Theology, reconstructed

LESS THAN TWO YEARS after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, W. C. Wilson reviewed the book in the Methodist Quarterly Review: “Perhaps no scientific work has ever been at once so extensively read, not only by the scientific few, but by the reading masses generally; and certainly no one has ever produced such a commotion.” 

Much of that commotion stemmed from concern about the theological implications of Darwin’s ideas. The English naturalist had carefully avoided discussion of life’s origin and had credited God with responsibility for having “impressed on matter” the laws of nature. But the fact remained that he attributed the numerous species that had appeared during the course of the earth’s history to a capricious, wasteful, sometimes even cruel process that seemed to require neither divine intervention nor even a divine plan. 

And, although Darwin did not explicitly include humans in his theory until 1871, theological commentators recognized much earlier that the logic of his argument extended there. It was also immediately apparent that Darwin’s theory challenged not only the “plain sense” meaning of the scriptural creation narrative, but also many theological doctrines central to most Christians’ understanding of faith.

It was not until most natural historians endorsed the theory of evolution in the 1870s that American Protestants changed focus from objecting to it on scientific grounds to considering its theological implications. Many liberal Protestants in mainline denominations, convinced that scientists were the most able expositors of God’s activities in nature, agreed that if natural historians were on board with the theory, Christian believers needed to “reconstruct” theology to bring it into accord.  

Coming to grips

First, liberals recognized that they needed to come to grips with whether one could still believe in God in the face of evolution. Some held, as Unitarian James Bixby wrote, that an evolutionary process characterized by ever “higher variations and more perfect organization” should be ascribed to the work of the divine Mind rather than to the contingencies of trial and error. 

Others took a page from the book of Harvard botanist Asa Gray, saying that the most plausible explanation for the survival of the fittest was divine design. Still others argued that the very fact that the cosmos was intelligible served as compelling enough evidence for the existence of a rational and benevolent deity.

But shoring up the credibility of God’s existence was not enough. Liberals recognized that substituting evolution for God’s periodic intervention in the natural order to create new species undermined God’s ongoing interaction with the world. They began to emphasize God’s immanent presence in all things. From this perspective, the evolutionary development of new species simply constituted additional evidence of what natural historian Joseph LeConte called “the ever-present, all-pervading, ever-acting energy of Deity.” 

This perspective came to color liberal Protestants’ view of divine revelation. They came to believe that not only the Bible but all aspects of human experience should be seen as sources of revelation. In addition recognizing that the evolutionary hypothesis could not be reconciled with a “plain sense” reading of the Bible prompted them to reject the notion that the biblical text was infallible. They asserted that it could best be understood, as prominent clergyman Lyman Abbott put it, as a historical record “of the growth of man’s consciousness of God.” 

But, at the same time, they recognized that some biblical doctrines were so central to the Christian worldview that they simply could not be abandoned. Of particular importance was the claim that human beings had been created in God’s image. Liberals argued that the process by which the human species arrived on the planet was irrelevant to the question of the nature of that species. It was therefore quite acceptable to regard humans as different in kind from all other species, because their endowments of mind and spirit distinguished them as bearers of God’s image.

These responses have informed the views of liberal Protestants ever since. Reacting to Darwin’s theory was not the only reason these Christians engaged in theological reformulation. At the same time, they were also grappling with new developments in biblical criticism that seemed to downplay the accuracy of the biblical text, new theories of how history operated, and new challenges associated with greater interactions with other world religions. 

Nevertheless their conviction that it was both necessary and possible to place the theory of evolution within a recognizably Christian framework proved decisive in creating what many described as a “New Theology.” However the twentieth century would soon show that its interaction with the “old theology” was far from over. CH

By Jon H. Roberts

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #107 in 2013]

Jon H. Roberts is the Tomorrow Foundation Professor of American Intellectual History at Boston University and the author of Darwinism and the Divine in America: Protestant Intellectuals and Organic Evolution, 1859–1900.
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