A BioLogos Response to William Dembski, Part 1
Note: This essay is a response to William Dembski in the Southern Baptist Voices series, a dialogue between Southern Baptist seminarians and representatives of BioLogos. For a more complete description of the project’s history and aims, please see our introduction here.
In Part 1 and Part 2 of his own two-part paper, Is Darwinism Theologically Neutral?, Dr. Dembski laid out a list of “non-negotiables” of both Christianity and Darwinism. He discussed the tensions between the two lists and explained his belief that Darwinism undercuts Christianity.
It is important to note that “Darwinism” is a contested and ideologically-charged term, used as a short-hand for an account of biological change over time in which natural selection plays a critical part, as a specific, technical description of those biological processes, and to signal (or impute) allegiance to philosophical assertions that go well beyond what can be examined through the natural sciences. To his credit, however, here Dr. Dembski has given a very specific set of criteria for how he defines “Darwinism.”
This first of two posts by Biologos president Darrel Falk presents his personal perspective on the issues Dembski lays out, addressing the topic of divine action in creation, in which both natural and supernatural processes are a result of God’s continuous activity in our world.
This ongoing series grew out of a conversation that Kenneth Keathley, the Senior Vice President for Academic Administration at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and I had last year. We agreed that he would solicit a set of essays from scholars at Southern Baptist Seminaries who would specifically identify their concerns about what they perceive to be the BioLogos view of creation. In response to this request, Dr. William Dembski of Southwestern Baptist Seminary submitted the essay “Is Darwinism Theologically Neutral?” Although I do not consider my view Darwinian, I am sure that my view and that of others associated with BioLogos is perceived that way by some, so this gives me an opportunity not only to respond to his analysis, but to clarify my position on creation and how I think it is distinct from what Dembski calls “Darwinism."
God’s Activity in Creation
I will begin by summarizing my view of the nature of God’s activity in creation. I think that God created all living organisms, including humans, through the evolutionary process. Acceptance of creation through evolution does not mean that I reject the notion of a miracle-working God. On the contrary, I believe in the miracles of Scripture, and I believe that we’ve experienced God’s supernatural activity in our own lives. I stand in awe of a personal God whose activity is not constrained by natural laws, but also includes supernatural acts.
But what are the natural laws? Are not the the laws of nature simply a description of God’s ongoing and non-ceasing activity in the universe? The Law of Gravity, for example, is not something that God set up in the beginning, thereafter recusing himself from further involvement and exiting from the scene. Instead, the Law of Gravity works as it does because of the ongoing activity of God’s Spirit in the universe. So consistent is that activity that it can be described mathematically through scientific analysis. If God ceased to be active, however, then not only would the matter of this universe no longer function in a way which enables a mathematical description of gravity, matter itself would cease to exist. Paul, referring to Christ, writes “All things are created by him and through him.” Continuing, he goes on to state that “He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). So he created in the beginning and, indeed, “…without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:3) But it doesn’t end there: his ongoing activity is necessary for the universe to function. As the writer to the Hebrews declares “He sustains all things by his powerful word.” (Hebrews 1:4) The laws of nature, then, are simply a description of the ongoing activity of God which—because it is so consistent, dependable, and pervasive—points to the trustworthiness of God. Put another way, the activity of God is not restricted to that which we call the supernatural; it is all God’s activity. It is just that some aspects of God’s activity are so consistently repeatable that we can develop laws which describe the regularity of the divine activity which “holds” and “sustains” the universe. This latter type of activity is no less magnificent just because God does it continuously. Indeed, the Psalmist marveled at God’s natural activity and worshipfully reflected upon it.
On the other hand, the God we know through Scripture and personal experience also works in ways that are not mathematically predictable. We call this aspect of God’s action supernatural, and we seem to think of this facet of God’s work—this law-defying activity—as being more God-like. Indeed calling it super-natural suggests we think of it as God’s “turbo-charged” activity. But are not miracles simply a reflection of God choosing to work in a unique, non-customary manner to accomplish God’s purposes in God’s time? (See here for more detail.) When God works in this way, Scripture generally presents such activity in the context and purpose of God’s desire to enter into or renew a relationship with an individual or with a community of people. For example, God’s miraculous involvement in the lives of the elderly couple, Abraham and Sarah, led to the birth of their son, Isaac, and marks the beginning of God’s very special relationship with their descendents. God’s interaction with Moses through the burning bush initiated a new phase of God’s relationship with the Hebrew people as they moved out of slavery and back into the Promised Land. And of course, the supreme examples of miraculous activity are the incarnation, the empty tomb, and the resurrected Body. We worship a personal God whose desire for an ongoing loving relationship with humankind is first laid out in the early chapters of Genesis, but does not end there. In all divine activity—supernatural and natural—God is just being who God is: Creator, Sustainer, and loving Father. There are not two sets of activities, even though we label them “super” and “ordinary.” All are “super,” because all describe the activity of our supernatural God. Some are regular, predictable and ongoing, while other activities of God are not, for reasons often based in the fact that God is lovingly responsive and relational.
The Genesis narrative gives us no details about the mechanism by which God brought the universe and life into existence. God gave the charge: “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky..., “ “Let the waters bring forth…,” “Let the land bring forth…,” “Let the birds multiply…,” and, in response, we are told, it happened. Scripture does not explain how it happened, although as we read God’s other book—the book of nature—we see that God’s work extended over a long period of time. In these details, the Bible does not say whether the “bringing forth” was fulfilled through God’s natural activity (that which is regular, ongoing, and can be described by science) or God’s supernatural activity (that which is not regular and predictable). Given the many examples of supernatural activity in Scripture, we human beings tend to expect that for something as special as creation of stars or new species, supernatural activity would have been required. But we cannot derive this from the scriptural account and, therefore, it is wise not to second-guess how God might have worked based on the Scriptures.
Indeed, the distinction is softened by Scripture itself, which often speaks of God’s natural activity in ways that sound supernatural. For example, the Psalmist writes of God opening his hand to feed the living creatures (Psalm 104:28). We know how God does this and so did the Psalmist—he did it through natural means—but it was still God’s process and God’s provisions. Job speaks of thunder as being the voice of God (Job 40:9). We know God’s natural activity produces thunder and we can describe the laws that are responsible for it, but the fact that we know how it works certainly doesn’t negate the point being made in the book of Job. When the Psalmist describes the heavens as being the work of his fingers (Psalm 8:3), this does not negate astronomy’s description of the regular and ongoing processes that give rise to stars in God’s universe. Those processes are natural, but they are every bit as much God’s activity as if he were to take huge balls of matter and miraculously fashion sparkling stars with his hands.
Still, given that there is extensive supernatural activity exhibited in God’s interaction with Israel and in the life of Jesus, it is entirely possible that he did work supernaturally in fulfilling the creation command, as well. Even though the miracles described in the Bible primarily serve some theological or pastoral purpose that stems from God’s earnest desire to make his presence known and to deepen his relationship with humankind, we should reserve judgment about whether only God’s natural activity was responsible. It is not clear though, that supernatural activity would often be God’s chosen mode of action millions of years before humans had arrived. Thus, we should not assume with certainty that God would choose to use supernatural flurries of activity if his ongoing regular activity—that described through natural laws—would accomplish the same end, albeit over a longer period of time. For all we know, God may prefer slowness, even though we seem to be inclined to think that faster is better. After all, in the history of Israel and the church, God gave no new prophecy for 400 years before the coming of Christ, and it took the early church five centuries to come to a clear—albeit mysterious—understanding of the Trinity. Even now, two thousand years after Christ, we wait for his return.
In the next part, Darrel responds to Dembski’s lists of non-negotiables and clarifies how he sees BioLogos as different from “Darwinism”.