#2 History of the Idea of Evolution

Charles Darwin presented his theory of evolution through natural selection in 1859 here in Britain.  It was a controversial theory because it challenged the view that God had created all the species on earth exactly as we see them today.  This led to debate within the Anglican Church and in universities that were essentially run by the church.  The debate spread to the Catholic Church on the continent.

My first point is that debate is good and new ideas are good – if we all agreed on everything, we could not debate anything. Church parishes are a good place for debate since Christians are encouraged to think about things.

By the end of the 1860s, Thomas Huxley – sometimes called Darwin’s bulldog – was succeeding in separating the church from universities and making science into a secular occupation.

During the 19th century what was called the Materialist Philosophy was gaining support in some quarters.  It was the belief that matter had always existed and was eternal, and so it was not necessary to believe in God as the originator of matter and the universe.  This led to modern Atheism.

Through the 20th century the big idea of evolution started to replace God as the ultimate explanation for all things.  To the question where do things come from?  The answer was no longer that God created them, but that they had evolved.

The rise of Communism and the Soviet Union brought a new idea – that life had evolved from non-life in some kind of primeval ocean full of organic molecules.  (This idea was brought to Britain by Marxist biologists).  This idea was not the idea of Charles Darwin who believed in the original creation by God of multicellular life as a few or one basic type.

How was the church going to survive what appeared to be an onslaught on one of its core beliefs?  Namely that God had created life?

Anglican theologians in Britain and Catholic theologians in Europe were quick to get to work to sort out the church’s response to the new scientific theory.

They adopted a new theology: that God is still the Creator, but he had created life through the processes of evolution.  Christians who believe this are called Theistic Evolutionists.  Historically there have been two types of Theistic Evolutionists:

  • By the 1950s Theistic Evolutionists were claiming that God guided evolution according to his own purposes.  Thus, God caused evolution to lead to the evolution of human beings from apes. Many Christians who held this view worked in biology. 
  • More recently Theistic Evolutionists inspired by observations of constraints on the natural world and on evolution, changed their belief to state that natural processes are constrained such that humans would evolve anyway whatever happened.  So God had to just wait for it to happen, and it was not necessary for him to intervene at all.

This is where we’re at now.  Most Christians see no conflict between their Christian faith and the theories of modern science. They believe that God metaphorically created the universe with its galaxies and stars, and life on earth.  However, the real active principle was the natural processes of evolution as described by science.

Why do we Christians still need a God if everything was going to happen under its own impetus anyway?

Possible answers are:

  • God is present in people’s personal lives
  • God lends meaning to the whole in a theological way

Theology has embraced modern secular science almost without question. Science is equated with truth, and theologians tag along behind. This certainly makes life easy and comfortable.  It allows us to avoid conflict with the secular world around us. But do we now worship a pocket-sized God? A little God who we don’t need often?

#4 Evolution – God’s method of creation?

In the second half of the 19th century biology became increasingly dominated by the Philosophy of Naturalism promoted by X-Club members led by T. H. Huxley.  Their project was successful in secularizing science.

In the 20th century the church in crisis took the line of compromise with secularism – liberal Anglicans took on evolution as a form of continuous creation such that evolution became God’s method of creation.

By the 1950s Marxist biologists brought the additional idea that natural selection could bring life from non-life.  No known law of chemistry could explain this.  At this point natural selection was no longer a mechanism for modifying existing life forms and producing new species, but a force bringing life itself into existence.

Many Catholic and Anglican Christians then went for the Cosmic Christ where the Christ is the god of the evolutionary force.

Evangelical Christians opposed the whole ‘science of evolution’ project in the 1960s onwards with Biblical Creationism based on a literal reading of Genesis.  Some Creationists later became followers of Intelligent Design.

Meanwhile other Christians who were Theistic Evolutionists found acceptance in the secular scientific community.  They made contributions to NeoDarwinism and the New Synthesis which is Darwinian natural selection combined with the science of genetics, and studies in population genetics.

Biblical Creationists became ‘fair game’ for any Atheists promoting themselves in science.  Theistic Evolutionists then came under attack themselves from militant Atheists trying to prove the total irrelevance of God with the idea that science is the only source of truth.

The present day is probably seen in too much detail to be able to draw any real conclusions out of it.  It’s quite hard to end a history in the present day – we only know what happened by what came next – but none of us know what is coming next.  Thus, my history of science and faith is left hanging – suspended between heaven and hell, awaiting salvation of some sort.

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