Theology Proper

Is the theory of evolution compatible with theism?


William Lane CraigAt Reasonable Faith, in the Defenders podcasts, William Lane Craig did a series on creation and evolution, as an excursus in his treatment of the biblical doctrine of creation. This is a subject about which I feel woefully ignorant, and I have done very little of the reading I would like to. So I found these lectures very helpful.

Craig proposes that, if one works with a philosophical pre-commitment to methodological naturalism, then Neo-Darwinism is the best option being presented these days. It is not inherently incompatible with theism, which is to say that theistic evolution is a feasible position, provided that “random selection” is understood, not as the occurrence of mutations by pure chance, but in the sense of being changes which have no benefit (and may even be detrimental) to the particular creature in which the mutations occur. This is the way in which Roman Catholic evolutionist Francis Ayala and Reformed philosopher Alvin Plantinga have defined the concept. Looked at from that perspective, God could have chosen the world in which he intervenes in the natural process to bring about those mutations, precisely in order to have them eventuate in the creature that would consequently evolve.

The question for a theist, therefore, is not whether theistic evolution is theologically possible, but whether the evolutionary account is the best scientific understanding available to a scientist who is not limited by the methodological naturalistic presupposition which limits the options available to naturalistic scientists. Craig grants that he is a scientific lay person, but he is keenly interested in what scientists are reporting. He contends that natural scientists now concede that the origin of life remains inexplicable on purely natural terms. (Francis Crick, of DNA fame, dubbed it a “miracle.”) Likewise, the evolution of biological complexity is still beyond naturalistic science’s ability to explain, though strenuous efforts are certainly being made to identify a plausible naturalistic explanation, by scientists philosophically committed to pure naturalism. Evolutionary changes in the biological world are unquestionable, but the mechanisms at work in bringing about the changes critical for the transitions from one species to another are still the subject of intense research. Significant mystery remains when naturalistic explanations are deemed the only possibility.

Progressive creationism, however, would nicely explain the development of new species. It would explain why we have found no intermediate forms in the fossil record. But Craig helpfully distinguishes the progressive creationism he puts forward from the evolutionary creationism of a theistic evolutionist like Francis Collins. The latter approach sees less divine intervention, and it posits that God chose to let creation evolve in much the way naturalistic evolutionists propose. Craig also cited Michael Behe as a proponent of evolutionary creationism rather than progressive creationism, but a questioner suggested that Behe’s most recent work was more in line with a progressive creationist perspective, so that remains unsettled.

I thought that Craig made another helpful observation, about the significant point of agreement between young earth creationists (often just called “creationists”) and naturalists. Both of these perspectives, though working from opposite ends of the pole, contend that creation and evolution are not compatible, so they opt for one or the other. By contrast, both progressive creationists and evolutionary creationists are working toward an openness to the scientific hypotheses of natural scientists who discern an evolutionary process, while maintaining a robust affirmation of the Almighty God’s work as the creator of all things, seen and unseen.

Although I have done much less reading in the work of scientists than Craig has done (in spite of his being a layman in the field), I have found progressive creationism to be the most persuasive of all the approaches I have encountered. My assessment of the value of work done by natural scientists who are convinced of the evolutionary theory also aligns well with the perspective I heard from Craig. So I was happy to have my inclinations supported by Craig’s more expert opinion, since I have learned a great deal from Craig on other subjects, and I respect his scholarship.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

4 replies on “Is the theory of evolution compatible with theism?”

If you have not read “The Language of God” by Francis Collins, see if you can get a copy. I really think it is one of the best books on theistic evolution–and maybe one of the best books of apologetics.

“random selection” doesn’t make much sense. Random mutations undergo natural selection, which is not a random process.

Michael Behe is a proponent of Intelligent Design, which could be considered a cousin of progressive creation, not evolutionary creation. Proponents of evolutionary creation include Denis Lamoureux, Denis Alexander, and Simon Conway Morris.

One of many good introductions to biological evolution is Bruce Glass’s “Exploring Faith and Reason: The Reconciliation of Christianity and Biological Evolution.”

Progressive Creationism appears to be another name for Old Earth Creationism as taught by Hugh Ross and Reasons to Believe.

There are far more intermediate forms both in fossils and extant that WLC implies. With existing species the intermediates are more like descendants of the “links” than the actual links. Collembola are for example clearly descendants of hexapods that are related to insects – separating before insects developed wings from their biramous gills. Feathered dinosaurs (fossils) are more likely descendants or relatives of the “link” between dinosaurs and birds.

Theistic evolution of Conway Morris’s sort fits the facts more than Progressive creation.

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