Terms and conditions apply

Time to move away from free-will, I think. I’d like to take a look at the appropriateness, or otherwise, of the term Evolutionary Creation. Not that I would expect, or want, to achieve any change of usage. Short descriptive terms are always of ambiguous value, as Eddie Robinson pointed out in his comments on “classical theism” here a week or two ago, but we couldn’t really do without them. My historian cousin was saying just that last week when we were discussing the shortcomings of the term “Renaissance”. Still, it’s good to question exactly what such labels imply, because that sometimes reveals deeper assumptions or blind-spots in the coining of the terms.

The limitations of these descriptors, and the qualities of good ones, can be glimpsed by looking at the alternative positions to “evolutionary creation”. Creationism, for example, was conceived in contrast to those descriptions of biological evolution – sadly the majority even in school textbooks – as “undirected and without purpose”. The term implies that there is a God who was responsible, as opposed to no God being responsible. Granted its common usage also usually implies a degree of biblical literalism, but this is easily added where necessary by expansions like “Biblical Young Earth Creationism.” The term does the job, and is flexible enough to be a universal position – Creationists believe God made the whole cosmos the same way he made life.

Theistic Evolution is a more limited term. If you think about it, the implication is that one believes in (biological) evolution, but want to distinguish evolution with God behind it from the godless version. That could, conceptually, allow it actually to be a scientific theory if one believed God’s hand to be traceable in nature, but at least it is a philosophy/metaphysics of science category to exactly the same extent as “evolution”, as used by the “undirected and without purpose” crowd, is. So it’s a genuine alternative to naturalistic evolution, though properly restricted to biological change.

Any problems with “theistic evolution” as a label come from the looseness of the terms “theistic” and “evolution”, and especially the latter. If one accepts those textbook definitions of evolution as being unplanned and without goals, then inevitably ones theos is an irrelevance. The term would then just imply belief in two disparate (and possibly incompatible) things.

At best one might be talking about deistic evolution (accepting the common theological distinction between “Deus” as a distant First Cause and “Theos” as the involved God of Christianity). It appears that many contemporary theistic evolutionists have engaged in a bold attempt to square this circle by rewriting basic theology so that God can both be a hands on and loving God, and leave evolution undirected and unplanned. This is achieved by making creation itself a “co-creator” largely autonomous of God. In my view this contradicts that most basic and original of Jewish and Christian doctrines – the absolute contrast between One Creator and his diverse creation. Nevertheless, it doesn’t actually destroy the appropriateness of the term “theistic evolution” – it just sidelines it from being a specifically Christian position on biology by sidelining the Creator from his creation.

Intelligent Design has been much criticised by both atheists and Christians of one sort or another for the supposed shortcomings of the word “design”. But it was originally coined in conscious contrast to the term in universal scientific circulation regarding evolution: “apparent design”. And, despite the protests, “design” has a long and distinguished history in theology in describing God’s purposeful activity. Whether or not one agrees with ID’s claim to be science, and so to be intrinsically unequipped for assigning design to any God, rather than just to some purposive being, the term itself fits the goal. In fact, in consideration of what I’ve already said, as a description it’s just the same category of science-metaphysics-metaphysical approach as “theistic evolution”, or as “evolution” used with the assumption of naturalism.

Like theistic evolution, ID’s provenance makes it strictly applicable to biology only, but unlike “theistic evolution” the term can be validly used in contexts where evolution doesn’t apply, such as in cosmology. The difference is that, like Creationism, it’s terminologically broad enough to be a description of how things came to be – whereas theistic evolution is only a description of how evolution happened.

If we turn, then, to evolutionary creation, one problem might immediately become evident. Properly speaking, the term implies that creation (presumably God’s work) occurs through evolution. And this, of course, is how the term’s originators use it, saying that “God creates through evolution”. What they mean, I hope, is that this is true in biology – otherwise it implies that when we, or the Bible, speak of “creation” – including the origin of the Universe – it means “evolution”. So in that sense, it says too much.

I believe Denis Lamoreux coined the term in order to strengthen the theological claim of theistic evolution that God is really at work in evolution, which is an admirable motivation. I’ve no doubt he meant to restrict it to the biological realm rather than make it a universal principle. The big question, then, is whether it is theologically proper to say that God does create through evolution. As ever, it depends on that slippery definition of “evolution”.

Seen simply as “change over time”, one could invoke progressive creation of new forms, ex nihilo, as “evolutionary creation”, but with precious little reference to the science of the matter. At the other extreme, though, would it be it coherent to speak of God’s creating through processes that are “undirected and without purpose”? As I (and others) have documented extensively, that view seems to be what some evolutionary creation advocates really want to support.

Such statements as “God did not plan particular outcomes, but loved what emerged” embody such ambitions. The “free-process” (and stronger, though less popular “process”) theologies, with their emphasis on creaturely autonomy (woops – couldn’t escape the free-will question after all!) have the same implication, as does the common emphasis on “natural evil” as the necessary, though undesirable, product of a process given freedom rather than being directed by God.

All these represent a view of evolution which has no externally imposed goals, nor any concrete intrinisic final causes, such as would be required by, say, a traditional Thomistic theory of evolution, in which (as Etienne Gilson points out) “evolution” would be an unfolding of what was intrinsic to its divinely created nature, rather than a series of “spontaneus” discoveries of entirely new ways of being.

Note that this “goalless” model is what arises inevitably from modern science, which has dispensed with both formal and final causation, and with God as the first efficient cause of all events. Science now treats only with material and efficient causation, and this indeed is where the success of Darwinian evolution lay: it enabled a naturalistic account of life that did without final, formal and primary efficient causation.

The serious question to be asked of “evolutionary creation” must then be whether it is actually possible to conceive of creation in the biblical and Christian sense without these three forms of causation. Does God create anything merely through efficient and material causes? Or, to invert the matter, can any process involving only secondary efficient and material causes actually be regarded as “creation” at all?

There are principally two heads under which to view Christian creation doctrine. The first is the theological and philosophical doctrine of creation ex nihilo, ably presented in Ted Davis’ series about Ted Peters on BioLogos currently.

Aquinas considered that creation should only be applied to ex nihilo divine acts. In this it was to be distinguished from natural generation of individuals (humans were individually “created” only in the sense that each immortal soul came directly from God – bodies were the product of secondary causes, not creation). Aquinas also conceived of God’s producing “changes” not intrinsic to things’ existing natures, but yet not miraculous and outside nature – and it seems doubtful he would view these as “acts of creation” because they are not ex nihilo. Evolutionary changes might be in this category – but only if they were the direct works of God.

In this Aquinas was really reflecting, in a detailed scheme, what was the general Christian view: God does not create by letting things happen, but by doing them. One could say that some constituent of any creative act must be ex nihilo: it could be a new form, or something else, but if it is new, it must be from God’s will and purpose, and not from some contingent event within nature.

The second head for viewing creation doctrine is the etymology and usage of the biblical term for creation, which as you all know is bara in Hebrew. John Walton’s estimable work has shown, I think conclusively, that the stress in the OT concept of creation is not on material creation ex nihilo (though this is not excluded and becomes clear through Scripture), but on functional creation. So the Genesis 1 creation account is all about the taming of tohu wabohu (doubtless also of God’s making) into the functional whole desired by his sovereign will, a functional order which forms the basis for the praise and worship of the whole κοσμος (another functional term in Greek, of course, opposed not to “non-existence” but to χαος) and especially of mankind.

The specific area of meaning of the Hebrew word “create”, then, is primarily final causation – what something is for in God’s economy. Implicit in this is that form follows function – that God makes things as they are to fulfil their roles he has for them in his wisely ordered cosmos. Additionally, as we’ve discussed here before, there is a significant link in historical theology between formal causation and the specific creative role of Christ, the Logos of God. Accordingly final causation tends to be attributed to the Father.

The Spirit’s role in creation, it seems, is as the first efficient cause – both in the initial act of creation, and in the initiation and sustaining of all events whatsoever, cf concurrence.

So, I would argue, any process that doesn’t take into account the purpose (final causation) of God the Father, the design (formal causation) of God the Son and the action (efficient causation) of God the Holy Spirit cannot properly be subsumed under the term “creation”, as understood in Christianity.

Does “evolutionary creation”, as it now used, meet those criteria, do you think?


Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Terms and conditions apply

  1. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    So would Aquinas have corrected any contemporary (much less the Psalmist) who claimed “I was created by God” by informing him that, no, he was really created by his parents? I don’t imagine he would have unless the speaker was likening his own creation to the special creation of Adam, and they had no reason (as we do now) to suspect that Adam’s creation may look at all like our own were we there to witness it.

    When I read Keith’s “Perspectives …” there was musing over the term evolutionary creation as opposed to theistic evolution, though they did not plumb the depths of these distinctions as deeply as you have here. As I recall, they were just pleased to give creation the higher “noun status” instead of evolution. I.e. E.C. seems to give the Creationist identity the priority and tack on the descriptor “evolutionary” as an additive descriptor, instead of making “Evolutionist” the core of one’s identity with theism as the tag-along after-thought. Thus the preference in this was with regard to proper communication; but it is valuable to dig beneath the grammar into the philosophical ramifications. Thanks.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Merv

      In this instance I was only citing Aquinas as an able exponent of the ex nihilo model of creation. Without checking up on him, though (there’s a lot to check up!) I suspect he’d have said that the psalmist doesn’t use the word bara in relation to the individual human, but more generic words like “form” or analogies like “knit together”, which admit secondary causation. At least a cursory look at the concordance suggests that’s the case.

      His principle, though, is the same one that the free-process people insist on too much: that secondary causes (such as the powers of generation) are real, and therefore to be distinguished from God’s creative power, which is what initiates the secondary powers – in other words, every event is not simply an “occasion” for God to create something new, or else cleaning ones teeth would be an act of divine creation (that’s “occasionalism”).

      That’s not to say that God is not involved in daily events (hence concurrence and even just conservation), but that “creation” implies (on the one hand) his bringing something from nothing or (on the other approach) bringing order to disorder, both things that secondary powers are not enabled or authorised to do.

      Another complication (while we’re at it) is the concept of creatio continua, which implies that God does keep creating moment by moment. I believe that’s common especially in Orthodox theology. I’m not sure, though, whether that implies an occasionalist view of reality (in which case all causes in evolution would simply be situations newly created by God) or whether it’s just a strong way of expressing his sustaining power. That is, we and all our powers only exist moment by moment because God actively creates the moments in which they operate.

      I’d justify being picky about this on the basis that the subject matter, whilst involving communication, is mainly a serious endeavour in the overlapping fields of science, philosophy and theology, all of which demand precision of terminology to avoid multiplication of error. The subject, of course, is also a matter of serious controversy (aka culture wars!), much of which arises from loose use of language and the associated loose use of thought.

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