Suppose that God intervened multiple times, prior to the advent of man (presumably by some kind of special creation as well), to create species or to make it probable that a new species would come about where this would not have happened absent divine intervention.
For now, I want to set aside the question of the empirical affidavits of this suggestion. I also want to set aside arguments about the age of the earth. I hear that some Christian groups have had to ban, explicitly, arguments about the age of the earth, because they are a kind of Internet black hole. Also, the criticism I am going to answer would apply to both old-earth and young-earth versions of creationism.
So I'd like to set aside the question of whether this scenario is in fact probable and ask instead whether we should be closed to it and not investigate it on the basis of a particular theological concern.
The concern goes roughly like this. (This is my reconstruction.)
There has to be an order of nature in order for even miracles to have any meaning. If one could never know what was going to happen next, if the natural world had no order or meaning, not only would science have no subject of study, but miracles would have no backdrop against which to occur. Therefore, God can't just be keeping nature going by continual bumps and tweaks, or the entire notion of an order of nature is out the window. Therefore, anything like progressive creation or repeated divine intervention in the creation of animal species is enormously improbable even from the theistic or Christian perspective, and we should be highly resistant to such scenarios and should look instead for species to appear by a smooth operation of secondary means, i.e., by the order of nature.
Since readers will know that I have been discussing intelligent design theory with Ed Feser at Extra Thoughts, I hasten to add that I am not (repeat, not) attributing this objection to Ed. In fact, as far as I know, this is not one of his objections to ID.
In fact, since this is a blog post rather than a book, I'm not attributing it to anyone in particular, but I have a sense that it is "in the air." It's one of those things that you hear quite a lot, and I could probably find plenty of examples both in books and on-line. I remember quite definitely that one friend brought it up to me in e-mail discussion of this very topic, and I seem to recall that I've seen it in comboxes as an objection in the past when I've discussed ID. It also seems related to the objection that is much more common, which one sees in the combox here, that there must have been something wrong with the creation at first if God had to keep intervening to do new things in it. All of that will do for my purposes, because I think it's interesting enough to answer.
I myself tend to think that the ID arguments "sit well" with some kind of progressive creation of the sort sketched. By this I do not mean that they require or entail it. In fact, I find that most of the high-profile ID theorists are concerned to emphasize the possibility of front-loading, presumably because repeated literal intervention for purposes of creation is so repugnant to so many people, both Christian and secular. So even as a lay camp follower, I'm a bit of an outlier in saying, "The heck with all that" and leaning in the direction of a more robust interventionism. But there are reasons to think that progressive, interventionist creationism does sit well with the ID argument. Since the ID arguments are best understood (see this post of mine) as using special intention of an agent, and some sort of act or other to carry out that special intent, as an explanation, it is quite natural that all of this should parse out in terms of creation involving acts to carry out the special intent to bring into being some biological entity that otherwise would not have come about by secondary processes.
In a sense one can regard the young earth position in this same philosophical light, with the acts occurring within a short time period of six literal days. The above argument from the natural order is at least as much of an attack on a young earth view as on a more leisurely form of progressive creationism.
I think it is partly because ID arguments do "sit well" with some kind of progressive creationism that the above criticism of ID comes up. Is there something "off" or "wrong," theologically, about the picture of God's "reaching down" and "doing things" to the world that wouldn't otherwise have happened in order to bring into being the species we see today? Does such a picture erase the very notion of an orderly creation or an order of creation?
There are several reasons to reject this criticism. First of all, as I have said before, the natural order is a tough fabric. It would take a lot to break up our reasonable reliance on it, which is based on an overwhelming mass of daily evidence. Christians already believe that there have been periods of rather furious miraculous activity, during the ministry of Jesus and of the apostles, for example. Yet somehow this didn't make people rationally worry that their corn flakes, or the Greco-Roman equivalent, were going to disappear randomly off of the kitchen table.
Second, this is about origins. This is about where at least some biological natural kinds came from in the first place long ago, not about where individual horses and bacteria come from today. In the unlikely event that an ID proponent were to produce an argument purporting to show that a Designer individually creates each animal embryo, all the time, by something other than the operation of secondary causes, I would raise the concern that such a view is not consonant with the existence of a natural order. But arguments for the deliberately designed origin, before the existence of man, of types of animals that then reproduce for thousands or even (depending on your view) millions of years by natural processes hardly seems like a challenge to the existence of a natural order! Of course these types of creatures have to come from somewhere in the first place. Once they are here, they are part of the natural order from then on out.
Third, this concern seems to me to be a result of a kind of temporal parochialism. If we combine highly interventionist views such as arise in both old-earth and young-earth creationism, for nearly two thousand years I would say that the majority of Christians, including educated as well as uneducated Christians, believed that God specially created many animal species, but none of them took this to be a challenge to the existence of a natural order. No, I'm not saying that every Christian thought that, nor even every prominent Christian, but only that a majority did. It seems to me a post-Darwinian prejudice that leads people to think that there is some philosophical prima facie case that the origin of species (!) "ought" to occur or "must occur" by entirely secondary causes. On the contrary. The reason that Darwin's ideas and arguments, as scientific and empirical arguments, were so revolutionary in the religious world is because the opposite was more generally assumed. If we say that there is some a priori theological reason to think that the origin of species ought to be or must be by natural processes, we seem to be arguing that all intelligent Christians should have been Darwinists (at least in broad outline) prior to Darwin. This seems, to put it mildly, to smack of chronological snobbery.
Finally, to affirm the existence of a natural order that includes things with their own powers is to say nothing, I repeat, nothing, in itself about the level at which the natural order operates or about what those powers are vis a vis the origin of animal species. The claim that the biological species developed entirely by natural processes is one possible position about what the natural order is like. It is not, by a long shot, the only possible position consistent with the existence of a natural order.
This should be obvious. We can construct a future scenario in which some aspects of history have been forgotten and people erroneously believe that some weaponized germ form developed entirely by natural processes when in fact, in that form, it was partially bioengineered. In that scenario, one can imagine clever theologians telling Christians who believe that they have evidence for bioengineering that they must instead affirm the entirely natural origin of that germ or else they are denying the existence of a natural order with "its own real causal powers." It should be clear that such a rigid stance blocks the course of inquiry and, in the scenario in question, blocks access to the actual truth of the matter. The fact of the matter should be investigated by reference to the empirical evidence available. Again: To believe in the natural order is not ipso facto to believe that the natural order gave rise to this or that particular type of thing. We discover the workings of the natural order by investigation, not by armchair assumption-making.
If God specially created some species, which came into existence after the origin of the larger universe, there was already a natural order before that time and continued to be a natural order after that time. It's just that that natural order didn't happen to have the inherent causal powers to give rise to that species by those natural causal powers alone. That's all. To say, "There is a natural order" tells us precisely nothing about whether intelligent intervention is a better explanation. That has to be found out empirically or perhaps by reference to revelatory texts. But it is highly implausible (to put it mildly) that philosophical theology alone is going to tell us either "yes" or "no" to the highly specific question of whether such-and-such a species arose in the first place from the order of nature alone.
That brings us around to the empirical considerations I set aside at the outset. It will hardly be a secret after all this time (not just in this post but in others) that, as an interested layman, I think a great many of the ID arguments do succeed on their own terms, empirically. But the course of inquiry is often blocked, even among Christians, by what seem to me extremely strange a priori objections to taking that evidence on its own terms. The one I address here is one I have run across on more than one occasion, and I think a lot of people are indeed influenced by it. Therefore, it needs to be cleared away so that we can get back to examining the evidence, both Biblical and empirical.
It's a sociologically interesting fact that often people who are trying to block an examination of the ID evidence will cast their position as, "Christianity is consistent with Darwinism." But that isn't really the question at issue in such conversations. The question they are really tacitly answering "no" to is, "Is Christianity consistent with design, and evidence thereof?" I get weary in personal conversation, reading web sites, etc., running into what seems to me, perhaps unintentionally, a kind of passive aggressive move: "It's okay, you can be a Christian and a Darwinist" becomes a kind of code for, "You can't be a smart, theologically and philosophically informed Christian, and be anything but a Darwinist."
The theistic evolutionists (and by that I mean the very strong, anti-ID types) have been very successful rhetorically with this passive-aggressive move. They have been very successful, too, at marketing the proposition that it's okay to be a Christian Darwinist. At this point, I think it's important to make the opposite point: It's okay to be a Christian anti-Darwinist! There is nothing what-so-ev-er about the Christian affirmation of a divinely ordained order of nature that entails or even implies that species originated without special creation. It has always seemed to me that this shouldn't need to be said; it's so obvious. But I'm realizing that, sociologically, it does need to be said, so this post is an attempt to say it, and argue for it. Once these kinds of a priori blocks are cleared away, honest inquirers will be free to look into the detailed arguments that others have made much more ably than I ever could.