A Flawed Mirror: A Response to the Book “Theistic Evolution”

| By on The President's Notebook

In late 2017, Crossway publishers released Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, edited by J. P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, Christopher Shaw, Ann K. Gauger, and Wayne Grudem. This is a massive work, with 1008 pages and over two dozen authors from multiple disciplines, including leaders from the Discovery Institute and other Intelligent Design (ID) advocates.

What is new in this book

This volume is notable in engaging some prominent evangelical voices in the conversation, such as biblical scholar Wayne Grudem and philosopher J.P. Moreland. BioLogos has been working for years to invite faith leaders to talk with us about the evidence for evolution and its implications, so we’re glad to have these leaders in the conversation and hope the interchanges around this book will help increase understanding and dialogue. We appreciate Wayne Grudem, in particular, for being clear that he sees evolutionary creationists as genuine, deeply committed Christians, even friends (64) and reaching out to us (after a book event) to ask clarifying questions.

The volume is also notable in that the Discovery Institute is finally addressing theology directly. The Discovery Institute has previously framed their argument without religion, as the case for an undefined designer, in hopes of engaging non-religious audiences. We’ve interacted with many ID leaders over the years and know that several are committed Christians. Could this shift to theology be a signal that their messaging will become more explicitly Christian? Will they openly defend the Christian faith in the public square? Will they address biblical implications of an old universe (which most ID adherents accept)? We would be pleased to see moves in these directions, as areas where BioLogos and Discovery would have a shared interest.

For us at BioLogos, reading this book is a bit like looking in a flawed mirror. The mirror is aimed nearly directly at us. BioLogos is described as “the primary website for thoughtful material related to theistic evolution” (Grudem, 65), “a group promoting theistic evolution,” (Meyer, 563), and “one of the leading groups of theistic evolutionists in the United States” (Dilley, 602). Sometimes the mirror gives an accurate reflection of the the BioLogos I know; many times the mirror is cracked and smudged, showing a distorted or obscured picture of us. Some of the flaws in the mirror seem to arise from the book being written over a long period of time, with many references to BioLogos people and publications from several years ago—including incorrect references to them as “active members” (Moreland, 645)—but few references to current leaders and writings in recent years. Yet we will try to use this flawed mirror as best we can; in the places where the book gives an accurate reflection of BioLogos, it can provide important insights on how BioLogos appears to others and where we can improve.

Defining Design, Theistic Evolution, and Evolutionary Creation

Let me be clear that all of us at BioLogos fully and ardently affirm that the universe is designed. The wonders we encounter, from massive galaxy clusters to tiny viruses, continually amaze us and move our hearts and minds to ponder the Designer of it all. For us, design is seen just as much in God’s governance of natural processes as in God’s supernatural action. Science expands our amazement of how God works and increases our worship. Whether or not science has an explanation for a phenomenon in the natural world, through the eyes of faith we see God’s creative power and providential care.

            So we were disheartened to see the definition of theistic evolution used in this book:

God created matter and after that did not guide or intervene or act directly to cause any empirically detectable change in the natural behavior of matter until all living things had evolved by purely natural processes (Grudem, 67).

No one at BioLogos would describe God’s action that way![1] This definition is basically deism, with God’s only action as creating matter at the start and no mention of God’s role in that natural behavior of matter. Now, we accept that the book’s authors had valid reasons to choose the term “theistic evolution” (TE) rather than the BioLogos-preferred term “evolutionary creation” (EC). As Grudem notes, the TE term has been used for decades in the theological literature (65). And we understand that the book at many points is addressing the larger group of people who identify (and have identified) as theistic evolutionists, which does include some deists. The authors even acknowledge variations within the TE umbrella, including a variant that falls closer to our view, in which God “constantly upholds those laws on a moment-by-moment basis” (Meyer, 44).

But to refer to BioLogos as the “primary source for thoughtful material” on this definition of “theistic evolution” is a flawed reflection indeed. Even versions of TE that affirm God’s moment-by-moment activity in nature are said in this book to have “ a much more limited divine role in the process of life's creation” (Meyer, 44). Such a description of TE distorts what BioLogos and many other theistic evolutionists believe about God’s activity in the world.[2]

BioLogos has chosen to use the term “evolutionary creation” for multiple reasons.[3] One is to address exactly this problem: to distinguish BioLogos views from some TE views that are heterodox or deistic. EC is a subset of TE that emphasizes that the Creator is the personal God revealed in the Bible and incarnated in Jesus Christ, and that the triune God is actively involved in both natural and human history. Grudem sees problems with the EC term, writing that

 “the term ‘evolutionary creation’ seems to us to be misleading, because people who support theistic evolution do not believe in ‘creation’ in the ordinary sense that Christians use the term, to refer to God's direct activity in creating specific plants and animals and in creating human beings” (65).

We agree that many people use “creation” in this way, but to us that seems a very limited sense of creation. We decided to claim “creation” for our view because we affirm the rich, historic Doctrine of Creation developed over centuries by theologians.[4] We also want to demonstrate our unity with all Christians in believing that the God of the Bible is the Creator of the universe. This core point of unity is essential to remember during disagreements between Christians on the secondary question of the means God used to create. In short, the authors think our use of “creation” is too broad; we think their use of “design” is too narrow.

God intentionally creates and sustains all life

Since 2012, our “What we believe” page has stated:

God typically sustains the world using faithful, consistent processes that humans describe as ‘natural laws.’ Yet we also affirm that God works outside of natural law in supernatural events, including the miracles described in Scripture. In both natural and supernatural ways, God continues to be directly involved in creation and in human history.

Our public statement contrasts sharply with the definition of “theistic evolution” used in this book. This book, and the questions we have heard about it, suggest there is still confusion and ambiguity about the evolutionary creation position, and about the distinction between deism and God’s providential work. While writing this piece, I asked several evolutionary creation leaders, inside and outside BioLogos, for their thoughts on a one-sentence definition of evolutionary creation for a Christian audience; here’s a draft of what such a definition might look like:

God creates all living things through Christ, including humans in his image, making use of intentionally designed, actively-sustained, natural processes that scientists today study as evolution.

This definition frames our understanding of natural processes as God’s purposeful work.

Of course one sentence cannot fully answer the questions people have about God’s action in the evolution of living things. In this area, the mirror of this book is accurately showing a place we can improve, and we are developing some new resources to address such questions. I recently responded elsewhere to the question “Is intelligent design detectable by science?”

The question “Did God guide evolution?” is addressed directly in a companion post from philosopher of science and BioLogos Senior Editor Jim Stump. In brief, the yes/no nature of the question sets up a false contrast between “God guided evolution” (assumed to mean God acted in miraculous ways outside natural mechanisms) and “God did not guide evolution” (assumed to mean God is completely absent). Those assumptions leave no place for God to act in regular patterns that he designs and sustains and that we study scientifically. To leave this out is to deny many Scripture passages that celebrate God’s intimate action via natural mechanisms, from clothing the grass of the field (Matt 6:29) to knitting each of us in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13). God guided evolution just as much as God guides the formation of a baby from an embryo.

Scientific critique

Section 1 of the book is a scientific critique. Here the mirror is more accurate in how it represents our views: BioLogos affirms common ancestry (Section 1, Part 2) and affirms that the mechanisms of evolution can generate novelty (Section 1, Part 1). Although God in his sovereignty could have chosen to use supernatural action to create new species, evolutionary creations are convinced by the the evidence in the created order that God chose to use natural mechanisms.

The counter-arguments offered in the book are, in most cases, familiar from previous ID publications. Rather than doing a point-by-point rebuttal of this section of the book, we refer readers to our past work, such as our in-depth review of Darwin’s Doubt by Steve Meyer, our Evolution Basics series, and our common question on God working through random processes (use the search bar above to locate responses to other arguments). Readers might also find helpful our recent dialogue book with another Christian group that has concerns about evolution: Old Earth or Evolutionary Creation: Discussing Origins with Reason to Believe and BioLogos. On one question raised in this section of the book, we are adding to our content this month: Can evolution generate new information? See our blog series and new Common Question page.

Philosophical and Theological critique

Sections 2 and 3 address philosophical and theological concerns. The underlying motivations here are genuine—the authors are worried for the state of the church and are deeply concerned about infringements on orthodox theology. Many in BioLogos are familiar with these concerns from our own backgrounds and churches; some of us still wrestle with these concerns personally (see essays in How I Changed My Mind About Evolution). However, we also feel that God’s revelation in nature cannot be ignored and needs to be considered alongside his revelation in Scripture. We feel that the testimony in God’s creation is very clear: living things on earth formed through a gradual, natural process. We are exhorting the church to consider the evidence in God’s world and join with us in wrestling with the implications. For many people, understanding God’s work in the natural world has led to more robust and active commitment to Christ.

The book argues that accepting this scientific evidence leads inevitably to major theological change. But most evolutionary creationists, including everyone here at BioLogos, continue to passionately uphold the sovereignty of God, the divinity of Jesus, the need for salvation, and the authority of Scripture. Moreover, we do not let science drive our biblical interpretation. Rather, on those occasions when the discoveries in the God’s book of nature prompt us to look more closely at a biblical passage, we seek interpretations driven by the text itself and the original context. We hold to core theological doctrines (including that all people are made in the image of God, all have sinned and need the atoning work of Christ), while reinvigorating age-old debates about what those doctrines mean (such as multiple ways to understand the image of God and multiple theories of atonement). There is already a range of understandings of these doctrines, developed over many centuries in multiple Christian traditions. That range includes views both more conservative and more progressive than evolutionary creationists might accept, but we at BioLogos think it is worthwhile to be in conversation with such views (hence the presence on our site of some guest blog posts that the authors of this book would see as unorthodox).

There is much to discuss in part 3 of the book, but for focus, let us briefly address Wayne Grudem’s summary of twelve specific theological beliefs that he attributes to theistic evolution (785). Perhaps some theistic evolutionists would claim all of these things, but at BioLogos we would reject some and reword most. Regarding the biological origin of Adam and Eve, it is true that evolutionary creationists cannot affirm the traditional de novo view of human origins (in which God miraculously creates the first pair roughly 10,000 years ago, with this pair as the sole genetic progenitors of all humans today), because there is abundant evidence in God’s creation that the early humans were a population of at least several thousand individuals roughly 200,000 years ago. That evidence is consistent with multiple views of Adam and Eve. While some evolutionary creationists prefer archetypal or symbolic views, other evolutionary creationists affirm Adam and Eve as historical figures within a larger population of humans, and the first to commit human sins.

Regarding creation other than humans, evolutionary creationists believe that God created fish, birds, and land animals as directly as he created the oceans, dry land, and stars: making use of natural mechanisms that he designed and actively sustains. We affirm that God created the natural world as “very good,” not in the sense that it was a safe and tame environment, but in the sense that it fulfilled God’s purposes; God incorporated wildness and called humans to subdue the world while providing them the safety of a garden. God did not “rest” from his work of creation in the sense of stopping special creative activity; rather, God’s work in creation and providence appears to be intertwined from the beginning to today. God is still creating new stars today by the same mechanisms that he created stars billions of years ago. 

Taking a deep breath

J.P. Moreland exhorts BioLogos:

Scientists are usually ill-equipped to draw metaphysical, epistemological, or moral conclusions from scientific data. .... If some alleged scientific discovery seems to contradict a time-tested understanding of the Bible, and if it contradicts historically embraced and epistemically justified theological models, then why jump immediately to a revisionist view of the Bible and theology? Instead folks like those involved in BioLogos should slow down, take a deep breath, and form integrative teams with philosophers, theologians, and scientists who can present rigorous defenses of the tradition Christian positions. (559)

These points are well taken, and we agree. We do want to move slowly in areas where science is inconclusive; for example, we have not jumped to any conclusion about how God created first life from non-life. In other science areas, we do not simply accept the consensus of scientists, follow Gallup polls, or seek to earn the approval of intellectual elites (Moreland, 640). Rather, we have assembled Christian experts in most of the key science areas who understand the primary literature and can present the multiple lines of scientific evidence; we affirm the scientific consensus because of the strength of the evidence behind it.

We also agree with Moreland on the importance of interdisciplinary dialogue. The BioLogos founder and presidents are all scientists without advanced degrees in theology or philosophy, so from early days we sought the input of theologians, philosophers, pastors, and historians. For over 5 years, experts in these areas have been integrated into our staff, advisory council, and board. Moreover, we have formed interdisciplinary teams, as Moreland recommends, at multiple points on the theological spectrum as part of our “Evolution and Christian Faith” grants program in 2013-2015. Beyond that, we have established dialogue with many conservative faith leaders. This includes: 

While faith leaders in these organizations often have significant concerns about evolutionary creation, these groups have given us a seat the table. They affirm our Christian faith, respect our motives, and listen to our scholarship. In turn, these conversations have been extremely valuable for us, showing us the weight of the theological concerns and the issues we need to address.

We hope the leaders in this volume will desire to join in similar conversations with us. Maybe next time the mirror will be clearer.

Notes

Citations

MLA

Haarsma, Deborah. "A Flawed Mirror: A Response to the Book “Theistic Evolution” "
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 18 Apr. 2018. Web. 21 September 2018.

APA

Haarsma, D. (2018, April 18). A Flawed Mirror: A Response to the Book “Theistic Evolution”
Retrieved September 21, 2018, from /blogs/deborah-haarsma-the-presidents-notebook/a-flawed-mirror-a-response-to-the-book-theistic-evolution

References & Credits

[1] While Grudem quotes Francis Collins’ definition of Theistic Evolution in Language of God (200); Collins goes on to respond to concerns about the term and to propose the term “BioLogos” to emphasize God’s involvement and lordship throughout: “the belief that God is the source of all life and that life expresses the will of God.”

[2] For other reviews of the book, see essay review by Denis Lamoureux in the June 2018 issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith and blog posts from Randy Isaac.

[3] See opening of the recent article “Responding to perceived theological implications of evolutionary creation” by J. B. Stump, Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies, 2017, volume 2, issue 2, page 234.

[4] For example, I recently came across a piece on Thomas Aquinas’ views of God’s governance and providence in the natural world that illustrate this rich understanding.

About the Author

Deborah Haarsma

Deborah Haarsma serves as the President of BioLogos, a position she has held since January 2013. Previously, she served as professor and chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Gifted in interpreting complex scientific topics for lay audiences, Dr. Haarsma often speaks to churches, colleges, and schools about the relationships between science and Christian faith. She is author (along with her husband Loren Haarsma) of Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (2011, 2007), a book presenting the agreements and disagreements of Christians regarding the history of life and the universe. Haarsma is an experienced research scientist, with several publications in the Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal on extragalactic astronomy and cosmology.

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