The hundred years that have elapsed since the first publication of Origin of Species have by no means abated the interest which Darwin kindled. As evolutionary theories have multiplied, so evolutionary principles have been applied almost promiscuously to all areas of human culture.

The tension between Christianity and the descendants of Charles Darwin is usually discussed in terms either of technical details in the evolutionary mechanism, or else of variant interpretations of the biblical record. While the relevance of these issues cannot be denied nor their importance minimized, yet one does suspect that the underlying philosophical conflict is far more crucial. It is this which guides both the selection of data and the formulation of hypotheses. The purpose of this article is accordingly to define the basic issues in the perennial conflict between Christianity and what we shall call “scientific naturalism.” While passing allusion will be made to what may be considered the deciding factors, the primary intent is to clarify the problem, not to resolve it. Such clarification is a necessary prelude to evaluation; often, as in the present case, it settles the issue for one who, like the evangelical, has established to his own satisfaction certain key beliefs. But it settles only the philosophical issue, for technical scientific and exegetical problems may persist indefinitely.

To begin, it is important to define historic Christianity neither too narrowly nor too broadly. For present purposes, we may note three essentials. First, historic Christianity is clearly theistic. It regards the constant activity of a personal Supreme Being as both necessary and ultimate in giving an adequate account of the existence, nature, and process of the world, and in meeting adequately the intellectual, moral, and spiritual needs of man. To understand either the universe in general or man in particular, it is claimed, we need to look beyond both the universe and man to the eternal God. Theism by definition implies supernaturalism: the existence of One greater than finite nature.

Second, historic Christianity is rooted in the historic person and work of Jesus Christ. This in itself implies the supernatural in the Incarnation and Resurrection and in the work of revelation and redemption. Further, revelation implies that there is an absolute divine truth to be revealed, and redemption infers that there is an unchanging moral law to be upheld. The Christian therefore sees all ultimate moral values as epitomized in Jesus Christ, and all valid religious experience as focusing on Him. In Scripture this is the testimony especially of the Johannine writings.

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Third, whatever explanations of human origins scientific or exegetical data may or may not allow, the unique natural endowment of man is plainly a corollary of the fact that he alone is the recipient of divinely provided revelation and redemption. Historic Christianity therefore insists on the uniqueness of man both in the universe and in relation to God. The imago dei marks man off from the beast; it marks him off for God. Chancellor Hutchins of the University of Chicago is supposed to have remarked that cats and dogs do not build cathedrals. They have neither the engineering skill nor the architectural ability, neither the aesthetic appreciation to express, nor the moral values to preserve; above all they have no religious life.

The Naturalistic Revolt

Scientific naturalism stands in vivid contrast to historic Christianity thus defined. Preliminarily, let it be repeated that we are concerned not with natural science—an objective discipline—but with a brand of philosophical naturalism which purports to understand things in scientific terms alone. This attitude is not new. It found its classical expression in Lucretius, the Roman, who deemed the motion of atoms in a void sufficient in itself to account for the greatest cosmic processes and the tiniest cultural or individual differences. Darwin gave added impetus to scientific naturalism. He systematized the evolutionary account of origins, and in so doing laid the foundation on which his successors have built their diverse explanations of life and mind, culture and religion.

Scientific naturalism poses its first essential in direct antithesis to the theism of historic Christianity. The universe is both self-sufficient and self-explanatory. No more ultimate explanation is necessary than may be given by describing the natural processes involved. Nor is it necessary to satisfy man’s intellectual, moral, and spiritual needs by adducing a God, for these needs may well be meaningless and irrelevant. The supernatural is entirely excluded.

Second, scientific naturalism explains the person and work of Jesus Christ otherwise than in historical and supernaturalist terms. He is regarded as just another product of the evolution of human morality and religion. His revelation becomes a myth and his redemption the crude superstition of the Judaic mind. Whereas men may respect and apply his precocious ethics, Christian religious experience is neither more nor less real than any other. It may all be explained in naturalistic psychological terms.

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Third, scientific naturalism insists on the continuity of man with the rest of nature. Biological and psychological similarities to other animals overshadow cultural differences. Evolutionary selection and adjustment alone have brought us to where we are, and they alone can offer prognoses for the future. For a while this suggested unlimited opportunities for inevitable progress, but in more recent years naturalistic optimism has given way to that querulous gloom characteristic of the nuclear age. As early as 1902 Bertrand Russell expressed the new naturalistic outlook:

That man is the product of causes who had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms, that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievements must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.

The Restless Spirit Of Man

It appears, then, that historic Christianity and scientific naturalism stand as two incompatible options diametrically opposed on three of their basic essentials. This is not to say that they have nothing in common, for both may value technological advance and scientific research, and recognize the moral and sociological functions of religion. It is rather to say that as philosophies the two are utterly irreconcilable. The man who is convinced that the heavens declare the glory of God cannot forsake his faith and embrace any alternative explanation. He cannot rest content with the Freudian or Marxian interpretations of his religious experience. He cannot avoid thinking that the inference from partial similarity between man and beast to a total identity is a hasty generalization, and that the inference from historical sequence and partial similarity to a direct genetic relationship may well be just another post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

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Canon Bell was reported in 1952 to have asserted that the trouble with the common man is that “he has not learned to see life in all its possible richness … has lost contact with that which is greater than himself, from which (or Whom) he might gain courage to escape the crowd.” Another observer, one who makes no claim to Christian faith, traces the loss of the joie de vivre in much contemporary thought to the exclusion of God. Words such as these indict scientific naturalism. They echo the answer of the Westminster divines that the supreme end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. They relay the discovery of Augustine that our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.

Basically, this is the conflict which underlies the evolutionary philosophies of the past century. In a sense, it is simply a modern version of the conflict that has raged in the West for over two and a half millennia. Yet while the problem must be faced at this level and a decision made on the essential points in question, it must never be forgotten that a philosophy often expresses personal moral and spiritual involvements. To the extent that this is so the philosophical battle becomes the theoretical side of a more personal and even more fundamental struggle in every man.

He Came With Music

He came with music. But the angel’s song

Receded into heaven. Long, oh long,

Man strives to catch the music of the spheres;

But faint, remote, elusive to the ears,

Nor art nor science can prevail to bring

To earth again the music of the King.

He came with music. But the restless heart

Can find Him not in music, as an art.

When man’s endeavors cease with tongue and pen,

When earth’s foundations totter, then, oh then

All heaven waits to loose the lofty strain

For which the earth-bound struggle all in vain.

He came with music. And with music He

Will rock the rafters of eternity

When all of heaven rises to proclaim

The august splendor of His rightful name.

Then man will find his music, his lost chords,

In Christ, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords.


Arthur F. Holmes is Associate Professor and Director of Philosophy at Wheaton College, Illinois. Born in Dover, England, he holds the A.B. and the M.A. (Theology) from Wheaton College and Ph.D. from Northwestern University.

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