Purpose Matters!

LivingstoneThere is a purpose to the universe and this purpose matters.

The final case study in David N. Livingstone’s fascinating new book Dealing with Darwin: Place, Politics, and Rhetoric in Religious Engagements with Evolution, looks at the approaches to evolutionary theories at Princeton – both the college and the seminary. Most of the professors at Princeton were willing to accept a limited form of evolution. Limited, first, by the available data of their era. Evolution was gaining acceptance in the general scientific community, but there was considerable doubt concerning mechanism. It was not at all clear that natural selection could play the entire role that Darwin assigned to it. Thus there was a certain caution, noting that evolution by natural selection was not yet a proven theory. Limited, second, by a reaction against the purposelessness that some attributed to Darwinian evolution. There was no room for compromise on teleology, the design and purpose inherent in creation.

When do scientists, including evolutionary biologists, go too far?

What is the appropriate Christian posture toward science?

Charles Hodge at the seminary and James McCosh at the college (then the College of New Jersey, only being renamed Princeton and becoming a University in 1896) took very different rhetorical stances on Darwinian evolution. Livingstone argues, however, that their views, while different, were not all that different and the men admired each other.

CharlesHodgeAgainst Darwinism. Hodge went on record against Darwinism, speaking against it at the 1873 New York meeting of the Evangelical Alliance. “[O]ver the following months he turned his preliminary reflections into a 178 page volume entitled What is Darwinism? The book delivered Hodge’s answer with crystal clarity: “It is atheism.”” (p. 159) But this does not mean that Hodge supported a young earth, or that he was anti-evolution. His pronouncement was based on a definition of Darwinism, and this definition gave the clarity and conviction to his view.

Livingstone expands on the context of Hodge’s view.

[At the New York meeting he asked] what he considered to be a fundamental question – one that separated “theists from atheists – Christians from unbelievers.” Was “development an intellectual process guided by God,” or was it “a blind process of unintelligible, unconscious force, which knows no end and adopts no means?” This was the “vital question.” “We cannot stand here and hear men talk about development,” he went on, “without telling us what development is.” (p. 165)

“My idea of Darwinism,” he observed a little later in the discussion, “is that it teaches that all the forms of vegetable and animal life, including man and all the organs of the human body, are the result of unintelligent, undesignated forces … Now, according to my idea, that is a denial of what the Bible teaches … it excludes God; it excludes intelligence from everything.” (p. 166)

The definition here is important – because Hodge’s certainty hinges on his definition of Darwinism.

By this definitional move Hodge could set the terms of the debate. To control definitions, of course, is to exercise power. In Hodge’s case, it meant that he could adjudicate on who was or was not a Darwinian. Those like Asa Gray who considered themselves Christian Darwinians were either mistaken or just plain mixed up; that label had no meaning. Thus for all his efforts to teleologize Darwinism, Gray was simply “not a Darwinian.” That he was a Christian evolutionist, Hodge had no doubt, but that was entirely a different matter. Darwinism was atheism. (p. 166)

Hodge defined Darwinism using atheistic terms and concepts and then declared that Darwinism was atheism. But he never declared that evolutionary theories of the development of life were intrinsically atheistic.

James_McCoshA Different Take. There were a number of Christian evolutionists at Princeton, including James McCosh, president of the college, but they did not accept Hodge’s stringent definition and were willing to talk about Darwinian evolution in Christian terms.

Darwin’s anti-teleological bias did not erode the McCosh’s confidence in the reality of evolution. For he was certain that it “could be easily shown that the doctrine of development, properly understood, and kept within inductive limits, is not inconsistent with final cause.” To McCosh, a “determined order” was easily detectable, and in this he drew sustenance from Leibniz’s ideas of preestablished harmony. “In due time,” he was sure, “a Paley will arise to furnish proofs of design” in the new Darwinian universe. “Darwin will supply the facts” he went on, “and we are just as capable as he of perceiving their meaning. He may reject teleology, but his facts are teleological whether he acknowledges it or no.” (p. 168)

McCosh also noted, after reflecting on the reception and theological pushback Newton’s theory of gravity received … “The time has now come when people must judge of a supposed scientific theory, not from the faith or unbelief of the discoverer, but from the evidence in its behalf.” (p. 169) We can accept the facts without accepting the metaphysical baggage that may be attached to the data and the scientific theory.

Reminiscing on twenty years as Princeton’s president, [McCosh] confessed that much of his time had been devoted to “defending Evolution, but, in so doing, [I] have given the proper account of it as the method of God’s procedure, and find that when so understood it is in no way inconsistent with Scripture. I have been thanked by pupils who see Evolution everywhere in nature because I had so explained that they can believe both in it and in Scripture.” (p. 173)

Livingstone runs through some of the history of the establishment of science at Princeton, and the role that skepticism played in “Evolution Princeton Style.” There was significant doubt that modification by random variation and natural selection was sufficient to produce the diversity of life observed. The paleontological record was sparse and there was no serious mechanism for mutation proposed. Lamarckian mechanisms were also considered. This was not unusual for the time – as the Darwinian mechanism was under intense scrutiny in many places around the turn of the century. “Disagreement about the mechanism of transformation was one thing; rejecting descent with modification entirely another.” (p. 183)

b-b-warfield-portrait-9Calvinizing Evolution. Now back to the seminary where B. B. Warfield was a man of considerable influence. Benjamin B. Warfield held varying views on Darwinism throughout his life. His view on evolution, separate from the mechanism, was more constant. Warfield was convinced that evolution was fully compatible with Calvinist orthodoxy. This is clear in his 1915 article “Calvin’s Doctrine of Creation” in the Princeton Theological Review. Warfield based this on the view of accommodation that Calvin taught. The spirit of Calvin’s hermeneutic genius should lead us to accept long periods of time and modification through second causes.

All this meant that “Calvin very naturally thought along the lines of a theistic evolutionism.” Whatever Warfield intended by saying that he abandoned McCosh’s Darwinian orthodoxy by the age of thirty, this declaration certainly cannot be taken to mean that Warfield believed that the idea of evolutionary transformism was anything but fully compatible with Calvinist orthodoxy. (p. 186)

Evolution is a theory that must be proven by empirical evidence, but need not be at odds with Christianity. Evolution is a secondary cause under the constant supervision of divine providence, and “occasional supernatural interference” of God is not outside the bounds of the evidence.

Warfield, and indeed the scientists at the college, remained convinced that the creation of the human soul was a place where God’s action went beyond evolution and natural mechanisms. This didn’t preclude common descent or modification by random variation and natural selection, but man’s spiritual nature was from God.

Livingstone concludes the chapter:

[Princeton Calvinists] neither baptized nor bestialized evolutionary theory. As for Darwin himself, they neither vilified nor venerated him. But all the while they reiterated their deep conviction that should evolution come to be verified, it could be Calvinized with little difficulty. (p. 196)

Purpose Matters! The Princeton Calvinists – those for, against, and indifferent to Darwinism – provide a powerful example for how to engage productively with new ideas. When one is able to penetrate and parse the rhetoric of Charles Hodge, this is seen in his positions as well. The battle is fought against atheistic materialism that removes God from the picture. Purpose matters – there is a rhyme and reason for the universe, it is under constant divine providence, but secondary causes are just fine, nothing to be concerned about. There is no value or virtue in fighting against the empirical and theoretical deductions of scientific investigation. Evolution, and even Darwinian mechanisms, stand or fall on the weight of the empirical evidence. An open-minded willingness to dig into the questions is necessary, for knowledge and understanding will advance with us or without us. James McCosh took care with the way he dealt with evolution to avoid the unnecessary alienation of students of science from their Christian heritage. This is an example we would do well to follow.

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If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

If you would like to comment please see Purpose Matters! at Jesus Creed.

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