According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for
this world to recreate, reclaim, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of
explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. - anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. - anon
... Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument.
There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is
irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a
power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table
to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace,
reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants
us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. - anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Biologos - Evolution, Chance, and God

In introducing Neil Ormerod's article today I am reminded of several earlier articles I had published a year or two ago that dealt with these same issues. In the Index on Science and Religion, under the article entitled How God Created by Evolution: A Proposed Theory of Man's Evolutionary Development. I wrote specifically on four issues: the problem of original sin (category: The Fall); the uniqueness of humanity (category: the Image of God); the origin of sin (category: Metaphysics); the problems of typologies between Adam and Christ (category: Hermeneutics). Within each discussion I purposely incorporated an evolutionary point of view into popular church doctrines showing how one might integrate a plain Scriptural understanding of Genesis 1-3 with today's postmodern, contemporary sciences. Not in a typical one-to-one correlation but by creating a new set of hypotheses set within a broader (a-typical) reading of Genesis' creation texts (a literary reading of Scripture vs. a literal reading of its pages). Approached in this fashion, it allowed for popular biblical dogma to become enlarged by an external understanding of the biblical text without confusion to, or distrust of, the Word of God. It was a simple proposal that I couldn't find anywhere else  at the time. And it wedded the unnecessarily combative ideas behind theology and science in an elegant simplicity that I strongly needed to see written down by someone, somewhere.

Since those years I have steadily written about each of these issues from one perspective or another, speaking to a biblical dogma that can be enlarged without losing the God of the Scriptures. Consequently, I necessarily had to re-enter into discussions of sin and free will; chance and randomness within an evolutionary created order; God and creation; revelation and interpretation. But by allowing the possibility of evolution into the gilded pages of the biblical text required a further wholesale evaluation of biblical doctrines. When doing so, I surprisingly found a conservative interpretation that remained true to Christian orthodoxy but was now couched within a contemporary language that could speak relevantly to the church's postmodern generations. Rather than losing God and the Bible, I found God and His Word, in an amazing revelation of inspiration and illumination as led by the Holy Spirit.

And because of these studies and writings it has led to a bolder, clearer witness of biblically extrapolated thoughts and ideas I didn't think possible. As a result, I could now speak to the place of Open Theism and Evolutionary Teleology; to a Weak view (and not a Strong view) of the Anthropic Principle without diminishing God's power or provision; to God's Sovereignty without requiring the narrower Reformed idea of creational "control" that would misunderstand and confuse divine power, providence, plan, and purpose against scientific language; play chance and randomness off against one another within God's evolutionary design and still see the guiding hand of a wise Creator God throughout its processes, warp, and woof; and hear agnostic/atheistic arguments for what they were saying - as well as what they were not completely saying - about a God who isn't there based on their deterministic beliefs and/or modernistic conjectures. Overall, a good theology will allow for fuller arguments and better questions. Theologies that these would-be critics of the Christian faith don't have or hold except to point out their dissatisfactions and disagreements.

Hence, proceeding towards an Evolutionary Creational understanding of Scripture unlocked a lot of biblical confusion that had come with my older theology when based upon the idea of an immediate creation that had become so very out-of-touch with today's sciences, external discoveries, and scholarship. I needed a relevant Bible that was updated and contemporary. Not one held back in older systematic thought forms (epistemologies) and structures (hermeneutics). Some of these concerns will be evidenced in today's following article as you will see. And for those wishing further discussion on an area that once was so wide and troubling, I have attempted to guide readers within the documents of this site providing appropriate topical discussion along with an occasional index to those topics as I have had time to create or update those indexes.

To all I pray God's peace upon mind and heart. While hoping at the same time to provoke, prod, and poke towards a wider, fuller, approach to God's Word. One that might accord with our generation's more current scholarship will keeping the biblical witness and gospel of Christ in contemporary lockstep with today's generations of seekers and wanderers, lost and perplexed. Thank you for your consideration.

R.E. Slater
January 21, 2014

*It should be noted that Ormerod would like to retain classic theism in some sense. Many of my earliest articles have done the same in similar language. However, Process Theology has been utilized when, and where, it makes sense (Ormerod has noted this too). However, I suspect my theological position will be a bit more open to process theology and not as opposed to it as he seems to pose in his article below. For myself, my halfway house is found in the combine between classical theology and process theology which I describe as Relational Theology. In it, I will allow for a syncretism of thought between two disparate approaches to God... allowing neither position to hold the other hostage. Hence, Ormerod's arguments for a classical perspective are understood but when doing so his rejections to process thought will hold their own dilemmas when doing so. Thus my openness to either position, but not strictly, as I wish to seek a third, more mitigating language where possible, pertinent, or necessary. A position known as Relational (Process) Theology.

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Evolution, Chance, and God

by Neil Ormerod
January 20, 2014

Today's entry was written by Neil Ormerod. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author,
not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

In dealing with the theory of evolution the Christian believer must consider a number of difficult questions.

1- The first is how to remain faithful to the biblical text if one is to accept a scientific account which seems to negate the traditional interpretation of the creation account in Genesis 1-2.

2 - The second and perhaps more difficult question concerns the problem that arises in relation to Genesis 3, the account of the Fall, and the subsequent impact on our understanding of redemption.

3 - Finally there is the more general question of God’s relationship to the created order.

In this short piece I would like to focus on this third question, on the relationship between God and the created order. Put simply the question is, how does God act in the world? I want to be clear here that I’m not talking about instances of miraculous interventions whereby God acts with sovereign freedom, but about the “normal” course of events, the day-to-day out-workings of divine providence. Specifically the question is, Can God bring about the divine purpose through events which are chance events? Of course there are difficulties about how one might define “chance events” here, but the underlying issue concerns questions of randomness and its place in the relationship between God and creation.

Indeed it seems to me that this issue underlies some of the current debates around evolution. For example, the basic argument of people such as Dawkins is as follows:
  • arguments for the existence of God depend on God being some sort of designer;
  • evolution depends on chance (genetic mutations, natural selection);
  • chance is incompatible with divine design;
  • so God is not involved in evolution or in creation as a whole;
  • therefore God is a redundant hypothesis.
Dawkins’s rejection of a creator God is linked to the position that God cannot be involved in random processes.

On the other hand I think we can find the same assumption operative in those who adopt the position of Intelligent Design. Their argument is as follows:
  • chance is not enough to explain the process of evolution (for which they provide apparent evidence, viz.,irreducible complexity);
  • the only way to fix the gaps in the evolutionary process is to posit an Intelligent Designer who intervenes in the system;
  • therefore God is still a viable option.
What I think is going on here is a fusing of Christian belief in an efficacious divine providence, with a scientific determinism that arose out of the success of the Newtonian worldview. The ghost of Deism, linking God’s action with the “necessary” and deterministic laws of nature resulting in a clock-work universe, haunts the debate. Indeed the logic is compelling: What God wills, necessarily happens; and this necessity is conveyed through the scientific determinism of Newtonian mechanics. There is no chance because God operates through necessary scientific laws. If there is chance, on the other hand, God cannot be involved.

The Tension of Semantics

Recognition of the force of the tension between divine design and contingency of outcome was not invented by Deism, though Deism did give the argument a certain scientific respectability. In the Summa contra Gentiles [henceforth SCG] medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas deals with questions concerning divine providence and its relation to chance and necessity. The objections raised by our modern debates are already evident.
If all things that are done here below, even chance events, are subject to divine providence [read: divine design], then, seemingly, either providence cannot be certain [read: there is no real design], or else all things happen by necessity [read: there is no chance]. (SCG, 3, c.94.)
This is the issue underlying the debate between Dawkins and Intelligent Design. However Aquinas does not accept either of their conclusions. Among his long and detailed response we find the following illuminating comment:
If God foresees that this event will be, it will happen, just as the second argument suggested. But it will occur in the way that God foresaw that it would be. Now, He foresaw that it would occur by chance. So, it follows that, without fail, it will occur by chance and not necessarily. (SCG, 3, c.94)
Certainly Aquinas could see no contradiction between God acting through chance events and the certainty of divine design.

This same conclusion was adopted in the document “Communion and Stewardship” published in 2004 by the International Theological Commission, a body established to advise the Catholic Church on theological debates. Its comments on the present debate over evolution are instructive.
But it is important to note that … true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree. Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation ... Divine causality can be active in a process that is both contingent and guided. Any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so.
This notion of “radically differ in kind and not only in degree” corresponds to Aquinas’s distinction between God as primary cause of being, and secondary created causes, which are genuine causes in themselves, but are only able to operate because God causes them to exist as genuine causes (see Rev. Austriaco’s recent post on this issue).

Indeed it is not difficult to find analogies in our own experience which can help us understand the randomness and purposefulness are not opposed. Consider the link between smoking and lung cancer. It is well established that smoking causes lung cancer with a certain statistical frequency. We know that if we reduce the rate of smoking in the general public we will reduce the incidence of lung cancer. Suppose we introduce a public health advertising campaign to reduce the incidence of smoking. Some people will see the ad, others will not. Some people will be moved by the ad to quit smoking, others will not. Some will succeed in quitting, others will not. At each step along the way there will be an instance of chance variation around a statistical norm. In the end if the campaign is successful we will see a decrease in the number of deaths by lung cancer. We will have achieved our goal intelligently using a method full of chance processes. Perhaps the dichotomy between chance and purposefulness is somewhat overstated.

None of these ideas precludes the possibility of special creation, or the interventions of an Intelligent Designer, but it does remove anxiety that the adoption of an evolutionary perspective is necessarily to adopt a materialistic and atheistic worldview. The affirmation of genuine chance and randomness in the universe does not rob the universe of meaning and purpose. In fact it creates the opportunity for genuinely novel things to occur, not in a mechanical and pre-determined way as the necessary outcome of pre-existing conditions but as truly “unpredictable” in terms of those pre-existing conditions. And so, novel events of quite low probability can still arise because in a universe as big, and as old, as the one we live in, even things with a very low probability of occurring can happen somewhere, sometime. And all this can occur within a framework of divine providence utilising statistical means to achieve God’s purpose.

Is Process Thought Necessary?

Significantly all this can be accommodated within the framework of classical theism, the belief that God is eternal, immutable, and omnipotent. Some, particularly those who have adopted the process framework of Alfred North Whitehead, argue that in order to accommodate the contingent, the novel and genuinely unpredictable, it is necessary to posit contingency in God. As process theologian Charles Hartshorne puts it:
The entire history of philosophical theology, from Plato to Whitehead, can be focused on the relations between three propositions:
  1. The world is mutable and contingent;
  2. The ground of its possibility is a being unconditionally and in all respects necessary and immutable;
  3. The necessary being, God, has ideally complete knowledge of the world.
[Together] they imply the contradiction: a wholly non-contingent being has contingent knowledge. 
(Charles Hartshorne, Aquinas to Whitehead: Seven Centuries of Metaphysics of Religion (Milwaukee: Marquette University Publications, 1976), 15.)
The difficulty that Hartshorne is alluding to is the apparent paradox of how this “wholly non-contingent being has contingent knowledge”; that is, How can God know things “in advance” that occur by chance?

What the process position does not take into account is that God’s knowledge is not a passive receptive knowledge, but an active and creative knowledge. God’s knowledge creates reality, it does not simply grasp a reality as already existing. As with the positions of Dawkins and Intelligent Design, the underlying assumption is that this divine creative act precludes chance and contingency. To accommodate contingency, the God of process thought is no longer a genuine creator of all that is, but can be surprised by novelty as new things emerge in the world. It is difficult to see how this aligns with the sovereign God of Christian belief.


[note by R.E. Slater: I do not share the same sympathies here as Ormerod does.... My inference from process thought is that "divine creative act precludes chance and contingency" only on the basis of an evolving world set alone upon itself (the s-c-i-e-n-c-e side of the discussion). However, as set within the metaphysical affirmation for the Sovereignty of God (the t-h-e-o-l-o-g-y side of the discussion), this cannot be the case because all things proceed from Him by His designs and commands. Hence, Ormerod's argument is an argument of epistemological preference and not a factual statement leading to any closing arguments.]


Significantly, process thought also makes God subject to time, temporal, and changing. In our book, Creator God, evolving world (Fortress Press, 2013), we argue in fact that such a position is incompatible with an Einsteinian account of relativity, because it privileges one timeframe (God’s time) above all others. So in seeking to accommodate itself to the scientific account of evolution, in fact process thought falls foul of what we know from Einstein’s account of relativity. See Chapter 3 for details.


[note by R.E. Slater: This is true. Process theology in fact proposes that God IS subject to time, temporality , and is changing in His experiential relationship with His creation. It is what gives to us an OPEN universe and an OPEN future. However, this does not discount that God is not leading all time and space, event and history, to a purposeful conclusion. Just a conclusion that is open, temporal, and changing. Classic Theism's definitive eschatologies would allow this too, and must allow it as can be seen in the general confusion of the church in just HOW God will redeem all creation. The future is known only so far as God is there. It is unknown as to its end and destiny except for the fact that all will be redeemed.

Choosing classical theology's closed system (or, non-open system) prevents these kinds of discussions. It leads to a closed bible. A closed faith. And a closed God. None of which are desirable. Process Theology opens up the bible. Opens up one's closed faith with its set boundaries. And opens up a closed God who is impassive to our peril and mechanistic in His response to our human / creational dilemmas. The charm to process thought is this very aspect of holding to a God in experiential relationship to His creation.

As such, this God feels our pain. Is in sympathy with our suffering. And wishes to provide meaning to a life that can appear meaningless when held in the colder streams of classical theology. Free will is everything in this discussion. Both with God and with His creation. Nothing is predetermined and yet all is being determined by a Sovereign God whom we can't explain and should not box in within our preferred metaphysical systems.]

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Neil Ormerod is research Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University, Sydney Australia, and co-author with Cynthia Crysdale of Creator God, evolving world (Fortress Press, 2013). He is widely published in leading international theological journals and has another book, A Public God: Natural Theology Reconsidered, under contact with Fortress Press, to appear, 2014.