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Book Reviews, Christianity and Science, Science, Theistic Evolutionism

Book Review: “Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique” Part 1- Definition(s)

Crossway has published a book entitled Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique edited by J.P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, et al. The book is mammoth- right around 1000 pages of text. As the title suggests, it purports to give a comprehensive refutation of the position of theistic evolution. Due to its huge size and scope, I’ve decided to break my review up into multiple posts. I do not claim to be an expert in every field this book touches upon–that would be impossible. Instead, I’ll offer comments on those areas I took notes and had interactions with in my own reading.

In this first part of the review, I want to focus on the book’s definition of theistic evolution.

Definition(s)

A book of this scope must have a working definition of that with which it interacts. “Theistic evolution,” or as many proponents of this idea now label it, “evolutionary creation” is quite a broad field with people of many different perspectives. For the sake of interacting with this book, I will stick to its nomenclature of “theistic evolution” while sometimes simply shortening it to TE. Appropriately enough, after the front matter, the introduction by longtime proponent of Intelligent Design Stephen C. Meyer has, as its topic, the definition of theistic evolution. After highlighting various definitions of “evolution” itself, such as “change over time,” “common descent,” “creative power of natural selection/random variation,” and more specific details on each level. Then, Meyer notes that there are different concepts of theistic evolution itself even among proponents. However, it is not really until the next section, in Wayne Grudem’s overview chapter, that we discover the editors’ agreed upon definition of theistic evolution:

God created matter and after that did not guide or intervene or act directly to cause any empirically detectable change in the natural behavior of matter until all living things had evolved by purely natural processes. (67)

For whatever reason, this agreed-upon definition of theistic evolution doesn’t actually appear in the introduction that is supposed to define theistic evolution, but that’s just a minor problem of strange oversight. Grudem then cites Francis Collins and Karl Giberson in support of this definition. I don’t have access to the work cited, but the quote is not a definition from the two authors but rather a statement that just says their model doesn’t require “intrusions from the outside” for the creative process.

The definition the editors agreed upon for this work, then, has two primary parts: an affirmation and a denial. The affirmation is simple: God created matter.” The question of what is meant by “matter” or what distinctions may be made between life and non-life are ignored in this book, though I imagine that they are of great importance to fully understanding the distinctiveness of various positions of theistic evolution.[1] The second part of the definition is the denial, and it has several components. It essentially boils down to saying that God did not specially intervene in any aspect of the development of life on earth. It is interesting that the majority of this definition is negative–that is, it is almost entirely a definition by denial.

Due to the broad diversity among theistic evolutionists, there will be plenty of disagreement with this definition. It is clear the editors needed a working definition, but it is not clear why they chose to use this rather than draw more explicitly from major TE definitions used by primary thinkers.  Indeed, Biologos, the largest theistic evolutionist organization, provides its own, in depth look at the beliefs that are typical of their position. Among these are:

We believe that God created the universe, the earth, and all life over billions of years. God continues to sustain the existence and functioning of the natural world, and the cosmos continues to declare the glory of God. Therefore, we reject ideologies such as Deism that claim the universe is self-sustaining, that God is no longer active in the natural world, or that God is not active in human history.

We believe that the diversity and interrelation of all life on earth are best explained by the God-ordained process of evolution with common descent. Thus, evolution is not in opposition to God, but a means by which God providentially achieves his purposes. Therefore, we reject ideologies that claim that evolution is a purposeless process or that evolution replaces God[2]

Looking at these affirmations, it becomes clear that the definition offered in in this book will be controversial. After all, more than one author uses the editors’ definition to say that theistic evolutionists deny that God created life on Earth, while the faith statement of Biologos explicitly affirms the very same thing. Of course, the question is one of means, and this is exactly what is at question throughout much of this book and the debate between theistic evolutionists and Christians of other persuasions. But it is important not to simply define out of existence affirmations another group makes. This will be a problem throughout Theistic Evolution.

Going forward in the book, there are many times where individual authors rely directly upon the editors’ definition of TE in order to make a point. As such, the definition looms large in the work as a whole–perhaps too large. When so many points rely on a definition of a word that may be contentious in itself, those points seem to lose some weight. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is found in Wayne Grudem’s chapter in which he lists 12 doctrines that, allegedly, all TEs must deny (785). Some of the points he listed as TEs denying are, in my reading, not generally denied by TEs. Certainly, some of them are accurate, but they rely so heavily on paring down the broadness of TE thought that it makes it seem to be nearly a straw man.

 

Conclusion

I’ll draw my comments on this section to a close here, but will be continuing my review of the book in the following weeks.

Notes

[1] See, for example, the brief affirmation about creation made on the Biologos website: “in light of the Christian narrative — in which a rational God intentionally created a universe congenial to life — the fine tuning of the universe makes sense.” Thus, according to this theistic evolutionist organization, the creation of matter included a “fine tuning” of the universe at large, making it “congenial to life,” among other things. Source: https://biologos.org/common-questions/gods-relationship-to-creation/biologos-and-christianity

[2] See the full statement in “What We Believe.”

 

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

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SDG.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

6 thoughts on “Book Review: “Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique” Part 1- Definition(s)

  1. It seems to me that BioLogos has left the authors in a difficult situation. If this is their own best definition of the process for which their organization was formed (to endorse), it leaves much to be assumed by anyone on either side of the topic. A belief statement is clearly not a “definition” but rather a fundamental philosophy, and theirs is quite informative. But in terms of defining their concept of “evolution”, what I can gather from the statement is this:

    1. God created everything, including “all life” …
    2. God continues to be active…
    3. Diversity and interrelation of all life are best explained by evolution with common descent…
    4. Evolution is a means by which God, providentially achieves his purposes…
    5. Evolution is not purposeless…
    6. Evolution does not replace God…

    Is this what you are getting as well from their belief statement?

    I never thought about it before, but it is surprising that they do not (assuming they don’t) have a better definition of the very issue for which their organization has been formed. If those six items above are correct (and I do not know if they are or not) then it seems that everything from old-earth creationism, through intelligent design, on to theistic evolution (how the authors describe it) could generally fit under this broad umbrella.

    Finally, do you think that the authors should be criticized for a definition that may be controversial if there is no, clearly stated, definition available from BioLogos?

    I’m excited to see how your review continues and where the comments go. This is a great topic and I think it generate a lot of passionate discussion!!

    Posted by thehonestskepticatgmaildotcom | January 22, 2018, 12:20 PM
    • I don’t think the problem is with Biologos here. The problem is with anyone who wants to shoehorn all theistic evolutionists into the same narrow definition. You see, from the earliest periods of theistic evolution–in other words, from the very time Darwin published–theistic evolutionists have affirmed things like God decisively sustaining creation, having final ends in evolution (philosophically speaking), and the like. Some theistic evolutionists vary on several of these beliefs. But the authors of this book, and plenty of other people besides, attempt to make all TEs effectively into naturalists, which they aren’t. I’ll get into this a bit later–the next part of the review, actually.

      As for Biologos, a simple definition may be what they say on the page in which they discuss how Biologos is different from ID, creationism, and ‘evolutionism’. They state simply, “We fully affirm that the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God. We also accept the science of evolution as the best description for how God brought about the diversity of life on earth.” I think this is probably the best simple definition of TE I have seen. It allows for the full range of TE beliefs about what the Bible teaches and what is necessary there, while also noting that, simply put, TEs do agree that evolution simply is the best explanation for diversity of life and that evolution is that means of creation. That link is well worth exploring as it shows how they are quite distinct from these other groups.

      You wrote, “it seems that everything from old-earth creationism, through intelligent design, on to theistic evolution (how the authors describe it) could generally fit under this broad umbrella.” I don’t agree. OECs are almost entirely anti-evolution, as can be seen in the major American group for OEC, Reasons to Believe. Thus, they would disagree with points 3-6 as you draw them out. IDs would disagree on the extent to which common descent is correct. The TE would say that all life on earth shares ancestry, while the ID theorist often allows for either special creation of species or special creation allowing for more diversity (such as suddenly making distinct phyla at the Cambrian Explosion). Thus, even from the points you listed, you would exclude these other groups.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | January 22, 2018, 8:22 PM
      • I forgot to give myself a plug, too! I wanted to mention that the taxonomy of views on creation is sometimes oversimplified. I wrote a post giving a very brief taxonomy of the positions that are represented.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | January 22, 2018, 8:27 PM

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Book Review: “Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique” Part 4: Theistic Evolution and the New Testament | J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason" - February 19, 2018

  2. Pingback: Book Review: “Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique” Summary of Response | J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason" - April 16, 2018

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