Skip to comments.Creationism’s Debt to Prof. Phillip Johnson (1940-2019), Author of Darwin on Trial
Posted on 11/04/2019 12:28:30 PM PST by SeekAndFind
Phillip E. Johnson (1940-2019) was a unifying figure, but not a compromiser. A unique and wise influencer, his strategy will continue.
Op-ed by David Coppedge
When I heard yesterday that Dr Phillip Johnson had passed away November 2, I was saddened, but I knew that his influence was alive and well. As “godfather” of the intelligent design movement (not “father” since design arguments go back to antiquity, and the phrase “intelligent design” predates him1), Johnson’s influence was indubitably profound for ID. But how about for creationism? There have been a few creationists who have been critical of his approach, thinking he did not go far enough to support the Bible or to identify the nebulous “Designer” as God. Most creation leaders I know, however, are highly indebted to him, as shown by their frequent use of design arguments. Was Johnson’s influence good for Biblical creationism? I argue that it wasprofoundly so.
Johnson had been working behind the scenes for years since his strokes limited his physical capacity, yet his mind remained sharp. He made a brief appearance four years ago to eulogize his atheist opponent William Provine of Cornell (Evolution News), illustrating his gentlemanly manner with opponents. Most of his recent influence has been to personally encourage other leaders of the intelligent design movement (IDM). Johnson’s public influence began in 1991 with publication of his book Darwin on Trial, which caught the notice of secular scholars and theists that a new sheriff was in town: a clear-thinking legal scholar able to cut through the fog and make the main thing the main thing. Casey Luskin explained that main thing in a post on Evolution News today, “Remembering Phillip E. Johnson (1940-2019): The Man Who Lit the Match”
With the mind of a law professor, Johnson was a master at spotting issues. And the key issue he saw in the origins debate was not the age of the earth or the differing interpretations of Genesis by Christians. It was a more fundamental question of interest to theists and non-theists alike: Is life the result of blind, undirected natural causes, or is it the result of purposeful design? By focusing on this question, Johnson transformed the entire origins debate.
Did Johnson Go Far Enough?
Biblical creationists, understandably, are impatient to get to the gospel. To them (myself included), they want for people to get saved. Additionally, they have been burned by Christian groups that deny the Bible’s teaching on the age of the earth, or engage in compromising interpretations of Scripture (the day-age theory, progressive creation, or even theistic evolution). They feel that such wishy-washy presentations actually do more harm than good. It makes perfect sense: if one doubts the plain teaching of Genesis, how can the person trust the New Testament when it presents Christ as the Savior of the world?
To make matters worse, Biblical creationists have suffered vitriolic opposition by some of the proponents of compromise positions sometimes more than from atheists! In response to the growing IDM in the 1990s and early 2000’s, several prominent creation leaders (and here I will not name names, which would be a distraction from my point), have written critical articles about intelligent design. It’s understandable that they would be suspicious of any new idea coming around that, while skeptical of Darwinism, omits any reference to God, Genesis or the Bible at all.
I’d like to argue that ID is different. Johnson’s approach was not confrontational to Biblical creationists, but rather supportive. This is indicated by the ironic fact that you can watch some of the same creationists who criticize ID using ID arguments in their own presentations of creation. They freely borrow terms like irreducible complexity, undirected natural causes, and intelligent design.
In his heyday, Phillip Johnson was a popular speaker in churches and Christian meetings, as well as at secular events. I am glad I got to hear him speak live on two occasions. After the first occasion, I asked him a question at the book table where he was signing books and talking to folks. I don’t recall my words, but it concerned whether we need to get people back to the Bible, and I think I came across a little arrogant. Rather curtly, without looking at me, he responded, “We must fight one battle at a time.” His point struck me, and left me speechless. The second occasion, on a more friendly note, I told him about CEH and how I was reporting on ID and creation. More cheerfully (and this was after his first stroke), he was glad to hear about it and was encouraged that many were doing their part. I think he felt that it’s going to take a lot of individuals to defeat Darwinism.
I since read each of Johnson’s books as they came out. I never found him demeaning Biblical creation, or ridiculing those who teach a young earth. It was clear to me, also, that Phillip Johnson was a born-again Christian who believed the Bible, and was not opposed to questioning the consensus age of the earth. This became most clear in his last book, The Right Questions. Johnson did a favor to the cause of creation by sticking to one fundamental question: Design, or not design? He opened up the discussion where it was having a hard time gaining traction.2
With his astute legal mind, Johnson knew that unless we settle that question, creationists and evolutionists will talk past one another in a perennial standoff. Dr Johnson found the creationism of the late 1980s so focused on the age of the earth and the interpretation of Genesis, groups were fighting each other rather than affecting the culture. Screwtape would have loved it. Secularists could just laugh at the internecine battles and carry on, propagandizing students and everyone else in the courts, textbooks and science classrooms. Johnson’s question promised a better strategy to make the creation movement more effective: Unite the divided, and divide the united. Creationists needed an issue they could unite on, one that would act as a “wedge of truth” to divide the tough log of Darwinism.
Johnson basically told everyone to back up a step. He did not say that the age of the earth is an unimportant question, or that the identity of the “designer” doesn’t matter. He just advised, like he told me, “We must fight one battle at a time.” Nobody could disagree that “Design or not design?” is an important question, so let’s focus on that question.
Because “Design or not design?” is a question that can be addressed through scientific arguments, this caught the secularists off guard. They were used to dismissing the YECs as ignoramuses and Bible thumpers. At school board meetings, evolutionists with their lackeys in the press could trot out the usual boilerplate about the religious right wanting to push the Bible in public schools, which (in their belief) violated the separation of church and state. Knocking over this strawman was one of their sports. They were completely unprepared when Johnson and ID scientists limited themselves to scientific evidences for undeniable instances of design in nature, while simultaneously undermining the philosophy of evolutionists who relied on blind, unguided natural processes to account for them. If you can listen to one of Johnson’s debates with William Provine or with Eugenie Scott, you can sense the frustration they had with this new sheriff in town, who couldn’t be knocked off topic. He was dividing the united with the Wedge of Truth.
Phillip Johnson also worked hard to unite the divided, and largely succeeded. He brought together scholars like Dembski, Behe, Nelson, and others who, while not prepared to argue the meaning of the Genesis days, saw the wisdom in the ID strategy. In my experience, it has been rare to see the most prominent ID leaders attack young-earth creationists, even if they disagree. This is very different from the OECs and progressive creationists who often resorted to ridicule in their attacks. Johnson kept his followers focused on the main thing. I personally know many of them as friends, and can affirm that arguments about the age of the earth or the meaning of Genesis do not come up in our discussions. We have very productive discussions about evidence for design. Some of them actually agree with Biblical creationism; it is just not the first item of business. “We must fight one battle at a time,” they would agree. Just as C.S. Lewis tried to get back to basics with Mere Christianity, IDM has tried to focus on Mere Creation: the argument for design.
If you read our Site Map, you see an orderly presentation of the gospel as a series of trail junctions where one must decide which way to go. But design is really the deciding question at the peak that determines which side of the mountain you travel down. Not for a moment would I understate the importance of the follow-up questions. If anything, they become more important as you work down the decision tree. But if our listeners go down the other side of the mountain, they won’t be able to hear us.
Another point I like to make is that it takes a lot of different players with different roles to win a war. You need an army, a navy, and an air force. You need foot soldiers as well as office workers. And, you need ambassadors: those who can go behind enemy lines and represent the policies of the administration. We should not demean those who don’t play the same roles we do. Even if ID doesn’t get people to pray the sinner’s prayer, it plays an important role; it gives people stepping stones over issues that otherwise would prevent them from even considering the truth. If your role is tactics, don’t demean the ones who deal in strategy. Some well-known Biblical creationists teach the value of clearing the field before planting the seed.
There are some listeners who will be ready to believe with no design or scientific evidence at all; that’s great. There are some who have hangups with some creationist claims. Let them become convinced of design, and maybe their thinking will start to flow. Hardened atheists who attack us on Twitter often engage in the splattergun tactic, listing all their favorite attacks on the Bible in mocking tones. Better to take away their weapon than dodge bullets. That’s what ID can do: disarm the very premise of their unbelief.
Those are some of my thoughts on the value of ID. I expect this op-ed could generate some discussion, so let us know how you feel. Better than reading about my feelings, read Johnson for yourself: buy his books or look for his speeches or debates online. Johnson appears briefly in Unlocking the Mystery of Life, a film by Illustra Media that remains one of the finest presentations of intelligent design ever made.
Phillip Johnson, law professor emeritus of UC Berkeleys Boalt Hall School of Law, is widely recognized as the godfather of the contemporary intelligent design (ID) movement. As the author of several books and numerous articles explaining scientific, legal, and cultural dimension of the debate over ID and Darwinism, Johnson was one of the most prolific authors in the formative years of the movement.
It was Johnsons 1991 book Darwin on Trial that first convinced many thinkers that neo-Darwinian evolution was buttressed more by a philosophy of naturalism than by the scientific evidence. Johnsons influential writing became the magnet of scholars from a variety of fieldsbiology, chemistry, physics, philosophy, theology, and lawto forge the intelligent design movement.
Casey Luskin, “The Significance of Phillip Johnson” at Darwin on Trial
Remember him from law school, he was kind of grouchy in those days (pre-Christian I suspect). He supposedly became a Christian after attending First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley (where I went), and I know he wasn’t going there yet when I was in law school. Before you pooh-pooh Berkeley too much, I was amazed to find when I first went there that there were a ton of Christians in Berkeley, both in the University and outside. And First Pres had some great pastors, including Dr. Munger who wrote the famous tract, “My Heart Christ’s Home.”
I read that book years ago. very impressive; I quite enjoyed it.
In terms of Christian presence, I might note that the faculty adviser to the Christian Legal Society at Boalt while I was a student was the then-dean of Hasting Law School across the bay in San Francisco, an open Christian.
How times have changed (Hastings was the law school which first banned Christian organizations for not being “inclusive”—that decision was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and has led to academic persecution of Christians ever since.)
I like to ask people who profess to be believers if they believe the Genesis account to be a literal account of Creation; 6 24 hour days. If they say no, I ask which is harder to believe?
That Christ arose on the third day or that He was involved in the Creation of the Universe?
IF God cannot create the Universe in 6/24 hour days, then He is incapable of overcoming death or doing anything else in Scripture.
IF a person has a hard time believing a literal Genesis account of creation, they will most likely have a hard time believing the rest of the Bible.
Wow, a SCOTUS decision on an issue with LGBTQRSTUV underpinnings, that was decided 5-4 with Anthony Kennedy as the deciding vote? What a shocker. Who could have ever imagined?
God the Father uses evolution as His tool. Simple, clear and true.
Intelligent design” is just a cruel joke by dishonest writers. God does not make mistakes that need to be cleaned up later. God the Father deserves 100% credit for how the speed of light has not altered its speed in fifteen billion years by even a millionth of a millionth of a fraction.
Johnson is a winner at law and a loser at physics. Behe is criminal how he twists the facts and expects people to be dumb.
Boalt is a top law school. My friend missed one question on the LSAT and did not get accepted to Boalt. Tough school.
At Cal the walk from Boalt Hall to the new Genetics Building is a long walk but worth the trip.
“Ancient repetitive elements” is the subject in genetics that leads humble students to learn that God uses evolution as His tool.
Good news: the understanding of the Creator’s use of evolution is leading to the discovery of cures for one thousand diseases. And the cures will be found, for sure, like chronic fatigue syndrome and breast cancer. Hope.
Sad how poor physics leads to silly conclusions, such as “sexual orientation is an identifiable class. False. Gays are 100% human like everyone else but handicapped with secondary, weird feelings that they can choose to get over if they wish.
I always wonder why they get so passionate about their disbelief?
I think that assertion is a bit "straw man". I do not think people who object to the Biblical account of creation do so because the difficulty of God doing it. I think it is more due to things such as a fossil record which seems to go back further than Bible history, and eras that are left out of the Bible like the Dinosaur era.
If the Creation account records events from the beginning of time, and I believe it does, then the dinosaurs are included.
"What [Johnson] read made him more suspicious of evolutionary orthodoxy. 'Something about the Darwinists' rhetorical style,' he told me later, 'made me think they had something to hide.' An extensive examination of evolutionary literature confirmed this suspicion. Darwinist polemic revealed a surprising reliance upon arguments that seemed to assume rather than demonstrate that life had evolved via natural processes. Johnson also observed an interesting contrast between biologists' technical papers and their popular defenses of evolutionary theory. When writing in scientific journals, he discovered, biologists acknowledged many significant difficulties with both standard and newer evolutionary models.Yet, when defending basic Darwinist commitments (such as the common ancestry of all life and the creative power of the natural selection/mutation mechanism) in popular books or textbooks, Darwinists employed an evasive and moralizing rhetorical style to minimize problems and belittle critics. Johnson began to wonder why, given mounting difficulties, Darwinists remained so confident that all organisms had evolved naturally from simpler forms." [Stephen C. Meyer, "Your Witness, Mr. Johnson: A Retrospective Review of Darwin on Trial." Evolution News & Science Today, Nov 6, 2019]
I place Johnson up there with Thomas Sowell as one of the great intellectuals of our time.
Please show us some of that dishonesty.
>>Falconspeed said: "God does not make mistakes that need to be cleaned up later."
How do you interpret this?
"And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them. But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord." -- Gen 6:5-8 KJV
>>Falconspeed said: "God the Father deserves 100% credit for how the speed of light has not altered its speed in fifteen billion years by even a millionth of a millionth of a fraction."
How do you know God didn't speed it up in the beginning? There are mature galactic clusters at the "edge" of the universe.
Have you read this paper?
"The local expansion rate of the Universe is parametrized by the Hubble constant, H0, the ratio between recession velocity and distance. Different techniques lead to inconsistent estimates of H0. Observations of Type Ia supernovae (SNe) can be used to measure H0, but this requires an external calibrator to convert relative distances to absolute ones. We use the angular diameter distance to strong gravitational lenses as a suitable calibrator, which is only weakly sensitive to cosmological assumptions. We determine the angular diameter distances to two gravitational lenses, 810 (+160, -130) and 1230 (+180, -150) megaparsec, at redshifts z = 0.295 and 0.6304. Using these absolute distances to calibrate 740 previously measured relative distances to SNe, we measure the Hubble constant to be H0 = 82.4 (+8.4, -8:3) kilometers per second per megaparsec. " [Jee et al, "A Measurement of the Hubble Constant from angular diameter distances to two gravitational lenses." Science, Vol.365, Iss.6458; Sept 13, 2019, Abstract, p.1]
That Hubble's Constant of 82.4 renders the universe only 11.4 billion years old.
>>Falconspeed said: "Johnson is a winner at law and a loser at physics."
Phillip Johnson is a brilliant rhetorical analyst. That insight allowed him to see through the deception within the evolutionist ranks.
>>Falconspeed said: "Behe is criminal how he twists the facts and expects people to be dumb."
I assume you have never read his books. Michael Behe is a genius, and, like Johnson, a really humble and congenial fellow.
You don't have to lie to debate the evolutionist, but you will find it difficult to keep up with their exaggerations and inferences since there is no empirical evidence to support the theory.
>>Falconspeed said: "Good news: the understanding of the Creators use of evolution is leading to the discovery of cures for one thousand diseases. And the cures will be found, for sure, like chronic fatigue syndrome and breast cancer. Hope."
The theory of evolution is a historical science and is 100% useless to applied science.
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