Jan 27, 2011

If evolution is so obviously wrong then why….

If you’re anything like me you probably think that the history of the church in the last 150 years or so has been one in which Christians have made a strong and concerted case against Darwin’s theory of evolution only to find that in recent years a number of Christians have perhaps lost their nerve and jumped ship – much to the dismay and confusion of the general Christian public.

What I’m discovering is that church history tells quite a different story. As we will see below the picture is one in which a number of intelligent, in fact brilliant, godly, prominent Christian leaders from the middle to late 19th century have found a place for evolution within a Christian worldview.

Why does any of this matter?

Well quite simply because if it can be shown that there have always been evangelicals able to accommodate evolutionary ideas then why should we be surprised or even shocked to find the same today?

And if it is the case that significant voices in the church have from Darwin’s day through to the present been able to reconcile evolution with the Bible why do some insist that it is THE issue on which to test the orthodoxy of Christian faith?

And importantly what arguments have been presented in the past 150 years by these believers and have they remained consistent or changed over time?

In an earlier post we briefly considered three leading scientists who believe exactly that and three leading theologians (Stott, Keller, and Packer).

Today I want to take a look at three leading evangelical thinkers of the late 19th and early 20th century who defended the idea of evolution as compatible with the Bible.  We start with the most important and influential theologian of the period.

B.B. Warfield (1851-1921)

Warfield was professor of theology at Princeton Seminary from 1887 to 1921. So great is his reputation that JI Packer lists him along with John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards and Abraham Kuyper, as the fourth member of ‘Reformed theology’s Fabulous Four’.

In a journal article Mark Noll and David N. Livingstone begin:

One of the best-kept secrets in American intellectual history is that B.B. Warfield, the foremost modern defenders of the theologically conservative doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible, was also an evolutionist.

Early on in his career Warfield decribed himself as a ‘darwinian of the purest water’ and in 1888 in his Lectures on Anthropology at Princeton University he wrote;

The upshot of the whole matter is that there is no necessary antagonism of Christianity to evolution, provided that we do not hold to too extreme a form of evolution. To adopt any form that does not permit God freely to work apart from law & which does not allow miraculous intervention (in the giving of the soul, in creating Eve etc.) will entail a great reconstruction of Christian doctrine, and a very lowering of the detailed authority of the Bible. But if we condition the theory by allowing the constant oversight of God in the whole process, and his occasional supernatural interference for the production of new beginnings by an actual outpur of creative force, producing something new we may hold to the modified theory of evolution and be Christians in the ordinary orthodox sense.

In a new book The Theology of BB Warfield Fred Zaspel and Sinclair Ferguson question whether it is a fair conclusion to draw that Warfield was a dyed-in-the-wool evolutionist. Zaspel argues against that view in a recent themelios article but he does concede that David N. Livingstone is surely right when he comments:

It is clear that Warfield believed he was perpetuating orthodox Calvinism even while conceding the possibility of a human evolutionary history.

James McCosh (1811-1894)

McCosh was a Scot who was appointed Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at Queen’s College, Belfast (now Queen’s University Belfast)before becoming President of Princeton University between 1866-1888.  He was a mentor of BB Warfield’s and was the first leading evangelical thinker to endorse an evangelical Christianity compatible with evolution.

Writing in 1871 he comments:

There is proof of Plan in the Organic Unity and Growth of the World. As there is evidence of purpose, not only in every organ of the plant, but in the whole plant…so there are proofs of design, not merely in the individual plant and individual animal, but in the whole structure of the Cosmos and in the manner in which it makes progress from age to age. The persistence of force may be one of the elements conspiring to this end; the law of Natural Selection may be another; or it may be a modification of the same.

For our third example we turn to the Baptist tradition where we too find voices in support of evolution.

AH Strong (1836-1921)

Strong was president of Rochester Theological Seminary  between 1872 and 1912 where he served as professor of systematic theology. In discussing the possibility of evolution as God’s means of creation he writes;

It has to do with the how not the why of the phenomena, and therefore is not inconsistent with design, but rather is a new and higher illustration of design.

In his Systematic Theology Strong writes:

Since we believe in a dynamic universe, of which the personal and living God is the inner source of energy, evolution is but the basis, foundation and background of Christianity, the silent and regular working of him who, in the fullness of time, utters his voice in Christ and the cross.

We’ve taken just three examples from the time of Darwin and haven’t even considered the leading scientists of the day who were firm believers in the Bible whilst adopting the new scientific views such as Asa Gray, George Frederick Wright and james Dwight Dana.

What difference does any of this make?

If men such as Wayne Grudem insist that ‘Christians cannot accept modern evolutionary theory without also compromising essential teachings of the Bible‘ then one has to wonder why (as we saw in the previous post)

1) Leading theologians such as JI Packer, John Stott and Tim Keller disagree

2) Leading scientists such as Francis Collins, Denis Alexander and R. Berry come to a different conclusion

And now we add a third historical argument

3) why eminent theologians living at the time of Darwin, and having to deal with the fall-out of his ideas, were willing to accept some form of evolutionary theory as compatible with evangelical belief.

None of this makes evolution true and I for one find a whole host of questions for which I have yet to find a satisfactory answer but as David N. Livingstone concludes:

There was no clear consensus about what constituted the orthodox Calvinist line. Some such as McCosh, Warfield and Strong, were willing supporters; others such as A.A. Hodge, Patton, and Shedd, were more tentative; still others, including Dabney and Charles Hodge, remained unconvinced if not hostile…Nevertheless, a general picture clearly emerges: American evangelicals in the Reformed mold absorbed the Darwinian shock waves fairly easily.


  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Neil Powell, Neil Powell. Neil Powell said: New post: If evolution is so obviously wrong then why…. http://bit.ly/gNEoVs […]

  • Hey Neil,

    This is a very helpful post. I am often tempted to argue strongly against the young-earth creationist perspective but prevented by two things: first, the oprobrium this would attract from other believers and, second, the time it would consume which is better used reaching the lost. I am grateful for a sane and thoughtful contribution I can draw others attention to – so thanks for giving this time and thought.


    • Hi Dave.

      Thanks for the encouragement. I have to say I’m genuinely an agnostic on the creation/evolution issue and am enjoying doing some thinking-out-loud! Having taken a brief look at some of the issues with a group of fellow ministers at a recent fraternal I’m looking forward to arriving at what I hope will at least be some helpful conclusions – however tentative.

      There should be more to come!


  • Hi Neil,

    Thank you for your insightful post! And for your blog in general, its excellent.

    I have two issues with your argument:
    1. Its based upon tradition – “if traditionally christian leaders have accepted evolution the why can’t we”
    2. It does not deal at all with the real issues that evolution poses directly against the message of the gospel. Namely that evolution discribes death as the means by which God created species in this world while the gospel discribes death as the result of sin and curse. Two opposing points that even the most enterprising pluralist cannot hold together with an sincerity.



    • Hi Martyn

      Thanks for the comment.

      It might help if I clarify that I’m not in this post personally advocating theistic evolution. My point is merely to highlight how careful and faithful exegetes of the Scriptures such as Keller, Stott, Packer and Warfield believe that it is possible to reconcile evolution with an evangelical exegesis of the Genesis 1. Because I respect their ability to handle the scriptures I have to reject your conclusion that it is impossible to hold the two together with sincerity. It may be difficult, maybe very difficult – but not I think obviously IMPOSSIBLE. If it were impossible we would have to draw some pretty distressing conclusions about some otherwise faithful men of God. I may well disagree with them but I don’t think it is appropriate to reject an evolutionary approach to Genesis as obviously incompatible with evangelicalism.

      I do agree that you’ve highlighted one of at least three major problems they have yet to persuade me of is that death is NOT the result of sin and the curse. They are not ignorant of the problem and suggest some possible answers. I will be blogging on them in the near future.

      Good to hear from you. Take care.

  • For his part, Francis Collins addresses this question in The Language of God. The accusation that the use of a non-literalistic hermeneutical approach to the Biblical accounts of creation is a 19th/20th Century capitulation on the part of believers in the face of evolutionary theory – is met with some quotes from Augustine. The fact that this great Bishop of the early church didn’t think that Bible’s opening chapters are trying to give us a literal account of the processes of creation; shows that people who held to scriptural inspiration and authority were handling the text in this way over a millennia before geology or biology suggested that their approach might be the right one.

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