Southern Baptist Voices: Is Darwinism Theologically Neutral?
William Dembski argues that Darwinism undercuts several "non-negotiables" of Christianity, and Darrel Falk confirms that assessment on several points, while demonstrating that the BioLogos position is not the same as Darwinism.
The section below is written by Dr. William A. Dembski, with Dr. Darrel Falk’s response in the following section.
Is Darwinism theologically neutral? The short answer would seem to be No. Darwin, in a letter to Lyell, remarked, “I would give nothing for the theory of natural selection if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.” Expanding on this remark in his Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins adds, “In Darwin’s view the whole point of the theory of evolution by natural selection was that it provided a non-miraculous account of the existence of complex adaptations… For Darwin, any evolution that had to be helped over the jumps by God was not evolution at all.” Since many Christians see the Bible as teaching that God specially created living things, thereby ruling out large-scale evolution, Darwinism contradicts the Bible and is not theologically neutral. Case closed.
But does this really answer the question? True, many Christians see Darwinism as hostile to biblical teaching and therefore deny its theological neutrality. But should they view Darwinism and Scripture as theologically opposed? If all Christians rejected Darwinism, its theological neutrality would not be a matter of discussion or controversy among them. But Christians do argue over Darwinian evolution, and the reason is that while all Christians embrace Christ, not all reject Darwin. So the question becomes whether Christians can embrace both Darwin and Christ with integrity, giving each his due without slighting the other. This is the real question underlying Darwinism’s presumed theological neutrality.
True, many Christians see Darwinism as hostile to biblical teaching and therefore deny its theological neutrality. But should they view Darwinism and Scripture as theologically opposed?
Those who embrace Darwin and his ideas regard him and Christ as compatible. Those who don’t, regard them as incompatible. Now compatibility and incompatibility are funny notions. They’re not like strict logical consistency or inconsistency, which admit of proof. At the hands of human rationalization, compatibility and incompatibility have the disconcerting tendency to become infinitely malleable. We’ve already seen how some Christians, by reading Genesis as teaching the special creation of living forms, conclude that Christ and Darwin are incompatible. On the other hand, Michael Ruse (in Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?) argues that Christ and Darwin are eminently compatible. Sure, as Ruse puts it, “Darwinism is a theory committed to the ubiquity of law.” But, in Ruse’s mind, that’s not a problem for Christian faith. He continues, “Even the supreme miracle of the resurrection requires no law-breaking return from the dead. One can think of Jesus in a trance, or more likely that he really was physically dead but that on and from the third day a group of people, hitherto downcast, were filled with great joy and hope.”
Ruse claims Darwinism compatible with Christianity, but by Christianity he means a liberalism gutted of miracles. On the other hand, special creationists interpret Genesis as teaching a form of creation that disallows any large-scale evolution. Although I don’t think the evidence supports large-scale evolution, both approaches are too easy. Ruse essentially has to redefine Christianity. And special creationists face challenges to their interpretation of Genesis. For instance, Genesis claims that humans are made of dust, at one point even referring to humans as dust (“dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” – Genesis 3:19). But if humans are dust, then so are other animals, and thus when Genesis says that humans were made from dust, what is to prevent God from transforming preexisting ape-like primates (who are dust) into humans (who are also dust) by some evolutionary process? Let me stress, I personally don’t buy this argument, but it’s one readily advanced by evolutionists against special creationists.
In assessing whether Darwinism is theologically neutral, let’s therefore focus on Christ and Darwin not along narrow sectarian lines but in the broadest terms. What can we all agree that Christianity demands, and what can we all agree that Darwinism demands? Without being exhaustive, let me suggest that Christianity and Darwinism each make four claims that are crucial for assessing Darwinism’s theological neutrality (or lack thereof):
Non-Negotiables of Christianity:
- (C1) Divine Creation: God by wisdom created the world out of nothing.
- (C2) Reflected Glory: The world reflects God’s glory, a fact that ought to be evident to humanity.
- (C3) Human Exceptionalism: Humans alone among the creatures on earth are made in the image of God.
- (C4) Christ’s Resurrection: God, in contravention of nature’s ordinary powers, raised Jesus bodily from the dead.
Non-Negotiables of Darwinism:
- (D1) Common Descent: All organisms are related by descent with modification from a common ancestor.
- (D2) Natural Selection: Natural selection operating on random variations is the principal mechanism responsible for biological adaptations.
- (D3) Human Continuity: Humans are continuous with other animals, exhibiting no fundamental difference in kind but only differences in degree.
- (D4) Methodological Naturalism: The physical world, for purposes of scientific inquiry, may be assumed to operate by unbroken natural law.
In formulating these claims, I’ve tried to be careful not to misrepresent either Christianity or Darwinism. What I’m describing as non-negotiables of Christianity is standard orthodox theology, so I won’t expand on these claims here. Yes, some theological streams find fault with these claims (process theology, for instance, rejects creatio ex nihilo and miraculous interventions). But for the purposes of this discussion, these claims may appropriately be ascribed to basic Christian teaching.
With regard to the non-negotiables of Darwinism, no one will dispute claims (D1) and (D2), Common Descent and Natural Selection. Christians who embrace Darwin, however, may feel uncomfortable with (D3), which entails that, among other things, our moral and linguistic capacities are simply enhanced versions of those same capacities in other primates. Francis Collins, for instance, won’t go along with Darwin on claim (D3). And yet, that is precisely Darwin’s main thesis in his sequel to the Origin, The Descent of Man. Finally, with regard to (D4), Darwin himself was more than a methodological naturalist. Once he became convinced of evolution by natural selection, he gave no credence to God ever having acted in contravention of natural law. Methodological naturalism is a weaker claim, allowing that God may have acted miraculously (in salvation history, say), only not in areas under scientific investigation (such as biological evolution).
We are now in a position to clarify our original question: Darwinism, let us agree, is theologically neutral if claims (D1)-(D4) in no way undercut claims (C1)-(C4), and Darwinism fails to be theologically neutral to the degree that (D1)-(D4) do undercut (C1)-(C4). Given this restatement of our original question, what do we find? Looking at these two lists of non-negotiables, we find certain tensions that are not readily resolved and that suggest (D1)-(D4) do in fact undercut (C1)-(C4). Note that I call them “tensions” rather than outright contradictions. Strict logical contradictions are difficult to find in the science-theology dialogue because the language of science and the language of theology tend to be so different. Even the clash of (C3), Human Exceptionalism, and (D3), Human Continuity, might be finessed by arguing that a sufficiently large difference in degree can appear as a difference in kind. So, I’ll focus on the tensions between these two lists of non-negotiables and how, in particular, (D1)-(D4) undercut (C1)-(C4).
Let’s start with (D1), Common Descent, the claim that all organisms trace their lineage to a common ancestor. This claim seems unproblematic for (C1)-(C4). Indeed, (C1)-(C4) allow that God might have used an evolutionary process of some form or other to bring about the organisms on planet earth. To be sure, one might want to bring in further theological reasons for rejecting Common Descent (such as that large-scale evolution implied by (D1) is wasteful and unworthy of a good God), but (C1)-(C4) don’t address how God implemented his plan to create living forms. By themselves, (C1)-(C4) allow that God might have specially created living forms or brought them about via an evolutionary process. As an aside, it may be noted that a minority of intelligent design proponents, notably Michael Behe, accepts Common Descent but rejects much of the rest of Darwinism (in particular, he rejects (D2)-(D4)).
In contrast to Common Descent, Natural Selection, (D2), does raise some tensions with (C1)-(C4). Natural selection, as Darwin defined it, is non-teleological. Nature, unlike human artificial selection, is not trying to build certain structures or functions according to a design plan. Natural selection is an instant-gratification mechanism that capitalizes on any advantage accruing to the organism in the present generation, not in future generations. Moreover, any such advantage results from variations that are random. Darwin did not use the word “random,” but he did reject that God or any teleological force was somehow guiding variations with an eye to future function (cf. Darwin’s correspondence with Asa Gray, who thought God might guide the variations, a view Darwin rejected). Variations for Darwin were not correlated with any future benefit to the organism.
Natural Selection, or (D2), is therefore in tension with both (C1) and (C2). (D2) implies that biological evolution does not give, and indeed cannot give, any scientific evidence of teleology in nature. We see this denial of teleology in Darwin’s own writings and we find it among his contemporary disciples, even among theistic evolutionists. For instance, Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller, who calls himself an orthodox Catholic and an orthodox Darwinian, writes in Finding Darwin’s God that design (or teleology) in biology is “scientifically undetectable.” Now to say that something is scientifically undetectable isn’t to say that it doesn’t exist. Hence there’s no strict contradiction between (D2) and (C1)-(C2). God might, as a master of stealth, wipe away all fingerprints of his activity. He might be guiding evolution in ways that to us look like chance (e.g., random variation) and necessity (e.g., natural selection).
But if so, how could we know? The most controversial claim of intelligent design is that compelling scientific evidence exists for design in biology, from which it would follow that Darwinian evolution is on its own terms a failed explanation of the complexity and diversity of life. But leaving aside intelligent design, it seems odd, given (C1), that God would create by Darwinian processes, which suggest that unguided forces can do all the work necessary for biological evolution. As Phillip Johnson noted in Darwin on Trial, Darwinism doesn’t so much say that God doesn’t exist as that God need not exist. Sure, God’s ways are higher than ours and he might have good reasons for occluding his purposeful activity in nature. But if God does occlude his purposeful activity in nature, that raises a tension with (C2), which states that the world clearly reflects God’s glory (Psalm 19) and that this fact should be evident to all humanity (Romans 1).
The world, as a matter of general revelation, testifies to the divine glory, and failure by humans to acknowledge this fact results not from a dearth of evidence but from human wickedness, which willfully suppresses the truth of God’s revelation in creation (Rom. 1:20). Now the theistic evolutionist might reply that creation does indeed testify to the divine glory, only this testimony looks not to scientific evidence. But in that case, how is the creation providing a general revelation of God and what exactly is it saying? Given that science is widely regarded as our most reliable universal form of knowledge, the failure of science to provide evidence of God, and in particular Darwin’s exclusion of design from biological origins, undercuts (C2).
The most difficult tension to resolve in our present discussion is the one between Human Exceptionalism, (C3), and Human Continuity, (D3). In The Descent of Man, Darwin drew out the implications for the human species that followed from his general account of evolution as presented in his Origin of Species. As he wrote in the Descent,
The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.
Years earlier, in his notebooks, Darwin explicitly distanced human exceptionalism from God’s care and concern: “Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a deity.” The implication is clear: if this is what man thinks of himself in his arrogance, a more sober assessment regards man as a mediocre work, not worthy of special divine attention, and with no prerogatives above the rest of the animal world.
Some theistic evolutionists are ready to follow Darwin here, such as Karl Giberson (see his Saving Darwin), and abandon Human Exceptionalism as conceived within orthodox theology. Others, desiring to stay within orthodoxy, punt. Take Francis Collins, who denies that our moral capacities represent the natural development of the same essential capacities in other primates. Yet to say that our moral or cognitive or linguistic capacities are unprecedented in the rest of the animal world flies in the face of Darwinian evolution, certainly as Darwin conceived it. Darwinism’s logic is inexorable. Evolution works by borrowing, taking existing capacities and reworking them. But if our moral or cognitive or linguistic capacities are unprecedented, then they are, for all intents and purposes, miracles.
Evolution works by borrowing, taking existing capacities and reworking them. But if our moral or cognitive or linguistic capacities are unprecedented, then they are, for all intents and purposes, miracles.
And this brings us to the last non-negotiable on our list, Methodological Naturalism, or (D4). According to this claim, science treats the world as autonomous, regulated by natural laws that allow no exceptions. Accordingly, Darwinism, in embracing (D4), rules out miracles and, more generally, any teleology external to the material world. Now granted, Darwinism so characterized limits this prohibition against miracles/teleology to the study of nature. But the problem for Christians is that salvation history occurs against the backdrop of nature. In particular, Christ’s Resurrection, or (C4), occurs against this backdrop. To tie God’s hands by saying that God can act only one way in natural history (i.e., in accord with natural law) but has a freer rein in salvation history (i.e., can there perform miracles) seems arbitrary.
Christians who embrace Darwin therefore find themselves pulled in two directions. On the one hand, if committed to miracles such as the Resurrection, they have to confront why God doesn’t likewise do miracles in natural history. On the other hand, if committed to Methodological Naturalism, or (D4), they have to confront why this naturalism shouldn’t extend to salvation history as well (compare Michael Ruse above, who explains away the Resurrection as a trance or wish fulfillment of Jesus’ disciples). Trying to maintain (C4) and (D4) together constitutes an unstable equilibrium. People tend to jettison one or the other. For instance, Howard Van Till gave up on (C4) whereas Michael Behe gave up on (D4).
To sum up, Darwinism and Christianity, even when generously construed, exhibit significant tensions. Are these tensions so serious that Darwinism may rightly be regarded as not theologically neutral? I would say the tensions are indeed that serious. Such a conclusion, however, ultimately becomes a matter of personal judgment. Just as marriages can exist with serious tensions, some Christians are willing to tolerate the wedding of Darwinism and Christianity despite the tensions. That said, it’s worth asking why anyone would want this wedding in the first place. If Darwinism were incredibly well established – if the evidence for it were indeed as “overwhelming” as its advocates endlessly proclaim – then Christians might feel some compulsion for maintaining their union. But the evidence for common descent is mixed and the evidence for the creative power of natural selection to build complex biological forms is nil (see, for instance, my book The Design of Life, co-authored with Jonathan Wells). So the theological neutrality of Darwinism aside, there’s a prior question that needs to be asked, namely, is the evidence for Darwinism sufficient that one should even be concerned whether it is theologically neutral?
In the previous section, Dr. Dembski laid out a list of “non-negotiables” of both Christianity and Darwinism. He discussed the tensions between the two lists and explained his belief that Darwinism undercuts Christianity.
It is important to note that “Darwinism” is a contested and ideologically-charged term, used as a short-hand for an account of biological change over time in which natural selection plays a critical part, as a specific, technical description of those biological processes, and to signal (or impute) allegiance to philosophical assertions that go well beyond what can be examined through the natural sciences. To his credit, however, here Dr. Dembski has given a very specific set of criteria for how he defines “Darwinism.”
This response by (now former) BioLogos president Darrel Falk presents his personal perspective on the issues Dembski lays out, addressing the topic of divine action in creation, in which both natural and supernatural processes are a result of God’s continuous activity in our world.
This ongoing series grew out of a conversation that Kenneth Keathley, the Senior Vice President for Academic Administration at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and I had in 2011. We agreed that he would solicit a set of essays from scholars at Southern Baptist Seminaries who would specifically identify their concerns about what they perceive to be the BioLogos view of creation. In response to this request, Dr. William Dembski of Southwestern Baptist Seminary submitted the essay “Is Darwinism Theologically Neutral?” Although I do not consider my view Darwinian, I am sure that my view and that of others associated with BioLogos is perceived that way by some, so this gives me an opportunity not only to respond to his analysis, but to clarify my position on creation and how I think it is distinct from what Dembski calls “Darwinism.”
God’s Activity in Creation
I will begin by summarizing my view of the nature of God’s activity in creation. I think that God created all living organisms, including humans, through the evolutionary process. Acceptance of creation through evolution does not mean that I reject the notion of a miracle-working God. On the contrary, I believe in the miracles of Scripture, and I believe that we’ve experienced God’s supernatural activity in our own lives. I stand in awe of a personal God whose activity is not constrained by natural laws, but also includes supernatural acts.
But what are the natural laws? Are not the the laws of nature simply a description of God’s ongoing and non-ceasing activity in the universe? The Law of Gravity, for example, is not something that God set up in the beginning, thereafter recusing himself from further involvement and exiting from the scene. Instead, the Law of Gravity works as it does because of the ongoing activity of God’s Spirit in the universe. So consistent is that activity that it can be described mathematically through scientific analysis. If God ceased to be active, however, then not only would the matter of this universe no longer function in a way which enables a mathematical description of gravity, matter itself would cease to exist. Paul, referring to Christ, writes “All things are created by him and through him.” Continuing, he goes on to state that “He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). So he created in the beginning and, indeed, “…without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:3) But it doesn’t end there: his ongoing activity is necessary for the universe to function. As the writer to the Hebrews declares “He sustains all things by his powerful word.” (Heb. 1:4) The laws of nature, then, are simply a description of the ongoing activity of God which—because it is so consistent, dependable, and pervasive—points to the trustworthiness of God. Put another way, the activity of God is not restricted to that which we call the supernatural; it is all God’s activity. It is just that some aspects of God’s activity are so consistently repeatable that we can develop laws which describe the regularity of the divine activity which “holds” and “sustains” the universe. This latter type of activity is no less magnificent just because God does it continuously. Indeed, the Psalmist marveled at God’s natural activity and worshipfully reflected upon it.
On the other hand, the God we know through Scripture and personal experience also works in ways that are not mathematically predictable. We call this aspect of God’s action supernatural, and we seem to think of this facet of God’s work—this law-defying activity—as being more God-like. Indeed calling it super-natural suggests we think of it as God’s “turbo-charged” activity. But are not miracles simply a reflection of God choosing to work in a unique, non-customary manner to accomplish God’s purposes in God’s time? (See here for more detail.) When God works in this way, Scripture generally presents such activity in the context and purpose of God’s desire to enter into or renew a relationship with an individual or with a community of people. For example, God’s miraculous involvement in the lives of the elderly couple, Abraham and Sarah, led to the birth of their son, Isaac, and marks the beginning of God’s very special relationship with their descendants. God’s interaction with Moses through the burning bush initiated a new phase of God’s relationship with the Hebrew people as they moved out of slavery and back into the Promised Land. And of course, the supreme examples of miraculous activity are the incarnation, the empty tomb, and the resurrected Body. We worship a personal God whose desire for an ongoing loving relationship with humankind is first laid out in the early chapters of Genesis, but does not end there. In all divine activity—supernatural and natural—God is just being who God is: Creator, Sustainer, and loving Father. There are not two sets of activities, even though we label them “super” and “ordinary.” All are “super,” because all describe the activity of our supernatural God. Some are regular, predictable and ongoing, while other activities of God are not, for reasons often based in the fact that God is lovingly responsive and relational.
The Genesis narrative gives us no details about the mechanism by which God brought the universe and life into existence. God gave the charge: “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky…, “ “Let the waters bring forth…,” “Let the land bring forth…,” “Let the birds multiply…,” and, in response, we are told, it happened. Scripture does not explain how it happened, although as we read God’s other book—the book of nature—we see that God’s work extended over a long period of time. In these details, the Bible does not say whether the “bringing forth” was fulfilled through God’s natural activity (that which is regular, ongoing, and can be described by science) or God’s supernatural activity (that which is not regular and predictable). Given the many examples of supernatural activity in Scripture, we human beings tend to expect that for something as special as creation of stars or new species, supernatural activity would have been required. But we cannot derive this from the scriptural account and, therefore, it is wise not to second-guess how God might have worked based on the Scriptures.
Indeed, the distinction is softened by Scripture itself, which often speaks of God’s natural activity in ways that sound supernatural. For example, the Psalmist writes of God opening his hand to feed the living creatures (Ps. 104:28). We know how God does this and so did the Psalmist—he did it through natural means—but it was still God’s process and God’s provisions. Job speaks of thunder as being the voice of God (Job 40:9). We know God’s natural activity produces thunder and we can describe the laws that are responsible for it, but the fact that we know how it works certainly doesn’t negate the point being made in the book of Job. When the Psalmist describes the heavens as being the work of his fingers (Ps. 8:3), this does not negate astronomy’s description of the regular and ongoing processes that give rise to stars in God’s universe. Those processes are natural, but they are every bit as much God’s activity as if he were to take huge balls of matter and miraculously fashion sparkling stars with his hands.
Still, given that there is extensive supernatural activity exhibited in God’s interaction with Israel and in the life of Jesus, it is entirely possible that he did work supernaturally in fulfilling the creation command, as well. Even though the miracles described in the Bible primarily serve some theological or pastoral purpose that stems from God’s earnest desire to make his presence known and to deepen his relationship with humankind, we should reserve judgment about whether only God’s natural activity was responsible. It is not clear though, that supernatural activity would often be God’s chosen mode of action millions of years before humans had arrived. Thus, we should not assume with certainty that God would choose to use supernatural flurries of activity if his ongoing regular activity—that described through natural laws—would accomplish the same end, albeit over a longer period of time. For all we know, God may prefer slowness, even though we seem to be inclined to think that faster is better. After all, in the history of Israel and the church, God gave no new prophecy for 400 years before the coming of Christ, and it took the early church five centuries to come to a clear—albeit mysterious—understanding of the Trinity. Even now, two thousand years after Christ, we wait for his return.
Is Darwinism Theologically Neutral?
With the first part of my essay as background, I now respond directly to Dembski’s analysis of “Darwinism” and how BioLogos differs from the view he critiques. He begins by posing a question, “Is Darwinism theologically neutral?” He goes on to describe two contrasting views:
- Those of the agnostic philosopher, Michael Ruse, who claims Christianity and Darwinian evolution are compatible and,
- Those of individuals who hold a young earth view and claim Christianity and Darwinian evolution are incompatible.
Dembski suggests that Ruse, in order to claim compatibility (neutrality), redefines Christianity. I agree he does this. Without belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, Christianity is dead and, as Paul says, Christians are of all people most to pitied. (1 Cor. 15:19).
Dembski also states that a belief in common descent can be consistent with Christian faith (i.e. neutral), and here I agree with Dembski again. As he points out, Christianity is not defined by the mechanism that God chose to use in accomplishing his purposes in creation.
So far we are on exactly the same page. Ruse claims Darwinism is neutral, but only by departing from Christian theology. Some young earth creationists claim Darwinism is not neutral, but they focus on common descent and this, by itself, does not depart from Christian theology. However, as Dembski quickly notes at that point in his essay, he has not yet carefully defined Darwinism and Christianity. He goes on to describe what he considers to be some non-negotiables of each.
Dembski suggests that among the core non-negotiable principle beliefs of Christianity are: (a) divine creation, (b) reflected glory, (c) human exceptionalism, and (d) bodily resurrection of Jesus. I agree that these are non-negotiables; take away any of these beliefs and you no longer have Christianity. We’re still on the same page.
What about non-negotiables of “Darwinism?” They are, he says, (a) common descent, (b) natural selection, (c) human continuity, (d) methodological naturalism. With that, he proceeds to analyze each.
Common descent, which today is at the core of the biological sciences, was a fundamental tenet for Darwin. Dembski sees no significant theological problem with common descent. “By themselves [the Christian non-negotiables described above] allow that God might have specially created living forms or brought them about via an evolutionary process,” he writes. He sees no theological conflict with this Darwinian tenet, even though he does not subscribe to it.
Dembski indicates that natural selection, as defined by Darwin, is in tension with two of the four Christian non-negotiables—divine creation and reflected glory. His primary concern is that Darwin’s view of natural selection is non-teleological. Insomuch as this is true (and Darwin’s views on teleology are complex and contested), I agree. If Darwin’s non-teleological views were correct, this would be incompatible with some of the non-negotiables in Christianity. As Dembski says, “to say that something is undetectable is not to say that it doesn’t exist….” I concur that Darwin had no scientific basis for concluding that the evolutionary process did not end up exactly the way that God intended in the beginning. If Darwin reached non-teleological conclusions on the basis of his data then he allowed his philosophical and theological commitments to influence his conclusions. Like Dembski, I believe God did call our existence into being; there is a teleological basis for our presence on earth. We are by no means an accident and to the extent that Darwin thought we are, he was wrong.
So far, I see no significant difference between BioLogos and the non-negotiables presented by Dembski. Intriguingly, however, Dembski goes on to state, “it seems odd, given C1—[divine creation], that God would create by Darwinian processes, which suggest that unguided forces can do all the work necessary for biological evolution.” Here we part company. As indicated in my introductory comments above, I believe that the natural activity of God is not less divine than the supernatural activity of God, something borne out by the Scriptures themselves. This does not mean that I think that no supernatural activity occurred in life’s history; I just don’t see why it would be “odd” if God chose to create life’s diversity through his natural activity. How would we know what is odd as it relates to the activity of God? The only reliable source of what is odd and what is not is God’s revelation through his Word. But I see no scripturally-based rationale for determining the expected ratio of natural vs. supernatural divine activity in creation. Scripture is silent on the issue and so far at least, science is as well—other than demonstrating that many biological features and mechanisms previously thought by some to be evidence of supernatural action can now be explained via God’s regular activity—that associated with his natural laws. For the present, I think it is best to withhold judgment about the extent to which God suspends his ongoing regular activity in favor of miraculous supernatural activity in the history of the creating life’s diversity.
I now come to the most fundamental point of disagreement between the Intelligent Design movement and BioLogos. Dembski states:
Given that science is widely regarded as our most reliable universal form of knowledge, the failure of science to provide evidence of God, and in particular Darwin’s exclusion of design from biological origins, undercuts C2 [reflected glory].
Furthermore, he also writes:
If God does occlude his purposeful activity in nature, that raises a tension with (C2), which states that the world clearly reflects God’s glory (Ps. 19) and that this fact should be evident to all humanity (Rom. 1).
I don’t think that God occludes or masks his activity. Thanks in no small part to science, we now recognize that there are “signposts” (C.S. Lewis’s term) all over the place directing our attention to the existence of our Creator. The question is whether those “signposts” can be developed into scientific hypotheses that can be scientifically tested in a manner that parallels how one goes about testing the hypothesis that smoking causes cancer or that DNA is the genetic material. The heavens do declare the glory of God (Ps. 19), and, “ever since the creation of the world, his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Rom. 1:20). God has not occluded his activity. It is all around us. From the birth of a baby to the birth of a star; from a universe which is mathematically coherent to one which is exquisitely fine-tuned; from our sense of shame to our ability to recognize the good and the right—from all of these and so much more, we see signposts all pointing to our Creator. Individually each hints at something beyond ourselves. Together they shout out with the message of God’s glory. Still, can they be tested scientifically—in a manner that parallels whether penicillin kills bacteria or the mitochondrion is the cell’s energy factory—to determine whether God is at work in them? Can intelligent people who choose not to believe come up with feasible alternative explanations that do not include God? Sure, they do it all the time and, as Romans 1 tells us, they have been doing it from the beginning of human existence.
God has not occluded his activity. It is all around us. From the birth of a baby to the birth of a star; from a universe which is mathematically coherent to one which is exquisitely fine-tuned; from our sense of shame to our ability to recognize the good and the right—from all of these and so much more, we see signposts all pointing to our Creator.
Given the way that God has worked through his regular natural activity, why should we expect to be able to develop a test for the activity of God? God is always active, but scientific testing of God’s activity would require a “control” where God is not active. How can we conduct an experiment which studies the “presence vs. absence of God” when God is always present as sustainer as well as creator?
Dembski quotes from Darwin’s Descent of Man:
The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.
Even if all that Darwin says here were more or less true, it would still say nothing about that which makes humans truly exceptional, because—our linguistic and cognitive abilities aside—what makes us truly exceptional has less to do with biology than with the fact that God chose to enter into a unique relationship with humankind. Dembski paraphrases an ideologically strict Darwinian view of man as “not worthy of special divine attention, and with no prerogatives above the rest of the animal world.” But Christians recognize that our material ordinariness is radically transformed by the presence and promises of God. Exactly as with the people of Israel among the nations, so humans among the animals: our special identity rests in the free choice of the Creator to give us his himself and his name. If we recognize that human specialness rests on God’s fellowship with and call upon us, and that we—alone of all creatures—are enabled by God to bear his image in the world, then anything Darwin said about the physical continuity between humans and animals is irrelevant. In the way that matters most, we are not continuous with animals. For philosophical and theological reasons, Darwin did not recognize this. Darwin, I believe, was wrong. I, like Dembski and like Southern Baptists in general, am not a Darwinist.
Dembski defines methodological naturalism in the following way:
The physical world, for purposes of scientific inquiry, may be assumed to operate by unbroken natural law.
He goes on from there to write that if one assumes that miracles were performed in salvation history, then it would seem to be arbitrary to assume that God would not also perform miracles in natural history as well. Although I do not rule out the occurrence of miracles in natural history, the purpose of miracles in the biblical narrative seems to stem from God’s desire to reveal himself to humankind, reminding us of and guiding us in our relationship with him and each other. Given that, I do not see why it is arbitrary to think that God may not have used miracles to accomplish his purposes in nature before humans were around to observe them.
However, I strongly disagree with Dembski that if one believes God has worked primarily through natural processes in creation as a whole, this makes belief in the resurrection less tenable. The two ought not to be tied together in this way, especially since I have already stated that I reject the notion that the ordinary and regular processes of creation are any less God’s—than what I have called supernatural processes. One’s conclusion about the mechanism of creation has no logical extension to one’s views about the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
In conclusion, I think Dembski takes some steps that are both theologically unnecessary and scientifically unjustified in rejecting what careful study tells us about God’s marvelously ordinary processes of creation: ordinary because they follow his natural laws so faithfully, marvelous because they have resulted in a world of complex and beautiful life. On the other hand, I agree with Dembksi that Darwin’s views were not theologically neutral. Darwin’s views on teleology, human exceptionalism, and miracles were not compatible with Christianity. Quite simply, this is why I do not consider my views to be Darwinian and why I am not a Darwinist.
On May 9th, Dembski continued the dialogue on the website, “Evolution News and Views,” and in this section Darrel Falk offers his reflections on that paper, as well as the state of the conversation as a whole.
This essay has its genesis in a dialogue currently underway between Southern Baptist seminarians and members of the BioLogos community. As a part of that series, Dembski began by laid out a partial set of “non-negotiables” for the historic Christian faith, upon which we agree. Similarly, he put forward a set of non-negotiables for Darwinism and analyzed which of them would be inconsistent with the historic Christian faith. In the end, he found one major inconsistency according to his definition of Darwinism: that it includes the philosophical presupposition that evolution is devoid of any telos. As I indicated in my response, we agree here, too.
Like Dembski, I am deeply concerned when science is portrayed as a methodology that gives a complete picture of reality (as advocated by Richard Dawkins’ children’s book, The Magic of Reality, for example). The scientific process does not address certain questions. It doesn’t tell us why, for instance, there is something rather than nothing. It can’t tell us whether there is a purpose behind the universe or even our own lives. To the extent that the scientific culture portrays itself as being able to answer these questions through scientific investigation, I, like Dembksi, think it is sorely mistaken.
I have been impressed throughout this interchange with how much we do have in common and I am reminded again of our joint hope—stretching back over more than a decade—that what we have in common will always supersede our differences. I am convinced that that is the case now, even as we each are fully aware of the disparities which still exist. May they only get smaller.
In addition to being a Southern Baptist seminary professor (the focal point for this series), Dembski is also one of founding leaders of the Intelligent Design movement. This movement is undergirded by the premise that the biases associated with a materialistic worldview influence the directions that science (especially biology) takes. Indeed, the Movement believes that the influence is so great that biology’s conclusions are unsound at a fundamental level.
Although I am aware that the scientific process is not completely objective, and that conclusions are influenced by scientists’ worldviews (materialistic or otherwise), I do not see evolutionary biology as deeply flawed. Of course, we are all influenced by our religious and cultural views, and scientists are not immune to these influences. Still, the applecart of science need not be overturned.
In my response to Dembski, I identified four areas in which my views differ significantly from his:
- I am skeptical that it is possible to develop testable scientific hypotheses for the activity of God. Carrying out a scientific test of a hypothesis depends upon having a “control” where the variable is removed. In this case, the variable would have to be God’s activity. But if God is always active—if all things hold together in Christ (Colossians 1:17) and if not one thing came into being without him (John 1:3)—then how does one test for the presence of Him who is never absent?
- I do not agree that accepting the evolutionary creation view with its inherent emphasis on God’s natural activity in creation somehow makes belief in miracles less tenable. Miracles as outlined in Scripture have a special purpose: they are primarily a way that God uses to communicate and enter into relationship with humankind. It is not clear that they would be necessary to carry out God’s purposes before humans were here to observe them.
- Although I remain skeptical that God’s activity can be put into a scientific formulation, I do not see that this in any way implies that God hides his activity. Put simply, I am every bit as inspired by Romans 1:20 and Psalm 19 as is Bill Dembski; I just don’t think these Scriptures imply that the activity of God can be formulated into scientifically testable hypotheses.
- Dembski thinks that if God created humankind through the process of common descent, it diminishes the uniqueness of human qualities associated with being created in God’s image. I respectfully disagree: of the several ways of understanding what it means to bear the image of God, I find the most important aspects to be relational—they are derived from our being in relationship with God.
With all of that as background, I am pleased to reply to Dr. Dembski’s response to my essay:
1. Can God’s activity in creation be formulated as a testable scientific hypothesis?
I indicated that in order to scientifically test for the activity of God, one would need to be able to have a control—the absence of God’s activity. Here is his response.
I disagree with Falk’s view that intelligent design (or ID), in looking for evidence of intelligence in nature, requires that God be present only in those instances where it identifies design and absent from the rest. For Falk to endorse such a claim flies in the face of a point that my colleagues and I in the intelligent design movement have underscored repeatedly, which is that our methods of design detection tells us where design is, not where it isn’t.
BioLogos has published an essay by Calvin College mathematician James Bradley showing why Dembski’s design detection method doesn’t work. I’m curious what Dembski thinks of this. Similarly, Dr Joe Felsenstein, one of the most respected mathematical biologists in the world, has written this article on why he considers the Movement’s design detection methodology to be flawed. Is it possible to develop and test a hypothesis when the key variable is the omnipresent and ever-active God? There is good scientific reason to doubt this, especially given current uncertainty about the model that has served as the heart of the Intelligent Design movement.
2. Does Accepting Evolutionary Creation Make Belief in Miracles Less Tenable?
Dembski has conceded that the occurrence of miracles in salvation history does not necessarily imply that God would work through miracles in natural history. The two do not necessarily go hand in hand. Still he hedges:
Falk makes the thought-provoking point that in working miracles in salvation history, God has special purposes for humanity and thus is under no compulsion to act the same way in natural history, where he might work exclusively through ordinary natural processes. Thus God might work naturally in the one and supernaturally in the other with no contradiction or tension. Let me grant this point, though, as a sociological matter, thinkers who have embraced methodological naturalism have often found themselves on a slippery slope and ended up rejecting miracles in salvation history as well. Take, for instance, Howard Van Till.
I think both Dembski and I understand that we ought not be afraid to embark on the journey just because some have lost the trail.
Dembski also suggests that it would be best for me to withhold judgment on whether God’s natural activity was sufficient to account for all of creation: “What is the evidence that purely natural forces are capable of doing all the creative work required for nature to produce a profligate living world that includes hawks, hippos, and humans?” he asks. I agree completely. That is why I do withhold judgment. Here is my statement from Part I:
We should reserve judgment about whether only God’s natural activity was responsible. It is not clear though, that supernatural activity would often be God’s chosen mode of action millions of years before humans had arrived.
3. Is the God of evolutionary creation hidden in a manner inconsistent with Christian theology?
Citing Psalm 19 (NRSV) and Romans 1:20 (NRSV), I wrote that the evidence for God’s activity in creation comes in the form of “signposts” which point to God. Indeed, after listing some examples, I suggested that together they “shout out with the message of God’s glory.” Yet Dembski seems to suggest that if evidence can’t be placed into a scientific formulation and tested using scientific methodology, it is elusive, “occluded,” and even non-rational:
Still, the more interesting question here is whether there is a rational basis for Falk’s faith that is grounded in the order of nature. ID, in finding scientific evidence of intelligence in nature, says there is. Falk, along with BioLogos generally, denies this. But in that case, how can he avoid the charge that the faith by which he sees God’s handiwork is merely an overlay on top of a nature that, taken by itself, is neutral or even hostile to Christian faith? Note that I’m not alone in thinking it odd that God would create by natural selection. Many atheistic evolution (sic) see evolution as a brutal and wasteful process that no self-respecting deity would have employed in bringing about life. Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, and the late Stephen Jay Gould were united on this point.
But the Christian faith begins with Christ, not nature “taken by itself.” The first disciples were told to put down their nets and to follow Jesus, and Paul was confronted with the risen Christ on the Damascus road. They were not taken out to a hillside on a starry night and told that they should develop a faith in a supreme being that was grounded in nature. Likewise, we have the Scriptures and a cloud of witnesses beckoning us to look to Jesus, the pioneer and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12). Faith in Christ informs reason, and faith and reason work together, finding their end in God. It is only through Christ that our view of nature—like nature itself—will be redeemed. One cannot have a fully-grounded understanding of nature until one first finds one’s origin, sustenance, and end in its Author.
Reason is important because it keeps faith from falling into superstition and falsehood. Faith is important because it gives assurance and certainty of a greater reality than is accessible by reason alone. We cannot derive purpose from reason alone, based on nature alone. Without faith, reason is dead.
John’s prologue describes it this way: “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it….He was in the world and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” (John 1:5, 10, NIV). Put another way, it is only by beginning with Christ (indeed, “the fear of the Lord,” Prov. 9:10) that true wisdom emerges. Consider Paul’s words in this regard:
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength (I Corinthians 1:21, 24, 25, NIV).
In essence then, I think Dembski gives too much credence to science as a means of understanding divine activity in creation. We don’t start with nature and find our way to God; we start with Jesus Christ and through him we see what he has made.
Again, that Dembski would cite one agnostic and two atheistic scientists to substantiate his own view of divine activity in the natural (see right) world suggests to me that he may have too much confidence in the power of science and reason to contribute in definitive ways to conversation about God’s activity. For the Christian, should not such conversation begin with faith in the person of Jesus Christ? When atheistic evolutionists see “evolution as a brutal and wasteful process that no self-respecting deity would have employed…” I am inclined to point to the long and tortuous journey of the nation of Israel, which led not to a “self-respecting” throne, but to a humble servant dying on a cross.
4. If humans were created by a process that included common descent, does this take away from our uniqueness?
Here is what Dembski says about human uniqueness:
I would argue that human exceptionalism depends, in the first instance, on our God-given capacities, which are different in kind from the rest of the animal world (notably our moral, aesthetic, cognitive, and linguistic capacities). From these capacities it then follows that we can have a special relationship with God and properly be regarded as made in the divine image. And note, if these capacities truly render us exceptional, then they pose a stumbling block for any purely naturalistic account of evolution because, as Falk rightly notes, our “material ordinariness” makes us one with the rest of the animal world.
The fact that we are made of the same stuff and by the same processes as the animal world says nothing that denies human exceptionalism. Humans and animals alike have DNA as our genetic material. We all have transfer RNA, messenger RNA, various proteins, mitochondria, and lysosomes. On the other hand, the material is clearly arranged in a different way in humans than it is in the great apes; one glance in the mirror will tell you that. Furthermore, we are endowed with capacities—notably, our moral, aesthetic, cognitive and linguistic ones—that are different from those found in the rest of the animal world. How did they come to be different? As I argued before, it can only have happened through God’s activity because even “ordinary” processes are God’s own, too. But how did God bring that to pass? Did it happen in an instant, or did it happen over a long period of time? If Dembksi thinks it more god-like for it to happen in an instant, why?
God became incarnate as a human being, Jesus Christ, not a great ape and not even a Neanderthal. What continues to set us apart supremely is not our material make-up, but that God comes into our lives and redeems our existence—forever.
Considering that I’m the advocate for the validity of mainstream biology, I find it ironic that Dembski has placed so much emphasis on the power of science, even as he tries to purify it from materialist ideologies that I, too, find incompatible with a full understanding and appreciation of God’s creation. Science is an amazingly successful set of tools that—when coupled with the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1)—leads us to a truer understanding of ourselves and a greater view of God. With this end in mind, perhaps Dr. Dembski and I can find still more common ground than we already have, agreeing that biology and geology and cosmology can be trustworthy, even though only at their best when the hearts and lives of those who study them are redeemed. If we are to see the natural world as it really is, we must be united in Christ, using our reason and our faith to understand what God is telling us in his world and his Word. Though we don’t agree on everything, I thank Dr. Dembski for being a partner in that pursuit.
Although I alone bear responsibility for any inadequacies in this essay, I want to express appreciation to Mark Sprinkle, Kathryn Applegate, Tom Burnett, and John Wright for very helpful comments.
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