Reviewing “Darwinism and the Divine” by Alister McGrath

Part I. Looking Back

darwinism and the divine alister mcgrathTo no small extent, my life and my career has been a personal quest to understand what it means to speak of God as Creator in light of the knowledge gained through the scientific process. I began college almost fifty years ago just as the ramifications of DNA as the genetic material were being unraveled. The genetic code—the “code of life”—had just been deciphered. The inside of a cell, I learned, was like a magnificently orchestrated dance choreographed by DNA and manifest through its code. Transfer RNA molecules and their amino acid partners each came onto a ribosome precisely positioned by the code releasing their partners on cue, so that they, in turn, could “join hands” with pre-assigned neighbor amino acids. Then, also on cue, each now-unattached transfer RNA molecule quickly left the ribosome to get another identical amino acid partner and bring it back. Through the dance, newly formed protein molecules were created, each exquisitely structured to carry out a highly specific function in the cell: thousands of functions, thousands of protein molecules, each a product of the dance—the dance of life. When I learned about it for the first time, it was brand new knowledge—we students were learning it from professors who had just learned about it as well. As a Christian, the beauty of the biological details that were emerging through molecular biology was fully consonant with the beauty of the Christian life as I had known it since early childhood. I was thrilled by the consonance between the two.Initially, the question of how God, the Creator, brought all of this into being remained in the background. It seemed too elegant, too pregnant with purpose, to have simply emerged from the dust or pond without input from the divine. But eventually my question became: why did it seem that all my colleagues and professors thought life’s diversity could just emerge? Given that I was confident they were right about the overwhelming evidence for the tenets of evolutionary biology, and given my reasoned faith in the God of Scripture, what could I say to any biology colleague about the nature of the activity of the God who, I thought, brought it all to pass? Seeking how best to answer that question—if only for myself—has been central in my life’s journey. Although my 2004 book, Coming to Peace with Science summarized a significant part of that personal quest, I knew I had been vague about the nature of divine action in creation. Just how does the biological data that emerges from studying creation square with the activity of the Creator we know from the Bible, Christian tradition, and personal experience?I have just completed the reading of what for me is the most helpful book I have ever read in this pursuit: Alister McGrath’s Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology. McGrath has helped me come to see that this quest, when fully appreciated for what it is, leads deeper and deeper into the realm of God’s very being. One can’t speak of God in nature without moving into a much different realm of communication. For a Christian, the empirical study of nature’s patterns draws one nearer to the holy ground of Moses’s burning bush experience. When a Christian explores divine action in nature, that person also moves into the realm of revealed purpose and meaning of existence—each of which emanate from within the triune God who is love. Here is how McGrath summarizes this:

Christian theology offers an approach to nature that is grounded in its empirical reality, but transcends the limits of the empirical. It offers us theoretical spectacles, which allow us to behold things in such a way that we are able to rise above the limits of the observable, and move into the richer realm of discerned meaning and value. In doing so, it does not descend into fantasy, but makes warranted assertions that are grounded in its deep and rich Trinitarian vision of God. The natural world thus becomes God’s creation, bearing the subtle imprint of its maker. We see not only the observable reality of the world, but its deeper value and true significance. A commitment to the empirical and observable is retained, but supplemented by a deeper level of understanding to which it leads—when rightly interpreted (p. 289).

Part II: On Coming to See Life’s History in a New Light

McGrath says that historically, Christianity has not, at its core, been a religion of explanation. Rather, it has focused on transformation, which leads in part to a different way of seeing the natural world. That transformed perspective is best termed “natural theology.”St. Augustine expressed this perspective especially clearly. “For Augustine,” McGrath tells us,

“God is the intelligible sun who gives light to the mind and therefore brings intelligibility to what we see. Yet the human eye itself must be healed by grace if the divinely illuminated landscape is to be seen properly: ‘Our whole business in this life is to heal the eye of the heart so that God might be seen.’ Augustine’s point is that the Christian way of ‘seeing’ reality is neither naturally acquired or naturally endorsed. It comes about through the Christian revelation, which brings about a transformation of our perception of things” (p.285).

How is this brought about? “Augustine sees the Christian community as playing a critical role in the process by reinforcing this way of seeing things in its proclamation and sacramental ministries” (p. 286). McGrath stresses the community aspect of this further and then goes on to say that the church and the world engage with the same empirical realities but see, understand, and evaluate them in very different ways. It is not an individual effort. The church is concerned with the discernment of meaning in life, as much as the demonstration of rationality in faith.

“Nature is thus an ‘open secret’; though open to public gaze, its deeper significance lies hidden. A surface reading suggests that nature has ‘no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.’1 Yet the Christian tradition offers an interpretative lens, which illuminates nature’s shadows and brings its features into sharper focus….A Christian natural theology holds that the true meaning of nature is indeed capable of being unlocked; but this requires us to use a hermeneutical key that nature itself cannot provide” (p. 289).

Thus any quest for increased understanding of divine action in creation begins with natural theology, which refocuses the origins discussion on questions of purpose and meaning—centered within the triune God who is love.

McGrath’s primary approach in Darwinism and the Divine is to examine natural theology through a historical lens. He critiques several approaches to natural theology that historical Christianity, as he sees it, has found unhelpful. Chief among these was the publication of William Paley’s highly influential 1802 book, Natural Theology. In examining the events leading up to and following the writing of the book, McGrath makes the case that the book came to be an important example as to how not to think about God’s activity in creation. It emerged, he demonstrates, out of thinking in the late 17th century, which transitioned from a position in which “natural theology was generally understood to affirm the consonance of reason and the experience of the natural world within the Christian tradition” to one which attempted to “demonstrate the existence of God by an appeal to reason”2 (p. 17). Paley’s book, McGrath shows, was largely a popularization of concepts developed about one hundred years earlier (frequently using the same illustrations) but putting them into a highly articulate framework readily accessible to a broad audience. Darwin himself (born in 1809, four years after Paley’s death), was initially enthusiastic about Paley’s work, having, he said, committed much of it to memory.

Paley uses the analogy of a person on a walk who comes across a watch lying on the ground. He picks it up, carefully examines it and concludes that unlike the stone lying nearby, it has been designed for a particular purpose and thereby that it must have had a “designer.” Paley concludes (in McGrath’s words): “…the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker” (p. 92).

McGrath shows however, that even by the time Darwin’s Origin of Species was published, many within the Christian community had raised concerns about Paley’s appeal to natural theology for apologetics purposes. By the 1830’s, there was growing public interest in the biases associated with interpreting evidence. “Inevitable inferences” were not always so inevitable, many influential people came to think. The celebrated Bridgewater Treatises (1833-1836), which sold more copies than the cumulative total of Paley’s Natural Theology, presented a more nuanced view of the harmony between Christian faith and the scientific observation of nature. William Whewell’s treatise, McGrath says, especially emphasized that,

“Scientific knowledge may serve to ‘nourish and unfold our idea of a Creator and Governor of the world’–but not in Whewell’s view, to prove the existence of such a God…Where Paley speaks of the natural world proving God’s existence and wisdom, Whewell speaks more cautiously of nature providing ‘indications’ of the wisdom and power of God (p. 124).

Even more significant, however, were the theological concerns addressed by Britain’s leading 19th century theologian, John Henry Newman. Prior to publication of Darwin’s Origin, he strongly critiqued Paley’s theology, claiming that he had failed to establish a coherent connection between the natural world and faith in God. Christian faith, Newman argued, is primarily engaged in addressing the struggle against sin, not an intellectual analysis of reality. He went on to say, “I believe in design because I believe in God, not God, because I believe in design.” Paley, as Newman saw it, offered a vision of religion that bore little relation to Christianity (p.127).

Then, of course, came the Darwinian revolution. Reflecting years later, Darwin wrote in his Autobiography, “The old argument from design in Nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered” (p. 161). Similarly, Thomas Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”) commented that what impressed him most upon his first reading of Origin of Species was the “conviction that teleology,3 as commonly understood, had received its deathblow at Mr. Darwin’s hands” (p.161). However, Huxley later argues that Darwin didn’t remove teleology, he just substituted a new type; one anchored not in design, but one which nonetheless demonstrates a clear directionality to the history of life. McGrath, building on this, goes on to state:

“It is often asserted that Darwin destroyed the notion of teleology in biology; in fact, he redirected the notion. The problem faced by both Darwin’s’ supporters and critics was that Darwin’s selection-based teleology did not conform to any familiar model of teleological explanation.” (p. 161)

At heart in this discussion is the role of chance in God’s purposes in creation. Paley defines chance as “the operation of causes without design” and assumes that the human eye, for example, could not have arisen in this manner (p.191). As such, Paley apparently was unfamiliar with the thinking of one of Christianity’s greatest theological minds on this subject, that of Thomas Aquinas. In the thirteenth century, “Aquinas provided an intellectual framework that allowed design or teleology to be affirmed, while recognizing the role of chance in bringing about its intended outcomes. Aquinas is emphatic that the notion of divine providence does not exclude luck (fortuna) or chance (accidens)” (p. 191).

Along that vein, some Christian leaders greeted Darwin’s work enthusiastically. The Harvard botanist Asa Gray wrote in the journal Nature in 1874 that Darwin’s great service to the natural sciences came in bringing teleology back to it. Similarly, Charles Kingsley (a leading official at Westminster Abbey) insisted that the word “creation” involved process as much as event. He believed that Darwin made it possible to see creation as a dynamic, fundamentally teleological process, directed by divine providence (p. 164). Likewise, the conservative evangelical theologian, B. B. Warfield, although not a full supporter of Darwinian thinking, responded by stressing that God’s primal act of bringing creation included its potential for further development (p. 220).

Kingsley contrasted a Darwinian view of life with deism, saying that deism offered “a chilling dream of a dead universe governed by an absent God” (p.165). A correctly interpreted Darwinian view, Kingsley argued, provided a living universe constantly improving under God’s guidance. Although Kingsley didn’t specifically refer to Aquinas, he emphasized Providence through process (p. 165) and cited Jesus’ words in John 5:17 – “My Father worketh hitherto and I work,” a passage to which Augustine also referred in discussing the coordination of creation and providence.

Part III: Finding Ourselves on Holy Ground

Among important Christian theologians throughout history, Augustine’s views on creation are especially interesting. Unfortunately, there was no English translation of his most relevant work, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, until 1982, so it has remained obscure and relatively unknown until recently. In essence, Augustine proposed that God created the world complete with a series of “dormant multiple potencies.” These potencies, Augustine said, eventually came into material reality through divine providence. In other words, based on his interpretation of the Genesis account, Augustine believed that there were ordering principles embedded into creation at the time of the initial event. In a manner somewhat analogous to the sprouting of planted seeds, he believed that with time, creation would gradually continue to unfold at later stages. This remarkably precocious idea, McGrath points out, is not completely original to Augustine. Even earlier Christian writers had noted how the first Genesis creation narrative spoke of the earth and the waters “bringing forth” living creatures and had drawn the conclusion that God endowed the natural order with a capacity to generate living things (p.223). Augustine further argued that the organizing principles were to be conceived as seed-like principles present from the cosmic beginning. Each “seed” contained the potential for the later development of a specific living kind.“God,” Augustine said, “created what was to be in times to come in the earth from the beginning, in what I might call the ’roots of time.’”1 He cited Genesis 1:12, which tells of plants bringing forth seeds of various kinds in this context. Indeed, McGrath states:

“Augustine’s approach allowed him to interpret the first Genesis creation narrative as describing the instantaneous bringing into existence of primal matter, which already contained with it the causal resource for further development. The second Genesis creation narrative can be interpreted as setting out the subsequent history of the chronological actualization of these causal possibilities from the earth.” (p. 225)

In another of his works, De Trinitate, Augustine wrote:

It is one thing to create and govern the creation internally, from the zenith of the causal nexus; only God, the creator, can do this. It is another thing to apply some operation externally, in proportion to the strength and capacities assigned to each creature by God, so that what is created may come forth at this or at that time, in this or that way. For in terms of their origins and beginning, all these things have already been created in some form of texture of the elements (quadam textura elementorum) and are awaiting the opportunity to come forth.2

Augustine even discusses (but does not further develop) the idea that God operates within creation by means that are “not natural yet operate according to nature.”3 McGrath points out the high fertility of this theological notion and emphasizes the opportunity for further elaboration. In other words, how does looking at nature when seen (as Augustine described it) through the eyes of a heart that have been opened through grace affect one’s view of the natural world?

Augustine interprets God’s work of creation as including both an act and a process. Even though he predated Darwin by 1500 years, Augustine helped lay a solid theological and biblical foundation for evolutionary creation. But we should be careful not to take Augustine’s ideas too far…Although the germ of evolutionary biology is present in his thinking, this is not the point. He was thinking theologically, not scientifically. The issue at hand is whether modern evolutionary biology—when presented along with its teleological underpinnings—is consistent with the thinking of leading Christian thinkers of the past. The answer, McGrath believes, is clearly ‘yes.’


So, as I look back on the half century since the genetic code was deciphered and I began my student career as a Christian engaged in the study of life’s processes, I return to the question I posed in Part I: What have I come to discern about divine action in creation, and how specifically has McGrath’s book helped me articulate an answer?

Understanding divine action begins with entering into relationship with Christ through faith. As Newman suggested, we believe in design because we believe in God and not the other way round. Studying the basis of life’s design cannot meaningfully be separated from the character of the One responsible for it. By living in relationship with him through whom all things were created and in whom all things have their being, we experience the purpose and meaning with which this universe is infused. It is out of that relationship that one sees that nature is wonderfully consonant with that which we see through Scripture, and the relationship with God that we experience through faith in Jesus Christ.

Creation is fine-tuned for life. If a set of key physical parameters had differed ever so slightly, the universe could not have supported life. We marvel at the majesty of this thought, but we don’t suggest it is proof for the Creator’s existence. Like David, listening to the voice of the heavens as they tell of the glory of God (Ps. 19:1), or Elijah at the entrance to the cave as he hears the voice of God in a whisper (I Kings 9:13), or even Paul who acknowledges in I Corinthians 5:7 that we walk by faith and not by sight, we bow in worship at the majesty of God’s creation.

When we reflect on the mystery of life’s origin and the seemingly rapid commencement of life’s earliest dance in life’s earliest cells, we are filled with awe at the thought that the trajectory so pregnant with purpose began so quickly in earth’s “cauldron”. But we don’t need to look inside the cauldron for proof for God’s existence. Indeed, does it even matter whether it was God’s primary or God’s secondary causation (a la Aquinas) that led to the early dances? Is the former somehow more the activity of God than the latter? Were those first cells already “implanted” with the “organizing principles” described by Augustine—charged with divine directionality? Since it isGod’s cauldron, and what takes place occurs entirely because of God’s presence, perhaps it makes no difference. No matter what, we are filled with wonder as the eyes of our hearts, transformed by grace and filled with hope, peer into the majesty of life’s beginnings.

We examine the history of life’s diversity and we are in awe at the adaptive themes that emerge. From an exploration of a whirling bacterial flagellum thrusting its host forward in its quest for more nutrients, to the study of our own white blood cells as they squeeze through the crevices of our body to hone in on a foreign invader—no matter what we study—we stand in awe of him. Our Maker may well have used chance to bring these processes into being, but these “chance events” lead to a prescribed end. Those processes are not divorced from Providence.

The Psalmist writes of being woven together by his Maker in his mother’s womb (Ps. 139:13). We now know how the “weaving” process works in considerable detail. Protein molecules energized by heat randomly collide with cellular components until by chance they hit specific DNA targets, activating or repressing genes. This sets up further processes which continue through chance molecular collisions to lead in a highly predictable fashion to new cells, developing tissues, and functional organs. Given time, space, and the appropriate uterine conditions, God’s purposes are accomplished and beauty beyond description emerges to begin life in its fullness. It is God’s creative process, and it uses chance events to accomplish a particular divine objective: A human being, loved by the Creator in whose image he or she is created.

We look at processes like natural selection and even genetic drift with its random component and marvel at the plethora of interdependent living species which God (through these processes) has created. Through the lens of faith, with many questions still unanswered, we, like the Psalmist, ask the biggest question of all: What are human beings that you are mindful of them and that you care for them? Amazingly, you have made them a little lower than yourself and you have crowned them with glory and honor.4 We humbly bow in recognition that we have been created to image God on earth and prayerfully seek to do it better.

Thus, the processes that lead to life and life’s diversity are all God’s. They began at God’s command and were initiated with God’s end in mind. Every process, indeed every atom, would cease to exist were it not for God’s ongoing presence. The teleology woven into the fabric of creation can only begin to be understood by examining the whole fabric, not just its individual strands. The scientific process can only examine the strands. When examined without the pattern in view, what lies beyond the strands may appear, as Richard Dawkins suggests, blind, pitiless, and indifferent. But that only happens because he’s focused on the strands, having chosen to dismiss the pattern.

The Christian church, as a whole, has been far too slow to embrace the notion that God created life, in all its diverse forms, through natural processes. Natural theology, as McGrath expresses it, “has, if anything, been given a new lease of life through the rise of evolutionary thought partly by being liberated from the intellectual and spiritual straightjacket with which Paley’s approach had unhelpfully confined it….natural theology needs to emerge from the lengthening shadows of Paley, and rediscover, retrieve, and renew alternative approaches.” (p. 280). He goes on to say:

The church is thus called to be an active interrogator, not a passive endorser of secular and secularizing visions of the world. It is called upon to proclaim, exhibit, and embody its own ‘social imaginary,’ deeply rooted in the gospel on the one hand, and with the capacity to transform reflection and practice on the other. (p. 286)

So our work in thinking about and faithfully communicating the nature of divine action in creation is, in a very real sense, just beginning. But because it is grounded in the mystery of the eternal Triune God who is love, it is also never-ending. We are left with the joy-filled task of exploring together, and communicating to all, the boundless riches of the risen Christ, the Alpha and Omega, the One who is above all, through all and in all.

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About the Author

Darrel Falk

Darrel Falk is the author of Coming to Peace with Science: Bridging the Worlds Between Faith and Biology and co-author of The Fool and the Heretic: How Two Scientists Moved Beyond Labels to a Christian Dialogue about Creation and Evolution.  He speaks frequently on the relationship between science and faith at universities and seminaries. From 2009 to 2012, he served as president of BioLogos. Under his leadership, the BioLogos website and daily blog grew to thousands of readers and hundreds of authors, the Biology by the Sea workshop trained Christian biology teachers, and private workshops in New York were a forum for conversation and worship with top evangelical leaders. As president, he brought BioLogos into conversation with Southern Baptist leaders and with Reasons to Believe, and today he continues to be a key member of those dialogues. Falk received his B.Sc. (with Honors) from Simon Fraser University, and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Alberta. He did postdoctoral work at The University of British Columbia and the University of California, Irvine before accepting a faculty position at Syracuse University in New York. Darrel’s early research focused on Drosophila molecular and developmental genetics with funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. In 1988 he transitioned into Christian higher education in the biology department at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, where he is now Emeritus Professor of Biology. He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Genetics Society of America, and the American Scientific Affiliation.