Thinking through theistic evolution

I only recently encountered a large-scale 2009 survey of UK views on evolution and creation, called Rescuing Darwin (a strangely unconfident title for his Bicentennial Year). I won’t review it fully because the detailed analysis produces a confusing and not particularly clear picture, like the US survey recently discussed by Debbie Haarsma on BioLogos. For those interested, I will just quote the headline figures, as they are rather surprising for what is a far more deeply secularised society than the US.

The crude percentages (of what seems a demographically representative sample) shows that those who said “definitely true” or “probably true” for each of the four positions offered were:
Young Earth Creationism 32%
ID [see below] 52%
Theistic Evolution 44%
Atheistic Evolution 34%

These are surprisingly like the US figures, inconsistent opinions and all, despite America’s Bible Belt and 2-party politico-religious culturalism. But today I’m interested only in mining the survey for definitions by which to look, specifically, at the implications of theistic evolution. So if you’ll forgive me, I’ll probably shout down any comments on “religion v atheism” as irrelevant to this thread.

The definition the survey chose for “theistic evolution” was this: Theistic evolution is the idea that evolution is the means that God used for the creation of all living things on earth. That seems broadly to match, say, BioLogos’s position.

The most useful contrast for my purpose is their definition of “Intelligent Design”: Intelligent Design is the idea that evolution alone is not enough to explain the complex structures of some living things, so the intervention of a designer is needed at key stages. Now if anything this is an incomplete description of Old Earth Creationism (which, as in the US surveys didn’t get its own category), and not the position of ID at all – maybe the input of TE Dennis Alexander is to blame there? But again, please don’t rehash the true nature of ID in comments. Instead let’s just take it that theistic evolution is being said not to require the intervention of a Designer.

One further refinement in the survey is of note. Some questions differentiated “theism” (God designed and created the universe and remains involved with it) from “deism” (God designed and created the universe but has no further involvement with it), and a large majority of believers identified with the former. So with that distinction in mind, let’s work on theistic evolution as the belief that God used evolution, without intervention, to create all living things. Unfortunately, as in so much of the origins discussion, “evolution” is left cimpletely undefined, but since the “interventions of a designer” have been hived off to the ID category, maybe we should think generally of “evolution by entirely natural processes”, rather than something specific like “modified Neodarwinianism with a splash of Kimura’s neutral theory…” etc.

Granting that, I want to leave you mulling over one thought as I proceed: what exactly is meant by an “entirely natural process” in Christian theism, in which “God remains involved” in distinction to deism? If he sustains all processes in being (bare conservationism) are they still “entirely natural”? If the historically preferred doctrine of concurrence teaches that God initiates and cooperates with every event, is the process still “entirely natural”? If God frontloads the process with directing information or emergent properties, is it “entirely natural”?

To save our being bogged down in such conundrums, I’ll take “evolution” as a Black Box, an unexamined process which is simply “the means God uses to create all living things.” That enables us to concentrate on what “creation” itself means. The biblical usage, as so ably demonstrated by John H Walton, is that creation is not the mere manufacture of stuff, but at its heart the organisation of function. This is in accord both with the Greek concept of cosmos, an ordered economy as opposed to a chaotic one, and with the Christian truth that God creates freely, and not by necessity. That freedom entails that God makes things analogously to the way we do: in the first place by choosing an intended purpose (final causation), in the second by suiting that which is actually created to its purpose (formal causation), and only in the last place by the use of efficient means (in this case, our “black box” of evolution). Anything that was not created with wisdom to function within the cosmos was, therefore, not created by the Christian God.

Now if one were to take the Genesis creation story both literally and materially, one could, as the deists did, say that God made the first batch of all living things in 6 days for their various purposes, but then left them to get on with things, perhaps even straying from their intended functions later.

Paradoxically, an evolutionary creation picture closes that lax deistic option off. God is “creating through evolution”. Unlike a literal interpretation of Genesis 1, evolution does not have an end-point at Day 6 – it is continuously moving on, and if we concur that it is a tool of God’s creation, it is constantly moving on towards his goals for it. More than that, one would have to say that since there are no final goals in evolution, but a constant progression, each point in evolution is a creative goal achieved, or creation would never actually arrive at all.

What I mean is this: were we to ask God the “function(s)” he intended for a hippopotamus, say, he would be able to answer – perhaps by including its ecological role, and whatever other puposes he might have intended through its creation by evolution. Final causality, apart from rather obvious levels of function, was removed from science just because we can‘t ask God his secret intentions in this way. Nevertheless, if creation is the fulfillment of God’s intended function through form (as Scripture affirms), then Mr Hippo was created for a purpose, because creation is entirely to do with purpose, with final causation – with function. So hippos – and likewise any other product of evolution whatsoever – must, theologically speaking, exist to fulfil a specific function in the world.

Now, let me just remind you that the motto “form follows function” is even more a feature of creation than it is of human design. If you’re running a railway, you don’t just buy “a locomotive” – you tailor your rolling stock carefully to the task you’ve set for it. Similarly a good employer, building his workforce, will not just ask an agency to send him “an IT guy” – he will recruit, or train, the best available person to get the job done exactly as designated. So hippopotami do not function as some generic “large animal”, but as particular players tailored to their particular role in the world – and that specific role is just what God has created, if creation is to mean what it means in the Bible.

Here’s some more. One purpose of the hippo’s immediate evolutionary ancestor (every bit as functional in its own right in that former world as Hippopotamus amphibius is in ours) was to function as the precursor of modern hippos – for God must create, as we have seen, specific creatures through evolution, and specific creatures depend on specific parents. Every link in the evolutionary chain, therefore, must be seen as an intended goal of creation, with whatever function God has assigned to it. The alternative is to say that previous species were not created at all, but were simply precursors to what God created … but that would mean viewing modern hippos as the end point of hippo “creation”, which is a myopic, and unevolutionary, view.

Our theistic evolution definition, remember, was that God uses evolution to create all living things – so all, not just some, living (and once-living) species are therefore created, and all living species, by the biblical definition of creation, serve God’s specific purposes in his wisely-ordered cosmos. Unless, of course, evolution is only the means God uses to create some living things. It would then be rather odd to contemplate biology as the study of things, some of which were created, and some of which were mere offcuts of the process.

Furthermore, as I’ve discussed in previous posts, if the evolutionary black box is gradualistic like classical Darwinism, then as Darwin found (see Ch 2 of The Origin of Species) it is difficult, or impossible, actually to classify discrete taxa. A “species” is formally indistinguishable from a mere variety, and in any case as genomics shows, is a continuum of individuals which are merely genetically similar. Personally, I believe there in reality must be a more concrete reality to taxonomic forms, but since most TEs don’t seem to consider that important, we have to grapple with the fact that it is not species or genera as “universals” which are created for their functional role – it is individuals; for example the small group of individuals in which evolutionary mutations become fixed, or even just the individual that eats the last breeding pair of an endangered species.

In Genesis, creating one pair might be enough to ensure the survival of its kind – but evolution has a more fluid view of “kinds.” In fact, a non-evolutionary view based on a 6-day creation requires some further theological reflection to explain what it means to say that “God made our pet dog” – or even that “God created each one of us.” At the least, one has to make generation a kind of “creation by proxy”, though classical theologians have generally opted for stronger links based on God’s providential government of all events and concurrence: his will decides which sperm and which egg will unite contingently to form John the Baptist or King Cyrus (or Rex the Hippo?). But if the creation of living things is actually through evolution, such further theologising is not necessary (though the doctrines of providence and concurrence are unchanged) – evolution is the continuing creative process for all living things, and since all living things are unique functionaries in God’s economy, it follows that their forms are uniquely willed by God as well, since form follows function.

So, as you see, it is my contentention that the logical conclusions of theistic evolution – if one simply takes “creation” to mean what its semantic range in the Bible dictates – are that God’s specific will must ordain the function and the form not only of higher taxa (as in convergent evolution) or even of species, but of each individual organism. Now that ought not to cause a theological issue, if we hold the classical doctrine of universal providence – or even if we simply take seriously the “Rescuing Darwin” definition of theism as “God remaining involved with the Universe”.

If this argument is valid, the only question remaining is whether the particular detailed process of “natural” evolution that TEs choose can be sufficient to execute the will of God to this degree, and how that might work “without intervention”. Remember, the aim of a truly biblical, functional creation cannot be “some big animals”, but “Rex the Hippotamus, bearer of new mutation x which will further the adaptation God requires to create the survivor of the volcanic dust-cloud three hundred years in the future.” Or closer to home, “creator of my child Sarah, beloved of the Lord and with her particular gifts.”

Of course, God may not plan in that kind of detail at all. But then he would not be designing the purposes and functions of his cosmos, which are the whole substance of creation. He would not be creating through evolution at all, but doing something very much less – watching deistically, perhaps?

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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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4 Responses to Thinking through theistic evolution

  1. Jon

    I think you frame the question well. We return to the balance between God’s transcendence and immanence.

    The two creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2 are often cited in this respect and the more I read them the more it impresses me. In the first God is supremely above his creation, causing events to occur by his sovereign command. Immanence is suggested in the Spirit brooding over the primeval waters, but is not prominent.

    In the second narrative God is, implicitly, “hands on.” He shapes man from the dust the way a potter shapes a vessel and administers CPR to bring him to life (2:7); like a farmer God plants a garden oasis in which he places the man (vv. 8, 15); God individually forms each animal and leads them to man to be named (v. 19), then performs surgery in order to complete man by joining the woman to him (vv. 21-24). God comes walking and calling and to his human creatures after they transgress, like a shepherd who searches diligently for his lost sheep (vv. 8-9).

    Likewise, in the book of Hosea, Yahweh reminds the northern kingdom of Israel (Ephraim) that He has supported and cared for them through a long historical process. “I taught Ephraim also to walk, taking them by their arms; but they did not know that it was I who healed them. I drew them with cords of a man, with bands of love, and I was to them as one who takes the yoke from their jaws, and I bent down and fed them” (Hos 11:3-4). Unless the northern Israelites pictured a father gently taking the hands of his toddling son or daughter to steady them as they took their first steps, they would not understand how tenderly their God had been conducting them through their generations. The same is true with the second story of Genesis, where graphic images put us in touch with the otherwise invisible reality of God’s intimate involvement in his creation.

    The fact that transcendence and immanence have to be put alongside each other distinctly, in Genesis 1-2 and in particular texts such as Isa 57:15, suggests that they are in dynamic tension where human understanding is concerned—much as are the wave and particulate properties of light.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Darek – I think the quantum comparison is a helpful one – not to mention part of the same issue, since quantum events defy scientific specification, and it’s therefore theologically impossible to say for certain whether they’re governed by “God far off” (in the sense of a hidden lawlike order) or by “God near at hand” (in the sense of willed contingency).

      Certainly the details don’t bother me overmuch so much as a full-orbed theology that recognises both. At the same time there’s a need, if we accept the validity of seeking to explain as much as possible, to have a reasonably coherent picture. So my major beef with the “free creation” crowd is that God’s will is reduced to near-deistic proportions, and the freedom of creation is simply nonsensical on examination.

      Equally, I feel one needs to consider any proposed scientific theory (eg the various evolutionary theories) in relation to its capability of doing the lifting required by theological considerations such as those as in my post. To give a silly example, if the theory said that God used modelling clay as the means of creation, without any “intervention at key stages”one is entitled to ask why that isn’t just crazy talk.

      One example last week – did you hear the research suggesting that had the K-T event occurred just a few million years sooner or later, the dinosaurs would have survived? So the course of evolution has been altered fundamentally, it seems, by a highly contingent event (a one-in-a-billion year asteroid strike within a small and critical time window). That whole suggestion depends on the assumption that evolution is not robust and lawlike enough to produce the same results whatever the circumstances. So if theologically one holds that God intended H. sapiens (the index case, maybe) as an evolutionary result, one has to include some kind of provident management of chaotic events in the picture.

      • Jon

        I did not see the science news item you referred to. The same might be said about the earth’s acquisition of its providentially large moon given evidence for some form of the collision hypothesis of lunar formation.

        I too am fascinated by the quantum measurement problem in this context because it involves some process of sculpting an intelligible large scale reality out of a (seemingly) fundamentally chaotic substrate. Presuming, of course, against a hidden variables interpretation.

        There are a number of scriptural passages that depict God as taming primeval chaos, usually represented as the oceanic deep (sometimes personified as Rahab or Leviathan). It seems that in salvation history likewise God unleashes moral chaos (as a necessary consequence of free will?) and then overcomes, defeats and channels it in order to bring to fruition a morally pure end product–the kingdom of God.

        There are many different threads to bring together in all this, much as in science itself . . .

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          The “chaos monster” theme is a common ANE one, of course: Rahab is pretty equivalent to Mesopotamian Tiamat, it appears. It’s therefore hard to be sure exactly how it was intended to be read in Israel: in most instances it may well be a “political” analogy rather than a theological myth. So Yaheweh’s victory over Rahab might stand for his victory over the nations and their false gods (“Rahab” is definitely used of Egypt, for example).

          But one of Walton’s strengths is to show how the idea of order from non-order is, as it were, subverted in Genesis 1. The background ANE idea of “creation” meaning “order” rather than “existence” is clearly assumed, and that’s why Gen 1 had little to say about ex nihilo creation. Yet God also creates the tohu wabohu (“formless and empty”), which is not chaotic in the sense of being opposed to God as in the ANE myths, but simply not yet brought to useful order. It’s the same terminology used for desert places with their screech owls and vultures – fine in themselves, but not suited to mankind.

          How that fits into a view of the science is another matter – but one strand I’ve pursued before is the idea that Genesis 1 is primarily about God’s bringing the “wild” earth to a state suitable for man in relationship to God. His bringing all things into existence is implicit (and explicit elsewhere in Scripture), but although, as you rightly say, it’s written from a “transcendent” viewpoint, it’s still deliberately anthropocentric.

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