“Theistically Guided” Evolution as God’s Incarnational Work

| By and (guest author) on Reading the Book of Nature

Introduction (by Ted Davis)

Original sin and the Fall of Adam and Eve pose major challenges to proponents of Evolutionary Creation, both at the level of theology and also at the level of biblical interpretation. BioLogos does not endorse any one response to those challenges: our view is that the church deserves a serious, pluralistic conversation about evolution and original sin. In an effort to help foster that conversation, we already provide numerous resources, among them these:

Further resources are being developed by some recipients of The BioLogos Foundation’s Evolution & Christian Faith program.

This series offers yet another perspective, as we serialize a paper by philosopher Robin Collins, entitled “Evolution and Original Sin.” In this final installment, Collins explains his position on God, evolution, incarnation, and purpose—the whole shebang. Readers will note how Collins draws eclectically and insightfully on elements that others often keep deliberately apart: theistic evolution, intelligent design, and divine kenosis. I’m keen to hear what you think, not only of this finale but also of the whole series; please be forthcoming with your comments.

Harvard botanist Asa Gray, shown here in 1868, was not only the first American Darwinian but also an early proponent of what he himself (in 1880) called “theistic evolution,” though he was probably not the first person to use that term. Gray endorsed the explanatory power of natural selection, but he also believed that “variation has been led along certain beneficial lines” by the Creator, guiding the process of evolution. Robin Collins’ conception of “theistically guided evolution” is similar in spirit.

IV: A Theological Postlude

Above, I have sketched the basics of the HI view of original sin, and have indicated why I believe that it is more adequate than the major alternative views that we have examined. Here, I want to briefly indicate how it this fits into an entire theology that takes evolution seriously.

The view of evolution I propose is what I will call theistically guided evolution. I define theistically guided evolution as the view that all life on earth is the result of the evolutionary process (“descent with modification”), but in various places God guided or influenced this process. God could guide the evolutionary process by mutating some gamete or even adding new information to the gametes, thereby resulting in one organism giving rise to a significantly different offspring. [Here Collins has a footnote: I prefer to think of God’s guiding the evolutionary process in a non-mechanical way, a sort of nurturing or brooding over the evolutionary process as God is said to brood over the waters in Genesis 1:2. For a sophisticated account of how God could have guided the evolutionary process, see Robert Russell, “Special Providence and Genetic Mutation: A New Defense of Theistic Evolution,” in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation; some of Russell’s ideas are presented in another column.] Since in this view God works in and through the natural process of reproduction, the offspring could be said to be both the product of the natural operation of the world and a creation of God. The extent to which God guides the process, and the extent to which the evolutionary process is a result of unguided chance plus natural selection, however, remains an open question.

[Collins has a two-paragraph footnote that I’ve put here.] I should note that I also consider it an open question as to whether God’s guidance of the evolutionary process is detectable, having never seen a good argument against this idea. Thus, at least in this sense, the view I sketch above is sympathetic towards the so-called intelligent design movement, the central claim of which is that some sort of intelligent guidance is detectable in the evolutionary process. My primary theological motivation for postulating that God guides the evolutionary process is that it puts God into a deeper interrelationship with creation, while still leaving room for creation to act on its own. Accordingly, it fits better with the image of a relational God, as suggested by the doctrine of the Trinity. Further, it paints a picture of a God who is a nurturing but not overbearing parent with respect to creation, which I believe conforms better to the Biblical witness. The other view, in which life is left to develop by means of unguided chance plus natural selection, tends to portray God as a great engineer who after the act of creation abandons the world to its own devices.

The view of theistically guided evolution that I am advocating also seems to be the best explanation of the scientific evidence: unlike the other major positions, it accounts for both the evidence for macroevolution such as presented in this volume, and the seemingly impressive arguments against the adequacy of unguided chance plus natural selection as the primary driving force of evolution. (For a fairly good overview of many of the scientific arguments for some sort of guidance of the evolutionary process, see David Ray GriffinReligion and Scientific Naturalism, pp. 265-292.) One of the most impressive arguments against the adequacy of unguided evolution, I believe, is the argument that unguided naturalistic evolution cannot explain human consciousness or our capacity for highly abstract theoretical reasoning. This argument has been advocated by both prominent atheists and theists. (See, for instance, philosopher Thomas NagelThe Last Word, pp. 130-143, philosopherAlvin PlantingaWarrant and Proper Function, chapter 12, and theoretical physicist Paul Davies, “The Intelligibility of Nature,” in Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature , pp. 149-164.)

Theistically guided evolution is part of a more general view in which God typically works incarnationally within the natural world to bring it to fulfillment, instead of working by externally imposing form and design on the world as postulated by various scenarios involving some type of special creation. In effect, this view takes the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation as indicative of the general way in which God redemptively works within all creation. God enters into the material matrix—the Word becomes flesh—and from the inside brings it to fulfillment.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us. (John 1:14) Sandro Botticelli, Annunciation (1489-90), Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

 Now, the New Testament implies that the fulfillment of creation is one in which God is all in all, in which God is in some sense fully present within matter. Many New Testament Scriptures speak of this ultimate fulfillment of creation. Romans 8:18-23, for example, tells us that the whole creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and share in the glorious liberty of the children of God. Similarly, other Scriptures speak of God’s ultimate purpose being directed toward the redemption of all creation: In Ephesians 1:10, this ultimate purpose is to “gather all things in him [Christ], both in heaven and earth”; in Ephesians 4:10 it is for Christ to “fill all things”; in Colossians 1:20 it is to “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven”; and finally, in 1 Corinthians 15:28 it is for God to be “all in all” What I am suggesting here is that just as from the beginning matter had the potentiality to be conscious, or at least embody consciousness, so matter has the potentiality of carrying or being infused with the divine life in a much deeper and more complete way than it is now, though we cannot at present see how this will occur (just as we cannot yet see how matter can embody consciousness).

From this perspective, one can see God’s ultimate purpose being that the material cosmos become a full participant in the divine life. Following standard Eastern Orthodox theology, this complete participation of humans and creation in the divine life could be understood as participation in what the Orthodox call the “energies” of God in contrast to the essence of God (see, for instance, Vladimir Lossky, <href="#theology">The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, pp. 74-5, 97-101, and 133-34). For the Orthodox, the energies of God refer to the life of God—that is, “God in his activity and self-manifestation” (Bishop Kallistos WareThe Orthodox Way, rev. ed., p. 22) — whereas the essence of God refers to God’s innermost self, which is forever inaccessible to us. Using this distinction, Orthodox theologians claim to be able to affirm the eventual complete participation of redeemed humanity and creation in the divine life while at the same time excluding “any pantheistic identification between God and creation” (Ware, p. 23).

God’s ultimate purpose being this full participation does not mean that evolution necessarily needs to be linear. As we know from the fossil record, evolution is more like a giant bush, with the human line being one small twig. At first this might make the process of evolution look purposeless, and the evolution of human beings as a lucky accident, as Harvard paleontologist Stephen J. Gould has claimed. The existence of all these other branches, along with the many that have died off, only appears purposeless if we claim that God’s sole purpose was the eventual evolution of human beings. But, there is no necessary reason to restrict God’s purpose to us. In fact, even though humans can be considered the “highpoint” of creation and the avenue through which it will be redeemed (for example, see Romans 8:21), the above Scriptures make clear that God’s purposes involve all of creation.

[Collins has a lengthy footnote that I’ve put here.] This perspective also helps, I believe, with the question of the redemptive status of highly evolved hominids that are clearly not human, such as Neanderthals and Homo erectus. Recent genetic evidence strongly indicates that Neanderthals were not human (David Wilcox, “Hominid Origins: The Genetic Evidence,” in this volume). Nonetheless, they had a larger brain than humans, and they used tools and probably fire, and seem to have buried their dead, indicating religious beliefs. The existence of such beings—which have a form of sentience between currently existing non-human primates and humans—really presses the case, I believe, for including all of God’s creation in God’s redemptive plan. Otherwise, it looks as though God abandons creation. Further, once we adopt this perspective, the meaning of human existence is put into a different light. This world is not simply a testing ground for us to make a decision for or against God. Rather, I suggest, our purpose is to have “dominion” over all creation in the sense that Jesus gives to this idea: that is, those who are in authority are servants of all. Humans are called to be servants of each other and creation, and thereby be the agents of the redemption of all creation (Romans 8:21). Perhaps Adam and Eve’s tending the Garden of Eden could be thought of as an image of this sort of servanthood. Yet, they chose control, instead of servanthood, when they ate of the knowledge of good and evil, and this was the Fall.

It should also be noted that this idea of God working within creation provides a theory of inspiration of Scripture according to which God worked incarnationally through the literature and concepts of the Hebrew culture, with the end result being that some of their writings became the vehicle of divine revelation. This theory was already implicitly behind our account of Genesis 1-11 and is fairly common among biblical scholars. It was well articulated, I believe, by C. S. Lewis, for seemingly independent reasons based on his profound knowledge and appreciation of literature. According to Lewis, “the Scriptures proceed not by conversion of God’s word into a literature but by the taking up of a literature to be the vehicle of God’s word .... Thus something originally merely natural—the kind of myth that is found among the nations—will have been raised by God above itself, qualified by Him and compelled by Him to serve purposes which of itself it would not have served. Generalizing this, I take it that the whole Old Testament consists of the same sort of material as any other literature—chronicle (some of it obviously pretty accurate), poems, moral and political diatribes, romances, and what not; but all taken into the service of God’s word. Not all, I suppose, in the same way. There are prophets who write with the clearest awareness that Divine compulsion is upon them. ... There are poets like those in the Song of Songs who probably never dreamed of any but a secular and natural purpose in what they composed. ... On all of these I suppose a Divine pressure ... The human qualities of the raw materials show through. Naivety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed. The total result is not ‘the Word of God’ in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God.” (Reflections on the Psalms, p. 116, followed by pp. 111-112)

Lewis then goes on to say that we might not like this method of inspiring Scripture but that we must be very careful not to impose on God what we think is best, or our preconceived ideas of how God must have done it. Rather, he claims, we must look to the form and content of Scripture itself to determine how it was inspired. Similarly, I would argue, we must not impose on God preconceived ideas about how we think God should work in the world, but rather look both to nature and to Scripture.

He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Phil 2:8) Sitting with my wife in the second row at Passionsspiele 2010, directly in front of this scene (which we were not permitted to photograph), was truly a profound experience.

This idea of God’s working within creation also makes sense of the doctrine of the atonement. According to the doctrine of the atonement, it is through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection that we are saved from sin and reconciled to God. In the view of atonement I develop elsewhere—which has close affinities with the views of several of the early Greek fathers of the Church, views that were later developed through the centuries by the Eastern Orthodox Church—salvation consists of fully sharing the life of Christ, as implied by Jesus’s analogy of the vine and the branches in John 15 (see my essay, “Girard and Atonement: An Incarnational Theory of Mimetic Participation,” in Violence Renounced). Because of the Incarnation, this life is both fully divine and fully human; and because of the cross, it is fully in solidarity with the depths of human brokenness, sin, alienation, mortality, and the like. Because of its fully human component, and because it is in full solidarity with the depths of our life situation, we can participate in it. As Paul indicates in Romans 6, by participating in this life we are redeemed from sin and reconciled to God, and freed from spiritual bondage and darkness. Thus, the effect of original sin is reversed. I call this theory the Incarnational Theory of Atonement, and defend it as being scripturally, morally, and theologically sound.

Moreover, this incarnational way of God working in the world also fits with the way in which God works as revealed on the cross and in the kenosis hymn of Philippians 2:5-11: God does not work by external force from the outside, but from the inside through a process of self-emptying love (see George Murphy, “Christology and Evolution,” in this volume). In fact, I would suggest, insofar as creation has sentience, Christ has been sharing the sufferings of creation since the foundation of the world. Indeed, this could be thought of as the deeper meaning of Rev. 13:8, which under the “non-predestinarian” translation states that Christ was slain from the foundation of the world. God has never been an absentee father. The crucifixion is simply the culmination of this process. Finally, this idea of God’s working incarnationally within the material matrix makes sense of God’s continuing work in the Church and in history in general. For instance, God uses weak and frail human beings to carry the Christian gospel, and God appears to work within history largely by inspiring human beings to great moral and spiritual endeavors.

In sum, the idea of God’s working incarnationally within the material Cosmos provides an overarching idea that coherently unites many elements of Christian theology and disparate things we know about the world: it sheds light on the significance of the incarnation, eschatology, the nature of inspiration of Scripture, the doctrine of atonement, the cross of Christ, and how God works in human history. The HI interpretation of original sin simply provides one part of the story regarding how God has worked and continues to work incarnationally in the world.

Looking Ahead

That’s a ringing conclusion indeed! 

My next series will be based on my own research on the history of Christianity and science before the Civil War—the period when natural history first made its way into American colleges.




Collins, Robin. "“Theistically Guided” Evolution as God’s Incarnational Work"
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 16 Apr. 2015. Web. 16 February 2019.


Collins, R. (2015, April 16). “Theistically Guided” Evolution as God’s Incarnational Work
Retrieved February 16, 2019, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/theistically-guided-evolution-as-gods-incarnational-work

References & Credits

Robin Collins’ chapter from Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, ed. Keith B. Miller (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), is reproduced by kind permission of the author and the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers. Collins often cites other chapters of this outstanding book, not only in this excerpt. There is probably no better comprehensive work on Evolutionary Creation.

All Scripture quotations in this paper are from the NRSV translation.

About the Authors

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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Robin Collins

Professor Robin Collins, Ph.D., is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy. He specializes in philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and philosophical theology. He is well-versed in issues relating to science and religion, with graduate-level training in theoretical physics. He has written almost forty substantial articles and book chapters in these areas with some of the leading academic presses, such as Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Blackwell, and Routledge. He has also spoken on issues relating to God and the cosmos at many colleges and universities (including Oxford University, Cambridge University, Yale University, and Stanford University) and has appeared in the popular Christian and secular media – for example, in Christianity Today, Lee Strobel’s Case for the Creator, and Robert Kuhn’s PBS series Closer to the Truth.

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