Origins & Design 19:1

Are There Gaps in the Gapless Economy?
The Improbable Views of Howard J. Van Till

by John Mark Reynolds
Director, Torrey Honors Institute
Biola University

Abstract: Van Till’s view of “functional integrity,” while perhaps yielding aesthetic advantages to modern taste in metaphysics and theory, is implausible when confronted with orthodox Christianity. In particular, Christianity maintains that a “gap” in the natural order exists at the formation of individual human souls. Functional integrity, however, allows for no such discontinuities. Van Till cannot escape this problem. He must either abandon orthodox Christian anthropology to make his view plausible, or restrict the scope of functional integrity where human beings are concerned.

Howard J. Van Till, a physics professor at Calvin College, has suggested, in publications ranging from his book The Fourth Day to articles in the journal First Things, that traditional theism can peacefully coexist alongside cosmological models in which only natural causes are operative. Professor Van Till argues that Christians should view the universe as having been “brought in to being in a less than fully-formed state but endowed with the capacities to transform itself, in conformity with God’s will, from unformed matter into a marvelous array of structures and life forms.”

He calls this a universe with “functional integrity.” He denies that God needs to intervene with any special creative acts during the course of cosmic history. The universe has the potential to fulfill all of natural history without such exceptional interventions. Van Till, who is eager to remain a traditional theist, escapes the charge of deism by arguing that God is constantly involved in “sustaining” and “causing” (in a primary sense) within the created order. These terms are never precisely defined in Van Till’s writings. He also accepts existence of the miracles of Salvation History. He does not, however, believe that God ever needs to act in the natural history of the cosmos in “exceptional” ways.

Van Till claims that theism can, if it will just accept his model, escape the constant apologetic peril of the “god of the gaps.” God is a necessary part of the universe, without Him the universe would cease to be. On the other hand, natural science will never be able to confirm or disconfirm this action. There may, of course, be exegetical problems in relating this view to Scripture for many traditional Christian theists, but that will not be the focus of my criticism.

I believe that the difficulty for such a model is that it is fairly implausible given what Christian theism claims to know about God’s actions in the created order. Traditional theists postulate at least one divine action and one gap in the created order. This gap makes it much more plausible that other gaps exist than that none exist. Van Till is free, in the end, to assert whatever he likes about God’s actions, if he is determined to save the standard scientific cosmological story or his own particular theology. He should, on the other hand, give up on certain theological beliefs that may be central to his religious experience. As a result, many Christian theists will not find his views persuasive.

In my opinion, an important advantage to Van Till’s view is that it is quite aesthetically pleasing. The “gapless economy” of a creation, in need of no special divine intervention, is not a new idea. It has a distinguished and proud heritage. I would suggest that it has important similarities with the creation story found in Plato. The “gapless” cosmology that is still in constant interaction with the Other to sustain existence following its creation is quite compatible with at least some readings of the Timaeus. But there are important differences between the two accounts as well. For example, Van Till does not believe that the Creator is limited by working with a recalcitrant Necessity. These differences are based on Van Till’s Christian theism and not on the fundamental cosmological differences within the model. Van Till countenances an omnipotent Creator in a way that was impossible for Plato given the religious views of his time. Nevertheless, while Van Till differs from Plato in detail, the general approach ends up being much the same.

That is why Van Till finds so little support in the early Church Fathers for his general position. He claims some support for his views in the writings of Augustine and Basil. Of course, such writers would at times “deviate” from a “gapless” economy and have God acting directly in cosmic history, but Van Till believes the germ of his idea is in both of these writers. Even if he is granted Augustine and Basil as valid examples, most of the passages he cites (in Augustine at least) are best regarded as an attempt to deal with the current Platonic (or neo-Platonic) cosmology. The passages in question are certainly not an example of Augustine’s best Christian thinking. It is much more modest to assume that Augustine was struggling with neo-Platonic science, and sometimes making compromises with it, than that he was eager to propose an utterly “gapless” economy. Most important to note is that these writers (even given the great stature of Augustine) did not prevail if Van Till has read them correctly. Their cosmological views were not formative of the mainstream of Christian thought concerning God’s activity in creation.

The issue is not whether at some point in the two thousand-year history of the Church someone has held an eccentric position, but what came of that position in the life of the Church. It also is the case that an individual thinker may deviate from orthodoxy in one area without himself being a heretic. However, the extrapolation of those deviant views, the accumulation of many such views, or making such views the center of one’s world view and work may produce a much more serious problem. Van Till at best has suggested that two of the Fathers, perhaps heavily influenced by neo-Platonism themselves, might have agreed with his view. On the other hand, he has yet to explain why the rest of pre-Darwinian theologians failed to pick up on these suggestions.

Does God Intervene?

Van Till advocates “functional integrity,” a view that was not widely held before the encounter with naturalistic science made it a convenient apologetic move. Such a view has, in my opinion, a higher burden of proof. Why should theists believe in “functional integrity” apart from some suspiciously ad hoc attempt to save traditional Christian theism from “scientific” examination? How should theists view God’s actions in the cosmic order? Does He intervene directly in the creation?

Confronted with these questions, the Christian discovers one area of historic theological consensus regarding God’s relationship to a part of His creation -- it is the traditional Christian position that God has intervened to give human beings a soul. For example, in the recently published Catechism of the Catholic Church it states, “The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God -- it is not ‘produced’ by the parents.” No orthodox historic theologian of which I am aware thought the soul was, in any way, the product of the body or of physical procreation, though some have advocated the traducian view that the soul is propogated along with the body by generation, and thus transmitted to the children by the parents. Both the creationist and the traducian positions on the origin of the soul suggest a gap in the natural order in the production of individual humans. Given one gap in an area where Christians can be certain about God’s actions, it is most plausible to expect others.

Let me emphasize that this argument does not depend on the method of transmission of the human soul. The Catholic view, which is my own, that the soul is produced at the moment of conception for each individual human is clearly interventionist. Origen advocated the pre-existentian view that souls existed before conception in “storage.” Christians of a traducian bent maintain that the souls of the parents produce the soul of the infant. Of course, such persons believe that Adam’s initial soul was given to him in a special creation (apart from the natural order) by God. Whether the souls are in a “bank” pre-created for use, are produced from the souls of the parents, or are specially created at conception, the human soul comes from God and not (in any way) from the physical or natural world.

So the orthodox Christian position is that the human soul is a special creation implanted by God, or by the souls of the parents, in the human body, thereby producing a new human being. It does not come to be via natural physical processes, though it is linked to them. The soul, once imparted, has a direct impact on the behavior of the body which is both observable and profound. Orthodoxy requires either God Himself to actively and specially intervene in the natural world by implanting each soul in a body, or for Him to have already done so in the case of Adam, whereafter the souls of the parents continue this supernatural propagation. The physical creation does not match either a pre-existing soul to a body or create human souls ex nihilo. The creation (or matching) of a human soul qua soul is not the product of any creature, nor is it a “creaturely” capacity of the natural world. Van Till must allow for at least one exception to his gapless economy or deny every orthodox position on the origin of the human soul.

For the traditional theist, the soul is not a mere epiphenomenon of the brain, or a relationship established between God and the human body. It will not do, therefore, for Van Till to argue that the soul is merely a completion of the function of the brain if he wishes to retain traditional Christian theism. He cannot suggest that the “action” of the Creator in giving each 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 into the material world be different from the one Christians know He already makes? According to Christian understanding, without the soul the brain is lifeless, just like primeval matter, and therefore cannot reason, let alone commune with the Creator. Once the existence of the soul has been acknowledged, it follows that there are at least some brain states (for example, those present in prayer) that the brain will not have without a soul. The impartation of a soul impacts and forces the brain to change in the same manner that the special creation of life from non-life changes pre-existing matter. Neither matter nor the brain has the ability in itself to do anything in the created order without the intervention of the supernatural. The mere ability to write a book like The Fourth Day would be impossible without a soul.

Neither is the soul a part or a function of the body in Christian conception, for souls can exist without the body. They are not a mere “fulfilling” of latent brain capacities. They are a special intervention of the supernatural in the natural order. Human souls can also exist apart from the body in the time between death and the Second Coming. Van Till cannot escape the problem. He must either abandon orthodox Christian anthropology to make his position plausible, or he must admit that his position is untenable.

Making Sense of Augustine

Let me cite just one important example to demonstrate how writers Van Till has used to support his position can be more charitably read in the light of an economy with gaps. Augustine in Book XII, chapter 27 of The City of God says,

And so they regard the account of man’s creation as fable, not fact; and because the first created works are beyond their experience they adopt a skeptical attitude. They do not realize that facts of human conception and parturition, which fall within their experience, could seem even more incredible if told to those who were unacquainted with them. And yet some attribute even these phenomena to the working of natural physical causation and not to the operation of the divine purpose.

Augustine goes a long way toward attributing even physical creation to non-physical causation. Consider the following passage as well:

And so, whatever the physical or seminal causes that play their part in the production of living things, by the activities of angels of men, or by the intercourse of male and female in animals or human beings, whatever effect the longings or emotions in the mother’s consciousness may have on the child in her womb, in its susceptible state, leaving some traces in its features or complexion, it remains true that only God most high can create the actual natures which are affected in different ways, each in its own kind.

Van Till, of course, must argue that Augustine is not being true to his real views (i.e., to functional integrity) in this passage. These remarks become a sort of “falling back” or error. Isn’t it more charitable to allow Augustine to take the traditional view that some of the time God acts extraordinarily in creation for reasons of his own? The creation may have had greater functional integrity in Augustine’s conception than Calvin’s (for example), but that does not mean that he believed in radical functional integrity.

Knowledge of the psychological “gap” in the natural world allows the Christian theist to see how radical Van Till’s suggestion actually is. Theists could disagree about how much integrity the cosmos has. Theologians and philosophers have debated this very issue. But Van Till wants us to believe it has complete integrity and requires no such supernatural interventions. Only this extreme position will allow him to curtail examining the natural world for other indications of “gaps” between what can be accounted for by natural causation and what requires the supernatural.

It might be claimed in Van Till’s defense that we do not have “billions” of cases of intervention but only one case with billions of examples. Humans are “special” so they get special treatment. This will not help Van Till, however. If theists are confident that the universe does not have Van Till’s radical functional integrity, they will look for other examples of divine intervention. That one sort gives impetus to the search for others.

Where might theists look for other instances? Why not extend this same “special” treatment of human psychology to the creation of the human body as many of the early church Fathers did? Such a search would destroy, however, the truce with the naturalistic presuppositions of the scientific community that gives books like The Fourth Day their apologetic appeal. Adopting this course leaves us no good reasons for believing in a “gapless” creation, and many good reasons for continuing the very sort of theological examination of the world that Van Till seems to fear.


I believe traditional Christian psychology destroys a great deal of the plausibility of Van Till’s “gapless” picture. God did not (in the one area we are sure about) choose to create a gapless universe. Why should he be expected to do so in any other area? If such a gapless view were the natural Biblical conclusion, then the Fathers could have made their peace with Timaeus and neo-Platonic science by proposing the same gapless economy. It is certain that almost none of them did.

It seems that Van Till can maintain there are no gaps in the economy of creation only as a statement of faith. As we have seen, however, a gap does exist where the formation of individual souls is concerned. He can either make this an ad hoc exception, having souls produced by material causation, or he can reduce the ontological status of the soul to the material realm. Such reductionism regarding the soul is, in fact, impossible for most of the historic Church given her creeds and catechisms. Van Till has tried to create a plausible compromise between a naturalistically conceived cosmology and Christian theism. He has failed.

Copyright © 1998 John Mark Reynolds. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 7.10.98