Southern Baptist Voices: Is Darwinism Theologically Neutral?

| By William A. Dembski

Note: Today we begin the second installment in our ongoing Southern Baptist Voices series–a collection of seven essays from Southern Baptist scholars with BioLogos responses to their concerns and arguments. You can read more about the series here, and read the first essay by Dr. Kenneth Keathley, Senior Vice President for Academic Administration of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary–as well as BioLogos' response–here. Dr. William A. Dembski's two part essay will appear today and tomorrow, with Dr. Darrel Falk's response appearing Wednesday and Thursday. We hope and pray that this dialogue will bring greater clarity to the issues at hand, charity towards those with whom we disagree, and glory to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Is Darwinism Theologically Neutral?

Is Darwinism theologically neutral? The short answer would seem to be No. Darwin, in a letter to Lyell, remarked, “I would give nothing for the theory of natural selection if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.” Expanding on this remark in his Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins adds, “In Darwin’s view the whole point of the theory of evolution by natural selection was that it provided a non-miraculous account of the existence of complex adaptations... For Darwin, any evolution that had to be helped over the jumps by God was not evolution at all.” Since many Christians see the Bible as teaching that God specially created living things, thereby ruling out large-scale evolution, Darwinism contradicts the Bible and is not theologically neutral. Case closed.

But does this really answer the question? True, many Christians see Darwinism as hostile to biblical teaching and therefore deny its theological neutrality. But should they view Darwinism and Scripture as theologically opposed? If all Christians rejected Darwinism, its theological neutrality would not be a matter of discussion or controversy among them. But Christians do argue over Darwinian evolution, and the reason is that while all Christians embrace Christ, not all reject Darwin. So the question becomes whether Christians can embrace both Darwin and Christ with integrity, giving each his due without slighting the other. This is the real question underlying Darwinism’s presumed theological neutrality.

Those who embrace Darwin and his ideas regard him and Christ as compatible. Those who don’t, regard them as incompatible. Now compatibility and incompatibility are funny notions. They’re not like strict logical consistency or inconsistency, which admit of proof. At the hands of human rationalization, compatibility and incompatibility have the disconcerting tendency to become infinitely malleable. We’ve already seen how some Christians, by reading Genesis as teaching the special creation of living forms, conclude that Christ and Darwin are incompatible. On the other hand, Michael Ruse (in Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?) argues that Christ and Darwin are eminently compatible. Sure, as Ruse puts it, “Darwinism is a theory committed to the ubiquity of law.” But, in Ruse’s mind, that’s not a problem for Christian faith. He continues, “Even the supreme miracle of the resurrection requires no law-breaking return from the dead. One can think of Jesus in a trance, or more likely that he really was physically dead but that on and from the third day a group of people, hitherto downcast, were filled with great joy and hope.”

Ruse claims Darwinism compatible with Christianity, but by Christianity he means a liberalism gutted of miracles. On the other hand, special creationists interpret Genesis as teaching a form of creation that disallows any large-scale evolution. Although I don’t think the evidence supports large-scale evolution, both approaches are too easy. Ruse essentially has to redefine Christianity. And special creationists face challenges to their interpretation of Genesis. For instance, Genesis claims that humans are made of dust, at one point even referring to humans as dust (“dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” – Genesis 3:19). But if humans are dust, then so are other animals, and thus when Genesis says that humans were made from dust, what is to prevent God from transforming preexisting ape-like primates (who are dust) into humans (who are also dust) by some evolutionary process? Let me stress, I personally don’t buy this argument, but it’s one readily advanced by evolutionists against special creationists.

In assessing whether Darwinism is theologically neutral, let’s therefore focus on Christ and Darwin not along narrow sectarian lines but in the broadest terms. What can we all agree that Christianity demands, and what can we all agree that Darwinism demands? Without being exhaustive, let me suggest that Christianity and Darwinism each make four claims that are crucial for assessing Darwinism’s theological neutrality (or lack thereof):

Non-Negotiables of Christianity:

  • (C1) Divine Creation: God by wisdom created the world out of nothing.
  • (C2) Reflected Glory: The world reflects God’s glory, a fact that ought to be evident to humanity.
  • (C3) Human Exceptionalism: Humans alone among the creatures on earth are made in the image of God.
  • (C4) Christ’s Resurrection: God, in contravention of nature’s ordinary powers, raised Jesus bodily from the dead.

Non-Negotiables of Darwinism:

  • (D1) Common Descent: All organisms are related by descent with modification from a common ancestor.
  • (D2) Natural Selection: Natural selection operating on random variations is the principal mechanism responsible for biological adaptations.
  • (D3) Human Continuity: Humans are continuous with other animals, exhibiting no fundamental difference in kind but only differences in degree.
  • (D4) Methodological Naturalism: The physical world, for purposes of scientific inquiry, may be assumed to operate by unbroken natural law.

In formulating these claims, I’ve tried to be careful not to misrepresent either Christianity or Darwinism. What I’m describing as non-negotiables of Christianity is standard orthodox theology, so I won’t expand on these claims here. Yes, some theological streams find fault with these claims (process theology, for instance, rejects creatio ex nihilo and miraculous interventions). But for the purposes of this discussion, these claims may appropriately be ascribed to basic Christian teaching.

With regard to the non-negotiables of Darwinism, no one will dispute claims (D1) and (D2), Common Descent and Natural Selection. Christians who embrace Darwin, however, may feel uncomfortable with (D3), which entails that, among other things, our moral and linguistic capacities are simply enhanced versions of those same capacities in other primates. Francis Collins, for instance, won’t go along with Darwin on claim (D3). And yet, that is precisely Darwin’s main thesis in his sequel to the Origin, The Descent of Man. Finally, with regard to (D4), Darwin himself was more than a methodological naturalist. Once he became convinced of evolution by natural selection, he gave no credence to God ever having acted in contravention of natural law. Methodological naturalism is a weaker claim, allowing that God may have acted miraculously (in salvation history, say), only not in areas under scientific investigation (such as biological evolution).

We are now in a position to clarify our original question: Darwinism, let us agree, is theologically neutral if claims (D1)-(D4) in no way undercut claims (C1)-(C4), and Darwinism fails to be theologically neutral to the degree that (D1)-(D4) do undercut (C1)-(C4). Given this restatement of our original question, what do we find? Looking at these two lists of non-negotiables, we find certain tensions that are not readily resolved and that suggest (D1)-(D4) do in fact undercut (C1)-(C4). Note that I call them “tensions” rather than outright contradictions. Strict logical contradictions are difficult to find in the science-theology dialogue because the language of science and the language of theology tend to be so different. Even the clash of (C3), Human Exceptionalism, and (D3), Human Continuity, might be finessed by arguing that a sufficiently large difference in degree can appear as a difference in kind. So, [in the second half of this essay] I’ll focus on the tensions between these two lists of non-negotiables and how, in particular, (D1)-(D4) undercut (C1)-(C4).


About the Author

William A. Dembski

William A. Dembski is Research Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Richard Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He is also a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, and directs the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design. A mathematician and philosopher, Dembski is one of the leading figures in the intelligent design movement and a proponent of the idea of “irreducible complexity” as proof of intelligent design in nature. He has published many books and journal articles critiquing evolution and offering arguments from a design perspective for an intelligent creator.


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