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Southern Baptist Voices: Teleological Arguments, Theistic Evolution, and Intelligent Design

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May 28, 2012 Tags:
Southern Baptist Voices: Teleological Arguments, Theistic Evolution, and Intelligent Design

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

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:

  1. by embracing ID as a confirmation of Genesis 1-2 and the re-vitalizer of design arguments; or
  2. 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.

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Merv - #70203

May 30th 2012

Professor Dew raised the common concern over how TEs portray God’s creative activity.  His first concern was how TEs seem indistinguishable from deists even though TEs insist they are not deists.  And that’s the concern I want to respond to here—especially since I’ve heard this concern in more than one venue, so I know Mr. Dew speaks for a wide audience.

As he details this concern, Mr. Dew uses an implied dichotomy between two categories:  (A) natural processes, and (B) God’s direct involvement.  Most TEs, however, dismantle this dichotomy from the outset and would call category B a superset that includes all of category A.  Now it can be objected that category B is here used only to refer to ‘supernatural’ activity and so is a disjoint set (exclusive of A).  If we accept this usage, then it should be noted that from our perspective God’s direct involvement seems relatively rare in everyday processes.  The TE would say that something close to 100% of all phenomena fall in category A—  so vastly close to 100% in fact, that science functions very dependably.  But the TE does not insist on 100%.  Since empirical science does seem so dependable, the TE, when doing science, concentrates on those empirical and measurable things (the apparent 99%+ of all phenomena) just as any other scientist would, deist, atheist, or otherwise.  That is why TEs are operationally indistinguishable from deists (or for that matter from atheists) as they are doing science.  They don’t expect science to distinguish them from deists or non-theists.  That distinction comes from their theology.  To be sure, their theology encompasses their science (back to the TE objection that ALL processes are God’s processes—whether we see them as ‘natural’ or not.)  And their theology may motivate them in creative ways as they do their science, but the science itself can’t force a person to reject or choose between theistic alternatives.


sy - #70237

June 2nd 2012


Eloquent and excellant points.


TJ Fleming - #70460

June 15th 2012

I agree with Merv that this dichotomy is not necessary. I am a middle school science teacher at a faith-based school and recently graduated with a B.S. in Environmental Communications. I have been an Evangelical Christian since I was 5 and grew up in a faith-based school. Although I am not the most credentialed scientist out there, I really don’t understand why Christians get so upset with the TE position. It’s actually quite a beautiful idea. There is a video on Khan Academy that drives this point home well:


In case you don’t want to watch it the main point is: The mechanism of evolution IS an Intelligent Design. I think that is why so many Christian’s are drawn to be TE’s. Just my humble opinion.

David Buchanan - #70215

May 31st 2012

After long and thoughtful essays written by Drs. Keathley and Dembski, I was startled by the brief and fairly superficial essay by Dr. Dew. Although he does cite Collins and McGrath in his essay, he makes other comments which cry out for citations. For example, his statement about “well-credentialed scientists” who question macroevolution needs some substantiation. His lack of identification leaves the reader puzzled about the type of credentials to which he is referring. Since he chastises people who agree with the ideas of evolution (like myself) for not considering their objections, he really needs to provide some guidance about the identity of those scientists and the nature of their objections. There are 10s of thousands of “well-credentialed” scientists who have not seriously studied the mechanisms of evolution since they took Freshman biology. Such scientists may be quite successful in their own area but really lack the expertise to make an objective evaluation of macroevolution. Is he talking about the signatories on the “Scientific Dissent from Darwinism”? A small fraction the scientists on that list have an appropriate expertise and, perhaps, they have raised objections that merit consideration. If so, who are they and what are the objections?

He also writes briefly about the limitations of methodological naturalism. It is difficult, from his brief comments, to determine whether he understands that methodological naturalism is a philosophy of how we do science but is not a generalized world view, as is metaphysical naturalism. The fact that we do not consider the supernatural as we perform science does not mean that we rule God out of our personal consideration of life (or even what we learn from science).

robinson.mitchell - #70227

June 1st 2012

Dr. Drew expresses two primary concerns to which other points are subsidiary. 

The first of these is this:  “We are not convinced that macro evolution is actually true.”  Although I embrace Evolutionary Creation, I can applaud this concern with enthusiasm.  As long as the pursuit of truth is primary, we will always be in agreement that truth, no matter where it is found, can only and ever honor our Creator.  A necessary concomitant is this one:  there is no truth that can possibly threaten God or his glory.  The Christian believer need never be afraid of pursuing truth no matter where it leads or how far it goes, for all truth belongs to God and - the heavens and the earth - all of creation - declares his glory.  Scientific research for the Christian, then, has an important doxological aspect. 

That said, in my own journey I once held a position of similar concern - I was willing to accept micro evolution, but not macro evolution.  That was a comforting abstract principle, a generality that worked, but science demands we move from abstracts and generalities to concrete specifics.  As my layman’s understanding of science grew into greater specificity in areas of science ranging from astronomy (including problems of cosmology) to biology (especially the emerging field of genomics) the evidence for standard science grew more convincing.  Wherever investigation of specific and concrete evidences may lead, I can only encourage believers to pursue questions.  If you’re not convinced macro evolution is true, by all means seek to settle the question.

As believers we also hold that the fact of God’s creation is the integrative principle behind all scientific inquiry (not to mention the best current solution to the problem of induction!).  With that in mind, remember that all of knowledge is connected, and we can’t really single out biological evolution and divorce it from the rest of science.

Avoiding theological Deism is another concern all Christians can share, however many of us believe that God not only created, but sustains all of creation moment by moment, so that there is nothing in creation outside his providential superintendence even though his divine plan may be worked out through natural means.  We understand very well how a sperm cell and an egg unite to form a zygote, and we understand the natural process by which a baby develops during gestation until it is born.  Yet we also affirm that each baby is a unique creation of God - and a miracle!  Affirming the natural process does not connote denying God’s divine participation in the miracle of life.  Divine action is not limited to special creation but extends to every moment of existence of everything in creation.  All created things, like we ourselves, live and move and have their being in Him.  Such a view excludes Deism - and metaphysical naturalism as well.

robinson.mitchell - #70228

June 1st 2012

Apologies for my slip of the keyboard which accidentally inserted an “r” into Dr. Dew’s name in my previous post. 

PNG - #70272

June 5th 2012

Part I

I am going to respond here to Dr. Dew’s statement that he and his colleauges aren’t convinced that evolution (common descent) is true.

Most of the discussion that goes on on this site and others concerns the mechanism(s) of evolution - the assertion by many that the standard mechanisms of mutation and natural selection combined with drift etc. are inadequate; thus some form of ID, from special creation to micromiracles during evolution must be invoked. The EC side responds that the standard mechanisms of evolution are adequate and tries to justify this. Although it is commonly conceded that ID is compatible with common descent, the only one of the prominent supporters of ID that I am aware of who accepts common descent (and I think not incidentally the only one of the ID advocates who has ever been a full-fledged researcher in biological science) is Michael Behe. Thus, the implicit argument seems to be that since the generally accepted mechanisms for evolution are asserted to be inadequate, therefore common descent is not true. Of course this is inconsistent with the admission that ID is compatible with common descent, but since nearly everyone who advocates ID rejects common descent, it makes me wonder what they really think follows from the ID argument.

The trouble with the focus on the adequacy or not of mechanisms of evolution is that there is a huge mass of evidence that common descent is true that does not depend on knowing what the mechanism of evolution is. 

When the evidence for common descent (largely from comparative genomics) is discussed on this site and others, the rationalizations given for rejecting it are, I’m sorry to say, laughable, regardless of the graduate degrees of the people making the rationalizations. When those arguments have been demolished by Drs. Venema, Falk and others, the pattern is that the people who made them don’t respond. They just go back to telling laymen (and theologians) that there is nothing to be concerned about in evolution, and, in essence, “here are my credentials to prove it.” I have to confess that it has been something of a shock to me that there are people smart enough to get graduate degrees in science who nonetheless can’t admit to themselves that their position isn’t really determined by weighing evidence - it is determined by a prior theological/Biblical/philosophical committment, and they view their scientific training simply as preparing them to come up with rationalizations for rejecting evidence, knowing their credentials alone will be enough to convince non-scientists who just want the whole thing to go away.

What evangelical theologians need to understand is, quite apart from knowing anything or everything about the mechanism of evolution, we now have a huge amount of evidence that common descent is true. Dr. Dembski said in his post that the evidence for common descent is “mixed.” No, it really isn’t. It may be rather complicated to define exactly what the relationship of humans is to a bacterium, since it has been a very long time since a common ancestor and many complicated things have happened to the DNA of both lines since then. But defining the relationship of humans to other primates really isn’t very complicated at all. We have a common ancestor with chimps a few million years ago and with other primates somewhat further back than that.  (See following post for the rest.)

PNG - #70274

June 5th 2012

Part II

If you want to know what the relevant evidence is, some of it is summarized on this website. I have summarized some of it that I am familiar with on my blog (http://artofthesoluble.blogspot.com/)  I think it is easily comprehensible by anyone with a little knowledge of modern genetics. In general the evidence consists of a very large number (conservatively, hundreds of thousands) of transposable element insertions and other mutations that are complex enough to be easily recognizable in genomes and extremely unlikely to have occurred in parallel in two or more related species. These mutations individually are present at exactly corresponding positions in the genomes of different species. The fact that these insertions often occur on top of previous insertions means that not only can the presence of the same insertion in different species be determined, it is apparent that the insertions occurred in the same order in the different species. On top of that, the pattern of presence or absence of insertions at particular sites in the genomes of different species is consistent with individual insertions happening at particular points during the evolution of primate species. (i.e. If an insertion happened after the branching of New World monkeys but before the branching of the various apes, it is present in the expected ape and human species and absent in the rest.) This kind of evidence for common ancestry of humans with other primates is particularly clear because speciation of humans and other primates occurred very recently in evolutionary time so the accumulation of point mutations has not had time to obscure the evidence.

The simple fact of common ancestry with other primates brings up all the problems that need to be dealt with by theologians and Bible scholars. The mechanisms of evolution will continue to be matters of argument among biologists and philosophers for a long time, and theological speculations about possible mechanisms of divine creation and action will go on indefinitely. The necessity to deal with the implications of common ancestry does not depend on the mechanism of evolution or divine action, although these things will undoubtedly be part of that discussion. The bottom line is that evangelical theologians need to come to terms with common ancestry, or continue to gain a reputation (sorry to be blunt) for indulging in a remarkable degree of self-delusion. It is past time to quit hiding behind the credentials of a few people who make ridiculous arguments against common descent in the face of the huge amount of evidence that exists and deal with the situation that this evidence has created.

I guess I should add, since credentials seem to matter, that I am a life-long evangelical who went to med school and grad school, got a Ph.D in biochemistry and did research for several decades. I’m sorry if I seem to be somewhat harsh about this, but I’m convinced that evangelical academics are not doing themselves or the church (or God) any favors by refusing to deal with this issue.

KevinR - #70286

June 6th 2012

It is past time to quit hiding behind the credentials of a few people who make ridiculous arguments against common descent in the face of the huge amount of evidence that exists and deal with the situation that this evidence has created.

Perhaps it’s not so much the evidence that is in dispute as the interpretation of it. Since the whole endeavour is to uncover what happened in the past, it becomes necessary to make some fundamental assumptions. The basic atheistic evolutionary assumption is that there is no God and that nature is all there is.

This assumption comes from the atheistic worldview and that is what drives the whole of evolutionary thought.

We cannot go back into the past to verify that indeed living things came from only one ancestor but we can observe some of the physical remains found in the earth and draw some conclusions. Those who posit that all life derives from one ancestor have their case cut out for them to demonstrate their assertion. So far, it’s been a dismal affair - totaly unconvincing except if one buys in on the religious dogma that it’s a fact.

PNG - #70291

June 6th 2012

Kevin, it is simply false that there is a basic evolutionary assumption of atheism - and your asserting that that is the case is simply an attempt to preempt any argument based on evidence. It also demonstrates that you have paid no attention to the resources on this site and are either incapable or unwilling to deal with evidence. As I said above, some of the evidence is summarized on this website and some on my blog. Deal with it, and quit making absurd claims and attempts to advance your position by creating fear. I didn’t write my post in order to get into a pointless argument with an idealogue like you. I was hoping to provoke seminary professors to realize that they really need to pay attention to what has happened in biology. I might convince a few of them. I wouldn’t expect to influence some like you.

melanogaster - #70376

June 11th 2012

“Perhaps it’s not so much the evidence that is in dispute as the interpretation of it.”

No, Kevin, this is simply and spectacularly false. No one on your side has ever or will ever consider ALL of the evidence or even most of it. For example, it is crystal-clear that your position is not based on your interpretation of evidence. Your position is clearly based on hearsay, and you will resort to it whenever anyone brings up any real evidence.

“Since the whole endeavour is to uncover what happened in the past, it becomes necessary to make some fundamental assumptions.”

No again, Kevin. The endeavor is to uncover the mechanisms of evolution in the past, present, and future. No fundamental assumptions are required to examine the nested hierarchies that represent far more than mere similarity.

“The basic atheistic evolutionary assumption is that there is no God and that nature is all there is.”

If your argument depends on telling falsehoods about the assumptions of others without ever examining your own, your argument is weak.

“This assumption comes from the atheistic worldview and that is what drives the whole of evolutionary thought.”

It’s driven by the evidence, unlike your view.

“We cannot go back into the past to verify that indeed living things came from only one ancestor…”

That’s irrelevant, because the hypothesis makes concrete predictions about the evidence that have been correct and predict evidence that we have not yet seen.

But you haven’t looked at any of the evidence and you have no intention of doing so, right?

“…Those who posit that all life derives from one ancestor have their case cut out for them to demonstrate their assertion. So far, it’s been a dismal affair - totaly unconvincing except if one buys in on the religious dogma that it’s a fact.”

How can you claim that the evidence is unconvincing when you haven’t examined any?

PNG - #70276

June 5th 2012

Sorry for the typo above (colleagues). I’m not actually dyslexic, only dystypic.

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