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Evolution, Chance, and God

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January 20, 2014 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose, History of Life
Evolution, Chance, and God

Today's entry was written by Neil Ormerod. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

In dealing with the theory of evolution the Christian believer must consider a number of difficult questions. The first is how to remain faithful to the biblical text if one is to accept a scientific account which seems to negate the traditional interpretation of the creation account in Genesis 1-2. The second and perhaps more difficult question concerns the problem that arises in relation to Genesis 3, the account of the Fall, and the subsequent impact on our understanding of redemption. Finally there is the more general question of God’s relationship to the created order.

In this short piece I would like to focus on this third question, on the relationship between God and the created order. Put simply the question is, how does God act in the world? I want to be clear here that I’m not talking about instances of miraculous interventions whereby God acts with sovereign freedom, but about the “normal” course of events, the day-to-day out-workings of divine providence. Specifically the question is, Can God bring about the divine purpose through events which are chance events? Of course there are difficulties about how one might define “chance events” here, but the underlying issue concerns questions of randomness and its place in the relationship between God and creation.

Indeed it seems to me that this issue underlies some of the current debates around evolution. For example, the basic argument of people such as Dawkins is as follows:

  • arguments for the existence of God depend on God being some sort of designer;
  • evolution depends on chance (genetic mutations, natural selection);
  • chance is incompatible with divine design;
  • so God is not involved in evolution or in creation as a whole;
  • therefore God is a redundant hypothesis.

Dawkins’s rejection of a creator God is linked to the position that God cannot be involved in random processes.

On the other hand I think we can find the same assumption operative in those who adopt the position of Intelligent Design. Their argument is as follows:

  • chance is not enough to explain the process of evolution (for which they provide apparent evidence, viz.,irreducible complexity);
  • the only way to fix the gaps in the evolutionary process is to posit an Intelligent Designer who intervenes in the system;
  • therefore God is still a viable option.

What I think is going on here is a fusing of Christian belief in an efficacious divine providence, with a scientific determinism that arose out of the success of the Newtonian worldview. The ghost of Deism, linking God’s action with the “necessary” and deterministic laws of nature resulting in a clock-work universe, haunts the debate. Indeed the logic is compelling: What God wills, necessarily happens; and this necessity is conveyed through the scientific determinism of Newtonian mechanics. There is no chance because God operates through necessary scientific laws. If there is chance, on the other hand, God cannot be involved.

Recognition of the force of the tension between divine design and contingency of outcome was not invented by Deism, though Deism did give the argument a certain scientific respectability. In the Summa contra Gentiles [henceforth SCG] medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas deals with questions concerning divine providence and its relation to chance and necessity. The objections raised by our modern debates are already evident.

If all things that are done here below, even chance events, are subject to divine providence [read: divine design], then, seemingly, either providence cannot be certain [read: there is no real design], or else all things happen by necessity [read: there is no chance]. (SCG, 3, c.94.)

This is the issue underlying the debate between Dawkins and Intelligent Design. However Aquinas does not accept either of their conclusions. Among his long and detailed response we find the following illuminating comment:

If God foresees that this event will be, it will happen, just as the second argument suggested. But it will occur in the way that God foresaw that it would be. Now, He foresaw that it would occur by chance. So, it follows that, without fail, it will occur by chance and not necessarily. (SCG, 3, c.94)

Certainly Aquinas could see no contradiction between God acting through chance events and the certainty of divine design.

This same conclusion was adopted in the document “Communion and Stewardship” published in 2004 by the International Theological Commission, a body established to advise the Catholic Church on theological debates. Its comments on the present debate over evolution are instructive.

But it is important to note that … true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree. Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation ... Divine causality can be active in a process that is both contingent and guided. Any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so.

This notion of “radically differ in kind and not only in degree” corresponds to Aquinas’s distinction between God as primary cause of being, and secondary created causes, which are genuine causes in themselves, but are only able to operate because God causes them to exist as genuine causes (see Rev. Austriaco’s recent post on this issue).

Indeed it is not difficult to find analogies in our own experience which can help us understand the randomness and purposefulness are not opposed. Consider the link between smoking and lung cancer. It is well established that smoking causes lung cancer with a certain statistical frequency. We know that if we reduce the rate of smoking in the general public we will reduce the incidence of lung cancer. Suppose we introduce a public health advertising campaign to reduce the incidence of smoking. Some people will see the ad, others will not. Some people will be moved by the ad to quit smoking, others will not. Some will succeed in quitting, others will not. At each step along the way there will be an instance of chance variation around a statistical norm. In the end if the campaign is successful we will see a decrease in the number of deaths by lung cancer. We will have achieved our goal intelligently using a method full of chance processes. Perhaps the dichotomy between chance and purposefulness is somewhat overstated.

None of these ideas precludes the possibility of special creation or the interventions of an Intelligent Designer, but it does remove anxiety that the adoption of an evolutionary perspective is necessarily to adopt a materialistic and atheistic worldview. The affirmation of genuine chance and randomness in the universe does not rob the universe of meaning and purpose. In fact it creates the opportunity for genuinely novel things to occur, not in a mechanical and pre-determined way as the necessary outcome of pre-existing conditions but as truly “unpredictable” in terms of those pre-existing conditions. And so novel events of quite low probability can still arise because in a universe as big and as old as the one we live in even things with a very low probability of occurring can happen somewhere, sometime. And all this can occur within a framework of divine providence utilising statistical means to achieve God’s purpose.

Significantly all this can be accommodated within the framework of classical theism, the belief that God is eternal, immutable, and omnipotent. Some, particularly those who have adopted the process framework of Alfred North Whitehead, argue that in order to accommodate the contingent, the novel and genuinely unpredictable, it is necessary to posit contingency in God. As process theologian Charles Hartshorne puts it:

The entire history of philosophical theology, from Plato to Whitehead, can be focused on the relations between three propositions:

  1. The world is mutable and contingent;
  2. The ground of its possibility is a being unconditionally and in all respects necessary and immutable;
  3. The necessary being, God, has ideally complete knowledge of the world.

[Together] they imply the contradiction: a wholly non-contingent being has contingent knowledge.

(Charles Hartshorne, Aquinas to Whitehead: Seven Centuries of Metaphysics of Religion (Milwaukee: Marquette University Publications, 1976), 15.)

The difficulty that Hartshorne is alluding to is the apparent paradox of how this “wholly non-contingent being has contingent knowledge”; that is, How can God know things “in advance” that occur by chance?

What the process position does not take into account is that God’s knowledge is not a passive receptive knowledge, but an active and creative knowledge. God’s knowledge creates reality, it does not simply grasp a reality as already existing. As with the positions of Dawkins and Intelligent Design, the underlying assumption is that this divine creative act precludes chance and contingency. To accommodate contingency, the God of process thought is no longer a genuine creator of all that is, but can be surprised by novelty as new things emerge in the world. It is difficult to see how this aligns with the sovereign God of Christian belief.

Significantly, process thought also makes God subject to time, temporal, and changing. In our book, Creator God, evolving world (Fortress Press, 2013), we argue in fact that such a position is incompatible with an Einsteinian account of relativity, because it privileges one timeframe (God’s time) above all others. So in seeking to accommodate itself to the scientific account of evolution, in fact process thought falls foul of what we know from Einstein’s account of relativity. See Chapter 3 for details.


Neil Ormerod is research Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University, Sydney Australia, and co-author with Cynthia Crysdale of Creator God, evolving world (Fortress Press, 2013). He is widely published in leading international theological journals and has another book, A Public God: Natural Theology Reconsidered, under contact with Fortress Press, to appear, 2014.

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Jon Garvey - #84249

January 20th 2014

This seems overall a pretty reasonable summary of classical theism following Aquinas (my only quibble being that God’s foreknowledge of contingent events could be taken from the quote alone as a passive foreknowledge, and Aquinas, as much of the the rest of the article seems to affirm, sees God’s foreknowledge of contingency as the active providential creation of contingent events).

But why, oh why (as in the previous articles on Aquinas) is the target of opposition a somewhat misrepresented picture of ID’s approach to design - which in the case of Australian V J Torley for example is fully informed by Thomist thought and which has repeatedly refuted simplistic “God of the Gaps” accusations?

And why is there not even a hint of a critique (or even of the existence of a controversy) of that prevalent view within Evangelical theistic evolution that God’s providence does not cover chance events on principle because it would limit their creaturely “autonomy”? A whole theodicy is based on that distancing of creation’s “evils” from God, and it pervades popular TE writing - though is completely alien to Aquinas’ thought, as far as I can tell.

Process thinking is a deep substratum of the current academic theology behind modern theistic evolution - though the recent obituary of Ian Barbour here gives no hint that he embraced, at least provisionally, process theism. Process theist Howard Van Till, too, has been a deep influence on US theistic evolution and its popular exponents - yet the critique of process philosophy in this article is just a short paragraph referring us to a book chapter elsewhere.

And where process theism has been rejected by TEs, it has often been replaced by “free process theology” in the form of Open Theism or less overarching versions which nevertheless result in the actual creation being something less than what God would have willed or foreseen. Is that not worthy of comment? Beams and motes spring to mind, I have to say.

Is it not more important to discuss TE thought on a TE site than to lob a few more grenades over the parapet at ID, if one really believes that “it is difficult to see how this aligns with the sovereign God of Christian belief”?

On a separate point, I don’t think that Aquinas’ view of contingency is a get-out-of-jail free card for expecting near-impossible events. He gave an example of a chance meeting in a market, of two servants who had been sent there separately by their master: the meeting was contingent, but the conditions were ordained so that an unlikely event was almost inevitable.

Aquinas knew that much contingency was the uncommon coincidence of common events (eg two ships on straight courses colliding). He was, of course, not mathematically versed in chaos or quantum theory.

But I suspect he would have regarded the collison of the only two ships sailing in the Pacific Ocean as a remarkable providence bordering on the miraculous.

Science cannot function on the basis of luck (which is why Koonin et al invoke the multiverse to explain DNA), so how can theistic evolution claim to be resolving science and faith by simply citing Aquinas as a witness that “weird stuff happens”?

Belief in divine providence over contingency does not obviate statistics: a 1:10^120 chance is still a practical impossibility.

Mary B Moritz - #84250

January 20th 2014

The Author Neil Ormerod says in his book “Creator God, Evolving Science”:

Science has full reign in explaining the world around us in terms of how things happen (secondary causes). But science can never explain existence in itself. It presupposes this existence when it appeals to empirical evidence to verify its various theories. At the same time, we can also see how creation science or intelligent-design theories attempt to make God another secondary cause, another explanation for empirical events, without attending to the deeper level of causation that God provides. God is never a “God of the gaps” to be invoked in explaining what science cannot yet explain. (p. 46)

The argumentation in this book passage clearly follows the thomistic understanding that God as primary Cause acts via his creatures, and God exercises his Divine Providence as care and foresight over the universe, all his creation and especially us human beings.

Thomas Aquinas would therefore NOT agree to translating “Providence” with “Design”. Design refers to the plan of an architect which is completely static, mechanistic. Providence is a living plan, worthy of our Living God! 

Thomas Aquinas teaches us about providence, order, finality – but certainly not about design!

Jon Garvey - #84251

January 20th 2014

That’s true if you insist on using “design” in a particular, restricted, sense. Aquinas, however, uses the (actual) word “design” in the sense of “purpose” or “final cause”, which is all the word implies if one removes the polemic slant. He uses the word “designedly” (consilio) in his Fifth Way in contrast to “fortuitously”.

Design in English etymology  implies no more than planning, purpose, end in view, adaptation of means to ends (hence the fifth way being called the argument from design). The static architectural linkage is entirely rhetorical, as far as I can see.

I see no more than purpose implied by Intelligent Design arguments I have read: one could even describe ID as the inference to final causation from formal causation. However, I have seen  a lot less than that in much theistic evolution writing, where God is said not to have ends in view at all, but merely to be satisfied with what a semi-independent nature happens to produce - if indeed he he is not said to be blasphemed by attributing nature to him with all its supposed evils.

Mary B Moritz - #84260

January 21st 2014


I agree with your broad definition of design and I am grateful for your deep understanding of Aquinas’ fifth way - which is sometimes heavily misunderstood.

The ID arguments (irreducible complexity, complexity in DNA information) that I have in mind do undermine the concept of methodolical naturalism with trying to make the case for direct, visible and unmistakable direct intervention by a Divine Intelligent Designer. Our God remains hidden in His creation : “for we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Kor 5,7).

One of the best theologians and scientists to express this was Georges Lemaitre (at least IMHO) - see here: http://tiny.cc/2wf19w or http://tiny.cc/tgiq9w for a synthesis).

With regard to TE, I see your point and share your concern whole-heartedly. The principles are good, but then, a nice construct is not more than that, “a nice construct”, if it is not based on the fundament of the bible and the church. And the cornerstones are that man has a special place in creation, and the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection (!) of Jesus Christ. Wolfhart Pannenberg is a Lutheran theologian who had it very clear that the Resurrection cannot be understood somehow in an eschatological or other way: you may want to check out this interview: http://www.metanexus.net/essay/confessions-trinitarian-evolutionist

Apologies: English is not my native language.

Eddie - #84257

January 20th 2014


Are you saying that Thomas Aquinas taught that God affects the natural world only through secondary causation, and never directly?  If so, please provide passages from Aquinas where that teaching is found.

I think you will find that, as Dr. Vincent Torley (his Ph.D. is in philosophy, and he is not a creationist) has discussed at length, Aquinas envisioned God as acting directly in creation, at two points at least:  (1) The creation of man; (2) The creation of the higher animals.  See his many excellent postings on Aquinas and on Thomism on Uncommon Descent. 

You seem to be willing to accept Ormerod’s conflation of “creation science” and “intelligent design.”  They are two quite different things.  Creation science is based on a literal reading of Genesis and affirms that theology can dictate conclusions to science.  ID makes no use of Genesis or any other religious text, and bases its argument for design in nature on empirical evidence from molecular biology, cosmology, etc.  How much intelligent design writing have you read, Mary?  If you have not read any works by the ID proponents, but are relying upon the opponents of ID to characterize it, you are not entitled to make judgments.  You must have knowledge of the primary sources.

Regarding “mechanistic,” I haven’t seen an account of evolution more “mechanistic” than the one currently being presented on BioLogos by Dennis Venema.  Atheists such as Jacques Monod and Richard Dawkins couldn’t do better at a mechanistic account if they tried.

As for the rest, it has all been covered well by Jon Garvey.  The word “design” needs to be thought about carefully before judgments are rendered.  It does not necessarily imply “miracles” or “interventions”—which is, I suspect, what you and Ormerod think about ID.  It means planning and determining ahead of time—which of course the God of Aquinas does, and the God of the Bible does.  Now, what does the God of Darwin do?  Read The Origin of Species and find out.

Mary B Moritz - #84261

January 21st 2014


please be very clear here: it is my clear understanding that God has intervened in the creation of man, created “in the image and likeness of God”. And of cause, Thomas Aquinas who knew his Creed better than anyone else said this and being a wonderful theologian and philosopfer also had argument to make his case.

Being European, the concept of creationism or creation science is pretty much not known to me. But yes, I have read primary ID literature myself, although some years ago when I first learned about it (2003-2006). The concept really fascinated me at first. I am a PhD in biology/biochemistry and never had a problem to align faith and science, but always keen to learn new things. I got disappointed by the static view, and the lack of argumentational power from the scientific point of view and I am more thinking in line with traditional current thomistic thinking on teleology - this was always my favorite topic.

The series by Dennis Venema is actually an excellent introduction to the topic. I would not say, it’s mechainistic, it follows the methodological naturalism - and this is okay, because:

Evolution is Accidental to Us, not to God

“As to the Divine Design, is it not an instance of incomprehensibly and infinitely marvelous Wisdom and Design to have given certain laws to matter millions of ages ago, which have surely and precisely worked out, in the long course of those ages, those effects which He from the first proposed. Mr. Darwin’s theory need not then to be atheistical, be it true or not; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and Skill. Perhaps your friend has got a surer clue to guide him than I have, who have never studied the question, and I do not [see] that ‘the accidental evolution of organic beings’ is inconsistent with divine design—It is accidental to us, not to God.”

- John Henry Newman, Letter to J. Walker of Scarborough, May 22, 1868

Eddie - #84265

January 21st 2014


Thank you for your gracious reply.  

Some of our apparent disagreement may be due to linguistic confusion; I will try to take your statement about your native language into account.

You say that you have read the ID primary sources.  Well, if you have read them, then you should know that ID, as a position, does not insist upon direct divine intervention by God.  You are misreading the sources.  Some ID proponents do indeed affirm direct divine intervention; others do not.  But the key point in ID is not that intervention is necessary, but that design is necessary.  

Let me direct you to a couple of ID authors whose written works I know extremely well.  Michael Behe has never insisted that direct divine intervention is required in order for there to be design in nature.  Michael Denton has gone further, and has said that there is no intervention at all in creation, that God set up the initial conditions of the universe so that man could be produced without any intervention.  You can search these ID writers high and low, and you will not find assertions that miracles must have happened.

The case of Denton is interesting, because he fits perfectly the sort of evolutionary model that you praise when it comes from Cardinal Newman.  It is not logically or theologically consistent for you to praise Newman, but criticize an ID writer, for the same view of evolutionary creation.

But a few words about Newman.  He was not a scientist, and I don’t know how well he knew Darwin.  I know Darwin’s writings reasonably well.  A close reading of Darwin’s total work suggests that, deep down, Darwin believed that evolution was as accidental to God as it was to us.  In the final analysis, I think a full embrace of Darwin requires the position of Open Theism—a position which both Newman and Aquinas would reject.  I think Newman has not fully understood the implications of Darwin.

I note that your belief that God created man directly—a belief that you share with Aquinas—is in opposition to the statement of many theistic evolutionists.  Many of them believe that God simply set up the evolutionary process, and that man emerged wholly naturalistically from earlier primates.  I think that Dennis Venema is among the theistic evolutionists who would affirm this—though you can ask him to verify that I am right.  (He may say that he doesn’t dogmatically declare against special involvement of God; but I am speaking about what he thinks actually happened, and I strongly suspect, based on his many past statements, that he thinks there was no special divine intervention needed to get from earlier primates to man.  See his many, many remarks on the genetic closeness of the apes to man, and his claim that the required changes are well within the reach of purely stochastic mechanisms, requiring no intervention.  This is not the view of Aquinas.)

You did not respond to the fact that Aquinas believed that not only man, but even the higher animals, were created directly.  This is in blunt contradiction with what many Catholic scientists—claiming to speak for Thomism—assert today.

I take it that you are a Catholic.  You should be aware that many leading ID proponents are Catholic—Mike Behe was taught by nuns in elementary school—and that many of them have advanced degrees in philosophy and theology and have studied Aquinas.  E.g., Vincent Torley, Jay Richards.  Catholicism is not “owned” by theistic evolution; nor is Aquinas “owned” by theistic evolution.  Even Fr. Nicanor, in his response to comments on his column here, admitted that Aquinas was not a theistic evolutionist and that it was wrong to try to make him into one.  

I suggest that you Google “Torley” and “Uncommon Descent” and locate Vincent’s many excellent columns on Aquinas.  There is a masterful multi-part series from a couple of years ago in which he discusses in great detail the writings of Darwin, Aquinas, and many modern Thomists who have striven to reconcile Darwin with Thomas.  None of the Thomists he criticized in that series replied substantively to his specific exegesis of Aquinas passages (though some did respond in general philosophical-theological terms, defending their pro-Darwinian reading of Aquinas).

Another thing you must understand is that “evolution” is not “Darwinism.”  Many ID proponents accept evolution but reject Darwinian theory as the explanation for evolution.  Mike Behe accepts evolution as much as Dennis Venema does.  Where he disagrees is over the cause.  Venema accepts the classical neo-Darwinian account.  Behe thinks that is inadequate.

You say you have scientific training.  If so, you should take the time to read the 2011 book Evolution by James Shapiro.  Shapiro is not an ID proponent, but he is one of the world’s leading evolutionary theorists (teaches molecular biology and evolutionary theory at Chicago, one of the world’s great universities), and has been highly critical of the neo-Darwinian account of evolution.  You should also read the proceedings of the Altenberg conference on evolution, and pay attention to the writings of Wagner and Newman in particular.  There are many versions of evolutionary theory, and the classical neo-Darwinism of the mid-20th century (which is basically the view of evolution held by most American TEs) is far from the most sophisticated, and far from being the account best in accord with recent scientific knowledge.  Indeed, doctrinaire neo-Darwinism is nowadays largely an Anglo-American phenomenon (Dawkins, Coyne, etc.); many Continental scientific thinkers are much less reverent of Darwinian thought.  I would have thought that with your Germanic and scientific background you would be aware of this.

Lou Jost - #84270

January 21st 2014

“Michael Behe has never insisted that direct divine intervention is required in order for there to be design in nature.  Michael Denton has gone further, and has said that there is no intervention at all in creation, that God set up the initial conditions of the universe so that man could be produced without any intervention.”

Mary, as Eddie and I have argued in a previous thread, the laws of physics (as we know them today) are such that no set of  initial conditions could guarantee the production of humans.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #84256

January 20th 2014

Please, do not gicve credance to the lie that evolution is a random processwhen it is not, even though Creationists and Scientismers try to perpetuate this lie.

While it is true that Variation is in larger part random, Natural Selection is not.  It is somewhat like a quarry where rock is harvested by blasting and then sorted by using a form of sieve.  The sorted pile of uniform sized rocks left at the end id not there by random chance.

Since evolutionary change is not a result of random chance, what is the driving force behind Natural Selection?  This is the question we must answer before we can address the question as to whether God uses or does not use evolution to being about divine purposes.    

Roger A. Sawtelle - #84268

January 21st 2014


Thank you for the reference to the interview with Pannenberg.  Years ago when I was trying to establish my understanding of theology, I found his writing helpful.

However I happened to attend a lesture of his at Harvard and asked if his thinking on the topic of this lecture which had a trinitarian form was influenced by his understanding of the Trinity.  His response was a disappointing “No.” 

On the other hand in this interview Pannenberg calls himself a Trinitarian evolutionist, which is an excellent description of my position too.  His interviewer is the relational theologian, Thomas Jay Ord, that I met through BioLogos.  He has written posts and is on the Board of Advisors.     

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