Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Proof That Conservative U.S. Christians Were Once Smarter Than Currently

Chris Tilling has a great quote from B. B. Warfield on evolution:

“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 Genesis 1 and 2 or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution.” 

Now, let us remember that Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921) was a Presbyterian theologian who taught at the “Old” Princeton Theological Seminary and is considered a hero by almost all Protestant fundamentalists and many conservative evangelicals, especially in the U.S.  Warfield was the first to defend the doctrine of “biblical inerrancy” in its modern formulation.  That’s right, THE early champion of inerrancy saw no problem with Darwinian evolutionary biology.  Other early conservative evangelical defenders of evolutionary theory included Charles Hodge (1797-1878), who was Warfield’s teacher, Scottish theologian James Orr (1844-1913), Baptist giant Augustus Hopkins Strong (1836-1921), and even R.A. Torrey, one of the editors of The Fundamentals.  See more of Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders among conservative Christians in the book of the same name. 

If more evangelicals had paid attention to these early leaders on this matter, the ridiculous pseudo-scientific movement of “Intelligent Design” would have been as unnecessary as it is wrongheaded.  (Full disclosure: I live in a state, Kentucky, that has just built a monument to ignorance known as a “Creationism Museum.”  I may die of embarrassment.)

May 21, 2007 - Posted by | science & faith, theology


  1. Yes,

    And for good measure, the LA Times published a lengthy article about it yesterday!!

    Comment by Bob Cornwall | May 21, 2007

  2. […] theological street cred? They were defenders of Darwin’s theory of evolutionary biology (h/t Michael W-W.) Posted by: Joel Hunter @ 9:14 pm | Trackback | […]

    Pingback by The Boar’s Head Tavern » | May 21, 2007

  3. Of course, the science of biology didn’t exist before the discovery of DNA and proteins. Warfield may have been conservative, but that was on a scale relative to the 19th century extremism and madness. The quote also shows the extent that theologians were willing to embrace evolution in the era before science was a major factor in the governance of universities.

    Again, my children are tought a bi-polar disordered world view in the public schools: Intelligent Design has been proven to be impossible by scientists, but work hard so the you can do Intelligent Design well and get a good paying job as an engineer in high tech! This was reinforced by the Dean of Engineering at UCLA’s freshmen openhouse a few weeks ago. He explained that the reason engineers get paid much more than scientists and have a much easier time getting a job is that they are trained in Intelligent Design in addition to science and math.

    Comment by Looney | May 22, 2007

  4. Forget for a second the association of ID with pseudo-science. Do you want to pit evolution against ID, Michael? I don’t think you do. Can’t we transcend the divide by reminding Christians that science is consistent with theology and by reminding scientists that the naturalistic worldview isn’t as coherent a story? I assume you believe God created the world ex nihilo, with evolution, and that the process of evolution was guided and controlled by the hand of God. Otherwise I suppose you would be a deistic evolutionist. It seems to me ID and evolution are inseparable, and ID better explains many of the complexities of the world than “natural selection,” chance, and all these other pseudo-scientific, “theological” postulations of most scientists. I think we can do better at bridging the chasm between theology and science, better at challenging the split created by radical empiricism. (I read somewhere recently that fundamentalists created the split between theology and science. I think that’s a little misleading. Atheistic scientists were proclaiming the victory of science over theology for decades before fundamentalists came on the scene, and fundamentalists were born in part as a reaction against that. At least the fundamentalists have the virtue of assuming the Bible is consistent with science. Sure, their science sucks and so does their reading of the Bible, but in that very limited sense they’ve got the right idea.) At any rate, I think we can do better than perpetuating the battle between ID and evolution. If we’re really progressives, let’s start talking about IE, or some such. What do you think, Michael? I don’t see the value in keeping theology “out of science” anymore than keeping “religion” out of “politics.” That there have been bad mixes doesn’t mean the right mix isn’t the right way to go.

    Comment by Thom Stark | May 22, 2007

  5. Michael,

    I don’t think you get Intelligent Design theory or its proponents. You might have much more in common with them than you think. It’s really easy to dismiss them based on what atheistic evolutionists have said, but the problem is that many ID proponents actually believe in a macro-evolution and almost all believe in micro-evolution (and a great deal of them like Michael Behe are NOT Christians). In fact, comparing them to the young-earth, Ken Ham-style creationists isn’t quite fair, nor is it legitimate (in fact, it kind of smacks of logical fallacy). Ken Ham (and creatiionists as a whole) sometimes takes research from ID writers, but they essentially disagree on how God created.

    This post makes me wonder what books on ID you have read in order to conclude that it is pseudo-science. Have you read Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box? Or any books by William Dembski or Jonathan Wells? I think this is clearly important to do before making a decision on ID. What I’ve found reading articles and books by anti-ID writers is that they commit various logical fallacies such as creating straw men and using ad hominems to attack ID, leaving the issues ID raises basically untouched. The fact is that ID has been influential in the public square, especially in evangelism and in theistic debate. After all, Antony Flew, one of the greatest atheists of all time, credits ID arguments for his transformation from an atheist to a deist.

    Comment by D.R. Randle | May 22, 2007

  6. It’s worth checking out Miller’s book Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, published by Eerdmanns in 2003. Mark Noll contributed an essay to the book on both Charles Hodge and Warfield’s reaction to Darwin’s Theory. Noll writes that Hodge ended up rejecting Darwinism because, as he understood it, Darwinism was ateleological. Warfield however, accepted evolution, though not “Darwinism,” because “‘Evolution’ meant developments arising out of forces that God had placed inside matter at the original creation of the world stuff, but that God also directed to predermined ends by his provedential superintendence of the world” (pp.69).

    The whole book is well-worth reading. All the essayists are committed to a high understanding of the authority of scripture AND the essential soundness of Evolutionary Theory. Physics, geology, anthropology, and of course Bible and Theology.

    Comment by Marvin | May 22, 2007

  7. Thanks, D.R. I wasn’t clear on this distinction either. I’ll be reading up.

    Comment by Thom Stark | May 22, 2007

  8. D. R., I have had many high-level conversations with the major proponents of ID. At its most sophisticated, it is not an alternative scientific theory to Neo-Darwinian Evolution, but is a philosophical view nearly identical to theistic evolution. However, most of the proponents, including, most especially Philip Johnson, do not understand philosophy of science and therefore think they HAVE proposed an alternative to Neo-Darwinian Evolution and they dismiss theistic evolution without realizing how much they are stealing from it.
    At it’s popular level, ID is just “intellectual cover” and repackaging for Creationism. It is bogus in either guise.

    Marvin, thanks for the bibliographic shout outs.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 22, 2007

  9. Here’s how I understand it: both ID and neo-Darwinism are theories of evolution. ID claims that the probabilities of certain evolutionary events are too small to have occurred solely through random genetic mutations and natural selection (material and efficient causes), and hence one must appeal to formal and final causes as well. Neo-Darwinism claims that the probabilities are not that small, and hence appeal to formal and final causes is not necessary. However, neither claim (on the size of the probabilities) is backed up by empirical data, and probably can’t be. That is, the situation is that science cannot determine what those probabilities were. Therefore both theories are unscientific.

    Comment by Scott Roberts | May 22, 2007

  10. Scott, I cannot agree. Advances in genetics, including what might be called “archeological genetics” has now proven neo-Darwinianism. We know conclusively, for instance, that all humans now living have a common Cro-Magnon ancestor in Africa.

    ID is not science because it is not enough to find (supposed) flaws in a theory to be an alternative scientific theory. Formal and final causes, i.e., ultimate causes, are not part of scientific explanations. The are meta-scientific–even theological. That is why I have supported teaching ID in high school philosophy classes along with rival theories, but opposed teaching it as a rival scientific theory–it is not. The proponents of I.D. do not really understand how modern science works.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 22, 2007

  11. Michael,

    We seem to be differing over what is meant by “neo-Darwinism”. What you mention (the common ancestor) is, I agree, a scientific conclusion, but I see no reason for an ID-er to reject that conclusion — that is, it is a fact which is consistent with both theories. What is not scientific is the claim that evolution can entirely be accounted for strictly in terms of material and efficient causes, which is what I mean by neo-Darwinism as a theory of evolution. This is just as much a metaphysical claim as saying formal and final causes are required, given the impossibility of our knowing all the variables involved. However, I would say that if one could scientifically determine that the probabilities were in fact on the order of one in 10 to the 150th power, then ID could claim to be a scientific theory. But it can’t, so it isn’t.

    Comment by Scott Roberts | May 22, 2007

  12. Michael,

    I have a couple great friends that are headed out to your part of the country to attend the Presbyterian seminary in Louisville. Their names are Peter and Rebecca Barnes-Davies. He actually just graduated from SFTS (where I’m studying), she is going for her M.Div now. I recommended they look you up as a fellow thinking christian in the area. Just so you won’t get caught by surprise.

    Comment by Aric Clark | May 25, 2007

  13. I look forward to meeting them. I can introduce them to some cool Presbyterians–as well as others of us. Louisville has one of the largest Jewish communities in the upper South (dating to the 19th C.), a very large Catholic presence (since the time of Daniel Boone!), a growing number of Muslims, and the Buddhist community is now large enought that it is trying to build its first temple. So, while Kentucky may seem monocultural compared to San Francisco, they might be pleasantly surprise. We aren’t all young earthers and snake handlers. 🙂

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 26, 2007

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