This is difficult, because for the most part the leaders of TE/EC, whether at BioLogos, or in the ASA, or elsewhere, tend to remark on the origin of life less often than they remark on evolution, and when they do remark on it, their statements are incomplete, oblique, etc. Even when one asks them directly what they think, they often choose not to answer or to give an ambiguous answer. So one has to reconstruct what they have in mind.
Let’s take one point. On BioLogos, a number of columns by Applegate, Ard Louis, and others, placed great emphasis on the creative powers of “randomness.” Usually this was in the context of evolution rather than the origin of life, but the way the argument was made, the logic would apply to the origin of life as well.
So, for example, Kathryn Applegate would argue from the fact that the immune system made use of randomness (a fact which Behe not only accepted, but even stressed, writing about it at length in one of his books), that the immune system could have been produced by randomness (i.e., random changes could have taken creatures which had not even the beginnings of an immune system to creatures like us who have a highly sophisticated one). In other words, random mutations not only modify systems, providing little improvements which natural selection can work on, but are capable of creating previously non-existent highly complex machinery. Might she also, then, suppose that random shufflings of simpler molecules could, over time, produce more and more stable arrangements, resulting in pre-DNA self-replicating molecules, early membranes suited to eventually become cell walls, and so on?
It’s hard to say for sure, since she doesn’t explicitly address it. But the general line of argument in all her columns and remarks on randomness is that really sophisticated means-adjusted-to-ends systems can arise from the rearrangement of unconscious molecules, genes, etc. which are not working according to any plan or design, but simply reacting to natural forces. When you couple that with the fact that she seems to take the general line that God seems to work through natural causes rather than through breaking natural laws, it seems likely that she inclines toward a wholly naturalistic origin of life. But again, it’s hard to be sure, since neither spontaneously, nor when asked in public on BioLogos, will she answer questions of that sort.
Of course, I hasten to add that she would never endorse position #3 in its naked form, i.e., there was no plan at all. She would say that God had something to do with the fact that the chance events produced the first life. She likes to drop the word “providential” into her writing, as if she conceives that it somehow tempers a description based wholly on random natural events. But the role of God in her conception of evolution is vague, and I would guess that the role of God in her conception of the origin of life would be vague as well. I can easily imagine her writing something like, “Through the providence of God, molecules which have no intention of forming life serve his divine purposes,” or the like. But that leaves open the question why such a low-probability event should happen, unless God is slightly biasing the outcome by subtle divine coaxing – a non-naturalistic suggestion she and her colleagues don’t seem very wild about.
A problem that plagues any attempt to understand TE writing in this area is the fact that TE writers regularly conflate “design” with “supernatural intervention.” So, for example, Dennis Venema thinks he has found one scientific article that refutes Stephen Meyer’s claim that the arrangement of nucleotide bases along the DNA chain is arbitrary; the article says that there may be a slight inclination of one of the bases to favor a certain kind of attachment. In other words, not an arbitrary miraculous action of God, but a natural-law bias, may be responsible to some extent for the ordering of the bases. But aside from the fact that this bias, if it exists, could only explain a fraction of any any arrangement, it really only refutes only the idea of miraculous action, not the idea of design; for any natural bias restricting the order of attachment of the bases might well be a designed bias, planned by an intelligent mind as the laws of gravity, magnetism, etc. are planned. In other words, even if the origin of life occurs naturally, the way things fall together might be designed.
In fact, Venema’s objection, if taken to its logical end, might well incline Venema to position #2 rather than position #3, i.e., that the origin of life was cleverly set up by God to occur through wholly natural means. But because he only deals with the subject of origin of life in fits and starts, it’s hard to say.
His best opportunity for giving his own view on the origin of life came when he wrote several BioLogos columns attacking Meyer’s first book, Signature in the Cell. Since Meyer’s book was about the origin of life, one would think that Venema would have offered his own alternative proposal for the origin of life. But instead, he simply concentrated on negating what Meyer said, never presenting his own view. Further, Venema’s critique overwhelmingly focuses on things Meyer said (mainly in the Appendix, not even in the body of the work!) about evolution, and largely ignores what Meyer argued regarding the origin of life! Most of Meyer’s 500 pages of argument that the origin of life requires design is left untouched.
So one is left at a loss to know Venema’s mind, in exactly the place where one would expect to find his view on the origin of life explicitly stated. All we can deduce is that Venema thinks that Meyer’s thesis – that the origin of life required design – is wrong. So the most natural conclusion is that Venema would go for something like #3 – primitive molecules don’t need any design or plan in order to form life; it can happen by accident. But then, of course, Venema is Christian and wouldn’t say that God had nothing to do with it. So what would be the view, then, that chance is a sufficient cause, from a scientific point of view, but as a person of faith Venema thinks that God somehow, in some mysterious way, had something to do with the outcomes?
So we are left in puzzlement about Venema’s overall position: could accidental chemical reactions, without miracles or designed setups, have produced the first life? Or would it have required at least some designed setup of nature, though no miracles? We simply can’t tell what his position is, if he has a position, or what his inclination is, if he has an inclination.
The same could be said, mutatis mutandis, of just about everyone who has ever written for BioLogos. The question of the origin of life is rarely directly addressed, and when it is mentioned, it is quickly skirted, with only a few vague ideas quickly tossed out – randomness is powerfully creative, God’s providence is involved even if there is no design, it’s just as noble and maybe nobler for God to create life through natural causes as through miracles, etc.
Nobody’s criticizing the BioLogos people for not having a full-blown theology and science of the origin of life. It’s a difficult scientific and theological question. But it’s surprising how incoherent and uninformative the thoughts of all its management and columnists on the subject are, given that they have been writing columns and ASA articles and books on faith and science issues, on evolution and creation, etc. for years and in some cases decades now. One would think they could manage some provisional, tentative views, set forth with some intellectual clarity. Not even as an official BioLogos position, but just a as a set of individual statements of individual Christian scientists. But one can’t find any affirmative statements. One finds only rejections of arguments that design must have been involved.
In contrast, those ID folks who are Christian (and most ID folks are Christian, though some are Jews, Muslims, Deists, agnostics, etc.) very unambiguously assert that design (not necessarily miracles, but design) was necessary for the first life. And that makes vague appeals to providence unnecessary, because when a Christian says that life was designed, he means that God designed it. The plan, the order, the structure, came from the mind of God, not from chance, randomness, etc. Natural causes (including “random” events) may well have been involved in the implementation of the design, but the design was a thought in God’s mind.
If I heard TE leaders clearly saying things like this, I could much more easily relax when they wax eloquent about the marvelous creative powers of randomness and chance, about how chemical evolution could have produced the first life, etc. But the palpable resistance in their writing to the term “design” (and to the religious and theological concepts to which it points) makes me nervous. In fact, it would have made any Christian living, up to about 30 years ago, nervous. This position, this stance of “We believe in a Creator, but we don’t like calling him a designer or saying that he had definite ends in mind regarding biological outcomes,” is, to use an evolutionary metaphor, a new mutation of Christian thought, and in my view a “deleterious” one.