Can God use ateleological processes to meet his aims? – 1

Darwinian evolution is an atelological theory of origins. Theism is the belief in a “Hands On” God who acts for clear purposes. On the face of it, then, the title of this piece is an oxymoron. Purposeful purposelessness is a flat contradiction. And so in such a context, it would appear that “guided evolution” can only mean the miraculous imposition of intention on the unintentional. That would make biology intrinsically supernatural, with the concomitant that its directedness would be evidence for God as evolution’s principal efficient cause.

That is the way that some ID people, and most anti-theists, frame the problem. Many TEs realise it is a false understanding, but are not always very clear in their alternatives. At heart it depends on the misconception of God that has been called “theistic personalism”, which may be summed up in “univocity of being” – that God is a cause amongst others, so that he adds to, or opposes, existing causes for better or worse. Creationists place divine action in gaps in nature, and atheist Jerry Coyne would, he says, only be convinced of God’s existence by a filled gap that God alone could explain, like a nine hundred foot high Jesus manifesting himself. These are different attitudes to what is actually the same, metaphysically truncated, God.

My objection over several years to modern expressions of theistic evolution has been their tendency, under the influence of science-faith scholars like Howard van Till, to resolve this “teleology problem” by arguing against God’s purposeful activity, bringing him into line with an undirected evolution. I’ve complained over and over again about their polemical arguments that God’s love excludes “coercive” direction of nature towards an evolutionary end, linked to actually incoherent appeals to nature’s “freedom”. Such arguments, despite the objections of their proponents, are essentially deistic and fraught with theological – not to say scientific – problems.

In fact the core fault with these views is that they too assume divine univocity: God cannot (in Jürgen Moltmann’s thinking, for example) create a universe without making room by becoming less than infinite himself. He cannot guide creation except by tyrannically coercing it against the grain of the secondary causes he has built into it.

But, blessed be God, that approach seems, over the last year or so, to have become less commonly expressed on TE sites like BioLogos. It would be nice to think that our continued efforts on The Hump had played some part in that, but it’s hard to say, and not of great importance anyway. There now seems a definite trend towards accepting God’s purposeful creation, at least in a general way that specifically intended mankind, and that has a “hands on” role in evolution. In other words there’s been a shift away from Darwin towards Wallace, though that shift in allegiance seems not to have been fully appreciated.

However, the way this could work seems less than explicit in most TE writing, though some general appeal is occasionally made to classical thinking like that of Thomas Aquinas. I think that the vagueness may still be a matter of trying unsuccessfully to square various circles: these include the original one of accounting for divine direction whilst holding to undirected evolution as a theory, and also that of trying to incorporate classical ideas of dual action within the modern US Evangelical framework whose usual position is univocal theistic personalism. As a result, one gains the impression of fudge – God acts, but he doesn’t act. Evolution is unguided, but guided. It all sounds more Zen than Christian.

But the only way of resolving such dilemmas within Christian orthodoxy is, I suggest, by returning to the “classical theism” in which God is recognised as, ontologically, entirely “other” to us, although by grace he has in various ways bridged the gap to give us true fellowship with him, most notably in the Incarnation of his Son. Aquinas remains a leading thinker on this, and his take on what I’ve referred to previously as concurrence appears, in concise form, in Question 105 of his Summa Theologica. Obviously it arises from the development of his previous treatment of the nature of God, which there is not space to explain here.

First, though, note that Thomas’s insistence on God’s continuing action in the world is not just a scholastic philosophical conclusion, but is founded on the challenge of scriptures like:

It is written (Philippians 2:13): “It is God who worketh in us both to will and to accomplish.”


It is written (Isaiah 26:12): “Lord, Thou hast wrought all our works in us.”

One can, in this instance, lead into the easier case of natural creation from the more vexed examples of the human intellect and will, which, Thomas argues, are both moved by God, whilst retaining the full reality of human thought and free will. So, on intelligence (under Article 3):

Therefore God so moves the created intellect, inasmuch as He gives it the intellectual power, whether natural, or superadded; and impresses on the created intellect the intelligible species [by which Thomas means the content of knowledge], and maintains and preserves both power and species in existence.

On the will, under Article 4, he starts with the familiar objection against God’s role in human will (which in fact one can see to be conceptually related to the “coercion of creation’s freedom” motif of Van Till, Polkinghorne et al):

Objection 1. It would seem that God cannot move the created will. For whatever is moved from without, is forced. But the will cannot be forced. Therefore it is not moved from without; and therefore cannot be moved by God.

Aquinas replies (or strictly, replied some 800 years ago):

Reply to Objection 1. A thing moved by another is forced if moved against its natural inclination; but if it is moved by another giving to it the proper natural inclination, it is not forced; as when a heavy body is made to move downwards by that which produced it, then it is not forced. In like manner God, while moving the will, does not force it, because He gives the will its own natural inclination.

He replies on similar lines to other objections, as follows:

Objection 2. Further, God cannot make two contradictories to be true at the same time. But this would follow if He moved the will; for to be voluntarily moved means to be moved from within, and not by another. Therefore God cannot move the will.

Reply to Objection 2. To be moved voluntarily, is to be moved from within, that is, by an interior principle: yet this interior principle may be caused by an exterior principle; and so to be moved from within is not repugnant to being moved by another.

Objection 3. Further, movement is attributed to the mover rather than to the one moved; wherefore homicide is not ascribed to the stone, but to the thrower. Therefore, if God moves the will, it follows that voluntary actions are not imputed to man for reward or blame. But this is false. Therefore God does not move the will.

Reply to Objection 3. If the will were so moved by another as in no way to be moved from within itself, the act of the will would not be imputed for reward or blame. But since its being moved by another does not prevent its being moved from within itself, as we have stated, it does not thereby forfeit the motive for merit or demerit.

A little thought will show that his understanding is based on the idea that our mental life, though a true secondary cause, continues at all times to depend on God as Creator (creatio continua) at an entirely separate level from its own internal operations. He sustains them in being not only as faculties, but in their particular activity. And this is how it is that Judas betrays Jesus freely in fulfilment of divine prophecy, or how what Joseph’s brothers plan for evil is also planned by the Lord for good. Because God’s “being” is different to ours, the language of coercion, manipulation or meddling is simply incoherent – in him we live and move and have our being.

What is true for the vexed question of human freedom is abundantly true for causation in natural creation. Early in the section, he states the case somewhat analogically:

Article 2: Reply to Objection 1. There are two kinds of contact; corporeal contact, when two bodies touch each other; and virtual contact, as the cause of sadness is said to touch the one made sad. According to the first kind of contact, God, as being incorporeal, neither touches, nor is touched; but according to virtual contact He touches creatures by moving them; but He is not touched, because the natural power of no creature can reach up to Him.

The picture is of two different levels of action. Secondary causes act, as it were, by “corporeal contact”, that is by material efficient causation. God’s action in the same event is not a meddling with those forces, but an influence of a different kind altogether. And so in Article 5 (Whether God works in every agent?), he first denies occasionalism, in which God is the sole true cause, but affirms God’s sovereignty in the outcome of all events whatsoever, though a species of concurrence:

We must therefore understand that God works in things in such a manner that things have their proper operation…

Thus then does God work in every worker, according to these three things.

First as an end. For since every operation is for the sake of some good, real or apparent; and nothing is good either really or apparently, except in as far as it participates in a likeness to the Supreme Good, which is God; it follows that God Himself is the cause of every operation as its end.

Again it is to be observed that where there are several agents in order, the second always acts in virtue of the first; for the first agent moves the second to act. And thus all agents act in virtue of God Himself: and therefore He is the cause of action in every agent.

Thirdly, we must observe that God not only moves things to operated, as it were applying their forms and powers to operation, just as the workman applies the axe to cut, who nevertheless at times does not give the axe its form; but He also gives created agents their forms and preserves them in being. Therefore He is the cause of action not only by giving the form which is the principle of action, as the generator is said to be the cause of movement in things heavy and light; but also as preserving the forms and powers of things; just as the sun is said to be the cause of the manifestation of colors, inasmuch as it gives and preserves the light by which colors are made manifest. And since the form of a thing is within the thing, and all the more, as it approaches nearer to the First and Universal Cause; and because in all things God Himself is properly the cause of universal being which is innermost in all things; it follows that in all things God works intimately. For this reason in Holy Scripture the operations of nature are attributed to God as operating in nature, according to Job 10:11: “Thou hast clothed me with skin and flesh: Thou hast put me together with bones and sinews.”

This last sentence is absolutely relevant for science. To Thomas the generation of the human being is entirely natural. He would be happy to embrace all the insights of embryology and so on, in our age. At the same time, he is adamant that the operation of God himself in making Job is real, and indeed primary, not simply because he created the process, but because he directs it as Creator, entirely distinct from and above the secondary causes.

It’s important theologically to realise that, to Aquinas, it’s not simply the case that God can act in such ways, but that he must in every case if he is to be the God who creates and governs the world, rather than a limited deistic counterfeit. In this view, the uncertainty of a Robert J Russell about how often God might determine the outcomes of quantum events simply has no place – God is Governor as often as he is Creator, which is as often as there exist things to create or govern.

The idea of God being surprised, or of his being content, usually, to let nature “take its course”, is not that of Aquinas or of classical theism – nor yet the Bible – but that of univocalism. It would mean that he is like us in lack of foresight, in inattention to most details, and in acting as we do only by occasional interventions to the “natural” course of events, rather than in being the First Cause behind the natural causes of events. Another way of saying this is that any application of human modes of action to God (other than by scripturally circumscribed analogy) is idolatrous.

In the next post, I’ll apply these principles to the situation of the natural world, and particularly of course, to evolution.

[to be continued…

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 Can God use ateleological processes to meet his aims? – 1

  1. Ian Thompson says:

    Are you imply that God never adds to, or opposes, existing causes for better or worse? That God is incapable of doing this?

    Surely, even in a full concurrentist account of God and nature, God can push things around ‘behind the scenes’ in many (un)imaginable ways.
    Or is that, in naturalism, there are no ‘behind the scenes’ in the first place?

    Or, are you just abandoning this part of traditional theism for rhetorical purposes. Even if so, I think you are giving in too much to the naturalists.

  2. Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Ian

    Not at all – I hoped I’d left plenty of room for the affirmation of divine action at the everyday level, but I’m against multiplying miracles, as such, unnecessarily. Nevertheless, since creation, ex nihilo, is miraculous, supernatural modalities may well be involved in bringing new forms into being, which was my final point. But in the classic concurrentist position, even miracles are often not the opposition of God’s secondary causes, but his decision not to support the natural effect (eg in disarming the fire’s capacity to roast the Hebrews in the fiery furnace).

    But there is plenty of room, it seems to me, for God to direct affairs – all affairs – in what we call the natural realm (as I thought the Aquinas passage makes clear). I would argue that the Thomistic approach, or something like it, is a truly theistic approach to the governance of nature, in that he governs it internally as his natural servant, rather than by working against the powers he has given it from outside. So he calms the storm not by applying greater force, but by commanding it as his creature. He stops the lion’s mouth by making it a tame lion for the occasion, rather than by a supernatural whip and stool.

    Applying that in modern scientific terms, I suggested firstly that natural laws themselves may not be as inflexible as is usually assumed under real conditions, which is as much as to say that God acts reliably, but not obsessively – but since they are God’s way of ensuring stability, they need to be predictable (that’s so even if one sees them in Aristotelian terms as the given natures of substances rather than “divine laws”.)

    Those things in nature that are not governed by law are, it seems , subject to chance (as experienced by us) of various sorts, which as I’ve written before is only the observation that things are statistically directed rather than, as under law, tightly constrained. God’s choices of individual “values” within that give wide scope for his governance of events (David Wilcox regards “chance” as almost definitionally God’s locus of providential action). So the dice will turn up each face roughly equally – but the six on a particular occasion is in his gift, and not by invisibly “fixing” the throw, but by being the root of the whole statistical process.

    The bottom line is that, as we pray for our daily bread, we don’t in most cases expect the multiplication of loaves and fishes, but for the natural events of the world to be auspicious. We thank God that the harvest was good (it might not have been, by the same natural processes), that our health enabled us to earn our keep (which might not have been the case) and so on. It’s not that God has to act over and above nature for these things to be the case, but that nature always does his will, in specifics rather than in some deistic general manner.

  3. pngarrison says:

    “So he calms the storm not by applying greater force, but by commanding it as his creature.” This sounds to me like two ways of saying the same thing. There is an illusion we can create for ourselves that we understand something simply by choosing the right words. I don’t think it is necessarily so, especially when it’s not clear how the meaning of two alternative accounts, one of which we accept and one we reject, really differs.

  4. Jon Garvey says:


    The post is primarily about God’s control opposed to his non-control (and that one can’t have it both ways by suggesting he controls by not controlling).

    But the point you raise is the difference between giving ones servant (creation or its elements in this case) instructions for the day’s work, but subsequently moving everything around or shouting at the servant for following instructions; and varying the instructions you give the servant in the first place.

    In the human analogy you’d be unjustly coercing the servant (which, as I’ve argued frequently before, is not relevant to the inanimate creeation, but certainly is applicable to the human intellect and will, with which I commence this post). But you’d also be running a household divided against itself by giving contradictory commands. You’d be constantly controlling a rebellion, rather than ruling your owndomain.

    Such a situation would be the micromanagement of the incompetent manager which the science-faith boys and the TEs criticize – God sets up the world with adequate autonomous secondary causes, and then constantly tinkers because they’re not adequate after all. Aquinas deals with that exact charge in another section, by stressing that the secondary causes are always subject to God’s guidance, consistent with his infinite care and wisdom.

    Perhaps one way of looking at things is that the world is like a musical instrument, or perhaps a bicycle. Both have specific fixed properties and uses, but it’s meaningless to ask what tune the violin would play if the musician left it to itself, or where the bicycle would go if a rider didn’t direct it. God’s sustaining of creation is not merely keeping the violin in tune and the bicycle oiled, but using them as they were designed to be used to make beautiful music or reach a specific destination.

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