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Mark Noll
 on August 22, 2011

B.B. Warfield, Biblical Inerrancy, and Evolution

While he defended biblical inerrancy, Warfield was also a cautious, discriminating, but entirely candid proponent of the possibility of evolution.


This post is drawn from Mark Noll’s book Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. In this excerpt, Noll describes the legacy of the American theologian B.B. Warfield. Warfield developed a powerful and enduring legacy in American evangelicalism for his belief that the Bible communicates revelation from God entirely without error. Yet while he defended biblical inerrancy, Warfield was also a cautious proponent of the possibility that God could have brought about life through evolution. His basic stance was a doctrine of providence that saw God working in and with the processes of nature, rather than completely replacing them. In Warfield’s mind, a high view of biblical authority was fully compatible with a divinely guided process of evolution.


A Case Study: B.B. Warfield, Concursis, and Evolution

A case study that shows how profitable it can be to approach scientific issues with Christological principles is provided by the career of Benjamin B. Warfield. In chapter 3 [of Noll’s book], when discussing the doubleness of classical Christology, we saw how Warfield forcefully affirmed “this conjoint humanity and divinity [of Christ], within the limits of a single personality.” It was precisely this regard for the Chalcedonian definition of Christ’s person and work that enabled Warfield to handle with relative ease the knotty questions about evolution that arose during his lifetime.

From his position at Princeton Theological Seminary, Warfield wrote steadily from the 1880s until shortly before his death in 1921 about many aspects of his era’s developing evolutionary theories.These writings included major essays devoted to Darwin’s biography (“Charles Darwin’s Religious Life” in 1888 and “Darwin’s Arguments against Christianity” the next year); several substantial articles directly on evolution or related scientific issues (“The Present Day Conception of Evolution” in 1895, “Creation versus Evolution” in 1901, “On the Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race” in 1911, and “Calvin’s Doctrine of Creation” in 1915); and many reviews of relevant books, some of them mini-essays in their own right.

In these works, Warfield repeatedly insisted on distinguishing among Darwin as a person, Darwinism as a cosmological theory, and evolution as a series of explanations about natural development. Of key importance was his willingness throughout a long career to accept the possibility (or even the probability) of evolution, while also denying Darwinism as a cosmological theory. In his mind, these discriminations were necessary in order properly to evaluate both the results of disciplined observation (science) and large-scale conclusions drawn from that science (theology or cosmology). Crucially, a Christological perspective was prominent when he applied these discriminations to evolutionary theory.

For positioning Warfield properly on these subjects, it is also vital to stress a conjunction of his convictions that has been much less common since his day. Besides his openness toward evolution, that is, Warfield was also the ablest modern defender of the theologically conservative belief in the inerrancy of the Bible.

During the late nineteenth century when critical views of Scripture came to prevail in American universities,Warfield was as responsible as any other American for refurbishing the conviction that the Bible communicates revelation from God entirely without error. Warfield’s formulation of biblical inerrancy, in fact, has even been a theological mainstay for recent “creationist” convictions about the origin of the earth.2 Yet while he defended biblical inerrancy, Warfield was also a cautious, discriminating, but entirely candid proponent of the possibility that evolution might offer the best way to understand the natural history of the earth and of humankind. On this score his views place him with more recent thinkers who maintain ancient trust in the Bible while also affirming the modern scientific enterprise and mainstream scientific conclusions.3 Warfield did not simply assert these two views randomly, but he sustained them learnedly, as coordinate arguments.

In the course of his career, both Warfield’s positions and his vocabulary did shift on the question of evolution. But they shifted only within a fairly narrow range. What remained constant was his adherence to a broad Calvinistic conception of the natural world — of a world that, even in its most physical aspects, reflected the wisdom and glory of God—and his commitment to the goal of harmonizing a sophisticated conservative theology and the most securely verified conclusions of modern science. To state once again his combination of positions, Warfield consistently rejected materialist or dysteleological explanations for natural phenomena (explanations that he usually associated with “Darwinism”), even as he just as consistently entertained the possibility that other kinds of evolutionary explanations, which avoided Darwin’s rejection of divine agency, could satisfactorily explain the physical world.

In several of his writings, Warfield carefully distinguished three ways in which God worked in and through the physical world. The most important thing about these three ways is that Warfield felt each of them was compatible with the theology he found in an inerrant Bible, if each was applied properly to natural history and to the history of salvation. “Evolution” meant developments arising out of forces that God had placed inside matter at the original creation of the world-stuff, but that God also directed to predetermined ends by his providential superintendence of the world. At least in writings toward the end of his life, Warfield held that evolution in this sense was fully compatible with biblical understandings of the production of the human body. “Mediate creation” meant the action of God upon matter to bring something new into existence that could not have been produced by forces or energy latent in matter itself. He did not apply the notion of “mediate creation” directly in his last, most mature writings on evolution, but it may be that he expounded the concept as much to deal with miracles or other biblical events as for developments in the natural world.The last means of God’s action was “creation ex nihilo,” which Warfield consistently maintained was the way that God made the original stuff of the world.

On questions relating to evolution, orthodox Christology became relevant when Warfield invoked the concept ofconcursus. By this term he meant the coexistence of two usually contrary conditions or realities. In speaking of the person of Christ he had used a closely related term, “conjoined.” For broader intellectual purposes, the key was to apply the same sense of harmoniously conjoined spheres to other domains.

As we will see with somewhat more detail when taking up Christology in relation to Scripture, Warfield held that the biblical authors were completely human as they wrote the Scriptures, even as they enjoyed the full inspiration of the Holy Spirit.This principle, grounded in Christology and exemplified in the Bible, was also his guide for positing an (evolutionary) approach to nature where all living creatures were thought to develop fully (with the exception of the original creation and the human soul) through “natural” means. Warfield’s basic stance, expressed first about Christ and then extrapolated for Scripture, was a doctrine of providence that saw God working in and with, instead of as a replacement for, the processes of nature. Late in his career, this same stance also grounded Warfield’s opposition to “faith healing.” In his eyes, physical healing through medicine and the agency of physicians was as much a result of God’s action (if through secondary causes) as the cures claimed as a direct result of divine intervention.6 Concursus was as important and as fruitful for his views on evolution as it was for his theology as a whole. It was a principle he felt the Scriptures offered to enable humans both to approach the world fearlessly and to do so for the greater glory of God.

Warfield’s strongest statement on evolution came in 1915 when he published a lengthy article on John Calvin’s view of creation.Although he never stated it in so many words, it is clear that the convictions he ascribed to Calvin were also his own. He summarizes what he read in Calvin: “It should scarcely be passed without remark that Calvin’s doctrine of creation is, if we have understood it aright, for all except the souls of men, an evolutionary one.” God had called the “indigested mass” into existence ex nihilo, with a full “promise and potency” of what was to develop from that mass. Yet, according to Warfield’s summary of Calvin, “all that has come into being since — except the souls of men alone — has arisen as a modification of this original world-stuff by means of the interaction of its intrinsic forces.” Warfield went on to affirm a robust doctrine of providence, whereby “all the modifications of the world-stuff have taken place under the directly upholding and governing hand of God, and find their account ultimately in His will.” Critically, however, he saw these later modifications taking place through “secondary causes.” And once “secondary causes” were viewed as the means by which the original creation was modified, we have, according to Warfield, “not only evolutionism but pure evolutionism.”

Warfield makes clear that Calvin did not himself explicitly embrace evolutionary theory since Calvin “had no conception” of “the interaction of forces by which the actual production of forms was accomplished.” Thus, lacking the information provided by modern students of nature, Calvin did not advocate a “theory” of evolution. But, Warfield insists, he did teach “a doctrine of evolution” that pictures God as producing the material stuff of the world “out of nothing,” but then “all that is not immediately produced out of nothing is therefore not created — but evolved.” Warfield then translates Calvin’s notion of “secondary causes” into what he defines as “intrinsic forces.”Warfield’s summary repeats a second time: “And this, we say, is a very pure evolutionary scheme.”

The point where Christology enters is where Warfield explains the deeper theology at work. In his summary, “Calvin’s ontology of second causes was, briefly stated, a very pure and complete doctrine of concursus, by virtue of which he ascribed all that comes to pass to God’s purpose and directive government.” For readers of Warfield in the twenty-first century, it is frustrating that he did not go further in expounding on this theological basis. He does say that the “account” of how “secondary causes” work is “a matter of ontology; how we account for their existence, their persistence, their action—the relation we conceive them to stand in to God, the upholder and director as well as creator of them.” But for his purposes with this essay, Warfield does not explore those ontological issues. The regret now is that, if he had taken up these ontological questions, he may have considered the Western tradition of univocity that had, in effect, dispensed with concursus in explaining the physical world.

As it is, we still have a most intriguing contribution to theology, science, and science considered in connection with theology. Warfield’s discussion of Calvin on evolution certainly indicated that he thought his very high view of biblical inspiration was fully compatible with comprehensive forms of evolutionary science (as distinct from evolutionary cosmology). Whether Warfield interpreted Calvin correctly or not, whether Warfield understood correctly his era’s scientific discoveries (in which he was well read for an amateur), or whether his own efforts at bringing together his era’s scientific knowledge and his interpretation of the biblical record were correct — these are all important but secondary issues. The main point lies elsewhere. The Scriptures that Warfield trusted implicitly revealed a God to him who created the world, providentially superintended the world, and gave human beings the capacity to explain the world naturally (in terms of “secondary causes”). The key theological principle that enabled Warfield to draw these conclusions was his belief in the classical Christology of Nicea and Chalcedon.

Warfield’s writings on evolution, the last of which appeared in the year of his death, 1921, cannot, of course, pronounce definitively on theological-scientific questions at the start of the twenty-first century. They can, however, show that sophisticated theology, nuanced argument, and careful sifting of scientific research are able to produce a much more satisfactory working relationship between science and theology than the heated strife that has dominated public debate on this subject since the time of Warfield’s passing.

About the author

Mark Noll Headshot

Mark Noll

Mark Noll is a historian, essayist and professor specializing in the history of American Christianity. In 2016 he retired as  the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. His books include In the Beginning was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783 and The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which has been widely recognized for making a strong appeal for a better approach to intellectual life among American evangelicals.  He is also the co-editor of Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective.