October 1995 - 15:73-78
In its pure form, theistic evolution affirms that God guided the evolutionary
process. This is one of the most popular views of origins according to
Gallup polls over the last twenty years. A breakdown of the results shows
a direct relationship between educational attainment and acceptance of
evolution (see Table 1). Many people in this group may feel satisfied that
they have sensibly integrated the findings of modern science with a belief
in God. Ironically, those findings flow from an academic community that,
for the most part, operates under the assumption of metaphysical naturalism,
which states that science must seek wholly naturalistic explanations (see
review in Major, 1994a). The reality is that most evolutionists want nothing
to do with any appeal to a supernatural cause (Major, 1994b).
||NO HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA
|“God created man pretty much
in his present form at one time within the past 10,000 years.”
|“Man has developed over millions
of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided the process.”
|“Man has developed over millions
of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process.”
|Table 1: Results of a Gallup poll taken November 21-24, 1991 (from Sheler, 1991)
Evolution also is associated with positivism, which promotes empirical
science as the exclusive fount of knowledge. For positivists, God is not
open to rational investigation with the five senses and the usual tools
of science. In their opinion, “God guided evolution” is as meaningless
and fruitless a statement as “God created everything.” Theistic evolutionists
have failed to understand that the “entire outlook of positivistic science
is profoundly incompatible with the existence of a supernatural creator
who takes an active role in the natural world” (Johnson, 1994, p. 47).
But the conflict goes deeper still. There is more here than a disagreement
over two world views, with creationists now scrambling to reclaim recognition
in academic circles. Of course, creationists are concerned in particular
about the biblical text itself. If evolution is true, then Genesis ceases
to be a literal record of creation. Theistic evolutionists respond that
Genesis tells us the “why” of creation, but not the “how.” They usually
agree that God created the Universe out of nothing, but insist that the
subsequent history of creation is a matter for further study, with neo-Darwinian
evolution simply being the best answer thus far. As Michael Poole has argued,
“Creation is an act—the act of an agent, in this case God. Evolution
is a process” (1990, p. 110, emp. in orig.). But does this allow
us to believe in evolution and God as Creator? Yes indeed, Poole
would say: “Although evolution does not show there is a creating
God, it certainly does not show there is not” (p. 111, emp. in orig.).
By attempting to stake out this middle ground, theistic evolutionists
have not won any peace on fundamental issues. For their part, creationists
have no problem with the idea that God created a Universe that operates
in a predictable, understandable fashion. Descriptions of that operation
result in the formulation of scientific laws. However, creationists cannot
see anything within those laws that would allow nature to produce every
living thing on Earth.
Positivists, for their part, cannot see the relevance of adding God
to the equation. If natural selection acting on mutations is responsible
for producing long-term, large-scale change, then no other cause agent
is necessary. Someone with a positivist outlook never can know whether
God is involved in such a process. This does not rule out God’s existence;
it is just that He is so far behind the scenes as to be irrelevant. Of
course, any hint that God worked miraculously would be rejected out-of-hand.
A person who truly believes in the adequacy of evolutionary theory leaves
no room for divine intervention in nature. Further, the positivist would
say that we live in a world that shows all the signs of having developed
from completely undesigned, nonpurposive processes. Yet according to the
theistic evolutionist, it only looks that way because God used evolution
to achieve His ends. So, theistic evolution at once frustrates the pursuit
of positivistic science, and puts God in the position of designing a world
that allegedly bears no evidence of design.
EVOLUTION AND PURPOSE
Darwin: No Place for Design
Charles Darwin’s way of doing science did contribute to the modern positivistic
view of origins (see Gillespie, 1979). However, he was immersed in a profoundly
religious culture, and could not help but struggle with the question of
a Creator. For example, he absorbed William Paley’s Natural Theology
while studying at Cambridge (Darwin, 1892, p. 19). In his famous watchmaker
argument for design, Paley argued that there must be purpose behind the
origin of the natural world. It was inconceivable that the individual components
of the eye, for example, or the integrated systems of the human body, could
arise by unplanned, mindless processes of nature. Perhaps this is why,
when Darwin came to write his Origin of Species, he used so many
examples of apparent imperfections in nature, such as eyes on blind cave
fish, and wings on flightless birds (1859, pp. 428-432).
Actually, Paley had argued that perfection, as judged by an observer,
is not required to recognize design (1802, pp. 6-8). A watch has a watchmaker
even if it does not work, or has extra or missing pieces, or occurs in
different forms, or is too complicated to understand. So in nature, if
we were to find organs with no apparent function, or people who must wear
glasses, we need not assume a purely natural cause to explain the origin
of those mysterious organs or those faulty eyes. Perhaps Darwin felt that
merely cataloging these imperfections would add credibility to his overall
thesis, even if they did not blunt Paley’s argument directly.
In any case, the design concept continued to influence natural science
well past the publication of the Origin. Many of Darwin’s friends
and supporters could not abandon it completely. American botanist Asa Gray,
for instance, wanted to see God’s purpose at work in evolution itself.
Darwin reacted in a letter to Gray dated May 22, 1860:
...all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient
Creator who foresaw every future event and consequence. But the more I
think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I have probably shown by
this letter.Darwin never resolved this dilemma, and struggled with the philosophical
implications of his work. Although he allowed others to see design in evolution,
he could not adopt the view personally. In fact, he promoted a pamphlet
by Gray titled “Natural Selection Not Inconsistent With Natural Theology”
(Darwin, 1892, p. 262). Apparently, Darwin was happy for anyone to abandon
a supernatural creation in favor of theistic evolution but, as far as he
was concerned, design in any form made no sense if his theory were true.
In his letter to Gray, Darwin explained that he “had no intention to
write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do,
and as I should wish to do.” In the following year he told Gray facetiously,
“If I saw an angel come down to teach us good, and I was convinced from
others seeing him that I was not mad, I should believe in design.” By 1864,
Darwin “had reached an impasse with Gray over design and stopped advertising
his pamphlet in the Origin” (Desmond and Moore, 1991, p. 527).
Although Darwin did not intend to write atheistically, skeptics do not
doubt the import of his theory for belief in God. They recognize that Darwinian
biology represents a direct challenge to divine design (e.g., Nagel, 1992,
p. 213). If evolution represents the workings of a purely natural process,
then there is no telos (goal or end) to which it is striving. Without
a telos, there is no teleological or design argument for the existence
Hodge: No Place for Darwinism
The religious implications of evolution were a concern for Charles Hodge,
the nineteenth-century Princeton theologian. He posed the question, “What
is Darwinism?,” and replied, “It is atheism” (1994, p. 156). But that statement
was no preacher’s hyperbole. His 1874 book, bearing the title of that question,
reached such a conclusion only after making a perceptive critique of Darwin’s
Notice how Hodge cuts to the heart of his theological misgivings in the
The conclusion of the whole matter is that the denial of design
in nature is virtually the denial of God. Mr. Darwin’s theory does deny
all design in nature; therefore, his theory is virtually atheistical—his
theory, not himself. He believes in a Creator. But when that Creator, millions
on millions of years ago, did something—called matter and a living germ
into existence—and then abandoned the universe to itself to be controlled
by chance and necessity, without any purpose on his part as to the result,
or any intervention or guidance, then He is virtually consigned, so far
as we are concerned, to nonexistence (1994, p. 155).He was careful not to accuse Darwin (who rejected Christianity and preferred
the term “agnostic”; Darwin, 1892, pp. 59,62) of being an atheist. Hodge’s
point was to show that the theory itself, taken to its logical conclusion,
rules the theist’s God out of existence. Where does this leave Asa Gray
and other theistic evolutionists? According to Hodge, Gray was an evolutionist,
but not a Darwinist, because at least he allowed God some part in the process
(1994, pp. 155-156).
However, Hodge never legitimized a belief in theistic evolution; he
was as committed to the Genesis account of creation as Darwin was to organic
evolution. Both men recognized that others were able, somehow, to reconcile
Scripture with evolution, but neither could bring themselves to make such
a move. Their legacy was not compromise, but a clarity in thinking of where
a belief in evolution must lead.
Theistic Evolution: No Place to Go
In summary, Darwinism presents theistic evolution with a dilemma. If this
theory, even in its modern form, really can account for the origin of species
from a single or few ancestral forms, then what place is left for a Creator?
The whole point of Darwin’s theory is that it dispensed, not with design
alone, but with any appeal to a cause beyond nature. The idea of a God-directed
process runs counter to the goals of naturalism/positivism and the alleged
sufficiency of evolutionary explanations. And, if such a theory cannot
account for the origin of species, then why believe God used an unworkable
process to achieve His ends? Clearly, the theistic evolutionist faces a
challenge in reconciling these two questions.
EVOLUTION AND SUFFERING
No Good Evolution
For early nineteenth century creationists, design went hand-in-hand with
God’s perfect goodness: “[I]n the vast plurality of instances in which
contrivance is perceived, the design of the contrivance is beneficial”
(Paley, 1802, p. 252, emp. in orig.). A good watchmaker not only would
design watches, but would make them for the benefit of others. Likewise,
the eye showed purpose and was good for the organism so endowed.
This view of the Creator’s beneficial workings went beyond nature. Many
Victorians liked the idea of progress toward a better quality of life (Gregory,
1986, p. 379). Social reformers, for instance, were optimistic about God’s
ability to work providentially. In evolution’s struggle for life they saw
the divine order by which God would improve the lot of the poor and oppressed
(Desmond and Moore, 1991, pp. 217, 294-295).
As with purpose, Darwin could see no sense in such an interpretation, since his
theory admittedly offered “no absolute tendency to progression, excepting from favourable
circumstances” (Notebook N47, 1838-1839). To British botanist Joseph Hooker,
he wrote, “Heaven forfend me from Lamarck nonsense of a ‘tendency to progression’
” (January 11, 1844). [It was the Chevalier de Lamarck’s earlier ideas
on evolution that impeded the broader acceptance of Darwinism for much
of the nineteenth century.] For Darwin, any perception of increasing size,
better adaptations, and greater complexity merely were incidental to nature’s
acting—without thought or direction—in its preservation of favored characteristics.
This was something the social reformers did not understand. An organism
may not be able to do anything in the present to change the future survivability
of its species. Humans, acting with their technology and ability to plan
ahead, could increase their odds but, in the bigger evolutionary view,
the fickle workings of nature would dominate in the long run. Universal
progress implies a Mind deciding what the goals should be and how they
should be reached. Darwin’s theory has no purpose and, therefore, no ultimate
good to which it is striving. To see predictable purpose in evolution is,
according to evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould, a misguided attempt to support
the outdated view that God designed the world for the benefit of humankind
(1995, p. 68).
God: Not a Good Evolutionist
In Darwin’s revealing May 22, 1860 letter to Gray mentioned previously,
the naturalist admitted that he could not see “evidence of design and beneficence
on all sides of us.” Notice what he had to say about nature:
There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade
myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created
the Ichneumonidae [parasitic flies—TJM] with the express intention
of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat
should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief
that the eye was expressly designed.
To Hooker he wrote: “What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the
clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horribly cruel works of nature!” (July
13, 1856). Twenty years later, Darwin’s autobiography reflected a sharper,
more sober view of the issue.
That there is so much suffering in this world no one disputes.
Some have attempted to explain this with reference to man by imagining
that it serves for his moral improvement. But the number of men in the
world is as nothing compared with that of all other sentient beings, and
they often suffer greatly without any moral improvement. This very old
argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent
First Cause seems to me a strong one; whereas, as just remarked, the presence
of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have
been developed through variation and natural selection (see Darwin, 1892,
p. 64).Darwin raised two closely related issues. First, although nature may appear
to show a graceful economy on occasion, he had no reason to believe that
divine goodness worked on a regular basis. And second, Darwin saw suffering
as more consistent with an unthinking, naturalistic process than with an
all-loving God. Death, predation, and parasitism are, for evolution, morally
neutral; they just happen.
Of course, over the centuries theists have discussed the importance
of God’s existence and perfection in light of suffering and death in nature.
The classic criticism, as Darwin pointed out, is that a good God would
not allow so much suffering. However, it is not altogether obvious that
there is something unacceptable or immoral about what one animal or plant
does to another. Further, suffering may have been a necessary part of God’s
nonhuman creation. For example, the amazing interaction between a parasite
and its host seems to bespeak as much divine purpose as the interaction
between organisms in a symbiotic relationship. And it would still seem
possible that God could look at the delicate balance between predator and
prey populations and pronounce it “very good” (Genesis 1:31; Paley, 1802,
pp. 259-265; Major, 1990). Perhaps the Creator’s granting of stewardship
(Genesis 2:15; Psalm 8) required a sensitivity on the part of man to the
plight of the creatures under his care. Yet God’s goodness remains evident
in the perfection or completion of His creation at the end of the sixth
The problem with theistic evolution is not so much that it appeals to
a nature involved in competition and struggle, but that it denies God His
proclamation of creation’s goodness. Evolution is a process, as Michael
Poole stated, and so God’s creative work never is finished. The result
is a God Who is not complete, a God Whose power and goodness will only
ever be as great as the current state of nature, and a God Whose perfection
will remain limited and hidden by a purposeless Universe. In short, this
deity is something less than the God of theism (see: “God:
In Process or Prefection?”).
The modern debate between creationists and theistic evolutionists covers
a range of issues (see especially Thompson, 1995). Arguments frequently
center on matters of biblical interpretation. For example, how can theistic
evolutionists come to terms with the statements of Jesus and the apostles
regarding creation? And, how can they reconcile the six-day creation of
Genesis 1 with the billions of years of organic evolution? Some theistic
evolutionists profess a belief in divine inspiration, but their attempt
to answer these questions often results in exegetical gymnastics. Others
excuse themselves altogether by rejecting anything resembling a literal
interpretation of Genesis.
On a broader level, theistic evolution gets into trouble because it
attempts to merge a creating God with a naturalistic explanation for life.
This conflicts with the biblical view that God worked miraculously to make
“heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them” (Exodus 20:11). At
the same time, it conflicts with the evolutionary view that natural mechanisms
are sufficient to account for the origin of new species.
Yet, this is more than simply a case of competing theories; it is not
merely theistic evolution versus “the rest.” The very idea that God used
evolution challenges His divine attributes. As I have tried to show in
this article, these problems arise in at least two areas.
First, theistic evolution proposes that an infinitely intelligent and
powerful Being superintended a completely purposeless process. Yet Darwin’s
crucial conclusions were that: (a) nature contains no evidence of design;
(b) supposed examples of design are illusory; and (c) gradual accumulation
of changes is sufficient to explain new features. Such a Being that purposes
without design and guides without direction is not the God of theism.
Second, theistic evolution proposes that God has yet to complete His
creation. Indeed, it is impossible for Him to do so; there is no goal toward
which the process of evolution is striving, and there never will be a time
when He can proclaim it “very good.” He is never able to receive worship
as an all-powerful, all-good Creator because He remains forever imperfect.
Once again, this is not the God of theism.
The beauty in looking at the historical roots of this controversy is
that it allows us to view the issues with a certain clarity. We can watch
as the great minds of the Victorian era wrestled with the new ways of thinking
about their world. What does seem clear is that neither Darwin on one side,
nor Hodge on the other, saw any space in between for the providential,
designed evolution of Asa Gray. For the theists of Darwin’s era,
To accept the theory of natural selection, as proposed in Origin,
was to sail between two dangerous rocks, either of which could shipwreck
the faith. On the left stood the granite peak of purposelessness in nature,
prepared to sink the Victorian belief in design. On the right towered the
fearful question of evil and a God of love (Blackmore and Page, 1989, p.
116).Truly, evolution lies in a land far distant from theism, to be reached
only by a faith-imperiling voyage.
Blackmore, Vernon and Andrew Page (1989), Evolution: The Great Debate
(Oxford, England: Lion).
Darwin, Charles (1859), The Origin of Species (New York: Avenel
Books, reprint of first edition).
Darwin, Francis, ed. (1892), The Autobiography of Charles Darwin
and Selected Letters (New York: Dover, 1958 reprint).
Desmond, Adrian and James Moore (1991), Darwin (New York: Warner
Gillespie, Neal V. (1979), Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation
(Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).
Gould, Stephen Jay (1995), “Boyle’s Law and Darwin’s Details,” Natural
History, 104:8,10-11,68-71, August.
Gregory, Frederick (1986), “The Impact of Darwinian Evolution on Protestant
Theology in the Nineteenth Century,” God & Nature, ed. David
C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Berkeley, CA: University of California
Press), pp. 369-390.
Hodge, Charles (1994), What is Darwinism?, ed. Mark A. Noll and
David N. Livingstone (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, essay originally published
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Think About Theistic Evolution?,” Reason & Revelation, 14:55, July.
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reprinted from Basic Beliefs, 1959).
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Thompson, Bert (1995), Creation Compromises (Montgomery, AL:
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