Saturday, July 11, 2009

Darwin and God

I'll deliver a lecture at our (rather large!) church week away at the end of the month, celebrating Darwin's 200th birthday. During my research I've used some useful introductory books on Darwin, such as Jonathan Howard's contribution to the Very Short Introduction Series, and Jonathan Miller's Introducing Darwin.

Both were helpful, but when they turned to matters of religion they tended to be disastrously naive and inaccurate. For example, Howard writes that it has become 'hard, perhaps impossible for the orthodox Christian to come to terms with Darwin' (106)! Let's give him a bit of slack; he is a Geneticist after all, not a theologian, but this is nevertheless an absurd claim! Some key Christians, both in the UK and in USA, were the first to promote Darwin's theories in the 19th century, while some 'secular' scientists opposed it! As for the whole creationism debate, Darwinism poses a problem only for a very culturally specific and dubious reading of Genesis. Where it does get trickier is in the magnification of the theodicy problem, which did not appear on Howard's radar. Darwinism is actually exciting, for traditional Christian dogma, in the way it helps the Church rethink some of its anthropological and philosophical assumptions, and regain a closer approximation to the more relational biblical intuitions.

Nick Spencer's little book, Darwin and God thus comes as a real breath of fresh air, and deals with the nature and development of Darwin's religious beliefs. Thanks to my kind American friend, David Vinson, for the copy! My colleagues recently interviewed Nick for our college podcast here, which makes for interesting listening.


At 7/11/2009 12:32 PM, Anonymous James said...

Look forward to the talk Chris. So much interesting work has been done on Darwin. I found Chapter 7 of Owen Chadwick's "The Secularisation of the European Mind in the 19thC" very helpful on the sociological front, as well as Denis Alexander's "Rebuilding the Matrix".

The way Darwinism mutates into Social Darwinist thinking in the US and Germany towards the end of the 19thC is especially fascinating, and relatively untouched as an area: a loud warning if ever there was one against smuggling in unexamined metaphysical assumptions into sound science.

The difficulty with relying too heavily on the biographical - as Nick and others do - is that it risks a kind of reverse ad hominem; in the end, of course, the impact of his discoveries on Darwin's religious views are neither here nor there when examining their impact on metaphysics.

At 7/11/2009 1:13 PM, Anonymous Steven Carr said...

'Some key Christians, both in the UK and in USA, were the first to promote Darwin's theories in the 19th century....'

For example, here is what Asa Gray wrote about Darwin's theories.

'And if natural selection, with artificial to help it, will produce better animals and better men than the present, and fit them better to "the conditions of existence," why, let it work, say we, to the top of its bent.'

I guess eugenics was already rearing its ugly head.

Gray also wrote :-

'That would be evidence indeed: but until some testimony of the sort is produced, we must needs believe in the separate and special creation of man, however it may have been with the lower animals and with plants.'

At 7/11/2009 2:37 PM, Anonymous Rob said...

Hey Chris, do you know of any books that deal with the greater theodicy problems involved in accepting some theological view of evolution (questions of human death, suffering, natural 'disasters' etc?)

At 7/11/2009 3:00 PM, Anonymous Terry Wright said...

Rob, Colin Gunton's two chapters on providence in The Triune Creator and The Christian Faith in part look at issues of evolution and theodicy.

At 7/11/2009 3:25 PM, Anonymous James said...


For a view contemporaneous with Darwin, try Asa Gray's "Darwiniana", esp. pp. 310-311 ...

For a more contemporary approach, I was quite impressed by John Haught's "God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution", though be on the look out for his overly enthusiastic appropriation of De Chardin and his zealous subscription to process thought.

At 7/12/2009 1:47 PM, Anonymous Mike Bull said...

Hi Chris

I'm a 6 day creationist, so I think it's the other side that has the culturally specific (modernist) and dubious reading of Genesis. Time will tell.

Genesis shows no signs of being polemic, contains none of the hallmarks of Hebrew poetry, and is not addressed to the Hebrews in Moses' time. So the 'ANE' myth-response theory doesn't hold water, no matter how much it might suit our purposes.

That's my 2 cents. : )

Kind regards,
Mike Bull

At 7/16/2009 5:32 AM, Anonymous Brian Mooney said...

Please, give justice to the man. In April, I had the honor of giving a lecture on Darwin to my university, and in order to try to hold the attention of the students, I dared to give the talk autobiographically, as Darwin (no make up - just some adjustments in mannerisms language - and it worked!).

It was a moving experience, to sum up what I had learned about and from Darwin in the past decades of being a biologist, and also to come to grips with his views even from my own liberal Christian perspective. I can only say that what remains with me is a sense of the intrinsic deep-set decency and honesty of the man. He and his family fought against the slave-trade, and any notion of "social Darwinism" was totally against his nature. His family was at the core of his life. Darwin found himself an agnostic, because he could not bear to believe in a God who could create a world with so much suffering in it. This view of Darwin's was underscored by his and Emma's devastation at the death of his little girl, Annie. We may argue about his reasoning, or his conclusions, but can we really find fault with the heart of a man who wanted a CREATED world to be one with less sorrow, less pain, less heartache? I will not fault him for that. The evidence we have says Darwin was a very loving - and thus, a lovely - human being. May God rest his soul in eternal peace.

At 7/16/2009 9:35 AM, Anonymous Steven Carr said...

We may argue about his reasoning, or his conclusions, but can we really find fault with the heart of a man who wanted a CREATED world to be one with less sorrow, less pain, less heartache?

Christians can and do.

You are not supposed to lose faith in God because you want a created world to be one with less sorrow, less pain, less heartache.

When you hear of , for example, people being killed by a tower falling on them, the correct response is to repent, lest you perish.

At 7/16/2009 10:05 AM, Anonymous Mike Bull said...

There's a preview to a stunning new Darwin documentary at

It's made by creationists but they aimed to be as unbiased as possible. It's showing in cinemas here in Australia.

At 7/17/2009 3:44 PM, Anonymous Brian Mooney said...

That's right - Darwin was NOT the official naturalist on the HMS Beagle, but was brought on as the ship captain's social equal and thus his companion. Darwin in fact had to bear even the cost of his own board. Darwin became the de facto naturalist only when the assigned man jumped ship early on in the voyage. (Curiously enough, Captain Fitzroy did commit suicide many years later after a fairly successful career.)

Janet Browne's two volume biography is by far the best work to date - truly definitive. S. J. Gould's essays are useful and a much quicker read, but much more limited.

Thanks for the reply, Steven. While I understand that a Christian may find Darwin's agnosticism to be a result of a weakness of faith, I still cannot condemn him. His weakness is so movingly human. Nor, in my heart, do I believe that God or Jesus would condemns him, even in his error. My own reaction, rightly or wrongly, to people being injured or killed in a mishap is to pray for them and their loved ones, and not to instead focus on repentance and my own life.

But I think I understand the point you make. In all respect, however, I must say that I do not think all Christians (and not only myself) would agree with you.

At 7/19/2009 9:55 PM, Anonymous Grandmère Mimi said...

Speaking from my own experience growing up in the Roman Catholic Church, with 16 years of Roman Catholic schooling, including a Jesuit university, I never was taught that Darwinism and the Christian faith were incompatible. It was only in my adult years that I met folks who thought that the two were in conflict. I'll add that I grew up in New Orleans, which was rather heavily Roman Catholic, and my contacts with literalist readers of the Bible were limited.

And, of course, there was Teilhard de Chardin.

As to Darwin and his agnosticism, I say with Brian, "May God rest his soul in eternal peace."

At 7/24/2009 4:33 PM, Anonymous Chris Donato said...

For those Christians with "conservative" sensibilites regarding scripture and its veracity and how all that relates to Genesis 1 and modern science, John H. Walton's recent book is an absolute must read.

At 7/25/2009 9:32 AM, Anonymous hugh said...

On evolution and theodicy, the best and most accessible (not to say most entertaining - not many theologians quote Monty Python!)is by Chris's colleague Michael Lloyd - eg in chapter 2 of his book "Cafe Theology". There is a longer treatment, taking a different view to Michael, in Michael Southgate's "The Groaning of Creation".

At 7/26/2009 1:00 AM, Anonymous Mike Bull said...

Walton's book looks good until chapter 10. Yes, the world is a cosmic Temple, but divorcing Genesis from "material origins" is just boring old gnosticism. It also makes the Bible's chronology a joke, which no authors of Scripture thought was the case.

As for the paper-thin ANE theory, James B. Jordan writes:

"This is just plain sad. A few shards and fragments from the ancient world are blown up into a whole system of thought that contradicts the Bible, and evangelicals then buy into it.

It may be time for serious Christians to pack it in as far as the evangelical scholarly world is concerned. We can learn from them here and there, just as we learn from Jews and liberals here and there. But unless it shapes up, the future does not lie with this compromised religion."

-- James Jordan, Did God Speak Hebrew to Adam, Biblical Horizons #209.

If Genesis 1 doesn't concern material origins, it is simply another ancient ideology and is not only not authoritative, but misleading. We should take Oxford Hebrew Scholar James Barr's observation seriously, even if he himself doesn't:

‘… probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that:

- creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience

- the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story

- Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark.’

Compromises like Walton's show exactly where his real authority lies, and it isn't God's word. Glad he's onto the cosmic Temple though.

At 7/26/2009 8:32 PM, Anonymous Chris Donato said...

If Genesis 1 doesn't concern material origins…

Au contraire, IF Gen 1 concerns material origins, then Christianity is bankrupt, and we who claim the name of Christ are the most to be pitied, believing as we do in a book that promotes such nonsense (3-layered cosmogeny).

Walton's thesis has nothing to do with gnosticism, for he doesn't deny God-wrought material origins; he simply argues that Gen 1 isn't about that. Jordan's quote is entirely irrelevant since he clearly assumes that Gen 1 is about material origins. Walton actually shows that the ANE 'shards fragments' comport (not contradict) very well with the ancient Gen 1 text. This is the same Jame Jordan that likes to find Jesus under every OT rock, right? Great hermeneutics, that.

The point is precisely that Gen 1 is "simply another ancient ideology," but in this case, it's authoritative, precisely because it's the Word of God. Your English translations are misleading, Mike. Not the original text, and the original audience would've known exactly what was being conveyed.

- creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience

Walton argues this. But the 'creation' in view does not concern material origins but the assigning of functions to an ordered cosmos during a literal seven-day inauguration period by the creator God.

Thus the chronologies hold up as they intend to demarcate the beginning of when God called his creation out to serve him through the administration of his vice-regents. And regarding the flood, even it were intended to be read as a flood that covered the entire earth, it's still irrelevant to the discussion about origins. You've got to rewrite science to get there ('flood geology' and all that stuff, which, in case you didn't know, finds its roots in 7-day adventism, not classical Christianity).

Refusing to seriously entertain Walton's thesis is tantamount to refusing to look through Galileo's telescope.

At 7/27/2009 1:20 AM, Anonymous Mike Bull said...

Hi Chris D.

Thanks for your reply.

I agree. Christianity is bankrupt, and the unbelieving world knows this, and fights vehemently to keep their evolutionary metanarrative. They also understand that theistic evolution, by very definition, becomes just another ideology within their godless metanarrative, hence my use of the word gnosticism. Christianity is divorced from reality at its very foundation.

I am very familiar with Jordan's hermeneutic, and it does have checks and balances. I refer to it as systematic typology. The Bible uses repeated literary structures which enables us to verify certain types that might otherwise be unverifiable. It is very interesting. Allowing a careful typology does not discredit Bible chronology, and Jordan's work on Bible chronology is incredible. (

Jordan has also written a book called Created in Six Days, which upholds the covenantal view of the Creation account but also shows the problems with the Day Age view, etc. He also recently commented on the flood geology and Seventh-Day Adventism:

"I have been amazed and dismayed at the ignorance projected by various evangelical seminaries in defense of their positions. We are told that "creation science" is an invention of the Seventh-Day Adventists and that before they came along nobody believed God made the world in six days, in a worldwide flood, or in the Biblical chronology. have to marvel at what drives people to such idiocy. Sure, in the 19th century "science" came along and challenged the Biblical picture of the past. So, at that time some Christian groups came up with alternative "science" models that were faithful to the Biblical picture. The Seventh-Day Adventists were among these, but they were not alone."

I have studied this issue for a quarter of a century, as I was unable to accept the Bible by compromise. Either it is the Word of God, or it is bankrupt, as you correctly state. But it is actually evolutionary theory that is bankrupt.

The Bible has an uncanny habit of being correct, as archaeologists have discovered many times. I have no doubt that over the next 50 years even evolution's most ardent believers will be forced to eat their words. All they can show us is "variation" which is not a process of development, and has never been shown to construct new genetic information. It is almost entirely a process of loss, and otherwise merely a rearrangement.

Your reference to Galileo's telescope is based on a common misunderstanding of the story (apparently). See

Theistic evolution creates many unsurmountable theological problems. We are forced to redefine "death" for instance, and read a great deal into early Genesis that isn't there. The passage gives no indication that the Creation was given "purpose" at this time. We can't even put gaps into the narrative, because the same structure occurs throughout the Bible without any gaps (it is the underlying structure of the New Testament for instance - I wrote a book on this - happy to send you a copy if you are interested in literary structure.)

Thanks for the discussion. I have no doubt that everyone else who has posted here is more educated and intelligent than I am. I just wish Christians would understand that, despite the constant media hype, evolutionary theory really doesn't have a lot going for it. As one writer put it, it is just the pagan death and sex and chaos of "Enuma Elish baptized in post-Enlightenment balloon juice."

At the end of the day, what evidence is there to support Darwin's thesis? This new film asks some good questions.


At 7/28/2009 4:11 PM, Anonymous Chris Donato said...

Hi, Mike. Please forgive my enthusiasm—I sincerely believe the sooner Christians give up YEC the better (and purer) the Christian church will be!

At any rate, the nitty-gritty details of the neo-Darwininian synthesis are beside the point here. The real issue is that Holy Scripture doesn't demand a young earth creationist view of the cosmos. If it does, then it is wrong on that score (or we'll have to tweak our view of 'accommodation').

And note that I related 7-day Adventists and flood geology, not views regarding a young earth in general. Jordan's contention takes aim at a straw man. The facts are that modern flood geology is a recent innovation bred among 7th-dayers and picked up by Morris, et al.

But really all this is beside the point. I may totally agree that evolutionary theory is little more than "Enuma Elish baptized in post-Enlightenment balloon juice." The point is that no one ought to be reading modern scientific theories back into the ancient text, which is precisely what YEC, OEC, Gap theorists, some theistic evolutionists, and a whole host of others tend to do. It does violence to the plain meaning of the text.

At 7/28/2009 4:54 PM, Anonymous Chris Donato said...

Just for fun, even though I'm not defending theistic evolution, Mike wrote: "Theistic evolution creates many unsurmountable theological problems. We are forced to redefine "death" for instance…."

But death was a simple reality for existence itself. At the very least, it existed on a cellular level (human skin has an epidermis, i.e., dead cells). But what about the growth of plants? Mustn't seeds die in order for such life to sprout? What about predatory meat eaters? What about a caterpillar eating a leaf? What about a bird eating that caterpillar? A fish trolling for insects on the surface of the water? The system itself only functions with death as a part of it. I'm not interested in reading a rewriting of science and history here; I'm simply pointing out the absurdity that results from reading the text in a way that it was not intended to be read.

Mike wrote: "The passage gives no indication that the Creation was given "purpose" at this time."

Actually, the narrative gives no indication that creation was "built" (material origins) at this time.

For starters, "existence" in the ancient world was not considered in material-ontological terms, but functional-ontological terms (i.e., of little concern was a thing's materiality; rather, what made a thing exist was its function).

Secondly, when bārā’ is employed throughout the OT, its object is not easily identified in material terms (instead of listing several passages here, simply do a word search) but in functional terms.

Thirdly, tōhû and bōhû (Gen 1:2) are best understood to convey nonexistence—unproductive fruitlessness. Note too that this doesn't rely on any Gap theory; no doubt the text can't support that. Gen 1:1 clearly refers to the initial 7-day period when God began assigning functions to a previously unproductive (functionless, i.e., "nonexistent") cosmos.

Finally, the six days far and away point to purpose or function over against material origins: Days 1–3 assign functions for the bases of time, weather, and food (the foundations for life); Days 4–6 install functionaires to carry out the functions that the creator previously delineated.

Etc., etc. Sorry so long.

At 8/27/2009 1:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris, I'm putting you in for verbiose twaddle of the year (academic sub-category) for the sentence : Darwinism is actually exciting, for traditional Christian dogma, in the way it helps the Church rethink some of its anthropological and philosophical assumptions, and regain a closer approximation to the more relational biblical intuitions.
That's saying something, because I work in the civil service..... I have no idea what you are trying to get at, so much for plain english....

At 9/02/2009 12:06 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Makes perfect sense to me! Which bit don't you understand?


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