Does God Guide Evolution?
We join with the contributors to the book “Theistic Evolution” in rejecting views of evolution that make God a spectator to what matter can do on its own.
Before You Read
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We’ve been asked by many people over the last few months for a response to the book Theistic Evolution, published late last year by Crossway. President Haarsma offered one in her post; here I’ll respond to a particular question raised in the book that seems to lie at the heart of our disagreement with the Intelligent Design movement.
I know some of the contributors to the book and believe their conclusions to come from sincere and considered examination of the positions. At BioLogos, we don’t agree with those conclusions, but it is not our primary goal to get everyone to agree with us about evolution. Rather, we aim to show that our position of evolutionary creation can be a reasonable option for Christians. In that spirit, we recognize that Intelligent Design can be a reasonable option for some believers too. There are many positions on which Christians disagree, and we think it is healthy for the church to be engaged in dialogue about them.
Dialogue is most productive when the participants have a deep understanding of each other, and one way to gauge deep, mutual understanding is the ability of each side to describe the other’s position accurately and charitably. In that respect, the new book doesn’t appear to be a contribution to dialogue with BioLogos. They say:
In brief summary form, then, the form of theistic evolution that we are respectfully taking issue with is this belief:
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. (67)
It’s hard to read that statement and not see it as an endorsement of a kind of Deism—God created and then let the natural process do its thing. I don’t think any of us affiliated with BioLogos would accept that as an accurate description of our beliefs. We join with the contributors to the book, then, in rejecting views of evolution that make God a spectator to what matter can do on its own.
A Logical Contradiction?
In hearing that, some people respond with, “Wait… what? I thought you all believed in evolution, which is random and purposeless. How could God be involved in that?” Fueling such intuitions, ID advocates identify our view with a logical contradiction, claiming it amounts to saying that God directs an undirected process (43). Obviously we think this is a mischaracterization, so they’ve taken to urging us to clear up the matter by answering a simple yes-or-no question: “Do you believe God guided evolution?” Yes, we believe God guides evolution, the same as we believe God guides photosynthesis (does that make us theistic photosynthesis-ists?), but that doesn’t really answer what they are asking.
It’s a perfectly legitimate question, but they seem to think it exposes some deep flaw in our position, putting us on the horns of an unresolvable dilemma: either we say “no” and confirm that we’re really deists trying to dress up in Christian theist clothing, or we say “yes” and seemingly affirm with the ID critics of evolutionary theory that the majority of scientific experts have massively mischaracterized the success of evolutionary theory.
So how do we answer? Yes, God guides evolution, or No, God doesn’t guide evolution? As I do with many of these kinds of forced yes-or-no questions, I’m going to say “It’s more complicated than that.” There are assumptions packed into the question that have to be unpacked (or unmasked) before you can simply answer yes or no—like the question, “Have you stopped gambling with your rent money?” Lest it is thought that I’m trying to be evasive, let me attempt to unpack the assumptions in the question by making an affirmation in as clear of terms as possible:
I believe God intentionally created human beings in his image.
To show how that affirmation is consistent with the scientific evidence for human evolution, I’ll need to unpack things at two levels. First, there is only a contradiction between two claims if they have what logicians call the same universe of discourse. That is to say, they are referring to the same thing in the same way. So, for example, if I say something is black and you say it is white, the claims are contradictory if both are claims about the totality of the object. But of course, an object can be both black and white (e.g., newspapers and zebras), and the two claims—God intentionally created us, and we evolved—can both be right if their universes of discourse are different.
Here is where we must resist scientism—the ideology that the methods of science are the only legitimate means for answering all questions. By restricting science to just one aspect of reality and one kind of explanation—those that appeal to natural causes—we place limits on the explanatory power of science. The debate over methodological naturalism is not a simple one, because what we accept as “natural” changes over time. But if we allow all sorts of explanations to count as scientific, then science becomes the only explanatory game in town.
Instead, we should restrict scientific explanations to the natural causes of a phenomenon and admit that there might be more going on in that phenomenon than what science can describe and explain. This means we have a different universe of discourse for the scientific statement, “human beings evolved” than we have for the theological statement, “God intentionally created human beings.” Therefore, there need be no contradiction between the statements.
How do we explain God’s action in the world?
But now some will worry that this sounds too much like the position Stephen Jay Gould called non-overlapping magisteria, which always seems to relegate theology to second-class citizenship. Responding to this worry takes us to the next level of my response and into the topic of divine action.
Gould aimed to reduce the conflict between science and religion by restricting them to different “magisteria.” Science pertains to the realm of facts, on his view, and religion is restricted to values. My claim here is different: I’m saying both science and theology are making factual claims, just that neither tells the whole story. This means there is a complication at best, or a confusion at worst, to saying “God guides evolution.”
The book contributors (and ID in general) seem to mean by “guide” something in the neighborhood of “causing empirically detectable changes” (the phrase used in their definition of theistic evolution). In other words, God’s action should be found in the kinds of things that science studies. But is God’s action just one cause among other causes? Here we can’t help wading into the waters of divine action, and it must be admitted that these waters get metaphysically deep very quickly. We devoted a lengthy series to the topic a while back, with leading thinkers exploring its nuances.
It is helpful to understand God’s action as applying to a different level of explanation than what science is equipped to treat. As an illustration of this, John Polkinghorne speaks of the two levels of explanation we might have for a boiling kettle: we can describe it scientifically by talking about closed electrical circuits, excited molecules, and vapor pressure; or we might explain the boiling kettle by saying that I wanted a cup of tea. The first explanation appeals to physical or material causes; the second to reasons. Unless we’re going to claim that reasons are ultimately and completely reducible to material causes (e.g., certain neurons firing), then there will remain two different levels of explanation—neither of which tells the whole story of the event.
I think we have to do something similar when we talk about evolution and God’s creation of humans (and other species). There are physical causes that science is equipped to treat, and within that domain (or universe of discourse), it does a very good job of explaining the physical causes at work. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. Theology offers a personal explanation: we believe God to be a person, and therefore it is appropriate to use verbs from the personal universe of discourse, which are not reducible to scientific causes. So, we can truly affirm that God guides, God designs, God creates. While at the same time, we can affirm that the scientific explanations for things are successful at a different level.
Applying these two levels of explanation to the origin of human beings is new for some people. But isn’t it what they have been doing all along for things like the creation of Hawaiian Islands? The Psalmist (Ps. 65:6) affirms that God is responsible for the creation of mountains, which is what the Hawaiian Islands are. But we have a detailed scientific explanation for these too. Are there empirically detectable changes in this process whereby a scientist could say, “here is the point that God intervened and created Hawaii”?
Matthew 6:26 says that God feeds the birds; does God preempt natural processes and cause the worms in some empirically detectable way to find their way into birds’ mouths? Or what about the creation of each of us individually? God knit us together in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13). Does our scientific knowledge of the process of conception and gestation invalidate this theological claim? No! Then why would an evolutionary explanation for our species invalidate the theological claim that God created human beings?
The philosopher of science in me is not fond of saying “God used evolution to create human beings.” Scientific theories are our descriptions or explanations for observed phenomena. Would we say, “God used science to create things”? Instead, I think we have to say two things: 1) God created human beings, and 2) evolution is the best scientific description for how human beings came to be. Science and theology are our descriptions of things, and each is perspectival and limited.
So, we have to tell two stories—one that gives the scientific details of the created order, the other that gives the personal story of the Creator. Lots of people seem to think that unless you combine these stories into one, you’ve not really given an account of divine action. But there is precedent for this sort of thing in the disciplines of science and theology themselves. In science we ask: Is light a particle or a wave? Well, when we use one kind of experiment, it gives us one answer, and when we use another, we get a different answer. That seems to show that the concepts we have at our disposal do not allow us to describe this as a neatly either-or phenomenon.
The same is true in theology with the Incarnation: Is Jesus human or divine? It seems like these categories can be construed so that they are mutually exclusive. But orthodox theology doesn’t work that way.
We might think of these examples as times that we have to put on a set of glasses through which we look. Depending on the glasses we put on, we will see light “as” a particle or “as” a wave; we will see Jesus “as” human, or “as” divine. Note, that doesn’t mean that these are false descriptions, just that we don’t have the conceptual glasses that let us see both at the same time.
So too for this question of whether God guides evolution. When I look at the evidence with my scientific glasses on, I see the data that conforms to scientific practice and principles. It’s really impressive, and there is every expectation that the problems or anomalies that are brought up by the scientific investigations and explanations will have scientific solutions. As Christians, we should loudly proclaim the success of this scientific story, in the same way we do the marvels of the conception, gestation, and birth of a baby. But we must also proclaim clearly that science doesn’t tell the whole story. When I look at the same natural world through my theology glasses, I see a another aspect of reality—one that shows God’s care, providence, and yes, even God’s guidance of the grand story of creation. I affirm both explanations and invite others to the fruitfulness of this dual way of seeing reality.
About the author
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Charles Foster | Inhabit the World