Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Howard J. Van Till

Although the rhetoric Phillip E. Johnson employs in his article “Creator or Blind Watchmaker?” (FT, January 1993) differs in some details from that of the “scientific creationists” of North American Christian fundamentalism, the effect of his pronouncements is the same. That is, it perpetuates the association of Christian belief with the rejection of contemporary scientific theorizing, thereby ensuring that the gulf between the academy and the sanctuary will only grow wider. Moreover, ironically, the concept of creation implicit in his argumentation is one that has moved far afield from the Christian theological heritage.

The title of the lecture series from which Johnson’s article was adapted was: “Theistic Naturalism and the Blind Watchmaker.” That title was considerably more accurate, because the thrust of his contribution is not to offer the reader a choice between belief in the Judeo-Christian Creator or in Richard Dawkins’ “blind watchmaker.” Rather, his agenda is polemical in character, focused on affixing the label of theistic naturalism (a term used ten times) to the positions espoused by some of his Christian critics and arguing that such positions are substantively indistinguishable from the detestable “blind watchmaker hypothesis” of evolutionary naturalism, which, by the heavy-handed effort of the “scientific establishment,” is fast “becoming the officially established religion of America.”

To borrow a phrase from his earlier article in First Things (“Evolution as Dogma: The Establishment of Naturalism,” October 1990), there is in Johnson’s writing “just enough truth to mislead persuasively.” If, for instance, one were to peruse a representative sample of the popular and semi-popular literature written by the strident preachers of antitheistic naturalism (some textbook literature also qualifies), one could, as did Johnson, find an abundance of reckless assertions that modern science, especially evolutionary biology, has soundly discredited all forms of theism. Finding such offensive rhetoric is not at all difficult, and, in full agreement with Johnson, I find such statements wholly unwarranted and grossly out of place in the public education system.

But Johnson’s attack does not stop at an expose of the triumphalist scientism espoused by a number of highly visible and self-appointed spokesmen for natural science. No, he proceeds zealously in a more ambitious campaign to establish the position that not only is the exploitation of scientific theories for the purposes of antitheism to be rejected, but the scientific theories being thus exploited are to be rejected as well. One of Johnson’s central claims is that “doctrinaire naturalism is not just some superfluous philosophical addition to Darwinism that can be discarded without affecting the real ‘science’ of the matter,” but is the very source of the evolutionary paradigm. Johnson’s entire program proceeds from his belief that scientific theories regarding macroevolutionary continuity are the products, not of legitimate inference from empirical data, but of naturalistic assumptions that have been imposed on science by Darwin and his followers.

In his book Darwin on Trial Johnson says, “Biological evolution is just one major part of a grand naturalistic project, which seeks to explain the origin of everything from the Big Bang to the present without allowing any role to a Creator . . . . The absence from the cosmos of any Creator is therefore the essential starting point for Darwinism.” Hence, “Naturalism is not something about which Darwinists can afford to be tentative, because their science is based upon it.” In Johnson’s view, then, the only reason for giving credence to theories that incorporate the idea of genealogical continuity among all lifeforms is their value in promoting the antitheistic worldview of naturalism.

But here’s the rub: If biological evolution is, as far as Johnson can see, inextricable from the presuppositions of naturalism, and if evolutionary naturalism is radically opposed to the existence of a supernatural Creator, then how is it possible for a person to be what Johnson calls a “theistic naturalist”? How could one possibly be an authentic Christian theist—one whose worldview is built on belief in the Creator God—and at the same time a proponent of naturalism? Isn’t “theistic naturalism” an oxymoron of the highest order?

It would seem so, and this appears to be precisely the kind of conclusion that Johnson would have the readers of First Things reach. As he defines it, theistic naturalism is a transparently incoherent stance that no rational or intelligent Christian could possibly take. Hence, to be a proponent of such (Johnson offers Diogenes Allen, Ernan McMullin, and myself as prime examples), it would appear that one must give up either rationality, or intelligence, or authentic Christian faith.

It is important to notice how this polemic is crafted. How does Johnson—who, in his own words, approaches the creation-evolution dispute “not as a scientist but as a professor of law, which means among other things that I know something about the way that words are used in arguments”—craft his case against those of us who do see the distinction between scientific theorizing and naturalistic propaganda, who do find considerable scientific merit in the concept of common ancestry among all of God’s creatures, and who do so, not in defiance of our Christian heritage or of intellectual integrity, but as an expression thereof? Simply put, by using (or abusing) words and selected connotations in order to lead a reader to discover for himself the intended conclusion.

As an illustration of an especially mischievous use of word associations, consider the word naturalistic and the closely related words naturalism and naturalist. One of the fundamental flaws in Johnson’s essay (and the rest of his writing on this issue) is that there are two significantly different meanings of the word naturalistic that he uses without a hint of differentiation.

One meaning, I shall call it naturalistic (narrow), is very limited in scope and simply refers to the idea that the physical behavior of some particular material system can be described in terms of the “natural” capacities of its interacting components and the interaction of the system with its physical environment. Hence there is a naturalistic (narrow) theory of planetary motion, or of star formation, or of earthquakes, or of cell behavior, or of photosynthesis, or of the development of a zygote into a mature organism.

So understood, naturalistic (narrow) speaks only to the idea of the functional integrity of a material system as it acts and interacts in the course of time. No stance regarding the ontological origin of its existence is either specified or implied. Nor is the ultimate source of its capacities for behaving as it does, its purpose in the larger context of all reality, or its relation to divine action or intention. Defined in this way, naturalistic (narrow) has no elements or connotations that would in any way be objectionable in principle to Christian belief.

The other definition, I shall call it naturalistic (broad), is far more expansive in scope. It not only includes all of the elements of naturalistic (narrow), but also superimposes the strong metaphysical stipulations that neither the existence nor the behavioral capacities of material systems derive from any divine source (thereby making a Creator unnecessary) and that the behavior of material systems can in no way whatsoever serve in the attainment of any divine purpose. So defined, naturalistic (broad) is essentially identical to materialistic and is absolutely irreconcilable with Christian theism.

Nowhere does Johnson give evidence of recognizing or honoring the distinction between these two vastly differing meanings of naturalistic. Most often the broad and essentially antitheistic meaning is implied (as in his definitions of Darwinism), so that no Christian in his or her right mind could “accommodate” or “compromise with” such a position. However, in the context of applying the pejorative label theistic naturalism to the views of Van Till, Allen, and McMullin, the meaning flip-flops between narrow and broad without any recognition of their profound difference. This strategy ensures that the label theistic naturalism will function to convey strongly negative connotations and cast grave doubt on both the intellectual and spiritual integrity of those persons tagged with this epithet.

This sort of semantic sleight of hand may work well to win a legal case in a courtroom, but it does not at all serve to clarify the discussion at hand. Toward the end of his article Johnson calls upon the scientific community to replace “vague words like ‘evolution’ with a precise set of terms that can be used consistently to illuminate the points of difficulty.” Reflecting on the merits of this advice, Johnson goes on to say that “Nobody on any side of the issue should object to clarifying the issues that way—nobody, that is, who really wants to find out the truth.” By the measure of his own advice to the scientific community, the law professor’s continuing exploitation of verbal ambiguity represents, I believe, the visible tip of an iceberg of misconstrual. Whether intended or not, the propagation of confusion continues.

A second aspect of Johnson’s stance that deserves critical evaluation is his definition or expectation of just what divine creative action is and how it would manifest itself. Although Johnson does not offer us a careful development of this important matter, there is nonetheless a conceptualization of divine creation implicit in his writing. As I see it, Johnson conceives of God’s creative activity not only as that singular and uniquely divine act of bringing the universe into being from nothing at the beginning of time, but also as a succession of extraordinary acts in the course of time whereby God forces matter and material systems (such as DNA molecules and living organisms) to do things beyond their resident capacities and therefore different from what they would ordinarily do. One could call this a “theokinetic” concept of creation.

Implicit in Johnson’s discussion is the expectation that “real” creative action is of the “miraculous intervention” sort that would “make a difference,” specifically a difference that could be unequivocally confirmed by means of empirical science. But is this performance of theokinetic acts the historic Christian picture of what God’s creative activity is and how it is manifested? Before we can take up this question, however, we need first to focus on Johnson’s own picture and how it relates to the rhetoric of evolutionary naturalism.

I understand Johnson to be saying that if molecules and organisms have in fact accomplished the changes envisioned in the macroevolutionary paradigm simply by employing their own resident capacities (that is, without special “divine assistance”), then molecules and organisms would have accomplished all of the work of creation traditionally ascribed to extraordinary acts of a “supernatural Creator.” Furthermore—and this is the part that Johnson’s theistic naturalists presumably fail to comprehend‚the proponents of evolutionary naturalism would then (by Johnson’s measure, that is) be justified in concluding that evolution has made the Creator unnecessary.

If this is Johnson’s reasoning, then it would appear to me that he has trapped himself in a misshapen apologetic engagement with antitheistic naturalism. By the apologetic rules imposed by naturalism (ironically similar to those of young-earth creationism), theistic talk regarding creation can mean only special creation through acts of “supernatural intervention.” Consequently, the proponents of antitheistic naturalism have occasion to delight whenever they can identify a material mechanism (as a Christian theist I would prefer to call it creaturely action) that accomplishes something that special creationists have reserved for supernatural intervention.

However, since our scientific knowledge of creaturely action is (and always will be) incomplete, the special creationist can always hold out the possibility that there are other missing elements in the developmental economy of the physical universe. Although Johnson wishes to distance himself from the position of young-earth creationists, he tends to employ the same rhetorical strategy of treating the absence of evidence (say, for some process or activity thought to be an important contribution to evolutionary change) as if it were evidence for the absence of full genealogical continuity. By this means a place for “real” creation by a supernatural Creator is secured, giving rise to “a nature that points directly and unmistakably [by scientific measure, presumably] toward the necessity of a creator.”

In discussions of this sort Johnson adamantly denies that he is espousing a God-of-the-gaps strategy, but I must admit that I cannot distinguish his argumentation on this point from that of the young-earth creationists, which is built on the assumption that there must exist gaps in the developmental economy of the created world—gaps that can be bridged only by acts of supernatural intervention into the course of otherwise natural phenomena. Gaps in our scientific understanding are not important in themselves, but they gain profound significance by being recognized as indicators of gaps in the economy of the created world. Hence, Johnson is tolerant of a great deal of “microevolution” within the limits of some category of classification, provided that such phenomena (or any other natural processes) not be presumed capable of warranting a macroevolutionary theory concerning how these distinct categories of creatures “came to exist in the first place.”

Caught in the jaws of this fruitless apologetic debate, in which the existence or nonexistence of an “active” Creator is to be decided on the basis of whether there are or are not gaps in the genealogical history of lifeforms, Johnson speaks as if the only conceivable reason for favoring an unbroken genealogical continuity is that it appears to give the proponents of antitheistic naturalism an apologetic advantage. Against the background of the dynamics of this apologetic struggle, we can see why Johnson wishes to place under a dark cloud of doubt and suspicion those Christians who are caught in the act of favoring the concept of a created world endowed with a gapless economy that could conceivably provide the basis for the full genealogical continuity envisioned in the macroevolutionary paradigm. They must be identified publicly as persons of questionable intelligence and dubious faith who seek a “compromise” of irreconcilable perspectives, who have “embraced naturalism with enthusiasm” and strive to “baptize” it for incorporation into the body of contemporary Christian belief. Beware, dear friends, of those theistic naturalists, whose twisted reasoning “establishes a remarkable convergence of Christian theism and scientific naturalism.” So goes the accusatory rhetoric.

But we must get back to the issue of what kind of activity divine creation is and how we would recognize it. Johnson and other skeptics of macroevolutionary continuity appear to be looking expectantly for “evidence” (I presume this to mean the kind of evidence to which natural science has privileged access) that confirms that God’s creative activity has “made a difference.” To the question, “What difference would it make if there were no Creator?” traditional Judeo-Christian theism has replied, “If no Creator, then no created world.” In other words, the very existence of the world of which we are a part is sufficient evidence for the action of the Creator. No further proof, not even modern scientific argumentation, is necessary. Contrary to all of the rhetorical bluster of materialism in its many forms, neither the existence of the world nor the character of its functional economy is self-explanatory.

It appears, however, that this traditional answer is not sufficiently convincing to the law professor. Hence we must seek evidence for divine creative action of the sort that would convince any honest and intelligent twentieth-century person that we had proved our case beyond the shadow of doubt in the court of scientific rationality. In Johnson’s words, “If God stayed in that realm beyond the reach of scientific investigation, and allowed an apparently blind materialistic evolutionary process to do all the work of creation, then it would have to be said that God furnished us with a world of excuses for unbelief and idolatry.”

This remarkable statement follows Johnson’s appeal to Romans 1, from which he presumably derives his claim that we should expect to find, by unbiased scientific analysis of the empirical data relevant to the formative history of distinctly differing life forms, evidence for the kind of “supernatural assistance” that had “made a difference.” One cannot help but wonder concerning the sorry plight of all those poor folks who, “ever since the creation of the world” and before the advent of modern biological science, were deprived of this essential evidence. In personal correspondence, I once asked Johnson to help me understand how this evidential test would work by telling me just how one would establish a “no divine action baseline” to which actual processes and events could be compared. Armed with a knowledge of this baseline we could perform the crucial test and settle the apologetic question of the ages once and for all. Johnson chose not to answer my question. Perhaps he would be willing now to do so for the readers of First Things and tell us just what biological history would have been like if left to natural phenomena without “supernatural assistance.”

Now it is time to return to the historical question regarding the way that God’s creative action and its visible manifestation have been pictured by Christian stalwarts of the past. Because of my personal interest in this matter I have been studying the relevant works of Basil and Augustine from the Late Patristic period, especially their reflections on the creation narratives of Genesis. In the words of one Patristic scholar, “Saint Basil’s work on the Hexaemeron is one of the most important Patristic works on the doctrine of creation.” Delivered as a series of nine homilies, this work has the style of material spoken to inspire praise of the Creator, not the style of a treatise written to be subjected to philosophical or theological scrutiny. Nonetheless, to examine Basil’s homilies for their general concept of the nature of the created world and the character of God’s creative activity is an instructive exercise.

Summarized as succinctly as possible, Basil’s picture of creation is one in which God, by the unconstrained impulse of his effective will, instantaneously called the substance of the entire Creation into being at the beginning and gave to the several created substances the harmoniously integrated powers to actualize, in the course of time, the wonderful array of specific forms that the Creator had in mind from the outset. Both matter and the forms it was later to attain were the product of God’s primary act of creation. Reflecting, for example, on the earth being initially without the adornment of grass, cornfields, or forests, Basil notes that, “Of all this nothing was yet produced; the earth was in travail with it in virtue of the power that she had received from the Creator.”

In Basil’s judgment, harmony, balance, and provision for all future needs are characteristics of the created world that deserve our profound appreciation. Both fire and water, for example, are necessary for the economy of terrestrial life as we know it. But these two elements (as understood in Basil’s day) must be provided in correct proportions so that neither one will consume the other. Observing the comfortable balance that appeared to prevail between these two contending substances, Basil says that we owe “thanks to the foresight of the supreme Artificer, Who, from the beginning, foresaw what was to come, and at the first provided all for the future needs of the world.” From this it follows, of course, that the Creator need make no special adjustments at some later date to compensate for inadequate provision at the beginning. “He who, according to the word of Job, knows the number of the drops of rain, knew how long His work would last, and for how much consumption of fire he ought to allow. This is the reason for the abundance of water at the creation.”

Because each element is called upon to contribute its natural activity to the functional economy of the created world, Basil considered it essential to make clear that even these natures are the product of God’s creative word and are not the manifestation of any powers independent of God. “Think, in reality, that a word of God makes the nature, and that this order is for the creature a direction for its future course.”

The divine command recorded in Genesis 1:11, “Let the earth bring forth grass . . . ,” is for Basil God’s empowering of the earth for all time with the capacities to assemble and sustain all manner of plant life. This command from God “gave fertility and the power to produce fruit for all ages to come.” In several ways Basil expresses his conviction that although the Creator’s word is spoken in an instant, the Creation’s obedient response is extended in time. “God did not command the earth immediately to give forth seed and fruit, but to produce germs, to grow green, and to arrive at maturity in the seed; so that this first command teaches nature what she has to do in the course of the ages.” And in language that seems almost to anticipate modern scientific concepts Basil goes on to say that, “Like tops, which after the first impulse, continue their evolutions, turning themselves when once fixed in their centre; thus nature, receiving the impulse of this first command, follows without interruption the course of the ages, until the consummation of all things.” Furthermore, “He who gave the order at the same time gifted it with the grace and power to bring forth.” This is consistent with an earlier comment on the Holy Spirit’s activity in creation, “The Spirit . . . prepared the nature of water to produce living beings.”

In his reflections on the words, “Let the earth bring forth the living creature,” Basil speaks eloquently of the Creation actively carrying out the effective will of the Creator. “Behold the word of God pervading creation, beginning even then the efficacy which is seen displayed today, and will be displayed to the end of the world! As a ball, which one pushes, if it meet a declivity, descends, carried by its form and the nature of the ground and does not stop until it has reached a level surface; so nature, once put in motion by the Divine command, traverses creation with an equal step through birth and death, and keeps up the succession of kinds through resemblance, to the last.”

Consistent with the world picture of his day, Basil, of course, envisions no historical transformation of these varied kinds; but at the same time he offers no theological objection whatever to the concept of spontaneous generation of living creatures from earthly substance alone. For instance, “We see mud alone produce eels; they do not proceed from an egg, nor in any other manner; it is the earth alone which gives them birth. ‘Let the earth produce a living creature.’“ It would seem, then, that Basil envisions the first appearance of each kind of living creature occurring in like manner, the earth having been endowed from the beginning with all of the powers necessary to physically realize the whole array of lifeforms created in the mind of God. The elements of the world, created by God from nothing at the beginning, lacked none of the capacities that would be needed in the course of the ages to bring forth what God intended. The economy of the created world was, from the outset, complete”neither cluttered with things that had no useful function nor lacking any capacity integral to its functional economy. In Basil’s words, “Our God has created nothing unnecessarily and has omitted nothing that is necessary.”

In his work De Genesi ad litteram (The Literal Meaning of Genesis ), St. Augustine provides an extensive commentary on the first three chapters of Genesis. His goal is to demonstrate a one-to-one correspondence between the text of these chapters and what actually took place in the creative work of God; in fact, this is precisely how he defines the term “literal” in this endeavor. In contrast to modern biblical literalism, however, Augustine shows no disdain for interpreting certain words and phrases in early Genesis in a figurative sense, but even these figurative readings are firmly bounded by the controlling assumption that Genesis 1–3 is “a faithful record of what happened.”

In constructing his literal reading, Augustine makes extensive use of the analogy of Scripture; the meanings of words or phrases in Genesis are often decided by comparison with other relevant texts. But Augustine is equally insistent that the literal meaning thereby derived may never stand in contradiction to one’s competently derived knowledge about the “earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world,” knowledge that one rightfully “holds to as being certain from reason and experience.”In a tone that leaves no doubt concerning his attitude, Augustine soundly reprimands those Christians who defend interpretations of Scripture that any scientifically knowledgeable non-Christian would recognize as nonsense. “Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books.”

For a number of reasons, Augustine, like Basil, concludes that God created “all things together” in one initial, all-inclusive, and instantaneous creative act. But the initial and simultaneous creation of “all things together,” reported to us within the literary framework of a six-day narrative, should not be taken to mean that all created things suddenly materialized in mature form at the beginning. With considerable labor and repetition, Augustine developed a rather sophisticated program of interpretation by which he sought to distinguish what took place at the beginning from what took place in the course of time. In the beginning, according to Augustine, God called into being all created substance and all creaturely forms. At this beginning all created forms existed both in the mind of God and in the formable substances of the created world. But in the formable substances the creaturely forms did not exist actually, but only potentially. Although the creaturely forms were not yet actualized in visible, material beings, these forms were there potentially in the powers and capacities, called by Augustine “causal reasons” or “seed principles,” with which the Creator had originally endowed the created substances. 

Perhaps we should let Augustine speak for himself on this issue: “But from the beginning of the ages, when day was made, the world is said to have been formed, and in its elements at the same time there were laid away the creatures that would later spring forth with the passage of time, plants and animals, each according to its kind . . . . In all these things, beings already created received at their own proper time their manner of being and acting, which developed into visible forms and natures from the hidden and invisible reasons which are latent in creation as causes . . . . [W]hat He had originally established here in causes He later fulfilled in effects.” Finally, “some works belonged to the invisible days in which He created all things simultaneously, and others belong to the days in which He daily fashions whatever evolves in the course of time from what I might call the primordial wrappers.”

Now, lest we be tempted to infer that Augustine is thereby proposing a macroevolutionary scenario in which these emerging lifeforms are genealogically related, we must immediately note that he in fact offers no suggestion whatsoever of any historical modification of the created “kinds.” Consistent with the world picture of his day, Augustine envisioned each unique “kind” of creature to have been individually conceptualized in the Creator’s initial act of creation and independently actualized as the causal reasons functioned to give material form to the conceptual forms created in the beginning. Standing in the tradition of a hierarchically structured cosmos populated with fixed kinds of creatures, Augustine had sufficient reason to envision the independent creation and formation of each kind. And without any knowledge of genetic variability or of the temporal succession of lifeforms over a multibillion-year timespan, Augustine had no basis for questioning either that tradition or the concept of spontaneous generation.

In the context of our present concern, however, I wish to draw attention, not to the particulars of Augustine’s portrait of God’s creative work, articulated in the conceptual vocabulary of his day, but to one of his underlying presuppositions concerning the character of the created world: the universe was brought into being in a less than fully formed state but endowed with the capacities to transform itself, in conformity with God’s will, from unformed matter into a marvelous array of structures and lifeforms. In other words, Augustine envisioned a Creation that was, from the instant of its inception, characterized by functional integrity. Every category of structure and creature and process was conceptualized by the Creator from the beginning but actualized in time as the created material employed its God-given capacities in the manner and at the time intended by the Creator from the outset.

What is the point of bringing Basil and Augustine into our critique of Johnson’s essay? Are Basil and Augustine to be treated as authorities on the chronology or the historical particulars regarding the formation of species? Of course not. Since their day, fifteen centuries ago, we have learned, for instance, that the spontaneous generation concept of that time fails to be viable. And we have learned that the history of lifeforms spans billions of years and is marked by patterned change. The first organisms were unicellular; today a marvelous diversity of both unicellular and multicellular forms exists. We have learned that species come and go, and that most of the lifeforms that once lived are now extinct. And we have learned that on the molecular level the present array of species exhibit relationships that strongly support the idea—drawn earlier from morphological, biogeographical, and paleobiological considerations—that all species share a common ancestry. (This thesis is most strongly affirmed by similarities, not in the small portion of DNA that functions genetically, but in the greater portion, sometimes called “junk” DNA, in which no similarities at all would be expected on a special or independent creationist picture. In fact, they would have to be considered mischievously misleading.)

No, Basil and Augustine have no lessons for us on matters biological. But as I reflect on the sorry state of contemporary discussion regarding the relationship of Christian belief and evolutionary science, I am convinced that the fruitfulness of our discourse would be vastly improved if we could recover from their theological work what I have come to call “the forgotten doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity.” Basil and Augustine held high views of what God brought into being. The created world envisioned by Basil and Augustine was a world endowed by the Creator with a functionally complete economy”no gaps, no deficiencies, no need for God to overpower matter or to perform theokinetic acts in order to make up for capacities missing in the economy of the created world. (The question of miracles performed by God in a world having such a gapless economy is an entirely different matter and is under no threat from the concept of functional integrity. The issue here is the character of the world within which God acts and with which God interacts.)

But if we grant that molecules and organisms do have the capacities to bring about the genetic and morphological changes envisioned in contemporary biological theorizing, have we then capitulated to naturalism? Are physical/chemical/biological processes like mutation and selection (plus all of the other relevant processes) doing the creating? From a theistic perspective, certainly not. These processes need not and cannot create anything.

I believe that we Christians are warranted in seeing every potentially viable lifeform (or every viable variant of DNA) as something thoughtfully conceived in the mind of the Creator. As did Basil and Augustine, I believe that we may rightfully speak of God calling into being at the beginning, from nothing, all material substance and all creaturely forms (whether inanimate structures or animate lifeforms). And, still standing with Basil and Augustine, I believe that we may rightfully presume that the array of structures and lifeforms now present was not yet present at the beginning, but became actualized in the course of time as the created substances, employing the capacities thoughtfully given to them by God at the beginning, functioned in a gapless creational economy to bring about what the Creator called for and intended from the outset.

In the context of this traditional Christian vision of God’s creative work (notably different from Johnson’s theokinetic picture), we might now wish to employ the vocabulary of twentieth-century science and speak about the full array of functionally viable forms of DNA (and the creatures thereby represented) as constituting a “possibility space” of potential lifeforms—this possibility space itself, along with all connective pathways, being an integral component of the world brought into being at the beginning. Furthermore, in the language of this theistic paradigm of evolutionary creation we would speak of DNA being enabled by the Creator to employ random genetic variation as a means to explore and discover (in contrast to create ) viable pathways and novel lifeforms so that the Creator’s intentions for the formative history of the Creation might be actualized in the course of time.

See, then, what this evolutionary creation paradigm accomplishes: Do material processes have to create? No, the possibility space of viable and historically achievable lifeforms is an integral aspect of the world that God created at the beginning. Material systems need only employ their God-given functional capacities to discover some of the possibilities thoughtfully prepared for them. But, one might ask, how can such “mindless” material processes function to bring about what appears to be the product of “intelligent design”? The point is that they are not really mindless at all. Rather, every one of these processes and every connective pathway in the possibility space of viable creatures is itself a mindfully designed provision from a Creator possessing unfathomable intelligence.

It seems to me that this theistic paradigm provides precisely what the naturalistic (broad) paradigm—the blind watchmaker hypothesis—could not. It provides the answer to the question, How is it possible that such a remarkable array of lifeforms is not only viable but historically realizable within the economy of the world at hand? Could anything less than the infinite creativity and faithful providence of God suffice?

Surely not. Hence my rejection of the blind watchmaker hypothesis of Darwinism, but without the necessity of rejecting the possibility of genealogical continuity along with it.

I have a dream that some day the forgotten doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity will be recovered; that it will once and for all displace all variants of the God-of-the-gaps perspective; that the empirically derived confidence in the concept of genealogical continuity will no longer give apologetic advantage to the proponents of antitheistic naturalism; and that the whole enterprise of scientific theory evaluation will no longer be distorted by counterproductive entanglement with the authentically religious debate between theism and atheism. When that happens, the declarations of atheistic purposelessness offered by Jacques Monod, William Provine, or Richard Dawkins and company will have to be defended on their religious merit alone. They will have lost the services of science, once held hostage by strident preachers of materialism, and once held in distrustful suspicion by a misguided portion of the Christian community. 

  Howard J. Van Till is Professor of Physics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Phillip E. Johnson

Perhaps the best way to start is by answering Howard Van Till’s question: just what would biological history have been like if left to natural phenomena without God’s participation? If God had created a lifeless world, even with oceans rich in amino acids and other organic molecules, and thereafter had left matters alone, life would not have come into existence. If God had done nothing but create a world of bacteria and protozoa, it would still be a world of bacteria and protozoa. Whatever may have been the case in the remote past, the chemicals we see today have no observable tendency or ability to form living cells, and single-celled organisms have no observable tendency or ability to form complex plants and animals. Persons who believe that chemicals unassisted by intelligence can combine to create life, or that bacteria can evolve by natural processes into complex animals, are making an a priori assumption that nature has the resources to do its own creating.

I call such persons metaphysical naturalists. Throughout this reply, as in the original paper, I use the term “naturalism” in what Van Till would call the broad sense. Of course, theists recognize that experience has shown that a great many phenomena have natural causes that are accessible to scientific investigation. To a theist there is nothing surprising about this, because the universe is a product of the mind of God and the inquiring mind of man was created in God’s image. Whether such extraordinary events as the origin of life, the origin of the plant and animal phyla, or the origin of human consciousness can be satisfactorily explained in terms of unintelligent natural causes should be an open question for theists. A person who assumes a priori that such creation events must have scientifically ascertainable material causes is a metaphysical naturalist. If he believes in God he is a theistic naturalist, who limits God’s freedom by the dictates of naturalistic philosophy.

The subject of my essay was not “genealogical continuity,” or “common ancestry,” or even “a gapless economy of creation.” I agree with Howard Van Till that concepts like these can easily be incorporated into a genuinely theistic worldview. My theology does not require that God create by what Van Till calls “theokinetic acts,” or by any other particular method. If God exists at all, He could create by whatever means He chooses, whether or not the choice pleases me, Van Till, or the rulers of evolutionary biology. Determination of the method that God actually employed should be left to unbiased scientific research. On the other hand, theists should not accept a definition of “science” that excludes the possibility of divine action, nor should they accept Darwinian theory uncritically merely because it is the leading naturalistic explanation for life’s diversity and complexity. We ought to scrutinize the evidence independently, and consider the possibility that Darwinists have derived their theory more from naturalistic philosophy than from empirical evidence. Maybe what God chose to do just isn’t known to the evolutionary biologists of today.

My target was the Blind Watchmaker thesis, the crucial Darwinian claim about how very simple life forms were transformed into the highly complex organisms that inhabit the planet today, including ourselves. The Blind Watchmaker thesis says that natural selection, in combination with random mutation, has the kind of creative power needed to make complex plants and animals out of very much simpler predecessors. If Darwinian selection does not have the required creative power, then “evolution” in some general sense may still be true, but science does not know how creative evolution has occurred.

The evidence that Darwinian mechanism either could or did make flowers, insects, whales, and human beings from single-celled microorganisms is not impressive. The fossil record is notoriously inconsistent with the Darwinian model of continuous change in tiny increments. Selective breeding, which in any case presupposes the guiding power of human intelligence, produces change only within the limits of the existing gene pool. The peppered moth story, which involves no creation whatsoever, is still the most important example of the creative power of natural selection. If one considers only the empirical evidence, the Blind Watchmaker thesis is a fantastic extrapolation from clearly inadequate evidence.

The fundamental error that theistic evolutionists like Van Till make is to assume that, because the modern neo-Darwinian evolutionary synthesis is classified as “science,” it is supported by impartially evaluated empirical evidence. This is not true, and I think Van Till at some level realizes that it is not true. He accuses me of “treating the absence of evidence (say, for some process of activity thought to be an important contribution to evolutionary change) as if it were evidence for the absence of full genealogical continuity.” The process or activity in question is the Darwinian process of creation by mutation and selection. The absence of evidence for that process is hardly something to be brushed aside as “rhetoric.” It means that, contrary to the expansive claims of Darwinists, empirical investigation has not discovered a mechanism by which the fantastically complex structures of plants and animals can be built from vastly simpler organisms like bacteria and protozoa.

Whether “genealogical continuity” in some sense unites all living things is another question. Certain features, like the existence of natural groups and common “junk DNA” sequences, support an inference that there was some sort of process of development from some common source. We may call that process “common ancestry,” but it does not necessarily follow that we are referring to the ordinary process of reproduction that we observe in today’s world, where ancestors give birth to descendants very much like themselves. Normal reproduction is not known to produce radically new organs or organisms, and if it did so it would have to proceed one tiny step at a time. In fact there is a great deal of evidence that innovative transformations must have involved organisms doing something “different from what they ordinarily do.” The hypothetical single-celled organism that produced as descendants all the animal phyla appearing suddenly in the Cambrian era—without leaving a trace of the developmental process in the fossil record—was not doing just what single-celled organisms ordinarily do. The same is true of the hypothetical four-footed mammal ancestor of whales and bats. What actually did cause such a vast transformation remains utterly mysterious, as far as anyone can determine from scientific evidence.

That is where the philosophy of scientific naturalism comes in, to make a weak case practically invulnerable to criticism. Naturalism teaches that intelligence and purpose did not come into existence until they evolved, and so chemical and biological evolution had to be purposeless, unguided processes. The task of science is to propose plausible mechanisms by which such naturalistic evolution could have occurred. Darwinian selection is the most plausible candidate that anyone has been able to suggest, and so despite the poor fit with the evidence it holds its position as the “best scientific theory.” The evidence that is consistent with this theory is cited as confirmation. The evidence that conflicts with it is ignored, or dismissed as unimportant.

Metaphysical naturalists understandably don’t require much confirming evidence for a thesis that is so congenial to their philosophy. They also see no point in criticisms that point out the inadequacy of the supporting evidence. If this particular version of the Blind Watchmaker thesis is faulty, then something else very much like it must be true anyway. What else could have happened? If one believes in the existence of an omnipotent creator, a lot else could have happened. Nonetheless, many of the most influential voices in Christian academia are as protective of Darwinian “scientific theory” as the metaphysical naturalists. Even though they acknowledge that practically all the leading Darwinists of the twentieth century have employed their theory in popular presentations and textbooks to discredit the idea that God had anything to do with our creation, these Christian intellectuals insist that the theory itself is entirely benign, and even conducive to a theistic interpretation.

Van Till exposes the reason for this protective attitude clearly enough in his opening paragraph, when he accuses me of trying to “perpetuate the association of Christian belief with the rejection of contemporary scientific theorizing, thereby ensuring that the gulf between the academy and the sanctuary will only grow wider.” As he sees it, the job of Christian intellectuals is not to challenge the picture of reality provided by a science committed to naturalism, but to accept the picture and show how it can be given a theistic interpretation. Reconciliation is achieved by softening the blunt edges of the Darwinian claim with soothing language. When translated into the vocabulary of theistic evolution, the claims of the Darwinists sound innocent enough. All the scientists are really saying, we are told, is that there is evidence for “genealogical continuity”—like junk DNA sequences—and modest claims like that do not rule out the possibility that evolution is a God-directed process. More than that, “evolution” can be likened to the complex theories of creation stated by revered early Christian authorities like Augustine-provided, of course, that we ignore the naturalistic metaphysical baggage that the word “evolution” carries when it is used in the Darwinist literature. If we let such reassurance lull our critical faculties to sleep we can sleep in peace. Science and religion can lie down together like the lion and the lamb, as long as the lambs do not provoke the lions by challenging their theories.

I do not doubt that Van Till and others can interpret “evolution” to their Christian audiences in a genuinely theistic manner. What those audiences need to understand, however, is that theistic evolution is not what the reigning scientific and educational authorities have in mind when they propose to teach every school child that “evolution is fact.” They mean fully naturalistic evolution, complete with the Blind Watchmaker thesis, because they regard metaphysical naturalism as the indispensable philosophical basis of science. If persons like Van Till were in charge of science education things might be different, but in fact theists have very little influence. It is the view of evolution taken by authorities like Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, and Douglas Futuyma that actually teaches the public and the students, and that view is rigorously and uncompromisingly naturalistic. 

It is Van Till and not I who characterized theistic naturalism as “a transparently incoherent stance that no rational or intelligent Christian could possibly take.” I do think that theistic naturalism is ultimately incoherent, but the incoherence is not obvious and it is understandable that many rational and intelligent Christians have overlooked it. First, we have all been taught to think of “science” as a neutral, objective process of fact-finding that is not biased in favor of a comprehensive metaphysical naturalism. In consequence the conclusions of science must be accepted by anyone who wants to be considered rational by the standards of the academic world. When “science says” that natural selection can accomplish wonders of creativity, that is the end of the matter. Religion cannot survive in a naturalistic academic culture if it opposes science, and so religion must accommodate to science on the best terms it can get. Effectively, that means that God must be exiled to that shadowy realm before the Big Bang, and He must promise to do nothing thereafter that might cause trouble between theists and the scientific naturalists.

In short, theistic naturalism is best understood as an intellectual strategy for coping with a desperate situation. It was barely tenable as a philosophical position as long as the leading scientists believed, or pretended to believe, that science is a limited research activity which does not aspire to occupy the entire realm of knowledge. Today many of the world’s most famous physicists are proclaiming the imminent prospect of a “theory of everything”—and they do mean everything. It may be that these physicists—and the evolutionary biologists who talk just like them—are no longer practicing “science” and have become metaphysicians. What is important is that they mix metaphysics and science together and present the whole package to the public with all the awe-inspiring authority of science. I have read that 500 million persons have seen Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series, many of them in the public schools, and very few of them were warned that “What you are about to see is metaphysics, not science.” The Time cover story for December 28, 1992 says it all: the title asks “What Does Science Tell Us About God?” The answer is plenty, and more all the time.

Obviously I offended Van Till with that phrase “theistic naturalism.” In a way I am sorry for that, for he is a decent and honorable person whom I would like to have for a friend. But it is necessary to send a wake-up call to a Christian academia that has complacently assumed that mild protests against the most explicitly metaphysical claims by scientists are all that is needed to maintain an intellectually respectable place for theistic religion. The situation is far more serious than that. Metaphysical naturalism has taken over mainstream science, not in a superficial sense but in a profound sense. Purportedly factual claims—like the power of mutation and selection to create complex organs—are based upon philosophical reasoning rather than empirical investigation.

The real danger is not from the metaphysical statements that come explicitly labelled as such, but from the implicit metaphysics that generates seemingly objective facts and theories. Van Till writes that we must carefully distinguish “between scientific theorizing and naturalistic propaganda.” I agree, but we also need to recognize that the persons who now rule science do not themselves know how to make that distinction, and do not even want to make it. We will have to teach them that naturalistic philosophy and scientific investigation are not the same thing, and we cannot even begin to do that if our first priority is to avoid conflict with the rulers of science. 

Phillip E. Johnson, Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, is a frequent contributor to First Things .