Grave Robbers

Posted on April 16, 2013


This 150-year-old debate over evolution can flare up in all kinds of places. Sometimes the issue gets wrapped into a court case, a school board election, and sometimes things play out in the media. Bill Nye ignited the controversy recently by making a video blasting creationism. Answers in Genesis offered an underwhelming response video and argued that creationism isn’t only found in America, it’s also in South Africa and “smaller factions of creationists are probably found in Japan”.

Dr Pepper Evolution AdDuring this episode, another controversy broke out when Dr. Pepper spoofed an iconic evolution graphic in a Facebook ad, which prompted a small boycott and a flood of angry Facebook comments.

Then a video of a congressman calling evolution a “lie from the pit of hell” drew laughs and scorn in the media during an election year.

These are noisy, yet irrelevant, skirmishes in the battle over evolution. At the same time, I stumbled upon a quieter, more obscure battle on the Wikipedia page of the theologian B.B. Warfield, and decided to engaged in the dispute.

Warfield was a conservative theologian who fought against the modernist movement at Princeton in the early 20th century. He argued for the Divine inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, and seemed to have accepted evolutionary biology. Warfield and other conservative leaders at the time such as James Orr (editor of “The Fundamentals”) and John Gresham Machen (who led the conservative split from the Princeton Seminary to form Westminster Seminary) were much more willing to accept Darwin than today’s leading conservative Calvinists like R.C. Sproul, and John Piper.

I was hanging out with a friend discussing theology when he brought up Warfield and evolution. I had remembered finding some of Warfield’s quotes on evolution and links on his Wikipedia page, so I looked it up afterward. I was surprised to find that the page had been edited. This was the introductory paragraph in the section for Warfield’s views on evolution:

Warfield believed in the account of creation given in the Bible. In his article on Charles Darwin’s Religious Life, he writes how Darwin’s doctrine of evolution directly expelled Darwin’s Christian belief.

I know that many creationists don’t like what Warfield said about Genesis and evolution, but it looks like someone decided to reclaim him as a creationist on Wikipedia and backed the statement up with the irrelevant fact that B.B. Warfield believed that Charles Darwin’s loss of faith could be attributed to evolutionary ideas.

I immediately checked the edit history and found that the page had been changed in April of 2012. Before the April edit, the page included many of Warfield’s statements supporting evolution. The previous introduction to the evolution section read:

Warfield’s view of evolution may appear unusual for a conservative of his day. He was willing to accept that Darwin’s theory might be true, but believed that God guided the process of evolution, and was as such an evolutionary creationist… His 1889 review of The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin included this statement: “There have been many evolutionists who have been and have remained theists and Christians.”

Notice how the last quote from Warfield completely undercuts the point being made by the later editor. The editor clearly had an agenda, so it’s no surprise that he or she cut that statement, as well as other relevant quotes that would have been helpful in understanding Warfield’s views on the topic.

B.B. Warfield

B.B. Warfield

Although I can’t respect the scholarly standards of the April editor, I do think that the previous description could have used a bit more clarity and balance. Describing Warfield as an “evolutionary creationist” or as a “theistic evolutionist” gives the impression that Warfield’s views align with 21st century theistic evolutionists such as Darrel Falk and others at BioLogos. While he clearly was not a young-earth creationist, it’s fair to say that he also had his doubts about Darwin and insisted on Divine agency in creation. In this sense, his view is similar to many modern Intelligent Design proponents who accept evolution while insisting on certain Divine interventions. Some evolutionary creationists share that notion, while others argue that such interventions were not necessary – which is a departure from Warfield’s statements on the subject. It’s also worth noting that it’s impossible to say what Warfield would think today if he had the information we have about genetics and the fossil finds made in the last hundred years. Left with only his statements from the past, it’s impossible to find a precise place for him on today’s spectrum of beliefs on the matter.

I read Warfield’s writings on the topic (thanks to Google Books), as well as journal articles from scholars arguing for differing interpretations of Warfield’s views. I then took it upon myself to edit his entry once more, rewriting the introductory paragraph to reflect the controversy surrounding Warfield’s views. For the time being, here’s what you will find under the heading “Evolution” on Warfield’s Wikipedia page:

Warfield’s views on evolution have been a source of dispute. Scholars David N. Livingstone and Mark A. Noll highlighted Warfield’s statements on evolution to demonstrate his acceptance of the theory in their article “A Biblical Inerrantist as Evolutionist”. Theologian Fred G. Zaspel argues that these statements have led Livingstone and Noll to assume too much about Warfield’s views on the subject. Zaspel wrote “That Warfield actually committed himself to a doctrine of evolution seems impossible to affirm simply because although there are some indications that he entertained the idea, he never admits to accepting it.”

The Wikipedia entry then goes on to quote many of Warfield’s statements on the subject which I restored from the pre-April 2012 version after checking the sources. I decided to keep the April editor’s quote about Warfield’s views on the loss of Darwin’s faith, but I placed it in what I consider to be a more appropriate context and helped that rogue editor out by adding the citation.

I hope that this is useful to the occasional nerd who cares about this stuff. I find it interesting, at least. While this battle may seem insignificant, keep in mind that when Christians argue over evolution, they often mention people like Warfield and C.S. Lewis to prove their point. As theists and atheists will borrow lines from Albert Einstein, creationists and evolutions (theistic or otherwise) sometimes find themselves claiming the same individual as a member of each of their camps. Some even argue that Darwin didn’t believe his own theory, spreading the popular rumor that he recanted on his deathbed. Apparently no one’s safe from rhetorical grave-robbing.