B B Warfield was not just a Princeton Presbyterian theologian, but one of the leading theological scholars of his age. A sign of how superficially we consider matters now is that he was the person most responsible for the modern Evangelical doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy, and yet considered that Charles Darwin took too literal a view of the Bible. Go figure, as they say!
His early support for Darwin’s theory is confusing for evangelical Creationists, who see it as an aberration akin to C H Spurgeon’s cigar-smoking. His qualification of that support is equally confusing for Theistic Evolutionists. As a result his important and profound thinking on evolution is now largely ignored by all sides, despite the excellent collection of his writings about it by Mark Noll and David Livingstone[viii].
Noll wrote a piece for BioLogos[ix] which gives more information, more clearly, than I am able to here. Warfield was eminently qualified to be a theistic evolutionist, having first trained in science and mathematics before his call to the ministry. This may explain why he pursued theology, consciously, as a science. He did not, however, like the term “theistic evolution” if it was understood to mean that:
…creation… supplies the original material; evolution accounts for all its subsequent modifications. And this is called theistic evolution. It may well be that. It is another question whether it may fitly be called also Christian evolution.
For like both my other examples, the American botanical Congregationalist and the English socialist Anglican, Warfield insisted on the centrality of special providence in the Christian understanding of evolution. As an academic Reformed theologian he probably had an even deeper understanding of this than they did. He was well versed in the theology and philosophy of classical theism stretching back through Americans like Jonathan Edwards, the original Reformers like John Calvin, the scholastics and especially Thomas Aquinas, and back to St Augustine. I shouldn’t neglect to say that he also found these teachings in Pauline theology and the rest of the Bible.
In this rich and intellectually rigorous tradition, there is simply no distinction between “divine action” and “natural process”, because God’s active or permissive will is behind all events in creation anyway. It is on this basis, and this basis alone, that God can coherently be said to answer intercessory prayer, to guide human history – and even to save the world in Christ. So what problems does a theory like Darwin’s, in which variation and natural selection are responsible for biological species, cause such a theology? None whatsoever. It is simply the means God uses to create.
To be sure, Warfield found the need to nuance that in the light of his view of true creation as being ex nihilo. Since evolution forms novelty within creation by the means of special providence acting through chance and natural law, he employed the term mediate creation. This, however, does not affect the central fact of God’s sovereignty within a gradual process every bit as much as it would be in successive acts of special creation.
Additionally, there were points at which Warfield felt Scripture and philosophical reason demanded direct intervention by God, such as, perhaps, in the first creation of life and the creation of the human spirit. The first of these still remains opaque scientifically today, and the second is still problematic for naturalist explanations, as even the recent book by Thomas Nagel demonstrates[x].
Warfield, writing later than my two earlier examples, had seen the hi-jacking of evolutionary theory, by Huxley and others, as an ideological weapon against religion. But like them, he too saw clearly that this was a metaphysical imposition on the science (albeit one whose seeds had been sown by Darwin himself):
[Prof. Le Conte] tells us that “matter by combination, recombination, and therefore by purely chemical forces, rose to higher and more complex forms until it reached protoplasm.” …So it is not only a theory of self-creation, but it is a theory of the self-creation of all that is. …It will assuredly not escape the reader that this philosophical theory has no claim to be called science. It is purely a priori construction.
So the heart of Warfield’s understanding of the theory of evolution is that it was entirely, and unproblematically, compatible with orthodox Christian belief, and even with full-blown biblical inerrancy, provided one held to the strong classical view of special providence. All the theological conflicts arose from an inadequate view of God’s sovereignty – in other words, those who departed from the Augustinian view were bound to have problems reconciling evolution and faith. This was as likely to cause damage to theology as to scientific truth.
On the one hand, Warfield could not go along with the Fundamentalist tendency towards Arminian rejection of this view of providence – which led them in the end to reject the science as Creationism – nor of course with the liberalism that embraced evolution at the expense of the Biblical doctrine of God’s direction of nature:
He who no longer holds to the Bible of Jesus – the word of which cannot be broken – will be found on examination no longer to hold to the Jesus of the Bible.
Another strength of Warfield’s position is that, because he had no faith commitment to Darwinism – his was not an evolutionary theology but a theological evolution – he was intellectually free to criticise its weaknesses, not in order to disprove it, but to improve it and delineate its scientific limitations. So he was not at all discomfited when, towards the end of his life, evolution by natural selection lost scientific support. Thus, for example:
Darwin defends himself against the geological record rather than appeals to it.
That remains largely the case, as does this:
Evolution has not yet made the first step toward explaining, e.g., the origin of the Trilobites in the Silurian [=Cambrian] rocks…
And this still unchanged fact:
We may add that, so far as observation can evidence, there appear to be limits to the amount of variation to which any organism is liable…
Apart from such purely scientific issues, however, for B B Warfield as for both Gray and Kingsley, the key component distinguishing theistic evolution from atheistic evolution was teleology, or design:
Aimless movement in time will produce an ordered world! You might as well suppose that if you stir up a mass of type with a stick long enough, the letters will be found to have arranged themselves in the order in which they stand on the printed pages of Dante’s Inferno. It will never happen—though you stir for an eternity. And the reason is that such effects do not happen, but are produced only by a cause adequate to them and directed to the end in view. . . . Assuredly, what chance cannot begin to produce in a moment, chance cannot complete the production of in an eternity. . . . What is needed is not time, but cause.
[viii]Noll MA & Livingstone DN, Evolution, Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2000).
[ix] http://biologos.org/blog/one-voice-relating-science-and-nature-in-todays-world-part-1 (Accessed 30/04/2013).
[x]Nagel T, Mind and Cosmos – why the naturalist Neo-darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false (Oxford, 2012).