Re: Phillip Johnson interview

From: Howard J. Van Till (
Date: Thu Apr 26 2001 - 20:37:59 EDT

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    As a preface to his quotation from Phillip Johnson, Keith Miller suggests

    > This is a rather clear statement by Johnson that evolution must be
    > disproved in order to be able to accept a creator God.


    Sorry, Keith, but I'm not ready to describe this as a "clear statement"
    about anything. It looks more like a rambling, unrehearsed, and awkward oral
    reply to a question that deserved a far more carefully crafted response. In
    defense of Phil in this instance (readers may express shock at my generous
    action here), unrehearsed oral responses to questions often lack the
    rhetorical finesse that a written discourse might exhibit. After a public
    Q&A session I usually think of far better answers than the ones I actually

    Nonetheless, Keith is on the trail of an important point. Johnson's familiar
    line is that the concept of biotic evolution (which he usually labels
    "Darwinism" and defines in such a way as to include obviously anti-theistic
    tenets) explicitly denies any need or role for a Creator. In the passage
    cited by Keith, for instance, Johnson says:

    >> The evolutionary naturalists have been telling us that you don't need God
    >> in the system, you don't need a creator in the system because these
    >> purposeless forces can do it all. If they are right on that, then I would
    >> tend to think that probably Christianity should be given up as a bad show,
    >> considering most of the people that come to believe that that's what they
    >> conclude too.

    It's not entirely clear what Johnson means here. It is true, of course, that
    metaphysical naturalism (whether or not it argues its case by appeal to
    biotic evolution) denies the need for a Creator. If that is all that Johnson
    meant to say, I'd agree.

    But Johnson has evolutionary naturalism saying that "you don't need a
    creator in the system because these purposeless forces can do it all." What
    does Johnson mean by "in the system"? If he means, "as one cause among other
    causes operating at the same level," I would object for theological reasons.
    Divine creative action is not at the same level as creaturely,
    form-actualizing causes. The role of divine action is not merely to
    compensate for missing creaturely capabilities. God is not a member of the
    creaturely system. God is Creator, not creature. That's orthodox Christian

    And why does Johnson here, and in numerous other places, appear to accept
    the naturalistic rhetoric that the actions of atoms, molecules and cells are
    nothing more than "purposeless forces" at work? That is what the preachers
    of naturalism assert, of course, but why would a person who claims to
    represent the best of Christian scholarship leave such flagrantly
    naturalistic rhetoric unchallenged?

     It seems to me that Christian scholarship would insist on beginning with
    the historic Judeo-Christian doctrine of creation, which builds its case on
    the foundational recognition that atoms, molecules and cells are members of
    the Creation. As such, their action--their use of their God-given
    capabilities--would necessarily fall under the comprehensive umbrella of
    divine intention and purpose. By accepting the naturalistic characterization
    of "natural" (creaturely) action as nothing more than "purposeless,
    unguided, naturalistic, materialistic action," Johnson unwittingly
    capitulates to one of the basic tenets of naturalism.

    Ironically, Johnson (along with most promoters of ID) builds his case for
    the need for occasional episodes of divine form-imposing intervention (the
    IDers call them acts of "intelligent design," of course) on a profoundly
    naturalistic concept of the action of atoms, molecules and cells. Given the
    IDers familiar presumption that this "naturalistic" action is inadequate to
    accomplish the full range of formational processes required for biotic
    evolution, ID then proposes that this inadequate naturalistic action must
    have been punctuated by occasional episodes of form-imposing divine

    Bottom line: What its proponents claim to be a singular vision of
    "Intelligent Design" is nothing more than "Punctuated Naturalism," a
    syncretistic collage of theologically disparate elements. Proceeding from
    this theological blunder, it is no wonder at all that Johnson believes that
    if "purposeless forces" (his unfortunate label for "creaturely" actions) are
    shown to be adequate for the actualization of all life forms, then "probably
    Christianity should be given up as a bad show."

    Another way to put "Johnson's blunder" is: If the universe is gifted with a
    robust formational economy, then it doesn't need a Creator. Or, in still
    another form: The Creator's signature is best seen in what the Creation can
    not do, not in what it can do.

    Inadequate theology does have consequences.

    Howard Van Till

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