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A Tribute to Phillip Johnson

March 23, 2020     Time: 18:03
A Tribute to Phillip Johnson


Dr. Craig reflects on the life of Phillip Johnson and his contributions to the Intelligent Design movement.

KEVIN HARRIS: Hi, there! Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. It’s Kevin Harris. At this recording, the coronavirus pandemic is ravaging the world. We are in prayer just like you are. Dr. Craig and his wife, Jan, are doing well and in good health. Of course, a lot of Reasonable Faith events and some of his speaking and teaching engagements have been canceled or postponed. We’ll keep you up on that. Pray for us at Reasonable Faith. We have a team member whose wife has been diagnosed with breast cancer. They are having a really hard time getting her to a hospital because of the pressures right now because of the pandemic. They need your prayers. We need your prayers as well. Reasonable Faith and the work of Dr. Craig really needs to be heard in the world today. When it comes to things like the problem of evil, natural evil, and God’s existence and his love for us in Christ. Today, more than ever, pray for us as we continue to get the word out. If you can make a donation, large or small, you can do that right there on our website Just click on “Donate.” Today we are going to be talking about Phillip Johnson, the intelligent design movement, and its history. It’s a fascinating study if you are not familiar with how it all started. A lot of it points to the gentleman that we are going to be talking about today. He died not too long ago – Phillip Johnson. Dr. Craig and I recently discussed his impact and influence.

Dr. Craig, we lost a great leader and thinker not too long ago. Back in November of 2019, Phillip Johnson passed away. Is it fair to say that he was the leader, the driving force, behind the ID (intelligent design) movement?

DR. CRAIG: I think in one sense that would be fair to say. He wasn’t the leading intellectual by any means in that movement, but he was a sort of galvanizing force – a figurehead – that helped to organize and propel the movement.

KEVIN HARRIS: He called together theologians and philosophers like yourself, scientists and others, to try to get together – think-tank, I guess – in a movement. A lot of this happened at Biola. Do you remember some of those days?

DR. CRAIG: That was before my time. I was in Europe until 1994, and then we returned to the States in ‘94 to take up my teaching position at Talbot. Before I came back, however, in 1994, there was a conference organized at Cambridge University at Queens College, as I recall. This conference featured a number of young turks involved in the intelligent design movement including Stephen Meyer and Michael Behe (who was publishing a book called Darwin's Black Box) and several others. I know Dembski was involved. I don't remember if he was at that conference but certainly his name was involved. Meyer, Paul Nelson, and Bill Dembski were sort of the triumvirate working together to construct a compelling case for intelligent design. Phil Johnson was at this conference, and he was sort of the motivating force and figure behind it. Michael Behe was a newly discovered darling of this movement for the book that he was writing.

KEVIN HARRIS: I read the book – Phillip Johnson's most notable book – and that is Darwin On Trial. I just remember it having an effect on me and my life. I thought that ID was a juggernaut, and it just wasn’t going to stop. I had a chance to interview Phil Johnson, but it was after his stroke and I remember how hard it was for him to articulate what used to be very fast and rapid fire. As I understand it, he often wondered why God allowed the stroke. He said, We're just getting going, God, on this idea! Why now? But then he entrusted God and said God knows what he's doing. But he didn't want to be the main leader anyway. He wanted to be more of a facilitator.

DR. CRAIG: That's right. He was a sort of, if you will, a political leader or figurehead. He knew that he would need to gather top quality biologists and scientists in other fields if they're going to make a good case for intelligent design.

KEVIN HARRIS: He said a remark that the book though effective at laying out criticisms of Darwinism would by itself never have been enough to unseat Darwinian control over science. Speaking of that, I've often heard that he was kind of disappointed. He thought that he would see a complete wipeout of Darwinian evolution. He thought that this would do it.

DR. CRAIG: Yes. Even before he had his stroke, I remember hearing him at conferences where he had compared evolutionary theory to a huge leaking battleship that could not stay afloat and was doomed to sink eventually. He came to realize that, in fact, that sort of optimism for intelligent design was overblown and that, in fact, the evolutionary paradigm was not sinking and was not going to succumb to the sort of criticisms that the ID people were making of it. I myself wasn't surprised by this. Do you really believe that secular science is going to abandon an evolutionary perspective in favor of saying it's the product of intelligent design? That's just La-La-Land. Of course, not. They're not going to adopt that sort of paradigm in the place of evolutionary science. And yet that did seem to be Johnson's expectation and hope in which he was disappointed.

KEVIN HARRIS: Another disappointment of his, according to this article from William Dembski, he also expected that Christians would get on board and get on board with the book. He says that the rank and file, the layperson tended to (yeah, they embraced it), but he was disappointed in Christian academics who would not embrace ID like he thought that they should. I'm wondering, Bill (and this is your area), I'm just wondering if that's because you have a pressure to be taken seriously, and even if you're a small Christian school or you're a Baylor University, a Baptist school, you want to be taken seriously in the academy. A lot of them weren't willing to embrace any of this because they wouldn't be taken seriously.

KEVIN HARRIS: Yes. And I think that for people like Howard Van Til at Calvin it was rooted in a sort of philosophy or theology of nature that was quite unbiblical. Van Til wanted to argue that God has created a world that has what he called functional integrity. That is to say, it just gets along fine on its own without the need for supernatural interventions. In other words, no miracles. So, although Van Til would want to affirm things like the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, it's hard to see why one would adopt a view that presupposes that God doesn't do miracles. Alvin Plantinga has been very effective in criticizing the theory of divine action that underlay the views of people like Van Til. Look at Plantinga’s book Where the Conflict Really Lies. I think his chapters on divine action and his critiques of people like Van Til and others who want to prohibit God from acting in the world of secondary causes is just devastating. So while I could imagine that Christian scholars might well be convinced by current evolutionary biology (they might think that indeed this is the best account of the origin of biological complexity), I don't understand why they would adopt a theology of nature that would be so inimical to the Christian view of God's action in the world.

KEVIN HARRIS: William Dembski says that Van Til’s position is a theistic naturalism which he resisted but nowadays he pretty much embraces that.

DR. CRAIG: It sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it? Theistic naturalism. But they recognize the existence of God, but, boy, God had better not get his hands dirty in the series of secondary causes in the universe. It is a deistic view where the creator and designer of the cosmos just doesn't get involved in that sort of miraculous activity.

KEVIN HARRIS: Dembski also said that what Phillip Johnson did well was to look at Darwinian evolution (Darwinism) on its own terms and raised the conversation a little bit. In fact it made it at least somewhat more respectable in the academy because at least it was dealing with it on its own terms.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah. Evolutionary scientists are often very self-critical about their theories, and they recognize the uncertainty and conjectural nature of much of it. I think what the intelligent design movement did was it decoupled intelligent design from theology. People like Dembski and other intelligent design proponents have been very clear that they are not arguing for the existence of God but simply wanting to make an inference to intelligent design as the best explanation of biological complexity. The designer could be extraterrestrial life forms who created life on this planet, or the designer could be someone in a super laboratory in which we exist as a little microscopic world and they're tinkering with our world. There isn't any attempt to prove theism or that this is God who is the intelligent designer. It is just simply that the design hypothesis is the best hypothesis for explaining biological complexity. They really tried to decouple ID from the old creation versus evolution debates by disassociating themselves with creationism.

KEVIN HARRIS: I thought it was kind of funny. At one point Dembski said that Phillip Johnson said, Email is going to be a really big thing. I want you guys to start emailing each other and keep in touch so that we can share the ideas and share the research. I guess the biggest brick wall was the Dover trial. To this day . . . now Dembski in this article says, no, that was a bump in the road. But, boy, if you just kind of look around a little bit people say Dover put an end to ID. The Dover trial has ruled ID as non-scientific and fundamentally religious and therefore unconstitutional. A lot of people thought that was not fair, and that's not what they wanted to do, like you just said.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, right. It was a sad state of affairs because the intelligent design movement people themselves did not support the teaching of ID in the schools. This was a local initiative by some local person, and they were opposed to it. They said we are not ready for this yet. The movement is still maturing. They were opposed to this happening. So the verdict was not really altogether surprising. But intelligent design is primarily an intellectual movement, not a political movement. The idea of teaching ID or creationism in public schools was never one of their aspirations. So if Dover has closed the door on that, that does nothing to deter intellectual inquiry into the origins of biological complexity and arguing that the input of an intelligence is necessary in order to explain how this could happen. I did notice, though, in this editorial that in the same way that Phillip Johnson became discouraged because ID had not carried the day and evolutionary theory did not collapse under its own weight, Dembski himself says,

My tone these days would be different. I’d be more sober and less triumphalist about ID’s prospects. I’d have warned that things might not unfold in ID’s favor nearly as quickly or easily as my tone above suggests. But none of this is to diminish Phil’s monumental impact on the ID movement.[1]

In fact, I noticed something that Dembski said later in the article that I have wondered about, namely he used to be publishing so frequently, and I haven't heard his voice in recent years. I see he says here, “My own pursuits have largely turned to business in the last few years, so I don’t keep up with ID as I used to.”

KEVIN HARRIS: I was surprised to read that. I thought that he was one of the horsemen, and he was for a long time.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah. Now he's a businessman and doesn't even try to keep up. That is just an enormous loss for the movement. I think it's lost its chief figure.

KEVIN HARRIS: Chief mathematician for sure.

DR. CRAIG: Yes. Now the mantle seems to have fallen to Steve Meyer at the Discovery Institute, but what a terrible loss. I mean, I think the loss of Bill Dembski is far more significant than the loss of Phil Johnson. Phil Johnson was, as I say, a political leader and figurehead, but Dembski was, I think, the leading intellectual of the ID movement while he was writing.

KEVIN HARRIS: We will conclude with this paragraph that I think sums up a lot that Dembski writes. He says that Phil Johnson was also a prophet and sometimes prophets can rub us the wrong way if they call us out, especially accurately, especially if they're telling the truth. He says here,

Like Francis Schaeffer a generation before him, Phillip Johnson has put his finger on the key place where our generation has forgotten God. For this generation it is the place of our origin. To a generation that regards God as increasingly distant, with nature as all there is and humans as mere appendages of nature, Johnson the prophet points us to the true God, the one in whose image we are made and to whom we must ultimately render an account.

I would say that that was Phil Johnson's spirit as well.

DR. CRAIG: I think that what Dembski is getting at there is Phillip Johnson’s claim that if you assume naturalism to be true then evolutionary biology is the best explanation of the origin of biological complexity. He said, I’m quite willing to admit that the best naturalistic theory of biological complexity is the one given by evolutionary biology. But he said, Why be a naturalist? Unless you have some argument or proof of naturalism, how could you exclude that there might be a supernatural designer and creator of the universe? In which case it is no longer obvious that the blind evolutionary story is the truth.[2]


[2]           Total Running Time: 18:03 (Copyright © 2020 William Lane Craig)