Intelligent Design?

Paying close attention to the detail of the scriptural text is almost invariably rewarding and illuminating. This is perhaps especially the case for passages such as Genesis 1, for which the details of the text bear even more weight than they do elsewhere. Beyond the basic structure of the creation—three days of forming and dividing, followed by three corresponding days of filling—there are numerous other things to be observed here.

One of the most significant things to observe is the fact that the creation account involves a diversity of creative acts, acts which often take quite strikingly different forms. While we are inclined to speak of God’s creation as an act—or series of acts—of a single uniform character, the text itself presents matters otherwise. For instance, one feature that the first three forming days of creation share that is absent from the latter three days of filling is that each involves an act of naming (Day and Night on day 1; Heaven on day 2; Earth and Seas on day 3).

Reading Stephen Holmes’ stimulating book, The Quest for the Trinity, earlier, I was reminded of Francis Watson’s discussion of the modes of creation in Genesis 1. Holmes summarizes:

Watson notes first that there is throughout the text a privileging of speech as the primary mode of divine creativity: ‘God said, let there be…’ is the repeated refrain. Under this, however, three distinct modes of divine creative action are visible: transcendant command (‘God said, “Let there be light,” and light was’); bodily involvement (‘God said, “Let there be a firmament…” And God made the firmament’); and mediation by indwelling (‘God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation…” The earth brought forth vegetation…’). Divine action towards the creation, on this account, is at once utterly transcendant, profoundly involved, and immanent in the sense of God exercising his power through the granting of potency to created intermediaries.

The differing role of intermediaries is also worth reflecting upon. While rule is delegated to the sun and the moon on the fourth day (vv.14-19), the earth’s function as an intermediary is different. Rather than exercising rule, the earth is given a generating power (cf. vv.12, 24). The capacity of generation is closely associated with the life-giving activity of the Spirit. Later on in the chapter we will see that humanity is given both the role of rule (exercising dominion through rule and naming) and the capacity of generation (being fruitful, multiplying, and filling the earth), representing the forming and filling aspects of God’s creativity rule.

This merits much closer attention than I will give it here, as do the significant differences in the mode and manner of the creation of male and female in chapter 2. However, my aim in this post is to make a very specific point, namely that, if we were more attentive to the varying modes of God’s creative actions, we might be more cautious about the analogies with which we frame God’s creative work in the creation (similar comments could be made about tendencies to think of God’s inspiration of Scripture as if it took only one form, rather than several).

In particular, the notion of God as ‘designer’ is a fairly dominant yet under-interrogated metaphor in many circles of Christian thought. While more architectural imagery is highly important in understanding the creation (as I have reflected upon elsewhere, the establishment of the tabernacle and its worship follows the seven day pattern of creation) and the notion of design is more appropriate in such a context, such imagery tends to be focused principally upon the inanimate creation (‘laying the foundations of the earth,’ etc.).

When we are dealing with the land animals in particular, what we see is a far more mediated mode of creation—‘let the earth bring forth…’ The earth is like a life-giving womb (something to reflect upon when we consider the parallels between the curse on the woman and the curse on the man in Genesis 3:16-19 and also the doctrine of the resurrection): it is not inappropriate to think of the earth as our ‘mother’.

In such a case, the metaphor of the ‘designer’ is less apt. Rather, the formation of animals occurs more by means of an immanent action of God’s Spirit. It is for this reason, among others, that I find talk of ‘intelligent design’ unhelpful and unpersuasive, especially as such language is almost invariably focused upon the animate creation. In many respects, God’s creative work in this case is less akin to an external action upon passive material as an internal empowering of a process that arises within nature itself.

Perhaps we need to adjust our language to reflect this fact.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Bible, Creation, Genesis, OT, OT Theology, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Intelligent Design?

  1. Excellent little point. Robert Letham made a similar point in this little work on Union with Christ:

    “In particular, he forms the earth in a threefold manner. First, he issues direct fiats. He says, “Let there be light,” and there is light (v.3). So, too, he brings into being with seemingly effortless command the expanse (v. 6), the dry ground (v. 9), the stars (vv. 14-15), the birds and the fish (vv. 20-21). Each time it is enough for God to speak, and his edict is fulfilled.

    Second, he works. He separates the light from the darkness (v. 4), he makes the expanse and separates the waters (v. 7), he makes the two great lights, the sun and the moon (v.16), and sets them in the expanse to give light on the earth (v. 17), he creates the great creatures of the seas and various kinds of birds (v. 21), he makes the beasts of the earth and the reptiles (v. 25), and finally he creates man–male and female–in his own image (v. 26-27) The thought is of focused, purposive action by God, of divine labor accomplishing his ends.

    But there is also a third way of formation, in which God uses the activity of the creatures themselves. God commands the earth to produce vegetation, plants, and trees (vv. 11-12). He commands the lights to govern the day and the night (vv. 14-16). Here the creatures follow God’s instructions and contribute to the eventual outcome.

    –Robert Letham, Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology, pp. 10-11”
    I played around with that quote a bit here:

  2. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    Edward Feser has many, many posts on the philosophical problems with describing God as a designer.

    • Yes, the philosophical problems of speaking of God as a designer or craftsman in many contexts is ground well-covered (the presumption of the inert character of matter and the need to locate gaps in scientific explanations, rather than recognize a higher level of causality being just two issues here). The exegetical challenge to such metaphors is somewhat less widely articulated.

  3. Matt J. says:

    As a computer programmer, I see this akin to God working at different levels of abstraction. Sometimes, he does something directly by hand himself, but quickly he is on to making things that accomplish other things all by themselves even when he’s not “paying attention” or intervening. So he “designs” the earth, but then it is growing blades of grass and algae on the ocean all over the place. Man ends up being the most autonomous creature of all, and the instructions given him so high level (as opposed to a low level software instruction) that his actions seemingly come from within himself.

  4. bethyada says:

    I see design as essentially language. Teleology is message theory. As such, God’s speaking in Genesis 1 seems to call more attention to design (over the design features we see in nature).

    • The problem with ‘design’ or craftsman language in this context is that it operates within a fairly restrictive picture of what purposeful creative action must look like. There are many forms of creative action that do not operate according to ‘design’ to the same degree.

      • bethyada says:

        Possibly? I not certain the concept of aesthetics is informational. But can you give examples as most things I can think of seem to involve design and thus message theory?

      • At the outset, it should be recognized that the word ‘design’ as it functions within discussions of God’s relationship to his creation is typically bound up with the notion of external craftsmanlike action, and that is what I was taking aim at in my remarks. Against this, I argued that certain key forms of God’s creative action—in the precise areas where design is most frequently appealed to—operate by the immanent empowering of natural agencies by his Spirit.

        A focus upon creation as message-giving and informational is problematic on a number of fronts, it seems to me, even where that is a valid dimension of God’s action. The creation is also about relationship, beauty, establishing a realm for fellowship and action, bringing about communion, etc. There is a playfulness, delight, and abundance to God’s creation that far exceeds the conveying of information. It is like a dynamic work of art, a piece of music, the Word of the Father sung out on the breath of the Spirit. It is best understood as poetry, not prose.

        The form of God’s action in its creation is in certain cases more accurately understood as a vivifying and animating of the world in its generative capacity by his Spirit, a dynamic formation from within, according to (though exceeding) set principles of development. Such creative action does not need some ‘design’ to justify it. We don’t have to posit some sort of ‘design’ to make sense of the fact that God created rabbits, for instance (why shouldn’t God create rabbits?). Like a piece of music, a rabbit does not need informational content or a design to justify it. Also, like a piece of music, creation can proceed as a rich improvisation on established ‘themes’, without seeing the result as ‘designed’ or ordered towards a unique outcome, as if this particular reality were being favoured over any other potential one. The playfulness of creation is something that we must always keep in mind, something that a focus on more restrictive concepts of ‘information’ or ‘design’ can tend to obscure.

      • bethyada says:

        Thanks Alastair. While I have not thought about music as information I am inclined to think it is (considering, say, Cage); but our comments seem to be somewhat at cross purposes here. I see no necessity for God to make a rabbit, though I certainly see the rabbit as designed with a large informational content. So I’ll leave the conversation for now. Cheers

      • It seems to me that it is one thing to say that a rabbit has ‘informational content’ and quite another to say that regarding the rabbit principally as informational in character is the most illuminating perspective upon it as a being, especially when that perspective is privileged to the neglect of others.

      • bethyada says:

        Not at all Alastair. I don’t equate the existence of a fact with its importance.

  5. Andrew says:

    This is something I’ve been thinking about recently. Colin Gunton has some good things to say based on Watson’s insights in his book Triune Creator. And I’ve also benefited from Conor Cunningham’s criticisms of Intelligent Design in his book on Darwinism, although his theology isn’t without its problems.

  6. C. WIngate says:

    It seems to me that there is a problem, though, in dealing with the last step of creation: “Let us make man in our own image.” If evolution is (as biology claims) the mechanism of this making, then it is difficult to avoid seeing something providential in that mechanism.

    • A couple of clarifying remarks:

      1. The point of this post was not to take a side in the evolution debate, but to make the point that, whatever our position on that question, we must take the language of Genesis seriously.

      2. Every creative and created mechanism is ordered by God. The activity of providence isn’t under dispute here, just its mode.

    • Matt J. says:

      C. WIngate: I agree. With the making of man, we seem to see God going back to some very hands-on activity – quite a different mode than the earth “bringing forth vegetation”.

  7. whitefrozen says:

    Alvin Plantinga’s work on this topic, namely seeing it as more of ‘design discourse’ and tying it to perception instead of classical design arguments is pretty interesting. Though FWIW, neo-darwinism may be on the way out. Some (not all, and not large numbers) of biologists are beginning to see that darwinism simply cannot account for life as we know it (not: this is purely darwinian evolution, and not evolution as a whole).

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