Does God Guide Evolution?

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

I think the book’s authors would want to know in what sense God guides evolution or photosynthesis. It’s one thing to assert it, but what difference does it make? Say that the person next to me on a plane claims that it is his mental powers that are allowing the plane to fly. I argue instead that it is the laws of aerodynamics that are responsible: lift and thrust. He counters: “oh yes, but it is my mental powers working in and through those laws that make it possible.” His answer is logically possible, but his posit of mental powers seems like a useless appendage that Ockham’s razor rightly lops off. My question then is whether God’s “guidance” that you describe isn’t likewise a useless explanatory appendage. From either a deistic or naturalistic perspective, you sound like the guy on the plane.

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Hi Jeff. Thanks for the comment. It might be fair to say that my theological assertion that God intentionally created humans in his image is “a useless explanatory appendage” from the perspective of scientific explanation. It is not doing any scientific work. But then Ockham could be brought in only if we say that scientific explanation is the only useful kind of explanation. Is it useful in other ways to affirm that humans are intended creations and not accidents? I think so, and refuse to recognize science as the ultimate authority on the question of human nature.

Now, that is not to say that science is irrelevant for the question of human nature. And I also think there are some fruitful scientific ideas about evolution that resonate with the Christian theological story about the development of humans, e.g., the clear directionality in evolution, cooperation and altruism, convergence. These ought to be in dialogue with theological ideas. But I wouldn’t say these scientific explanations render the theological one useless.

What I am resisting is the urge to translate theological language into scientific language. When that kind of reduction is made, then if there is a scientific explanation, the theological explanation becomes redundant and useless.

As for your guy on the plane: I can see that the Dawkinses and Coynes of the world think that’s what’s going on with my theological explanation. And I don’t pretend that I can show them otherwise from the science itself (which I take to be an ID approach). But maybe I can show that their view of things leaves out some aspects of reality that are important… or at least have been important to a community with a long tradition. If there is a community of people who think their explanation of how planes fly gives a better and richer understanding of reality… I’m willing to listen.

Another thought on the plane example: lift and thrust may offer a complete explanation of one aspect of what allows the plane to fly. But wouldn’t you want to say there are aspects to this question that need other kinds of explanations? There are paying customers who allow the plane to fly, and their intentions for travel. And there are laws and regulations that allow the plane to fly. Are these useless explanatory appendages?


Thank you for this article, Jim … (and your reply above too). These are good insights - though I will quibble with one phrase where word-choice is significant.

Where you wrote:

“By restricting science to just one aspect of reality and one kind of explanation—those that appeal to natural causes—we place limits on the explanatory power of science.”

I think it may be important to say instead that “we recognize the limits of the explanatory power of science.”

There are many who (from their own perspective from within Scientism) will hear you attempting to “place limits” on science that will simply throw this back at you with the question of “why not”? Why can’t / shouldn’t science go there? And I don’t think it is so much that we wish to restrict where science can go as it is that we just don’t see any scientific propositions could be of any help or use. It isn’t like we’re guarding a door, trying to prevent science from reaching something sacred. It’s more like Calvin’s mom (Calvin & Hobbes) not being overly concerned when the 6-year-old declares to her that he intends to grow a long beard like the guys in ZZ top. For some reason, she didn’t show much concern.

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What a shame (or is it to be expected?) that the Young Earth Creationists and/or Intelligent Design supporters, could invest so much time and effort into a massive book in response to BioLogos, and still find it impossible to define the stated mission of the organization:

So we were disheartened to see the definition of theistic evolution used in this book:
“God created matter and after that did not guide or intervene or act directly to cause any empirically detectable change in the natural behavior of matter until all living things had evolved by purely natural processes (Grudem, 67).”

What’s the point of bothering to write the book? What is ironic is that they could have used a much more accurate definition… and most readers wouldn’t have even realized the difference!

That’s a good response. Let me refocus the question a bit. Both you and Deborah argue that God guides evolution in the same way God guides gestation or photosynthesis. But then I want to know in what sense is God guiding either? You could believe that God is the ground of all being and therefore a necessary condition for evolution, photosynthesis, etc., etc. Then again, the existence atoms is a necessary condition for all of those entities and processes as well. One might even say that atoms “uphold” all the higher-level phenomena that depend on them. But you not want to say that atoms guide biological processes.

So yes, God has created the natural order and continually upholds its existence. God is a necessary condition for all biological processes. But where in this is God’s guidance?

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It seems that is a big question EC (and myself personally) have yet to define, and perhaps it is undefinable. ID also struggles with it, saying you indeed can see tangible evidence, but ultimately fail to support that claim to the satisfaction of most. Perhaps it is somewhat like a novel, where the characters in the book cannot comprehend the flow of the story and each character’s development, yet to us as readers it unfolds before us as the author planned. That example is of course too simplistic but perhaps it is something like that.
It is spring, and I am working in the garden. I have hopes and plans for the garden, and have provided the seed, water, and nutrients, but part of the joy and purpose of gardening is seeing what grows, and feasting on the fruits it produces, not knowing exactly what that will be, and how it will grow, and not being in control of the end product. That is the difference in a picking a tomato, and opening a can of tomatoes. Perhaps the planter of the first garden feels much the same, and gardens in much the same way. That theologically gets into the open theism argument, but is something I wonder.

Perspective is helpful to me as an analogy when approaching questions on God’s actions in creation. The most basic distinction, perspectivally, is that between God and us: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The Creator-creature/creation distinction is essential here.

What follows if we acknowledge that God’s created acts include everything, is that they include humans, space, time, and logic. And secondly, God and His actions exist independent (outside?) of creation and must be revealed by Him to us in creation if they are to be known by us—generally in creation and specially in His Word.

General and special revelation originate with God and are not in conflict with each other when God is the starting point. But they can appear to be so by created humans who are part of the created order. From a human perspective, there will always be some distortion with both general and special revelation as we cannot completely know anything from God’s perspective since we exist in the created order; we are creatures and not God. Our human views of general and special revelation are always distorted (limited?) in some manner.

Knowledge of general and special revelation from a human point of view or starting point will always then be distorted in some way, as photographs of complex three dimensional objects are. The photograph portrays a three dimensional object in the two dimensions of a photograph. The photographic perspective truly pictures the three dimensional object, but cannot comprehensively portray it.

Living in the Pittsburgh area, I use the Cathedral of Learning as my complex three dimensional object when illustrating this. When you take multiple photographs of the Cathedral of Learning from different perspectives, each is truly and legitimately a photograph of the Cathedral of Learning, but none of them can be said to be the whole picture; and each photo will distort its portrayal of the Cathedral in some way because it is a two dimensional replication of a three dimensional object.

All human activities (science, philosophy, logic, etc.) are bound by the “two dimensional” limits of the created order and will never be able to reveal creation from God’s “three dimensional” perspective. And until He makes us new—three dimensional creatures—we will not be able to fully understand or appreciate the real work of God in creation. Until then we will continue to see in a glass dimly.


Thank you for the honest response, Phil. I think ID’s problems are different, but don’t want to take that up here. I just want to point out that the way in which you guide the garden is clear and unproblematic: you directly intervene in its activity. But that sort of intervention appears to be something that EC/TE takes great pains to avoid when it comes to God. I think your best bet is to simply appeal to mystery. But if you do that, I really think it’s more honest to simply drop the “guidance” talk.

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@jeffkoperski It might have been better of us to say “in the same sense” rather than “in the same way”. Using the word “sense” nudges us a little more toward the nuances of language, rather than “way” that might nudge toward expecting a mechanical or scientific explanation.

I didn’t get into it this far in the post, but my claim in a broader project on personal action (of which divine action is a species) is that words like “guide” and “create” are properly understood within a personal discourse (Polkinghorne’s “I want a cup of tea” is part of that too) rather than the scientific discourse. So to ask how God guides evolution and to expect an answer that gives scientific details is to implicitly accept that terms from the personal discourse (intend, create, will, etc.) can be reduced to terminology from (and the entities accepted by) the scientific discourse. So instead, I think it starts to confuse categories somewhat to say God guides evolution, and it makes it worse when we try to give scientific explanations of that. Instead what I mean by affirming that God guides evolution or photosynthesis is that God gets what God intended or wants out of the process of evolution or photosynthesis. The personal discourse shifts from efficient causality to final causality. The explanation for a personal event is a reason, not a mechanical process.

I’m not pretending to have cleared everything up with this. But I hope it points in the direction of a reasonable answer to your very fair question.


Why is it necessary to specify? Are we, like Job, to place God in the dock and demand that he tell us where, when, and how he guided our evolutionary creation? The crucial questions are those already answered in Genesis 1 – who and why.

Personally, I believe that God guides all of history, not just the biological processes of evolution. Likewise, I believe that God guides each of us in our daily lives. We do not demand detailed explanations of exactly how God’s guidance might work in those situations, yet we demand it of someone who says God guided our biological evolution. Hmmmm …

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Thanks Mervin. I’m fine with that. I might have also said, “we place limits on the purported explanatory power of science.” The point is that some people think science can explain everything. I think the virtue of methodological naturalism (about which @jeffkoperski has written insightfully) is that we say “no it can’t.”

In an earlier draft of this piece, I had a parenthetical line that said something like, “I think ID unintentionally gives succor to scientism”. It was removed, because I didn’t have space to explain myself, but I’ll do so here:

I think it is perfectly fine for ID to say, “we’re going to use the word ‘science’ to include miraculous explanations”. There is no governing body that has the final authority to determine whether or not that breaks the rules (I explored this metaphor further back during the #creatorgate scandal). But by doing so, I think they sell the farm to science. Science becomes the explanatory tool for everything; science tells the whole story – which is scientism. I think it is better to agree with scientism that science is limited to natural explanations for things, but to say “but science doesn’t tell the whole story”, which is the approach I’ve taken here.


It does, thanks. I wonder, though, why then Deborah is so put-off by Grudem’s claim regarding TE:

“God created matter and after that did not guide or intervene or act directly to cause any empirically detectable change in the natural behavior of matter until all living things had evolved by purely natural processes” (Grudem, 67).

If by ‘guide’ Grudem means something like ‘intervene’ or ‘act directly’, which he seems to in context, then how is this not a fair characterization?

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It’s not just her, I am put off by it too (and I think the rest of the BioLogos crowd is too). It is because there is a not-so-subtle implication that if God is not acting in ways that are empirically detectable, then God is not involved at all. Hence my line in the piece, “We join with the contributors to the book, then, in rejecting views of evolution that make God a spectator to what matter can do on its own.”


By the way, I highly recommend @jeffkoperski’s article, “Two Bad Ways to Attack Intelligent Design and Two Good Ones” in Zygon 43, no. 2 (June 2008). A lot of my thinking about methodological naturalism was influenced by it (and appropriately cited in more formal pieces!).


Granted. You guys aren’t deists and shouldn’t be labeled as such. But ignoring the conversational implicature, is the quoted claim in itself not an accurate characterization?

Thanks for the recommendation. That’s very kind of you.

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I vote for Jim’s original wording. As he noted, methodological naturalism actually locks science into a box with no escape.

Grudem’s definition applies to a small minority and thus mischaracterizes the beliefs of the vast majority of evolutionary creationists. Personally, I am amazed rather than offended. How do you put together a 1000-pg. book based on a faulty premise that few people even hold? What an exercise in futility!

For my money, BioLogos shouldn’t waste any more time or resources responding to the book. The entire so-called “debate” between ID/TE/EC is a shibboleth.

There, I fixed it.


If by “a few people” you mean tens of millions of Evangelicals, then yes.

No more plans at this time to talk about the book. I understand your point here, but if it’s a waste to dialogue with other positions, then much of our energy at BioLogos is wasted.