“The history of Christian thought has not been consistently dominated by proponents of a literal interpretation of Genesis. The discoveries of modern science should neither be seen as the instigator of some abandonment of trust in Scripture, nor as contradictory to Scripture, but as guideposts toward a proper understanding of Scripture’s meaning.”How was the Genesis account of creation interpreted before Darwin?
In her book, Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit, Krista Tippett interviews James Moore, biographer of Charles Darwin, discussing whether Darwin’s theory of Evolution could, in some way, offer insight for spiritual seekers. As their dialogue develops, the pair outline the historical progression of creationist theology, spanning before the advent of Darwin and his theory all the way to contemporary times. Moore posits that Darwin’s choice to quote Sir Francis Bacon as an introduction to his work, The Origin of Species, demonstrates his respect for the theological concerns arising from his work. Francis Bacon admonishes believers–in order to ascertain a dynamic perspective of God, seekers should not only study the Bible, but also the works of God, which are evident in the natural world. Charles Darwin uses this exhortation as validation to share his scientific research with a world, which may not be willing to accept his findings.
The website, Biologos.com, striving to find harmony between science and religion, provides a survey of church leaders who taught symbolic interpretations of the creation account in Genesis, among them St. Augustine of Hippo, who maintained that the creation story was written with the aim of addressing a particular audience. As such, figurative methods were employed to speak to the needs of that audience in that moment within history. Augustine also believed that “God created the world with the capacity to develop, a view that is harmonious with biological evolution.” The work of Augustine predates Darwin by 1200 years, so what happened along the way, in church history, to make the work of Darwin so contentious during his era and afterwards?
Moore explains that “Historically…creationists…believe that God brought the world into existence,” but having no scientific need to question the biological origin of species, creationists had no argument to question scientific discovery. However, by the 17th and 18th centuries, people were studying the natural world, devising classifications of species, and theologically, there was no reason to assume these species were not “individually created by God in their first pair in the Garden of Eden.” With the foundational conviction that the earth was a mere 6,000 years old, there was no need to assume otherwise. However, by the Victorian period, scientists and naturalists were finding evidence to suggest that the world was much, much older. At the same time, church reform and progress placed the scriptures in the hands of common person, which provided an avenue for contentious debate over how said scriptures should be interpreted. At this point, popular theology embraced a fundamentally literal interpretation of the creation story.
Darwin, as a religious man, bore the burden of internal conflict as his discoveries called this view into question. Nevertheless, he published The Origin of Species, followed by The Descent of Man, asserting that God did not implant each and every known species into the Garden of Eden in the beginning. On the contrary, God set in motion laws of nature, which allowed for the gradual progression of adaptations within species–equipping them for survival over time. While his contemporaries viewed the human struggle for survival as part of sovereign design, Darwin respectfully disagreed.
“Darwin didn’t believe that God was directly responsible for each slug and snail, each catastrophe, each premature death…God didn’t ordain these things. These things were the consequences of patterns, laws, ways of going about existence, that God had established at the outset of creation.”James Moore
Prior to his sojourn to the tip of South America, Darwin embraced the Victorian worldview and predominant theology, but his experiences conflicted greatly with the ideology of his youth. He could not ignore the truth of his experience. He was true to himself, but oftentimes, the prevailing ideology–with its claws sunk deep within the flesh of the populace–cannot morph or bend to allow for the uncertainty of innovative thought. Nevertheless, the theory of evolution did not incur fierce opposition, theologically speaking, until after World War I, when “William Jennings Bryan, the great populist politician fundamentalist who went to Dayton, Tennessee, who in the manner of a political crusade brought it to the attention of Americans that German generals had quoted Darwin and Nietzsche to justify the savage campaigns of that war, ” (Moore). Thus, the Scopes Monkey Trial follows, bringing an impassioned attack against Darwin’s theory.
It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that creationist theology hasn’t progressed much since the 1920s. I find it liberating to engage with the whole of the Bible as an interpretive text, and more so with the knowledge that science brings to the conversation. Religion and science should not be at odds! I find Darwin’s theory of the struggle for survival to coalesce with a view of a benevolent God, more so than the theory of sovereign predetermination. In closing, I will provide an insight from Krista Tippett, which she contributed during her conversation with James Moore:
“There’s the religious talk about Darwin’s legacy of how he challenged perhaps the sovereignty of God or an idea of the sovereignty of God. But he also liberated God from being responsible for inequity and suffering.”Krista Tippett, Einstein’s God
This is a view of God I can embrace.