To say that the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 was a watershed event in Western intellectual history would be something of an understatement. Like Nicolaus Copernicus before him and Albert Einstein after him, Darwin radically reshaped the way people thought about the world. Most people are aware of how Darwin’s idea has gradually come to be accepted throughout the scientific establishment — after going through some evolution of its own, of course. Some, however, may not be aware of the range of Christian responses to Darwin since 1859.
In the first years following the publication of The Origin of Species, most conservative Protestants did not concern themselves too much with the theory because scientists themselves were still evaluating it. Evangelical scientists were divided in their responses. Some, like the Anglican rector and amateur ornithologist Francis Orpen Morris, were highly critical of Darwin’s theories. Morris wrote pamphlets against the theory throughout the last twenty years of his life. At the other end of the spectrum, we find the Presbyterian Asa Gray, the leading American botanist of his day and a personal friend of Darwin. He argued that natural selection was not in opposition to design.
The response of orthodox theologians varied. One of the most important early Christian responses to Darwin was written by the Reformed theologian Charles Hodge. His response is found in his Systematic Theology (1871–73) as well as in his book What Is Darwinism? (1874). Like many theologians of his day, Hodge was convinced that the true facts of science and the teachings of Scripture could not ultimately contradict each other (ST I:573). Hodge expressed his gratitude to scientists of the past for helping the church correct bad interpretations of Scripture, but in the case of Darwin he believed that it was the scientific interpretation that was in error. Hodge’s primary criticism of Darwin was that Darwin rejected all design and purpose in nature.
He granted that a man could hold to a theistic version of evolution (ST II:16–18), but he argued that Darwin himself did not hold to such a view. Darwin’s version of evolution was, in Hodge’s view, nothing less than atheism. In the southern Presbyterian church, the same kind of criticism against Darwin was leveled by Robert Lewis Dabney.
The next generation of Reformed theologians continued to discuss issues related to science and Scripture in general and evolution in particular. Archibald Alexander Hodge took over the chair of systematic theology at Princeton Seminary after the death of his father. He is best known for coauthoring with B.B. Warfield the essay “Inspiration” (1881), a defense of the orthodox doctrine of biblical inspiration. Like his father, the younger Hodge argued that “God’s works and God’s words are equally revelation from him.” Because of this, it is impossible for them to come into conflict as long as both are properly interpreted (Outlines of Theology, p. 246). Hodge also argued that when science and Scripture appear to contradict each other, either the scientific interpretation of nature is in error or the Christian interpretation of Scripture is in error (p. 247). Regarding evolution, Hodge concluded that it is inconsistent with the Christian faith only when it is connected to a materialistic philosophy.
The last of the great Reformed Princeton theologians was B.B. Warfield. Warfield wrote extensively on a wide range of subjects, and his collected works fill over ten large volumes. He is best known for his writings on the inspiration and authority of Scripture. He also wrote extensively on issues related to science and evolution. Like the two Hodges before him, Warfield saw no necessary conflict between Scripture and science. When a scientific theory was proposed, Warfield had only one question: Is it true or not? Expressing this view in relation to the theory of evolution, Warfield wrote, “The religious bearing of this question is that if we answer that evolution has been proved to be true, then we must adjust our theological thinking to it; but if we answer that it is as yet a hypothesis on trial, we are at liberty to wait a while and see whether it be true before we adjust our thinking to it” (Evolution, Science, and Scripture, p. 117). Warfield expressed his own view in his 1888 Anthropology lectures: “I am free to say for myself, that I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either as given in Gen. 1 & 2 or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution.”
By the middle of the 1920s, the response of Christians in general to the idea of evolution had begun to change. After the devastation of World War I, some blamed the aggressive militarism of Germany on the influence of Darwin’s idea. In addition, many of the modernist heirs of nineteenth-century liberalism had adopted a theistic version of evolution. By the time the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy reached its peak in the 1920s, most fundamentalists had concluded that evolution undermined the authority of Scripture. As a result, they largely rejected the kind of thinking espoused by the Hodges and Warfield. After the Scopes Trial of 1925 brought the evolution controversy to the attention of everyone, a number of prominent figures within the fundamentalist movement (Harry Rimmer, for example) began speaking and writing extensively against evolution.
In 1923, Seventh-day Adventist George McCready Price published The New Geology, which taught that the earth’s geological features were caused by Noah’s flood and that vast ages were not necessary to explain them. This meant that the earth was much younger than the geologists assumed, and if this was true, then the time necessary for evolution to occur did not exist. Price’s book would influence Christian critics of evolution for decades. One of the goals of Price and his associates was to convince fundamentalists who believed in an old earth that their view was a capitulation to evolutionary thinking. Although in general agreement in their rejection of evolution, early fundamentalists were divided over the question of the age of the earth. Like many other Christians at the time, a good percentage of fundamentalists had accepted the conclusions of geologists regarding the age of the earth. Many, like William Jennings Bryan, held to a “day-age” interpretation of Genesis 1. Others advocated the “gap theory,” which posited a large gap of time between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. This view was taught, for example, in the 1909 Scofield Study Bible, a very popular study Bible among fundamentalists. Price and his associates founded organizations dedicated to promoting flood geology and to uniting fundamentalists in the rejection of old-earth interpretations of Genesis. The young Henry Morris became a member of one of these organizations, the Deluge Geological Society.
In 1941, a number of Christians working in the sciences formed the American Scientific Affiliation to produce and distribute information on the relationship between science and religion. By and large, they were not sympathetic to the fundamentalists but were open to discussing the pros and cons of evolution. In 1954 Bernard Ramm, who was sympathetic to the ASA, published The Christian View of Science and Scripture. His advocacy of “progressive creationism” in this book caused quite a bit of controversy and inspired a young John Whitcomb to write a response. After receiving some criticism of his manuscript, Whitcomb asked Henry Morris to collaborate and write the scientific chapters. Their book, The Genesis Flood, was finally published in 1961 and became a foundational text for the modern creationist movement. In the book, Morris and Whitcomb updated George Price’s case for flood geology. In 1963, Morris formed the Creation Research Society, and in 1970, he formed the Institute for Creation Research, which still exists today.
From the 1960s until the present day, the debate over evolution in the U.S. has been fought primarily in school boardrooms and courtrooms. This has greatly affected many contemporary Christian responses to science in general and evolution in particular. The Intelligent Design (or ID) movement grew out of these controversies as a new response to evolution. According to advocates of ID, it is possible to scientifically detect evidence for design in nature. An important development in the history of the ID movement occurred in 1990 when the Discovery Institute was founded, now the movement’s center. In the 1990s, three of the foundational works in the intelligent design movement were published: Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial, Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box, and William Dembski’s The Design Inference. While ID has found some support, it is criticized by theistic and naturalistic evolutionists as well as by young-earth creationists.
Among Reformed theologians and scientists, the response to Darwin and evolution continues to be diverse. Some, such as Deborah and Loren Haarsma adhere to “evolutionary creationism.” Others, such as C. John Collins, advocate intelligent design. Some, such as Douglas F. Kelly, teach young-earth creationism, while others, such as Vern Poythress, believe that neither theistic evolution nor fiat creationism have yet been ruled out by the evidence from Scripture and nature. The debate continues.