Veritas Forum

January 10-11, 1997
Hope College


Can a Christian Be an Evolutionist?
... Can an Evolutionist Be a Christian?

Terry M. Gray
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Calvin College

The first order of business is to dissect the title of this workshop: Can a Christian Be an Evolution? ... and ... Can an Evolutionist Be a Christian? Are these really two separate questions? And surely they demand the same answer! The difference between the two is simply a difference in subject and direction.

The question: "Can a Christian Be an Evolutionist?" is aimed at Christians, someone who is already convinced of the truth of the Christian faith and who acknowledges the claims of Jesus Christ on his or her life. The question here is ... if I believe in God, in Christ, and believe that the Bible is God's word and an infallible revelation of truth, is there any reason to consider the theory of evolution and is it in any way compatible with my Christian commitments?

The question: "Can an Evoutionist Be a Christian?" is aimed at the evolutionist, someone who is thoroughly convinced that the evidence for evolution is compelling--perhaps even to the point of saying that if becoming a Christian means that I must abandon evolution, then I can't become a Christian. Today, I will be addressing skeptics and seekers. My hope is that if your being convinced of evolution (together with your intellectual integrity) has prevented you from becoming a Christian, that this particular objection will be removed.

Also by way of introduction we need to clarify the meaning of the word "evolution". The original Latin word means "unfolding" or more literally "unrolling". Interestingly, in pre-20th century biology circles, evolution referred to development of an organism, i.e. the unfolding of the fertilized egg into the adult form. But we're concerned with its usage today and primarily it relates to ideas introduced most pursuasively in the modern age by Charles Darwin. Even Darwin's theory had two distinct aspects: the notion of common descent--that all organisms are descended from a single or at most a few original ancestral forms and the notion of natural selection--the nearly syllogistic idea that in a population of organism of varying characteristics where there is competition for available resources that those individuals with characteristics best suited for survival and reproduction in the present particular environment will be the ones that give rise to the next generation.

Today we see the following differences in meaning used by all participants in the debate:
1) evolution as a shift in gene frequencies due to natural selection or random drift--microevolution. Nearly everyone accepts this kind of evolution--seeing that it is demonstrable in the field and in the laboratory.
2) The common ancestry hypothesis. This can be stated boldly by stating that all organisms descended from a single common ancestor or more modestly by stating that life has a polyphyletic origin, i.e. the most ancestral forms (the earliest representatives of the various phyla that appear to arise within a 5 million year window between 400 and 500 million years ago) are not related to each other by common ancestry, but that after that all members of those phyla descended from the ancestral representatives. This view says nothing necessarily about the origin of life.
3) The "grand evolutionary hypothesis" (Plantinga). This view includes the "bold" common ancestry hypothesis plus the notion that life arose spontaneously from non-life.
The above three definitions make no "necessary" metaphysical claims, i.e. there is no discussion of God's role or the ultimate purpose or governance or origin. These are aspects of a biological (rather than a philosophical or religious) definition of evolution.
4) Evolutionism. Evolution sometimes refers to a philosophy of nature, especially in popular literature. It typically refers to an atheistic perspective--driven only by chance and selection. There is no endpoint in view--no plan, no purpose, no direction, no design. God is not involved. Often evolution is seen as a substitute for God as an explanation for the way the living world is.
To me these distinctions are extremely important, especially the distinction between the first three aspects and the fourth one. The crux of my answer to both of our questions centers on properly understanding these distinctions.

Can an Evolutionist Be a Christian?

So you are pursuaded that evolution is true. Let's say for now that we're only talking about the first three senses that I listed before--microevolution, common ancestry, and origin of life. We'll save the fourth one for later.

There are some on both ends of the spectrum that would have you believe that it is either evolution or creation. They say, "If evolution is true, then God does not exist and He is not the Creator of the heavens and the earth." Or, "If God created all things, then evolution is not true (except in the first case, perhaps)." This is the either/or fallacy. Perhaps the only Christians that you hear from make this claim--perhaps their attempts to pursuade you of the truth of Christianity have focused on attempting to disprove evolution as a biological theory. Let me assure you, those of you for whom evolution has become the stumbling block for your entrance into the Christian faith, let me assure you that there are many Christians who are committed to the historic Christian faith and scripture as the infallible word of God, who reject this fallacy. There are many who believe that there is a middle way that allows for acceptance of evolution as a biological theory without compromising the truth claims of scripture or the believe in God as the Creator of the heavens and the earth. In fact, there is some evidence that the most zealous advocates of this either/or fallacy, whom I will label young earth creationists (YEC) are the new kids on the block.

Unfortunately, it is not just the YEC's who advocate this viewpoint, but the popularizers of mainstream science seem to promote this same view. Evolution advocates such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, William Provine and others see atheism to the be the logical consequence of evolutionary biology and mingle their religious philosophy right in with their scientific pronouncements, giving the appearance that atheism is founded on solid science.

Many apologists for Christianity are responding to these religious pronouncements of these evolutionists by explicitly or implicitly giving credence to this either/or argument. This not only includes the YEC folks, but also people such as Phillip Johnson and his supporters. They seem to accept the claim that atheism is the logical consequence of evolutionary biology. Thus, the defense of theism in general and Christianity in particular come by way of an attack on evolutionary biology. For Phillip Johnson, this means arguing that evolution is widely accepted not because there is good evidence for it (which he thinks there is not) but because of a pre-commitment on the part of most scientist to a naturalistic point of view. For YEC's, this means arguing against evolution, but also undermining a key prerequisite for evolution, the antiquity of the planet earth. [On the horizon there appears yet another movement advocating geocentrism/geostatism, i.e. that the earth does not move and that the heavens move around the earth.] For these critics, proving that evolution is not true removes the ground for atheism.

It seems fairly clear to me however that the claim that atheism is the logical consequence of evolutionary biology is wrong. There is no necessary connection between the two. We don't believe that atheism is the logical consequence of Newtonian physics or atomic theory (even though theologians in the past have worried about both of those theories as giving rise to atheism). Why is evolution any different? It seems clear to me that there is a distinction between the biological theory (1-3) and the philosophical notion (4). Perhaps an atheist needs evolutionary theory for his or her origins account, but that is not quite the same as saying that evolutionary theory implies atheism. The atheist evolutionists are confusing a religious claim with a scientific claim. Their conclusion of atheism has gone far beyond the boundaries of science and into the realm of philosophy and religion.

It seems to me that the more effective defense of the faith is to label these practitioners of the evolutionary religion for what they are--religious zealots for their own brand of an atheistic faith. We don't have to question their biological theories--they may be wrong, but they may be right--in order to do this. The biological theory of evolution says nothing, absolutely nothing, about God's role in all of this. God can be the creator of all things, the sustainer and governor of all things, the purposeful designer of all creation--and the process can still be described by evolutionary theory.

This particular point is made very well by the venerable Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge, in his anti-Darwin book, "What Is Darwinism?", first published in 1874. He concludes his book with the following:

The conclusion of the whole matter is that the denial of design in nature is virtually the denial of God. Mr. Darwin's theory does deny all design in nature; therefore, his theory is virtually atheistical‹his theory, not he himself. He believes in a Creator. But when that Creator, millions on millions of ages ago, did something‹called matter and a living germ into existence‹and then abandoned the universe to itself to be controlled by chance and necessity, without any purpose on his part as to the result, or any intervention or guidance, then He is virtually consigned, so far as we are concerned, to nonexistence.

It has already been said that the most extreme of Mr. Darwin's admirers adopt and laud his theory for the special reason that it banishes God frorn the world, that it enables them to account for design without referring it to the purpose or agency of God. This is done expressly by Buchner, Haeckel, Vogt, and Strauss. The opponents of Darwinism direct their objections principally against this element of the doctrine. "This, as was stated by Rev. Dr. Peabody, was the main ground of the earnest opposition of Agassiz to the theory. America's great botanist, Dr. Asa Gray, avows himself an evolutionist, but he is not a Darwinian. Of that point we have the clearest possible proof. Mr. Darwin, after explicitly denying that the variations which have resulted in "the formation of the most perfectly adapted animals in the world, man included, were intentionally and specially guided," adds: "However much we may wish it, we can hardly follow Professor Asa Gray in his belief "that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines" lilke a stream "along definite and useful lines of irrigation." If Mr. Darwin does not agree with Dr. Gray, Dr. Gray does not agree with Mr. Darwin. It is as to the exclusion of design from the operations of nature that our American differs from the English naturalist. This is the vital point. The denial of final causes is the formative idea of Darwin s theory, and therefore no teleologist can be a Darwinian.

Dr. Gray quotes from another writer the sentence, "It is a singular fact, that when we can find how anything is done, our first conclusion seems to be that God did not do it"; and then adds,

I agree with the writer that this first conclusion is premature and unworthy; I will add, deplorable. Through what faults of dogmatism on the one hand, and skepticism on the other, it came to be so thought, we need not here consider. Let us hope, and I confidently expect, that it is not to last; that the religious Faith which survived without a shock the notion of the fixedness of the earth itself, may equally outlast the notion of the absolute fixedness of the species which inhabit it; that in the future, even more than in the past, faith in an order, which is the basis of science, will not‹as it cannot reasonably‹be dissevered from faith in an Ordainer, which is the basis of religion.

We thank God for that sentence. It is the concluding sentence of Dr. Gray's address as ex-President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, delivered August, 1872.

Dr. Gray goes further. He says, The proposition that the things and events in nature were not designed to be so, if logically carried out, is doubtless tantamount to atheism." Again, "To us, a fortuitous Cosmos is simply inconceivable. The alternative is a designed Cosmos.... If Mr. Darwin believes that the events which he supposes to have occurred and the results we behold around us were undirected and undesigned; or if the physicist believes that the natural forces to which he refers phenomena are uncaused and undirected, no argument is needed to show that such belief is atheistic."

We have thus arrived at the answer to our question, What is Darwinism? It is Atheism. This does not mean, as before said that Mr Darwin himself and all who adopt his views are atheists; but it means that his theory is atheistic, that the exclusion of design from nature is, as Dr. Gray says, tantamount to atheism.

Evangelical critics of evolution are fond of quoting this sentence: "What is Darwinism? It is Atheism." But typically they stop there with the quote; they don't admit to the rest of the quote where Hodge clearly states that it is the exclusion of design that makes Darwinism so unpalatible. Notice too that Hodge distinguished between the term "evolution" and the term "Darwinism". The former he found acceptable at least in the formulation given by the botanist Asa Gray. The latter he found unacceptable because he (following Darwin himself) exclude design and direction.

Of course, Darwin here is stepping outside of a biological theory and into a religious claim. How does he know that Asa Gray is not correct in his claim that the variations which appear to be random are not in reality directed and guided. Asa Gray's assertion is also a religious claim. But his assertion does not flow from alleged scientific facts but from his religious belief that "things and events in nature were designed to be so."

The next generation Princeton theologians B.B. Warfield and Charles Hodge's son, A.A. Hodge recognized this. Hodge wrote the following in the Introduction to Theism and Evolution by Joseph S. Van Dyke and reprinted in The Princeton Theology 1812-1921 edited and compiled by Mark Noll (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1983):

Evolution considered as the plan of an infinitely wise Person and executed under the control of His everywhere present energies can never be irreligious; can never exclude design, providence, grace, or miracles. Hence we repeat that what christians have cause to consider with apprehension is not evolution as a working hypothesis of science dealing with facts, but evolution as a philosophical speculation professing to account for the origin, causes, and end of all things.

Hodge's colleague and contemporary at Princeton, B.B. Warfield, wrote the following in his unpublished "Lectures on Anthropology" (Dec. 1888) (cited in Darwin's Forgotten Defenders, p. 119):

The upshot of the whole matter is that there is no necessary antagonism of Christianity to evolution, provided that we do not hold to too extreme a form of evolution. To adopt any form that does not permit God freely to work apart from law and which does not allow miraculous intervention (in the giving of the soul, in creating Eve, etc.) will entail a great reconstruction of Christian doctrine, and a very great lowering of the detailed authority of the Bible. But if we condition the theory by allowing the constant oversight of God in the whole process, and his occasional supernatural interference for the production of new beginnings by an actual output of creative force, producing something new i.e., something not included even in posse in the preceding conditions,‹we may hold to the modified theory of evolution and be Christians in the ordinary orthodox sense.

So I leave you with these words of Warfield, if "we do not hold to too extreme a form of evolution" (that is one that excludes direction, purpose, and design) "...we may hold to the modified theory of evolution and be Christians in the ordinary orthodox sense."