Theistic evolution an oxymoron?

My attention has recently been drawn to the work of Olivier Rieppel, a distinguished palaeontologist based at  the Field Museum in Chicago, whose writings appear to show a mixture of scientific rigour with the historical and philosophical awareness so rare in scientific writing now. In other words he has the wit and courage to question received wisdom and go where the evidence leads, and moreover to know why he has done so. His latest book is on turtle evolution, provocatively entitled Turtles as Hopeful Monsters, which intrigues me a great deal, but finding its price is above my current budget at Amazon, I browsed some of his other books there instead of buying.

Thus I discovered Evolutionary Theory and the Creation Controversy, which, it will come as no surprise, also piqued my interest as it digs into the metaphysical arguments that led to Darwin’s theory, and discusses the confusions between the science and the philosophy that persist to this day both in Creationism’s view of evolutionary theory, and more importantly within scientific evolution itself. As we have often pointed out here, the former only exists because the latter is so pervasive. It’s sheer hypocrisy to accuse Creationists of confusing science with metaphysics when scientists routinely do the same and don’t even notice. Unfortunately this book is even more absurdly priced than the turtles, according to the arcane policies of academic publishers (compounded by taking books out of print after a year or two so that their resale price is even more astronomical because of rarity value).

However, the preface being available from the publisher’s website, I came upon this interesting passage:

In the nineteenth century, as well as before and after, there were two views of God’s involvement with the works of nature. The doctrine known as Theism invokes a God who is personally and actively involved in the natural processes. The problem here is that an eternal Entity is supposed to enter time in space, when from a logical point of view, “you cannot make temporal ‘events’ out of ‘eternal objects’ without impairment of the eternality of those objects.”

Deism is the doctrine that God directs the natural course of events through the enactment of natural laws, the so-called secondary causes. There is no conflict studying the natural course of events, while believing that what we discover to be natural laws do in fact lead back to a First Cause. It must be recognized however, that moving the discussion from secondary causes to the First Cause means to “go meta,” as philosophers say. It means to move up one level: we move from science to a metascientific level of discourse, i.e., a discourse that extends beyond the reach of the arm of science. The discourse within science is about which natural laws range over which natural processes. At the metascientific level, the discourse is no longer about the relation of natural laws to natural processes. Natural processes do not figure any more in this upper level discourse. Instead, the discourse is about the natural laws themselves and about how they relate to a First Cause.

Now, I want you to note how this perceptive passage is actually argued: both “deism” and “theism” (as he defines them) suffer the very same problem of “going meta” when it comes to treating God as First Cause. There is in both cases a philosophical problem in understanding how any eternal being could make any temporal things or events, and that would include “natural laws” every bit as much as “natural objects”. The difference is that deism allows one to shelve that issue by treating the material, scientific, world as a closed system, whereas theism as it were “falls at the first hurdle” because the theistic God is, definitionally, involved intimately in how the created world works, and not just as a law-maker.

The problem is that Christianity is in point of fact a theistic, not a deistic religion, par excellence. You can’t have a more dramatic example of the “problem” of the eternal interacting with the temporal than for God himself to become a man. One can always reject Christianity and be a Deist (or perhaps, more fashionably, a moralistic therapeutic deist), but if one accepts Christianity as it is revealed in Scripture, one has to embrace “going meta” as part of one’s basic view of the material world. There is no theism at all without that eternal/temporal interface.

Rieppel goes on to critique a theistic theology of nature by using two examples, Aquinas and ID:

Thomas Aquinas (also known as Thomas) famously elaborated on the fact that the human foot and the horse’s foot are perfectly adapted – each in its own way – for the purpose that they had been designed for by the Creator. The idea that organisms are built according to a blueprint is Creationist in nature. The organism is compared to a complex yet perfect machine (“clockwork”), built to obey laws of nature or secondary causes, and one cannot tinker with only one or the other part of the machine without interfering with its proper function. Either the machine remains the way it is, or an entirely new clockwork has to be designed (“created”).

Intelligent Design is a sophisticated version of Creationism that does not tie God to particular space–time regions. The argument is more of a “First Cause secondary causes” type. The idea is that natural selection does or can work, but this theory takes us only so far. It is said that there are structures in nature that are simply too complex to be the result of chance variation and contingent natural selection. Therefore, some other forces must be at work in nature that lead back to the First Cause. The issue centrally at stake here is the notion of the “explanatory power” of scientific theories. It is often said that proponents of “Intelligent Design” redefine science. What proponents of “Intelligent Design” in fact do is to gloss over the step where they “go meta”; they blur the proper distinction between different levels of discourse.

Now, let me say that I have no idea of Rieppel’s own religious position, having failed to fork out for any of his books. Maybe the very aim of his book is to separate metaphysics from science, or maybe it’s to do some heavy metaphysical lifting to allow creation a place in relation to evolution, but I don’t know. Neither, from this single passage of the preface of one book, do I want to argue whether he has misrepresented the positions of St Thomas or Intelligent Design (though I think he has in both cases, to some extent). The core point at issue is that theism/deism distinction, which is in my view an unarguable dichotomy.

It’s helpful that he points out what isn’t necessarily obvious, that “going meta” by having to square a temporal creation with an eternal God applies equally to both systems, the only difference being that deism can largely kick the can down the road in the scientific realm. Deism solves no metaphysical problems, but enables one to ignore them in science – in other words, it is a belief of convenience, for those to whom naturalism is convenient.

However, it’s possible to exaggerate the metaphysical problem of creation. There are some things the “basic principles of this world” (to quote Paul), such as human reason, are just not equipped to solve. It is as possible to hold in abeyance, rather than solve, any philosophical problems of creation, by accepting by faith that the eternal God can indeed create temporal events, as to try to second guess how he does it by reason.

Like it or not, all Christians, unless they can marshall deep philosophical anwers to the metaphysical objections to theism, must do this when they accept the credal truths that God made the world, or raised Jesus Christ from the dead, or that he calls the sinner, or answers prayer, or rules history. All of those imply theism, not deism – which is why the historical Deists denied them all, except (inconsistently) the first.

But since all Evolutionary Creationists must accept the possibility of Creation by definition, the question for them is still that of a choice between deism and theism. And most Evolutionary Creationists (that means most BioLogians, given that the “EC” term was coined by Darrel Falk in the very context of BioLogos) vehemently deny being deists, whilst their alternative self-designation, “Theistic Evolutionists” of course makes the opposite affirmation explicitly.

Even so, to avoid the charge of deism ECs not infrequently (as a number of comment threads on BioLogos over the years have shown) are reduced to distancing themselves from “deism” in its limited historical sense rather than as the fundamental and important distinction between metaphysical positions that Rieppel, like The Hump, uses. That distinction is simply the one between a God who is involved (theism) and a God who is not involved (deism). Both, as Rieppel has so clearly pointed out, ultimately must bear the same philosophical problems, but deism allows one conveniently to put the issue of God’s interaction out of professional sight, beyond science and into philosophy. To put it another way, deism experiences the profound conundrum that it makes the interface between science and religion easy (through methodological naturalism), but only at the expense of inevitably denying Christian theism.

As Rieppel says, “[t]here is no conflict studying the natural course of events, while believing that what we discover to be natural laws do in fact lead back to a First Cause.” There is no conflict on deistic principles, that is: the conflict in that case comes only when you try to link the First Cause to the secondary causes. But for any Theistic Evolutionist or Evolutionary Creationist who asserts that naturalistic science can give a complete account of the world of life, and especially of course the origin of the species, the conflict is fundamental. That is because, under the “Theistic Evolution” term, denying God’s active involvement in evolution is not theistic evolution at all, but deistic evolution.

Under the “Evolutionary Creation” term, to say that “God creates through evolution” is either a mere euphemism for deistic non-involvement, or a leakage of “going meta” into the sufficiency of the naturalistic science, on which you insist. In which case, one might as well have stuck to Scriptural theism, whose account of God’s active involvement in nature is unequivocal.

It is, actually, possible to be a truly theistic, as opposed to deistic, evolutionist. Theists, apart from occasionalists, don’t deny the existence of true secondary causes in nature, whereas deists do deny the existence of divine primary causation in nature. But in today’s climate truly theistic evolution is so uncommon as to require another designation, because “theistic evolution” has come so much to mean, in fact, “deistic evolution” that it has even less to do with “theism” than modern Wesleyism has to do with Wesley.

A truly theistic evolution would encompass the purpose for which an organism is designed by its maker, and its form – but Rieppel categorises that as Thomistic Creationism. Or else it must say that evolutionary theory “takes us only so far” – but that, Rieppel says, is the position of Intelligent Design, “blur[ring] the proper distinction between different levels of discourse.”

Once again, I take you back to the shape of Rieppel’s argument here – ID is “blurring the level of discourse” only under the assumptions of deism, which are entirely mandatory if one wishes to “properly” separate the levels of discourse between “natural science” and “philosophy, theology and metaphysics” in the first place.

On the contrary, under the assumptions of theism – and therefore definitionally of Theistic Evolution or Evolutionary Creation, the levels of discourse are intrinsically inseparable because, as a matter of fact, “the doctrine known as Theism invokes a God who is personally and actively involved in the natural processes.”

Houston, we have a problem…

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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6 Responses to Theistic evolution an oxymoron?

  1. Ian Thompson says:

    It is important that you point out the difference between ‘theistic’ evolution and theistic evolution: the first with no divine involvement, and the second with involvement. I’m sure we’ve discussed that before, but still needed now.

    We will need some term for theistically-driven evolution. Like that one?

    • Jon Garvey says:


      The term has been hi-jacked from the early guys like Asa Gray, to whom theistic evolution was theistic. But I agree, regretfully, that we now need a new term for the real thing, because your “theistic” evolution is now universally called theistic evolution, and (true) theistic evolution is used as a smokescreen to disguise deistic evolution (which is actually the “theistic” kind…). In other words, you can talk about it being “mightily hands on” and mean “no divine involvement”.

      “Theistically-driven”, though, sounds a bit clunky to me, and strictly speaking even redundant, a bit like “completely unique” or “truly orthodox”. Not sure I can do better though, perhaps because I’m afraid to commit myself to how God is involved. For example, “providential evolution” would sit with the Hump’s established strapline of “Classic Providential Naturalism” – but providence should be theologically distinguished from creation, and I suspect that new taxa, especially at higher levels, “cannot for less be told” than the latter.

      Perhaps we should hold a competition for a new term – any suggestions out there? The problem would be getting anybody else to recognise the term on which we settle.

  2. Edward Robinson says:

    It’s not surprising that I like your article, Jon, since it makes an argument parallel to the one I’ve been making at BioLogos and elsewhere for years.

    I like your comment to Ian about certain TE/EC leaders:

    “In other words, you can talk about it being “mightily hands on” and mean “no divine involvement”.”

    Yes, indeed. I’ve asked every living TE I can get hold of to tell me what Jeff Schloss means by “mightily hands on” (Schloss, of course, being merely the “Senior Scholar” of BioLogos, apparently has no obligation to show up on the website to talk to any of its readers, so I’ll never hear *his* explanation); not one of them will speak for Schloss (though some of them have quoted the remark with approval, which means that they ought to understand what it means and be able to defend it). But I’ve never seen a shred of evidence in the accounts of Venema, Applegate, Ard Louis, etc. that they think God is “mightily hands on” in evolution; based on what they have written, “natural causes alone” can apparently account for all that happens. God could “delegate” creation to natural causes, and then retire — even if that’s not ever explicitly said by the BioLogos folks, that’s how their picture of evolutionary creation *looks* to any outsider. And they don’t seem to be going out of their way to dispel that “look” other than by generic protests such as “We’re not Deists!”

    Speaking of very expensive books about origins which are probably very good and worth reading, have you come across the title by Rope Kojonen? It may be the best book ever written on Intelligent Design, and I can’t afford to buy it! See:

    • Jon Garvey says:


      That book looks interesting – series editor is Ted Peters, who can scarcely be accused of being a Creationist in a cheap tuxedo.

      But the pricing strategy is crazy – it guarantees that only university libraries will buy it, and that it will be consulted only by a tiny number of scholars who want to use it in sociological assessments of ID. If indeed it clarifies the issues surrounding what, after all, is largely a popular movement, it needs to be accessible (a) to those defending ID or those believers interested in it, who can reference it in discussion, and (b) the scientists and lay-people who still take for granted the mythology engineered by its opponents.

      Following Ian’s helpful example, here’s a link to a Google Books preview. (There’s another interesting phenomenon – pay £110 for a complete book, or zilch for a chunk sizeable enough to discourage forking out for the remainder!)

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