A Competent Creator? (RJS)

A Competent Creator? (RJS) April 23, 2013

Chapter five of Daniel Harrell’s book, Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, begins with a joke (p. 69):

A scientist tells God that he’s figured out how to create life from the dust of the ground, just like God did in the beginning. Consequently, the scientist says, he’s shown that God is no longer a plausible hypothesis for the origin of life. Impressed, the Lord tells the scientist to do it again; he’d like to watch. So the scientist picks up a handful of dirt. But the Lord stops him right there.

“Uh-uh” God says. “Get your own dirt.”

This sets the stage for much of the chapter entitled “Believolution.” God is the creator of all – and he is a competent creator. He is involved in the natural, not only the supernatural. He is behind the process, not only the outcome.  “A natural explanation is not a godless explanation because God made nature. The natural world is evidence of his mind-blowing skill.” (p. 70) Here I will highlight three points Harrell makes in this chapter.

God as Relational. Harrell goes on to give a clear explanation of one of the key points – one that I try to make fairly often when discussing the issue of creation and origins.

God’s competence does not negate intervention. God does intervene after creation, but his intervention is not to repair, but to relate. Having made his world, he intends to enjoy it not abandon it. Maybe a better word than intervention would be the world involvement. (p. 70)

When we think of God as creator, and as sovereign, we also need to step back and think about God in relationship with his creation and with his creatures. When miracles happen they always happen for a specific purpose of God in the context of this relationship.

Like Keller (and many others) Harrell here turns to the Trinity.  Harrell points out that we cannot explain the Trinity, and this it important. The Trinity (like many other aspects of God)  “defies human explanation, [and] therefore defies human control and exploitation.

For Christians faith in God as Trinity means faith in God as personal (or as I mentioned before, tri-personal). God exists in eternal relationship. As personal, God could never be detached from his creation. As personal, God cares for creation. The Trinity is an eternal relationship of persons, a three-in-one community of love so bound together yet so abounding that the love happily spills over into a creation that God can’t help but love too. Created by God, his creation bears the mark of relationality. Everything in nature is interconnected. The relational God creates a relational creation as an expression of himself. (p. 73)

God created people to enjoy relationship with each other and with God.  Relationality runs through the whole Christian story. God is not a distant deity, desiring only worship and adoration …he is in relationship with his creation from Genesis through Revelation: Creation, Garden, Israel, Exile, Incarnation, Church, and on.

Apparent Randomness and Freedom. Here Harrell notes that randomness can be used for a purpose. An honest casino operator allows the  fair and random roll of the dice, but the outcome is certain. If people come, the casino will make money. Like a casino, evolution’s freedom or randomness occurs within limits, and as Christians we believe that God designed those limits with all of creation.

Even given the randomness of the evolutionary process, why would we think that this rules out action of God? Harrell points to two incidents recorded in scripture (1 Chron. 25:8 and Acts 1:26). In what way did God control the casting of lots? Although we would look at the casting of lots as a random selection procedure both David and his people and the Apostles expected God to be behind the outcome of this “random” selection. But no scientific analysis should be able to detect a bias in the selection.

Beyond the question of randomness, Harrell also reflects on the nature of God’s control. Here he makes a key point I think worth some discussion.

While at times we may speak of God’s will in terms of a detailed plan, our experience is more often that of a range of possibilities. We decide to take a job as an engineer, a chemist, or a dog walker based on personal assessment, preference, and variables such as salary levels and what might please Mom and Dad. Choosing between a psychology major or a business major, marrying this person or that – all of these are choices we make of our own free will (as far as we can tell). Even the decision to believe in God is a choice freely made (Rom 1:10-13). However, just because every human choice, process, and outcome are not divinely predetermined (as far as we can tell), does not mean that such choices, processes, and outcomes are not a part of God’s will. (p. 79-80)

He goes on to use an analogy I find quite useful as we reflect on the scope and nature of God and his relationship with his creation.

What if God is like a grand-master chess player playing with an eight-year-old novice? The game has its rules and regularities (created by God), such that whatever move the eight-year-old makes, the grand master already knows its outcome. There’s no doubt who will win in the end. Likewise, with human freedom and evolutionary processes (the eight-year-old novices in this analogy), God knows what will happen in any scenario with any moves that are made. He can make any of them work for his victory. (p. 80)

The mismatch between God and his creatures is so great that, while we have real freedom to choose, the ultimate outcome is never in any doubt. The point is not the precise move of every chess piece given each range of possibilities, but the ultimate outcome of the game. Creation is far more complex than a chess game the range of possibilities many orders of magnitude larger – but yet not too large or too complex for God.

Finally – the question of Adam and Eve. Harrell discusses Genesis 1, but we all know that the major hang-up for many is the creation of humans. In what way are humans special, unique, created in the image of God? In the video below he comments briefly on the issue of Adam and Eve.

Harrell is willing to leave a range of possibilities on the table. Some require stretching of the scientific evidence to achieve agreement with a particular interpretation of scripture, some require more reinterpretation of scripture – but none are in direct conflict with either science or scripture. God could have selected a pair, Adam could be a federal representative of humankind, among other possibilities. He also discusses the relationship of body and soul. There is no clear distinction, in scripture or in science. We are embodied souls. Mind and matter are inextricably linked – although ideas, thoughts, and information can change the outcome of material processes. Harrell remains convinced (as do many of us) that humankind is unique, created in the image of God, but this does not rule out natural, including evolutionary, processes. Only God can destroy the soul – “that is, only God can kill the relationship forever between himself and those who reject him. This he does by “destroy[ing] both soul and body in hell.” (Mt 10:28 – emphasis from Harrell p. 90).

He wraps up the chapter:

If God created the heavens and the earth and made people in his own image, as the Bible teaches, and if sceince is essentially right in its description of earth’s formation and life’s evolution, then God is the God of evolution. Without God there would be no evolution. To believe in God is not to reject science any more than it is to believe that science teaches is to reject God. … The tendency is to fear scientific advancement because of the presumption that each scientific advance squeezes God further out of the picture. But if God is the God of all things, then each scientific advancement about nature only further illumines the nature of God. (p. 91)

And a prayer. This doesn’t answer all questions – we are left with issues of time, perhaps waste, the occurrence of cancer, birth defects, earthquakes, tornadoes, and tsunamis. There is much that remains for discussion. Chapter 6 poses many of these questions in the context of a prayer – asking God about the issues that remain mysterious and troublesome. The point is that we respond, not in fear, but in faith and ask God for guidance and wisdom.

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps 90:1-2 NIV). I will deal with the dissonance by standing firm in my faith. I will seek you with my whole heart. I will persist in my prayer. (p. 102)

What do you think?

Does the connection of God as Trinity with creation as relational at its core make sense?

What does it mean to say that we were made for relationship – or, for that matter, that God is Love?

Does the analogy with a chess game between a child and a grand master help with an understanding of both openness and sovereignty in creation?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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  • norman

    I think Harrell essentially nails it in his video regarding Adam and Eve and their creation. He says … “Adam and Eve as the first humans is the problem”, he then says that God specially selects Adam and Eve for this Covenant relationship and they become representative then of a covenant relationship with God” and equates it to God selecting Abraham.

    I would carry it further and insist even more strongly than Harrell does that Adam and Eve was representative of God choosing Israel as His Covenant people. It’s an origins story of God’s faith people and not in any sense a biological story line even though it may appear that way to those uninitiated with Hebrew literature.

    Let me provide a NT example of how humanity was viewed and contrasted in a duality of understanding in Hebrew theology as outlined by Paul in Ephesians 2. (for those critical scholars out there: or someone who wrote under a Pauline pseudonym 🙂

    Eph 2: 11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles … that you were … alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, WHO HAS MADE US BOTH ONE … that he might CREATE IN HIMSELF ONE NEW MAN IN PLACE OF THE TWO

    The illustration above represents a Hebrew theological understanding of two accounts of Humanity. First we should understand that this framework of two humanities is a well understood concept of how the Jews considered themselves different. They used the division of Jew as one “man” and Gentile as another man but I would caution in reading biological implications but instead we should see it is a Covenant or non-covenant implication. Especially when the implications through Christ are that both humanities are now formed into the one new covenant man.

    This inference is the same for understanding Adam as a covenant head of Israel and is primarily a Jewish story line. Christ then becomes the Last Adam who is the covenant (Federal) head of all of humanity now that come into covenant with God.

    IMHO, Genesis is really not all that difficult to sort through once we recognize the underlying Jewish concept that permeates its purpose.

  • It seems to me that chess is too rigid an example for what God allows us.

    I prefer to think of God’s relationship to humans as that of a master novelist, such as Dostoevsky, who allows his characters full freedom to live their lives, agree or argue with, even disagree and rebel against their creator, yet still serve the purposes of His authorial vision.

    Of course if we’re smart, we’ll choose to live in such a way as to work alongside our creator instead of against him, but in any case, the creators purpose will be fulfilled.

  • Scott F

    “Uh-uh” God says. “Get your own dirt.”

    Nothing like a good God-of-the-gaps argument to remind us of the difference between science and theology!

  • RJS


    Any analogy is limited, and I think there are some important insights in the analogy of a master novelist. But I still like the Chess analogy better precisely because it seems to me that it isn’t rigid.

    The master novelist creates all the moves and any freedom to argue comes out of the mind of the novelist. There is no real freedom of choice and relationship.

    The chess analogy allows real freedom to the other player – even though the outcome is never in doubt. Chess is but a finite example using a playing board – which may make it seem somewhat rigid. But creation is far more complex, the playing board much harder to identify, the range of possibilities is far greater. But God is greater still. The outcome is never in doubt.

  • RJS, thanks for the response, and I’m probably quibbling, but here’s why I think the novelist analogy works so well.

    My choice of Dostoevsky was precisely because he does give his characters freedom of choice and relationship. As any competent writer of fiction can tell you, at some point, the characters do take on lives of their own. They behave in ways the author doesn’t expect and attempt to take the story down paths the author did not consciously choose.

    Writing fiction on the level of our greatest novelists is akin to dreaming in the most vivid detail, while still directing the dream’s outcome.

    The author is able to give his characters their own authority. Their voices stand beside the author’s voice and demand to be taken as integral wholes. The novelist’s art in this case is to give as much latitude as possible to those voices while still fulfilling his end purpose.

    The author is “in relationship” to his characters, not through inanimate pieces on a grid, but in true dialog, recognizing them as ends in themselves, whom he loves even while directing them toward the outcome he chooses.

  • TJR

    Scott , I’m not sure this is a God-of-the-gaps argument. More of a joke about the origin of life on a blog about evolution. The first line about creating life from the dust of the ground, made me think of T.S. Eliot: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust”.

  • Darrin Snyder Belousek

    The chess master v. chess novice analogy, it seems to me, is a variation of Molinism: God knows all the counterfactuals (“middle knowledge”)–that is, all the possible options open to human freedom AND what choice we would make were we presented with any particular set of options. So, God knows all the possible arrangements of the chess pieces on the board AND what move we would choose under any given arrangement, such that God can calculate the outcome of the game from any starting point of the game board. The analogy, therefore, is only as good as one thinks Molinism is a viable theory to reconcile divine omniscience and human freedom.

  • TJR

    “Harrell is willing to leave a range of possibilities on the table. Some require stretching of the scientific evidence to achieve agreement with a particular interpretation of scripture, some require more reinterpretation of scripture – but none are in direct conflict with either science or scripture.” This is a great summary not only of Harrell but of the Biologos approach to the problem of Adam and evolution. The trouble with that approach is that it’s concordist. The definition of concordism is that there is no conflict with science or scripture. That is they agree or are in concord. Whether you reach the concord by “stretching” the science or with creative reinterpretation, the result is the same the Bible and modern science agree. A better approach would be accommodation. Admit that the Bible and science do not agree but that God used ancient people with faulty ideas about biology, astronomy, etc. to write scripture.

  • AHH

    TJR @8,

    I agree with you that concordism is probably not the best way to approach the intersection of science with Genesis 2/3. From my memory of reading his book, I think Harrell at times is fine with the idea of accommodation as described in your last sentence, although he for whatever reason won’t go there with the Adam/Eve issue.

    But it is not fair to label this “the Biologos approach”. Biologos gives voice to a variety of views on this issue, both concordist and accommodationist, without committing to one position. After all, Pete Enns wrote The Evolution of Adam (definitely an accommodation approach) while on the Biologos payroll, and they give voice to others who I believe have a similar view (Thomas Jay Oord, Denis Lamoureux, Dennis Venema, Kenton Sparks, Karl Giberson, John Polkinghorne are some that come to mind).

  • RJS


    I don’t know what Molinism is – so I don’t know if it is a viable theory or not. But in the chess analogy God does not have to know what choice we would make presented with any particular set of options. He only needs to know what response he would make, in relationship with us, to any choices we might possibly make.

    The Grand Master doesn’t know what the child will do – only what response to make.

  • RJS


    The accommodation approach is one of those that remains on the table. I think it remains on the table for Harrell, although it may not be his preferred approach. I don’t really know his preferred position.

    If there is “a BioLogos approach” I would guess that it is much the same as this – we need to have a theological, hermeneutical, and scientific conversation. Both accommodation and various kinds of concordist positions can be discussed. But the scientific data speaks to the scientific questions and this is taken very seriously. It does no good to take a hard-nosed position on the theological/biblical questions at this time.

    As AHH notes – BioLogos gives voice to a variety of views.

  • LarryRR

    Harrell writes “The tendency is to fear scientific advancement because of the presumption that each scientific advance squeezes God further out of the picture.” But, if you believe in God, this ‘dissonance’ simply isn’t possible. The picture, and narrative, will always morph as necessary. You will make it fit or toss it (I was taught dinosaurs were a trick of the devil and believed it well into college). Is there any conceivable scientific advance that would call God into question? Or is science just figuring out how God did it (and might this limit or narrow our interpretation of the data)?

    The view that God chose an existing couple and named them Adam and Eve makes more sense than creating one from the dust of the earth and the other from a rib but how does one interpret the creation story as a whole? Is there nothing literal at all in the first three chapters of Genesis (with Chap 3 being quite descriptive)? The first four?

    I just bought Enns’ book and am looking forward to reading it along the next iteration of this series. I suspect there’ll be some overlap between the two and these questions are addressed.

  • LarryRR

    Though this may be off-topic to some degree, RJS did ask “What does it mean to say that we were made for relationship – or, for that matter, that God is Love?” This questions juxtaposes interestingly with Harrell’s view “that is, only God can kill the relationship forever between himself and those who reject him. This he does by “destroy[ing] both soul and body in hell.” Nature is all about relationships, loving or not, so this is easy to grasp. But a Love that destroys body and soul, for any reason, is hard for me to fathom, much less reconcile (and I did read/watch “Revisiting Hell”). That view, to my mind, squeezes God out the picture more than anything else.

  • Rod

    Great post. Thank you.

  • TJR


    I didn’t realize I was being so hard-nosed, sorry about that. I should not have implied that concordism was Harrell or Biologos view. In retrospect I should have given my statements some qualifications. It’s just that I try to keep my comments short because I don’t like reading long ones so I figure others don’t either.
    By the way Molinism is named for a 16cent. Jesuit who wrote on the problem of predestination and free will. I remember going into the wrong room at an ETS event one time and listening to William Lane Craig give a lecture on Molinism. I had no idea what he was talking about. I guess Philosophy is just not my thing.

  • TJR

    should have said Harrell or Biologos only view

  • Tim Atwater

    thanks for the post
    the joke is perhaps of a different genre (though consistent with) what follows.
    Like psalms embedded in narrative text (Chronicles)… and quoted and referenced often in gospels and letters — it’s like a bit of a song in the midst of a sermon (or lecture)
    Not to take off topic but not to be taken too literally either

    Harrell has another good one somewhere in the book that with this one I’ve also used in sermons…

    thanks again.

  • Patrick

    If Adam and Eve are not the first parents as opposed to various ideas , then we do have a problem because Eve is called the mother of all and Paul insists we are all part of 1 “blood” of people emanating from Adam.

    The “federal head” idea or the “underlying Jewish concept” idea doesn’t handle that.

  • Phil Miller

    If Adam and Eve are not the first parents as opposed to various ideas , then we do have a problem because Eve is called the mother of all and Paul insists we are all part of 1 “blood” of people emanating from Adam.

    The “federal head” idea or the “underlying Jewish concept” idea doesn’t handle that.’

    If our theology doesn’t fit with the facts, than it’s probably our theology that needs to be revised. What good is it to try come up with ad hoc solutions to try to make the facts fit our theology?

    I think the question is whether or not the point Paul makes in Romans is entirely dependent on Adam being a real person. I believe Paul believed in a historic Adam, and so did the people he was originally writing to. Using that as a starting point was a convenient way for him to make his point about the universal sinfulness of humanity. If there wasn’t a historic Adam, though, does this change the fact that humans are universally sinful? Not from my perspective.