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Is Theistic Evolution a Bad Term?

I have a serious problem with the term “theistic evolution.” I’m a theist. I accept the theory of evolution as the best explanation for how life diversified on earth. I also accept the theory of gravity. I’m not a theistic gravitationist.

Now I do understand the difference here. Evolution has become the center of a theological debate, and many people are accused of being atheists because they believe in evolution. The term “theistic evolutionist” makes it clear that someone believes in God and also accepts the theory of evolution. Then there is the additional confusion introduced by the term “desitic evolution” or “deistic evolutionist” which would technically refer to a person who is a deist and also accepts the theory of evolution. Since deism refers to a God who does not intervene in creation, there is the suggestion that deistic evolution differs from theistic evolution. Presumably deistic evolution would refer to unguided evolution, while theistic evolution would refer to some sort of guided evolution. Guided evolution could take on quite a number of forms, including potentially intelligent design (ID) theory. But that is not what is normally meant by theistic evolution.

My mind was brought back to this subject by a discussion on Dispatches from the Culture War. Ed Brayton got into a discussion with one poster in particular on whether theistic evolution and ID are compatible (ID and Theistic Evolution). One poster has apparently “discovered” that they are, despite the fact that practically everyone who claims either title holds that the two views are not compatible. There really isn’t any kind of controlling body that can tell us who is a theistic evolutionist and who is not, thus the confusion grows.

I would like the term “theistic evolutionist” to refer to someone who is a theist and accepts the theory of evolution. For example, I accept essentially the neo-darwinian synthesis (to the extent that this has meaning for someone who is not a scientist), and I’m a theist. I can be properly called a theist because I believe that God intervenes in the universe, though in a very limited sense. (For details, see The Hand of God, and its two succeeding essays.) I don’t believe God intervenes in the universe because it isn’t working properly. In other words, I hold that such miracles as occur are in the nature of communication, which can involve incidental physical effects, but that they are not a correction to the functioning of natural law.

The evolution that I accept is no different than that which an atheistic evolutionist would accept. It is my theological position that theology does not provide the tools to study origins, nor does my own discipline of Biblical studies. These disciplines are simply not equipped to provide that information. I do not and cannot contribute to the development of the theory of evolution. I can work what other people discover into my own worldview to whatever extent that is necessary. So the “theist” and the “evolutionist” are substantially separate. I’m simply a theist who accepts a particular theory. The use of the combined term suggests that my theism is in some way an element of evolutionary theory, but at least for me it is not.

Because of the problems I listed at the beginning of this post, I still use “theistic evolutionist.” It’s much more convenient than “theist who also happens to accept the theory of evolution.” But at the same time I find the need to make it clear that my theism is never an explanation for any natural process. Natural processes are to be studied naturally, and as of now, that’s via the scientific method.

There are many variations between an old earth creationist position, and my own variety of theistic evolution. I see old earth creationism as starting with those who see the days of creation as long periods of time and thus phases of God’s creation. Such old earth creationists need to explain the boundaries past which they believe variation and natural selection cannot take changes (baraminology, in young earth parlance). Views then move through various types of progressive creationism to guided evolution. Those who believe that the correct answer to a science question is “God did it” do indeed hold a theory compatible with intelligent design. But that is not my position, nor is it the position of most theistic evolutionists I know or have read.

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  1. Jay says:

    Henry, I dislike the term too. I dislike just about everything in the way Christians discuss evolution. People are surprised and ask me, “you believe in evolution?” My response is always, “do you believe in gravity?” as if our understanding of the science theories was a religious conviction, not subject to chanage.

    A term like theistic evolution, which carries great but perhaps different baggage of it’s own is evolutionary creationist. Now creationist is a very dirty word these days, but I like the phrase and use it with Christians.

  2. ruidh says:

    I have difficulty with all of the -ist (evolutionist, Darwinist) terms in this debate. -ist tends to indicate a belief system (the obvious scientist and physicist excluded). For myself, science is a field of knowledge not a field of belief.

    I don’t call myself a “theistic evolutionist” . I am a theist. I appreciate the knowledge of science. These two areas really have little to no overlap. Science is concerned with reproducable phenenoma. Theology with unreproducable phenenoma.

    Perhaps I should call myself a “rational theist”? ;^)

  3. julie wood says:

    I enjoyed this article! Though the term “theistic evolution” never personally bothered me, I can see the logic of its potential problem. It’s true that we never talk about “theistic gravitation” or, for that matter, “theisic relativity” or a “theistic” understanding of the Big Bang that is somehow different from what is accepted by most mainstream scientists.

    I am also a Christian who accepts the theory of evolution–including the neo-Darwinian synthesis. Ironically, I see this creation model as a whole supporting a theistic worldview in much the way the Big Bang seems to–since both follow the common pattern of a very small thing giving being to a very large thing and of one thing giving being to many. This pattern is verifiable by science as a natural process, yet at the same time it strikes me as inescapably miraculous. It’s also a pattern that recurs throughout biblical revelation from Genesis onward.

    Even more ironically, I see the specifically neo-Darwinian aspects of evolution as bearing several eerie parallels in pattern to specific tenets of the Christian gospel! These parallels confirm to me that the same God is the Author of both “recipes” (natural and spiritual) and that far from discrediting or replacing God, His recipes as mainstream science has unfolded them are burgeoning with His fingerprints!

    Anyway, back to terms–I came up with the term “evolutionary creationist” on my own (as another way of saying “theistic evolutionist”) and then was surprised to discover other people using it too! I do agree that this term uses better logic in describing those of us who hold this position.

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