View by:







Setting the scene - why focus on providence?

The relation of God to creation is often expressed in the following ways. God is held to be creator of the cosmos ex nihilo (out of nothing) as well as sustaining it moment by moment. God fully transcends the creation and yet is also immanent within it and responsible for particular events.

For millennia the day-to-day experience of humans was broadly congruent with these claims. Each day inevitably included an encounter with both the mundane ‘normal’ operation of nature as well as the spectacular other-worldly operations that were worthy of the divine; the ever-constant daily arc of the sun, moon and stars, and the miracle of childbirth are just two examples of these kinds of experience. This dual-aspect view of the world remained coherent even as Copernicus, Galileo and Newton led the ‘scientific revolution’ and provided remarkable insights into the workings of the cosmos. We came to learn that the trajectory of the sun can be expressed in terms of differential equations and the force of gravitation, but despite this, the footprints and handiwork of the deity were still as tangible as ever. However, another trajectory was discernible too; the domain of scientific naturalistic explanation was expanding.

While there are numerous different forms of Christian theology, most are committed to a doctrine of providence that is expressed in terms of God’s general acts and also particular ‘special’ acts. While deistic views emphasise the general act of creation, for theists both are essential. The Ten Commandments begin with the assertion that “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt.”Exodus 20:2. The inspiration of the prophets, and the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are particular acts. These two dimensions correspond to God’s transcendence and immanence, and cohere with the belief that the Christian God is both properly ultimate, and yet simultaneously maximally personal.

The discovery of ‘laws of nature’ was consonant with the general providence of a ‘divine legislator,’ but was there support to be found within the sciences for special providence? The rapid pace of biological discovery in the 17th and 18th century yielded an embarrassment of riches. The way was clear for believers to correlate the exquisite character of biological functions with God’s creative involvement in particular events in natural history. Armed with the latest data from microscopy and anatomy, the ‘argument from design’ reached a hitherto unknown strength. As never before, the doctrine of special and general divine providence came to be seen by many as supportable by science. Much as Kepler could marvel at his opportunity to think “God’s thoughts after him,” the view through the microscope provided visual access to the handiwork of God himself. The most famous expression of this reasoning is William Paley’s Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity,William Paley, Natural Theology; or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1817). first published in 1802.

With a strong argument from design available, all theological doctrines that could be tied to special providence also became more credible. However, inasmuch as theology was tied to science, it was now vulnerable as never before.

 Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Adrian Wyard

Go to Evolution Topic Index

Setting the scene - why focus on providence?

[1] Does Evolution ‘do the work of a friend’ for the Christian Religion?
[2] Supposed challenges from the evolutionary sciences to theology
Intellectually fulfilled atheists?
A challenge to human uniqueness and status?
A challenge to purpose in creation?
A threat to the veracity of scripture?
Evolution ‘explains away’ theology?
A challenge to Christian morality?
The challenges in wider context - Darwin as a scapegoat?
[3] The current state of the evolutionary sciences
Different ways of conceptualising Darwinian evolution
Evolution as chance and necessity
Evolution as an algorithm
Evolution as movement within a ‘fitness landscape’
Ongoing debates: contingency versus convergence
Ongoing debates: what are the key causal factors in biological history?
Ongoing debates: the environment as the principle cause?
Ongoing debates: convergence as the principle cause?
Ongoing debates: ‘Universal biology’ as the principle cause?
The importance of moving from evolution as abstraction to particular history
Ongoing debates: directionality and progress
Ongoing debates: the origin of life
Different levels and kinds of selection?
[4] Responses from theology
Evolution, probabilities and providence
Responses from contemporary theologians
Holmes Rolston III
Keith Ward
John Haught
Arthur Peacocke
An increased role for general providence?
Theology of Creation in the light of evolution: three scenarios
[5] Concluding remarks


Adrian Wyard
Adrian M Wyard MSt

See also:

The Relation of Science & Religion
Purpose and Design
The Argument From Design
The Anthropic Principle
Charles Darwin
DNA Double-Helix