In Chapter Seven on “Natural Selection and Divine Providence,” van den Brink faces head-on the challenge that Darwinian evolution poses for a Reformed account of providence. For the sake of the argument, he accepts the neo-Darwinian synthesis of natural selection and genetic mutation. Focusing on the alleged randomness of the latter, he explores its compatibility with notions of divine guidance. This is a particularly acute problem for the Reformed tradition with its historical stress on divine direction of the created order.

Eerdmans, 2020

Calvin famously insisted upon a ‘meticulous’ account of providence in which God wills and orders to God’s purposes everything that happens. To place a single event beyond this divine superintendence would be to compromise the sovereignty of God and to put the whole world at risk. If this account of providence was not an innovation of Reformed theology, its foregrounding can certainly be considered one of its distinctive marks.

Van den Brink’s discussion explores some of the late-nineteenth century debates, noting Hodge’s conviction (followed by Kuyper) that Darwinism amounts to “practical atheism.” Although he believed that it was compatible with the idea of God as creator, Hodge could not contemplate Darwinism being held in tandem with belief in a provident God who rules over nature and history. (From the other side, scientific critics of religion from Huxley to Dawkins have insisted upon the same incompatibility.) Others such as Asa Gray disagreed with Hodge, claiming that an evolving world according to Darwinian principles could just as well be the means by which God’s providential rule is exercised. While noting these historical precedents, van den Brink examines contemporary explorations of the problems in biological science, philosophy of religion, and theology. In a dense and carefully reasoned chapter, he argues against Hodge and Kuyper in favour of the consistency of Darwinian evolution and providentialism. I can detect several key argumentative moves which I paraphrase below. What is striking is that these outline different options, not all of which can be easily combined.

  1. Paley believed that the ordering of parts to whole in the natural world could only be explained by reference to a “divine watchmaker.” Darwinism undercuts this inference, but cannot exclude the possibility of a divine superintendence by other means. In other words, the non-necessity of the teleological view does not demonstrate its impossibility (p. 210).
  2. “Randomness” in biological science does not constitute lack of causality. It refers instead to a lack of causal correlation between the adaptive needs of an organism and genetic mutation. (Environmental changes might also be included here.) In this coincidence of unrelated causal schemes, some mutations are selected and preserved in the struggle for life (p. 215). But what to us look like mere coincidences may actually be intended and brought about by God.
  3. Even if one wishes to avoid particular divine interpositions (as in intelligent design theory) to account for genetic mutations, it remains open to the providential theist to claim that God creates and oversees the entire evolutionary process which yields “a stunning increase in adaptivity and complexity of life-forms” (p. 216).
  4. The classical distinction between primary and secondary causes can elucidate the compatibility of natural causality with divine intentionality. God is the primary cause who enables all secondary causes to be ordered naturally. A doctrine of divine concurrence or cooperation might then be held in conjunction with a commitment to methodological naturalism in the sciences (p. 218).
  5. Alternatively, one might adhere to the notion that God does actually intervene (miraculously?) to bring about events that from a scientific perspective are inherently random. In other words, if some events are under-determined by the empirical evidence, then there is scope for the theologian to claim that God may have acted to bring about a sub-set of these events in order to achieve a particular end, e.g., human evolution (p. 220). This differs from ID theory to the extent that empirical evidence is not cited in support of the claim.
  6. Recent developments in evolutionary biology enable us to think in terms not just of compossibility but of a degree of consonance between the viewpoints of science and theology. Here much is made of Conway Morris’s claims for evolutionary convergence. There are built-in constraints to the evolutionary process which ensure, through natural selection and genetic mutation, that biological organization arrives at the same solution to a particular need. This leads to the anthropic claim that under the conditions of life on our planet it is inevitable that something like humans, i.e., self-conscious, intelligent, sociable animals, would emerge. On this inflection of Darwinism, the notion of divine intentionality can gain greater traction. The openness and unpredictability of biological processes can align with divine design—this is a relationship of consonance rather than a stronger one of entailment (p. 226).
  7. If “open processes” can be the means to “divine ends” then “it might increase our awe for God’s creative wisdom when we acknowledge that he might even use the subtleties of random processes to reach his goals” (p. 228).

This array of considerations is carefully charted with respect to the scholarly literature. Van den Brink is a reliable guide in steering his readers through the thickets. As I read him, much of his strategy involves “defeating the defeaters” with the aim of showing how a commitment to both divine providence and Darwinian evolution can remain intellectually coherent, even if we cannot fully specify the ways in which these interlock.As I read him, much of his strategy involves “defeating the defeaters” with the aim of showing how a commitment to both divine providence and Darwinian evolution can remain intellectually coherent. He offers his readers an array of possible options on this particular interface. This seems an entirely legitimate position to adopt, given that the science may continue to shift in ways that develop and modify the neo-Darwinian synthesis. And, while he cites the work of Conway Morris on convergence, attention could also be devoted to the recent work of Coakley and Nowak on evolutionary cooperation or Fuentes’s discussion of the complex intertwining of social as well as biological factors in the history of human evolution.

The presuppositions governing the general approach adopted in Chapter Seven seem correct to me. It is a mistake to resist Darwinian evolution in the name of theology. As van den Brink shows, many Reformed theologians were soon able to accommodate Darwinian science after 1859. Their claim was that an evolving cosmos was part of the divine design, its fruitfulness and direction being largely consistent with Scriptural assumptions. If the history of salvation had a narrative with unexpected twists and turns, then why not nature too? Attempts to resist Darwinian science, whether by creationists or ID theorists, have readily been refuted by a scientific consensus. To demand such a commitment from Christian believers is neither intellectually nor pastorally constructive.

Yet, by the close of this chapter, several questions surround van den Brink’s own position as a Reformed theologian. The first concerns determinism: Does he wish to uphold theological determinism and natural determinism or to reject either or both? There are different options here. One might maintain natural indeterminacy insofar as events, perhaps at the quantum level, would be judged to lack sufficient (i.e., fully deterministic) scientific causal explanation. This would offer the theologian two options. Going down one route, as in (5) above, one could hypothesize that God intervenes imperceptibly in the causal process to bring about particular effects (e.g., genetic mutations) without this requiring any modification of the scientific description of these events. Alternatively, one might simply accept natural indeterminacy at the level of secondary causality, while holding that every event is determined by the primal and eternal will of God.I am inclined to agree with him here, though both of us are likely to face some flak from our Reformed colleagues. This commitment to full theological determinism was strikingly defended by Schleiermacher, a Reformed theologian who is not discussed here, though his work seems compatible with an appeal to double agency as in (4) above. In another scenario, one could combine natural and theological determinism. Provided that the primal will of God guarantees the ordering of each event towards a definitive end, it may not matter much from a theological perspective whether we side with scientific determinism.

Related to this issue is the question of how we view God’s involvement in the evolutionary process. I confess to having struggled with this in my own writing. One can use immanent metaphors with Aubrey Moore to speak of divine engagement and accompanying of natural changes but what exactly does God do here? If we speak of creation as “front loaded” with evolving possibilities, some of the problems disappear, particularly the need to introduce God to perform occasional tweaks in the evolutionary trajectory. What in Paley is assigned to particular providence can now safely migrate to general providence. For the most part, that seems the wiser strategy to me. Despite their conceptual haziness, the alternatives risk a slippery slope to a “God of the gaps” or speculative proposals about the quantum world. But is the divine role then reduced to that of a spectator? The Reformed fear of deism will soon rear its head here. So what does God actually do within the evolutionary process? Is there some account of divine accompanying or concurring that can be offered which will tread the line between deists on the one side and neo-Paleyans on the other?

This takes me to a final question about where in the midst of this discussion van den Brink’s own theological sympathies lie. Somewhat tentatively, in his closing remarks to the chapter, he suggests that Reformed theologians may need to undertake some difficult re-thinking. Rather than conceiving of God as “controlling every single detail of natural history, God may make use of probabilistic processes . . . such as random mutations, to achieve his ends” (p. 227). I am inclined to agree with him here, though both of us are likely to face some flak from our Reformed colleagues, not to mention Thomists, who fear an inevitable slide into process abridgements of divine power. The question then becomes how divine sovereignty is to be recast following an eschewal of meticulous control. As a fellow traveler, I would welcome his further comments on this.