The Dispute Is Not Primarily over the Text, but over Naturalism

Over on BioLogos, in the context of discussing the Ham-Nye debate, several people have resumed a much earlier BioLogos discussion about the Resurrection, in which it was argued (apparently under the inspiration of N. T. Wright) that the Gospel reports concerning the women at the tomb of Jesus provide proof, or at least very strong evidence, for a physical resurrection. I don’t wish to take up the specific argument, but I do wish to point out the general form of the argument, and show why all arguments of this form will be of no avail until a greater problem – naturalism – is dealt with.

The argument – that the episode of the women being the first to find the empty tomb wouldn’t be in there unless there really had been a physical resurrection (as opposed to, say, a stolen body) – is just one out of scores of argument of the general form: “The Gospel writers would never have written up the story in the specific way that they did if the event didn’t really happen.” I don’t find such arguments convincing, and don’t think they are the best way of defending the truth of the Bible. But even if such arguments can be strong, they don’t get to the theoretical heart of the debate. The heart of the debate is captured by Scott Jorgenson’s comment (February 7th, Comment #84457):

“… the only reason we are quibbling over that [i.e., over the evidentiary significance of the story about the women at the tomb] is because of the nature of the event in question. Bodily resurrections simply don’t happen and thus couldn’t have happened in this case either, and so any alternative explanation with even a modicum of plausibility is to be preferred – so goes the argument….”

I would agree with this, but would extend the principle to all individual arguments for the historicity of the Resurrection of the general type I’ve indicated. There is a general reluctance, among most modern people, to accept any historical argument for the Resurrection – and for exactly the reason that Jorgenson highlights. And I think it’s more profitable to focus on that, than to add to the lengthy wrangling about women and witnesses and stolen bodies and so on.

Since the Enlightenment, there has been a general disinclination among educated people – not just secular humanists, but mainline-church Christians, and increasingly even evangelical Christians – to accept miracles, in the sense of disruptions of the ordinary patterns of nature. There is a bias in favor of purely natural causation, not merely to explain everyday natural events, but to explain the origins of things – galaxies, solar systems, habitable planets, life, species, man.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I am not saying that it is wrong to consider purely natural possibilities for the origins of things. Nor am I denying that God might have chosen to create everything purely through “secondary causes” rather than through direct divine action; God is sovereign and can create indirectly rather than directly if it pleases him. What I am saying is that there is an active bias in favor of purely natural explanations for origins, a bias that operates even in cases where purely natural explanations are at the moment nonexistent, weak, vague, or implausible.

We don’t see this bias in the early phases of modern natural science. People like Boyle and Galileo were quite happy to believe that nature operated by regular laws, without need for special divine action (to make the sun rise on November 23, for example, or to make the flower turn toward the sun after it rose); yet they took it for granted that special divine action was involved in setting up the solar system and the order of nature generally, and in the origin of life and of at least the basic living forms. But from about the 18th century onward, there was an increasing desire among “natural philosophers” to explain origins without reference to special divine action (as opposed to the general divine action by which all natural activity was sustained). So, just as Boyle had ceased to believe that any angelic power or pagan deity pushed Mercury around in its orbit, Kant ceased to believe that the solar system’s formation required any special divine action, Darwin ceased to believe that the origin of species or man required any special divine action, and Oparin ceased to believe that the origin of life itself required any special divine action.

It is important to note that the desire to find only natural causes for origins has usually predated any really good evidence for such natural causes.

Take Darwin, for example. Darwin had no knowledge of the inside of a cell. He did not understand metabolism, genes, DNA, etc. He had only the vaguest of explanations for how evolution could work. For him, variation occurred somehow, and then natural selection took over to slowly sculpt variants into genuinely new species, and eventually into new classes, phyla, etc. And when asked to specify how natural selection could build complex organs from scratch, he stammered and improvised, offering only weak and sketchy arguments, e.g., the lung might somehow have arisen from a primitive swimming bladder. And as a private letter shows, his argument for the origin of the camera eye did not fully convince even himself. Yet he maintained that such things must have happened. Why? Because if they didn’t, then God must have performed at least some special divine actions in order to keep evolution on track to produce the complex organ or system in question. And Darwin would accept no such explanation. God could be vaguely in the background, as somehow behind the general order of nature, but he was to keep his hands off the actual generation of new species. Nature alone was to handle that. But how nature could handle that, Darwin had no clue, nor did anyone who supported Darwin at the time; that had to wait until Mendel, Crick, Watson, etc. came along. (And even then, the explanation is far from satisfactory, but that’s a subject for another column.)

Now if this tendency to run ahead of evidence were found only among atheists, it would not be surprising. After all, the committed atheist has to find a naturalistic explanation for origins, and will thus regard even a sketchy causal account, lacking in much empirical support, as intrinsically more plausible than any account which infers intelligent agency. But since the Enlightenment an increasing number of Christians have started to think about origins in terms of purely natural causes, and in the past 30 years, an increasing number of evangelical Christians have come on board. That is what is truly remarkable.

The great majority of TE leaders argue strongly in favor of purely natural explanations of origins. Of course, TEs rarely deny that God could have been directly involved in creation; they say it’s the scientific evidence that induces them to believe that God works only through secondary causes. But that doesn’t ring true, when one reads many of their writings. Statements by Falk, Venema, Ken Miller and others reveal a clear metaphysical or theological bias in favor of naturalistic accounts; empirical evidence on the other side (i.e., evidence that suggests the active input of biological information by intelligence, rather than the generation of massive amounts of such information by chance) is attacked by the TEs with great zeal.

We saw this in the case of Stephen Meyer’s first book, Signature in the Cell. The President of BioLogos, Darrel Falk, led a major attack upon the book’s arguments and conclusions, aided and abetted by Dennis Venema and Francisco Ayala. All of these biologists knew that Meyer was right in his claim (documented extensively in the book) that origin-of-life science thus far was almost a complete failure, but because they did not want to accept his conclusion (i.e., that origin-of-life science is barking up the wrong tree because life did not happen accidentally), they dug in their heels and fought tooth and nail against it. Now Ayala was at the time no longer Christian or even theistic, and one can understand his motivation; but how can one understand the motivation of Venema or Falk?

The motivation of Venema and Falk is what one might call “theological naturalism” – a strong belief that God would choose to work only through secondary causes. And this belief is so strong in most of the leading TEs that they will discount even strong arguments to the contrary – exactly as (according to Scott Jorgenson, Ted Davis, N.T. Wright, etc.) atheists discount strong arguments from the Biblical text that the resurrection actually occurred.

Jorgenson rightly points out that prejudice governs how atheists react to arguments for the Resurrection. What he does not see is that prejudice also governs how many TEs react to presentations of scientific evidence for design in nature. TEs want to believe that there can be no scientific (as opposed to fideistic, eye-of-faith) grounds for concluding that there is design in nature. And what they want to believe makes them often unfair to ID arguments.

When naturalism – whether of the atheistic kind (Dawkins, Coyne, etc.) or of the theistic kind (Falk, Venema, etc.) – becomes an unquestionable axiom, it brings prejudice with it. I would invite modern Christians to question their often-unthinking preference for naturalism, especially when it comes to questions of origins. I don’t say they should automatically reject naturalistic explanations; I say they should have a healthy skepticism about them. They should be as least as suspicious of “naturalism of the gaps” as of “God of the gaps.” There is no reason why a Christian (as opposed to an atheist) should have a preference for naturalistic accounts of origins.

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About Edward Robinson

Edward Robinson (Eddie) started his university career on a science scholarship, but ended up as a philosopher/theologian researching the relationship between religion and natural science. He has published several books and articles on religion/science topics in both mainstream academic outlets and denominational and popular periodicals. He has also taught courses in various departments in several universities.
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27 Responses to The Dispute Is Not Primarily over the Text, but over Naturalism

  1. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Welcome to The Hump Eddie, and thanks for this post. Good to have you aboard.

    In disdaining an supernatural element in nature, the argument usually seems to take the form of that Leibniz used against Newton – that a competent God would be able to set up a Universe that worked first time, without nudging.

    That’s pure rhetoric, of course – Leibniz was rapidly moving towards the deist God, who is not transcendent enoiugh to be intimately involved (or bothered) with his creation.

    That apart, it’s a ridiculous argument given that a Universe of secondary causes and divine action was quite good enough not only for all generations of Christians before Deism (such as Aquinas), but the Bible writers themselves accepted genuine secondary causation together with divine providence (human accountability under God’s sovereignty over events, and Jesus’s rebuking of the storm, being just two examples).

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

      Thanks for your welcoming words, Jon, and more generally for involving me in your project. I’ll try to be useful.

      I find it strange that people argue that only an “incompetent” God would be continually involved with the universe. Does it never occur to them that God might be involved with the universe, not because he is too stupid or clumsy to get creation right the first time, but because he enjoys the creative interaction?

      • Hanan says:


        You ol’ wipper snapper is that you? 😀

        • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

          Thanks, I think. I’ll take “whippersnapper” as a compliment in this context. 🙂

          Good to hear from you again, Hanan. I hope that I can live up to my “promotion” from BioLogos commenter to Hump author, and I hope that this site overall will have something valuable to offer you. I look forward to your comments.

  2. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Hi, Eddie. Thanks for this article; I personally find it challenging because while I agree with your main point, I still have those very proclivities you criticize which make me a natural “devil’s advocate” here in a conversation between Christians. I know we already have Lou to bring much of this up, but your article is absolutely correct to point out that this is increasingly in issue among Christians and so it is appropriate to address it within that context. (Not to shut you out, Lou — but I imagine I’ll be saying some things much along the line of what you would bring up anyway; and for my part you are welcome to chime in if you see deficiencies in what I’ve said; but I am speaking as a Christian to a Christian here and not as one with any obligation to make my argument palatable to hard-core philosophical naturalists.) In short, this discussion assumes a Biblical textual authority. But Eddie can direct the conversation as he likes, it being his column and all.

    Eddie, one man’s “prejudice” may well be another’s “educated intuitions”. I find a phrase in your final paragraph particularly intriguing. You contrast a “naturalism-of-the-gaps” with a “god-of-the-gaps” in a kind of symmetry. And yet it would appear that this is an asymmetrical situation. There is at least apparent shrinkage on the “god” side of that, and (I would say) undisputed growth in the naturalism side of the equation. In fact the very metaphor was probably birthed as an observation of this asymmetry.

    I understand well, and agree with you how fallacious it is to front-load naturalistic prejudice into all thought and discourse, but surely we can understand the origins of skepticism even in Christian quarters that appears so often allied with hard-core atheistic agendas. Since we live in the same world and observe the same kinds of things repeatedly, it becomes an inductive matter that we are prejudiced (at least initially) against the extraordinary. The Bible is full of skeptics, including the apostles themselves, who have to see for themselves because they too were men and women who had an idea of how the world normally works, and this new piece of news breaking into their world was an outlier to their normal expectations. In some cases they are chastised for their lack of faith, but in other situations they are accommodated or even gently answered … (The angel explaining to Mary how it will be, after she inquires how she could possibly be with Child.) So is it so bad that we are prejudiced towards the ordinary, and skeptical towards new extraordinary claims? Extraordinary events need extraordinary evidence as folks like Lou are fond of saying … and their is a daily truth to that which most of us honor, even if we refuse to follow that same mantra all the way to complete and automatic prejudice in matters of historical or biblical interpretation.

    So I guess my question is, what room (if any) is there in Christian theology for continued daily skepticism in the same vein as was shown by so many original disciples who themselves did not believe the women or each other until they had seen for themselves? Are we now theologically more privileged than they were that we should be without excuse?

    I think you are correct to call out theistic evolutionists who automatically reject any possibility of Divine guidance or design inferences just out of a religious naturalistic prejudice. But given how many things have been explained in apparently naturalistic terms to the satisfaction of most, does that not at least count as warrant for initial skepticism on such claims even while maintaining open-mindedness? We all have these prejudices already, and while they often lead us astray, it is not for nothing that we have them. Miracles, signs, and wonders can only be considered such because of their stark relief standing out from our daily prejudice, after all. Complete gullibility and credulity may not be so much “great faith” as perhaps a formula to rob us of surprise and delight.


    “Education is a method whereby one acquires a higher grade of prejudices.”
    –Laurence J. Peter
    (This was probably a knock at ‘education’, but I wonder if we couldn’t consider it a limited defense of at least some prejudice.)

    • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

      I wrote above:

      Extraordinary events need extraordinary evidence as folks like Lou are fond of saying … and their [should have been “there”] is a daily truth to that which most of us honor, even if we refuse to follow that same mantra all the way to complete and automatic prejudice in matters of historical or biblical interpretation.

      It’s becoming a tradition that in each post my fingers must mis-choose at least one “there / their” combination. You are welcome to look with amusement at my grammar fetish. Look on and laugh. But what I so easily overlook in what others write, is a “crooked picture on the wall” to me in my own posts. Did medieval scribes have “parchment-out” for their boo-boos?

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


        You’ll be pleased to know there are plenty of ancient manuscripts with scratchings out and errata in the margins. And that’s with an abbot looking over their shoulder to prevent typos!

    • Avatar photo GD says:

      Merv, for what its worth, I subscribe to a very sceptical approach – I add however, this means to me at least, that we examine everything in the hope that we will eventually arrive at what is true regarding our question(s). It is the hope that we will arrive at what is true that underpins such an outlook. However I have come to realise that scientists are more likely to adopt a sceptical approach than perhaps the general populace.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Good points. I’d like to defuse the “extraordinary” a little. Though there are plenty of reports of miracles in the actual world (look for an interesting academic study by Craig Keener), there are degrees of credibility within the Church ranging from Charismatics seeing them everywhere to frank cessationists.

      But most mainstream Christians accept the “softer” providences of answered prayer, divine guidance – and of course saving grace. To say “Thankyou, Lord” for getting a job is not to talk of miracle, but neither is it to think in terms of verbally sanctifying the purely mundane (as the old liberals taught).

      So I think Eddie’s piece is more about God’s ongoing interaction with the world than about miracles – especially in the business of creation, which is in biblical terms quintessentially his own, personal, work. If it helps the distinction, Aquinas restricted “creation” to that which comes ex nihilo, but he also conceived of many divine actions outside the course of nature using existing matter, which I believe he called (technically) “changes”. In his thinking, such action would be logically essential for a natural “substance” to change its nature.

      The failure of TEs to consider this class of events tends them towards the Deistic determinism of cosmic and/or biological front-loading. But given the impossibility of detailed determinism, in the non-laplacian universe we now recognise, they then opt for a non-biblical God who prefers to make no detailed determinations.

      The question looks significantly different if one poses the question not in terms of “Is this event natural or miraculous” but in terms of “Did God work this through secondary causes or not?” If secondary causation is more common, then that may well be the default position – but skepticism doesn’t come into it, then, any more than it would in deciding if your friend sent you a letter by post or dropped in in the box by hand: it’s just a matter of discernment between valid alternatives.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


        In a related way, it’s educational to look at Newton’s introduction to Principia, the General Scholium.

        There’s some coded anti-Trinitarianism in there, and an interesting aside on the inadmissability of conjecture in science, but otherwise it’s a clear denial by one of the greatest scientists of the dichotomy between natural and supernatural.

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

      Hello, Merv. Finally I’m keeping my promise to get back to you.

      I think that a “naturalistic prejudice” is, for ordinary events, well, natural. We tend to assume that things normally follow regular courses, and the people in Biblical times did as well. To be sure, the Biblical writers did not (except in a few New Testament writings) display a conception of “nature” as the Greeks understood it, but they certainly understood that things had typical “ways” and were surprised when they departed from those ways. The difference between Biblical readers and us is that we have formalized the looser conception of “ways” into “natural laws” or “laws of nature” or the like. But otherwise, I think that ancient and modern people are much the same: confronted with the claim of an unusual event, such as a virgin bearing a child, or someone rising from the dead, both ancients and moderns have tended to be skeptical, wanting firm demonstration of such things. Nobody easily believes that the sun sometimes changes its course in the sky, that death can be reversed, that lepers can be cured instantaneously, with a mere word, etc. They all demand to see it with their own eyes. Thus, the doubting Thomas etc.

      So I’m taking for granted that the desire for “naturalistic” explanations for most events is reasonable, and in most cases harmless. The question is how far this desire remains reasonable and harmless when it comes to explaining origins of new kinds of things.

      We observe all kinds of combinations of existing things . We also observe regular changes of living things within their natures , e.g., the growth and maturity of a plant or animal, the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly. What we don’t observe, but can only infer, or take on faith, is the origin of new types of natural things . We don’t observe, and can’t observe, the condensation of a hydrogen gas cloud into a star; we don’t observe stars exploding and scattering heavy elements; we don’t observe planets forming out of those heavy elements; we don’t observe the formation of solar systems; we don’t observe the origin of life, or even the origin of the major molecules necessary for life; we don’t observe macroevolution, or even anything but the most trivial microevolution; we don’t observe the origin of man. Our “origins science” is all necessarily inferential. That doesn’t make it bad science, or wrong, but it should warn us to be careful.

      Essentially, the view that we have been sold as modern people is that “molecules to man” is not only a completely credible process, but has been largely verified, and that all we have to do is tidy up a few loose ends in our understanding, and the history of the universe from the Big Bang to Man will be a done deal. In fact, even the credibility of the process is not certain for all stages (from hydrogen clouds to stars is, for example, more intrinsically credible than from blind collisions of simple molecules to life), and the mechanisms at virtually every stage are largely unknown or imperfectly known; no one can say for certain that natural processes, unguided and unassisted, could have accomplished the whole molecules-to-man transformation.

      This is why I speak of “naturalism of the gaps”; I think that there are a vast number of gaps in explanation regarding origins that can be filled in only with “unknown natural causes.” But when it comes to origins, as opposed to repeating natural phenomena that we can observe, I think — for the reasons set forth above — that an appeal to “unknown natural causes” is frequently as speculative as an appeal to the direct action of God.

      An example of what I meant by “naturalism of the gaps” would be the very common statement in textbooks and works of popular science: “We don’t yet know how life arose from non-life.” This always means: “We know that life arose from non-life without any intelligent input and by purely mechanical processes; we just don’t yet know which processes.” Whereas some Christians just assume that God is needed to jump from life to non-life, the scientist of naturalistic inclinations just assumes that God is not needed. “Unknown natural processes” becomes the substitute for “God”; my position is that neither one of them has any right to be taken for granted.

      In fact, even if macroevolution could be fully explained by Darwinian processes, it still would be illegitimate to assume that the origin of life was wholly natural; for Darwinian evolution might conceivably be adequate without the massive input of new information from outside, given the system of heritable variation which belongs to life, but the change from non-life to life is not a change of a Darwinian sort; it’s a completely different kind of transformation, a completely different kind of novelty.

      Of course, all of this is merely logical and metaphysical argument. From a Christian point of view, it seems to me that one ought to consider some additional things. One of those is the way that God’s activity is described in the Bible. He appears to be “Lord of nature and history” — though of course “nature” and “history” are anachronistic terms. The point is that God’s hand is seen in both human and non-human events, and that this interaction between God and the world is seen as constant, not some occasional disruption of a miracle into a fundamentally Deistic universe. God is a hands-on God; he’s involved with his creation, not distant or aloof from it. Jon Garvey has brought this out very well in numerous posts.

      So it isn’t as though God has a preference not to employ special divine action, but occasionally, when an absolute need for such action arises, e.g., the Red Sea, or the Resurrection, he grudgingly performs it, and all the rest of the time sits back and delegates causation to blind natural forces. That is not a Biblical way of thinking. Yet TEs claim to be Biblical (and evangelical, which surely ought to involve a fair dose of “Biblical”) in their way of looking at life, at nature, at science, etc. Their reticence to take seriously the activist, engaged aspect of the Biblical God, especially when it comes to origins (where God is depicted as very active, not only in Genesis but in Job, the Psalms, etc.) is therefore puzzling.

      Indeed, I suspect that they do not mean the same thing that I mean by the word “Biblical.” By “Biblical faith” I don’t mean merely “Jesus is our Savior, and we should remember that gratefully while we do natural science as if God were a Deistic God.” By “Biblical faith” I mean the faith that is found not only in the Gospels or in Paul, but in the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, and which has implications not only for “spiritual” matters such as “being saved” but for every aspect of life, including how we think about nature, the origin of the universe, etc.

      I think that modern Christians, by a kind of unconscious adjustment (of which I have been guilty for large parts of my life, and still am guilty of unless I make a conscious effort to fight it), have come to think of “Biblical” in a watered-down way; they mean Enlightenment and later science, and Enlightenment and later social and political assumptions, supplemented by some selected Christian beliefs regarding ethics, the afterlife, prayer, etc. I think, on the other hand, that a truly Biblical world view would be quite difficult for most modern Christians to accept. At least, most modern Christians of the wealthy developed world. I’m told that Christianity in Africa, for example, is often quite different. In Africa, the ancient belief that the world is inhabited by spiritual powers (much as the New Testament world is populated by demons) is still very much alive, and African Christians read many Biblical passages quite differently from the way that someone like Boyle or Kant or Polkinghorne would read them. And by that I do not mean that African Christianity is inferior because it is still half-pagan. I mean the opposite. I mean that African Christianity is still attuned to a living, dynamic, activist conception of divine action that we in the wealthy West have lost, due to centuries of philosophical activity between about 1600 and the present, but which was the original Biblical conception. We prefer a God who is more like a “constitutional monarch” who delegates all practical authority to a Prime Minister; the African Christian prefers a God who is more like a Richard the Lion-Heart, who leads his troops into battle. I think that this cultural change in Western Christianity goes a long way toward explaining why TE leaders have a bias toward “naturalism of the gaps” when it comes to origins questions.

  3. Lou Jost says:

    Eddie, glad to meet you again here! And Merv, I’m just going to sit this one out for now and see where it leads….

  4. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Jon wrote: “I think Eddie’s piece is more about God’s ongoing interaction with the world than about miracles – especially in the business of creation, which is in biblical terms quintessentially his own, personal, work. If it helps the distinction, Aquinas restricted “creation” to that which comes ex nihilo, but he also conceived of many divine actions outside the course of nature using existing matter, “…

    I am suspicious (along with Newton I guess!) of distinctions between natural and supernatural too, thinking that the division is a convenience we impose and use from our ignorance. But as such, I still don’t see how one can draw much of a meaningful line between God’s special creation versus His more ordinary providence. We may agree with Aquinas that original creation did involve ex nihilo, but surely Aquinas would agree with us that we now are no less created by God — knit together in our mother’s womb as the Psalmist declares. The latter is not taken as an ex nihilo creation, but is God’s work nonetheless.

    But whether God works in a mediated way (often equated with providence) or in a special way (often equated with the ‘extraordinary’ or miraculous) –either way God’s involvement is opaque to scientific discernment, except that in the latter case science might help us to see an extraordinary event (window for ID here?). But we could not distinguish it from any other as-yet-unexplained event that simply awaits deeper scientific knowledge (TE slamming shut the ID window?). We certainly couldn’t delve into the “who” of deity which, by definition in the case of God, cannot be some predictable law or set of laws to be studied and become fully known in that way.

    But as thinkers or skeptics how or why should be attempt to differentiate between the “softer” providence and the more flashy miraculous? We here are agreed in any case that it is all God’s work; so for us the question is: what warrant do we have for maintaining our prejudice towards the ordinary, or inversely –what warrant do we have for abolishing all such prejudice? In its extreme form the latter reeks of an undesirable scientific credulity which I gather would be a misunderstanding or over-extension of Eddie’s case.

    I have to go now –may pick up any loose ends to my ramble here later.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      If one’s following Aquinas (and other classical metaphysicians) one needs somewhat tighter ctaegories than those you describe. To him, the generation of a baby is quite clearly a case of secondary causation, by the powers endowed at the original creation. He’d just add that God, being the prime mover of all acts, is co-operating with those powers to render them effective. Thus praise goes to God for new life, but it’s fully amenable to science (leaving aside his view that each eternal soul is individually created).

      What I called “change” is of a different order – a created nature (eg the human species) cannot change itself (unless that power, and the new nature are built-in, as a larva contains the adult form). So to him, direct divine action would be needed to mould the material in a new way (an annelid becoming a myriapod, say).

      For that to happen naturalistically, as in Darwinian evolution, one would have to invent a new category of secondary causation that is genuinely self-creating (ie it changes its own form autonomous of God). And one problem with that is that there can be no such thing as a created form at all – ie there is no category called “human” as a “universal”, but only a continuum of similar individuals arbitrarily called “humans”.

      This is the old philosophical problem of “nominalism” v “realism”. If there is no universal, created, human nature, then it is impossible (as a major example) for God to redeem mankind by becoming man: there is no category “man”, but only “a man”. Not only can Christ not represent the race (what race?), but there can be no universal human category of “sin” to represent. Morality, in best materialist manner, is purely individual.

      The issue, then, is a lot bigger than scientific preferences.

  5. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Jon, you later wrote: “The failure of TEs to consider this class of events tends them towards the Deistic determinism of cosmic and/or biological front-loading. ”

    Whether they “fail to consider” or “refuse to consider” or are “reluctant to consider” is indeed … the question to consider here. I think the answer to how much warrant we are willing to assign to our prejudices in this matter may shed light on this reluctance/refusal. I’m not so sure I would go so far as to stand behind the word “failure”. And for that matter, while we may accuse many contemporary TEs of Deistic tendencies, would any accept that label of themselves? And if not, how would they defend themselves against the charge?

    I can answer that for myself, but a more general answer may be worth pursuing.

    Eddie? I do hope you have time to engage here. I only picked up my end of the rope for some playful tugging counting on you being at the other end.

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

      Hi, Merv. I saw your initial thoughtful reply, and I see this reminder here. I fully intend to reply to you, but I want to write a worthy reply, and I’ve got other things going, so give me another day or two to compose it.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      From my discussions on BioLogos over a few years, during which R J Russell’s claim that most contemporary theistic evolution is “statistical deism” has frequently been raised, the universal defence has been – silence.

      On one or two occasions, as I remember, “Deism” has been disowned because it is considered a “bad” word. But as to why a “Nature” autonomously creating itself, and surprising/disappointing/pleasing God does not amount to Deism I’ve not heard any arguments.

  6. Lou Jost says:

    I have been spending too much time on other threads here and on BioLogos (GD, I am sure you agree!), But I’d like to throw something out here, even if I don’t have time to defend it. I think the relevant assumption is not exactly “naturalism” but rather more like the assumption of induction, or of uniformitarianism. It is not that we look preferentially for explanations involving natural causes, but rather that we look preferentially for explanations in terms of causes we see working around us today. If we lived in a world where there was unmistakable evidence of a god’s active interventions, scientists would not hesitate to accept such explanations for some past things, and they would be less skeptical of the resurrection.

  7. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    So much blog and so little time! — I hear you, Lou. (One of my favorite lines I saw some time ago was the following quote: “I can’t come to bed yet, honey; somebody on the internet is wrong!”)

    Regarding uniformitarianism –I think that is an interesting way to restate the problem. It could still get preempted, though, by “naturalism” in that somebody can still hold that the naturalist has already decided a-priori that God is not to be seen working anywhere around us today, whereas some Charismatics (as Jon has pointed out) are prone to see miracles everywhere. So it would seem that naturalism had already made a first cut before uniformitarianism was invoked. I think the uniformitarianism does carry some force if one limits themselves to the “signs and wonders” category of miracles (I probably need some more study of Aquinas to fully appreciate the finer distinctions in these rough categories as Jon points out.) If somebody is a cessationist with regard to those –then that does seem to be adherence to a uniformitarianism. But even there, naturalism may still have a preliminary function before the uniformitarianism can be fully embraced in that direction.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Thanks for your reply. To tease apart naturalism and uniformitarianism, I imagined what scientists would do if obvious miracles happened today with enough regularity. Speaking for myself at least, I would be very much less skeptical of the ancient Christian reports in that case. And I think most scientists would be like that. It is not that we are wedded to naturalism but that we don’t see those kinds of miracles happening today (or really, any time during the last 2000 yrs)

      We’d still be picking apart the internal logic of the Christian narrative, though. That is a completely different issue.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


        In nature we’d not be talking about miracles, of course, or even “intervention”, but some more subtle class of divine action (as discussed re Aquinas etc elsewhere).

        Be that as it may, if miracles, properly defined, happened as regularly as natural phenomena (a) they’d not be miracles and (b) they’d be natural phenomena. Gravity, after all, is still essentially a magic force, but one that can be reliably observed and measured. Miracles, by definition, can’t.

        That being so, there are very many thousands of reports of miracles today, many of which are obvious in their effects, suggesting that claims of their total absence is, at least, a blanket judgement based on presupposition rather than careful investigation.

        I’ve mentioned before one in my own career: relief of coronary artery symptoms after prayer, confirmed by angiography compared with previous result. That was as well documented as one could reasonably expect, but was not accepted as a miracle by the consultant due to his prior naturalistic commitments – and in truth, of course, a miracle was not proven: merely an association of an extremely unusual medical phenomenon with prayer. But “associations” are all most medical science shows anyway.

        The fact is, though, that the consultant demanded a higher standard of evidence for “healing prayer” as an effective intervention than he ever did for angioplasty, in which the changes on angiography were never, in my experience, dissociated from the intervention.

        Most such anecdotal cases don’t have that kind of corroborative evidence, but it would be as unjust to assume they are therefore untrue as to suggest that g is only actually 9.8m/s when it’s being measured. The difference is that g is subject to regular investigation as a simple secondary efficient cause, whereas a miracle is a personal intervention – and even human experimental psychology is notoriously non-reproducible.

        • Lou Jost says:

          As you know, the body is complicated and there is a lot we don’t understand about it. Healing miracles are probably the most difficult of all miracle claims to evaluate. And they are among the most commonly claimed, even when the “miracle worker” is a charlatan “psychic surgeon” or televangelist.

          But big miracles are just as easy as dubious ones, and we NEVER see an amputated arm or a leg reappear. Surely an amputee would pray just as hard, or harder, than other sick people. I’d change my position on god if an amputee were healed in a place that kept good medical records, under circumstances where the person was photographed and publicly well-seen without the appendage before the miracle.

          • James says:


            Very odd to hear you say that you’d “change your position on god” if an amputee were healed. That would be, according to almost all of your atheist colleagues — i.e., virtually everyone who posts on Panda’s Thumb, and big names like Dawkins, Myers, etc. — “god of the gaps” reasoning. How could one be sure that a fully naturalistic explanation for a restored limb wasn’t just around the corner? According to the standard atheist/materialist trope, the right “scientific” response to such cases is to say “we don’t know the cause.”

            In fact, I’ll even help out your atheist colleagues a bit here. We know that among lower animals, including animals as high on the evolutionary scale as lizards, whole limbs can be regenerated when lost. Mammals appear to have lost this wholly natural power, but who knows? Maybe it is still there, latent, and able to be tapped under certain extreme circumstances. Maybe religious faith, which involves strong emotion (and hence glands, hormones, etc.) can activate this deep power. Maybe God isn’t involved at all, but only the belief in God. Why go for a supernatural explanation prematurely?

            The person who has a strong inclination to reject Christianity, or revealed religion, or God, or even a remote Intelligent Designer, will always find speculative naturalistic explanations that can do the trick; or, if embarrassed to posit wildly speculative naturalistic explanations (since that would make it too obvious they were trying to avoid the God-conclusion at all costs), they could use the more devious approach of saying that we should remain “open-minded” and say that the cause of an apparent miracle is “unknown.” (But of course, the latter ploy is transparent, because for such people, the “unknown” is allowed later to be replaced by a particular natural cause, but never by a supernatural one. So “unknown cause” sounds epistemologically modest, but is not — it really means “unknown but wholly natural cause.”)

            If you differ on this, Lou, you are one of the very, very few internet-visible atheists who does. Most of them will always try to find a naturalistic cause, and will avoid the inference of a supernatural cause, by any intellectual means, fair or foul. Most of them would say that your above concession gives too much away, and does so unnecessarily.

            • Lou Jost says:

              James, I have no problem a priori with the existence of a god. But I would need really good evidence for such a thing.

              The key to escaping the “god of the gaps” argument is to show that the universe has “personality”. If physical laws were violated in meaningful ways–perhaps in response to certain kinds of human prayers, or perhaps in ways that conveyed messages, or had clear meaning — then this would be positive evidence for a core claim of religion. I think it is virtually impossible to construct a naturalistic explanation for violations of physical law if the violations respond to “meaning” rather than to the arrangement of matter.

              Getting back to the amputee, it would have to be a sudden re-appearance of the arm, one that violates physical law. A salamander-like slow regrowth would not convince me, precisely for the reasons you describe.

  8. Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


    I don’t know if you saw my Feb. 13 response to your original question to me. If you don’t have time to converse any further on it, that’s fine, but please let me know that you in fact saw and read it.

  9. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Thanks for the heads-up! Indeed I had not read it. In my own turn I’ll be taking some time to digest your thoughts while trying to keep up with new posts as well.

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