Joshua Swamidass has recently reviewed the massive book, Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, and Philosophical Critique (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2017). I want to respond to his review, and hopefully will do so in the same peaceful tone that he employs.
As just stated, this is a response to Joshua’s review, not an independent review of my own, so I won’t be summarizing the chapters of the book. Those who want to properly assess the book will need read the book for themselves.
I. First, a point of clarification about the responsibility for the book. Joshua starts out his discussion with:
“This book is a product of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, centered at the Discovery Institute.”
While both parts of this sentence contain correct information, the overall effect of the sentence might well be misleading to readers. Yes, the book is the product of ID thinkers (and some of their non-ID but respectful-of-ID intellectual conversation partners), and yes, the ID movement is centered at the Discovery Institute, but the book is not a product of the Discovery Institute and was not published by it. The book is published by Crossway, a Christian publisher in Illinois whose existence long predates that of the Discovery Institute.
Further, and more important, while the book is predominantly a pro-ID book, it does not represent the full spectrum of ID views and therefore cannot be taken as a full and perfect representation of ID thought. I will explain this.
ID is a “big tent” movement, comprising three groups: young earth creationists (YECs), old earth creationists (OECs), and evolutionists. An example of a YEC-ID proponent is Paul Nelson; and example of an OEC-ID proponent is Stephen Meyer; an example of an evolutionist ID proponent is Michael Behe. If one examines the list of essayists in the Crossway volume, one will find that there is not one essay by an explicitly evolutionist ID proponent. There is no essay by Behe, and no essay by Richard Sternberg (whose current view on evolution is not known, but whose last public statements seemed to endorse it), and no essay by Michael Denton. All the essays in the book, insofar as the position of the authors has been publicly stated (John West’s personal position on evolution has to the best of my knowledge not been publicly stated), are by people who have identified themselves, or can be identified, as OECs or YECs. A borderline case is that of Ann Gauger, who has not rejected evolution in the sense of common descent, but has expressed some doubts about it, and at least currently seems to lean to an OEC-ID position. Gauger is also, it seems, the only Roman Catholic writer among the group. So the authorship of the book overall is OEC, YEC, and Protestant, and hence represents only part of the ID movement, a movement which in full dress contains evolutionists (as mentioned above), and many Catholics (Gage, O’Leary, Richards, Behe, Sternberg, Gauger, Chapman), as well as some Jews (both agnostic and Orthodox).
My point then, is that this book, while giving good coverage of part of the ID movement, does not represent all of ID, and does not represent the official position of the Discovery Institute, which is non-committal on the question of evolution, i.e., descent with modification of all living forms from earlier forms. I don’t think that Joshua will object to my qualification, and so this isn’t a point of dispute between us (I hope!), but is offered merely as something that readers of Joshua’s review (and of the Crossway book) need to know.
II. As Joshua points out, the target of the Theistic Evolution book is (he quotes from page 67 of the work) the view that “God created matter and after that did not guide or intervene or act directly to cause any empirically detectable change in the natural behavior of matter until all living things had evolved by purely natural processes.” Joshua then goes on to state: “A non-intervention understanding of evolution, however, is a minority position among Christians that affirm evolutionary science.” This claim requires some discussion.
When the Crossway writers speak of “theistic evolution” (which is also called “evolutionary creation”, especially at BioLogos), they have in mind the version of theistic evolution most commonly espoused by the well-published leaders of theistic evolution, especially those who publish in Protestant evangelical venues such as BioLogos and the ASA (American Scientific Affiliation). In this sense, the Crossway writers are using a broad brush, because not all theistic evolutionists belong to either BioLogos or the ASA, and indeed, many TE leaders operate outside of the American evangelical ethos of both organizations, and have different theological orientations from those of many evangelicals. For example, Robert Russell, Owen Gingerich, John Polkinghorne and many others are “theistic evolutionists”, and in at least some cases (e.g., Robert Russell), do not hold the view that God did not guide or intervene or act directly in the evolutionary process.
Further, if one consulted not the leaders of theistic evolution, but the average followers of TE found in the churches, I strongly suspect that the majority envisage God as “guiding” or “steering” the evolutionary process, to cause it to produce certain divinely desired outcomes. The “hands-off” picture of God, is, I submit, far more characteristic of the TE officers than of the TE troops.
So Joshua’s remark is partly justified. Yet his remark could easily leave the impression that non-intervention is not even the majority view among the leaders of TE/EC, and I would argue that this perception is incorrect. Joshua writes:
“The non-intervention definition applies to Ken Miller, Thomas Oord, and possibly to John Polkinghorne and Karl Giberson. However, it is not accurately applied to Francis Collins, or the vast majority of Christians in science, or the vast majority of Christians I met when I worked with BioLogos. Most allow for God’s action in origins, while doubting science’s ability to elucidate the details. The official response to this volume by BioLogos says the same.”
Joshua is right about the four people named. About Collins, however, there is room for doubt. While Collins, unlike most TE leaders, has suggested that probably for the origin of life some divine intervention was needed, there is no suggestion in his writings (that I have seen) that he thinks that evolution needed any intervention once life got going. If Joshua can provide passages where Collins says this or even implies it, I would be interested in reading them. And in any case, if we move from Collins to the other BioLogos biologists — Falk, Venema, Applegate — while all of them assent to the official BioLogos position that God could have intervened at points in the evolutionary process to move it along, they have also indicated (Venema and Falk sometimes quite explicitly) that they see no reason to conclude that God has in fact done so; they make it clear that in their view processes such as random mutation and natural selection are sufficient to explain the history of organic change, without the need for special divine interventions. So, while not de jure ruling out divine intervention, they de facto treat divine intervention as something that did not need to occur and in fact has not occurred.
And this has been the predominant position among the BioLogos and ASA evangelical scientists, i.e., that while God has the power and the right to intervene in or manipulate the evolutionary process, there is no strong evidence that he has done so. Further, many if not most of them have indicated a theological preference for a God who does not intervene; they have many times spoken of a God who “tinkers” with derision; they have many times suggested that a God who sometimes intervenes in the evolutionary process must be an incompetent God, who wasn’t wise enough to set up the process to carry on correctly by itself, like a bad clockmaker who has to keep coming back to set his clock back to the proper time. (Of course, Leibniz argued similarly against the Newtonians centuries earlier, and this is not the only way in which modern TE reflects the leanings of early modern rationalist philosophy.)
If Joshua were to make a list of the public statements of TE/EC scientists such as Deb Haarsma, Loren Haarsma, Dennis Venema, Darrel Falk, Terry Gray, Preston Garrison, George Murphy, Ard Louis, Kathryn Applegate, Denis Alexander (who works for a British analogue of BioLogos), and Denis Lamoureux, he would be hard-pressed to find even one of them who explicitly avows that God has “intervened in” or “guided” or “steered” the evolutionary process; he would find that whenever that suggestion has been posed to them, they have either rebuked it, or taken the typical line that God may have intervened, but there is no evidence that he has done so or needed to do so, since known evolutionary mechanisms are (in their view) more than adequate to explain evolutionary outcomes without resort to intervention.
Note that I have said “public statements”. I cannot speak of any private statements those scientists may have made to Joshua or others. I can only judge the TEs, and the world can only judge the TEs, by what they say in public, not what they whisper to each other in private conversations or e-mails. As far as I and the world can tell, most of the leaders of the TE movement, both in the USA and in Britain, do not conceive of God as “intervening in” or “guiding” evolution in the normal sense of those phrases, and when the suggestion is made tend to strongly or mildly rebuke it.
An exception among the TEs is Ted Davis. Recently, in a BioLogos discussion, he indicated his view that God subtly intervenes or interacts with the evolutionary process (i.e., the view of Robert Russell). Interestingly enough, the two senior BioLogos moderators, Jim Stump and Brad Kramer, in Ted’s presence expressed disagreement with this view — which further confirms my overall judgment about the general trend of thought at BioLogos. (In the case of Stump and Kramer, however, the disagreement seems to be less along the lines of Venema and Falk, i.e., less rooted in biology, and more for theological reasons: Stump and Kramer don’t appear to like the kind of God who would intervene in natural processes. In this respect, they appear to be shaped by early modern rationalistic thought, which deplored the idea of an active, hands-on God who sometimes bypassed secondary causes and acted on the world directly.)
To summarize this part of my response: Joshua is correct to say that not all TEs hold the position that the Crossway book is attacking, and in that respect it is fair to say that the Crossway book broad-brushes too much. I think that if a survey were taken of all TEs, not just the leaders but the rank and file folks in the churches, the majority view would be that God sometimes intervenes directly to guide or steer the evolutionary process. I further think that it is unfair to group all TEs, including people like Robert Russell, with the cluster of ASA/BioLogos people who seem to have declared themselves the official spokespersons for evolutionary creation. So again, the Crossway book is a little too sweeping. On the other hand, a movement is usually judged by its vocal leaders, not by the silent majority we don’t hear from, and the majority of vocal leaders of American TE/EC, in the ASA, and on BioLogos, and including also Ken Miller and Francis Collins, give the strong impression that they think God set the evolutionary process in motion and then left it alone. So the Crossway book is not, I believe, unfair in its assessment of the main drift of American theistic evolution, as commonly expressed by its leaders. If the leaders don’t believe what the Crossway book says they believe, they have had every opportunity, for years now, to set the record straight by indicating that they (or at least some of them) personally believe that God has intervened in the evolutionary process — but not one of them has clearly said that (until Ted Davis recently did) in a public context, whatever they might have said among themselves privately.
III. Now, on the question of the detectability of design, Joshua objects to what he sees as an ID insistence that God’s action be detectable:
“The theological assumption that God’s action is “detectable” by human inquiry defines most of this section.”
I did not read the book in the same way that Joshua did. Aside from the fact that Meyer, on the very page Joshua cites (p. 47), grants that it is a logical possibility that God could completely hide himself so that his design cannot be inferred, I do not see the ID people as assuming that God’s action in nature is detectable; rather I see them as rejecting the assumption (made by the overwhelming number of TE leaders) that God’s action in nature is in principle not detectable. TE writing is rife with statements such as “God hides himself” (the emphasis of George Murphy), and with objections to any form of natural theology. And that would be fine, if the TE writers were content to indicate that they were giving only their personal view. But many have written as if it is intrinsically bad theology to suggest that God might make his action in nature inferrable, and the ID writers are rebuking that charge.
It’s important to understand the point the ID folks are making here. It is one thing to argue, against particular ID writers, that a particular arrangement of nature is not sufficient evidence to establish intelligent design. That is fair game. The ID folks have to be willing to meet such arguments. It is another thing entirely to rule out a priori, on theological grounds, that God’s creative action could ever be detectable. And that’s what many TE writers have been saying or suggesting. So it’s the TE writers, not the ID writers, who are making a theological assumption. They are assuming that the Christian God would never make his actions in creation such that human beings could infer his existence from them. But what gives the TEs the right to assume that? Where do they get this assumption? It’s certainly not from from any plain reading of the Bible, which many times affirms that God is knowable by features of nature accessible to all human beings, not just Jews or Christians. (In fact, Meyer indicates that particular passages of the Bible have informed his understanding on this point — see page 49.) And the assumption is certainly not part of the mainstream learned theological traditions, either. It’s an assumption springing from a particular form of Christian piety, and not a form that all Christians share. So it’s presumptuous.
Of course, to be fair to Joshua, I must not blame him for the situation I’m complaining about. He’s not responsible for the excessive, unbalanced TE hostility to natural theology and to the possibility that God’s designs might be inferred. I’m merely trying to justify the push-back that ID people give when TE folks try to dictate to them the dogma that God would not allow his designing activity to be detectable. To me, the correct theological position, based on Scripture and mainstream tradition, is that we cannot know the mind of God in advance of observing what he has done; we cannot know by a priori reasoning whether he would have, or wouldn’t have, made his designing of nature accessible to unaided human reason. Therefore, we cannot say in advance of investigation that the ID program of looking for possible design in nature is illegitimate. There is no Biblical or systematic theological principle which would warrant such an a priori judgment.
So the proper attitude is not (like that of so many ASA and BioLogos TEs) to invoke the trinity of Barth, Pascal and Newman to condemn all natural theology and condemn the ID project; the proper thing to do is study nature and see whether or not evidence of a designing mind appears to us. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, since we still have the assurance of revelation that design is real; but if it does, why would we spurn confirmation from human reason that there is a mind behind nature? There is nothing to be lost if the ID project fails, but much to be gained (at least from an apologetic point of view) if it succeeds. If it succeeds, the arguments of Dawkins, Coyne, etc. that have persuaded so many people that there is no God all fall to the ground. And sure, the God derivable from nature is not specifically the Christian God, but that makes no difference at all from the point of view of refuting the New Atheists. If any God exists, then atheism is false, and that’s not a finding that is worthless for Christian apologetics. All the Church Fathers (except maybe Tertullian) knew this. In fact, a good number of them regarded Greek philosophy, which sometimes reasoned to God from nature, as the propaedeutic to Christian faith, the vestibule through which many pagans passed en route to Christianity.
IV. Joshua’s final paragraph contains this:
“Still, this book leaves me with a burning question. As a scientist in the church and a Christian in science, I see firsthand the strength of evolutionary science. What version of theistic evolution could be theologically sound?”
Writing as someone who does not agree with some of the theology advocated in the “theological” section of the Crossway book, my answer is that many versions of theistic evolution might be theologically sound. Michael Behe is, for all practical purposes, a theistic evolutionist (though not of the BioLogos type), since he affirms evolution and affirms God as Creator. And though he doesn’t speak much about theology, preferring to concentrate on the evidence for design in nature, such scattered comments as he has made about Christian theology don’t seem to me to be out of step with mainstream Catholic and Protestant thought of the pre-Enlightenment period.
But for a more explicit treatment, there is the work of Jon Garvey, here on Hump of the Camel. I think Jon has shown that there is a better way to do theistic evolution than the way it is usually done at BioLogos or in the ASA or in the British analogues of BioLogos. Jon grounds his synthesis of evolutionary thinking and theology firmly in both the Bible and the learned Christian traditions (Patristic, Orthodox, Catholic, Reformed, etc.) — something that is hardly ever done consistently by those other groups. He doesn’t flirt with Open Theism, he doesn’t question God’s sovereignty over nature, he isn’t evasive about whether God had anything to do with evolution, he affirms a real Adam and Eve and a real historical Fall (which many American TE leaders have denied or subtly undermined), he doesn’t pick and choose which Biblical books are true and which contain “errors” (moral, scientific, historical, etc.), he doesn’t make declarations based on theological speculation about whether or not God would make his design detectable, and most of all, he reads extensively and in the primary sources in the pre-modern Christian tradition, which is something almost never done by the TE/EC leaders at BioLogos and in the ASA. He respects theological tradition, whereas most of the ASA and BioLogos leaders, in typical American do-it-yourself fashion, make up their own Christian theologies as they go along, based on their private interpretations of the Bible (often uninformed by Greek or Hebrew), on a smattering of theological reading in secondary and tertiary sources (mostly very recent), and on a set of moral and political sensibilities (often liberal and left-leaning) heavily informed by modern philosophy and modern social values. For the most part, BioLogos treats the writings of Luther, Calvin, Aquinas, Augustine, etc. as if they are not very important, and can lightly be set aside if they don’t agree with modern TEs’ personal readings of the Bible.
In my view (I don’t want to pretend to speak for Jon), the “Me and my Bible are all I need to become an expert on Christian theology” attitude is not going to produce a deep and persuasive synthesis of evolution with Christian truth. We have to get away from the American autodidactic, individualistic model of theology, and back to the older, European model of a learned theological tradition sustained over centuries of progressive reflection. When American Calvinists start becoming ashamed that they’ve read almost no Calvin, when American Lutherans start becoming ashamed that they’ve read little of Luther and nothing at all of Melanchthon, when American Episcopalians start becoming ashamed that they’ve never read a line of Cranmer or Hooker, when American Presbyterians feel the same way about their ignorance of the writings of Knox and American Methodists about their ignorance of the writings of Wesley, and when all of them are embarrassed that they’ve never read Augustine’s City of God or any of the Greek Fathers, then there might be some theological progress toward a healthy synthesis of Christianity and evolution.
But as it is now, most American TE leaders just pick and choose isolated sentences out of the Bible, Calvin, Newman, Barth, Augustine, etc. — whatever serves their apologetic purposes to justify endorsing the neo-Darwinism they’ve already accepted for professional reasons. The idea of studying theology for its own sake, and of mastering it, is alien to most of them. They’re mostly theological dilettantes, and that’s why their accounts of evolution and theology are so shallow and self-contradictory. Things won’t improve until the old guard of TE leaders — Collins, Falk, Giberson, Venema, Applegate, Ard Louis, Ken Miller, Haarsma, etc. give way to a new group of Christian scientists who have much more respect for, and much more firsthand knowledge of, centuries of Christian theological reflection, based on deep engagement with primary sources.
Up to this point, American TE has largely been led by bench scientists who just happen to be also Christian evangelicals; the next step will require TE leaders who have extensive qualifications in theology as well as in natural science. So far, the few American TEs who meet that stringent qualification — such as Robert Russell — have mostly operated outside the orbit of BioLogos and the ASA. But we can hope that a new generation of theologian-scientists, with serious academic training in both areas, will spring up, and it’s from that generation that a better harmonization of science and theology will come.