Reasons to Believe

Was B. B. Warfield a Theistic Evolutionist? Part 2

In recent years, the interpretation of theologian B. B. Warfield as a theistic evolutionist has gained popularity—but there is good justification for questioning this assertion. In this two-part article series, I will explore the compelling reasons to doubt the validity of this view of Warfield.

Part 1 of this series set the stage for discussion of B. B. Warfield’s stance on the biblical creation accounts and their relationship to modern (nineteenth century) scientific discoveries. Moreover, I discussed how the newly budding naturalistic perspective clashed with the young-earth creationist perspective, thus leading to difficulties between the religious and scientific communities.

In particular, I focused on the opinions of Charles Hodge, a distinguished theologian and the principal of Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) from 1851–1878, who, despite his strong stance against Darwinism, conceded that, at least in theory, theistic evolution might be conceived in a way that was compatible with divine design. Hodge also held that the biblical writers wrote under supernatural inspiration when addressing issues related to faith and practice, but they “stood on the same level with their contemporaries” when it came to science, history, and philosophy.1 Subsequent inerrantists, such as Warfield, disagreed with this assessment of Scripture.

B. B. Warfield

Hodge’s successor at Princeton Theological Seminary, Benjamin B. Warfield (1887–1902), was himself an eminent theologian and the nation’s foremost defender of biblical inerrancy in his day. Like Hodge, Warfield was convinced that God testified to Himself through two “books” (the book of Scripture and the book of nature) and that if these books were understood and interpreted properly, then there would be perfect correspondence between them. As Mark Noll and David Livingstone comment, “[Warfield] reaffirmed in the strongest terms his belief in the physical world as a scene of divine revelation.”2

Warfield was active in the great creation-evolution debates spanning the turn of the twentieth century. His position on Darwinism changed over time. While he was open to the possibility of evolution, he also understood that critical theological truths were at stake. Therefore, he prudently reserved judgment pending more evidence. Like his mentor Hodge, he rejected the “gap theory” and the idea that the “days” of creation were literal 24-hour days that climaxed successive ages of development. Apparently, Warfield held Charles Darwin in high esteem as a great man and a gifted scientist, even eulogizing him as “an essentially noble soul.”3

Thus, there has been considerable controversy concerning Warfield’s exact view on the issue.

Open to Evolution, but Unconvinced

In recent years, Noll and Livingstone have portrayed Warfield as a convinced theistic evolutionist. For example, Noll quotes him as declaring,
I am free to say, for myself, that I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either as given in Genesis 1 and 2 or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution.4

Livingstone contends that Warfield “had been a key advocate of evolutionary theory at least since his student days at Princeton,” and that he “remained enthusiastic” about Darwinian theory throughout his academic career.5

Although Warfield was open to theistic evolution arguments in his early career and conceded that Scripture could accommodate it, he was never an uncritical devotee. Warfield believed that evolutionary theory, while philosophically tenable, was scientifically questionable and theologically problematic. Like Hodge, Warfield suspected the theory was more naturalistic philosophy than reputable science. He was particularly troubled by its antiteleological implications. In contrast to theistic evolutionists who touted the theory of divine immanence in the evolutionary process, Warfield emphasized the preeminent transcendence of the eternal God.   

As Zaspel observes in his article “B. B. Warfield on Creation and Evolution,”6 Warfield was careful to draw a distinction between immediate creation, mediate creation, and evolution. Immediate creation is an act of divine fiat in which God brings into existence something new ex nihilo (out of nothing). Mediate creation is no less miraculous, but it refers to God bringing something new out of previously existing matter. Conversely, evolution is a natural process that describes the subsequent development and improvement of previously existing matter. As Zaspel comments, “Evolution, by definition, originates nothing; it only modifies.”7

Therefore, in Warfield’s words, “Whatever comes by evolution is not created; whatever is created is not evolved,” and to refer to evolution as “creation by gradualism” or “creative evolution” is oxymoronic.8 So while at least theoretically God may have used all three means to accomplish His grand design for this world, Warfield remained open to but unconvinced of the idea that the third component (evolution) was part of the process.

Warfield’s Caution against Evolution  

In 1888, Warfield delivered a lecture entitled “Evolution or Development” (which he then repeated with slight modifications over subsequent years). In this talk he conceded that evolution might be a “secondary cause” (or a mechanism) through which “divine providence” acted. Warfield is quoted as saying:

To adopt any form that does not permit God freely to work apart from [natural] law[s] and that does not allow miraculous intervention...will entail a great reconstruction of Christian doctrine, and a very great lowering of the detailed authority of the Bible. But if we condition the theory by allowing the constant oversight of God in the whole process, and his occasional supernatural interference for the production of new beginnings by an actual output of creative force, producing something new...we may hold to the modified theory of evolution and be Christians in the ordinary orthodox sense.9

However, Warfield was quick to add: “I say we may do this. Whether we ought to accept evolution, even in this modified sense, is another matter, and I leave it purposely an open question” (emphasis added).10 As he reminded his students, evolution cannot account for the origins of matter or the phenomenon of life, nor can it plausibly explain the human soul, the human mind, self-consciousness, the reality of sin, or the afterlife. Furthermore, by positing a theory of human moral development, evolutionism is difficult to reconcile with the biblical doctrine of the fall. So although a theist may see God at work in the evolutionary process, Warfield cautioned, “to be a theist and a Christian are different things”11—a vital distinction that many Christian theistic evolutionists seemingly fail to consider.

Essentially, Warfield implied that while theistic evolution may be philosophically reasonable, the fundamental question for Christians ought to be whether this position is compatible with a high view of Scripture. For him, evolution was a “highly speculative” hypothesis and a “very improbable” theory, and he cautioned Christians not to adjust their theology to accommodate “what is as yet a more or less doubtful conjecture.”12 He instead recommended a sensible position (i.e., to regard evolution as “a working hypothesis which is at present on its probation”13).

In 1898, Warfield charged that for many scientists, evolution is the presupposition for their research rather than a conclusion based on facts—a kind of Darwin-of-the-gaps approach. As he described it, the whole enterprise “looks amazingly like basing facts on theory rather than theory on facts.”14 As Zaspel concludes, “This is how Warfield argued consistently over the course of his career: he allowed the possibility of evolution, but he remained non-committal.”15

In 1916, near the end of his career, Warfield related a private conversation about evolution that he had had several years earlier with James McCosh, president of Princeton University from 1868–1888. At the time, McCosh had noted (undoubtedly, with a sense of satisfaction) that all biologists under the age of 30 were evolutionists; Warfield remarked,

I was never quite sure that he understood what I was driving at when I replied that I was the last man in the world to wonder at that, since I was about that old myself before I outgrew it.16

The answer to the question of Warfield’s stance on evolution is that, while he did not wholly reject evolution as a possible mechanism for life’s diversity, he remained skeptical of its legitimacy as a theory and its compatibility with a high view of Scripture. It seems Warfield was far from the confident theistic evolutionist he is painted to be.


Dr. Jefrey Breshears

Dr. Jefrey Breshears received his PhD in history from Georgia State University in 1988, and currently serves as president of and historian and apologist at The Aréopagus, a Christian education organization and study center in Atlanta, Georgia.


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References

  1. Charles Hodge, quoted in Ronald Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, exp. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 37.
  2. B. B. Warfield, Evolution, Science, and Scripture: Selected Writings, eds. Mark A. Noll and David N. Livingstone (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), 321.
  3. See David N. Livingstone and Mark A. Noll, “B. B. Warfield (1851–1921): A Biblical Inerrantist as Evolutionist,” Journal of Presbyterian History 80 (Fall 2002): 153–71. This article appears to accept the view of Warfield espoused by Livingstone and Noll—a position that I find unconvincing. 
  4. Warfield, quoted in Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 371.
  5. David Livingstone, “B. B. Warfield, the Theory of Evolution and Early Fundamentalism,” Evangelical Quarterly 58 (April–June 1986): 78–79. See also Fred G. Zaspel, “B. B. Warfield on Creation and Evolution,” Themelios 35 (July 2010), http://thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/b._b._warfield_on_creation_and_evolution.
  6. Zaspel, “B. B. Warfield on Creation and Evolution.”
  7. Ibid.
  8. Warfield, quoted in Zaspel, “B. B. Warfield on Creation and Evolution.”
  9. B. B. Warfield, Evolution, Science, and Scripture, 130–31.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Warfield, quoted in Zaspel, “B. B. Warfield on Creation and Evolution.”
  12. Ibid.
  13. Warfield, quoted in John Kilpatrick, “Hodge, Warfield and Evolution: Investigating What the Great Theologians Believed,” Evangelicals Now, posted August 2002, www.e-n.org.uk/p-1898-Hodge-Warfield-and-evolution.htm.
  14. Warfield, quoted in Zaspel, “B. B. Warfield on Creation and Evolution,” http://thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/b._b._warfield_on_creation_and_evolution.
  15. Zaspel, “B. B. Warfield on Creation and Evolution,” http://thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/b._b._warfield_on_creation_and_evolution.
  16. Warfield, quoted in Zaspel, “B. B. Warfield on Creation and Evolution,” http://thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/b._b._warfield_on_creation_and_evolution.