White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield on Science, the Bible, Evolution, and Darwinism

Published Tuesday, July 31, 2007 By Mark Noll

Controversies over evolution excite every bit as much passion in the late twentieth century as they have ever done. Christian believers who seek humbly to understand the means by which God directs the natural world as well as honest scientists who seek to deal responsibly with what their researches reveal are regularly shouted aside by culture warriors heavily invested in the supposed struggle between science and religion. Truth is usually the loser; populist politicking too often drives out patient, responsible science. (1)

Two of the great theologians in American Christian history sought a better way. Charles Hodge (1797-1878) and Benjamin Warfield (1851-1921) were the most influential theologians at Princeton Theological Seminary during the first century of that institution’s existence. During their tenure, Princeton was widely regarded as the nation’s center of Presbyterian intellectual life, and Presbyterians were properly regarded as among the country’s leading intellectuals. (2)

Both of these Reformed stalwarts wrote learnedly about the most vexing theological issues raised by theories of evolution in their day. The specific assertions that Hodge and Warfield made about science are still worthy of serious consideration today. Even more, however, the way in which they wrote about such issues-with patient analysis and unhesitating confidence in both science and Scripture-offers modern believers a better approach than extremist, anti-intellectual, or paranoid combat against the scientific establishment. At the same time, they also offer scientific despisers of traditional biblical faith consequential examples of a responsible respect for science that arises directly out of Christian belief.

Hodge, Warfield, and most of their colleagues at Princeton shared a common attitude toward science in relation to theology. Their steady goal was to preserve the harmony of truth. Hodge and Warfield refused to countenance any permanent antagonism between the two realms of knowledge: what humans, by God’s grace, could discover about the natural world (which owed its origin to God), and what they could learn, again by grace, about the character and acts of God from special revelation in the Bible.

Their common mentality was that of scholars. Hodge and Warfield were alike committed to thorough reasoning. They thought it was a Christian duty to use their minds fully to understand the world. They did not set reasoning about the physical world and interpretations of divine revelation in opposition, but rather held that properly qualified deliverances of the human intellect and properly understood conclusions from Scripture were complementary. As a consequence, they were patient in unpacking detailed arguments in theology as well as in philosophy, and they abhorred merely rhetorical responses to complicated intellectual problems.

Hodge and Warfield also held common intellectual convictions. Theologically, they were Calvinists who maintained traditional Reformed convictions about most subjects, including nature. Specifically, they held that the world owed both its origin and its ongoing operation to the direct activity of God. They believed that God was responsible for the orderliness of natural processes; that the human ability to discern this order in nature was a gift from God; and that investigations of nature testified to the work of a purposeful designer. They also felt that Scripture provided reliable general information about the physical world.

Philosophically, the Princeton theologians were committed to the principles of common-sense reasoning as these principles had been imported to North American in the eighteenth century by Scotsmen like John Witherspoon (president of Princeton College from 1768 to 1794) and then developed by a host of American commentators. Their common-sense philosophy featured trust in ordinary human intuitions against the skeptical speculations of philosophers like David Hume. Proponents of this philosophy drew on sophisticated arguments by Scots like Thomas Reid and popularizations of those views in works like the Encyclopedia Britannica as edited by Reid’s follower, Dugald Stewart. With such support, Americans easily turned aside doubts about the reality of the self and the reality of normal cause and effect connections. As testified to by the opening discussion of method in Hodge’s Systematic Theology, the Princeton theologians shared at least some of the American enthusiasm for Sir Isaac Newton, as the doyen of modern science, and Sir Francis Bacon, as the most famous early promoter of an epistemology of induction. The Princetonians’ Calvinistic convictions about the debilitating character of sinfulness did not always fit smoothly with their common-sense philosophy. Yet that philosophy was common intellectual coinage in nineteenth-century America, and they were among the American intellectuals who put it most skillfully to use.

In many ways, the Princetonians’ theology of nature and their philosophy of common sense were typical of most American Christians during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But unlike at least some other conservatives, they also held that Scripture did not need to be interpreted literally when it referred to nature. Perhaps even more untypically, they held that the findings of science should be enlisted to help discover proper interpretations of Scripture.

The Princeton theologians were interested in science for several inter-related reasons. First was confessional. As Calvinists, they believed the physical world was an arena in which God manifested his power and glory. Scientific research, therefore, was a way of finding out more about the world God had made, but also about the God who had made the world. Second was apologetic. The Princeton theologians knew that in the wake of Newton and the Mechanical Philosophy, science was being increasingly used to attack traditional Christian faith. If others used science to discredit Christianity, it was the responsibility of mature believers to show the error of such abuse. Third was social and ideological. They thought that Christian appropriation of science was critical for the health of civilization in America. If science (or any other false source of ultimate value) undercut faith in God, evil would inevitably proliferate, public virtue would retreat, and civilization would be imperiled.

Finally, such views about relationships among science, theology, and civil society also implied much about the Princeton theologians’ own role. Hodge, Warfield, and their colleagues were remarkably pious people; personal testimonies abound to their unusual humility. At the same time, they also possessed an extraordinarily lofty conception of their vocation. They were guardians not just of theology, and not only of relationships between science and theology, but of Truth and of Civilization. Part of their concern for the spread of sub- or anti-Christian uses of science was, thus, concern about themselves. If scientists with no concern for the theological traditions they defended succeeded in becoming public arbiters of the culture’s most influential questions, it was obvious that the theologians would also be displaced from their positions of cultural authority.

Science in general, therefore, was important to Hodge and Warfield both because of what they believed and because of who they were. Especially as the pace of scientific discovery quickened in the nineteenth century, and as alternatives to Christian appropriations of scientific knowledge grew more forceful, their concern deepened.

Alike as they were on many matters, Hodge and Warfield did differ-or at least appeared to differ-on whether evolution was acceptable to Christianity. Hodge, who is best known for his short book, What Is Darwinism? (1874), but who also wrote much else on science, did not think Darwinism was compatible with the faith. For his part, Warfield over a thirty-year period published at least thirty-nine articles and reviews, some of them substantial, on questions related to evolution. Throughout most of his career, he held that evolution might be compatible with the Christian faith. Despite this apparent difference, however, to understand the way each theologian approached his work is to see the substantial continuity of their convictions.

Charles Hodge

Charles Hodge came to write about Darwin after a lifetime of serious attention to scientific issues. That interest was partly a familial legacy. Both his father and his brother were Phila-delphia physicians, and Hodge himself attended medical lectures during several periods of his life, including the trip he took to Europe as a young theological professor in 1826-1828.

Hodge’s interests in scientific matters led to a long-time friendship with Joseph Henry, a professor of science at Princeton College who later was the inaugural director of the Smithsonian Institution. (Henry also served several years as a trustee of Princeton Seminary and was a serious Presbyterian layman.) Hodge recruited Henry to write for the Princeton Review, (3) he included Henry in the informal meetings where the editorial business of the Review was carried out, he worked hard to keep Henry at Princeton when other institutions tried to lure him away, and he took special delight when Henry was introduced to the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1843 as a man who carried out scientific duties with a due sense of piety. (4) During the period when Hodge’s “rheumatic” leg gave him the most difficulty, he even applied electricity to the afflicted limb from a machine that Henry had invented. Henry was not altogether pleased with this experiment, and, in the event, it did not relieve Hodge’s condition, but it does indicate something of the relationship the two enjoyed. (5) For modern purposes, the Hodge-Henry friendship is significant for its ability to transcend differences of scientific opinion. Henry, after initially doubting the compatibility between any form of evolution and traditional Christianity, eventually came reluctantly to accept a Christianized form of evolution. (6) But even though Hodge could not agree, he remained on very cordial terms with his scientific friend.

In addition to his avocational scientific interests, Hodge, at least from the late 1840s, regularly lectured and wrote on issues concerning the relationship of science and Scripture. (7) A letter to the New York Observer in March 1863 showed clearly how Hodge felt science and theology should interact.

He first affirmed that the Bible could “teach no error” on anything that it touched. But then he hastened to say that the Princeton theologians had always held, “in common with the whole Church, that this infallible Bible must be interpreted by science.” True to form, Hodge took pains to spell out what he meant by “science”: “ascertained truths concerning the facts and laws of nature.” Yet once having made a careful definition, Hodge forcefully affirmed the hermeneutical value of scientific knowledge: “The proposition that the Bible must be interpreted by science is all but self-evident. Nature is as truly a revelation of God as the Bible, and we only interpret the Word of God by the Word of God when we interpret the Bible by science.” Hodge then provided an example of what he meant: “For five thousand years the Church understood the Bible to teach that the earth stood still in space, and that the sun and stars revolved around it. Science has demonstrated that this is not true. Shall we go on to interpret the Bible so as to make it teach the falsehood that the sun moves round the earth, or shall we interpret it by science and make the two harmonize?” Hodge closed with a word in the other direction: just as legitimate science must be used to interpret Scripture, so must Scripture be allowed to shape the interpretation of science. In his words, Hodge wanted to avoid both sides of “a two-fold evil.” One evil was the overwillingness “to adopt the opinions and theories of scientific men, and to adopt forced and unnatural interpretations of the Bible, to bring it to accord with those opinions.” The opposite evil was to “not only refuse to admit the opinions of men, but science itself, to have any voice in the interpretation of Scripture.” (8)

The strategy Hodge outlined in 1863 was the strategy he followed eleven years later in What Is Darwinism? In the pages of this book Hodge took great pains to define the meaning of “Darwinism” and to distinguish what might possibly be real science from invalid speculation. As he saw it, “Darwinism” entailed three assertions:

(1) that species undergo evolutionary development over time;
(2) that natural selection (defined as variety, overproduction, and survival of the fittest), explains important aspects of those changes; and
(3) that these changes are ateleological, or entirely the result of random occurrences.

As it happens, Hodge himself had doubts about the compatibility of the first two assertions with biblical Christianity, but he also acknowledged that other orthodox Christians did not. As an example of a scientist who did not, Hodge mentioned several times in his essay Asa Gray, an orthodox Congregationalist who taught at Harvard and who was the most important promoter of Darwin’s writings in America. Almost certainly, Hodge also had in mind the president of Princeton College, James McCosh who was also a reconciler of Christianity and evolution.

It was, however, the third assertion that meant the most to Hodge: “by far the most important and only distinctive element of his theory, that this natural selection is without design, being conducted by unintelligent physical causes.” In pursuit of clarity, Hodge repeated that, “It is … neither evolution nor natural selection which gives Darwinism its peculiar character and impor-tance. It is that Darwin rejects all teleology or the doctrine of final causes.” This definition led to Hodge’s famous condemnation at the end of the book: “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.” (9)

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield

Hodge’s careful distinctions about what he denounced as the atheism of Darwinism paves the way for understanding why B. B. Warfield’s more accommodating attitude to evolution was, in fact, largely compatible with that of his revered teacher and predecessor. Warfield’s publications on evolution and related subjects included several kinds of writing: major essays devoted to Darwin’s biography (“Charles Darwin’s Religious Life” in 1888 and “Darwin’s Arguments Against Christianity” the next year); several substantial articles directly on evolution or related scientific issues (“The Present Day Conception of Evolution” in 1895, “Creation Versus Evolution” in 1901, “On the Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race” in 1911, and “Calvin’s Doctrine of Creation” in 1915); and many reviews, some of them mini-essays in their own right (among the most important of these concerned books by James McCosh in 1888, by J. W. Dawson in 1891, by Otto Pfleiderer in 1901, by James Orr in 1906, and by Vernon Kellogg in 1908).

In these writings, Warfield repeatedly insisted on the distinction between Darwin as a person, Darwinism as a cosmological theory, and evolution as a series of explanations about natural development. Of key importance for Warfield was his willingness throughout a long career to accept the possibility (or even the probability) of evolution, yet while also denying Darwinism.

Warfield’s strongest assertion of evolution was theological and came in a lengthy paper on Calvin’s view of creation. Warfield ascribed to Calvin what was doubtless his own view as well: “[A]ll that has come into being since [the original creation of the world stuff]-except the souls of men alone-has arisen as a modification of this original world-stuff by means of the interaction of its intrinsic forces…. [These modifications] find their account proximately in ‘secondary causes’; and this is not only evolutionism but pure evolutionism.” (10) To grasp the underlying harmony between this statement and Hodge’s earlier equation of Darwinism with atheism, it is necessary to pay strict attention to the distinctions that Hodge cautiously advanced in his 1874 book and that Warfield developed much more boldly in most of his writings on the subject.

As a way of positioning Warfield properly on these subjects it is vital to stress a conjunction of his convictions that has been much less common since his day. Warfield, in short, was both the ablest modern defender of the theologically conservative belief in the inerrancy of the Bible and an evolutionist.

During the late nineteenth century when critical views of Scripture came to prevail in American universities, Warfield was more responsible than any other American for refurbishing the conviction that the Bible communicates revelation from God entirely without error. Warfield’s formulation of biblical inerrancy, in fact, has even been a theological mainstay for recent “creationist” convictions about the origin of the earth. (11) Yet Warfield was also a cautious, discriminating, but entirely candid proponent of the possibility that evolution might offer the best way to understand the natural history of the earth and of humankind. On this score his views place him with more recent thinkers who maintain ancient trust in the Bible while affirming the modern scientific enterprise. (12) Warfield did not simply assert these two views randomly, but he sustained them learnedly, as coordinate arguments. Accordingly, Warfield’s convictions on theology and evolution are as interesting a commentary on our own era’s intellectual warfare as they are illuminating for historical conjunctions in his age.

In the course of his career, both Warfield’s positions and his vocabulary shifted on the question of evolution. But they shifted only within the constraints of a fairly narrow range. What remained constant was his adherence to a broad Calvinistic conception of the natural world-of a world that, even in its most physical aspects, reflected the wisdom and glory of God-and his commitment to the goal of harmonizing a sophisticated conservative theology and the most securely verified conclusions of modern science. Another way of describing the constancy of his position is to say that while Warfield consistently rejected materialist or ateleological explanations for natural phenomena (explanations that he usually associated with “Darwinism”), Warfield just as consistently entertained the possibility that other kinds of evolutionary explanations, which avoided Darwin’s rejection of design, could satisfactorily explain the physical world.

In several of his writings, Warfield worked carefully to distinguish three ways in which God worked in and through the physical world. The most important thing about these three ways is that Warfield felt each of them was compatible with the theology he found in an inerrant Bible, if each was applied properly to natural history and to the history of salvation. “Evolution” meant developments arising out of forces that God had placed inside matter at the original creation of the world stuff, but that God also directed to predetermined ends by his providential superintendence of the world. At least in writings toward the end of his life, Warfield held that evolution in this sense was fully compatible with biblical understandings of the production of the human body. “Mediate creation” meant the action of God upon matter to bring something new into existence that could not have been produced by forces or energy latent in matter itself. He does not apply the notion of “mediate creation” directly in his last, most mature writings on evolution, but it may be that he expounded the concept as much to deal with miracles or other biblical events than for developments in the natural world. (13) The last means of God’s action was “creation ex nihilo,” which Warfield consistently maintained was the way that God made the original stuff of the world. It also seems that, in his 1915 article on Calvin, when he considered the soul of every human, Warfield held that God created each soul directly ex nihilo.

Throughout Warfield’s career, the concept of concursus was especially important for both theology and science. Just as the authors of Scripture were completely human in writing the Bible, even as they enjoyed the full inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so too could all living creatures develop fully (with the exception of the original creation and the human soul) through “natural” means. The key for Warfield was a doctrine of Providence that saw God working in and with, instead of as a replacement for, the processes of nature. Late in his career, this stance also grounded Warfield’s opposition to “faith healing.” In his eyes, physical healing through medicine and the agency of physicians was as much a result of God’s action (if through secondary causes) as the cures claimed as a direct result of divine intervention. (14) For his views on evolution, concursus was as important, and as fruitful, as it was for his theology as a whole. It was a principle he felt the Scriptures offered to enable humans both to approach the world fearlessly and to do so for the greater glory of God.

Warfield’s writings on evolution, the last of which appeared in the year of his death, 1921, cannot, of course, pronounce definitively on theological-scientific questions at the end of the twentieth century. They can, however, show that sophisticated theology, nuanced argument, and careful sifting of scientific research are able to produce a much more satisfactory working relationship between science and theology than the heated strife which has dominated public debate on this subject since the time of Warfield’s passing.

The commitment of Warfield and Hodge to solid empirical science and to the concursus of divine and natural action gave them extraordinary balance in sifting the difficult questions of science and faith that beset their era. One of the reasons that many in subsequent decades have failed to retain their equipoise on this subject may be that they have abandoned one or both of these commitments.

  • Mark Noll


1 [ Back ] The author has adapted and abridged this article from the Introductions to two books edited by himself and David N. Livingstone, Charles Hodge's What Is Darwinism and Other Writings on Science & Religion (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), and B. B. Warfield's Writings on Evolution, Scripture, and Science (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, forthcoming), both of which contain extensive documentation and bibliography. Mark Noll is solely responsible for the content of this article. For wider background on the subject, see David N. Livingstone, Darwin's Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter Between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, and Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1987); Mark A. Noll, ed., The Princeton Theology, 1812-1921 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1983); and David N. Livingstone, D. G. Hart, and Mark A. Noll, eds., Evangelical Encounters with Science (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 1998).
2 [ Back ] The best general introduction to the subject of science at the Princeton of Hodge and Warfield is Bradley John Gundlach, "The Evolution Question at Princeton, 1845-1929" (Ph.D. diss., University of Rochester, 1995).
3 [ Back ] For Hodge's appreciation of Henry, see "Joseph Henry," in Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review. Index Volume from 1825 to 1868 (Philadelphia: Peter Walker, 1870-1871), 194-200.
4 [ Back ] A. A. Hodge, The Life of Charles Hodge (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1880), 239; and The Papers of Joseph Henry, ed. Nathan Reingold (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985), 2:426; 5:42, 159n.4, 264-65, 353.
5 [ Back ] Papers of Joseph Henry, 2:90n, 240-42, 266-67.
6 [ Back ] See Ronald Numbers, The Creationists (New York: Knopf, 1992), 11.
7 [ Back ] For example, the lecture given from Jan. 1849, with the title, "The Mosaic Account of Creation," Charles Hodge Papers, archives, Speer Library, Princeton Theological Seminary.
8 [ Back ] Hodge to the New York Observer, in Charles Hodge's What Is Darwinism?, 53-56.
9 [ Back ] Charles Hodge's What Is Darwinism, 89, 92, 156-57.
10 [ Back ] Warfield, "Calvin's Doctrine of the Creation," The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. 5: Calvin and Calvinism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1931), 304-05.
11 [ Back ] For the direct use of Warfield on the inerrancy of Scripture, see John C. Whitcomb, Jr., and Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1961), xx.
12 [ Back ] For example, Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954); Russell L. Mixter, ed., Evolution and Christian Thought Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959); D. C. Spanner, Creation and Evolution: Some Preliminary Considerations (London: Falcon Books, 1966); Malcolm A. Jeeves, ed., The Scientific Enterprise and Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1969); Donald M. MacKay, The Clockwork Image: A Christian Perspective on Science (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1974); Thomas F. Torrance, Christian Theology and Scientific Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981); Davis A. Young, Christianity and the Age of the Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982); Charles E. Hummel, The Galileo Connection: Resolving Conflicts Between Science and the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986); J. C. Polkinghorne, One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986); Howard J. Van Till, The Fourth Day: What the Bible and the Heavens are Telling Us about the Creation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986); and John Houghton, Does God Play Dice? A Look at the Story of the Universe (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1988).
13 [ Back ] Warfield deploys a similar vocabulary in a discussion of miracles that he published at about the same time, see "The Question of Miracles," in The Bible Student (March-June, 1903), as reprinted in The Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. 2, ed. John E. Meeter (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), 167-204.
14 [ Back ] See Counterfeit Miracles (New York: Scribners, 1918).
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