From the 1960s until the present day, the debate over evolution in the U.S. has been fought primarily in school boardrooms and courtrooms. This has greatly affected many contemporary Christian responses to science in general and evolution in particular. The Intelligent Design (or ID) movement grew out of these controversies as a new response to evolution.
To say that the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 was a watershed event in Western intellectual history would be something of an understatement. Like Nicolaus Copernicus before him and Albert Einstein after him, Darwin radically reshaped the way people thought about the world. Most people are aware of how Darwin’s idea has gradually come to be accepted throughout the scientific establishment — after going through some evolution of its own, of course. Some, however, may not be aware of the range of Christian responses to Darwin since 1859.
In the first years following the publication of The Origin of Species, most conservative Protestants did not concern themselves too much with the theory because scientists themselves were still evaluating it. Evangelical scientists were divided in their responses. Some, like the Anglican rector and amateur ornithologist Francis Orpen Morris, were highly critical of Darwin’s theories. Morris wrote pamphlets against the theory throughout the last twenty years of his life. At the other end of the spectrum, we find the Presbyterian Asa Gray, the leading American botanist of his day and a personal friend of Darwin. He argued that natural selection was not in opposition to design.
The response of orthodox theologians varied. One of the most important early Christian responses to Darwin was written by the Reformed theologian Charles Hodge. His response is found in his Systematic Theology (1871–73) as well as in his book What Is Darwinism? (1874). Like many theologians of his day, Hodge was convinced that the true facts of science and the teachings of Scripture could not ultimately contradict each other (ST I:573). Hodge expressed his gratitude to scientists of the past for helping the church correct bad interpretations of Scripture, but in the case of Darwin he believed that it was the scientific interpretation that was in error. Hodge’s primary criticism of Darwin was that Darwin rejected all design and purpose in nature.
He granted that a man could hold to a theistic version of evolution (ST II:16–18), but he argued that Darwin himself did not hold to such a view. Darwin’s version of evolution was, in Hodge’s view, nothing less than atheism. In the southern Presbyterian church, the same kind of criticism against Darwin was leveled by Robert Lewis Dabney.