Monday, January 21, 2008

Nature's God and the Theology of Evolution

The Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine (January 19) has a good article by Jeremy Manier on attempts to reconcile biblical theology and evolutionary science.

The theological implications of Darwinian evolution has been a recurrent topic for this blog. Some of my previous posts on this can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

One of the good points made in this article is that Darwinian atheists like Richard Dawkins and intelligent design creationists like William Dembski agree in their understanding of God. "For both camps, the only God who makes sense is one who designed all life with exquisite attention to detail."

The main theme for this article is how some people who accept the truth of Darwinian science are questioning this understanding of God. If God must intervene miraculously to design every complex feature of life, then this would be incompatible with the Darwinian explanation of how living complexity could have evolved by natural law. But now some theologians and scientists are wondering whether this is really a correct conception of how God works. Is God unable or unwilling to work through evolutionary natural laws? If God must design everything down to every detail, does that mean that all of the evil in the world is a product of divine design? Or does God express His love by allowing the world to evolve without controlling all of the details?

What I find most interesting is how so much of this discussion is carried out without any careful attention to the Bible itself. If one were to read the Bible without any preconceptions, the Biblical God would not look much like the God assumed by the intelligent design creationists. The God of the Bible is not presented as concerned with designing everything down to the last detail. "In the beginning, God created heaven and earth" (Genesis 1:1). But He allows parts of His creation to develop on their own: "Let the earth produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants, and fruit trees on earth, bearing fruit with their seed inside" (Genesis 1:11).

Moreover, the Biblical God is presented as surprised by much of what happens in history. For example, having created human beings, God later regrets what He has done because they have become so wicked (Genesis 6:5-8). Noah's flood is God's attempt to start over again. In fact, throughout the Bible, God is depicted as experimenting with various arrangements without knowing for sure how they will turn out. If readers of the Bible don't see this element of contingency and uncertainty in God's actions, that's only because they come to the Bible with assumptions about God's omnipotence and omniscience--assumptions of traditional monotheistic theology that are not clearly dictated by the Biblical text.

Furthermore, as I have noted in previous posts, the Bible does not offer any precise dating for Creation and the history of the universe. Some editions of the Bible will have "4,004 B.C." as a date at the top of the first page of Genesis. But this date is not actually in the original Hebrew text of Genesis. This date comes from the work of Anglican Bishop James Ussher in the seventeenth century. Creationists who insist that the world was created 6,000 years ago get this not from the Bible but from a tradition of dating started by Ussher.

It is clear, of course, that the Biblical God does intervene miraculously. But most of these miraculous interventions are part of salvational history rather than natural history. The Bible does not say that God had to miraculously create bacterial flagella. But it does say that God had to miraculously take on bodily form in Jesus for the sake of redeeming human beings. Such miracles are required not for the intelligent design of living nature but for the salvation of human beings.

In other words, the Bible is not a textbook of natural science but a story of God's dealings with human beings as creatures who have lost their way in the world and seek to return to their home with God.

Natural science can neither confirm nor deny this miraculous history of God's loving interactions with human beings. But natural science can study that intelligible order of nature that God has allowed to unfold in natural history, and such study should stir a sense of wonder before the beauty of that natural order.


John S. Wilkins said...

The claim that God allowed secondary causes to generate new things is made by Augustine in his De Genesi ad litteram (English version below). But in no way did Augustine intend this to be an evolutionary view - it was a refined form of spontaneous generation.

Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo. 1982. The literal meaning of Genesis. Translated by J. H. Taylor, Ancient Christian writers; no. 41-42. New York, N.Y.: Newman Press.

Anonymous said...

The God of the Bible is not presented as concerned with designing everything down to the last detail.

What? Yes, Genesis is skimpy on details. The Bronze Age Hebrews had certain media limitations back then that necessitated brevity. That doesn't mean God in the later Judeo-Christian view wasn't concerned with details. Quite the contrary.

Orthodox Vespers services begin with Psalm 104. This liturgical poem is very clear that God is a micromanager. I'd also point to Jesus' words about "the lilies of the field" and the "sparrows."

Moreover, the Biblical God is presented as surprised by much of what happens in history.

Yes, but these "surprises" are always interpreted as being anthropomorphisms. An Omniscient god simply cannot, by definition, be surprised.

If you get rid of the Omniscience of the Christian god, then you've just given up the game. Religion over, man.

If you want to harmonize evolution to orthodox Christianity, then you're going to have to say that God, at every step, either intervened or established the world's physical laws to bring about man's ASCENT (not DESCENT).

In other words, the Bible is not a textbook of natural science but a story of God's dealings with human beings as creatures who have lost their way in the world and seek to return to their home with God.

Yes, but only after Establishing that God created the earth and that man was the pinnacle of that creation. That is in direct contradiction to Darwinian thinking, which gives man no higher position than your common bacterium. The latter may even be more privileged, since it can reproduce and survive under harsher conditions.

Anonymous said...

Reading through the piece, I have to agree with "inquisitors." The God being pushed by Van Till and other "naturalistic theologians" just won't fly with orthodox Christianity. No more so than did Spinoza's or any other pantheistic deity.

Larry Arnhart said...


Aren't you begging the question?

I have suggested that the Bible does not present God as omnipotent and omniscient, because He is often surprised and cannot control events, and therefore the traditional doctrines of divine omnipotence and omniscience are not biblically warranted. Your response is to reaffirm the traditional doctrines.

Anonymous said...

Traditional doctrine didn't just weave up omnipotence and omniscience out of nowhere:

Psalms 33:8-9: Let all the earth fear the LORD: let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him. For he spoke, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast.

Genesis 17:1: And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. (The Hebrew word used here is "shadday" [5])

Jeremiah 32:27: Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh: is there any thing too hard for me?

Rev 16:4 for they are spirits of demons, performing signs; which go forth to the kings of the whole inhabited earth, to gather them together for the war of that great day of God, the Almighty [παντοκράτορος (pantokratoros)].

Rev 19:15 Out of his mouth proceeds a sharp, double-edged sword, that with it he should strike the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He treads the winepress of the fierceness of the wrath of God, the Almighty [παντοκράτορος (pantokratoros).
There's plethora of verses with links described at the link above.

Now you'll say, well there's a contradiction. And I say, yes, there is. What of it? The Bible is full of these, which is hardly surprising considering that it was compiled from different books and authors. The reconciliation agreed to by the overwhelming majority of Christianity is the one that trivializes the "surprises" and "mind changes" as literary condescensions and keeps the Pantokrator.

And indeed it has to. If God isn't All-mighty, how can you be sure of eternal salvation? How can we be sure that the final resurrection of the dead and the happy ending forecast in Revelations will come true? You simply can't. There is no assurance. Who knows? Maybe Satan will surprise God and whip him and the angels. Any position short of omnipotence renders the entire text of the Bible worthless as any kind of a guide. It also renders the magisterium of the Catholic Church, the councils of the Orthodox and Protestant synods equally impotent. None of them can be said to confer any guarantee or seal that will endure "the gates of Hell."

As a nonbeliever myself, I'm not committed to the Bible, but I don't think that's what you're going for here.

Memetic Warrior said...

if God is truely omnipotent and omniscent and He Exercises as such, then he would not even act, because, before action, desire is needed, and this is a state of imperfection.

If God created and/or actuate in this imperfect world then he must have imposed itself some limitations. Maybe some limits that Good itself has choosen in some kind of primordial desire, at the same time when He created the world. An this can include the desire to "not to know everyting" and the desire "not to control everything".

I Think that some of this directly or indirectly exist in the bible somewhere referring to the freedom of men.

Anonymous said...

If God is truely omnipotent and omniscent and He Exercises as such, then he would not even act, because, before action, desire is needed...

I don't have the Aquinine response at hand, but denying God's omnipotence is simply unacceptable to little-o orthodox Christianity. It's a non-starter, as surely as textual criticism is to the Mohammedans.

He created the world. An this can include the desire to "not to know everyting" and the desire "not to control everything".

If he doesn't know everything, how can he assure salvation? He can't. Does he somehow know what not to know?

The second part of the statement has some merit in the Christian view. Christians do believe that God ordered natural laws and behaviors. So this could include physical laws that give rise to an evolutionary process. BUT this process must be set up to give rise to Man. Man is the goal. That is in complete opposition to the Darwinian view.

In short, what you have here is akin to the oldest Christian heresy of gnosticism, where you have two relatively equal principles of good and evil duking it out. If you want to go with that, fine, but don't expect Catholics, Orthodox, Calvinists and other Trinitarians to say it's Christianity.

Memetic Warrior said...

At least in my church, the minister told us that we are made at the image of God. So God can not be other way than omnipotent, but still a personal Good. That is, He take decissions to do or not to do. He Likes and hates. Knowledge or power does not limits is willingness but itself.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what you're saying, mw. What I do know is that Jesus said, "With God all things are possible."Mt 19:26.

If that isn't omnipotence, I don't know what is.

Anonymous said...

Comprehension Of Evolution

This is not another attempt to DEFINE evolution.

This is an attempt to COMPREHEND evolution. An attempt to comprehend evolution with, again, my favorite scientific approach, with common sense.

Common sense leads me to start my this attempt with the presently conjectured start-state of the evolution of all evolutions, with singularity, and to then ask what is next. Should we now seek Evolution's Potential? Do we next need a conjectured end-state?

Is evolution a process that arrives at an end-state? How will cosmic expansion end?

We cannot even conjecture...

Will it end with a stable steady state, a balance between the ever self-diluting force that accelerates the motion of galaxies clusters and the since-singularity tensioned space-distance cosmos matrix? Or will it end with a collapse, with a return impansion towards singularity, that will then again ...? And how may it evolve towards its end state?...

Is this unknowability what constitutes the stochastic nature of evolution?

Yet it is observable that every temporary phase of evolution is a start-state of further evolution.

And it is observable that all objects and processes and natural laws in the universe, are - since singularity - products of evolution and are themselves continuously further evolving. Everything in the cosmos is fractal, rehappens on many scales, and is continuously evolving. Each and every system in the universe continuously evolves within the total universal evolution and all the systems' evolutions are intertwined.

And it is also observable that all evolutions are fueled by culture, culture being the totality of ways of the system's dealing (reaction to, manipulation of, exploitation of) with its environment.


Dov Henis

PS: Present state (March 2008) of the stock market appears to point at the relationship between stocks and stochastic... DH

De notsew said...

Try reading Lorraine Boetners REORMED DOCTRINE OF PREDESTINATION and Dr Charles Hodges a Systematic Theology! Then for size try reading Karl Barths Church Dogmatics 13 Volumes! It all BEGGARS BELIEF! Where they dig this stuff up from is nothing less than astonishing! Should God exist and should we have been created by him I am sure he would be amazed at what man has contrived about him. Barth's explication of the Creation fills two large volumes! Astonishing!