Reclaiming Design | The BioLogos Forum

One of our most frequent challenges at BioLogos is finding the right words to describe what we believe and affirm. Simply put, the good words are already used by movements opposed to our position. This puts us in an awkward spot. We’re proud to call ourselves “creationists” (of the evolutionary sort) and we fully believe that creation reflects God’s good, wise, and—yes—intelligent design. But because these words are so often associated with movements that reject mainstream, consensus science, we use them with an abundance of care. And we try to slowly detach these words from the cultural connotations which they’ve earned and reclaim them in service of a perspective which integrates rigorous science and good theology.

Reclaiming the vocabulary of the origins debate is a slow and complex task. It requires pulling apart layers of meanings and revealing the presuppositions underneath. BioLogos content manager Jim Stump, as our resident philosopher of science, is an expert at this task. In a recent book review published in Christian Century, he endeavors to reclaim the word “design.” He praises philosopher Benjamin C. Jantzen, writer of the recently published book An Introduction to Design Arguments, for exposing the "soft underbelly" of popular design arguments. Design, as Jim explains, is a term used frequently in science-based arguments for God’s existence—but often in unhelpful or misleading ways. As he writes,

Instead of attempting to exploit the insufficiencies of science to prove the existence of God, perhaps the more constructive approach is to look at the natural world in the light of faith. We see God’s hand throughout the created order not because science can’t explain nature, but because it can. The De­signer’s mark is not in systems that don’t work quite right and need tinkering; those are signs of imperfection. Scientists—whether Christians or not—who uncover the inner workings of nature are the ones who learn something of the mind of God.

Read the full review here. If you’re interested in reading more about how evolutionary creationists use the word “design” in reference to nature, check out the further reading below—especially the excellent essay by Alister McGrath on natural theology vs. “intelligent design.”

Further Reading

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

@jstump (as the featured person in this post) is a better recipient for questions and comments, but I also want to welcome open dialogue about the topic of “design arguments”.

here is a great argument for design in nature:

1)we know that a self replicating watch(or motor\robot) with dna need a designer because of its complexity(lets say that we will find one in other planet).

2)we know that living things are more complex then this kind of watch and have the same traits (self replicating system and dna)

1+2= nature was designed.

Hi @jstump and/or @BradKramer,

I agree that it is improper to pose a false dilemma between nature and design. God designed nature. If nature is then able to produce life and all the forms that it takes, then God has designed life and all the forms that it takes through nature.

But I think it is also improper to pose a false dilemma between design by nature and what you call “tinkering” or “fixing the imperfections” in nature. If God did not mean for nature to produce life and all the forms that it takes, but instead meant to create life and all the forms that it takes directly, in addition to nature, then we dishonor God by calling him a “tinkerer” or calling nature “imperfect.”

I think a better way to frame the discussion is to see all of the universe as God’s design, and then attempt to determine how exactly he did that designing. Perhaps we will be able to discover the answer to that question. Perhaps not. And different people may very well come to different conclusions about how God did it. However, If we start off framing the discussion as an attempt to understand how God might have designed the universe, we will avoid dishonoring God and each other.

@Bilbo,@Stump What if we approach this problem in a totally anthropomorphic way: God chooses NOT to be omniscient when dealing with the Universe he is creating. He designs the laws that govern it in such a way that it will evolve producing the maximum variety and complexity, but nothing is foreordained. Even God might not be entertained by reading a book He has himself written. Could He enjoy a surprise once in a while? Perhaps to Him the appearance of humankind was somewhat like an unplanned but welcome pregnancy is to a couple who thought childbearing days were over. Is this train of thought heresy? Probably.
Al Leo

Hi @aleo,

Ken Miller defended a view a little similar to this in his book, Finding Darwin’s God. He thought that God allowed the universe freedom, but also knew that the universe would eventually produce life and eventually us. I think your view would involve what is known as “open theism,” which is theologically controversial. I would suggest going with Miller’s view, which narrows the controversy to just the science question.

Hi @Bilbo Yes, and so, apparently, does Simon Conway Morris. I guess I should not be too ashamed if my train of thought keeps that sort of company.
Al Leo

The first sentence… or second sentence… “the good words are already used by movements opposed to our position” is enlightening. Maybe they are not opposed to your position, but only to parts of it. And maybe we too often let others steal words and then define us.

So if someone wants to call me a fundamentalist, should I be afraid of that? Certainly not, since they too are fundamentalist in their own way, and I certainly do believe in certain fundamentals. When the term does not scare you, then it cannot have the same effect on you.

Of course, any christian believes in design. God certainly designed creation, regardless of how he did it. And He certainly designed salvation. And God designed our relationship. God designed the consequences also. Any Christian who claims there is no design, is certainly not biblical, and also not really believable. So why fight the term? Embrace it; then contextualize it.

Any christian who claims not to be a creationist? Not believable. Regardless of how God created, the fact that he created is undeniable. Does the term mean the same thing to everyone? No. But certainly an evolutionary Christian has more in common with a young earth creationist than with an atheistic evolutionist. Why? Because in the grand scheme of things, a relationship with God is more important than evolution. A relationship with God is more important than an old earth or a young earth. And this should be made obvious to all those who deny the Lordship of Christ.

A recent TV interview had one speaker refuse to refer to a transexu… as a she, since genetically he was still male. Another participant on the panel said that was impolite. Uh, uh. But you know what the trannsy said to the “offensive” speaker? He/she said, while putting his large hand around the neck of the rather smaller male participant who refused to be polite, “be careful, you want to go home in an ambulance?..” Very ladylike, huh? Was this small guy intimidated by this large guy dressed as a woman? Not at all. Good for him.

So, I am not afraid to call myself a “native”, in spite of the fact that certain people have sometimes entitled the term for themselves alone. I too, am a native of this country, and of no other.

Do not let others destroy words and terms to suit their own agenda, particularly when that agenda is not pleasing to God. But even when it merely steals your rights of language.

Reclaiming the vocabulary; great idea! But do it for the right reasons.

It seems to me that we have many problems with vocabulary and mind sets.

What I think we need to do is go back to the Beginning, but not the Beginning of Gen 1:1, but the Beginning of John 1:1, which is where we as Christians should start in the first place.

Jesus Christ, the LOGOS, is God’s design, not Darwin’s survival of the fittest. That is either true or false. If it is true we are in great shape. If it is false, then God help us.

ID is a much more amorphous movement than BioLogos (though perhaps similar claims could be made about Theistic Evolution as a “movement”), so any claims to characterize it as a whole are fraught with difficulties (whether it is me critiquing or you defending). Any broad characterizations will admit of exceptions, but pointing out those exceptions does not disprove the broad characterization. ID is invoked by a range of people who are interested in science and faith (just yesterday I heard a presentation about it at the Creation Museum). I was given 1000 words to write this piece, so please don’t expect the precision of a book-length treatment (or even the length of your comment!).

Let me encourage you to read the book. It needs to be engaged by people with a subtle and sophisticated understanding of ID like yours.

I homeschool my kids. In the homeschooling material marketed to Christians it is quite common for creationist groups to co-opt language and cherry-pick quotes and ideas from the ID authors as suits them to lend a sense of scientific legitimacy to their propaganda. Many people who are never going to wade through Meyer and Behe’s primary source stuff are left with the impression that they are pretty much on the Creationist team. I have pointed out on more than one occasion that Behe does not deny common descent or an ancient universe and people are shocked and dismayed.

It’s like when Fundamentalist Christians decided to start calling themselves Conservative Evangelicals. Now all Evangelicals have to deal with the fact that a certain part of the population thinks Evangelical = Fundamentalist, when in reality modern Evangelicalism was a counter-movement to Fundamentalism. You can spend a lot of time trying to educate people and fight against the co-opting of vocabulary and labels, but in the end, you can’t be prescriptivist about how people use language. They are going to do what they are going to do and communication is hard word.

Here is the best thing I’ve ever seen on the web explaining it:

Olson’s observations ring true to me based on what I’ve seen going on in my own denomination (that has both John Piper, of Neo-Calvinism fame, and Greg Boyd, of open theism fame) and in the SBC and the world of “Christian homeschooling,” where many state-level conferences are pretty much run by Fundamentalist/“Conservative Evangelical” groups now…

Eddie writes with clarity and thoughtfulness on what “ID” really is, and I agree with essentially every point. Jim writes that “The ID camp does a disservice to the predominantly conservative Christian community to which it appeals by conditioning that community to mistrust science. Its arguments depend on accepted, settled science getting things wrong.” And I agree with him wholeheartedly. They can both be right, and both be saying important things, because of the difference between “ID” and “the ID camp.”

I take “ID” to mean ideas, thoughts, maybe even a tradition, that is ancient (or at least somewhat ancient) and deep and rich. When Eddie defends “ID,” I see him defending a tradition of thought. Even if that tradition were largely mistaken or merely waning, his defence would be well spoken and worthy of thought. I’m neither religious nor sympathetic to design intuitions, but I enjoy D’Arcy Thompson and Conway Morris, who are both.

But I think Jim Stump may have meant something more specific by “the ID camp.” When I use phrases like that, I am referring to the Discovery Institute and closely related satellites (including some colonies outside the US). Of these groups, of this “camp,” it is entirely accurate to say that it is thoroughly anti-science and doing harm to its audience. “Evolution News & Views” is an appalling example of anti-scientific propaganda. I support BL, not because I care about its religious message, but because I worry about the influence of organisations like the DI.

I was hoping that Jim would more stridently pursue the theme of “reclaiming design” that the post announced. The design tradition, religious or no, is currently owned by the DI in US culture. Those who care about the tradition should work to reclaim it. That’s what I would do if I cared about “intelligent design” in the natural world.

Dear Jim,

I enjoyed your review but have a question. You call it “regrettable” that Jantzen ignores Stephen Meyer, and speculate that the omission may reflect publication and writing schedules, i.e., the evolution of Jantzen’s book. But is it possible that Meyer was ignored because he hasn’t made any substantive contribution to design conversations? I have read both of his recent books, and neither was interesting or provocative. Behe’s science is wrong, but one must concede that his proposals were provocative, and his books sparked responses from professional scientists. I don’t see Meyer’s books in this way, and I think it may be that Jantzen doesn’t see them as worthy of consideration.

I could be completely wrong about this, but may ask around. I would be keen to know what you think.

I don’t have any inside information on this. But given the prominence of information arguments within ID conversations these days, I think Meyer’s work would merit treatment in a book like this.

Yes, I think I’ll stand by what I said about the “ID Camp”. You present an attractive version of ID, but that’s just not my experience of how the label is used. Unless there’s some authoritative set of beliefs listed somewhere that defines the commitments, I’m afraid the best we can do is speak to how the term is generally used.