BioLogos, MTE, and the GAE

I couldn’t get through the whole paper, which was mostly the usual tedious apologetic for the worst forms of TE. Partway through the desperate analogy of the umpire’s coin toss, I could see the reasoning was going to follow the usual TE pattern, and that I was going to disagree with it as I always do, so gave up on that. However, near the end I caught the discussion about Francis Collins, and in the course of an inept defense of Collins’s vacuous thoughts on theology and science, the authors wrote:

“Rather, the epistemic value of theistic evolution lies primarily in its power to unify or synthesize two sets of claims.”

But theistic evolution – at least, as exemplified by BioLogos – and particularly as exemplified by Collins, Giberson, Falk, and Applegate – does not unify or synthesize. It compartmentalizes, which is a completely different way of handling the difficulty.

BioLogos TEs regularly distinguished between a realm of physical causes and a realm of “values, purpose and meaning” and said that faith belonged to the latter realm, science to the former. Thus, for Collins, you can look at evolution and see a totally adequate chain of natural causes, needing no supernatural assistance, and that’s true, and you can look at evolution and see God’s hand in charge of the process, and that’s true, too. Through the eyes of science, there is no evidence whatsoever that any intelligence (even sub-divine) has anything to do with happens in evolution, but through the eyes of faith, you can say that God is somehow, in some unspecified, indescribable, mysterious way, behind what happens in evolution. The two levels of description never meet; they run in parallel, or on different planes, or the like. And it’s very clear that the “God” level of description is completely optional from an explanatory point of view. You don’t need God to explain anything about evolution. You need God if you want to feel good about evolution, if you want to put a bumper sticker on your car saying, “I Love Jesus and I Believe in Evolution.” God is thrown in as an emotional, spiritual gloss on the process.

This is neither “unification” nor “synthesis”. It’s compartmentalization. It’s the device recommended by Gould to keep peace between religion and science. They have different magisteria, different territories, and as long as they stay in their own territories, and never meet, they will get along just fine – like two neighbors who get along very well because the fence between their yards keep their kids and dogs from going onto the other guy’s property.

A unification or synthesis would want to connect, into one account, how God impinges upon the evolutionary process, and how natural causes (presumably created by God, but having a certain range of effectiveness of their own) impinge upon the process, and how the two coordinate. But in the 11 years or so of the existence of BioLogos, none of the leading columnists or management have even begun to articulate how the coordination works. And whenever pressed to do so on their question pages, they ducked.

At one point they made some sounds as if they were going to try for a synthesis. Jeff Schloss said that God was “mightily hands on” in evolution, which is normal English means that God acts in a tangible way within the evolutionary process. If that way could be clarified, one might indeed have a true synthesis of science and theology. But Schloss never clarified what that meant. Of course, it was hard for him to do so, because even though he was (presumably) being paid as a “Senior Scholar” by BioLogos, he wrote maybe one column in about three years, and never answered questions of readers in the Forum. And when others were asked to pinch-hit for him (after all, the hired him as Senior Scholar, so his view presumably was in line with that of the top management, and they should know roughly what he thought), they ducked the question. Haarsma ducked. Applegate ducked. None of them would specify what “mightily hands on” meant. They didn’t know what their own Senior Scholar had in mind, apparently. Didn’t they bother to talk to him before they hired him – or at least after?

This is not to say that there cannot be a synthesis of science and faith regarding evolution. Indeed, early on, there were many proposals for such a synthesis, from people like Asa Gray and Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin sternly rejected all of them. And the BioLogos TEs (except Ted Davis) always took the side of Darwin against those others.

There was also a sort of synthesis from Robert Russell, which had some influence on Ted Davis (God is subtly influencing mutations, though we can’t detect the influence at any particular point with scientific instruments), but again, BioLogos carried on as if Russell never even existed. BioLogos has never wanted clarity about how God’s creative activity connects with natural causes. It wants to keep the relationship between God and evolution, God and natural causes, as fuzzy as possible. It has acted as if its main purpose in existence is to clear all religious conceptions out of the way of scientists so that scientists can get on with their work of showing that no design is necessary to explain the origin of anything; but then, as if to compensate evangelicals for the loss of any traditionally meaningful notion of God as Creator, it has declared that God can after all be seen as the Creator of nature, but only through “the eyes of faith.” The heavens did not declare the glory of God, but human faith did. Again, compartmentalization, not synthesis.

If Murray and Churchill admire Francis Collins’s theology and BioLogos, that’s their business. Each to his own. But their claim that Collins and BioLogos ever offered any synthesis or unification of faith and science is, philosophically speaking, rubbish. Merely to assert the truth of two distinct propositions, without any coherent intellectual relationship between them, is not to offer a synthesis or unification of any kind.



I think you are missing the key point. They are arguing for people to separate evolutionary science from the particular theologies of its leading proponents, such as BioLogos.

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This is being too harsh on Collins. Collins would say God is needed to establish the universe and the laws that govern it. In fact in Language of God he says that God intentionally did this, including knowing that one day humans would be created from this process. Collins believes that no argument can fully prove the existence of God and belief in God requires faith, but a lot of Christians would agree with him on that point. Why does a synthesis require interventions from God?



I looked again at the ending of the article. I think the best part of the article is near the end. I agree that “intelligent design” and “theistic evolution” have both taken on connotations which are not strictly required by their basic definitions. I think it’s good to distinguish between a minimalist TE/EC position and later accretions. I said long ago that there is nothing intrinsically incompatible between “theistic evolution” and “intelligent design” if both terms are understood broadly, outside of culture-war accretions. Strip away all the heterodox stuff added to TE by some ASA writers, by many BioLogos folks, by Ken Miller, John Polkinghorne, Oord, etc., and TE could well refer to an evolutionary process whose outcomes were designed in advance by God. And strip away all commitments to particular literal readings of Genesis, and ID could include design actualized over time through an evolutionary process.

I said before (here or on Hump of the Camel) that the Crossway book was not fully representative of ID because it did not include any ID-evolutionists among the essayists. E.g., there is no essay by either Behe or Denton. If the point Murray and Churchill are making is that the Crossway authors unnecessarily polarize things between ID and TE, I would agree that some of those authors do that, especially in the Biblical section of the book. ID is not tied to the Biblical exegesis presented in the Crossway book. And while I agree with most of the criticisms of the specific TE authors highlighted in the Crossway book, I think that TE is potentially much better than its worst modern representatives.

It’s not easy trying to talk about a core of theistic evolution, due to all the highly personal combat of the past 25 years. I blame people on both sides of the ID/TE divide for this. Yes, some TE writers have stuck out their chins and invited the sock on the jaw, but sometimes ID people have hit below the belt, and on the other side, some TE folks have hit below the belt, too. This is where history helps us. If we go back 100-150 years, to before the world ever heard of Discovery, BioLogos, Dover, Henry Morris, Ken Ham, etc., we find that many theistic evolutionists believed that evolution was guided by an intelligent design. But somehow that reasonably moderate synthesis is hated and rejected by just about everyone now. If Murray and Churchill find this sad, I’m with them.

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I don’t insist that it does, though interventions might be part of some people’s synthesis. What a synthesis requires is that two things that are in tension – thesis and antithesis – be put together into something new that is superior in explanatory power to both. (And by “explanatory power” I’m not thinking exclusively of, or even primarily of, scientific explanation, since I’m talking about an account of the world that brings together the knowledge of and concerns of both science and theology.)

So if someone says: “God created the earth and sky and herbs and trees and birds and fish and animals and stars and planets and man” (traditional evangelical faith) but also says “A fully gifted nature created all the details of the world” (Van Til), a synthesis of the two claims would explain how God’s creative action and the “fully gifted nature” are connected. The trio of God, natural causes, and resulting world must be coherently connected, or there’s no synthesis, just two assertions about the origin of the world, sitting side by side.

I agree that Collins thinks God established the natural laws. So do OECs, YECs, IDers, and all traditional theists. That’s of course part of any synthesis of science and theology, but it’s rather rudimentary. Naturally people want to hear more about how an evolutionary process which does not appear to need any end-directedness, is somehow tied in with the plan and will of a being who directs things to their ends. It is part of the task of any synthesis of science and faith, on the subject of evolution, to deal with that question. But it’s the question that was regularly ducked by most BioLogos folks, and only very briefly and superficially handled by Collins.

Joshua’s Genealogical Adam is actually more like a synthesis, in the proper sense of the term, than anything BioLogos ever offered. It allows for the weaving together of a traditional account of creation with an evolutionary account of creation, into a single narrative. Whether or not one agrees with Joshua’s suggestion, it is an effort to do what BioLogos promised to do, but never delivered.

This is fine, for Stage 1 of the discussion. Analysis, separation. But I’ve always granted that some parts of evolutionary theory can be discussed and treated separately from particular theologies, so for me this is not controversial. My intellectual interest has always been in Stage 2 – synthesis, reintegration. Granted that a process of descent with modification has happened, how do the known or purported evolutionary mechanisms fit – if at all – with various traditional theological claims about God’s providence, omnipotence, and sovereignty?

I found that these Stage 2 questions interested almost no one at BioLogos. They were more interested in Stage 1 – analysis, disentangling biology from fundamentalist readings of the Bible, trying to establish a theology-free zone in which evangelical Christians were permitted to study evolution.

How interested are Murray and Churchill in Stage 2 questions? I’d have to reread it to find out. Maybe they aren’t guilty of compartmentalization, as BioLogos scientists clearly were, but on my quick reading they seemed cut from much the same bolt of cloth. I’d have been much more impressed with their defense of TE/EC if their arguments had sounded a lot less like typical BioLogos-type arguments and a lot more like those of Asa Gray and Alfred Russel Wallace. But anyhow, I just wanted to make one point about their vocabulary, and I’ve made it, so that’s that.


This is a crucial point on which I have never been able to get any coherent answers. Generally I have phrased the question as “What does ‘God works through evolution’ mean?”

That’s an excellent question for you to put to Darrel Falk, Karl Giberson, Jeff Schloss, Kathryn Applegate, Ard Louis, Dennis Venema, Deb Haarsma, Brad Kramer, and Jim Stump. Good luck getting any direct, non-murky, non-fudged answers. I tried for about 7 years and failed. Maybe you can do better.

I think what you are asking (correct me if I’m wrong), is "what is the interface between the supernatural (God), and the natural.

As much as it’s not a satisfying answer, I think the answer has to be simply be “we don’t know”.

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Doubtful. I’ve had no luck here.

So what are your thoughts about the GAE? Have you read it yet?

I haven’t read the book yet. I have read many of the earlier discussions where you floated the core ideas developed in the book, including the long technical discussion on BioLogos between you, Gauger, Venema, and Buggs about bottlenecks, historical couples, etc.

As I said above to Daniel, the GA suggestion offers a potential synthesis, one in which the claim that God is the Creator of man in a traditional sense is brought together with the evolutionary account. So in that regard, you’ve outdone Francis Collins, BioLogos, etc. (Of course, I don’t mean to take away from Jon Garvey or others who came up with a similar notion independently, but I’m responding here to you.)

I have no strong feeling one way or the other about GA. You’ve offered it non-dogmatically, as a possibility for harmonizing evolution and creation doctrine, and have not insisted that this is the way it must have happened or that it is the only theologically acceptable possibility. This tentativeness is a good feature of the proposal. Also I like the fact that you have shown that Venema, Falk etc. overclaimed regarding the impossibility of a first couple, and that you gave Ann Gauger credit for helping you to think out some points. (No scientist at BioLogos ever gave any ID proponent credit for anything; they have way too much personal animus over there.)

Regarding the apologetic side of the proposal, I see how it could be of use to those Christians who want to hang on to a literal, historical Adam and Eve, created de novo, but also want to accept evolution, which implies that species arise out of populations rather than pairs of individuals. Whereas for BioLogos, Augustine and the traditional understanding of the Fall (and hence traditional Catholicism and Protestantism on the Fall and original sin) have to be just plain wrong (because Augustine’s unambiguous monogenism is – for Venema etc. – just plain scientifically wrong), for GA, at least a modified version of the traditional Augustinian notion is still maintainable (because there is still an original specially created couple). The modification may still be unacceptable to many traditionalists, but at least it’s not an outright rejection of tradition, such as was pushed on BioLogos, on the supposed authority of genetic science.

Regarding the Biblical exegesis, I grant that it’s possible to read the two creation accounts sequentially (as GA does and as Jon Garvey does), rather than conflated into one (as traditional Christianity has done). It does answer certain problems posed by the text. My own reading of the two accounts, however, is different, neither the conflated version of tradition nor the sequential version endorsed by Jon. I see the two accounts (Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3, really 2-4) as careful literary-theological constructs, written at different times for different purposes, and maintained by the scribal tradition in deliberate creative tension; I don’t think they are meant to be harmonized into a unified story of “what really happened.” So the typical debates that debaters about Genesis engage in, whether they are OEC or YEC or atheist, don’t have much resonance for me; I think they are trying to solve a problem (lack of absolute literal coherence between Biblical accounts and lack of coherence between Genesis as history and evolution as history) which doesn’t really engage me any more.

That said, if I were concerned about coherence on that literal-historical level, GA would definitely be of interest to me as a possibility. It does offer a new alternative to those for whom the literal historicity of the Garden story is central to Christian theology, and I salute it as a legitimate contribution to that discussion. It has earned a place at the table.

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That may be what I’m asking, but I can’t tell, as I don’t know what your phrasing means.

The issue here is that the majority of people at Biologos come from a scientific, not philosophical background. (There are some theologians but the agenda seems to be driven by scientists or people who prioritize science.) Philosophically, they tend to be naive, sometimes frustratingly so. So they are attracted mainly to Stage 1. Collins doesn’t seem to be interested in developing the philosophical and metaphysical framework for explaining how God controls and superintends the universe, he just affirms that God does.

The broader problem is that today, in general the different disciplines of philosophy, natural science, psychology, etc. are not well-integrated at all, even in the secular world. There is extreme hyperspecialization and people working at different, isolated planes of reality - not much different than the different planes of science and religion you mentioned. So most physicists naively think biology and chemistry is just a rough form of physics, most chemists think biology is just chemistry, etc. They don’t really think of how any of this is integrated. It’s hard in general, not just due to the stubbornness or ineptitude of Christian TEs.

However, there is no reason why people who want to go deeper and are interested in developing a more integrated framework cannot do so. It’s just that it turns out that Biologos isn’t the right place to do that. Still, there are several Christian thinkers working seriously in this area, such as the ongoing Divine Action project at the Henry Center, or the work done by Alister McGrath and his group at Oxford. Biologos is far from the last word on any of these subjects.

I think this also ended up being my path, which is why I got attracted to Thomism, because it offers a more robust, holistic explanation of how God works through primary and secondary causation instead of the modern, mechanistic view of nature that is often implicitly assumed in these discussions. (I argue it is also unfairly assumed whenever we invoke the need for “interventions” or make a clear dividing line between supernatural and natural in these discussions.) Even if one doesn’t want to fully adopt Thomism or Aristotelianism, I think there is a need for Christian scientists and theologians to dig deeper into our pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment philosophical and theological heritage for inspiration when looking for a way to achieve integration.

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Really? I think it is the other way around.

Francis Collins, Deb Haarsma, Darrel Falk, Karl Giberson are all scientists, no?

We’ve gone over this before: A Few Great Biologists at BioLogos

Yes, but that argument was more about whether the scientists who play a major role at Biologos are accomplished or not. My point is that the people at Biologos are primarily science-oriented (regardless of whether they actually get the science right).

The people involved at biologos, which we did not list, are primarily theological. You know that right?

You mean people like John Walton?

I grant that there are theologians there. And there are plenty of people aligned with Biologos from a theological background. But they don’t seem to be interested in digging deeper into the metaphysical and philosophical framework between science. They just seem very deferential to whatever scientists say - perhaps to make up for the anti-science, anti-establishment attitudes in other camps. I’m sure there are some articles on the Biologos website that may touch upon this, but those are certainly not the articles that are most shared or discussed there.

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Yeah, but they weren’t even digging deep on the science issues! For comparison, consider ENV or even AIG. Both of them are far more engaged with science and actual scientific content (even though we will disagree with much of it).

Once again, the majority (if not the entirety) of BioLogos’s work on their blog, their grants, their personnel, their conferences, their publications, their prominent scholars are in theology (and to a lesser extent philosophy), but not science.

They do not, however, have an academic approach to theology (or science for that matter), but a public engagement approach. So the quality the theological dialogue has also been low. Their brand is best understood as sciency-popularizers of particular theological views.

That is just their public persona. They were not very deferential in private to what I and several other biologists have said to them.

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