Science and the Bible: Theistic Evolution, Part 5

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

Historical Comments

No episode in the history of Christianity and science is better known than the Scopes trial. In the swelteringly hot summer of 1925, a rookie teacher named John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee. Scopes was technically a criminal defendant, but everyone knew that the law itself was ultimately on trial—not the man, who wasn’t even sure that he had taught evolution when he had filled in for his principal (the regular biology teacher) during an illness. The real issue was the constitutionality of the Butler Act, a new law that forbade public school teachers “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man had descended from a lower order of animal.” Even Scopes and his lawyers wanted to ensure a conviction, because they needed one in order to put the law on trial in higher courts. Fittingly, by far the most famous moment of the trial did not involve Scopes at all; nor did it take place in the courtroom. On a makeshift stage, constructed outside the courthouse under the trees to accommodate the crowd, Scope’s lawyer Clarence Darrow, a noted agnostic, cross-examined three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who had joined with the fundamentalists to lead a national campaign against teaching evolution and inserted himself onto the prosecution team at Dayton.

No scientific idea has been more controversial among Christians than evolution, and no one hated it more than Bryan. He blamed evolution for many of the great evils of modernity in his eyes—cutthroat, laissez-faire capitalism; class pride and the power of wealth, which could undermine democracy; German militarism and World War One (Bryan even wrote a pacifist pamphlet, part of a collection that included a similar tract by Darrow, his political ally on several matters); and religious skepticism, such as that displayed by Darrow. Above all, Bryan blamed evolution for the kind of liberal Protestant religion called “modernism,” the arch-foe of the “fundamentalism” that had recently arisen specifically in order to “do battle royal for the fundamentals” against liberal forces, in the words of Curtis Laws, the Baptist editor who first used the word “fundamentalist” in print, in July 1920. As far as Bryan was concerned, “theistic evolution” (a term he used himself often) was even worse, functioning as “an anesthetic which deadens the pain while the patient’s religion is being gradually removed,” or “a way-station on the highway that leads from Christian faith to No-God-Land.”

About eighteen months before the Scopes trial, Bryan had invoked a different image to summarize his views on evolution and Christianity, in a letter he sent from Galveston, Texas, to Philadelphia. The recipient was Charles G. Trumbull, editor of the Sunday School Times, a tabloid-style weekly magazine for which Bryan had written a series of articles about the dangers of modernism. Bryan’s articles defended (among other doctrines) the Virgin Birth, the Deity of Christ, and the Bodily Resurrection—all of which were denied by leading modernist clergy. Trumbull was publishing them in a book, Seven Questions in Dispute, accompanied by several cartoons by his in-house artist, Ernest James Pace, which had already appeared in various issues of the magazine. The point of Bryan’s letter was to suggest the theme for a new cartoon, specially drawn for the book. The cartoon would “represent evolution as I believe it to be, [namely,] 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.” “Such a cartoon,” Bryan emphasized, “would visualize the thought we are trying to emphasize: the three persons who are most effected by modernism are the student, the preacher who substitutes evolution for religion, and the scientist who prefers guesses to the Word of God.” (Bryan to Trumbull, 31 January 1924, Bryan Papers, General Correspondence, container 40, Library of Congress Manuscript Division)

E. J. Pace, “Descent of the Modernists.” Frontispiece to the book Seven Questions in Dispute by William Jennings Bryan (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1924). Courtesy of Edward B. Davis.

Incarnational Faith

At that time, with tens of millions of American Protestants caught up in bitterly divisive denominational battles over the Bible and modern knowledge, middle ground on evolution was mighty hard to find. As Pace’s cartoon implies, many modernists accepted evolution while denying the very “vital truths of the Bible” that Bryan had identified, while the fundamentalists all rejected evolution in the name of Christian orthodoxy. One searches in vain for someone like Asa Gray, a leading scientist who had promoted what he called “theistic evolution” simultaneously with affirmations of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds in lectures delivered at the Theological School of Yale College in 1880. No one could ever say that evolution led Gray to slide helplessly down Bryan’s staircase. Gray not only held that evolution is “compatible” with Christian faith, he upheld a genuinely Incarnational theology of creation in which Christ was fully divine. “I accept Christianity on its own evidence,” he told the students at Yale, “and I am yet to learn how physical or any other science conflicts with it any more than it conflicts with simple theism. I take it that religion is based on the idea of a Divine Mind revealing himself to intelligent creatures for moral ends.” For Gray, “Revelation culminated … in the advent of a Divine Person, who, being made man, manifested the Divine Nature in union with the human,” and “this manifestation constitutes Christianity.” (Natural Science and Religion, pp. 106 and 108)

Sandro Botticelli, The Cestello Annunciation (1489-90),
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

The Incarnation was for Gray “the crowning miracle,” attended by other miracles that “are not obstacles to belief,” adding that the “essential contents” of Christian faith were “briefly summed up” in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. (p. 108) So much for Bryan’s staircase; Gray never even reached the third step, despite his support for human evolution.

Although Gray apparently had no prominent theological descendants in the Scopes era, they are more numerous today. The most visible example would be John Polkinghorne, whose book The Faith of a Physicist (1996), takes the form of a commentary on the Nicene Creed, which he (like Gray) affirms alongside his acceptance of evolution. Thus, he devotes most of a chapter to exploring “whether the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead is one that is credible for us today.” Along the way he rejects the view associated with Joseph Renan and Rudolf Bultmann “that what happened was [only] a faith event in the minds of the disciples,” placing the source of doubt where it actually belongs—not in science itself, but in the unbridled skepticism of David Hume, to which Polkinghorne shows an appropriate skepticism of his own. Polkinghorne argues that Hume’s “confidence that the laws of nature were known with a certainty that extends even into realms of unprecedented and hitherto unexplored phenomena is one that was certainly falsified by the history of science subsequent to the eighteenth century, and it could never be pressed to dispose of an event like the resurrection of Jesus, which claims to be a particular act of God in a unique circumstance.” (The Faith of a Physicist, pp. 108-109)

This is not a trivial example. As he says in a more recent book, “The resurrection is the pivot on which Christian belief turns. Without it, it seems to me that the story of Jesus’ life and its continuing aftermath is not fully intelligible.” (Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion, p. 83) Indeed, one of the most reliable ways to understand a writer’s basic attitude about science and religion is to study what is said about the Resurrection.

Given his view of the Resurrection, Polkinghorne’s assessment of the larger picture will come as no surprise: “The scientific avenue into theological thinking will seek to give due weight to science, but it would be fatal to allow it to become a scientific take-over bid, affording no more than a religious gloss on a basically naturalistic account.” The crucial question, of course, involves “the degree of accommodation required of the historic faith in its expression in an age of science,” on which “there is a spectrum of response running from assimilation to consonance.” Basically, the assimilationist “seeks the most immediate and accessible correlation between scientific and religious thinking,” and the deity of Christ is set aside. But speaking exactly to the points I outlined for you in my previous two columns, Polkinghorne holds that

The consonantist, on the other hand, while wishing to ensure that theological understanding is consistent with what science tells us about the structure and history of the physical world, will insist that theology is as entitled as science to retain those categories which its experience has demanded that it shall use, however counterintuitive they might be. Jesus Christ will continue to be understood in the incarnational terms. (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 86)

Modernist Heterodoxy

If theologically “orthodox” approaches to evolution were almost invisible in Bryan’s day, “heterodox” approaches were almost ubiquitous, and it was the modernists who were offering them. For a historically significant example, let’s hear from theologian Shailer Mathews, the leading theological educator of his generation. Mathews was Dean of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago for a quarter century, including the whole period of the “fundamentalist-modernist” controversy. Chicago was the hotbed of modernism, and it graduated a large number of doctoral students, who then went and taught at other seminaries or occupied prominent pulpits. Mathews’ colleagues included at least two theologians whose views were at least as radical as his own: Darrow’s close friend, George Burman Foster (Darrow gave the eulogy at Foster’s funeral in 1919), and Gerald Birney Smith, who taught his students that evolution means that Jesus did not rise from the dead.

In his aptly titled autobiography, New Faith for Old (1937), Mathews placed very revealing comments about his overall attitude. An “orthodox” position just would not work for him. Yes, there had been “some scientists like Asa Gray who championed Darwinian evolution while holding to the Nicene Creed,” but Mathews thought they “were not representative churchmen.” For Mathews, modern science had completely changed the intellectual landscape for theology: “Laboratory science did something more than lead to research. It undermined habits of thought and substituted the tentativeness of experiment for authoritative formulas [i.e., the orthodox creeds].” The fundamental problem was educational, that “Scientific method had not touched religious thought. It was only when educational processes had ceased to be controlled by the study of classical literature and grew more contemporary, that orthodox theology was felt to be incompatible with intellectual integrity.” (New Faith for Old, pp. 220-21)

I could easily multiply the examples, but I don’t need to. We can readily connect Mathews’ conclusion about orthodox theology with Ian Barbour’s historical generalization that the modernists “emphasized God’s immanence, often to the virtual exclusion of transcendence, and in some cases God was viewed as a force within a cosmic process that was itself divine.” (Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, p. 74) The attitude displayed by Mathews and his friends—that which is not “scientific” ought not be affirmed by the Christian theologian—would fit perfectly into the intellectual world of today. As process theologian David Ray Griffin has noted, “modern liberal theologies have achieved a reconciliation of science with theology at the expense of its religious content…” (Religion and Scientific Naturalism: Overcoming the Conflicts, p. 183, his italics) Thus, when the late Arthur Peacocke spoke of God as “the transcendent, yet immanent, Creator,” he did not mean the maker of heaven and earth who literally became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, born of a virgin and raised bodily from the grave. (Theology for a Scientific Age, pp, 22 and 268-89) Or, when John Haught testified at the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, he declined to affirm the historicity of the resurrection: If the disciples had brought a video camera into the upper room, it would not have captured an image of the risen Christ—the camera lacked faith, apparently, and therefore it could not see.

Many of the leading religious voices in the modern “dialogue” of science and religion that has sprung up since the 1960s—including Haught, Barbour, Peacocke, and Griffin—have been intellectual descendants of Mathews and other modernists from the Scopes era, rather than descendants of Gray. This is one of several reasons why Theistic Evolution is so unpopular among traditional Christians: they judge the tree by its fruit, and they taste no transcendence.

However, they need to try more trees before carrying out the induction. Unlike the situation in Bryan’s day, it is no longer hard to find world-class scientists and theologians whose views are much closer to Gray’s than to those of the modernists. Anyone who still thinks that Theistic Evolution is just “a way-station on the highway that leads from Christian faith to No-God-Land” had better think again.

Looking Ahead

I’ll be back in about two weeks, to begin presenting the last of the five views in our series on Science and the Bible: Intelligent Design. My approach will be identical to that taken in every other part of the series. I’ll identify main assumptions, examine implications and conclusions, and sketch the history of the view. Please join us, and in the meantime join in our final conversation about Theistic Evolution.




Davis, Ted. "Science and the Bible: Theistic Evolution, Part 5" N.p., 8 Oct. 2012. Web. 19 February 2019.


Davis, T. (2012, October 8). Science and the Bible: Theistic Evolution, Part 5
Retrieved February 19, 2019, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/science-and-the-bible-theistic-evolution-part-5

References & Credits

Edward B. Davis, “Fundamentalist Cartoons, Modernist Pamphlets, and the Religious Image of Science in the Scopes Era,” in Religion and the Culture of Print in Modern America, ed. Charles L. Cohen and Paul S. Boyer (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008), pp. 175-198.
James R. Moore, The Future of Science and Belief: Theological Views in the Twentieth Century (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1981).

About the Author

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.

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