[asa] "Theistic Evolution" as a term

From: Ted Davis <tdavis@messiah.edu>
Date: Fri Dec 26 2008 - 09:38:18 EST


I am home for the holiday and unable to respond with specifics to your
various points. Shortly afterwards, I will be out of the country for an
extended period and probably also unable to reply with specifics (though
perhaps I will be able to, depending on how much has to be done in a short

I agree that a history of this term would be very interesting. I've read
extensively in the primary literature from the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, and the concept that God creates through evolution--or,
equivalently, that evolution is divinely guided--goes back at least to Asa
Gray in the 1860s. It was probably not widely endorsed until a decade or
two later, but by the 1890s it was commonplace for religious thinkers to
speak that way. Did they use the actual term, "theistic evolution," to
label the same concept that we now use that label for? An interesting
question, and I think I recall seeing examples that early, but my notes are
not here.

There is no retro-diction going on here, however--at least with regard to
the concept, and probably the specific term as well. What was meant by the
term today, in general terms, is precisely what they meant then. In other
words, regardless of the specific term(s) employed, there is generally no
false attribution of a particular view to more persons than is suitable.
(Yes, one can always find examples of an historical figure whose views are
being distorted by a modern reader. No argument about that. But I could
show you numerous examples of 19th century thinkers who fit a modern
definition of TE.)

Specifically now, I could show you fundamentalist cartoons from the 1920s by
E.J. Pace, in which the term "theistic evoultion" is prominently present.
Bryan also used the term at that point, famously saying that "theistic
evolution is the anesthetic that dulls the pain while the faith is removed."
 (I quote from memory, but it's pretty close). Its use by Bryan and company
would be consistent with Peters' comment below.

Faculty at church-related liberal arts colleges were using the concept
(evolution as "God's way of creating" is how it was typically put) for at
least 30 years before this, and probably longer; specific places where I
have seen this are Oberlin and The College of Wooster, both in Ohio where
there was a lot of conversation about this in the late 19th century.

As to MN, the term is probably from the 1980s (Ron Numbers has written about
this at least twice), but the concept clear goes back to at least the latter
part of the seventeenth century. Again, I've read the primary literature
extensively. Robert Boyle, an outspoken advocate of ID, also clearly
endorsed MN: in natural philosophy (= science), we ought not appeal to God's
absolute power, he wrote in the early 1660s. We ought not go beyond what
natural powers in their own sphere can accomplish. I paraphrase, obviously,
but if you want chapter and verse you can read my article on Boyle in the
Oct 2007 issue of "Science & Christian Belief." Miracles, in other words,
are outside the domain of science. They are real and demonstrable
historically, Boyle believed, but not to be brought into science, which must
confine itself to discoursing about the properties and powers given to
matter by God at the creation.


>>> Gregory Arago <gregoryarago@yahoo.ca> 12/24/08 10:41 AM >>>
Hi Ted,
Just a short note to say that I would be grateful if you could indeed find
out who (supposedly) coined the phrase 'theistic evolution.' Who are you
linking it to in the 1890s?
I've searched around on-line and the most sensible claim I've found so far
is by Ted Peters, who said that the term was coined by 'creationists' in
regard to the naturalistic appeasement by TEs. If it is true (e.g. similar
to the coining of 'fundamentalism'), then this is precisely the ground for
starting a thread with this title. Likewise, the claim that "for 300 or so
years methodological naturalism has been guiding scientifically-minded
Christians" is another case of retro-diction. It is simply unsupportable.
Great thanks to Antje Jackelen, after searching for who coined 'theistic
evolution,' for her abstract to "A critical view of theistic evolution"
(Theology and Science, Volume 5, Number 2, July 2007, pp. 151-165), where
she says: "anti-evolutionism is about anthropology and morality more than
about theism." Hope to read the article soon...
The issue of retro-diction is a legitimate one because it shows a
sociological attempt to gain a following or to attribute one's personal
views to more people than is suitable. That's the point, Ted.

<I have snipped the rest>

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Received on Fri Dec 26 09:38:52 2008

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