god as designer
By Buddy Spaulding
Anyone familiar with the decades-long origins debate—still a contentious issue in American evangelicalism—has heard someone say something along these lines: “Look at the human eye! It is so complex, it can only be the product of (divine) Design!” While I myself agree that there is a design inherent in the natural world, and fully confess that I also agree that the Designer is indeed Divine, the question remains: “Exactly what is meant when we say ‘Designer?’”
The Analogy of Being
Thomas Aquinas’ concept of analogia entis (analogy of being) is generally accepted by most Christians involved in the origins debate. Although most laymen and probably many pastors are unfamiliar with the term, the following points are widely held with little controversy:
For instance, it is uncontroversial, at least in mainstream American evangelicalism, to say that God as a Father is something like a human father, even though obviously God is a much wiser, more gracious, more perfect Father than even the best human dad.
Aquinas and those following therefore recognize the similarity, without negating the difference in quality/degree, between God and humankind. We say that humans and God are alike, not in the univocal sense (exactly alike), but in an analogical sense (the similarity is enough to be seen, without being an exact replication). When we speak of God as a Father, we use the term “Father” by way of analogy. God is somehow, in some way, like our human fathers, while at the same time being very, very different.
It would also seem to be uncontroversial that while humankind has some similarities with God, the differences are far greater in magnitude. God infinitely surpasses humans in every respect, and therefore humankind is closer to the rest of the created order in being. After all, we’re the creature—the Creator is above all, far transcending all.
We realize that God is not like us in the univocal sense—when we say, “We love, because God first loved us,” we recognize that our love is not exactly like His love. The same holds true for His other attributes.
But as a Designer?
It seems to me that the typical pastor, the typical layman, and the typical seminarian all fall into the trap of thinking that God as a Designer should be thought of in the univocal sense—our human concepts of design limit our thinking, and we relegate God to operating in the same fashion as a highly competent, but humanly limited, engineer.
Human Design Limitations
It would be great if humans could design in such a way that all products are self-recycling, never becoming obsolete, and upgrading themselves when needs or the operating environment change. While readers of this essay may be able to find limited examples of extremely flexible and adaptable design, unfortunately, most of our examples of human engineering eventually wear out, become obsolescent, and need reconstruction or even disposal.
Human design also is somewhat limited to a concept, then worked into a plan, which eventually leads to a manufactured product in its final form. But is this what we see in nature? Tectonic plates move over hot spots in the mantle, leading to volcanism, and after millions of years, we have the Hawaiian Islands. The waves crash against the islands, and the islands erode. Whether an island continues to grow or begins to shrink depends on the movement of the plate, the force of the waves, and other factors.
The young-earth creationist view of origins (hereinafter, YEC), a widely-held view in contemporary American evangelicalism, limits the origin of the Hawaiian Islands to two possibilities:
Note that I have kept my example to the gradual creation of the Hawaiian Islands, and not used anything even close to biological evolution as an example (which would be even more unsettling to the YECist). What if we go back to the example used in my opening paragraph, the development of the human eye?
Does biological evolution negate the concept of God as a Designer?
Young-earth creationism, intelligent design advocates, and progressive creationists, such as Hugh Ross, would all seem to say that God must either design as a wizard, or as a mere human. Again, multiple reasons are at play, but in discussion with advocates of these positions, we commonly hear an over-emphasis on the role of chance (and ignoring natural selection, which is extremely non-random) as a mechanism of evolution (2). The over-emphasis is largely due to an extremely limited understanding of evolutionary theory, resulting in a caricature. The assumption is that chance plus time is all that the theory of evolution proposes. In addition, although evolutionary theory is necessarily agnostic on the actual role of God, it is often misrepresented as affirming that it operates with no oversight from God, and, additionally, no design by God.
While most readers who accept the validity of modern science will acknowledge that there is no testable, falsifiable hypothesis for “design” under consideration, it is equally true that there is no testable, falsifiable hypothesis that rules out a Designer, either. The question is one of theology and philosophy.
This brings us back to the analogy of being. The theory of evolution violates the YECist/Intelligent Design concept of design by an intelligent designer, but is the objection consistent with the analogy of being?
The objections are often that an evolutionary process is wasteful or inefficient. From a human standpoint, assuming the knowledge needed to design a final product existed from the beginning, this has some merit, but again, we’re not speaking of humans, but of God. Typically, the idea that God delays, acting in His time—not in ours—is uncontroversial. God using seemingly random events to provide solutions to emergencies or using unexpected people to show up and assist His people in times of distress is frequently read about in the Scriptures and is a commonly heard theme at an evangelical testimony service. How many times has the reader heard that “God works in mysterious ways?” Yet any idea of a seemingly inefficient process or one that speaks of any type of chance, or smacks of randomness (even if the apparent randomness merely means “not yet understood”), is seen as inconsistent with God as a Designer.
Another objection comes from a common notion that animal death is “not good” (although the Bible never says that), so God could not have created a world where innocent beings die. This objection seems reasonable on its surface, yet underlying it is a failure to recognize that God reserves the right to use means and methods that seem not only mysterious to us but sometimes even wrong (e.g., Habakkuk 1, especially verses 3 and 13). Ironically, the Bible clearly teaches that the death of Christ was planned from before the foundation of the world; notwithstanding the fact that the typical evangelical downplays this by maintaining, “well, God knew beforehand that the world would fall into sin, etc.,” it still holds that God went ahead, with full foreknowledge, and created exactly that kind of world. Death is part of it exactly because God ordained that it would be, including the death of the Incarnate Christ. A rather strange Design, by human standards, yet a Design, nonetheless!
It seems safe to conclude that the design we see in creation would transcend our ability as humans to design. It also seems entirely reasonable to this retired engineer that we would see unusual, unexpected, mysterious, and non-intuitive elements within His Design. His plan of redemption was unclear for centuries, seemed to take an inordinate amount of time, and was even in conflict with the notions of what as devoted a follower as Peter thought it should be (Matt. 16:21-23). Should we be surprised that His Design in creation would be similarly indirect, seemingly random, and from our perspective, rather inefficient?
Buddy would like to thank Lars Cade, and Dan Eastwood for their help and suggestions.
(1) The tendency for some is to think that unless something occurs without a miracle (i.e. a specific violation of natural laws), then God is not involved in the process. Other examples occurred at the onset of the scientific revolution; some Christians were afraid of acknowledging heliocentrism or even opposed the invention of the clock, fearing that the “need” for God would disappear.
(2) For an explanation of the role of randomness in evolution, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBPTb9n0eZM&index=3&list=PLh9mgdi4rNezvm7QkQ_PioadoAWqfa2L0&t=0s
Warren "Buddy" Spaulding has a BS in civil engineering, and a Masters in Public Administration, both from the University of Maine. He has 30 years experience with government transportation agencies and as a consultant, mainly in the areas of construction, contract administration, and maintenance management. In addition, he has been an elder and a lay Bible teacher in a non-denominational Protestant church for approximately 30 years. He is currently self-employed as a commercial vehicle driving instructor, and has been a part-time truck driver for the last 12 years. He has been married for 36 years to Lori, and they have three children, and three grandchildren (fourth on the way).