A Design History of Theistic Evolution (#4 of 6)

Modern theistic evolution

I want to major on three distinctives of modern theistic evolution, or evolutionary creation, that are in marked contrast to what was believed by the first generation of TEs.


[T]he Creator voluntarily chose to refrain from overpowering [nature] with coercive form-imposing interventions.[xi]

If God were a directive dictator rather than persuasive love, the universe could never arrive at the point of being able to emerge into freedom. If God were the engineering agency that ID and evolutionary materialism generally project on to the divine, evolution could not have occurred. The narrative grandeur that Darwin observed in life’s evolution would have given way to a monotonously perfect design devoid of an open future.[xii]

The world of Intelligent Design is not the bright and innovative world of life that we have come to know through science. Rather it is a brittle and unchanging landscape, frozen in form and unable to adapt except at the whims of its designer.[xiii]

The universe is not a divine puppet theatre in which everything dances to God’s tune alone. The Creator is not the Cosmic Tyrant whose unrelenting grip holds on tightly to all. Such an enslaved world could not be the creation of a loving God. Rather creation is allowed to be itself and make itself, realising the inbuilt potentiality with which the Creator has endowed it, but in its own time and in its own way. Creatures live at some epistemic and ontological distance from their Creator, as they enter into the liberty that God has given them.[xiv]

These quotations (my emphases throughout), forming a representative sample of currently influential theistic evolutionists, have one thing in common – the heavy use of rhetoric in their abhorrence for the very idea of God’s actually making, through direct or indirect means, the living forms we see today. It would be, they shout, a dictatorial abrogation of the universe’s freedom. This freedom, central to much TE thinking now, is actually rather difficult to pin down.

Before we go into detail, consider that the historical Christian and biblical teaching, embodied in the Nicene Creed, is that God (in Christ) is “maker of all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible”[xv] “by his will”[xvi], whether that creation is pictured as occurring by his word of command or by his handiwork. You will remember that all three of the examples I have given of early TEs made divine design and teleology the touchstone of the “theism” in their evolution. It’s odd that these intelligent believers (like their predecessors for more than two millennia) should have failed to spot what a despot they were worshipping. Or maybe instead it’s that something major has shifted in theology, in a surrealistic direction: it’s hard to take seriously, in this world of i-Phones and space travel (any more than in the Victorian age of mechanical and scientific ingenuity) the claim that “design” must really imply “brittle” or “unchanging.”

We should always be suspicious of rhetoric, because it blinds our critical faculties. One can paint a picture of the God who “lets go” as the epitome of self-giving fatherly love. Or one can make him, in the stroke of a pen, appear a monster:

“What kind of loving Father fails to participate in his beloved children’s lives by letting them bring themselves up without clear guidelines before packing them off to boarding school? Do not good parents give their sons piggy-backs, help them with their homework, write them illustrated stories in their own hand, make toys for them to play with and, in every way, get their hands dirty to express their love?”

Well, don’t they? Behind the polemics is a guiding – one might almost say coercive – insistence on liberating love as the sole root of all creation, a conception of divine character as simplistic as that Kingsley found alien to the Bible and nature. John Haught, for example says:

An infinite love, if we think about it seriously, would manifest itself in the creation of a universe free of any rigid determinism (either natural or divine) that would keep it from arriving at its own independence, autonomy and self-coherence.

Are we sure of that? There is not space to discuss this fully here, but “love-as-letting-go” is as foreign to the biblical concept of love as “autonomy” is to its concept of freedom. We worship a Trinity in which the Son and Father are of one will, in which Yahweh freed Israel to serve him in covenant relationship, in which God’s love to David’s line was to discipline them, and in which Christ suffered not to give us independence, but to bring us to God. Love for a child may involve forceful restraint. Love for art or science may require obsessional attention to detail. Love for farm livestock might even encompass slaughtering them to eat. The nature of love depends on its object and the circumstances.

And this leads to the internal incoherence of “the freedom of nature in evolution” idea. Those scholars who first proposed it were largely process theologians or panentheists, in which schemes even subatomic events exhibit mind and will. Evangelicals do not usually follow that panpsychic route, so in what way is “the universe” understood either to desire, or to enjoy, freedom? In evolution, who or what is acting freely? Not the living organisms, which have no choice about evolving, but only a struggle to survive the “tyranny” of random mutations and an indifferent malevolent selection. It rather sounds like those Soviet states in which “the proletariat” have freedom, but the actual workers are slaves… if you’ll pardon my own rhetoric.

Viewing things philosophically, freedom, to mean anything in the moral sense employed, must mean the enabling of some purpose (not merely contingency); and purpose implies entities sufficient to form purposes. Some kind of teleology in organisms is apparent, at very least, in their internal drive to survive and reproduce, without which evolution could not even begin and with which it interacts. Yet organisms do not will their own evolution (theistic evolutionists unaccountably ignore those versions of evolution which posit internal teleology). So the “free” agents of that purpose must lie somewhere “behind” the sentience of the organisms themselves, even though organisms alone could be imagined to appreciate it: a free battery hen is intelligible – a free peptide chain is not.

Going a few steps further, if any wisdom or beauty – even function – is attributed to living things singly or corporately, then what kind of teleology produced them? Perhaps blind efficient causes might stumble on such things – but how could they then be coherently attributed to any kind of “freedom”? The “freedom” of Scrabble letters to spell out “GODISLOVE” when scattered is trivial – even vaguely pathetic. The freedom of DNA to vary at random and sometimes survive is no more significant. The freedom of God to express his goodness creatively in endless forms is cause for worship. Why is this obvious and timeless truth then so denigrated by theistic evolutionists?

One more thing about God’s non-intervention as a theological priority. It renders problematic any proposals for mechanisms of “non-interventive objective divine action” such as those postulated by TEs like Polkinghorne and Russell. For if perfect love casts out holding on to creation, any such divine action must constitute some imperfection in God’s love. How much “NIODA” is permissible? Science and religion academic Graham Kerwin, commenting on Arthur Peacocke’s highly limited and indirect suggestion for divine influence, says:

I feel like his model still suffers under the image of a kind of puppet master, who insists on pulling the strings just out of sight, coordinating the course of events toward certain teleological ends.

If teleology is intrinsically bad, then it must be fully rejected, surely? And this must apply to any active involvement of God in human history, or in answering prayer, as well. For if it is “coercive” for God to play a direct creative part in humble Rotifer’s wheel, how much more for him to demonstrate to autonomous Nebuchadnezzar that he appoints whoever he wishes over nations? Or to induce a secret policeman not to notice the praying pastor escaping over the border?

The influential Howard Van Till reassures Christians that his Robust Informational Economy Principle, (nature contains all needful things for the formation of the earth without divine “tinkering”), does not preclude “the possibility that God is able and, on occasion, willing to perform supernatural miracles”. This, of course, seems to endorse the BioLogos position that “[i]n both natural and supernatural ways, God continues to be directly involved in creation and in human history.” Yet his own conclusion is this:

If supernatural action was unnecessary for something as astounding as the formational history of the entire Universe, then why hold to the need, or even to the possibility, for occasional episodes of coercive supernatural action in any other arena? (my italics).

This, I agree, is the only logical conclusion from a free-creation position. How can the latter then accord with any typical evangelical experience of faith?

[xi] Howard Van Till.

[xii] John Haught.

[xiii] Ken Miller.

[xiv] John Polkinghorne.

[xv] Colossians 1.16.

[xvi] Revelation 4.11

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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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2 Responses to A Design History of Theistic Evolution (#4 of 6)

  1. seenoevo says:

    This is my first post here.
    I liked this line of yours:
    “For if perfect love casts out holding on to creation, any such divine action must constitute some imperfection in God’s love.”

    I think, though, that some might quibble with the “perfect” here. They might argue that God is not displaying his “perfection” or his “perfect” love in creation. However, they could not argue, or at least a Christian couldn’t, that He is not at least displaying “goodness” in creation. That is, they must say that creation displays God’s goodness (if not His perfection). I also think a Christian must say that miracles are real and that they do display God’s perfection.

    Allow me to expand on this with what I think may be 7 unassailable Propositions:

    Proposition 1:
    One of the requirements for a person to be considered a Christian, is that the person consider the Bible as the word of God, notwithstanding acknowledgement of differing interpretations of the meaning of various Biblical passages and books.

    Proposition 2:
    Consequently, a Christian should acknowledge that Genesis 1 means, at a minimum, that “creation” (i.e. nature, including man) is good or very good, for “good” is noted 7 times in Genesis 1. Unequivocally and unambiguously “good”, by any rational, sane standard.

    Proposition 3:
    A Christian must consider “creation” (i.e. nature and the natural order) to be “good” regardless of the true “creative method”, of which I can think of only 4 possibilities:
    1) Immediate creation (i.e. the Genesis 1 account; God created everything about 6,000 years ago.).
    2) Divinely-directed evolutionary creation (i.e. God directly forced each and every mutation or genetic change required to form all living things from a single life form or universal common ancestor.).
    3) Divinely-planned evolutionary creation ( i.e. God indirectly “forced” each and every mutation by preloading or planning the DNA of the initial life form such that it would have to mutate into all the various living things, culminating in man.).
    4) Undirected and unplanned evolutionary creation (i.e. God has no influence on the outcomes, but being omniscient, knows what they’ll be.). We might also call this “natural creation”. We might also say that, even in this case, all results of the process must be equally good, in the eyes of a Christian.

    In cases 2 & 3, the evolution would appear to a scientist’s eye to be “natural” and “unguided”, but in truth, it would not be. Appearances would in fact be deceiving.

    In case 4, the evolution would be truly “natural” and “unguided”, both in appearance and in ultimate truth. Man must still be “very good”, but just a very good accident. Sort of a serendipity for God.

    Proposition 4:
    If a person does not believe in the supernatural phenomena called miracles, foremost of which, for any Christian, is the physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ, that person cannot consider himself a Christian. (cf. 1 Corinthians 15: 13-19.)

    Proposition 5:
    Consequent to all of the above, a Christian must consider miracles to be real and to be supergood and superverygood (i.e. “perfect”; a more pure reflection of the perfection of God than His nature can reflect.). (Certainly, any “alternative” to this couldn’t be a real alternative, i.e. miracles are mediocre, or bad.)

    Proposition 6:
    Consequently, any Christian must see the meaning of creation, and specifically the meaning of human existence, as a progression to perfection – going from good to very good to perfect. (Consider Matthew 5:48 “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”) But perfection does not allow for variance. Something is either perfect or it is not. You can’t be partly perfect, just as you can’t be partly pregnant. In a certain sense, then, perfection does not allow for freedom, or specifically, does not allow the freedom to do whatever you want. Perfection has only one perfect way. The true definition, or at least I think the traditional Christian definition, of “freedom” is the power to do the true good. Not doing what you want, necessarily, but doing what’s right, right in God’s eyes.

    Proposition 7:
    Consequently, the “natural man” is not meant for “freedom”, the “freedom” of doing whatever you want or what you think is right. Man is given the freedom (free will) to do what God (the only perfect one) wants or what God thinks is right. Man’s freedom is superceded by, or at least directed toward, perfection. In a sense, then, the right path of human life is ever more “restrictive”, the exact opposite of the “freedom” flaunted by many so-called “Christians”.

    “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” [Mat 7:13-14]

    “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” [Luke 13:24]

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Welcome to the Hump, and for your considered propositions. I think you’ve seen what I’m trying to say. I’ll reply point by point, if I may – though briefly, as one ends up conversing in chapters otherwise. Your numbering helps!

      My “perfect love” was picking up on the John Haught “infinite love” quote, but your point is good (especially as, if I’m correct, you’re a Creationist): many YECs say God’s goodness=perfection, creation is not perfect, ergo fallen through sin. You point out the same error of absolutism in (some) TE thinking: God must love infinitely, ergo creation must be left entirely alone. But as you say, “good” means primarily fit for whatever good purpose God intends it; and Genesis implies a capacity and intention for further perfection in nature.

      1: I’d probably cautiously say, like Whitefield on Arminianism, that whilst conceivable, the absence of such consideration is a very bad sign! Varying interpretations aside, the thing gets very messy when people start to consider Scripture the word of men containing – somehow, somewhere (but not where they disagree) the word of God.


      3: Covers the ground. I’d quibble on the use of “force” in 2 & 3, though I know why you use it. It plays too easily into whole the error I’m addressing that for God to bring something to existence is to apply external coercion, whereas it’s actually loving creation (“enabling”, maybe, in a strong sense). Point (4) is the equivalent of making God’s will vague and ineffectual – the essential problem with “free creation”. Scientifically it’s under-determined (there are inadequate means of design in God’s absence), philosophically it leaves events without a final cause, theologically it makes God a mere suggester, not a Creator. This post refers: http://potiphar.jongarvey.co.uk/2012/04/08/more-on-howard-van-till-billy-bean-and-jolly-gene/


      5: Not totally agreed on logic here: miracles can be a different “kind” of good, rather than a “better” good. Primarily (scripturally) they have to do mainly with signs of God’s activity in salvation history. The “supernatural”/”natural” divide is one I dislike, as it is an Enlightenment category rather than a biblical one, suggesting events are divided between “God did it”/”God didn’t do it”. In classical theism, God is actively involved in all events, so that, eg, a specific answer to prayer (“I got the job against the odds!”) needn’t be a supernatural miracle, though it is a direct act of God’s providence.

      6: I agree with conclusion here – again, not necessarily always the reasoning. I’d view it thus: God’s final will for the universe is perfection, which I venture is all things being in perfect harmony and accord with God: and it’s the very goal he set at the beginning (Eph 1.10). Creation starts in a “partly organised” state, its goodness being partly in the very fact that God can be seen to make the good better (and that includes, ultimately, his turning of all evils and sins to good). We’re agreed that where “freedom” is appropriately used, it has to do with doing right, not being independent. An additional nuance is that freedom, for rational beings, is when what we want and what God wants agree: again I see what you mean by saying “not what we want” – but the key category here is autonomy, ie doing what is right in our eyes rather than God’s. One more point on that: I believe Genesis teaches that man’s role as “vice-regent” was to have an active part under God in turning a good creation, including himself, into perfection (“rule and subdue”). The fall, at one level, damaged that plan – at a higher level, it enabled God to do an even greater good, through his secret master plan in Christ, for the cosmos, mankind itself, and his own glory.

      7: Agree. Our confomity to God’s one perfect will is, in that sense, restrictive. Lest, once more, one encourage that “puppet-master” mentality I’m attacking, I would add that man, moving towards his perfection, acquires infinite choices amongst God’s “goods” – even in this universe, one could never exhaust reasons to praise God and ways to serve him. When we see him as he is, we’ll be totally lost for what to adore next.

      So the entrance is very narrow – but the freedom gained is as infinite as God is. And so one can dimly see how defective all that “puppet-master” talk actually is in reality. Coming full circle, I’d say that such mistakes would be unlikely if “Scripture as God’s word” were followed through – but maybe I’m biased by the fact that the most noticeable work of the Holy Spirit in my own life was to show me Scripture as Christ speaking.

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