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: