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Early Conflicts Over Darwinism

It is important not to over-stress the static nature of Christian theology at the time of Darwin. Before 1850 Schleiermacher and those following him had already questioned whether the doctrine of creation implied any particular point of temporal origin, whether the Fall implied a particular event in early human history, and whether God was immutable in the traditional sense.Welch, C, ‘Dispelling Some Myths About the Split between Theology and Science in the Nineteenth Century’ in Religion and Science, ed. by WM Richardson and WJ Wildman, (London: Routledge, 1996)...Probably the greatest challenges to the mainstream of the Christian tradition in the 19th Century came from biblical criticism rather than natural science. However, the controversy over Darwin’s scheme is one of the great moments in the history of the ‘special relationship’. A historical moment - it is important to grasp just how much both Christian theology and evolutionary theory have changed since the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859.

There were those Christian thinkers who immediately celebrated evolution. Frederick Temple, who preached the official sermon at the British Association Meeting in 1860 ‘was ... said by one observer to have espoused Darwin’s ideas fully.’Brooke, 1991, 41Charles Kingsley found that it was ‘just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of self development...as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which He Himself had made.’Quoted in Desmond and Moore, 1992, 477Kingsley saw that the new science might redirect the all-important balance in Christian theology between God’s transcendence and the divine indwelling of creation (immanence) in favour of a greater emphasis on immanence.

Moreover, Christian theologians, reflecting upon the great success of science, and the great tragedies to human civilisation of the World Wars and the Holocaust, have become much more willing to describe a God who suffers, and whose continual creative activity is within a universe characterised by processes of law and chance, processes which God rarely, if ever, sets aside (see law, chance and divine action). The imagery of God the Sovereign Lord, the King of Kings, the creator of the universe out of nothing, the potter who creates according to an inscrutable will, has now to be weighed against descriptions of God ‘the fellow-sufferer who understands’

To investigate how Darwinism developed in the 20th Century see some recent debates about evolution, from Darwinism to neo-Darwinism, and punctuated equilibrium and radical contingency.

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

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