Deism (again)

Ted Davis (
Tue, 13 Apr 1999 10:13:41 -0400

In response to the recent posts concerning Deism and Howard Van Till's
theology of a robust economy of creation, I offer the following.

First, every theology of creation, and every philosophy of nature, comes
with pluses and minuses. (I know of no exceptions, though I don't want to
get into long posts in which I have to spell out what these are for any
given position, so please don't ask me to.) I simply mean to point this out
so that we can better be alert for this in each case.

In Howard's case, the plus (as I see it) is the very real sense of God's
wisdom in providing a very gifted creation and the very real sense of God's
goodness in continuing to sustain the creation, moment by moment. The
medieval theologians would have called this God's potentia ordinata (God's
ordained power). Calvin likewise, I think. Another plus is its ability to
respond to naturalism on its own turf, by properly raising good prior
questions about existence and the nature of nature. These are in my view
very large pluses, which is mainly why I like what he is saying.

On the other hand, the very big potential minus here is indeed deism. I've
pointed out already how Howard's position resembles that of Leibniz, and in
Leibniz's case (at least) I think the deism was not very far from the
surface, though I may be misinterpreting Leibniz and invite correction. In
Howard's case there is no deism, just as in Boyle's case there was no deism,
because both Howard and Boyle believe in God's extraordinary providence as
well as in God's ordinary providence. Unlike Howard, however, Boyle was
more obviously a theological voluntarist--someone who held that the laws of
nature are so radically contingent on God's will that there is NO defect in
God's creation if it isn't "perfect" in a scientific sense. Newton agreed
with this view also. For Boyle and Newton, then, it was perfectly
appropriate to call on God's extraordinary providence in nature as well as
in scripture. This is a powerful antitode to deism, and not available to
Howard (if I understand him correctly) because he does not believe that God
has acted this way, though he does believe (I think) that God could act this

The best defense against deism for Howard, I think, is then to emphasize
more strongly his belief that God raised Christ from the dead and also did
other great deeds that lie outside of our understanding of what the
giftedness of creation can accomplish.

of the century and a little afterwards, I am convinced that what led most
modern theology/science people to abandon the classical notion of divine
transcendence was their belief that a God who performs miracles is
necessarily a God-of-the-gaps, and that a GG is necessarily a deist's God.
I believe this to be a mistake, a fundamental mistake, in their thinking,
brought on by a failure to understand the dialectic of immanence and
transcendence in early modern science. Belief in God's activity apart from
categories available to the naturalist is crucial, in my view, to
maintaining a genuine theism. This need not mean that we must endorse
special creation, but it does mean that we need to be clear about God's
ability to act in ways that we will never capture with science alone.

The opposite danger is, in my view, very much seen in ID: this is the
insistence that we must assert the necessity of invoking non-natural agency
as part of the scientific program, as if all the cards were on the table and
we could see God's hand. This does border on a GG strategy, though it may
not be based on a GG theology (as I discuss elsewhere). It's a losing game,
in my view, to insist that we base belief in God on evidence derived from
our inability to know certain things from current science.

Pick your poison.

Edward B. Davis
Professor of the History of Science
Messiah College
Grantham, PA 17027
717-766-2511, ext 6840