How Contingency Reveals God: T.F. Torrance, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and William Dembski on the Theology of Intelligent Design

William Dembski, one of the front men for the Intelligent Design movement (ID), and a member of the Discovery Institute founded by Phillip Johnson, proposes what he has entitled his “Design Inference” filter. To put it much too simply, in order to identify design we are led upward through a threefold hierarchy: regularity (natural law), chance, design. As it stands, when an event or sequence is reasonably attributable to some natural regularity or law, we proceed no further looking for an explanation (except, perhaps, to understand that law itself). If however, natural law (or more broadly: regularity) does not seem to apply, we move up to the next level: chance (coincidence, randomness…). If neither chance nor regularity are up to snuff, then the door to the third level of the filter is opened: design. As Dembski himself puts it in The Design Inference:

To attribute an event to design is to say that it cannot be reasonably referred to either regularity or chance. [That amounts to] defining design as the set-theoretic complement of the disjunction: regularity or chance.[1]

Design for Dembski is, in a sense, a specified, highly improbable chance.

Somewhat ironically given the near synonymy his name has with “Intelligent Design” as a movement, Dembski here is in truth only examining the nature of the inference(s) we draw regarding the etiology of events, he is not attempting to offer an actual definition of what “constitutes” design like Michael Behe does with his notion of “Irreducible Complexity.”[2] In fact, not once does Dembski ever attempt to define “design,”—rather it is left as a sort of negative inference of his Filter:

The concept of design that emerges from the design inference is therefore eliminative, asserting of an event what it is not, not what it is. To attribute an event to design is to say that regularity and chance have been ruled out.[3]

He even goes so far to say, repeatedly, that this “design inference” does not commit one to see intelligent agency as one of the necessary consequents of the design-inference argumentative structure:

Taken by itself, design does not require that [an intelligent] agent be posited. The notion of design that emerges from the design inference must not be confused with intelligent agency.[4]

While it is hard not to read such assertions as anything other than disingenuous, we are not here particularly concerned with the technical merits of Dembski’s argument. Rather what interests us is the juxtapositions within Dembski’s triad: regularity, chance, design. Where the handiwork of God (lets be honest with ourselves: this is where Dembski’s argument is meant to go) is most clearly seen when regularity and chance do not account for it according to Dembski, a much difference schema occurs in the theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg and T.F. Torrance, to whom we now turn.

In order to schematize this as neatly as possible, we will divide into two sections of why Pannenberg and Torrance would disagree with Dembski’s schema: historical, and theological. These are of course, in a sense, arbitrary divisions for convenience as they are not fully discrete in either thinker as self-contained categories. What we mean by each category division will hopefully become apparent as the brief presentation of each progress.


Both Pannenberg and Torrance are avid historians of Christian theology, and though they both often proceed by intriguingly different routes, they both want to assert that traditionally, far from contingency (chance) and regularity (natural law) excluding theologians from seeing the work of God, Christian theology elevated the significance of both. So Torrance:

Looking back, it seems clear that a proper notion of contingence could not arise so long as there remained intact the determining presuppositions of Greek science, a necessary relation between the world and God, and the bifurcation between matter and form. A basic change in the attitude to nature and science would have to take place, involving belief in the full reality of matter and the rationality of the contingent … That is precisely the revolution that Judeo-Christian theology injected into the foundations of Greek thought … a divine creation of matter out of nothing would require it to be treated as a contingent reality, and not as unreal … it was Christian theology which radicalized and deepened the notion of contingence and gave reality to the notion of contingent intelligibility, through thinking out, in critical and constructive discussion with Greek science, the relation of creation to the incarnation of God’s Word in Jesus Christ within the spatio-temporal realities and intelligibilities of the contingent existence of the world.[5]

Torrance here intricately relates Christian theology to the origins of science by noticing how the doctrines of creation from nothing (ex nihilo) and the doctrine of the Incarnation relate to the “spatio-temporal” matrix of the world. This is absolutely ripe for unpacking, displaying as it does both Torrance’s concept that Christian theology itself underlay some of the presuppositions of modern science, and the intricate interrelationship of salvation and creation. Here we must bypass this to simply note this Christian view of the world with its “radical distinction between Creator and created,” far from reducing the being and rationality of the contingent world “to unreality and insignificance, establishes their reality and secures their significance, not in spite of, but precisely in, their contingent character. [Emphasis added.”

A theme little frequented by commentators of Pannenberg (one he himself, sadly, leaves underdeveloped) is in harmony with Torrance’s notion that Christian theology in a sense historically grounded later scientific developments:

Karl Popper, even in his earlier period, admitted that metaphysical convictions of innovative scientists may belong to the subjective factors conditioning the formation of their scientific hypotheses and theories. Yet his former student, William Berkson, uses the history of field physics to show that certain metaphysical conceptions not only have individual importance, but also accompany or even guide the development of entire branches of natural science. If this is so, the philosophical origin of scientific conceptuality can no longer be regarded as something external and irrelevant as far as scientific theories themselves are concerned …[6]


As it often happens, the philosophical problem-horizon of the respective themes [of the natural sciences], along with the history of the problem in philosophy, is not adequately considered. It is then a task of theology, in dialogue with the natural sciences, to recall the philosophical problem horizon of the themes in question and, within that framework, to bring to bear the specifically theological accent on these themes.[7]

Unsurprisingly, then, Pannenberg—astoundingly similar to Torrance—finds in the concept of contingency, and yet the ultimate unity of all events, a prestigious Biblical pedigree:

On the basis of the Israelite understanding of God, which has influenced early Christianity also, the experience of reality is characterized primarily by contingency, particularly the contingency of occurrences. New and unforeseen events take place constantly that are experienced as the work of almighty God …[8]

Jewish thinking could find the unity of all occurrences in the unity of the historically acting God. Christianity later was able to conceive of history itself as a unity because for Christians the end of history had already become a previous event. The perfection of the human being had already taken place with the appearance of the new human being in the incarnation of the Son of God. It may be doubted whether the idea of the unity of history can at all be separated from these theological roots.[9]


But what are the consequences of our (severely abbreviated) look at Torrance and Pannenberg’s theological genealogies of the concept of contingency—especially as it relates to our opening (and again, truncated) look at Dembski’s argument, which depends on the trifecta of regularity, chance, and design? Pannenberg spells it out fairly explicitly:

As late as 1970, Jacques Monod, in his book, Chance and Necessity, did not appreciate the positive value of chance and contingency for a theological interpretation of the process of evolution [we might note: neither does Dembski!]. Chance was only called upon in the service of destroying the argument for design. But in a theological interpretation of nature, the element of chance or contingency is even more important than design [emphasis added] because contingency and the emergence of novelty correspond to the biblical view of God’s continuously creative activity in the course of history and the world of nature.[10]

At this point Pannenberg appreciatively points as well to Torrance’s book Divine and Contingent Order,[11] as also pioneering a similar view. Torrance seems to undercut the very foundations that allow Dembski’s triad of regularity-chance-design to gain traction:

… the notion of indeterminacy [read: chance] seems to be conceivable only with reference to a system characterized by determinacy [emphasis added], in this case classical mechanics. That would imply that indeterminacy and determinacy are the obverse of each other [cf. Dembski’s comments above], each delimiting and negatively defining the other on the same logical level. … But the question still remains: Does indeterminacy refer to something quite random and arbitrary and therefore unintelligible? If it does the very foundations of science are put in question, so that it would be natural for scientists to react in favor of the view that ‘contingency’ only arises in their minds when they are unable to reduce everything in that universe to causal laws [emphasis added].[12]

Torrance’s theology, however, does an end-run around this position:

The grounding of the contingent intelligibility of the universe on God does not allow any equation of contingence with deficiency in rationality, but rather the reverse, for correlation with the unlimited rationality of God lends contingent intelligibility a dimension of depth that defies the possibility of complete formalization. … In the first place, a theological understanding of the created universe as constantly sustained, regulated, and given inner cohesion through the presence of God in his creative power and rationality, may be coordinated with the search of natural science for a unified understanding of all structures and laws beyond their finite limits. … Second, the theological understanding of the nature of intelligibility in the empirical universe as contingent upon the unlimited intelligibility of God may well help natural science to appreciate in a new way the astonishing capacity of nature to disclose ever new and unexpected forms of rational order of increasing complexity and richness of organization …[13]

Here we have little space to comment, for example, how Torrance’s interpretation of the incarnation and the Nicene homoousion factor into his epistemology.[14] But it behooves us to point out that order and contingency are positively related for Torrance, rather than juxtaposed as in Dembski. More importantly, Torrance is here offering an interpretation of God’s activity in relation to the entirety of the cosmos.

One of the utterly strange features implied, but not explicitly spelled out, in Dembski’s “Design Inference” argument, is the way that possible inferences to design are juxtaposed to everything else. Of course, on the level of ontic (as opposed to ontological) questions, this is valid: just what, exactly, is involved in our decision-making process when we say: “this, not that, is designed [say by a lost civilization]”? But on the ontological level, especially when ultimately attempting to reference God as Creator of everything, as Del Ratzsch has pointed out Dembski’s Design Inference, ultimately, as an argument for a Designer ironically comes at an immense theological cost:

That exclusive character [this, not that, is designed] is essential to the operation of the Explanatory Filter, as Dembski constructs it, but that benefit, it seems to me, comes with a significant cost. What it immediately means is that anything produced by nature (whether by law or by chance) can be neither classified as designed in Dembski’s sense, recognized as designed by Dembski’s Explanatory Filter, nor epistemically justified as designed by Dembski’s design inference. Anything produced by natural law simply sticks at the first point of the filter. … If a supernatural agent deliberately structured natural laws and regularities to produce specific, patterned phenomena, such phenomena would surely count as designed, but need not be at all improbable with respect to the relevant laws and structures of nature. It seems to me, in fact, that designed and improbable are simply orthogonal notions, and that making improbability a necessary condition for designedness, as Dembski does, is simply to mistake two different concepts.[15]

Here, it seems, at least two theological confusion reside in Dembski’s Design Inference Filter. The first is that it ultimately collapses theological explanations into scientific ones. Yes, Dembski is adamant that he is not doing theology, or even that his arguments elaborate (or even imply) a designer, let alone a Designer with the capital D attached to it. But again, let us not kid ourselves: this is what the arguments inevitably gesture toward and why they have captured the Christian imagination.

Yet, as Pannenberg rightly stresses: “Theological interpretation of the natural world as creation cannot present itself as in competition with physics or any other natural science.”[16] To do so risks collapsing God’s absolute transcendence into the same univocal plane as other intra-worldly causes, where God is simply the Biggest. Thus theology does not shy away from physical explanation because of a “lack of exactness,” but “exactly for the sake of its appropriateness to its special task [of speaking of God]. In the theology of nature it cannot be a question of affirming pseudophysical competitive theories.”[17] Moreover God’s agency cannot be registered merely within the gaps of “the regular explanation of events.” Here Pannenberg is in full agreement with the Medieval historian Etienne Gilson:

But even supposing that we are not mistaken about these wonders—and mistakes of this kind will happen at times—they never introduce us to anything better than a kind of chief engineer of the universe whose power, as astonishing to us as our own is to a savage, remains, nevertheless, within the human order…It is useless, therefore, to press this question, and we must pass to [a] second . Just as the [Thomistic] proof [of God] from movement does not consider God as the Central Generating Station for the energies of nature, so neither does the proof from finality consider Him as the Chief Engineer of the whole vast enterprise. The precise question is this: if there is order, what is the cause of the being of this order? The celebrated example of the watch-maker misses the point, unless we leave the plane of making for the plane of creating. Just as when we observe an artificial arrangement, we infer the existence of an artificer as the sole conceivable sufficient reason of the arrangement, so also when we observe over and over, an order between things, we infer the existence of a supreme orderer. But what we have to consider in this orderer is not so much the ingenuity displayed in this work, the precise nature too often, perhaps always, escapes us, but the causality whereby He confers being on order … He is first with respect to the being of the universe, prior to that being, and consequently also outside it. That, to speak precisely, is why we ought to say that Christian philosophy essentially excludes all merely physical proofs of the existence of God, and admits only physico-metaphysical proofs, that is to say proofs suspended from Being as being.[18]

The second theological confusion is one we have already been hinting at: the disjunction of order vs. contingency is one that is not fruitfully related to the God of the Bible. But if this is so, then Dembski’s negative concept of design, which intrinsically relies on the residue of the (near) exhaustive dialectic of these two concepts (regularity vs. chance), is itself rendered questionable. The similarities between Pannenberg and Torrance at this point become so pronounced as to make it that much more bizarre they haven’t been fruitfully compared with one another more extensively.[19]

In this paper, we are asking, as Pannenberg does, whether “the regular course of events, or rather the forms of events that can be described with assertions of regularity, perhaps themselves can be conceived as a class of contingent events?” Pannenberg goes on to note, in the vein of Gilson above, that this is not a physical but an ontological question: “Laws always uncover what is necessary superimposed on what is contingent. This is the substratum of the knowledge of law itself. … The question is meant ontologically: do the contingent occurrences let us recognize in their special character as occurrences … regularity as their own element in such a way that the presence of regularity can be thought together with the contingency, not only under abstraction from the contingency of occurrences?”[20]

This means that we must view even the emergence of regularities and uniform processes expressed in laws, as themselves contingent.[21] That is, as laws are dependent on initial and marginal conditions in which the “stuff,” whose operations and regularities which are described by these laws, emerged, but not on the basis of these laws themselves. Laws are based on contingency, rather than contingency being seen as an exception to law. Pannenberg writes, “modern cosmology teaches that the areas in which most natural laws apply (e.g. classical mechanics) arose in advanced phases of the expansion of the universe. But when there is no area of application, it makes no sense to speak of a law of nature.”[22] Torrance here provides a staggeringly similar interpretation of modern scientific thought:

Initial conditions. Classical physics had already recognized as inexplicably given factors, contingent … and yet unique. Laws were formulated under conditions of these contingent factors, but they were treated only as presuppositions that could not be included in the explanatory structure of physical laws, for as unique they were not subject to the process of generalization entailed in the formalization of laws. However, in a finite and expanding universe in which time enters as an essential ingredient into its empirical reality, the questions why there are initial conditions rather than not, and why initial conditions are what they are, cannot be avoided. That is to say, the initial conditions, singularities though they are, are also boundary conditions that bear upon an intelligible ground beyond themselves, and that require this meta-empirical reference to be consistently and intelligibly integrated with the universe.[23]

Contingency in Pannenberg and Torrance, however, is not merely nested within laws because of their initial and marginal conditions in the formation of the universe. Pannenberg also notes how each event in the universe is unique due to the Law of Entropy and the irreversibility of the sequence of time. Here Pannenberg chastises the general definition of time in physics, which follows the Aristotelian tradition (Physics 219b.1f.) of attempting to start with a unit of measurement of time—here the speed of light.

Yet even this far barrier, the speed of light as a unit of measurement, presupposes time in order to operate. However heuristically useful, ontologically such attempts at definition are viciously circular.[24] Time itself, as such, cannot be invested with the significance of a deterministic law, but is itself related to God as a source of supra-nomothetic novelty stemming from the reality of God’s creative future, and invested in temporal events in the form of their unrepeatable singularity. However much laws may describe certain formal features of events, “constant forms of natural processes are by definition only abstract partial aspects in the contingent process of occurrences.”[25]

Again, Torrance is so similar to Pannenberg that it defies the imagination more commentators have not ran with the parallel:

… there is needed a way of thinking in which we take the trajectory of temporal motion into our basic equations at all levels, which might enable us not only to grasp the subtle, natural cohesion in contingent events and relations, but also offer some account of the remarkable one-way processes throughout the universe, whether at the microscopic or macroscopic levels, and not least the equally remarkable ascending direction that characterizes the evolution of nature or the expansion of the universe toward ever more flexible and open forms of rational order which [the juxtaposition] of chance and necessity cannot begin to cope with. Here we would have a dynamic principle of intelligible order, without determinism, making for increasing innovation, richness of organization, and freedom … [26]

That is to say, the history of matter enters into our scientific understanding of it. I think … of the work of Ilya Prigogine and his colleagues in connection with the extension of thermodynamic theory beyond its classical frame of reference to non-equilibrium or open systems, in such a way as to account for the rise of new dynamic states of matter deriving from irreversible processes, [emphasis added] and of a new kind of organization which spontaneously emerges out of apparently random fluctuations far from a state of equilibrium. … What concerns us at the moment, however, is that here time is given its full meaning associated with irreversibility within spontaneously arising structures [emphasis added], and does not merely appear as a geometric parameter externally associated with motion. We have a new kind of time-dependent functional order coordinating space-time to the dynamic processes within the system, and a non-unitary transformation theory is developed to enable a move from a thermodynamic to a genuinely dynamic account of nature. In this way once more an historical element is introduced even into physico-chemical description of processes of the universe. … Thus the expansion of the universe is to be regarded as a vast temporal singularity, in fact an immense unique historical event characterized by irreversibility. This has the effect of destroying the old rationalist dichotomy between accidental truths of history and necessary truths of reason, and of calling in question the rationalist idea that science is finally concerned only with timeless and necessary truth, for now it seems even more evident that all scientific truths and all physical laws, which belong to and emerge with the expansion of the finite universe, are as contingent as the universe itself.[27]


Neither Pannenberg nor Torrance would find himself wholly uneasy with Dembski’s intentions. Both speak with derision regarding the “secular” and “materialist” interpretations of science that go beyond mere “methodological” naturalism with the same frequency that Dembski does. Torrance speaks of how “methodological secularism” eventually “tends to arrogate to itself the status of a wholly self-supporting and self-explaining necessary system.”[28] It is this very impulse that “lies behind the temptation of our modern science constantly to resolve contingency away.” As such, “It is important to be aware,” says Pannenberg, “that the fact that such dialogue [between science and religion] does not move on the level of scientific or religious discourse but rather on the level of philosophical reflection on both scientific terms and theories and religious doctrines.”[29] Therefore “studies of the history of basic scientific concepts such as space, time, mass, force, and field have made the connections between philosophical meanings of these terms and their scientific use clear. A knowledge of the history of science, especially the history of the terminology of the natural sciences, therefore belongs—together with an overview of philosophical discussion of these themes—to the preconditions for a fruitful dialogue between theology and the natural sciences.”[30]

Strangely, the title of one of Dembski’s books would seem to agree with Pannenberg that the interface of theology and science is philosophical. Here his Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology appears to indicate that Intelligent Design, as bridge, is neither science nor theology—hence philosophical in its discourse. And yet, as part of the general “wedge” strategy of Phillip Johnson to introduce ID into the classroom as a genuine competitor to the neo-Darwinian synthesis, ID continues to present itself as a scientific alternative. This is a mistake. Whatever the validity of its arguments, ID is not a science but a philosophy or a philosophical theology. And indeed it is a philosophical theology that abstracts itself from some of the strongest examples of Christian theology, past and present.

[1] William Dembski, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities (New York: Cambridge, 1998), 36.
[2] Eg. Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box (New York: Free Press, 1996).
[3] Dembski, Design Inference., 19.
[4] Ibid., 227; cf. x-xi, 8, 60, for similar comments.
[5] T.F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2008), 31-33.
[6] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Toward a Theology of Nature: Essays on Science and Faith ed. Ted Peters (Louisville: Westminster John-Knox, 1993), 33
[7] Wolfhart Pannenberg, The Historicity of Nature: Essays on Science and Theology ed. Niels Henrik Gregersen (Pennsylvania: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008), 30.
[8] Toward a Theology of Nature, 76.
[9] Ibid., 86.
[10] Historicity of Nature, 46.
[11] Ibid., 47.
[12] Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order, 47.
[13] Ibid., 61.
[14] For extended commentary cf. Kang Phee Seng, “The Epistemological Significance of homoousion in the Theology of Thomas F. Torrance” in The Scottish Journal of Theology 45 no.3 1992: 341-366; and C. Baxter Kruger, “The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God in the Theology of T.F. Torrance: Sharing in the Son’s Communion with the Father in the Spirit,” in The Scottish Journal of Theology 43 No.3 1992: 366-390.
[15] Del Ratzsch, Nature, Design, and Science: The Status of Design in Natural Science (New York: State University of New York, 2001), 163.
[16] Pannenberg, Historicity of Nature, 26.; Cf. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order, 8-9.
[17] Pannenberg, Towards a Theology of Nature, 80.
[18] Etienne Gilson, The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), 78-80.
[19] Rodney Holder, The Heavens Declare: Natural Theology and the Legacy of Karl Barth (Pennsylvania: Templeton Press, 2012), 99-169, is the only major counterexample in recent memory. Cf. my own earlier statements in Derrick Peterson, “Scientia Dei: A Comparison of T.F. Torrance and Wolfhart Pannenberg on Theology as a Science,” available at accessed 9/21/14 10:00p.m. This is made even more ironic when one compares statements of various commentators. For example Daniel W. Hardy, “Thomas F. Torrance,” in The Modern Theologians: An Introduction To Christian Theology in The Twentieth Century, Volume I, ed. David F. Ford (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), 71-91 writes: “[Torrance] is virtually unique in the depth of his knowledge of philosophy and the natural sciences,” (71, emphasis mine); while Paul Molnar Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2009), 22, cites Christopher B. Kaiser as saying “If Einstein is the ‘person of the century,’ in the judgment of secular media, Torrance’s interest is enough to qualify him as ‘theologian of the century,’ in the eyes of many science-minded people.” And of Pannenberg, Cornelius Buller The Unity of Nature and History in Pannenberg’s Theology (Maryland: Littlefield Adams Books, 1996) , 1 writes: “The scope and brilliance of Pannenberg’s [interdisciplinary] work are almost without contemporary parallel.” (Emphasis mine); while Stanley Grenz Rediscovering the Triune God: The Trinity in Contemporary Theology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 2004), 88 helpfully quotes Jacqui Stewart on Pannenberg: “the intellectual seriousness with which [Pannenberg] treats the natural and social sciences is a feature that distinguishes him from the other major theologians of the second half of the twentieth century.” It is precisely the uniqueness of the level and type of engagement Torrance and Pannenberg represent that seems to make them such good candidates for comparison, and so odd that such endeavors, to my knowledge, are rare.
[20] Pannenberg, Toward a Theology of Nature, 79.
[21] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology vol.II trans. Geoffery Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing, 1994), 70.
[22] Ibid., 70n.173.
[23] Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order, 46.
[24] Pannenberg, Systematic Theology Vol.II: 93-96.
[25] Pannenberg, Towards a Theology of Nature, 84.
[26] Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order, 47-48.
[27] Ibid., 55-56.
[28] Ibid., 41.
[29] Pannenberg, Historicity of Nature, 61.
[30] Ibid., 29.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s