Darwin, the Scientific Creationist

by William E. Phipps

Dr. Phipps is professor of religion and philosophy at Davis and Elkins College, Elkins, West Virginia.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 14-21, 1983, pp. 809-811. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Throughout his life Darwin held the view that evolution does not supplant creation, but that they supplement each other. He believed that a rational God who established a law-abiding cosmos is more worthy of devotion than a capricious God who intervenes in the natural order.

Three basic positions on the relationship between science and theology have emerged in the modern era. Antitheological scientism is at one pole and antiscientific creationism is at the other. An outstanding example of one who held the former position is French philosopher Auguste Comte, who lived in the early 19th century. History shows, he claimed, a progressive change in the way natural happenings have been explained. In humankind’s childhood it was presumed that personal divine spirits caused the movements of nature. However, with the coming of the age of scientific maturity, speculation about divine causation is dismissed as superstition, and nature is seen as solely the interaction of impersonal forces. Comte called his philosophy "positivism," and its reductionism and atheism have had a significant impact during the past century.

At the opposite extreme is antiscientific creationism, which claims that the primary assumptions of biblical theology and natural science are mutually exclusive and that the latter must be rejected. A leading spokesman for this position is Henry Morris, director of the Institute for Creation Research. Tireless lobbying by that California-based society for the past decade is largely responsible for the introduction in a number of states of legislation that would require giving equal time in science classes to the teaching of the alleged single account of creation as recorded in Genesis.

Morris, although trained as an engineer, states quite categorically: "It is only in the Bible that we can possibly obtain any information about the methods of creation, the order of creation, the duration of creation, or any of the other details of creation." About 6,000 years ago, he affirms, creation was completed in six days, as the opening chapter of Genesis records. Even though it flatly contradicts astronomy, geology and biology, Morris attempts to defend a literal reading of his textbook on the facts of nature: "The Bible teaches that the earth existed before the stars, that it was initially covered by water, that plant life preceded the sun, that the first animals created were the whales, that birds were made before insects, that man was made before woman."

Morris bluntly concludes: "If the Bible is really the word of God . . . then evolution and its geological age-system must be completely false." Polls show that a sizable proportion of the American population agrees with Morris that scientific theories on natural origins are in conflict with revealed religion and should not be taught unless they can be supplemented by a theological corrective.

Charles Darwin rejected both the positivistic outlook and the biblical literalism that were championed in his day. Although he is usually thought of as subversive to all creation theories, an examination of his personal writings and his major work, Origin of Species, shows this view to be incorrect. He related some themes of biblical theology to natural selection in a sophisticated manner. His formal education gave him excellent preparation for the religious aspects of this endeavor, since the only academic degree he ever earned was in theology, after a three-year course of study at Cambridge University. A main text in the curriculum was written by archdeacon William Paley. Decades later Darwin recalled: "I do not think I hardly ever admired a book more than Paley’s Natural Theology. I could almost formerly have said it by heart."

At Cambridge Darwin came to know some of the sharpest thinkers in the Church of England, and from that time onward he seriously attempted to harmonize science and religion. He had been planning on a career as an Anglican minister until Professor Henslow, a biologist and clergyman, recommended him for the position of naturalist on the Beagle. In his Autobiography Darwin recalls that he was so orthodox while on board the Beagle that some of the officers laughed at him for quoting the Bible as authoritative. He also states that for a long period after his return he spent a great deal of time thinking about religion.

It was, then, over two decades before he published Origin of Species that Darwin replaced biblical literalism with a "more simple and sublime" theology, one in which God is viewed as ordaining that creation operate without interference, through the natural law that he established. In an 1837 notebook Darwin jotted down this reflection:

Before the attraction of gravity was discovered . . . astronomers might have said God ordered each planet to move in its particular destiny. In the same manner God orders each animal created with certain forms in certain countries. But how much more simple and sublime to let attraction act according to certain law.

Further, wrote Darwin in an 1842 essay, "It is derogatory that the Creator of countless systems of worlds should have created each of the myriads of creeping parasites and slimy worms which have swarmed each day of life . . . on this one globe."

Darwin’s cosmic perspective displays the impact on his thinking of Isaac Newton, who taught at Cambridge two centuries before Darwin. Newton stated his scientific creationism in this manner: "Bodies may . . . continue in their orbits by the mere laws of gravity, yet . . . this most beautiful system . . . could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being." Both Newton and Darwin believed that a rational God who established a law-abiding cosmos was more worthy of devotion than a capricious deity.

Darwin conceived of evolutionary law in the realm of biology as parallel to gravitational law in the realm of astrophysics. In correspondence with geologist Charles Lyell in 1861, Darwin wrote:

Astronomers do not state that God directs the course of each comet and planet. The view that each variation has been providentially arranged seems to me to make natural selection entirely superfluous, and indeed takes the whole case of the appearance of new species out of the range of science. . . . Why should you or I speak of variation as having been ordained and guided, more than does an astronomer, in discussing the fall of a meteoric stone? He would simply say that it was drawn to our earth by the attraction of gravity.

Knowing well the opposition that the Origin would provoke, Darwin attempted to head off at the outset the either/or type of illogic which barred many from integrating science and creation. He wanted to assure his readers that an open-minded exploration of his ideas need not threaten people who had a rational outlook on theology. At the beginning of his book Darwin placed three quotations that relate theology to nature. The first was written by William Whewell, a professor with whom Darwin had conversed on "grave subjects" while studying at Cambridge. That philosopher of science contributed to the Bridgewater Treatise series works designed to show "the power, wisdom, and goodness of God as manifested in creation." The opening sentence of the Origin contains these words from Whewell’s Bridgewater Treatise: "Events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case. but by the establishment of general laws." Those words echo Newton’s widely accepted theology which held that God does not directly intervene in the natural order.

Darwin’s second introductory quotation affirms that the natural order presupposes a continual intelligent agent. It comes from Analogy of Revealed Religion, by Joseph Butler, the bishop of Durham. That famous defender of orthodoxy saw reason and revelation as companions, not enemies. The last quotation for launching the Origin is Francis Bacon’s plea for an endless investigation into the Bible and into nature. He claimed that no one should presume that it is possible to search too far either in the "book of God’s word or in the book of God’s works."

At a few places Darwin introduced theological comments within the body of the Origin. In chapter six this question is asked: "Have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man?" Darwin there reminded his readers that centuries earlier a geocentric world was intellectually more satisfying to ordinary people, but eventually the realization came that the voice of the people cannot be trusted to be the voice of God. In Darwin’s day many liked to think that God had formed the eye at the time of animal creation in a way parallel to that of an engineer making an optical instrument. The construction of a telescope, for example, is completed soon after it is designed. Darwin, however, argued that the eye is the result of complex processes that have gone on for millions of years. He asks: "May we not believe that a living optical instrument might thus be formed as superior to one of glass, as the works of the Creator are to those of man?" Darwin, like the prophet Isaiah, attempted to enlarge awareness of God’s greatness by rejecting a naïve identification of commonly accepted ideas with the order he established.

In the Origin’s concluding chapter Darwin appropriately states: "I see no reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone." To lower the evolution anxieties of those with religious beliefs, he quotes Charles Kingsley, a distinguished priest in the Church of England. In a letter to Darwin, Kingsley acknowledges that he has discarded the idea that God created immutable species at the beginning of time and that he "has gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that he created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms." Kingsley learned from Darwin to interpret the elimination of God’s immediate control over events as heightening God’s glory, rather than reducing God’s power.

Darwin then distinguishes his "plan of creation" from the belief in "special creations" by drawing on a dual causation theory developed by Thomas Aquinas. That medieval theologian distinguished between the primary or ultimate cause, God, and the secondary or mediate cause, natural phenomena. Secondary causation does not exclude and is not in conflict with primary causation. The last paragraphs of the Origin contain this theological comment:

To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual. . . . There is grandeur in this view of life . . . having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that . . . from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

In the final sentence of the Origin Darwin deliberately uses biblical terminology in referring to all creatures as being inbreathed by God. In regard to that sentence British scientist and theologian Arthur Smethurst rightly comments: "There seems no reason why a Christian should not entirely endorse these words. . . . It is the way of God to work in nature through consistent and regular processes which we call the principles of nature."

Throughout his life Darwin held the view that evolution does not supplant creation, but that they supplement each other. While recognizing that his competence was mainly as a scientist, he was accepting of people who overlapped the scientific and religious spheres more than he did. Once, in referring to Asa Gray, the Harvard botanist and orthodox Presbyterian whom he frequently cited in his books, he wrote: "It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent theist and an evolutionist."

By rejecting a rigid either/or type of thinking Darwin was a more cautious scientist than Auguste Comte and a more profound theologian than Henry Morris. Comte myopically saw only the immediate scientific causation and was oblivious to a possible higher cause. Antievolutionist Morris is guilty of gross misuse of language in calling his position "scientific creationism." If his approach is scientific, then we are living in the Middle Ages. Darwin, however, deserves to be called a scientific creationist because he attempted to knit together scientific and theological theories in a way that affords a more unified and comprehensive view of reality. Regarding beginnings, Darwin draws on historical theology for an answer to the question of who, but on empirical science for an answer to the question of how.

When Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey a century ago, it was fitting that pallbearers, including both clergy and scientists, laid his body to rest near the grave of fellow scientific creationist Isaac Newton. Also, an appropriate anthem was composed for the occasion from words selected from Proverbs: "Happy is the man that findeth wisdom/ and the man that getteth understanding. She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her! and happy is every one that retaineth her./ The Lord by wisdom hath founded the earth:/ by understanding hath he established the heavens."