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Science and the Bible: Intelligent Design, Part 3

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November 20, 2012 Tags: Science & Worldviews
Science and the Bible: Intelligent Design, Part 3
Copyright 1977 by Sidney Harris, from American Scientist (November-December 1977). Source: http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/pub/science-light

Today's entry was written by Ted Davis. You can read more about what we believe here.

Last time, I presented three Core Tenets of Intelligent Design. Today I present a final Core Tenet about something called “methodological naturalism.”

(4) Methodological naturalism (MN) is not a legitimate principle to employ, when it comes to understanding the origin(s) of objects exemplifying “specified complexity.” MN arbitrarily restricts science to finding only “natural” causes, when “intelligent” causes may actually be operative in some instances. Furthermore, MN is tantamount to “methodological atheism,” and to insist on it in each and every case leads to ontological (or metaphysical) naturalism—another word for atheism.

This might be the single most important tenet of ID, even more important than (2), that the universe itself, and some of the objects that compose it (both living and nonliving), exhibit abundant evidence of having been “designed.” This is also probably the most controversial of the tenets, and in order to see why, we need to understand the meaning of methodological naturalism.

A few years ago, when historian Ronald Numbers tried to determine who coined the term (“Science Without God,” p. 320 note 2), he tentatively credited it to philosopher Paul de Vries of Wheaton College, who had used it in a paper he delivered at an academic conference in 1983 and then published three years later (see the Print References). His article is not available on the internet, but one can get a good sense of his idea and what motivated him from a commentary written by Southern Baptist theologian Hal Poe and his former student Chelsea Mytyk. De Vries stressed that MN is simply a disciplinary method that makes no claims about God’s existence, while “metaphysical naturalism” is a wider philosophical position that denies a transcendent God. Many TEs endorse precisely this distinction, whereas I cannot name any ID author who likes it. This may indeed be the single most fundamental difference between TE and ID.

It’s worth noting in passing, however, that de Vries was not actually the first person to speak about “methodological naturalism.” Several authors since the early twentieth century have used the term, though not always with the same precise meaning. Perhaps the most significant of these was theologian Edgar Brightman, a student of Borden Parker Bowne, whose philosophy of religious “personalism” influenced some important modernist Protestants from the 1920s. Brightman discussed a form of MN on pp. 213-14 of A Philosophy of Religion (1940), a work that influenced Martin Luther King, Jr.

For our purposes, though, I’ll use the definition from an article I wrote with philosopher Robin Collins (who was at the time a Fellow of The Discovery Institute). We defined MN as “the belief that science should explain phenomena only in terms of entities and properties that fall within the category of the natural, such as by natural laws acting either through known causes or by chance.” This is to be distinguished from “ontological naturalism” (or “scientific naturalism”), “the claim that nature is all that there is and hence that there is no supernatural order above nature,” plus “the claim that all objects, processes, truths, and facts about nature fall within the scope of the scientific method.”

Ever since the Pre-Socratic philosophers, scientists and physicians have insisted on giving “natural” explanations for “natural” phenomena, leaving miracles explicitly out of science. Christians have done likewise, going back at least to the high Middle Ages if not earlier. It would be easy to cite many “big name” examples, including Johannes Kepler and Robert Boyle. Readers who want to know more about this are invited to consult the essays by Numbers and Davis & Collins in the appended list of references. I’ve also seen several more examples in an excellent essay on the topic of God and MN by a Christian philosopher (whose name does not appear anywhere in this column), but it would be inappropriate for me to cite it before it’s been published.

This doesn’t mean that no scientists believe in miracles; quite the contrary—probably tens of thousands of American scientists (including many TEs) believe that miracles are possible and that some have happened. They simply don’t believe that miracles can be part of scientific explanations. Even proponents of the YEC view don’t invoke miracles in what they call “operation science” (or “experimental science” or “ordinary science”), reserving them only for “origin science” (or “historical science”). (See my discussion of this distinction in "Galileo and the Garden, Part 2".)

According to mainstream science (including most advocates of TE), scientific explanations are “natural” explanations; they can’t invoke the “supernatural,” i.e., God or the gods or miracles. To some extent, I think that ID cannot entirely escape this problem, as I explained in my previous column. However, another important distinction poses “natural” causes vis-à-vis “intelligent” causes, which are not necessarily “supernatural.” We all know, for example, that skyscrapers don’t come about “naturally,” but they require “intelligent” causes to design them. The real question is whether any “natural” objects—such as galaxies, rocks, trees, or people—also require “intelligent” causes to design them and, if so, whether such causes should be part of any scientific explanations of those objects. Dembski’s idea of “specified complexity” and Behe’s idea of “irreducible complexity” come into play just at this point. ID proponents believe that the scientific toolbox needs to include “design,” an explanatory tool that includes rather than excludes intelligent causation as part of the explanation for how certain things came into existence. Their opponents think the scientific toolbox is large enough as is, without adding “design” to the set.

This is a difference of opinion about the nature of science itself. As a philosophical argument, it’s not likely to be settled by appeals to bacterial appendages or the Cambrian explosion or pseudogenes in humans and chimps. Prior to the Scientific Revolution, “design” was generally accepted or assumed within science. During the Scientific Revolution, a split began to take place, as some scientists argued that invoking design had no scientific benefit (design might explain why we have something, but now how it works), even though almost all of the early scientists were Christians who fully accepted the reality of a God who had, in fact, designed all of nature. By around the middle of the 19th century—coinciding with Darwin, who sought to make biology look more like physics and astronomy, disciplines in which unbroken “natural laws” already held sway—design largely disappeared from scientific discourse.

NOTE: Contrary to what is sometimes said, natural theology did not disappear after Darwin. Scientists themselves (not just philosophers and theologians) continued to contribute to it, right down to our own day (Polkinghorne is an obvious example). It’s simply that one no longer expects to find “God” or “design” (in the transcendent sense that is clearly meant by ID proponents) in scientific literature.

There are probably several reasons for this development, but I’m not confident that I understand them well enough to talk about it here. For our purposes, it’s enough just to state that ID proponents want to reverse this history. As William Dembski has written, “The scientific picture of the world championed since the Enlightenment is not just wrong but massively wrong.” What is the root problem? “Naturalism is the intellectual pathology of our age. It artificially constricts the life of the mind and shuts down inquiry into the transcendent.” ID, on the other hand, is “the only alternative” to naturalistic evolution, and in order for it to succeed we must “dump methodological naturalism. We need to realize that methodological naturalism is the functional equivalent of a full-blown metaphysical naturalism. Metaphysical naturalism asserts that nature is self-sufficient. Methodological naturalism asks us for the sake of science to pretend that nature is self-sufficient.” (Intelligent Design, pp. 224, 120 and 119, his italics)

Advocates of ID challenge both forms of naturalism at every opportunity. In their view, MN is really nothing but “methodological atheism,” another term that rose to prominence in the debate about ID but also originated earlier. (It might have been introduced by sociologist Peter Berger in the late 1960s.) According to Phillip Johnson, the founder of the ID movement, “Methodological atheism and [the world view of] naturalism are identical.” (Reason in the Balance, note on p. 99, his italics) Thus, some ID thinkers—especially the evangelical philosophers Alvin Plantinga, Steven Meyer, and J. P. Moreland—have made the case for rejecting MN in favor of what Moreland calls “theistic science” or Plantinga calls “Augustinian science”. Another evangelical philosopher, Robert O’Connor, offers a vigorous defense of MN. Many other Christian scholars have weighed in on this; some examples are among the links assembled here. (In passing, let me note that most of these articles were published in the ASA’s journal. This belies the charge sometimes made by ID advocates that the ASA is unfriendly to their position; I think this simply reflects frustration that more ASA members have not found ID sufficiently persuasive.)

So—is MN in fact equivalent to atheism? That’s the rock bottom question here, and there simply is no consensus—neither among Christians nor even among atheists, for that matter. I defended it myself several years ago in a brief exchange with Phillip Johnson, who had written a letter in reply to my review of three ID books, including one of his, which ran as a cover story for Reports of the National Center for Science Education.

Let me give the final word to Loren Wilkinson of Regent College, whose short article, “Does Methodological Naturalism lead to Metaphysical Naturalism?” should not be missed:

“What is at issue, therefore, is not the fact of an elusive and ultimately unattainable scientific description [a complete scientific description of the origin and development of living things], but rather whether the ideal of such a description is incompatible with the loving, personal, creator God revealed to us in Scripture and in Jesus Christ. Yet the ideal that complete understanding of a process excludes God from the picture contradicts our normal Christian practice. We regularly, for example, thank God for our food: rightly recognizing it as God’s provision. Yet we could, if we took the effort, trace the corn or tomato back through many manmade and ‘natural’ processes to its source. The practice of the ‘methodological atheism’ of going regularly to the store (or the garden) to obtain such food does not necessarily produce ‘metaphysical atheism’ in the eater, who still ought to thank God for his provision.” (Darwinism Defeated? pp. 169-70)

It’s your turn now to weigh in. I hope your comments will reveal some familiarity with the books and articles I’ve mentioned, but of course there are so many others that I failed to mention—in which case I hope you will introduce all of us to them. HAPPY THANKSGIVING to my American readers, and best wishes to all.

Looking Ahead

I’ll be back in about two weeks, to discuss some conclusions we might draw about ID.


Edward B. Davis & Robin Collins, “Scientific Naturalism,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), pp. 322-34.

William A. Dembski, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology (InterVarsity Press, 1999.)

Paul de Vries, “Naturalism in the Natural Sciences,” Christian Scholar’s Review 15 (1986): 388-96.

Karl W. Giberson & Donald A. Yerxa, Species of Origins: America’s Search for a Creation Story (Roman & Littlefield, 2002). Readers seeking an accurate, objective description of ID and its reception should start with the (two) relevant chapters in this book, which has been enthusiastically endorsed by historian Ronald Numbers, theologian Alister McGrath, and mathematician William Dembski. It’s not an accident that I recommended it so strongly several months ago.

Phillip E. Johnson, Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law & Education (InterVarsity Press, 1998).

Phillip E. Johnson & Denis O. Lamoureux, eds., Darwinism Defeated? (Regent College Publishing, 1999). . The final chapter by Loren Wilkinson is a gem, but the whole book should be required reading for anyone with a series interest in the topic of this column. In addition to Wilkinson and the editors, contributors include several leading ID advocates (Meyer, Behe, Jonathan Wells, and Michael Denton) and (among others) two prominent critics of ID (Howard Van Till and Keith B. Miller).

Ronald L. Numbers, “Science Without God: Natural Laws and Christian Beliefs,” in When Science and Christianity Meet, ed. David C. Lindberg & Ronald L. Numbers (University of Chicago Press, 2003), pp. 265-85.

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.

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HornSpiel - #74553

November 20th 2012

Is the ideal of Science “a complete scientific description of the origin and development of living things?” I don’t think so—or rather, it depends on what you mean by ideal. In the normal sense of the word, ideal does imply, I think, ontological naturalism (ON). It implies that Science can explain everything, ultimately ruling out God. This I think is something that ID supporters are legitimately trying to confront. However I think they are going about it the wrong way.

If methodological naturalism (MN) equals or inevitably leads to ON, and God the creator does exist as we believe, then ID is probably a good counter argument. However if the ideal of science is defined methodologically it would be “a complete scientific description of all natural processes involved in the origin and development of living things.” For my part I think it a far more reasonable to educate the public, particularly the Christian public, on the limited nature of scientific description. Once you do that, I simply do not see that MN either equals or inevitably leads to ON.

Eddie - #74607

November 21st 2012


No comment on this specifically, but I replied to you concerning related ideas at:


I’ll look there for any response you may choose to give.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #74557

November 20th 2012

I hate to sound like a broken record, but I think you are asking the wrong question.

The right question is “What is the nature of nature?”

If nature is made up of only matter/energy as physicalists say, then nature is without form and order, because form and order are rational attributes and matter/energy cannot think.  That is the argument of J. Monod and his scientific followers.  Are they right or wrong?

If they are right then there is no place for God in the universe.  If they are wrong, then we need a new definition of nature as an ordered cosmos, rather than a chaos. 

Jon Garvey - #74559

November 20th 2012

There’s an English story about an old man who won a village garden contest, and the vicar reminded him that he had been assisted by God, the Great Gardener. “Maybe,” he replied,“but you should the mess he left it in before I got to work.” We have a human tendency to divide responsibility simplistically, unless we have a strong doctrine of God as the first cause of all things, and I feel that is a present failing in the churches, and amongst Christian scientists.

The quote about people giving thanks for food makes the point, I think: though saying grace is still a custom (more in the US than here), there is a much less vivid awareness of God’s active role in providing food than once there was. Move away from that grace-saying  social “norm”, and fewer people will give serious thanks, for example, for waking up each morning, lacking much doctrinal awareness of God’s sustaining role in creation. Why shouldn’t the world carry on as normal, since science says it has no alternative? People pray for the doctors to be given wisdom, rather than praying that God will heal, including through medicine.

And haven’t we all seen people on this forum dividing what’s merely “natural” in nature from what is acknowledged as the creative work of the Father through the Logos? Viruses, parasites, copying errors and probably mosquitoes and wasps too somehow seem to be steered away from the theological area, and methodological naturalism has some part to play in this, by leaving open the idea that there are, maybe, separate magisteria. God only does what nature doesn’t, and nature’s got it pretty much in hand, thanks. Earthquakes - even humanity - just happen. “Naturally”.

Hornspiel is right, I think, about the need to demonstrate the limits of science. He’s right that methological naturalism needn‘t lead to ontological naturalism - but when the latter is taught in every school, and on every TV programme, the risk needs to be taken very seriously.

beaglelady - #74599

November 21st 2012

There should be no objection to praying for a doctor’s skill and guidance.  Most people would love to be totally healed by God instantly, but that isn’t going to happen in this life.  God doesn’t anwer all prayers exactly the way we wish; but we can be thankful for any grace that God does bestow upon the sick, whether it is successful surgery, finding a medication that works,  money to pay for health care,  peace and acceptance in the face of a dire diagnosis, and  even a generous payment plan for treatments. 

Eddie - #74600

November 21st 2012


Just a question of clarification:

”... that isn’t going to happen in this life.”

Did you mean to say:

”... that probably isn’t going to happen in this life”?

Or are you in fact affirming that “miracles don’t happen”?  And if so, does that apply to Biblical miracles as well?  I’m not judging, just trying to flesh out your position.

Also, off-topic, but FYI, regarding a column you were following:

Over on


It’s been 10 days and counting since #74313 was posted.  Is the conversation over, do you think?

beaglelady - #74602

November 21st 2012

This is what I said:

Most people would love to be totally healed by God instantly, but that isn’t going to happen in this life.  

So I meant that God would not be totally healing everybody in this lifetime.   It means that my elderly parents are going to die some day, and so will I.  You sure are keen on trying to find miracle-deniers.    

You also seem to have plenty of time to keep track of posts and count days since people have posted.  I get to things as I find the time.   

Eddie - #74604

November 21st 2012


Well, your way of wording was ambiguous, to say the least, since the word “that” could have referred to more than one group of words in the previous clause.  But be that as it may, you are now saying “most people” won’t be “totally healed by God instantly” (which I of course agree with); does this imply that you believe that “some people” may be “totally healed by God instantly”?  Or do you wish to plead the Fifth on that question?

The question is not entirely irrelevant to the subject of this thread.  If one has no trouble believing that God performs special divine actions today, then the question arises why one would have any objection to the idea that he might have performed special divine actions during the period of the creation of life, of divers phyla, and of man.

The reason I keep track of how long it has been since Dennis ceased replying to Kirk is that I found the discussion scientifically fascinating and was hoping it would not end.  Some of the conversations on web sites seem to go on endlessly and have little content; it’s a shame if one of the ones that is content-rich dies an early death.  I’d assume that you, also, after reading Kirk’s apparently damaging critique of Dennis’s position, have been eagerly waiting to see Dennis roar back with a convincing response.  But there’s nothing we can do but wait.  And this column is dedicated to another subject anyway.  Best wishes.

HornSpiel - #74561

November 20th 2012


What is the risk of ontological naturalism? People become metaphysical atheists? Maybe. But doesn’t it also lead to greater opportunities for evangelism?

Point out that metaphysical atheism leads inevitably to reductionism. If everything is “naturally” caused, there is ultimately no difference between a bacterium gaining Cit+ functionality in a lab experiment, and scientists intelligently modifying retroviruses for gene therapy. There is no real difference between the increase of entropy when gas is released from a balloon, and if and when a humanity destroys itself in a global mushroom cloud.

Once one realizes the implications of metaphysical atheism/Scientism the world simply does not make sense without God. It follows that Nature does not make sense without God. If “ontological naturalism… is taught in every school and on every TV programme,” then it is the educational and media professionals that need to be reached. Point out where ontological naturalism is being subtly or not so subtly advocated. Make constructive suggestions on how the bias can be addressed. But don’t advocate for bad bad science and bad theology—the risks are too great.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #74565

November 20th 2012


If John 1 is accurate, Jesus the Logos is imbedded in nature.  If John 1 is wrong than we live in a the dualistic mess many conservative Christians trying to sell.  

If science can explain everything, which it can up to a point, it is because Jesus is the Source of the structure of nature.  To accept naturalism as Godless places science vs Christianity which is wrong and dangerous. 

Merv - #74566

November 20th 2012

Furthermore, MN is tantamount to “methodological atheism,” and to insist on it in each and every case leads to ontological (or metaphysical) naturalism—another word for atheism.

ID proponents only succeed in equating these two by ignoring the word ‘methodological’ almost as if they can’t even see it because of the blinding intensity of the following word—the one that captivates 100% of their attention.  If just once I heard somebody hostile to MN acknowledge the existence of that modifying adjective and then go on to discuss what it might mean or what it adds, I would be much more convinced that they had taken all points of view into account.

Jon, I can’t speak for all American churches of course, but at the one I attend we regularly hear and offer prayers for healing AND for guidance or wisdom for doctors just as we (I) often pray for travel safety AND driver altertness for myself or other drivers.  We thank God for food not as some perfunctory custom but because we really are thankful for His provision AND for the farmers, and money that got it to the table.  No contradictions to be found anywhere.

Gotta run to supper now.  Thank you, God!


Merv - #74567

November 20th 2012

I don’t actually pray for driver “altertness”.  Make that “alertness”.  Hopefully I’m not in too much of any altered state when I drive!

Bilbo - #74576

November 20th 2012

I like referring to Fred Hoyle, the atheist who thought that the evidence indicated that the first living cells were intelligently designed.  He ruled out a supernatural agent as the designer, and seemed to suggest that ET might be responsible. 

So was Hoyle violating MN?  No.  Was he an ID proponent?  I would say so.  So does ID violate MN?  Certainly not in Hoyle’s case.  And that’s the point.  ID is only a view that features of biological reality are best explained as the result of intelligent agency.  It does not insist that the agent be supernatural.

But if one thinks that the evidence indicates intelligent agency was involved, how do we reasonably rule out supernatural agency as a possible explanation?  I guess we could insist that we must observe MN at all costs.  But the whole point of MN to begin with was to explain things without invoking teleological explanations.  Once we admit teleological explanations, there no longer seems to be any reason to observe MN.

The most reasonable line of action is to realize that MN is used because MN has proven useful in the past.  However, just because MN has been useful in the past doesn’t mean it will always be useful in the future.  And in the case of the origin of life, and perhaps in its evolution, there seem to be strong indications that MN may need to be abandoned.

GJDS - #74589

November 21st 2012

The argument(s) around MN (and perhaps ON, although it sounds odd) are more properly placed in Philosophy of Science. Scientists inevitably use the term ‘scientific method’ to show that science is done by a combination of theory (from concept to precise definitions to speculation) and experiment. When we come to Darwin’s ideas, they are properly termed semantic theories. This makes them as wide ranging as anyone would wish, yet they never seem to crystallize into (proper) scientific theories  that would then inevitably are expressed (defined) with both mathematical and semantic generality and clarrity.

I (hopefully not unkindly) find some of the arguments between TE and ID amusing - just what is it that they dissagree that is derived scientifically? If seeking design, the Universe is filled with it - scientists simply use another term (symmetry, geometry etc). If seeking chaos, the Universe is filled with it - and science has provided the maths for this.

The argument between TE and ID seems odd; the arguments between theists and atheists however, has a far deeper significance, and this takes in science, philosophy and naturally faith - the odd thing in all of this is that atheists start with claiming they have no beliefs and rely on science to give them facts, and end up spending all of their time arguing about other people’s beliefs! Can we figure us human beings?

Eddie - #74596

November 21st 2012


It seems to me that both the ID people and their opponents (both atheist and TE), have sometimes (for example, in the Dover Trial) used the distinction between methodological and metaphysical naturalism in a confusing way, and one which produces more heat than light.

If all that “methodological naturalism” means is that scientists, when confronted with phenomena that everyone admits to be natural —the motion of planets, falling objects, lightning, growth, reproduction, and so on—try to find natural causes for those events, then methodological naturalism is unobjectionable.  There is nothing difficult to understand here.

If “metaphysical naturalism” means the doctrine that nothing exists but Nature—i.e., there is no Creator God outside of or above nature, then it, too, is nothing difficult to grasp. And obviously metaphysical naturalism is incompatible with Christianity, and obviously no TE holds it.

It is therefore clear that one can be a “methodological naturalist” without being a “metaphysical naturalist,” and it seems to me that this ought to be admitted by ID people.

But there is a third naturalism, which one might call “theological naturalism”—the position that says that God does exist and created the world, but, having created it, always acts in the world through natural causes. There are various refinements of this position, the most common one being that God always acts in the world through natural causes except where his direct action would serve some revelatory or educational purpose. So, for example, the Resurrection of Christ served a revelatory purpose, and is a supernatural action not amenable to explanation by means of natural science. The creation of life and species, on the other hand, were not witnessed by human beings, and therefore a direct supernatural action could not reveal or teach anything to human beings; therefore, God’s “default mode” of action through natural causes applies. This conception is very popular among TEs.

Note that this division, between “special divine actions that reveal or teach spiritual truths” and “divine actions through natural causes in all other cases,” is quite different from the division between “divine action through natural causes in the ordinary operations of the universe” and “special divine action not only for revelatory or teaching purposes, but also to create many of the main components of the universe.” The latter distinction is favored by most ID people.

But notice now that this dispute is not about “metaphysical naturalism”—which neither TE nor ID people endorse. It is a dispute between two different Christian theologies—neither metaphysically naturalist—of divine action in creation. This is where both ID and TE people, when they are debating each other (rather than debating atheists) confuse themselves, and each other, by talking about “metaphysical naturalism” rather than “theological naturalism.”

The confusion is further compounded when the question of the validity of design inferences, a question which really belongs to the fields of philosophy of nature and philosophy of science, is mixed up with the theological question of how God did, or would have, acted in creating the universe. And I see all parties in the discussion of “naturalism” as responsible to some extent for this intellectual confusion, because they are too eager to win the debate and not eager enough to get their concepts straight. Unfortunately, the only winner in the discussion has been Eugenie Scott; the distinction between methodological and metaphysical naturalism is just the rhetorical tool she needs to give an effectively atheistic science a constitutional monopoly in the schools.

Dunemeister - #74616

November 21st 2012

Wow, Eddie. I’m gonna need a while to chew on this….

Ted Davis - #74670

November 24th 2012


I’m glad we agree that one can hold to MN without being a metaphysical (or ontological) naturalist. However, Dembski, Johnson, and some other ID proponents do find this distinction objectionable in practice, whether or not they allow it in theory.

Your term “theological naturalism” is clearly defined, and the way in which you define it sounds a bit like deism with your language about God “having created it” always uses natural causes; it’s not quite deism, of course, since you then affirm biblical miracles (one of them explicity, others implicitly). I’m not sure how “popular” this view is among TEs, precisely as you worded it. If you altered the wording, it would be easier for me to agree with your conclusion. Your language places restrictions on God, which I (e.g.) would not do, and many other TEs would probably not do. It might be a more widely applicable definition if you were to phrase it more in terms of whether it is legitimate for science to *assume* a MN position in the complete absence of historical testimony about events that might be “miraculous.” In other words, take the science as far as it can go in that situation, and accept that we might not be able to find an adequate scientific (ipso facto “naturalistic”) explanation for some events.

Francis Collins took this attitude toward the origin of life, I would say, in this paper (see esp p. 152 where he also speaks about biblical miracles: http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2003/PSCF9-03Collins.pdf.

I am more used to the term, “religious naturalism,” Eddie, a term that is generally recognized (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_Naturalism) and clearly excludes a “supernatural” God, while affirming the importance of religious experience (pace Dawkins and company). Obviously this is not equivalent to the term “theological naturalism,” as you have defined it. I’ve sometimes used the same term informally as a rough equivlent of “religious naturalism,” and I associate it with Wim Drees, David Ray Griffin, and others who would not accept the bodily Resurrection and the actual divine creation of the universe (or multiverse).

A further note to follow below.

Eddie - #74677

November 24th 2012


I would say that deism—in its most common historical form, which denied miracles after the world was created and set running in accord with natural laws—is a form of theological naturalism.  You could call it “religious naturalism” if you like; but since it is a big general metaphysical proposition, a thinker’s proposition if you will, it seems to me that “theological naturalism” is a more appropriate term.  But the term does not matter to me; it is the idea that I’m concerned with.

It is important to note that someone can be a non-deist while having an essentially deist view of God and nature.  That is, one can believe that the universe always has and always will work like a well-built clock, never deviating from the natural laws—except for a few hundred times in the ancient Near East, between the time of Abraham and about the time of the writing of the last New Testament books, after which “the age of miracles” came to an end.  Someone who thinks in this way about God’s actions in the world is essentially deist in theological temperament, with miracles being only grudgingly conceded on the authority of the Bible.

I think you know, Ted, that many critics of TE see TE (and always I allow that some TEs don’t fit the general pattern) as essentially deistic in temperament; God runs things pretty well through natural laws, except when he wants to teach something to his people that can only be taught through interventions.  So he built the world so well that it could run itself (always with his concurrence, of course, which is different from special divine action); the world is “fully gifted”—with “created capacities” that include the ability to make life out of non-life, multi-celled animals out of one-celled ones, thinking animals out of non-thinking ones.  That is how TE’s critics tend to perceive the TE position.  And you have to concede that it would easy to find, on the internet, and in print, literally hundreds of statements by prominent TEs which seem to endorse such a position.  Indeed, the sneering at ID for endorsing a “God of the gaps” and therefore being “bad theology as well as bad science”—implies that “good theology and good science” would lead one to believe in a seamless naturalism, where God doesn’t have to stick in his finger to cause anything to happen.  (I am aware of the more nuanced position of Russell etc.)  

Regarding Collins, in the article you mention, yes, he does there give a rather anemic endorsement of the possibility that God may have intervened specially to create life, but even there, he closes off his his paragraph with a warning that such a view could make one guilty of “God of the gaps.”  And a number of other TEs, while rarely making any definitive statement about the origin of life, seem to incline strongly toward a purely natural account.  This explains the almost universal denunciation of Stephen Meyer’s book by TEs on this site.  Meyer’s “crime,” aside from any scientific errors he is alleged to have committed, is daring to argue that naturalistic causes are not enough.  I don’t recall any statement on this site, either by columnists or commenters who identified themselves as TE, to this effect:  “I agree with Meyer that life probably did arise through non-natural means, in an imparting of a massive amount of information by a supra-material intelligence, but I don’t quite agree with the way he argues it because of certain scientific defects; I think he could have made his case better by ...”  If the TE community, at least, the TE community which writes and comments on BioLogos columns, were really strongly inclined toward a miraculous origin of life, one would think we would have heard something of that in the discussion of Meyer’s book.  But we heard basically condemnation of Meyer for not approving of the reigning view that “we aren’t far along yet, but we have confidence that one day we will have a natural-cause origin for life.”

I am not arguing that we should assume a supernatural origin for life; that would be as bad as assuming a wholly natural origin for life.  I am arguing that there is, among many TEs, a surprising silence about the question of the origin of life (as if it’s no big deal!), and, where remarks are made, a tendency to endorse naturalistic explanations, directly or indirectly.  And that tendency is what one would expect from theological naturalism.

Ted Davis - #74709

November 26th 2012


I am struck by your comments about those who believe that “the age of miracles” ended after the writing of the New Testament; specifically, I’m struck by your analysis that such a view “is essentially deist in theological temperament, with miracles being only grudgingly conceded on the authority of the Bible.”

A very large number of Protestant authors, including early modern (prior to the Enlightenment) authors and many modern evangelical authors, have held just such a view. Indeed, many fundamentalists hold that view now (If you google “age of miracles ceased” you will find adequate support for this). John Locke held this view. Many opponents of contemporary Pentecostals hold this view, although few (if any) of the people I refer to in this paragraph concede biblical miracles “grudgingly.”

I emphasize “Protestant” authors, because (as I’m sure you know) Protestants have often attacked Catholic claims about miracles since the biblical period—miracles that (according to Catholics) authenticate the authority of the Roman Catholic church. Ironically, arguments made by Protestants vs Catholics were used later by sceptics vs the Bible.

The view you describe at this point, Eddie, is not usually seen as deism. I don’t agree with your analysis here.

Ted Davis - #74710

November 26th 2012

PS. I suspect that many ID proponents may actually hold the view that miracles ceased with the apostolic age, although I’d be surprised if it comes up in ID literature since it’s such a theological topic. If you can point me to places where this topic is discussed by ID proponents, I would be very interested to see them.

There could well be such discussions in non-ID literature written by authors who endorse ID. Again, it would be interesting to see what they think.

Eddie - #74734

November 26th 2012

Yes, but Ted, my point would be that the fundamentalists, the dispensationalists, and even the mainstream Protestants who believe that miracles have now ceased are all failing to be truly Biblical.  There is no Biblical justification for supposing that miracles should have ceased.  Miracles to establish doctrine might well have ceased; but miracles for other reasons, e.g., divine compassion for the diseased and those in peril—there is no reason, within a Biblical world-view, that such things should ever cease.  Indeed, it is arguable that “cessationism”—the doctrine that miracles have ceased—was one of the main contributing doctrines to the modern, secularist view life, for it contributed to the mechanical view of the world as an endless chain of events governed only by natural laws (since God’s special actions have ended).  In other words, there is a kinship between deism and the forms of Protestantism you are talking about.  Deism would most easily take root in a Protestant culture in which cessationism had already created a naturalistic atmosphere.  (And just as an aside, I don’t think it does much good for your case to cite Locke as a good model of orthodox Christian faith.)

You hit the nail on the head in your second-last paragraph.  I suspect that much of the motivation for Protestant cessationism was polemical—an attack on Roman Catholicism.  But the weapon they used was too dangerous.  You know, there are chemicals that can kill all the weeds on your lawn, but which, if employed, will also kill all the grass.  Arguments against the conception of ongoing special divine action have a secularizing effect, and it is only to be expected that later thinkers in Protestant territories would take the argument to its logical conclusion, and turn it against Protestantism itself, by questioning the miracles of the Bible.  This is where it seems to me that the Pentecostals—though Pentecostalism is far from my personal temperament—are truer to the logic of the Biblical writers  than the mainstream of Protestantism.  

Ted Davis - #74711

November 26th 2012

Now, Eddie, I respond to your statement that Francis Collins gives “a rather anemic endorsement of the possibility that God may have intervened specially to create life” in the article I linked. What actually bothers you here, Eddie? Collins takes what I regard as a reasonable, cautious attitude about the present state of knowledge (which is pretty dismal) about the origin of life. Our knowledge could change, and this is precisely why he is so cautious about drawing conclusions about special divine action from our present ignorance.

Are you bothered by caution of this type? Collins is fine with God creating life directly, ex nihilo (“I am happy to accept that model,” he says), if perhaps that happened. When he adds that “this particular area of evolution ... is still very much in disarray,” isn’t he showing precisely the type of attitude you would want him to show? Isn’t he admitting what we don’t know, while not assuming that a “naturalistic” explanation will do the trick?

Finally, Eddie, did you notice the very next paragraph in Collins’ article, where he says unabashedly that God created by evolution, knowing full well that it would produce creatures capable of fellowshiping with him, indeed the kind of creature that God would enter into Incarnationally. He goes on to say that God has indeed worked genuine miracles; and, the tone in which he says this has none of the “grudgingly” in it anywhere.

I think, Eddie, that you’re taking Howard Van Till as the main representative of a TE attitude toward miracles. Van Till, of course, is well known for advancing what he called the “fully gifted” creation (language that you use in your comment here with identical quotation marks), which is IMO bordering on deism (here your instincts are on target). Nowhere in my columns have I presented Van Till as an exemplar of the type of TE position I’m posing for consideration. Nor do I see him having a very large following among evangelical TEs.

(I don’t mean that Van Till wasn’t right about certain things; he was right, IMO, to push ID proponents to say openly that “design” as they understand it has to be implemented by a “supernatural” designer who works “outside” of the ordinary course of nature and at least sometimes via “miracles.” He was right about that, without being right about the nature of divine governance, the topic at hand now.)


Eddie - #74735

November 26th 2012


The fact that very few TEs would openly endorse every single statement of Van Till’s doesn’t mean that a good number of TEs aren’t influenced by the general approach of Van Till.  

And of course, I’ve tried repeatedly to distinguish between the TEs you seem to favor, such as Russell, who do not object to divine hands-on involvement in creation, and a good number of biologist-TEs who appear to lean toward something very close to a seamless naturalism in origins.  

There is nothing formally wrong with Collins’s statement on the origin of life.  I was suggesting that the way he contextualized it, in terms of God of the gaps, amounted to the left hand taking away what the right hand had given.  And you and I may disagree on how Collins conceives of the evolutionary process.  I suspect that he regards it as having occurred without the assistance of any special divine action.  If you could show me cases where he says the same thing about evolution as he says about the origin of life—e.g., that he is “happy” to envision God as guiding or steering the process—I would regard his statement about the origin of life as much more impressive than I do now.  But as you know, the language of guiding and steering, where it is not outright rejected by TEs (e.g., Lamoureux rejects it), is a language that generates bristly defensiveness among biologist-TEs.  The physicist-TEs that you admire are in some cases different; but it’s the biologist-TEs who in my view are doing the damage to faith-science discussion, and they are the main targets of my criticism.  

Collins’s statement that God “created by evolution,” taken by itself, in the words of Shania Twain, “don’t impress me much.”  A creation that does not both intend certain results and employ means that can guarantee those results, is not, in my mind, creation in the Christian sense.  And as the neo-Darwinian view of evolution which Collins apparently accepts without reservation cannot possibly guarantee any results (unless supplemented by guiding, steering, interventions, miracles—choose your word), to say that God created by means of it is in my view to speak incoherently.  You don’t “create” anything by rolling dice.  You might accidentally produce something—but that is too low a conception for the Christian understanding of creation. 

Ted, can you name me one biologist-TE, in the ASA or anywhere else, who has said that in his or her personal view, God guides or steers evolution?  Not “uses an evolutionary process”; not “by his foresight knows what evolution will produce”—guides or steers.   If you don’t know of any such, I would expect that none exist.  And if none exist, well, there you have my problem.  

Ted Davis - #74761

November 27th 2012

Eddie challenges me to “name me one biologist-TE, in the ASA or anywhere else, who has said that in his or her personal view, God guides or steers evolution.”

Asa Gray wasn’t an ASA member (that organization did not exist then), but he was a biologist—perhaps the first biologist to use the term “theistic evolution” favorably—and he famously said that “variation has been led along certain beneficial lines.” God was the only viable candidate for doing that leading. I grant that he failed to use either of the verbs “guides” or “steers,” but we can’t be putting words into his mouth—or into the mouths of current biologists, for that matter.

Many ASA members hold a similar view, whether or not I can quickly find quotable public statements to this effect. No one has to accept this statement, of course, but I am in a position to make such a claim, from my heavy involvement with ASA for more than 30 years. But, I offer no other support at this time. Indeed, I have to drop out of the conversation now for a few days. In the meantime, I invite anyone reading this column to suggest a few examples—perhaps Simon Conway Morris? Someone more familiar with his books (which I have not read in several years) might perhaps join in. Although I sometimes seem to be the only TE making any comments, others read the columns and keep quiet.

Eddie - #74765

November 27th 2012

Thanks, Ted, for all your gracious and civilized objections, and for the time you’ve put into them.  I realize you have other things to attend to, and can’t keep answering me at length.  I will, however, make a reply to the above comment:

Given that you know modern TEs extremely well, both in person and in their writings, I find it telling that for a clear example in print of a biologist-TE who believes in “steering,” you have to go back 150 years to Asa Gray!

As for your claim that you know of many ASA members (biologists?) who similarly see God as leading or steering, I would never doubt your word, but given that you can toss out articles from memory that deal with almost every single subject, by almost every single leading TE, I am guessing that the people you are thinking of are not the leading TEs that the public knows from books and from this site.  And whoever they are, while they may be very forthright with you in private, they are strangely silent in public forums where ASA people debate such matters.  Are they perhaps embarrassed to admit that they think God “tinkers” with evolution?  That this would mark them as “God of the gaps” thinkers who have not accepted “methodological naturalism”?  I have no idea.  All that I can say is that when Behe is taken by some TEs to be suggesting the same thing, he is verbally crucified, whereas these other TEs to whom you are referring apparently get a free pass from their TE colleagues.  Looks like a double standard to me:  ID people who think there might be steering going on in the evolutionary process are bad scientists and bad theologians, but TEs who think the same thing are good scientists with legitimate theologies.



Ted Davis - #74778

November 28th 2012

My time limitation is real, Eddie, and I am sure your recognition of this is sincere. Asa Gray is the only TE whom I can quote accurately, from memory, on the point you raised. I went back that far b/c he’s the very first example I think of, whenever anyone raises this question. It would take time I don’t have to find others and to quote them accurately.

I could also quote Owen Gingerich accurately (as I have in earlier columns), but he’s not a “biologist-TE”; ditto for Robert Russell; ditto for Loren Haarsma (who is a biophysicist); etc. I think Francis Collins may hold a similar view, but you aren’t willing to grant it b/c his language doesn’t conform narrowly to your choice of words; and, you pick on a single sentence of his about the “god-of-the-gaps” to downplay the very significant things he says in the rest of that extended passage, where he does just what you say your “biologist-TE” authors are so reluctant to do (namely, to grant our ignorance of the origin of life and very happily to embrace many genuine miracles). I call this highly selective reading.

It seems to me, Eddie, that you keep wanting to nail “biologist-TE” authors who write a certain type of popular book. My columns aren’t about them in any such narrow sense. My columns are about “orthodox” types of TE (as I’ve clearly defined that term) in general, and I’ve already produced numerous examples of TE authors who hold high views (even classical views) of divine action and sovereignty; whether they are trained as biologists is not relevant to me. Whether they have thought deeply enough about the underlying issues is what counts. I see your complaint, frankly, as amounting to this: the people I’m going to nail are the ones I’m going to use to tar TE with my brushes. If I can nail a certain group of biologists, isolating them from the others, that’s what I’ll do. Even if I can’t nail Collins without ignoring what he says.

Eddie - #74783

November 28th 2012


Thanks for your further generous reply.

I acknowledge that the form of TE you are recommending is different from that currently prevalent in the blogosphere, and, as far as I can tell, among most ASA-TEs, at least those in the life sciences.  My comments are not meant to target you in particular, and in fact I’ve tried to often indicate that I agree with you that Russell is different, etc.  My comments are intended not just for you but also for the BioLogos audience, and such readers are regularly looking at columns here by Venema, Louis, Applegate, Alexander and so on.  I assume that they will recognize, in my criticisms of certain TE positions, that those criticisms apply more to some TEs than to others.  And to make sure there is no misunderstanding, I’ve tried to write “biologist-TEs” or the like, but from time to time I may forget to qualify.

On Collins, even if I “gave” him to you, that would be only one out of many life-science-TEs.  But as I already said, to indicate that he is “happy” to conceive of life as having required special intervention to get started is not the same as saying that he personally believes that it happened that way; and you have provided no written statements showing that Collins believes, or even would be “happy” to believe, that God adjusted the evolutionary process along the way (as Russell apparently believes).  So Collins’s affirmation of a God who does anything special, beyond natural causes, is ambiguous at best.

Overall, this is the range of opinion I’ve found in the life-science-TEs, on the question of whether God does anything special in the origin or evolution of life:  from the “far right”—the view that God does nothing special, to the “middle”—the view (expressed without enthusiasm) that he might have done something special, but that science seems to be showing that this would not be necessary, and theologically we don’t like the idea much.  Nobody seems to hold to a view on the “left”—that stochastic processes were in fact, or were likely, augmented by special divine action, and that such action would be entirely in keeping with the Biblical portrait of God.  To find that view, we have to look to the physicist-TEs, such as Russell and Barr.  (Or, as you say, to Asa Gray, writing in an era when biology had not yet, out of physics envy, adopted the hard mechanistic reductionism it adopted in the 20th century.)  I find this division among TEs curious.  Its causes would be worth investigation by a sociologist or historian of science.

I add that I agree with you (in your 74761 above) that you shouldn’t have to do all the legwork; other TEs reading these exchanges could jump in and help.  You’re a good man, Ted; don’t let any of my criticisms cause you to think I believe otherwise.  You’re a voice of moderation and sanity in an arena too often dominated by fierce passion.  And the serious intellectual dialogue generated by your columns indicates that you are doing something right.

Ted Davis - #74831

November 29th 2012

I see that my 3-part enumeration of examples has wound up on the second page of comments. I make no apology for that inconvenience, since I have nothing to do with the software. 

Ted Davis - #74827

November 29th 2012

To paraphrase Francis Schaeffer, Eddie, such people do exist and they are not strangely silent. See my comment down below, which I didn’t want to leave here where it might more easily be overlooked by casual inquirers.

Eddie - #74678

November 24th 2012

P.S.  Ted, I had no intention of “placing restrictions on God.”  I took it for granted that you would understand that in “theological naturalism” as I define it, God’s creation exclusively through natural laws is voluntary on his part.  He could of course break natural laws any time he felt like it, poof things into existence and so on.  The whole idea of theological naturalism is that God has chosen not to do so, whether because he thinks that direct production is beneath his dignity (a common idea in 17th- and 18th-century thought), or for some other reason.

P.P.S.  A further qualification re “deism.”  Of course, the historical deists presumed that in God’s creation of the universe as we have it, he used “miraculous” or “interventionist” means; it was only after the whole was finished that he sat back and let the natural laws run everything (with his blessing, of course).  Modern TEs, however, tend to see God’s only “blatant” intervention as the creation of the original Big Bang situation itself, after which the “fully gifted” universe evolves by its own “created capacities.”  This is not historical deism, but is in the same spirit.  The idea that God uses natural laws as his ministers is the same; but modern TE pushes back the date of God’s “retirement” (from special action, anyway, though not from “concursus” or “sustaining” or the like) earlier than deism did.  For the deists, God’s special actions ended with the creation of man; for the TEs (or many of them), his special action appears to have ended with the creation of primordial matter and natural laws.  Thus, TE, in at least some of its forms, is more consistently theologically naturalistic than even deism—as far as the creation goes.  (But less naturalistic, obviously, in granting Biblical miracles.)

Ted Davis - #74715

November 26th 2012


I agree that some forms of TE are highly deistic (Van Till would be an example). The type I’m presenting for consideration here, however, does not fall into this category—not by a long shot.

Any time the conversation is limited to natural history alone—when did this organism come into existence? how? was it by special creation or evolution? etc.—then the specter of “deism” will come up, simply b/c the Bible is being left out, at least when the conversation involves proponents of ID (who leave the Bible out on purpose) and TE (who do not see reasons to look for miracles in natural history). The deists did not believe in any miracles since the creation, whereas the TEs being discussed here believe in many miracles since the creation, and some (an example is Denis Lamoureux) believe that God still works genuine miracles right now. No deists here. Let’s leave that word out of this conversation, since it’s so highly misleading. (It might interest you to know that I’ve sometimes heard ID proponents described as “deists,” too. That charge came from “liberals” who saw efforts to “prove” a transcendent God from science as a type of “deism.” Those conversations would also have been better if that word had been left out.)

The real issue you are driving at, it seems to me, is about evidence for special divine action (miracles) in natural history. The IDs want to say that such evidence is abundant (a view that is tantamount to the OEC or YEC view); the TEs disagree, while acknowledging the ongoing ignorance of science on many specific parts of natural history. That’s what this comes down to, IMO, not to deism vs Christian theism. IDs want science specifically to include the possibility of miracles (under the term “design”) in natural history, whereas TEs want science to stick with natural explanations, while acknowledging that science can do only so much and that we may always be ignorant of many things. The TEs aren’t deists at all; they are very glad to talk about God (much more willingly indeed than IDs), but they see such explanations as going well “beyond science,” though not entirely beyond all the evidence we have.

Eddie - #74736

November 26th 2012


I clearly distinguished between someone’s actually being a deist and someone’s having a generally deistic way of looking at events.  I also clearly indicated that TEs accept that God has acted in special ways in human history, and that therefore they were not deists.  But you need to look at the forest rather than the trees.  If someone holds the view that for 14 billion years after the Big Bang, God performed no special divine actions, and then from the time of Abraham to about the time of Pentecost (or a decade or two afterward), God performed some special divine actions, in a very narrow corner of a very tiny globe lost in the vastness of the universe, and then ceased to perform special divine actions after that, and will not perform them again until the Last Judgment, I would say that such a person’s theology has a strongly deistic flavor about it, even though I would not formally class that person as a deist.

Still, I’d be quite willing to leave “deism” out of the discussion.  I prefer the term I suggested:  theological naturalism.  I think that the overwhelming majority of TEs, all the biologist-TEs and even some of the physicist-TEs, have a strong preference for the view that creation was accomplished wholly through natural laws, without any special divine action.  Yes, some occasionally grant that maybe God jump-started things with the first life, and (more rarely) suggest that he may have intervened along the way, but one senses a lack of enthusiasm in the suggestions, as if they are being granted in order not to take away anything from God’s freedom, not because the TEs in question really think it happened that way.  Even Francis Collins’s statement, which you referenced, is not a firm indication that he thinks it actually happened that way—and it is rare indeed to find a statement stronger than that in the writings of any biologist-TE.

What I’m trying to get you to wrestle with, Ted—I mean wrestle with publically, because I am sure you have thought about it privately, given your line of study—is the question why there should be a preference for naturalistic origins stories.  No straightforward reading of the Bible (one not colored by subsequent philosophical and theological reflection) would suggest to an untutored reader that the creation of the world was anything other than a series of direct supernatural actions.  And this was indeed how the Biblical accounts were read by the overwhelming majority of the foundational Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant theologians.  The preference for naturalistic origins accounts among Christians is modern.  That has to be faced, straight in the eye.  Why did Christians do a volte-face on this issue only in the modern era?  Is it because modern science requires naturalistic origins?  Or is it because modern theology requires naturalistic origins?

Until this meta-question is answered, I think that the question concerning “evidence for special divine action” cannot be answered.  Until the metaphysical motivations of all the players are out on the table, discussions of “evidence” will be pointless, as each person will weigh the evidence differently depending upon his metaphysical motivations.  I believe that some of the physicist-TEs have been fairly frank about their metaphysical motivations; I find the biologist-TEs nebulous (and that’s the most charitable word I can find) about theirs.

Ted Davis - #74757

November 27th 2012

Judging from your exchanges with “Francis” (now no longer part of these conversations) and one or two others, Eddie, I would have guessed that you have strong objections to the YEC view. The view you describe here—“No straightforward reading of the Bible (one not colored by subsequent philosophical and theological reflection) would suggest to an untutored readerthat the creation of the world was anything other than a series of direct supernatural actions”—is basically the YEC view. I fully agree with what you say in that sentence. The reason I differ with the YEC view is b/c my view is (as you put it) “colored by subsequent ... reflection,” in my case scientific as well as historical, philosophical, theological, and biblical reflection. I’ve been quite straightforward about my own views all throughout this series, just as I’ve tried to present the views of others in a straightforward (and, I hope, fair and accurate) manner. No one reading my columns, especially the earlier ones, should be wondering about why I prefer “naturalistic origins stories,” at least when it comes to understanding the scientific picture. (The theological picture is equally important, and my theology is not naturalistic.) And, no one should doubt that I am aware of how modern my attitude is.

What about you, Eddie? Are you in fact a YEC (in which case I’ve misunderstood you)? If not, then why are you (apparently) so disturbed by the fact that TEs, in general, actually accept the basic outline of the history of nature assembled since 1800 by scientists in many different fields? Even the most conservative of OECs do not invoke “a series of direct supernatural actions” in cosmology (e.g.), and cosmology is right where the Biblical creation story begins. Indeed, highly conservative author such as Hugh Ross and William Lane Craig place great confidence in what cosmologists tell us about the early history of the universe—none of which involves “a series of direct supernatural actions.”

Eddie - #74764

November 27th 2012


No, I’m not a YEC.  I do not read the Bible in the same way as YECs.  I think their hermeneutical principles are flawed.  Nonetheless, I do not say that every conclusion that they have drawn about the meaning of Biblical passages is therefore incorrect.  But what most repels me about YEC is its dogmatism.  And I see that same dogmatism in the New Atheists, and in some TEs, who think they know what God would or would not do, based on their own private theology.

I am glad you are up front about how modern your attitude is.  A number of other TE writers on this site have gone to great pains (by quoting or citing passages—usually out of context—from Church Fathers, Calvin, etc.) to try to make out that their position is nothing new, but just the old traditional Christian of doctrine of God and Creation, what theologians always or frequently held before those fundamentalist YECs came along.  But upon examination, the evidence proves thin; while the ancient Fathers were not fundamentalists or YECs in the modern sense, they were more often than not closer to strict literalism than to typical modern TE interpretations, in all but a very few cases (e.g., outriders like Origen).  And the same two quotations from Calvin and Augustine have been used so often on this site that one suspects that it would create great embarrassment if one asked for a third.

It’s my understanding, Ted, that most American TEs consider themselves to be Protestant evangelicals.  At the heart of historic Protestant evangelicalism is trust in the authority and inspiration of the Bible—the whole Bible, not parts picked and chosen according to modern tastes.  And while other things like Creeds and Confessions and traditions have some authority, the Bible is considered to trump all of those.  So a straightforward reading of Genesis, if confirmed by a reading of the other 65 Protestant Biblical books, would seem to be something that one could not simply dismiss, no matter what later tradition or science should say.  And I see no grounds in the Bible for affirming that God used “secondary causes” to any great extent in Creation.  Yet TEs, most of whom are Protestant evangelicals, seem confident that this is what God did.

As for the history of the universe that you mention, one can affirm certain sequences of events in the past as factual, without affirming that those sequences were caused wholly by natural powers.  It is possible that in some cases events where wholly supernatural, in other cases a mixture of natural and supernatural, in origin.  Nothing in the Bible would give us any reason to pooh-pooh or belittle either of these possibilities.  I doubt very much that William Lane Craig would say that science has proved that all events from the Big Bang to man were generated by natural causes alone. 

Again, the question arises why so many TEs, especially the biologists, dislike the idea of direct divine action (outside of Biblical times).  There is a theological preference.  I can’t make you say why you think this preference exists.  You can volunteer it, or not, as you choose.  But I think it is undoubtedly there.  And I find the preference just as unwarranted as its opposite preference in the YEC camp.  I think Christians should discipline their minds until they have no preference in the matter, and refrain from talking about how God would have done things, and try to discern, as best they can, how God did do things; and if the evidence is not clear either way, to declare both possibilities of equal intellectual dignity.



Ted Davis - #74782

November 28th 2012

None of the TEs I am talking about, Eddie, would say that “science has proved that all events from the Big Bang to man were generated by natural causes alone.”

Science can’t prove anything of the sort. For the theist, there simply is no such thing as “natural causes alone.” The issue here is deeper. I’ll just let Richard Bube speak to this: “There is nothing natural that can happen without God’s free activity. To describe events in terms of natural categories is not to explain God’s activity away; it is rather a fuller exposition of the ways in which we perceive this activity.” Since Bube is (like most of the TEs I discuss) not a “biologist-TE” (he is a solid state physicist who taught a course on Christianity and science at Stanford for many years and a long-time editor of the ASA journal), perhaps he won’t count, but his views have been widely influential on many “biologist-TE” people in North American and England.

Given a few hours, I could add many more quotations like this from other authors. I’d love to say a lot more, but I already do respond a lot more to comments than most authors at most sites. This will have to suffice.

Ted Davis - #74784

November 28th 2012

Eddie says: “And I see no grounds in the Bible for affirming that God used “secondary causes” to any great extent in Creation.  Yet TEs, most of whom are Protestant evangelicals, seem confident that this is what God did.?

I reply: every non-YEC person is in the same boat with those TEs, Eddie. Every one. Once the “progressive creation” card is played, a whole lot of “secondary causes” follow. A great extent of them. This is no less true for the IDs (most of whom are in fact OECs, not YECs) than for the TEs. TEs may appeal to “secondary causes” to the greatest extent, but the OECs do so to a great extent. A very great extent.

Eddie - #74786

November 28th 2012

Thanks, Ted.  But remember that I said:  “I see no grounds in the Bible” for affirming ...”  Everyone in these battles claims that his position is “Biblical.”  I’m saying that, if the Bible were the only source we had for determining what we should think about origins, would we draw the conclusion that God created stars, sun and moon, plants, animals, man and so on largely through the mediation of secondary causes?  I don’t think we would conclude that at all.  

To be sure, you can say that Christianity involves more than the Bible, and I agree.  But I’m trying to keep various questions distinct.  If we are talking about “the Biblical teaching” about creation, I see little to no emphasis on secondary causation—action whereby God “delegates” natural beings and powers to generate the next natural creature in the series.  In other words, Biblical exegesis would not lead us to think that God created primarily through natural means.  I would therefore argue that anything that comes from other sources—whether from Church tradition, or from modern science—has to at least attempt to connect itself with the Biblical way of speaking, either to contradict it, or to harmonize with it, or to modify it, or whatever.  

And if my point applies to all the camps, and not just the TEs, I can live with that.  I think that any Christian, of whatever camp, who claims to be reconciling, synthesizing, etc. theology and science needs to deal with the Biblical portrait in some way.  I’m not demanding any particular solution, certainly not mechanical literalism about Genesis.  But I require a way that takes the integrity of the Bible—and hence authorial intention—seriously, and does not run roughshod over it, whether to establish some particular theological doctrine (e.g., Calvinism, Methodism, Thomism) or to vindicate evolutionary science.


Jon Garvey - #74854

November 30th 2012

I’m almost weeks late in chipping in, but on the point about secondary causation, is the wrong dichotomy not being drawn? Many of the biblical pasages on creation do assume secondary causes, strictly understood.

Psalm 139, totally aware of the facts of life if not of embryology, describes God knitting us together. Psalm 104, not blind to the natural cycle of predation, attributes the provision of prey to God.

The issue is that, to the Bible, secondary causation is the way in which God expresses his detailed will - it is not a process left, like many TE views on evolution, to manage itself - often described literally as “co-creation” or “freedom”.

So as I’ve said before, the issue is not miracles and cessationism, but that of providence. Eddie above distinguishes these in thought if not word - maybe biblical miracles have ceased, but God’s supervision of events cannot have done so if prayer is to be answered, God’s care to be shown and even for the world, as God wills it, to survive.

And as Eddie says, before man came on the scene, whether God can be said to have “intervened” in “miracles”, only a very active providence can have brought about the detailed purposes described in the Creation story - given the inexactitude of the science we currently believe.

Cessationists, mostly, have a high view of providence, and that’s what stops them being deists. Though as Eddie says,  my experience also suggests that some cessationism is influenced by unconscious scientific naturalism - the answered prayers are as embarrassing as the miracles to such people.

Ted Davis - #74671

November 24th 2012

My other reply, Eddie, concerns the word “miracle” itself. As you probably know (since it’s clear that you have background in religious studies or something close to it), the English word “miracle” derives from the Latin “miraculum,” the participle of the deponent verb “mirari,” which means to wonder or to be amazed. Thus, those who hold that “miracles” in the biblical sense (“signs and wonders”) can really refer, properly speaking, only to events witnessed by human beings, I would say that’s a reasonable position. This doesn’t mean that God never acted directly (as vs in a mediated way through “natural” causes) at other times, including prior to human existence, but it does mean that one might reserve the term “miracle” for just a subset of such events.

Isaac Newton certainly believed that God sometimes acts outside of natural laws, but at the same time he seems to have understood “miracle” just as I described it here. For more on this, see my essay, “Newton’s rejection of the ‘Newtonian world view’: the role of Divine Will in Newton’s natural philosophy”, Fides et historia 22 (1990), 6-20. There are three versions of that essay, the most recent one being in this: http://www.amazon.com/Facets-Faith-Science-published-Paperback/dp/B008SJM0A8/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&qid=1353779456&sr=8-8&keywords=jitse+van+der+meer+facets+faith+science. It’s not available on electronically, but interested parties can ask me about how to get ahold of it.

Eddie - #74675

November 24th 2012


You are quite correct about the etymology of “miracle” and how it is used in Biblical theology.  But of course words often expand in range of meaning over time, and since the Enlightenment the meaning of “miracle” has acquired a more general significance in the English language, one not tied to the question of whether or not something is witnessed by a human being, but whether or not it is in violation of, or transcends, “the laws of nature” as they are normally understood.  Thus, in modern parlance, both in the philosophy of religion and in the speech of the man on the street, if God created life by means which went beyond the use of natural laws, that would be a “miracle,” whether anyone witnessed it or not.  

But really, the term used ought to be a matter of indifference, for the issue is plain:  does God always [except where specially noted by the Biblical authors] work through the laws of nature, or does he not?  Those who are inclined to say that he always works through natural laws, and therefore that it is likely that the origin of life was an entirely natural happening, and that the course of evolution was an entirely natural happening—always given the qualification that God sustains the natural laws, and therefore is not absent in natural actions—have to give a reason for this preference.

It is not enough to say that we usually observe regularity in natural laws, because no critic of TE asserts anything different—about contemporary experience.  The point in dispute is whether, when it comes to origins, we have any right to expect that God should have chosen to work exclusively through natural laws.  We cannot observe origins, so such an assurance cannot be empirical.  It must therefore be based on a prior idea of “what God would probably have done,” and therefore on some claim to understand either God’s nature or God’s plans or intentions.  And any such ideas must justify themselves in theological discourse with reference to both the Bible and the tradition.  It’s such justifications that I am interested in hearing from individual TE/ECs.  I might well—probably would—agree with some of the characterizations of God and his motives that are offered.  I know that I dis-agree with many of the characterizations that I have read both on this site and in some articles in the ASA journal.  But whether I agree or disagree, the obligation—to provide a firm theological basis for one’s speculations about how God would have acted in matters of origins—remains.

Ted Davis - #74759

November 27th 2012

I do not agree with the spirit of your claim, “We cannot observe origins, so such an assurance cannot be empirical.” I agree that we cannot directly observe every single event leading to the present state of nature; that much is clearly true. I do not agree, however, that some (perhaps more than some) of those events are incapable of empirical tests. It is clearly true that some such events are capable of empirical tests, even though we cannot directly witess them as they happened.

Two give just two examples out of dozens I could give. (1) Various forms of the “big bang” theory all predict that the initial “bang” would yield a universe that is almost entirely (more than 99%) composed of H and He; and, the ratio of H/He would be 3/1. This matches perfectly what we observe now. If no version of the “big bang” is actually close to the truth, then we simply cannot explain this fact. I call this empirical confirmation of a given origins scenario. (2) Various forms of the “big bang” predict that the cosmic background radiation (discovered accidentally in the 1960s) will take the specific form that physicists have long called “blackbody radiation” (this is associated with a very specific graphical relationship between frequency and intensity of the radiation). This precisely what was disovered in the 1960s and subsequently verified even more precisely. I call this empirical confirmation of a given origins scenario.

The doubt you exhibit here about the general validity of scientific scenarios pertaining to origins, Eddie, is one of the basic attitudes characteristic of the YEC view. I discussed this in some depth in an early column: http://biologos.org/blog/galileo-and-the-garden-of-eden-part-2. Do you in general doubt the validity of the “historical” sciences, Eddie? Do you share the great scepticism shown by John Whitcomb and other YECs toward naturalistic natural history? If you do, then why do you seem so confident about our abililty to infer “design” events in natural history, when our knowledge of that natural history does not really qualify as genuine knowledge in the first place?

Eddie - #74762

November 27th 2012


I agree that we can sometimes use present consequences to infer past events.  I understand the reasoning that was used in the Big Bang case; it has been narrated in a hundred popular accounts of cosmology, many of which I read as a teenager.  I would add, though, that from what I have read lately—snippets on science news sites, etc.—that the Big Bang scenario has had to be qualified in all kinds of ways—for example, it now cannot work without postulating additional forces and additional kinds of matter that were no part of the original model—which tells us how perilous these inferences back to billions of years ago can be. 

I do not see my doubt about origins scenarios as having anything to do with YEC, even if YEC people have aired the same doubts.  If I vote Republican, and then discover that most YECs vote Republican, should I vote for the Democrats simply to show I’m no puppet of the YECs?  My skepticism regarding the overconfidence of some people about their origins scenarios is my own; I had such doubts before I had even heard of “YECs.”  (By the way, I took your advice to read the end of Thaxton, etc., and I found nothing objectionable about the Epilogue, nor did I become a YEC after reading it.)   

No, I have no “blanket doubt” covering all historical sciences.  I simply express prudent doubt about some of the conclusions reached in the historical sciences, where even indirect evidence is scanty and much is based on speculation about initial conditions that are not known, etc.  This is especially the case where it is known to me that a metaphysical agenda rules the soul of the person making the past inferences.  

I feel you are dodging the issue I raised, which is that among TEs there is a tendency to speculate about what God would or would not have done, based on the TE’s own private theology.  I have seen many statements suggesting that it is somehow more befitting of God to act through natural causes than through interventions, for example.  And you surely have seen the idea of intervention disdainfully dismissed as “tinkering”—a dismissal which is massively presumptuous if, for example God takes joy in direct interaction with his creation.  Such personal theological judgments are not a sound basis for determining what actually happened in the past.  If we don’t know what God actually did do, through empirical evidence, we would be wise not to speculate upon what he must have done, or probably would have done.  

Ted Davis - #74777

November 28th 2012

Thank you for sharing your attitude toward natural history, Eddie. Much better for you to speak than for me to guess.

Ted Davis - #74780

November 28th 2012

The word “intervention” is viewed negatively by many TEs—and by many others, for that matter—as a highly problemmatic word, for reasons that you may well know well, Eddie. If you do know this well, then you know we can’t talk about that adequately in a few hundred words. At least, I can’t. I can, however, recommend that interested parties start by reading a bit of Aubrey Lackington Moore, an important English theologian from the 19th century who wrote in very helpful, even illuminating, ways about divine immanence and transcendence in his Lux Mundi (1889). I could identify many others, too, including Richard Bube among recent scientific authors. Basically, “intervention” tends to imply that the created order exists completely independently of the Creator, such that God must “intervene” in order to do something—to do anything at all, really. This is deism, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

Moore, Bube, and many others are relucant to speak about “intervention” mainly for this reason: they want to be as clear as possible about their rejection of deism. Collins avoided that word in his article, though he didn’t hesitate to speak about “miracles” and a “God who is not limited in space or time, who created the universe…”

Eddie - #74785

November 28th 2012


I agree with you, and with Jon Garvey, that “intervention” can have some unfortunate implications, and that we can find ways of expressing divine action without using it.

On the other hand, I don’t completely accept the analysis you have given (which of course you have duly credited to others before you).  The natural world does have a certain independence—not absolute independence, but relative independence, from God.  In fact, in Christian theology, it has usually been conceived of in this way.  The very doctrine of creation implies that the world is no mere illusion, no mere “appearance” of God, but something real, concrete, existing, yet other than God.  A natural world that has no independence from God would be one which exists, moment by moment, as a projection of his temporary will—and that would be an Islamic, not a Christian, view of nature.

Thus, George Murphy, the TE, often speaks the “created capacities” of nature—which seems to imply that God, in creating planets, stars, plants, animals, etc.—endowed them with certain abilities that they use—without having to call up God on the heavenly phone line and ask:  “I’m a meteoroid; can I fall to earth now?  I’m a plant; can I put out my spring buds now?”  Indeed, even to use the word “nature”—in light of the Latin and Greek underlying words and concepts—is to imply at least a relative independence.  And TEs freely use the phrase “natural causes” in exactly the same way that everybody else does, and thus imply this relative independence of the world of cause and effect.

Now, “intervention” is generally understood in opposition to “natural causes”—i.e., if we say that God intervenes, we intend to say that nature, out of its own “created capacities,” would not have produced effect X, so God gives nature an assist.  I think that this language is quite intelligible, and I think that all ID and TE people understand it.  So I think quibbling over the word is usually counter-productive.

However, if one is worried about the theological problems with “intervention,” there is an easy solution:  one can speak about “general divine action” (divine action mediated wholly through what we call “natural laws”) and “special divine action” (whereby God initiates new chains of contingent events that would not have been initiated purely through the operation of natural laws).  The question them becomes whether TEs believe that any “special divine action” was needed to begin life, or keep evolution on track, or whether, in their view, nature, unaugmented by special divine acts, did the whole job by itself.  (Where “by itself” does not deny the sustaining of the universe and its laws by the presence of God, but refers to the sufficiency of nature’s “created capacities” to produce a given effect.)  And so all my questions here still apply, even if you modify the vocabulary.  


RBH - #74601

November 21st 2012

I think the emphasis on naturalism, methodological or otherwise in excluding ID from science is at least partly mistaken. Much more serious is the explanatory poverty of ID. Merv’s comment above is on that track, I think.

The core claim of ID is that it is necessary to appeal to a designing intelligence in order to explain (some) properties of the biological world. But that implies that an explanation will be forthcoming—that ID will provide a coherent theory. After all, in science at least, theories are the explanatory apparatus. At a minimum, theories identify the relevant initial conditions and the variables that operate (along with already discovered natural laws and principles) to bring about some state of affairs—they tell us what happened to produce that state of affairs and not some other state affairs. That is what an explanation conveys in science.

In doing so theories constrain the observations we will make in the future: they tell us we are likely to make observation O and not some other observation Z. They are therefore testable in the sense that we can do research to ascertain whether we observe O and don’t observe Z under the specified circumstances. Once more, theories constrain observations and we assess theories by how well the observations fit within the constraints.

By avoiding any characterization of the conjectured intelligent agent(s) responsible for the design in nature that ID purportedly detects, ID avoids placing any constraints on observations. Anything at all could be consistent with ID and therefore it is vacuous as an explanation. It cannot tell us why O happened but Z did not. ID provides us with no account of how the putative intelligent agent(s) did the designing and no account of how the designs were manufactured in matter and energy. It tells us nothing at all about constraints (if any) there are on the designing and manufacturing agent(s). It therefore provides no explanatory leverage.

ID could be a scientific enterprise if it shed its reluctance to attribute properties to the designing and manufacturing agent(s) such that we could test whether new observations fit within the constraints those properties imply. Methodological naturalism does not exclude ID a priori; it is not a meta-scientific “rule,” except maybe a rule of thumb adopted because it works. Science excludes purported explanations that are barren, and over the two centuries since Paley’s “Natural Theology” ID has proven to be barren of explanatory power mainly because ID fails to hypothesize anything about the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the purported designer(s). That would be theologically dangerous, of course (see Dembski’s recent troubles about a global flood here: http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2010/11/but-its-all-abo.html and here: http://www.gofbw.com/news.asp?ID=12220&fp=Y), but it would be a start on making ID a scientific enterprise.

Bilbo - #74611

November 21st 2012


I think there are competing hypotheses within the ID community.  On the end of the continuum would be front-loaded theories, as Hoyle or Mike Gene offer, where “on-hands” design was only at the initial stage of life, but with the idea of somehow guiding the trajectory that evolution would take.  Hoyle seemed to prefer something similar to Margulis’s symbiogenesis, while Mike accepts modern evolutionary theory.  If this type of hypothesis is correct, then it’s not clear how much we could narrow the field of possible designing agents.  But we could search for evidence of “foresight” in design, as Mike has done.

In the middle would be Michael Behe’s view, that common descent is true, but that not all mutations have been random.  So somehow the designer(s) had to control some of the mutations is evolutionary history.  In EoE, Behe offers a scenario where the “uber-physicist” picked out one of the few potential universes that would the desired mutations and somehow actualized it.  I think this scenario only works in a deterministic world, which we don’t seem to be inhabiting.  So I think someone holding Behe’s view would be driven to an interventionist scenario, where the designer(s) somehow directly cause the desired mutations in evolutionary history.  Supernatural agents would seem to be the most likely candidates, though perhaps we can’t completely rule out the possibility of ETs periodically visiting our planet.  How would supernatural agents cause things to happen in our world?  I’m not sure we could know the answer to that question.  But I think we could conceivably have good reason for thinking that they or visiting ETs did.

Then there is what seems to be the majority view in the ID community:  some, but not universal, common descent, with special creation of human beings.  Here, I think the thrust of the research would be to disprove universal common descent.  But again, could we rule out visiting ETs? 

And then there is what I think is the minority view in the ID community:  YECism.  Here the research would be to disprove nearly all common descent; prove sudden appearance of most species;  prove young earth;  in other words, all the things that YECs try to do.  But again, I’m not sure how we rule out an uber-physicist, and only allow God as the possible agent. 

The point I’m making is that there seem to be good lines of research for each of the competing hypotheses within ID.  But I’m not sure we can or even need to narrow it down to who and how the designing was accomplished.

Ted Davis - #74672

November 24th 2012

I agree with you, Bilbo, as follows: “Then there is what seems to be the majority view in the ID community:  some, but not universal, common descent, with special creation of human beings.”

And the minority view is the YEC view. Nearly all proponents of ID (I would say from interacting with many of them personally or from reading what they’ve written) want to argue against universal common descent, as Johnson has always done (and Johnson set the tone for so much of ID), whether or not they also argue explicitly for the separate, special creation of human beings. Hardly any proponents of ID (you’ve named them here, perhaps all of them except Denton) accept universal common descent. This is why I regard ID as essentially a type of special creationism, indeed for many a covert type of the OEC view while for the others a useful tool for defending the YEC view. I’ll defend this point in a subsequent column. I can’t see any other way to account for the nearly universal rejection of universal common descent.

RBH - #74690

November 25th 2012

Hi, Bilbo. You wrote

On the end of the continuum would be front-loaded theories, as Hoyle or Mike Gene offer, where “on-hands” design was only at the initial stage of life, but with the idea of somehow guiding the trajectory that evolution would take.

It’s that “somehow” that requires enough detail to test. Either the conjecture requires a completely deterministic universe (so the initial conditions evolve into some desired state), or the storage mechanism that guides the trajectory through time has some sort of maintenance mechanism that renders it immune to the Second Law. So where are the testable hypotheses that address those questions?

And you wrote

In the middle would be Michael Behe’s view, that common descent is true, but that not all mutations have been random. So somehow the designer(s) had to control some of the mutations is evolutionary history.

There’s that “somehow” again. How? Via Dembski’s infinite wavelength, zero channel capacity medium?

And again

In EoE, Behe offers a scenario where the “uber-physicist” picked out one of the few potential universes that would the desired mutations and somehow actualized it.

There’s that pesky “somehow” again. Not to mention the complete lack of suggestions about how we might find independent evidence of the presence, or even the existence, of that “uber-physicist.” That problem runs through all the conjectures you offer.

And again

How would supernatural agents cause things to happen in our world? I’m not sure we could know the answer to that question.

Without some sort of description of the knowledge, skills, and capabilities of those agents, we can’t. An explanation constrains: It tells us why what we observe happens by invoking initial conditions and laws and principles—regularities—and it tells us why what we don’t observe ought not be observes. That’s testability.

And again

Then there is what seems to be the majority view in the ID community: some, but not universal, common descent, with special creation of human beings. Here, I think the thrust of the research would be to disprove universal common descent.

But that doesn’t test any sort of design hypotheses. “Special creation of humans” yields no testable consequences that I can see. Given the large and growing weight of the contrary evidence, evidence that supports universal common descent, it requires auxiliary hypotheses concerning deceptions practiced by the creating agent(s) in generating the misleading evidence we have.

I really see no testable hypotheses there that address any sort of ID “explanation.”

RBH - #74687

November 25th 2012

This is <quote>a test of formatting.</quote>

And <blockquote>another test</blockquote>

RBH - #74688

November 25th 2012

Ugh. How the heck do I set off quotations?

RBH - #74689

November 25th 2012


Roger A. Sawtelle - #74696

November 25th 2012

Eddie, Ted, et al.

I have read your discussion of theological and religious naturalism, and I would like to comment if I may.

I find the question is as I said, what is the nature of nature.  If nature and thus naturalism is composed of solely matter/energy, then we have a problem.  That problem in a word is dualism.  If the dualism is God and nature, and everything is material, including humanity, then we have lost the unity that Jesus Christ brought to the universe.  No theological terminology can smooth over this.

Second, God does not reign by directly controlling the universe and people.  According to the New Testament God rules through the Logos and Telos.  God rules according to God Plan, which directly effects humanity and only indirectly effects the universe.  God rules humanity by divine moral law which is very different from natural law, which also comes from God.   

Miracles are signs and wonders which are part of God’s communication of salavation history and moral law.  They have nothing to do with science.  The only posible exception to this may be the Creation which is a miracle in that it is a “singularity”  and of course is the Source of both science and the universe.

At one time Eddie challenged me to explain how Jesus could walk on water without violating natural laws.  I told him that I could not do so without reading the mind of God, which of course I can not do.  After further thought I could have answered that the angels enabled Jesus (and Peter) to walk on water without violating the laws of nature.  

Naturalism is monistic, which goes against our understanding of God ruling through the Logos and Telos.  Thus we need an integrated complex/one understanding of the universe which is not dualistic or materialistic.             

Ted Davis - #74720

November 26th 2012

As a supplement to my column, let me now recommend the exchange between TE Loren Haarsma and ID Michael Behe, in the March 2007 issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. The ASA makes it available at http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2007/PSCF3-07dyn.html.

Incidentally, the essay on “Creation” in the same issue, by the great Catholic biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, is not to be missed. I agree with Johnson that most atheists do not hold their view b/c of science; rather, moral objections to the idea of God are behind their conclusion. That is one of the reasons why I find ID largely irrelevant to the conversation between Christians and atheists; there’s just no way to talk about evil and morality without a very specific idea of God as a central part of that conversation.

Eddie - #74738

November 26th 2012


You are right; this is a good exchange.

I find Behe’s presentation, as always, lucid and convincing.  There is also much that I can agree with in Haarsma’s paper and in his rejoinder to Behe.  I certainly agree with him that much ID rhetoric has led to the very wrong conclusions that ID and evolution are mutually exclusive possibilities.  I’m glad to see that Behe agreed with Haarsma on that point.

Sadly, that was in 2005, and since then, ID and TE folks have not been able to use such constructive agreement as a basis for common explorations.  Instead, they have continued warring with each other, and for that, I blame both sides, the belligerent and sometimes ad hominem approach of some people on UD as much as the systematic attempt to annihilate the positions of Behe and Meyer (rather than grant that some of their points are good and important) by some of the writers on this site.

I particularly like this passage from Haarsma:

“To opponents of ID, I recommend the following: Do not play the demarcation
game, that is, do not insist on definitions of science which try wholly to exclude ID.”

This was exactly the point I was trying to make in an earlier exchange, with a poster who has since departed.  Both atheists and TEs have at various times tried to dismiss ID by definitional fiat.  And the reason that Behe is not considered at theistic evolutionist by most TEs is that most TEs have in fact engaged in such definitional fiat, whereby “evolution” is understood to be a “scientific” theory and “scientific” theories are understood to exclude design; ergo, Behe, who infers design, cannot be a theistic evolutionist.  But in fact, he is, in the etymological sense of the term, a theistic evolutionist; he is merely one whose challenges to Darwinian theory rub the biological establishment, including the Christian biological establishment, the wrong way.  

Roger A. Sawtelle - #74722

November 26th 2012

Ted wrote:

there’s just no way to talk about evil and morality without a very specific idea of God as a central part of that conversation.

I quite agree that philosophy and theology are basic to this conversation, but I find from my own experience that conventional theology is not sufficent to make this point.  That is why I find that we need a new understanding of science, philosophy, and theology.   


GJDS - #74726

November 26th 2012

Ted, I agree that atheists include their moral views but many also look to science. The arguments from atheists are two pronged. The first is a general one in which they insist evidence must be presented for any belief and only science can provide such evidence. This outlook has a considerably large number of problems amongst the scientific and philosophical communities, and involves arguments about scientific laws, predictability and knowledge (epistemic). Philosophers of science have ‘gone around the block’ on regularities in nature as shown by science and necessity for decades without reaching any sort of consensus. According to generally accepted tenets of Philosophy of Science, final causes proposed by Aristotle are aimed at teleological aspects of the Universe. The end result of any process (e.g. obtaining CO2 from the atmosphere is part of the purpose of sustain the growth of plants), is its teleology or purpose.

This view is in direct opposition of causality as sometimes imposed as an outlook on laws of science – things do what they do because of the way they are and these are grounded in ultimate causes embedded in the Universe. This argument is centred on logical necessity and is still argued amongst philosophers. They may also argue that in areas such as biology, we have a limited understanding and once this is overcome we may conclude these too are understood through various causes known by physics and chemistry.

These areas do not impact on theology unless theists insist that science can provide proofs and evidence of God ‘being caught virtually in the act’ within the Universe. I think an epistemology indicating warranted belief put forward by Plantinga seeks to counter this. The major area IMO is the uniqueness and intelligence within the Universe. Atheists insist that the suffering and evil in the world negates a good and wise God creating it; as a result the world and all in it is accidental and our notion of good and evil is derived from bio-based arguments. The intelligibility of the Universe however, is a way of claiming the Universe is the only one that is there, as unique, and this confers a logical necessity to it.

The notion of intelligibility is based on the Universe as comprehensible to human intellect and reason, and this confers a unique aspect to both humanity and the Universe. The actions of human beings can easily be interpreted as possessing purpose, motive and intent, and it is this that enables human reason to discover and confer purpose. This however does not in itself counter the arguments about evil and a good God put forward by atheists.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #74776

November 28th 2012

The argument that the New Atheists are using is that nature is monistic and thus thinking does not exist, so the mind and meaning are only an illusion. 

If the universe is composed of solely matter/energy so the argument goes, there is no place for the non-material such as thinking, meaning, and purpose.  They cite Monod and contemporary cognitive science to back up their ideas.

See The Atheist’s Guide to Reality for more information.  

Seenoevo - #74790

November 28th 2012

Re: Eddie - #74785

Does this strike anyone else besides me as an excellent, crystal-clear observation, analysis and concluding position?


Roger A. Sawtelle - #74818

November 29th 2012


IMHO God guides evolution and the world through the Logos and the Telos. 

I do not know if this qualifies as intervention or not. 

What do you think?

Eddie - #74822

November 29th 2012

The devil is in the details, Roger.  I can agree with your words (though what you mean by the Telos with a capital T is unclear, and I suspect you could drop it without loss of anything important); but whether I agree with what they signify, I cannot tell, because you give no detailed discussion of how the Logos is involved in the evolutionary process.  

There are plenty of TEs who would say that God is somehow “behind” what happens in evolution, but what they mean is not that God (whether as Logos, Spirit, Creator, or whatever) performs any special divine action.  They mean that, while it all happened in accord with God’s intention, it all happened in accord with natural laws, and that science can potentially account for every event in terms of efficient natural causes, with no need ever to posit a “divine factor” into any of the equations.  In other words, God’s action is invisible, indetectable, and non-inferable.  Saying that the Logos guided or steered or led evolution would then be a pure interpretive gloss based on faith alone, and therefore redundant from an explanatory point of view.

If that is your view, that atoms and molecules could have produced all this without any special action by the Logos (but you believe that the Logos was in some indeterminable way involved because revelation tells you so), then I would disagree—unless you want to make a complex argument for a “front-loaded” immanent Logos that works wholly through natural causes (and which by virtue of being front-loaded, is incompatible with Darwinism in any form).

But if you are willing to say that the Logos makes an actual difference in particular outcomes—that matter and energy by themselves, even given billions and billions of years, would have not have arranged themselves in the patterns we see, without the active participation of the Logos—then I would be in agreement.

But then, presuming we came to such an agreement, the majority of TEs—at least the majority of those who have clearly spoken their mind in public—would descend upon the two of us for (a) believing in a “God of the gaps”; (b) failing to grasp the need for methodological naturalism in science; (c) holding an unworthy theology of God as one who “tinkers”.  And several of them would also throw in (d) that we make God a wicked God, because by having him directly involved in the painful, blood-soaked evolutionary process, we make him responsible for evil.  So you would have to be prepared for all of that.

So, Roger, does the Logos do anything?  Or is the Logos just a poetic/philosophical/theological way of saying that the outcome of evolution is somehow rational and in accord with God’s will—and hence irrelevant to the question of physical origins, which can in principle be exhaustively and satisfactorily explained by natural causes?  Another way of putting it is:  when you speak of Logos, are you actually positing the Logos as one of the causes (in the Humean sense) of all or some events in the external world?  Or are you only making a statement about the meaning of events in the external world?  If the former, you are closer to the ID camp; if the latter, you are closer to the majority of the publically vocal TEs.

I’ll ask you try hard to answer this question in the terms I’ve put it, and not run off on a tangent talking about “dualism” or “monism” or “ecology” or other things that you like to talk about.  If you comply, I’ll listen carefully to your answer, and respond appropriately.  If you attempt to change my question into one of your questions, I’ll simply stop reading the moment I see it happening.  

Roger A. Sawtelle - #74826

November 29th 2012


I am not your servant or your student.  You asked me to elaborate on my views and I will to the best of my ability, but my views are my views and the best way for you to understand them is to understand me and not for me to try to conform to your world view.

So, Roger, does the Logos do anything? Or is the Logos just a poetic/philosophical/theological way of saying that the outcome of evolution is somehow rational and in accord with God’s will—and hence irrelevant to the question of physical origins, which can in principle be exhaustively and satisfactorily explained by natural causes?

Theologically your question is absurd.  You know that the Logos is Jesus Christ, do you not?  Are you asking the question as to whether Jesus does anything?

That aside there are people who have suggested that Jesus Christ was not a real person, but an extension of God, the Father.  As I expect you know this view view is false and has been rejected by the Church. 

However those people who think that if God is perfect, nature also would be perfect, fit into this view in that they see the Creation as an extension of the Creator.  I would group all of these folks under the label of monists, in they see all of Reality as simple. 

But then we do not see the Logos, Jesus Christ as radically different from God the Creator, Father either.  This would be the dualist position, which of course some people have adopted in the past, but has been rejected by the Church.  God the Creator and God’s Creation, created through the Logos, are not enemies, but allies working together for the good of humanity and God’s Kingdom.

The Trinitarian position as I understand it is that God the Creator works with God the Logos through God the Telos (Spirit) to create one End or result, which is the Kingdom of God where God will rule the universe, humanity, and everything else that might exist in complete harmony, joy, justice, and peace.    

God the Creator created Physical Variation, which works with ecoLogical Natural Selection to create the Teleolgical process called Evolution.           

Eddie - #74832

November 29th 2012


First of all, I did not ask you to conform to my world view.  I asked you to answer my question.  I left you quite free to disagree with my opinions, but I asked you to stay without the boundary of my question, which was:  Did the Logos operate wholly through the means of natural causes of the type studied by natural science, or did it nudge, steer, guide, or otherwise influence outcomes to achieve ends that natural causes alone would not have achieved?  And hard as I squint, I see no clear answer to my question.

The only part of your answer that seems as if it might be addressing my question is the last paragraph.  From the last paragraph, it appears (though I cannot be sure) that you see the evolutionary process as working through wholly natural causes (variation and natural selection), unsupplemented by any special divine action.  But you don’t say that directly, even though that is the specific question I asked you.  And it’s just possible (though there is nothing in your words to suggest it) that you imagine God as steering either the variations, or the selection process, or both.  Your lack of clarity on the main thing I asked about suggests either that you didn’t understand my question, or that you aren’t interested in answering it.  Either way, I feel no obligation to repeat it.  

Telos is not Spirit, as your parenthetical identification claims.  The Greek word for Spirit is Pneuma.  The Greek word Telos means “end,” “aim,” “goal,” and related things.  You have been bandying the term “Telos” about for some time now, and I’ve been puzzled; I now suspect that all along you meant Pneuma.  Time to pull that dusty old Greek lexicon from your seminary days out of the attic, I think.

As for Jesus Christ and the Logos, when we speak about Creation we are speaking about a time before the Logos was Incarnate as Jesus Christ, so the fact that Jesus “does anything”—while obviously true—is irrelevant.  I’m asking about the activity of the Logos in its pre-creation disembodied form, not about the activity of the earthly Jesus.  I wonder why you would confuse the two, since the theological distinction involved is pretty basic.  

I do not know how to square your various theological confusions with your Methodist theological training.  All I can do is point out the problems, and leave them with you.  In any case, we aren’t going to get anywhere, so let’s part again, in peace.

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