Warfield and Evolution

In the second half of the nineteenth century the Darwinian theory of evolution was a hotly debated and controversial topic. B. B. Warfield took an active part in the debate. The record of his writings of evolution has been recently reprinted. (See Evolution, Science, and Scripture, Selected Writings, by B. B. Warfield, edited by Mark A. Knoll and David N. Livingstone.) The editors of this work deplore the tension and conflict between “special creation” and “evolution” and are looking for a middle way that would resolve the conflict and mediate the differences. They believe that have found such a middle way in the thought of Warfield. Taking the sympathetic views of Warfield with respect to evolution and his reputation as an orthodox Biblical scholar they have offered his position as representing a theory of evolution that is acceptable to Biblical Christians. This fact alone should be enough to tell twenty-first century Biblical Christians, who have the benefit of hindsight showing where a century of evolutionary thought has taken our culture, just how problematic Warfield’s thinking was on this subject.

Warfield’s thought with respect to evolution can be summarized as follows…

  • He rejected naturalistic evolution that made evolution alone responsible for the existence of the created order.
  • He could accept evolution as a method used by God to accomplish part of the work of bringing the world into existence.
  • He believed in the necessity of creation apart from any evolutionary process. That is God had to create the material from which the universe is made “ex nihilo” (out of nothing) by a special creative fiat. Evolution alone therefore cannot account for the existence of the world.
  • He allowed that this material, being once created by a divine act, could be reworked and fashioned into its present state by an evolutionary process.
  • He believed that any evolutionary process would have to be under the direct and active superintendence of divine providence and could not be some autonomous natural force.
  • He rejected any form of “theistic evolution” that limited God to working through natural processes in the formation of the world after the initial creative act to bring into being the materials of the universe.
  • Warfield believed in three separate kinds of divine activity that brought the world into its present form; creation, evolution, and mediate creation.
  • He defined creation as it had classically been understood, to bring into existence out of nothing something that had previously not existed in any form.
  • He defined evolution as a providentially guided process to reform existing materials within the limitation of the potential existing in the materials.
  • He defined mediate creation as a process that forms something by a combination of creation and process (i.e. evolution) working together. This concept is the lynch-pin of Warfield’s thought on this subject. Without this concept Warfield felt God was restricted to working through natural processes and supernatural divine intervention in the world is ruled out. This would eliminate miracles and further creative activity. This was unacceptable to Warfield.
  • An example of mediate creation in Warfield’s thought would be the creation of Adam. His body could have been created by a long evolutionary process as postulated by Darwin, et al. However, the creation of his spirit, by divine in-breathing, was a supernatural act of creation. He gives the formation of the God-man Jesus Christ as another example. And as a “creationist” rather than a “traducianist” he also saw the ongoing formation of human beings as acts of mediate creation.
  • Warfield believed that there was nothing in the first chapters of Genesis that could not be properly interpreted in a way consistent with the evolutionary development of the present world. The only caveat he allowed was that the creation of Eve (Out of Adam’s rib by a special act of God) was hard to reconcile with an evolutionary interpretation of man’s development. But he obviously did not consider this a serious enough objection to cause him to reconsider evolution as a viable interpretation of the Genesis creation account.

Warfield also wrote concerning the corollary issues of the age of the earth and the age of man upon it. First of all, he was willing to accept some kind of day-age theory that would reconcile the Biblical days of creation with the vast geologic ages postulated by evolutionary science.

He argued that a Biblical chronology of the age of the earth was impossible by proper interpretation of the Scriptures. He believed that the Biblical chronological data, embedded in histories and genealogies, was incomplete and totally unreliable for chronological purposes. He argues that there are two genealogies of Christ in Matthew 1. The first is an abbreviated (in his view) genealogy in Matthew 1:1 stating, “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Warfield sees this as a compressed genealogy and argues that if genealogies can be so radically compressed they are all incapable of giving accurate chronological data. He misses the point here. This is not a compressed genealogy, but an identification of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, as the Christ. Since under the terms of the Abrahamic Covenant the “son of Abraham” was the Messiah in whom all the families of the earth were to be blessed, and according to the Davidic Covenant the “Son of David” was the Messianic King who would rule on the throne of his father David forevermore, this is not genealogy, but an identification of Jesus as the promised Messiah, as the one that Israel had been expecting for centuries. To call this a genealogy and on that basis throw out the Biblical data that has traditionally been used to estimate the age of the earth as approximately six thousand years is absurd.

Warfield goes on to argue that the commentary on the characters in the genealogy means that only notable characters are listed and that those without notable remarks (possibly the vast majority in his view) are omitted. But this too is disingenuous as in the very genealogies that he refers to, including Matthew 1, the majority of the characters have no commentary included on them. Nonetheless, on this basis Warfield postulates a possible age for man upon the earth as hundreds of thousands of years. He then quotes scientists who are arguing for shortening the length of geological ages from hundreds of millions of years to only a few million and states that there is hope that with this tendency that science and Bible can still be reconciled on this point.

The common thread in all this is that Warfield is constantly straining, to the very limits of his “orthodoxy” to accommodate evolutionary science without totally giving up any of his Biblical principles. However, it is one thing to state that genealogies have other purposes than providing a chronology, but quite another to say they have no chronological purpose at all. This is especially true in light of the fact that the genealogies give the exact years to the birth of the first born son making exact chronological computation possible. Does Warfield assume that the Holy Spirit did this accidentally and to no purpose. Similarly, it is one thing to state that the genealogies may occasionally skip a generation (i.e. son can sometimes mean grandson, etc.), but quite another to say that this is so pandemic that the genealogies are worthless as genealogies. It is one thing to say that the computed age of man on the earth of six thousand years is an approximation, and quite another to stretch that to hundreds of thousands of years. Warfield is obviously driven by his desire to accommodate evolutionary science and it is the Bible that has to do the “stretching”!!!

And in Warfield’s thinking, the first few chapters of Genesis suffer the identical fate as the chronologies. They too are interpreted in a way to maximize the accommodation to evolutionary theory. Warfield desperately wants to be both Biblical and evolutionist. He is neither willing to accept a conflict between the Bible and science, nor to denounce the science of his day as “science so-called.” For him the intellectual defense of Christianity requires not the stand of a Martin Luther at Worms, in support of the creation account. For him it requires showing that Christianity and secular science remain compatible in spite of the latter’s crusade against the former.

All this is tragic as Warfield leads historic Presbyterianism into such devastating compromise. He cannot see what the Apostle Paul taught in Romans 1, that with respect to the doctrine of creation sinful, unregenerate men, will “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Instead he reverences Darwin as a great man and a gifted scientist, referring to him in such words as..

  • “…an essentially noble soul.”
  • “…one before whom we gladly doff our hats in true and admiring reverence.”
  • “—in a word, as one ‘pre-eminently good, and just, and lovable.’”
  • “We stand at the deathbed of a man whom, in common with all the world, we most deeply honor. He has made himself a name which will live through many generations, and withal has made himself beloved by all who came into close contact with him.”

Such are Warfield’s eulogies of the man who led the revolt in Christian civilization against the doctrine of divine creation. Such is his reverence of a man whose theories became the basis for both National Socialism, with its planned destruction of inferior races according to the Darwinian doctrine of survival of the fittest, and for Communism with its totalitarian control of the environment to guide the evolution of man into the perfect utopian order. Such were the compromises of B. B. Warfield on this defining issue of our age. May the churches repent of having followed him in his folly.