Darwin Biblical Interpretation And The Origins Of Humanity

One of the most vigorous debates within modern Christian thought concerns the implications of Darwinism for religious belief. It is a debate that is by no means limited to Christianity, as is evident from the generally hostile reaction to Darwinism in the Islamic world. So what is Darwinism? While the term is often used to refer specifically to the views set out by Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species, it is more widely used to refer to the theories that emerged from Darwin's work and have since been developed and modified.

The publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) is rightly regarded as a landmark in nineteenth-century science. Darwin held that all species—including humanity—result from a long and complex process of biological evolution.65 The religious implications of Darwin's theory will be clear. Traditional Christian thought regarded humanity as set apart from the rest of nature, created as the height of God's creation, and alone endowed with the "image of God." Darwin's theory suggested that human nature has emerged gradually over a long period of time and that no fundamental biological distinction can be drawn between human beings and animals in terms of their origins and development.66

This idea caused considerable anxiety to many Christians at the time. In traditional Christian theology, humanity was located within the created order as a whole, but stood above it on account of its unique relationship to God, articulated in the notion of the imago Dei. Yet Darwin's Origin of Species posed an implicit—and his Descent of Man (1871) an explicit—challenge to this view. Humanity had emerged, Darwin asserted, over a vast period of time from within the natural order. This posed a powerful challenge to popular Protestant ideas and soon led to heated controversy.

One popular Protestant account of the origin of species, widely supported by the English religious and academic establishment of the early nineteenth century, held that God somehow created everything, in all its intricacy, more or less as we now see it. The success of this view owed much to the influence of William Paley (1743-1805), Archdeacon of Carlisle, who, in promulgating this view, compared God to one of the mechanical geniuses of the industrial revolution.67

Paley's Natural Theology (1802) had a profound influence on popular English religious thought in the first half of the nineteenth century, and Darwin is known to have read it. Paley was deeply impressed by Newton's discovery of the regularity of nature, which allowed the universe to be thought of as a complex mechanism operating according to regular and understandable principles. Nature consists of a series of biological structures that can be thought of as "contrived"—that is, constructed with a clear purpose in mind. Paley argued that the present organization of the world, both physical and biological, can be seen as a compelling witness to the wisdom of a creator god. Yet Paley's argument depended on a static worldview and simply could not cope with the dynamic worldview underlying Darwinism.

It is important to note that Darwinism became most worrisome to Christians in cultures that had been particularly influenced by literal readings of the Book of Genesis. Such readings are known to have been widespread within popular Protestantism in Britain and the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century, even though more nu-anced interpretative schemes had been proposed by Protestant academics in both countries. Despite these more sophisticated interpretations of the Genesis creation accounts, at the popular level it was widely assumed that a commonsense reading of the Bible led to an understanding that the world and humanity had been created in six days.

Darwinism posed a significant challenge, both to this specific reading of the Book of Genesis and to existing models of biblical interpretation in general. Were the six days of the Genesis creation account to be taken literally as periods of twenty-four hours each? Or as indefinite periods of time? And was it legitimate to suggest that vast periods of time might separate the events of that narrative? Or was the Genesis creation account to be interpreted as a historically and culturally conditioned narrative reflecting ancient Babylonian myths, which could not be taken as a scientific account of the origins of life in general and humanity in particular? The debates were many, and they continue to this day.68

It is important to note that these challenges to existing biblical interpretations have occurred in a characteristically Protestant context: an ongoing dialogue between the community of faith and its foundational text. The history of Protestantism has been one of constantly revisiting and reevaluating existing interpretations of the Bible, a process that has been precipitated and catalyzed by many factors—including scientific advance.

Although these debates were well under way within English Protestantism by the late nineteenth century, they have become of especial importance in twentieth-century American evangelicalism, especially in its fundamentalist forms. Interestingly, early fundamentalism does not appear to have had any particular difficulties with Darwinism; opposition was a later development that gained sympathy after the celebrated Scopes "monkey" trial of 1925.69 In May 1925, John T. Scopes, a young high-school science teacher, fell afoul of a recently adopted statute that prohibited the teaching of evolution in Tennessee's public schools. The American Civil Liberties Union moved in to support Scopes, while William Jennings Bryan served as prosecution counsel. The trial proved to be something of a public relations disaster for fundamentalism.

Bryan, who had billed the trial as a "duel to the death" between Christianity and atheism, was totally wrong-footed by the celebrated agnostic attorney Clarence Darrow. Bryan was called to the stand as a witness for the defense and interrogated concerning his views on evolution. Bryan was forced to admit that he had no knowledge of geology, comparative religions, or ancient civilizations, and he showed himself to have hopelessly naive religious views. In the end, Bryan won the trial but lost the public relations war. Fundamentalists were easily portrayed as ignorant of both science and the problems of biblical interpretation.

So what of the issue today? Some North American evangelicals— such as those generally described as "creationists"—remain adamant that all forms of the theory of biological evolution are contrary to the teaching of the Bible. This was certainly the view taken in the nineteenth century by the highly influential conservative Protestant writer Charles Hodge, for whom Darwinism was simply a form of atheism. It must, however, be pointed out that Hodge drew a distinction between "Darwinism" and "evolution" and regarded the Darwinian viewpoint as unacceptable on account of its apparent rejection of the notion of divine design. Hodge was prepared to accept evolution, not as a random process, but as one in which the guiding hand of God could be discerned.

Nevertheless, this has not been the only view within evangelicalism on this matter, as can be seen from the writings of Benjamin B. Warfield and James I. Packer, widely regarded as the most significant evangelical writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, respec-tively.70 In an 1888 essay on Darwin, Warfield set out his view that the Darwinian doctrine of natural selection could easily be accommodated by evangelicals as a natural law operating under the aegis of the general providence of God. Packer followed Warfield at this point, insisting that he could not see that anything, "in the first chapters of Genesis or elsewhere, bears on the biological theory of evolution one way or the other."71 Again, following the lead of Warfield, Packer argued that interrogating biblical statements concerning nature in the light of scientific knowledge might help toward attaining a more precise exegesis of them. For though exegesis had to be controlled by the text itself, not shaped by extraneous considerations, the exegetical process was constantly stimulated by questioning the text.

The views of Packer and Warfield have not met with universal assent. Creationists such as Henry Morris have somewhat hastily dismissed the approach adopted by Warfield as a clear case of "pervasive theological apostasy." However, Packer's and Warfield's views are illustrative of a major trend within historical evangelicalism—seeking to reconcile the biblical creation accounts with the insights of the natural sciences. Creationist writers have attempted to suppress or dismiss this prominent section of the evangelical movement, often insisting that an openly anti-evolutionary stance is an essential element of evangelical identity.72 The reality is otherwise.

Four major positions are now found on this matter within modern American evangelicalism; each position is linked with a specific way of interpreting the Bible, on the one hand, and of engaging with science, on the other.73 Each can be further subdivided, yielding up nineteen possible Protestant interpretations of the origins of humanity. In what follows, we limit ourselves to identifying four broad categories. Readers might note that the first two are often brought together and treated under the single category of "creationism." Because there are such great variations within this movement, it seemed appropriate to make a distinction between its "young-earth" and "old-earth" variants.

Young-Earth Creationism

Young-earth creationism represents the continuation of the "common reading" of Genesis, which was widely encountered in popular and at least some academic writing before 1800. On this view, the earth was created in its basic form between six thousand and ten thousand years ago. Young-earth creationists read the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis in a way that allows for no living creatures of any kind before Eden, and no death before the Fall. Most young-earth creationists hold that all living things were created simultaneously, within the time frame proposed by the Genesis creation accounts, with the Hebrew word yom ("day") meaning a period of twenty-four hours. The fossil records, which point to a much longer time frame and the existence of extinct species, are understood by many young-earth creationists to date from the time of Noah's flood. This viewpoint is often, but not universally, stated in the form of a 144-hour creation and a universal flood.

Old-Earth Creationism

Old-earth creationism, which has a long history, is probably the majority viewpoint within conservative Protestant circles. It has no particular difficulty with the vast age of the world and argues that the young-earth approach requires modification in at least two respects. First, the Hebrew word yom may need to be interpreted as an "indefinite time participle" (not unlike the English word "while") signifying an indeterminate period of time that is given specificity by its context. In other words, the word "day" in the Genesis creation accounts is to be interpreted as a long period of time, not a specific period of twenty-four hours. Second, this view proposes that there may be a large gap between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2. In other words, the narrative is not understood to be continuous but to make way for the intervention of a substantial period of time between the primordial act of creation of the universe and the emergence of life on earth. This viewpoint is advocated by the famous Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909, although the ideas can be traced back to writers such as the earlier nineteenth-century Scottish divine Thomas Chalmers.

Intelligent Design

The intelligent design movement, which has gained considerable influence in the United States in recent years, argues that the biosphere is possessed of an "irreducible complexity" that makes it impossible to explain its origins and development using any other theory besides "intelligent design."74 Intelligent design does not deny biological evolution; its most fundamental criticism of Darwinism is teleological—that evolution has no goal. The intelligent design movement argues that standard Darwinism runs into significant explanatory difficulties that can only be adequately resolved through the intentional creation of individual species. Its critics argue that these difficulties are overstated, or that they will be resolved in due course by future theoretical advances.75

Although the movement avoids identifying this intelligent designer directly with God (presumably for political reasons), it is clear that this assumption is intrinsic to its working methods.

Evolutionary Theism

A final approach argues that evolution is to be understood as God's chosen method of bringing life into existence from inorganic materials and creating complexity within life. Whereas Darwinism gives a significant place to random events in the evolutionary process, evolutionary theism sees the process as divinely directed. Some evolutionary theists propose that each level of complexity is to be explained on the basis of "God working within the system," perhaps at the quantum level. Others, such as Howard van Till, adopt a "fully-gifted creation" perspective, arguing that God built in the potential for the emergence and complexity of life in the initial act of creation, so that further acts of divine intervention are not required.

From this survey of Protestant attitudes to Darwinism, it will be clear that some of the movement's constituent elements retain a degree of suspicion, even hostility, toward the sciences, especially in relation to questions of origins. This is traditionally interpreted as a problem for Protestantism. There is some truth in this view, provided the various constituencies within Protestantism are disentangled, and their numerical strengths and theological positions understood. But it is also a problem for the sciences. Recent polemical works from aggressively atheist scientific popularizers, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, have created the quite false impression that study of the natural sciences necessitates an atheist worldview.76 Many American Protestants accept the idea of intelligent design, not on a scientific basis, but because it affirms the legitimate place of God within the greater scheme of things.

As the Darwinian philosopher Michael Ruse pointed out, Dawkins and Dennett have been "absolute disasters" for the sciences in that they have predisposed many Protestants—not to mention other Christians—against the sciences, reinforcing some of the oldest and deepest prejudices of the movement against scholarly advance and new insights.77 Some serious building of bridges and mending of fences clearly needs to be done. It is utterly pointless to alienate nearly one billion individuals from the sciences on the basis of a highly questionable, perhaps even totally spurious, interpretation of the religious implications of the sciences.78

With this sobering reflection, we end this survey of the beliefs and cultural manifestations of classic Protestantism. We now turn to document the remarkable changes of the twentieth century, which saw the movement change beyond recognition in many regions of the world. In part 3 of this work, we shall examine the transformation of Protestantism in the twentieth century arising from the global dominance of the cultural influence of the United States of America, the astonishing rise of Pentecostalism, and the burgeoning of Protestantism in the global South.


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