Providential Evolution

Dear reader – This blog post reflects a novel and probably controversial theme relating teleology (purpose) to evolution. I have written a much more detailed manuscript regarding these ideas, including the specific scientific background for them, which will be published in the March 2017 issue of Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith (PSCF), the journal of the  ASA. I will post a link to the paper once it is published, and will be happy to provide pdf reprints to any who request them. Meanwhile the following serves as a summary and introduction. 

The world view of Evolutionary Creationism (EC), to which I subscribe, holds that God created the universe, the laws of physics that govern the universe, and the laws of life including evolution by natural selection as first postulated by Darwin. This world view is theological, not scientific. The scientific premise of EC, unlike the case with ID or YEC, is no different from the scientific premise of Darwinian evolution.

The theological view of EC as presented above says little about God’s role in creating and sustaining the world of life, and it makes no theological statement about how evolution can be viewed in a Christian context. Individual ECs may hold to various beliefs about the intersection of scientific evolution and the creative power of God’s will.

My own view is that evolution is God’s tool for the creation and sustenance of life. Like other ECs, I take no exception to the scientific findings and conclusions of evolutionary biology, including the basic Darwinian tenets of inherited variation and natural selection as sufficient drivers of evolutionary change. The idea I would like to propose now, which I call “Providential Evolution”, is a strictly theological one, and is not meant to replace or modify the naturalistic scientific understanding of Darwinian evolution as the foundation for biological science.

Providential Evolution (PE) holds that for Christians, evolution is strong evidence of God’s providential work in creation. We can see this in the very mechanism of evolution, which is based on a teleological mechanism that allows a linkage between the genotype and the phenotype of all living creatures. The genetic code and the protein synthesis cellular machinery are inherently purpose-driven, which is manifested by the technical name for this process: translation. Any translation, whether it is from one language to another, or from an obscure code to a meaningful statement, or from an observation to a conclusion, is inherently teleological. Translations (or at least very accurate ones) from one system to another (as happens in all living cells, where a nucleic acid based code is translated into a different chemistry) do not occur spontaneously or accidentally, or by random chance. The translator has a purpose; namely, to convert some information for a reason. It has been stated that information can be found in the non-living world, but I cannot imagine effective, accurate translation (conversion of information from one form into a more useful form) taking place outside of life. Being useful, is itself a purposeful term that has no significance in the natural universe apart from life.

This does not imply that the biochemical cellular translation system was designed or created. That could be true or not, but it is not relevant to the issue of purpose. Even if the system arose by some combination of blind chance and non-Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms, with no divine input, the actual functioning of the system is still teleological because of its enormous power to translate information from the inherited genotype into the phenotypic characteristics of cells.

Theological arguments do not or should not include scientific claims, and PE does not do so. But PE does make theological claims, and the main one is that evolution makes God’s providence in the biological world apparent to the believer. For the nonbeliever, PE simply acknowledges that Darwinian evolution has a direction, something that many atheistic evolutionists hold to be true. But for theists, PE goes further and holds that the direction of evolution toward greater complexity – including multicellularity, efficient energy conversion (in eukaryotes), the vertebrate body plan, the development of neural circuitry and the emergence of brains – all have a purpose determined by God’s will. Furthermore, in ways that we cannot understand, it is God’s providence that exercises that will on the biological world, much as His providence answers our prayers and allowed the miracles of His own incarnation and resurrection on Earth.

The purpose of PE is not to persuade the nonbeliever to see the hand of God in the majesty of life, but to re-assure the Christian believer that evolution is not only consistent with, but a fundamental part of God’s work. We believe that God granted us humans a soul, and that we are created in His image. But the soul must inhabit a body, and the body of man was created by God using providential evolution.

Did the evolution of man involve God’s providential intercession? As a scientist, I would say that is not a question that can be answered or even properly asked. But as a Christian, I can say that I believe the answer is yes.

 

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17 Responses to Providential Evolution

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on this important topic. I look forward to that issue of PSCF.

  2. Paul Bruggink says:

    I like the separation of the scientific and theological aspects of Evolutionary Creationism.I will be looking forward to the March 2017 issue of PSCF. I also like the label Providential Evolution. I hope it gains some traction.

  3. SheilaDeeth says:

    I like the PE label. I learned the basic concepts of evolution from the nuns in my (English) elementary school–didn’t realize until much later that Christians might question evolution’s being God’s tool.

    • Well, two votes in favor of PE is more than I expected. And I hear you about Catholicism and evolution. When I first heard the call of Christ, I wanted to be Catholic, for a number of reasons, especially the Church’s attitude toward evolution and science. Alas, it didnt work out (that would be the subject of several posts) but I am quite happy as a Methodist.

  4. Jon Garvey says:

    Sy

    Musing on your article (for the pre-print of which many thanks) in the light of recent discussions on providence, I’m beginning to think tentatively how the rediscovery of “inherent teleology” in evolution might help both scientific and theological understanding.

    What you describe is “direction” or “purpose” built into evolution itself, as opposed to the direction in which God might “push” evolution (as it were) from outside – the latter being something that the theist might easily deduce from the former.

    If that’s true, it’s helpful, for it means that statements like “evolution creates through randomness” are statements about the limitations and methods of natural teleology, not about God’s throwing dice. In other words, it’s like saying that predators take opportunities offered by chance as they roam around, without implying that God is trusting to chance when, as Scripture says, “he finds prey for the young lions”.

    We would then, perhaps, have to refine our description by keeping science and theology apart and saying something like “Life diversifies through evolution – God creates through providence”. That would certainly please our Orthodox friend George who is careful not to restrict God to a scientific theory!

  5. Jon

    Yes, I think that is what I am getting at in the paper. I was careful (had to be) not to insist that evolutionary teleology is likely itself a result of divine purpose (though I do say that is certainly a possibility). So, if my point in the paper is valid, then your last paragraph is right. But, what I really believe, and of course would have a very hard time getting published, is that a demonstration (or at least a hypothesis) that the translation system confers a form of final causality on biological change from within, is the camel’s nose in the tent. In this case, the camel being God’s universal providence (which I believe is behind the design of the translation system in the first place) and the tent being the “very large tent” of EC that we keep hearing about. I think you get my drift.

    In this post, where I am the sole reviewer (except for my wife who edits and fixes everything), I went just a bit further in my not so subtle effort to bridge the scientific case for evolutionary teleology with my belief in the overwhelming providence of God’s creation.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Sy

      Aristotle believed nature was full of final causation (teleology) without concluding, except perhaps in the vaguest way, that it might originate in God. So in principle teleonomy/teleology is no threat to atheistic naturalism. Thomas Nagel, for example, argues that teleology must exist, whilst clinging to his atheism stolidly.

      However, it does indicate that nature must be taken as far more than “mindless matter in motion”, which rather unseats Epicurus and cries out for an explanation beyond nature itself. Atheistic intentionality is, I think, inherently unstable. And that appears to be one reason why teleology in biology is resisted vigorously even when it’s waving a red flag, as I believe you have successfully demonstrated in this work.

      • Well, if I have indeed successfully demonstrated that the red flag is waving, I would be quite happy. I fully expect lots of resistance, of course, but as you said, its biology itself that is doing the flag waving, and now that I am safely retired and immune to professional disdain, I have found the “courage” to try to point out the obvious. We shall see.

  6. resonate47 says:

    Great post Sy. I fully agree with the PE approach. Looking forward to reading the full essay!

  7. NoahWhite says:

    Thanks for this, Sy. Great timing for me personally as I’ve been pondering and wrestling with this issue of late. So excited to read the full thing, and I pray that this opens up a whole new way of looking at orthodox sovereignty and God’s creation! I certainly will be sharing it with everyone I can.

  8. Jay Johnson says:

    Bravo! Let me know when the article is available. (Note: You can delete this part, but change “intersession” to “intercession”, and don’t you dare blame the wife!)

    • Thanks, Jay, and welcome to the blog. I will send you a pdf when it comes out if you need one. And thanks for the editorial note. I wouldn’t want to start a whole new theology about the meaning of “God’s intersession”. See you on Biologos.

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