Programmer Thoughts

By John Dickinson

Darwin and Church History, part 2

November 05, 2008

Charles Darwin’s ideas presented the church one of its greatest challenges. With his publication of Origin of Species in 1859, Darwin completed the Scientific Revolution begun by Copernicus and firmly divided science and theology in the Western world. The church’s response to this challenge has varied—liberals have changed the very meaning of Christianity and conservatives have all but rejected the advances of science. However, I do think there is a middle ground where one can both accept scientific truths and hold to orthodox Christian theology.

The most liberal view I have come across claims that the evolutionary process of nature itself reconciles us with God. In this view, the human mind, developed from lesser to greater to greater still, is the means to know God. As our mind developed from lesser species, our ability to comprehend God has similarly grown. This process will continue on as the human species continues to evolve and adapt.

The problem with this liberal view is that it completely negates the need for the Incarnation. This view focuses on higher moral values and has little need for sin or redemption (Bowler 166). Other views have claimed the Incarnation is the culmination of the entire process of nature, but again, the focus is on nature and natural processes as the means of spiritual renewal. These liberal viewpoints significantly depart from Christian orthodoxy on several important points.

On the other end of the spectrum, strict conservatives, often known as fundamentalists, embrace biblical literalism and treat the word therein as accurate scientific and historical truth. In the fundamentalist view, God has preserved Scripture as inerrant and a single departure from the clear meaning of the text erodes the very foundation upon which Christianity is built. If Genesis cannot be trusted as being true, how can we accept any part of Scripture as true?

The conservative viewpoint has trouble reconciling the clear meaning of conflicting passages in Scripture (from two Creation stories to what day Jesus was crucified) and understanding other problematic verses (pi = 3 from I Kings 7:23-26). Additionally, the fundamentalist perspective tends to limit scientific research and advancement in areas deemed sacred or unknowable. A fundamentalist view leads to a harsh, legalistic view of Christianity that ends up doing more harm to the Kingdom of God that good.

Both the liberal and fundamentalist views have merit, however. The liberal view encourages human progress and greater knowledge of our world. The fundamentalist view reminds us of the sacredness of Scripture and the need for a saving God.

Both sides’ advocates truly believe their side is correct, so any attempt to find a balance can be easily attacked by both camps. Nevertheless, I will be brave and press on.

A bit of housekeeping first: To find a Christian response to Darwinian evolution, one must recognize certain basic assumptions. One, every perspective in this debate is colored by context (Mike Stroope has some great thoughts on this topic). To remain civil, we must try to take other perspectives into consideration. Two, humanity has been struggling to reconcile theology and natural knowledge for millennia. Any conclusions we may draw will not end the debate.

Likewise, I refer to those that follow the strict conservative view as fundamentalists. This is not meant to be a derogatory term. I use it to differentiate from other, more moderate, conservative viewpoints and because these views rose to prominence as part of the fundamentalist movement of the 1920s.

Finally, to properly respond to Darwin, we must understand his ideas. The theory of evolution by means of natural selection was fist presented by Darwin in Origin of Species and has been further developed over the last one hundred fifty years. Evolution simply states that the vast diversity of life can be explained by small changes over time. Natural selection claims the evolutionary changes are the result of environmental pressures that “select” for certain attributes beneficial for the survival of an individual of group. It is an unguided process with no outside influence—it is random and has no final purpose.

As an example, consider a population of Jabberwocks. Suppose some members of the group develop a mutation that allows them to hide from their predators slightly more effectively than their peers. These Jabberwocks will be more likely to produce more offspring, and soon the entire colony of Jabberwocks will have acquired the helpful mutation. Similarly, if two populations of Jabberwocks are genetically separated (by a mountain range or large body of water, for example), each population will continue to develop their own unique characteristics. These characteristics may lead to an inability to mate and produce fertile young Jabberwocks; two new species are created from the one common ancestor.

Often, the theory of evolution is criticized because it is “just a theory.” A theory is just a guess, right? Not according to the National Academy of Sciences:

In everyday usage, “theory” often refers to a hunch or a speculation. When people say, “I have a theory about why that happened,” they are often drawing a conclusion based on fragmentary or inconclusive evidence. The formal scientific definition of theory is quite different from the everyday meaning of the word. It refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence.

So the theory of evolution is not just a vague idea about life. It is a well-established and well-researched explanation of the likely causes of the variation of life in the world around us.

“But wait,” you say. “That’s not good science. It’s not really science at all. We can’t go back in time and watch it happen, and we can’t duplicate evolution in a lab. The best you can hope for is to see small variation within a single species, but we certainly can’t see one species change into another.”

Like a courtroom trial, though, periodic observational evidence, as scientists have for evolution, is sufficient to provide a convincing explanation for past events. One may surmise a likely sequence of events based on observed evidence. If new evidence comes to light, however, the conclusion may be drastically altered. Evidence for evolution is abundant. For a high-level overview for the evidence of evolution see or One specific study completed this year shows the evolution of a complex trait not generally considered a characteristic of the original species. Many other sites can provide similar information.

The observed evidence of evolution does not preclude the existence of God, nor does it negate the role of theology in our lives. Science is concerned with natural explanations of the natural world. The Christian God, by definition, is not of this world. Science cannot comment on the existence or non-existence of God. The absence of observed evidence does not conflict with a God that is essentially “other.” Fundamentally, science and theology are concerned with two separate parts of human life: science can answer the questions of how or what and theology gives meaning to answers.

It is possible for science and theology to coexist. Science cannot confirm religious belief, but it can confirm or deny facts about religious belief. Likewise, religion can judge science by guiding the direction of study or commenting on the meaning of scientific truths (Sweet 225-227).

In my opinion, science and theology go together like architecture and aesthetics. Solid architecture does not mean a structure is beautiful; likewise, a structure’s aesthetic appeal does speak to its structural soundness. One may admire the architectural principles of a building or see order in its aesthetic properties, but great structures require attention to both architectural and aesthetic principles. Similarly, individuals must incorporate scientific principles and religious truth to determine meaning and purpose in life.

Darwin Bibliography (pdf): bibliography for my research on the paper I recently wrote on a similar topic

Darwin paper (pdf): a paper I recently wrote that started this whole discussion

Stay tuned for more. I’ve been accused of always sitting on the fence, so I’ll try to follow up with more assertive statements about how science and theology can work together.

Update: Part 1 and Part 3

Update: Due to migrating my blog to a commentless system, original comments on this discussion are reproduced below.

Tim Dolch

I just posted my response to your last blog and then noticed this one. I have some concerns, which I hope you’ll consider.

My biggest concern, I guess, is that based on your bibliography it seems your sources for creation are all theological (e.g. MacArthur’s sermons). If you look at scientific sources on evolution, but only theological sources on creation, then it will appear that evolution is science and creation is religion. You mention the archive; have you looked, for example, at the archive run by creation scientists?

Concerning science, creationists accept natural selection and even the existence of beneficial mutations. What they claim is undiscovered and undiscoverable is a natural process that produces new genetic information. In the bacteria example that you cite, the article states that the precise genetic change is not yet known. The quote at the end of the article, that complex traits are what creationist say can’t happen, is not correct. The jury is still out on whether this bacteria produced new genetic information.

I have to object to your claim that conservatives have trouble reconciling Gen 1-2, and with the pi issue. These are manufactured problems, not real ones. For starters, take a look at and Also, I recommed Jordan’s In Six Days, which gives a very sophisticated young-earth interpretation of Gen 1-2.

I challenge you to produce one example support your claim that “the fundamentalist perspective tends to limit scientific research and advancement in areas deemed sacred or unknowable.”

At the end, I understand you, to be taking the non-overlapping magisteria view (NOMA, coined by S.J. Gould), that science and religion are concerned with absolutely separate topics, fact and meaning. This view is problematic philosophically because the fact/value distinction is controversial. It is problematic theologically because it sounds like gnosticism. To say that God is “essentially other” suggests the view of Marcion and others that God is totally separate from the world. Christianity says God is distinct from the the world, but also that God created the world, and that the world to some extent bears witness to its creator.

I do think you are on the right track in emphasizing the incarnation and that God saves.

I should add that I like your architecture/aesthetic illustration. The relationship is not just one of complementarity, though, but of foundation. Architectrual soundness is foundational to aesthic beauty, in that you have to have a sound structure to have a beautiful structure, but you don’t need beauty to have a sound structure.

Likewise with Christianity, the historical facts are foundational to the religious meaning. The early creeds are basically claims about historical fact. You acknowledge the importance of the factuality of the resurrection. Young-earthers contend that the historical factuality of Adam’s fall with death as its consequence is also an essential historical fact, and that all of the facts of science cohere with it.


Tim, thanks for your insights. As a postscript to my post, I will agree with you in that most issues of reconciling Scripture (like that of pi = 3) are “manufactured issues” and pose no real challenge to the validity of Scripture. My point is that strict literal readings of the text rarely happen, and even the most hard-core biblical literalist still will interpret to a degree. For example, Romans says that if you confess with your mouth, you will be saved. But what about people who can’t speak? Can they be saved? I think that is a silly conclusion, but unless one interprets the meaning and message behind the text, such silly conclusions can be made (similarly, pi = 3).

As a rebuttal to your thoughts on the E. coli study, the scientists said they don’t know the exact genetic change(s) the bacteria made. They did not say they don’t have an explanation for the mechanism of change. Also, there is a very easy example of a natural process producing new genetic information: Down’s syndrome.

Tim Dolch

Thanks for replying.

Throughout Christian history literal interpretation has meant according to the intention of the (human) author. Thus Augustine’s De Genesi ad Litteram, and the fourfold way of literal-moral-analogical-anagogical. I don’t know anyone who claims literal = noninterpretive.

How can you explain the mechanism for a change when you don’t know what the change was? Only in general terms like “natural selection.” But what, exactly, was selected, and where did it come from?

Down’s syndrome duplicates a chromosome, ie pre-existing information. It does not produce any new information. And it is hardly adaptive. Nice suggestion though.

Jon Norvell

Read the paper…I’ll comment on a thing or two later. For now, I was wondering if you ran across anything about Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather? I just read a great deal about him in Roy Porter’s The Creation of the Modern World: The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment. He actually proposed a strikingly similar theory of evolution to that of his grandson, though with a different engine. Apparently, no one has really written about this connection. Just thought you might be interested.


@Jon: I linked the paper because it goes in to more depth about the response of the church to Darwin’s ideas. Please disregard the last few pages where I speculate about what would be different had Darwin not lived. I only wrote that to fulfill the requirements of the assignment. I am not willing to defend any of that speculation.

Charles was aware of his grandfather’s theory, at least in a superficial sense (see page 49 in Darwin’s Autobiography). You are right in that Charles did not “invent” evolution; Lamarck, E. Darwin, and others had proposed theories of the development of life that involved evolution. See Appendix One in Darwin’s Autobiography for more info on Charles’s relationship with these other authors. The significance of Origin is not evolution. Evolution was a well-known idea and commonly accepted in the nineteenth century. Darwin’s work is significant for the mechanism of evolution proposed: natural selection—a process describable without the need for the Divine.

@Tim: It’s quite common to know the mechanism of change without knowing the exact change that takes place. For a simplistic example, remember the old hypercolor t-shirts? Put you hand on it or put it in the sun and the color changes. You and I know that something changed, and that the change is caused by heat, but we don’t know the exact chemistry behind the change. Similarly, we know that genetic information controls an organism (I’m not getting into a nature/nurture debate) and that the organism’s behavior has changed (the ability to metabolize citrate). Although not knowing the exact codons that changed in the organism, a convincing explanation for the mechanism of change is natural selection. It is a model that closely fits the observed evidence and predicts the change that did in fact occur.

I used Down’s syndrome as an example of a mutation leading to new genetic information, not because it is a beneficial mutation, but because it is commonly known. Any mutation that duplicates genetic material produces new genetic information. Perhaps what you mean is that duplication does not produce any unique information. That may be true, but only for the first generation. If the trait gets passed down to other generations, small mutations in the duplicated genetic material may end up coding for some beneficial trait. Of course, and more likely, the mutation will either be non-affective or harmful. But over time, the originally duplicated genetic material changes independently from the original source material, and thus new information is produced. For Down’s syndrome, the new information coded by the duplicate genetic material can be seen by its effects on the individual. If there were no new information coded in trisomy-21, there would be no differences in individuals with it and individuals without it (aside from general variation from person to person).

Tim Dolch

John, I would not describe knowing that sun changes the color of a hyper-color shirt as knowing a mechanism. I would describe it as knowing a phenomenal pattern. Natural selection is like that, a phenomenal pattern. We can observe it every population, and Darwin is rightfully famous for describing it and recognizing how it accounts for biodiversity. But “accounts” here has to be understood in a limited sense. Observing patterns is part of scientific knowledge, but patterns themselves need to be accounted for. Darwin had no explanation of where new traits come from and how inhertance works (genetics). His extrapolation from shifting traits within populations to common descent of different phyla and orders was simply imaginative speculation. So I have no doubt that the citrate metabolism is subject to natural selection, I just don’t think that saying so actually says much at all. It’s almost like saying “God willed it”–yeah, that surely is true, but it is not news to anyone.

“Perhaps what you mean is that duplication does not produce any unique information.” Yes. By “new information” creationists mean a new DNA sequence-type, not a sequence-token.

I understand, as you describe it, how (token-)duplication can be conceived–imagined–as a step in the production of a new, beneficial sequence-type. Maybe that is what happened with the citrate metabolism–if it could be proved, it would be very significant. (Although it still might not be legitimate to extrapolate to eukaryotes.)

But I am not sure that even non-harmful changes in a duplicated DNA sequence could in principle produce a new information-type. Information is more than a unique sequence of codons or letters. Mutations over time can only produce a random sequence, and I think statistics and information theory can prove that random sequencing will not produce meaningful information regardless of the time allowed.

I myself am not able to take the discussion any farther than this, but this article: looks to me like the latest scientific creationist response on the issue.

Justin Allison

I’m pretty sure that most Old Testament scholars would say that Genesis 1 and 2 are indeed different stories. Off the top of my head I can name a few evangelicals – Bruce Waltke, John Goldingay, Tim Pierce, even several SWBTS professors.

One Old Testament scholar (not a conservative), Terrence Fretheim, says that we need to take scientific research into account when we study Genesis so that we get a holistic picture.

Interestingly, John Goldingay who teaches at Fuller Theological seminary would be an example of one who subscribes to God-guided evolutionary processes. This debate is of course much less important amongst more liberal OT scholars such as Terrence Fretheim who claims that the evolutionary process is a part of the way that God is still creating today (for many liberals creation is not a completed project, but a continuing process).

I’d like to say more, but I have a crying kid…

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