Saturday, February 21, 2015

Creation doesn't have to be different

In discussing creationism, intelligent design theory, and related issues on blog threads and also in some of my scholarly reading (I think I caught a whiff of it in Paul Helm's otherwise very good book on God and time), I have come to the surprising conclusion that too many people think that anything that God does that goes by the name of "creation" has to be different from all other miracles. In particular, there seems to be a pervasive, though sometimes vague, idea that anything called "creation" is subject to some sort of special restrictions, that God always will do it in a certain way or a certain restricted set of ways. (This article, though I haven't read it all, looks like a pretty classic example of the problem.)

For example, sometimes creation is restricted to ex nihilo creation, with the implication being that God creates only ex nihilo and never uses pre-existing materials. Why? Call me naive, but I don't find anywhere in Scripture that this is asserted. To the contrary, Scripture expressly states that God formed Adam out of the dust of the ground and formed Eve from Adam's rib.

Maybe that isn't intended to be literal; maybe it is. But prima facie it would seem to argue against any hard and fast prohibition on God's making things in the physical world using pre-existing materials. Scripture, at least, is not at the slightest pains to guard against the alleged mistake of thinking that God would ever create something using pre-existing materials.

Sometimes "creation" is connected with Providence or the continual sustaining of the world plus ex nihilo creation. Nothing else. So, using this set, we can refer to God's making the cosmos out of nothing at the first moment as "creation," and we can refer to God's continual (but invisible), intimate providential connection with the world (whether we are concurrentists, occasionalists, preservationists, or what-not) as "creation."

But the one sort of thing we can't call "creation" is God's forming man out of the dust of the ground! In fact, we have to express a lot of puzzlement about what in the world Scripture could possibly mean by such expressions. Maybe they mean God's invisibly guiding evolution so it looks like man came into existence by natural processes from ape-like ancestors, and then God's silently "ensouling" a pair of ape-like ancestors. Maybe that's what the passage is referring to. But not a situation in which first there's no man there, and then suddenly a man there, sleeping on the ground. That would be so...crude. So the one thing, on this view, that we aren't supposed to think creation could ever look like is what all those Christians through all those centuries very likely thought creation looked like--creatures appearing suddenly on the earth that weren't there before, by miracle, by the word of the Lord.

The first Word is impressive, and we can write theological treatises about it. Light coming out of darkness has all sorts of symbolic meaning. Divine Providence is mysterious and theological. God's just making critters pop into existence is...something we don't want to be associated with anymore. Because reasons.

Funny. Jesus doesn't seem to have been bothered by that sort of worry. He made bread and fish pop into existence out of his hands to feed five thousand people. For real. He made wine (from pre-existing water, no less) where there was no wine before. Poof, voila! Bam! And God made manna appear all over the sands of the desert for His people, morning after morning. (But not on Saturdays.) How crude. Did God make the manna? Should we not even say that God created the manna in some important sense? Why not?

Do I know absolutely and for a fact that no species emerged on this earth by some kind of subtly God-guided semi-evolutionary process? No, I don't know that absolutely for a fact, though I have my layman's scientific doubts as to how widespread any such evolutionary origin of species was.

But there is a gigantic difference between saying that God could have brought species into existence by subtly guided processes and saying that God had to or definitely would have done so only by such subtle processes. Those pushing against Intelligent Design theory constantly conflate these two. One will get a little lecture on how theistic evolution is "compatible" with Christian doctrine, when the real question at issue is whether it is required by some theological considerations, as though all Christians should have believed in naturalistic-looking theistic evolution for almost two thousand years before Darwin was born!

There is absolutely no reason whatsoever, theologically speaking, to think that God wouldn't create creatures on this earth in a sudden way, at different times, miraculously, just like any other miracle, sometimes using some pre-existing matter, sometimes not. There is precisely zero theological restriction that militates against the "crudest" sort of creationism. God could have had this beautiful world all put together as a habitat, with fish in the sea, birds in the air, and other critters wandering about, and then a bunch of dust could have started agitating and bubbling and, when it settled, Adam could have been lying there, miraculously brought into being. And some of the very same atoms that were previously part of the dust could have been incorporated into Adam's physical body by this sudden miracle. And that might have been how God made man. Why not? Theologically speaking, no reason whatsoever. None.

Let me add that this has absolutely nothing to do with a belief in Divine timelessness. That doesn't constrain our options here. A Boethian (one who believes that God is timeless) nonetheless believes that. in terms of human history, there are miracles that happen at particular times. The parting of the Red Sea occurred long after the near-sacrifice of Isaac but long before David's reign, etc. Any view of Divine timelessness that can accommodate all the jillion miracles at different times in the Bible has no extra problem accommodating biological special creation!

The same is true of the doctrine of divine simplicity. If you believe in divine simplicity, this cannot exclude the performance of particular miracles at particular points in time, or you cannot be an orthodox Christian. But if the doctrine of divine simplicity can accommodate manna in the wilderness, water from the rock, and the burning bush (and it'd better be able to), then there is no reason in the world why it cannot accommodate God's making Adam, or hippos, or any other new species, suddenly and miraculously. It is also fairly ridiculous to refuse to call such making "creation," but if you have some sort of weird terminological scruples about calling anything "creation" after the Big Bang, then call it "making." So maybe God made hippos, Adam, and many other things subsequent to the Big Bang. If your doctrine of divine simplicity can't handle that possibility, then you have much bigger problems than intelligent design theory! Much, much bigger. In fact, you've locked yourself into a kind of deism.

I cannot help thinking that everything I have said here would have been perfectly obvious to any educated priest, orthodox clergyman, or layman in the year 1799. I think such Christians would have been completely puzzled at the suggestion that the appearance of the species had to be or had to appear non-miraculous. They would have been astonished at restrictions on divine methods of creation and by confusion over what it could or might mean for God to create man and animals.

So I submit that such confusion is self-evidently the product of a post-Darwinian sensibility. Because people think that Science has told us that all the creatures, including man, appeared to come into existence by natural processes, theology has tagged along and muddied the waters by setting "creation" aside from all the other special, powerful acts of God with which we are familiar from our Bible stories.

Now that neo-Darwinism is coming unraveled at the seams, scientifically speaking, it is sad to see Christians stranded on a theological island and unable to find their way back, finding it incredibly hard even to consider that the creation of creatures and man might just have looked like lots of other miracles look.

I submit that, ironically, we are going to close ourselves to scientific evidence if we take such a pointlessly restrictive theological approach. Christians should not be greeting evidence for God's direct working in creation in the past to bring new types of creatures into being with theological suspicion on the grounds that we wouldn't want to think of God as "a magician with a magic wand" (translation--a God who intervenes). You never know; maybe intervention is pretty much what it looked like. It's what a lot of other miracles looked like. So I suggest that we should eliminate any a priori theological dichotomy between creation and miracles more generally considered and then see, with an unbiased eye, what the evidence points to.

Update: I almost forgot to include this. V.J. Torley has an extensive take-down of Tkacz (whose article I have linked in the first paragraph of this post). If you like take-downs so extensive that there is nothing left but dust at the end (out of which God could create a man), you will love this material by Torley. I couldn't possibly have read it all, but what I have read is devastating. Here is a link to part of it. My favorite part, though, so beautiful that it almost brought tears to my eyes (yes, I have written a fan note to Torley telling him this) was this section, where Torley shows fifteen (!!) places where Tkacz contradicts St. Thomas Aquinas while claiming to speak for Aquinas.


William Luse said...

ID has been branded by the modern establishment as "creationism" in an attempt to link it to the fundamentalist variety. It is, unjustly in my view, sneered at and held in contempt. Do you think it possible that a broader, well-established philosophical framework, like A-T, could somehow incorporate into itself whatever insights ID has to offer, so that together they form a single, formidable argument against the naturalism of Neo-Darwinism?

Second, even if this were possible, the evolutionary establishment - starting at the top and going all the way down to whatever grades deal with the subject in public schools - has shown little inclination to think that philosophical and theological principles have anything to teach them. Bottom line, God is not to enter the conversation. In other words, I'd like to think that there's reason for hope, but don't see any.

Lydia McGrew said...

I think an Aristotelian could incorporate the insights of ID, but I don't really think that would be particularly helpful to ID, either sociologically or philosophically.

When you speak of AT as a "better-established," I think you are sociologically incorrect. In the realm of science, Aristotelianism is considered about as far-out fringy as...I dunno...astrology. If anything ID writers are far better off not saddling themselves with this incredibly heavy and clunky metaphysics and just sticking to the empirical evidence.

The only reason that a self-styled Thomist like Tkacz (and as a Thomist, he makes a great deist, which means he isn't really a good Thomist!) can appear to be more "mainstream" and more acceptable is *because* he is a type of deist and is constructing elaborate philosophical fortifications against admitting the ID evidence. So I suppose the Darwinists would like him and consider him all dignified and junk.

But there is no way that he could _admit_ the ID evidence and retain any sociological advantage he might presently have. (I don't actually have the slightest idea how Tkacz is regarded by non-Christian Darwinists, but _if_ they like him, they wouldn't like him anymore if he admitted the ID evidence.)

Lydia McGrew said...

I consider myself a creationist.

In general, I think Christians should start getting used to a taxonomy of forms of creationism rather than shying away from the label altogether. It seems that perhaps Protestants are more familiar with this taxonomy than Catholics, though I could be wrong there.

As far as I can tell, the earth and universe are old, so I'm an old-earth creationist. I also gather that the sudden appearances of various types of creatures seems to have happened at widely spaced intervals, so I would say the evidence supports what is usually called progressive creationism. God's action at these various times might have taken the form of adding DNA or of making whole new creatures. We may never know which beyond conjecture.

Abjuring the creationist label altogether, in my opinion, has exactly the unfortunate effect I was arguing against in the main post of encouraging the idea that God's action in bringing biological creatures into existence "should" be hidden and "should" look like natural processes rather than like the deliberate acts of an agent. Also that God "would not" do a miracle in the course of bringing biological entities into existence.

All of this leads to a completely theologically unjustifiable prejudice in favor of methodological naturalism and Darwinism, which is helpful neither to science nor to theology.

William Luse said...

When you speak of AT as a "better-established," I think you are sociologically incorrect.

All I had in mind was that Aristotle and Aquinas, two of the most formidable philosophers ever, have been around for centuries and ID was comparatively born yesterday. And I certainly wasn't arguing for "abjuring the creationist label." And I don't give a damn about this Tkaz guy.

I'm sorry I asked.

Bedarz Iliaci said...

When one discards "naturalistic assumptions" and "methodological naturalism", one has no reason to believe in "the finding that the human race passed through a severe population bottleneck about two million years ago" (whether Aquinas would welcome this finding or not) and thus no reason to hypothesize two Noahs and two Cains.

Torley can not keep his cake and eat it too.

Bedarz Iliaci said...

From part 1 of Torley:
"Professor Tkacz is arguing that God should be able to make a universe that can generate life automatically, without God needing to "fix" or "adjust" it. But that assumption may be wrong."

"In the first place, the clockwork universe of Laplacean determinism won't work:

First quantum mechanics, and then chaos-theory has basically destroyed it, since no amount of precision can control the outcome far in the future."


So Torley thinks that quantum mechanics and chaos theory limit divine omnipotence. This is a strong example of the problem identified by Feser--the theistic personalists conceive God as just a super-powerful being among other beings and not as subsistent Being.

I don't think Torley would convince Thomists.

Lydia McGrew said...

Bill, even though Aquinas and Aristotle were around a long time ago, that does not mean that the contemporary version of Aristotelianism or Thomism has something philosophically to say that would particularly *help* empirical scientists looking at evidences of design. That these scientists only started writing "yesterday" hardly means that they are in *need* of special insights from Aristotelian philosophy. I'm rather surprised that you are annoyed at my answer. The Aristotelians or Thomists of our modern day need to be able to accommodate empirical evidence. If they can't, the problem is theirs, not to be placed on St. Thomas or Aristotle per se.

Lydia McGrew said...

As usual, Bedarz Iliaci, I find that the beam in the contemporary Thomist's eye is gigantic and that nonetheless he (you, in this case) is much exercised by the mote in the eye of the one he disagrees with. I continually find myself astonished at this sort of thing. Here is Tkacz, *contradicting* St. Thomas Aquinas everywhere, and *clearly* _limiting_ God's methods of creation so that he states that hippos had to have come into existence through nature's own agency. But what are you bothered about?? Oh, yeah, that's it. VJ Torley said that he doesn't believe in La Placian determinism because of quantum theory, and you think that is limiting the power of God, which means he must have a wrong concept of God.

What a joke!

If anybody has a "wrong concept of God," it's Tkacz, who thinks that God doesn't want to get his hands dirty making hippos.

Lydia McGrew said...
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Lydia McGrew said...

Bedarz says Torley isn't going to convince Thomists. I guess that, if he is right, this means that the Thomists Bedarz has in mind don't care about the fact that Torley documents fifteen places where Tkacz contradicts St. Thomas. Interesting. What shall we conclude from this? For myself, I conclude that such thinkers hate ID evidence for some reason more than they love St. Thomas. Therefore, if Bedarz and perhaps others would rather cleave to Tkacz when he contradicts Thomas than admit that he does so. Because Tkacz hates the evidence of ID and is closed-minded to it, and hey, *that's* what's really important--being closed-minded towards the evidence of deliberate design. *That's* what makes you a real Thomist.

It's sad.

I don't think it represents what St. Thomas himself would be like were he around to see this wonderful new evidence, now available to us, of the ways in which the "firmament showeth His handiwork."

Lydia McGrew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lydia McGrew said...

Bill, at the risk of annoying you still more, I will say a little more in answer to your question. Evidently my answer would have been more acceptable if I had said that I expect ID to be enriched by unique insights from Aristotelian and Thomist philosophy. Since I don't have reason to believe this, I cannot in honesty say it. Of course, any open-minded contemporary Aristotelian or Thomist is welcome to develop a synthesis of the two, and then I can tell you what I think of it and whether I think it is in fact made better by the specifically Aristotelian and/or Thomistic elements.

I do have some experience with something a bit like this. I know of one philosopher with whom I spent several days (with a group of others) more than ten years ago discussing these issues. He's a great guy, very smart, and is open to ID evidence. However, it seemed to me that to the extent that his Aristotelianism came into the discussion, it was detrimental rather than otherwise. For example, he was inclined to attribute the evidences of design to Nature, as if Nature were an entity who could be personalized, *rather than* to the deliberate involvement of a real, personal Agent. I think that thus personalizing Nature is a philosophical error. That is just one example.

So thus far, my experience has been that ID is not particularly helped or enriched by melding it with Aristotelianism, and I have no reason to think that it would be, and the ancient-ness of Aristotelianism and the fact that Aristotle was a formidable intellect do not seem to me sufficient to provide such a reason. And the same mutatis mutandis for St.Thomas Aquinas.

The shoe is on the other foot: I think that both Aquinas and Aristotle would have been very interested in this empirical evidence and would have considered themselves enriched by learning of it.

Bedarz Iliaci said...

I find Tkacz article to be very moderate and unobjectionable, hardly worth the outrage Torley get up to, EXCEPT where he says that
"Why are there such things as Hippopotamuses? Well, nature produced them in some way."
That he could not know.

To me, a greater deal than "specified complexity" is the proposition that living things have substantial forms. That is, the processes that take place in living things can not be all reduced to chemistry. This is related to distinction between transuent and immanent causation that Feser talks about.

AS to "God forming Adam out of the dust", well the scripture also talks of God knitting us in the womb.

I don't think Thomists are obliged to cleave to St Thomas where he says that planets move because of being driven by angels.

Lydia McGrew said...

Tkacz's claim about where hippos came from is of a piece with his entire reasoning. He is trying to claim St.Thomas for a kind of deism such that all the creatures *must have* come into existence through natural agency. This is quite clear. That isn't just a tossed-off comment about the hippos.

If you want to believe that God formed Adam by what appeared to be natural processes and that "formed him of the dust of the ground" is just a metaphor, that's entirely your right. But I would say that you shouldn't say that it is *theologically* required.

Perhaps you think that it is required by some sort of empirical evidence. In my opinion *that* is where the debate should lie.

Do not shut yourself off, for alleged theological reasons, to the *empirical* evidence that man was not, in fact, naturally descended from ape-like ancestors and merely "ensouled" by God afterwards.

There are no such theological reasons.

Bedarz Iliaci said...

I am personally skeptic of great many scientific claims esp when they tend to be grandiloquent such as cosmologies, theories of everything and evolution.

I have not encountered Behe's work closely to form a judgment but I find myself sympathetic to Tkacz when he says

"a Thomist will reject Behe’s ontological claim that no such explanation can ever be given in terms of the operation of nature. This ontological claim depends on a “god of the gaps” understanding of divine agency and such an understanding of God’s action is cosmogonically fallacious."

If Behe indeed makes this claim, then this claim is very grandiloquent.

Lydia McGrew said...

Well, you should read it and see. He has an _argument_ for the _extreme improbability_ of a _non-personal_ explanation. The idea in very brief terms is that you need several things to arise all at the same time in order to bring about the advantageous function. In terms of natural selection, one of them by itself would not be selected for, so in terms of natural selection there is not a gradual path to having all of the "parts" in place. In fact, for some of these systems, such as the blood clotting cascade, just having some of the proteins and not others would be fatal. The system works together as a whole to an end. This is a mark of intelligent intent--to put together all the parts at once to bring about that end.

It is an inference to the best explanation for deliberate intelligent design--a positive rather than merely a negative argument.

Certainly, no presently known purely natural mechanisms account well (except by pure, brute coincidence) for the arising of these systems with all their parts. Hence, design is the far better explanation.

It is epistemically extremely odd in this context to be insisting, as Tkacz does, that there *must be* a natural explanation. I call this "evolution of the gaps." If anything is grandiloquent, _that_ is grandiloquent.

It is also theologically quite silly, as it insists that we must never make an inference to the best explanation to the action of an agent when it is plausible that that agent is God.

By that reasoning, Moses would have ignored the burning bush. After all, he wouldn't want to be guilty of "god of the gaps reasoning" in thinking that the burning bush and the voice had a supernatural cause. No doubt science will figure it out someday.

To call Tkacz's approach a form of deism is, in my opinion, by no means too strong an accusation. It is justified by the extreme and irrational aversion to inferring divine action when it is warranted.

Lydia McGrew said...

Tkacz literally asserts that in order for something to be an intelligible natural object it *must have* a natural cause:

"[N]atural things are intelligible. If they are intelligible, they are so as the products of nature—that is, they are intelligible in terms of their natural causes."


" Our current science may or may not be able to explain any given feature of living organisms, yet there must exist some explanatory cause in nature. The most complex of organisms have a natural explanation, even if it is one that we do not now, or perhaps never will, know."

Look how absolute these statements are. There _must exist_ an explanatory cause in nature for all natural organisms. Moreover, the natural organisms are intelligible _because_ they have a natural cause. Implication: They would not be intelligible if they were not "the products of nature."

This is absurd. If God created a lion today in my front yard, it would be a lion--just as intelligible to science as any lion born on the savannah.

The bread and fish Jesus made by miracle on the shores of Galilee were normal bread and fish. Presumably their molecules would have looked perfectly normal and intelligible under a microscope.

Tkacz has _no_ justification for these statements, but the way that they arise is quite clear--it is out of distaste with the notion of God's intervening in nature. In other words, a straightforward form of deism:

"Unlike the causes at work within nature, God’s act of Creation is a completely non-temporal and non-progressive reality. God does not intervene into nature nor does he adjust or "fix up" natural things."

How the heck he claims to know all of this about God, and how in the world he can _possibly_ make it consistent with the many miracles which he is required to believe as a matter of Christian doctrine, he does not bother to say. But he's very clear about his "ick factor" with a God who gets his (metaphorical) hands dirty miraculously making a bacterial flagellum or a blood-clotting cascade.

By the way: A search for the word "miracle" in either article by Tkacz comes up empty.

Lydia McGrew said...

By the way, Jesus' miraculously healing the sick is a straightforward example of God's "adjusting" or "fixing up" natural things. In fact, "fixing up natural things" is a pretty good description of healing sick people whose bodies need fixing up.

Anonymous said...

It may be recalled that some philosophers have embraced the notion that God used pre-existing material in creation. In their view, then, the material proved somewhat beyond God's control, and therein is the source of sin.

Lydia McGrew said...

Yeah, so that's a false view. And the fact that some gnostics have had such a false view tells us absolutely nothing about whether God could or ever would use pre-existing material in making things. Looks like the wine Jesus made from water wasn't "out of his control" or sinful, so I guess (surprise!) the one true God actually _can_ control pre-existing material.

Not sure quite what the point of the comment was.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lydia,
I responded back in March of 2015 to your impressive review of Walton. I wanted to let you know your hearty observations inspired me to begin working on a theological rebuttal to his "creative" theories on Genesis 1 & 2. I strongly agree with you in your findings on his inconsistencies and contradictions, especially when he supplants the authority of the Scriptures with Near Eastern studies with such claims as straightforwardly insisting his functional theory over time-honored, foundational interpretation of Genesis. This is but one of many examples. Would you be interested in commenting further on this for possible inclusion in my book? ----David Crews, Ph.D. (

Lydia McGrew said...

Dr. Crews, thanks for your kind comments.

I should add that it is also not at all clear to me that the considerations Walton raises from ANE studies support his conclusions. Recently this was emphasized in a review of Walton in Themelios by OT scholar Richard Averbeck.

Averbeck points out that ancient near eastern people _were_ interested in material origins and that Walton's sharp distinction (not to mention near opposition) between "material origins" and "functions" is not borne out in ANE literature. I would agree and have pointed out repeatedly in my reviews that Walton does not give any good argument that an emphasis upon function in a text means an _absence_ of interest in material structure or origin. Indeed, prima facie, the two go hand in hand: For example, building something with a particular function means causing it to have a particular material structure that will serve that function.

Obviously, if Walton *had* made some hitherto-unrecognized, world-shaking discovery about ANE literature, it *might* be relevant to interpreting Genesis, and that *could in theory* mean changing a time-honored interpretation of Genesis. But not only should one not hold one's breath when such a claim is made, in this case, the implication of some new knowledge has simply not been borne out, because Walton's arguments are so weak, even his arguments about ANE perspective itself. In the long thread at What's Wrong With the World, I discussed his exaggerated claim that ancient peoples had no concept of the natural-supernatural distinction. He is given to such exaggerated claims which simply cannot be backed up. Another of his strange tactics is stating truly that ancient peoples did not have some *highly specific* modern concept, such as, e.g., that the sun is a flaming ball of gas, and then making an utter non sequitur from that, such as, e.g., that they did not think of the sun as a physical object. Or that because they did not have the modern molecular concept of matter, we can give no meaning to the statement that some ancient people believed that God or the gods made man out of clay.

As far as inclusion in a book, it would be preferable for _your_ sake to get someone with a credential in the field. Perhaps you would want to approach Richard Averbeck, for example. As you probably know, there is a huge amount of credentialism in this area. The fact is that Walton really has (that I know of) almost no other OT scholars who are convinced of his more extreme claims--such as that Genesis 1 and 2 have *nothing to do with* material origins. But ordinary people don't know that, and if I write about it, they make a big song and dance about my not having a credential. I have seen this credentialism extend even to trying to discredit William Lane Craig's objections on the grounds that he is not *specifically* an OT scholar, despite the fact that he and Paul Copan co-wrote a book on creation ex nihilo, published with a reputable press! So the credential card will be pulled at every possible point.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Lydia. That is a very good point. It always humors me how the academic theologians make such a big deal about these "credential cards" in their guild. I do understand partly, however, the exclusivity stifles freedom of expression and accountability by the church. In my humble opinion, if a theologian is going to call himself or herself a "Christian theologian," then they are accountable to the church, not vice-versa. However, that is not the way many of them do think. That is why I like Biblical, evangelical scholars such as Kevin VanHoozer, etc. Anyway, I will give this whole idea more thought and prayer.

I have a great deal of respect for Richard Averbeck. Have you seen Walton's rebuttal to him regarding this;