What is Theistic Evolution?

By: John G. West
Discovery Institute
May 1, 2009

Theistic evolution is the effort to reconcile Darwin’s theory of undirected evolution with belief in God in general and Christian theology in particular. Analogous terms to theistic evolution include “evolutionary creation,” “fully gifted creation,” and “biologos.”

Theistic evolution encompasses a wide array of different approaches and views, which has generated considerable confusion about the actual meaning of the term. To a large extent, differences in opinion among theistic evolutionists are driven by how theistic evolutionists define both “theism” and “evolution.” Does theism require a God who actively and intimately guides the development of life? Or does it allow a passive God who may not even know how the development of life will ultimately turn out? Alternatively, does evolutionary theory require an undirected process (as Darwin insisted)? Or can evolution include a process guided to specific ends by an intelligent cause? One’s conception of theistic evolution will be markedly different depending on how one answers these questions.

In the initial decades after Darwin proposed his theory, theistic evolution typically was presented as a form of guided evolution. Although Darwin himself firmly rejected the idea that evolution was guided by God to accomplish particular ends, many of Darwin’s contemporaries (including those in the scientific community) rejected undirected natural selection as sufficient to explain all the major advances in the history of life. Instead, there was widespread acceptance of the idea “that evolution was an essentially purposeful process... The human mind and moral values were seen as the intended outcome of a process that was built into the very fabric of nature and that could thus be interpreted as the Creator’s plan.” [Darwinism (1993), p. 6]

This view of evolution as a purposeful process began to disintegrate early in the twentieth century after Darwinian natural selection underwent a resurgence due to work in experimental genetics. Once Darwin’s theory of undirected evolution became the consensus of the scientific community, the task for mainstream theistic evolution became considerably harder: Now one had to reconcile theism not just with the idea of universal common ancestry, but with the idea that the development of life was driven by an undirected process based on random genetic mistakes. But how can God “direct” an “undirected” process? Modern theistic evolutionists do not offer clear or consistent answers to this question.

Prominent current proponents of theistic evolution include Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller, author of Finding Darwin’s God; Eastern Nazarene University physicist Karl Giberson, author of Saving Darwin; former head of the Human Genome Project Francis Collins, author of The Language of God; and biologist/theologian Denis Lamoureux. Former Calvin College professor Howard Van Till was a prominent defender of theistic evolution in the early to mid 1990s, but his prominence waned after he abandoned Christianity and embraced “freethought.”

While some contemporary proponents of theistic evolution maintain that their views are consistent with traditional Christian theology, many others have made clear that embracing theistic evolution requires radical revisions in how one views God.

Contemporary proponents of theistic evolution raise at least three significant challenges to traditional Christian theology:

First, many theistic evolution proponents assert that because Darwinian evolution is by definition “undirected.” God could not have actively guided the evolutionary process, contrary to traditional Christian teachings about God’s sovereignty. Indeed, God supposedly cannot even know with certainty or specificity how the evolutionary process will turn out. Applied to human beings, this means that God did not know beforehand whether the evolutionary process would produce human beings or some other rational creature such as a big-brained dinosaur.

Second, many theistic evolution proponents repudiate traditional Christian teaching about the original goodness of creation and its subsequent “Fall.” According to Karl Giberson in Saving Darwin, human beings were flawed and sinful from the very start because they were produced by an evolutionary process driven by selfishness. Thus, there was no “Fall” from original goodness in the history of humanity. The foreword to Giberson’s book was written by fellow theistic evolutionist Francis Collins.

Third, theistic evolutionists who seek to retain the idea that God guided the evolutionary process typically insist that God’s guidance in biology is hidden from us. Such theistic evolutionists claim that God created evolution to look like “a random and undirected process,” even though it isn’t. These theistic evolutionists repudiate the consensus view of Jewish and Christian thinkers who for more than two thousand years maintained God’s design could be clearly observed throughout nature.

Although theistic evolution receives much attention from the newsmedia, it clearly represents a fringe position among leading evolutionary biologists. Nearly 95% of the biologists in the National Academy of Sciences describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, a far higher percentage than in any other scientific discipline. [Where Darwin Meets the Bible (2002), pp. 271-273]

Similarly, according to a 2003 Cornell survey of leading scientists in the field of evolution, 87% deny existence of God, 88% disbelieve in life after death, and 90% reject idea that evolution directed toward “ultimate purpose.” [Cornell Evolution Project Survey]

Thus, Darwinian biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, is far more representative of the beliefs of evolutionary biologists than Christian geneticist Francis Collins, author of The Language of God. 



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