The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

Cretinism or Evilution? No. 2
Edited by E.T. Babinski
Liberal Trend Among Evangelicals?




From abandoning geocentrism to accepting evolution
A "liberal trend" among evangelical christians?

After the Bible's geocentric passages were "reinterpreted" (or ignored, depending on your point of view) by Christians, next came the challenge of the age of the earth. Was the earth only a couple thousand years old (as measured by stringing together the "ages of the Patriarchs" as Bishop Ussher argued) or much older?

Many evangelical Christians today suppose that Bible believers have always been in favor of a "young-universe" and "creationism." However, as any student of the history of geology (and religion) knows, by the 1850s all competent evangelical Christian geologists agreed that the earth must be extremely old, and that geological investigations did not support that the Flood "in the days of Noah" literally "covered the whole earth." Rev. William Buckland (head of geology at Oxford), Rev. Adam Sedgwick (head of geology at Cambridge), Rev. Edward Hitchcock (who taught natural theology and geology at Amherst College, Massachusetts), John Pye Smith (head of Homerton Divinity College), Hugh Miller (self taught geologist, and editor of the Free Church of Scotland's newspaper), and Sir John William Dawson (geologist and paleontologist, a Presbyterian brought up in a fundamentalist atmosphere, who also became the only person ever to serve as president of three of the most prestigious geological organizations of Britain and America), all rejected the "Genesis Flood" as an explanation of the geologic record (or any part of that record), and argued that it must have taken a very long time to form the various geologic layers. Neither were their conclusions based on a subconscious desire to support "evolution," since none of the above evangelical Christians were evolutionists, and the earliest works of each of them were composed before Darwin's Origin of Species was published. The plain facts of geology led them to acknowledge the vast antiquity of the earth. And this was before the advent of radiometric dating.

By the very early 1900s, even conservative theologians at Princeton Theological Seminary were prepared in varying degrees to concede to science a long earth history, the transmutation of species by evolution, and even an evolutionary past for the human physical form. Such theologians included B. B. Plarfield, the famous inerrantist Presbyterian, who at that time oversaw the publication of the Princeton Theological Review.

Even when the twelve-volume paperback series, The Fundamentals, was published between 1910 and 1915 (an interdenominational work that launched this century's "fundamentalist" movement), it contained cautiously pro-evolution stances of conservative Christian theologians like George Frederick Wright, James Orr, and R. A. Torrey. It was only in the eighth collection of Fundamentals papers that this cautious advocacy of evolution was matched by two decisively and aggressively anti-Darwin statements, one by someone who remained anonymous and another by the relatively unknown Henry Beach, both of whom lacked the theological and scientific standing of the senior evangelicals already mentioned.

So by the turn of the century a substantial number of evangelical Christian leaders in science and theology had little trouble reconciling their conservative theological views to the theory of evolution. In fact, the sort of pitched battle being waged by the "creationist" movement today has its roots not in the evangelical heritage of the 1800s but in the fundamentalism that emerged during the half decade or so before 1920, when fundamentalists shifted from moderation to militancy, opposing all "modernist" ideas.

For documentation of the information I have presented see David N. Livingstone, Darwin's Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter Between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987). See also Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (New York: Alfred A. Knopt, 1992), and, Davis A. Young, The Biblical Flood: A Case Study of the Church's Response to Extrabiblical Evidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).

What about evangelical Christianity and evolution today? The American Scientific Affiliation (a group of scientists who are also evangelical Christians), began admitting evolutionists into their organization sometime in the 1950s or 60s. The organization's journal, which contains articles by old-earth creationists and Christian evolutionists, is called, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. Some of the articles critique the arguments of "young-earth creationists." For further information on their journal, or on the scientific conferences they hold, write the American Scientific Affiliation, P.O. Box 668, Ipswich, MA 01938. Or phone, (508) 356-5656. Or email the editor, J. W. Hass, Jr. (of Gordon College, Mass.) and ask to receive a free issue of Perspectives. Email:

As of 1993 faculty members at Wheaton College no longer had to sign a doctrinal statement that affirmed that "humans descended from an historical Adam & Eve, not from previously existing forms of life." Wheaton College is Billy Graham's alma mater as well as being the holder of the world's largest collection of C. S. Lewis books, manuscripts and memorabilia. Lewis was a theistic evolutionist and an evangelical Christian.

In March 1995 the Christian Scholars Review published a special "theme issue" dealing with "Creation/Evolution," containing articles which "critically and creatively explore the implications of hominid macroevolution for the Christian or the compatibility of a modern evolutionary biology paradigm with a Christian world view." The Christian Scholars Review is written by evangelical scholars to help integrate Christian faith and learning. It is sponsored by 39 Christian institutions of higher learning, including Wheaton College, BIOLA University, and Calvin College. For subscription information write the Christian Scholar's Review, Circulation Dept., Hope College, Holland, MI 49423.

Dr. Conrad Hyers, the chair of religion at Gustavus Adolphus College, used to be a fundamentalist Christian and a creationist, but today he is a moderate evangelical and an evolutionist, and has written a scholarly, captivating, and entertaining book on the creation accounts in Genesis. He explains what scholars have to say about them, and what meanings they contain. And why such meanings do not rely on a literal reading of Genesis. His book is titled, The Meaning of Creation. He is also well known for having written a number of entertaining and scholarly books on the interrelationships between spirituality, humility, and comedy.

The evangelical Christian, Paul H. Seeley has composed some deeply researched and well argued articles, along with a book, that shows why evangelicals should resist the all too common temptation to interpret the Bible as a "revelation" of literal "scientific information. His book is titled, Inerrant Wisdom: Science & Inerrancy in Biblical Perspective (Portland: Evangelical Reform, 1989). I highly recommend all of Mr. Seeley's works to evangelical Christians who wish to understand what Scripture says about "scientific" matters, and why the Bible must not be confused with a "scientific" textbook. [For information on obtaining Mr. Seeley's book and finding out more about his articles, he may be contacted by writing Paul H. Seeley, Evangelical Reform, 1544 S.E. 34th Ave., Portland, OR 97214.]

Even that passionate defender of the inspiration of Scripture, B. B. Warfield [mentioned earlier in this article], admitted, "[An inspired writer could] share the ordinary opinions of his day in certain matters lying outside the scope of his teachings, as, for example, with reference to the form of the earth [it's flatness --ed.], or its relation to the sun [an unmoving earth and a moving sun-ed.]; and, it is not inconceivable that the form of his language when incidentally adverting to such matters, might occasionally play into the hands of such a presumption." Of course, if "inspired writers" could share "ordinary" pre-scientific opinions "of their day," then the Bible can not be relied upon as an authority in "scientific" matters.

Today's young-earth creationist movement along with its "Flood geology" notions originated in the 1950s and 60s, due in large part to the earlier writings of amateur geologist and Seventh-Day Adventist, George McCready Price, who was trying to "prove" that the Seventh-Day Adventist "prophet," Ellen White, was correct in her "inspired teaching" that the earth was only a few thousand years old and that one great Flood could explain the world's geological formations.

Dr. Henry Morris (not a geologist, but a devout Christian and hydraulics engineer), was very impressed by Price's works. In The Genesis Flood, Morris recast Price's ideas in a format accessible to evangelical Protestants, thus giving birth to today's young-earth creationist movement.

As explained in the paragraphs above, "Flood geology" had been seriously considered and rejected by devout Christian geologists before Darwin's book on evolution was published in 1859. So conservative Christians had little trouble agreeing that "the earth was very old" for over a hundred years prior to the appearance of Price's and Morris' writings. It is young-earth creationist groups, like Morris' Institute for Creation Research, and other "creation evangelism" programs that have increased discord and division among religious and secular society, and which divert attention away from the genuine problems we all share and should all be facing together at this point in human history. But, I'll leave discussion of that for another article.





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