Theistic Evolution and Purposive Permission

by Max Andrews

This objection to intelligent design is within a theistic philosophy and theology.  The theistic evolutionist would make the arguments for Darwinism just like the atheist would make his arguments for Darwinism; the only difference is that the former is a theist.  Asa Gray (1810-1888) was a proponent of evolution who suggested that God guided evolution.  The problem for the theistic evolutionist at this point is that if God guides evolution, it is design.  Guidance implies purpose and involvement.  The theistic evolutionist, so defined as God guiding evolution, is not really a detractor from design, rather he would be a proponent of common decent, which is entirely compatible with design.

It was not until the early twentieth century when a movement that emphasized Darwinian natural selection did theistic evolution attempt to reconcile unguided evolution with God.  The following theistic evolutionist present an appropriate summation for the current understanding:

“An evolutionary universe is theologically understood as creation allowed to make itself.”[1]

“Mankind’s appearance on this planet was not preordained… we are here… as an afterthought, a minor detail, a happenstance in a history that might just as well have left us out.”[2]

“Evolution could appear to us to be driven by chance, but from God’s perspective the outcome would be entirely specified.  Thus, God could be completely and intimately involved in the creation of all species, while from our perspective, limited as it is by the tyranny of linear time, this would appear a random and undirected process.”[3]

It may be important to distinguish the last quote from Collins from the former quotes.  It is difficult, even impossible, to distinguish Collins’ position as not being intelligent design.  Why would Collins use the human perspective as the objective standard for whether or not there actually is design?  He willingly concedes that God could be intimately involved in creating yet it is illusory to the human perspective.

The argument from cognitive relations may be understood as an argument from omniscience or providence.  If God allows any state of affairs to be actualized, and knows that it will happen, and then there is a teleology in that events actualization.  The underlying principle is what is called “purposive permission.”  This principle makes a minimal commitment to any event X, such that X will come to be either by it being permitted to occur or by being strongly actualized to occur.  Purposive permission assumes that if any event is permitted to happen then it is within the will of the knowing agent that the event be actualized.  If the event were known that it would come to pass and it was not desired to come to pass, then it would not have been permitted to be and would not have happened.  Under the current understanding of unguided evolution, the only way to reconcile that with theism is to adopt process theology, an understanding that God is not ontologically perfect and is literally evolving with the world.[4]


            [1] John Polkinghorne, Faith, Science, and Understanding (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 2000), 23, 111, 197.

            [2] Kenneth Miller, Finding Darwin’s God (New York:  Harper Perennial, 2000), 272-273.

            [3] Francis Collins, The Language of God (New York:  Free Press, 2006), 205.

            [4] Even weak understandings of cognitive relations, or interactions, would still render design (categorically defined from an orthodox perspective).  All that would require from the knowing agent (God) is that, within the mind, there must at least be two moments of knowledge:  natural knowledge (the first logical moment) and free knowledge (the last logical moment).  In the first moment the agent must know all tautologies and every possible circumstance.  The final moment is knowing the actual world, the current, past, and future state of affairs.  The only theistic model that does not hold to these two moments would be the process model.  I want to note, that open theism would not even be compatible with a Darwinist understanding of evolution because God would only be ignorant of future contingencies that involved human freedom.


7 Responses to “Theistic Evolution and Purposive Permission”

  1. Whatever may be said for the truth of evolution (I’m not a scientist), there can just be no doubt exegetically as to the historical nature of Adam and Eve as real persons.

    Jolly post!

    Are you a fan of BioLogos, by the way? There is an interesting book from a certain individual who may be a member there: The Lost World of Genesis One by John H. Walton is a very recommendable read.

    • Im not a big supporter of biologos becuse of their concept of divine teleology. I’ve done my own research on genesis 1-11 and I think there is good reason exegetically. To believe in a historical Adam.

  2. Under the current understanding of unguided evolution, the only way to reconcile that with theism is to adopt process theology, an understanding that God is not ontologically perfect and is literally evolving with the world.[4]

    Is this prospect unnerving to you? Why would an entity perpetrate an ontologically dynamic paradigm, purely from a state of information, if the purposive nature of that paradigm were not also driving its evolution? Why would the informational possibilities of life itself, then sex, and sight, consciousness, perception, proprioception, sentience, etc be introduced to ever more complex animate expressions, if the very act of Experiencing Being in whatever forms possible were not the objective? Perhaps the Observer has much to gain from the experiential panenthiest creation.

    • I would disagree with two elements of your arguement. I would suggest that Darwinism is fundamentally flawed as a theory in that it does not accurately describe either evolution or the cosmology that evolution has transpired. It omits that information is fundamental to ALL aspects of everything. That information paradigm is pervasive, and considering the complexity of the twenty constants that maintain the universe, it could definately be thought of as intelligent. As to the Theistic element, only a panentheist approach to creation is applicable. Ergo God is evolution.

  3. Thanks for the article. I have been researching for someone who can provide a logical rationalle for the middleground of theistic evolution but not having much luck yet…. :-) http://www.eacology.com/2012/05/theistic-evolution-christian-lenses.html

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