of old-earth science. Nothing in the text of Genesis 1 suggests such an approach. Nothing other than old earth and evil’s existence prior to human existence could engineer such a complex undertaking. What other reason could exist for such a reconstruction of the centuries old acceptance of the standing of Genesis 1 as it relates to the history of the world? Given our common ground, the sole reason for his departure is his commitment to old-earth scientific orthodoxy. I cannot disagree with your reminder that this is speculative theology (how could anyone doubt it?), but it represents what Dembski thinks is best in light of the necessity of rethinking evil and the fall, for science has assured us, as a part of its orthodoxy, that we are dealing with a very old earth.

You express concern that I am too zealous in pointing to the influence that science exerts in Dembski’s discussion. I am clear on the fact that Dembski has taken issue with those members of the scientific community that espouse evolution and that he does not accept “all of these beliefs of the scientific community.” I have indicated such in my review. That does not mean that he is tentative about his commitment to the evidence for old earth received from geology and astrophysics. He seems to be virtually certain of that when he says, “I’m hardly alone in my reluctance to accept young-earth creationism. In our current mental environment, informed as it is by modern astrophysics and geology, the scientific community as a whole regards young-earth creationism as scientifically untenable” [126] Where is my “blind spot,” or what is “unwarranted” or “inaccurate” in my assumption that Dembski agrees with the beliefs of the scientific community on this issue in spite of the young earth position that “makes good exegetical and theological sense?” Why does he not accept that reasoning? Because “nature seems to present such strong evidence against it.” (55) He may indeed hold the theory that any scientific judgment must be made with the caveat of pessimistic induction, but his hold on scientific orthodoxy seems so secure that even “good exegetical and theological sense” can not drive him from it. Is my presentation that he has made nature tutor to special revelation inaccurate in this case? His position on this may well fall within the parameters of acceptability, but I have not misrepresented him.

You fault me for not seeing clearly the distinction between “arguing his position on the assumption that old-earth creationism is accurate” (which he does) as opposed to “arguing his position using old-earth science for support” (which, in your estimation, he does not do). I am willing to grant this distinction; but it makes virtually no difference in the thesis Dembski defends or the theological and exegetical approach he takes. If assuming old-earth science is not quite the same as using old-earth science, I can’t see that that disarms the analysis. If you are right here, I surrender to your perceptive powers in seeing such a “clear distinctive.” But to me, you seem to be making a distinction without a difference. Does the “assumption that old-earth creationism is accurate” not involve “arguing his position using old-earth science for support.” Why would he argue so tediously for such a strange view of cause and effect unless he were utterly committed to the idea that science has demonstrated that the earth is millions of years old and death, destruction, and corruption have characterized it from the beginning? He in fact does present data that he synthesizes in such a way as to support old-earth science and reject young-earth science. He performs the rudimentary task of synthesizing data and positing a working hypothesis for that data (chapter 6). He accepts it as virtual fact and argues a theodicy in light of his, not others’, conclusion.

Again, I think you are making a vain objection in saying that I quote Dembski “out of context” in assuming his acceptance of the idea that science has discovered “momentous new truths” and has not gone “massively awry.” These are the two options Dembski himself provides. Since he argues for a new paradigm, against the young-earth paradigm, it does not seem logical that he believes science has gone “massively awry” but has “discovered momentous new truths.” Does he provide us with another way to conclude which of these he has accepted? On the positive side, his discussion seeks to correct the over-reaction of some thinkers that dissociate present evil from the Fall. His answer is not to dissociate them, but to give his r
etroactive interpretation. His is simply a different response but still an acceptance of what he has called “momentous new truths.” He has moved in the right direction by maintaining the connection between suffering and fall but the consensus of the “current mental environment” (55), which in this case he does accept, drives his answer as truly as it does the others.

You also believe I have been misleading in my discussion of Dembski’s use of kairos. Yes, Dembski does see occasions where chronos and kairos intermingle and the one carries the substance of the other. On this issue, however, Dembski states, “Instead of conflating chronos and kairos as young earth creationism does, I propose to detach them.” (Dembski 126) This is one of the major issues that drives his entire book and one of the weakest points of your review of my review. I hope you can imagine my bewilderment when you mounted such an argument against my credibility on this issue in saying, “He charges Dembski with moving Genesis 1 to the realm of kairos (God’s time) and thus denying that the events there happened in chronos (ordinary space-time). But Dembski makes clear that kairos and chronos are not mutually exclusive and do indeed intersect. As he writes in chapter 16: ‘When the visible and invisible realms intersect, kairos becomes evident within chronos. The creation of the world and the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity are the preeminent instances of this intersection’ (126). Thus, to say that Genesis 1 happens in kairos is not to deny that it also happens in chronos.” In fact, that is exactly what he does, exactly what he informs the reader that he intends to do, and summarizes himself as having done. Dembski says in “pellucid” style, “Given that God responds to human sin across time (both retroactively and proactively), there never was a chronological moment when the world we inhabit was without natural evil (or a disposition toward it; it is, for instance, not apparent how, at the moment of the Big Bang, the universe could have exhibited natural evil.)” You also assert in opposition to Dembski’s own presentation, “God does not create a fallen world. God creates a good world. As Dembski emphasizes, its fallenness constitutes a subsequent corruption.” Dembski, however, wrote, “Our world is dynamic and messy. There never was any other, so far as we are concerned. . . . To be sure, in the intentional-semantic logic by which God creates and organizes the world–not chronologically but kairologically–evil is always logically downstream. In that logic God creates a good world, it becomes even better once human are created, and then it goes haywire once humans sin. Seen chronologically, however, the world has always been haywire.” (171, 172) This insistence by Dembski, and quoted in my review, makes your opposite insistence puzzling. “Thus, to say that Genesis 1 happens in kairos is not to deny that it also happens in chronos.” Dembski denies it precisely.

You further seek to correct my presentation, “As the context of The End of Christianity validates and Dembski’s own clarification statement below makes unambiguously clear, he accepts Genesis 1–11 (and thus Genesis 1 in particular) as happening in ordinary space-time. It therefore fundamentally misrepresents Dembski’s position to claim, as Nettles does, that the days in Genesis 1 do not have any palpable existence.” I am glad you have the benefit of the “clarification,” not only on the flood, but on Genesis 1. As a “careful reader” I see this statement on Genesis 1 as a correction more than a clarification. You seem to think that that is the view he presented in the book. If you really think this, it is an egregious error. You completely missed Dembski’s point. I paid careful attention to the progress of Dr. Dembski’s argument in several pivotal chapters preceding his interpretation of Genesis 1-3. He would be disappointed if someone did not consider carefully how he builds his justification for his important exegetical chapter. He lays concept upon concept as he constructs a philosophical matrix from which he gives birth to his hermeneutic of reading those chapters kairologically. In “Creation as Double Creation” he summarized his point in his statement, “In particular, God could make the effects of the Fall evident in creation so that those effects, though attributable to the Fall, come temporally prior to it;” (110) and “He can respond to the Fall by changing not only the history that comes after it but also the history that comes before it” (112), and in “Moving the Particles,” he writes in anticipation of his treatment of Genesis 1, “The lesson of this chapter, however, is that God can also get information into the world without moving particles,” (121) meaning that the historical progress seemingly presented by the temporal relation of Genesis 1-3 is not necessary if we accept the concept of “double creation” and his presentation of information theory. Also important is his presentation of intentional-semantic logic as non-linear (132) and how that affects the “Infinite Dialectic” in which God’s anticipatory actions are related to his purposes or priorities, “priority here conceived not temporally or causally [chronos] but in terms of the intentional-semantic logic [kairos] by which God orders the creation” (140, brackets and italics his). All of this serves his interpretive purpose stated clearly, “Genesis 1 is therefore not to be interpreted as ordinary chronological time (chronos) but rather as time from the vantage of God’s purposes (kairos)” (142, parentheses and italics his). In other words, that is the world God would have created had he not anticipated the effects of the Fall. The Garden of Eden, segregated from the fallen world in Adam’s and Eve’s actual experience, allows Adam and Eve to experience what the world would have been but never was and at the same time phenomenologically to experience a fall from perfection and resultantly enter a fallen world (152-53). Now saying that Genesis 1 is “not to be interpreted as ordinary chronological time” and saying that Genesis 1-11 “happened in ordinary space-time” might be saying the same thing. It doesn’t appear that way to me. Mine is not a fundamental misrepresentation, but the fundamental truth of Dembski’s approach.

In light of all this, where you can find that Dembski accepts Genesis 1 as chronos in his book, I do not know. Of course, there is no doubt that he is “a realist about creation.” That is not the point. What was actually created is the point, and what was actually created in chronological time was a fallen, dangerous, death-filled world. You have several paragraphs written in an attempt to make Dembski’s view of kairological creation equal one of the eternal things that are unseen, while at the same time asserting the chronos of Genesis. Are you arguing that creation was an unseen eternal thing? God’s purpose in creation would partially be in that category, but the result of the act of creation would not. Because I question this, you shift the “dangerous theological ground” to me by insinuating that my critique of Dembski means I don’t believe in the imperishable and superior nature of eternal things as opposed to temporal. Let me assure you, as I do my own soul, that my hope is suspended on the Christ through whose completed redemptive work we are promised an inheritance that is incorruptible, undefiled, that does not fade away reserved in heaven for those that are kept by the power of God through faith.

Also, in opposition to my view of the character of the animals that Adam named, your argument calls for a separate creation of a new race of docile submissive animals specifically for Adam’s naming in the garden. If he were naming the animals of the original creation, according to Dembski, he was having blood-thirsty, carnivorous, fearful and fearsome creatures surround him for this exercise. Nothing in the text indicates that these animals were a distinct creation from those that God created on days five and six. It was “every beast of the fi
eld and bird of the heavens” that God had formed. In addition, the presence of a Garden does not mean that the rest of the world was undesirable and corrupt. A garden can exist of an especially appropriate environment for those made in the image of God while the rest of the world has differing degrees of glory for the habitat of the variety of both the plants and animals that inhabit it. God had different degrees of glory present in the creation from the beginning. Sun, moon and stars differ in glory; fish, birds and land animals differ in glory; angels and men differ in glory. Adam saw this difference in glory and knew that none of the other animate creatures was fit for him, leading to God’s creation of woman. All of that which God made in the six days was unfallen. The placing of men in a garden is not an exegetical hint that the rest of the world is fallen.

You state, “but this attempt to disparage the distinction because it is associated with so heterodox a thinker as Tillich is clearly an unfair tactic.” I do not disparage it because it is associated with Tillich. I doubt its validity because the New Testament evidence for it is nebulous at best and certainly does not warrant bearing the theological weight that Dembski places on it. You call my lexical work “fallacious” because “in certain contexts” the words may actually have “significantly different meanings.” The examples I gave certainly are not exhaustive but are sufficiently representative to show that use of the distinction to build the kind of theological and exegetical edifice Dr. Dembski is attempting is the true fallacy, not my examples of verbal comparisons.

As for the “fallacy of guilt by association,” I am not the one that introduced the association. I merely responded to Dembski’s introduction of Tillich’s distinction and lengthy quote of Tillich’s explanation. It seems to me that Dembski wanted his readers to associate his kairological theologizing with Tillich’s endorsement of that method. I did not go around fishing for a “heterodox” comparison, to use your word; it was provided for me with an invitation to draw the conclusion I drew. Tillich did indeed use the distinction in service of his radical existentialist approach to a Christianity which had no dependence on the historical existence of Jesus. Dembski’s kairological enterprise perfectly fits in creation what Tillich did in Christology. It is not a “cheap shot” or an “unfair tactic” but an honest reading of Dembski’s material. A careful reading of the book would not yield my comparison as “patently untrue,” but as a sober interpretation as to why Dembski invited the comparison. You call my treatment “untrue” because, as shown above, you apparently do not understand how Dembski interprets the Genesis 1 creation narrative.

We should all be greatly encouraged that Dr. Dembski has publicly stated his reconsideration of the nature of the Genesis flood and has included his view of Genesis 1 as reflecting “ordinary space time.” It will be interesting to see how this changed perspective works its way into his view of the chronos of Genesis 1, what that implies about the original condition of the whole world as God created it, and how that relates to the temporal relationship between the Fall and a cursed natural order.


Tom J. Nettles

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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