Evolution and Theological Belief

Evolution and Theological Belief  (1911) 
by Ralph Vary Chamberlin

Supplement to


PROVO, UTAH, JAN. 31, 1911

NO. 12

Evolution and Theological Belief

Aspects of their Relationship Historically


The conflict of opinion aroused by Darwin will subside like the evil passions of our civil war. Surely the reverent study of nature cannot lead man astray. These two great movements of love and of knowledge, first of the spiritual, then of the intellectual and physical, well-being of man, will be seen to be in harmony and not a discord.—H. F. Osborn ('09).

The dualism or antagonism manifested in what has been widely spoken of as the conflict between science and religion, has been a conspicuous phenomenon in the life of recent generations. The same conflict, in one form and another, extends back to very early times. In Greece, centuries before the foundation of Christianity, contention was rife, which largely parallels in some fundamentals the controversy of recent times. In truth, however, a large amount of the modern conflict has been either over nonessentials or has been due to mutual failure on the part of the combatants to understand each other. If these would stop long enough to agree upon definitions and to reach some real understanding of each other’s meaning and point of view, they would in most cases end by agreement. It is another case illustrated by the dispute over the two-sided shield. Those who saw but one side might conclude the shield to be black; but the other side of the shield might be white, and those who had had this side alone presented to them might justly contend for the whiteness. Both would be in possession of the truth, but not of the whole truth, which would consist in a combination of the truth possessed by the two. In this conflict both sides have been guilty of the folly of dogmatism: and in a large number of cases the question has ceased to be one as to fact or truth, and has become one as to the relative skill of the opponents in debate.

Stripping off all surplusage and coming to the heart of the matter, the underlying cause of the controversy with which we are dealing has always been a difference in the philosophic interpretation of Nature. Since the days of early Greece there have been men who saw Nature as something designed and sustained by a conscious intelligence; while there have been others who saw nothing in or behind Nature excepting so-called natural causes, forces acting blindly and inevitably. Either God controls Nature, it has been thought, or else Nature runs itself by virtue of blind resident causes. Thus we have Theism and Naturalism respectively. The Naturalism of recent times has been essentially Materialism, embracing the view that the Universe can be reduced wholly to "matter and motion." We see, then, that it is over the questions of efficient causation that controversy has been especially waged and can understand why so much importance has been attached to the matter of origins. Now evolution, in the ordinary acceptation of the word, deals essentially with the origin of organic forms and in the minds of many has seemed thereby to bear with great weight upon this question of causation. Hence, we can easily understand the tremendous storm raised fifty years ago when the theory was revived with so much vigor by Spencer, Darwin, and others. There were then many opponents of religion, who short-sightedly claimed that the establishment of the truth of evolution would be the last link in the evidence required for the complete proof of Naturalism; and there were likewise many theologians who with the utmost folly acquiesced in this opinion that Naturalism and Evolution were one and inseparable.

It is very interesting and instructive to note that while theologians of fifty and of twenty-five years ago thus so widely and so warmly opposed evolution as making for pure Materialism, most of those of the early part of the eighteenth century and especially those of earlier times did not look upon the evolution of species from species or even their origin spontaneously from inorganic matter as having any theological bearing other than as "instances of that various wonder of the world which in devout minds is food for devotion." In the best minds of those earlier centuries there was never so much as a well-defined suspicion that theological faith was in any way opposed by the phenomena of the natural origination of the different forms of plants and animals. On the contrary, many of the ablest men of the Church not only accepted the doctrine of evolution, but extensively developed the theory as describing the method or one very important method of creation.

It is clear that the Babylonians and neighboring peoples of the ancient East believed that in the beginning space was filled with a continuous mass of waters. According to the main Babylonian account, for we have recovered a number, the earth was first given shape in the midst of this watery chaos as a flat body over which, as a second step, a solid vault or firmament was formed to keep back the waters from the surface. Then dry land could appear. After so much had been accomplished the divine fiat issued and the waters of the earth brought forth fish and other sea animals, and again the earth was caused in like manner to produce land forms and plants. The whole organic creation is thus represented largely as a growth or crude evolution process initiated and controlled by the divine power or word. It will readily be noted by the reader that this, if exception be made to the interpolation regarding the moulding of man, is precisely the method of organic creation pictured in Genesis in a more refined and spiritual form.

The main features of the Babylonian account of creation seems to have passed to the Phoenicians, Assyrians, and other neighboring peoples, and through the Phoenicians to the Greeks, the fertile genius of whose philosophers took hold of the evolution idea and elaborated and extended it in a way at times strongly suggestive of modern conceptions. Anaximander shows clearly the influence of the Babylonian account. He was the first to suggest that man must have originated from lower forms. Crude evolution theories or suggestions toward such are worked out and presented in the teachings of Anaxagoras, Heraclitus, Thales, Pythagoras, and Empedocles. Empedocles had a conception of the gradual development upon the earth of higher and higher forms of life, the earliest being rude and imperfect, and a "struggle for existence" ensuing in which the more monstrous and deficient were gradually eliminated. He thus first conceived of an evolution definitely regulated by something akin to law. Heraclitus was particularly impressed with the constant and orderly changes occurring in the universe and, accordingly, saw in movement or change—in an evolution—the universal law or cosmic process. Among the Greeks the evolution theory reached its highest and most refined development in the master mind of Aristotle. Aristotle was much more than a mere speculator; for he pursued in his natural history studies the inductive or scientific method which alone has given us substantial advances in knowledge. He made various discoveries of fundamental significance which have been confirmed only within the last century. He understood correctly the general character of the origin of the individual as a progressive development from a simple germ to the complex adult, and subsequently extended this development process to the kinds of organisms, definitely conceiving of the origin of the higher from successively tower and lower forms through the operation of a "perfecting principle" or law.

Through the collapse of the ancient classic civilization and the crushing of Greek freedom of thought, the mental continuity of the kind of investigation and thinking represented so brilliantly in Aristotle was completely broken. For nearly two thousand years no real successor to Aristotle appeared, the writings on Nature that have come down to us from these long centuries representing a surprisingly lower plane. Among the Romans the poet Lucretius was much impressed with the evolution idea; and in his De Rerum Natura he represents the process as applying to all things both living and inorganic. Lucretius, however, wrought wholly in speculation and fancy, as did Pliny the elder who lived during the first century A. D. Long famed as the foremost naturalist of antiquity, we now know that Pliny added nothing to our knowledge but that, as a shallow compiler, he wrought together fact and the fabulous indiscriminately.

The world-renouncing character of the Christianity of the Middle Ages was not favorable to devotion to natural things; and, in fact, direct investigation of Nature was completely dead. The writings of the time were largely based upon such works as those of Pliny and treated in all seriousness such mythical creatures as the phoenix and dragon. The fact is that the world had passed thoroughly under the thraldom of book learning The effort was to settle difficulties by reference to ancient authorities; and the polemics of the time were esentially polemics on interpretation. Nature was not directly studied, but the ablest minds of these times were in the Church, and among them speculation upon matters treated in scripture and the earlier church fathers was rife, Among these matters those involved in the creation were prominent. Among many other questions that as to the mode of creation was naturally much considered. A dominant belief in this matter, based upon the passage in Genesis referring to the formation of man, was that God moulded directly with his hands all things, both living and dead. At all times, however, there was present along with this belief another one equally ancient and rather more scriptural, according to which creation in the beginning was largely potential. According to this the impress of the Creator was given once for all, and under its power the actual formation and unfolding of natural things was even yet continuing—the creation occurring largely through the operation of secondary causes as an evolution process.

In the fourth century of our era, St. Basil in the eastern church declared that in the beginning at the command of God the waters and earth were gifted with productive powers, and that the same command which gave this generative power to the earth in the beginning should be effective until the end of the world. St. Gregory of Nyssa held practically the same views. In the western church St. Augustine held still more free and positive opinions in this direction and completely opposed the current of belief as to a creation "like that by which a toy maker brings into existence a box of playthings." "To suppose that God formed man from the dust with bodily hands is very childish. God neither formed man with bodily hands nor did he breathe upon him with throat and lips." He advocated the growth doctrine and argued that even though living things come into being from other substances or things, God is none the less their creator as the ultimate author of the productive power according to which or as a result of which the beings arose. This productiveness was involved potentially in the primary creation.

This view of the creation gathered strength in the following centuries among churchmen and others. To many churchmen it appealed because it removed a difficulty furnished by the account of the flood and ark. The number of animals known to exist had become so large that, though grounds were found for doubling and trebling or enlarging to any actually feasible degree the dimensions of the ark, it was seen to be impossible that the vessel or a hundred such could house two of each kind; and it was thought humanly impossible that Adam could have given names to so many creatures. The difficulties were at once removed by the view that only a limited number of forms were created in the beginning, and that from these or from the earth the others had subsequently taken origin, through the operation of divinely imparted power or through an evolution. In the twelfth century St. Lombard accepts and elaborates this doctrine and urges particularly that all things were nevertheless brought into being through the word of God either directly or virtually. Some men believed and supported the view from scripture, that all the lower organisms were originated through natural causes, and that man only was separately and directly created.

With the Revival of Learning or Renaissance men again came to observe and study and learn from Nature directly. As a result of systematic observation and experiment the basis for the belief in the spontaneous origin of living things from lifeless which had prevailed from the earliest times came to be questioned, and in the seventeenth century was practically discredited. Men came to accept the view that life comes only from life. This resulted in the view that in the evolution process new beings must have come only from other living things. All living beings had sprung directly from the limited number created directly in the beginning. In the seventeenth century and during most of the eighteenth it became generally accepted by theologians and scientists alike that all closely related species had had a common genetic origin from a single ancestral form. A limited number of types were created in the beginning from which all others had descended and varied. In the early part of the eighteenth century Benoist de Maillet advocated what Aristotle had done so long before, the theory that all existing forms had originated from pre-existing and different species.

It was in the latter part of the eighteenth century that the doctrine of special creation in its rigid form first came to be regarded as an element in Christian orthodoxy. The Swedish botanist Linnaeus, who himself as a young man had shared the prevalent belief in the transformation of species, later devised an effective method for naming species scientifically, the so-called binominal system which is still in use and for which its author is chiefly famous. Students came to him from all parts of the world; and a result of his teaching to these was a tremendous impulse toward the study of species, which accordingly took on a dignity and importance they had not had before. Linnaeus came soon to enunciate the dogma that each existing species was created as such with all its distinguishing features, and that there were upon the earth today just as many species as had been thus independently created in the beginning. There was something in the preciseness of that age, "its exaltation of law, its cold passion for a stable and measured universe, its cold denial, its cold affirmation of the power of God, a God of ice," that made the more rigid thought of Linnaeus concerning living forms especially acceptable, and accounts in large part for the rapidity with which it became almost universally received and so interwoven with the thought of Christianity as to be considered biblical in origin, a view without rational justification. Thus the opinion of a naturalist was adopted by the churchmen in the form of the doctrine of special creation as it has existed in the more recent times.

While the Linnaean dogma thus came to be widely accepted there were among the students of Nature always some who held evolution to be the only rational explanation of the phenomena with which we are confronted in the living world. The brilliant Frenchman Buffon worked cut a clear theory of evolution which, however, he was early forced, to forsake through the pressure brought to bear by the theological faculty at Paris. Others who forcibly contended for evolution were Goethe (1790) in Germany, an ardent and brilliant advocate, Erasmus Darwin (1794) in England, and Treviranus in France, who in 1802, presented a fully elaborated theory with definite views as to the factors in the process. Finally Lamarck (1744-1829) developed what is justly regarded as the first presentation of the complete modern theory of evolution. But the proportion of fact to speculation was too small, and when Cuvier brought his great knowledge and authority against the theory it was for a time completely checked in France. But Cuvier himself showed that the Linnaean dogma must be radically modified; for he had demonstrated that large numbers of animals had lived which no longer exist, but which were found in the earth's crust as fossils, large numbers of which he himself had excavated and restored. Hence he brought forth the doctrine of a series of creations between which there was no continuity. The earth having been fully inhabited was at the end of each period subjected to a great cataclysm by which all forms of life were swept out of existence. An entirely new creation then followed, to be in turn ended by another cataclysm and so on. It was soon forced upon geologists, however, that no such catastrophes had occurred, but that changes in the earth's crust had been gradual. Furthermore, a vast number of facts as to the geological history and geographical distribution af animals, as to their comparative anatomy and development, were being accumulated which seemed inconsistent with any other theory than that of a common descent for all living things. The result was that when Spencer and Darwin and Wallace presented the theory of evolution in the middle of the nineteenth century upon a thoroughly scientific basis, it met with rapid and almost universal acceptance among men of science, who saw in it the key to a thousand problems that had vexed them in their different special fields and for which no other explanation has ever been found. To be sure Agassiz made a last stand for special creation, modifying again extensively Cuvier's views; but in vain, for the tremendous crowd of new facts shattered his theory irreparably so that not one of his many students has been able to follow him. In the last fifty years the theory of descent has been subjected to such a test as has never been given to any other scientific theory; but through this it stands out clearer and stronger than ever, insomuch that it has rightly to be considered the best demonstrated of all scientific laws. The factors concerned in the process have not been elucidated, and are subject of controversy; but the fact of evolution in the organic world is no longer considered open to question, and is the basis of all productive work in biology today. As Pres. Jordan states it: "All contrary hypotheses have long since ceased to work. The theory of evolution as the method of creation of species is as well attested as the theory of gravitation. All biological investigation must assume it; without it such investigations are impossible. . . . No naturalist whose studies give him the right of an opinion on the origin of species, now holds the old notion of the separate creation of each species and its organs."

What, in the meantime, has been the course of opinion with reference to evolution among theologians? It has been shown how among them the Linnaean theory came to take firm hold. Finally, when the old and familiar doctrine of evolution was put forward in the middle of the nineteenth century upon a scientific basis, theological belief had become so set and developed about the Linnaean dogma of special creation that the churchmen, as before indicated, vigorously assailed the evolution theory in its new dress with its indication of control by natural law and processes as nothing short of pure materialism. But the theologians after the first onslaught began gradually to see that they had been guilty of a great folly, and that the establishment of the doctrine could have nothing to do fundamentally with the essentials of their faith. Today it is not only accepted by nearly all educated and enlightened Christians, but it is by them wrought with great power into the higher and more beautiful construction of Christianity.

While the theory of descent seemed for a time to many to do away with creation and the necessity of a Creator altogether, the same thing has been true of various other laws of nature at the time of their first effective enunciation. That the earth is spherical, that the sky is not made of metal, that the earth moves about the sun, that it is very old, that granite and related rocks had once been in a molten state that Jerusalem is not at the precise center of the earth's surface as stated by Ezekial—each of these views in turn was shown to be unscriptural and was thought to militate against religion and was accordingly opposed for a time by Christian theologians. Thus with reference to the motion of the earth Father Inchofer wrote in 1631: "The opinion of the earth's motion is of all heresies the most abominable, the most pernicious, the most scandalous; argument against the immortality of the soul, the existence of God, and the incarnation should be sooner tolerated than an argument to prove that the earth moves." And Luther says: "People give ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves . . . this fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy . . . but Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth . . . but certain men have concluded that the earth moves . . . now it is want of honesty and decency to assert such notions publicly and the example is pernicious. It is the part of a good mind to accept the truth as revealed by God and to acquiesce in it."

As a further example, the law of gravitation may be cited. This is something so different from the views that had prevailed up to the time of its enunciation that it seemed to "remove God from the course of Nature." There is no room for doubt that the establishment of this law was the chief ground of the widespread scepticism of the eighteenth century; and the eminent sceptics, such as Voltaire, did not fail to make seemingly effective use of it in their efforts to justify themselves and to undermine faith. It seemed to many to establish the self-sufficiency of the universe and to render untenable the view that it was sustained by God. Yet we have now so thoroughly adjusted ourselves to the idea of gravitation as a means of sustentation in the universe that Christians could not think of going back to the narrower, indefinite, and mysterious views of the earlier period and feel that their religion and ground for faith have been much strengthened rather than weakened by the new conception.

Thus it is clear that evolution is not alone among the teachings of science which have been looked upon immediately following their first general establishment or promulgation as substantiating Naturalism. A little thought shows, in fact, that the relationship of the doctrine to Naturalism Is precisely the same as that of any other law of nature. It is in exactly the same position as gravitation; and one is the equivalent of Naturalism no more than the other. Evolution does not add at all to the general argument for Naturalism. It is merely the latest link in the same chain that science from the first has been forging. From the beginning science has been revealing law and order in Nature; evolution in effect merely extends what had been established and universally accepted for the inorganic in its assertion of a reign of order and law in the living world. Just as we passed through the crises involved in the enunciation of the rotundity and movements of the earth, and of gravitation, and emerged in every way lifted and strengthened, so we have nearly left forever behind the uncomprehending opposition that has flooded and raged about evolution. A settled calm has appeared and only here and there do we yet feel the weakened impact of a far-reflected wave, coming to where one by one the few remaining members oi an opposition a generation late say with Archdeacon Farrer: "We should consider it disgraceful and humiliating to try to shake it (evolution) by an ad captandum argument, or by a clap-trap platform appeal to the unfathomable ignorance and unlimited arrogance of a prejudiced assembly. We should blush to meet it with an anathema or sneer." Those who feel the pressure of the wave echo again the far-brought words of Dr. Ryle: "To suppose that a person must either renounce his confidence in the achievements of scientific research or abandon his faith in Scripture is a monstrous perversion of Christian freedom." When we see men still so unhappily bound with prejudice and tradition that they are blind to the beauties and light of the grandest conception that science has yet won for man, we sorrow, and in sympathy again recall the plea that the unhappy Castelli made to the pope who was about to inflict punishment upon Galileo for his demonstration of the movements of the earth: "Your Holiness, nothing that can be done can now hinder the earth from moving."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1967, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 55 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.