Intelligent Design vs Calvin’s Doctrine of Accommodation

Intelligent Design is a smokescreen that purports to be based on rigorous science, but is simply an attempt to squeeze neo-creationism in the back door. In fact, NPR reported that according to evidence presented as part of the case that was settled today in Pennsylvania prohibiting the teaching of Intelligent Design in school, the original manuscript of one of the touchstone ID texts, Pandas and People, had 150 references to “creationism” that were merely replaced with “Intelligent Design”.

Even for sympathetic observers, one thing is certain: ID practitioners are not scientifically rigorous. The Templeton Foundation would normally be a natural ally of the intelligent design crowd. It’s mission is, after all,

to stimulate a high standard of excellence in scholarly understanding which can serve to encourage further worldwide explorations of the moral and spiritual dimensions of the Universe and of the human potential within its ultimate purpose.

And yet, when it comes down to it, Charles L. Harper Jr., senior vice president at the Templeton Foundation, explained that the Templeton Foundation sponsored few ID projects because “From the point of view of rigor and intellectual seriousness, the intelligent design people don’t come out very well in our world of scientific review” (NYT).

A History Lesson: Heliocentrism and Evolution.

There is a relatively obvious analog to the debate on evolution, and that is the condemnation of heliocentrism in the sixteenth century.  When Copernicus published de Revolutionibus in 1543, it didn’t make much a of stir at first  and only with time, as in the condemnation of Galileo (1564-1642) did his teachings become problematic. Martin Luther famously condemned the theory, though his most famous disciple, Melanchthon seems to have integrated it in his astrology/astronomy teachings (Melanchthon was a committed devotee of astrology, as were most intellectuals of the time, Luther and Calvin being exceptions).  I want to focus, however, on John Calvin (1509-1564). Calvin, it appears, had heard about the theory of heliocentrism, though it isn’t fully clear what he though of it. An oft-cited condemnation was, in fact, invented in the nineteenth century. In any case, it appears that part of the reason Calvin didn’t take on the issue is because he did not consider it an important matter for the Faith.  Calvin subscribed to theological and exegetical position known as accommodation.  In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin’s great work, he states it thus:

For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to “lisp” in speaking to us? (IRC I:13:1)

Calvin believed that the Bible was the word of God, but that the infinite creator spoke to finite man in a language that man could understand. Furthermore, Calvin believed that all of material creation was accommodated for man’s understanding, as it were. Thus, the fact that the Bible would say in Joshua that God stopped the sun, rather than saying that stopped the earth from spinning, would not have been problematic to Calvin.  Even we heliocentrists think in terms of the sun moving across the sky, the sun rising, the sun setting.  It’s a convenient way to understand the phenomena, and Calvin’s lisping God might easily have chosen to express an astronomical reality in those terms for man’s easier understanding.

All of this gets me to contemplate what Calvin would say about evolution.  It seems that in a Calvinist world view it is quite simple to integrate the idea that the biblical explanation of the processes that created the wide variety of life forms was rather simplified by God to make understanding clear to man. There is, then, no fundamental threat to the faith in the idea that it took not six days to make the universe, but perhaps billions of years.  Furthermore, the intelligent hand behind evolution is a matter of faith, not science.  Science deals with the mechanism, but surely an infinite God who stands outside of time itself can direct evolution in any way he wants, through instant creation of incremental change via natural selection. To assert that natural selection somehow contradicts the belief in an all-powerful Creator is, in fact, to suggest that God’s power is limited, that God could not create “random” processes that work themselves out in time while God himself is outside of time.  Since time is a physical concept, which has no bearing on God, the random interplay of events over time also has nothing to say about God’s involvement. To say otherwise is to suggest that God did not have the freedom to choose the means by which he would create the world.  This simply makes no sense at all unless one is beholden to an absolute literal interpretation of the Bible without recourse to the idea of accommodation. 

[Addendum: After I wrote this, I came across this from Alister McGrath, one of the leading experts on the history of the Reformation, Reformation theology, and John Calvin, says in his book A Life of John Calvin: A Study in Shaping of Western Culture, p. 257, “Yet for Calvin, even the idea of the ‘six days of creation’ was a divine accommodation to human cognitive abilities; it was not to be taken as literally true” (see also ibid., p. xiv).]

Intelligent Design deals not with science, but with matters of faith, pure and simple.  It has no business in the science classroom.  The science classroom should be a place where one freely investigates the mechanism of evolution, not whether that mechanism is directed by the hand of God or not.  The Intelligent Design smokescreen and publicity stunt is this.  The ID people recognize that they can’t win the debate saying that there has been no change since the six days of creation, so they quibble with the idea that evolution was directed in utter absence of God in the universe, but this idea is not inherent in the concept of evolution.  The publicity stunt, then, consists of getting religion taught in the science classroom.  It is tantamount to demanding that Buddhist teachings on suffering be part of the biology curriculum because animals are known to suffer.

Eventually, Intelligent Design will blow over because it cannot satisfy either the hardcore creationists or the hardcore evolutionists.  Those two groups have unshakable underpinnings: the weight of evidence rests with the evolutionists unless you have a priori beliefs that the Bible trumps all science, in which case it rests with the creationists.  Left out of that are the proponents of ID.  I predict that once their ill-informed publicity stunt fails, they will disappear.

Creationism will, I think, persist longer.  ID tries to be the thinking man’s creationism, but since creationism is so poorly supported on the evidence, there isn’t much future in the thinking man’s creationism.  There are always people who will put Holy Writ before any scientific evidence.  There are, believe or not, still many geocentrists ([link] [link]) and even a handful of Bible-based flat earthers (refuted not only by science, but also by Christian Answers). These folks will persist in the face of any and all evidence, along with their Creationist brethren.

[Addendum 2: the guy over at Prosthesis has a nice discussion of the prevalence of the apocryphal Calvin quote against Copernicanism]

Further Reading


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