On Beginning to Understand the Intelligence of Design: Reflections on ‘Darwinism and the Divine’ by Alister McGrath (Part II)

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On Beginning to Understand the Intelligence of Design: Reflections on ‘Darwinism and the Divine’ by Alister McGrath (Part II)

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.

We’ll examine Augustine’s views in more detail in Part III.




Falk, Darrel. "On Beginning to Understand the Intelligence of Design: Reflections on ‘Darwinism and the Divine’ by Alister McGrath (Part II)"
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 3 Nov. 2014. Web. 16 February 2019.


Falk, D. (2014, November 3). On Beginning to Understand the Intelligence of Design: Reflections on ‘Darwinism and the Divine’ by Alister McGrath (Part II)
Retrieved February 16, 2019, from /blogs/archive/on-beginning-to-understand-the-intelligence-of-design-reflections-on-darwinism-and-the-divine-by-alister-mcgrath-part-ii

References & Credits

  1. Dawkins, Richard, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. London, Phoenix, 1995, p.133.
  2. Faith is grounded in reason. Much has been written about this—I particularly recommend The Reason for God by Timothy Keller.
  3. directionality and purpose

About the Author

Darrel Falk

Darrel Falk is former president of BioLogos and currently serves as BioLogos' Senior Advisor for Dialogue. He is Professor of Biology, Emeritus at Point Loma Nazarene University and serves as Senior Fellow at The Colossian Forum. Falk is the author of Coming to Peace with Science.

More posts by Darrel Falk