Theistic Evolution Pt. 5 – The Role of God

In this post the role of God in relation to evolution will be examined. Firstly, the question of evolution as atheistic and godless will be addressed. Secondly, an untraditional view of God is delved into in light of what we have come to know about the universe. Thirdly, the concept of panentheism is explored.


Atheistic, godless evolution?

Paul Zimmerman states that pure chance has replaced the Creator. From this it may be concluded that, since there is no more need for a creator, then there is no more need for God and that the idea of God can, and perhaps should, be discarded.

Biochemist Thomas Gray counters this view: “Evolutionary explanations of natural history are no more necessarily atheistic than are physical explanations of planetary motions or physical-chemical explanations of atomic and molecular structure.” It is not just the theory of evolution that excludes God as the cause of what it describes. Many other sciences also do not include God in their theories and explanations. Philosopher Robert Pennock brings the argument closer to home with more everyday examples: “It is misleading for creationists to characterise science in general and to define evolution in particular as ‘godless.’ Science is godless in the same way that plumbing is godless. Evolutionary science is no more or less based on a ‘dogmatic philosophy’ of naturalism than are medicine and farming.” Is farming godless because we don’t include God as one of the factors in the growth of crops or because we understand weather phenomena and don’t see it as God micromanaging the weather?

The random chance in evolution is necessary for creativity and regarding the kind chance found in evolution, Pennock explains that “it is not that mutation has no cause (deterministic or indeterministic) but that the cause is not aimed at producing a particular desirable or advantageous result.” Furthermore, this chance is governed by statistical and deterministic laws. Therefore, chance is not completely random. The scientific understanding of chance events are slightly different from the colloquial understanding. Geologist Keith Miller states that “[c]hance or random processes are often seen as antithetical to God’s action. Many people understand “chance” as implying a purposeless, meaningless, and accidental event. However, scientifically, chance events are simply those whose occurrence cannot be predicted based on initial conditions and known natural laws.” Chance occurrences were not caused by the organism itself and the term has more to do with predictability (or in this case, unpredictability) than with causation.

Evolution has not and cannot disprove the existence of God. Science has shown that the creation narratives in Genesis are not factual, but the activity of God within the world is something that has to be thought of theologically and not scientifically. Leaving God out of scientific exploits does not deny the existence of God, but the fields of science are aimed toward that which can be measured, examined, experimented with, and described in concrete ways.


An Untraditional God

An evolutionary understanding of the universe calls for a shift from the traditional Christian ideas of God as omnipotent, unchangeable, and unaffected by anything that happens. Theologian and biochemist Arthur Peacocke inferred several characteristics of the being of God in light of what is known about the cosmos:

  • The presence of unity and diversity points to a God who is both one and “unfathomably rich.”
  • The inherent order and regularity of natural laws points to rationality.
  • The continuous change inherent in the life of the universe means that God is active and ever-creating.
  • The vast diversity suggests a God “at play in the universe who takes joy and delight in creation.”
  • In view of human beings, God “must be at least personal or suprapersonal in nature.”
  • The presence of both natural law and chance suggests that God is the Source of both.
  • Perhaps the most important characteristic with regard to the traditional views of God is that, since chance is unpredictable, God is not unconditionally omnipotent, but self-limited.

These untraditional views of Peacocke find resonance in what is called process theology. John Haught explains process theology as follows:

In reaction to a God considered supreme, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, totally perfect, immutable, and infinite in all the divine attributes, and as such immune to any possibility of change, which was the classical Christian view of God that owed much to Greek reflection as it influenced scholastic philosophy and theology, the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) viewed all of reality as in the process of becoming and in tension between what has been and what could come to be; it envisaged that process as shared in some respects by God too. … It stresses the immanence of God involved in the continuing process of the world and in loving interaction with creatures, as distinct from the divine omnipotence and timeless transcendence and impassability of a traditional Hellenistic deity.

For Peacocke, God can be considered in Being (who God is in Godself) and also in becoming, which is God expressing the divine purpose in the cosmos. God’s self-limitation implies that God is “a vulnerable God who is self-emptying and self-giving in love. …the attributes associated with God in Divine Becoming – self-limitation, vulnerability, and temporality – stand in contrast to classical theology and require a model of God more in keeping with a dynamic worldview” (Schaab). God’s self-limitation is not just in terms of power, but also in terms of knowledge. This self-limitation or self-emptying of God is called kenotic theology, or kenosis, after the text in Philippians 6-7 where Christ is said to have emptied Himself (ἐκένωσεν (ekénōsen).



Peacocke adopted the model of panentheism (not to be confused with pantheism). Gloria Schaab summarises Peacocke’s definition of panentheism as “the belief that the Being of God includes and penetrates the whole of creation, so that every part of creation exists in God, but that God’s Being is more than, and is not exhausted by, creation.” God is greater than creation, yet the cosmos exists within the unity of God. In a panentheistic view, there is no distance between the aspects of God and the relationship of God with the world. Traditional theism sees God as existing in a different place than the world and this implies a sense of detachment.


Rudolph Brun argues against the panentheist view, his reason being that the biblical revelation regarding God’s relationship with creation states that God is not dependent upon creation. He continues to say that the world cannot exist in God and that God is not immanent in nor transcending over the world, because “God is essentially other.  The relationship between God and creation is not one of immanence or transcendence but of absolute otherness.” He continues to say that the relationship between God and creation is one of “unity in diversity” with the “analogy of love” at the centre. This analogy of love is mutual affirmation and enjoyment of the otherness that exists between God and creation. Here, one can think of the term perichoresis, as mentioned in Reading Genesis 1-3 Pt. 5 – Imago Dei and Conclusion.

Whilst keeping Brun’s concerns in mind, it does seem that panentheism is the best paradigm to use. The otherness of the world is not lost within panentheism and this model deals with suffering with adequate seriousness and concern. Schaab states that this panentheist concept “of a God who is familiar with suffering and who bears cosmic grief challenges a classical theology that envisions God as unrelated, unaffected, and unmoved by creation and its creatures. Nevertheless, it is entirely consistent with a Christian theology of cross and resurrection.” Within this panentheism, God has restricted His/Her omnipotence in order to let the universe truly be an Other. Arthur Peacocke stated poetically how God created the universe as an Other: “There was God. And God was All-That-Was. God’s Love overflowed and God said: ‘Let Other be. And let it have the capacity to become what it might be – and let it explore its potentialities.’ And there was Other in God, a field of energy … and with one intensely hot surge of energy – a hot Big bang – this Other exploded as the universe.”  Schaab explains it as follows: “For Peacocke, the panentheistic paradigm effectively integrates into one cohesive model the evolutionary and quantum insights disclosed through the sciences and the Christian concept of the trinity of God as transcendent, incarnate, and immanent.” Theologian, philosopher, and environmentalist John Cobb also accepts a panentheistic view of God, where God is present in all things, but yet God transcends all things.

In his Hymn of the Universe, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin puts into poetic form the view of panentheism:

Glorious lord Christ: the divine influence secretly diffused and active in the depths of matter, and the dazzling centre where all the innumerable fibres of the manifold meet; power as implacable as the world and as warm as life; you whose forehead is of the whiteness of snow, whose eyes are of fire, and whose feet are brighter than molten gold; you whose hands imprison the stars; you who are the first and the last, the living and the dead and the risen again; you who gather into your exuberant unity every beauty, every affinity, every energy, every mode of existence; it is you to whom my being cried out with a desire as vast as the universe, “In truth you are my Lord and my God”.

Nothing, Lord Jesus, can subsist outside of your flesh; so that even those who have been cast out from your love are still, unhappily for them, the beneficiaries of your presence upholding them in existence. All of us, inescapably, exist in you, the universal milieu in which and through which all things live and have their being.


And on that note, we end this post.

The next one will return to theodicy, or the question of suffering.



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de Chardin, P T. 1961. Hymn of the universe. New York: Harper & Row.

Gray, T M. 2003. Biochemistry and evolution. In: Miller, K B (ed). Perspectives on an     evolving creation. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans: 256-287.

Haarsma, L. 2003. Does science exclude God? In: Miller, K B. (ed). Perspectives on an    evolving creation. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans: 72-94.

Haught, J F. 2010. Making sense of evolution: Darwin, God, and the drama of life. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Mahoney, J. 2011. Christianity in evolution: An exploration. Washington: Georgetown     University Press.

Miller, K B. (ed.) 2003a. Perspectives on an evolving creation. Grand Rapids: William B  Eerdmans.

Pennock, R T. 2002. Tower of Babel: The evidence against the new creationism. Cambridge:       MIT Press.

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Schaab, G L 2006. A procreative paradigm of the creative suffering of the Triune God:     Implications of Arthur Peacocke’s evolutionary theology. Theological Studies 67: 542-      566.

______2008. Honoring Arthur Peacocke: 1924-2006. Evolutionary theory and theology: A    mutually illuminative dialogue. Zygon 43(1): 9-18.

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Zimmerman, P A. 2009. Darwin at 200 and the challenge of intelligent design. CTQ 73: 61-75.