Southern Baptist Voices: Teleological Arguments, Theistic Evolution, and Intelligent Design
Note: Today we begin the third installment in our ongoing Southern Baptist Voices series–a collection of seven essays from Southern Baptist scholars with BioLogos responses to their concerns and arguments. You can read more about the series here, as well as the previous essays by Dr. Kenneth Keathley and Dr. William A. Dembski. Dr. James Dew's essay is presented here today, and Dr. Ard Louis' response will appear Tuesday and Wednesday.
As with the previous essay and responses, we have adjusted the way we invite the engagement of our readers by holding all comments until the final part of our response has been posted on Wednesday. We'll also be more actively monitoring the comment sections to be sure readers are adhering to our comment guidelines. We hope and pray that this dialogue will bring greater clarity to the issues at hand, charity towards those with whom we disagree, and glory to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Along with my colleagues, I want to thank Darrel Falk and the good people of Biologos for the gracious invitation to participate in this very important dialogue about the origins of life on earth. Both the Bible and modern science have something to say to this issue and the consistent Christian will want to know how they might be reconciled.
During the early 19th century, William Paley’s Natural Theology was enormously influential in Europe and North America. For many intellectuals, Paley’s argument seemed to establish the existence of God, and also provided a framework in which to do science itself. Moreover, believers generally found Paley’s arguments to be consistent with the biblical portrayal of how the universe began. While there were important challenges to Paley’s arguments, none were more significant than those that came from Charles Darwin’s 1859 work On the Origin of Species. What required a divine maker for explanation prior to Darwin, could now be explained in purely natural terms via natural selection. By most accounts, Darwin’s work signaled the end of teleological arguments.
In the last 20 years or so, however, the Intelligent Design (ID) movement has caused some to rethink Darwinism. Men like Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, and William Dembski have raised substantial questions about evolutionary theory. Typically, believers respond to the ID movement in one of two ways:
- by embracing ID as a confirmation of Genesis 1-2 and the re-vitalizer of design arguments; or
- by rejecting ID as bad science with theological motivations.
Even though Southern Baptists are generally more comfortable with ID than we are with theistic evolution, we deeply respect the scientists/theologians who are trying to reconcile their faith with science in a way that is consistent and meaningful. In the end, we believe that what is actually true of the physical world, will be perfectly consistent with Scripture. As such, we want dialogue and conversation with believers who take a different view of things than we do. Yet, we do not affirm macro evolution and have concerns about theistic evolution as a position. Let me quickly outline a few of these concerns as they relate to ID.
We are not convinced that macro evolution is actually true.
Scientists who affirm biological evolution are often quite dogmatic that evolution is a fact—on the same level with the law of gravity. While we admit that there is some evidence that points in this direction, we are not convinced that evolution is the best explanation of all the evidence that needs to be considered. Most of us are not scientists, yet we are aware that there are many well-credentialed scientists that find significant problems with macro evolution. From our perspective, it does not appear that this evidence is being taken seriously by those who hold to evolution. Additionally, most of us are uncomfortable with the way the Bible is handled on this issue. Many of us, for example, feel that there is some hermeneutical flexibility with the first few chapters of Genesis. But, we do not think that the interpretations offered by theistic evolutionists thus far are plausible or convincing. And so, in light of the counter evidence and the fact that the Bible seems to be saying something much different from theistic evolution, we have reservations about this position.
We are uncomfortable with the way Theistic Evolution portrays God’s creative activity.
As I read certain theistic evolutionists, I often get the feeling that God is being pushed out of the creative process of living creatures. God is allowed, and even needed, to explain the origins of the universe itself. But as Francis Collins explains, “Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required.”1 On this account, God directly caused the universe some 13 billion years ago, and may indirectly cause the origination of creatures through the process of evolution. But, they argue that we shouldn’t think of God as being directly involved in the creation and designing of beetles, giraffes, eyes, DNA, and bacteria flagellum once the production of living things began to take place on earth. As they see it, God directly caused the universe to come into existence, but once it was here, natural processes took care of the rest.
I have two concerns with this:
(1) Frankly, this sounds like deism, not theism. I am not suggesting that theistic evolutionists actually are deists. The people of Biologos have made it clear that this is not their position. I am simply suggesting that their insistence that it was natural processes, and not God’s direct involvement, that gave rise to the varieties of life on earth seems inconsistent with their theism. As they have affirmed clearly in their statement of faith, God is active in human history via the incarnation and miraculous events like the resurrection. What seems odd, however, is that they deny any direct involvement from God in the creation of the different life forms on earth. If theism is true and God is directly involved in the creation of the universe, the prayer life of the saints, and miraculous events like the resurrection, why is it problematic to say that He was directly involved in populating the earth with various life forms?
(2) There seems to be an unspoken allegiance to methodological naturalism in this position. Theistic evolutionists obviously prefer a “natural” explanation for the origins of life, as opposed to a supernatural explanation. The problem is that methodological naturalism decides in advance what kinds of theories are acceptable, and which kinds are not. Specifically, it says that no explanation counts as scientific unless it is a purely natural explanation, free of divine involvement. We consider this to be bad science simply because it decides in advance what counts and does not count as a legitimate explanation. We should not adopt an a priori approach to explaining reality which excludes some explanations simply because of the kind of explanation they offer. Rather, we must simply ask if a given theory is the best explanation for a particular phenomenon.
There seems to be an inconsistency in the way theistic evolutionists reject ID, but affirm the anthropic principle.
Several prominent theistic evolutionists are vocal in their rejection of ID. Collins, for example, says ID is on a “path toward doing considerable damage to the faith.”2 Similarly, Alister McGrath also rejects ID, suggesting that it is a bad God-of-the-gaps approach to science.3 First, it is not at all clear that this actually is a god-of-the-gaps approach to science. The ID movement affirms an intelligent cause for the universe because that is where it suggests the evidence points us. It is true that some of our previous theories and explanations “filled in the gaps” of things we once did not know. But, in the case of ID, an intelligent being is not posited simply because of an explanatory gap. Rather, it is affirmed because the evidence suggests it.
Second, this rejection of ID seems ironic given the way theistic evolutionists embrace the anthropic principle. For example, they accept the anthropic principle as a legitimate part of science, and an important piece of evidence for God as the creator of the universe,4 but reject similar evidence offered by the ID movement. Interestingly, McGrath even suggests that there is significant evidence for fine-tuning in “chemistry, biochemistry, and evolutionary biology”, that is consistent with “the view of God encountered and practiced within the Christian faith.”5 The reasons for rejecting one (ID), and embracing the other (anthropic principle), are not exactly clear. In short, the two groups often point to the same phenomena and at times draw similar conclusions. Thus, there seems to be a vagueness or inconsistency about the theistic evolutionist’s rejection of ID that implies a double standard.
These are just a few of the reasons why we are concerned with the Biologos position as it relates to the ID movement. Just as Darwinism challenged the dominance of design arguments, many Southern Baptists feel that ID challenges the foundation of evolutionary thought. We find signs of intelligence on a large scale by looking at the universe. We also find signs of intelligence by looking at the smallest parts of nature that suggest evidence of fine-tuning. This not only challenges evolutionary thought, but it also points to an intelligent being behind the history, structure, and beauty of the universe.
1. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God (New York: Free Press, 2006), 200.
2. Collins, The Language of God, 195.
3. Alister E. McGrath, and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion (London: SPCK, 2007), 12.
4. Collins, The Language of God, 78; and Alister E. McGrath, The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), 241–242.
5. McGrath, The Open Secret, 242.
James K. Dew, Jr. is Assistant Professor of the History of Ideas and Philosophy at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. Dew holds degrees from Louisburg College (A.A.), Toccoa Falls College (B.S.), and Southeastern Baptist (M.Div.). He received a doctorate In Theological Studies, also from Southeastern, and is a candidate for a second PhD in Philosophy from the University of Birmingham, UK. Dew teaches courses in philosophy and leads seminars at The College at Southeastern. He is the author of Science and Theology: An Assessment of Alister McGrath's Critical Realist Perspective.