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Charles Darwin to receive apology from the Church of England for rejecting evolution

15 September, 2008

So says a headline in the London Telegraph. This is the posthumous apology to Charles Darwin that the Church of England recently issued:

Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practise the old virtues of ‘faith seeking understanding’ and hope that makes some amends.

And here is a website set up by the CofE to promote Darwinism. The apology above can be found at the end of an article by Dr Malcolm Brown, here.

One of the most interesting things about Brown’s article is his two-pronged approach. On one hand, he argues there are no problems at all between what Darwin taught and what the Bible intends to teach. On the other hand, he argues agaist those who would go so far as to make Darwinism an all-swallowing ‘theory of everything’. I’ll very briefly give an example of each:

Darwin and the Bible

This is way too big to get into very far here; one of the problems with Brown’s discussion is that he isn’t very clear where Darwin’s views and where Darwinian views fall — often there’s a pretty big difference (this apology, by the way, is being issued just in time for the 150th birthday celebrations for Darwin’s Origin of Species). A more concrete problem for the relationship between Darwin and the Bible can be found in Brown’s statements:

Yes, Christians believe that God became incarnate as a human being in the person of Jesus and thereby demonstrated God’s especial love for humanity. But how can that special relationship be undermined just because we develop a different understanding of the processes by which humanity came to be?

In other words — if I may paraphrase — what does it matter if we lose the first Adam if we can still try and hold on to the second? Good luck with that…

Darwin and ultra-Darwinism

I think Brown’s article is more successful with this second prong of his approach. In effect, he says that Darwin’s being basically right doesn’t equal ultra-Darwinism being right.

Translate [Darwinian natural science] into a half-understood notion of ‘the survival of the fittest’ and imagine the processes working on a day-to-day basis, and evolution gets mixed up with a social theory in which the weak perish – the very opposite of the Christian vision in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55).

Whether or not we as Christians agree or should agree with Darwin himself or not, and in what respects, if any, it’s no less true that ultra-Darwinism is a very bad idea. Not only is it poor science (because it’s really philosophy layered over science), but it’s self-destroying (read my post on Richard Dawkins’s social values, for example, here). So Brown’s article is deeply ambiguous in its truth and in its helpfulness.

As a final note, this kind of ambiguity is a real problem for the Church of England at this point in its life. Very few people have any idea of the differences between Darwin and the several evolutionary adaptations of Darwinism over the last century, for example, and such an apology to Darwin (which is simultaneously an endorsement of ‘Darwinism’ in general) is really difficult for Christians to interpret. So does this mean Dawkins’s views are OK, as long as we leave room for God outside the theory-of-everything? And what does this say about all those Anglicans all over the mainly non-Western European world who are firmly convinced that Darwin in any form is completely incompatible with taking the authority of the Bible seriously? Does such a statement in any way reflect the unity of the body of Christ that the Church of England has historically emphasized so strongly? And is this the best way of trying to engage as the Church with our contemporary (Western!) culture?

I don’t have the answers to what should be done — but this sure doesn’t seem like it.

  1. 15 September, 2008 9:47 pm

    “In other words — if I may paraphrase — what does it matter if we lose the first Adam if we can still try and hold on to the second? Good luck with that…”

    This a good example of where Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology are not at odds with each other but lock shields against a common adversary.

  2. 16 September, 2008 2:08 am

    And, I might add, that in this case the adversary is not ‘science’ or ‘Darwin’ but anything that would seriously compromise the character and claims of the biblical witness.

    Many well-meaning Christians have attempted to find an alternative to the modern stumbling block of a historical Adam (and Eve). But it leads at best to a really inconsistent approach to what is treated as ‘historical’ — in a very modern sense of the term — in the Bible and what is not (and how to decide?). At worst it leads, for example, to reading sinfulness back into the very reality of creation itself (since there was no representative first man’s representative first transgression), and to serious problems with Paul’s compare-and-contrast between Adam and Christ in Romans 5 (since Paul is clearly placing the representative work of two heads of two ‘humanities’ in parallel).

    However, there were also many well-meaning Christians who embraced many of Darwin’s ideas in his own time (B.B. Warfield, for example), and many who embrace some form of Darwinism today — like I say, it’s a very complex theory with several interpretations, and someone more informed (and wiser!) than me will have to argue about where that line is to be drawn.


  3. 16 September, 2008 1:58 pm

    I’ve linked to your post from Apology from the Church of England for Rejecting Evolution

    I would suggest that if selective breeding were not wrapped in evolution then there is not much left. Selective breeding took place before Darwin was conceived.

  4. 16 September, 2008 8:10 pm

    …And often occurs today in certain ethnocentric Ref’d churches…not many brown people in those communities…barrumpbump…

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