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Darwin’s Challenge to Theological Positions

It is important to an understanding of the development of the ‘special relationship’ between evolutionary theory and theology to understand what it was about Darwin’s scheme which challenged 19th Century theological descriptions:

  • Firstly: it refuted, virtually at a stroke, the notion that creatures had been individually designed by God, and hence any suggestion that one could argue directly from the ingenuity of their design, or the exquisite nature of their adaptation to their environment, to point to the existence or the ingenuity of such a Being.Though theologians could and did argue for a different sort of designer God (cf Brooke JH, Science and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, 310-17).

  • Secondly: it cohered with the geological proposal of Lyell that the Earth was very old, compared with the chronology suggested by Genesis, and that therefore no literal reading of Scripture could accord with the scientific account.

  • Thirdly: it implied that apes and humans share a common ancestor; rather than humans arising by any distinct act of creation which might guarantee their theological uniqueness. This received little emphasis in The Origin of Species but is very clear in Darwin’s later The Descent of Man (1871).

These three conclusions now form the accepted background from which most theology reflects on the biosphere.

Readers may want to consider to what extent these challenges remain problems for a contemporary faith. How might Christian theological schemes address these problems?

(If it is simply asserted that God has used the processes of evolution to further divine purposes of creating a world in which there could be creatures like ourselves, then a further problem arises which was already known to Darwin, namely that evolution seems to contain such cruelty, waste and ugliness as to make it hard to defend as the means to a divine end. One of the strengths of Darwin’s theory was that it explained, without the need for any ad hoc hypotheses, both aesthetically appealing adaptations, such as the beak of the woodpecker, and the ‘ugliness’ of species like the ichneumonidae - wasps whose larvae are implanted within the body of a caterpillar and eat it alive from the inside.See God, Humanity and the Cosmos, pp274-76

See also the rhetoric of Darwinism, and from Darwinism to neo-Darwinism.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate and Dr. Michael Robert Negus
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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