Distress After Darwin

By: Jim Virkler; ©2010

In the decades after Darwin, we may ask what were the issues of greatest concern in the church. The theory of evolution began to hold sway not only among scientists, but also in the academic world and among Bible believers. Surprisingly, some conservative theologians held an ambivalent stance toward Darwin’s revolutionary proposal. For example, R. A. Torrey (1856-1928), evangelist and pastor associated with Moody Bible Institute, Moody Church, and many other well-known orthodox institutions, alarmed some of his friends in 1925 by saying that a man could “believe thoroughly in the absolute infallibility of the Bible and still be an evolutionist of a certain type.”

Torrey’s statement should not be taken as an endorsement of “molecules to man” evolution. Knowledge of the mechanisms of inheritance has multiplied many times over since Torrey. The evidence for widely-spaced creation events for earth’s life forms is far stronger than evidence for a gradual, naturalistic process. Microevolution, minor changes taking place within species over time, is accepted today even among creationists. It may be regarded as a form of adaptation programmed by the Creator.

Many church leaders in the late 19th century viewed the accelerating belief in evolution as triggering the slide toward higher criticism and erosion of confidence in scripture and Christian orthodoxy. One response to this turn of events was the establishment of the Niagara Bible Conference held from 1876-1897. It brought together hundreds of church leaders, many of them dispensationalists. Dispensational beliefs were partly a response to the rampant higher criticism which was eroding confidence in scripture and traditional biblical truth. Such systematized beliefs strengthened confidence in the literal meaning of scripture concerning end times.

Considering the diverse time scale views among Christian creationists in our day, we may wonder if topics such as evoution and creationism received the same degree of attention within the church in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The answer is “no.” Church leaders did not stress six 24-hour creation days, a young earth, and “no death before the fall.” The 14-point Niagara Creed, developed from the decades-long Naiagara Bible Conference, did not contain polemics concerning evolution and time scales of creationism as might be expected, even though evolution had spawned some concern within the church. Rather, the points focused on sound theology and the central elements of the message of Christianity: the authority of scripture, the virgin birth and deity of Jesus, the substitutionary atonement, the resurrection, and His second coming.


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