The Churches' Response to Darwinism
Darwin published his seminal work Origin of Species in 1859 describing a mechanism for evolution. It was destined to change the world. The evolutionary theory was refined in the 20th century, establishing the picture of a universe devoid of supernatural forces. It was the death blow to pre-scientific theocentric cosmologies and it is now the key philosophy of western culture.
Until two hundred years ago, the churches’ belief in the authority of the Bible was the foundation of society. Most people accepted that the world was young and that God made everything in six days because Genesis said so. It was confirmed in Exodus 20:11 and by Jesus in Mark 10:6. Paul, writing in Romans 5:14-17 built his theology on a real man, Adam, who fell bringing death into the world. For eighteen hundred years, the churches’ message began with creation, fallen humankind, and then redemption by the substitutionary death of Christ and the hope of a new creation. There were few dissenters. But science was to surprise them.
This article is a general overview of the theological responses to Darwinism.
STEP ONE: Uniformitarianism
In 1785 James Hutton gave a paper Theory of the Earth at the first meeting of the Royal Society of Edinburgh suggesting that the sandstones, chalks and clays were a very slow accumulation of sedimentary deposits, and they were not the result of a worldwide flood. He argued that if the forces working on the earth today had always been the same in the past, these rocks must have previously formed over long periods of time under the sea. He argued that Genesis was wrong, and that the earth was incredibly old.
The churches’ responded in 1804 when the Scottish divine Thomas Chalmers, a promising 21-year-old preacher in St Andrews, proposed ‘the gap theory’. He said there was a gap between verses 1 and 2 in the first chapter of Genesis, and that the earth had been created for a long time before God began again to create life. Most theologians conceded that the earth was probably old.
STEP TWO: The discovery of fossils
At the beginning of the 19th century, fossil hunters were digging up the remains of fish and plants and the bones of enormous monsters which Sir Robert Owen called dinosaurs. If the fossils buried in sedimentary rocks were as old as the rocks, these creatures were ancient.
The churches responded by saying perhaps there was a previous creation that was not recorded in the Bible, and these strange creatures were wiped out before God started again to create living things.
Hugh Miller was a quarryman who became a highly respected palaeontologist. He had a remarkable Christian conversion and became editor of The Witness, the Scottish Free Church newspaper. He thought that the 24-hour ‘days’ in Genesis should be interpreted as ‘epochs’, and that God had made special creations at different times in the earth’s long history. Hugh Miller did not satisfy everyone, but his suggestion brought a degree of peace whilst compromising the literal interpretation of Genesis.
Theologians now had to rethink their ideas about the origins of good, evil and suffering because the world before Adam must have been a cruel world and not ‘very good’. Suffering and pain could no longer be laid on the shoulders of Adam and his fall. It was built into the creation.
STEP THREE: evolutionary ideas
Before Darwin, some individuals had suggested that the living world could best be explained by some form of evolution. They did not accept a literal interpretation of the Bible, and argued that simple creatures had slowly developed into complicated life forms. The birth of geology and fossil hunting provided a fertile opportunity to give credit to evolution. Inventive minds decided that life began in the sea, with a progressive development from simple organisms to fish, and then to amphibians, which climbed out of the slime. They were followed by birds and mammals and eventually the newcomers, humankind, swung down from the trees. That was the theory and they claimed that the fossils revealed it. When simple creatures were found in strata above more complicated creatures, they said that the rocks must have slowly turned upside down.
The churches’ responded by saying that even if the sequence of creation in Genesis did not match evolution, the text could be treated as having literary character and poetic quality, and it need not be read literally at all - the ‘framework hypothesis’ . But now the floodgates were open wide, with people asking bigger questions like ‘If Genesis is not meant to be read literally, what else in the Bible should be treated as poetry?'
STEP FOUR: Darwin’s evolution
Many scientists intuitively believed in evolution, but they couldn’t explain any satisfactory mechanism until Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859. It was an immediate best seller. He claimed that with enough time, chance variation in a species would produce a new species.
Survival is a painful struggle for existence and within any population only those individuals will survive and breed which have advantageous characteristics. He believed that this was the driving force for new species, and he claimed that no species was immutable. He believed that all life had arisen from one simple common stock, and that one day the fossil record would show a gradation of creatures from the simplest to the complex life forms of today. It was a powerful argument and some of the evidence seemed to fit.
The churches responded by accepting evolution for most living things, but humans were the exception and did not have monkeys for ancestors.
STEP FIVE: Humans are not special
The hard-line Darwinists derided the church, saying that humans were no different from the rest of living things, only slightly more complicated. They told people to forget Genesis, discount the whole Bible, and the idea of the supernatural and a God was an outdated myth.
On Sunday 30th June 1860, the battle lines were drawn and there was a critical ideological clash in Oxford. Bishop Samuel Wilberforce spoke on botany and zoology to almost a thousand people at the British Association for Advanced Science and then turned to Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s erudite champion, and asked:
“I beg to know, was it through your grandfather or your grandmother that you claim to be descended from a monkey?”
Huxley slowly and deliberately rose, outlined Darwin’s ideas and spoke a shocking finale that won the day:
“I would not be ashamed to have a monkey for an ancestor; but I would be ashamed to be connected with a man who uses his great gifts to obscure the truth”.
Science was overwhelmingly powerful on the minds of 19th century people. It had spawned the industrial revolution and produced the goods, so its pronouncements must be true. Opponents were branded as bigots, blinkered and holding on to old religious superstitions. Science proved everything, and Darwinism undermined any plausible ground for believing in the supernatural.
The churches responded in embarrassment and humiliation. They had conceded that evolution was true, but still claimed that humans were distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom, possessing a soul. Christian people looked to the biologist Sir Robert Owen for support, and they were delighted when he dissected the brains of humans and monkeys and reported that there was a specialised area in the human brain not to be found in other primates – the seat of the soul. However, evolutionists were arguing that continuity of descent limited the depth of the divide between humans and their animal relatives. Furthermore, Huxley carried out the same dissections and exposed Owen’s work as a fraud. Human brains, he said, were little different from monkey brains.
What was left for the theologians to say? They had conceded that the earth was very old, that the ‘days’ in Genesis were ‘epochs’, that the creation story was poetry, that the driving force for evolution was chance events, that evil had been in the world long before humans, that men and women had monkeys for ancestors and that the New Testament’s verdict on Genesis was flawed. Having abandoned a literal interpretation of Genesis, with its foundation for major doctrines, the churches’ confidence was shaken and many turned to higher criticism and a liberal approach to the whole Bible.
STEP SIX: The twentieth century
In the 20th century, the science of genetics, the understanding of mutations and the discovery of DNA refined the theory of evolution into neo-Darwinism. The theory was now a fact. It did not matter that biologists could not fill in the imaginary gaps of the evolutionary tree. Frauds and hoaxes littered evolutionary science, but atheistic scientists proclaimed that evolution was the truth, and even if not, there was no better alternative.
Evolution was used as an excuse to carry out programmes of ethnic cleansing and engineer a super-race of humans. Philosophy entered an era of black despair with Neitzsh and others saying that the human race existed only because of endless time, good fortune and chance. Society was robbed of its enchantment with nature.
STEP SEVEN: The beginning of the 21st Century
Into the 21st century, educationalists and the media continue to proclaim Darwinism as the only logical explanation for our existence, with no reason to believe in a Designer God, or for any biologist to doubt evolution. As far as evolution is concerned, God is dead and debate is no longer permitted.
The churches’ have responded with silence. They have either capitulated to the forces of modernism, or the odd ‘literalist’ is written off as an extreme fundamentalist. Their views on morality are ignored. To speak from a biblical perspective is frequently to become a target for abuse and hostility. Atheistic scientists say that religious discourse has no subject matter, and the church is dismissed as an intellectual dinosaur that has outlived its usefulness.
A NEW CLIMATE
After a century of intensive effort, Dawinism is in crisis. Biologists have still failed to validate evolution in any significant sense, and there are now strong scientific reasons for disbelieving Darwinism that are not within the scope of this article. Scientists who previously embraced evolution are beginning to look for alternative explanations for the complexity of life. Biologists from the American Museum of Natural History have said, 'Darwinism is in short a theory that has been put to the test and found false'.
As the western world moves from the modern into a post-modern period, the ‘big stories’ that explained why things are the way they are have been challenged. Marxism collapsed with the Berlin wall. Freudism has been largely discredited. But what about Darwinism? Is it not time for this pillar of modernity to topple?
In America atheistic evolutionists are being out-manoeuvred by the argument for intelligent design. In addition, the creation movement is gathering pace. A Gallup poll showed that 69% of Americans favoured teaching creationism in public schools along with evolution, and 40% did not oppose replacing evolution altogether with creationism.
Even the age of the universe is under review. Most physicists say the universe is 13.5 billion years old, but that depends on how we measure ‘time’. If the speed of light was very much faster in the beginning as some physicists are asking , the age of the universe must be reconsidered,,.
This new mood in science is an opportunity for the church to ask serious questions about evolution and the legacy of Darwinism, and to encourage a biblical worldview as a credible explanation for the meaning of life, .
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