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An increased role for general providence?

It should be remembered that the Christian conception of divine providence must be found to be coherent in two cases. The first, as has been discussed, is where special divine action seems necessary. The second case is less often discussed, and is in some ways equally challenging. Divine providence must also be coherent when special acts of God are absent. The vast majority of the experiences of Christian believers do not involve miracles. Instead, they include the ordinary functioning of the natural world. It is for this second problem that evolution does indeed ‘do the work of a friend for the Christian religion.’

Serious reflection upon evolution has shown that it is inappropriate to characterise the story of terrestrial biology as simply the outworking of chance and necessity. These are indeed the two underlying elements, but it misses out much that needs to be said about the two in combination. This insight also applies to the theology of providence. It is inadequate to describe God’s providential action as just general or special. Interaction with the evolutionary sciences has helped reveal how general providence, when coupled with chance, can do much of the work normally attributed to special providence.

Relating general providence to science is far less problematic than special providence because it is generally accepted that science allows for fixed laws. Science offers no explanation for the origin of the laws and constants - by definition - and so the door is open for religious believers to attribute these permanent properties and potentialities to God’s general providence.

For example, we can affirm that it is God’s will that there should be gravitation. We know of no place where gravity is absent. We can also claim that it is God’s will that there should be electrons and protons; they too are found throughout creation. Note, however, there were no protons in the very early universe. A period of evolution was needed before they condensed from quarks. As far as we know, their eventual appearance was not contingent, but an inevitable outcome of the laws and constants in our universe. As we turn to the chemical elements we reach a crucial phase. The evolution of some chemical elements was inevitable, but not all of them. As we turn to the existence of liquid water oceans, we must pause. The properties of liquid water are unambiguously caused by the laws of nature, and so attributable to general providence, but it is quite possible that an unlucky version of our universe would have no rocky planets with liquid water.Though, of course we could have solid ice that in the low-pressure environment of space sublimes without passing through the liquid phase. Water exists because of contingent general providence. The point of this diversion into physics has been to show how the effects of general providence are not fully captured when it taken to mean ‘all-pervasive.’

If we can say it is God’s will that there should be protons, we can we say it is God’s will that there should be liquid water. Importantly, there is no sharp dividing line between the (less than 100%) probability of water existing, and the formation of amino acids, and (if accounts of strong convergence or universal biology hold up) the arrival of intelligent beings.

While at first glance it appears as though there are just two options for relating providence and evolution, this discussion has shown the need for a third.

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Go to Evolution Topic Index

An increased role for general providence?

[1] Does Evolution ‘do the work of a friend’ for the Christian Religion?
Setting the scene - why focus on providence?
[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
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