Ted Davis
 on August 31, 2017

Creationism, Culture Wars, and the Search for Certainty

Creationism—young-earth, but also old earth and intelligent design—thrives within the context of culture wars, and its proponents often blame evolution for myriad social ills.


Understanding Creationism: Introduction to the Series

This article is devoted to understanding creationism. The young-earth variety of creationism (YEC) will be my primary focus, but other types of anti-evolution (including OEC and ID) can have much in common with YEC, especially when we consider social and political aspects. They will be discussed where appropriate. This piece discusses culture wars as the context in which creationism thrives, with evolution being blamed for myriad social ills.

The Context for Creationism Is Culture Wars—and Satan is just around the corner

The image at the top of this column is the signature icon of Ken Ham’s organization, Answers In Genesis, without question the most influential YEC group in the world today. They are motivated by a commitment to Scripture which is laudable, and our disagreement with them on its proper interpretation does not prevent us from recognizing them as dedicated brothers and sisters in Christ. The image of warring castles skillfully conveys Ham’s overall message about the enormous danger that evolution poses, both to Christianity and to each and every Christian—and what Christians should do about it. The castle of Christianity, founded on creation and Christ, is starting to collapse under fire from the castle of Humanism, while the Christians’ guns “are either aimed at each other, aimed nowhere, or aimed at the issues of humanism [the balloons], but certainly not aimed at the foundation called evolution,” whose ultimate source is Satan (The Lie: Evolution, p 93).

At first glance, the composition of the cartoon might seem slightly incongruous: racism, abortion, homosexuality, and divorce have all been prevalent since biblical times, millennia before anyone believed in Darwinian evolution. When Ham’s book appeared in 1987, however, it was standard creationist teaching that evolution might actually have originated with Satan at the Tower of Babel. The person described by Ham’s organization as “the ‘father’ of the modern creationist movement,” the late Henry Morris, suggested this in his influential work, The Troubled Waters of Evolution(1974), for which his friend Tim LaHaye wrote the preface. This isn’t trivial. We can’t fully understand the YEC view without understanding their wide-angle view of the history of evolution, which mainly comes from Morris.

Morris painted Darwin as an almost inconsequential figure in the larger story, someone who simply happened to live “at just the right time to catalyze an explosive reaction” against the biblical worldview. His generally accepted status as “the founder of the modern theory of evolution,” according to Morris, “is largely an artificial and manufactured identification” of great symbolic force, but “his actual scientific accomplishments are rather ordinary and unimpressive by modern standards.” Thus, “in no sense could Charles Darwin be said to be responsible for the theory of evolution” (The Troubled Waters of Evolution, quoting separate sentences on pp. 53-54 and 58 but not out of context).

According to Morris, evolution predates Darwin by thousands of years, going back to the materialists and “evolutionary pantheists” of the Greco-Roman world, including Lucretius (p. 64). That’s true as far as it goes—though Darwin’s theory was immensely more sophisticated and far more plausible than any ancient theory—but Morris goes much further. It quickly gets complicated, as he tells a convoluted story connecting evolution also with Egyptian, Chinese, and Indian thought. The lynchpin in Morris’ story is Enûma Eliš, the Babylonian creation myth, which he sees as just one more “evolutionary system” and “certainly infinitely inferior to the true record of creation as given in the first chapter of Genesis. The idea that Genesis could have been derived from such as this is incredible” (pp. 70-71).

Thus, Morris traces the origin of evolution “right back to Babylon—not the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar (though it was prominent there) but to the original Babylon founded by Nimrod (Genesis 10: 8-10).” In his view, evolution was “part and parcel of the system of pantheistic polytheism which constituted the universal religion of the ancients, which was also derived from Babel” (p. 71). Connecting evolution with astrology, idolatry, and the worship of fallen angels in Nimrod’s Babylon, Morris said, “It is therefore a reasonable deduction, even though hardly capable of proof, that the entire monstrous complex was revealed to Nimrod at Babel by demonic influences, perhaps by Satan himself.” If so, “then Satan himself is the originator of the concept of evolution.” Satan has deceived the world and blinded our minds, and evolution is “the world-view with which the whole world has been deceived” (pp. 74-75).

That’s why the foundation of Ham’s humanism castle connects evolution with Satan—and why evolution gets blamed for social ills that plagued us long before Darwin was born and would still be prevalent today even if Darwin had never existed. Evolution becomes the scapegoat for many sinful behaviors, to such an extent that it is virtually equated with sin itself, or even seen as inherently Satanic. This is a profoundly unhelpful way of approaching historical and cultural aspects of evolution, and it fails entirely to explain why many people who utterly reject evolution commit the very sins that Ham connects with belief in evolution.

Creationism and Culture Wars in the 1920s

Creationism has been closely linked with culture wars for a long time. The image below comes from the 1920s, when defenders of biblical authority in America called themselves “fundamentalists,” a label worn proudly by William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat from Nebraska who failed to win the presidency three times but was considered by many the greatest political orator of his day. Bryan used his political connections to campaign for the passage of state laws banning the teaching of evolution in publicly-funded schools (including public universities), and he partly succeeded.


Like their spiritual descendants today, conservative Protestants in the 1920s also saw themselves in the midst of a great culture war, with the Bible (depicted here as the Rock of Gibraltar) coming under fierce attack by “battle-ships of unbelief.” Left to right, the ships are labeled “culture,” “liberal theology,” “modern thought,” “science,” “hypothesis,” and “atheism.” Contemporary readers would have understood “hypothesis” as a stand-in for evolution. This cartoon by an unidentified artist (whose monogram has the letter “M” inside the ship’s bell in the lower right corner) comes from the December 1927 issue of The King’s Business, the official magazine of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (p. 800). At that time, the Dean of the faculty at BIOLA was Reuben A. Torrey, who had helped edit The Fundamentals, the famous set of essays that in 1920 gave rise to the word “Fundamentalist.” Photograph and caption by Ted Davis.

Why did Bryan do this? For starters, he didn’t think evolution is true. It’s just “millions of guesses strung together,” as he said immediately after the Scopes trial. I’ll return to this important aspect of creationism in a subsequent column. For the time being, let me emphasize that Bryan and his followers saw evolution as much more than just bad science that didn’t deserve to be taught in schools. In their view, it also had disastrous social, political, and religious consequences. Bryan believed that evolution was inextricably linked causally with cutthroat capitalism, German militarism, and atheism—any one of which was sufficient in his view to warrant its removal from public schools.

Bryan’s opposition to the “robber baron” economics rampant around the end of the nineteenth century is very well documented. Like Bernie Sanders in our own day, Bryan championed the economic interests of ordinary working-class Americans against wealthy bankers and industrialists. For example, his first nomination for president in 1896 (when he was just one year older than the Constitutional minimum age of thirty-five) resulted from a stunning speech, in which he coupled his support for changing from the gold standard to the silver standard with specific references to the crucifixion. Adopting what was called “bimetallism” would increase the money supply, making it cheaper for (say) farmers to obtain bank loans.

The Descent of the Modernists

This powerful cartoon by Ernest James Pace, “The Descent of the Modernists,” was first published as the frontispiece to Bryan’s book, Seven Questions in Dispute (1924). Bryan himself suggested the iconography of three men descending a staircase to Charles Trumbull, editor of the Sunday School Times, in January 1924. Photograph and caption by Ted Davis.

Finding examples of capitalistic excess on all sides, Bryan blamed Darwin’s theory of natural selection. As he stated in his book, The Prince of Peace (1904), which was based on a lecture of the same name that he delivered worldwide, “The Darwinian theory represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate—the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak.” Decades later, historians unhelpfully called such things “social Darwinism,” but it was actually promoted mostly by followers of Herbert Spencer, not Darwin (see Numbers, cited below, for more). Interestingly, Bryan stated his political attitude toward evolution most clearly in a letter he wrote to the first American known to have used the term “social Darwinism” (in 1903), the famous sociologist E. A. Ross. The evolutionary “conception of man’s origin,” Bryan said, “would weaken the cause of democracy and strengthen class pride and the power of wealth” (quoted by Gould, cited below, p. 22).

Like Ken Ham, Bryan also believed that evolution inevitably undermined Christian faith. In his view, it led first to the liberal, unbiblical beliefs of the Protestant “modernists” of his own day and then ultimately to atheism. This sad trajectory is brilliantly depicted in an image envisioned by Bryan. As I state elsewhere, Bryan imagined a cartoon showing evolution as “the cause of modernism and the progressive elimination of the vital truths of the bible.” It would have “three well-dressed modernists,” a student, a minister, and a scientist, all descending a staircase on which “there is no stopping place”—that is, a slippery slope, ending at the bottom with “a scientist stepping from Agnosticism to Atheism.” In other words, for Bryan evolution occupied the center of the culture war then raging between “fundamentalist” Christians like himself and the “modernists” who had sold their birthright for pottage in the name of evolution.

Even though Bryan had held these opinions for decades, he did not actually campaign politically against evolution in the schools until after the Great War. The catalyst was a widely influential book by Stanford biologist Vernon Kellogg, a pacifist who was sympathetic with neo-Lamarckian ideas about evolution. Prior to America’s entry into the war, Kellogg followed his former student Herbert Hoover (who had come from a pacifist Quaker family) to Europe, where he helped bring humanitarian aid to beleaguered civilians in worn-torn Belgium and Northern France. Kellogg’s conversations there with German officers, some of whom had been university professors before the war, formed the basis for Headquarters Nights (1917), which presented views linking Darwinian evolution with German militarism—views that shocked Kellogg out of his pacifism and shocked Bryan into political action.

According to Kellogg, “The creed of the Allmacht [omnipotence] of a natural selection based on violent and fatal competitive struggle is the gospel of the German intellectuals; all else is illusion and anathema.” They saw “bitter, ruthless struggle” among “different human groups” as just the “cruel, inevitable” result of “natural law,” thus justifying (in their minds) the triumph of “that human group which is in the most advanced evolutionary stage” (pp. 28-9). Unquestionably, several leading American biologists at the time echoed Kellogg’s perception of a close link between Darwinism and German jingoism, but much of that noise might indeed have been an echo. It’s not clear to historians now just how widespread such a link actually was in Germany (see the works by Mitman and Kelly, cited below). As I’ve already pointed out, those who see necessary historical connections between Darwinism and dangerous social attitudes or policies can easily find themselves in sinking sand. But the foreword to Kellogg’s book was a ringing endorsement by none other than former president Theodore Roosevelt, and Bryan swallowed it whole.

What if Bryan had designed a cartoon like Ham’s castles? In that case, evolution might still have been linked with Satan (since Bryan believed it had wicked consequences), but the balloons would probably have been different. Instead of referencing racism and sexual immorality, they might instead have been labeled “atheism,” “modernism,” “jingoism,” “class pride,” and “the power of wealth.” Regardless, Bryan surely would have agreed with Ham that Christians ought to aim their guns at evolution.

The Evolution of Ham’s Warring Castles

Ken Ham's Warring Castles

This full-color version of the warring castles dates from 2002 (image source). The balloons are basically unchanged (with “divorce” relabeled “family break-up”), but the foundations have changed entirely to emphasize that non-YEC interpretations of the Genesis “days” undermine the divine authority of the Bible.

Ken Ham’s warring castles have undergone a certain evolution since their first appearance in 1987. In the original version, the foundations of each castle were “Evolution (Satan)” and “Creation (Christ).” Although Ham has surely not abandoned the beliefs conveyed by that image, a later version that circulated for many years replaced the original foundations with literal creation “days” versus “millions of years.” Ham has always believed in the importance of literal days, so the later version represents a change in emphasis, not a change in fundamental viewpoint. As the foundations indicate, Ham insists on literal days because he believes that any other interpretation undermines biblical authority. In fact, the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of his book is now subtitled Evolution/Millions of Years.

Although Ham’s signature icon is still very much alive, it has evolved into a more sophisticated new species that is better adapted to twenty-first century culture wars, in which biblical faith is increasingly seen as contrary to science and reason. Ironically, Ham’s ministry itself is a primary cause of that perception (I will say more about this in subsequent columns), since he so strongly urges Christians to reject the validity of reasonable scientific conclusions about Earth’s past. In any event, Ham does admit some change in approach since he began his ministry decades ago. “Over time, I began to emphasize that believing in the creation account in Genesis means accepting God’s Word as the ultimate authority, and believing in the secular idea of evolution is to accept man’s word as the ultimate authority.” Nevertheless, he still thinks it is “vital for Christians to understand” that a literal six-day creation remains essential:

when Christians reinterpret the days of creation to fit with millions of years, reinterpret Genesis 1:1 to fit with the big bang, or adopt other positions that add Darwinian evolution to the Bible, they are undermining the very Word of God itself. And this is the issue—this is why we have lost biblical authority from the culture.

As it was in Bryan’s day, so it still is today: the context for creationism is culture wars. The central message of the warring castles is unmistakable. Ham sees a culture war between contrasting worldviews, and he believes the opponents of Jesus Christ are using evolution to their advantage. I don’t entirely disagree with him—we do find ourselves in the midst of a culture war, and some do use science as a weapon against Christian beliefs—but I respond differently. I too believe that Christians should defend our faith against sceptics, but we must tread carefully, because in culture wars the truth is all too often one of the first casualties.

Ken Ham's Warring Castles (2010)

This version of the warring castles dates from 2010 (image source). Abortion and euthanasia are still flying over the castle of humanism, but the other balloons have changed, with “moral relativism” now dominating. The foundations are no longer creation vs evolution or six days vs millions of years, but “autonomous human reasoning” vs “revelation/God’s word.”

Seeking truth is fundamental to who we are as followers of the Truth Incarnate, and in our zeal to be faithful to Jesus we must always take care not to let our own biases or opinions obliterate the truth. While we cannot claim to be pure and unbiased observers, BioLogos consciously seeks to provide an alternative to the prevailing “culture warrior” model. When truth-seeking becomes subservient to winning cultural battles, our judgment is all too easily clouded. If there are lessons we can learn from the origins debate, this is surely one of the most important.

As we’ve seen, creationism thrives on culture wars. In this section we explore some of the ways in which apologetics and evangelism provide major motivations for Young-earth Creationism (YEC). The same is true for some proponents of Old-earth Creationism (OEC) and Intelligent Design (ID). In addition, many creationists apparently have a strong need for specific, seemingly unassailable answers to questions about science, the Bible, and Christian faith, including questions related to origins. Harboring doubts or even just showing curiosity about alternative viewpoints can be seen as dangerous to Christian faith.

Creationism and Evangelical Apologetics

Opposition to evolution has been a standard (not universal) feature of evangelical thought since the early nineteenth century. For Ken Ham, Kent Hovind, and other YEC proponents this obviously involves rejecting an ancient Earth and universe as well, but that view largely disappeared among American Protestant leaders before the Civil War and did not become prominent again until the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, every major “Fundamentalist” author I can recall from the 1920s held some sort of OEC view, usually the gap theory or the day-age theory—both of which were endorsed in the Scofield Reference Bible, the go-to Bible among Fundamentalists and Pentecostals for several decades after its publication in 1909. To be sure, some conservative Protestants in the early twentieth century (including a few who contributed articles to The Fundamentals) expressed openness to carefully limited forms of evolution. Human evolution was carefully excluded, and they typically insisted on at least a few acts of special creation to produce the first life, the first conscious life, and the higher moral and intellectual faculties of humans. After World War One, however, virtually all conservative Protestants came to detest evolution as a deadly enemy of Christianity—the same attitude embraced by the YECs today.

Close links between apologetics and traditional views of creation have deep roots. For much of the nineteenth century, college students in England and the United States often had required courses in natural and moral theology, usually in their final year when they were more mature. Thus, at Cambridge Darwin read (with appreciation) three books by the great natural theologian William Paley, while seniors at Yale read the same three books. Alternatively, students might encounter an earlier work defending orthodox Christianity against deists, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature (1736), by Anglican bishop Joseph Butler (about whom Paley lectured when he taught moral philosophy at Cambridge). In Paley or Butler, readers found vigorous defenses of Christianity, with moral philosophy closely allied to natural theology done from an explicit (Paley) or implicit (Butler) creationist perspective.

Analogy of Religion

Butler’s famous Analogy, which is still in print, was very widely read in the early American republic. This particular edition, which contained a 55-page introductory essay by the great biblical commentator Albert Barnes, a proponent of “New School” Presbyterian theology and a vocal opponent of slavery, was originally published in 1833 and remained in print for nearly one hundred years. Barnes later wrote a similar work of his own, Lectures on the Evidences of Christianity in the Nineteenth Century(1867). Like many of his contemporaries an adherent of the gap theory (see his comments on Genesis 1:2 here), Barnes rejected all forms of biological evolution and penned strongly negative comments  about Darwin’s Origin of Species during the Civil War. Photograph of Barnes’ personal copy of the first edition containing his introduction (photo/caption by Ted Davis)

Antebellum Protestants were particularly devoted to reading the book of nature in tandem with the book of Scripture, in ways that were heavily influenced by a commonsense, hard-headed empiricism often associated at the time with the legacy of Francis Bacon. They believed that evidence from nature proved the existence of God the Creator—and the Creator had not been idle, intervening miraculously countless times through eons of Earth history to make new creatures and to bring the whole of creation to fruition. It was a glorious, coherent, even Romantic vision of the world, and its leading proponents found it fully harmonious with the Bible, provided only that one did not insist that God had made all things in six literal days 6,000 years ago.

Within this grand intellectual framework, it is easy to see why the coming of evolution posed such a threat. Among other things, it undermined one of their best arguments against skeptics and deists. If God hadn’t separately created so many living things, then where was the evidence for miracles and Providence? “Baconian” common sense empiricism came to the rescue. Since they did not see evolution happening right in front of their eyes, they dismissed it as nothing more than an unproved, highly speculative “hypothesis” rather than a proven fact. (I’ll return to this aspect of creationism in a later column.)

The “Baconian” evidentialist attitude from the pre-Darwinian period remains highly influential today and still underlies much evangelical apologetics. Reasons to Believe, the apologetics organization founded by OEC astronomer Hugh Ross, fits perfectly into this picture. Ross’ ministry “emerged from my passion to research, develop, and proclaim the most powerful new reasons to believe in Christ as Creator, Lord, and Savior and to use those new reasons to reach people for Christ.” He proclaims that the Big Bang theory proves the Genesis account of creation, while he remains deeply skeptical of evolution.

It almost goes without saying that apologetics is vitally important to proponents of Intelligent Design, and that attacks on evolution are an essential part of their strategy. The founder of the ID movement, attorney Philip E. Johnson, seeks to undermine the credibility of common ancestry by putting Darwin on Trial (1991), arguing that an unbiased examination of the evidence supports Intelligent Design, not evolution. As the famous “Wedge” document quite dramatically shows, ID is ultimately driven by the same kinds of social and moral concerns that motivate YECs (see my previous column). Many other ID proponents, including leaders of The Discovery Institute, reject evolution for similar reasons. No one can doubt the commitment of many ID proponents to doing apologetics based on ID, even though they are usually quick to distinguish ID per se from Christianity. Indeed, when they are willing to play their theological cards, ID folks like to saythat Evolutionary Creation (or “Theistic Evolution”) is ultimately unbiblical, because (in their view) it denies the thrust of biblical passages about design in nature, not to mention the views of major Christian theologians. (Casey Luskin made a similar claim and so have several others.) Certainly, such claims go too far. Anyone familiar with the body of my work for BioLogos knows that I find design inferences in cosmology persuasive (so does Francis Collins), and that I’ve shown how even Charles Darwin left the door open for making solid design arguments from nature.

Ken Ham, Apologetics, and Evangelism: Finding Answers in Genesis

In recent years, however, an alternative approach to apologetics stressing the role of unproved and unprovable “presuppositions” in shaping both Christian and secular thought has come into prominence, especially (but hardly exclusively) among YECs. While some leading creationists of earlier generations liked to stress the evidence for creation and against evolution, in the past couple decades AIG has prioritized the crucial role of presuppositions in evaluating the evidence. For example—in a stark contrast to the ID approach—in 2005 Bodie Hodge of AIG claimed that, “We all have the same evidence but it doesn’t speak for itself.” Why not? He gave a presuppositionalist answer: “All evidence must be interpreted based on a belief system. As a Christian, I use the Bible to explain the evidence.” Tossing the objectivity of scientific evidence under the bus, he added, “when it comes to evidence, one needs to place their faith [either] in a perfect God or imperfect men to interpret it.” Two years later, AIG featured an essay by David Wright, stating flatly that “the Bible’s approach [to apologetics is] known as presuppositional apologetics.”

The Creation Museum offers the ultimate example of this mindset. The first exhibit visitors encounter is the Dinosaur Dig Site (see above), a big sand box with two paleontologists, a creationist and an evolutionist, excavating bones from a Utahraptor. Viewers are told that both scientists have the same evidence and use the same science to understand the bones and their environment. “However, because they have different starting points (one the Bible, the other evolution) they come to completely different conclusions about the fossil, such as how old it is and how it died.” Overall, the exhibit teaches “that we all have the same science and same facts, but our starting assumptions (Genesis v. Darwin) will determine how we interpret those facts and look at the world around us.” Thus, the YEC view and evolution are treated as separate but equal sets of assumptions, and the evidence does not determine which approach actually provides a better explanation.

Answers in Genesis is all about apologetics. The opening words on their home page proclaim in bold type, “Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively.” In the space of one sentence we see the link between creationism, apologetics, and evangelism. Brad Kramer’s astute observation about the Creation Museum is a propos here: the larger goal is “providing a comprehensive worldview built around a view of the Bible as an authoritative answer book. Put differently, the ministry of Answers in Genesis is not first and foremost about Genesis—it’s about Answers.”

On Dealing with Doubt(s)

There’s nothing wrong with helping Christians find answers to hard questions. As a faculty member at a Christian college, that’s my unofficial job description! Problems can arise, however, when the process is not sufficiently open-ended and the answers on offer are too limited. For AIG, the very act of doubting their interpretation of science and the Bible is a Satanic tactic that erodes the foundation of Christian faith, leading ultimately to atheism. (Doubts about evolution, of course, are only encouraged, an attitude they share with most ID proponents.) For AiG, believing in “six literal days” is a “necessity.” They are convinced that we are witnessing “a mass exodus of young people from the church,” precisely because too many churches don’t push the YEC viewpoint hard enough(!) They ask, “If we can doubt and reinterpret Genesis, where do we stop doubting and reinterpreting?”

I understand their dilemma, but I beg to differ about the solution. I’ve taught young Christians (and some older ones too) about science and the Bible for thirty-five years. Roughly half accept the YEC view when we first meet, and quite a few still hold that view after taking a course from me. Either way, it’s their prerogative, not mine, to decide what makes the most sense intellectually and spiritually. Along the way, many entertain doubt(s) about what Genesis really teaches and what they were told in their churches—regardless of their specific position on origins. Such doubts are usually very good: they indicate that an intense thought process is under way, a process that very often results in a deeper understanding of science, the Bible, and their own Christian faith. As the great chemist Robert Boyle (an AiG hero) wrote when he was the same age as most of my students, “He whose Faith never Doubted, may justly doubt of his Faith.” (Boyle, “Diurnall Observations, Thought & Collections,” 1647) Boyle understood something AiG perhaps doesn’t: doubt and faith are two sides of the same coin.

Looking Ahead

In keeping with my ideas here, the next section examines the YEC insistence that theirs is the only acceptable interpretation of the Bible, and that any other view—especially Evolutionary Creation—is a dangerous “accommodation” or “compromise.” It’s hardly a new attitude to bring to the origins conversation, but modern creationists have cranked up the rhetoric even more than their “Fundamentalist” ancestors.

Previously I’ve connected creationism with culture wars and explored its links with apologetics and evangelism. In this section I examine the YEC insistence that theirs is the only acceptable interpretation of the Bible, and that any other view—especially Evolutionary Creation—is a dangerous “accommodation” or “compromise.”

Refuting Compromise cover

The title of this book by YEC chemist Jonathan Sarfati neatly sums up the standard creationist attitude toward non-YEC interpretations of the Bible: they are nothing but dangerous “compromises,” not alternative views that faithful Christians ought to consider. Notice the lengthy subtitle: “A Biblical and Scientific Refutation of Progressive Creationism’ (Billions of Years), As Popularized by Astronomer Hugh Ross.” OEC astronomer Hugh Ross, founder of the apologetics ministry Reasons to Believe and author of many popular books, advocates a classic type of Concordism that has been known as “progressive creation” since the early nineteenth century.

William Jennings Bryan on the Dangers of Theistic Evolution

The term “theistic evolution” has been used since at least 1877, and the idea (which BioLogos calls Evolutionary Creation to emphasize our belief that evolution is a means of divine creation) has always been controversial among Christians. It was contested hotly in the 1920s, when William Jennings Bryan sought to outlaw the teaching of evolutionin public schools and universities. Just a few days after the Scopes trial ended in July 1925, Bryan died suddenly. Before the year was over, his widow, Mary Baird Bryan (who was, like her husband, a trained lawyer), finished his memoirs for publication. Among many other important facts, she related that when her husband heard about college students losing their faith because of evolution, he inquired into it. “Upon investigation [Bryan] became convinced that the teaching of Evolution as a fact instead of a theory caused the students to lose faith in the Bible, first, in the story of creation, and later in other doctrines which underlie the Christian religion” (p. 479). This is a major reason why Bryan believed that the teaching of evolution was inappropriate for public schools, which were supposed to remain religiously neutral.

Bryan and his “fundamentalist” friends hated evolution with a passion. In their view, any Christian who didn’t hate it was mentally or spiritually unsound (or both). As I explain elsewhere, at that time American Protestants faced a very grim choice: reject evolution and hold fast to Jesus, or the opposite. Middle ground of any sort was almost non-existent. Bryan was fond of saying that theistic evolution is “an anesthetic which deadens the pain while the patient’s religion is being gradually removed,” and nothing but “a way-station on the highway that leads from Christian faith to No-God-Land” (In His Image, p. 5).

Bryan said many other stark things about evolution, but one sticks out in my mind more than most for its pointed eloquence:

Evolution, carried to its logical conclusion, robs Christ of the glory of a virgin birth, of the majesty of His deity, and of the triumph of His resurrection. That kind of Christ cannot save the world. We need the full statured Christ of whom the Bible tells; the Christ whose blood has colored the stream of time, the Christ whose philosophy fits into every human need, the Christ whose teachings alone can solve the problems that vex our hearts and perplex the world. (The Bible or Evolution?, p. 29)

I understand why he said such things, given the highly polarized religious climate at the time. Although several prominent evangelical leaders of earlier generations, including the great theologian B. B. Warfield, had allowed the possibility that God used evolution to create many things, they had all died before Bryan launched his anti-evolution campaign. Furthermore, only a tiny number of American scientists in the 1920s were Bible-believing Christians (a situation that is no longer true today). Many prominent scientists who accepted evolution were active members of various Christian denominations, but almost all of them did not believe in the Deity of Jesus, the bodily Resurrection, or the Atonement. In short, for several decades after the Great War there was no one like Asa Gray, a top scientist (and evolutionist) who also embraced the Nicene Creed.

The Situation Today: Refuting “Compromise” and Questioning Moral Fiber

In some ways, the religious climate has improved significantly since Bryan’s day. Many Christian scientists who accept evolution today unabashedly affirm orthodox beliefs, as evidenced by the bold testimony of Francis Collins and Ian Hutchinson, or the very existence of organizations like BioLogos and the American Scientific Affiliation, or the greater openness of evangelical parents and faculty to teaching evolution without blanket condemnation.

The Bible or Evolution essay

Presumably written in the early 1920s, this essay by Bryan was published around 1940 by the Sword of the Lord, a weekly newspaper founded in 1934 by Baptist evangelist John R. Rice. It remained in print for at least three decades; the version with this particular cover probably dates to the 1950s or 1960s. The words at the upper left indicate why Bryan’s followers saw him as a very effective spokesperson against evolution. Photograph and caption by Ted Davis.

Despite this—perhaps partly in response to this—creationists have cranked up the rhetoric against evolution, surpassing even the “Fundamentalists” of Bryan’s day. Indeed, almost incredibly, Answers In Genesis sees Bryan himself as someone who allowed “compromise on the days of creation,” thereby helping the “outspoken atheist/agnostic Clarence Darrow” (his opponent at the Scopes trial) to achieve “his goal of making the Bible subject to reinterpretation consistent with the ever-changing scientific and philosophical speculations of man.” AiG reluctantly admits that the “Fundamentalist” leaders of the early twentieth century accepted an ancient Earth and interpreted Genesis accordingly. They also know that “inerrancy has been the hallmark of the fundamentalist movement since the start of the twentieth century,” so it cannot have been a low view of the Bible that led them to accept geological ages. Nevertheless, they conclude that those very leaders “unknowingly compromised with error” and led many Christians astray. Their list of “compromised” evangelical leaders includes not only Bryan, but many other highly respected names past and present: Charles Spurgeon, Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, James Montgomery Boice, Gleason Archer, Bill Bright, Norman Geisler, William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, Billy Graham, Bruce Waltke, and Tim Keller. Those leaders all made the enormous mistake of interpreting Genesis differently than AiG. They did not “uncompromisingly contend for the literal historical truth of Genesis 1–11, which is absolutely fundamental to all other doctrines in the Bible.”

In many contexts, “compromise” is a good word, referring to a peaceful resolution of an ongoing conflict in which both sides get something they want, but obviously not when used by AiG in this context. Once again, the footprints of the late Henry Morris are all over the landscape. As he put it, “none of the expedients proposed for accommodating evolution and the geological ages in the Bible will work. All of them dishonor the Scriptures while seeking to satisfy majority scientific opinion, wresting them from their intended meaning in the hope of gaining a more sympathetic hearing for Christianity from the intellectual community.” His tone only deteriorated from there. Ultimately, since “nothing short of total atheism will ever satisfy” the “evolutionists,” those Christians who take this route “are in grave danger, for the compromise mentality is reluctant ever to take a firm stand against the pressures and temptations of the world. The compromise road eventually ends in a precipice,” leading to “apostasy or oblivion” for their ministry. “In short, Christians ought to decide either to believe God’s Word all the way, or not at all,” citing Revelation 3:15-16 (The Modern Creation Trilogy, vol. 1, p. 95).

The unwarranted but very common accusation that Christians who accept evolution would rather “compromise” their faith than “take a firm stance” against the world is also made by some proponents of Intelligent Design. In 2014, Casey Luskin said that “BioLogos promotes viewpoints that are scientifically flawed, theologically hostile, and apologetically weak,” and that many Christians are “rushing to embrace them” for want of backbone. As he put it,

some people view accepting Darwinian evolution as the price for social acceptance, cultural popularity or scientific advancement. When we adopt a view because it’s the popular ‘consensus’ in certain circles, and not because it’s scientifically or theologically sound, we risk entrapping the church in that old snare—fear of man.

AiG cartoon (2003)

This AiG cartoon (2003) by Dan Lietha clearly implies that non-YEC interpretations of Genesis are Satanic (image source).

Identical things were said about physicist Stephen Barr, a devout Catholic and the author of an excellent book attacking materialism and defending biblical faith—frankly, someone who has stuck his academic neck out for Christian truth and cannot justly be accused of hiding his faith under a bushel in order to court favor from secular colleagues. (Just this past spring, for example, Barr presided over the first meeting of a new organization he founded to encourage Catholic scientists to bear witness to their faith.) When Barr wrote a subtle, insightful critique of the erroneous claim that the presence of randomness or “chance” in evolutionary theory means that there is no ultimate purpose, pro-ID culture warrior Barry Arrington (an attorney who owns Uncommon Descent) all but accused him of intellectual and personal cowardice. According to Arrington, “Barr maintains membership in the academic cool kids club by espousing a Darwinian account of origins that is indistinguishable from the account of origins that atheists like Dawkins and Dennnett espouse.” No one familiar with Dawkins and Dennett who reads Barr’s essay carefully would draw that conclusion, but Arrington reached for the battle axe anyway. In general, “TEs want to be cool kids; they want to be respectable and accepted in the academic community.” The possibility that many Christian scientists honestly find the evidence for evolution persuasive does not seem to occur to some critics, who prefer to shed heat rather than light on the subject.

Morris’ contempt for those “compromising Christians” who accept evolution went even further, when he compared them to “a Christian thief, or a Christian adulterer, or a Christian liar!” He went on to disparage the “progressive creationist” view espoused by Hugh Ross, lamenting the warm reception Ross has received from many prominent evangelical parachurch organizations and concluding that Ross is “leading many unwary Christians down the same wide path to liberal unbelief that has been followed by multitudes of professing Christians in previous generations” (vol. 3, pp. 183 and 194). Ken Ham has recently echoed Morris’ sentiment. I entirely reject their wholly negative assessment of Ross’ ministry. If accepting the enormous scientific evidence for the big bang and an ancient universe places one on the “wide path to liberal unbelief,” then the path to genuine Christian belief is far too narrow for almost all scientifically proficient people to take. When Jesus spoke about the broad road that leads to destruction, I doubt that anyone in his audience was thinking about cosmology.

Jonathan Sarfati wrote the book featured at the top of this column, Refuting Compromise, in an effort to undermine Ross’s considerable influence on evangelicals. What “compromise” has Ross made? Simply that he does not uphold a creation week of six 24-hour days. Sarfati maintains that alternative interpretations of Genesis “came only when conservative exegetes became intimidated by long-age teachings of geology,” leading them to adopt “the common compromise views such as the day-age, gap theory, and framework hypothesis. The absence of these views for most of church history is strong indication that they are not derived from the Hebrew text, but from outside sources” (Refuting Compromise, first edition, p. 390).

Setting aside the salient fact that Ross gives no hints of being “intimidated” by geology (or any other science), Sarfati’s analysis is partly right—the specific “compromise” views he lists appeared only in the past few centuries, at least in the specific forms in which we now find them. However, Sarfati far too quickly dismisses the skepticism shown by some patristic authors toward literal “days” for reasons having nothing to do with geology or any other “outside sources.” The biblical text alone gave rise naturally to hermeneutical questions, giving rise to alternative interpretations. As for the modern period, Sarfati wrongly implies that analysis of the Hebrew text had nothing to do with (for example) the framework view, which relies heavily on the literary structure of the Bible itself. To develop my objections properly would take many columns, but readers who want more can study the historical portions of my series on Science and the Bible.

As I’ve said before, however, Sarfati’s biggest error is simply to dismiss up front the legitimacy of changing the interpretation of a given biblical text in response to new information from science or other “outside sources.” Creationists use information from archaeology, natural science, and secular history all the time—but only very selectively, in order to authenticate their own favored interpretations of various texts, which are in many cases not the only interpretations that the biblical text allows. It is astonishing that any given alternative to the YEC interpretation is painted as an unacceptable “compromise” arising from a cowardly desire to mute one’s faith in conformity to the world. This tendency to demonize legitimate differences of opinion or interpretation is surely one of the main reasons why so many young Christians are leaving their faith behind. That should concern us all.

Looking Ahead

This article concludes in the following section, when I examine the deep skepticism that YECs show toward the historical sciences of geology, evolution, and cosmology. Only by dismissing them as “false” sciences can YECs maintain that science harmonizes with their rigid interpretation of Genesis.

So far in this article we’ve seen how creationism is embedded in culture wars, we’ve examined its close connection with some types of apologetics and evangelism, and we’ve critiqued the view that YEC is the only acceptable interpretation of the Bible. The article concludes with this section, as I examine and critique the deep skepticism that YECs show toward the historical sciences of geology, evolution, and cosmology. Only by dismissing them as “false” sciences can YECs maintain that science harmonizes with their own tenaciously held interpretation of Genesis.

Evolution as “Science Falsely So-Called”

Recently, the Christian ministry Grace to You republished an anti-evolution column by their founder, the highly influential pastor John MacArthur. The title, “Faith and Science, Falsely So-Called,” quotes the King James translation of 1 Timothy 6:20, “O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called.” Most subsequent translations render the Greek word gnosis as “knowledge,” not “science,” but since the English word “science” ultimately derives from the Latin word for “knowing,” the scholars who prepared the KJV can be forgiven for any confusion.

Opponents of evolution and other parts of natural history have made a meal out of the confusion ever since the dawn of the nineteenth century, when the prominent Presbyterian minister Samuel Miller complained about the “infidel philosophy” of geology. “There have been in every age ‘profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called,’” he said. Railing against the conclusions of “pretended science,” he indicted geologists for working “with unwearied diligence, to find evidence which should militate against the information conveyed in the Scriptures.” (A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century, vol. 2, p. 431) Within a few decades, however, most evangelical leaders had given up their objections to geological ages. Following the signal examples of learned and devout evangelical scientists such as Benjamin Silliman and Edward Hitchcock, they began to see geology as an ally, not an enemy, of Christian faith.

But evolution was an entirely different matter. After Darwin, many Christians retargeted the epithet about false science, aiming it at biological evolution instead. The cartoon at the start of this column is a perfect example. It was published less than a year after William Jennings Bryan began to agitate for anti-evolution laws. In our time, the great creationist John C. Whitcomb, Jr., doesn’t hesitate to say that “most contemporary scientists” who work in the historical sciences are “are immersed in ‘science [knowledge] falsely so called.’” Quoting the KJV translation of 2 Peter 3:5, he adds that “they are willingly ignorant” of how the world actually formed because they disregard the Bible.

MacArthur’s use of identical language is further evidence that this practice is still very much alive. In his book The Battle for the Beginning (2001), MacArthur calls evolution a “lie” that ought to be exposed and vigorously opposed (quoting the publisher’s advertisement). Elsewhere, he describes the origins controversy as “a battle between two mutually exclusive faiths—faith in Scripture versus faith in anti-theistic hypotheses. It is not really a battle between science and the Bible.” I bolded those six words because they are intimately bound up with the whole notion of “science falsely so called.” Let’s explore the connection further.

Evolution as Just “Guesses Strung Together”

MacArthur’s use of the term “hypotheses” harks back to Bryan. Many Americans of Bryan’s generation, including some scientists, viewed science through what they regarded as “Baconian” spectacles (named after seventeenth-century thinker Francis Bacon who stressed the importance of generalizing from a large body of observations). They wanted science to limit itself to the hard “facts” of direct observation, avoiding speculative “hypotheses” that might be proffered to explain diverse, otherwise unconnected facts in terms of a single cause.

Such an attitude was rapidly disappearing among younger scientists, as the method of proposing and testing explanatory hypotheses (which also has seventeenth-century roots) became more widely used and refined in all branches of science. Bryan, however, saw it quite differently; he thought that Darwin and other evolutionists were just blowing smoke:

“The word hypothesis is a synonym used by scientists for the word guess; it is more dignified in sound and more imposing to the sight, but it has the same meaning as the old-fashioned, every-day word, guess. If Darwin had described his doctrine as a guess instead of calling it a hypothesis, it would not have lived a year.” (The Menace of Darwinism, p. 21)

Or, as he said at the time of the Scopes trial, “Evolution is not truth, it is merely an hypothesis—it is millions of guesses strung together.” The image below is a perfect illustration of this attitude.

Interestingly, the best response to Bryan’s back-of-the-hand, amateurish dismissal of “hypotheses” in science was written by someone whose scientific credentials weren’t any better. I mean none other than one of the greatest preachers of the twentieth century, Harry Emerson Fosdick. I don’t recommend Fosdick’s personal theology to anyone: he denied the Virgin Birth, the Deity of Jesus, the bodily Resurrection, and many other orthodox Christian beliefs. However, on scientific matters he was extremely well informed and articulate. This is partly because he spent much of his career in or near Manhattan, interacting with many top scientists. He also probably learned a great deal about the views of scientists from his brother, Raymond Fosdick, who was heavily involved with the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the top financiers of American science and medicine before the National Science Foundation was created in 1950.

When Bryan published an assault on the “hypothesis” of evolution in the New York Times in February 1922, Fosdick replied a few weeks later with a vigorous defense of scientific hypotheses as part of a brilliant critical analysis of Bryan’s overall position on science and the Bible. I wholly agree with his call of Bryan’s bluff. When Bryan “identifies a hypothesis with a ‘guess,’” Fosdick wrote, “he is guilty of a sophistry so shallow and palpable that one wonders at his hardihood in risking it. A guess is a haphazard venture of opinion without investigation before or just reason afterward to sustain it,” whereas a hypothesis “is a seriously proffered explanation of a difficult problem ventured when careful investigation of facts points to it, retained as long as the discovered facts sustain it, and surrendered as soon as another hypothesis enters the field which better explains the phenomena in question.”

Fosdick hit the nail directly on the head: It’s one thing to call evolution a guess, but “to tell the truth about it is another [thing].” The truth “involves recognizing the tireless patience with which generations of scientists in every appropriate field of inquiry have been investigating all discoverable facts that bear upon the problem of mutation of species,” resulting in “substantial unanimity … [of] belief in the hypothesis of evolution.” In other words, Bryan was just blowing smoke, while fanning the flames of skepticism on the part of his largely unscientific audience.

Fosdick reply

Fosdick’s reply to Bryan was issued several months later as a shirt-pocket sized pamphlet by The American Institute of Sacred Literature, a correspondence school based at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Copies were distributed free or sold at the nominal price of three cents to tens of thousands of ministers, scientists, legislators, high school principals, and ordinary lay Christians. Photograph and caption by Ted Davis.

When John MacArthur speaks today about “hypotheses,” he clearly means precisely the same thing as Bryan: evolution is just a wild guess, nothing but a “lie” foisted on the world by atheistic scientists. Since it’s not really scientific, there is no battle between genuine science and the Bible, only between the Bible and an anti-biblical “science falsely so called” that Paul warned Timothy to steer clear of.

What Would Good Historical Science Look Like?

Although Bryan and many other evangelical leaders rejected evolution as false science, they did not place geology under the same appellation. Indeed, they regarded the geological ages as so well established that they adopted non-YEC interpretations of Genesis. We don’t know what they would have said about the Big Bang Theory (BBT), since they didn’t live to see it. But since contemporary OECs fully accept it (such as Hugh Ross or William Lane Craig), they would probably have accepted it as genuinely scientific as well.

For many Christian scientists and scholars today, the Big Bang is a paradigm example of the historical sciences at their best. It doesn’t give us absolute, unchanging truth about nature—no wide-reaching scientific theory can do that—but it provides a coherent explanatory picture of the observational evidence. As such, it should be accepted, at least until an even better explanation of the evidence (perhaps based on evidence we have not yet discovered) is proposed.

Here are four examples of how BBT powerfully explains several otherwise apparently unrelated observed facts about the visible universe:

  1. The universe has been expanding for billions of years; everywhere we look into deep space we find evidence that distant objects are flying rapidly away from one another. Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicted this (despite Einstein’s effort to deny the implications of his own theory), but it wasn’t accepted until after Edwin Hubble measured galactic redshifts in the 1920s.
  2. Nearly all of the matter in the universe consists of hydrogen and helium, in a 3:1 ratio, with everything else amounting to only a very small percentage. In 1948, George Gamow showed how that made perfect sense in light of BBT: the original explosion would lead to exactly that configuration.
  3. If the universe really began with an enormous explosion, then we should be able to find the faint afterglow of that radiation in deep space; this was another prediction of George Gamow. In 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered that radiation, which was soon shown to be just at the right temperature to match the prediction. Furthermore, the radiation also has the characteristic properties of what physicists call “blackbody” radiation, exactly the kind of radiation that the big bang would have produced.
  4. In order for stars and galaxies to form in aftermath of the explosion, then there must have been some differences in temperature distributed through the universe. This would show up now as ever-so-slight irregularities in the temperature of the faint afterglow. That’s exactly what the COBE satellite found in 1989, and subsequent observations have confirmed it.

Taken together, this set of observed phenomena, none of them known before the twentieth century, makes sense if the BBT is true. An alternative theory known as the “steady state” cosmology had been more popular until before the discovery of the background radiation. But it just could not account for the growing observational evidence favoring the BBT, so it is now on life support.

Nevertheless, YEC astronomer Jason Lisle rejects the BBT as “science fiction,” not science, simply because (in his opinion) most astronomers “reject the Bible, and instead assume the big bang. Since they have an incorrect view of history, it causes them to make mistakes when they interpret the evidence.” In other words, because they have not started by assuming the truth of the YEC interpretation of the Bible, they have wrongly concluded that the universe has been expanding for billions of years—when in fact (according to Lisle) God directly created the stars only a few thousand years ago. It’s no wonder that YEC is such a tiny minority view among scientists, even among those who are dedicated Christians. As Galileo said four hundred years ago—long before anyone knew anything about BBT—science starts with “sense-experience” and “necessary demonstrations,” not from “the testimony of biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words.” Galileo wasn’t dismissing biblical truth. Indeed, he readily affirmed “that the holy Bible can never speak untruth,” but he immediately added, “whenever its true meaning is understood.” He recognized that matters of interpretation inevitably come into play when the infinite Creator speaks to finite creatures in human language.

But, YECs don’t acknowledge the possibility that Genesis might have a different meaning. In their view, God spoke directly as the sole eye-witness to the creation, and no other knowledge can trump what they take for the plain meaning of God’s words. An AiG column spells out what this means for BBT:

“The big bang is not an observable event that scientists can duplicate in the lab. It is a hypothesis about how the universe came to be. Such naturalistic man-made ideas are, in fact, speculation about past events. Because there were no eyewitnesses to the alleged big bang, it cannot be definitively substantiated. Compare that to the eyewitness record given to us in the Bible. The Creator (not simply an “eyewitness” to the events of creation, but the actual One doing the creating) has given us a written record of the beginning in the first chapters of Genesis.”

The language about “hypothesis” and “speculation” ties this directly to the long tradition of “science, falsely so called.” What makes BBT false science? “The big bang is not an observable event that scientists can duplicate in the lab.” Strictly speaking, that is correct: no human being witnessed the Big Bang as it actually unfolded. However, this skirts far too quickly and easily past the fact that we can observe right now many features of the universe that make sense, collectively and individually, only if the universe began with a “bang” billions of years ago. If we were to observe right now the footprints and fingerprints of an accused burglar who entered a building two nights ago, would we say that the prosecution’s case was flawed, simply because no one actually observed the crime as it was being committed?

To defend their rejection of BBT, YECs make much of a distinction between what they call “operations science” vis-à-vis “origins science.” The former pertains to knowledge obtained from repeatable experiments—things we directly observe now. The latter is forensic in nature, like the example I just offered of the burglary; BBT falls in this category. As I’ve said elsewhere, this distinction has some validity. But it can’t properly be used arbitrarily to dismiss inferences about certain unobserved past events, simply because many things that we can observe now imply that those events happened before the YEC timeline begins.

The classic YEC strategy of labelling many conclusions of the historical sciences “lies,” “science fiction,” or “science falsely so called” has backfired. Young Christians today are leaving churches in droves, partly because they cannot swallow a type of faith that requires them flatly to deny the validity of scientific theories with enormous evidential support. By offering only two views for consideration, “God’s Word or autonomous human reasoning,” creationist leaders force the truth onto a Procrustean bed that cannot hold it, while casting suspicion on so many learned Christians who have carried their faith boldly with them a they applied their minds to the divinely written book of nature. Surely, the church can do better than that.

About the author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.