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Protestant Orthodoxy and Darwinism in the Late 19th Century

David Livingstone is the author of an excellent paper, “Re-Placing Darwinism and Christianity,” in When Science and Christianity Meet. Several things make his presentation unique. First, he treats the religious convictions of Charles Darwin dialectically rather than diachronically. That is to say, he sees Darwin as always vacillating rather than as moving toward a particular ideological telos. Second, Livingstone is particularly interested in the diverse reactions to Darwinism within Protestant orthodoxy. Most treatments of which I am aware mention Charles Hodge’s treatment of the question, but quickly move on to discuss moderates and liberals. Livingstone, however, seeks to understand theologians like Hodge and Warfield in their historical context (and in contrast to the recent “scientific creationism” movement). These two Princeton doctors were both critical of Darwin’s reductionistic approach (in their judgment) to the notion of “final causality,” but Warfield especially considered Darwin to be an incredible figure and gentleman – even if ultimately a tragic person. As well, Livingstone surveys discussions among conservative Reformed Scottish and Irish Presbyterians which are not often brought to the discussion. Finally, Livingstone seeks to “read” each of these reactions against the very specific “background issues” at hand in each circumstance. His major thesis is that these background issues and particular contexts provide a hermeneutical key for understanding the diversity of responses to Darwin (hence the emphasis on “place” in the paper’s title).

Consider this an advertisement for Livingstone’s book-length treatment of this very same topic. Earlier this year, Johns Hopkins University Press published his “Dealing with Darwin: Place, Politics, and Rhetoric in Religious Engagements with Evolution.” Livingstone has also authored a volume on 19th century interpretations of Adam (in light of the new sciences) as well as a volume on the late 19th century evangelical reception of Darwin.

It is important to note that the authors of TCI do not all agree on how to respond to the challenge posed by Darwinism – though we are united on the central importance of a historical Adam. What makes the recovery of this history important is not that history can decide truth. Rather, history helps us to situate the precise framing of a debate in our own time. What we find in the late 19th century (in its best Reformed representatives) are theologians who were careful, methodical, and calm in their reaction to Darwinism. As well, their disagreements arose from a careful reading of the primary literature and out of  a cosmopolitan approach to the whole issue (Scriptural, theological, philosophical, scientific). If we want to think through these issues, we do best to sit at their feet, and retrieve a range of reactions which were sometimes differently motivated from our own.

By Joseph Minich

Joseph Minich lives in Texas with his wife (Rebecca) and four children (Samuel, Truman, Felix, and Ruby). He recently graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary (D.C. Campus) and is pursuing a Ph.D in intellectual history at the University of Texas at Dallas.

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