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Science as Christian Vocation

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October 17, 2013 Tags: Lives of Faith, Science as Christian Calling
Science as Christian Vocation

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

Engraved head of Boyle by George Vertue, after the portrait by Johann Kerseboom, used as the frontispiece to Peter Shaw’s The Philosophical Works of Robert Boyle, 3 vols. (London, 1738). The famous air pump, with a glass receiver and its unfortunate winged inhabitant, are depicted in the lower left. In the lower right are the chemist’s furnace, ladle, crucible tongs, and two crucibles.

Editorial note: When this article was first published, it was inadvertently released in truncated form. It has now been updated with the correct, full version.

So far this series has covered Boyle’s religious doubts, pious demeanor and charitable spirit, and his attitude toward the loose sexual morality that was commonplace in his own family and the upper-class circles in which they moved. We turn now to his view of science as a Christian vocation—his vocation.

Why Boyle Became a Scientist

It was only after writing all of the religious works I’ve already told you about, at some point in his twenty-third year, that Boyle embarked on serious scientific study. From that point on his pursuit of natural philosophy continued unabated until his death. Often we do not know precisely why a given person is drawn to any specific activity, and we must be careful not to jump to inappropriate conclusions simply by assuming a certain answer. As Mordechai Feingold has stressed, we must keep in mind the distinction between one’s actual motivation for doing science and the justification one then offers for it. This caveat is especially relevant to the Scientific Revolution, when so many scientists were ordained ministers who felt tugged in opposite directions by their callings as clergy and their fascination with mathematics or natural philosophy. Although Boyle was never ordained, we must still be careful not uncritically to equate his reasons for doing science with the justification he provided.

They were however very closely linked in his case. Clearly, Boyle found himself enraptured by his first experiences in the laboratory, and just as clearly he viewed his activities simultaneously in theological terms. His own account, from an exuberant letter to his sister Katherine, is mythical in its allusion and proportion: “Vulcan has so transported and bewitch’d mee, that as the Delights I tast in it, make me fancy my Laboratory a kind of Elizium; so as if the Threshold of it possest the quality the Poets ascrib’d to that Lethe their Fictions made men taste of before their Entrance into those seats of Blisse.” In short, Boyle simply loved getting his hands dirty doing chemical experiments. No surprise there, given how much time he would devote to them.

Just three sentences earlier, however Boyle had already mentioned “those Morall speculations, with which my Chymicall Practices have entertained mee,” mentioning specifically in this connection “a Discourse ... of the Theologicall Use of Naturall Filosophy; endeavoring to make the Contemplation of the Creatures contributory to the Instruction of the Prince, & to the Glory of the Author of them” (The Correspondence of Robert Boyle, vol. 1, pp. 82-3). The “Discourse” Boyle referred to was an essay, “Of the Study of the Booke of Nature,” which he originally intended to include with the homilies and meditations comprising Occasional Reflections (from which I quoted in a previous entry). This is strong evidence by itself of the intimate connection that Boyle saw, right from the start, between his already highly developed religious life and his newly developing interest in science.

As this early essay reveals, even before beginning his laboratory activities Boyle was profoundly convicted that the investigation of nature was a fundamentally religious enterprise. “Both our Divines & our Philosophers,” the essay begins, “compose Man’s Library of three cheife Bookes, which to Expound, apply & Rectify, is the Taske of the rest.” What three “Bookes” did he have in mind? The “3 Volumes, are The Booke of Nature, the Book call’d Scripture, & the Booke of Conscience.” Having already said much about the latter two books in many other writings, Boyle’s goal in this essay was to “addict ... all capable & Intelligent Persons to the neglected study of the First,” that is, nature (The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 13, p. 147). The intimate interplay between scientific and religious ideas would henceforth be an outstanding feature of his thought.

A further motive was Boyle’s strong desire to improve the human condition and to ameliorate suffering—especially through the application of chemical knowledge to medicine. The modern advertising slogan, “Better Living Through Chemistry,” never had a better exemplar than Robert Boyle. To some extent, Boyle’s interest in medicine reflected some unfortunate encounters with unhelpful physicians and his own generally poor health. His friend John Evelyn described him as “rather talle & slender of stature,” but “pale & much Emaciated,” and his diet as “extreamely Temperate & plaine” (Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends, pp. 88-9). More importantly, Boyle deeply felt that physicians had a religious duty to be more forthcoming with effective remedies—and to provide them even to those who could not afford to pay. It was a lifelong theme, running through many of his writings, which came to a climax near the end of his life, when he published a collection of medical recipes for this very purpose. John Wesley did precisely the same thing, for the same reasons, in the following century.


“Mr Boyle’s Receipts” book

A few years before his death, Boyle arranged for a collection of medical “receipts” (we would call them prescriptions) to be privately published—in other words, they were given personally by Boyle to friends and correspondents, not sold for profit to the general public by the book dealers. Boyle had been collecting remedies for various ailments for many years, using them himself and sharing them with others in a piecemeal fashion. He finally decided to print a collection in response to a request from William Avery, a physician in Boston, Massachusetts, who appealed to Boyle for some inexpensive yet effective medicines that he could use in colonial New England. In addition to sending some copies to America, Boyle gave them “gratis; not only to physitians, & surgeons, but cheifly to divines & Ladyes, & other persons residing in the countrey that were wont out of charity to give medicins to the poore” (Royal Society, MS 186, fols. 119v-20). The British Library used to have a copy of the first edition, Some Receipts of Medicines (1688), but it disappeared some time ago and no copy can now be located. A larger collection of remedies, collectively called Medicinal Experiments, was printed in stages after his death by his executors—including the great philosopher John Locke, who had studied medicine at Oxford, where he worked with Boyle. The edition shown here, from 1696, has an engraved portrait of Boyle opposite the title page. The source of this photograph (a book dealer’s catalog) is no longer available.

Boyle the Laboratory Scientist

Once Boyle had begun the investigation of nature, he never slackened, and he found his Christian character ideally suited to his new activities. The highly competitive aspect of modern science sometimes hides the fact that science is a fundamentally cooperative enterprise, in which groups of people work toward common goals. Boyle’s unquestioned honesty, unfailing charity, and genuine interest in the public welfare helped him gain the respect and friendship of an important community of learned “gentlemen,” who met regularly in John Wilkins’ rooms at Wadham College, Oxford, to view experiments and to discuss the latest scientific discoveries and ideas. When Wilkins moved to Cambridge in 1659, Boyle assumed the role of host. The following year, he and some of the same people joined with several others in London to found the Royal Society.

The next dozen years were the most productive of his life, earning him a worldwide reputation as the outstanding experimental scientist of his generation. His most famous contributions involved the use of an air pump, expertly made for him by Robert Hooke, a brilliant Oxford student who went on to become a great scientist himself. With this apparatus, Boyle demonstrated several properties of the air, confirming in clear and clever ways the hypothesis of Blaise Pascal and others that the atmosphere is a vast fluid like the ocean. Just as water pressure increases with depth, so air pressure depends on the height of the atmosphere. Several other experiments, involving insects, birds, and small mammals, helped to illuminate the connections among respiration, combustion, and various components of the air.


The frontispiece from the second collection of Boyle’s experiments with air pumps

The frontispiece from the second collection of Boyle’s experiments with air pumps, A Continuation of New Experiments Physico-Mechanical, Touching the Spring and Weight of the Air, and their Effects (Oxford, 1669). The animal sealed inside the glass vessel in this particular experiment was a kitten.

Boyle’s involvement with animal experimentation calls for more comment. The Greco-Roman anatomist Galen had carried out numerous experiments on living animals–it was the only way in which many physiological phenomena could be seen at that time. However, according to Anita Guerrini, his methods were not employed again as part of a scientific research program until the first quarter of the 17th century, when the Oxford physician William Harvey used vivisection to help establish the circulation of the blood. By the 1650s, animal experimentation was practiced widely in England and had become indispensable for understanding respiration, in which Boyle and several of his contemporaries had keen interest.

For this and other purposes, Boyle carried out numerous experiments involving live dogs, cats, birds, mice, frogs, snakes, worms, and insects. He repeated what he called “the Experiment of killing Birds in a small Receiver” often enough to refer to it in that matter-of-fact manner. To some extent, animal experimentation was encouraged by René Descartes’ view that animals were merely machines lacking reason and sensation, a concept that became known as the “beast-machine,” but Boyle did not entirely accept that notion. He sometimes expressed remorse for laboratory animals, on the assumption that they actually did suffer, and even showed compassion in some cases by declining to subject animals to multiple experiments. As Malcolm Oster has shown (cited below), Boyle considered gratuitous cruelty to animals blasphemous, while at the same time he believed it legitimate to use animals for experiments that would advance human knowledge.


Painting: “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” (1768)

Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), National Gallery, London. The scene Wright depicted in one of his most famous paintings corresponds closely to an incident Boyle described in his first book about the air pump, New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air, and its Effects (Oxford, 1660). His account is as follows: “having divers times try’d the Experiment of killing Birds in a small Receiver, we commonly found, that within half a minute of an hour, or thereabouts, the Bird would be surpris’d by mortal Convulsions, and within about a minute more would be stark dead ... Which sort of Experiments seem so strange, that we were oblig’d to make it several times, which gain’d it the Advantage of having Persons of differing Qualities, Professions and Sexes, (as not onely Ladies and Lords, but Doctors and Mathematicians) to witness it.” However, following an occasion when “the pitty of some Fair Lady’s” interfered to save the life of one of the birds, Boyle “resolv’d not to be interrupted in our Experiment,” and so he repeated it in the dead of night, when there were (presumably) no women around (The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 1, pp. 286-7).

Looking Ahead

Up next: more on Boyle’s science, especially his commitment to what he called “the mechanical philosophy,” the conception of nature as a vast, impersonal machine—created by an infinite, personal God. That will set us up for another column, dealing with Boyle’s commitment to what we now call “methodological naturalism.” These are very important topics that are highly relevant to the modern conversation about science and Christianity. Be sure not to miss them!

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

This material is adapted from Edward B. Davis, “Robert Boyle’s Religious Life, Attitudes, and Vocation,” Science & Christian Belief 19 (2007): 117-38. Additional information is from Michael Hunter, “How Boyle Became a Scientist,” History of Science 33 (1995): 59-103, Mordechai Feingold, “Science as a Calling? The Early Modern Dilemma,” Science in Context 15 (2002): 79-119, Anita Guerrini, Experimenting with Humans and Animals: From Galen to Animal Rights (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), and Malcolm Oster, “The ‘Beame of Diuinity’: Animal Suffering in the Early Thought of Robert Boyle,” British Journal for the History of Science 22 (1989): 151-80.

John Evelyn’s words are from Michael Hunter, Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends (Pickering & Chatto, 1994). Other quotations are from The Works of Robert Boyle (Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), 14 vols., ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis, and The Correspondence of Robert Boyle (Pickering & Chatto, 2001), 6 vols., ed. Michael Hunter, Antonio Clericuzio, and Lawrence M. Principe.


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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Lou Jost - #82973

October 17th 2013

Poor birds! Glad there were ladies around.

GJDS - #82976

October 17th 2013

I cannot help but reflect on the difference(s) between the Protestant tradition regarding science and faith, with my understanding of faith and reason that permeates the Orthodox tradition (and a great deal of the Catholic tradition that I know of, seems very similar to me).

Boyle personifies the Protestant Christian who considers righteous character as the starting point (which is common to all Christian tradition), and his life reflects his theological outlook and his interest in natural philosophy. His activities, while they appear primitive to our modern scientific eyes, reflect a keen sense of integrity and a desire for the truth. Yet I sense almost a lack of a strong theological ground on understand philosophy as a whole (a concern for theologians since the patristic writings). I will gladly accept criticisms on these comments, but I think that the Protestant tradition, exemplified by Boyle, Newton and Dalton (whose intellectual strength is shown by the arguments with Desecrate and others), shown a distinct weakness in terms of the attributes of God, the resulting theology, and the consequences in the mundane arguments about science and faith. I suggest the older labours found in the Patristic writings and a number, who followed them, put so much effort in dealing with faith and reason (understood as the results of human intellect, or as Paul states, the spirit of man can know all things pertaining to man, but the Spirit of God knows the things of God). I suggest the earlier thinkers understood this teaching of the Faith more than the recent Protestant scientists/philosophers. I hasten to add that what I know and understand of Barth greatly argues against my general statement regarding Protestant thinking, but be that as it may, TE’s and the like…. I ask you, are these in the same company?

Merv - #82996

October 18th 2013

GJDS, I hope somebody else can give you a more adequate response than I can—I don’t know much about Eastern Orthodox doctrines to begin with, and I haven’t grasped the extent or detail of your objection to the “weakness” of theology from the Protestant tradition much less be able to answer it.

But I am curious about how Boyle is to be used by you as an example of weak theology since I have been rather impressed by Boyle as an exemplar of theology lived and applied (in the sciences no less) that we seem to be struggling to emulate even yet today.  I am interested in any details you care to provide.

GJDS - #83000

October 19th 2013


I cannot use the reply button so I will give a partial answer as a comment. First I realise from your response how your question has arisen - I made remarks about Boyle’s person as a righteous character - this I think is the highest attribute any Christain can aspire to. Consequently, when one considers a man of good character and intellect,  I become a little puzzled by comments such as these (which I take from the Davis paper):

” Religious doubt certainly remained a defining characteristic of Boyle’s personality. Many of his mature works can be seen as parts of a lifelong conversation with his own soul. As Richard S.Westfall observed nearly fifty years ago, the extensive attention that Boyle and some other virtuosi gave to ‘answering hypothetical atheists’ was......”

Just as you may not be completely familiar with Orthodox teachings, I cannot claim an authoritative understanding of Protestant theology, although I have tried to be informed by reading parts of Calvin, Barth, and portions of others (I think Fox comes to mind). My remarks are related to my puzzlement at the way Protestant theology has been entangled with evolution, leading to process theology, open theology, theistic evolution. My puzzlement is derived from an relative ease that I feel when considering Orthodox doctrine and philosophy and science; the criteria that enables one to consider these aspects are found (at least I think so) in these doctrines and discussions (and obvious differences in emphasis).

Thus my remak should be understood as directed to a Christian who clearly lived by the Faith, and yet he experienced conflict of the sort mentioned. Thus I muse, is this due to a poorly developed theology? Perhaps I should have posed this question, rather than get into Protestant theology as such. I must confess however, that this theology may be difficult for me to digest as so many versions can be found (Jon has mentioned some, as personal god(s), a god who uses chance, a god who empties himself, and perhaps many other forms that I have yet to hear about).

Merv - #83012

October 19th 2013

That helps, GJDS—I think I can see more the nature of your query or challenge; and it wasn’t what I initially was thinking.  I am curious to know more of the Orthodox tradition as you may have time to share.  E.g.  has it had a sort of equivalent historical drama of interplay between religion and science to the western one for which Galileo has become the mythological icon?

I have some responses (about the ‘pantheon’ of gods) which are more to Jon, than you, so I’ll put them in another post below.

Jon Garvey - #83005

October 19th 2013

“...perhaps many other forms that I have yet to hear about”

Sorry GJDS - I must have forgotten to mention the God whose providence doesn’t extend to the details of creation, the God who is bound by the laws of science, the God whose providence doesn’t extend to overseeing the words of Scripture, the God for whom “involvement” is actually “tinkering” or “interference,” the God for whom “Lordship” is actually being a “Tyrant” or “Puppet-master” ... it’s hard to keep up with them all.

Funny - in 2000 years of Christian doctrine, all these insurmountable problems with established theology have only arisen in the modern West. Everyone assumes the problem is the doctrine - I wonder why no-one asks if the real problem might be the modern West?

Lou Jost - #83007

October 19th 2013

Maybe because only in the modern West have people finally discovered things like cosmology and evolution, revealing real or apparent conflicts with Bronze Age beliefs about the universe.

Jon Garvey - #83008

October 19th 2013

No I don’t think that works, Lou. Last time I checked, science was being done all around the world. More fossils are being excavated in China than anywhere, Indian scientists are involved in cosmology, etc. They just tend not to be translated into English, so disappear from Western view.

It’s the religious landscape, not the scientific one, that is different in the West, and that’s only been the case in the last century or so. Most of the foundations of science were laid in the Christian West before that and, as this series shows, many by Christians, because of their Christian (“aka bronze-age” if you prefer polemics to academic accuracy) beliefs.

Indeed, many of the recent discoveries in cosmology (eg the Big Bang, cosmic fine tuning) and evolution (eg semantic life codes) have tended to vindicate the theistic viewpoint.

Furthermore, where more traditional Christianity flourishes (eg in Orthodox and Catholic countries) there is usually seen to be less conflict between science and belief than where liberal values prevail - the US being the foremost example of that.

Lou Jost - #83009

October 19th 2013

Yes it does work, Jon. Of course science is now done worldwide (and in fact Chinese and Indian scientific contributions do not disappear from the western view), but the theories that most impact Christian theology were developed in the modern West, as you yourself just noted. But now that science has spread, it everywhere conflicts with “revealed” religions. Islam is a prime example, and Hinduism too. But in Islamic countries, and other places where liberal values are shunned (eg southern US), the conflict between science and religion is avoided only by censoring science and scientists, and by keeping people ignorant of evolution and other such theories.

Ted Davis - #83010

October 19th 2013


I urge a bit of caution here. Are you prepared to consign Boyle to perdition along with “the modern West”? Perhaps in your view Boyle himself, with all of his piety, love of Scripture, and genuine charity was part of “the problem” you are talking about?

Let me quote a passage from his great treatise on nature, a work I’ll be quoting more of in future columns. Note his explicit objection to seeing God as a master of “puppets” requiring “extraordinary interpositions.” Perhaps these issues are older than you realize, Jon.

“those things which the School Philosophers ascribe to the Agency of Nature, interposing according to Emergencies, I ascribe to the Wisdom of God in the first Fabrick of the Universe; which He so admirably contrived, that, if He but continue his ordinary and general concourse, there will be no necessity of extraordinary interpositions, which may reduce him, to seem as it were to Play After-Games… And methinks the difference betwixt their Opinion of God’s Agency in the World, and that which I would propose, may be somewhat adumbrated, by saying, That they seem to imagine the World to be after the nature of a Puppet, whose Contrivance indeed may be very Artificial, but yet is such, that almost every particular motion the Artificer is fain (by drawing sometimes one Wire or String, sometimes another) to guide, and oftentimes over-rule, the Actions of the Engine; whereas, according to us, ’tis like a rare Clock, such as may be that at Strasbourg, where all things are so skilfully contriv’d, that the Engine being once set a Moving, all things proceed according to the Artificers first design, and the Motions of the little Statues, that at such hours perform these or those things, do not require, like those of Puppets, the peculiar interposing of the Artificer, or any Intelligent Agent imployed by him, but perform their functions upon particular occasions, by vertue of the General and Primitive Contrivance of the whole Engine.”

When “modern” theologians express similar concerns, Jon, they might not be quite so “modern.” Or, perhaps, modernity begins earlier than you thought, with people like Boyle and others. I do see deep resonances between Boyle and someone like John Polkinghorne, in both personal and intellectual terms.

Merv - #83015

October 19th 2013

It is interesting that Boyle gives such anticipatory voice to what would later be voiced again in Paley’s work; especially since in all those times people were more exposed to the varied tragedies of life that we (in affluent cultures) so try to insulate ourselves from now.  One wonders what Boyle would think if he could be transported to our time to see what we’ve done with the science he so loved.  Would he recant, and (like Lou) enter into a new religious myth that science is the sole light of the world?  Given the circumstances Boyle knew—helping so many poor with their various illnesses using the new medicines he had at hand—that he would have much sympathy with our abrupt, modern assessment for all the suddenly perceived deficiencies that the Creator must answer to us for.  I think Jon, as I have understood him, has the greater weight on this one, Lou.

Merv - #83016

October 19th 2013

Sorry for that long but incomplete fragment (my second to last “sentence”).  That should have concluded ...   that given Boyle’s circumstances, I can’t imagine he would have much sympathy for our “theological problems” today.  But I am eager to see how you respond to Ted, Jon.

Lou Jost - #83023

October 19th 2013

I’d like to think Boyle would be impressed with all the knowledge we have accumulated since his time, and how it has transformed our daily lives. I bet it would make him love science even more.  What a contrast to the amount of “progress” made by religion durng that same time period. I can hardly imagine a time traveller from his epoch not being struck by this contrast.

Jon Garvey - #83027

October 19th 2013

All relative, I guess Lou. Whilst science was putting 12 men on the moon, religion was getting several billion to heaven.

A time traveller from his deeply religious era might well, annoyingly, be more impressed by world missionary efforts than moon landings and microwaves.

Lou Jost - #83036

October 19th 2013

His practie of “answering hypothetical atheists” might well play out differently today. In his day, it was almost self-evident that there had to be a very involved, detail-oriented personal creator to make complex creatures like humans. What would he think of Darwin’s great realization that unguided purely physical deterministic processes could lead to the appearance of design? Before Darwin, a personal god was practically required; after him, it became optional. This realization might have given him more courage to question his theism.

I also wonder how he would have reacted to modern bible scholarship, which has revealed the human, cultural roots of the bible. It is very hard to argue today that the bible is revealed truth (though I guess most of you still think it is).

Ted Davis - #83108

October 22nd 2013

Yes, Lou, Boyle would be impressed and encouraged by scientific progress. I also  think he’d be impressed and encouraged by religious progress, such as the realization by today’s Christians that racism is a stench in the nostrils of God, and the much greater genuine respect and cooperation that one finds today between and among Christians of very different “denominations,” unlike the awful things that Christians did to one another so often in his day. Both of these things are historically rooted in Christianity—the anti-slavery movement on the one hand (and ditto for the Reverand Dr. Martin Luther King’s movement more recently) and the disestablishment of religion during the “Englightenment,” which was birthed among the Anabaptists and other radical reformers in previous centuries, who rejected Constantine’s view (appropriate to a Roman emperoro) that all citizens ought to have the same religion.

Jon Garvey - #83017

October 19th 2013

An interesting quote, Ted ... maybe modernism does begin early… but I guess the impetus was already there in the Renaissance. I find a comparison in this extract from the exchange between Leibniz and Newton (via the latter’s spokesman Samuel Clarke):



“Sir Isaac Newton and his followers have also a very odd opinion concerning the work of God. According to their doctrine, God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion;”


“And as those men, who pretend that in an earthly government things may go on perfectly well without the king himself ordering or disposing of any thing, may reasonably be suspected that they would like very well to set the king aside: so, whosoever contends, that the beings of the world can go on without the continual direction of God…his doctrine does in effect tend to exclude God out of the world.”

Now in this regard, both Boyle and Leibniz seem to be championing a mechanically deterministic science which would now be considered Deist - the accusation normally thrown at Newton. The analogies of skillfully contrived clocks versus a puppeteer could, of course, equally be described in terms of automatons and a God who is interactive. That is indeed Clarke’s approach - Leibniz sees God as an efficient horologist, and Clarke as a concerned governor.

Newton seems to have seen God’s glory reflected both in lawlike matters and in the extraordinary or particular:

In the absence of any other proof, the thumb alone would convince me of God’s existence.

In that, I discover today, he follows Thomas Aquinas (yes, one of the dreaded philosophers, I know):

 Furthermore, although the order implanted in things by divine providence represents in its own way divine goodness, it does not represent it perfectly, because the goodness of a creature does not attain to equality with divine goodness. But that which is not perfectly represented by a given copy may again be represented in another way besides this one. Now, the representation in things of the divine goodness is the end for the production of things by God, as we showed above. Therefore, the divine will is not limited to this particular order of causes and effects in such a manner that it is unable to will to produce immediately an effect in things here below without using any other causes. Contra Gentiles 3b.99

Ted Davis - #83025

October 19th 2013


It’s very appropriate for you to bring up the Leibniz-Clark correspondence in this connection. Many years ago I wrote a dissertation chapter on Newton that included a lot of material from that correspondence, and later I published an article (that is still cited now and then) on “Newton’s Rejection of the ‘Newtonian World View’,” part of which focuses on his explicit rejection of the clock metaphor. On this, he and Boyle clearly differed. Boyle loved that metaphor, often invoking specifically the clock at Strasbourg Cathedral (which I’ll discuss in a future column) as an analogy for the universe. However, unlike the Enlightenment deists, he also used other metaphors to describe God’s relation to the world, metaphors which underscore the ongoing, moment-by-moment dependence of the creation on the Creator. He also believed in the biblical miracles (unlike the deists), and in miracles even now (when God unites a soul with the developing human being in utero, probably at quickening). It would be a fair question to ask, whether his varied stances on God and creation were fully consistent, but there is absolutely no doubt that Boyle was no deist.

On the other side of this, too great an emphasis on immediate divine activity in the world can collapse into occasionalism or even pantheism (in which God and the creation become virtually indistinguishable), just as too great an emphasis on clockwork regularity (which the universe undeniably exhibits, especially in the heavens) can collapse into deism.

Jon Garvey - #83026

October 19th 2013


Glad I didn’t get Newton and Clarke too wrong, then.

Thoroughly agree with final paragraph… one might add “just as too much creaturely freedom leads to dualism.”

I’m interested in your “consistency” comment, too, because on the face of it the “clock” metaphor is most often used to support rigid determinsim (clockwork universe) and the “Puppetmaster” theme the very opposite a free universe).

I guess clock technology was the absolute pinnacle of technical achievement at that time - one remembers John Harrison’s work a generation later. To Boyle’s generation I guess intricacy and artifice was the prevailing thought - now “clockwork” implies rigidity… unless you count Paley’s self-replicating watch in ch2 of Natural Theology!

One must factor in, I guess, that the benefit of hindsight enables us to see where ideas will end up “in the wrong hands” - in this case those ogf the Deists.

Jon Garvey - #83045

October 20th 2013


By the way, I don’t know if you’re interested (or already aware), but do you know that the mythology is also mistaken about Newton’s invoking “God of the gaps” to fill the holes in his theory? It turns out that he was right - in effect anticipating chaos theory 3 centuries early - and La Place’s later maths was wrong because of the approximations he made. I gather that’s well known to mathematicians, but not to scientists or BioLogos FAQ.

In about 1% of computer sims, it appears, Mercury will trash the inner solar system before the sun expands. So in that case, if God wanted to preserve the earth’s orbit, Newton is quite right to say he’d have to tinker.

GJDS - #83079

October 21st 2013

Jon, Ted and others,

This may be of interest - there are many mathematical treatments of the ‘laws of science’ which may be analytical or numerical. The distinction often escapes non-specialists, but it means that a rigorous approach is at times well nigh impossible, so an approach that may be an acceptable approximation is considered a practical one - this can be found in many fields. Q molecular modelling uses ‘convergent’ methods that are accepted once a given criterial is reached, also fluid mechanics, some simulations of chemical kinetics, and so on. Exact solutions are very difficult, and sometimes other errors and assumptions in our understanding negates any perceived benefits that may be obtained from the enormous effort needed for these.

I make this comment to show that a lower order of treatment from analytical or numerical treatments (by and large) is that of stochastic methods. These are generally used because scientist either conclude the effort for rigorous treatment is not worht the effort or expense, or there is no other approach to use. Thus the 1% simulations of say Mercury distroying the solar system, should be understood within the limitations of the treatments we can use (simulations, three body problems and so on - if you want a brain teaser, try chemical kinetics of a four body gas system!!! and yet some have attempted this to account for something as ordinary as Na2SO4 in the gas phase???).

I notice the solar system is still with us, so I would guess the simulations for Mercury may or may not be correct.

I conclude with this comment - in cases where we are certain of any ‘law of science’, any treatment we use does not negate this certainty. If we have a case where we rely on various method to ‘prove’ a law of science, we are making a grave error - this is especially so if we use stochastic methods to prove a law - this is (humerously) truly ‘puting the cart before the horse’. More detailed remarks may appear offensive to some who claim NS is proven by such stochastic methods, so I will end here.

Ted Davis - #83116

October 22nd 2013

Thank you, Jon. If you have a print or electronic source to document this, I’d like to see it.

That BioLogos FAQ was written by someone else, but I was consulted on that one (not most others) at an early stage. It doesn’t literally speak for me, but it partly reflects my input.

In other life, in which time is not limited (perhaps in the world to come), I’d write something about the “god of the gaps,” concerning the origin of the idea and who has invoked it for various purposes against various targets (i.e., people as well as ideas). I think the idea does have some validity, and some in Newton’s case, but common useage seems rather more like a shotgun than a rifle.

Jon Garvey - #83120

October 22nd 2013

Ted, I hope you don’t mind my linking to my blog on the subject, the sources for which I’ve listed at the end. The key one is that by the mathematician.

Ted Davis - #83168

October 24th 2013

Thank you for the link with sources, Jon. I can’t open the one by the mathematician, unfortunately.

Incidentally, the famous story about Laplace has a genuine historical basis. It’s not entirely legendary, even though most forms of it date from decades or centuries later. The original account (to the best of my knowledge) is from The Herschel Chronicle, which is basically a diary of the activities of astronomer William Herschel and his sister Caroline Herschel, edited by his grand-daughter. http://www.williamherschel.org.uk/herschel chron.htm

See pp. 308-10.

The short version: Herschel was present for the conversation between Napoleon, Count Rumford, and Laplace. Laplace is not quoted as saying explicitly that he didn’t need the God hypothesis, but the one sentence Herschel wrote to summarize Laplace’s position does emphasize Laplace’s emphasis on “a chain of natural causes” to explain the Solar System. Napoleon wasn’t pleased with Laplace’s view.

If I were grading the usual story on a “myth” scale from 0 (not a myth) to 5 (completely mythical), it would not lie on either end of the scale.

Jon Garvey - #83170

October 24th 2013

Hmm - seems to be in a funny format. Try this cached version.

I didn’t doubt the story about LaPlace - though it seems I should have done, at least 50%.

In any case I see Jerry Coyne’s set the record straight anout that story recently by saying that the conversation arose because of the lack of any mention of God in Kepler’s book…

Students of history will remark that ... Jerry Coyne is not a student of history as we know it.

Ted Davis - #83220

October 25th 2013

I’d like to see where Coyne says this. Given that Kepler mentioned God extensively in nearly all of his writings—more than any other scientist I can think of, including Boyle—well, you can see what an historian would be likely to say about a comment like that.

Eddie - #83062

October 20th 2013


Another good column on Boyle—possibly the best of those so far.

On your comment immediately above: it raises interesting questions regarding how Boyle would approach evolution.

Assuming that Boyle could be persuaded that God created species through evolution, how would his clockwork model feed into that?

The most straightforward application would be as follows:  God designed the evolutionary process to work with the mechanical perfection of a great clock.  All the outcomes of evolution, then, including man, would be the outcome of the intelligent contrivance implanted into nature at the beginning of evolution.  The evolution of exactly this world—and no other—would be a logically necessary result of God’s original admirable contrivance.

The closest modern evolutionary theorist I can think of to this view would be, not any of the “theistic evolutionists” of today, but Michael Denton.

However, you said that Boyle sometimes conceived of God’s action in terms of other metaphors.  You suggested “moment-by-moment dependence” of creation upon God.  But did Boyle mean by that that God acted as the spirit moved him, moment by moment?  Or only that, though everything proceeded by natural laws, and with perfect regularity, God was “in” the natural laws, or “concurring” with them?

If the latter, then the additional metaphor would be of theological significance only, not scientific significance.  The equations, the predictions, etc. would all be exactly the same as if only the clockwork metaphor were used.  But if the former, then God might well change his regular way of operating, i.e., might work miracles.  You said that Boyle believed in the Biblical miracles.  Well, if God might have altered the normal course of things to part the Red Sea, he might well have altered the normal course of things to create the first life, to produce the Cambrian explosion, to generate man out of some pre-human hominid.  If it is not “theologically offensive” for God to have acted in a special manner in the case of the Biblical miracles, it should not be “theologically offensive” for God to have acted any number of times in the remote, prehistoric past, to bring about the human species in the first place. 

So it sounds as if Boyle’s metaphors alternate between a theology that is Deist, and a theology that is theistic in the modern sense.

Interestingly, I sense the same alternation in modern TE writers, sometimes even within a single modern TE writer.  On the one hand, the TE will inveigh against “God of the gaps” reasoning and insist on completely efficient causation without the invocation of miracles (Boyle/Deist side); on the other hand, TEs will inveigh against ID folks (and others) for having too “Deistic” or “mechanistic” an idea of God (i.e., God as a great clockmaker or engineer), and will lecture ID folks on God’s ongoing action and providence etc.  (Boyle/Theist side).  The TE response to ID notions thus changes from situation to situation, depending on what ID argument the TE is trying to refute at the moment.  

You mentioned that Boyle’s varying stances on God and creation might not be fully consistent.  I would say this is the case among modern TEs, and sometimes even in the case of single TEs.  The difference, for me, is that Boyle is dead, and by no means can I bring him back from the dead, point out passages where he is apparently inconsistent, and ask him to reconcile those passages.  But modern TEs are alive, and therefore, I can point out passages where they seem to be contradicting themselves (sometimes implying a God who works exclusively through naturalistic and mechanical causes in creating life and species and man, sometimes saying that such a view would be an unworthy, Deistic account of creation), and ask them to reconcile their differing statements.  But whenever I do that, I get no answers at all, or else sketchy and far from theoretically coherent answers.  

I understand that divine action in relation to nature is a difficult subject, but people who have strong opinions on the matter (strong enough to condemn ID as bad theology, as many TEs do) owe it to their audience to explain the basis of their strong opinions.  They should at least try to offer a coherent account of how God acts upon nature—only in pure regularity or sometimes irregularly.  Yet when I read Collins, Falk, Giberson, Louis, Applegate, Ken Miller, Ayala, etc. I can find no such coherent account.  Indeed, it often looks to me as if they hold to a basically Deist and mechanistic picture of nature, with a few concession to Biblical miracles thrown in.  This clears them of the charge of “God of the gaps” regarding origins, but it hardly makes their polemical remarks about “the ID God is a mere engineer” or “the ID God is too Deistic” credible.

What’s the difference between the evolutionary theory of Francis Collins or Dennis Venema and “deistic evolution,” other than a personal conviction in Jesus Christ, a conviction which is held “on top of” a description of the evolutionary process that it essentially Deistic, and not integrally related to that evolutionary process?  If Collins or Venema were shown the bones of Jesus Christ tomorrow, and as a result gave up their Christian faith, would their conception of the process of evolution change in the slightest?  I don’t think it would, because I don’t think there is anything particularly Christian, or even particularly theistic, in their description of the evolutionary process.  It’s entirely compatible with a Deist God who plans it all, established the first matter and the natural laws, presses the button, and lets the process run.

sy - #83064

October 20th 2013


I believe you have raised a legitimate and important question, one that I hope many members of the Biologos community should address. I think you are right in thinking that there may be several answers to your question, and that many will simply decline to respond, since I agree with you that there does not, at this time, appear to be a single, universally held, and clearly articulated answer to the question of if and how God acts in the world, especially concerning the evolutionary process.

My own view is that the first question to ask is whether the evolutionary process could (whether it actually does is for later) include a teleological component.

A slightly different, but similar question is that of direction in evolution. Is the apparent trend toward increasing complexity real, or an artifact as described by Gould, of radiation in all directions from a simple beginning.

If there is a purpose or a direction to evolution, then the question of Whose purpose, and which direction and why, become foremost. If there isn’t either, then we can drop this issue, and assume either a Deistic or Atheistic background to life as we know it (including the existence of creatures who post things on an internet).

Darwin (as Lou sort of stated) showed that an engineer and possibly even a watch maker was not required to explain the wonders of biology, but nothing in biology or evolutionary theory rules out either purpose or direction.

I think there is enough evidence to suggest that direction at least, and even purpose, can be demonstrated in biological evolution, and if I am right, then we are closer to finding the hand of God in our own creation.

Eddie - #83066

October 20th 2013

Thanks, Sy.

By the way, I replied to some comments of yours at:


Near the bottom of the comments section.

Lou Jost - #83067

October 20th 2013

Sy, yes, I agree with you that present-day biology can’t rule out the existence of an active, tinkering designer, but at best it can show that a designer is not required.

I am not sure what evidence for direction you have in mind, but direction in stochastic processes can have purely mechanical causes. A mixture of inert gasses moves in the direction of greater homogeneity, but this direction does not indicate tinkering. It is just a consequence of blind statistical physics. A percieved direction in evolution could have similar natural causes.

I do not think there is any good evidence for “purpose” in nature. Perhaps this is not the place to discuss it, but some day in a future post maybe you can elaborate on what you mean and open it to discussion.

Jon Garvey - #83082

October 21st 2013

Hi Sy - glad you’ve got involved as you always think seriously and deeply.

I would argue that science, per se, is incapable of deciding the issue of teleology. It takes other human faculties to decide that something is intended to be as it is. Science “as she is spoke” in biology excludes both divine and natural teleology by its methodology, though those other human faculties constantly resort to teleological thinking even when denying its reality.

For example, using the metric of complexity is relatively easy scientifically, but nothing in a theistic and teleological account demands that any intended outcome, such as humanity, must be more complex than what came before: it just has to be the intended outcome. Man is not God’s image because he is complex, but (in the end) because God created him as such. Complexity may or not be a necessary requirement for that. And so the denial of a Gould or Koonin that complexity has increased is, in fact, completely irrelevant to the question of teleology.

Analogy: it is likely that the basic technicalities involved in producing a film are far harder to understand than the end result, which (perhaps) is praised for its simple and clear message.

Then again, what you describe in your post seems to be a scientific project to confirm the validity of religious claims. I have no quarrel with that - but if Christians live by faith, not by sight, theistic evolution ought equally to be a theological project to confirm the validity of science.

Or better still (in Newton’s or, I think, Boyle’s project) one should pursue science to account for the manner in which God did “on the ground” what we read he did “in the book”, and perceive as true by the faith given us by the Holy Spirit - which is, after all, said to endure beyond knowledge. In that scenario there is a critical interaction between our faulty understandings of both of God’s books from which neither “science” or “theology” is exempt, but which accords reliability to the sources of both, in natural reality and divine revelation.

The Christian theist, at least, should already have found the hand of God in creation, and be unshakeable in holding on to it - the scientific task is to see how that may be intellectually integrated both as a support for faith and an apologetic tool for those who don’t see it.

Finally, my ambitions are far more modest than yours: you hope many members of the BioLogos community will address the issue. After 2 1/2 years trying I’d be happy if even one of the core people interacted on it seriously.

sy - #83125

October 22nd 2013


I would be happy to elaborate a bit on some fairly recent evidence for purpose in biology, although it is not at all direct evidence for the involvement of a deity. I fully agree with Jon that seeking such evidence (for example to “prove” the existence of God) is not a useful or even a good idea for anyone, especially a Christian. But I also agree with Jon (how could I not, after seeing his kind words) when he says

The Christian theist, at least, should already have found the hand of God in creation, and be unshakeable in holding on to it - the scientific task is to see how that may be intellectually integrated both as a support for faith and an apologetic tool for those who don’t see it.

It is the latter task to which I am devoting myself. In that context I would mention the phenomenon of stress directed mutations, not a new finding, but one that  has become less controversial and much more accepted as a real phenomenon in recent years. These mutations (which relieve stress such as starvation or toxic exposure) are non random, they do not fit the classical Luria Delbruck preexisting mutation/ selection model, and there are a host of examples (among bacteria, so far) of mutations that occur after an environmental insult, whose effects are to relieve the stress. Let me hasten to say that mechanisms for this effect have been found, and none involve theistic intervention. I have recently submitted an article describing this in more detail, and will post a link when its available.

Of course, this is not proof of purpose. But the fact (I think that is a safe word to use here) that not all mutations are random, is at least an interesting indication that some of the neo Darwinian synthesis might need to be reexamined scientifically. Theologically, it is possible, (by no means certain) that such evidence might allow for the intellecutal integration of this scientific information “as a support for faith” . In any case, the well known complaints of some evangelicals about the “random” nature of mutations in the evolutionary paradigm should begin to be addressed by these scientific findings.


sy - #83127

October 22nd 2013


Off topic here, but thanks for pointing me to your comments back in late August. Im sorry I didnt get to see them at the time, but I completely endorse your sentiments about the philosophical short sightedness of biologists these days (with a few notable exceptions), as compared to physicists. But, dont get me started….

Jon Garvey - #83136

October 23rd 2013


I take it these are similar stress mutations to those cited in a number of papers pointed out in James Shapiro’s book, especially in relation to ionising radiation. The gist, as I understand it, is not only that the production of the mutations appears to be a “physiological” reponse, but the nature of the mutations, previously thought to be entirely adverse, is such as to stand some chance of procuring survival under extreme conditions. Maybe one could suggest, “targeted, but not very.” Any teleology, of course, is internal, but it’s still no longer completely undirected.

Shapiro also uses the immune system as an example: here hypermutation occurs “physiologically” with no specific endpoint in view - but a general teleological goal, ie the ability to bind with the maximum number of antigens.

Both those examples are extreme, and therefore (a) easy to see and (b) pretty non-specifically “targeted”. Stress mutation, for example, seems the counterpart at the macroscopic level of the flight-flight response in animals: it’s easy to spot a panicking rhino, but also harder to see it as purposive if said rhino, for example, runs into a pit-trap.

But if organisms have been able to develop these mechanisms, is it not plausible that they have found more more subtle ways of directing their own changes in the longer term? After all, the ionising mutations are the very category that brought “mutations” into the picture in the first place.

sy - #83151

October 23rd 2013


Im not sure about the radiation induced mutations, but it is possible that that could be another example. I strongly agree with your last point

But if organisms have been able to develop these mechanisms, is it not plausible that they have found more more subtle ways of directing their own changes in the longer term?

The plausibility of such phenomena is all we really need in order to postulate some kind of teleology operating at some (maybe rare) moments during evolutionary history. And if we consider that it is now possible to conclude that both the mutational and the selection phases of Darwinian evolution could be driven by environmental changes, such as climate or humidity or salinity, etc, then we could go on to the next question, whence environmental change? After all, what are floods, storms, volcanoes, earthquakes, even asteroid strikes? We call them Acts of God, don’t we?

Jon Garvey - #83161

October 24th 2013


For Shapiro on ionising radiation see here.

A for “Acts of God” insurance companies use that phrase, but many (?most nowadays) Christians say “stuff just happens”. As in biology, the key questions are, “Does God create laws of nature, and then set them loose from his control,” and “Does God create ‘chance’ so he can play dice with the Universe?”

(I suppose “contingency” might have been another deity existing with God before creation, and that he didn’t create it. After all I’ve heard Christians say God was taking a risk by creating humanity with a will - which suggests chance as a force separate from God. ...One to think about…)

I’m still trying to think through what the implications are for science and metaphysics of admitting even a degree of internal teleology to the processes and structures in nature. My guess is that it will be a game-changer. It will demolish some theologies, too.

That ought to make it a particular area of interest to theistic evolutionists.

Ted Davis - #83169

October 24th 2013

You say, Jon,

“I suppose “contingency” might have been another deity existing with God before creation, and that he didn’t create it. After all I’ve heard Christians say God was taking a risk by creating humanity with a will - which suggests chance as a force separate from God. ...One to think about…”

This is indeed one to think about, Jon.

In the classical “voluntarist” view of God and creation (held by Boyle, Newton, Clarke, and many others, but not Leibniz, to mention just names that are already in this thread), there is a genuine freedom in the divine being, such that (for Boyle, at least), God did not have to create human beings—from the same lump of clay, God could have made a dog or an ape (those are Boyle’s examples, not mine).

Anyway, for the “voluntarists” this element of contingency is part and parcel of the eternal divine nature, not a separate uncreated entity. So, it’s neither a separate deity nor a created thing.

IMO, this doesn’t necessarily mean that God sometimes chooses to “play dice,” but it doesn’t necessarily mean (again, IMO) that that God never would do that, either. “Playing dice” is a metaphor, obviously—as are all of our ways of describing and thinking about God. If (some would argue) God can choose not to remember our sins, then perhaps God can also choose not to know certain things before they actually happen.

That’s a huge can of worms, obviously, and I don’t want us to get bogged down in that here—it’s simply not germane to this thread, as fascinating as it might be. But, the voluntarism issue as it pertains to science will be germane to this series, as it unfolds. I’m coming to it soon.

Jon Garvey - #83171

October 24th 2013


I boobed by forgetting my own correction of the use of “contingency” on another thread. It was being employed there in the sense of God’s being indifferent to, and even ignorant of, outcomes (specifically human pentadactyly), whereas as you rightly say it first came into currency (through Boethius) referring to God’s sovereign freedom to create what he wills - almost the direct opposite implication.

Those two are indeed very different, but the “Playing dice” sense still raises the question I raised of how chance can be independent of the sole Creator of all things, inclusing chance. Maybe that’s one reason the Bible and the classic theologians insisted it was subsumed within God’s providence - that God does not play dice, though he makes it possible for his creatures to do so.

The question indeed opens a can of worms, and most contributors here are longing for a forum where it will be seriously discussed, as it’s central to the difficulties many of us have with much current theistic evolution. Unfortunately it failed to get answered by the owner of the original thread, then similarly on a subsequent one; and that’s partly why the present thread is so long and has been partly hi-jacked by such questions.

Ted Davis - #83191

October 25th 2013

I gather, Jon, that you have never read this book, by the current BL president Deb Haarsma: http://biologos.org/resources/books/origins. My own preference is actually for the first edition rather than the current one, although both are very good—even before I joined BL, it was my first recommendation for ordinary Christians in the pew who wanted to know more about this topic.

Ironically, the publisher (the denominational publisher for the Christian Reformed Church, a Calvinistic group) wanted the authors to tone down the Calvinism for the revised edition, in order to make it appeal more broadly to other Christians. You’ll probably like the first edition more, as I do. Please try to get that one and take a took.

Deb is a “core” person at BL, Jon. I think we agree on that. BL gives her book to donors, so I think we can assume it speaks for BL. There is even a short section on one of your key issues (personally), namely “chance” and science. I’d be surprised if you don’t like what it says.

Why don’t you read the first (or second) edition and get back to us here with your response, Jon. I think this is a very fair request.

Jon Garvey - #83203

October 25th 2013

May take a while to find a first ed., Ted… probably longer than comments will be open.

If Deb writes so much that I’d agree with, the only surprise is why I see so little of it clearly represented here - apart from your threads, many of the commenters and, of course, those like Russell and Boyle to whom you refer us.

Bear in mind that I came to BioLogos in 2010 saying, “Oh goody - here’s where I can find out how Evangelical faith and evolution fit together.”

I’m off to search the bookshops…

Ted Davis - #83218

October 25th 2013

The reality is, Jon, that Deb has a lot of important things on her plate, which doesn’t leave her much time to write about it anymore (she and her husband wrote that book several years ago). I’d love to read more of her material, and perhaps at some point she can provide more; in the meantime, you’re stuck with me and Denis Venema, plus the many guests we invite to share their ideas—which are not always in agreement with ours, as you’ve undoubtedly noticed.

Deb’s theological perspective is different from that of Darrel Falk, her predecessor at BL. She’s Reformed; he’s not. I’m not implying that her perspective is better than his, even on the specific issues that concern you the most. It isn’t the purpose of BL to endorse Reformed theology over other Christian persepctives. Lots of very thoughtful Christians (including many of the people who have written columns for us) are not Reformed. I wrote columns for Darrel and I write columns for Deb, so I think you can assume that neither Darrel nor Deb is interested in privileging any one theological perspective here, or I would not have been able to write for both of them. 

I do think you will probably like her perspective better, however, b/c you’ve made your own theological perspective quite clear, and it’s closer to hers than to his, unless I badly miss the mark.

So, this recommendation is specifically for you, though if I didn’t think some other readers would benefit from it I would not be answering you on the thread.

Ted Davis - #83107

October 22nd 2013

You questions about the fine details of Boyle’s theology are all appropriate and important, Eddie. I’d love to have a couple of years to write the book that formlates clear answers. That’s what it would take, unfortunately. The literature on Boyle is (not surprisingly) extensive, and in most cases I haven’t read most of it for more than 15 years. The Boyle edition came out in 1999-2000, and with the exception of one or two artlcles—including the one that I’m converting (with many additions and some deletions) into this series—I have been heavily invested in research on religion and science in modern America, not Boyle. Even to write a few replies with full confidence would take many hours, which I don’t have to devote to it. As you realize, the topic calls for subtle analysis and substantial citation of sources, and that type of work just can’t be done on the side. It’s a full-time job, and (unfortunately) not mine presently.

Sadly, that’s the reality. But, thank you very much for the excellent questions, which I appreciate: they help us identify key questions. I may add one or two pointers for you and others to follow up, but I won’t attempt a full reply.

Upcoming posts will provide partial answers to a limited range of questions related to those you’ve raised. You’ll see them as they appear, of course. I will be looking next at his investment in the “clockwork” metaphor, which he loved for multilple reasons, but—above all—b/c he thought it gave such powerful design arguments. Boyle was the fountainhead of the type of evidentialist natural theology that Paley later did, and Behe, Dembski and others still do. Indeed, I might have occasion (depending on what I finally decide to say) to show you that, quite literally, Paley’s watch was already in Boyle’s pocket—the parallel is so close that you’ll immediately see it. And, I must say, I find the similarity between Boyle’s clock metaphor and Behe’s bacterial flagellum to be striking: both see evidence for design in the complexity of a mechanism that could not, they believe(d), have assembled itself. Stay tuned. In other words, some of the tough questions you level at Boyle, concerning “deism” and “theism,” should also be leveled at Behe and Dembski. That goes both ways, of course: if no one questions their theism, and that it influences their views of the science, then ditto for Boyle.

Ted Davis - #83110

October 22nd 2013

Briefly, Eddie, concerning “concurrence,” you might want to read Timothy Shanahan’s carefully written essay, “God and Nature in the Thought of Robert Boyle,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 26 (Oct 1988): 547-69. After examining some other interpretations of Boyle’s theology of creation that others have defended, he advances the view that Boyle was indeed a concurrentist. You will probably find the closing paragraphs of the article answer some of the questions you’ve raised here.

I lack time to take this further, but I’ve pointed you to perhaps the single best source for answers to your questions. Eddie, if you are able to read his article and come back with a summary and comments, I’d be very grateful. Contact me privately (if you don’t mind revealing your identity) if you need help getting a copy of Shanahan’s article, and I’ll ask him to send it to. (My copy is an offprint, not a pdf. I imagine that younger readers have no idea what an offprint is—or was. Much nicer than a pdf. Trust me.)

Eddie - #83178

October 24th 2013


I got hold of the Shanahan article and read it.

Shanahan does a good scholarly job of “locating” Boyle’s thought between the poles of “occasionalism” and “deism.”

Occasionalism says that all apparently “natural” actions are actually
expressions of the momentary will of God. The illusion of a permanent
“nature” of things is created by the fact that God generally wills the
universe to be consistent with itself from one moment to the next; however, he is under no obligation to do so. Under occasionalism, a “miracle” requires no more explanation than any other natural event, and in fact has the same explanation: the resurrection, healing, etc. are the momentary will-acts of God, just as the rising of the sun or the birth of a child are the momentary will-acts of God.
The advantage of occasionalism is that it clearly preserves the sovereignty of God. The disadvantage of it is that it makes natural
science problematic. How can you have a science of nature if “nature” is such an ephemeral thing, willed only moment by moment, with no permanent reality?

Deism suggests that God sets up nature so that it can run independently, under its own power. God gives nature its powers, but doesn’t run its daily operations.   Under Deism, “miracles” need explanation, because they can’t happen under the normal course of nature—nature doesn’t have the power to resurrect a dead man or sustain a walk on the water. So one has to invoke divine interference—a suspending or breaking or altering of the laws of nature for the duration of the miraculous event.
The advantage of Deism is that it makes natural science possible. Nature’s powers are real and its laws are real. And if God occasionally breaks those laws, the violations are so rare (and mostly in the past) that the activity of natural science is not impeded. The disadvantage of Deism is that God seems to become a passive onlooker of nature, about as involved in events as Bill Gates is in the everyday programming and marketing activities at Microsoft.

Shanahan suggests that Boyle wanted to avoid these two extremes, and located himself in the “concurrentist” tradition—which goes back at least as far as the Middle Ages (e.g., Aquinas). In the “concurrentist” tradition, God creates and sustains nature, while nature retains its own powers. But he can refuse to sustain nature’s normal causes or effects in particular cases, i.e., does not always “concur” with nature; in such cases, a miracle can happen. So the men in the fiery furnace are not burned, either because fire
loses its power to burn (God does not concur with the cause), or their skin loses its capacity to be burned (God does not concur with the effect).

I have no problem with the article’s description of Boyle. It does not, 
however, attempt to defend or criticize Boyle’s position. It merely tries
to characterize it accurately.
Leaving aside Boyle now and speaking generally of concurrentism:  concurrentism would seem, on the surface, to have the best of both worlds. God is seen as active in all natural events, and natural science is possible because nature really has powers of its own for natural science to study.  Nonetheless, I find “concurrentism” a very dubious philosophical/theological position; it seems to be an attempt to fuse the underlying premises of an occasionalist theology with the underlying premises of a deistic account of nature, and a “diplomatic” attempt at that, i.e., it does not want to offend the scientists who are darned sure that there are in fact natural causes residing in the world, and it does not want to offend the pious who want to see God’s hand in everything.  It seems to me to be fundamentally an apologetic position rather than a true theoretical position.  But that is a topic for another time and another place.
Jon Garvey - #83180

October 25th 2013


Concurrentist thinking arose long before the reliability of science was an issue - I think it began in the consideration of divine and human will: confusion with which seems to dog the quite separate discussion of nature even now.

George Whitefield -no mean philosopher - held a view his critics accused of being occasionalist, a charge he denied. So there is quite a lot of nuance possible, some of which may be no more useful than attempting to count angels.

Let’s consider the accusation that occasionalism undermines science, though. Al-Ghazali, it’s said, did for science in the Muslim world by making any event worthy of a shrug and “It is the will of Allah.” That’s bad both scientifically and theologically.

But suppose, for discussion’s sake, that God were an obsessive-compulsive, addicted to order and system: in that case the result of his occasionalism would be indistinguishable from Deism.

Suppose instead this occasionalist God were just very wise and faithful, choosing to work in a lawlike way except in exceptional circumstances: then we would have a world in which science was useful, if not exhaustively reliable because God could break the pattern. Much like that of Christian tradition, in fact.

Apart from intellectual closure, I’m not sure what fundamental difference there is between such a faithful, reliable God who isn’t too precious about it and occasionally acts differently, and a God who sets up laws and leaves them to run, sustaining them and each particle in existence moment by moment - even creating each moment, in Orthodox thought - but intervenes from time to time. I certainly couldn’t detect the difference from this end.

The only issue for contention, then, is when one starts to get all democratic and think of nature’s autonomy as a moral thing - the celebrated (but never knowingly defended!) BioLogos “Freedomandliberty” concept. Micromanagement is unfair to worker molecules and gets the boss’s hands too dirty to respect him.

But such human concepts imposed on God are near-blasphemous: neither way of working diminishes either a truly Almighty God, or a genuine creation. And the Bible doesn’t opt one way or the other, though it does make true Deism a non-starter, and it doesn’t even begin to talk about nature being free to create itself..

So I say, leave the discussion on concordance to where it has real traction - in the interface between divine and created rational wills. But that really has little to do with the agenda of evolution and creation.

Jon Garvey - #83181

October 25th 2013

What am I at? Too early in the morning - for “George Whitefield” read “Jonathan Edwards” - I thought it didn’t look right…

Eddie - #83182

October 25th 2013

Hi, Jon.

I don’t know when the notion of “divine concurrence” first occurred in Christian theology, and therefore I can neither confirm or deny your suggestion that it first appeared in connection with the question of divine and human will.  I first became familiar with it when studying the history of Christian thought regarding nature; in that context, it is not limited to the question of human will, and in fact the most common examples used in the discussions concern non-human things—planets, falling objects, the growth of plants and animals, etc.   And since we are generally talking here about God’s relationship to non-human and pre-human things—the evolution of stars and planets and life and species—it is not human will, but “nature” in the more common sense, that I had in mind.

As for occasionalism, one can of course imagine formulations of occasionalism that would not undermine natural science.  One can imagine occasionalism interpreted merely as a warning that nature has no power to restrict the freedom of God (which may well have been the fundamental concern of Ghazzali, given the danger that Greek philosophy posed to medieval Islamic theology), not as an indicator of fundamental instability or unreliability in nature.  However, it has been pointed out that Islamic science, after a brilliant start, sputtered and died out, and it has often been asserted that the particular teaching of Islamic monotheism of later years—occasionalism—was part of the reason.  I’m not an expert on medieval Muslim science, so I won’t affirm that dogmatically, but it’s at least a plausible historical scenario.

Anyhow, I grant that an occasionalist doctrine could in practice go along with science as well as a deistic doctrine, if the occasionalist doctrine were suitably qualified and contextualized.  But certainly the fundamental premise of occasionalism corresponds to “God as arbitrary Oriental potentate”—a view appropriate to Islam and to aspects of Israelite religion, whereas the Christian tradition’s premise has always seemed to me to be something more like “God as constitutional monarch”—doubtless due to the classical influence on Christian thought.  And it seems to me that, whatever is possible logically as a ground for natural science, the notion of “constitutional monarch” rather than “arbitrary potentate” is a more fertile psychological ground for natural science.  The arbitrary potentate can change the laws of the land (= the laws of nature) at will; and can also offer clemency (= miracles) at his pleasure; the constitutional monarch is more restrained in both areas.  (Of course, the constitutional limitations on God would be voluntary ones, not imposed on him from the outside, but they still give God a flavor different from that of the Oriental potentate.)

It seems to me that Biblical language, which is not systematic (and in my view doesn’t try to be), varies between “deistic” language (the world is fixed and established by God, and because God did such a good job, therefore the seasons, etc. can be counted on) and occasionalistic language (the world is plastic before God’s shaping hand).  What I don’t see much of in the Bible is the language of “divine concurrence.”  That seems to me to be a medieval invention to deal with certain theoretical problems relating the freedom of the Semitic God and the relatively “bound” character of the Greek God.  When you are trying to put together the Bible and Aristotle, such problems are going to come up.  But of course the Biblical authors did not have Aristotle in mind, and the medieval problem was a non-problem for them.

I’m not sure why you switch from “concurrence” at the beginning to “concordance” at the end.  But I agree with you that trying to relate God’s action to human will is more complicated than trying to relate it to subhuman nature.  And I agree with you that the newfangled Wesleyan/Nazarene/Pietist emphasis on the “freedom” of nature is just plain silly.  I have no idea why anyone would advocate it, unless they were fixated on trying to make theological room for the “randomness” that is supposedly a major feature of evolution—or unless they were just inveterate haters of the kind of God posited by classical Christian theology (Aquinas, Calvin, Augustine, etc.).  But on that last possibility, come to think of it ...  :-)

Jon Garvey - #83183

October 25th 2013


<i>I’m not sure why you switch from “concurrence” at the beginning to “concordance” at the end.</i>

Ah, that would be the time of day again. Acouple of coffees sorted it.

Little to disagree with in your reply, but a couple of comments:

(a) Concurrence, being bound up in providence, was I think tossed around by those first studying that, and the main focus of providence then was sin and how God could allow it. I think Augustine had somewhat to say on it, but couldn’t give am off-the-cuff quote.

(b) I would argue that both in the human and non-human arenas concurrence in that providential sense is implicit in the Bible. In the former category come all those passages in which sinful actions serve his purposes, eg Joseph, “You meant it for harm, but God intended ...”, Babylon being his instrument but also being judged for their wilful cruelty, etc.

In the latter non-human, “nature” category are passages like those in which God provides food for the lion cubs or ravens: overtly God is pictured strolling around handing out lamb-chops, but the writers clearly intend more along the lines of “God makes it so the gazelle chooses to come within range of the lioness.”

Admittedly such statements could imply that gazelles etc are nothing but passive pieces God moves around moment by moment, but since daily experience of animals’ self-directeness abounds (witness Mosaic laws to destroy homicidal animals rather than simply pray that God will stop killing people), some subtle concurrence/oversight seems more realistic. But nature is never independent of God - and why should it be?

As to the more general point about what occasionalism “seems” to mean, in terms of arbitary potentates etc, I’m sure you’re right, but it seems to me a bit presumptuous for people to dictate to God how he operates on the basis of their own psychological and sociological hangups. It would seem better to put the theoretical options forward and guard against the problems, quite simply, in words like, “But of course, the God of Israel, though free, is said to be far from arbitary (quotation, quotation, footnote).”

In any case, I’m not sure if the “absolute monarch” ever really existed even in Bible days, except insofar as kings tried in vain, to emulate God. I wrote about that here.

It’s notable how the Babylonians considered kingship a gift from heaven: they at least thought they had power dlegated to them from heaven, rather than painting gods in their own image.

Eddie - #83192

October 25th 2013

Hi, Jon.  With the impending closure of conversations like this, we should probably continue this discussion privately, but I’ll venture one last comment before the lights go out:

I can see what you mean about implied concurrence in the Bible, regarding human beings and perhaps other beings with volition.  But again, my focus is elsewhere.  As I said, in my scholarly work, I encountered “concurrence” in the context not of Biblical stories or questions of human free will, but in discussions of causality in nature.

So, for example, whereas an “occasionalist” would say that a particular sodium and chlorine atom combine because God willed at that moment that those two atoms should be combined (whereas at another moment he might have willed that they remained inert and did not combine, and whereas at the same moment, elsewhere in the universe, he may not will other sodium and chlorine atoms to combine); and whereas a “deist” would say that a particular sodium and chlorine atome combine because God has given all chlorine and sodium atoms (not just the particular pair under consideration) the natural properties which compel them to combine (without any special action on his part), everywhere and always; a “concurrentist” would give the same cause as the “deist” but would add “and because God’s will concurs with the natural properties of sodium and chlorine.” 

Now my point is that the addition made by the concurrentist is of zero scientific value.  The “concurrentist” scientist’s description of nature, equations, and conclusions are identical to those of the deist scientist.  “Concurrentism” is thus, from a scientist’s point of view, an optional theological gloss upon the science; it is not necessary; in fact, by Ockham’s Razor, it might well be regarded as the addition of a redundant cause.  (If you are Dawkins or Coyne, or Lou here, you would say that, since the properties of atoms as given can explain the combination of sodium and chlorine, why clutter up the analysis with an invisible, intangible intelligent cause which is reflected in no term in the equations?) 

And sure, I’m aware that God is said not only to “create” but to “sustain” the world and its laws and properties, but “sustaining” doesn’t come into the equations.  What is sustained is the laws and properties; and those laws and properties determine the outcomes.  There is no “concurrence factor” that one needs to correctly predict chemical reactions.  (Or the orbit of Mars, or the growth of plants, etc.)

So to the extent that TEs adopt “concurrence” as their way of reconciling the randomness of evolution with God’s plan, they actually explain nothing.  All they are saying is:  “Random mutations and natural selection, even in the absence of any tinkering, guiding, or front-loading, are a sufficient physical explanation for the existence of man—but of course God concurred with all that randomness and ruthless selection.”  And the addition of concurrence doesn’t make the neo-Darwinian process one whit better as an explanation.  

In contrast, the ID approach has God doing something more substantive and measurable than “concurrence.”  If you take a pile of construction materials, leave it to time and chance, you won’t ever get a house.  But if you take the same pile of materials, and combine it with an architect’s plan, you will get a house.  The architect’s plan add’s something measurable, something that is essential even to the physical assembly of the house.  For ID people, what God inputs is not mere “concurrence” (though he doubtless for many ID proponents also inputs that), but the equivalent of the architect’s plan.

TE denies that such a plan is necessary; randomness can make man, given enough time, even without an architectural plan, because of natural selection.  And God is in a sense “along for the ride”; he is expected to “concur with” and bless the whole, stumbling, trial-and-error process, but he is supposed to butt out of actually contributing to the process, even contributing something non-physical like a plan.

In short, neo-Darwinism is just as dumb an explanation of life and man with “concurrence” thrown in, as it is without any “concurrence” at all.  “Concurrence” solves nothing.  It has no explanatory value in the everyday causal realm.  It simply allows TEs to pretend to themselves that they believe that God is “active” in the evolutionary process, when in fact most of them believe that God’s “activity” (regarding origins) is limited to sustaining the laws of nature.

And of course this is all of a piece; we are dealing with people who won’t even say whether or not God controls any of the outcomes of evolution.  The “activity” of a God who doesn’t control outcomes is not going to be anything more than sustaining natural laws, and letting them spit out whatever they happen to spit out.  And calling that passive indifference “divine action in evolution” is something I simply won’t do. 

Jon Garvey - #83195

October 25th 2013

Yeah - any term (try “free will”) can be interpreted to suit a particular bias. However, to Aquinas concurrence was intended to keep God in the driving seat, not in the back.

And I’ve only recently found how seriously he took the importance of God’s being able to “manually override” creaturely natures (that being seen as creatorial sovereignty, not interference) from time to time, and that Aquinas that redounded to God’s glory even more than his maintenance of orderly process.

Anyway, all you guys is welcome to come over to my Hump to chat. Given the high quality of contributions here, some guest posts might be in order to (as someone one said) “continue the conversation.”

GJDS - #83228

October 25th 2013

I do not wish to ‘but in’ this conversation between Eddie and Jon, but I do think that it has taken an interest turn which may benefit if we add a deeper ‘layer’, by considering how we may reconcile freedom (as the grounds for human intellect and existence, spiritual and physical) and our understanding of law as such (human, natural and divine). Such a conversation is indeed weighty, but the outocme(s) make it worth the effort. I suggest there is a great difference between libery, which deals with setting(s) and the ability to choose, and more geenrally for change to occur within such a setting, and the singular attribute of freedom that ultimately God grants to human beings. Nature is subject to God’s will, and all things are know and determined by God - nonetheless He also enables humanity to determine (within its physical and intllectual limitations) its fate.

Ted Davis - #83263

October 28th 2013

Perhaps some TEs hold “concurrentist” views, similar to those that Shanahan sees in Boyle (I’ll leave any critique of Shanahan I might offer to one side). I wouldn’t be surprised if some do.

But, in general, Eddie’s disparaging picture of the TE attitude does a poor job of conveying what many TE authors actually say themselves about God and nature, relative to evolution and other parts of science. I could place here passages from Russell, Polkinghorne, Loren Haarsma (Deb’s husband, a biophysicist with some expertise in evolutionary biology), David Wilcox, and many others. I’ll quote just this one, from Steven Barr’s recent essay, “Chance, By Design,” in the Dec 2012 issue of First Things:

“By itself, the doctrine of divine providence only tells us that everything unfolds in accordance with God’s plan. It does not tell us what that plan is, either in its general features or in its partcular details. It does not tell us the mix of law and chance, or of necessity and contingency, that God chose to use in his plan. Evolutionary history may have unfolded entirely in accordance with natural laws, natural randomness, and natural probabilities, as the great majority of biologists believe, or there may have been some extraordinary events along the way that contravened those laws and probabilities. In either case, evolution unfolded exactly as known and willed by God from all eternity.”

I suggest that this statement, from a leading Catholic scientist who understands what “chance” and “randomness” actually mean, when used in professional scientific literature, gives a better sense of the theological attitude held by TEs than Eddie’s comments here.

Eddie - #83269

October 28th 2013

Ted, if Barr were typical of the TE leadership, there would not be nearly so much of a problem.  But the fact remains that Barr is not typical.  Most TE leaders are not Catholic, but Protestant evangelicals; on certainly on BioLogos, and to a large extent even in the ASA, the theological slant has been Methodist, Nazarene, Pietist, Mennonite, or nondenominational “little church”; rarely are Anglican or Lutheran perspectives represented; there are some Reformed TEs, but their statements rarely seem to reflect a traditional Reformed position, beyond bandying the word “providence” around as a sort of badge of orthodoxy.  So the theology of TE, insofar as it is Protestant, seems oddly skewed.

Switching from TE generally to BioLogos in particular, I certainly haven’t seen on this site any statement like the one you have quoted by Barr.

Ted, I appreciate that you are trying to broaden the theological discussion here, and if you succeed, more orthodox views may become more common.  But it would be nice if you weren’t the only guy trying to do this.  It would be nice if the management had the courage to bring in columnists with world-class expertise in philosophical theology, systematic theology, and historical theology, even if those columnists sometimes disagreed with some of the past stances taken by BioLogos.

For example, Alvin Plantinga, arguably the greatest Reformed philosopher in the world, and the author of a recent book on creation and evolution, could be asked to write a column on views of creation, providence, and sovereignty in classical Christian theology from the Fathers through the Reformers.  No doubt his views would sometimes make some BioLogos managers and columnists uncomfortable.  But if you want good theology, you hire someone who is good, not someone who makes you feel comfortable.  


Ted Davis - #83300

October 30th 2013

You seem to be suggesting (between the lines), Eddie, that BL is playing “who’s afraid of Al Plantinga,” simply b/c we haven’t asked him to write a column on the exact topic you delineate here.

Just over a year ago, we did feature a series by him on another topic in which you have expressed much interest—a topic you’ve all but accused us at BL for ignoring. I mean of course divine action. Here’s Al’s columns: http://biologos.org/blog/series/divine-action-in-the-world

Al’s voice on this is added to that of Robert Russell, Dan Harrell, and some others. While our resources on this crucial topic are certainly less extensive than on some other crucial topics, and less extensive than you or I would like, it’s not as though BL has been too timid to have Al write for us on a topic we regard as crucial.

If BL were placing our own comfort over good theology, then the list of contributors here would be substanitally shorter: this is obvious to any objective outsider, so I don’t need to provide examples.

If I might (for once) put aside my normal practice of avoiding comparisons with other organizations, I’ll simply point out that I can’t recall ever being invited to do a column for Uncommon Descent or The Discovery Institute or (even) Answers In Genesis or (gasp) The Panda’s Thumb or ... others I won’t name. I have the credentials to write about origins issues for any site that is serious about it, so I think you might want to ask why my work is found only here. Sometimes I wonder just who is afraid of whom.

Eddie - #83308

October 30th 2013


I stand corrected regarding Plantinga.  I either missed that series when it came out, or I noted it at the time, then forgot about it.

I could perhaps determine whether or not I noted it at the time, if BioLogos hadn’t adopted the barbaric practice of making older comments inaccessible after 6 months.  I see that under each part of Plantinga’s series, there are numbers indicating how many comments were posted, and perhaps those comments still exist, but it is impossible to get into them, so if I responded at the time, I don’t know what I said.

I give BioLogos full credit for (probably at your instigation) presenting the lecture(s) by Plantinga.  Note, however, that they were not written for BioLogos, but for an event at Biola.  That is, the lecture(s) would have taken place even if BioLogos had never existed.  It would be nice if Plantinga were at some point invited to write a fresh series of his own, specifically for BioLogos, on a similar subject.

It is also interesting to note that BioLogos published no review of Plantinga’s new book on evolution when it came out, whereas it featured, in a multi-part series, a review of a book by the more theologically liberal Christian writer on science and evolution, Conor Cunningham.  That was new material written specifically for BioLogos.  So, while BioLogos is (mainly since your advent) willing to publish material originally written for other venues, by people such as Plantinga or Russell or Polkinghorne, it seems that the material it specifically commissions or promotes (and presumably at least in some cases pays columnists for) generally has a different slant.

It is also interesting that the “balancing” viewpoints only started appearing at about the time you were brought onto the team.  Of course, that can be read positively as well as negatively, so I give BioLogos credit for bringing you aboard.

I would be happy to see you posting columns on other sites, Ted.  Perhaps one day Hump of the Camel will invite you to do so.  Of course that is not my decision.

Ted Davis - #83313

October 30th 2013

Thank you, Eddie, for the correction to your earlier comment—and for expressing your opinion about the decision (made some time ago) to remove comments from view after 6 months (except for my columns, since I do my best to respond to them and I want my replies to remain accessible).

I’m delighted that BL asked me to write for them, but please let me point out two things related to this, as a way of responding to two points you made.

First, I actually turned down invitations to write for BL at least twice over a period of many months before I actually agreed to do so. You’ve been quite critical here of Darrel Falk and his leadership, but he is the person who finally convinced me to give it a try—about 3 months before I actually started doing it. So, if you think it’s good that I am doing this (I’m gratified by the kind things you’ve said), please give Darrel credit for asking me.

Second, quite a bit of what I’ve written for BL is not new material, at least not mainly new material, though parts might be new. The Science & the Bible material is new, though based on lectures I developed for about 20 years. The Polkinghorne material is not new at all, except for the lengthy introductions I wrote for certain sections of his chapters—which were reprinted by kind permission of Yale University Press. And the Boyle stuff is probably 80% taken nearly word for word from the article I cite at the beginning of the bibliography for each column.

So, even my stuff has not been written from scratch for BL. I don’t have enough time, frankly, to write bi-weekly columns that are completely new. Once in awhile that might happen, but most of the time it won’t and doesn’t. However, it’s new for virtually all of our readers, and it’s not previously appeared on the internet in illustrated form. I put a lot of time into it, but I don’t start from scratch. Otherwise I couldn’t have accepted Darrel’s invitation.

Ted Davis - #83264

October 28th 2013

As for “concurrence,” I don’t think it’s the only viable option either (here I agree with various comments from Eddie on this thread), but I apparently think more of it than Eddie does.

I do not want readers to think, however, that “concurrentist” thinking was either invented by Boyle or adopted by some modern TEs mainly for scientific reasons. That’s not exactly been said here, but some might see it as an implication.

In fact, “concurrence” is an idea with fairly broad theological support that isn’t narrowly focused on questions arising from science, especially not narrowly from evolution. A nice example is this post on “Providence and Freedom” from a very conservative Reformed organization that was started by R. C. Sproul, who is absolutely no evolutionist: http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/providence-and-freedom/

Ted Davis - #83190

October 25th 2013

Thank you very much, Eddie, for the first-class summary of Shanahan’s article. You’ve done us all a service—which certainly entitles you to draw your own conclusion about it, as in your final paragraph.

Speaking only for myself, Eddie, it’s difficult for me to accept a theological stance in which some measure of genuine independence and reality is not given by the Creator to the creation. Otherwise, I see enormous problems for for theodicy and for the view (which I believe) that human freedom is not illusory. For me, then, neither occasionalism nor deism is a good option. I’m not necessarily a “concurrentist,” but I concur with Boyle that we need a third way.

As you say, this is a topic for another time and place—probably not BioLogos and certainly not now.

Eddie - #83198

October 25th 2013


I agree with you about a third option between deism and occasionalism.  I just think that “concurrentism” is not adequate.  Not even in Aquinas’s formulation (peace to Jon), though I agree with Jon regarding his other comments about Aquinas above.  

Ted Davis - #83111

October 22nd 2013

Finally, Eddie, I’ll respond to this of yours:

[If it is not “theologically offensive” for God to have acted in a special manner in the case of the Biblical miracles, it should not be “theologically offensive” for God to have acted any number of times in the remote, prehistoric past, to bring about the human species in the first place.]

I entirely agree with you. Indeed, for many years I held to a “concordist” position (such as those described in http://biologos.org/blog/science-and-the-bible-concordism-part-one and subsequent columns on that topic).

GJDS - #83123

October 22nd 2013

The intelligibility of Nature, the constants of the sciences, and the notion often termed ‘fine tuning’ are weighty arguments and would subsume the analogy of a clockwork type of design. The problem with a design argument using such an analogy, I think, is that it is restrictive to mechanical intricacies, while Nature has a great deal more to it.

GJDS - #83129

October 22nd 2013

I should have added that I find terms such as design difficult to use in a scientific discussion, because the term is very loaded towards human activity or making things that must by necessity be designed by human beings. I do not think I can make a useful suggestion on this matter, however - I mused on the term complexity, but this is indeed complex (no pun intended) as we need to consider a number of factors, the major one is the distinct and proven ability to identify or characterise any substance in Nature (is this simple or complex?), and we can find complexity in everything, down to the elements and particles that make them up.

Yet time implies a direction, and the very notion of each future moment containing additional posibilities in a Universe that is constantly acting, moving,changing, implies direction and thus a type of teleology.

Ted Davis - #83188

October 25th 2013

I want to respond now to this of yours, Eddie:

“Interestingly, I sense the same alternation in modern TE writers, sometimes even within a single modern TE writer.  On the one hand, the TE will inveigh against “God of the gaps” reasoning and insist on completely efficient causation without the invocation of miracles (Boyle/Deist side); on the other hand, TEs will inveigh against ID folks (and others) for having too “Deistic” or “mechanistic” an idea of God (i.e., God as a great clockmaker or engineer), and will lecture ID folks on God’s ongoing action and providence etc.  (Boyle/Theist side).  The TE response to ID notions thus changes from situation to situation, depending on what ID argument the TE is trying to refute at the moment.”

I mostly agree with this, Eddie. I’ve seen this happen quite often myself. But, the IDs don’t get a pass on this either, Eddie. How many times have you seen proponents of ID toss the “deism” word at various TEs, despite the fact that (like Boyle) they affirm without hesitation the bodily Resurrection, Incarnation, and other miracles, not to mention the Atonement—all of which genuine deists simply don’t believe? Indeed, one might say with some justification, “The ID response to TE notions thus changes from situation to situation, depending on what TE argument the ID is trying to refute at the moment.”

I’ve also seen a similar dynamic in other contexts, in which the conversation involves “liberal” Christians talking to some TEs who are more conservative theologically than those particular “liberals.” When the more conservative folks ally themselves with fine tuning arguments and creatio ex nihilo, the “liberals” bring out the “deism” word—quite improperly. I’ve called them on his several times, in academic contexts and also on the internet. As I’ve said often here and elsewhere, we need a good history of “deism” that would help us clarify our terms here and now.

When IDs use the word “deism,” it almost always means “too liberal for me”; when TEs use it, it can mean either “too conservative for me” or “too liberal for me”; and when those “liberals” I mentioned use it, it almost always means “too conservative for me.” How convenient—wouldn’t you agree?

We need a more honest and well informed conversation, don’t we Eddie?

A final point: in the 17th century, when “deism” is first used in English (to the best of my knowledge), including by Boyle himself, the word also had some ambivalence in useage. Ditto for the word “atheism,” which was sometimes leveled (e.g.) at Rene Descartes, who was absolutely no atheist in any reasonable sense. Indeed, Boyle dissented from Henry More in precisely this context.

Eddie - #83196

October 25th 2013


I agree with you that the term “deism” is not always clear in meaning and  I think it would be good if anyone employing it would explain what they mean by it.  

There are of course Deists who have rejected all historical miracles.  I don’t think that when ID folks criticize some TEs for “deism” they are implying that those TEs reject all historical miracles.  I think they are saying that the TEs in question, outside of a restricted set of Biblical miracles, regard God’s action as always taking place through natural causes, so that all “origins” must be explained in terms of natural causes (no miracles, tinkering, guiding, steering, etc. allowed).  And of course I know that there are some TEs who do allow guiding—Russell for example.  But it is clear that many TE leaders, especially the biologists, don’t like guiding or steering or miracles and strongly push for a wholly naturalistic explanation of all origins from molecules to man.   

In short, I think the ID charge against TEs of the sort I’m describing is that their way of thinking about nature is fundamentally deistic—with their belief in a few historical miracles being a sort of anomalous add-on to a basically law-bound and mechanistic understanding of the operation and origin of the universe, life, and man.

Do some ID folks also have a mechanistic, deistic picture of nature?  Yes, I suppose they do.  All that I am saying here is that, whether ID folks are guilty of the charge of “deistic” thinking about nature or not, most of the leading TEs—the biologists, anyway—are not the ones who should be making the accusation.  A Hindu, an Aristotelian, a neo-pagan—all of them could level that accusation in a non-hypocritical way.  Someone like Denis Lamoureux, who has publically rejected the idea of God “guiding” evolution, cannot.

In any case, I’d willingly drop the term “deism” from these discussions.  The question for me is not what label to stick on people.  My question is a question of contents:  What, if anything, does God actually do in the evolutionary process?  Set goals?  Force outcomes?  How does he do any of that?  And I haven’t found a TE-biologist on the planet who is willing to answer any of these questions.  And it is the unwillingness of the TE-biologists to engage on those questions that is far more disturbing than whether anyone is “deistic.”




Ted Davis - #83200

October 25th 2013

You ask, Eddie, “What, if anything, does God actually do in the evolutionary process?” The questions keeps coming up, and not only from you, b/c the kinds of answers often given are not the kind you are looking for. I’ve gone round and round with various conversation partners on many occasions, giving my own answer(s) to this one, and rarely have I satisfied anyone. I’m fine with that, actually, as long as my answer(s) is/are actually understood by those partners. Agreement isn’t necessary; understanding is.

For the sake of furthering understanding, then, I will say here only that I like Robert Russell’s view better than most others. I don’t care whether or not he’s a biologist; frankly, most biologists I know haven’t read Russell, so the subtleties of his position may escape them. (Indeed, most ID advocates I know haven’t read Russell, either, but of course you have ...) I find this state of affairs disturbing, and that is one of the main reasons why I wanted BL to bring Russell (who never blogs himself) directly into the blogosphere. Ditto for Polkinghorne.

One of the things I’ve sometimes said is worth repeating yet again. When one asks, “What, if anything, does God actually do in the evolutionary process?,” I do not believe that the answer here should be in principle very much different from the answers to these: “What, if anything, does God actually do when prayer is answered? What, if anything, does God actually do when the Sun comes up tomorrow morning? What, if anything, does God actually do in causing the seasons and the weather?” I refuse to single out God’s activity in natural history, vis-a-vis God’s activity in all other things. Unlike some of my conversation partners, I simply don’t believe that a Christian understanding of evolution must be in principle somehow different from a Christian understanding of gravitation or meteorology. Some conversation partners have been frustrated by this attitude, but I don’t sympathize with that frustration. My answer to that question is my answer, whether or not someone thinks I’ve answered it; I’m not likely to offer a better one unless/until I see better answers to the other questions that I say are just like it.

Russell and Polkinghorne, as theologians who think hard about divine action as part of their professional work, have (IMO) thought a lot more about this in a formal way (which is what I think you are driving at with your question) than almost all biologists, whether they are TEs or not. In other words, IMO biologists per se are not the best people to be answering your question, since it’s not really a biological question. It’s a theological question.

Eddie - #83231

October 25th 2013


Take one of your own examples:

What does God do in causing the seasons and the weather?  

Easy to answer, without ducking.  God created a universe of natural laws which necessitate that weather occurs as we experience it.

Now, what does God do in the evolutionary process?

The same answer won’t work for the evolutionary process as conceived by neo-Darwinism, because the evolutionary process, as conceived of by neo-Darwinism (the biological theory wholeheartedly endorsed by virtually every BioLogos columnist, and for that matter, by virtually every TE who is a member of the ASA), is radically contingent; there is nothing “lawlike” about it.  (You, as a historian of science, must understand the distinction I’m making, even if the biologists here don’t.)  We can land a ship on Mars within a few feet of the theoretical projection, because the motion of celestial bodies follows laws; no one can predict what evolution will produce a million years in the future, because (qua neo-Darwinian) it follows no laws, and is dependent on contingencies.  Even natural selection, the closest thing to a “law” that neo-Darwinism has, depends entirely on “random mutations” and other contingencies (like asteroids crashing into the Yucatan) for its raw material and hence for its operation and results.  If God uses only a neo-Darwinian process, he cannot guarantee any particular results.  This point has been made over and over again, and no one will answer it.

Russell’s answer is:  “God intervenes, albeit indetectably from a scientific point of view.”  That is a logical answer.  I don’t know of any other TE who has been so clear.  And insofar as Lamoureux, Venema, Falk etc. have commented on the possibility of such “tinkering” or “guidance,” their attitude has been palpably negative.  They don’t like the idea of a God who monkeys with particular natural processes in a hands-on way.  

Another logical answer would be:  “God has programmed evolution as a law-governed process, so that it has to unfold in certain ways.”  But that answer is utterly incompatible with the neo-Darwinism which this site has been giving the “hard sell” for six years now.  And of course, the leading proponent of such a view, Michael Denton, is “he who must not be named” by the columnists here.

Ted, no one is blaming you for not answering these questions.  It is the responsibility of the Christian biologists here to come up with a version of evolutionary theory that is compatible with the affirmations of historical Christianity.  So far, the biologists on BioLogos have steadily ducked the challenge.  And I have no reason to think it will ever be any different.  I think the professional academic commitment to neo-Darwinism is so deep that it overrides all other considerations, including theological considerations, to the point where the biologist-TEs would rather modify historical Christian theology than modify neo-Darwinism.  That’s my assessment of the situation, and it won’t change until I see some theologically orthodox columns written by biologists on this site.  

As for your final sentence:  yes, it is a theological question, and that is why BioLogos—remember that half of the name of the organization is “Logos”—is duty-bound to try to answer it.  It has so far failed in that duty.  The biologists are allowed to write endless columns on fossils and genomes but are never held to account for what they believe personally about providence, omnipotence, sovereignty, etc.  They can hold any random private opinion about those deep matters and still be in good standing here, as long as they perform their assigned task of selling neo-Darwinian biology to the fundamentalists.  This is a betrayal of Francis Collins’s original vision for the organization, which involved putting together Bios and Logos on the theoretical level.  It’s a shameful abdication of Christian responsibility on behalf of the scientists within the BioLogos organization, to write about the science of evolution only, and keep their thoughts on the integration of science and theology as private property that is nobody’s business but their own.   And that’s my final public word here on the subject, as the curtain closes on future comments on this site.

Best wishes, Ted.

Ted Davis - #83303

October 30th 2013


I’m sorry, but I simply fail to see why the use of stochastic models to understand natural history is in principle any different from the use of stochastic models to understand the weather, the behavior of large ensembles of gas molecules, or the decay of radioactive isotopes.

All of those things involve “contingent” individual events (not always the same type of contingency, but in each case a type of contingency modeled probabilistically) that operate within a larger structure of “deterministic” laws. Darwinism included—as Simon Conway Morris and others have pointed out.

I often wonder, Eddie, which is actually more consistent with theism—a universe in which all events result from purely deterministic processes (see Laplace), a universe in which all events result from pure chance (see the ancient atomists, about whom I will write in tomorrow’s column), or a universe in which events result from some combination of deterministic and random events (see Polkinghorne).

Something for readers to think about, perhaps.

Eddie - #83309

October 30th 2013


It is not that the use of stochastic models per se is inappropriate; it is the particular case of Darwinian (or neo-Darwinian) evolution that poses the theological problem.  The overall trajectory of the behavior of, say, a cloud of hydrogen particles, or of, say, the decay of a piece of radium, can be predicted reliably, even though none of the particular single motions or decay events can be predicted reliably.  That is precisely not true of evolution modelled on Darwinian assumptions.  In fact, on Darwinian assumptions (and especially neo-Darwinian ones, which is what BioLogos defends), the inability to predict the individual events must lead to the inability to predict (and therefore to guarantee) any overall trajectory, or any firm results.

The logic of this was well grasped by Gould, but has escaped the biologists who post columns here, as it has escaped all or most of those biologists in the ASA whose internet comments I have been able to locate and read.  The dizzy, almost spiritual excitement they feel when they utter the word “randomness” in connection with divine action apparently militates against cool, calm analysis. 

Simon Conway Morris is not a typical TE, or even a typical modern evolutionary biologist, in that his stronger emphasis on convergence (which in classic neo-Darwinism is a hit-and-miss thing, to be expected occasionally but certainly not predictable or intrinsic to the process) seems to be hinting toward a grander plan in the process; pursued to its end, such a view could lead to a teleological understanding of evolution like that of Michael Denton, who is a sort of ID proponent.

Conway Morris has of course never written a column here—has he ever been invited to do so?—and the one time his thought was considered here, it was written up by a physical chemist, not a biologist, and the physical chemist’s comments on the theological questions associated with Conway Morris were quite poor.  The physical chemist was challenged on those comments, and made one reply, but after a rejoinder, abandoned the discussion.  (Which is typical of all the scientist-columnists who have ever posted here, excepting Darrel Falk and Dennis Venema.)  The discussion is now of course either deleted or suppressed, since it is more than six months old, so I have no proof, but I have a good memory of it.

As for your last question, I think it is clear that theism is inconsistent with the second of your three options, but I think theism (in the broad sense, anyway) is quite consistent with the first of the three options, provided that the decisions of beings with free will are exempt from determinism, and I find it interesting that none of your three options seem to correspond to the Biblical and historical Christian understanding of God’s creation and sustinence of the world, i.e., they all involve determinism and/or chance, but none of them offers an option of planning, design, guidance, control, teleology, etc.  It is as if you are offering me a choice of liver, cauliflower, or sushi, when what I really want is a nice juicy steak.

Lou Jost - #83316

October 30th 2013

Eddie, I am trying not to comment much here anymore, since BL’s decision to shut the community down. But I have to point out a misconception about stochastic physics/ randomness in your comment. Many physical systems are chaotic, which means that even the smallest randomness in initial conditions leads eventually to arbitrarily large macroscopic unpredictability. This would include huge things like where galaxies and stars and planets end up condensing. These things have at least as big an effect on the direction of evolution as the smaller random effects like mutations. So there is no real difference between physical stochastic processes and evolutionary ones.

Eddie - #83324

October 30th 2013


I have no dispute with the first part of your statement.  It may well be true that “many” physical systems display the instability you are talking about.  But I was responding to Ted’s examples.  Physicists feel quite confident in the validity of radioactive “half lives” which allow us to predict aggregate numbers of, say, uranium and lead atoms in a sample, over the long haul; and in everyday matters they have little hesitation to predict, say, the aggregate behavior of water particles in a whirlpool or a cloud of gas particles released into a chamber.  Yet in both cases, no physicist would claim to be able to predict how an individual water or dust particle would move.

Ted was arguing that, because we can be confident about aggregate behavior even though we cannot be confident about individual behavior in these cases, therefore we are justified in being confident that the course of evolution can be determined without direct personal control by God of individual evolutionary events.  I pointed out that the “stochastic” nature of evolutionary change does not result in predictable aggregate behavior in the way that the “stochastic” nature of water molecules in the whirlpool does.  At least, not if the narrowly neo-Darwinian formulation of evolution is correct.  Neither Darwin, nor Mayr, nor Dobzhansky, nor even the more radically “contingentist” Gould, ever suggested that evolution was virtually bound to produce certain results due to the “stochastic” nature of the process.  Or if they did, I’d like to know where.  As far as I know, this idea was first put forward by TEs in very recent years, as part of their apologetic for combining God and randomness.

Of course, Conway Morris may be a different matter, and certainly Denton and probably a number of the Altenberg people are a different matter.  Shapiro is a different matter.  But none of them are neo-Darwinians and none of them place great emphasis on terms like “random” or “stochastic.”

Now you are saying something else.  You are saying that even in physical systems “stochastic” changes of even a few particles can lead to unpredictable aggregate effects.  Fine!  To the extent that is true, that makes Ted’s application to neo-Darwinian evolution even weaker.  If, for example, the aggregate motion of the whirlpool or dust cloud can’t be predicted by statistical methods, then if evolution is stochastic in the same sense, neither could the results of evolution be predicted by statistical methods.

As I hope you will appreciate, Lou, all of these discussions in different ways are driving at the question whether God exercises control over evolution.  The TEs tend to think that because “randomness” can lead to predictable aggregate behavior—physical chemist Ard Louis and cell biologist Kathryn Applegate and others have argued exactly this, here on BioLogos and elsewhere—therefore God could start a “random” process and still guarantee an outcome such as man.  I say that God couldn’t do that.  And this is where there is an eternal divide between TE and ID folks, on the touting of “randomness” as a means of producing determinate results in the evolutionary sphere.

Now of course some biologists now say that evolution is not driven by “randomness” nearly as much as the classic neo-Darwinians thought.  Fine.  Well, if it isn’t driven by “randomness” to any great extent, then the theological critique of TE may no longer be necessary.  But BioLogos has published more than a dozen columns over the years celebrating the ingenious creative powers of randomness, and some of them it is so proud of that it has even reprinted them, even though those columns were thoroughly rebutted by readers here on their first go-round.  (Of course, in the reprints, the negative old comments were deleted.)

Why are BioLogos scientists, and so many other TEs, so inclined to tout “randomness” as a means to determinate results?  Well, most of the TE leaders (pace to Ted and Robert Russell and maybe Wilcox and one or two others) have indicated a strong preference for a God who creates only through natural causes, and never tinkers or adjusts his creation after the Big Bang.  So once the “random” motion of the hydrogen atoms gets going, it needs to be asserted that the aggregate motion will produce galaxies and stars and planets capable of supporting life; and once the “random” motion of the chemicals in the primordial oceans gets going, it needs to be asserted that the aggregate motion will produce cells; and once the “random” mutations to the cells get going, it needs to be asserted that somehow the “stochastic” nature of the process can guarantee the thrust of evolution to multicellularity, vertebrates, reptiles, mammals, primates, and man.  “Randomness” has to be able to do all this (aided and abetted, of course, by natural selection), because God isn’t allowed to touch the machine once it starts.  (I don’t mean he literally isn’t allowed; no TE would say that; but in practice, most of the biologist-TEs think God didn’t touch it once things got started.

I certainly don’t believe that any initial condition on the earth could have guaranteed man, or even mammals—not if neo-Darwinism is the whole story of evolution.  So TEs either have to say that man wasn’t guaranteed (which some are bold enough to say, it seems, e.g., Ken Miller), or they have to say I’m wrong, that random mutations plus natural selection together have a quasi-deterministic tendency to produce intelligent hominids over a 4-billion year period.  Well, the first option is a Christian heresy, and the second option is, I think, just plain wrong, and built upon a very faulty analogy from ideal gas laws or radioactive decay etc.

Lou Jost - #83317

October 30th 2013

PS Eddie and Ted, I’d like to say goodbye for now and thank you both for intelligent, interesting, civil discussions. I’ll miss them.

Eddie - #83328

October 30th 2013

Thanks Lou.  Of all the atheists I’ve interacted with on the internet, you’ve been probably the most reasonable, the best listener, and the most willing to concede points in debate.  I’ve also appreciated your breadth of intellectual interests.

We haven’t moved much from our positions, but that is to be expected when they are well worked out.  I think that perhaps the fruit of our discussions won’t be fully evident until sometime down the line.  I’ve sometimes come around to some of my opponents’ positions only years later, as the thoughts have slowly percolated through my mind, being permitted to take root due to the distance from the heat of the original disagreement.  So maybe we will both have slightly different positions a year or two or more from now, as a result of having interacted.

Best wishes.

beaglelady - #83254

October 27th 2013

Actually we have seasons on earth because the earth is tilted on its axis.  Scientists think this happened when a Mars-sized planet smashed into the early earth.  Hard to say whether or not God threw it.   

Eddie - #83255

October 27th 2013


As usual, your scientific “correction” is not needed, because the tilt of the earth etc. all factor into the explanation of the season in terms of natural laws—which is what I said.  

As for “scientists think”—only people without training in science use that phrase.  Anyone trained in science, aware of the diversity of views on this question (as on most important scientific questions), would say, more cautiously, “some scientists think.”

I went to a major university on a science scholarship.  That doesn’t make anything I say about science automatically right; it does mean that I don’t need petty corrections regarding 5th-grade science (which is when I formally learned about the tilt of the earth, though actually I had read about it on my own long before then).  I wish you make an effort to remember that when you were learning how to finger your clarinet or bow your violin, I was reading Sagan and Shklovskii’s Intelligent Life in the Universe.  I need no introduction to general science, or to evolutionary theory, from you or anyone else here. 

“Hard to say whether or not God threw it.”  Your flippant tone regarding divine action is duly noted, though not at all surprising based on your comments here over the past several years.

I saw your newest comments over at Coyne’s website, by the way, and disagreed with their general purport.  But I won’t be taking them up there.  It would just be a rehash of what I’ve done here for the past several months.  But insofar as I’ve been able to discern your religious views from your many equivocal and even evasive statements, it would seem that you would be theologically more comfortable over at Jerry Coyne’s place than at an orthodox Christian site.  As for me, I will probably head over to Hump of the Camel, where the management is never the slightest bit evasive about its Christian theology.

beaglelady - #83258

October 28th 2013

But isn’t that why we have seasons….because the earth is tilted on its axis?   It’s a specific answer to Ted’s specific question.  And by “scientists” of course I meant most mainstream scientists.

So anyway, what did God have to do with the tilt of the earth on its axis?


Eddie - #83265

October 28th 2013


No, what you wrote was not a specific answer to Ted’s specific question.

Ted’s specific question was:

“What, if anything, does God actually do in causing the seasons and the weather?”

Your answer “Because the earth is tilted on its axis,” gives a scientific answer to a theological question.  It’s like answering the question:  “Who produced Gone with the Wind?” with “Victor Fleming” instead of “David O. Selznick”; it’s a category error.

As for your last question, why don’t you answer it yourself?  Is it that you think that God had nothing to do with the tilt of the earth, but are unwilling to say so?  Well, don’t worry; you can say it over at Jerry’s site without repercussions.  

Best wishes, beaglelady.  Huskies rule!

beaglelady - #83322

October 30th 2013

Yes, you are right.  I was only explaining why we have seasons, not what special actions God took to make it that way. It is true that  because the earth is tilted on its axis, we have seasons, and therefore  the development of life on earth was profoundly affected.

Did God do it? I don’t believe so.  What do  you say? If God did it, how did he do it?   

Eddie - #83325

October 30th 2013


Thanks for your (non-customary) concession of a point.  

So you don’t believe God is responsible for the tilt of the earth—either directly or indirectly?  

What, if anything, beaglelady, did God ever do, in your mind?  And if you say something as vague and general as “he created the universe,” I’ll ignore it as a pure motherhood statement, vacuous in contents.

I’m asking what sort of actions God performed in creation.  I don’t mean details such as creating muskrats or creating the star Vega or the like.  I mean, did he cause any events to happen by direct divine power, or did he cause all events to happen only through natural causes?  And if the latter, how do you know that?  And if he caused things to happen only through natural causes, then how did he guarantee particular outcomes?  If I close my eyes and throw a bowling ball randomly in a supermarket, I have no idea which shelves it will demolish, what customers will be hurt by falling boxes, etc.  But if I roll it skillfully enough down a bowling lane I can guarantee a strike.  (Not that I’m personally good enough to do that, but in principle I could be.)  

So is the tilt of the earth caused by something like throwing the bowling ball randomly through the supermarket, or rolling the bowling ball down the lane with skill?  I.e., was the tilt of the earth designed by God to produce the seasons that we have?  And if it was just a freak, caused by some colliding planet over whose path God exercised no control, then are just an accident?

For some reason, you can go to a Church every Sunday yet apparently not even ask these questions, let alone try to answer them.  Yet if I didn’t have some sort of approximate, tentative answer to these questions, I couldn’t be a Christian, or even a theist, at all.  I’d just join the camp of Dawkins and be done with it.  You sure are a funny sort of “theistic” evolutionist!

beaglelady - #83358

October 31st 2013

If God is an asteroid/planet-flinging deity, what about the asteroid that hit Russia?   You make God seem like Thor.

Eddie - #83365

November 1st 2013


Do you really think that anyone here does not see through your standard tactic?  Whenever you don’t want to answer a question, you respond to it with a question of your own, trying to draw attention away from your views toward those of the other person.  You do this for all questions, scientific, etc., but you do it with ferocious consistency regarding theological matters.  It’s quite plain you don’t want to state your theological beliefs regarding creation, sovereignty, providence, omnipotence, etc.  But what kind of Christian doesn’t want to state her theological beliefs?  The answer to that is virtually implied in the question, but I’ll leave it to others to draw the inference.

Hanan’s questions and remarks below are bang-on.  And he is wise to have decided not to engage with you again. 

As for your sarcastic remark about Thor, I can only say that belief in a pagan God like Thor would be better than belief in a “Christian” God who (at least as regards creation), is neither a maker nor even a designer (you have repeatedly and fiercely rejected my contention that God “designs” things), but instead watches passively as blind natural laws and randomness create—or fail to create (depending on the way the ball bounces)—life, species, and man.

Hanan D - #83339

October 31st 2013

Eddie beat me, but indeed, in your opinion what does God EVER do? It seems everytime there is anything theological to say, you fly in and question how would God “do it.”  I don’t even understand the question. How does God do anything? I am sure you believe God is the first cause. Well, how did he “do” that? Seriously, how did God will existence? Please explain how he “did that”

The first question you must ask and answer is whether or not God intends on anything? If you believe God intends, then the “how” is pointless. Maybe God meant for a planet to colide with the earth. 

Hanan D - #83342

October 31st 2013

Actually, I take back my comment. These discussions with beaglelady about this topic have never gone in any meaningful direction. So, I just won’t even enter them anymore.

Ted Davis - #83201

October 25th 2013

PS. You seem to agree with me at least on this, Eddie: that Russell (and perhaps others whom you haven’t named) actually does answer your question, whether or not you find his answer entirely satisfactory. If I have fairly represented your view on this, Eddie, then please at least acknowledge that BL is encouraging Christians (and others) to think harder about your question than most people (including most biologists) usually do.

My view on this situation is already clear enough. I’m doing my part to raise the level of the conversation, not only for people now but also for readers in 100 years’ time—if the internet still exists then, as I hope it will. (Print will still exist, but that’s another topic.) I’m doing what I can to bring some of the best print material onto the internet, in digestible pieces (as far as possible). By implication, BL is doing its part to enable this. I’m grateful for that.

GJDS - #83022

October 19th 2013

I would add a comment on the ‘mechanical or clock’ Universe (post bronze age for Lou’s benefit); it seems to me that this outlook has a lot to do with Aristotle’s teaching of mass at rest, and a prime mover needed to set it all in motion. With advances in Newtonian mechanics, I think people made a more elaborate model, so that instead of a body at rest requiring a ‘kick’ to start (the soccer match - sorry Jon/Ted, I have a weakness for humour), we have someone who wound up the clock and it began.

I think that the real progress to what we have of science came when we began to understand phenomena, or movement, as a intrinsic property of the Universe, ad we began to see thinks interlinked to an extraodinary extent. WE now question a ‘beginning of time itself’. However most of the Age of Reason seems to have roots in Hellenic philosophy, first Aristotle, but Plato became fashionable rather than poor old Galiloe and such (and let us not forget the Romantic poets, some who wanted to be burried in the old Greco-Roman manner and who wrote much much about the Pagan gods).

Merv - #83014

October 19th 2013

Jon, I can sympathize—even agree with—with your impatience concerning the many false caricatures of God that claim common currency in a liberal culture.   But you lump much together that stops me short.  So has ancient (Catholic or Orthodox) patristic fathers really made so little of Pauline incarnational references to Christ emptying himself to enter this world?  Has the application of that along with the Johannine references to the Word existing in the beginning—-is the recognition of the omnihistorical significance of this a recent liberal invention?  George Murphy sees all of cosmology through these eyes (starting with Christ, not with creation).  Is his theology a radical departure from the Lutherine tradition from which he hails?   Perhaps Luther himself doesn’t qualify as fully developed even though he is the oldest protestant to which we could appeal. 

Jon Garvey - #83019

October 19th 2013

So has ancient (Catholic or Orthodox) patristic fathers really made so little of Pauline incarnational references to Christ emptying himself to enter this world? 

I’m sorry to have to say, Merv, that I don’t think the old theologians had any truck with that interpretation of Philippians 3. Chrysostom expounbding the passage actively denies that Christ emptied himself of any divine attributes (as does the Chalecedonian definition which underpinned Christology for a millennium or more).

As Eddie says on another thread, kenosis in Scripture is entirely related to the incarnation, and not to a general priciple of theology. It’s all about careful exegesis of the Philippians passage. I did a piece on it with links to two exegetical studies this time last year.

Lest one think that think that I thereby downplay christology I subsequently attempted a more biblical christological model of creation starting here.

Jon Garvey - #83020

October 19th 2013

Forgot to mention Luther. His comment on the Philippians passage shows that he believed Paul was talking about Jesus’s attitude as man, not his divesting of his divinity in any sense:

5. The phrase “form of God” does not receive the same interpretation from all. Some understand Paul to refer to the divine essence and nature in Christ; meaning that Christ, though true God, humbled himself. While Christ is indeed true God, Paul is not speaking here of his divine essence, which is concealed. The word he uses—“morphe,” or “forma’—he employs again where he tells of Christ taking upon himself the form of a servant. “Form of a servant” certainly cannot signify “essence of a real servant”-possessing by nature the qualities of a servant. For Christ is not our servant by nature; he has become our servant from good will and favor toward us. For the same reason “divine form” cannot properly mean “divine essence”; for divine essence is not visible, while the divine form was truly seen. Very well; then let us use the vernacular, and thus make the apostle’s meaning clear.
6. “Form of God,” then, means the assumption of a divine attitude and bearing, or the manifestation of divinity in port and presence; and this not privately, but before others, who witness such form and bearing. To speak in the clearest possible manner: Divine bearing and attitude are in evidence when one manifests in word and deed that which pertains peculiarly to God and suggests divinity. Accordingly, “the form of a servant” implies the assumption of the attitude and bearing of a servant in relation to others. It might be better to render “Morphe tu dulu,” by “the bearing of a servant,” that means, manners of such character that whoever sees the person must take him for a servant. This should make it clear that the passage in question does not refer to the manifestation of divinity or servility as such, but to the characteristics and the expression of the same. For, as previously stated, the essence is concealed, but its manifestation is public. The essence implies a condition, while its expression implies action.

So yes, divine kenosis as a general theological principle would seem to be a departure from Luther, if not the Lutheran tradition. But maybe that’s because we’ve moved beyond Luther, as the evidence of our Evangelical churches shows


GJDS - #83021

October 19th 2013


To give a brief answer to your comment regarding the Orthodox tradition and any faith-science conflict (I also need to say that I do not consdier myself to have a total grasp of all doctrine - just look at the volumes one needs to study sytematically for this).

My view is that the early centuries of Christianity included a great deal of discussion, disagreements, and downright hostility mainly from the clash between paganism and its philosophies and Christian doctrine. The central doctrine was that of God. When we speak of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the natural response of pagans was of three distinct persons (and analogous to their gods with ‘more than human’ attributes). The pagan philosophers discussed the one and the many in excruciating detail; the glory of the doctrine of the trinity was to show how we can speak of God in a Christian lawful manner.

My reading of these debates has shown me that most theologians (all that I know of) regarded the physical aspects (what we now regard as science) as inoffensive, and had little difficulty with treating things as four elements, or days in Genesis as ways of teaching us about God as creator, and so on. The central doctrine was more on what we as human beings can speak of God as the Creator lawfully (i.e. revealed) while it was for us to excercise our intelligence; so when it became obvious that the earth is made of more than four elements, it was an example of human limitations and knowledge, not error in the Bible.

I will not make this a lengthy post; I think my remarks illustrate how Orthodoxy struggled with general world views and developed a brilliant theological outlook which understood the revealed knowledge and the need for faith in God, and the ability to question and seek a deeper understanding of nature (which has now become the physical sciences).   

GJDS - #83038

October 19th 2013

To get back to knowledge, God, and Boyle, I give a brief summary of how I view Orthodoxy and knowledge matters. The notion that God is known, and He has revealed Himself, can be turned into an incomprehensible jumble of ideas which eventually cause confusion and argument. To suggest that people such as Boyle, Newton and Calvin, for example, could not think through such a jumble because science was not advanced, is to misunderstand their intellect. Briefly:

  • The idea of god from human synthesis has been shown to be inadequate, and Christianity pointed this out to pagans, who at timed regarded Christians atheists.
  • To ‘know’ about God requires that it form part of the context of a human’s awareness. Knowledge cannot be considered such, if a human being cannot be aware in some manner of what is being known. Christianity has shown that God is incomprehensible within the context of human knowledge.
  • For revelation to be relevant, human beings must have a spiritual capacity (image of God, spirit of man, Holy Spirit making spiritual things meaningful).
  • It is not possible to point to an object, god and prove it is absolute, all-powerful, etc.
  •  Christianity proposes that the meaning of God has been received from people who testify to have used the word God in a way that has meaning to them. The meaning that they communicate originates from God.
  • These points lead us to consider the nature of mankind, when we attempt to discuss the divine. I have adopted the thesis before knowledge and reason can be considered within the Divine, a human being is stated as life-awareness-self.
  • What can be said of human knowledge, even if it is argued that this amounts to an awareness of self, the world of objects, archetypes, and myths? Awareness of self does away with the idea that knowledge is totally a ‘brain thing’ (a distinction should be made between consciousness and self-consciousness). These matters are compatible with ‘self as I am alive’. However, difficulties arise when we humans entertain thoughts of or about God.

These remarks suggest that knowledge of things accessible to human intellect is comprehensible and can be communicated between people; knowledge concerning ourselves as self-aware beings may be more difficult to discuss between ourselves, and knowledge of God is dependent initially on the meaning we ourselves attach to the word god. This is not a compartmentalisation, but a basis for our views. The physical sciences may provide insights that scientists such as ourselves and others (e.g. Boyle and Newton) would enjoy because of our interest, but the second knowledge that is ‘self-as-I-am…..” requires far more than scientific insights. Thus my admiration for Boyle is more the result of this knowledge, his self-awareness which is encapsulated in a righteous life.

These days, atheists have been using science to claim they can replace this “knowledge as I am…”. These claims are spurious and mischievous.

Jon Garvey - #83085

October 21st 2013

A nice little general article replying to some authoritative scientific pronouncements from one Jerry Coyne on the history of science and religion here.

A less scholarly response by me here.

GJDS - #83097

October 21st 2013

I have often remarked that science has been changed/used by these people into a pseudo-religion-myth-narrative .... ironic is it not…. their loudest protestation is that Christians are the ones who have a gospel that is myth, while they grind out this rediculous mixture of fancy and deceit. Talk of the father of all lies, what!

Lou Jost - #83106

October 22nd 2013

Science, when well done, is just a way to keep from fooling oneself. The major revealed religions, on the other hand, are based on the idea that an old book is inspired by a god who wanted to communicate with us (but who curiously doesn’t want to show up nowadays). It is no wonder that there would be tension between these two viewpoints.

Ted Davis - #83112

October 22nd 2013

By way of reply, Lou, let me just quote the final paragraph in John Hedley’s Brooke’s magisterial survey, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 346-7.

“The problem concerns the step from altruism within a family to the proclamation of universal human rights. The latter, as a principle, has arrived relatively late in human civilzation. Its constant violation also raises doubts about its justification or explanation merely in terms of biological adaptation. That it has been violated in the name of so many tribal gods remains one of the principal reasons why the secular moralist refuses to countenance a theistic premise in the presentation of a humanitarian ethic. There has, however, never been a simpler way of getting from the brotherhood of brothers to the brotherhood of man than via an affirmation of the fatherhood of God. Many would say that Freud has cost the twentieth century the luxury of that premise. But whether belief in the supreme worth of every human life, and the action such an ideal requires, can be sustained without reference to the transcendent, is a question unlikley to be laid to rest.”

Roger A. Sawtelle - #83138

October 23rd 2013

If I may voice an opinion, the primary task of Christian thought is to find the right dynamic between the Spiritual, the Rational, and the Scientific.  It is not surprising that the 3 major traditions of Christianity do this in three different ways.  The Orthodox generally put more emphasis on the mystical and spiritual.  The Roman Catholic on their rational clasical philosophical tradition.  The Protestant and Western culture in general on the scientific and it seems that for many Christian and non-Christian Westerners it is science that is driving the culture, which is the cause of conflict.

It seems to me that Christians need to bring the Spiritual, Rational, and Scientific back into proper balance which I find requires a new synthesis based on Biblical Christianity, not an old one resussitated. 

Jon Garvey - #83184

October 25th 2013

Discuss things while you can, folks. I see BioLogos is closing comments on its posts in future, because too few of us are involved. It will be private e-mails only, with the “best” being brought out for show from time to time.

Excuse me if I vomit, given the lack of official BioLogos involvement in the “conversation” recently.

I used to write for a magazine that closed it reader’s letters page, and the reasons there were pretty transparent to me. “Broadening the conversation” wasn’t one that held much logic for me.

Ted Davis - #83199

October 25th 2013

On a completely different matter, we just put up a revised version of the column I did last year on the Framework View. The URL is http://biologos.org/blog/science-and-the-bible-the-framework-view. For the most part, the changes involve what I said about the history of the view. I now say quite a bit more, reflecting very helpful comments from some readers and a little bit of further research on my part. Future readers of the column (we hope there will be many such) are the main beneficiaries of the changes. They and I are grateful to you folks for helping me out.

PNG - #83236

October 25th 2013

Is Biologos going to put up some accessible notification about which past posts have been revised, or is this a unique instance?

Ted Davis - #83262

October 28th 2013

That’s an excellent question, PNG, and I don’t know the answer.

We revised this, partlly b/c we have plans to use the whole series on “Science and the Bible” in a package of educational materials for certain audiences. I wanted that package to include a more accurate version than the one I originally wrote, so the revision was posted at my request, and the notice to readers about being a revision is also there at my request. This might be a unique instance on our site; I just don’t know. However, I am not aware of any general plan to do this with other posts.

Authors of books get opportunities to revise if & when their books have further editions. I view my series here as (sort of) print books in electronic form. That is, I want them (if possible) to have the gravitas of print books, so I’m treating it as if it were the revision of a chapter in a print book.

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