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.
You would think – and the man in the pub almost certainly thinks – that the further in time we are away from the life and times of Jesus the less we can know about him with any degree of certainty. If true that would be reason enough not to give Christianity a second look. But the facts work in exactly the opposite direction. The more time that has elapsed the more evidence we discover, for example, that the gospels that record the life and death and resurrection of Jesus are the gospels of antiquity and are a reliable record with regards the events that took place. And yet over that same time there remains an unbroken silence with regards any other 1st century documents that work the other way.
The Christian in the 21st century has more good reasons to believe that his faith is true than believers at any other time since the death of the apostles.
Here’s a great presentation of some of the arguments from Dr. Daniel B. Wallace of the Ehrman project.
William Lane Craig is one of the worlds leading defenders of the Christian faith. Author of 16 scholarly books including The Kalam Cosmological Argument, Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide and The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.
Craig holds two doctorates (one from Birmingham University!) and is Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California. He is a member of a number of societies including the American Philosophical Association.
Bill Craig has debated a number of leading American atheists but Dawkins won’t debate him! It was a surprise to both of them when they found themselves on opposite sides of a debate between three theists and three atheists on the question of ‘Does the universe have a purpose‘ in Mexico in November of 2010.
In conversation with Justin Brierley on Premier Radio Prof. Craig gives his take on Dawkins and the debate.
If you want to watch the whole thing you can below. For Lane Craig’s own website click here.
My preferred weekly magazine, in its Christmas special, ran only one article on the Christmas story and they asked an atheist to write it. It’s called ‘Confession of an atheist: I respect Christianity too much to believe in it.’
Why would the magazine, which is conservative culturally and politically, prefer the view of an atheist for a Christmas comment? Well I guess because it’s a different angle. And that, my friends, is the problem for Christians when it comes to Christianity and the media.
There exists an inevitable bias against Christianity in the media because the media is always looking for new angles and new opportunities to say new things.
Andrew Marr at a recent internal seminar at the BBC let the cat out of the bag.
The BBC is a publicly funded urban organisation with an abnormally large proportion of younger people, of people in ethnicminorities and almost certainly of gay people than the population at large. It depends on the states approval at least for its funding mechanism and all this creates an innate liberal bias inside the BBC and I think if we pretend there isn’t an institutional liberal bias of that kind which is much more clearly expressed as a cultural bias than as a party political bias.
And it has always been so. Marr, in his presentation to the September seminar, actually quoted a parliamentary committee from 1936 which highlights how the old, old story will always be eclipsed by the new.
‘There’s an inevitable tendency in the general programmes of the Corporation to devote more time to the expression of new ideas and the advocacy of change in social and other spheres than the defence of orthodoxy and stability, since the reiteration of what exists and is familiar is not so interesting as the exposition of what might be.’
As Marr pointed out, ‘Any producer, any reporter worth their salt wants to go for newness, challenge, controversy – and the Continue reading »
The philosopher and atheist AC Grayling is writing a book entitled ‘The Good Book: A Secular History’. In it he joins Richard Dawkins and Christophet Hitchens, amongst a growing list, who insist that you don’t need to believe in God to be good. Every Christian would want to affirm that fact. Atheists can and often do choose to be ‘good’, whatever that may mean in an amoral universe of ‘blind pitiless indifference’ to quote Dawkins.
But, heres the rub, the thing they don’t want to tell you is that without a belief in God there is no reason to be bad either. In a quite brilliant article the intellectual dishonesty at work in those who will not admit that their creed allows men to be cruel is exposed by Peter Heck.
Here’s just one extract but it’s well worth reading the whole:
Two years ago, their motto was “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake!” Last year, they were more direct: “No god? No problem!” But this year, as they feebly attempt to detract from the celebration of Christ’s incarnation once again, perhaps it’s a fruitful exercise for our civilization to consider their overtures and weigh the merit of their message.
As far as I can tell, the mantra “No god? No problem!” has but one minor flaw: the entire record of human history. It is no coincidence that as German atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche boasted, “God is dead … we have killed him … must we not ourselves become gods[?]” (which, by the way, is the entire basis of humanism dating back to the Garden of Eden), he Continue reading »
A couple of days ago we considered the remarkable story of how atheist and arch-enemy of Christianity AN Wilson rediscovered his Christian faith.
In a follow up article in the Daily Mail Wilson set out some of the reasons he had become an atheist along with his route home to faith. I hope by looking at it together it will give us renewed confidence in our faith and a fresh desire to share it with others.
Like having spots
One of Wilson’s key insights looking back on his life is that his atheism rested not on the fact that Christianity is no longer believable but that it has become so deeply unfashionable. Our culture is much more than secular (in which it would simply ignore matters of faith). Our culture is in fact deeply anti-religious. It’s not satisfied to leave Christianity alone it seeks out opportunity to give it a good beating.
Wilson, in his article, examines how the media-pundits and intelligencia in British society systematically attack and ridicule Christianity.
‘Like most educated people in Britain and Northern Europe (I was born in 1950), I have grown up in a culture that is overwhelmingly secular and anti-religious. The universities, broadcasters and media generally are not merely non-religious, they are positively anti.
To my shame, I believe it was this that made me lose faith and heart in my youth. It felt so uncool to be religious. With the mentality of a child in the playground, I felt at some visceral level that being religious was unsexy, like having spots or wearing specs.
This playground attitude accounts for much of the attitude towards Christianity that you pick up, say, from the alternative comedians, and the casual light blasphemy of jokes on TV or radio.
It also lends weight to the fervour of the anti-God fanatics, such as the writer Christopher Hitchens and the geneticist Richard Dawkins, who think all the evil in the world is actually caused by religion.
The Guardian’s fanatical feminist-in-chief, Polly Toynbee, is one of the most dismissive of religion and Christianity in particular. She is president of the British Humanist Association, an associate of the National Secular Society and openly scornful of the millions of Britons who will quietly proclaim their faith in Church tomorrow.
‘Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to?’ she asked in a puerile article decrying the wickedness of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, which have bewitched children for more than 50 years. Or, to take another of her utterances: ‘When absolute God-given righteousness beckons, blood flows and women are in chains.’
The sneering Ms Toynbee, like Richard Dawkins, believes in rational explanations for our existence and behaviour. She is deeply committed to the Rationalist Association, but her approach to religion is too fanatical to be described as rational.’ Continue reading »
As a young Christian the man we had to contend with was AN Wilson. He just seemed to have it in for us Christians. He wrote a biography of CS Lewis in which in page after page he worked hard to erode my confidence in the man, his faith and his reasoned defense of Christianity. But Wilson wasn’t satisfied to rob me of CS Lewis. He followed it up with a booklet entitled ‘Against Religion: Why we should live without it’ and then he wrote a book on Jesus himself denying his deity and reducing him to the place of a merely misguided end-time ‘prophet’ of liberal Christianity. Perhaps my biggest problem was not Wilson but the media’s delight in him and his books. Time and again his views were splashed across the papers and Christians were once again in retreat.
Here is how AN Wilson describes his own conversion to atheism:
I can remember almost yelling that reading C S Lewis’s Mere Christianity made me a non-believer – not just in Lewis’s version of Christianity, but in Christianity itself. On that occasion, I realised that after a lifetime of churchgoing, the whole house of cards had collapsed for me – the sense of God’s presence in life, and the notion that there was any kind of God, let alone a merciful God, in this brutal, nasty world. As for Jesus having been the founder of Christianity, this idea seemed perfectly preposterous. In so far as we can discern anything about Jesus from the existing documents, he believed that the world was about to end, as did all the first Christians. So, how could he possibly have intended to start a new religion for Gentiles, let alone established a Church or instituted the Sacraments? It was a nonsense, together with the idea of a personal God, or a loving God in a suffering universe. Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense.
As a hesitant, doubting, religious man I’d never known how they felt. But, as a born-again atheist, I now knew exactly what Continue reading »
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