Re: The Church of Darwin (WSJ 16 Aug 1999)

Howard J. Van Till (
Wed, 18 Aug 1999 14:52:44 -0400

Thank you, Allan Harvey, for your clear statement of the two choices one
has in responding to the popular misconception regarding the relationship
(marriage?) of natural science and the worldview of Naturalism.

Following is the text from a portion of a lecture I gave at Calvin College
in 1998. I must preface this excerpt with a statement of what I call the
Robust Formational Economy Principle. The RFE Principle proposes that the
set of all of the formational capabilities of the universe (with emphasis
on its capabilities for self-organization and self-transformation) is
sufficiently robust to make possible the formation (in the course of time
and by the action of these creaturely capabilities) of all of the physical
structures (like atoms, molecules, planets, stars, galaxies) and all of the
life forms that have ever existed.

Like Allan, I reject Phil Johnson's common claim that the scientific
concept of evolution is inseparable form the worldview of Naturalism.

Howard Van Till


The popular rhetoric of the creation-evolution debate, whether of the
pro-evolution or anti-evolution variety, presumes that the RFE Principle
belongs exclusively to the worldview of Naturalism. Furthermore, vocal
Christian critics of evolution sometimes add the judgment that the
'scientific establishment' (whatever that term is intended to represent),
since it appears to accept RFE as a valid working principle, has sold out
to this anti-theistic worldview. Christian anti-evolution literature is
frequently punctuated with accusations that contemporary science is
thoroughly committed to Naturalism. The preachers of Naturalism would, of
course, like very much for that to be true, but simply desiring something
to be true does not make it so.

Let me be candid. I think that the popular rhetoric on this question is
profoundly wrong, and that Christians and non-Christians alike are being
led down the road of misunderstanding by rhetoric that proceeds from a
fundamentally flawed concept regarding the ownership of the RFE Principle.

To gain a sense of the reasoning that leads me to this unpopular
conclusion, suppose that we were to begin with a commitment to the historic
Christian doctrine of creation [there is only one God, who is the Creator,
and everything else is a member of the Creation to which God has given
being] and to proceed from that commitment to the evaluation of the RFE
Principle and its implications for scientific methodology.

As I stated earlier, all Christians agree that the entire universe, every
aspect of it, has being only because God, its Creator, has given it being.
That means, of course, that every creaturely capability that the Creation
possesses must be seen as a gift from the Creator. Therefore, from the
standpoint of a commitment to the historic Christian doctrine of creation,
the formational economy of the universe (the full set of its formational
capabilities) is not something that has any independent existence, nor does
it contain any creaturely capabilities that God did not choose to give it.
Furthermore, if it is as remarkably complete as the RFE Principle describes
it, that would be recognized by a Christian as none other than affirmative
evidence for the unfathomable creativity and unlimited generosity of the

For a Christian to discover that the RFE Principle is highly encouraged by
the empirical evidence would, it seems to me, provide the occasion, not for
the conclusion that Naturalism is therefore warranted, but rather that God
is to be praised for his creativity and generosity. Scientific theorizing
about the Creation's formational history could then proceed on the
assumption that the RFE Principle is true.

Suppose, on the other hand, that a person were to begin with a commitment
to the worldview of Naturalism--Nature is all there is; There is no
Creator; Nature is its own source of being. How does something--a universe,
say--come to exist in place of 'absolute nothing'? If Peter Atkins'
rhetoric is taken to be representative, then Naturalism's answer is simply,
"chance," or, to employ his more colorful prose, "the haphazard,
unmotivated action" of nothingness. Not very satisfying or convincing
answers, Mr. Atkins.

But there is far more that Naturalism must yet explain. Naturalism must
account for the existence not merely of a nondescript something in place of
nothing, but rather of a something as remarkable as a universe that
contains us! In other words, Naturalism must accept the challenge of
explaining the existence of a universe that is equipped with a formational
economy sufficiently robust to account for the formation of the elements,
of space, of galaxies, of stars, of planets, of plants, of animals, and of
human beings. How does the "haphazard, unmotivated action" of nothingness
do that?

Some proponents of Naturalism have tried to take comfort in the 'anthropic
principle,' one form of which says that there is really no mystery that the
universe is as it is, and thus no cause to marvel at its robust formational
economy, because if it were not precisely as robust as it appears to be we
wouldn't even be here to marvel about anything. But, of course, this is no
answer to the original question. The anthropic principle may well give an
answer to the question, "Given that we do exist, what must be the character
of the universe of which we are a part?" But the anthropic principle is
utterly unable to tell us how we and this universe of which we are a part
come to have existence in place of non-existence. The bottom line is that
Naturalism can point to no source whatsoever for the existence of any
universe, certainly not one to which the RFE Principle applies.

So, who owns the RFE Principle? The preachers of Naturalism? Not a chance!
And the last thing that a Christian ought to do is to give in to their
claims that they do. As I see it, the historic Christian doctrine of
creation provides a far more substantial basis for this principle than
Naturalism could ever hope to provide. If the RFE Principle correctly
describes the way the universe is, how could anything less than the
Creator's unfathomable creativity and unlimited generosity account for it?
All of the familiar rhetoric of the creation/evolution debate that suggests
that Naturalism owns this principle is, I believe, as far off the mark of
truth as it could possibly be. I can easily see why the preachers of
Naturalism would love to have ownership of the Robust Formational Economy
Principle conceded to them and why they try their best to promote the claim
that they actually deserve it, but why, why, why do so many Christians let
them get by with such a transparent inversion of sound reasoning? Why allow
anyone to get by with the claim that the more robust the formational
economy of the universe is, the less it needs a Creator to give it being?

My own choice is to offer the "fully-gifted Creation perspective." First,
I see the universe as a Creation--something that has being only because God
gives it being at all times. God's creative action is no less necessary
today than at the beginning of time. I also see it as a Creation that was
richly equipped from the beginning with a robust economy of capabilities
for self-organization and self-transformation that have made possible the
actualization of the full array of physical structures and life forms in
the course of time.

Even though I take the robustness of the Creation's formational economy as
a given, I am nonetheless astounded at the fruitfulness of its formational
history. For me this is vivid evidence of God's continuing blessing on the
actions of all creaturely processes.

Some Christians have become engaged in a search for evidence of gifts
withheld from the Creation's formational economy--missing capabilities that
would make occasional episodes of gap-bridging special intervention
necessary. I cannot bring myself to engage in such an enterprise. When I
participate in the empirical sciences I assume that I am expected to see
evidence for the Creator's action not in a few instances of gifts withheld,
but in every instance of a creaturely gift given to the Creation. My
assumption could be unwarranted, I suppose, but here I stand.