The original prompt for this latest Areopagite installment was the following question: Does evolutionary creationism allow for detectable divine intervention? The question is deliberately direct, and perhaps rough-hewn as a result. But our aim was to stimulate a frank discussion among Christian evolutionists on whether God acts in ways that are over and above his regular providence sustaining the created order. The five responses have been illuminating, and I thank the participants for the stimulating exchange.
As the moderator for this series, the point of this exercise isn’t for me to inject my own views on this or any other question (so I will try to keep my biases on a firm leash). My goal is to ask questions that will hopefully encourage further clarity and move the dialogue along. Let us then proceed, beginning with Jim Stump’s insightful remarks.
Nice work Jim, reminding us why analytic or philosophical clarity can be so vital to the task of Christian theological reflection. Your response was excellent at clarifying what many believers mean by “evolutionary creationism.”
As you know, there is a long tradition of Protestants and Catholics who saw God as always and already at work in his creation, sustaining it moment by moment. Some of them spoke of God working through secondary causes; others described God’s ordinary providence in terms of preservation, concurrence, and governance. There was not a whiff of deism in their theology—and yet, these same theologians also recognized a special providence. They insisted that God sometimes chooses to act in an extraordinary or miraculous way—by signs and wonders (e.g., Exod. 7:3).Your response was excellent at clarifying what many believers mean by “evolutionary creationism.” Since God is living and active in both ordinary and special providence, C. John Collins speaks of “qualitatively special divine action.”C. John Collins, The God of Miracles: An Exegetical Examination of God’s Action in the World (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000), 87. I’m curious to see you interact with this language in the tradition.
Your cautions against the God of the gaps fallacy are well said. This charge, as you know, is often leveled against Intelligent Design arguments. I do wonder, though, whether the shoe always fits. For instance, Del Ratzsch remarked, “such [ID] explanations are generally seen as so obviously illegitimate that merely labeling an explanation as ‘God of the gaps’ is often taken to constitute an unanswerable refutation of it.”Del Ratzsch, Nature, Design and Science: The Status of Design in Natural Science (New York: State University of New York Press, 2001), 47. Ratzsch and others have raised philosophical objections to the God of the gaps critique (see also Erkki Kojonen).See Ratzsch, Nature, Design and Science, 47-48, and passim; Erkki Kojonen, “The God of the Gaps, Natural Theology, and Intelligent Design,” Journal of Analytic Theology 4 (2016): 291-316. At what point do you think it is appropriate to ask if God is playing a “direct” or “special” role in his creation—or would you say that it is never appropriate?
Finally, I was somewhat Stumped by your distinction between “personal” vs. “scientific” explanations. Your analysis brought to mind Stephen Jay Gould’s principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). It made me think you were carving things up so that God’s action and the scientific domain have no substantive way of interacting with each other, i.e., complementarity without any direct interface. But that observation is in tension with other things you say, so I suspect I’m misreading you (confession: I think your boiling tea illustration threw me off). To put things differently, how do you avoid a God of the gaps in the case of Christ’s resurrection? And further, is your evolutionary creationism the same as what Michael Behe defines as “Evolutionary Creationism”—and if not, what exactly is the difference?
Many tend to see Intelligent Design (ID) and theistic evolution as incompatible. I think it is true that ID and some forms of theistic evolution are indeed incompatible. By showing us one way to be a Christian evolutionist and an ID proponent, your response helpfully upends some stereotypes.
To begin, I want to make sure I’ve properly understood some of your definitions. For example, I wasn’t sure what to make of “creationism” as you define it: “the idea that some parts of nature were brought into existence by God ex nihilo separately — after the bulk of nature—whether long ago or comparatively recently.” What you are describing sounds similar to what is sometimes called progressive creationism, the idea that “God created different kinds or species supernaturally in a progression throughout the long time span of Earth’s history rather than all at once (or over the period of six days).”J. B. Stump, “Introduction,” in Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, ed. J. B. Stump (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 12. However, progressive creationism is usually categorized as a type of old-earth creationism—not theistic evolution. Here’s what I think you mean: God used evolution to create the different kinds or species; he supplemented the outplaying of natural laws by progressive moments of divine intervention (“divine intervention” as you define it). Am I anywhere close to capturing your view?
I was also intrigued when you argued that, without supernatural revelation, we cannot know that there has been direct ex nihilo creation. You actually say: “The fact of supernatural creation can be known only through supernatural revelation.” Is this claim solely about the creative acts of God in the past? Or do you mean to include any miraculous event, either in the past or in the present? I can’t tell. If you meant the latter, then I think I need clarification on what you mean by “supernatural revelation”? If by that phrase you mean Scripture, then your position potentially rules out any divine miracles today. That means that thousands of testimonies to miraculous answers to prayer, from believers down the centuries, and across the world—all such testimonies are illegitimate since most of them were not certified by supernatural revelation. A bold claim, surely?
By showing us one way to be a Christian evolutionist and an ID proponent, your response helpfully upends some stereotypes.
One of your key phrases is the concept of “a purposeful arrangement of parts.” I looked for actual examples of what you mean—and you gave a few, all of them helpful, but none from nature itself. That left me speculating about what you might mean in the case of specific scientific fields. In biology, for example, is this idea another way of talking about organic structures with irreducible complexity? Or do you have something different in mind? It would help if you gave specific examples from biology or chemistry that show purposeful arrangement.
One final question. You say that purposeful arrangement in nature implies the presence of mind. That makes sense, but does it also follow on your view that non-purposeful arrangement in nature implies the absence of mind? Yet from a biblical perspective, the existence of anything in creation points to the presence of the divine mind: “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Maybe you’d agree but would still remind us that this claim is theological not scientific. Perhaps your thesis, then, is that the only scientific way we can infer the presence of mind is by virtue of purposeful arrangement. Is that what you mean?
Niamh, your comparison and contrast of Wallace and Darwin was helpful and historically interesting. At the very least, you remind us that evolutionary history can be understood differently by scientists (we might say it is theologically underdetermined).
Unlike Alexander and Stump, you propose at least three moments of divine intervention in evolutionary history. This aspect of your position is arguably more resonant with how Christians have traditionally understood Genesis. However, given your commitment to the Neo-Darwinian account, how do you avoid the God of the gaps critique?
Here’s what I mean. Some of Darwin’s earliest critics could not imagine a scientific alternative to direct supernatural creation. It was inconceivable to them that nature, without any divine intervention, could generate all the diversity of life. And yet, Darwin offered an elegant theory that had no need for divine intervention.At the very least, you remind us that evolutionary history can be understood differently by scientists (we might say it is theologically underdetermined). Most evolutionists today would agree with Darwin over his critics—that is, Darwin’s critics accepted the theological conclusion of direct creation based on the absence of scientific evidence (ergo, they were guilty of the God of the gaps fallacy). So far so good.
But your own position is that God did intervene supernaturally at points in the evolutionary past. As you put it: “There is as yet no adequate scientific explanation either for the suddenness of their emergence or for the vast difference in cognitional powers between Homo sapiens and the other hominid species, a strong indication that Wallace was correct in his arguments concerning what natural selection can and cannot achieve.” Does this claim put you in a similar epistemic position to Darwin’s early critics? There may be “no adequate scientific explanation,” but how do you know that situation will never change? How do you know that decisive scientific theories will not arise in 10 or 25 years?
Virtually all Christians were (implicitly) anti- or non-evolutionist for eighteen centuries before evolution was intellectually plausible. Thanks to the new scientific understanding of Mendelian genetics, Darwin’s account was eventually accepted.Peter Bowler, The Non-Darwinian Revolution: Reinterpreting a Historical Myth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988). In that light, why should we think that the current absence of scientific explanation points strongly toward divine intervention? Maybe there are scientific explanations we are currently unaware of. I guess I’m wondering what criteria you’re using to land on one side versus the other on this question.
One final question Niamh: What do you make of Jim Stump’s definition of evolutionary creationism? I’d like to hear your thoughts on how he maps out the terrain.
Denis, I’m so grateful for your rich Christological approach to the question. Those are powerful and beautiful reminders, saturated with Scripture. We sometimes forget that the reality investigated by science finds its very being in another Reality infinitely bigger, and deeper, and richer—the very Person of Jesus.
You nicely capture the biblical witness to God’s ordinary providence, whereby God sustains his creation moment by moment. For example, you write,We sometimes forget that the reality investigated by science finds its very being in another Reality infinitely bigger, and deeper, and richer—the very Person of Jesus. “There are not, and cannot be, any Divine interpositions in nature, for God cannot interfere with Himself. His creative activity is present everywhere.” A lingering question is whether there should be a separate category that we might call “special” providence. Does God sometimes act within his creation differently from his normal, sustaining providence?
Christ’s resurrection seems relevant here. In your opinion, is it appropriate for Christians to talk of special, supernatural divine action—in this case and perhaps in others? Some of your explicit statements seem resistant to that kind of language. At the same time, you happily confess that “God raises Jesus from the dead.” I was puzzled as I read your piece and wondered if there is any tension in your thinking here.
The same question emerges from your position on evolutionary creationism as such. You say that the only way that God relates to evolutionary creation is by means of his ordinary providence, his “daily providential up-holding of everything that exists.” This sounds like a scrupulous methodological naturalism in regard to science. My question here is for you and also Jim Stump: Help me understand what is motivating this stance. Why is it so important that there be no special providence in evolutionary history? I can imagine someone like B. B. Warfield, and theistic evolutionists of his stripe, appealing to special providence to explain God’s creation of the cosmos (Genesis 1) and his creation of humanity (Gen, 1:27, 2:7, 2:22). Would they be wrong to do so—and if so, why? I welcome your thoughts on these matters.
Bob, I appreciate the conceptual sophistication you bring to this conversation, here and in your many published works. Your synthesis is remarkable for how it balances scientific, theological, historical, and philosophical considerations.
Most intriguing is your concept of non-interventionist objective divine action, the idea that “God acts in nature without blocking, suspending, or undercutting the normal regularities of natural processes.” You also emphasize how this understanding of divine action does not conflict with science. And yet I find myself asking, what’s so bad about interventionist objective divine action? Why is it so important that your proposal not conflict with science?Your synthesis is remarkable for how it balances scientific, theological, historical, and philosophical considerations. This constraint seems to place science in the methodological driver’s seat; theology must then stay within the limits laid down by our current science. I’m not sure that’s a fair reading of your proposal, though I hope you’ll shed more light.
A question that I find relevant concerns how science should be understood theologically. Isn’t science our most sophisticated attempt at describing how God generally sustains the material cosmos in its being? And if that is correct, why should any Christian think that God doesn’t sometimes act differently in and through his creation—especially based on what we read in Scripture?For more, see Robert Larmer, The Legitimacy of Miracle (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014); Collins, God of Miracles. Perhaps your strictures flow out of your commitment to methodological naturalism—indeed, do your concerns here overlap with those of Jim Stump and Denis Alexander?
My other question relates to the role that the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum processes plays in your non-interventionism. For most of church history, the church accepted some kind of direct divine action as the clear testimony of Scripture. Are you debunking this dogmatic tradition of the church, implying that it cannot understand this aspect of God’s action without the resources of modern physics? What happens to your proposal if the Copenhagen interpretation is superseded in the future?
Finally, you confess the bodily resurrection of Christ. On the one hand, that leaves me wondering whether you interpret the resurrection in a non-interventionist way. And if so, would that understanding of Christ’s resurrection detract from its theological significance? On the other hand, if you do interpret this event in a more traditional, discontinuous way, that then raises more questions: What makes the resurrection a unique case? And might it not signal how God sometimes acts in similarly extraordinary ways in other parts of creation and at other points in history? It’s interesting how the significance of Christ’s resurrection keeps popping up—not just here but with other responses in this exchange. I expect that your further thoughts will illuminate this intriguing question.
Back to the Respondents
So much for Redirect questions. Let me turn it back to our five respondents for them to bring more clarity to this dialogue as the Areopagite continues . . .