Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Presbyterians, Creation Days, and Evolution

In 1830, Sir Charles Lyell argued for uniformitarianism (interpreting the earth as something formed by continual and uniform processes) in his Principles of Geology, asserting that the earth was far older than previously thought. This debate became active among American Presbyterians in 1852 with the article, "Is the Science of Geology True?" in the New School Presbyterian Quarterly Review. The article argued that Christians must accept that the earth is millions of years old and that creation was a gradual work through countless ages.

There were several different approaches that people took with respect to the age of the earth and creation days of Genesis 1. Some held to the gap theory, proposing a gap of time between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. Some held to the day age theory, arguing that the days of creation were not literal, but referred to times or ages. Others continued to hold to six day creationism, that the days were natural light/darkness days and that the six days covered everything from creation ex nihilo to the creation of Adam. Others of a more liberal or unbelieving bent agreed that Scripture taught six day creation, but is that Scripture was wrong.

Those who held to the gap or day-age theory did not necessarily believe that the theory of evolution was true. It was in 1859 that Darwin published his ideas in On the Origin of Species, arguing for the evolution of species by natural selection. But belief in an old earth eliminated one objection to embracing evolution, and the controversy concerning biological evolution would follow upon the heels of that concerning geology and the age of the earth.

I think the Westminster standards affirm the six day creation view and should have at least have required officers to state a scruple to the standards if they held to the gap or day-age theories. R.L. Dabney argued for this in 1871, saying, 
I would beg you to notice how distinctly either of the current theories [Gap and Day Age] contradicts the standards of our Church. See Conf. of Faith, ch. iv, I. Larger Cat., que. 15, 120. Our Confession is not inspired; and if untrue, it should be refuted. But if your minds are made up to adopt either of these theories, then it seems to me that common honesty requires of you two things; to advertise your Presbyteries, when you apply for license and ordination, of your disbelief of these articles; that they may judge whether they are essential to our system of doctrine; and second; to use your legitimate influences as soon as you become church rulers, to have these articles expunged from our standards as false. (Systematic Theology, p. 256)
Nevertheless, it was argued by others that the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms simply copied the Bible’s terminology, and since this was capable of these interpretations, so also the statement of the standards. Yet, I would note that the standards did not simply use the Bible’s phrase, but used the phrase "in the space of six days," emphasizing the six days as the time period in which God’s work of creation was accomplished. 
It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of his eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning, to create or make of nothing the world, and all things therein, whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days, and all very good. (WCF 4.1)
The phrase had appeared earlier in James Ussher’s Irish Articles of Religion (1615), "In the beginning of time when no creature had any being, God by his word alone, in the space of six days, created all things, and afterwards by his providence doth continue, propagate, and order them according to his own will."

Woodrow vs. Dabney

In 1861, Dr. James Woodrow (Woodrow Wilson's uncle) became the Perkins Professor of Natural Science in Connection with Revelation at Columbia Theological Seminary in South Carolina. Dr. Woodrow, at his inauguration as professor, stated that he believed old earth geology to be true, that those who believed in the extreme antiquity or multiple origins of man to be wrong, and that the extent and character of the Noah’s flood was something (at least presently) uncertain. His views were already beginning to diverge from Southern Presbyterian leaders like Thornwell, Dabney, Palmer, and Girardeau, who believed in six day creation and a young earth (c. 6,000 years old). R.L. Dabney, professor at Union Seminary in Virginia, engaged the issue that same year, 1861, with an article “Geology and the Bible,” in which he defended Scripture and its relevance for science and critiqued the arguments for an old earth.

In 1863, James Woodrow wrote “Geology and Its Assailants,” defending geology (as he saw it) against men like Dabney (though not mentioning him by name). In 1871, Dabney delivered as a lecture and then published as an article, “A Caution Against Anti-Christian Science,” targeting both old earth geology and the theory of evolution. The same year, he published his Systematic Theology, in which he critiqued evolution and the gap and day age theories (although of the two theories, he saw the gap theory as the most plausible).

In 1873, Woodrow wrote “An Examination of Certain Recent Assaults on Physical Science,” in which he attacked Dabney by name. Woodrow had recently returned from a trip to Europe during which his views had hardened. Woodrow sought to present Dabney’s critique as an attack on science itself. Each of them responded with an additional article in 1873-1874.

Here is brief summary of the points of criticism Dabney brought against the Gap and Day Age theories in his Systematic Theology (1871). 

Against the Gap Theory:
  • Light, and the sun, moon, and stars - essential to life on earth - were not created until after Genesis 1:2. I would add to this point that the first day of Genesis 1 is in fact the first day, so that there is no day before it (it includes the darkness that preceded the light). 
  • Suffering and death, even that of animals, came into the world through Adam’s sin (Gen. 1:31, 3:17-19, Rom. 5:12, 8:19-22).
Against the Day-Age Theory:
  • The progression of Genesis 1 does not match the progression proposed by the geologists, so it does not even solve the problem it is supposed to address. 
  • “The narrative seems historical, and not symbolical…”
  • “The sacred writer seems to shut us up to the literal interpretation, by describing the day as composed of its natural parts, ‘morning and evening.’” The morning and evening are the beginnings of the day and night that fill the twenty-four hours of a day.
  • In Genesis and Exodus, “God’s creating the world and its creatures in six days, and resting the seventh, is given as the ground of His sanctifying the Sabbath day.” I would add that Exodus 20:11 also undermines the Gap Theory. 
  • While “day” can refer to an era or season, the natural day is the literal and primary meaning which we revert to unless the context indicates otherwise. 
  • The day age theory confuses providence with creation. The distinctiveness of creation is that these things were not brought about by natural law, but by a supernatural divine exertion. 

Hodge and Princeton

Around the same time, up north in New Jersey, Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary addressed these issues in his Systematic Theology (3 vol., 1871-1873). Then, in 1874 he wrote What Is Darwinism? This book against Darwinism was written in the context of a disagreement with Dr. James McCosh, President of Princeton College, who had begun arguing that theistic evolution was compatible with the Bible. 

Charles Hodge has been described as “the most powerful critic of Darwinian evolution in America in the late nineteenth century” (Reformed and Evangelical, p. 204). Hodge was open to an old earth if indeed the findings of geology established it with certainty, first leaning toward the gap theory and then to the day age theory as an explanation, but he opposed the theory of evolution. 

Here is a summary of some of his arguments against the theory of evolution in his Systematic Theology (vol. 2): 
  • Darwin’s theory cannot be true, because “it assumes that matter does the work of mind.”
  • The “system is throughly atheistic, and therefore cannot possible stand.” It denies design in creation, since it explains everything as the survival of the fittest to survive (natural selection).
  • The theory “is a mere hypothesis, from its nature incapable of proof.” 
  • The history of species and the fossil record are against the theory (e.g. missing transitional forms).
  • It is contrary to the Bible’s doctrine of creation, that in the beginning God created, or caused to be, every distinct kind of plant and animal, including mankind.
  • Hodge distinguished natural species (the “kinds” of Genesis 1) and artificial species (distinctions made for the convenience of naturalists, variations within natural kinds). Natural species were specially created by God, “not derived, evolved, or developed from preexisting species.”
  • He taught that mankind is not evolved from a preexisting species, but that God made man in maturity and in the image of God, beginning with a literal Adam and Eve, from whom the whole human race is descended. He also argued against the idea that man has been on earth for 100,000+ years, and for the idea that mankind was created around 6,000-10,000 years ago.
His successors at Princeton and Westminster seminaries, like A.A. Hodge, B.B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, and E.J. Young, continued to be open to an old earth, yet did not embrace evolution, did affirm doctrines like the special creation of a literal Adam and Eve, and had various degrees of openness to whether some limited aspects of evolution could be compatible with the Bible. Warfield initially embraced evolution, but he rejected it around the time he became professor at Princeton. The Dutch Reformed tended to hold to six day creation, including Princeton professor Geerhardus Vos. In 1958, Meredith Kline, professor at Westminster, began to popularize the framework hypothesis, another reinterpretation of the creation days that would allow for an old earth. 

Controversy in the South

After years of growing suspicion than Dr. James Woodrow had embraced evolution, the seminary board called on him to publish his views on evolution, which he did in 1884 with his 28-page “Evolution Address” at an alumni gathering. He defended theistic evolution, arguing that Scripture was not specific enough to address it (or science in general) and that the “dust” out of which Adam was created could refer to evolutionary ancestors, although he added that both the soul and Eve were special creations. He concluded that “the doctrine of Evolution … is God’s PLAN OF CREATION.”

This address provoked a firestorm of controversy among Southern Presbyterians. John L. Girardeau led the charge in the Synod of South Carolina to condemn the seminary board’s approval of Woodrow’s address. After the synods which controlled the seminary condemned the promotion of evolution at the seminary and elected new members to the seminary board, the new board removed Woodrow on December 10th.

In 1885, Woodrow appealed the board’s decision and the controlling synods were split on the matter. He was reinstated as professor in December, agreeing not to promote evolution. Then in 1886, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) condemned evolution and directed the controlling synods to dismiss Woodrow. It affirmed 
That Adam and Eve were created, body and soul, by immediate acts of Almighty power, thereby preserving a perfect race unity; that Adam’s body was directly fashioned by Almighty God, without any animal parentage of any kind, out of matter previously created from nothing.
This position was reaffirmed in 1888, 1889, and 1924. 

Dr. Woodrow was dismissed from Columbia Seminary. He was acquitted by his presbytery, but this was overturned by his synod, and the general assembly in 1888 upheld the synod’s decision. He remained a minister in the PCUS and became president of South Carolina College in 1891. Woodrow and his supporters lost in the church courts and the PCUS in general resisted his views. In this way, the Southern Presbyterian church avoided rank liberalism for a time. But division in the ranks continued and Woodrow’s views continued to be held by some of his students who remained active. The issue resurfaced in the 1900s. In 1969, the PCUS affirmed his views and repudiated its previous position. This was one manifestation of the growing liberalism in the PCUS that in 1973 led to the formation of the more conservative PCA. The PCA carried on the pre-1969 position against evolution while tolerating various views of the creation days. Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, founded in 1986 in South Carolina, has held to and promoted six day creationism.

Other 20th Century Developments

In the 1920s, William Jennings Bryan, a Presbyterian elder and a “day-age creationist,” led the fundamentalist opposition to evolution and promoted legislation against the promotion of evolution in the public schools. In 1923, Oklahoma and Florida passed laws against it, and in 1925, Tennessee did as well.

Tennessee's law was challenged in court in the Scopes Trial in 1925. The ACLU defended John T. Scopes, a teacher who had broken the law, and William J. Bryan participated in defense of the law. The law was upheld (even by the Supreme Court) and Scopes was convicted, but proponents of evolution used the case to ridicule its opponents and to stir up people in its support. Mississippi and Arkansas also passed similar laws against evolution in the schools, and opposition to evolution was carried out through school boards, but the Supreme Court reversed course in 1968 when it struck down the anti-evolution law in Arkansas, claiming that it violated the 1st amendment. 

In 1961, Dr. Henry Morris and John C. Whitcomb published The Genesis Flood, arguing for young earth creationism and a view of geology that took into account the global flood. While they themselves were not Presbyterians, their book was published by Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing through the influence of a Presbyterian minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church by the name of R.J. Rushdoony. This book helped spark the modern creation science movement and its organizations, such as the Institute for Creation Research (1970), Creation Research Society (1964), and Answers in Genesis (1994). 

Confessionary Presbyterian denominations like the OPC and PCA do allow their officers to hold to several views of the creation days, but not theistic evolution. For example, in 1996, Dr. Terry M. Gray, a ruling elder at Harvest OPC and a professor of biochemistry at Calvin College, was suspended from office by his session for stating “that Adam had primate ancestors.” This indefinite suspension was upheld by the Presbytery of the Midwest and the OPC General Assembly. And as the OPC's 2004 report on creation notes, the ordinary day view remains the majority position in conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches. 

This post is based on a lesson I recently gave in my series on American Presbyterian history: Presbyterians, Creation Days, and Evolution. In addition to the books and articles already mentioned, many of which can be found online, I would add that Did God Create in 6 Days? edited by Joseph A Pipa Jr. & David W. Hall is a good resource both on the history of the issue and the issue itself. You can also find my sermons on Genesis at this link.

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