BioLogos comments, as Eddie’s last piece details, are all over the theological shop at the moment. That’s brought into almost comic relief by a few threads in which outsiders suggest there are theological problems in Evolutionary Creation, only to be contradicted by a host of BioLogians closing ranks in defence of orthodoxy by disputing any of these these problems exist, whilst simultaneously contradicting each other’s theology. I’m not sure how productive it is priding oneself on being a broad church and then defending the soundness of ones theology. It makes for a lively, if ultimately frustrating, talking shop I suppose.
The ensuing thoughts are prompted by at least a couple of instances of claims there that the Genesis 1 creation story implies God’s creation of a quasi-autonomous earth “bringing forth” forms of life whose precise details, it appears, are not determined by God, but by the earth.
I replied in detail to a combined argument made by Joshua Swamidass and George Brooks, but on another thread someone else independently makes the same case, with the implication that no other interpretation is tenable than that nature (or actually specifically the land, and the sea, in the text) is given somewhat free creative rein by God. In other words, with a bit of conceptual banging to shape, Genesis 1 can be made to say that “secondary causes” have an open-ended co-creatorial role in what we actually see, and specifically in the outcomes of evolution.
I won’t restate the case here that, to be blunt, Genesis just doesn’t say that – I’m of the old fashioned school that doesn’t believe a Bible text is so flexible that it can mean whatever you think it means. Instead, I want to add one other line of argument as to why it’s an impossible interpretation, by looking at just how absurdly recently the idea of any kind of autonomous nature capable of creative ingenuity came about in mainstream theology.
As I point out in the BioLogos thread, and at various times here, it was universal in the ANE that all events were caused by what we would now call “intelligent agents”, and where those were not human, they were either gods or lesser spiritual beings like demons or ghosts. Israel’s revelation did not deny this general truth, but attributed all agency to the true God, who remained sovereign ruler over any subsidiary agents like angels, and even over rebellious spirits (see, for example, God’s relationship with Satan in Job).
In this way, although the earth is said to bring forth crops each year, it is God who brings the increase and who either creates abundance or dearth in response to the faithfulness of Israel. God is the one who sends storm, or drought, or snow and hail not only in a generic way as Creator, but directly as a work of his government of the human world. In Ps 104 God replenishes the creatures of the earth by sending his Spirit, and takes their lives by withdrawing it. And so on throughout the Bible.
Now, one interesting question is whether that hands-on view is outmoded “ancient thinking” or is compatible with a modern scientific understanding. I have argued elsewhere that it is probably a good basis for science, though it requires a complete metaphysical rethink in interpreting the world. However, that isn’t the point here – the fact is that the Bible, even up to the New Testament’s partially hellenized viewpoint, is thoroughly imbued with this view of God’s ongoing personal agency in his creation, and has no theological room whatsoever for a view of an autonomous or quasi-autonomous “nature”. For this reason alone, the interpretation of Genesis 1 I dispute is just untenable. It will still prevail at BioLogos, though, because knowledge is theory-laden, and the theory of evolution is the raison d’être of the organisation. Secondary causes will be read into in Genesis by ECs just as absence of animal death is read into it by YECs. It’s the way of the world.
Yet secondary causes, as we understand them, only came into the world’s intellectual currency through Aristotle – whose thought dominated the mediaeval European intellectual climate that generated modern science. To Aristotle, events in nature happened according to the independent powers accorded to the entities or “substances”. These powers, in fact, defined their “natures”. As is well known, he reasoned to a divine First Cause behind all these powers, acting not just as the creative originator of those powers in time past, but as the Prime Mover of every current event. The key thing about this First Cause was that he directs all things, via the efficient causal chains he initiates, towards their designated ends (final causation). The point here is that the natures which creatures possess determine those ends.
Nevertheless, the Aristotelian First Cause was not the Christian God, and it took those like Aquinas to interpret Aristotle in Christian terms. He retained the basic system of secondary natures, but in order to preserve adequately the traditional Christian teaching on Creation, God was acknowledged as the sole free Creator of all those natures, and therefore through creation necessarily determined all the ends towards which he directed them. In other words, created natures were instruments of God’s designated purposes, and not “independent contractors” tasked to co-create along with God.
Also, in order to preserve the traditional doctrine of providence Aquinas emphasised divine concurrence, in which each and every action of secondary powers only operates if God himself completes it. That, and Aquinas’s insistence on the universality of providence (again, traditional catholic teaching) meant that one might correctly speak of God’s acting in nature without mentioning the secondary powers specifically: one could believe heavy objects moved towards the earth but say, without contradiction, that God causes them to fall. There is no sense in Aquinas that God “creates” by dint of letting his ingenious dogs off the leash and seeing where they go.
Some of the scholastic rivals to Aquinas championed occasionalism over his concurrence. Needless to say, since this made God the only true causal agent in the world, any idea of a quasi-autonomous nature was excluded by them as much as it was by him.
But it was Aristotle who led the way to modern science, and against Aristotle that the new mechanical philosophy of Boyle, etc, rebelled. Theologically speaking, excluding God’s activity from the study of nature was intended to preserve his sole sovereignty against what was seen as detraction from it by Aristotle’s secondary causes. Therefore, under early-modern science, the entities of creation lost their powers and became collections of purely passive particles that came to be called atoms, acting on each other mechanically according to divinely ordained, immaterial laws. The only power in nature, then (apart from man with his immaterial spiritual Cartesian soul) was the governance of God’s laws. Under early modern science, not only was the idea of “co-creating” secondary powers blasphemous, but there was no mechanism by which they could exist.
The extreme extension of the mechanical philosophy, in religious terms, became Deism, in which God’s laws replaced all immanent divine action in the world, making God’s Creation into a mechanical automaton, running by Leibniz’s “perpetual motion”. Once more, the autonomy of secondary causes is unthinkable in such a system. It only became thinkable when Enlightenment philosophers absolutized the laws of nature and abolished God, thereby making the whole clockwork system of nature autonomous in one sense. But since it was still clockwork and deterministic, there was still no room for nature having degrees of freedom, let alone creative abilities.
The nineteenth century Epicureanism represented by Darwin’s theory of evolution re-introduced, effectively for the first time since the rise of Aristotle, the possibility of outcomes in nature not specifically planned by God. The early theistic evolutionists like Gray, Warfield and even his co-theorist Wallace parted company with Darwin at this point, to varying degrees.
To Gray, for example, the particular variations which God providently creates (in real time, as it were) lead, under the influence of lawlike natural selection, to more-or-less specified outcomes: once more, he could truly speak of God creating tigers, or scorpions, with the mechanisms of evolution being mere instruments serving his design.
Yet it is doubtful if even Darwin, in his more religious moments, would have couched his theory in terms of the liberty of secondary causes. To him, governed as he was by the Victorian assumption of inevitable overall progress, the chance events of evolution were constrained, by the way things are, to reach a pretty specific goal – perfection. For his time, civilized mankind represented that perfection, albeit in transient form. He foresaw further progress in ages to come, and whilst he could not predict what shape it would take, Nature had a very clear set of criteria built into it which it was bound to fulfil.
And so whilst a personified Natural Selection, itself a proxy for a personified Nature, appears to give secondary causes the status of “agents” rather than mere “instruments”, God (if he existed) had so set things up that their job was tightly circumscribed. So Nature might create, but only “according to the pattern shown it upon the high mountain.”
So although some modern ECs probably occupy something like the same ground as Darwin (but sadly not that of the earliest theistic evolutionists, who insisted on special providence as primary, rather than invoking secondary causes alone), we have to search in the century after him for the idea of secondary powers having “leeway” to bring forms of their own making to fruition in a way that does not directly involve God in design. It seems to me that this idea only really gets off the ground in the second half of the twentieth century, and probably amongst our old friends like Arthur Peacocke, John Haught and so on bringing heady mixes of process theology and panentheism, together with a distaste of the idea of God as a sovereign Creator, into theistic evolution.
Why it should be so popular amongst TEs I don’t know – my guess is that amongst trained scientists it sits well with methodological naturalism and Neodarwinism as stated in the secular literature, and amongst westerners generally it pushes the “freedom” button quite effectively. Whatever the reason, the bottom line is that this is the first time in serious Christian theology that anyone has even been interested in making the Creation share the work of the Creator in bringing forth what we see around us.
So if the writer of the Genesis creation account really is taken to imply that “Let the earth bring forth living creatures” means God delegating his R&D work to a historically precocious concept of Nature, one of two explanations is possible. Either Moses anticipated post-Darwinian speculative theology by 3 millennia or so, and then God’s people entirely forgot about it, or … theory-laden evolutionists are reading modern prejudices back into the text in order to baptize a novel theology as orthodox.