The changing face of theistic evolution (maybe)

I’m posting below a reply I’ve made on BioLogos to a post by the president thereof, Deborah Haarsma. This is for the usual reason that BioLogos deletes comments after 6 months, and I don’t want this to be lost. In a thread discussing recent survey results on US belief about origins, she linked to an essay by Robert Bishop, which is a not only unexceptionable, but excellent survey of the biblical doctrine of creation. Read it if you want to know what I believe, and why. Its application to evolution is also good, but (paranoically or not, given BioLogos‘ track record) I notice some possible departure from the doctrine previously established, as I do (and explain) in Deborah’s comments on it. Read on…


Thanks for drawing attention to the Bishop essay, which is an excellent summary of creation doctrine I couldn’t argue with, and an application to evolution with which I’d endorse apart from one or two small (but significant) points. If the direction of BioLogos is really headed this way, then it seems to me that most objections of the conservative Evangelical community, and even most disagreements with informed ID people, would become trivial or non-existent.

It would, apparently, also distance BioLogos significantly from some of the more prominent streams of TE thinking over the last few years. For example, Ken Miller’s talk about evolution being equally likely to produce an intelligent dinosaur or mollusc (God’s aim being only to create a process from which some kind of self-aware being would arise) is directly incompatible both with God’s intending mankind as such, and with  a process capable of achieving specifically that. Similarly Van Till’s influential Robust Formational Economy Principle, in which the guidance of God is excluded on principle on the basis of creaturely autonomy (and in his later writing, miracles of the biblical type too), also cuts across Bishop’s description of creation. It would be good to see BioLogos spelling out these demarcations of its position from others, as they are crucial.

My quibbles arise within this area, and I think are of a piece. Bishop uses the Genesis 1 description of God’s calling the earth to bring forth, paralleled with the same events described as God’s “making”, to show God’s ability to create through secondary means. It is not illegitimate to use this as illustrative of some form of evolution, though it is not the most obvious exegesis, which seems to me simply to be about the dependance of all life on the earth, and especially the soil – plants grow in earth, so that’s what brings them forth. After all, in chapter 2 Adam is made from the same earth, and clearly the emphasis there is on forming one special individual, not on any secondary power of the earth. In any case, the earth responds immediately to God’s word of power instrumentally, and that’s where the act of creation subsists.

That said, he does excellent work in relating the operation of such secondary powers to (a) the purposes of the Father, (b) the wisdom of the Logos (Christ) and (c) the executive power of the Spirit, a very Thomistic, even Patristic, and concursive division which cuts through any question of nature’s autonomy. I note that his touching on the dignity of the creation in having its own true existence and powers keeps the right side of analogy – he does not, like some, imply that creation actually has some quasi-personal sense of self that could consciously value such dignity.

Many objections to theistic evolution rest on its apparent relegation of God’s role to merely sustaining an autonomous process, and unfortunately in his “functional integrity” section he reverts to “sustaining” language and drops the language of the governance of Christ and the Spirit he had introduced before. His next paragraph seems to be a corrective to that: this is God’s creativity at work, not an autonomous power – “Creation’s integrity is NOT independent of God.” Does this, though, not distance BioLogos from those theologies in which the autonomy of nature and its “co-creativity” or “spontaneity” are at the very heart? The analogy given to me on this site – that of nature as an adolescent to whom a loving parent will give freedom even at the risk of its misuse – is about nothing but independence, and is incompatible with what Bishop writes.

And if the creation reflects only God’s creativity, to what purpose are all those appeals to errors and evils which we must not, on pain of blasphemy, attribute to God? To cite another example thrown at me here, whose creativity is reponsible for the ingenuity of pathogenic viruses? If nature “reflects God’s creativity, not some independent creativity”, We can no longer resort to a theodicy distancing God from what nature is.

If God (considered as Trinity) is truly the only creative power, then his will is the only creative will. Logic dictates that either the purposes of God were “folded up” in creation from the start – the original meaning of “evolution,” which is why Darwin at first avoided the word: he expressly denied that life had intrinsic teleology, and Neo-Darwinism even more so; or that evolution depends on the ongoing concursive creativity of the Father’s unfolding purpose, through the wisdom of Christ and the agency of the Spirit, guiding the secondary powers to their assigned ends in real time, as of course the TEs of Darwin’s generation argued. Or both, of course – but not neither.

Failure to follow this entailment through creates a lack of clarity regarding the nature of evolution, which I find reflected (apologies) in  your own post’s mention of the parabolic sparrows. You speak of God’s being “intentionally at work” in a “non-deterministic biological process”. That’s confusing as it is, at the first level, contradictory. “Intending”, “purposing”, “determining” and “willing” are, at root, synonyms – they are what the will does definitionally. We might speak of natural process being “non-deterministic” because of quantum or chaotic uncertainty, for example, but then we have actually claimed that God is working intentionally through natural processes that intrinsically lack the ability to carry out God’s intentions (the point at issue), which is absurd. The “unfolding” or “preloaded” evolutionary model would therefore have to be discarded as theologically inadequate, and that leaves only secondary causes that are being actively guided, in real time, through God’s concursive activity. Which means, at least, “Let the earth NOW bring forth Homo sapiens,” if indeed “God intended humanity”.

The Scripture itself adds more: Jesus told the story of the sparrows to reassure his disciples about his ability and willingness to oversee their individual lives. The sparrows are lowly creatures, he says, but even their individual destiny is in his hands – “Not one falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will.” Clearly, Jesus did not mean only that his Father had set up the ecology to make sufficient worms available to sparrows in general: knowing that the human race, or the population of sparrows, is maintaining its numbers gives me no comfort under threat of persecution.

God then is willing, or purposing, or intending, or determining outcomes at the individual sparrow level: there seems no reason why the outcome for individual worms and insects should be any less subject to his will. If, then, God’s action in evolution is, as you postulate, similar, it’s a similarity of intentionality, not of indeterminacy – it’s evolution guided in detail, even when pursued through secondary natural causes.

The question of “detection by science” has too many ramifications to cover in this already over-long post. But if we conclude that indeed we cannot detect it, then it becomes a purely theological part of the TE deal – the examination of mutations, homologies, transcription errors and so on can be allowed NO input whatsoever into assessing the degree of God’s guidance of evolution, which must then a matter of faith. Of course, if one can make any theological inferences from such things, then “design detection” becomes a legitimate part of the discussion.

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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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