What theistic evolution means by freedom

Well, I’ve been asking that question on BioLogos for nearly 2 years now, and did so again on this recent thread. For the very first time I actually got a reply – even a serious one – from beaglelady, who quoted me a parish newsletter of John Polkinghorne’s in which he cited a sort of free will defence regarding tsunamis: they are the necessary result of regular natural laws, and such interacting laws are (in a manner not explained) necessary for human freedom.

Unfortunately, of course, the issue in question is not human freedom, but the freedom of nature. Another quote from Polkinghorne on Wikipedia shows that he, like other TEs, has more in mind than just human free will:

I have added to it the free-process defence, that a world allowed to make itself is better than a puppet theatre with a Cosmic Tyrant.

Familiar rhetoric, then – but I asked beaglelady (and anyone else around) in response exactly what that word “free” means, or in other words how is it possible to tyrannise puppets, or to free them – granted that they haven’t, like Pinocchio, been magically granted boyhood? But so far … well, if you’ve followed this blog you would be amazed if I had received any coherent answer, wouldn’t you? In fact I have received none at all, though Ted Davis has replied to other points.

In fact, Polkinghorne’s analogy is decidedly odd because it is not an analogy at all: if for God to direct lumps of wood to evolve into, say, the magnolia is to act as Cosmic Tyrant over a puppet theatre, why is it not equally immoral for a human to direct more lumps of wood – a literal puppet theatre – to walk and dance? If designing creation is wrong, then so are Wallace and Grommit. And if Thunderbirds are Go, then God is surely just as good to order creation as he wishes.

But all those guys at BioLogos must mean something by freedom: it’s the word always used, so it can’t simply be a metaphor, or else they’d have said what it stands for. And they’re real scientists and theologians – so it couldn’t be just a meaningless buzzword … could it? In the absence of a helpful explanation I’ve concluded I’ll have to look for the alternatives myself, by recourse to the Oxford Dictionary’s definitions of freedom. I’ve reproduced all the definitions there verbatim, but have replaced their examples with those more suited to the subject at hand (in italics). Have a look and tell me which makes most sense to you in considering “the freedom of nature to create itself in its own way and in its own time”; that is to say, free (remember) from a coercive and tyrannical God.

Definition of freedom

[mass noun]

1 the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants:

Nature wants passionately to act with freedom from God.

[count noun]:

The exact nature of the freedoms rocks enjoy is a divine mystery.

  • absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government:

Creation has gained freedom from the despotic government of God its Creator.

  • the power of self-determination attributed to the will; the quality of being independent of fate or necessity:

Life has complete freedom from chance or necessity, but determines the outcomes of evolution by its own will.

2 the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved:

The universe blasted its way to freedom in the Big Bang.

  • the state of being unrestricted and able to move easily:

The cosmos has roomy black holes for freedom of movement.

  • unrestricted use of something:

Molecules have the complete freedom of the universe until God gets back.

3 (freedom from) the state of not being subject to or affected by (something undesirable):

God’s self-giving policies achieve freedom from design for all.

4 (the freedom of —) British a special privilege or right of access, especially that of full citizenship of a city granted to a public figure as an honour:

The stellar disk accepted gratefully the Freedom of the City of God.

5 archaic familiarity or openness in speech or behaviour:

I say, that evolution’s a bit free with the old egregious errors, eh?

I have to say I’m a little disappointed that none of these definitions seems to make any sense whatsoever of what TEs promote so universally. In the past I’ve wondered if TE’s “freedom” might just be a fancy (and emotionally loaded) word for “randomness”. But I see that the dictionary makes no connection between those two concepts at all. Ah well, it’s back to asking the folks at BioLogos, I suppose. You have to live with a bit of mystery.

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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15 Responses to What theistic evolution means by freedom

  1. penman says:

    Hi Jon

    I suspect that what these TEs mean by “freedom” is “spontaneity” – things happening out of the blue, unpredictably, by some inherent self-moving power, with God reduced to hands-off spectator. Or I can’t see what else they mean.

    Such an idea spontaneity needs, in my opinion, to wrestle pretty hard with an abundance of biblical affirmations of God’s meticulous control of creation.

    Also it seems tl me to undermine any morally grounded notion of human free agency. If my freedom lies in my spontaneity, what becomes of my “character” – the set of dispositions that precisely go counter to mere spontaneity, in favour of settled inclinations & habitual actions? A person with a highly virtuous character will act predictably – we know he or she will do the right, good thing.

    The musings of a TE who doesn’t believe in spontaneity but in something taught by that fellow Paul in Ephesians 1:11…

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Well it’s certainly possible spontaneity is what they mean – though being reduced to speculating on what most TEs hold central because not one will explain it is .. bizarre.

      But even “spontaneity” means nothing but being subject to “chance/mischance” apart from rationality and consciousness. I can spontaneously (and wisely) suggest we all go to the beach today, or spontaneously (and unwisely) bet my life-savings on a horse.

      If I spontaneously combust, however, it is neither wise, nor unwise – nor even free. It’s just horrible, unless God somehow is in control and has wise reasons. If a tree in a desert sponatneously combusts, it’s not even horrible.

      • pngarrison says:

        I think you can relax about the spontaneous combustion. Your British forensic people showed that it only happens if you (freely) choose to smoke in bed and then happen to die suddenly. 🙂 This was a great disappointment to my brother, who I think was hoping to see a drummer combust on stage, like the guy in Spinal Tap.

      • GD says:

        Hi Jon,

        I guess I am going to spoil your comment on spontaneous combustion – the chemistry of rapid oxidation (fires and explosions) is well understood, even at the level of molecules and radicals. It is a rapid exothermic reaction that proceeds within micro-millisecond time scales, and it is ONLY free to undergo the specific reactions (i.e. not all that free). Thus we will not see any tree freely, or instantly, combust for some time yet.

        • Jon Garvey says:

          I guess that means we’re going to have to reinstate God as the Cosmic Tyrant who set fire to Moses’ burning bush and curtailed its freedom in order to free his people Israel, then! How this new theology does tie one up in knots!

          • GD says:

            I do not see the analogy between combustion of a tree and a burning bush that is not consumed as it burns – I think (if I understand you?) there is a ‘world’ of difference between the two matters – and as for God as the Cosmic Tyrant – I do not get it.

  2. GD says:

    Indeed freedom is the stumbling block for any view that seeks to obtain a meaning from the study of nature (or the Universe). Apart from the rather odd view derived from Darwin’s notion of variation and bio-diversity, the sciences show that any dynamic system ‘behaves’ in a manner that is comprehensible – even if we use probabilities and stochastic methods to derive comprehensible knowledge of such phenomena. Freedom is better understood within a framework in which activity is a given, and outcomes to the agent with free-will may be either/or – in other words, the world may contain a large range of possible outcomes, but the free-agent, by her act/decision, determines a particular outcome out of the large, possible range, of (future) possibilities. It is this (very simplified) notion that has holds the greatest conviction to me regarding God as creator of all.

    I must admit that I have not considered spontaneity within the context of science – I usually equate it with an outgoing personality given to ‘spontaneous responses’ in their interactions with other people.

  3. Jon Garvey says:

    Somewhere else (on one of the Newton blogs) I considered the interesting fact that the universe seems set up to be close to the border between order and chaos.

    With reference to human choice, that means that by doing a little, I can change a fair bit, but not destabilise the whole thing. A universe like that gives a lot of possibilities, because it’s not completely deterministic, nor completely disordered. So, for example, life can successfully take many different forms, chemistry can be complex, planets be formed and stable or changeable, and so on.

    But that says nothing about “freedom”, in the moral sense, for the inanimate parts of creation. Without consciousness and choice, they are still just doing orderly stuff like Boyle’s Law, or disorderly stuff like hurricanes, or intelligent stuff like vibrating to Beethoven. It’s all the same to them. They are not free, except for the freedom to follow their created natures (aka the laws of the universe). But they’re not bound either, except by being what they are rather than something else.

    Of course, such a universe gives its Creator the freedom to make a lot of different useful things happen (analogously to man’s ability to change outcomes): the universe will “take” a command to become a tree (harder if there’s only hydrogen in the universe), or even a command for a “natural” process that will generate trees such as evolution of some sort.

    People (obviously) come somewhere lower than God, in that although they can make real choices in this special universe, they share with inanimate matter the brute fact of being limited by the nature God gave at Creation. Even sin doesn’t free us from being creatures, which is why God’s freedom must be in some way sovereign over ours.

  4. GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    “..the universe seems set up to be close to the border between order and chaos”

    An interesting statement. I have considered the notion of chaos and order, and am still undecided on how we may understand these terms. Order is initially easier to understand, as we can identify regularities and equate this with order. Chaos however, can mean so many things, especially rapid change and seemingly unpredictable events within any time frame. Many things that have initially been considered chaotic imo have been understood as probabilities that have a basis in nature’s characteristics. So perhaps both moral and physical choices that are present in nature may be more the result of the expansiveness/extensive aspect of nature, rather than how we may be limited (although our limitations are obvious). My guess is that when we accept the plan of God, we may than add to this the seemingly endless choices and opportunities that God has provided in Nature.

  5. Jon Garvey says:


    I’ve run out of nested boxes to reply to your burning bush comment. You must excuse my sense of (sarcastic) humour – there is, of course, no connection other than burning bushes in wildernesses, and a nod to the old skeptic claim that “in the desert dry bushes sometimes catch fire, which explains the Exodus story”.

    My real point was that the “Cosmic Tyrant” talk (which I lifted directly from John Polkinghorne) that is used to accuse God of “puppetry” should he “interfere” with the “free” outcomes of evolution would actually also preclude pretty well everything God did in the Bible. The bush was not consumed, but it wasn’t left to “be itself.”

    The serious truth is that God is free to do what he wishes with his own creation, and is not accountable to us, or to it.

    • GD says:


      It seems as if I am not the only one who uses humour from time to time; yes, I get the rest of your comment now. I find P is careful in his language but it seems that he has let himself down with his ‘Cosmic Tyrant’ talk.

  6. penman says:

    I second Jon’s argument here. The “Cosmic Tyrant” charge seems to be attempt to load with pejorative weight the traditional theist view of divine providence, in order to drive us into the arms of the Open Theist view – God as respectful onlooker who watches the “free play” of the universe doing its own thing.

    My problem with this is mainly biblical. It rides roughshod over a massive outcrop of biblical teaching on God’s sovereignty, His governance of creation. Everything – every entity, every event – is within the jurisdiction of His decree which decides what will & won’t happen. That includes the seemingly random outcome of the lot (Prov.16:33) and the sinful actions of human moral agents (Acts 2:23).

    The “Cosmic Tyrant” is a bad way of describing the actual biblical God confessed by the historical church. Why anyone would think Open Theism provides a better rationale for Theistic Evolution than is provided a historic belief in the sovereignty of the Creator, is as mysterious as why no one will answer Jon’s question about what freedom is in the Open Theist TE scheme.

  7. GD says:

    I am unconvinced by what I have read of Open Theism, and I have stated on a number of occasions that freedom as we understand it conforms totally with God (the Word) as the Creator who sustains the creation. Most of my arguments focus on our limitations and how it is that we can comprehend knowledge of God – even if such knowledge is revealed, I think we still require God (through the Holy Spirit) to enable us to understand it – and thus that too is subject to God’s will and therefore Sovereignty. Consequently, arguments that use the notion of freedom to indicate ‘independence from God’, or objectify God as a bystander, are seriously flawed. I should also state that I am very sceptical of the notion presented as Theistic Evolution, but that can be a topic for another discussion.

  8. Jon Garvey says:

    My feeling is that this whole edifice of “freedom of nature” is, at root, intended to preserve the “freedom of human individuals“, understood in the post-Renaissance Promethean manner as “Libertarian Autonomy.”

    That, perhaps, is why when discussing with those who seem to have some clue what it’s about, the discussion always gets dragged back to Calvinism etc. So I’m not sure if anyone’s really deeply concerned about whether octopi, genes or molecules are “free”, except that it’s perceived they must be if humans are going to be. There’s a clue of that, perhaps, in this quote derived from the faith-science writer Arthur Peacocke (once again majoring on kenosis!): “In addition, [God’s] kenotic gesture through Christ attests to a self-vulnerability that enables nature (namely us) to act in relative freedom.”

    See how what is meant by “nature” is really “us”? So the key to sorting out and correcting this whole “free nature” thing would appear to lie in sorting out, and correcting, wrong views of human freedom. That sounds like GD’s field of interest, but I might attempt something in the next few days.

    Anyone like to start with a definition of what the free nature guys say is “human freedom”?

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