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The Rise of Theistic Darwinism

Photo: Charles Kingsley, by Charles Watkins via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a new series by Neil Thomas, Reader Emeritus at the University of Durham, “Origin of Species: From Discussion Document to Nihilist Dogma.” This is the fourth article in the series. Find the full series so far here. Professor Thomas’s recent book is Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design (Discovery Institute Press).

Charles Darwin’s backtracking emendations to his theory, noted in my last post, indicate that the unresolved tensions in his mind remained with him right up to the time preceding his death in 1882. In fact, a significant reason that his 19th-century peers were but little inclined to accord the Origin the kind of non-negotiable canonical status foisted upon it by many 20th-century legatees lay with some of Darwin’s own prevarications and ambiguous statements. He had for instancefamously concluded his Origin by referencing the ancient doctrine of the divine pneuma, writing that life had been “breathed into” simple forms, and that from those beginnings there had come about an evolution of more complex forms by dint of “laws impressed upon matter by the Creator.”

A “Hybrid” Interpretation

Since such statements are clearly inconsistent with purely natural processes, it was easy for those with more traditional opinions to deduce from them that everything owed its existence ultimately to a power transcending the natural order. Oxford’s bishop, Samuel Wilberforce, arraigned Darwin for committing a grand category error, charging that Darwin was in effect deifying the phenomenon he had chosen to hypostatize under the name of natural selection. Darwin, Wilberforce averred, was illogically imputing the same ontological status to evolving Nature that theists bestowed upon the Christian God — that is, of an entity capable of bringing about transformative miracles.

This form of objection inevitably left the door ajar to the kind of “hybrid” interpretation favored by some in both Britain and America in the later Victorian period. This involved a tacit grafting on to Darwin’s text of a thin but crucial layer of theistic evolutionism, as James Moore documented in his standard study of post-Darwinian controversies.1 In other words, the deity (being regarded as more hands-on than was allowed for in the minimalist conceptions of deism) emerged as the ultimate choreographer of all evolutionary selection. In such ways did some recipients weave advances in biological understanding into an overarching theological interpretation.

The Hidden Hand Approach

Some, like author Charles Kingsley and future Archbishop Frederick Temple actually professed to find their religious faith strengthened by Darwinism since it appeared to them as a form of progressive revelation — science coming through for humanity by illuminating what had previously been hidden. Kingsley even seems to have viewed biological evolution as a branch of what German theologians call Heilsgeschichte, that is, salvation history, according to which God constantly works behind the scenes to promote the human potentialities and ultimate salvation of His subjects. 

Indeed, for Kingsley this hidden hand approach seemed more satisfactory than the deist position which postulated a God who had made a once-and-for-all effort of creation but had since that time supposedly retired from his exertions with little more care for his Creation. For Kingsley, by contrast, evolution took on the spiritually reassuring aspect of underscoring God’s tutelary and pastoral role as the unwavering guardian and promoter of his Creation. Surprising as it may seem today, Darwin was seen by Kingsley and others as making a contribution to theological understanding every bit as important as his contribution to biology. 

Next, “As Many Opinions as There Are Men?”


  1. These controversies typically involved “efforts to transform the Darwinian theory with a metaphysics of providence and progress which, by supplanting causo-mechanical explanations, could secure a teleology and a theodicy on an evolutionary basis.” The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwinism in Britain and America, 1870-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981), p. 15.