Evangelicals and Evolutionary Creation

The OU History of Science Collections Darwin collection

OU Darwin 2009This Darwin 2009 video (m4v, mp4, download) explains that the OU History of Science Collections is one of the handful of places in the world where one may view a complete set of first editions of the works of Charles Darwin. As curator, I was eager to recognize 2009 as the 150th anniversary of publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. To celebrate this occasion and to encourage discussion of Darwin’s significance, I invested a large amount of effort in several projects, including:

  • co-curating “Darwin at the Museum,” an exhibition of the Darwin collection at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Fall 2009;
  • providing digitized versions of 40 rare Darwin editions to the Darwin Online project of Cambridge University, which made OU the largest contributor to that project other than Cambridge; and
  • arranging campus visits by paleontologist Keith Miller and Darwin historian Janet Browne, who together offered four public lectures in the OU Darwin 2009 series which were exemplary in their insightful and non-polemical engagement with issues.

In addition, continuously throughout the year, I offered countless tours of the Darwin collection; gave presentations to area civic, church and educational groups; and engaged in discussions with students in various formal and informal settings. Obviously, there was no time last year to create this blog, but if I had, it would surely have seen a great number of Darwin-related posts (to which perhaps I’ll have opportunity to return sometime in the future).

Yet from time to time I am asked how evangelicals can approve of, or be attracted to, the Darwinian theory of evolution. Without here entering into the myriad of issues involved, I nevertheless want to list some resources I recommend as great starting points for thinking through evangelical perspectives on an evolving creation:

  • Evangelical Christians and Evolution – Some Points for Discussion (pdf). This is a 16-point handout I prepared to jump-start discussions with Christian students. To discuss any single point on this handout could legitimately take many days, so, of course there’s no time to touch upon even half of them in a single sitting. Nevertheless, the handout still hopefully offers some sense of the issues that I personally think should be frequently discussed.
  • Get some theological bearings: Thomas F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (T & T Clark, 2005). This little book by one of the 20th century’s leading theologians (more on Torrance) is an influential theological discussion of contingency, an essential consideration for thinking about a Christian view of creation and its history. For a précis, see T.F. Torrance, “Divine and Contingent Order,” in A.R. Peacocke, ed., The Sciences and Theology in the Twentieth Century (Notre Dame, 1981), pp. 81-97. For Torrance, the theology of contingent order reflects divine freedom and provides an alternative to all explanations couched in terms of chance and necessity. As he explains (p. 85):
    “The universe is contingent for it does not exist of necessity: it might not have been at all and might very well have been different from what it is. Yet in coming to be, the universe is characterised by an open-structured order which partakes of contingence.”

    Quite mistakenly, contingency — the leading characteristic of Darwin’s view of the history of nature — is sometimes taken by advocates of evolution as an argument against Christian theism. For example, in his classic book Wonderful Life, which at one time was the second-favorite book of professional geologists in the United States, Stephen Jay Gould argued that paleontological research regarding the unique organisms captured in the Burgess Shale of British Columbia demonstrates the contingency of Earth history. These fossils, Gould wrote, have

    “confronted our traditional view about progress and predictability in the history of life with the historian’s challenge of contingency -— the “pageant” of evolution as a staggeringly improbable series of events, sensible enough in retrospect and subject to rigorous explanation, but utterly unpredictable and quite unrepeatable. Wind back the tape of life to the early days of the Burgess Shale; let it play again from an identical starting point, and the chance becomes vanishingly small that anything like human intelligence would grace the replay.” — Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (Norton, 1989), p. 14.

    Gould’s quotation describes events as contingent when they:

    1. might have turned out otherwise,
    2. are not deducible or fully specifiable in advance,
    3. may be rare or unusual,
    4. but nevertheless become intelligible when considered in retrospect by methods such as historical reconstruction.

    However, this conception of creation as contingent is theologically orthodox. Affirmation of the intelligibility of rare events reflects a long-standing theological usage of contingere. Torrance explores how, in patristic theology, the Incarnation and creatio ex nihilo served as two prime exemplars of rare or even unique but nevertheless intelligible (and therefore contingent) events. In what is known as the “voluntarist” tradition of Christian theology, the entire creation is contingent. It is no wonder, then, that Gould took his leading metaphor, A Wonderful Life, from a classic Christmas movie which conveyed the message that God is constantly at work through hidden providences within the history of our lives. It is the same way with a Christian view of nature and the history of nature. What Gould sees as chance, Christians see as contingency, the mark of a transcendent Creator who, unlike some deistic watchmaker, remains intimately involved within his creation.

  • Get some historical bearings: Margaret Osler, Divine Will and the Mechanical Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2005). Osler’s study of the Scientific Revolution represents how historians of science in general have discussed the significance of ideas of contingent order and the development of science. Osler concludes (p. 236):
    “Evolution does not have a predictable and determinate course of a kind that can be known by a priori and deductive methods. The metaphysical assumptions underlying this style of evolutionary science can be traced back to a voluntarist interpretation of the biblical worldview. Although theological language has dropped out of scientific discourse, contemporary styles of science are historically linked to the dialectic of the absolute and ordained powers of God. The interplay between necessity and contingency in the world is now constructed entirely in naturalistic terms, but it grew from roots embedded in an earlier, theological understanding.”

    Osler’s study can serve as an introduction to a vast historical literature on the significance of “voluntarist theology” for the development of science that deals with figures from Basil and Augustine to Ockham and Newton (e.g., Oakley, Funkenstein, Courtenay, Wojcik, Force, Davis, et al.).

  • The historical context before Darwin: learn a little about the role of contingency in science between the Scientific Revolution, as studied by Osler, and Darwin. Given that Darwin himself first made his scientific reputation as a geologist, the most obvious place to look is the history of geology and the gradually emerging consensus before Darwin’s generation that the Earth itself has a contingent history. Evangelicals often embraced a view of the Earth’s contingent history, in contrast to the deterministic developmental scenarios of materialists and the steady-state views of deists. This topic is briefly surveyed by Martin Rudwick in a published lecture on the role belief in divine freedom played for the articulation of contingent geohistory: Geology and Genesis (Baylor University, 2005; download as pdf). As an example, Rudwick discusses the theological context of the geological ideas of Jean André de Luc:
    “The impact of de Luc’s theistic commitments can be seen in the radical contingency that he attributed to earth history, and which he grounded in God’s ultimate role as creator of everything. As de Luc conceived it, earth history at every stage could have taken another course, with a different outcome, without of course abrogating the ordinary laws of nature. It followed that the sequence of events could not, even in principle, be inferred from the ahistorical laws of physics, as both Hutton and Buffon implied: there was too much contingency in earth history, as in human history, for any such determinism. Rather than imposing top-down some grand conclusion of what “must” have happened, based on unchanging laws of nature, it was necessary, in de Luc’s view, to assemble bottom-up the evidence of nature’s documents and archives, which showed what in fact had happened. So the new way of analyzing the physical traces of earth history, applying the methods of reconstruction being used for human history (including biblical scholarship) was not just an effective heuristic but was rooted in an ultimately divine reality.”

    Rudwick’s larger account of the development of “geohistory” is a two-volume work, Bursting the Limits of Time (the generation of Cuvier) and Worlds Before Adam (the generation of Lyell); both published by Chicago University Press (2005, 2008). An older and still valuable work is Reijer Hooykaas, Natural law and divine miracle;: The principle of uniformity in geology, biology and theology (1963). Also, one of my articles samples ideas of contingent Earth history prior to the figures discussed by Rudwick: “The Idiom of a Six Day Creation and Global Depictions in Theories of the Earth,” in Martina Kölb-Ebert, ed., Geology and Religion (Geological Society of London, 2009), pp. 49-66.

  • Read a little Darwin: An excellent brief account is Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography (Harvard University Press, 2006), by Janet Browne, a distinguished professor of the history of science at Harvard and author of the acclaimed two-volume Darwin biography. My favorite edition of the Origin is the illustrated edition (Sterling, 2008); the annotated facsimile edition (Harvard, 2009) is very handy also. Darwin’s most popular book throughout his lifetime was his Voyage of the Beagle, which we’ve made available in a well-illustrated 1890 edition and is soon to come out in a deluxe edition. How odd it would be to criticize Darwin without first giving him a fair reading! He published 19 different books, but these two titles are a great place to start.
    Update: Read the Darwin@theLibrary brochure (pdf) I wrote for a recent exhibit of Darwin first editions.

    Darwin, Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle

  • Get some general perspective on the history of science and religion, particularly in the debates over evolution: Ronald Numbers, The Creationists (Harvard University Press, 2006), and Numbers, ed. Galileo Goes to Jail and other Myths about Science and Religion (Harvard University Press, 2010), provide general historical perspective on the history of science and religion, and on the development of young-earth creationism, evolution, and intelligent design. For a précis of the former, see Numbers, “The Creationists,” in Numbers and Lindberg, God and Nature (University of California, 1986), pp. 391-423.
  • Supplement the general historical perspective offered by Numbers, above, with three works about the favorable historical reception of evolution by evangelicals:

    “I am a Darwinian of the purest water.” — B.B. Warfield

  • Study the evidence: To make sure that you’re not getting a sense of the evidence for evolution only from the works of its detractors, read at least one rebuttal to creation science and intelligent design. An excellent work of this kind is Donald Prothero, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters (Columbia University Press, 2007), particularly the second half. Check out the chapters on the origin of birds and the origin of whales, for instance. (For a brief summary see this web page Evolution and the Fossil Record of the American Geological Institute.) If you have heard that the theory of evolution is plagued with missing links, then you’ll be in for a huge surprise at the actual abundance of transitional forms preserved in the fossil record. The failure of evangelical Christians to read books like this rebounds back to bite us with aggressive atheist bumper stickers like the ones shown below:

    We have the fossils.  We win.

    Got kids? Visit the natural history museum often, subscribe to National Geographic (they have a Kids version, too), and buy illustrated books like Arnold, Dinosaurs with Feathers.

  • Read three works by evangelical Christians representing the current evangelical engagement with evolution:
    • Keith B. Miller, ed., Perspectives on an Evolving Creation (Eerdmans, 2003). Miller is a paleontologist at Kansas State University. Miller’s book contains chapters on such topics as Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, the fossil record, biochemical evolution, and Christology, distributed among three parts devoted to historical context, scientific evidence, and theological insights.
    • Francis Collins, The Language of God (Free Press, 2006). Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project, explains the evidence from biochemistry and genetics in layman’s terms and articulates the theological vision underlying his BioLogos project.
    • Darrel R. Falk, Coming to Peace with Science (InterVarsity, 2004). Falk’s book sensitively recounts his journey as an evangelical biologist to reconcile evolution and Christian faith.

    I recommend all three of these books as starting points to help evangelical students majoring in any of the natural sciences begin to think through these issues. Miller, Collins and Falk have websites, and you can search for recorded lectures by them online and at iTunes U.

The sources listed above are not in any way meant as the last word, nor as a review of current publications in the history of science and religion, but in my opinion, they do collectively offer a sound starting point for any evangelical wishing to begin to think through these issues.

In conclusion, in answer to the bumper sticker shown above, here’s what the rear of my 1986 Subaru Brat looks like:

My 1986 Subaru Brat

Above the two Apple decals, beneath the “Subaru GL,” there’s a “fishconciliation” magnet:


Whether parked at church or university, onlookers are likely to be perplexed and astonished by one fish or the other.

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