Classifying Christian origins positions

Parchment and Pen has a post up that seeks to classify  the different Christian views on origins. C. Michael Patton is usually pretty good at describing different points of view sympathetically, and things were going along pretty uncontroversially as he described different types of special creation, that is, views of creation that envisage miraculous intervention of one sort or another. Then he gets to “Deistic Evolution”, whose advocates, he asserts…

Believe, as Darwinian Evolutionists, that God created the universe over billions of years, using naturalistic evolutionary processes to create humanity without intervention.

Wait…that sounds a lot like “theistic evolution” (or  “evolutionary creation”), doesn’t it?

I call this ”deistic evolution” due to the “hands-off” approach God takes to the development of man in the evolutionary process. Darwinian evolution, through the process of natural selection, is accepted. While there is across the board agreement that God did not/does not intervene in the process of evolution, DEers are divided as to whether God directly caused the first life to begin or whether he let life come into being naturalistically (abiogenisis).

Among those he describes as “Deistic Evolutionists” who apparently believe that God was “hands off” in creation, he cites Pete Enns, who just happens to be a Reformed Christian who has recently posted part 13 of a series that outlines the relationship between evolution and God’s sovereignty from a Calvinistic perspective. For any Calvinist, the notion that God would be laissez faire about such a thing as the creation of the universe is unthinkable; deism is a four-letter word among the Reformed. Patton, a Calvinist, knows this, which I take to be an obvious backhand. It’s not as though that were the only adjective he could possibly find (I would argue that no adjective is needed for “evolutionist”), and that particularly adjective is laden with a view of God’s nature that is eschewed by most Christians, including most who accept the findings of mainstream science. I must say that this choice was unbecoming of him and his reputation as a straight-shooter.

The fact is, God can be at work in and through creation whether or not He feels the need to tweak this or that during its development. My favorite analogy is of a competent software engineer who is able to develop a program that, once executed, will perform her desired goals without requiring her intermittent input. She is no less responsible or “hands on” about how it performs, since she wrote every piece of code responsible for how it operates; in fact, the more of an expert she is, the less of her interference in its execution is necessary. This analogy is of course limited, and I’ve heard others who modified it to say that God in a sense wrote Himself into the code (which I quite like the sound of, even if I don’t fully understand all of its implications).

The last category in Patton’s list is Intelligent Design (ID). He notes that one can be both an ID advocate and a special creationist of any sort: it simply requires acknowledging that the possible influence of miracles must not be excluded from one’s laboratory research. What’s interesting here is that he subcategorizes “Deistic Evolution” and evolution-friendly Intelligent Design alike under a category called “Theistic Evolution” (TE)! Although most ID advocates (at higher levels, not so much in churches) acknowledge significant evolutionary activity, sometimes including universal common descent, the views of TE and ID have usually been placed in contradistinction to one another.

As I said above, I don’t think accepters of mainstream science need a special label, whether they’re believers or not. But for the purposes of lists like this in which the theological component is a criterion for classification, I usually prefer “theistic evolutionist” – with no ID, thankyouverymuch – (not so keen on “evolutionary creationist”).

I would suggest, however, that as long as we’re classifying these origins positions by theological commitment, perhaps my own position is best characterized not specifically by the origins component, but by the hermeneutical component responsible for it. My hermeneutic is characterized by a firm conviction that the Bible is first and foremost a literary work and a product of the times in which its constituent content was written. Further, I am convinced that an examination of the genre of early Genesis will confirm it as a work of ANE literature and that consequently we need bring no expectations of a theological nature to the table when asking questions about origins. Almost incidentally, since I do not expect Genesis to answer the question of how the heavens and the earth and all that are in them originated (its authors seemed to be more interested in why), I look to mainstream science to answer that question — as most Christians do unquestioningly for questions of weather, embryology, etc. regardless of their view on origins. Perhaps this doesn’t give me a neat, tidy two-word descriptor, unless you like (as I confess I do) a term I coined a few years back: literary-genericist.

I would be remiss in not pointing out and appreciating Patton’s fair-minded ecumenicism on the origins issue:

I believe that one can be a legitimate Christian and hold to any one of these views….While I believe that this is an issue that we should continue to discuss with excitement and hope, this is not an issue, in my opinion, that should fracture Christian fellowship.

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  • It seems nonsensical to me to accuse theistic evolutionists of deism because they believe God is “hands off”. Most Christians believe God is the source of all being, that God holds the universe in existence. God may not intervene in the process of evolution but God is the necessary grounds for the very existence of the universe. That’s hardly hands off.

  • Thomas

    I don’t understand why there is such a problem for some people in a completely natural developement of life. Completely natural processes go on all around us all the time. As far as I can tell, God did not miraculously intervene in my garden, which started with tiny seeds and hopefully will end up as squash, okra, and cucumbers on my dinner table. Neither did God intervene in the birth of my two sons, each of which (unless I am badly mistaken) started as the smallest of cells and through an incredibly complex process became the raging two-year-old terror and the insatiable sucking infant I fondly call my boys. No Christian thinks that God’s lack of intervention here makes him a deistic God, and no Christian will think I am being inconsistent when I tell my kids that God made them. How is that any different from “hands off” evolution?

    • Good comment, Thomas. I would think that the Reformed of all people would be happy to acknowledge God’s hand in and throughout the processes of nature, yet you have this divide between Patton and other like Enns. As I said to Michael Thompson, this makes their objection on that count ring hollow, and causes me to suspect that their actual misgivings lie elsewhere.

  • Michael Thompson

    I believe I am a creation of God, I also believe in the natural 9 month process that made me. Why is it any different with the natural processes that made all life?
    unless one is committed to either a literal 7 day creation, or atheism, I don’t get why there would be a problem with evolution?


    • The contrast between Christians’ acceptance of embryology on one hand and their rejection of naturalistic processes of evolution on the other highlights that their actual problem is with the implications to their theology (the Fall, etc.) rather than the mechanism of God’s creation by evolution.

  • Kay

    “My favorite analogy is of a competent software engineer who is able to
    develop a program that, once executed, will perform her desired goals
    without requiring her intermittent input. She is no less responsible or
    “hands on” about how it performs, since she wrote every piece of code
    responsible for how it operates; in fact, the more of an expert she is,
    the less of her interference in its execution is necessary.”

    The above concept is one proposed by Keith Ward, one of my favorite Christian theologians, in just about every book he has written. I recommend “Pascal’s Fire” as one of Ward’s books where he talks about this idea in depth, though “God, a Guide for the Perplexed” is my favorite.

    • You know, I read and enjoyed What the Bible Really Teaches — I wonder if that’s where I first encountered that analogy?