Spirit of the Age
150 years after Darwin's Origin of Species
It has been suggested by some people that the Christians handled the threat posed by Darwin's book The Origin of Species in very inept fashion. Such observers declare that the Christians relied mainly on appeals to authority and prestige, and that their scientific arguments were uninformed.
But such criticisms miss the point. Influential English society had already abandoned an orthodox Christian faith and they were more than ready for Darwin's ideas. The situation was similar among academics in the United States. There were no arguments which could have changed these hearers' minds. They heard what they wanted to hear and ignored what they did not like.
Two lines of defense
There were two lines of defense against Darwin's theory then, as there are now. The first was theological, and the second was scientific. Naturally the first to speak out were prominent churchmen. One of the most famous defenders of the faith was Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873), Bishop of Oxford, and son of the famous William Wilberforce who campaigned so long for the emancipation of the slaves in the British Empire. The Wilberforce family was known for their devout faith. Thus in a review of Darwin's book, Bishop Wilberforce wrote:
Man's derived supremacy over the earth: man's power of articulate speech; man's gift of reason; man's free will and responsibility: man's fall and man's redemption; the incarnation of the Eternal Son; the indwelling of the Eternal Spirit all are equally and utterly irreconcilable with the degrading notion of the brute origin of him who was created in the image of God, and redeemed by the Eternal Son assuming to himself His nature.1
Other authors have quoted other theologians of the period. An account, hostile to Christians, was written in 1896 by Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), first president of Cornell University. Among the cases he described was the following:
Burgon, Dean of Chichester, in a sermon preached before the University of Oxford, pathetically warned the students that 'these who refuse to accept the history of the creation of our first parents according to its obvious literal intention, and are for substituting the modern dream of evolution in its place, cause the entire scheme of man's salvation to collapse'.2
Another case cited by Dr. White involves a publication of the American branch of the Anglican Church:
A leading journal representing the same church took pains to show the evolution theory to be as contrary to the explicit declarations of the New Testament as to those of the Old, and said: If we have all, men and monkeys, oysters and eagles, developed from an original germ, then is St. Paul's grand deliverance – All flesh is not the same flesh; there is one kind of flesh of men, another of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds – untrue'.3
see 1 Cor. 15:39
Apparently there were numerous articles and sermons along these lines. What more could the clerics have said?
An interesting book by Reformed biophysicist Cornelius Hunter points out that Victorian society in England had long since abandoned traditional Christian faith. Indeed they were poised, ready to embrace such views as Darwin's. In his 2001 book Darwin's God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil, Dr. Hunter declares that the Victorians considered that God, while good, was nevertheless remote and impersonal. They had long ago abandoned any belief in the Biblical picture of God as the avenger of sin. These people expected that the creation of such a good God should be perfect and ideal. They did not want to blame God for death, disease, and disasters. Darwin's natural process thus seemed to them an ideal way to separate God from the unfortunate details of nature. The Victorians thought they were doing God a big favor by not blaming Him for disasters. The details of Biblical revelation concerned them not at all since they had long ago stopped paying attention to the Bible.
According to Dr. Hunter the attitude of the Victorians had further consequences:
Darwin's solution distanced God from creation to the point that God was unnecessary. One could still believe in God, but not in God's providence. Separating God from creation and its evils meant that God could have no direct influence or control over the world."4
This approach to theology and the study of nature ideally suited the influential people of the time. Not only did they not have to worry about God, but they could contemplate and research all sorts of theories, none of which involved any supernatural intervention.
Bernard Ramm (1916-1992), a prominent Baptist theologian, in a book on religion and science (1954), agreed that the spirit of the age went against the nineteenth century Christian defenders of the faith.
To the question "Why did the populace, the universities, and even much of the clergy yield to the critical and scientific attacks on the Bible?"5 he replied:
"The progress of modern thought is then such as to put a premium on criticism and skepticism, and to put anything religious, theological, or synthetical at a great disadvantage even before the debate commences … The entire psychological and social advantage was with the radical or critic as over against the orthodox." 6
In this intellectual climate, it is evident that the Biblical statements by clerics, however distinguished, would have little impact on the majority of the people.
The beginning of theistic evolution
Soon there arose schools of thought that sought to accommodate Christian faith to evolution. James McCosh (1811-1894), eleventh president of Princeton and a prominent Presbyterian clergyman, along with Harvard University botanist Asa Gray (1810-1888), also Presbyterian, declared that just as God demonstrated his sovereignty in predestination (supernatural selection), so also God shows his sovereignty in natural selection (the Darwinian process of origins). According to them, Darwin's mechanism of origins serves to increase our wonder in the process of creation.7 These men had a profound effect on Christian thought in the United States.
It is the evangelicals who are considered by most observers to have led the fight against evolution. This, however, is not exactly the case. Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm was a bitter opponent of the creationists whom he called "hyper-orthodox." In his 1954 book The Christian View of Science and Scripture, he declared that the hyperorthodox are inept but unfortunately still around. Of these people he further declared that their pronouncements "lacked the measured control of cultured men."8 He further insisted that the views of these people are "far more rigid and dogmatic than Scripture itself. (!!!) Hyperorthdoxy, in trying to be loyal to the Bible, has developed an exaggerated sense of what loyalty to the Bible means."
He therefore insisted that, "Sad has been the history of the evil that good Christian men have done in regard to science."9
And he therefore declared that the hyperorthodox must not be allowed to speak for all evangelical Christians as such a position is "impossible of credible defense."10
Having thus disposed of the Biblical literalists, Bernard Ramm then undertakes to reinterpret Scripture. The original creation was not as good as we might suppose, he suggests:
"God did not say that creation was perfect, but that it was good. In Scripture it is heaven which stands for perfection. The earth is the scene of man's probationary existence, and it is good but not heavenly perfect. Creation is a system which involves certain features, and necessarily so which appear to us as dysteleological (diseases, storms, tornadoes etc.)"11
It is not surprising therefore that Dr. Ramm believes that "there was death, disease and bloodshed in Nature long before man sinned."12
In similar vein he further remarks "There is not one clear, unequivocal, unambiguous line in the entire Bible which would enable us to point to the vast array of fossil life and state that all death here involved is by reason of the sin and fall of Satan.''13
The "hyperorthodox," of course, would reply that most fossils were deposited during the flood which was a consequence of the fall of Adam, not Satan!
It is evident that a large body of Christians, over many generations, would agree that the efforts of the Biblical literalists/hyperorthodox/creationists have "increased the gap between Christianity and the scientists, have embittered the scientists, and have done little to provide a working theory of any creative dimensions for the rapprochement of science and evangelicalism."14
It was Darwin's pronouncements on nature, of course, which hastened the cascade of theological reinterpretation and indeed the movement towards rejection of all faith. A book published in 1875 on religion and science by American academic William Draper concluded:
"Institutions that organize impostures and spread delusions must show what right they have to exist. Faith must render an account of herself to Reason. Mysteries must give place to facts. Religion must relinquish that domineering position which she has so long maintained against Science."15
This man was not in a charitable mood toward Christians.
An embarrassing attempt
There were certainly some opponents of Darwin who showed more zeal than common sense. For example the story of Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888) is remembered to this day. A self-taught naturalist, Philip Gosse was nevertheless so well regarded that he was even elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society, which was then, as now, England's highest academic honor. Through his contacts in the Royal Society, he learned in 1857 about Darwin's ideas a full two years before the publication of The Origin of Species. Horrified by the implications of evolution, this Christian man (Plymouth Brethren) rushed into print a 370 page book on geology, which was not even his field of expertise. His conclusion was that God had artificially placed fossils in the rocks and that their presence there had nothing to do with anything. The response to this book Omphalos: an attempt to untie the geological knot (1857) was universally negative and it certainly served to cast Christian naturalists into an unfavorable light.
Agassiz does better but is also ignored
It is a popular misconception however that the capable scientists were all on Darwin's side. The case of Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) is particularly illuminating. This man was an expert in fossil fishes. He had published a book on the topic which included a description and analysis of over 1,700 fossil species including their anatomy, geographical distribution, zoological character, and location in the geological column. So well known did he become in Europe that in 1846 he became a professor at Harvard. In 1859, a few months before the release of Darwin's book, Agassiz published his monumental Essay on Classification. Comparing the books of Agassiz and Darwin, one commentator declares:
The Essay and the Origin represent two entirely opposed interpretations of nature and no sharper contrast between the assumptions of special creationism and the concept of the evolution of species ever appeared than in the language of these two volumes.16
According to Edward Lurie, Agassiz had asked a modern and pertinent question, but to this he supplied a traditional answer. It was not that Agassiz was unqualified for his researches, on the contrary:
It was a primary characteristic of the intellectual divergence between advocates of special creationism like Cuvier and Agassiz and proponents of the developmental hypothesis such as Chambers, Lamarck or Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, that upholders of classical biology were far superior in their actual experience of nature and their command of specialized subjects.17
Although he was so qualified, Agassiz' colleagues, and indeed the whole academic world soon stopped listening to him since they did not like his conclusions. Thus Lurie points out: "Agassiz had not changed; his audience had."18
The rise of Darwin...
It is evident that people believed what they wanted, whatever the facts or the arguments were. All too soon it became the popular perception that "intelligence is on the side of unbelief, and that only childish or sentimental or uneducated people still trust the contents of the Bible."19 This sequence of events certainly appears to have been inevitable. However since we know that God is working out his plan in history, this no doubt is under His control.
For one hundred years after the publication of Origin of Species, little was heard about evolution in schools. Then in 1959 the Soviets sent Sputnik into space to the chagrin and embarrassment of western scientists, particularly Americans. They blamed themselves for not promoting evolution more. Geneticist Hermann Muller, Nobel laureate and professor at Indiana University, wrote an article entitled "One Hundred Years Without Darwin are Enough." In it he declared: "We dare not leave it to the Soviets alone to offer to their rising generation the inspiration that is to be gained from the wonderful world view opened up by Darwin…"20 Thus, he declared, we have no right to starve the masses of our youth intellectually and emotionally just because of the objections of the "uninformed."21 And so educators began vigorously to promote evolution and to exclude any alternatives from the classroom. This happened in all the western countries but no place more so than in the United States at the present time where a teacher is not allowed even to discuss a creationist comment raised by a student.
...and signs of his coming fall
Since the 1960s however, creationists who are qualified scientists have become better able to encourage each other through professional societies and meetings. The rise of research institutions and other organizations has fostered the production of increased numbers of excellent books suitable for a wide range of ages and levels of difficulty. Anyone seeking information can find it in books, or DVDs or on websites. Creationists may be a minority, but there is plenty of support and encouragement for those who seek it. This was not always so in the past.
Our response to all this is to remain faithful. We refuse to change our interpretation of Scripture to suit the current whims of scientists. Does Scripture reliably describe historical events? Indeed it does. Does nature bear testimony to God's work and character? Indeed it does. Then let us provide our children, and anybody who asks, with suitable books on science and on Scripture. As the bulk of society becomes ever more determined to stamp out any discussion on the issue of creation, we will never give up. Indeed we must always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15).