Charles Darwin's Glad Reception Amongst British and American Churches
June 2, 2014
Asking whether evolution is compatible with Christianity is a bit like asking whether playing baseball is compatible with being American or playing cricket compatible with being British.
The very first written response to Darwin’s famous book On the Origin of Species  was from an Anglican priest and was so positive in tone that Darwin quoted from it in the second edition of the Origin.
The priest was the Rev. Charles Kingsley and on November 18th, 1859, six days before the publication of the Origin, he was thanking Darwin for his kind gift of an advance copy, writing that:
‘All I have seen of it awes me’, commenting that it is ‘just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of self-development...as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas [gaps] which He Himself had made’.
Since 1859 most Christians have been equally happy to incorporate evolution within their biblical understanding of creation. Yes there was some opposition at the beginning, as there is for any radically new theory, but the most influential church leaders soon realized that Kingsley was right. The idea that evolution was greeted with general horror by the Church is a myth.
The British historian James Moore comments that:
‘with but few exceptions the leading Christian thinkers in Great Britain and America came to terms quite readily with Darwinism and evolution’,
and, the American historian George Marsden reports that:
‘…with the exception of Harvard’s Louis Agassiz, virtually every American Protestant zoologist and botanist accepted some form of evolution by the early 1870s’.
One of those biologists was Asa Gray, professor of natural history at Harvard and a committed Christian, who was Darwin’s long-term correspondent and confidante, helping to organize the publication of the Origin of Species in America.
Some Christian theologians were particularly welcoming in their response to evolution. One such was the Rev. Aubrey Moore, a scientist-priest at the University of Oxford who was Curator of the Oxford Botanical Gardens. Moore claimed that there was a special affinity between Darwinism and Christian theology, remarking that ‘Darwinism appeared, and, under the guise of a foe, did the work of a friend’. The reason for this affinity, claimed Moore, was based on the intimate involvement of God in his creation as revealed in Christian theology, for:
There are not, and cannot be, any Divine interpositions in nature, for God cannot interfere with Himself. His creative activity is present everywhere. There is no division of labour between God and nature, or God and law… For the Christian theologian the facts of nature are the acts of God.
In contrast to the robustly theistic views expressed by Kingsley and Moore, Darwin himself was a deist (see here and here) when he wrote the Origin, meaning that he believed in a God who started life at the beginning, but who after that had no direct involvement with it. This is clear from the very last poetic sentence of the Origin, quoted here from its sixth and last edition (1872):
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Darwin eventually became an agnostic in later life, but was never an atheist, maintaining that indeed it was possible to be ‘an ardent Theist and an Evolutionist’.
Contemporary Evolution and the Church Today
Given that Darwin’s Christian contemporaries largely embraced evolution, how is it that today, 150 years later, many American Christians reject his theory?
First, it should be noted that evolution is still widely accepted by the Christian community in Europe.
Second, it is an unfortunate fact that evolution since Darwin has become infested with different ideological agendas that have nothing to do with the biological theory itself. For example, some have sought to invest evolution with an atheistic agenda, so Christians who naturally reject atheism are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water.
Third, a sizable segment of the American Church has adopted a literalistic stance towards the interpretation of the Bible. Reacting against the inroads of liberal theology into its ranks in the earlier decades of the 20th century, many American Christians started reading Biblical texts, such as Genesis 1-3, in a highly literalistic manner, as if it were teaching science rather than theology. Such modernistic handling of ancient texts inevitably leads to a clash with science.
Once we return to a more traditional way of interpreting the Bible, assisted by the early Church Fathers, then any possible clash between science and Biblical texts simply vaporizes.
Augustine, for example, wrote a commentary between AD 401 and AD 415 entitled The Literal Interpretation of Genesis. The twenty-first century reader coming to this volume expecting to find the term ‘literal’ interpreted in terms of strict creation chronology and days of 24 hours, is in for a surprise. Instead Augustine read Genesis 1 as a theological literary text written in highly figurative language. Other Church Fathers (such as Origen, 3rd century) did likewise, as did Jewish commentators like Philo of Alexandria in the 1st century.
The biblical creation theology of the early Church Fathers, mediated to the European Church by great theological scholars such as Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, provides a framework within which evolution can comfortably be accommodated. The Christian understanding of God creating is very different from human types of creating. God as creator in the Christian view is the ground and source of all existence. Anything that exists, be it the laws of physics, mathematics, quantum fluctuations, Higgs bosons or the processes of evolution are therefore, ipso facto, aspects of this created order. When human beings make things, they work with already existing material to produce something new. The human act of creating is not the complete cause of what is produced; but God's creative act is the complete cause of what is produced.
So speaking of God as the ‘creator’ of the evolutionary process is not some attempt to smuggle ‘God language’ into a scientific description, as if God were some ‘extra component’ without which the scientific theory would be incomplete. Far from it, for then such a concept of ‘God’ would no longer be the creator God of Christian theology. Rather the existence of the created order is more like the on-going drama on the TV screen – remove the production studio and the transmitter and the screen would go blank.
The biblical writers underline this point by employing the past, present and future tense when speaking of creation. God is immanent in the created order, an insight with a Christological focus in the New Testament, where John insists in the prologue to his Gospel that “Through him [Jesus the Word] all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” and the Apostle Paul makes the astounding claim that not only by Christ have all things been created, but also that in Christ “all things hold together”.
It was such reflections that led 19th century theologians like Aubrey Moore to celebrate Darwin’s theory because, in their view, it helped to move theology away from the deistic notion of God the distant law-giver to the idea central to Christian theism of the creator God actively involved in upholding and sustaining the complete created order in which the evolutionary process is a contingent feature.
This is the evolutionary process which, as a matter of fact, provides the best explanation for the origins of all the biological diversity on this planet. Taken overall it is a tightly constrained process. The late Stephen Jay Gould likened evolutionary history to a drunk lurching around on the side-walk, but the point about a side-walk is that it’s a very constrained space. In the phenomenon known as ‘convergence’ the evolutionary process keeps finding the same adaptive solutions again and again in independent evolutionary lineages. Replay the tape of life again and it’s very likely that the diversity of life-forms would end up looking rather similar. There are only so many ways of being alive on planet earth. A pattern of order and constraint is rather consistent with a God who has intentions and purposes for the evolutionary process.
Does the fact of evolution raise challenging theological questions for Christian faith? Of course. For example, when did humans first become responsible to God for their actions? How should Christians understand the doctrine of the Fall in the light of evolution? And what about the problem of pain and suffering? No-one pretends that such questions have simple answers, and I have written a book that tackles them in some detail (Creation or Evolution – Do We Have to Choose? Oxford: Monarch, 2008). Understanding evolution is a help rather than a hindrance on that last question. There are necessary costs in the existence of carbon-based life and all living things, including us, play our part in sharing the burden of those costs. Biological existence, with all its rich diversity, is a costly existence.
“Nature is what God does” wrote Augustine in his commentary on Genesis. We exist within God’s created order and the evolutionary process is a key feature of that order, essential for our existence. That means a lot more than mere ‘compatibility’. And the good news is the future tense of creation. The best is yet to come.