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Darwin, Darwinism, and the "Dictionary of Christianity and Science"

Categories Theology Ministry

9780310496052Faith and science have been both kissing cousins and sworn enemies throughout Western history.

That tension, however, hasn’t stopped Paul Copan, Tremper Longman, Christopher Reese, and Michael Strauss from offering the church and academy a new reference resource for the intersection of the Christian faith and contemporary science.

The Dictionary of Christianity and Science (on-sale 4/25/17) engages the crucial faith-science topics of the day. From Adam and Eve to the age of the earth, Big Bang to bioethics, string theory to the Scopes trial, this definitive resource offers you access to over 450 concepts, individuals, and debates, displayed in three types of entries:

  • Introductions offer quick and easy overviews
  • Essays present further exploration of significant topics
  • Multiple-view discussions stimulate discussion through vigorous, charitable, persuading points-of-view articles

To give you a taste of this work we’ve engaged two back-to-back essays below: one entry by Bradly J. Gundlach on Charles Darwin, the other by Robert C. Bishop on Darwinism. Both illustrate why Scot McKnight says “Every Christian studying science will want a copy within arm’s reach.”

The Man of Darwinism

“The name Charles Darwin,” Gundlach notes, “carries immense symbolic power in the modern world.” Born February 12, 1809, Darwin’s “name and theory of evolution associated with him remain rallying points of unbelief” (152). Which is interesting, because while at Cambridge he originally fancied to be a county parish pastor. Yet the pastoral life was not to be.

Instead, “a ‘burning zeal’ for science” (153) led to his famous adventure down the coast of South America on HMS Beagle. “He found the idea of the mutability of species tantalizing, as it presented nature and nature’s God in simple, more sublime terms: God gave natural laws which life-forms adapted to changing conditions” (153). Thus began his work on theories of natural selection and evolution.

Gundlach helpfully notes the context of this work: Victorian society was “characterized by overpopulation, fierce competition, the strong dominating the weak, and firm belief in progress” (154). These events have led historians of science to reject “the triumphalistic rendering of Darwin and his work” (154); his theories were a product of his time.

The Science of Darwinism

Opinions of Darwinism vary. Charles Hodge famously answered his question “What is Darwinism?” with “It is atheism.” Chauncey Wright, however, argued it was “metaphysically and religiously neutral” (154). These and other interpretations are revealed in Robert Bishop’s essay in the Dictionary of Christianity and Science.

Most obviously, Darwinism is synonymous with Darwin’s scientific account of evolution. First coined by British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwinism can be summarized as:

a population of organisms in a particular ecological niche faces a number of pressures…The offspring inherit slight variations of their parents’ characteristics. Some variations that offspring inherit confer a slight advantage in navigating the ecological pressures, giving them a small differential reproductive advantage. This differential advantage is what Darwin meant by natural selection. (154)

This theory conflicted sharply with the understood science of the time, which maintained species were immutable and fixed, rooted in the Platonic and Aristotelian understanding of forms. Bishop concludes, “Darwin’s theory provided a means and rationale for species being modified over time, producing the tremendous diversity we observe” (154). Further, it allowed others to emphasize species diversification unfolding in entirely natural processes—rather than by a divine hand.

The Worldview of Darwinism

It was this theorizing apart from the divine that led many to associate Darwinism with the worldview of naturalism, which was Hodge’s chief objection. As Bishop explains:

The heart of his worry about Darwin’s idea…was the ruling out of any divine influence in the working of natural selection: “In using the expression Natural Selection, Mr. Darwin intends to exclude design, or final causes.” Hodge had a particular conception of designer in mind; so by Darwinism he meant a metaphysical banishment of that conception of design and purpose from the workings of nature. (155)

Hodge believed only atheistic assumptions, rather than scientific ones, could lead one to conclude that God was absent from the natural workings of the created order.

Yet not all understood Darwinism in this way. Christians such as botanist Asa Gray and geologist James Dwight Dana argued Darwinism could and should be interpreted theistically. Some pointed to Darwin’s own words: “There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one…” Bishop cautions, however, that such references are vague, and “[Darwin] was clear in his correspondence that his theory was ateleological” (156); life evolved toward no particular goal.

Perhaps it makes sense, then, that Darwinism had become synonymous with materialism, “a worldview that eschewed the supernatural in any form and maintained that reality was only matter and natural process” (156).


9780310496052Add this definitive new resource, Dictionary of Christianity and Science, to your library today so you can reference, at arms length, hundreds of articles covering the intersection of Christian faith and contemporary science.

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