Evolution, Science, and Scripture: Selected Writings

By Mark A. Noll and David N. Livingstone
Grand Rapids : Baker (2000). 347 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Trevor Craigen
11.2 (Fall 2000) : 260-262

Plaudits and accolades have consistently accompanied the writings of B. B. Warfield. He was an erudite scholar, a prolific writer, and a voracious reader. This selection, in chronological order, of eight articles, one lecture, and thirty-one book reviews, substantiates that evaluation. Preamble abstracts well summarize the content of the article or review. They attest the hard work of the editors and alert the reader on what to be aware of as he reads. A bibliography of two further articles and another twenty-five reviews, which were excluded from the selection, is also provided. In one book, then, is a handsome collection of resources for further discussion on science, the Bible, and evolution.

The introduction, concisely packed with information on the life and thoughts of this man, describes him as a conservative evolutionist (13). This immediately triggers questions on how he would harmonize science and Scripture, how he would treat the historical narrative of Genesis 1–2, and how he would relate general revelation to special revelation.

In fact, the introduction points out that Warfield, “the ablest modern defender of the theologically conservative doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible, was also an evolutionist” (14). This was called the best-kept secret in American intellectual history and was intended, evidently, to prick the conscience of those who have treated theology and science in unsophisticated intellectual barrenness. Between the lines of the polemical vocabulary and turn of phrase one is supposed to hear, apparently, “If only they would be like B. B., intellectually robust and sophisticated, able to provide such a fruitful working relationship between theology and science!” W as it just imagination that heard the frustrated sigh of the editors in closing off these comments?

What does come out repeatedly, however, is Warfield’s equivocating approach: maybe evolution is the process but then maybe it is not. Creation there must be, and mediate creation too, but then evolution, even if it needs to be more narrowly defined, should not be rejected out of hand nor fiercely held to as The Answer! Or to put it another way: “There may be such a thing as descent with variations forming new species, and yet not such a thing. . . . We may welcome evolution as accounting for much while yet seeing that it is not proven to account for all . . .” (121). Evolution was to him both potentially probable and improbable, neither proved nor disproved (169). Such equivocation—however a mark of honest candor on his part it might be—does show the danger of how a prevailing theory on origins may dominate the theologian’s thoughts to one degree or another and may finally impact his exegesis.

Warfield, the editors remind the readers, was committed to his “goal of harmonizing a sophisticated conservative theology and the most securely verified conclusions of modern science” (42). Why, then, did Warfield accord evolutionary concepts any value in his deliberations? He also affirmed that the Christian should strongly deny evolution’s offering any solution to the question of origins nor should evolution replace mediate creation because not all came from the “primal world-stuff” (209). Further no theological value was to be had from debate on the age of the earth (211, 222 f.). But what of a comment made a page earlier that the Christian has no quarrel with evolution when it is a suggested account of the method of divine providence? (210). What of his observations that evolution and creation are mutually exclusive? (200). One cannot help but muse on how dialetical this all sounds.

After perusing the articles and book reviews—and this was not an unpleasant task at all—the troubling question still looms large in the foreground: How could one who so staunchly proposed, defended, asserted, and taught that “the Bible communicates revelation from God entirely without error” [emphasis added], then turn around and entertain the notion that “evolution might offer the best w ay to understand the natural history of the earth and of humankind” (15)? Or how did he teach that man’s body could come via evolutionary process whereas his soul must come directly from God Himself (37). Actually, creationism (i.e., God directly creates each soul) operates as an escape clause to protect the distinctiveness of man’s imago dei when evolutionary development of man is proposed (cf. 215). Apparently, nothing in the Genesis accounts, or elsewhere in Scripture for that matter, needs be antagonistic toward evolution! “Needs be” sounds an alert: Is the text being flexed to accommodate a non-literal interpretation? Yes, it is! (39). And that is disconcerting enough to spotlight Warfield’s clay feet! Praised for his labors he might have been, but up on the pedestal as the discerning writer on evolution and science, as the model of how theologian and exegete must relate to science, he cannot be, and should no longer be treated as such. When he was right, he was right, when he was wrong, he was just plain wrong, and disservice is done if he is then draped in the emperor’s clothes!

He accepted the conclusions of a Princeton colleague, William Henry Green, that the genealogies of Scripture were not reliable for chronological calculations (39-40, 217-22). “Nothing can be clearer,” he wrote, “than that it is precarious in the highest degree to draw chronological inferences from genealogical tables” (272). Genealogies do provide, however, a time-span from a beginning point to an endpoint, from one selected ancestor to another. When this is linked with years of life, and with age at point of another’s birth, then the temporal nature of the genealogies could not be clearer. These genealogies are not historically and chronologically inaccurate and totally irrelevant on when the Flood and the Beginning occurred. To exclude genealogies from calculating the age of the earth, notwithstanding the fluid ancestral use of ‘begat,’ constitutes nothing less than a critical exclusion. Enough said!

The articles on Darwin’s religious life, on the antiquity and unity of humankind, and on Calvin’s doctrine of creation were most instructive, as were the footnotes in all chapters. Undoubtedly this selection from the pen of Warfield will stimulate more thought and study on evolution, science, and the Scripture, and for that the editors are to be commended. The reactions may not be always partial to Warfield, but then one could wonder, in response, whether or not this man’s equivocation and conclusions would have remained the same had he access to the wealth of information available now, but not available in his day. Would he, or would he not, have graced the halls of recent creationism?