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The Biologos Foundation and “Darwin’s Pious Idea”,  Part 1

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January 4, 2011 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now
The Biologos Foundation and “Darwin’s Pious Idea”,  Part 1

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

One should not underestimate the importance of the Biologos mission. For years I have spent Tuesday nights distributing food to those who live on the streets and hotels in downtown San Diego. In order to show that it is the church present, not some benevolent humanism, I always wear a clerical collar when I am on the streets. Many of these are my dear friends and brothers and sisters in Christ; many, however, move in and out of the neighborhood anonymously. Two weeks ago I handed sandwiches to a newcomer. He looked at my collar and said, “Why are you guys so against science? You know, how you suppressed Galileo?”

The church has lost the ability to tell a coherent story about the relationship between its history and convictions and empirical discoveries of the modern sciences. We have lost the credibility of witness even to those who receive its charity. If this is so, how can we expect to be heard in certain bio-tech corporate board rooms that seek commercial advantage by moving to the “post-human”?

The mission of The Biologos Foundation, to explore, promote, and celebrate the integration of science and Christian faith, recently took a huge step forward. A historically evangelical press, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, has just published a landmark volume: Conor Cunningham’s Darwin's Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong. The work deeply explores the integration of Darwinian evolutionary theory and Christian faith. Cunningham feels no compulsion to defend Darwin at all costs; there is no bowing to irrational claims of scientific reductionism, no tossing of the Christ child to save the scientific bathwater. His commitment is to the truthfulness of the Christian faith in its deepest, fullest, most historically authentic evangelical and catholic sense.

Yet Cunningham refuses to set the Christian faith at odds with the empirical results of biological science. Unlike Daniel Dennett, he finds Darwinian empirical results “pious” rather than “dangerous.” Cunningham separates the empirical results of biological science from the reductive philosophical and (a)theological commitments that often silently accompany them. When the Christian faith is properly articulated in its deepest orthodox, catholic, and evangelical form, the so-called war between “science and the church” dissolves. Properly articulated, the Christian faith, not Darwinian theory, is the “universal dissolvent.” All creation finds its origin and end in the eternally Triune Creator God. Cunningham shows one way that human beings as rational creatures may recognize by faith the beauty and goodness in creation, even as explicated by Darwinian theory, to the praise of our Creator.

Cunningham’s book is an amazing accomplishment. The book has already gathered acclaim. Christopher Benson at the First Things Blog (Dec 21, 2010) has named the book as one of the two most important science books of 2010 (“a rare combination of scientific competence and theological erudition”) and Scott Stephens at the ABC Religion and Ethics blog mentions the book as one just outside his top ten list of his “Books of the Year” for 2010.

I know of no writing that more successfully addresses a particular issue in the interface between the claims of revelation and the human observations that we call science. To explore the integration of “science and Christian faith” with Cunningham requires languages that cross what have come to be understood as “disciplinary boundaries.” It reveals an extensive reading that is humbling in its judiciousness, wisdom, and learnedness.

But the book is not erudite stuffiness. From Irish Methodist stock, Conor is as whimsical, gregarious, and gracious in print as he is in person. Cunningham freely quotes from Lewis Carroll, Monty Python, C. S. Lewis, and G. K. Chesterton; this is no ivory tower egghead. The book is a joy to read.

But the book is work to read, at times hard work, hard and rewarding work. The book begins by reviewing the standard story of Darwinian theory. He quickly plunges into the contested, suggestive, and problematic areas arising from this “received view.” The fifth chapter looks to “examine and critique the application of Darwin’s theory of evolution beyond the confines of biology” (p. 179), in an at times laudable, at time pernicious enterprise. The sixth chapter provides an all out assault on ontological naturalism*, and ironically, some of its likeminded theological partners in movements like Creation Science and Intelligent Design. The last chapter seeks to re-order the empirical results of Darwinian science with the biblical witness, particularly as understood within the first five centuries of the Christian traditions interpretation of Genesis 1-3.

The book therefore moves from contemporary biological sciences to high levels of philosophical and theological thought. Ultimately, however, the book finds its end in the Scripture’s witness to the eternally Triune God in Christ as found within the depths of the Christian tradition. This structure itself bears the form of the ancient, biblical structure of thought. With the Apostle Paul, Cunningham’s argument is simply, “For from God and through God and to God are all things. To God be the glory forever! Amen” (Rom. 11:36). If one at times finds oneself alienated as one moves through the technical aspects of the book, one will still find oneself fascinated and enriched by the journey.

Western culture now suffers deeply from how its cultural institutions have built a wall between “faith” and “reason.” Philosophers have long shown that philosophical rationale for such a divide is, at the very least overdrawn, if not completely false. Dominant institutional and legal categories, however, end up thinking for us and repeating the distinction. Networks then have developed that benefit from an antagonism between faith and reason to bolster their own institutional authority. Such fundamentalisms, religious and atheistic, use irrationality, fear, and power to pull their particular publics political and financial support to expand their own realms of influence.

For the church such a situation is intolerable. Such a divide between faith and reason places the scandal of the cross at the wrong place. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross demands faith and obedience; His sacrifice makes all other sacrifices, including the sacrifice of intellect, unnecessary. To allow false stumbling-blocks to be set up for our youth by intellectual sloth or its close cousin, apostasy, is unacceptable. Moreover, a continuation of the situation promises to lead to tragedy for North American culture. As even a secularized Christian culture has withdrawn from public discourse, North American society continues to reduce human life and even life itself to a commodity to be bartered on the free-market by the financial, political, and technological cultural elite. The unnecessary withdrawal of the Christian witness as yeast and light takes away options that the world does not have tools to conceive, yet alone implement. Into this cultural abyss, Biologos has stepped. At some times, it must find itself very lonely. But in the abyss that refuses a dichotomy between faith and scientific reason, however, it finds friends, unexpected friends like Conor Cunningham.

In order to explore, promote, and celebrate Cunningham’s work, I would like to provide a summary, analysis, and guide through the book in several blog posts in the coming weeks. I would encourage interested readers to purchase the book and follow the discourse together – a cyber reading group, if you will. Cunningham’s work needs not serve as the final word on the subject, but it represents an intellectual program that we cannot but take seriously. Too much is at stake in a refusal to do so.


* Cunningham writes, “There are two types of naturalism: methodological and ontological. The former is the approach science must take when it engages with the universe insofar as it will fail to make any progress unless it brackets the divine. The latter holds that bracketing the divine is not merely methodologically necessary but constitutive of reality as such. . . . While methodological naturalism issues no philosophical or metaphysical opinion on what exists, ontological naturalism suffers no such shyness. It tells us not only that science must stick to what we take to be natural but also that the natural is all there is, indeed all there ever could be. Moreover, ontological naturalism deposes philosophy’s ancient position as the final arbiter of our understanding of existence to which even science is subjected (what is called first philosophy)” (pp. 265-6).

John Wesley Wright, Ph.D. is Professor of Theology and Christian Scriptures at Point Loma Nazarene University. Dr. Wright has published numerous articles and edited a number of books, including Priests, Prophets, and Scribes: Essays on the Formation and Heritage of Second Temple Judaism in Honor of Joseph Blenkinsopp, which he co-edited with Eugene Ulrich, Robert Carroll, and Philip R. Davies. (JSOT Press, 1992) and Conflicting Allegiances: The Church-based University In A Liberal Democratic Society, co-edited with Michael Budde (Brazos Press, 2004).

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #47042

January 12th 2011

“Cunningham shows one way that human beings as rational creatures may recognize by faith the beauty and goodness in creation, even as explicated by Darwinian theory, to the praise of our Creator.”

My problem with Darwin is that he does not in his theory describe the beauty and goodness of nature, although he and his friends at times share a “mystical” view of nature. 

Darwin’s theory as he described at the end of his Origin of the Species decribes evolution as the “war of nature,” which is no way beautiful and good.  The problem is not the fact of evolutionary change, but Darwin’s explicit theory and how it works, which goes against the Christian world view.  As I have said before Ecology based on symbiosis does provide a scientifically sound description of the beauty and goodness of nature.

Rich - #47266

January 14th 2011

Jon Garvey:

Possibly you missed my comment 46862 which tried to build on some of your points.  I’d be interested in your response.

Cal - #47271

January 14th 2011

“I find it interesting that nowhere are natural phenomena attributed to demons”, I’d say that disease and the physiological hobbling of people (blindness, crooked back, paralysis) are natural phenomena. All of these are said to be of demons, all of them Jesus rebukes.

The storm that strikes Paul is not credited to anyone, but just because God used it did not mean He wanted it to strike Paul. God uses all things for good, even if they were meant for explicit evil and incited by devils.

With your reference to Psalms and Job, I would not argue storms are in and of themselves evil or the work of evil spirits (storms bring rain for crops, they are not always bad), but those that are seeking to destroy and cause violence are of them (As for Noah’s flood, I have read theories and thought about this; I think God’s wrath is His turning away (withdrawal of His Spirit) which allows those who would destroy Humanity (demons) have their way).

The reason corrupted nature is brought up is that anyone around the world can see the devastation that hurricanes, tornadoes, avalanches etc. can cause. Nature seems “red in tooth and nail” and it is a question that should be pondered and considered. We must ask if demons are at work.

Bill Wilson - #47594

January 16th 2011

There’s a simple way to resolve Genesis’ apparent tension with modern science.  Simply posit that the Fall’s effects spread throughout creation in both temporal directions, changing what came before it as well as what transpired after. 

From this perspective, what we observe in the fossil record, DNA coding, etc. is a creation totally corrupted by the events in the Garden.  Adam and Eve’s sin altered the physical laws that govern the Universe and hence changed its apparent history.  A world directly created by God became one in which life developed through a bloody struggle for survival.

Do I believe this?  No.  But it does provide a way to dissolve the problems arising from the unfortunate tendency to read the Bible as if it were a geology textbook.  It even has a smattering of empirical support based on some widely accepted interpretations of quantum mechanics. 

Backwards causation is a legitimate idea that is being explored by notable physicists. While it can never be proven, it can never be disproven either.  It allows the fundamentalists to have their cake and eat it too.  Everyone gets what they want.

Jon Garvey - #47906

January 18th 2011

@Rich - #46862

Finally responding to your post! Basically I completely agreed with it. It’s maybe interesting that the lines of debate and contention seem to be drawn up on the science agenda, rather than the theological, which for Christians arguably should be the more important.

By that I mean that the principle discussions here are about why people are wrong to accept the scientific position, to support ID, to support YE Creationism etc. And yet all these views are, in the end, merely intellectual. Within each are those holding very (and importantly) different views of God.

So as an EC I have more in common with a YEC who believes in a God who sustains creation moment by moment, than he has with a YEC who believes God did a lot of miracles in 4004 BC and now keeps his hands off except in evangelistic settings. And I have more in common with him than I have with ECs who believe that ideas about God (including the Bible) emerged naturalistically along with the “inevitable” evolution of sin.

If we have a completely wrong view of God and his nature, isn’t that the antithesis of communion with him? And isn’t that a lot more important than misapprehensions about how God actually made what we see?

Rich - #48093

January 18th 2011


I agree with you about the reversal of priorities between theology and science, and about the very different views of God held within each position (TE, ID, YEC, etc.).

The internal tensions about the nature of God, the interpretation of Genesis etc. within the ID camp are public and therefore less problematic.  Everyone knows that Behe disagrees with Nelson on some theological questions, and generally ID people don’t conceal these differences from the world.  But in the TE/EC camp I find a strong tendency to say or imply that they agree with other TE/EC writers on the nature of God, the nature of divine action, miracles, naturalism in origins, etc.  This show of unity is highly misleading.  The views of Denis Lamoureux, Ken Miller, George Murphy, and Terry Gray are all quite different, but you would never know it from the kind of things they say about God when they are attacking YEC or ID people.  By focusing on what they *don’t* believe (YEC, ID, etc.), TE/ECs have often skirted important theological questions and have failed to arrive at anything like a coherent intellectual position regarding divine action in evolution, or divine action in general.  TE/EC awaits the coming of its great theologian.

Jon Garvey - #48188

January 19th 2011

@Rich - #48093

Do we need new theology, or just the old faithfully applied? Once one gets past the Biblical issues, then evolution is just another “natural” process. In OT times they may have seen God’s hand behind everything - a new baby, the eagle’s prey, the movement of a snake, but they had a category for “natural” that distinguished such things from, say, Elijah’s miracles or the parting of the Red Sea.

Even in pre-scientific Europe they knew how to mix gunpowder or plot a trajectory whilst accepting God’s role in everything. The doctrine of Providence applied to things they understood well, not just the inexplicable.

Only in modern times have Deism and its evangelical and liberal successors divided the world sharply into “natural” and “supernatural”. The failure of Christians to understand (if not exhaustively) how God could act in evolution is the same failure they show in the familiar world of nature, human affairs and Biblical inspiration. Only it’s maybe more obvious because they had presupposed the miraculous in the case of creation.

Rich - #48218

January 19th 2011

Jon Garvey (48188):

Thanks for your comments.  I didn’t mean we need a new Christian theology; I meant that TE/EC has yet to be represented in theological thought by a first-rate, world-class theologian, as themes like “political liberation” and “environmentalism” have been taken up by major theologians.

The vast majority of leading proponents of TE/EC are scientists with little or no training in theology.  A few have an M.Div., but that’s primarily a pastoral, not a theoretical, degree.  And the few TE/EC people with Ph.D.s in theology tend to be focused on Biblical theology, i.e., exegesis of Genesis and such, not systematic theology.  There’s very little deep knowledge of the Fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, etc. among TEs (your own posts offering a pleasant exception!), and very little primary-source exposure to Spinoza, Hume, Lessing, Voltaire, Kant, Whitehead, etc. and other thinkers who deal with things TEs like to talk about—like theodicy.  There are obvious exceptions—Murphy knows the theological tradition well, and Ted Davis knows the intellectual history well.  But by and large the conceptual level of the arguments isn’t high.  There is as yet no Brunner or Mascall or Gilson of TE/EC.

Rich - #48220

January 19th 2011

Jon Garvey:

Regarding the artificiality of the distinction between natural and supernatural, I understand what you mean and have some sympathy with it—certainly the Hebraic thought of the OT did not make as sharp a distinction as moderns make; but are you really advocating the abolition of the distinction?  So that we have only the vaguest idea, say, whether it is vaccines or special actions of God which have eliminated polio?  If we don’t have some conception of “nature”—meaning a set of regular patterns by which the world normally works—we can’t do modern science at all.

Yet if we adopt a notion of “nature” that excludes the notion of *special* divine actions (as in Protestant cessationism) how do we prevent our thinking from becoming, willy-nilly, Deistic?  One can appeal to ideas such as God’s “concurrence” with nature, or say that God “sustains” or “upholds” natural laws; but such concepts don’t make a blessed bit of difference as to how science is done.  I think the working picture of nature filling the heads of most Christians today—even fundamentalists (outside of origins questions)—is Deistic.  And I haven’t met a TE who wants us to return to the Old Testament conception of nature.

Cal - #48300

January 20th 2011


For your remark about so few Christians truly appreciating providence when it comes to nature, I’d sadly blame the materialistic culture of the west seeping into the Church. Most forget that nature is not just sitting on a pedestal, being watched by God. He is sustaining it, He is holding it together! Jesus did not just build everything, He keeps it going!

When I hear attacks on any possibility to the idea of evolution as reducing or removing God, it saddens me. Evolution or not, the King keeps all the wheels turning.

Jon Garvey - #48324

January 20th 2011

@Cal - #48300

The problem has been compounded by Christians’ reaction to a description of evolution that excludes God as unnecessary. They’re so badly taught that instead of saying, “Nice theory - forget about the atheism though” they reject it because they too can only think in terms of either nature or miracle.

But as Rich and I have discussed above, the same mindset infiltrates Christian pro-evolution views by stressing “pre-loading”, “God allowing evolution freedom,” and even Philip Johnson’s original formulation of ID (creation by the back door).

Rich - #48330

January 20th 2011

Cal (48300):

From an ID perspective, evolution does not *necessarily* remove God from the picture.  It depends on how God’s action is conceived in relation to the evolutionary changes.  This is where TE/EC is very vague and incoherent.

So far TE/EC has been content merely to affirm, with one side of the mind, that evolution works entirely through natural causes, and with the other side of mind, that God is behind it in a real way. 

TE/EC’s problem is that unless God’s role is more clearly specified, TE/EC looks for all the world like a Deistic account of natural processes, with a pious gloss added as an afterthought.

TE/EC really needs the touch of a first-class philosopher or theologian to attempt one or more descriptions of *how* divine and natural causation might work together.

One problem is that the best TE/EC theologians (e.g., Murphy and Polkinghorne) are physicists, and therefore not able to spell out the connections with biological processes.

Rich - #48331

January 20th 2011


I’d like it if you’d give a more detailed exposition of each of the three positions you are objecting to in the last sentence of 48324.  The statement is too compact for me to be sure how you understand each of those positions and what you object to in each of them. 

The second one, about freedom, has the smell of Ken Miller and John Haught about it.  I’d want more clarity on what you think Johnson’s view was (preferably with some references), and, as the meaning of “front-loading” is ambiguous—Mike Gene here believes that he was the first to use the term, and he doesn’t mean by it what a lot of people mean by it—I’d need a statement of what you take to be a “front-loaded” view, again preferably with a reference to authors/books/articles.

Rich - #48333

January 20th 2011


One more point.  It is not enough to say that, since God keeps everything going, he can be responsible for evolution without any difficulty. 

Evolution is not like the motion of the planets or even the formation of stars.  Those other things are completely explicable if all that God does is sustain or uphold the natural laws.

But evolution is alleged to be a *contingent* process.  There is no “law of evolution” that guarantees the arrival of any particular result.  So while in the case of the planets, we can imagine God causing the motions by sustaining the laws yet not “intervening” in any particular event, in evolution, we have to imagine God being involved in a series of *contingent* events—putatively random mutations—without intervening.  The relationship between divine and natural causation in such a case becomes trickier to conceive.  The most sophisticated attempt I’ve seen to deal with this is a paper by physicist R. J. Russell, which makes use of quantum indeterminacy.  But even it is not satisfactory.

Cal - #48375

January 20th 2011


I won’t go so far to say that we have even scratched the top soil on the development of life, there is still so much mystery left to discover and you never know when some theory or theoretical equation causes an entire paradigm shift of how the universe is viewed. Similarly to planets, Galileo and Copernicus may had made some of the first substantial breaks into the idea of geo-centrism and the movement of the planets but hundreds of years later we’re still learning more.

My problem is that some throw evolution away out of hand because they have a failing view of who God is. Whatever the case may be as more evidence and “finger prints” are uncovered, Messiah is still the one who keeps the whole thing together.

Also, on par with Jon’s statement before:
I am not antagonistic with ID and have much more in common than the extremes of near Deism on par with some YEC (God made it miraculously and went back to watching from Heaven) and some TE (God unfolded it and went back to watching it from Heaven). Yet we are all still brothers and I wish some of the dialogues abounding would reflect the fact we are all children of the same loving Father, and freed by the same King.

Jon Garvey - #48389

January 20th 2011

@Rich - #48331

It’s probably not worth my trying to clarify the first two - they were intended as general statements of a whole range of ideas tossed around here and probably as poorly understood by those propounding them as they are by me: but the summary would be a Deistic or Quasi-deistic concept of God’s setting evolution off and retiring to heaven, as per Cal’s last post. Or in some cases, NOT setting off evolution and staying in heaven influencing hearts and minds.

In the late 90s I attended a meeting for British Evangelical Leaders (of which I’m not one) at which Philip Johnson shared a platform with Andrew Snelling. A sometimes strained confluence of ID and YEC. In response to questioning suggesting that the Church ought to state the message of special creation boldly, my recollection is that Johnson suggested it made more sense to begin by working to cast doubt on the adequacy of evolutionary theory, after which the necessity for creation would become obvious. It seemed that for him was a strategic, more than a scientific, concept. As far as I know the meeting was not recorded, but I may be wrong.

In the context of my post, it was his apparent assumption that evolution was necessarily godless to which I referred.

Rich - #48410

January 20th 2011


Thanks for your clarification in 48389.

Regarding Johnson, I’ve read very little of his writing, in comparison with other ID theorists (of whom I’ve read a great deal).  The snippets I’ve read from his earlier writings suggest that he thought the issue was supernatural vs. natural causation, hence creation VERSUS evolution.  But in current ID thinking the issue is design versus chance.  If (hypothetically) one could eliminate chance and establish design, it is still possible that creation took place VIA evolution.  One can imagine, for example, an evolutionary process in which the end product is implicit in the first information-packed genomes, and unfolds naturally.  You might still object to that as too Deistic, but at least it can’t be charged with being antievolutionary or undermining methodological naturalism in science.

Anyhow, TE/EC doesn’t clearly escape the charge of Deism.  To the question:  what exactly does God *do* in evolution?  TE/EC usually gives only vague answers.  I wish that Biologos would concentrate less on trying to prove common descent and more on trying to formulate a non-Deistic theory of divine action in evolution.

Jon Garvey - #48445

January 21st 2011

@Rich - #48410

Yes, my citation of Johnson was not intended to reflect on ID as a whole.

From a theological point of view, there is little difference, except in the science, between God’s intervention in irreducible complexity and a pure Darwinian evolutionary approach. The point is that even if the first bacterial genome contained an entire DVD of subsequent evolutionary history, it would be unfolding naturally only because God was sustaining it and empowering it moment by moment. But as you say, humanly speaking it would be a “natural” process.

I’m not sure it’s possible to decide how God acts in any situation. If one decided he miraculously changed a key genetic code, you could still only answer “how” by knowing how his being relates to the Universe he’s created, and he’s not telling as far as I know.

And it’s no easier to think of *how* he might be involved in more subtle situations, whether that’s maintaining the clockwork systems of macro physics, playing dice with the Universe, or not, in the quantum world, or overseeing randomness. But if there is a basic faith statement, surely it’s that “Nothing in this Universe is independent of God.”

Roger A. Sawtelle - #48636

January 22nd 2011

In my opinion Deism is not an inappropriate model for use with nature.  Nature basically is the framework in which humans live.  The Bible is not about nature, it is about human history and this is where God acts.  The framework of nature is important, but secondary. 

We distort reality when we pretend that nature is primary and humanity is secondary or tertiary.  Many seem to belive that if humans solve the secrets of nature, discover the “face of God” in some way or another we will solve all human problems.  Any person with half a mind should be able to know that this is not true, but sometimes we Christians take nature so seriously that we appear to agree with them.

We need to keep our eyes on the prize, that is people problems, how we relate to God and others, which are the primary issues of our day and every day.  Science does not address nor does it seem to want to address these issues, so we must our thing and let science do its as appropriate.

Rich - #48689

January 22nd 2011


I’m not necessarily attacking the model of nature put forward in Deism.  If nature is a free-standing bundle of natural laws and properties, put there by God, and given its powers by God, then it is open to scientific investigation.

However, note that we have TE/EC people constantly accusing ID and YEC people of having a “Deistic” understanding of nature, and ID and YEC people accusing TE/EC people of the same thing, as if it can be taken for granted that such an understanding is a bad thing.  So the double question arises:  (a) *Why* is a Deistic model of nature such a bad thing?  (b) Will the real Deist please stand up?

Is Deism bad because God doesn’t *do* anything after creation?  Well, in most versions of TE, God doesn’t perform any *particular* actions in nature after the Big Bang; nature self-organizes into galaxies, planets, life and man.  And if it’s said that God “sustains” or “upholds” nature in existence, such a claim makes zero difference to the practice of science, which carries on *as if* nature had its powers and existence independently.  So what is TE, then?  Practical Deism with a theistic gloss?  Why is that “more Christian” than views in which God actually does something *specific*?

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