A Design History of Theistic Evolution (#3 of 6)

Benjamin Warfield

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).

Avatar photo

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Creation, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to A Design History of Theistic Evolution (#3 of 6)

  1. pngarrison says:

    “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…

    Surely the following counts as at least a first step:


  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi pngarrison

    Well, yes – I’ve not read the paper before, but saw it reported. But it is a small step, like Simon Conway-Morris’s sterling clssification work – not quite the giant leap that Warfield had in mind, I guess, back in those days. So is “largely the case” not fair comment?

    The main point, though, is not that some of his critiques have had a little light cast on them, but his ability to be a candid and critical supporter of the theory because his theology was largely independent of it.

    The other thing I find refreshing and instructive (but didn’t really mention in the OP) is that he, like the other two guys, is able to discuss in public the pros and cons of the science, and the theological implications, without being shouted down as a fundamentalist, anti-science, selling out the gospel, closet Creationist or Atheist etc – he’s allowed to have a public position of his own to make its way freely in the market place of ideas. A pity we’re all so much more civilised now!

  3. Avatar photo penman says:

    Excellent stuff. Jon.

    On the aberration of Spurgeon’s cigar-ism… He is also (by those who know) excoriated in the modern young earth community for his ardent advocacy of an ancient earth, although he opposed organic evolution. Since for most young earth believers “millions of years” is part of “The Lie”, it puts poor CHS in a very uncomfortable place.

    I’m just reading Bernard Ramm’s book on science & scripture, & he has much information previously unknown to me on conservative theologians of a bygone day who were not hostile to evolution.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Fortunately for CHS, he’s actually in quite a comfortable place now, despite the YECs!

    I remember showing an American studying at Tyndale House around Essex, since it was my home then. He’d written a book on John Owen, so I offered to take him round Coggeshall Church, where he served during the Commonwealth. On the way we happened to pass Spurgeon’s birthplace, and my friend was in Evangelical heaven (perhaps not as literally as Spurgeon). This academic was reduced by the end of the afternoon (when he’s handled an actual offertory plate from Owen’s era) to saying “Wow!” over and over.

    I’ll have to consult Ramm in due course.

  5. Gregory says:

    Running out of energy tonight, but let me give it a go…

    “Warfield was eminently qualified to be a theistic evolutionist”

    Your later words seem to say otherwise:
    “Warfield…had seen the hi-jacking of evolutionary theory, by Huxley and others, as an ideological weapon against religion.”

    The ‘ideological weapon’ is called ‘evolutionism.’

    So, I’m confused with your terminology. If Warfield rejects the ‘ideological weapon’ that high-jacked ‘evolutionary theory’ had become and often still is, then wouldn’t Warfield have rejected being called an ‘evolutionist,’ regardless of the qualifier ‘theistic’ being added to it, i.e. because he rejected evolutionism? Can you document a case where Warfield referred to himself as a ‘theistic evolutionist,’ and not just as someone who accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution within his theological framework, i.e. reformational thought?

    There is no explanation for why some letters are capitalised in words sometimes, but then not at other times in the OP. The single use of the term ‘design’ (as you siamese twin it with ‘teleology’) in this post should read ‘Design,’ in my view. It’s either a religious philosophical or theological claim; just qualifying the ‘theology’ with ‘scientific’ doesn’t change that.

    But I wonder, do you consider this wise: “he pursued theology, consciously, as a science”? Do you consider ‘theology’ as a ‘science,’ Jon? Does penman?

    McGrath does. Apparently Torrance did. No Catholic theologian (admittedly as an amateur thinking it) comes to mind, however (though Lonergan is probably worthwhile to explore contra the Protestant rationalism cum scientism of ‘scientistic theology,’ which may provide an alternative to attitudes about ‘open theology’). Nor is it the Orthodox position (Xristos Voskresye!).

    It may be that this messes up your (lack of) ‘design/Design’ distinction also, yet suggests why you find the TE label so problematic (even aside from BioLogos). Likewise, I don’t see the reversal of qualifier and qualified from ‘evolutionary theology’ to ‘theological evolution’ as very helpful. It sounds like a George Murphy-esque ‘sin of origin’ Protestant theological word-game that somehow seeks to model the Orthodox tradition (with scientism via population genetics bearing down).

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I thought I’d done reasonably well in the series by (a) setting out the working definition of theistic evolution I was using from the start and (b) citing Warfield’s objections to the actual term immediately after showing how he complied with my working definition. His objections, as I tried to reflect in my discussion, were to TE understood in a deistic sense, where God is not involved in evolution after the Creation – obviously a common usage in his time, though strictly inaccurate as “theism” implies involvement.

      The Murphy-esque reversal was shorthand for saying that, unlike Murphy, Warfield’s core theology was not determined by evolution. Murphy’s views on the Fall would collapse if common descent were disproved. Warfield would just shrug and say science moves on.

      “Evolutionism” is problematic in historical terms too, in that though I wasn’t looking out for the term, in preparing the essay I noticed some references to it in the Victorian sources, used mainly as a descriptive for the belief that evolution occurred rather than an ideology (you’ll remember the dispute on BL once, where it was shown that the dictionary allowed evolutionism as a simple belief in evolution as well as the ideological meaning). I can’t see anywhere that Warfield uses the term for the ideology, though it existed and he wrote against it under other labels,

      The take-home message is that those terms that haven’t changed their meaning since those times have usually changed their baggage, as per my initial warning. To quote them without commentary risks a misleading mapping of current controversies into the past; to use terms in the modern sense risks misrepresenting what the “ancients” actually said. I’ve no doubt my middle course errs, but also I think I’ve got across reasonably how these people were actually thinking in context. If not – it’s a pity, but I have given sources.

      Would Warfield have rejected the term “evolutionist?” Given the flux in its status and terminology in his life*, and the depth of his thinking, I suspect he’d have asked for your definition before committing himself, or diverted you by saying something like “I accept the science of evolutionary theory within limits, but not the ateleological implications read into it.” He may well have said yea or nay at some stage – Noll, who knows his source well, has a section entitled “the shape of Warfield’s evolutionism”.

      Warfield’s views on theology as a science can be read at length in “Studies in Theology” (Banner of Truth). No space to quote here, but as ever he discusses it in depth. However, he lived before naturalism had become a sine-qua-non of the natural sciences and had successfully infiltrated the other sciences too. Being a product of this age, not his, I find it unnecessarily contentious and therefore inappropriate to speak of theology as a science. However, it does involve the application of reason to sources of knowledge (Warfield inludes religious mental experience, history and of course Scripture), so it’s one viewpoint. Before Warfield, of course, in mediaeval Catholic universities it was the “queen of sciences”.

      * Darwin, of course, didn’t adopt the term “evolution” until many years had passed, and Spencer’s evolutionary philosophy had been popularly grafted on to Darwin’s transformism, which wasn’t strictly evolutionary at all. Darwin disliked Spencer and his work, Spencer resented Darwin getting credit for his “baby”, evolution. The confusion has persisted on all fronts to this day (source Etienne Gilson).

  6. seenoevo says:

    From the abstract of the article linked by pngarrison with MY EMPHASES:
    “…confirmed results from comparative evolutionary developmental studies that much of the developmental toolkit once thought to be characteristic of bilaterians appeared MUCH EARLIER in the evolution of animals.”

    I assume this means “much earlier” than dates previously thought, or previously printed in high school text books.

    Whenever I notice an evolutionary news item dealing with a surprise in dating, it invariably contains those same words – “much earlier than previously thought”. I can’t recall ever reading about the shock of X’s evolution being “much LATER”. If any such instances exist, I’d bet they’re far outnumbered by the “much earlier”-ers.

    Putting aside the actual number of years being tossed around, and given a fixed end point (i.e. earth’s formation an alleged 4 billion years ago), what the “much earlier” does is COMPRESS the time for evolution to occur. For the most part, we’ve always been told evolution takes a long time. But with each additional news item like this, more and more is happening (or evolving) earlier and earlier, and comparatively, over less and less time.

    Sometimes in blow-by-blow descriptions of, say, the Cambrian Explosion, you’ll read words like “All present phyla appeared WITHIN the first 20 million years of the period” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cambrian_explosion#cite_note-6 )

    “Within” could mean ANY time period inside the 20 million year envelope. It could mean a 6 million year span, it could mean a 6-day span.

Leave a Reply