What we believe

Classic providential naturalism – towards a manifesto

Posted on 24/03/2014 by Jon Garvey

When The Hump was relaunched with multiple authors around last October, after various events at BioLogos, I cobbled together a kind of working brief to the prospective writers whimsically entitled The Hump Strategy (or “Evolutionary Creationism in a cheap camelskin coat”). The reference to a certain infamous wedge should be obvious to those in the know. In the light of Sy Garte’s call to arms in a comment yesterday I fished this document out for inspiration (rather than reading through the whole of what is now approaching a million words on the blog). The summary with which I concluded was this:

1 – A commitment to a classical theological basis
2 – A commitment to good science, and a realisation that good science is hard to find
3 – A commitment to broadness of approach and of knowledge
4 – A commitment to Christian respect for those providing content, and for those visiting and posting
5 – To develop and propagate in these ways models for integrating God’s two book of “nature” and “Scripture”, through the integration of science and theology in an effective way.

You’ll see there’s no direct reference to evolution, because I see our concern as being wider – actually as wide as science itself. But what is at its core, and how can it be expressed in a way that is clear and programmatic, if indeed there is a need to spread the concept wider? So, after waking early today and tossing things around in my mind, I now suggest that what we’re about could perhaps be summarised in the term Classic Providential Naturalism, or CPN in abbreviated form.

I hope, that if this handle proved agreeable, we could overcome the handicap that CPN also stands in the UK for “Community Psychiatric Nursing.” But let me unpack the term for you, before relating it to the world in which we’re trying to set it.

It’s Classic because it’s a reforming, rather than an innovative, movement, seeking to restore science to the classical Christian theology which launched it in the first place. Being therefore the historical default position from which other approaches have deviated, it doesn’t really deserve to be called an “ism”. As #1 in The Hump Summary implies, I’ve long been convinced that the historical structures of Christian doctrine are a perfectly adequate basis by which to pursue science, including origins science. By “classic” I mean the baseline theological principles expressed in the Bible and developed in the Patristic age including the early church councils, which were carried through into mediaeval scholastic theology, and continued in the teachings of the Reformation. Some of those are still commonplace, but some have been largely forgotten by many Christian scientists and in many churches. There are many aspects of this, such as varieties of causation beyond the efficient and material types that current science recognises, the role of Christ the Logos of God in creation, and most relevant of all, a strong doctrine of providence.

I should add here that CPN is at root a theological position, and so thoroughly and non-negotiably Christian. However, I see it as being of some theoretical service to other theists such as our Jewish brethren, whose doctrine of creation is traditionally of the same classical type.

So “classical” here stands distinct from, and in inevitable opposition to, both secular materialism and the non-classical forms of Christianity which sit loose to, or openly deny, traditional theology. Conversely it is in solidarity with all the historic traditions: Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed amongst them.

Secondly, it’s Providential because it is underpinned by a strong doctrine of divine providence. Thomas Aquinas, for example, like John Calvin, argues that Scripture teaches, and reason demands, that God’s active providence covers all events, governing and directing them towards his own ends. This includes lawlike events, chance events and events caused by voluntary agents like ourselves. Active providence therefore includes all the events studied by science as “secondary causes”.

This theological commitment predisposes towards certain theological or philosophical positions. For example, it requires opting for a concurrentist view of divine action rather than a mere conservationist one, placing it squarely against the definition of theistic evolution in the list cited by Sy Garte in his comment. Similarly it opens the way to, and even demands, some coherent understanding of where and how God might act within nature apart from the usual secondary causes: are some events, the origin of life say, necessarily acts of divine creation rather than just the result of divinely-sustained secondary causes?

One positive result of such a commitment is the removal of the unstable and rather incoherent tension in current theistic (actually, semi-deistic) evolution in which God does not, and may not “interfere” in nature, but somehow does, and may, do biblical miracles or answer prayers.

Thirdly, it’s Naturalism. It seems odd (even to me) to be promoting naturalism, not only given the secular climate, but also the rather doubtful orthodoxy of some of what is currently called “theistic naturalism”. But it seems to me that the term, qualified by the preceding “providential” is a necessary one, used in the sense of the reality of God-given “natures” within his creation. Science as we know it depends on the reality of secondary efficient causation, that is the genuine (though not, in this view, autonomous) actions of material natures. This flows from concurrentism, which does not however lose sight of God’s own purposeful activity before and behind those secondary causes. The term naturalism, then, enables science to happen, and CPN is a theological position that applies especially to science, through it is broad enough to be a valid overall approach to the whole created order.

This last point is important because, I would argue, the doctrine of creation is of equivalent importance to the doctrine of salvation, and interacts with it at key points. For instance, it is only when we understand how God interacts with us as creatures that we can makes sense of how he intervenes in salvation, through grace. It is only in understanding the true nature of the created order in relation to God that we will also be able to comprehend our own responsibilities towards it (hence some posts on ecology here), or the nature of our eschatological hope for the new creation.

And so I commend for discussion this term, and concept, namely Classic Providential Naturalism.


How does CPN relate to current players in the origins question? Though the term is newly-minted, I have argued before that its substance was the position of the first theistic evolutionists like Asa Gray, Charles Kingsley and Benjamin Warfield, to the extent that I have previously termed it, referring specifically to evolution, “Warfieldian Theistic Evolution”. That was, and is, fair enough as a description, for these Christians were modifying a new biological theory, rejecting any metaphysical naturalism tacked on to it, being willing to critique its evidence, and daring to make exceptions in subordination to core theological doctrines.

But I dislike it as an overall term because (as our own GD has often pointed out) to tie ones theology to a scientific theory is poor theology. Evolutionary theory is in flux. Who knows but that one day, like Newton’s physics, it might turn out to be of restricted application or even mistaken? In which case, one would have to become a theistic-something-else. Theistic Newtonianism would be time-expired now, whereas one could remain a providential naturalist whatever direction the science might take.

Since Warfield’s time, materialist metaphysics has become, frankly, an oppressive force within academia. To hold Asa Gray’s position now would not only make publication of theistic evolutionary papers impossible, but it is likely he might fail to be published at all. And he would almost certainly not gain tenure or grant money. If you doubt that, ask any scientist, biologist or not, who happens to be a Creationist or Intelligent Design advocate. Or ask Francis Collins, whose appointment at the NIH was disputed on the grounds of even his semi-deistic TE. Or journalist David Dobbs, who was accused by prominent academics like Pinker, Coyne and Dawkins of creationism even for supplementing Neodarwinian orthodoxy.

My point is that since there is, currently, no room in academia for any truly theistic views, those who agree with CPN will have to bite the bullet and accept they will face stiff opposition. They will have to employ the strategies that Christians have employed over 2 millennia, of concealment, or subtle strategy, or courageous opposition, or least honourably, compromise or choosing another profession. All these are evident in varying ways in the current Christian or Theist options.

Creationism (Young and Old Earth) arose out of US Fundamentalism in quite a complex way, but the motive was to honour God’s revealed word, and subsequently to seek to avoid dichotomising truth through the endeavour of Creation Science. It’s widely felt that the latter endeavour has done injustice to science (though it’s easy to forget in the propaganda wars that some bright, honest and competent scientists are Creationists, and that non-scientist Christians are even more likely to be educated, intelligent and yet Creationists). But historically the interpretation of Scripture in relation to natural philosophy has been broader, even in Evangelicalism, and I take it that CPN is closer to this tradition. So in that sense it stands against creationism. But the dichotomy is not too sharp, because creation doctrine ought to be axiomatic to all Christians, and any belief in divine, creative, activity within the history of nature cannot be conceptually distinguished from forms of creationism that include natural secondary causes in nature.

Intelligent Design arose as a direct response to the metaphysical pretensions of a dominant materialism in origins science. Stephen Meyer says the name was chosen as the antithesis of materialist biologists’ “Apparent Design”, which is worthy of long consideration. ID is intended (whether justifiably or not doesn’t matter here) as a one-issue (origins), scientific (+/- philosophical and metaphysical) rather than theological enterprise. It’s therefore orthogonal to CPN, which is intended as a theological approach to the created order, relevant to science and origins, but independent of either. We can endorse their insights and reject their errors without any sense of self-contradiction.

Theistic Evolutionism (aka BioLogos [Collins] or Evolutionary Creation [Falk]) is the re-branding, with a completely new recipe, of Warfieldian Theistic Evolution, which for various reasons scarcely survived the twentieth century. All its titles are arguably misleading, since (to cut the long story we all know short) it is more deistic than theistic, has little place for the Logos of God (and often a marginal one for the Bible as logos) and delegates much of creation to “Nature” as an unacknowledged Demiurge.

I encompass within this category not only the core of BioLogos itself, but many working scientists (eg those in ASA or the British equivalent CiS) who have read the popular TE literature, and much of the science-faith and divine action work in academia. Apart from what I regard as the intellectual and theological shortcomings of this view, unlike CPN it has, by its nature, tied its theological cart to an evolutionary horse, both narrowing its legitimate field of view and rendering it guilty of allowing a scientific theory (a narrow Neodarwinianism) to direct its theology.

Yet I strongly suspect that something like Classic Providential Naturalism is common both inside biology and natural science, and amongst pastors and lay people. For example, a population geneticist like David L Wilcox makes his belief in a strong doctrine of providence and biblical reliability clear in his book God and Evolution. I suspect that if we make it clear and well-defined as an approach, it may well enable people to articulate, and act on, their existing convictions. If we, or others, provide materials to teach and refine the concept, a significant educational purpose will have been served, to the benefit both of science and faith, and to the disadvantage of their genuine enemies.