Theistic Evolution Pt. 2 – Science and Theology

In this post we will look at the Christian acceptance of evolution and the different approaches to science and theology.

The history of science and theology and their relationship with each other at times seems to place them at odds with each other. Science and theology are often posed as direct opposites where one has to choose either one or the other. In this post, that relationship will be examined.


Christian Acceptance of Evolution

Cardinal Newman, who was a contemporary of Darwin, had the following to say regarding Darwin’s theory: “First, is Darwin’s theory against the distinct teaching of the inspired text. For myself … I don’t see that it does contradict it. Second, is it against Theism. … I don’t see how it can be. … If second causes are conceivable at all, an Almighty Agent being supposed, I don’t see why the series should not last for millions of years as well as thousands.” The Anglican Reverend Charles Kingsley was one of those who accepted Darwin’s theory at its arrival.  In the Church of England, Darwin’s theory was assimilated quite readily after the 1860’s. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, many liberal Protestants accepted and preached evolution, but, as Jim Moore notes, they “were captivated by an evolutionary and biologistic vision of a progressive social order, a vision that owed more, directly or indirectly, to [Herbert] Spencer’s philosophy than to any other single source.”

It was not only after the publications of Darwin that theologians entertained the thought of a gradual development of the natural world. Augustine of Hippo had the idea that God allows nature to unfold or evolve according to certain rationes seminales, or causal principles, which were placed in creation and would bring forth the potential unfolding in the right time. One could also call them seedlike principles that would, in time, germinate and grow into their full potential. Gregory of Nissa echoed Augustine’s notion of primordial potential.


Different Approaches to Science and Theology

The idea of a conflict between science and religion, or faith and reason, only became an issue at the end of the 19th century. In 1874, at the British Association, the Irish physicist John Tyndall claimed that religion had subdued science and that in time, science will provide completely materialistic explanations for everything in the physical world. In 1875 and 1876 respectively, John William Draper (scientist, philosopher, physician, chemist, historian and photographer) and Andrew Dickson White (historian and educator) wrote books that painted Christian history as being opposed to science.  In the time of Darwin, it was understandable to be sceptic of his theory, because genes had not been discovered yet, many fossils were still undiscovered, and the earth was thought to be younger than we now found it to be. Gregor Mendel published his work with pea plants in 1866 and it was rediscovered in 1900.  By 1925 the Mendelian model of genetics was widely accepted. Conor Cunningham states that the so-called clash of science and religion was more a clash of legitimately different opinions and class. He also states that it is “wholly disingenuous to pretend, after the fact, that there was a genuine clash involving the opposition of religion to scientific discovery.”

New Testament scholar Nicholas Thomas Wright identifies four models regarding the relation between science and the Bible:

  1. Concordism, where the Bible has some information that can be harmonised with science.
  2. Substitutionism, where the Bible enjoys priority over science.
  3. Compartmentalism, where the Bible and science are kept apart as two distinct realms of knowledge.
  4. Complementarism, where the Bible and science are complementary.

In the same vein, Jonathan Clatworthy delineates four positions within the science-religion debate. These positions are:

  1. That the Bible is fact and science is mere human theory.
  2. That science is factual and the Bible is sheer belief.
  3. That science is factual about science and the Bible is factual about religion.
  4. That neither science nor religion are able to provide exhaustive facts.

The first three of Clatworthy’s positions have a shared view of positivism when it comes to facts. With positivism one encounters three more views regarding the physical world: materialism, reductionism, and determinism. Materialism states that everything is physical matter or is based upon physical matter. Eliminative materialism is the harsher option, stating that physical matter is all that exists and concepts like mind and spirit are mere illusions. Reductive materialism, which is a more widely held view, states that everything can be reduced to physical matter. Reductionism states that everything can be reduced to atoms and laws of nature. Determinism states that nothing is random or free, but that everything has physical causes.

Karl E. Peters follows the third approach to science and religion, namely, that science is factual about science and the Bible is factual about religion. According to him, science explains how things happen using nonpersonal models. Science seeks knowledge, disregarding the well-being of humans and knowledge is valued for its own sake. Religion, on the other hand, explains how things that really matter happened, focusing on values and ultimate importance. Nonpersonal models are also used, but the dominant model used is personal. Knowledge is sought for the sake of human well-being. Thus there is a difference in how these two disciplines go about explaining things that happen and also in their focus. Science cares only about knowledge. Religion cares about human well-being. Peters argues that the “Word of God represents the underlying laws that govern the evolution of the universe, and the Spirit represents random fluctuations or variations in existing states. When the Spirit ‘blows where it wills’ creating new variations, some new variations are selected to continue in accord with the ever-present Word.” In his view, the Spirit takes the role of random mutations and other changes, where the Word takes over the role of natural selection, favouring certain variations above others.

Probing further into the two realms of science and theology, Gloria Schaab mentions four distinctions or obstacles:

  • Science is concerned with the observable reality and theology is concerned with the unfathomable reality.
  • Science should focus on natural phenomena and theology should focus on supernatural phenomena.
  • Science seeks prediction and control while theology seeks commitment and moral purpose.
  • Each has its own language which makes communication between the two problematic.

Theologian and biochemist Arthur Peacocke brought to light things which science and theology have in common:

  • Both use observation and experience for the claims they make.
  • Both claim to concern reality.
  • Both can refer to their realities, but neither can describe these realities literally and thus both employ imagery, models, metaphors, and analogies.

Theoretical physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne and systematic theologian Michael Welker state that another similarity between science and theology is that both speak of things unseen. One example of the unseen objects spoken of by science is the dark companion of Sirius, known only from its gravitational action on Sirius. Another example is from quantum physics, where particles such as quarks and gluons are inferred, but will never be seen. From the obstacles and similarities it is clear that the relationship between science and theology is one of both continuity and discontinuity. Both scientists and theologians seek a clearer understanding of the reality in question.

Peacocke sought to preserve the integrity of both science and theology and thus saw their relationship as a mutually illuminative one: “Science illuminates the mysteries of creation, thereby deepening and expanding what creation discloses about the Creator. Theology illuminates the mysteries of meaning and existence that lie beyond the scope of scientific exploration.” Theologian and botanist Bram van de Beek continues in the same vein when he says that science is a fruitful source for a richer and deeper understanding of faith. It is important for dialogue that, as Polkinghorne and Welker state, “both sides should demonstrate their advocacy of truth, showing that this is not a simple task, but one that must contend with many vague and simplistic answers offered from both sides.” As a concluding remark, the words of Wentzel van Huyssteen should be heeded: “We are obliged neither to commit to some form of universal rationality nor to plunge into a sea of relativism where many rationalities proliferate.”



Cunningham, C. 2010. Darwin’s pious idea: Why the ultra-Darwinists and creationists both get it wrong. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans.

Lacey, A.R. & Proudfoot, M. 2010. The Routledge Dictionary of Philosophy. New York: Routledge.

Mathews, K A. 1996. The new American commentary: Genesis 1-11:26. Volume 1A. Nashville:   Broadman & Holman.

Peters, K E. 2007. Toward an evolutionary Christian theology. Zygon, 42(1): 49-63.

Polkinghorne, J & Welker, M (eds). 2000. The end of the world and the ends of God: Science  and theology on eschatology. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International.

Schaab, G L 2006. A procreative paradigm of the creative suffering of the Triune God:     Implications of Arthur Peacocke’s evolutionary theology. Theological Studies 67: 542-      566.

______2008. Honoring Arthur Peacocke: 1924-2006. Evolutionary theory and theology: A    mutually illuminative dialogue. Zygon 43(1): 9-18.

Van de Beek, B. 2005. Toeval of schepping? Scheppingstheologie in de context van het modern denken. Kampen: Uitgeverij Kok.

Van Huyssteen, J W. 2006. Alone in the world? Human uniqueness in science and theology.        Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans.


Theistic Evolution Pt. 1 – Introduction


Theistic Evolution

In this final chapter of my series, theistic evolution and the theology behind it will be explored. When evolution is accepted as the best and most influential model and the creation narratives in Genesis are found to be mythical, where does one go from there? How does this influence your theology?

The first section (this post) will be an introduction to theistic evolution. The next section examines the relationship between science and theology, looking at early acceptance of evolution, different approaches to the issue, and the rejection of evolution. The third post will look at anti-religious evolutionists, and the synthesis of science and theology. The fourth section looks at meaning in the forms of teleology, human uniqueness, and finding meaning. The fifth section inspects the role of God, asking whether evolution is really godless, examining untraditional views of God, and investigating panentheism. The sixth section looks at the problem of suffering, especially the “only way” argument, the place of divine intervention, and God as the suffering God. The seventh section considers ethics as an evolved aspect and as specifically Christian ethics.  The eighth section looks at salvation within an evolutionary framework and the eight section contemplates eschatology.



Philosopher Robert Pennock defines theistic evolution as “theists who accept the scientific evidence for Darwinian evolution,” and who, “even though they believe in God,” are frequently “under attack by creationists.” Within the paradigm of evolution, one has to think differently about certain aspects of theology. Celia Deane-Drummond, plant physiologist and theologian, states that “the full range of possibilities inherent in working through the implications of the biological sciences on theology in its broadest sense needs to be taken into account.” The science and implications of evolution simply cannot be ignored by theology. The theory of evolution can open up new possibilities in a number of aspects of theology and these ought to be pursued for the enrichment of the Christian understanding of the world. Jesuit theologian Jack Mahoney asserts the observation of John Durant, which states that the theological issues on the forefront when it comes to evolution are focused on three main concerns: “the interpretation of scripture, the relationship between God and nature in terms of creation and providence, and the status of human beings.” Although these concerns are by no means light, one can be positive about theology in light of the new paradigm that evolution gives us. Christopher Southgate is optimistic about the influence of Darwinism on theology: “In respect of key elements of Christian theology, especially the doctrine of creation, the area of theological anthropology, and the ever-present problem of theodicy, Darwinism provides one of the most important rational elements informing a contemporary hermeneutic.” Michael Ruse echoes the approach of Southgate when he says that “although, like all good science, Darwinism challenges religion, Christianity specifically, it can and should provide a positive and creative stimulus for religious people to think about their faith and move forward in a richer and deeper way.” We cannot ignore evolutionary science, but we should not be afraid of it.

Keith Ward states that “[a]s a theologian I renounce all rights to make any authoritative statements about matters of natural science. … I take it that it is an established fact of science that human beings have descended by a process of mutation and adaptation, from other and simpler forms of organic life over millions of years.” Other theologians are not as accepting of science. Larry Witham, in his 2002 book, Where Darwin Meets the Bible, writes the following about what it entails to accept the theory of evolution:

Evolutionists will only accept a material or natural basis of life and its development. The following propositions must be then accepted: first, there is or has been no supernatural intervention in nature; second, there can be no interruption in the regularity of natural law, that is, no miracles; third, there is no ultimate teleology, that is, design; fourth, there are no preordained “types” in biological life; and, fifth, one must either reject the idea of a God or see no role for him in the origin and development of life. Theistic evolutionists usually do not understand these restrictions; they frequently hold that God is only a first cause who got the universe started. Of course, the pure evolutionist rejects even that.

Robert Pollack states two aspects of the natural process of evolution that can be enriching: “First, we find that all life is related. Second, we find that our lives – every human life – is lived best in relationship with others, and that whether or not two persons think they are related, they are. These two aspects of Natural Design, though they do not relieve us of the burden of mortality, do point us in an unexpectedly liberating way, to a life of meaning.”  It’s about relationships between humans and also between our species and all the other species with which we share our home planet. This notion is not alien to the Bible, nor the creation narratives. Simon Conway Morris writes that “we need to re-examine how science reveals unexpected depths to Creation while religion informs us what on earth (literally) we are going to do about it.”



Dean-Drummond, C 2005. Theology and the biological sciences. In: Ford, D F & Muers, R (eds). 2005. The modern theologians: An introduction to Christian theology since 1918.  Oxford: Blackwell Publishing: 357-369.

Durant, J (ed). 1985. Darwinism and divinity: Essays on evolution and religious belief. Oxford:   Basil Blackwell.

Mahoney, J. 2011. Christianity in evolution: An exploration. Washington: Georgetown     University Press.

Morris, S C. 2006. The Boyle lecture 2005: Darwin’s compass: How evolution discovers the song of creation. Science & Christian Belief 18(1): 5-22.

Pennock, R T. 2002. Tower of Babel: The evidence against the new creationism. Cambridge:  MIT Press.

Pollack, R. 2007. “Intelligent Design,” natural design, and the problem of meaning in the natural world. Crosscurrents, 125-135.

Ruse, M. 2006. Darwinism and its discontents. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Southgate, C. 2011. Re-reading Genesis, John, and Job: A Christian response to Darwinism, Zygon 46(2): 370-395

Zimmerman, P A. 2009. Darwin at 200 and the challenge of intelligent design. CTQ 73: 61-75.