What Is the Point of TE/EC Apologetics for Christians? Reply to Christy Hemphill

I generally enjoy the comments of moderator Christy Hemphill on BioLogos.  Aside from the fact that she has the greatest sense of humor of anyone at BioLogos, and aside from the fact that she is not a biologist and therefore isn’t constantly ruffled with professional indignation merely because someone criticizes neo-Darwinian mechanisms of evolution, and aside from the fact that she is a philologist and therefore dear to my heart, she usually talks good common sense.

It’s with reluctance, therefore, that I offer a public disagreement with one of her comments.  I think it is necessary to do it, though, because the disagreement is over something important.  I trust that she will take it in the most constructive spirit.

Under the heading What is the point of ID apologetics for Christians? she writes:

What exactly does proving to atheists that God designed viruses accomplish in a Christian apologetic sense? What is the path between “God designed viruses” and “Jesus is Lord and his kingdom is coming”? It’s something about the whole ID apologetics endeavor I have never understood. If seeing design in nature is edifying and reassuring and strengthens the faith and resolve of a Christian to go out and excel in love and good deeds, then that’s great. But “proving” the existence of some generic Designer isn’t the gospel. At all. So what is the point of being so evangelistic about it, when we have an actual evangel we were specifically told to go out and share with the world? (Mark 16:15)

Her gently sarcastic jab here about “proving to atheists that God designed viruses” is registered.  But now let’s see if the jab can be turned in the other direction.

A number of leading TE/EC folks, both at BioLogos and elsewhere, have told the world time and again that ID misrepresents living nature.  Living things, they often tell us, don’t resemble the products of an intelligent designer.  Would an intelligent designer, they ask, create the badly flawed, easily injured human back?  Would an intelligent designer, they ask, inefficiently wire the retina of the human eye backward?  Would an intelligent designer, they say, create a mouth too small for the number of teeth it has to hold, with wisdom teeth crowding and misaligning human dentition?  No, they say; these and other flaws in human and animal design indicate that we and other beings are created not by a rational process akin to engineering, but by a largely irrational process of trial and error, building on whatever previous genotypical and phenotypical material happens to be lying around.  Hence, neo-Darwinian evolution, rather than ID, is the best explanation for how organisms came to be.

To add insult to injury, the TE/EC argument presses further.  Not only does living nature show inefficiency and incompetence from a design point of view; it shows malice.  What kind of designer, they ask (Ken Miller, Francisco Ayala, and “beaglelady” for example), would deliberately engineer something as horrible as the malarial parasite?  What kind of designer, they demand to know, would create the parasites that worm their way into the stomachs of African children and destroy them from the inside?  Only a fiendish designer, they say or imply.  If God intelligently designed such things, he would be an evil God, one not worthy of worship.  So why do these things exist?  Again, the answer is “evolution.”  In the neo-Darwinian scheme of evolution, things happen without foresight, by trial and error, as life does a blind search for new possibilities.  Sometimes evil, painful things emerge from the blind search.  So again, neo-Darwinism, rather than ID, is the best explanation for how organisms came to be.

Now, I’m going to ask Christy to think for a moment about this line of argument, and about how it fits in with other rhetoric coming from TE/EC writers.

Regularly on BioLogos, we see “faith” columns where TE/EC scientists wax poetic about the biological wonders God has created through evolution, and tell us how grateful we should all be to God for evolution’s results.  We are asked to admire the creative brilliance of God as he employs evolution to create ruby-throated hummingbirds and leaping gazelles and so on.  Columnists like Kathryn Applegate can be found writing things like, “When I see the amazing world God has created through evolution, I’m so much more impressed by God’s brilliance than I would be by a God who merely created things instantaneously like a magician.”  But these same columnists never seem to notice a rather large inconsistency between their joy over God’s creation in columns like these, with their criticism of the arrangements of creation in columns where they are bashing ID proponents over the head.

If it’s true that evolution works by a clumsy, ad hoc process, trying out various experiments without foresight, making use of whatever biological material is lying around (no matter how unsuitable it is for good design), then what exactly are these columnists praising God for?  For using an inefficient trial-and-error process that is not as intelligent or as quick as proper engineering?  For using a process which God (by his foresight) knows in advance will generate career-ending back injuries, bloody surgery in dentists’ offices, and horrible parasites causing untold suffering to little African children?

Doesn’t it strike Christy as a little odd that so many leaders and followers of TE/EC stress how badly designed much of organic nature is, but also say that the right religious attitude of Christians toward this badly designed organic nature is to gush with over-the-top praise for God’s choice of creative method?

This incongruity justifies turning Christy’s jab in the other direction, against TE/EC:

What exactly does proving to Bible-believing Protestant evangelical Christians that God adopted a “hands-off” policy — letting evolution grope blindly toward bad backs, wisdom teeth, faulty retinal wiring, malaria, African parasites, etc. — accomplish in a Christian apologetic sense?

It thus seems to me that TE/EC, when it comes to the doctrine of Creation, has no rhetorical advantage over ID on the apologetics front.

In fact, if push came to shove, I think that most Bible-believing Christians would rather believe that God actively willed the existence of some evils in the natural world, for reasons known only to an all-wise being but surely for the world’s overall good, than that God in Creation was an absentee landlord who left all the decisions to an incompetent and heartless property manager, i.e., the Demiurge known as neo-Darwinian evolution.  I think most Christians would rather believe that God’s deliberate choices are sometimes stern but ultimately for the good of man and of all Creation, than that God irresponsibly abdicated deliberate choices and accepted whatever blind evolutionary processes turned up.  They’d rather believe that God directly made malaria than that God washed his hands of any moral blame for it, on the grounds that “It wuz evolution what dun it, not me.”

In a passage rarely discussed by TE/EC leaders on BioLogos or anywhere else, in Isaiah 45:7, God indicates that he sometimes creates evil.  Note “create evil” — suggesting deliberate action by God, not merely standing aside while natural process produce evil by accident.  The idea that God might will (not merely tolerate) some things that we call evil is clearly anathema to the modern TE/EC sensibility (a sensibility that it ironically shares with its arch-foe YEC), and to the Enlightenment theological rationalism which lies behind it.

I have not yet touched on the ending of Christy’s remarks, because they aren’t germane to the main point I’ve tried to make here, but I will offer one point of agreement:  Yes, it’s true that proving nature is designed is not the point of the Gospel.  But ID writers have never offered ID as a substitute for the Gospel; they have offered it only as a rebuttal to the atheist arguments that “science proves” that nature is filled with incompetent and evil structures (and therefore that no intelligent design lies behind the world, only blind chance and pitiless natural laws).  They have offered design arguments as useful for Christian apologetics only in the sense that Origen, Clement, etc. saw Greek philosophy as useful for apologetics, as a sort of protevangelium, a prelude to arriving at an understanding of the Gospel.

Yet many TE/EC writers have been determined to smash the possibility of any such protevangelium; they (especially the biologists among them) have made it their task to show evangelical Christians that the atheist scientists are essentially right in their description of nature and of the evolutionary process, and right to say that the study of the order and structures of nature can’t get us even one inch toward belief in the existence of God.  So, if the charge against ID is that design arguments are insufficient theologically, for not taking us all the way to the Gospels, the charge against TE/EC is much more serious: it attempts to destroy the pathway to God through the study of nature, a pathway long-honored in Christian tradition, and this destruction leaves a huge conceptual gulf between the Christian and the non-Christian, and hence a massive apologetic problem.  With the ancient bridge (first forged by the Greek philosophers, and later strengthened by the natural theology tradition) destroyed, one of the main apologetic tools for reaching out to rational pagans and rational agnostics — who at first are often repelled by or at least suspicious of Jesus-talk, but not repelled by God-talk based on the common human experience of nature — is lost.

ID isn’t Christianity, and establishing intelligent design certainly can’t establish the Christian God.  But ID at least doesn’t get in the way of people who are open to the possibility of the Christian God, and its picture of God as a wise designer is in line with 2,000 years of tradition of Biblical interpretation.  TE/EC, on the other hand, sometimes imperils attempts to bring people to the Christian God, because it presents a Creator-God who doesn’t care enough about what the evolutionary process does to intervene and mitigate its harshness, and hence a God not much like the God of Love preached by evangelical Christians.  TE/EC proponents may sound all the right evangelical notes when they speak of God as Redeemer, but when they speak of God as Creator, their commitment to understanding Creation as a heartless, stupid, inefficient, and gratuitously cruel process of trial-by-error evolution, they sound all the wrong notes.

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About Edward Robinson

Edward Robinson (Eddie) started his university career on a science scholarship, but ended up as a philosopher/theologian researching the relationship between religion and natural science. He has published several books and articles on religion/science topics in both mainstream academic outlets and denominational and popular periodicals. He has also taught courses in various departments in several universities.
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8 Responses to What Is the Point of TE/EC Apologetics for Christians? Reply to Christy Hemphill

  1. Avatar photo Christy says:

    I never thought I would see the day when I would attain such internet notoriety as to have an entire Hump of the Camel post dedicated to my off-hand musings. I am feeling quite honored!

    First, I was not being sarcastic when I asked what proving that viruses are designed has to do with converting atheists; that was an honest question directed at a specific person who had been attempting to do just that for the last couple days on the BioLogos forum. I was trying to understand his motivation better.

    Second, as we know, I am not one of the “leading TE/EC folks,” I am a mere TE/EC hobbyist, and most of what you said about *those people* doesn’t resonate with me and shouldn’t be projected on the six sentences I wrote as some kind of context for them. I don’t feel compelled at all to explain or defend views I don’t have. “Would an intelligent designer, they ask, create the badly flawed, easily injured human back?”

    The illusive TE/EC “they” might, but not me. Ironically, I have a herniated disk at the moment and I have no theological problem whining to God about it, because I have been quite miserable for three weeks and I believe he could have cut me some slack and spared me the discomfort with everything else I have going on at the moment. I don’t feel the need to absolve God of responsibility for all the yucky things in life and nature. If he is the Creator of all that is seen and unseen, as I confess, he’s the Creator of bad backs and viruses. I don’t have an intellectual or theological problem with God being the designer of viruses. I have an emotional problem, because like many people, I don’t like the implications. But I don’t like all the implications of a substitutionary atonement or a final judgment either. I take a lesson from Job and don’t presume that the God of the universe must answer to my feeling uncomfortable about his justice. I also take the lesson (as did Kathryn in your quote) from Job that as humans we are to behold God’s works in creation and respond in worship and awe not stand in judgment of God’s ways. If God’s ways include evolution and evolution includes viruses, then we are to stand in awe of that too.

    My question is what “proving” the assertion that God designed viruses to someone who rejected it would gain the Kingdom of God. Amid the morass of the requisite “TE/EC folks are so misguided” stuff, I think you said it was a way of expanding on the shared human experience of beholding nature to engage people in thinking about God if they were initially closed to “Jesus talk.” I think that’s a great idea. But when you ask people to respond in wonder to the created world and sense the inherent design, it seems to me to be an appeal to intuition not science. Why not just appeal to intuition? Intuition reveals truth too.

    “What exactly does proving to Bible-believing Protestant evangelical Christians that God adopted a “hands-off” policy — letting evolution grope blindly toward bad backs, wisdom teeth, faulty retinal wiring, malaria, African parasites, etc. — accomplish in a Christian apologetic sense?” That’s a strawman if I ever saw one. Do you really think that is BioLogos mission at all? I can refer you (once again) to the mission page: https://biologos.org/about-us/our-mission/

    Third, I was not engaged in a conversation with “ID writers,” I was engaged in a conversation with an ID proponent who evidently does think ID is a substitute for the gospel, judging by his fervor in preaching it to atheists. Nothing in my question was intended as a critique of any major ID writer or work. It was a question from one Christian to another, with the assumption that we share the same mission in reaching lost people with the good news that Jesus reconciles sinners to God.

    It’s been fun. I miss our little chats. (Well, only when I have lots of time on my hands. 😉 )

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

      Delighted to have you here, Christy!

      I wasn’t quoting Kathryn, by the way, merely producing an example of the sort of thing she and others have written in the columns in the “praise nature” section of BioLogos.

      If you say you weren’t being sarcastic, but were responding to someone in particular, I believe you. The sarcasm wasn’t the main thing I was objecting to, anyway.

      I am glad to hear that you don’t hold to some of the TE/EC ideas I was characterizing, and indeed, I’m not surprised that you don’t. Your remark was really more of a convenient springboard for me to organize some thoughts around the internal incoherence of certain TE/EC arguments as presented on BioLogos and elsewhere. That’s why I subtitled the piece, “Reply to Christy Hemphill” rather than “Against Christy Hemphill”. It was meant to be a reply to you, but about some of the themes that you addressed, which are themes universal in the TE/ID conflict. Really, I was trying to get your reaction regarding the inconsistency of some of EC/TE folks in their charges against ID folks. And I did get some comments from you, so I succeeded to some extent.

      Naturally, it would have been better for me to have replied to you in the BioLogos setting, so that this discussion could be contextualized in light of the discussion there, but for reasons you know, I cannot reply to you on BioLogos.

      You write:

      “What exactly does proving to Bible-believing Protestant evangelical Christians that God adopted a “hands-off” policy — letting evolution grope blindly toward bad backs, wisdom teeth, faulty retinal wiring, malaria, African parasites, etc. — accomplish in a Christian apologetic sense?” That’s a strawman if I ever saw one. Do you really think that is BioLogos mission at all?

      But in fact, Christy, the stated views of Venema, Falk, Applegate etc. about the mechanism of evolution imply exactly that position, whether they consciously articulate it or not. If evolution works the way neo-Darwinism says it does, then God has chosen to let evolution grope blindly for adaptive success — with the logically inescapable consequences of “bad design” and great suffering. Indeed, that was the whole point of Darwin’s thesis, to take special divine action right out of the picture — and it was the view of all the classical neo-Darwinians as well — all the big guns of 20th-century biology who laid down the evolutionary theory in which Falk, Venema, etc. were trained.

      And I could live with that — if the TE/ECs didn’t then have the gall to say that the ID God is not worthy of worship because he designs evil things like malaria! Which is worse, a God who consciously intends malaria for some purpose of his own, or a God who doesn’t intend malaria, and pretends he doesn’t like the nasty thing because he’s such a loving guy, but yet, when he sees it coming down the evolutionary pipeline, does nothing to stop it?

      Yes, yes, I know that Falk, Venema, and Applegate are all on record as saying that it’s possible God subtly and silently guides the course of evolution, but that has never been more than a formal concession, and indeed, at least in the case of Falk and Venema, there have been several explicit statements that though God might have done so, they see no evidence that he has done so, and no reason to suppose that he did. So their de facto position, despite your protest, is that God is “hands-off” in evolution — does not tinker with the free run of random mutations, natural selection, drift, meteoroids wiping out the whole race of dinosaurs, etc. In other words, they personally believe that God has allowed great evils to occur due to the natural processes of evolution.

      And that’s fine — as long as they don’t turn around and say that ID has bad theology because it makes God responsible for evil — when their own view makes God just as responsible, inaction against evil being as great a moral crime as evil action itself.

      Now you might say, why am I picking on all TE/EC leaders, even those who haven’t explicitly made the arguments I’m setting forth? Well, not one BioLogos columnist has ever chided Miller, Ayala, beagelady, etc. for the “ID is bad theology because only an evil God would create malaria” argument. Where have Deb, Dennis, Kathryn, etc. ever done so? For that matter, I’ve not seen even one ASA-TE member go on record against it. Where have Loren Haarsma, Randy Isaac, etc. ever done so? Some of them may, like you, not agree with the argument, but none of them has ever protested. They gladly let Miller, Ayala and others make that public argument against ID, without expressing disagreement or even mild reservation.

      It’s the same phenomenon I’ve noted so many times before: the unwritten rule, which one day will perhaps be enshrined in cultural history as “Eddie’s Theorem”: “No TE/EC proponent will ever, within hearing of any ID proponent or creationist, express explicit theological disagreement with another TE/EC proponent.” As long as someone is hammering ID, even with what they consider to be bad theological arguments, the TE/EC leaders always remain conveniently silent. That’s one of the reasons (among others) that I have so little respect for most TE leaders (exceptions being Ted Davis, Robert Russell, John Polkinghorne, and one or two others who will actually speak their theological minds without worrying about the optics of it in ID/TE or TE/YEC debates).

      Regarding your last paragraph, yes, I knew you were not taking up the subject of ID in itself, but you were asking about the relationship between arguments for design and Christian apologetics. My point was that arguments for design can be part of Christian apologetics — apologetics for the “God” part of Christianity, as opposed to the “Christ” part. In that sense, ID can be used for (but need not be used for) Christian apologetics in a legitimate way. But I wasn’t disagreeing with you at all about the point that Christianity is about much more than believing in a designing God.

      I’m glad you agree with me that there is a place within Christian apologetics for approaches to God that temporarily exclude Jesus talk. I don’t even disagree with you when you go on to say that intuition without formal scientific argument can be valid. (But notice how Venema and several others on BioLogos have recently savaged Axe’s appeals to intuition, saying that intuition has no validity in science and can actually lead to wrong conclusions.) Nor am I as fired up about claiming the name “science” for ID as some ID folks are.

      But at the same time, in a world where reckless speculations like string theory and multiverses are considered to be legitimate scientific hypotheses, I can’t see any reason — other than metaphysical or theological prejudice connected with the implications of “design” — for excluding ID as a legitimate scientific hypothesis. (If everyone became convinced that string theory implied the existence of God, you can be sure that it would become the “consensus” of the physics community that string theory was “not science, but philosophy or theology,” and that it should not be allowed to be taught in high school physics class.)

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      I never thought I would see the day when I would attain such internet notoriety as to have an entire Hump of the Camel post dedicated to my off-hand musings. I am feeling quite honored!

      And I never thought The Hump would have its own thread at BioLogos (or at Uncommon Descent, come to that) until it happened! The fact is that all our comments contribute in one way or another to the faith-science discussion.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        The illusive TE/EC “they” might, but not me. Ironically, I have a herniated disk at the moment and I have no theological problem whining to God about it, because I have been quite miserable for three weeks and I believe he could have cut me some slack and spared me the discomfort with everything else I have going on at the moment.

        Christy, I didn’t read the BioLogos thread, so didn’t see the tone of it, but taken in itself (and as a fellow back-sufferer), this remark of your is, I think, one good reason why owning God as the creator even of viruses is foundational for preaching the gospel.

        To be able, as a believer, to know where to take ones complaint (and not have it shrugged off by the Lord as the demiurge’s problem, not his) is the basis for a productive interaction in prayer. One third of the psalms are, after all, complaints.

        Likewise, as we reach out with the gospel to those in any kind of trouble, to be able to point them to God himself for answers opens up a channel both for healing and understanding of God’s dealings with us.

        Oddly enough, half an hour before I read this column, a guy at church who nursed his wife through a long terminal illness actually asked me if God made viruses (the pastor had preached on grace in creation, but not mentioned illness). I think confronting the mystery of God’s providence is, in the end, a better solution that his, which was to make Satan a co-creator of God’s world.

        All that said, I’m not suggesting your BioLogos opponent didn’t deserve your rebuke, since I’ve not read the thread, as I said.

    • Robert Byers says:

      These blogs are meant to reach a public and so get a reply. Its not just musings aloud.
      Wisdom teeth make a creatuonist point. They show, as Genesis teaches, we first did not eat meat and not until after the flood. After the flood we were told to eat meant and so , logically, out teeth had to adapt to this tougher diet. Wisdom teeth problems just show our adaptation was not good.Good enough but not very good.
      Retinal wiring is fine and if there was a better way, those judging never jheal eyesight by the way, then prove it by correcting blindness in people on this point.
      The other stuff is problems that only exist in a post fall world. All creation by God was finished at creation week and so all adaptation since is just manipulation of a existing blueprint in biology. Its not god failing but the system frailing to be perfect.
      Like the giraffe case. God didn’t create giraffes but only a KIND that came from. So the unique nexk streching is not from Gods hands but from his system. Yet the sytem , while great, is also under the fall and probably makes mistakes.
      Its an equation.

      • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


        I don’t think it’s useful to get into a detailed argument about YEC and the Fall here.

        I believe in Creation, but I’m not a “creationist” as that term is commonly used in North America, and I don’t endorse YEC, nor do I agree that the Bible teaches any “Fall” that fundamentally disrupted the whole Creation (as opposed to a Fall which disrupted certain specified relationships of human beings with the soil, with each other, and with serpents). But I don’t want this comments section to turn into a debate between you and me over the Biblical teaching on the Fall, as that was not the subject of my column. Rather, I will focus on your apparent agreement with ID, and try to make one point to you.

        You seem to agree that ID people are right to look for evidence of God’s wisdom in the natural world. But note that if Creation “fell” in the sense of becoming something radically other than what it once was, then ID arguments could not work. They could not find the wise design of God in the Creation, if the Creation was so corrupted that it no longer looked the way it did when God made it. They would find evidence only of broken, disrupted design.

        ID can detect design only if the structures of nature are largely intact, maintaining the character they had at their Creation. So if you are going to support ID, as you seem to, you are going to have to give up on the idea that all of Creation (as opposed to the small portion of Creation discussed in the sentencing of God in Genesis 3) “fell” because of Adam and Eve.

        If you want to object specifically to the claim I have just made, about the logical need of ID for a largely non-corrupted Creation, go ahead, but I will ask you not to launch into a general defense of either YEC or a “fallen Creation”; save such a defense for a column here where the idea of a “fallen Creation” is the actual topic of discussion.

        • Robert Byers says:

          You make a important point that all ideas on DESIGN, including its flaws, would be corrupted by a fallen world. that is a world decaying/dying in its biology glory once held.
          The simple reply is just that design was so glorious originally then even in a inferior state its still glorious and shows a creators design and demands this conclusion.
          people are poor in relation to us before a fall but we are pretty good.
          A cirrupted Beatles song is still a beatles song and pretty good no matter who mangkes it. Unless some would argue that.

  2. Robert Byers says:

    Id and YEC defend the conclusions of a creator, his fingerprints in nature that evident and thus proving there is a creator, and the bible as Gods word and so its conclusions are true.
    Why does biologos exist? Its to deny some of these conclusions.
    ID and yEC are winning and these folks are fighting a retreating stance.

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