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Theistic realism

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Theistic realism is a philosophy based on the idea that God is real, acts in the universe, and is knowable through the senses and reason. As such, theistic realism stands as a middle ground between philosophical naturalism and fideism. While philosophical naturalism holds that the universe is self-explanatory, theistic realism holds that the universe can only be comprehensively explained with reference to God. While fideism holds that reason and evidence cannot lead to God, theistic realism holds that the design and works of God are manifestly evident in nature, particularly Creation, so that evidence and reason lead inevitably to belief in God.

Tenets of Theistic Realism

The basic tenets of theistic realism have been held by a number of philosophers throughout time under different names and different degrees of sophistication. Many of its arguments were articulated by Paul in the biblical book of Romans. It was further systematized by St. Thomas Aquinas in the philosophy of Thomism. Later writers such as G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis also held to many of its precepts. These ideas have recently been labeled "Theistic Realism" by a number of academics, including Phillip Johnson, Gerald L. Gutek, and professors at Baylor College of Medicine.

  • Physical existence does not comprehensively explain itself. Rather, the universe is derivative of a deeper, ultimate reality -- an aspect of God's creation, thus only part of it. Consequently, the laws of nature in our universe are not inviolable, and events appearing supernatural to us may be fully in accord with the deeper ultimate reality.[1]
  • Observable features of the physical universe imply that a nonphysical, mind-like reality is "behind" physical reality. Further, the universe appears to have been designed for the existence of human beings to be possible. Just as a person can reasonably infer from another person's actions that the other person has a mind capable of thought, feeling, reason, choice, and purpose, it is just as reasonable to infer from the existence, order, and intelligibility of physical reality that there is thought, feeling, reason, choice, and purposeful mind (God) behind it.
  • Real science, as opposed to philosophical scientific materialism, cannot be and does not claim to be a comprehensive or exclusive source of knowledge about reality. Belief in God is not antiscientific or irrational, but stems from phenomena and experience which, although fully real, are beyond the realm of empirical science.
  • The origin of life is a great mystery. The physical constituents and processes of life appear to depend on some mind-like source of purposeful hierarchical control and unified intentionality. Life exhibits signs of Intelligent Design. Irreducible complexity and specified complexity give evidence that life was deliberately designed. Evolutionary gradualism, with its requirement for constant functionality, may not be a credible causal history for such machines. They may be the product of intelligent design.
  • Ethics should be grounded in Moral objectivism. "What is" is not necessarily what "ought to be." "What ought to be" must be determined with reference to something beyond the material systems in which we live so as not to be self-referential and meaningless.
  • Human explanations for facts aspire to reflect the true facts, but are limited by our partial knowledge and error. Explanation of a physical systems must transcend the system itself so as not to be cannot be self-referential and meaningless.

Differing Views on Theistic Realism


The foundation for theistic realism as doctrine can be found throughout the Bible from the opening lines of Genesis to Romans. The exegesis runs consistent throughout the Old Testament and New Testament. In describing theistic realism in his book Reason in the Balance, Phillip Johnson grounded the argument in several verses in the Bible.

7The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction. Proverbs 1:7 (NASB)

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. John 1:1-3 (NASB)

20For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. Romans 1:20-23 (NASB)


Theistic realism has also been described by Gerald L. Gutek as the synthesis of the Greek rational philosophy of Aristotle and Christian theology that was systematized in Thomism. According to Gutek, theistic realism draws from Christianity a belief in divine revelation, a divine creation of the world and humanity by God, and divine grace, while also drawing from the aristotelian ideas of teleology, empiricism, and rationality. Thus, to the theistic realist, the empirical and rational methods of aristotelean thought lead inevitably to belief in the Christian God.

Philosophical naturalism

Main Article: Philosophical naturalism

Johnson argues that in the theistic worldview, true knowledge begins with acknowledging that we and the universe are created, and then progresses by exploring the nature of that creation, and through it, seek to understand God. By contrast, philosophical naturalism involves the rejection of that creator, therefore seeks to understand creation without reference to the creator, and therefore leads to inevitable failure.

Johnson argues that philosophical naturalism and theistic realism are diametrically opposed, because:

Naturalistic evolutionary theory, as part of the grand metaphysical story of science, says that creation was by impersonal and unintelligent forces. The opposition between the biblical and naturalistic stories is fundamental, and neither side can compromise over it. To compromise is to surrender.

He clarifies further that:

Naturalistic science tells us something completely different from what Romans 1 tells us, something that contradicts not just the Genesis account but the fundamental principle of creation that is the common ground of all creationists -- Christian, Jewish, and Islamic. It tells us not that we collapse into intellectual futility and confusion when we discard the Creator as a remnant of prescientific superstition, but that it is precisely by the 'death of God' that humankind comes of age and becomes ready to receive the truth that Darwinism is all too ready to provide.

He concludes:

Because in our universe experience unintelligent material processes do not create life, Christian theists know that Romans 1:20 is also true: 'Ever since the creation of the world God's eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.' In other words, there is absolutely no mystery about why living organisms appear to be the products of intelligent creation, and why scientific naturalists have to work so hard to keep themselves from perceiving the obvious. The reason living things give that appearance is that they actually are what they appear to be, and this fact is evident to all who do not cloud their minds with naturalistic philosophy or some comparable drug.

Distinct from theistic naturalism

Johnson asserts that theistic naturalism is an effort by theists to accommodate to academia by "accepting not just the particular conclusions that scientists have reached by also the naturalistic methodology that generated those conclusions." In essence, theistic naturalists do science as though God didn't exist, but then hold "by faith" that he does. This reasoning draws a strict dichotomy between "faith" and "science" and allows for no overlap. Naturally, such a faith is irrelevant to science, and falls to Occam's razor. On the contrary, Johnson argues, Theism can only be rational when we allow for the possibility that God Does things.

Johnson argues that theories of biology grounded in theistic realism present a challenge to philosophical and theistic naturalism:

I do not urge scientists to give up on any theory or research agenda until they themselves are convinced that further efforts would be fruitless. In view of the cultural importance of the naturalistic worldview, however, and its status as virtually the official philosophy of government and education, there is a need for informed outsiders to point out that claims are often made in the name of science that go far beyond the available evidence. The public needs to learn to discount those claims, and the scientists themselves need to learn how profoundly their interpretations of the evidence are influenced by their metaphysical preconceptions. If the resulting embarrassment spurs scientists on to greater achievements, leading to a smashing vindication of their basic viewpoint, then so be it.

Definition of Nature

Generally speaking, "nature" is defined as "how things are," rather than "how we think things are." Thus, when God interacts with the universe, those activities are just as "natural" as anything else: we simply do not understand nature well enough to understand the things God does. Since the purpose of science is to understand nature, and God acts naturally, the purpose of science is to understand God. The definition of how God acts naturally, is dependent upon His creation. God intelligently designed the universe, earth and life to be sustained by itself. This is accomplished through natural mechanisms originally designed to govern life. It is through the design of creation that God interacts.

For example, consider a man on a Pacific island who has never seen an airplane before, and does not know what they are. Suddenly, one day, he sees an airplane flying overhead. It appears to violate the laws of nature to him. But we know that there is nothing "supernatural" about an airplane. A philosophical naturalist would argue, "you can't believe that airplane exists -- it's supernatural and therefore not science". A supernaturalist would argue, "Look at that plane! It's a miracle"! But a theistic realist would say, "Well, it appears that there is an airplane. I don't know how it works, but I know it works, so nature must allow for it somehow, and perhaps someday I'll understand." There is appreciation of scientific methodology that allows nature to display itself by critical analysis. However equally as a theistic realist, that inherent complexity of the origin of life and governing mechanisms point to Intelligent Design is considered a valid and substantive view based within nature.

As Arthur C. Clarke wrote,

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of The Future, 1961 (Clarke's third law)

The definition of nature is the primary point of contention between supernaturalists and theistic realists, and highlights the different ways they look at God. While supernaturalists see that which is not materialistic as being fundamentally different than what is, theistic realists believe that this division is a primarily human invention. It is important to note that both believe that the non-materialistic world does exist.

Miracles, significant apparent breaches of logic or science attributed to God and proven to occur, are also given a distinct place in the supernaturalist view but are seen as completely normal phenomena in the theistic realist view. This difference, too, is essentially an issue of semantics and both the supernaturalist and theistic realist positions are two forms of the broader Creationist outlook--the differences pale in comparison to that between Creationism and materialism.

Related References

See Also