The Tyranny of the Paradigm (Part 1)

By Jack Cottrell

In 1986 Michael Denton wrote Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Adler & Adler, 1996), in which he is severely critical of evolutionary theory. He presented compelling arguments for intelligent design, especially from the living cell, before most of us ever heard of Michael Behe.

This is significant because Denton is a respected molecular biologist and medical doctor—and a complete agnostic. Though he argues for design, he professes ignorance as to who or what the designer might be. Nevertheless, throughout this large volume, Denton offers many examples of scientific evidence that the phenomena of nature could not have developed by pure chance, or “from blind random process” (p. 345).

Why, then, do multitudes of scientists and other scholars still insist on the validity of Darwin’s theory of evolution? Because of something he calls, following Thomas S. Kuhn, “the priority of the paradigm” (pp. 344-59).

In this context a paradigm is seen as a pattern, a mold, a controlling interpretive principle, an “orientating assumption.” It is the one dominant, immovable fact around which and in relation to which everything else must be interpreted. If something does not conform to the paradigm, it must either be rejected or contorted to fit.

The problem, says Denton, is that sometimes one can be so committed to the paradigm that he does not acknowledge the conflict between the paradigm itself and the data relevant to it. That is, even when the data do not support the paradigm or even when the data actually disprove it, many will still cling to the paradigm and accept only the data that are consistent with it. This is the “priority” of the paradigm, a concept I am calling tyranny of the paradigm.

Sacred to Scientists

Denton says this is the case with Darwin’s concept of macroevolution, as it is held by the scientific world today. The paradigm is still held to be sacred, despite the fact that it has not been validated by one single empirical discovery or scientific advance since 1859, and has actually been disproved by new data about the cell in particular (pp. 345, 346). No matter how convincing the evidence against it may be, the paradigm still exercises priority (p. 348).

Denton cites prior examples of such paradigms in the field of science, such as the theory of a geocentric universe, which “by the late middle ages had become a self-evident truth, the one and only sacred and unalterable picture of cosmological reality” (p. 348). The problem is, the more closely astronomers observed the heavenly bodies and plotted their movements, the more difficult it became to embrace geocentrism. Nevertheless, for a long time the new data were adapted to this paradigm—squeezed into it—in increasingly ridiculous ways; for example, by positing epicycles, and epicycles upon epicycles.

But as Denton observes, by Copernicus’s time this Ptolemaic system was so “cumbersome” and “monstrous” it was obvious to any objective person that it could not be true. “However, so ingrained was the idea that the Earth was the center of the universe that hardly anyone, even those astronomers who were well aware of the growing unreality of the whole system, ever bothered to consider an alternative theory” (p. 349). The paradigm took precedence!

Another such example is the phlogiston theory of combustion, which prevailed in much of the 18th century. Phlogiston was supposedly a fire-like element (in addition to earth, air, fire, and water) believed to exist in all flammable substances, though it cannot be detected since it has no color, odor, taste, or mass. When a substance is burned (the theory said), its phlogiston is released into and absorbed by the surrounding air, and the original substance becomes “dephlogisticated.”

There is, of course, no such element; yet the paradigm tyrannized the scientific world for nearly 100 years. As more and more actual facts became known about material substance and its combustion, “the properties of [this alleged] phlogiston became more bizarre and contradictory. But instead of questioning the existence of this mysterious substance it was made to serve more comprehensive purposes” (p. 351). The Antiphlogistians “would come up with an objection to phlogiston theory, and the Phlogistians . . . would modify the theory to fit the new experiment” (see Jim Loy’s “Phlogiston Theory,”

Denton argues that Darwinian belief today is like both of the above examples. It is against all common sense, and requires mental gymnastics to maintain. So why does Darwinian evolution still prevail? Because of the priority of the paradigm! “To the Darwinist the idea is accepted without a ripple of doubt—the paradigm takes precedence!” (p. 351).

Forcing Scriptural Interpretations

When I read Denton’s analysis of the power of the paradigm in the context of science, I could not help but think of many parallels in the context of theology. Many a theological paradigm likewise becomes tyrannical when it becomes a “controlling interpretive principle,” a hermeneutical motif or overriding theme by which everything in Scripture must be interpreted and to which everything must conform.

One of the first such theological paradigms that came to mind was the fundamental doctrine of Calvinism, i.e., the sovereignty of God. Divine sovereignty is certainly taught in the Bible, usually under the terminology of God’s lordship. But Calvinists hold to a very specific kind of sovereignty, namely, omnicausal or pancausal sovereignty. The presupposition is that God cannot be truly sovereign unless he is the ultimate cause of everything. All biblical teaching is made to conform to this philosophically defined sovereignty.

What suffers most under the tyranny of this paradigm is the reality of human free will, which is actually denied. All attempts to redefine free will to make it conform to omnicausal sovereignty are unsuccessful. (See Cottrell, “The Nature of the Divine Sovereignty,” The Grace of God, the Will of Man, ed. Clark Pinnock [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989], 97-119.)

Another example of a tyrannical theological paradigm is the fundamental motif of Wesleyanism, the “second work of grace” doctrine. This is the idea that the initial bestowing of salvation upon the converted sinner is incomplete; thus the new Christian must seek for, yet nevertheless await God’s timing for, a second outpouring of grace to complete the salvation process.

This is variously called “complete sanctification,” or “baptism in the Holy Spirit” (with or without tongue-speaking). I once read a Holiness book on sanctification and was amazed at how many biblical texts could be twisted to fit the concept of this alleged “second work,” e.g., Acts 2!

A third example is covenant theology, a hermeneutical approach to Scripture first formulated by Huldreich Zwingli in his effort to create a new rationale for infant baptism (since he had given up all connection between baptism and salvation, including its need to remove original sin). Zwingli’s solution was to make the covenant God made with Abraham the one and only covenant of salvation. The so-called “new covenant” under which the church lives is the covenant God made with Abraham beginning in Genesis 12. Baptism becomes the covenant sign that replaces circumcision, and takes on the purpose of circumcision.

The concept of covenant becomes all-determinative, particularly the Abrahamic covenant. For example, an article written by one of my Westminster Seminary classmates declared that the “promise” in Acts 2:39 is the promise God made to Abraham (contrary to Acts 2:33). (See my chapter on Zwingli’s new doctrine of baptism in Baptism and the Remission of Sins, ed. David Fletcher [College Press, 1990; Hester Publications, 2009], 39-81.)

Another example of the tyranny of the paradigm is the role given to Galatians 3:28 in feminist (egalitarian) theology. This text, interpreted to mean that in Christ there must be NO role distinctions between men and women in the home and church, is called “the foundation,” the “starting place,” the “central truth,” the “normative text” to which all other gender texts must be made to conform. This one text is absolute and universal, all others are situational and relativistic. (See my discussion of Galatians 3:28 in Gender Roles and the Bible: Creation, the Fall, & Redemption [College Press 1994), 217-301.)

A final example for this article is the role assigned to the events of ad 70 in modern extreme preterist eschatology. This view says that everything associated with the second coming of Jesus happened in ad 70 in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem as an act of judgment on Old Testament Israel. This includes the Antichrist, the man of sin, the second coming itself, the rapture, the resurrection, and the Judgment Day. All these things have already happened. The world we now live in will never be destroyed; it will just continue on without end. The key to it all is ad 70. (See Cottrell, The Faith Once for All [College Press, 2002], 541, 542.)

This article is intended to lay the foundation for my final “Reflections” essay this year, in which I will discuss what I believe is the most prominent example of the tyranny of the paradigm in modern Christendom, namely, the concept of sola fidei, “by faith alone.”


Read “The Tyranny of the Paradigm (Part 2)”

Read “The Tyranny of the Paradigm (Part 3)”


Jack Cottrell is professor of theology at Cincinnati (Ohio) Bible Seminary. His 20th book, Set Free! What the Bible Says About Grace, was published in 2009 by College Press.

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