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From the October, 2001 issue of Touchstone


The Evolving Debate over Origins by Jay W. Richards

The Evolving Debate over Origins

B. B. Warfield: Evolution, Science and Scripture, Selected Writings
edited by Mark A. Noll and David N. Livingstone
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000
(347 pages; $23.99, paper)

reviewed by Jay W. Richards

Even for the most intellectually engaged, the recent discussion among Christians about Darwinism and Intelligent Design theory (ID) can be difficult to follow. Fortunately, ours is not the first generation to ponder such questions. In fact, B. B. Warfield intimated much of the discussion a hundred years ago.

A brilliant proponent of what has come to be called “Old Princeton” theology—which combined Orthodox Calvinism with Scottish Common Sense Realism—Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield served as professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1887 to 1921. Today, a ten-volume set of his works, as well as another five-volume set and several individual volumes of sermons and theological works, are still in print.1

Unlike so many contemporary theologians, Warfield was able to engage the leading philosophical and scientific ideas of his time without compromising his theological integrity. Even as an undergraduate at what is now Princeton University, he was well versed in the natural sciences and biology.

A native of Kentucky, he shared with his father an interest in breeding shorthorn cattle, which gave him direct knowledge of the variations in animal species. Upon reading the Origin of Species as a college student, he became an early supporter of Darwin’s theory of evolution. After coming to Princeton Seminary, however, his mentor and colleague Charles Hodge2 persuaded him that Darwin’s theory was more the product of naturalistic assumptions than scientific evidence. Nevertheless, Warfield always maintained an open-mindedness toward the possibility of “evolution” defined generally, and he wrote reviews and articles on the subject throughout his career. At times, he even seemed persuaded that some degree of common ancestry was likely and that Christians need not feel threatened by it.

The way in which he reconciled his conservative theological convictions with contemporary evolutionary theory has been a subject of scholarly debate. Mark Noll and David Livingstone have dramatically enriched this debate with this outstanding new volume, B. B. Warfield: Evolution, Science and Scripture, Selected Writings. In addition to bringing together most of Warfield’s writings relevant to the subject, Noll and Livingstone include an insightful general introduction as well as summaries of the individual documents. The work is not, however, merely an exercise in historical reminiscence. For Warfield’s treatment of Darwinism and the editors’ interpretation of his views bring into sharp resolution the central issues at stake in the current debate among Christians on the status of Darwinism.

A distinctive feature of Old Princeton theology was the conviction that God testified to himself through two books, the book of Scripture and the book of nature, and, rightly interpreted, neither of these sources could conflict with the other. For that reason, Warfield and his Princeton colleagues exuded confidence in the face of new scientific findings, ever certain that, ultimately, the facts of nature, considered without bias, would confirm the truths of the inerrant Bible. Of course, there can be heated disputes about what the facts of nature are, as opposed to the unwarranted speculations of scientists. But any conflict between the actual facts revealed in nature and the biblical texts should lead the exegete, not to doubt the truth of Scripture, but to seek a better interpretation.

This perspective gave Warfield and the other Old Princeton theologians a great deal of flexibility, more than some fundamentalists who are tied more closely to a literal or plain reading of biblical texts. Admittedly, this method could be criticized for making the biblical texts unfalsifiable. Nevertheless, Noll and Livingstone make a strong case that Warfield offered a sophisticated, even paradigmatic, model of how a Christian theologian can engage Darwinism in particular and biological evolution in general, without surrendering to the spirit of the age.

Exegesis, Inerrancy & Evolution

First, Warfield saw clearly that we cannot evaluate evolution in general and Darwinism in particular simply by biblical exegesis or a doctrine of biblical inerrancy, since, as Noll and Livingstone note, an inerrantist can still adopt a non-literalist interpretation of the early Genesis texts (p. 39). Many questions, such as those of the antiquity of man and the universe, are not answered explicitly in the biblical texts, and so should be left to empirical investigation, insofar as that is possible (pp. 211–229).

On the other hand, Warfield was acutely aware that important theological issues were at stake in the discussion. It would be a mistake to judge from his open-mindedness that he was willing simply to accommodate whatever was claimed as the assured results of scientific research. Since Warfield continued to criticize Darwinism for 30 years, he clearly did not think that all problems with the theory could be resolved simply by pointing out that Genesis can be interpreted in different ways.

Evolution & Darwinism

Second, he maintained important distinctions between the various meanings of evolution (pp. 115–116, 163–164). As he defined it, the first meaning of evolution was an all-encompassing philosophy of being, “supplying a complete account of the origin and state of the universe,” which Warfield took to be “tantamount to atheism.” The second definition of evolution referred to the actual discovery of how things are produced, without making any comment on first causes. The third defined evolution as a more or less probable “working hypothesis” or “conjecture as to the method of creation,” the view he adopted. He always insisted that various evolutionary theories, including Darwinism, be judged on their empirical adequacy, not on the fact that they conformed to some rule of scientific methodology or metaphysical expectation (p. 66). And he always recognized the difference in status between evolutionary hypotheses, which concerned past events, and empirical hypotheses that are susceptible to direct empirical tests, like gravity (p. 119).

Similarly, he was careful to distinguish evolution in the sense of common ancestry from Darwin’s particular mechanism (e.g., p. 261). Warfield saw that there is no logical connection between limited or universal common ancestry and materialistic doctrine (p. 233). At the same time, while recognizing the important but limited role of natural selection, Warfield faulted Darwin for attempting to replace teleology3 in the biological world with natural selection and random variation (pp. 83–93, 264). He also accused Darwin of being impervious to the evidence of the natural world and of being philosophically predisposed against Christianity (e.g., pp. 79, 200–201, 228).

So for Warfield the question was not whether Christian theists could believe in limited or universal common ancestry or evolution, but whether they should, that is, whether the empirical evidence for it was compelling apart from materialistic blinders.

God Acts in Different Ways

Third, he was open-minded with respect to the way God interacts with the world. He did not require, like many contemporary scholars, that God restrict his activities to ways deemed appropriate to modern sensibilities. In fact, he was quite willing for God to act differently at different times and for different purposes. This commitment to God’s freedom opened Warfield to a variety of possibilities discoverable through an investigation of nature. Noll and Livingstone aptly call this view “methodological pluralism.”

For most of his career, Warfield spoke of the three different ways in which God acts as “creation,” “mediate creation,” and “evolution.” The distinctions are complicated by the fact that he defined creation narrowly, to mean only creation ex nihilo. Creation is God’s primal act of bringing everything into being, including matter, from nothing. It describes God’s initial creation of the universe, as well as (for Warfield) the creation of each individual human soul (pp. 126–128) (even if human bodies share a common ancestor with other animals, p. 233).

Late in his career—in his interpretation of Calvin’s doctrine of creation—this definition led him to collapse mediate creation into evolution—something he had earlier criticized (pp. 293–313; cf. 203). While he deserves criticism for some muddle in this area, the divine activities he allowed seem more important than the specific ways in which he described them at different times.

While Warfield knew that the word evolution had become almost synonymous with denying God’s role in explaining the world, he still defined evolution as a mode of divine activity. Although it could no doubt lead to confusion to describe a type of divine activity with a word often used anti-theistically, he was determined not to let the concept of a natural developmental process be annexed exclusively to atheism. In his sense, evolution is a divinely superintended developmental process of biological descent, which is law-like and teleological, fully natural and fully guided by God. Thus it conforms to the notion of concursus (p. 309), that God works in conjunction with nature or man to accomplish his work.4 So one must always bear in mind that Warfield’s endorsement of evolution was not orthodox Darwinism, for which teleology is an illusion (pp. 261, 262).

By mediate creation, Warfield meant the direct activity of God on a material substrate, in which God brings about something new, and for which “the production of second causes operative in the case are inadequate” (p. 208). Mediate creation is halfway between creation pure and simple and providence pure and simple, of which most miracles would be examples (p. 209). Warfield argued that the central issue of dispute for theistic evolutionists is whether God ever acts directly in nature once it has been created (p. 208). While he maintained that God could have acted in this way, he thought that, in many instances, whether he acted in this way was a question of empirical inquiry, not theological speculation. He entertained the possibility, for instance, of mediate creation at the origin of life, and at the emergence of new animal genera, classes, and kingdoms (pp. 121–124). He allowed the possibility of “occasional supernatural interference for the production of new beginnings by an actual output of creative force” (p. 131). Often, however, mediate creation would not be a “violation of natural law,” since, for example, no natural law requires that there be living things or vertebrates or mammals. In other instances, mediate creation might entail a suspension of natural regularities, as in the case of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

More important than the details, however, was Warfield’s conviction that these were empirical questions, and need not be prejudged by assuming their incompatibility with a Christian view of things (p. 125). Since God is free to act as he sees fit, Christians should be open to discovering all sorts of possibilities in the natural world.

Theistic Evolution & Intelligent Design

Noll and Livingstone appreciate these things, but their deeper interest in Warfield seems to lie elsewhere. Throughout the volume’s introductions and summaries, the reader may detect the editors saying: “See, it’s possible to be a theological conservative, even a biblical inerrantist, and still make peace with ‘naturalistic evolution.’ There’s no need for conservative Christians to be young earth creationists.” For the reader not moved by subtleties, the book cover even asks: “Are naturalistic evolution and Christian creation irreconcilable ideologies?” Of course, a great deal depends on the definition of terms, but the unstated answer is apparently that, at least for Warfield, these two things were compatible, and they can be for us as well. So the editors say in their introduction: “The possibility of a human evolutionary history combined with a theologically permissible materialism was, to Warfield, entirely consistent with his self-perception as an orthodox Calvinist” (p. 37).

More specifically, they seem to imply that Warfield would have had most in common with contemporary “theistic evolutionists” such as Howard Van Till, who endorse methodological naturalism on theological grounds. They also seem to interpret his use of the concept of concursus (p. 211) as if it were synonymous with the contemporary compartmentalist strategy of theistic evolutionists, which allows them to give full reign to the neo-Darwinian denial of design, while nevertheless maintaining that things are designed in some undetectable sense. Finally, they imply that his anti-Darwinian, teleological view of evolution was not a reflection of his resistance to materialistic trends in science, but merely of the scientific consensus of the day (p. 315).

Now I’m not certain if Noll and Livingstone intend these implications to be an actual thesis. If they do, however, it seems to me an incorrect thesis, and this in light of the very Warfield texts that Noll and Livingstone have so carefully edited. Nothing in Warfield’s extensive writings lends itself to the thesis that “naturalistic evolution” and “Christian creation” are compatible, at least as those notions are currently understood. Moreover, Noll and Livingstone have implicitly restricted the available options, since they do not mention the current debate between so-called theistic evolutionists and ID theorists. In light of this debate, a careful look at Warfield’s writings reveals that his thought is much more akin to contemporary ID theory than to theistic evolutionism.

First, some definitions. Despite terminology, the points of contention between ID theorists and theistic evolutionists do not hinge on whether theism and evolution are logically compatible. This is a trivial semantic issue. Evolution can mean so many things that, depending on one’s definition, every theist walking the earth could be called a theistic evolutionist.

Rather, the dispute between theistic evolutionists and ID theorists centers on two questions: (1) Are the effects of intelligent design detectable in the natural world; and (2) Does intelligent agency, in addition to chance and natural law (or “necessity”) have a role in explaining the natural world? This reduces further to a single, pointed question. The grandfather of the ID movement, Phillip Johnson, puts it this way in his book The Wedge of Truth5: “What if science, defined as the search for truth based on evidence and observation of the natural world, conflicts with science as defined (materialistically) as the search for naturalistic explanations about the natural world?”

Theistic evolutionists generally refuse to consider this question, because they are committed to “methodological naturalism,” the view that scientists by definition must proceed as if naturalism is true. So for them, there could never be evidence in nature for a designing intelligence, at least when that evidence could imply a supernatural intelligence. Of course, many theistic evolutionists will defend methodological naturalism in theological terms; hence, they will accuse design theorists of being “interventionists,” “special creationists,” “episodic naturalists,” “episodic creationists,” and so on. They frequently charge design theorists with believing in a “cosmic magician” and of committing the “god-of-the-gaps” fallacy, in which divine agency is used to fill in causal gaps in areas of scientific ignorance. Most theistic evolutionists require, often for aesthetic reasons, that God act providentially only through secondary causes, and never in a direct or detectable way. Thus, theistic evolutionist Howard Van Till admits: “I find it theologically awkward to imagine God choosing at the beginning to withhold certain gifts from the creation, thereby introducing gaps into the creation’s formational history—gaps that would later, in the course of time, have to be bridged by acts of special creation.”6

ID theorists, on the other hand, argue that scientists should be willing to consider the empirical possibility that there could be such evidence, and that methodological naturalism arbitrarily restricts what may be discovered in the world. No theological a priori allows us to determine beforehand how God must have acted in creating and sustaining the world.

More strongly, many design theorists argue that there is actual evidence of intelligent design in nature, and that the widespread denial of this, in particular by Darwinians, is the result of their deducing the “facts” about nature from the methodological and metaphysical first principles of naturalism rather than from a clear-eyed look at the evidence.

In this contemporary dispute, there can be no doubt where Warfield would come down. Consider first the detectability question. Warfield was a persistent defender of teleology in nature, a teleology detectable to the natural intellect. Near the end of his career, he said that “teleology is the very soul of evolution” properly interpreted (p. 318). And in the last years of his life, Noll and Livingstone say, “he re-affirm[ed] in the strongest terms his belief in the physical world as a scene of divine revelation” (p. 321). Warfield was never one to hide God’s activity, as contemporary theistic evolutionists tend to do, in such a way that natural scientists would be forever blind to it.

Even in his most irenic defenses of evolution, Warfield insisted that the biological world displayed evidence of design and purpose in the process as a whole. It is not a chance process, but a progressive increase in complexity, synonymous with God’s providence (p. 263), “which obviously suggests design” (p. 317). Moreover, unlike the Darwinian requirement that novelty and complexity be introduced by random variations, Warfield seemed to understand evolution to be a working out of inherent potentialities present from the beginning (pp. 290–292, 317). Rather than the origination of something really new, it is modification of what already exists (p. 234). Design theorists call this “front-loaded evolution.” In such a view, the history of life could be compared to a computer program, which has written into it all the diversification that plays out over time as the program is run. Such a view may be “evolutionary” in some generic sense, but the presence of foresight and intention makes it closer to “creation on the installment plan” than to the ateleological system envisioned by Darwinians. A similar view is held by contemporary design theorist Michael Denton,7 and entertained sympathetically by Michael Behe.8 In fact, most design theorists consider this a live possibility, even if many of them think it is unlikely for various empirical reasons.

Second, Warfield was acutely aware of the tendencies of scientists to speculate on the basis of metaphysical preferences—especially naturalistic ones—rather than empirically known facts. In contrast, he encouraged scientists to go to nature and find out what is in fact the case. For instance, in an 1888 review, he criticized a Darwinian, A. A. W. Hubrecht, for his argument for the common ancestry of primates from homology (structural similarities such as backbones, five fingers and toes, etc.):

There are two things which most strongly impress the lay reader of his presentation: first, what must appear to him the serious overworking of the principle, reasonable in itself, but certainly capable of being unduly pressed, that similarities in structure imply genealogical connection; and, secondly, the facility with which speculatively constructed facts are made to take their place along with facts of observation as the basis of observation. . . . And [the lay reader] is very apt to rise from the perusal of books like the present one with a strong suspicion that, if their writers did not put evolution into their premises, they would hardly find so much of it in their conclusions.

They all start out with the assumption of evolution as a thing “universally acknowledged as is gravitation,” and supplied long since with “demonstrative evidence”; but they oddly enough appear to be still on the outlook for evidence for it, and cannot avoid speaking now and again of valuable material for its establishment. (184–185)

Phillip Johnson could not have put it better.

Similarly, Warfield rejected the restriction on science required by methodological naturalism. For instance, in a 1901 review, he praised a lecture by Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck:

In this eloquent lecture Prof. Bavinck outlines the great conflict facing the church of the twentieth century—the conflict with the so-called scientific method, which is determined to explain the whole world and all that is within it without God, without any unseen, supernatural, spiritual element; it holds, instead, that everything in our universe has come out of the simple data of stuff and force. (195)

Finally, he resisted the tendency of some theistic evolutionists to tailor God’s activity in nature to modern sensibilities. In 1901, he criticized theologian Otto Pfleiderer for just this type of restriction on divine freedom: “A God may be admitted; even a governing God may be acknowledged, provided only that he governs in, with and through natural causes only, so that all that comes to pass finds its entire account in the second causes operative in its production” (200).

For these reasons, while we are indebted to Noll and Livingstone for compiling Warfield’s reflections on this subject, I conclude that they have failed to annex him to contemporary theistic evolutionism. Whether he had things right is of course another issue. But on the fundamentals, Warfield had a keen sensitivity to just the sorts of arguments currently being articulated by ID theorists. On the Christian interaction with evolutionary theory, it seems Warfield was a century ahead of his time. 


1. Raymond Cannata, “History of Apologetics at Princeton Seminary,” in Unapologetic Apologetics: Meeting the Challenge of Theological Studies, ed. William Dembski and Jay W. Richards (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p. 71.

2. In 1874, Hodge wrote a book on Darwinism with the famous concluding question, “What is Darwinism?”, to which he answered, “It is Atheism.” Nevertheless, even Hodge was not unreservedly skeptical of various evolutionary hypotheses, and his views were in fact quite close to Warfield’s on fundamentals. See Charles Hodge, What Is Darwinism?, ed. Mark A. Noll and David N. Livingstone (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994). The volume under review here is something of a sequel to this recent edition of What Is Darwinism?

3. A teleological process, derived from the Greek term telos (end, result) is a goal-directed process, a purposeful development, as in nature or history, toward a final end. Before Darwin, most evolutionists understood evolution in this way.

4. Warfield defended biblical inspiration and inerrancy along similar lines. Thus, God is simultaneously immanent and transcendent in inspiring the human authors of the biblical text. In this way, he can preserve the text from error without overriding the peculiarities and humanity of the authors. See Noll and Livingstone’s discussion, pp. 19–25.

5. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

6. “The Fully Gifted Creation,” in Three Views on Creation and Evolution, ed. J. P. Moreland and John Mark Reynolds (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Pub. Co., 1999), p. 187.

7. Nature’s Destiny (New York: The Free Press, 1998).

8. Darwin’s Black Box (New York: The Free Press, 1996).

Jay W. Richards is vice president and senior fellow of the Discovery Institute in Seattle. He is the author most recently of The Untamed God (InterVarsity, 2003) and co-author with astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez of The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery (Regnery, 2004).

“The Evolving Debate over Origins” first appeared in the October 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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