Origins & Design 19:1

Basil and Augustine Revisited:
The Survival of Functional Integrity

by Howard J. Van Till
Professor of Physics
Calvin College

Abstract: The historic Christian doctrine of creation recognizes that the entire universe was brought into being, and is sustained in being, only by the effective will of God. The being of the Creation includes every element of its formational economy -- that is, its capabilities for self-organization and transformation. The doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity holds that the Creation was gifted by God from the outset with all of the formational capabilities necessary for actualizing the full array of physical structures and life forms that have ever appeared. Therefore there would be no gaps in the Creation’s formational economy that would require God to coerce creaturely systems into assuming new forms. Qualified support for this position can be found in Basil, although Wells’s criticisms, based on a different reading, do merit consideration. Wells’s reading of Augustine, however, must be rejected: Augustine was neither an “evolutionist” nor a “special creationist,” but conceived of a Creation gifted with the capabilities to actualize created potentialities in the course of time. Also to be rejected is Reynolds’s claim that God’s act of “creating a soul” constitutes a divine intervention that bridges a gap in the Creation’s formational economy. God’s action to hold us accountable for our behavior, or God’s action to transport us into the New Creation, is divine action of an entirely different sort from form-imposing interventions. The doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity -- a concept never intended to address questions regarding the origin or nature of the soul -- is fully consistent with these other categories of divine action.

Introductory Comments

Let me begin this essay by thanking the editors of Origins & Design for the opportunity to respond to the critiques of my perspective offered in this issue by Jonathan Wells and John Mark Reynolds. Although their evaluation -- written from the standpoint of persons who evidently prefer some form of special creationism -- is clearly negative, I nonetheless welcome their engagement of my work in this journal. There is no doubt that we have differing concepts regarding the character of the Creation to which God has given being and about the particular ways in which God’s creative work has been expressed in the course of the Creation’s formational history. However, given our common commitment to the Christian faith, which includes a commitment to viewing the universe as God’s Creation, a constructive and irenic exchange of ideas should be encouraged.

In the course of my writing on these matters over the years I have employed a number of labels for the type of position that I am inclined to favor. Among these is my reference to a ‘doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity.’ The content of this proposition and my understanding of its place in the heritage of historic Christian thought has appeared in a number of publications.1 The most recent and succinct statement of it may be found in the British journal Science and Christian Belief.

In contrast to those Christians who see biblical, theological or apologetic merit in the concept of Special Creationism, I would argue that historic Christian thought welcomes the concept of a Creation gifted with all of the form-producing capacities now presumed by the natural sciences. Drawing primarily from the fourth- and fifth-century works of Basil and Augustine, I find a substantial basis for articulating a ‘doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity’ that envisions a world that was brought into being (and is continuously sustained in being) only by the effective will of God, a world radically dependent upon God for every one of its capacities for creaturely action, a world gifted by God from the outset with all of the form-producing capacities necessary for the actualization of the multitude of physical structures and life forms that have appeared in the course of Creation’s formative history, and a world whose formational fecundity can be understood only as a manifestation of the Creator’s continuous blessing for fruitfulness. In such a Creation there would be no need for God to perform acts of ‘special creation’ in time because it has no gaps in its developmental economy that would necessitate bridging by extraordinary divine interventions of the sort most often postulated by Special Creationism.2

However, given the brevity of this statement of the doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity, and given that this proposition is the focus of attention in the critiques of Wells and Reynolds, I find it imperative to provide some additional clarification.

What is the “doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity”?

The focus of attention must first be placed on the term Creation. With all Christians, including Wells and Reynolds, I believe the universe to be a Creation that has being only because God has called it into being from nothing and sustains it in being from moment to moment. The ‘doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity’ is a proposition concerning the character of that Creation, with implications regarding the historical manifestation of God’s creative action -- implications that are highly relevant to the intense disagreement among Christians regarding the biblical and theological permissibility of biotic evolution.

What does this ‘doctrine’ propose concerning the character of the Creation? Before I can answer that question I must first introduce the concept of Creation’s formational economy. To offset a common misunderstanding I must say at the outset that the term ‘economy’ here has nothing to do with ‘thrift’ or ‘frugality.’ To get a better sense of the meaning that I intend, think of the ways in which we commonly speak of the global economy. In that context the term ‘economy’ denotes a complex and interrelated system of resources and capabilities that function to make possible the production and distribution of a vast array of goods and services. Focus especially on the reference to the “resources and capabilities” that must be operative to make the outcome fruitful.

By the Creation’s formational economy I mean a particular set of resources and capabilities with which the Creation has been gifted by God. More specifically, imagine making a list of all of the Creation’s resources and capabilities that contribute to its ability to organize and/or transform itself from elementary units of matter and energy into a diversity of physical structures and life forms. Among the numerous entries in our list would be the following:

By the term ‘Creation’s formational economy’ I mean the full list of all such resources and capabilities that have contributed to the formational history (the actualization of physical structures and life forms in time) of the Creation. Furthermore, moving from a consideration of the Creation’s formational history to a comparable consideration of the Creation’s present operation, one could also define the ‘Creation’s operational economy’ to be the full set of creaturely resources and capabilities that function in the Creation’s day to day activities. Think, for instance, of all the things that atoms, molecules, cells and organisms must be capable of doing in order for us to experience just one day of life in the context of this universe. From the standpoint of Christian faith, each of these creaturely ‘economies’ that characterize selected features of the Creation’s God-given being constitute a testimony to the astounding creativity and unlimited generosity of our Creator.

What I have come to call the ‘doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity’ is the proposition that the Creation’s formational and operational economies are sufficiently rich in character to make possible both the historical actualization of all creaturely forms in time and the daily operation of the Creation at any given time. Or, to state it even more strongly, the doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity proposes that there are no gaps (missing capabilities) in either of these creaturely economies that would require, as a compensation for missing capabilities, that God act in time to coerce creaturely systems into assuming new forms (forms not attainable by the employment of creaturely capabilities) or into acting in any way contrary to their God-given being.

One common misunderstanding must be immediately clarified. Some critics have interpreted the concept of ‘functional integrity’ as some kind of prohibition against divine action in the Creation -- as one would expect to find in strong forms of deism. But that is not the case at all. The question at issue here is not: does God act in or interact with the Creation? With the vast majority of Christians, I presume that God does act in and interact with the Creation. The actual question here is: what is the character of the Creation in which God acts and with which God interacts? Since the possibility of divine action is in no way dependent of the existence of gaps in either the formational or operational economies of the Creation, the absence of gaps in no way precludes divine action. While the absence of gaps makes certain types of divine action unnecessary, God is no less free to act as he chooses, provided that such action is consistent with his own being. To the best of my knowledge, historic Christian theology has never restricted the locus of divine action to gaps in the Creation’s formational or operational economies. Neither should we do so now.

Since most of our present concern and disagreement appears to be in the area of Creation’s formational history rather than in regard to its daily operation, let us now focus on the key question in that limited arena of concern: is the Creation’s formational economy sufficiently robust (that is to say, is it equipped with all the necessary capabilities) to make it possible for the Creation to organize and transform itself from elemental creaturely forms into the full array of physical structures and life forms that have existed in the course of time?

In a number of ways, proponents of special creation3 and intelligent design have argued that the answer to this question is no -- the Creation is not so robustly equipped. God must, therefore, do something to supplement what the Creation is capable of doing. Phillip Johnson, for instance, has stated unequivocally that “If God had created a lifeless world, even with oceans rich in amino acids and other organic molecules, and thereafter had left matters alone, life would not have come into existence. If God had done nothing but create a world of bacteria and protozoa, it would still be a world of bacteria and protozoa.”4 Furthermore, it is often argued that there is empirical evidence for a number of extraordinary creative acts in the course of time that have “made a difference” in the Creation’s formational history.

In contrast to those persons who favor the special creation perspective, I prefer the ‘fully-gifted Creation’ perspective implied by the doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity. I envision a Creation brought into being and gifted by the Creator from the outset with a remarkably rich ‘potentiality space’ of fruitful structures and viable life forms. Furthermore, I also envision a Creation gifted from the beginning of time with the all of the capabilities that would be needed in order to actualize an array of forms consistent with God’s intention for the formational history of the Creation.

Am I able to prove that this is in fact the case? No, but neither is anyone able to prove that it is not the case. Whether we favor a special creation perspective, or the closely related intelligent design perspective, or the fully-gifted Creation perspective, we must be content with making a judgment in the absence of absolute proof.

There is yet another common misunderstanding that I would like here to correct. Some critics have interpreted the concept of functional integrity as ascribing to matter the power to create, thereby displacing the need for God to create. But that represents, I believe, a misconstrual of the theologically important word, ‘create.’ As I understand it, to create is far more than simply to impose a new form on extant substances. To create is to give being to something. Thus, from a theological standpoint, only God can create. What creaturely systems can do (and we observe this daily) is to actualize some of the potentialities that constitute part of the being that was given to the Creation at the beginning. God has given being to a Creation rich with potentialities. The Creation, as I see it, is robustly gifted with the capabilities to actualize some of those potentialities in the course of time. God creates; creatures can do no more than to actualize created potentialities by the employment of their God-given capabilities.

Do Basil and Augustine’s commentaries on Genesis provide a basis for this concept of the Creation?

Before dealing with this specific question, let me comment briefly on Wells’s contention that it was my “assumption that the historic creationist tradition can be derived solely from Basil and Augustine.” Nowhere have I stated an assumption of this sort nor do I believe such to be justifiable. I readily agree with Wells that “Basil’s Hexaemeron and Augustine’s Literal Meaning of Genesis were two of the most important works on the topic” [of the doctrine of creation] but that other early Christian authors deserve consideration as well.

But the question at issue is whether or not the cited commentaries by Basil and Augustine provide a basis for the ‘doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity.’ This is the principal question addressed by Wells and his answer is resoundingly negative. In the publications cited, my answer, on the other hand, was a qualified ‘yes.’ What is my response to Wells’s criticism? With regard to Basil I believe a case could be made that Basil provides a sufficient diversity of material so that, by consistent selection, either position could be defended. I find Wells’s criticism to be responsible and worthy of some consideration. With regard to Augustine, however, I find Wells’s argumentation off the mark and I remain convinced that Augustine’s concept of the character of the Creation provides strong encouragement for the articulation of a doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity. Let me proceed first with a consideration of Basil’s Hexaemeron.

To begin, I must remind all readers, including Wells, of the way in which I explicitly qualified my use of Basil’s Hexaemeron. “Delivered as a series of nine homilies, this work has the style of material spoken to inspire praise of the Creator -- it is not a treatise written to be subjected to philosophical scrutiny -- and its central concern is the meaningful interrelationship of God and mankind, not the relationship of natural philosophy and Christian theology. Nonetheless, I have found it profitable to examine Basil’s homilies for their general concept of the nature of the created world and the character of God’s creative activity in it.”5 All that follows must be taken with this qualification in mind. When we take our modern questions to literature of an earlier era we must always be careful not to overemphasize answers to questions that were not of primary concern at the time of writing.

Neither can we expect perfect consistency on matters that were not central to the concern of the author. Take, for instance, the issue of whether or not God’s initial act of giving being to the Creation included the actualization of all familiar forms -- from stars (as examples of physical structures) to eels (as examples of life forms). My reading of Basil led me to conclude that, with occasional inconsistency, Basil most frequently pictured the actualization of familiar forms, especially life forms, not as the outcome of divine acts of special creation by which God imposed these forms on extant substances, but as the outcome of the Creation exercising, in response to divine command, its God-given powers to actualize the forms that God intended.

Wells challenges this reading, especially in regard to the formation of the sun, moon and stars and the gathering of the waters into newly formed basins. Concerning these inanimate structures, I believe that Wells may be correct. In fact, in an essay in Christian Scholar’s Review, I also drew attention to this temporal divine action of forming basins for water.6 Perhaps I should have called greater attention to this in regard to the astronomical luminaries as well.

But the forms most at issue in contemporary discussions of “origins and design” are the diverse forms of life. Suppose, then, we focused on Basil’s concept of the manner in which life forms were first actualized in the Creation. On this question I found Basil’s commentary on Scriptural references like “Let the earth bring forth grass (and herb and fruit tree) . . . ,” and “Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature (fish and fowl) that hath life . . . ,” and “Let the earth bring forth the living creature (cattle, creeping thing, beast) . . . ” to be especially illuminating and relevant to the contemporary discussion. Fully recognizing that we should not expect Basil to speak in the modern scientific vocabulary, I nonetheless found it highly suggestive that Basil placed considerable emphasis on the action of water and earth and on their capabilities to “bring forth.”

By God’s provision of capacities for active response, both water and earth were able to produce the full array of familiar life forms. “ . . . [T]he Spirit . . . prepared the nature of water to produce living beings. . . . ” (II:6) “Let the earth bring forth by itself without having any need of help from without.” (V:1) Presuming the concept of spontaneous generation to be valid, Basil held in high regard the earth’s powers to “bring forth.” I was particularly taken by his reference to the way in which he understood the formation of eels: “We see mud alone produce eels; they do not proceed from an egg, nor in any other manner; it is the earth alone which gives them birth. ‘Let the earth produce a living creature.’” (IX:2)

Now, it is obvious that Basil had nothing like the modern scientific concept of biotic evolution in mind, but I do find great significance in the fact that Basil saw no tension between his commitment to seeing the universe as a Creation and his recognition that earthly substances possess remarkable capabilities for self-organization and transformation. Although actualized in time by the working of earth’s powers “without having any need of help from without,” grass, cattle and eels are no less marvelous expressions of God’s creative power. Earthly formational mechanisms are not competitors to divine creativity.

The contemporary natural sciences expend a great deal of energy in the search for greater knowledge concerning the mechanisms by which both physical structures and life forms have come to be actualized in the formational history of the universe. Many Christians today are concerned that this scientific understanding regarding formational mechanisms, if achieved, will make divine action unnecessary. Basil considered a similar possibility in regard to rational explanations for the immobility of the earth, but he dismissed it with sound advice: “If there is anything in this system which might appear probable to you, keep your admiration for the source of such perfect order, for the wisdom of God. Grand phenomena do not strike us the less when we have discovered something of their mechanism.” (I:9) In precisely the same spirit I say: if the Creation has been gifted with functional integrity, neither its grandeur nor the necessity of divine creativity is diminished; rather, both are amplified.

Is Basil’s vision of Creation’s functional integrity as all-inclusive and comprehensive as the concept that I outlined at the beginning of this essay? On this matter I must express a willingness to move in the direction of Wells’s judgment that Basil’s vision was one of “limited functional integrity” in place of the “gapless formational economy” outlined above. At the same time, however, I would suggest that Basil offered nothing that could be construed as a fundamental theological objection to that vision. To restate this in a qualified but more positive way, “As I read Basil’s Hexaemeron, I see in it considerable encouragement for the vision of a world brought into being with gapless and robust functional and formational economies. . . . ”7 Provable? No. Derivable from Basil alone? No. Imaginable as the sort of concept that a scientifically-informed, modern protégé of Basil might encourage? Yes, I believe so.

Now, what about Augustine? Wells’s principal criticism appears to center on the issue of whether or not Augustine’s view allows any ‘new kind’ to appear by some creaturely process of transformation after creation was finished. Here Wells and I seem to have a communication problem. In that context, let me repeat what I actually said regarding Augustine’s picture of God’s creative work in the beginning and of its historical manifestation in the course of time.

In the beginning, according to Augustine, God called into being all created substances and all creaturely forms. At this beginning all created forms existed both in the mind of God and in the formable substances of the created world. But in the formable substances the creaturely forms existed, not actually, but only potentially. Although the creaturely forms were not initially expressed in visible, material beings, these forms were there potentially in the capacities for actualization, called by Augustine ‘causal reasons’ or ‘seed principles,’ with which the Creator had originally endowed the created substances.8

Furthermore, I explicitly acknowledged that Augustine did not envision the diversity of ‘kinds’ to be actualized in a temporal succession, as in the manner of biotic evolution, but rather as a set of parallel and independent actualizations made possible by the ‘seed principles’ with which God gifted created substances at the beginning.

But the particulars of the temporal actualization of the life forms present from the beginning as ‘seed principles’ are entirely irrelevant to our present concerns. Whether actualized side by side in an independent manner or sequentially in a genealogically continuous manner, each species that appears in time represents the actualization of a form created (given being as a ‘seed principle’) by God at the beginning. Thus, conceiving of a Creation gifted with functional integrity and with the powers to actualize created forms sequentially does not in any way violate the general principle that I drew from Augustine’s concept of the Creation:

Nevertheless, although the particulars of our modern picture will differ substantially from Augustine’s, I am convinced of the continuing relevance and fruitfulness of one of his fundamental conclusions regarding the character of the created world: the universe was brought into being in a less than fully-formed state but gifted with the capacities to transform itself, in conformity with God’s will, from unformed matter into a truly marvelous array of physical structures and life forms. In contrast to both ancient paganism and modern Special Creationism, Augustine appears to have envisioned a Creation that was, from the instant of its inception, characterized by what I have called functional integrity. Every category of structure and life form and creaturely process was conceptualized by the Creator from the beginning but actualized in time as the created material employed its God-given capacities in the manner intended by the Creator from the outset.9

In my appeal to Augustine for the basis of a ‘doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity,’ I explicitly granted that his concept of the independent actualization of ‘kinds’ means that we should not represent him as being an ‘evolutionist’ in the modern sense of that term. However, it is equally clear that his explicit denial of new acts of creation in time (creative ‘interventions’) means that he cannot be claimed as a ‘special creationist’ in the modern sense of that term. Augustine consistently excludes from his concept of God’s creative work the modern special creationist picture of God intervening in time to impose new forms on substances not equipped with the capabilities (or ‘seed principles’) to actualize those forms. Wells’s attempt to place Augustine in the camp of special creationism would have a chance of succeeding only if ‘special creationism’ were defined in a way radically different from its contemporary meaning.

Augustine is neither an ‘evolutionist’ nor a ‘special creationist,’ but he did conceive of a Creation gifted with the capabilities to actualize created potentialities in the course of time, gifted with robust formational and operational economies -- gifted, that is, with ‘functional integrity.’ On this conclusion I stand firm.

One final matter must be clarified. If the Creation is characterized by functional integrity, does it necessarily follow that its formational history is evolutionary in nature? No, not at all. For biotic evolution to be possible, functional integrity is a necessary but not sufficient condition. The same could be said for Augustine’s concept of the Creation’s formational economy, leading to the parallel and independent actualization of all life forms. Both of these pictures of Creation’s formational history require functional integrity in broad concept, but the particulars of the formational economy required for independent actualizations differ from the particulars required for successive actualizations and biotic evolution. The choice between these two possibilities, or among others that might be postulated, must be made, I believe, on the basis of a competent evaluation of the full array of empirical evidence.

What about the creation of the soul?

As I understand it, the heart of John Mark Reynolds’s criticism of my favoring the ‘doctrine of Creation’s functional integrity’ is that he can point to a clear instance of a formidable gap in the formational economy of the Creation that nearly all orthodox Christians believe both to exist and to have been bridged by supernatural intervention billions of times. If that were true, of course, I would have no choice but to abandon my thesis and to adopt some form of special creationism.

Upon careful examination, however, Reynolds’s argumentation can be shown to be far more problematic than is my defense of the possibility (high probability, I would prefer to say) that the Creation was gifted by God from the beginning with a formational economy sufficiently gifted as to make unnecessary the occasional, form-imposing, divine interventions envisioned by special creationism. I would also like to say for the record, and in response to some of Reynolds’s rhetorical excesses, that I take my position, not out of a determination to “save the standard cosmological story,” nor out of “fear” concerning what might be the outcome of a thorough “theological examination of the world.” I take my position on the basis of my best judgment regarding the nature of the Creation and of the character of divine creative action, and I have long welcomed the constructive evaluation of this judgment by scientifically-informed theologians. My judgment could indeed be in error, but let’s put away the demeaning rhetoric that proceeds from the arrogance of claiming to know my inmost motivations better than I do myself.

On a similar note, Reynolds asserts that, “Van Till has advocated ‘functional integrity,’ a view that was not widely held before problems with natural science made it a convenient apologetic move. . . . Why should theists believe in ‘functional integrity’ apart from some suspiciously ad hoc attempt to save traditional theism from traditional scientific examination?” Notice that one could easily substitute ‘geocentricity’ for ‘functional integrity’ to describe the state of affairs in Galileo’s time. Does Reynolds really wish the Christian church to isolate itself from advances in scientific understanding regarding the character of the Creation? It seems to me that Christians in North America today are tragically close to that situation in regard to the Creation’s formational history.

But let’s get to the specific question of whether or not we should envision the Creation’s formational economy as a system of creaturely capabilities marked by gaps (missing capabilities) that would have to be bridged by divine interventions in the course of time. According to Reynolds, “Traditional theists postulate at least one divine action and at least one gap in the created order. This gap makes it much more plausible that other gaps exist than that none exist.” What is the nature of this particular gap? According to Reynolds, it is the inability of the creaturely world to “create a soul.” In spite of the diversity of ways in which Christians have pictured the soul’s creation, Reynolds concludes that, “Whether the souls are in a ‘bank’ pre-created for later use [a view that Reynolds attributes to Origen], or are produced from the souls of parents [a view called “Traducianism”], or are specially created at conception [the “creationist,” or Roman Catholic view, favored by Reynolds], the human soul comes from God and not (in any way) from the physical or natural world.” But if the Creation is unable to create new souls to add to each new human body that is born into it, then, says Reynolds, God “has intervened to give them a soul.” Hence Reynolds’s conclusion, “This suggests a gap in the natural order in the production of individual humans. Given this one gap, in the one area where Christians can be certain about God’s actions, it is plausible to expect others.”

I find Reynolds’s reference to the “production of human individuals” as a gap-bridging intervention “in the one area where Christians can be certain about God’s actions” quite astounding. Given the diversity of Hebrew and Greek words in the biblical text that are sometimes translated as “soul,” and given the corresponding diversity of aspects of both human and animal life that are the referents of those biblical words,10 and given the long-standing disagreement within the larger Christian community whether we humans are the sum of body-plus-soul or a psychosomatic body/soul unity of being, I would never have expected to see a reference to God’s creation of the soul presented as “the one area where Christians can be certain about God’s actions.” In the conceptual territory of ‘soul,’ the term ‘certainty’ is a foreigner.

Reynolds assumes that his choice of ontological dualism (the view that to be a human is to possess both a material body and an immaterial, but substantive, soul) is normative for all orthodox Christians. Numerous Christians who consider themselves to be orthodox would, however, respectfully disagree. I should also say here that I have never envisioned my proposal regarding the functional integrity of the Creation to have sufficient scope to resolve this long-standing debate within the Christian community. As I have so far employed the concepts of ‘functional integrity’ and ‘robust formational economy,’ these terms apply only to the actualization of structures and forms in the physical/material world. To fault these concepts for failing to solve puzzles regarding the existence of immaterial souls and regarding the possible mode or timing of their creation by God would be comparable to faulting astrophysics for failing to account for the phenomenon of parental love for a child.

Nonetheless, let me here attempt an extension of my concept of the Creation’s functional integrity into this much larger arena. The ideas that follow are highly tentative, and I welcome the constructive criticism of the readers of Origins and Design. As I envision it, the temporal actualization of the human species and of human individuals, complete with their capabilities for awareness of God, awareness of the difference between right and wrong, and awareness of God’s call to do the right and to shun the wrong, is something that the Creation was equipped to do. This view presumes an extremely high view of both God’s creativity (in God’s conceptualization of the Creation’s formational economy) and generosity (in God’s giving such richness of being to the Creation) but this is the stance that I am inclined to take. If the Creation’s formational economy were this robust, then those aspects of ‘soul’ that signify the human capabilities for spiritual awareness and for acting accordingly could be actualized within the formational economy of the Creation.

But some definitions of ‘soul’ include much more than these creaturely capabilities. For instance, if we wished to include in ‘soul’ our state of accountability to God for our behavior, that is a matter that necessarily takes us beyond the creaturely realm alone and into the arena of the Creator-creature relationship, something that clearly transcends the category of Creation’s formational or operational economies as I have employed these terms. Continuing along this line of reflection, what about the existence of the person without the concomitant existence of the body? And, what about personal immortality? It would seem to me that the actualization of either of these dimensions of being requires either our entrance into the New Creation or that the present Creation have dimensions of being that greatly transcend our current understanding of it -- a possibility that I would not hastily dismiss.

Given this conjectural extension of my concept of the Creation’s functional integrity, have I thereby granted the existence of gaps in its formational economy, gaps that require divine intervention of the special creation type, as Reynolds claims? Not at all. One of the principal flaws in Reynolds’s argumentation is his failure to develop sufficiently precise meanings for key words like ‘intervention’ or ‘gap.’

The only sort of ‘gaps’ relevant to my concept of the Creation’s functional integrity are gaps in its formational or operational economies -- missing creaturely capabilities that would require occasional divine interventions to coerce the Creation into assuming new structural configurations. But God’s action to hold us accountable for our behavior, or God’s action to transport us into the New Creation is divine action of an entirely different sort. Thus, to say that since divine action of one sort is a reality then divine action of the other sort must also be a reality is simply a non sequitur. The reality of one does not at all follow from the reality of the other.

Therefore, if is it the case, as Reynolds implies, that God’s act of ‘creating a soul’ is what gives humans their personal immortality or their personal existence independent of their bodily existence, such action is no mere filling of a gap in the Creation’s formational or operational economies. Such an act would constitute a uniquely divine act without counterpart within the Creation’s economy -- something substantively different from an ‘intervention’ within the realm of creaturely configurations. Such an act would, I believe, be best described as an amplification of being, much more like the giving of being to the Creation at the beginning than like the structural rearrangement of DNA to actualize some new morphological form.

If DNA were unable to transform from structure A to structure B by the use of its own capabilities, and if God were to intervene by coercing the base pairs into the new structural configuration, that would constitute the sort of gap-filling intervention that I have been long been talking about. The conferring of accountability or immortality to a mortal creature falls into an entirely different category. The rhetorical strategy of placing the common label ‘special creation’ on these two vastly differing concepts accomplishes nothing of substance. It remains the case that the reality of one does not follow from the reality of the other.

According to Reynolds, I should not be permitted to escape his criticism by posing a difference between these two sorts of divine action. “He [Van Till] cannot suggest that the ‘action’ of the Creator in giving a human a soul is somehow different from the sort of ‘special creation’ he is rejecting. Van Till rejects the possibility that God created life from pre-existing matter. But how would such an intervention by God be different from the one Christians know He already makes?” To this question I have two comments in response: (1) I do not reject the possibility of God doing anything that is consistent with his being; (2) I believe that I have firmly established a substantive difference between the two categories of divine action under consideration. One could conceivably be accomplished by elementary creatures (atoms, molecules, etc.) by self-organization and/or transformation -- that is, by using their God-given capabilities for the actualization of new configurations. The other would require a radical amplification of a physical/biotic form into an immortal and morally accountable being.

Reynolds’s argumentation on this point provides me with the occasion for venting a frustration I have long experienced in discussions regarding divine ‘intervention’ -- most often of the facile “if an intervention here, then why not an intervention there” sort. In numerous instances one word, ‘intervention,’ is employed for vastly differing sorts of divine acts -- sometimes for acts of God speaking to persons (calling on them to respond in a particular way) and other times for the concept of God acting to coerce material systems into novel forms; sometimes for God’s miraculous acts performed in the presence of human observers and other times for the concept of God acting in a comparable manner at a time when no human observers even existed; sometimes for the interaction of the Holy Spirit with the human spirit and other times for some form of “theokinetic” action (an action by which God causes creaturely material to move in response to his will); sometimes for God’s redemptive actions, sometimes for God’s revelatory actions, and sometimes for God’s creative actions, etc. Thus, to argue that since God ‘intervened’ (type 2) at time A, he therefore probably also ‘intervened’ (type 5) at time B, does not seem at all helpful to me. Before any appeal to intervention can become fruitful, a “taxonomy” of distinctly differing types of divine interventions must be developed and employed with both precision and consistency.

Are Functional Integrity and Intelligent Design mutually exclusive concepts?

The answer to this question clearly depends on the working definitions of the two principal terms. Having already defined ‘functional integrity’ we need only agree on a definition of ‘intelligent design.’ Since the meaning of the term must ultimately be determined by those who wish to defend it, the best I can do at the moment is to explore what appear to me to be the two most likely possibilities.

First, what does it mean to be ‘designed’? If we allow the most common usage of words to be our guide, then to be ‘designed’ would mean to be thoughtfully conceptualized and intended. Design requires the purposeful action of a mind. Think, for instance, of a ‘design team’ that develops the concept for a new automobile model. In this sense of the term, all Christians see the universe as being ‘designed’. The being of the Creation has, we firmly believe, been thoughtfully conceptualized by God with clear and comprehensive purposes in mind.

Would the concept of functional integrity be at odds with this meaning of ‘designed’? Certainly not. In fact, these two concepts would be mutually reinforcing. A Creation gifted with functional integrity would be a universe designed for the temporal actualization of its potentialities and fully equipped with the requisite capabilities for self-organization and transformation. A Creation gifted with functional integrity would, I believe, be permeated through and through with features that, to the mind willing to see them as such, would serve as vivid manifestations of the fact that the universe could be none other than the outcome of thoughtful conceptualization for the accomplishment of some comprehensive purpose. As I see it, then, the concept of functional integrity serves not to weaken or discredit the concept of a ‘designed’ universe, but to strengthen the idea that the universe has been thoughtfully conceptualized and intended.

Is there empirical evidence for this presence of design in the universe? I believe there is. But I do not believe that we should expect the evidence for God’s thoughtful conceptualization of the universe to be confined to a few isolated examples accessible only to the scientifically trained person. Rather I believe it is possible to see evidence for it wherever one looks at the world through the eyes of faith. Long ago the Psalmist looked at the heavens without the aid of the natural sciences and responded, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Ps. 19:1) In the modern scientific era, a person might look at the remarkable list of ‘anthropic cosmological coincidences’ or evidences for ‘fine-tuning’ and respond with essentially the same sentiment. In fact, this evidence for ‘fine tuning’ strengthens the case for functional integrity. Were this fine tuning absent, the processes of cosmic evolution could not have functioned to actualize life as we know it, certainly not human life.

So, those of us who favor the concept of a Creation gifted with functional integrity are in hearty agreement with all who wish to call attention to the plethora of evidences for the universe having been ‘designed’ in the sense of ‘thoughtfully conceptualized.’ Why, then, do the proponents of functional integrity and the proponents of intelligent design seem to be so at odds with one another? Could it be that the term, ‘intelligent design’ means something different from or more than ‘thoughtful conceptualization for a comprehensive purpose’? Apparently so.

As I read the recent literature favoring the idea of ‘intelligent design’ I am struck by its selective focus on the particulars of the universe’s formational history. Furthermore, some of this literature creates the impression that the principal category of empirical evidence for ‘intelligent design’ is evidence suggestive of the presence of gaps in the universe’s formational economy -- gaps that must, therefore, have been bridged by the extraordinary action of some ‘extranatural’ agent. If that is a fair representation, then the uniqueness of intelligent design theory is not a claim that the universe exhibits the marks of having been thoughtfully conceptualized (a claim on which all Christians agree) but the very different claim that some specific forms, usually life forms, exhibit the marks of being the outcome of acts of extranatural assembly -- acts by which a new form was imposed by some sufficiently intelligent and capable agent on materials or extant systems that did not have the requisite powers of self-organization or transformation for actualizing those forms.

If this is the case, that is, if the heart of the ‘intelligent design’ perspective is the claim that the Creation’s formational economy has gaps that required bridging by acts of ‘extranatural assembly’ in the course of the universe’s formational history, then the concepts of ‘intelligent design’ and ‘functional integrity’ are indeed at odds. One (ID) presumes that the Creation’s formational economy is incomplete in the sense that it lacks the requisite capabilities to actualize all forms of life, and the other (FI) presumes that the Creation’s formational economy is, by God’s design, sufficiently robust to make possible the actualization of all structures and forms that have ever appeared. One focuses on formational gifts withheld and welcomes empirical evidence for the absence of such gifts. The other asks that every element in the universe’s formational economy be acknowledged as a gift from its Creator and welcomes every scientific discovery of more such gifts. The more remarkable the universe’s formational economy, the greater the occasion for recognizing the unfathomable creativity and unlimited generosity of its Creator. I am most comfortable with the latter perspective.


1. Howard J. Van Till, “Is Special Creationism a Heresy?” Christian Scholar’s Review, Vol. XXII, No. 4, pp. 380-95, June, 1993; “When Faith and Reason Meet,” published as a chapter in Man and Creation: Perspectives on Science and Theology (Hillsdale, MI: Hillsdale College Press, 1993), pp. 141-64; “God and Evolution: An Exchange (with Phillip E. Johnson), First Things, No. 34, June/July, 1993, pp. 32-41. For the most recent and complete presentation see note 2. return to text

2. Howard J. Van Till, “Basil, Augustine, and the Doctrine of Creation’s Functional Integrity,” Science and Christian Belief, Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 21-38, April, 1996. return to text

3. I employ the term ‘special creation’ here and elsewhere to mean a concept of divine creative action that focuses attention on the importance of God performing a succession of extraordinary acts in the course of time whereby new structures or creaturely forms, especially life forms, are actualized for the first time. Implicit in this view is the assumption that such acts are necessary because extant substances and forms do not have the requisite capabilities for actualizing these new forms. Therefore, God must either impose these new forms on extant substances or bring these new forms into being from nothing. return to text

4. Phillip E. Johnson, “God and Evolution: An Exchange,” First Things, No. 34, June/July 1993, p. 38. return to text

5. “Basil, Augustine, and the Doctrine of Creation’s Functional Integrity,” p. 26, emphasis added. return to text

6. Howard J. Van Till, “Is Special Creationism a Heresy?” Christian Scholar’s Review, Vol. XXII, No. 4, pp. 380-95, June, 1993. See especially note 9. return to text

7. “Basil, Augustine, and the Doctrine of Creation’s Functional Integrity,” pp. 29, 30. return to text

8. Ibid., p. 31 return to text

9. Ibid., p. 32. return to text

10. Words sometimes translated as “soul” are also translatable as “life principle” or “living being” -- terms that apply equally to both humans and animals and do not denote something that could exist independently of the physical body. In reference specifically to humans these words could mean simply “life,” or “vitality,” or “self,” or “person,” and only occasionally does the context suggest a life beyond our present existence. Readers are encouraged to consult a standard reference such as The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press) for an introduction to the diversity of meanings found in the biblical text. return to text

Copyright © 1998 Howard J. Van Till. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 7.10.98