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[1] Does Evolution ‘do the work of a friend’ for the Christian Religion?


It is often assumed that Darwin was no friend at all to Christianity, but writing thirty years after Darwin first published the Origin of Species, Oxford theologian Aubrey Moore had offered a different appraisal. He suggested that “Darwin had appeared in the guise of a foe, and done the work of a friend.”Charles Gore, ed., Lux Mundi: Studies in the Religion of the Incarnation (London: 1890) 99. As we look back with more than a century of additional hindsight, what might a sober reflection on the impact of evolution upon theology yield today? Was Moore correct to call Darwin a friend to theology, or is the popular perception of antagonism the right one? I shall argue that this question deserves two distinct responses.

Firstly, ‘yes and no.’ Driving this response is the thesis that many, if not all, of the challenges to Christianity that are associated with evolution were in place before Darwin developed his theory of natural selection. So, in this respect, evolution should not be characterised as a foe. However, it is true that Darwinism has come to serve as a very effective ‘rallying-point’ for foes of Christianity. The challenges facing theology are real, so inasmuch as debate over evolution keeps them in the public eye, it could be argued that this is not the work of a friend.

Secondly, ‘yes,’ evolution has done ‘the work of a friend’ because in being forced to reflect upon and respond to these challenges, theology has been constructively advanced. There have been three kinds of advancement: a revision or rejection of some incoherent theological doctrines, the addition of new theological insights prompted by interaction with the natural sciences, and finally a re-examination and conscious restatement of some doctrines as intrinsically paradoxical or mysterious and therefore resistant to corroboration with scientific investigations.It should be noted that one other response is to simply reject evolution and thereby hopefully avoid the challenges associated with it.

I shall show why the question of friendship hides a multiplicity of issues, and why two responses (at least) are needed. A full assessment of the effects of evolutionary theory upon Christianity would need to cover the numerous aspects of theology that it has undoubtedly influenced, as well as the historical and sociological dimensions; the problem of evil and suffering is one that deserves particular attention. However, for the purposes of this short study I shall restrict my analysis to the influence of evolution on the doctrine of providence.

I shall first explore the principle ways in which evolution is held to present challenges for Christian theology. I shall then show how the challenges are revised versions of prior critiques, stem from misunderstandings of evolution, or are due to an unwarranted philosophical zeal on the part of some popularisers of scientific naturalism.

Having established that evolution is not necessarily a foe for Christianity, I shall then re-examine the current state of the evolutionary sciences and assess the potential connections to theology, paying particular attention to the relevance of ongoing research and philosophical debates. I shall then suggest ways in which the evolutionary sciences can ‘do the work of a friend’ for Christianity, focussing on the concept of providence.


I shall use the term ‘Darwinism’ to refer to the belief that natural selection is the principle or single mechanism that accounts for the development of all life on Earth, from the most simple living beings to all of its current diversity, including humans. I shall use the term ‘evolution’ to refer to the much broader theory that biological history can be explained in terms of natural processes over time and that biology itself fits within a cosmos which is also evolving. For readability I will occasionally refer to Christian theology and the Christian religion as theology or simply theism. Finally, I will occasionally interchange the terms divine providence, divine action, and divine agency, once again purely for readability. I will draw attention to instances where different terms are used for specific reasons.

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[1] Does Evolution ‘do the work of a friend’ for the Christian Religion?

Setting the scene - why focus on providence?
[2] Supposed challenges from the evolutionary sciences to theology
Intellectually fulfilled atheists?
A challenge to human uniqueness and status?
A challenge to purpose in creation?
A threat to the veracity of scripture?
Evolution ‘explains away’ theology?
A challenge to Christian morality?
The challenges in wider context - Darwin as a scapegoat?
[3] The current state of the evolutionary sciences
Different ways of conceptualising Darwinian evolution
Evolution as chance and necessity
Evolution as an algorithm
Evolution as movement within a ‘fitness landscape’
Ongoing debates: contingency versus convergence
Ongoing debates: what are the key causal factors in biological history?
Ongoing debates: the environment as the principle cause?
Ongoing debates: convergence as the principle cause?
Ongoing debates: ‘Universal biology’ as the principle cause?
The importance of moving from evolution as abstraction to particular history
Ongoing debates: directionality and progress
Ongoing debates: the origin of life
Different levels and kinds of selection?
[4] Responses from theology
Evolution, probabilities and providence
Responses from contemporary theologians
Holmes Rolston III
Keith Ward
John Haught
Arthur Peacocke
An increased role for general providence?
Theology of Creation in the light of evolution: three scenarios
[5] Concluding remarks


Adrian Wyard
Adrian M Wyard MSt

See also:

The Relation of Science & Religion
Purpose and Design
The Argument From Design
The Anthropic Principle
Charles Darwin
DNA Double-Helix