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Was B. B. Warfield a Theistic Evolutionist? Part 1

In recent years, the interpretation of theologian B. B. Warfield as a theistic evolutionist has gained popularity—but there is good justification for questioning this assertion. In this two-part article series, I will explore the compelling reasons to doubt the validity of this view of Warfield.

In the ongoing controversy over special creation and theistic evolution (TE), advocates of TE often cite the great theologian B. B. Warfield, principal of Princeton Theological Seminary (1887–1902), as an example of a thoroughly orthodox biblical scholar who believed God used the evolutionary process to accomplish His creative purpose. This view is notably promoted in B. B. Warfield: Evolution, Science, and Scripture, in which the book’s editors, Mark Noll and David Livingstone, assert:1

One of the best-kept secrets in American intellectual history is that B. B. Warfield, the foremost defender of the theologically conservative doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible, was also an evolutionist.

Yet there are reasons to believe this characterization of Warfield is inaccurate. In part 1 of this series, I will set the stage for Warfield’s view with a look at the budding naturalism of the nineteenth century that clashed with the young-earth creationist perspective, thus leading to difficulties between the religious and scientific communities.

Birth of the Genesis Creation Dates

Creation date calculations by seventeenth-century scholars Bishop James Ussher and John Lightfoot convince many Christians that God created the universe, Earth, and life less than 6,000 years ago. Ussher and Lightfoot came to this conclusion based on two assumptions: (1) there are no gaps in the biblical genealogies of Genesis, Exodus, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles, and (2) the six “days” (Hebrew: yôm) of creation were consecutive 24-hour periods. After engaging in some competitive scholarship with Lightfoot over a few years, Ussher deduced that the first day of creation began on October 23, 4004 BC. Such was his influence that beginning in the early 1700s many editions of the King James Bible incorporated Ussher’s chronology into their marginal annotations and cross-references. In 1909, the Scofield Reference Bible—widely popular among fundamentalists and evangelicals throughout much of the twentieth century—also included the Ussher chronology.

Although many biblical scholars concurred with Ussher, others found his calculations to be based on a faulty premise, namely, that an accurate historical chronology could be constructed based on biblical genealogies. Warfield was among those who had serious doubts about Ussher’s work. In a 1911 essay entitled “On the Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race,” Warfield commented that “it is precarious in the highest degree to draw chronological inferences from [the biblical] genealogical tables.”

New Challenges to Genesis

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, naturalists began asserting that new discoveries in astronomy and geology posed serious challenges to the Genesis creation account’s credibility and historicity. Within a generation, traditional Christians found themselves confronted by three challenges. First, in the realm of astronomy, some scientists replaced the instantaneous creation of the solar system with the nebular hypothesis, a view first set forth centuries earlier by Swedish philosopher of science Emanuel Swedenborg and later popularized in the works of Immanuel Kant and Pierre-Simon Laplace.

Second, in the field of geology, Scottish physician and naturalist James Hutton and others began to make the case that Earth was millions of years old rather than a few thousand. In 1862, renowned Scottish physicist William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) calculated the age of Earth at 20–40 million years; soon many naturalists argued that life on Earth, including human life, had existed far longer than the 6,000 years that the biblical genealogies supposedly indicated. Third—and perhaps most alarming—was the challenge posed by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which holds that all life-forms, including human beings, evolved over eons of time via the aegis of common descent and natural selection.

By the late 1800s, many Christians conceded that the Bible allowed for an ancient universe, an ancient Earth, and even pre-Edenic life—a notable change from the consensus opinion only a generation or two earlier. But conceding Darwinian evolution was quite another thing. So while most naturalists, including many professing Christians, converted from belief in special creation to evolution, others remained unconvinced.

Charles Hodge’s Skepticism

Charles Hodge, a distinguished theologian and the principal of Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) from 1851–1878, was skeptical of evolution for several reasons. For one, he was concerned that a new elite class of “scientific men” was unfairly stigmatizing Bible-believing Christians as “narrow-minded, bigots, old women, Bible worshippers, etc.”2 He resented the new status and influence these scientists held in society at the expense of Bible scholars, theologians, and ministers. In that context, he predicted that Christianity was in a “fight for its life” against these high priests of naturalism who “not only speculate, but dogmatize, on the highest questions of philosophy, morality, and religion” while “assiduously poisoning the fountains of religion, morality, and social order.”3 But Hodge’s objections to Darwinism extended well beyond the bounds of professional turf-guarding. As a rigorous logician, he was adamant that we distinguish between facts that are absolutely true and theories based on conjecture, a principle that the scientific elite of Hodge’s day violated with impunity. 

In his Systematic Theology, Hodge took exception to Darwinism on several counts, both theological and philosophical, not the least being that it is an improvable hypothesis. He objected to the theory’s stance against teleology (the philosophical view that final causes exist in nature) and to what he regarded as the impossibility of matter doing the work of a mind and of design being accomplished “without any designer.”4Because Darwin claimed that God had not intervened in the universe since the creation of “living germ(s),” Hodge viewed his system as “tantamount to atheism” and, therefore, absurd.5

Hodge’s subsequent book What Is Darwinism? included an incisive and well-reasoned critique of evolutionary theory, particularly the antisupernaturalism inherent in the system. Hodge leveled four charges:

  1. Darwinism is simply unbelievable;
  2. “There is no pretence [sic] that the theory can be proved”;
  3. Darwinism is antiteleological, which Hodge regarded as his “grand and fatal objection to Darwinism”;7 and
  4. There is no evidence for trans-species evolution.

In summary, Hodge wrote, “The conclusion of the whole matter is, that the denial of design in nature is virtually the denial of God….We have thus arrived at the answer to our question, What is Darwinism? It is Atheism.”8

His critique of Darwinism aside, Hodge was no young-earth creationist; that is, he did not accept Ussher’s calculations for the date of creation. He readily accepted the antiquity of the planet, believed in the day-age view of creation (sometimes called old-earth creationism), and taught that there were gaps in the Genesis genealogical tables. Furthermore, he conceded that, at least in theory, theistic evolution might be conceived in a way that was compatible with divine design.

Hodge also held that the biblical writers wrote under supernatural inspiration when addressing issues related to faith and practice, but they “stood on the same level with their contemporaries” when it came to science, history, and philosophy.9 Subsequent inerrantists, such as Warfield, disagreed with this assessment of Scripture.

Part 2 of this series will continue with a discussion of Warfield’s stance on the biblical accounts of creation and their relationship to modern scientific discoveries.

  1. See Mark A. Noll and David N. Livingstone, introduction to B. B. Warfield, Evolution, Science, and Scripture; Selected Writings, eds. Mark A. Noll and David N. Livingstone (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000); and David N. Livingstone and Mark A. Noll, “B. B. Warfield (1851–1921): A Biblical Inerrantist as Evolutionist,” Journal of Presbyterian History 80 (Fall 2002): 153–71.
  2. See Charles Hodge, What Is Darwinism? (1874; Project Gutenberg, 2006), 135,
  3. Ibid., 137, 139, 142. 
  4. Charles Hodge, quoted in Matthew Ropp, “Charles Hodge and His Objection to Darwinism: The Exclusion of Intelligent Design; A Case Study of American Anti-Darwinism in the Late 1800’s” (paper, Fuller Theological Seminary, School of Theology, 1997),
  5. Ibid.
  6. Hodge, What Is Darwinism?, 144,
  7. Ibid., 169.
  8. Ibid., 173.
  9. Charles Hodge, quoted in Ronald Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, exp. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 37.