To coin a term

I’ve now got hold of David L Wilcox’s little book God and Evolution, and think I can add him to the disappointingly small group of TEs who actually do combine biblical faith with a realistic approach to science. The book isn’t world-shatteringly original – well within the genre of “a scientist shows that faith and science are compatible”, but I think it would be just the kind of thing for penman to give to his Reformed Creationist friends as a palatable apologetic.
I’ve already commented on a BioLogos thread of Ted Davis that the chapter on origins of life uses virtually the same arguments as Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell, the only difference being that Meyer argues for design by inference to best explanation, whereas Wilcox assumes it as a presupposition. That suggests that the difference between “Warfieldian” theistic evolution and the ID form of Old Earth Creationism is mainly one of self-identity. As I wrote to Ted, how would one actually distinguish between theistic evolution guided by R J Russell’s quantum tinkering, and old earth creationism mediated by God’s altering existing genomes through quantum tinkering?

Here, though, I want to concentrate more on something else that caught my attention. When discussing the naturalistic materialism of the Dennetts and the Dawkinses, Wilcox adds this:

For the record, not all materialists deny God’s existence. As we noted, some maintain that matter acts “on its own,” but they insist that God made it initially. Thus the outcomes of material causes depend only on the initial state in which God made the matter – plus the possibility of occasional divine input, or reshaping. Such a secondaru input to the material system they would term an intervention (or a miracle). Theologically speaking, this view is properly called “deism” or “semideism.”

The latter term he takes from science historian Reijer Hooykaas. Wilcox goes on to apply this to ID, in contrast to … well, the semi-deists, whoever they may be:

On the other hand, for those who have committed themselves by faith to nature’s autonomy, the idea of intelligent direction of natural causes is simply incomprehensible (even for those who believe in God). For them, a “god” who acts in nature would be the ultimate intruder in a closed system.

Now does this not remind you strongly of the kind of discussions we’ve had on BioLogos? Particularly I remember my unsuccessful attempts to pin down Darrel Falk on the place of divine action on the thread replying to William Dembski, but others will have interacted with Dennis Venema and less notable contributors in the same vein. The prevalent “BioLogos position”, if I may summarise, is that God has given nature “autonomy” and would be acting against his faithfulness by “interfering” in the process of evolution. At the same time, no doubt he can, and has, acted by “miracle” (the only category admitted outside the “natural”) in the business of salvation through Christ. That would seem to fit to a tee the definition of “semi-deism”, whether or not Wilcox consciously identifies BioLogian theistic evolution with that position.

But there’s another distinction to be made. Semi-deists admit the occasional guiding hand of God in nature too, in what Wilcox calls “reshaping”. And you may recall that Darrel Falk accepted this as a possibility, whilst adding the firm caveat that we cannot know how God works and must accept mystery. Wilcox would (and has) said that the Bible is pretty clear that God does act directly, especially in “chance” events, which is why he’s so refreshing: “Chance is, in fact, the hand of God.”

The degree of lukewarmness about such action at BioLogos seems to fall below the position of the semi-deist, who would affirm God’s “miraculous intervention” even though minimising it, rather than admitting it as an unknowable possibility.  So what term should we use to describe the predominant BioLogos type of theistic evolution? How about “Agnostic Semi-Deism“? That seems pretty definitive mast to which to pin ones colours.

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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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5 Responses to To coin a term

  1. Gregory says:


    I’m glad you’ve found another person to add to your list of “the disappointingly small group of TEs who actually do combine biblical faith with a realistic approach to science.”

    Add Rev. Dr. Michael Heller also – I linked to his work here before. Add Rev. Dr. George Coyne. Add Rev. Dr. Mariano Artigas. And you already seem to agree with Kenneth Kemp and have linked to his recent work here. Are there any others who qualify?

    Let me suggest there may be countless many others who would also qualify, you just might have to look to Catholics and Orthodox to find them. Protestantism, including evangelicalism (depending on how one positions it), is simply a mess on this topic! Artigas is a clear example, since he worked together with the evangelical Karl Giberson, but as a Catholic did not fall off the rails like Giberson, out of your ‘disappointingly small group of TEs’ definition.

    Your requirement for a realistic approach to science combined with biblical faith would most likely find more fruit if you looked beyond Protestantism and/or evangelicalism. But hey, you’ve got Warfield in your corner, who seems to be your late-19th, early 20th c. chief trainer, preparing you for 21st century science, philosophy, theology encounters. You’ve partly got R.J. Russell, and now it seems you’ve got David Wilcox.

    Mind you, Wilcox in Perspectives of an Evolving Creation, which I take to be the main text for ‘the TEs that Jon Garvey is contesting’ from a ‘different kind of TE’ (i.e. TE vs. TE) perspective, quotes Warfield in a way that I imagine you may not like:

    “It is to theology, as such, a matter of entire indifference how long man has existed on the earth.” – Warfield (1932)

    Entire indifference?!

    From Wilcox: “the genetic evidence suggests that he ‘hid his hand’ by giving Adam and Eve characteristics that pegged them to the hominid tree and indicated a population history. It would be nice to know why.” (252) / “Humanity still sticks out from ‘nature’ like a sore thumb. Let all God’s people say amen…With caution.” (252) / “Certainly, God breathing spiritual life into Adam is not an event that we can expect to see in the fossil record.” (253) / “It does suggest the sudden appearance of modern humanity, but questions the idea of a single pair.” (253)

    What is confusing is who in particular, Jon, you think is, i.e. who you wish to call an ‘agnostic semi-deist’. Falk, Applegate, Davis, Venema – are any of them or all of them ‘agnostic semi-deists’ in your view? Mike Biedler, who has ‘earnestly evangelical army-like’ written on his face and in his threads? If so, the facts would seem to be against you.

    “BioLogos is a community of evangelical Christians committed to exploring and celebrating the compatibility of evolutionary creation and biblical faith, guided by the truth that ‘all things hold together in Christ’.” [Colossians 1:17]

    So I don’t really understand what your ‘agnostic semi-desism’ to characterise “the predominant BioLogos type of theistic evolution” actually refers to ‘in reality’.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Gregory

    I’m happy to acknowledge the positive contributions of Catholics and Orthodox, though they do have their Ayalas and de Chardins too. It’s not too surprising if my main dealings, as an Evangelical Protestants, are with Evangelical Protestants. As to what proportion of such TEs believe in God’s active oversight of evolution, I suspect that amongst the general population shown up in surveys they are the vast majority. But they’re not amongst those who write on TE, either in the academic circle of the Peacockes and van Tills, or in the popular evangelical circle represented by BioLogos, who seem to be amongst those who, in your words, are “in a mess” on this topic.

    The proof of the pudding is in what they say in print, and particularly in dialogue. I would never have thought to critique BL luminaries, having linked up with an Evangelical TE site, if I’d not been disquieted by the dilution of Evangelical doctrine (which, as it happens, is also classical theism in this connection) at so many points. The fact that I can be pleasantly surprised by those new to me like Russell, Wilcox, and even Warfield or Gray is evidence that I’m examining views, not exhibiting prejudice against any particular group.

    Wilcox provides a definition of “semi-deism” – I think it applies more closely to BioLogos TEs than to the YECs and IDs to whom he attaches the term. I’m always open to alternative arguments, but suggesting that Wilcox might be one himself doesn’t really alter anything, if indeed your quotes suggested it, which from Wilcox’s book they don’t, in context. Ditto Warfield, actually, similarly in the cointext of his total output on the matter. There is disagreement on detail, and fundamental difference of worldview, and they are not the same.

  3. Gregory says:

    So, like I asked, again: who do you consider an ‘agnostic semi-deist’ at BioLogos? Van Til and Teilhard de Chardin don’t count – they’re not listed as BioLogos Members. Please be specific if you have the courage of conviction to name names. I don’t suspect you do.

    Dennett and Dawkins differ significantly, ultimately from Lamoureux (as much as I would gladly wrestle them one at a time). Are you suggesting Lamoureux is ‘agnostic’?!?

    If you don’t, then what’s all this pretend squawk about, as you are simply a TE talking wildly about other TEs, while secretly fawning on evangelicalistic IDism, which doesn’t even have the courage to openly admit it inevitably involves theology and not just natural science?

    I had thought you called Steve Fuller right ‘on the money’ on your blog for doing what IDists don’t show the courage to do. Perhaps you could correct this interpretation if it is not what you meant because thus far you seem to be wearing rose-coloured glasses about IDism, like a perfectly uncritical houseguest at Saddleback church among evangelicals (many young earthers).

    Is it just biblicism and hermeneutics, as Protestantistic sola scriptura, that’s at issue here? Again, Catholics and Orthodox are much more important and insightful than Protestants here because they have not only individualistic sola scriptura, but also Ecclesia and Tradition, which guides and anchors them.

    “Our movement is by its very nature ecumenical. One of the reasons why this issue [ID] has always been a loser is that it’s only been taken up by Protestant fundamentalists. That has to change.” – P. Johnson (father of the IDM)

    BioLogos folks are simply bad because they’re not the right kind of ‘evangelical’ that you are, is that the main point? There’s a solid rock of Tradition on which you could stand, Jon, if not for partisan religiousity – it’s the same ‘evangelical’ self-righteousness that drives BioLogos. Yet Owen Gingerich is a Mennonite Christian, for goodness sake and his Big-ID vs. small-id distinction you have not addressed at Potiphar!

    There are the vast majority of Christians, Muslims, Jews and Bahai’s who accept TE and “believe in God’s active oversight of evolution.” As I asked, who else fits into your “small group of TEs”? Just as Eddie was educated by Ted at BioLogos for not knowing very much about the TE he was criticising, perhaps there are many more who write about accepting limited evolutionary biological theory and maintaining their religious faith.

    The notion of equating ‘classical theism’ with ‘evangelical doctrine’ is of course highly problematic. 3/4 of orthodox ‘classical theists’ would disagree with you and do not call themselves ‘evangelicals’ or resort to reformed/reforming/reformational language! Mushy Anglicanism cum non-denominationalism at its worst will not get the job done.

    That’s why an alternative to evolution, creationism and intelligent design is needed. I had thought we were on the same hymn sheet here?

    Then again, BioLogos has hosted N.T. Wright, whose ‘simply Christian’ approach might appeal to the individual TE who is busy attacking (his evangelical self, in the name of) BioLogos.


    p.s. there are no ‘luminaries’ at BioLogos. Francis Collins would count as one, but he can’t elaborate his ideas there. Neither are there any luminaries amongst IDists, though IDists would ‘protest’ otherwise. One needs to look beyond both ID and BioLogos to find luminaries. That’s the main point. Do you resonate with that?

  4. James says:


    I don’t understand the basis of some of the comments about you above, which seem to be accusing you of hiding some of your views and of lacking courage. I have always found your writing to be the very opposite of sly or guarded, and have enjoyed your refreshing, up-front style.

    I agree with the commenter above about the lack of “luminaries” on BioLogos. But then, what would one expect? By definition, a “luminary” is someone who is brighter than average, who is capable of leading others by thinking for himself. But the whole raison d’etre of BioLogos is to reconcile very conventional neo-Darwinism (the view that has been the “safe” one for evolutionary biologists to defend from about 1937 on), with a post-1960s, middle-class, moderately “progressive” American evangelical Christianity that wants very badly to distinguish itself from fundamentalism by being “Biblical” in a more culturally acceptable way. The kind of Christian who wants to hold to a progressive-but-not-too-bold form of Protestant evangelical theology, or the kind of scientist who bristles — instead of showing healthy intellectual curiosity — when the consensus biology he was taught in school is challenged, is not likely to be a “luminary,” but merely a reflection, a follower, a filler-out of the details of the existing paradigm, an acolyte. I don’t expect deep original thought in either science or theology from most of the people at BioLogos.

    I wouldn’t say that ID has any “luminaries” in its circle — though Michael Denton, Richard Sternberg, and David Berlinski are extremely bright people, and I would rather have an intellectual conversation over lunch with any of them than with any of the scientist-columnists on BioLogos — but ID people overall tend to be more original and less conventional in their thought than the TEs of BioLogos. Thus, it is Behe and Meyer and Wells and Dembski and Axe and Nelson and Gauger and Sternberg and Denton who are producing the new ideas about evolution, and the BioLogos folks who are merely reacting negatively to them. The ID people thus show at least the potential of some day becoming luminaries, whereas the defensive BioLogos attitude is a recipe for generating scientific second bananas.

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