Inerrancy or Design? Inerrancy or Design? Old Princeton and Evolution

D. G. Hart and John R. Muether

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 9, no. 1 (January 2000), pp. 4-6

In July of 1925, William Jennings Bryan wrote to J. Gresham Machen to see if fundamentalism's best known scholar would testify for the prosecution at the Scopes Trial. By this time Machen had a reputation for not backing down from a fight. In fact, his biggest battles were yet to come, both at Princeton Seminary and in the missions controversy of the 1930s. But in this particular case Machen was remarkably sheepish and declined Bryan's request. His reasons, judiciously stated, had to do with his lack of expertise in Old Testament studies and biology. But what Machen did not communicate to Bryan may have been even more significant than his official reasons for not going to Dayton, Tennessee. Even though he was deeply opposed to liberalism and showed unparalleled chutzpah in combating Presbyterian modernists, Machen believed evolution was a side issue in the controversy dividing liberals and conservatives. In fact, his book Christianity and Liberalism, arguably his most important, makes no mention of evolution or Darwin.

This is not to say, however, that Machen was oblivious to questions about evolutionary theory and its implications for the Christian doctrine of creation or interpreting the first chapters of Genesis. In addition to the invitation from Bryan, Machen received many letters containing questions about whether evolution and Christianity could be harmonized. Still, he did not write about the subject for publication until the very end of his life when in the series of radio talks that made up the book, The Christian View of Man, he somewhat clumsily argued, on the basis of parallels between the first and last Adams, that the creation of man was supernatural in ways similar to the virgin birth of Christ. He wrote, "if there was an entrance of the immediate power of God in connection with the origin of the human life of Jesus, why may there not have been also an entrance of the immediate power of God in the case of the first man who ever appeared upon the earth?" (140). Machen's intention here was to hold on to the view that the origin of man was not simply the product of nature, but instead involved the direct intervention of God. Interestingly, he did not go directly to Genesis 1 or 2 for conclusive proof, an omission suggesting that in his mind the Genesis narrative did not resolve such questions.

Aside from this one stab at the issue of evolution, Machen invariably replied to inquirers by referring them to the teaching of his mentor, Benjamin B. Warfield, longtime professor of theology at Princeton Seminary. Even in the quotation above, Machen was following Warfield's well-worn distinction between God's creative and providential acts. In the former, God either creates out of nothing or intervenes into the created order to do something new and supernaturally miraculous. In cases of providence, according to Warfield, God still orders all things but does so through secondary means. This distinction was pivotal to the Princetonian's effort to accommodate evolutionary theory. He did so because, as someone reared in rural Kentucky with experience in horse breeding, he had first hand knowledge of what had led Darwin to hypothesize about the evolution of species. At one point in his life, Warfield admitted that he was an evolutionist of the "purest water." But as a Christian, he also knew that reconciling evolution and Christianity was not an easy affair.

And that is why Warfield looked to the distinction between creation and providence. He believed that God's original creation was supernatural. But he also believed it was theoretically possible for the variety of species to have evolved by God's providence, from an originally created substance. The thing that made the origin of man miraculous, according to Warfield, was the direct intervention of God to impart a soul to Adam. Thus, man was not simply a continuation of the evolutionary process. In fact, what made man unique from all other creatures was the image of God implanted in him, which was the direct and creative act of God. Warfield, then, was a kind of theistic evolutionist. God controlled all aspects of creation and the origin of man, but he did so both through acts of creation and works of providence, with evolution being the mechanism of God's providential control.

This was the view that Machen learned while a student at Princeton, and the one he recommended to those who asked him questions about the matter. But it was by no means the only view taught at Old Princeton. In fact, anyone who knows something about the history of the relations between science and theology in the United States, also knows that Machen's and Warfield's predecessor at the seminary, Charles Hodge, wrote a book, often quoted as much as it is ridiculed, under the title What is Darwinism? Though his argument was subtler than his answer to the book's title, Hodge's response—Darwinism is atheism—has been regularly cited as a prime example of conservative Protestant hostility to scientific advance.

The issue for Hodge was design in nature. He believed that Darwin's notion of natural selection removed God entirely from the creation and development of the natural world and substituted an impersonal or brute force. That is why he thought Darwinism the equivalent of atheism. It wasn't that Hodge disagreed with some of Darwin's observations about the natural world or even that God created each and every species by divine fiat. Instead, Hodge's bottom line was that Darwinism, as he understood it, removed God altogether by making nature the only causal factor in scientific explanation. And without God, creation lacked purpose, order and design.

Hodge's understanding helps to explain why Warfield strove to accommodate Darwinism in the way he did. On the surface it might look as if both men are far apart, the older saying evolution was atheism, the younger baptizing it with providence. But in fact Hodge and Warfield agreed on the main premise that the only way evolution could be harmonized with Christianity was to put God firmly in control of the process. Hodge reacted against Darwin's formulation of natural selection, and on this point Warfield agreed. Darwin's views were atheistic. But a conception of evolution that affirmed God's superintendence through providence was different from Darwin's views. And that is why Warfield took the position he did. He was by no means naive; he did not think that most scientists were theists, nor was he unaware of the anti-Christian uses to which evolution was being put. His point was only to say that a Christian understanding of the process made room for a theistic account of biological evolution. Machen merely continued in the tradition, denying atheistic explanations, while affirming Warfield's view.

What is especially interesting to note is that all of these Princeton divines affirmed the inerrancy of Scripture while debating the merits of evolution. Warfield's position is probably the most remarkable since his formulation of inerrancy was one of the most profound articulations of the Westminster Confession's doctrine of Scripture. And yet, given his understanding of biblical authority and infallibility, he, like Hodge before him, did not regard evolution as a threat to the truthfulness of specific portions of the Bible, especially Genesis 1-3. Warfield even affirmed the literal and historic creation of Eve from the rib of Adam. He was not trying to circumvent the difficult passages of Scripture. Instead, the issue for Princeton was the general one of God's authority over and superintendence of all things. For them, evolution raised questions about design in nature, not the truthfulness of the Bible.

For this reason the Old Princeton position on evolution fits right in with current debates among scientists. Rather than discrediting scientific theories on the basis of biblical exegesis, some Christian as well as non-Christian scientists are arguing forcefully, à la Hodge, Warfield, and Machen, that notions like chance and necessity are insufficient on scientific grounds to account for the world as we know it. Instead, they contend that the only adequate account of the created order, given its sheer scope and complexity, is intelligent design. Indeed, the debate over design is one of the most fiercely contested in the biological community. Christians interested in science should well take note of these discussions. To be sure, considerations of design in nature will not resolve questions about how to interpret the first chapters of Genesis, prove the existence of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or substantiate the ancient Hebrew cosmology which Moses assumed. But they offer a better opportunity for credibly engaging the scientific community and meaningfully defending the truth of Christianity than the one now promoted by scientific creationists.

D. G. Hart and John Muether are coauthors of Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Both are OPC ruling elders—Mr. Hart at Calvary OPC, Glenside, PA and Mr. Muether in Lake Sherwood OPC in Orlando, FL.