Bishop's Message

Darwin’s theology degree

Sep 2009    

SOUND THEOLOGY

Sound theology holds that God is the Creator of all that is seen and unseen. We must hold to that firmly for it will help us in our approach to interpreting the initial chapters of Genesis.

CHARLES DARWIN, whose 200th birth anniversary is celebrated this year by scientists, atheists and all kinds of Darwinians, studied at two universities. At Edinburgh University, he studied medicine but aborted his studies after two years, partly because he could not stand the blood. His atheist father then urged him to study theology at Cambridge University, with the idea that he could become an Anglican clergyman, a socially respectable job in those days.

Darwin completed three years of study at Cambridge and graduated with a degree in theology. The 23-year-old young man wanted to see the world and got a job as an official naturalist in a round-the-world trip on HMS Beagle. Though his formal university education was in theology, his interest in zoology and geology was stirred by a couple of mentors in both Edinburgh and Cambridge.

The journey on the Beagle took almost five years, during which time Darwin kept beside him William Paley’s influential book, Natural Theology, that argued for the existence of God by pointing to the patterns and designs found in biological life. However, as he studied animal life and rock formations during his journey, his views were becoming more and more evolutionary and naturalist and he was increasingly motivated to disprove Paley’s arguments.

Because the ship’s captain was a godly Christian, Darwin kept a Christian exterior but the die was cast – he was increasingly agnostic (a soft atheist). His Christian wife was probably embarrassed by his lack of religion. He kept his views largely to himself and within a group of friends till the timing was right for him when he published The Origin of Species and e Descent of Man – books that spelt out his theory of natural selection. e world has not been the same since.

For many Christians, Darwin remains a deadly enemy. But to be fair to him, as Mary Midgley has pointed out, it is his intellectual heirs who have chosen to go beyond his agnostic limits to embrace strident atheism – where Darwinism has become a religion. We see today books written by evolutionary scientists conclude with theological sermons on God, the meaning of life, evil and ethics – making incredulous leaps of faith. Their views have pervaded education and the media, literature and popular culture. There is a spectrum of Christian responses to Darwinism. Most Christians are opposed to it with varying degrees of passion. Others, with much folly, have embraced it lock stock and barrel. Some others have integrated their Christian faith with evolutionary ideas saying that God was behind all creation but that evolution was one of the key processes in His creation. Much energy is spent on debating about missing links, carbon dating, cellular biology, and of course, the exegesis of the first two chapters of Genesis.

Before we go into these, it is wise to be guided by good theology derived from the whole counsel of God’s Word and the historical tradition of Christian teaching. It is also helpful to examine why we may have such strong reactions against Darwinism. I can think of at least two reasons.

Firstly we fear that accepting evolution (not to mention there are different kinds of ideas concerning evolution) would bring into question the authority and reliability of the Bible. It is a good and necessary concern. Sound theology holds that God is the Creator of all that is seen and unseen. We must hold to that firmly for it will help us in our approach to interpreting the initial chapters of Genesis. In this, Darwin faltered seriously for he found it impossible to believe those chapters in the light of his biological observations. is led to his rejection of the Bible as a whole.

This is the fear many Christians have towards Darwinism. Good theology can help us to read the first few chapters of Genesis with the confidence and the kind of deep and generous wisdom the Church Fathers had in reading their Bibles – they provide useful models for interpreting passages such as those in Genesis. We do well in seeking guidance by examining the exegetical methods of the early church.

The other fear that we have with regard to Darwinism is the erosion of human dignity. is we see in Darwin as he lost religious moorings and saw human life with diminishing meaning and dignity. Consequently, we see today the animalisation of humans and the humanisation of animals with the blurring of boundaries between humans

and animals. The door is being opened for increasing acceptability of animal-human chimeras and a utilitarian view of human life. We are, indeed, at the threshold of a brave new world. It is here that we need to be anchored in sound theology.

The Bible portrays human life as special. We share something with other creatures in being made of dust. But we also share something of God’s nature in being made of His breath. Good biblical theology underlines the dignity of human beings as God’s special creation, made a little lower than angels (Ps. 8:4-8). God’s purposes for us and His relationship with us are clearly spelt out. Though fallen, we are destined in Christ to become like Him and to share in His divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4, NLT). God relates to us personally and has not abandoned His love, care and sovereignty in His world. He sustains His creation moment by moment (Heb. 1:3) – not like the God of the Deists. With this theology, we can delve into the arguments between Christian faith and Darwinism, true to our faith and not afraid of examining evidences in the many levels of reality.

If only Darwin had stuck to good theology as he explored the visible world of animals, he could have led us to more illuminating paths. His aversion to blood turned him off in his studies – both in medicine and in theology. Sound theology is of utmost importance. It is sad that Darwin’s theology degree did not serve him well.

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