A Design History of Theistic Evolution (#1 of 6)

This is the first part of a 7,500 word essay on historic and modern theistic evolution, which I hope to upload over the next week.

It is seldom appreciated that the earliest Christian response to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, even preceding its publication, was theistic evolution. A number of important thinkers held, and developed, this view during the nineteenth century until it was eclipsed, for reasons not due to any weakness of the position(i), for most of the twentieth. Through the work of the science and religion community of (mainly non-evangelical) scholars(ii), and secondarily through the American Scientific Affiliation and BioLogos, it has experienced a resurgence, particularly amongst Christians in the biological sciences(iii).

It is my contention, though, that in that second, late twentieth century phase, the theological position of theistic evolution has sheared away from historic evangelical teaching in a number of important respects. This would be a serious issue in itself, but it also has a detrimental effect (in the case of BioLogos) on its ambition to forge a rapprochement between conservative believers and science. I will also argue that the theological novelties have created a degree of internal incoherence which affects TE’s credibility overall as an intellectual position.

My first task will be to examine the character of the first phase of theistic evolution, before proceeding to show how it differs from the new incarnation. Before I do so, a couple of caveats. Firstly, all history consists of oversimplification of a complex reality, and historical summary particularly so. Whilst I will try to represent the ideas of my sources accurately, I do not pretend to do so exhaustively, nor that there were not many other people with differing shades of opinion. My examples, however, are certainly key figures. Secondly, given the regrettable “culture wars” approach to these issues nowadays, especially in the USA, it is important to remember that nearly every term now in use, and every argument come to that, was also employed in the nineteenth century, but with a very different cultural baggage.

Asa Gray

An excellent source for an overview of Asa Gray’s position is the 2001 essay by Sara Joan Miles (iv), reposted on BioLogos in 2012. A botanist and orthodox Congregationalist, Gray had corresponded with Darwin for many years before the publication of the Origin – the only American in Darwin’s circle of consultation. Miles gives a very good summary of Darwin’s side of the correspondence with Gray, showing that they were substantially agreed on the substance of the theory – abundant variation and the selection of the fittest in a Malthusian struggle for survival. The difference between them was that Gray left an essential place for (divine) teleology, whereas Darwin, though frequently “in a muddle” about it, at heart did not.

It is important to remember, as Miles reminds us, that even those who first opposed Darwin on religious grounds rarely did so because of biblical literalism – that is a modern myth:

Rather, following the publication of Origin of Species, it centered on what seemed to be the randomness of natural selection, the appearance of new organisms by chance, and therefore the exclusion of divine purpose or design in Nature.

That word “design” is used designedly, because it was Gray’s usual term for what he meant by “teleology”: that God intended the results of evolution and directed or oversaw the evolutionary process to produce them. Gray himself seems to have seen God’s design as a “master plan”, leaving some of the finer details to nature, though his article in the October 1860 Atlantic Review(v) shows this not to affect his appeal to God’s purpose, because though not a trained theologian, his grounding was good enough to avoid the modern trap of insisting on single causality. Miles interprets him:

Thus Gray could accept the elimination of unfavorable variations, for example, in the same way he could accept that, for the elect, God could work through suffering. God caused neither – they are simply a part of a fallen world – but he can use both.

Gray’s own words show how he saw the issue in practice:

At least, Mr. Darwin uses expressions which seem to imply that the natural forms which surround us, because they have a history or natural sequence, could have been only generally, but not particularly designed, a view at once superficial and contradictory; whereas his true line should be, that his hypothesis concerns the order and not the cause, the how and not the why of the phenomenon, and so leaves the question of design just where it was before.

The correspondence with Darwin shows that Gray argued teleology with him primarily on religious grounds: he gained the inference of design (again, his own words from the review) from his faith in God. That may be thought to weaken his argument, but the correspondence also shows that Darwin did the same, though as an agnostic. With a far more naïve view of divine purpose, and an atrophied personal faith, Darwin sought (and failed) to argue from design to God. He stumbled on such things as suffering in nature and being unable to conceive why God would bother with tiny details. Gray, however, realised that evolutionary theory could not possibly comment on the issue of design:

Since natural science deals only with secondary or natural causes, the scientific terms of a theory of derivation of species no less than of a theory of dynamics must needs be the same to the theist as to the atheist. The difference appears only when the inquiry is carried up to the question of primary cause, a question which belongs to philosophy.

Yet scientific considerations were not irrelevant to this. Asa Gray saw that Darwin’s theory was incomplete as a scientific explanation – addressing the very area where Neodarwinism is mainly criticised now:

Finally, it is worth noticing, that, though natural selection is scientifically explicable, variation is not… It is now as inexplicable as any other origination; and if ever explained, the explanation will only carry up the sequence of secondary causes one step farther, and bring us in face of a somewhat different problem, which will have the same element of mystery that the problem of variation has now. Circumstances may preserve or may destroy the variations man may use or direct them; but selection, whether artificial or natural, no more originates them than man originates the power which turns a wheel, when he dams a stream and lets the water fall upon it.

Variation was the place where design might be, and to his mind must be, displayed. To Gray, the attribution of complex organs to undirected forces was simply nonsensical. Speaking of the eye:

For then blind forces have produced not only manifest adaptations of means to specific ends, which is absurd enough, but better adjusted and more perfect instruments or machines than intellect (that is, human intellect) can contrive and human skill execute, which no sane person will believe.

To conclude my remarks about Asa Gray, he closes his October 1860 review of reviews of the Origin with a clear demarcation between interpretations of exactly the same Darwinian theory by materialists (hinting at Darwin’s own bias) and by Christians. The difference, in one word, is design:

The English mind is prone to positivism and kindred forms of materialistic philosophy, and we must expect the derivative theory to be taken up in that interest. We have no predilection for that school, but the contrary… The wiser and stronger ground to take is, that the derivative hypothesis leaves the argument for design, and therefore for a Designer, as valid as it ever was; that to do any work by an instrument must require, and therefore presuppose, the exertion rather of more than of less power than to do it directly ; that whoever would he a consistent theist should believe that Design in the natural world is coextensive with Providence, and hold fully to the one as he does to the other, in spite of the wholly similar and apparently insuperable difficulties which the mind encounters whenever it endeavors to develop the idea into a complete system, either in the material and organic, or in the moral world.

(i) I suggest major factors in this eclipse were the militant linkage of Darwinism to atheism by those like Huxley, the reaction of anti-evolutionism in Fundamentalism, and the scientific decline of the theory itself at the start of the last century.
(ii) Though British Evangelical theologians like Derek Kidner were comfortable with an evolutionary account of creation half a century ago.
(iii) I take “theistic evolution” here to mean the broad position of biological evolution over deep time involving Darwinian natural selection as a major mechanism. I include within it “Evolutionary Creation” and Francis Collins’ term “Biologos”, neither of which has yet gained widespread support as alternative terms.
(iv)http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2001/PSCF9-01Miles.html (Accessed 29/04/2013).
(v)http://digital.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=atla&cc=atla&idno=atla0006-4&node=atla0006-4%3A1&view=image&seq=412&size=100 (Accessed 30/04/2013)

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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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8 Responses to A Design History of Theistic Evolution (#1 of 6)

  1. Gregory says:

    Hi Jon,

    Interesting series.

    “…that Design in the natural world is coextensive with Providence” – Asa Gray

    Can you please confirm that/if the terms ‘Design’ and ‘Designer’ were capitalised in Gray’s review. There is a typo in the quote saying ‘he’ instead of ‘be,’ so perhaps Gray didn’t actually capitalise with Big-D either? If he did, then Miles should have echoed this in her words about Gray (where she capitalised ‘Nature’ but not ‘design’).

    Also, have you stopped calling yourself a ‘theistic evolutionist’? I had thought you accepted that label, with perhaps the qualifier ‘Warfieldian’ not so long ago. Has your position changed?

    Thanks for clarifying that you take TE to include EC and BioLogos. It shows that Lamoureux hasn’t won you to flip things so as to include TE (or BioLogos) in EC.

    Also, it seems you’ve chosen the term ‘evangelical’ when instead ‘orthodox’ or ‘catholic’ could/should have been used, in the first sentence of the second paragraph regarding ‘historic Christian teaching.’ The same applies in criticism of your position wrt ‘conservative believers’ if you choose to advocate the (oftentimes hyper-conservative) ‘evangelicalistic’ approach, so probably the more theologically accurate ‘orthodox’ or ‘catholic’ term is appropriate.

    Curious to see where this series goes…

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Gregory. Point by point replies required, I think:

    (1) The “Designs” are capitalised as shown, but it’s probably only parttly relevant to your beef with ID people about caps: As is clear, Gray is coming from God to design rather than the reverse, so God is explicitly the subject. Victorian writers were prone to capitalise anything concerning God and His Mighty Works… hence Design. Conceivably it’s even less significant, in that they used to throw caps in to mark significant words anyway.
    (2) Thanks for pointing out the typo – the explanation is my carelessness, in that the online version I used is scanned from the Atlantic Review and full of minor scanning errors. We can rely on the caps, but “h” is very like “b”.
    (3) I still call myself a TE, realising that aligns me with the currently dominant variation of TE with which I have big problems. That’s what the series is about, and these first episodes are to show that all the early TEs were more like me than like than Ken Miller. So to be unwieldy make me a Grayan-Kingsleyan-Warfieldian-TE. Note that doesn’t mean party-line: each of these three has a different theological slant variously related to my own. But the central difference from today is, in short, the sovereignty of God (expressed, specifically, in God’s actual oversight of design). Parts 4-6 will look at 3 features of modern TE (old ground) asnd how they differ from that central theme.

    TE=EC=BL is a convenient bracket for terms similar enough to critique together. You could view it to bracketing Warfield as a TE when, as I cite in Part 3, he disowns the term. And since Darwin hadn’t even adopted the (misleading) term evolution when Gray and Kingsley formed their views, calling them TEs is also anachronistic – but I think the best way of being understood.

    I happily accept the deviance of BioLogos from Catholic and Orthodox teaching (and their uncapitalised equivalents!) rather than just Evangelical – and that “Evangelical” has become so vague as to be problematic in itself. My point here was more restricted (a) in that my 3 historical examples are all in the historic Evangelical tradition, when that held its original meaning, not Catholic or Orthodox and (b) that BioLogos has a stated mission towardsmodern ” Evangelicals” more than the others. As you’ll see from my co-belligerance with guys like GD here, the congruence between all three traditions in this matter is remarkable, and is probably best expressed nowadays in terms of “classical theology” v “neotheism”, which leaves room for Evangelicals, Catholics and Orthodox to divide along substantial, rather than historical, lines.

    Hope that helps.

  3. Avatar photo penman says:

    The popularity of quasi-deistic open-theist type theologies among those promoting theistic evolution (or evolutionary creationism as I stubbornly prefer) is my major problem. The spectator style deity of this TEism is far from the God of biblical theism & catholic-patristic orthodoxy. Of course there is also a departure from historic evangelical views of providence; but then, a lot of evangelicalism per se has departed from its historic stance in that.

    Maybe I favour seeing modern style TEism as a rupture with a much more fundamental orthodoxy in its understanding of God as Creator. In orthodox theology, God intends the created universe to be what it is, rather than leaving things open & unplanned. This expunging of divine intentionality is what I find incompatible with a rudimentary orthodoxy regarding creation and providence.

    Give me back the biblical, catholic, orthodox view of God and His sovereignty, and I’m happy enough in principle to be a TE/EC. (As long as we keep Adam too.) Such was the older type of TEism – Warfield, McCosh, etc (within the Reformed world), Winchell (Methodism),Mivart (RCism). Today’s “neotheism” is a theological, not a scientific, cataclysm.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    It seems to me, penman, that the departure from classical sovereignty/providence produce only relatively minor problems until it confronted modern science, deep time, evolution and so on. At that point the epicycles start to multiply, which is why TE has been quicker to incorporate a whole raft of increasingly unfamiliar ideas into its theology even than evangelicals less interested in the origins question. And also why Creationism was, it seems, a necessary conclusion from the Fundamentalist variety of Arminianism.

    On that basis, the reported preference for YEC you report as current in Reformed circles is somewhat anomalous.

  5. Gregory says:

    Unfortunately, after 6 posts, there is not much substance to validate the title. Why specifically “A Design History…”, why not just “A History of Theistic Evolution”? It seems unnecessarily IDist-friendly to invoke ‘Design’, which might of course just mean ‘evangelicalist-friendly.’

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Nineteenth century TE: theologically orthodox, design central, in word and concept.
    Twentieth century TE: theologically heterodox, design denied, in word and concept.

    That’s the history, in a nutshell..

    • James says:

      Well put, Jon.

      It might be useful to reflect on the causes of the transformation of TE from orthodox to heterodox over about a 100-year period.

      I think that the most basic cause is that Western civilization generally moved very far from its older Christian orientation during that period. To be sure, it had already been moving subtly away from Christianity as early as Machiavelli and Bacon; but the pace accelerated during the Enlightenment, and even more in the 19th and 20th centuries.

      Since churches reflect the people in them, and people are shaped by civilizational changes, it is not surprising if the teachings of modern churches (if not in their official statements, certainly in their sermons, etc.) have moved away from traditional Christianity. In most non-fundamentalist modern churches — the mainstream large denominations, and even many of the evangelical churches — what is believed is a compromise between Christianity and modern secular humanism, with the compromise tilting more to one component or the other, depending on the particular denomination or even congregation.

      Thus, modern TE can be seen as one symptom of a broader cultural movement (which doesn’t mean it can’t also be a cause of the acceleration of that movement), rather than simply a position on evolution and Christianity.

      Not surprisingly, then, it’s not just on the question of evolution that modern TEs are heterodox. If you survey their beliefs on providence, omnipotence, theodicy, sin, the authority of the Bible, and a score of other questions, you generally find that the biggest boosters of TE are on the unorthodox side on several of those questions. For example, the inordinate emphasis on the “freedom” of God’s creation to evolve itself (without God butting in) corresponds to the emphasis on “freedom” in the liberalized version of Arminianism which many TEs subscribe to. There is a general dislike of the idea of a God who is sovereign over nature and history, and there is a general emphasis on individual freedom, creativity, and autonomy.

      In short, I think that TE, while certainly drawing support from “consensus biology,” i.e., neo-Darwinism, has deeper and broader historical causes. It tends to attract people who are inclined, for more general reasons, to be modern rather than traditional in their theology. It is not as if TEs would really like to uphold traditional systematic theologies (Calvinist, Lutheran, etc.) but feel compelled by scientific discovery to modify them; rather, they seem to welcome the scientific discoveries with relief, as they give an “objective” excuse for altering traditional theology in a direction they would like to alter it in any case. When one reads Murphy, Miller, Falk, Giberson, Venema and others, one can feel the itching for theological innovation. I would guess that this itch was not felt by 19th-century TEs.

  7. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    James, I believe you’re right: TE is just one example of a culture-wide trend. It happens to be the aspect that occupies my interest in the creation, and one that influences a constituency that also matters to me – Christians in natural science. But it embodies a broader trend within theology, it seems.

    I also think there’s a lot of truth in your assessment of why TE seems to concentrate this tendency so much. An additional factor may be that, coming mainly from a natural science perspective, many are impatient with the subtleties of classical theology, and hence one constantly sees the stark but false dichotomies of loving v coercive, natural v supernatural, personal v impassive, changeable v static and so on. It “stands to reason” that if there is evil in the world , God would be “immoral” to be involved in any way. And the only alternative to complete autonomy is slavery. Yes-no answers and efficient causes suit the scientifically-minded, maybe.

    I’d be most interested at this stage to understand more of the historical streams that have led to the prevalence of theistic personalism, which explains much, if not most, of this divergence from historic faith. A lot makes perfect sense from the “invention” of human autonomy around the Renaissance, Baconian science being one aspect. Personalism seems to be a late side-effect of that, “taming” God by painting him in our image.

    I’ve suspected another stream to be the univocity of Duns Scotus, but the humanists generally seem to have discarded most of the mediaeval philosophy out of hand. Yet Descartes seems to have been influenced by Scotus, and he has certainly been influential.

    Maybe the history matters less than the present reality. Understanding how something arose always helps though, as it helped me focus on the changed face of TE since Darwin’s time.

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