Posted by: Kenn Hermann | March 5, 2006

19th Century Evangelicals and Darwin

Those in the evangelical and reformed community who are interested in the contemporary debates over ‘evolution’ and ‘design’ would do well to understand how their evangelical ancestors in the late 19th century handled those issues. They would discover that there is often more insight and understanding of the crucial issues at stake for the integrity of a Christian perspective than is often present in contemporary discussions. Perhaps that is one important service that we historians of science and religion can offer. Toward that end let me commend just two books (out of the hundreds) to get you started, if you are at all interested.

The first is David Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders(Eerdmans, 1987). Livingstone surveys how a broad range of British and American naturalists and theologians handled the issues raised by Darwin’s work. Perhaps ‘defenders’ is a bit strong, but his overall argument still stands. He found that there was a wide spectrum of views that were vigorously explored and discussed, but always with an irenic spirit. A second point is that the chronology of these debates can be divided into two periods, BST, Before the Scopes Trial and AST, After the Scopes Trial. (These are my terms, not Livingstone’s.) After the Scopes trial the scholarly and peaceful character of the discussions was eclipsed and silenced by an aggressive and anti-intellectual Fundamentalism that was guided by the new ideology of ‘scientific creationism.’ (Ronald Numbers, The Creationists picks up the story from Scopes to the present.)

The second book is by James Orr, The Christian View of God and the World, the Kerr Lectures for 1891 (published 1896). Orr was a highly-esteemed Professor in the United Free Church College in Glasgow. Kuyper knew him. This book was perhaps, as David Naugle reminds us, the first to give systematic attention to the meaning and implications of a Christian worldview. It outlines his most sustained and systematic analysis of what is at stake for a Christian understanding of ‘evolution.’ It is also interesting to note that because of his reputation, he was asked to write several articles for The Fundamentals. They are still worth reading. Needless to say, Orr did not accept the theological direction of Fundamentalism.

In my estimation one of the many strong virtues of Orr’s book is shaped by the sub-title . . .as centering in the incarnation. Orr builds his Christian worldview on a robust Christology. One of the primary weaknesses of post-Newtonian natural theology — one also shared by many modern proponents of the ‘design’ argument, is its total silence on the Christological foundations of a Christian view of creation. As Colin Gunton has forcefully reminded us of late: there can be no Christian understanding of creation that is not Trinitarian at its core. I believe this theological weakness sapped the strength of any viable evangelical response to post-Galilean science. It is no surprise that Newton’s Arianism gave birth to Deism. Perhaps it is not the root of the ‘origins of atheism,’ as Michael Buckley suggests, but it’s close.

My research in this area confirms Livingstone’s conclusions. I have found a generous number of articles in the American theological quarterlies in the late 19th century that raise most, if not all, of the critical issues that Christians ought to consider. The battle lines, such as they were, were far more subtly drawn than modern debates would suggest. As time permits, I would like to make some of these artlces available online. Then, as now, for example, there were evangelicals who challenged the traditional ‘design’ argument on theological, as well as on scientific grounds.

I am currently working on a book that analyzes the discussion between Charles Darwin and Asa Gray, his most prominent American ‘defender,’ on the implications of Darwin’s theory of descent for the traditional design argument. There are valuable lessons to be learned from that discussion as well.


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