Theistic Evolution vs. Evolutionary Creationists

Theistic Evolution vs. Evolutionary Creationists August 23, 2012

Jason Rosenhouse, about whose book Among the Creationists we have had some posts, has recently weighed in on a shift in expressions. To wit, instead of calling their view “theistic evolution” many now call themselves “evolutionary creationists.” Here is a clip from Jason with my response after the jump:

I stand by that post, but lately I’ve been noticing theistic evolutionists themselves seem determined to undermine my argument. Consider, for example, the subtitle of this article from Christianity Today:

How two evangelicals—one a young-earth creationist, the other an evolutionary creationist—have lived out their faith and professions.

That phrase “evolutionary creationist,” has been appearing more and more lately. I find it disturbing, and frankly it’s the kind of thing that makes me worry that I need to rethink my earlier post. Part of the problem is the use of the word “creationist.” That word is nowadays so debauched and disreputable, that if you insist on applying it to yourself you should not be surprised when people lump you in with the fundamentalists.

But that’s not the main issue. The distinction between the two expressions is this: In the phrase “theistic evolution,” it is the evolution that is front and center. The theistic part is an add-on. It’s saying, in effect, that the science is paramount and that any talk of God is something you do at night after you leave the lab. I approve of that formulation. It puts the emphasis where it belongs. I have all sorts of criticisms to make of theistic evolution, but I do not see it as anti-science or anything like that.

Contrast this with “evolutionary creation.” Now the emphasis is on creation. The focus is on what God did. Science’s contribution, the evolution part, is to reveal something about God. It is a throwback to the bad old days when science was just the handmaiden of religion. Mind you, this is not me overanalyzing things. This is precisely how the defenders of the term “evolutionary creation,” explain the distinction themselves.

Yes, I’ve seen the same shift and I have had the same kind of question: Will “evolutionary creationist” suggest that former theistic evolutionists are now on the side of the scientific creationists, even though they are miles apart from one another on this issue?

I’d like to hear your view, but here is how I would size this up:

First, yes, giving the term “creationists” precedence by making it the noun instead of the adjective shifts the perception/message from what science knows (evolution) to how science is packaged or perceived. That is, the whole is now seen as God’s creation. The shift of nouns is a shift of perception at some level, and it may be an expression some are using to express fellowship with their fellow evangelicals who are scientific creationists, and it may be used to get some critics off their back. But…

Second, Jason, this is what theistic evolutionists have believed — more or less, depending on the scholar, etc — all along. Theistic evolution gets the ball rolling with God, after all. What theistic evolution means is that evolution happened and God guided or directed or set it in motion (here one can discuss potentialities, Owen Gingerich, et al). So while the two expressions are more or less the same the latter actually drops God from direct mention.

Third, “theistic evolution” is actually a firmer God-belief while “evolutionary creationism” is a stronger statement about mechanics — how it happened. Starting it out with “evolutionary” is a deal-breaker immediately for the scientific creationist, who despises the adequacy of the term “evolution” as inconsistent with the Christian faith. So while EC may be seen as siding with the creationists (Ken Ham, ID, et al) it’s opening act with “evolutionary” immediately eliminates that connection.

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  • Joe Carter

    Rosenhouse has said what is often left unstated. Many in the scientific community only tolerate “theistic evolutionists” as long as they keep “any talk of God” as “something you do at night after you leave the lab.” When they realize that theistic evolutionists actually believe that God had an essential role in the evolutionary process—that they claim it couldn’t have occurred without God—then they TEs to be nearly as daffy as the old-school creationists.

    I think the term evolutionary creationist is a more accurate label. But you can expect more sneering from people like Rosenhouse when it’s discovered what was “really meant” all along.

  • Evolutionary creation is not a new term – see Denis Lamoureax’s book of that title published in 2008 – in which he makes a case for why EC is a more God centered and God honoring term than theistic evolution. Creation is central with evolution the adjective.

    Either works for me – TE or EC. However, TE is more commonly understood. But I think Denis’ view has merits. 6 of one; half dozen of the other. What is the expression, “a rose my any other name . . .”

  • Andrew

    Part of the problem is the use of the word “creationist.” That word is nowadays so debauched and disreputable, that if you insist on applying it to yourself you should not be surprised when people lump you in with the fundamentalists.

    Replace “creationist” with “evolutionist” and “fundamentalists” with “liberal atheists,” and the other side could have said this. Words develop visceral-reactive connotations on both sides in such polarized subject matters.

    From a pragmatic approach, if both terms will turn off some bloc of the population, which group is it more important strategically for TE/EC folks to court? In my view, it’s Christians. We (EC folks) urgently need the body of Christ to understand that we are on their side, for the sake of the future of the church. BioLogos (a key driver of this terminological turn) understands this, and has chosen their terms accordingly.

  • I agree with Scot’s push back here. I’m particularly bothered by the phrase, “science is paramount and any talk of God is something you do at night after you leave the lab.” If that’s what TE connotes, then I’ll use EC from now on 🙂

  • RJS

    Joe (#1),

    The major conflict, no question, is on the issue of “any talk of God” – which is why I find the argument that Christian scientists accept evolution only because they “seek the favor of man” a deeply hurtful charge. In our current academic/scientific culture there is absolutely no way to be a Christian and find complete acceptance. Just look at the brouhaha over the nomination of Francis Collins as director of NIH.

  • RJS

    Thanks Scot, for posting this.

    Your comments are pretty much dead on – there is no change in belief here (although we always refine our understanding). There is a change in term in order to make a point to fellow Christians. Frankly I don’t care what Rosenhouse thinks of the term, I am more concerned with the conflict within the church. Allowing an evolutionary creation stance may help with evangelism; but even more it will help to circumvent the deep disconnect and cognitive dissonance so many raised in the church feel.

    Evolutionary creation is not an oxymoron, and it does not give the image of a deist God who simply got things started.

    Continuing on my thought in response to Joe – we accept evolution, at least the general framework, because once any one understands the evidence there is no real denying of the strength of the case for evolution. This is not a theory in trouble on any level. (Nor do we have all final answers yet.) As a result, making the case within the church is of far greater importance that worrying about the impression of those like Rosenhouse and so many others.

  • T

    Jason’s hostility here to “any talk of God” except “at night” and away from the lab makes me sad. Another victim/warrior of the culture war. One can do science (and many have) with the conviction that the whole universe is “something God did.”

    I don’t know if he realizes how he would sound to a Christian (scientist or otherwise) or if he would have been as anti-religious before spending all that time with the Christian culture warriors, but it’s unfortunate either way.

  • If only we could find some words that succinctly communicate the idea that God’s acting and naturalistic occurrences are not in any way opposed to eachother. As Pete Rollins so clearly argues, we chronically conceive of God as a “Deus Ex Machina” (a God that acts from outside the natural system rather than one who is Himself the fabric of the natural system).

    Maybe its much easier to speak of a non “Deus ex Machina” God. Just say “evolution” when you’re talking to scientists who are bothered by “creation”, and “creation” when talking to those who would be bothered by “evolution”. Or, perhaps, say “evolution” when one means to discuss the physical aspects of the world and “creation” when the spiritual implications of the wording matter. In the end each term is equally true within their own context and it’s only when we assume a dualistic view of reality an a Deus ex Machina God that they seem to contradict.

    When talking to our child’s pediatrician we do not feel the need to describe in detail how much our child has grown in compassion for his friends, we talk about how his nutrition, germs, white blood cells or whatever. We don’t insist on telling our doctors that it is God’s handiwork with a knitting needle going on in a mother’s belly but are content to talk about cellular reproduction, Genetics, etc.

    What good reason do we have frown for insisting on talking to scientists about the spiritual when discussing the physical (or vice versa)?

    Why can’t we similarly just say “evolution” or “creation” depending on the dimension of reality we’re talking about?

    Maybe that’s a part of being all things to all people? I think our freedom in Christ more than allows this sort of talk.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    On the one hand, I am pretty close to RJS in her response in #6. On the other hand, I also have similar concerns about theistic evolution as a term as Howard Van Till. Like Rosenhouse, evolution as a noun seems to take the precedence (even though I don’t believe this has to be the case, self-describtions often say a lot about one’s worldview or where one is coming from).

    I really like Van Till’s description of “fully gifted Creation.” Here is how Van Till defines this term, “FGC—A vision that recognizes the entire universe as a creation that has, by God unbounded generosity and unfathomable creativity, been given all of hte capabilities for self-organization and transformation neccesary to make possible somethng as humanly incomprehensible as unbroken evolutionary development” (From “Three Views of Creation and
    Evolution,” p.173).

  • James Palmer

    I use whatever term I think will get the desired response (usual either non-offense or interest) from whoever I’m talking to.

    If I’m talking about the subject with a young earth creationist and don’t want to offens, calling myself an “Evolutionary Creationist” lets them know that overall, I’m on their side. It’s also usually a new term to them, and helps them to see that creation could be done in different ways and still be creation – so it helps in the conversation, and I’d say I now use this term more often than theistic evolutionist.

    However, if I’m going to talk to someone with a more scientific background, especially a non-believer, I’m more likely to use “Theistic Evolutionist”. It lets them know that I agree with their most important views on the matter, but also tells them where I differ.

    In the end, one can pull apart the terms and stretch their meaning around, but they will mean different things to different people, and so I just use whatever I think will communicate the message I’m trying to portray.

    It will be a sad day when a Theistic Evolutionist and an Evolutionary Creationist are arguing with each other that their views are more correct!

  • Bev Mitchell

    Ultimately, truth from science and truth from Scripture have to flow easily together. There should be no big bump, no disjunction as we pass from what we can figure out for ourselves to what God must reveal to us. People who believe that Scripture is the primary revelation of God to humanity, should also be able to say, really quite naturally,

    “All the things science has discovered to have happened, and continue to happen were made possible and continue to be made possible by a loving God.”

  • James Rednour

    I don’t worry about terms. I tell people I accept evolution because the evidence demands I accept it. I tell people I’m a Christian because I have a hope it is true. If people have a problem with that there is little I can do.

  • The funny thing to me was his little crack about the “bad old days” when science was the hand-maiden of theology and the emphasis was on what science teaches us about God. It just made me chuckle because it was such a revealing little tidbit: no one must unseat the hard sciences’ dominance within the realm of professional knowledge. Scientists who acknowledge God in their thought-process disturb this order that has taken so long to develop and so much energy to enforce. I can’t help feeling that so much of this is a tiff about cultural power.

    I have no problem with either term. Part of me would like to accept EC just to spite Rosenhouse, but TE is easier and more recognizable.

  • AHH

    RJS @6 has it right, as does Scot’s analysis. And Rosenhouse is right about the reason for the shift in vocabulary — the fact that it bothers him belies his anti-religious bias and a philosophy that scientific knowledge rules all.

    It is indeed a matter of the primary emphasis, where the TE term does make it sound like the emphasis is evolution with theism thrown in as an afterthought. But for orthodox Christians, we are all “creationists” in the sense of “I believe in God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth”. Then the way God did the creating (via the processes science describes as “evolution” is secondary.

    As RJS points out, this change in terminology (reflecting what the position of most Christian “theistic evolutionists” has always been anyway) is primarily to convey the position more accurately within the church. This way we don’t get falsely labeled as not believing in “creation” (for example, there was a conference at Biola in the 1990s titled “Mere Creation” where TE views were not welcome). It emphasizes that we are on the same page as other “creationists” (and all Christians) regarding the key doctrine of God as creator, and puts the secondary issue of how God created in its proper secondary place.
    Of course the change in terminology does not prevent attacks within the church from some who strongly believe evolution is incompatibile with Christianity, but it gives a more accurate picture to those who might be open to consider the variety of ways in which God could have created.

  • EricMichaelSay

    I perceived the CT article referenced to be trying to create more empathy toward those who hold to Theistic Evolution. Essentially, “Hey, we’re all creationists here.” Is this just the ‘in-group’ expression of Theistic Evolution?

  • Joe Carter

    RJS (#5)

    ***Christian scientists accept evolution only because they “seek the favor of man” a deeply hurtful charge.***

    The problem is that Christian scientists do *not*, in fact, accept “evolution” at least not in the way the term is used most often in the scientific community. The term, as most scientists use it, refers to an unguided, non-teleological process. The way that most secularists have understood TE is as an unguided, non-teleological process that has something vaguely to do with God. Once you start claiming (as we must) that God not only started the process but is intimately involved in every step (indeed, of keeping everything in existence from exnihilation at every moment in time), they they will claim that we are not talking about evolution anymore.

    In comment #10, James Palmer says, “I use whatever term I think will get the desired response (usual either non-offense or interest) from whoever I’m talking to.” I understand the reasoning, but this approach fails to grasp that people understand the meanings of the term very differently. The question is not whether evolution has occurred (I believe it has, though I also believe in a historical Adam and Eve), but whether it was undirected and unguided. Once you start making that claim, you are talking about a very different process than the one that is argued for by most secular biologists.

  • RJS

    Joe Carter,

    In that case we are not talking about anything in physics, biology, chemistry, climatology, medicine, embryology, aeronautics, … any more in the same way as “most scientists”. As a Christian I believe that God is intimately involved in everything – always. Separating the scientific explanation from the action of God is an unfortunate act.

    Making the distinction in evolution – but not all these other areas sets up a conflict that obscures the real issue.

  • Joe Carter


    ***Making the distinction in evolution – but not all these other areas sets up a conflict that obscures the real issue.***

    I don’t think it needs to. For example, if scientists had been guided by the understanding that teleology matters in biology then it might have prevented them from making erroneous assumptions. For instance, would they have bought the “Junk DNA” nonsense had that not had a non-teleological bias? And as James A. Shapiro (UofC) has noted, natural selection’s importance for evolution has been largely overstated because the undirected view can’t include self-organization and other phenomena that we are beginning to obverse in microbiology.

  • RJS

    But Joe,

    Believe it or not the vast majority of “junk” DNA is not functional, a small amount has a specific purpose. I’ve almost finished a post on this and Dennis Venema did a good one at BioLogos.

    Very few scientists and even fewer evolutionary biologists ever thought it was all “junk” – this is why work has continued on it nonstop… and is continuing even now.

    We may find purposes for more – but the kinds of modifications that are found in this so-called “junk” region are qualitatively and quantitatively different from the ones that occur in the genes. The differences are explicable by elementary chemistry and physics.

    Actually this is one of the points I tried to make on the other post today as well – most of science is a work in progress and everything is subject to revision in the face of evidence. We are pretty sure something won’t be refined though – like F=ma and such.

    As Christians we need to stand for purpose and meaning – and a personal, interventionist, God. But making the battleground “evolution” obscures the real issue. I tried to make this point when posting on an article by an MIT professor published in Salon – and I may need to post on the topic again. The big issues for this professor were personal and intervention because they violated material causality, viewed as the fundamental postulate of science.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Joe (16)

    You claim,
    “Once you start claiming (as we must) that God not only started the process but is intimately involved in every step (indeed, of keeping everything in existence from exnihilation at every moment in time), they they will claim that we are not talking about evolution anymore.”

    For the vast majority of non-Christian scientists this charge is simply not true. That is unless we who claim that God made everything possible and continues to do so also try to get specific as to the mechanism (the methods) God uses. Do you know the method or the mechanisms? I don’t!  Christians can claim that the 3.5 billion year drama and pattern of life on this planet (self-assembly of certain chemicals, evolution of simple life forms, evolution of complex life forms, evolution of multicellularity all the way to a sentient species to whom God can and does reveal himself) represent what God has done. Exactly how God interacts with created matter to accomplish this is unknown, probably unknowable. 

    Scientists who out and out reject God will call my references to God in the above paragraph completely unnecessary, but they will not disagree with the science that it contains. Their negative conclusion about God is not based on science and this is generally acknowledged. We evangelicals need a much larger view of God and a humbler one that does not demand to know his mechanisms. We need to learn to be satisfied with knowing the what (largely through science) and the why (through careful, communal reading of Scripture).

    As RJS says, purpose and meaning are what Christians find in Scripture. This includes the gospel. This should be enough. Purpose and meaning are also what the entire world is looking for and we are called to live it out and speak it out.

  • Joe Carter

    ***For the vast majority of non-Christian scientists this charge is simply not true. That is unless we who claim that God made everything possible and continues to do so also try to get specific as to the mechanism (the methods) God uses.***

    We’re not just talking about the mechanism, but also the teleological process. Two scientists could agree about a particular mechanism, but if one says that it’s function is random and blind and the other says that it is intentional and directed, then they are not really talking about the same thing at all.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Depends on the sense in which we mean intentional and directed. Are we determinists or not? The result will be quite different in those two cases.

  • DRT

    I am definitely not an evolutionary creationist. I would be willing to concede being a naturalistic creationist, but that misses out on the idea of theism vs. deism.

    Theistic evolutionist is OK, if all we are talking about is whether we believe in the basic principles of evolution, but I would like a term more comprehensive, like the one i threw out there, naturalistic creationist.

  • RJS

    Joe Carter (#21)

    We are talking about teleological process – but there is no need to single out evolution. This is a much broader issue.

    Random, blind selection can be used to achieve a purpose. The statistics that guarantee a casino is profitable are a case in point. Each roll of the die is random, but the outcome is not. This view is fine for a Christian who doesn’t expect precise control by God (not a complete determinist) – but is a problem for one who thinks God’s control is specific to even the hair that falls. Of course for the latter Christian the view is simply that God controls everything, and this can be true of the apparently chaotic weather and the apparently random process of evolution.

  • RJS


    I don’t understand what point you are trying to make. What do you mean by naturalistic creationist? Deism?

  • AHH

    Bev @20 has it right, most scientists stick to the science and avoid assigning it metaphysical meaning. Many of them may believe that the lack of scientifically detectable purpose in evolution (if the idea of scientifically detectable purpose even makes sense) confirms their belief that there is no metaphysical purpose, but few would insist that such a metaphysical view is an essential part of what evolution means. They might think those of us who do see purpose on other grounds are odd (just like those of us who see God in the apparently purposeless processes like gravity that formed the Solar System), but most of them would not say we are denying evolution.

    I think too many Christians (including perhaps Joe Carter) have their view of what evolution “means” determined by crusading scientific atheists like Richard Dawkins, when most scientists don’t imbue science with the same God-excluding metaphysical meaning that Dawkins does. Why should we let the atheists tell us the metaphysical meaning of things?

  • DRT

    RJS, I am saying that god creates through what we call natural processes. I believe there is a false dichotemy between the godly ways and the natural ways, and i believe that the natural ways of the world are a method by which god acts.

    Certainly there can be intervention, but the primary mechanism is via his ordained natural world.

    The reason I like to broaden it from just evolution is because we are, and become, not only based on biological evolution, but through the influences of conscious acts both by us as individuals and us as a society. Add to that the influence of the Holy Spirit on our outlook and now we have gone well beyond evolution as a mechanism for change and development. I consider all of those to be part of the nature of what is.

    Does that help

  • Bev Mitchell


    Of course we acknowledge his naturalistic creating, but we should be clear that we are not saying anything about method (or divine determinism) when we use that characterization. Trying to put this all into words in recent months has inclined me toward saying that God is the one who made everything possible, and continues to make everything possible. This approach helps keep the focus on what God has done and off the how God has done it or does it.

    Despite his slight inclination toward Buddhism at the end, I have begun to recommend Denis Noble’s little book “The Music of Life”. It’s essentially systems biology for the rest of us, and a bountiful source of helpful metaphors to boot. There is also lots of modern biology to be learned in his 140 short pages. In the final chapter, he waxes lyrical on why we should start thinking about some things, for example “the self” in terms of verbs rather than nouns. A teaser quote near the end of the book is revealing. “In relation to a self, it is the coherence and rationality that matter, not whether there is a bunch of neurons with which ‘I’ can be identified.” Probably good advice for several situations.

    Just a random thought. While we need to examine our idea of God to fully embrace the truths from science, we probably also need to re-examine our anthropology. 

  • AHH

    DRT @23,
    A problem is that in these conversations “naturalistic” tends to refer to a metaphysical position where there is no God and nature is all there is to reality.
    I sympathize with what you are saying in #27, but I think you need to come up with a different label.

  • DRT

    A quick trip to the thesaurus yields these for natural:

    accustomed, anticipated, characteristic, common, commonplace, congenital, connatural, consistent, constant, counted on, customary, essential, familiar, general, habitual, inborn, indigenous, ingenerate, inherent, innate, instinctive, intuitive, involuntary, legitimate, logical, looked for, matter-of-course, natal, native, ordinary, prevailing, prevalent, probable, reasonable, regular, relied on, spontaneous, typic, typical, unacquired, uncontrolled, uniform, universal, usual

    How about Reasonable Creationist?

  • Bev Mitchell

    Maybe even Consistently Reasonable Creationist 🙂

  • Mike M

    Can we kick it up here? How about US creating a term for what we believe? Words are powerful as John points out and we can co-work with God in redefining reality.
    In actuallity, I have an easier time talking with other scientists about God than I do talking with creationists aboit real science like evolution. Creationism is a pseudo-science that exists only because the Average Joe is scared of deep thought and reason. As a Christian scientist, I have my research, tradition, Bible, and special revelation. Creationists have plastic dinosaurs and fake rock paintings.
    It’s pretty rough up here in the wilds of Wisconsin. Just 2 weeks ago I had a dad of my wife’s friend tell me that he hates The National Geographical, Discovery, and Nature channels because they are all “evolutionist.” Just think of the grandeur and majesty of God’s creation he has missed.

  • dopderbeck

    Late to this conversation, but my two cents: I don’t like either of these canned terms (“theistic evolution” or “evolutionary creation”).

    I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth. I think the natural sciences are a God-given tool for understanding the physical development of the material world — the “Earth” part of “Heaven and Earth.” It is empirically clear that the material world developed gradually through evolutionary processes over deep time, as the natural sciences in broad outline describe. We have no “scientific” empirical access to the non-material aspects of creation — the “Heaven” part of “Heaven and Earth” — which are equally part of what God, the Father almighty, made. Thus I offer no firm opinion whether those aspects of the creation also involve evolutionary processes, though I have no reason to think they do, since they are not apparently subject to the same physical laws.

    This makes me, I hope, a “Christian,” who confesses simply: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth,” as Christians have confessed for 2000 years. I make this confession and then seek understanding to wonder at all its depths and riches, including but not limited to the depths and riches delivered by the gift of the natural sciences. I don’t feel the need to label my views any further.

  • David P Himes

    The earth came into being either by pure chance by as a result of God’s intervention — which I believe is the point of Genesis 1.

    Science cannot prove that the earth and human life came into being by chance … many scientists conclude it happened that way, because they do not have any other explanation that does require intervention.

    Scientists, who accept the various versions of the “big bang” (or whatever else) and the various versions of evolution, do so ultimately on their faith that some missing event actually happened, but they have no proof of the missing event.

    So, whichever side of this dispute you take, you take it on faith.