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Ted Davis
 on October 15, 2012

Theistic Evolution: History and Beliefs

Ted Davis presents five core tenets of Theistic Evolution and offers an overview of Theistic Evolution's history.

Part 2 of 7 in Science and the Bible
Finch on branch

Photo by Mario Mendez on Unsplash

Création ex nihilo from Charles de Bouelles, Libellus de nihilo (1510). God “inspires” (breathes or blows into) the universe, creating it out of nothing (ex nihilo).

The dictionaries I checked don’t define the term, “theistic evolution,” so I offer my own definition: the belief that God used the process of evolution to create living things, including humans. Some might find this a vague definition, since (for example) it doesn’t include the adjective “Darwinian” before “evolution,” but that would eliminate most of the people prior to World War Two who would otherwise fit the definition. On the other hand, if we left out a specific reference to human evolution, then the category would be even larger, since a number of important Christian writers have accepted evolution among the “lower animals,” while explicitly rejecting it for human beings. We could argue endlessly about such things, and not pointlessly; my point here is simply to be clear about terminology.

“Theistic evolution” has been discussed by that name since at least 1877, and one of the first to do so was the great Canadian geologist John W. Dawson, in his book, The Origin of the World, According to Revelation and Science (1877). In the midst of a lengthy discussion of the animals created on the fifth day of creation, he says:

The long time employed in the introduction of the lower animals, the use of the terms “make,” and “form,” instead of “create,” and the expression “let the waters bring forth,” may well be understood as countenancing some form of mediate creation, or of “creation by law,” or “theistic evolution,” as it has been termed; but they give no countenance to the idea either of the spontaneous evolution of living beings under the influence of merely physical causes and without creative intervention, or of the transmutation [evolution] of one kind of animal into another. (p. 225)

As the final part of this sentence implies, Dawson was (ironically) a staunch opponent of both human evolution and the common ancestry of other animals; in short, by no reasonable definition was he a theistic evolutionist, even though he thought that a great deal of change had taken place naturally, “within certain limits” that he associated with the created “kinds” spoken of in Genesis. Indeed, references to “theistic evolution” are probably no less common among opponents of the view (including William Jennings Bryan in the 1920s) than among proponents, but I won’t attempt to enumerate further examples.

In recent years, however, some proponents of theistic evolution (hereon referred to as TE in this article) have endorsed alternative labels for their position(s). The most prominent example is Francis Collins, the geneticist who started BioLogos. Collins uses the term “BioLogos” itself as the label for his overall position, which fits well within my TE category. The evangelical theologian Denis Lamoureux, one of the most qualified of all writers on this topic (he has earned doctorates in both theology and biology), strongly prefers the term, “Evolutionary Creation” (EC), precisely because he thinks the noun “creation” ought to have more emphasis than the adjective “evolutionary,” something that the term “theistic evolution” does not accomplish. I recommend his book of that title to anyone who wants an authoritative analysis of both biblical and scientific aspects of the origins controversy. The main ideas are clearly presented in his web lectures. Another highly qualified proponent of TE, George Murphy, also has reservations about the term, but he recognizes its wide recognition and agrees with the idea itself, that “Evolution is God’s way of creating”. I will have more to say about Murphy, a very important voice, in a subsequent post.

Despite these quite reasonable objections to the term, I continue to use the “TE” term, partly because it has historical continuity, and I’m a historian, and partly because it’s easily recognized. If anyone wants to object, however, they won’t get objections from me, unless their own reasons aren’t reasonable. My only request: define your terms as clearly as I’ve defined mine.

Because the term is broad and a bit hazy, more should be said about it. For example, Intelligent Design (ID) is a “big tent” (something proponents of that view also say), insofar as it glosses over the biblical and theological issues that have usually separated Christians into various “camps” (such as the various positions we are now studying) when it comes to origins. TE is also a “big tent,” in that adherents differ strongly amongst themselves on theological and biblical issues. Unlike ID, however, theology is openly discussed—and competing theologies of God, nature, and humanity are openly advocated, not left implicit. This column presents one type of TE, a type favored by many evangelical scientists and scholars. For example, the people I will discuss all accept (as far as I can tell) the Incarnation and Resurrection—that is, they are Trinitarian Christians who believe that Jesus was fully divine (and fully human) and that the disciples went to the right tomb, only to find it empty, before encountering the risen Christ in diverse places. They also believe in creation ex nihilo, the classical view (illustrated at the start of this column) that God brought the universe into existence out of nothing.

Core Tenets or Assumptions of Theistic Evolution

1. The Bible is NOT a reliable source of scientific knowledge about the origin of the earth and the universe, including living things, because it was never intended to teach us about science.

This reflects not only modern scientific knowledge, but also (more importantly) modern biblical scholarship. Peter Enns and some other evangelical scholars have recently stressed this point, initiating a firestorm in the evangelical academic community that, so far, has confirmed my view that evangelicals in general are just not ready to deal with this, even though it is consistent with the classical notion of accommodation. My own comments about the magnitude of the problem, written before the firestorm started, can be found here.

2. The Bible IS a reliable source of knowledge about God and spiritual things.

Portrait of Cesare, Cardinal Baronio, attributed to Caravaggio (1602-3) (Source)

Remember the quip that Galileo attributed to Cesare, Cardinal Baronio, “The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.” (We discussed this earlier in the series) Evolution was not an issue in Galileo’s day, but this platitude is frequently quoted by advocates of TE—and often without proper attribution to Baronio. Commonality obviously lies in the attitude, not the topic. Many critics of TE are willing to adopt Galileo’s approach when it comes to the Solar System, but not when it comes to evolution: they are anxious to keep Galileo out of the garden of Eden.

3. Scientific evidence is irrelevant to the Bible—it is simply not a science book.

See above. This needs to be stated separately, since some believers look to science for “proof” of the Bible, just as some unbelievers look to science for “disproof.” Proponents of TE stress that science and the Bible aren’t like apples and oranges; rather, they are more like apples and rocks: you can hold one in each hand without tension, but they have very little in common. We wouldn’t look for God in the phone book, or in an automobile repair manual. Don’t look for science in the Bible. In principle, scientific theories neither support nor threaten the Bible.

4. The creation story in Genesis 1 is a confession of faith in the true creator, intended to refute pantheism and polytheism, not to tell us how God actually created the world.

This is meant to echo what we said about the Framework View. It is not necessarily true that all TEs accept the Framework View or something like it, but many do. Most would probably say that the Bible is not contradicted by any specific scientific theory of biological diversity—unless that theory oversteps its philosophical boundaries and functions as a kind of religion, what Conrad Hyers called “dinosaur religion.”

5. The Bible tells us THAT God created, not how God created.

Again, this sounds like the Framework View—or, at least, it should. Belief in God the creator is consistent with science, and even supported by some aspects of science; but, it is not a substitute for scientific explanations.

Closeup picture of the first chapter in the book of Genesis

1. For TEs, both the verbal and the conceptual language of the Bible are “pre-scientific,” not just popular and phenomenological. In other words, God’s revelation is embedded in an ancient worldview that is simply assumed by the text, not challenged there. Thus, the Bible contains ancient science—science that would be factually erroneous if we took it at face value as part of what God intended to teach us.

Bernard Ramm argued for just such a position in The Christian View of Science and Scripture, even though he was an Old Earth Creationist (OEC), not a TE. Denis Lamoureux takes it further in his book, I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution. A glance at the table of contents shows that he emphasizes the presence of “ancient science in the Bible” and teaches us how to interpret the Bible in light of this. Just as we don’t take biblical astronomy “literally,” with its 3-tiered universe, we shouldn’t take biblical biology “literally,” with its fixed species and separate creations a few thousand years ago.

2. Even though TE advocates sometimes speak about God as the author of two “books” (nature and Scripture), TE is not usually seen as a Concordist position. At least among evangelical TEs, a position known as “Complementarity” is probably the most widely endorsed model for relating science and the Bible, though it is not the only one.

For a concise description of Complementarity, I borrow the words of Stanford physicist (now retired) Richard Bube, who wrote three books about science and Christianity, taught a course about it for decades, and edited the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation (now called Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith) for many years. In his book, Putting It All Together, Bube presented seven “patterns” for relating science to faith (here and here), ending with his personal favorite, Complementarity, described as follows:

“Science and theology tell us different kinds of things about the same things. Each, when true to its own authentic capabilities, provides us with valid insights into the nature of reality from different perspectives. It is the task of individuals and communities of individuals to integrate these two types of insights to obtain an adequate and coherent view of reality.” (p. 166)

I’ll offer my own example to illustrate this model. Everyone reading this column originated in the union of two cells, one from each parent. Everyone reading this is also created in the image of God. Each of these two sentences is true, but the truths they proclaim are of a different order. The first neither implies nor negates the second. You can see where this is going: for TEs, the truth (in their view) that we are descended from other primates neither implies nor negates the truth that we are created in the image of God.

The Complementarity view, as I’ve briefly presented it, might seem quite shallow—nothing more than the simple, unsupported claim that science is about HOW and religion is about WHY. Readers who want a subtler account are invited to study Christopher Rios’ article about its development. Rios quite properly stresses the work of two important British scientists from the last century, quantum chemist Charles A. Coulson and his friend, brain theorist Donald M. MacKay, one of the most prolific and thoughtful Christian thinkers of his generation. If you don’t know MacKay, I unreservedly recommend that you get acquainted, but his work is so wide-ranging that I am hesitant to recommend a single starting place. Evolution was not one of his chief interests (I don’t offer him as a prime example of TE per se), but I can’t think of anyone who wrote more about the Complementarity model of science and Christian faith.

Physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne can also be understood as a proponent of Complementarity, though I would not characterize his position solely in those terms. His overall vision captures the essence of Complementarity: theology complements the limited picture of reality given to us by science; it goes beyond science, providing a larger metaphysical framework within which both nature and the science of nature are more intelligible (see below for more). Many of his books are conceptually deep, discouraging casual readers, but they are also eloquent and very creative, making the hard work of reading them time well spent. There simply is no good substitute for diving into them yourself. I’ve reviewed one of his books here.

3. Advocates of TE often emphasize theology of nature more than natural theology. They may still do natural theology, but they approach it more modestly—for them, theism cannot be “proved” from nature, but it still makes more sense of our whole experience of the world than atheism.

A theology of nature starts from the assumption that God exists and then seeks to understand the whole of nature in light of this. Polkinghorne does this in many of his books. Natural theology, on the other hand, is the effort to demonstrate God’s existence (including some of God’s attributes, such as power, wisdom, and goodness) from reason or nature, without appealing to the Bible. Many Christian authors since the patristic period have done this, often citing the first chapter of Romans, though some of the most important have had doubts about the value of the whole enterprise; two prominent examples would be Blaise Pascal and John Henry Newman.

The golden age for natural theology lasted from the late 17th century (when Boyle and Newton were outspoken advocates of using science to argue for God’s existence) down through the mid-19th century, when Darwinian evolution provided a serious challenge to natural theological arguments based on “contrivances,” aspects of nature that appeared to be exquisitely crafted for a specific purpose by the Creator. Although it’s not true “That Darwin Destroyed Natural Theology,” it is true that TE authors no longer appeal to intricate biological “contrivances” to make their case. Prior to Darwin, a leading natural theologian, the great scholar William Whewell, had already made the case for a different type of natural theology in his famous contribution to the Bridgewater Treatises, a series of eight books on natural theology from the 1830s: “But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this;—we can perceive that events are brought about, not by insulated interpositions of divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws” (Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology, p. 356 in the fifth London edition of 1836). Ironically, Darwin placed this very passage directly opposite the title page in On the Origin of Species (1859).

Just a few years later, a Unitarian chemist from Harvard, Josiah Parsons Cooke, Jr., replied to Darwin in a book called Religion and Chemistry; or, Proofs of God’s Plan in the Atmosphere and Its Elements (1864). Cooke got around Darwin by inquiring into the basic properties of matter itself—the features of the physical universe that make biology possible at all. “There is abundant evidence of design in the properties of the chemical elements alone,” he argued, especially as they combine to make the unique substance we call water. Natural theology had found a more solid foundation, “which no theories of organic development can shake.”

Contemporary TEs do pretty much the same thing. They look for evidence of “design” or “purpose” in the nature of nature itself, not in biological “contrivances.” Discussions of the “fine tuning” of the universe are common in TE literature, including Francis Collins’ book, The Language of God and Ken Miller’s book, Finding Darwin’s God. Philosopher Robin Collins provides a helpful introduction to the terms and the issues here. Polkinghorne raises fundamental questions about the very intelligibility of nature in the wonderful title chapter in Belief in God in an Age of Science. Let’s pay careful attention to what he says about his overall approach:

“This new natural theology differs from the old-style natural theology of Anselm and Aquinas by refraining from talking about ‘proofs’ of God’s existence and by being content with the more modest role of offering theistic belief as an insightful account of what is going on. It differs from the old-style natural theology of William Paley and others by basing its arguments not upon particular occurrences (the coming-to-be of the eye or of life itself), but on the character of the physical fabric of the world, which is the necessary ground for the possibility of any occurrence (it appeals to cosmic rationality and the anthropic form of the laws of nature) … [Consequently] the new-style natural theology in no way seeks to be a rival to scientific explanation but rather it aims to complement that explanation by setting it within a wider and more profound context of understanding. Science rejoices in the rational accessibility of the physical world and uses the laws of nature to explain particular occurrences in cosmic and terrestrial history, but it is unable of itself to offer any reason why these laws take the particular (anthropically fruitful) form that they do, or why we can discover them through mathematical insight.” (pp. 10-11)

Some implications and conclusions of Theistic Evolution—continued

4. Several leading TEs have advanced a strongly Christocentric theology of creation—stressing the idea (from the prologue of John’s gospel) that the Maker of heaven and earth is the crucified and resurrected second person of the Trinity. Especially when theodicy is the topic, they like to speak about “the crucified God,” or “the theology of the cross,” or “divine kenosis.”

On first glance, some readers might be a bit perplexed: isn’t this column supposed to be about evolution, not the crucifixion? What could those topics possibly have in common? The answer lies in theodicy, or the problem of evil and suffering in the world. As I stressed in my column about the YEC (Young Earth Creationism) view, creationism is ultimately about theodicy—it’s not only about theodicy, to be sure, but the belief that animals must not have suffered and died before Adam and Eve committed the first sin is crucial to the “young” in YEC. To a significant degree, TE is also about theodicy. In one of the best books on science and religion that I could name, Catholic theologian John Haught explains the atheist’s view of theodicy (which he does not share) as follows:

“Evolution is incompatible with any and all religious interpretations of the cosmos, not just with Christian fundamentalism. The prevalence of chance variations, which today are called genetic ‘mutations,’ definitively refutes the idea of any ordering deity. The fact of struggle and waste in evolution decisively demonstrates that the cosmos is not cared for by a loving God. And the fact of natural selection is a clear signal of the loveless impersonality of the universe.” (Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation, p. 52)

Proponents of TE have responded to the issues raised in the latter two sentences in a variety of ways. I agree with Christopher Southgate’s analysis of the overall situation. Like several of the writers I mention, Southgate is a theologian with a doctorate in science; he’s also an accomplished poet. The text he wrote with many others, God, Humanity and the Cosmos: A Textbook in Science and Religion, is really much more than a textbook. I recommend it for anyone seeking a wide-ranging introduction to the principal issues.

Southgate and his collaborators see just two “possible theologies of divine action in respect of evolution,” considering that “the problems of theodicy are severe.” Option ONE: “to posit God merely as the passive, suffering companion of every creature, a view self-consistent but dubiously faithful to the Christian tradition.” Option TWO: “to mount a defense of teleological creation using a combination of [certain] theological resources,” namely these three—

  • “we must adopt a very high doctrine of humanity and suppose that indeed humans are of very particular concern to God.” This is linked with the Incarnation.
  • “we must take very seriously the cross as costly to God, as part of God’s hugely costly way of taking responsibility for the creative process.”
  • “we must give some account of the redemption of the non-human creation …” This is linked with the Trinity. (p. 279 in first edition, 1999)

Given limited space, I’ll focus almost exclusively on the second idea, though we may want to discuss all of them below.

The Crucified God


View of the entrance to the main camp of Auschwitz (May 1945). The gate bears the motto, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work makes one free). United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Source).

We start with something that arose in a context entirely unrelated to evolution, Jürgen Moltmann’s (read more here and here) notion of The Crucified God. The theological point and the emotional impact of Moltmann’s conception is aptly captured in this stark passage, written in response to Elie Wiesel’s dark story of a child who was publicly hanged at Auschwitz: “like the cross of Christ, even Auschwitz is in God himself. Even Auschwitz is taken up into the grief of the Father, the surrender of the Son and the power of the Spirit.” (p. 278) A recent sermon by Matt Bates, pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Richmond, fleshes this out for us in a very accessible way; please read the whole sermon before going any further. It’s a vital part of what I’m trying to say.

Now that you see more clearly what the “Crucified God” is about, let’s see what John Polkinghorne says about it:

“This profound and difficult thought meets the problem of suffering at [the] level which its deep challenge demands. The insight of the Crucified God lies at the very heart of my own Christian belief, indeed of the possibility of such belief in the face of the way the world is. But this can only really be so if God is indeed truly present in that twisted figure on the tree of Calvary. Only an ontological Christology is adequate to the defence of God in the face of human suffering. God must really be there in that darkness.” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 44)

Be sure to notice two things in this passage. First, Polkinghorne confesses that his own Christian faith depends on such a conception of God, but there are only two very brief references to evolution in the entire eloquent chapter from which I’ve quoted. There’s plenty of science there, but almost all of it is modern physics, not biology. (I’ll leave it as an exercise to “students” to get a copy of this excellent little book and fill in the blanks.) In other words, evolution doesn’t shape Polkinghorne’s theology nearly as much as his theology shapes his view of evolution.

The second thing to notice is that in the last three sentences Polkinghorne is doing something subtle, but extremely important—something that I don’t want anyone to miss. Contrary to some of the most influential voices in the science and religion “dialogue” (some examples would be Haught, Ian Barbour, and the late Arthur Peacocke), Polkinghorne affirms the full divinity and humanity of Christ, in a classical Chalcedonian sense. Read those sentences again a couple of times, and you should see what I’m driving at. As he says a bit later on, “Unless there really is a God who really was ‘in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor. 5:19), then the cross is no answer to the bitter problem of the suffering of the world.” (p. 45) In other words, one can only take this approach to theodicy unless one actually believes in the reality of the Incarnation; only an orthodox Christian can speak meaningfully of the “Crucified God.” In the final part of this column, when I’ll present Polkinghorne as a contemporary exemplar of a theologically “orthodox” TE, it’s partly this aspect of his thought that I will have in mind.

Finally, I should note that the term “crucified God” is not actually modern. Although Moltmann wrote an influential book about it, the language comes from Martin Luther. Another physicist-theologian, George Murphy, writes in a highly Lutheran way about The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross, advancing the view that a “theology of the cross” in which God sets aside power to become a participant in the universe, even to the point of death, takes priority over a “theology of glory,” in which we seek God first in the power behind nature, not in the powerlessness of the cross. For a short version of Murphy’s ideas, go here.

Kenosis, theodicy and eschatology

John Polkinghorne and others, citing Philippians 2:7, like to speak about divine “kenosis”, God’s choice to “empty himself” in taking on human form; they apply this also to the act of creating the world in a great work of self-sacrificial love. Although Wikipedia gives much information about the roots of this doctrine in Orthodox and Catholic circles, my knowledge is minimal and I cannot confirm what I find there (though it might all be correct). According to a theologian I once consulted, kenosis in soteriology was discussed by Lutherans in the 17th century (if not perhaps even earlier, by others), but was only extended to theology of creation in recent decades. The most I can say with confidence is this: one of the most striking features of Protestant thought about nature, during and since the Scientific Revolution, is the degree to which it is not Christocentric in the sense we are now discussing. In much Protestant and Evangelical literature devoted to the topic of creation, one often looks in vain even for references to Jesus, let alone to Jesus as the suffering servant through whom the world was made. Only in the latter part of the 20th century do I find a clear emphasis on the idea that nature is the creation of the God who put aside power and was crucified. If this understanding is correct, then I would say that it’s high time, and let’s get on with it!

TEs (especially Polkinghorne) are also in the forefront of those Christian writers who are linking theodicy inextricably with eschatology. Yet another scientist-theologian, Robert Russell, offers this powerful eschatological vision in Cosmology From Alpha to Omega, drawing on all of the main ideas I’ve presented in this section:

In order to move us beyond mere kenosis to genuine eschatology, I believe that both kenotic theology and eschatology must be structured on a trinitarian doctrine of God. The reason here is simple: it is the trinitarian God who will act to bring about the redemption of all of nature since it is this God who is revealed as God in and through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. A kenotic theodicy (that God suffers voluntarily with the world) in and of itself is not redemptive. Eschatology is required, in which the Father who suffers the death of the Son acts anew at Easter to raise Jesus from the dead. In turn, the involuntary suffering of all of nature–each species and each individual creature–must be taken up into the voluntary suffering of Christ on the cross (theopassionism) and through it the voluntary suffering of the Father (patripassionism).(p. 266)

George MacDonald (source)

Because this series is primarily focused on the history of approaches to understanding Science and the Bible, I will not delve more deeply into these important theological issues, but only direct readers to resources such as these. Still, I close this section with a quotation from George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons, the same passage that C. S. Lewis used in abbreviated form as an epigram for The Problem of Pain:

“the Son of God, who, instead of accepting the sacrifice of one of his creatures to satisfy his justice or support his dignity, gave himself utterly unto them, and therein to the Father by doing his lovely will; who suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like his, and lead them up to his perfection…”

Adam, the fall, and sin

5. TEs have to confront questions about human origins that are much easier for OECs or YECs to answer: Did Adam and Eve really exist as historical persons? Was the “fall” an actual historical event? If not, what is the origin of sin?

My comments here are much briefer, but I don’t mean to imply that the questions are any less important than the one I’ve just dealt with. Polkinghorne does not hold a traditional view of the fall, but he likes Reinhold Niebuhr’s view “that original sin is the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine!” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 88) This reminds me of G. K. Chesterton, who famously remarked, “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved” (Orthodoxy, chap. 2). In other words, anyone who doubts the idea that we are “fallen” creatures simply needs to look around—that is all the evidence of our strong bent to wickedness that you’ll ever need.

There are ways to finesse the fall and evolution in a quasi-concordistic manner, such as the “headship” model advocated by Denis Alexander. Others reject any appeal to Concordism, stressing the principle of divine accommodation. For example, Denis Lamoureux argues that in the revelatory process the Holy Spirit came down to the level of understanding of the ancient Hebrews and used their ancient conception of de novo creation, in which humans were created quickly and completely. Thus, in Genesis chapters 2 and 3, Adam and Eve are ancient vessels that deliver the inerrant spiritual truths that God created us and that we are sinners.

The views that have received the most attention among evangelicals, however, are probably those of biblical scholar Peter Enns, particularly his book, The Evolution of Adam. Instead of trying to summarize myself, I’ll link his discussion of “Mistakes in the Adam/Evolution Discussion”, since it parallels some of the content in the book. Also see his replies to some evangelical scholars who have been critical of the book.

One of the most original and thoughtful proposals I have seen comes from philosopher Robin Collins (for bibliographical information on this and the other works cited in the rest of this column, see below). Collins calls his model the “Historical/Ideal” view, because “the original state described in the Garden story represents an ideal state that was never realized,” showing “what an ideal relation with God would be like.” Adam and Eve represent every person who has ever lived, but they also represent “the first hominids, or group of hominids, who had the capacity for free choice and self-consciousness.” Just as the first hominids made sinful choices, so do we now, and original sin involves “the resulting bondage to sin and spiritual darkness that is inherited from our ancestors and generated by our own choices.” I can’t convey the subtlety and thoroughness of this account in a short space, so those who want to know more will have to read for themselves. Conveniently, Collins provides a link to a “near final version” of his paper on his website.

Problems with historicity

6. Questions about the historicity of Adam & Eve are underscored by evolution, but they would still come up even if Darwin had never existed and no one had ever proposed that humans and other animals have common ancestors. The Bible places Adam & Eve in a Neolithic world, with cities and agriculture, whereas non-biological scientific evidence shows that humans existed for a very long time before cities or agriculture came into existence.

Far too many people believe—erroneously—that evolution is responsible for undermining the historicity of Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden. In fact, the relevant science here is almost entirely from anthropology, not biology, and it involves human antiquity, not common ancestry. Since the mid-nineteenth century, evidence has been building that creatures anatomically and behaviorally identical to us have been on this planet for a very long time, far longer than the biblical 6,000 years. We could leave Darwin and evolution entirely out of the picture, and we would still be having a conversation about the historicity of Genesis 2 and 3. The same issues pertain to any OEC scenario. Most proponents of ID can’t duck this, either, even though they get to say “officially” that ID isn’t about the Bible. Because most ID proponents are not YECs, they accept the general validity of the methods used to date rocks and fossils, and so (by implication) this is their problem, too, whether or not it’s acknowledged.

To illustrate my point historically, let me introduce readers to George Frederick Wright (read more here and here). Ronald Numbers, the leading historian of American religion and science, wrote a clear, detailed article about this that I strongly recommend to anyone whose interest has been piqued. An influential Congregationalist clergyman and theologian, Wright was mentored by Harvard botanist Asa Gray, served briefly under Thomas C. Chamberlin on the U. S. Geological Survey, and even contributed articles on early humans and the ice age—his specialty—to scientific journals. During the 1870s, he worked closely with Gray to promote what is usually seen as a type of Theistic Evolution. By the early twentieth century, however, he appeared in some of his writings to have almost completely reversed his views on evolution. He even contributed an essay on “The Passing of Evolution” to the famous pamphlets, The Fundamentals, that later gave its name to that movement.

In other writings, however, Wright seemed to remain convinced of evolution, at one point saying that, “it is difficult to resist the conclusion that, so far as his physical organism is concerned, man is genetically connected with the highest order of the Mammalia.” Whatever he really thought about common ancestry—whether he was really a TE, an OEC, or an ID (one could make a good case for each)—the question of human antiquity dogged Wright for decades, as he sought ways to reconcile the genealogies in Genesis with accumulating evidence that humans have existed much longer than 6,000 years. Fortunately for Wright’s Christian faith, which probably hung in the balance, the famous Princeton theologian Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, together with the conservative biblical scholar William Henry Green, managed to persuade Wright that the Genesis genealogies had plenty of wiggle room. Anyone wanting to see the crucial details should read Green’s paper on “Primeval Chronology” at this point. Note Warfield’s own conclusion: “There is no reason inherent in the nature of the Scriptural genealogies why a genealogy of ten recorded links, as each of those in Genesis v. and xi. is, may not represent an actual descent of a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand links.”

Can this really be true, without straining the whole idea of historicity? Davis Young’s skepticism seems appropriate here. How far back can we place Adam and Eve and still have contact with the biblical period? In my opinion, a clear and convincing picture of a historical Adam and Eve, reconciling the biblical picture with human antiquity, has not yet been produced, and I am doubtful that we will ever have one. Those who want more information about the possibilities and the difficulties are invited to consult the articles (cited below) by anthropologist James Hurd, evolutionary biologist David Wilcox, and anthropologist Dean Arnold. To the best of my knowledge, Hurd and Wilcox are TEs, while Arnold is an OEC.

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.”

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.

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)

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)

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 another 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” should reconsider.

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.

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