Published on September 10, 2019 by Benjamin J. Montoya

Crossway, 2017 | 1008 pages

No, Warfield Did Not Endorse Theistic Evolution

By Fred G. Zaspel


Note: This below is my chapter in Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique (J. P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, Christopher Shaw, Ann K. Gauger, and Wayne Grudem, eds.; Crossway, 2017). The chapter is entitled, “B. B. Warfield Did Not Endorse Theistic Evolution as It Is Understood Today” and is reproduced here with permission.


Despite the claims of some recent authors,[1]  renowned Princeton theology professor Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921) was not a theistic evolutionist. In fact, those on both sides of the evolution question who might like to claim him will find him somewhat of a disappointment, even if for different reasons. That is, he spoke with obvious openness to the possibility of evolution if it could be established with a reasonable degree of scientific certainty; however, throughout his career he remained skeptical on exactly this score, often even mocking the theory’s speculative nature and lack of supporting evidence. Warfield maintained an obvious interest in the subject throughout his life, and through to the end his writings reflect both his openness and his critical suspicion regarding the theory. At the end of it all we must conclude that although Warfield allowed for the possibility of evolution he himself remained uncommitted to it, and he clearly rejected most of the main components of theistic evolution as it is understood today.


A. Warfield on Evolution in Summary

Warfield makes a point to affirm the complete truthfulness of both volumes of divine revelation – Scripture and the created order – and that there can be no conflict between them. He is therefore very willing to allow the established facts of the one check our interpretations of the other. He recognizes that biblical interpreters can err as well as interpreters of physical science, and so he is willing to adjust even his own understanding of Scripture to the established facts of scientific findings once and if those facts are established. However, he does not view both volumes of revelation as equal in clarity, and so he argues that due weight of consideration must be granted accordingly: interpretations of general revelation must give way to the clearer statements of special revelation. Remarks in his review of Luther Townsend’s Evolution or Creation illustrate his thinking well:

Rejecting not merely the naturalistic but also the timidly supernaturalistic answers, he insists that man came into the world just as the Bible says he did. Prof. Townsend has his feet planted here on the rock. When it is a question of scriptural declaration versus human conjecture dignified by any name, whether that of philosophy or that of science, the Christian man will know where his belief is due…. [Professor Townsend’s] trust in the affirmations of the Word of God as the end of all strife will commend itself to every Christian heart.[2]

Here Warfield is clear in his conviction that where physical scientists’ claims contradict the plain written Word they must be rejected. Scripture alone is the final test of truth.

It must be emphasized that Warfield continually reflected a willingness to consider the evolutionists’ scientific claims. Throughout his life he very clearly kept abreast of their writings and seems very much at home distinguishing the arguments of one scientist over against another, and of one evolutionary theory over another. And often he reflects striking openness to the idea. For example, in his lecture entitled “Evolution or Development” prepared in 1888 he writes,

The upshot of the whole matter is that there is no necessary antagonism of Christianity to evolution, provided that we do not hold to too extreme a form of evolution. To adopt any form that does not permit God freely to work apart from law and that does not allow miraculous intervention (in the giving of the soul, in creating Eve, etc.) will entail a great reconstruction of Christian doctrine, and a very great lowering of the detailed authority of the Bible. But if we condition the theory by allowing the constant oversight of God in the whole process, and his occasional supernatural interference for the production of new beginnings by an actual output of creative force, producing something new, i.e., something not included even in posse [potentially] in preceding conditions, we may hold to the modified theory of evolution and be Christians in the ordinary orthodox sense.
I say we may do this. Whether we ought to accept evolution, even in this modified sense, is another matter, and I leave it purposely an open question.[3]

This kind of openness on the question is common in Warfield. Throughout his many reviews of evolutionary literature he routinely speaks of evolution as impossible apart from divine intrusion and purpose (“mediate creation”), and he can even assume evolution as a given[4] – until, that is, particular arguments are taken up for dispute. And in these same pieces he can often express his skepticism and doubt also.

It is also important to note that in addressing the question of evolution – as in the sample above – Warfield makes careful distinction between theism and Christianity. That is, he argues on the one hand that the upward progress of evolution is impossible apart from teleology (purpose) – a fact which he comments would necessarily define evolution as a theistic concept. But he further argues that to acknowledge evolution as theoretically possible within a theistic worldview is one thing; affirming that it is a specifically Christian option is quite another.[5] Again, by this he means to say that Scripture just may not allow what a broader theistic view perhaps could.

It must be noted additionally that within his openness to the possibility of evolution thus considered Warfield makes a pointed argument that evolution cannot by itself explain the world as it is. Here he makes careful distinction between creation, mediate creation, and evolution. Only creation can explain origins, he insists. And if God has providentially directed various developments of his created order (evolution), this process can never account for factors such as life, personality, consciousness, the human soul, Christ, and so on. Such realities as these require divine, creative “intrusions” (mediate creation). Providence is not creation.

What he [the Christian] needs to insist on is that providence cannot do the work of creation and is not to be permitted to intrude itself into the sphere of creation, much less to crowd creation out of the recognition of man, merely because it puts itself forward under the new name of evolution.[6]

Warfield was very insistent on this point. He specifically denied that evolution could account for everything after Genesis 1:1. Whatever evolution there might have been, it cannot account for the arrival of anything specifically new. It cannot explain the original “stuff” of the created order, and it cannot account for other subsequent realities that depend for their existence on divinely creative acts. Thus, for example, Warfield could never accept abiogenesis (spontaneous generation of life), and he explicitly denied that evolution could account for life, the origin of the human soul, the human sense of morality, the continued existence of the soul (“immortality”) in the afterlife, or the incarnate Christ.

Yet this careful distinction still leaves open the possibility of a theistic evolution carefully defined, and so it becomes necessary to address specific questions that are determinative of his understanding. The short answer here is that Warfield remained both open to some kind of evolution, within prescribed limits, and very skeptical of it.

In agreement with his theological mentor, Charles Hodge, Warfield condemns Darwinian evolution as atheistic, and he complains often of the naturalistic (and anti-supernaturalistic) bias that drives so much of the evolutionists’ agenda – and that has rubbed off on the church.[7] He understands the distinction between Darwinian evolution and other theories (although at times, as was increasingly the case generally, Warfield can use the terms Darwinism and evolution interchangeably), but even so he judges the evolutionary notion itself as essentially atheistic[8] and comments that “the whole body of these evolutionary theories” is “highly speculative,” even “hyperspeculative.” “None” of them, he insists, “have much obvious claim to be scientific…. The whole body of evolutionary constructions prevalent today impresses us simply as a vast mass of speculation which may or may not prove to have a kernel of truth in it.”[9]

Warfield insists that any claim that evolution has been proven betrays an overly-zealous enthusiasm that exceeds the evidence.[10] And despite his frequent open tone regarding evolution, when he addresses the proffered evidence for it he consistently speaks in a skeptical – and often even mocking – tone. Evolutionary theories, he insists, cry out with questions they cannot answer and rest on faulty logic even of the most elementary sort.[11]

The lay reader [speaking inclusively of himself, it seems] is left with strong suspicion that, if their writers did not put evolution into their premises they would hardly find so much of it in their conclusions…. The time has already fully come when the adherents of evolution should do something to make it clear to the lay mind that a full accumulation of facts to prove their case can never come – or else abate a little of the confidence of their primary assumption.[12]

Warfield finds no evidence for abiogenesis (that is, the spontaneous generation of life from nonliving matter), as I’ve already mentioned. He also criticizes evolution on grounds of the geological record, which, “when taken in its whole scope and in its mass of details is confessed as yet irreconcilable with the theory of development by descent.” Likewise he finds the appeal to embryology unable to account for the fact that supposed later stages of development retain a transcript of previous stages. So also the evolutionist faces difficulty, he says, with the “limits to the amount of variation to which any organism is liable.”[13]

Similarly, Warfield makes much over the seemingly limitless and impossible demands the evolutionary theory makes on time. This, he notes, is becoming more a problem recognized within the evolutionary-scientific community itself. “The matter of time that was a menace to Darwinism at the beginning thus bids fair to become its Waterloo.”[14] Warfield allows that the age of the earth – and the age of humanity, for that matter – are not questions of biblical or theological interest, and he is willing to acknowledge an age of seemingly any length. But he objects that science has not demonstrated the time it demands for the theory.

Warfield speaks often along these lines in criticism of evolutionary theories, insisting throughout his career that evolution remains an unproven hypothesis. But is it not likely that it will be proven? “Is it not at least probable?” he asks rhetorically. Cannot prescient minds expect that proof will be forthcoming? He responds, “Many think so; many more would like to think so; but for myself, I am bound to confess that I have not such prescience. Evolution has not yet made the first step” toward explaining many things. “In an unprejudiced way, looking over the proofs evolution has offered, I am bound to say that none of them is at all, to my mind, stringent.”[15]

He insists that laymen have the right to affirm with confidence that the evolutionary hypothesis remains “far from justified by the reasoning with which it has been supported.” If the facts are with the evolutionist they “have themselves to thank for the impression of unreality and fancifulness which they make on the earnest inquirer.”[16] In another place he cautions, “We would not willingly drag behind the evidence, indeed — nor would we willingly run ahead of it.”[17] Again, “Most men today know the evolutionary construction of the origin of man; there are many of us who would like to be better instructed as to its proofs.”[18] Similarly, he writes in 1908,

What most impresses the layman as he surveys the whole body of these evolutionary theories in the mass is their highly speculative character. If what is called science means careful observation and collection of facts and strict induction from them of the principles governing them, none of these theories have much obvious claim to be scientific. They are speculative hypotheses set forth as possible or conceivable explanations of the facts. . . . For ourselves we confess frankly that the whole body of evolutionary constructions prevalent today impresses us simply as a vast mass of speculation which may or may not prove to have a kernel of truth in it. . . . This looks amazingly like basing facts on theory rather than theory on facts.[19]

Once more, in a 1916 review Warfield speaks optimistically of evolution as demonstrating teleology, design. “Imbedded in the very conception of evolution, therefore, is the conception of end.” Here he seems to be more open to evolution. But later in this same review he writes more critically of the woeful lack of proof for it.

The discrediting of [Darwin’s] doctrine of natural selection as the sufficient cause of evolution leaves the idea of evolution without proof, so far as he is concerned — leaves it, in a word, just where it was before he took the matter up. And there, speaking broadly, it remains until the present day. . . . Evolution is, then, if a fact, not a triumph of the scientist but one of his toughest problems. He does not know how it has taken place; every guess he makes as to how it has taken place proves inadequate to account for it. His main theories have to be supported by subsidiary theories to make them work at all, and these subsidiary theories by yet more far-reaching subsidiary theories of the second rank — until the whole chart is, like the Ptolemaic chart of the heavens, written over with cycle and epicycle and appears ready to break down by its own weight.[20]

So although Warfield can speak of evolution as theistically allowable, his skepticism remains, as do the biblical hurdles as he understands them.

Of the specifically biblical problems he sees God’s creation of Eve as the most obvious, the account of which in Genesis 2 would seem impossible to reconcile with any evolutionary theory. But there are further problems he sees also, such as the origin of the human soul, the human sense of morality, the continued existence of the soul (“immortality”) and the afterlife, and the incarnate Christ, none of which can be accounted for on evolutionary grounds.

It is common to hear it said that Warfield understood the creation “days” of Genesis 1 in terms of ages and this in order to allow time for evolutionary development. This rumor may have arisen from Warfield’s openness to a very old earth, if such could be scientifically demonstrated, and his affirmation (with Henry Green) of gaps in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11. But it is in fact something Warfield nowhere affirms. Indeed, he explicitly rejects the view that the days represent geological ages and the view that understands them as literal but representative days that stand at the end of a long process of development.[21] And more generally he comments in agreement with another author that “the necessity for indefinitely protracted time does not arise from the facts, but from the attempt to explain the facts without any adequate cause.”[22] Warfield speaks similarly in 1908.[23] That is, Warfield was very skeptical even of the time required for evolution. And as will be shown below he tended to understand the age of humanity in terms of thousands, not millions, of years. At any rate, beyond this Warfield nowhere specifies his own understanding of the days of Genesis.


B. Elements of theistic evolution that Warfield would not accept as consistent with the Christian faith

Warfield argues that there are observable gaps in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 and, thus, that Scripture does not speak to the age of earth or of man. He insists that this is not a theological question. Yet he seems to think – presumably on scientific grounds – that humanity cannot be more than 10,000 or perhaps 20,000 years old.[24] This, observation alone seems to rule out most any evolutionary theory of human origins.

More to the point, in his discussion of the evidence available to evolutionists Warfield seems clearly to rule out the notion of a progressive rise of human forms, asserting that “the earliest human remains differ in type in no respect from the men of our day.”[25] He scorns the evolutionary idea of “primitive man,” and he expresses agreement with John Laidlaw that “to propound schemes of conciliation between the Mosaic account of creation and the Darwinian pedigree of the lower animals and man would be to repeat an old and, now, an unpardonable blunder.”[26] Even so, he also writes that the creation of man by the direct act of God need not “exclude the recognition of the interaction of other forces in the process of his formation.” Again, he speaks with allowance, but he goes to pains to emphasize that in the creation of man God made something specifically “new” and that the Genesis narrative itself makes this plain. “He was formed, indeed, from the dust of the ground, but he was not so left; rather, God also breathed into his nostrils a breath of life,” making him something distinct from all other creation. Thus, he concludes, a “properly limited evolution” is not excluded by the Genesis text if – and as always he emphasizes the “if” – an evolutionary process was, in fact, involved. That is to say, he allows for some kind evolution, carefully defined, but he does not commit to it.[27]

In Warfield’s 1906 review of James Orr’s The Image of God in Man he notes Orr’s argument that disparate development of mind and body is impossible, that it would be absurd to suggest an evolutionary development of the human body from a brutish source and a sudden creation of the soul by divine fiat. Warfield commends Orr’s grasp of man as body and soul in unity and refers to this as “the hinge of the biblical anthropology.” Warfield seems in obvious agreement, but in terms of the argument against evolution he characterizes this as a “minor point”; that is, he does not think this argument will be effective given that it could be answered with a theory of evolution per saltum (macro-evolution).

Two factors in context militate against taking this as a statement of Warfield’s own belief, however. First, earlier in the same review, Warfield praises Orr for his “courage to recognize and assert the irreconcilableness of the two views and the impossibility of a compromise between them” and that “the Christian view is the only tenable one in the forum of science itself.” Second, Warfield commends Orr’s thesis explicitly:

“That he accomplishes this task with distinguished success is the significance of the volume…. The book is a distinct contribution to the settlement of the questions with which it deals, and to their settlement in a sane and stable manner. It will come as a boon to many who are oppressed by the persistent pressure upon them of the modern point of view. It cannot help producing in the mind of its readers a notable clearing of the air.”[28]

It may be helpful to recall here Warfield’s 1897 affirmation cited above that “man came into the world just as the Bible says he did” and his understanding of the creation of Eve as the leading obstacle to believing in evolution.

We find this same tone in a student’s (N.W. Harkness) extensive 1898 class notes from Warfield’s lectures on the origin of man. Here Warfield makes repeated references to Adam’s creation from the dust by God, in his image, God having breathed into him the breath of life, so to make him a living being. Never is the plain understanding of the Genesis narrative questioned but always taken at face value and treated both as theology and historic fact. Several times Warfield is quoted as speaking of evolution as “modern speculation” that “runs athwart” the biblical record. Warfield concedes – as throughout his writings – that evolution and creation are not necessarily mutually exclusive so long as evolution is not understood in reference to origins.[29] “Man is not improved organic matter, but was created new out of nothing, the intrusion of divine power for something entirely new,” Harkness records his professor as saying. At this point evolution cannot be reconciled to Scripture. “To agree with us,” Warfield argues, the evolutionist “must admit that the chain was broken at one or more points by intrusion of divine power.” We must insist, he says, that man was created.

Warfield further instructed his students that Adam was “created perfect” and that this perfection must be understood in physical as well as moral terms. Adam, the first man, was created “mature and without defect.” He also debunks the evolutionary idea of “primitive man” and insists that “there is no proof of progressive stages in man.” Indeed, sin, having entered, debased and degenerated humanity. Adam was created in God’s image, in righteousness and holiness – “an intellectual, moral, voluntary being” who is “like God” and “different from the beasts.” Warfield is reported to affirm in summary, “We hold that God made Adam well and good.”[30]

This material from the student’s lecture notes is in keeping with what we find in Warfield’s lecture itself, prepared originally in 1888, in which he explicitly affirms that Adam is the “first man,” that Adam and Eve were created with “a fully developed moral sense” and in “moral perfection,” that in Adam the human race stood on probation and fell into sin, and that an evolutionary model would seem to reverse the biblical order of original perfection followed by sinfulness.[31]

All of this from Warfield’s lectures is in keeping with what we have of his published writings. Every reference in Warfield to Adam and Eve and to human origins asserts or presumes the historicity of that original pair as the first humans from whom all the race has descended and by whom sin entered the race – a traditional reading of the Genesis narrative. And often the references, always unqualified, are so brief that the reader is left with the impression that this was for Warfield “assumed” ground scarcely in need of defense or further explication.

Warfield touches the question of the origin of human death only briefly. In his review of James Orr’s God’s Image in Man when he expresses surprise at Orr’s ambivalence on this question.

The problem of the reign of death in that creation which was cursed for man’s sake and which is to be with man delivered from the bondage of corruption, presses on some with a somewhat greater weight than seems here to be recognized.[32]

Warfield does not here state this explicitly as his own belief (he says the problem “presses on some,” which of course might include himself), and in fact he never failed to point out a better argument for either side in this discussion. But he clearly considers this a strong argument for Orr’s position that he should have employed. And given his strong endorsement of Orr’s defense of Adam’s creation, along with our previously mentioned considerations, it seems that this affirmation, stated in his conclusion, does reflect his own thinking. The implications of this are telling: Warfield does not seem to allow any room for previous generations of humanity who lived and died prior to Adam.

It is also significant that Warfield here (in his 1906 Orr review) describes the fallenness and hostility of this present world as “the reign of death in that creation which was cursed for man’s sake.” That is, he seems to indicate that not just human death but the general fallenness of the larger created order also came about as a result of Adam’s sin.[33] Warfield reflects this condition elsewhere. First, in 1902 Warfield reviews an essay that treats 4 Esdras where the author laments the suffering that is in the world and of Israel in particular. Warfield characterizes this problem as, “the sin and misery of the whole world, plunged by the fall of Adam into every kind of evil.”[34] And in his brief 1908 participation in “A Symposium on the Problem of Natural Evils,” Warfield again traces all calamity to Adam’s sin. Commenting on Luke 13:1ff he says,

On the other hand, your questioner in the Bible class argues apparently on the assumption that there is no necessary relation between sin and calamity. He seems to suppose that calamity can fall when there is no sin. In other words he has forgotten (as many forget nowadays) the Fall. Given the Fall, and there is a place for the use of calamity in the moral government of the world. God may then visit or withhold the suffering which is due to all, as best suits his ends…. If there had been no Fall, however, there would be no such use made of calamity.[35]

Warfield speaks only in passing to the question of God’s direct intervention in the creation of animals “after their kind.” He held that God created all this “lower creation,” but he nowhere exactly specifies it as immediate creation. He can allow only the possibility of “mediate creation,” and he remarks that “let the sea/earth bring forth” can be so understood. But at the same time he argues vigorously that even a divinely guided developmental process (providence) cannot do the work of creation. He simply affirms God’s creation of the animals “after their kinds.”[36]

Moreover, given 1) Warfield’s general assessment of evolution as speculative, and 2) his expressed acceptance of the Genesis record elsewhere, 3) his criticism of abiogenesis and his insistence that life is a divinely creative act (something specifically “new” that evolution cannot accomplish), and 4) his observations that the fossil records provide no indication of transitional forms,[37] it is safe to assume that he held to God’s direct intervention in the creation of animal “kinds.”

Warfield’s thinking on these defining issues is rather traditional. We may say in summary that Warfield held the following:

  • the creation of Adam from the dust of the ground
  • the creation of Eve from Adam
  • that Adam and Eve were the original pair
  • that Adam and Eve were not highly developed animals
  • that all humanity has descended from Adam and Eve
  • that humanity was created in moral and physical perfection
  • that sin entered humanity by Adam
  • that humanity has not progressed from primitive man upward but has fallen because of sin
  • that human death entered by Adam
  • that the created order itself is in disarray because of Adam’s sin
  • that the arrival of the animal world as it is also required divine, creative intervention

In an earlier chapter, Wayne Grudem has enumerated twelve points at which theistic evolution as currently endorsed differs from the biblical account,[38] and at this point we can provide an answer to Warfield’s understanding regarding each.

  1. Adam and Eve were not the first human beings (if Adam and Eve even existed)

Warfield would deny this. He affirmed that Adam and Eve, historic persons, were the original human pair.

  1. God did not directly create Adam out of dust from the ground

Warfield would deny this. He affirmed Adam’s creation by God from the ground as per the Genesis narrative.

  1. God did not directly create Eve from a rib taken from Adam side

Warfield would deny this. He affirmed that Eve’s creation from Adam was the leading obstacle to a Christian’s embracing of evolution.

  1. Adam and Eve were born from human parents

Warfield would deny this. He affirmed repeatedly that Adam and Eve were created by God as the first human pair.

  1. Adam and Eve were never sinless human beings

Warfield would deny this. He affirmed the original perfection of Adam and Eve and their fall from it.

  1. Adam and Eve did not commit the first human sins, for human beings were doing morally evil things long before Adam and Eve

Warfield would deny this. He affirmed that sin entered humanity by Adam.

  1. Human death did not begin as a result of Adam’s sin, for human beings existed long before Adam and Eve and they were always subject to death

Warfield seemed to deny this. He seemed to affirm that death came to humanity and to the created order by Adam’s sin.

  1. Not all human beings have descended from Adam and Eve, for there were thousands of other human beings on earth at the time that God chose two of them as Adam and Eve.

Warfield would deny this. He affirmed that Adam and Eve were the original humans and that all humanity descended from them and is united in them.

  1. God did not directly intervene in the natural world to create different “kinds” of fish, birds, and land animals

Warfield would deny this. Although he spoke to this issue only in passing he spoke to it and the related discussion sufficiently to understand his affirmation of God’s intervention in the creation of animal “kinds.”

  1. God did not “rest” from his work of creation or stop any special creative activity after plants, animals, and human beings appeared on the earth

Warfield would deny this. He affirmed God’s rest on the seventh day.

He who needed no rest, in the greatness of his condescension, rested from the work which he had creatively made, that by his example he might woo man to his needed rest. The Sabbath, then, is not an invention of man’s, but a creation of God’s…. God rested, not because he was weary, or needed an intermission in his labors; but because he had completed the task he had set for himself (we speak as a man) and had completed it well. “And God finished his work which he had made”; and God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good.”[39]

  1. God never created an originally perfect natural world in the sense of a world that was a safe environment, free of thorns and thistles and similar harmful things

Warfield would deny this. He affirmed the fallenness of the created order in Adam.

  1. After Adam and Eve sinned, God did not place any curse on the world that changed the workings of the natural world and made it more hostile to mankind

Warfield would deny this. He affirmed the fallenness of the created order  as a result of Adam’s sin.


C. Warfield in Transition?

One question remains: Did Warfield change his position later in life? The notion that Warfield was a theistic evolutionist is common, fueled especially by various works by David Livingstone and Mark Noll, most notably their collection of Warfield’s writings in Evolution, Science, and Scripture: Selected Writings. Livingstone and Noll argue that Warfield’s position on this question changed – that late in his career he came again to embrace an evolutionary theory of origins.  I have addressed this point at greater length elsewhere,[40] but I can make a few summary remarks here.

First, all sides acknowledge that Warfield’s lecture, “Evolution or Development,” prepared in 1888, reflects his clear skepticism regarding the theory. At least six observations are worthy of note here.

  1. It would be possible to trace sentiments of Warfield’s skepticism expressed here throughout his later writings also.
  2. Warfield’s later “positive” statements about evolution are substantively no more positive or open than some found in his 1888 lecture. If we agree that in 1888 he at the same time remained skeptical of evolution, then his later allowances can scarcely indicate anything more. This observation is especially relevant given Warfield’s continued expressions of skepticism. Both his openness to evolution and his skepticism regarding it continued to the last.
  3. It appears that Warfield continued to use this 1888 lecture, with various emendations, at least through 1902 (when he began to share the teaching load with C.W. Hodge, Jr., who eventually succeeded him, and whose lectures, interestingly, followed Warfield’s closely).
  4. Some of the emendations Warfield added to the lecture along the way seem in fact to reflect a strengthening of his convictions against evolution, not a weakening.
  5. We have no later or replacement lecture from Warfield on this topic – this was the last he used, and he preserved it along with his other works to be examined by those coming after him.
  6. For a theologian the stature of Warfield to change course after passing the age of 50 on an issue so well studied and on which he had pronounced so often and so clearly, would be remarkable indeed. I don’t see evidence for it.

One major factor lending confusion to the question of Warfield’s later commitments regarding evolution is a 1915 essay on Calvin’s doctrine of creation in which Warfield argued that Calvin understood the work of the creation week (Gen.1) in evolutionary terms. On the face of it this may seem to reflect Warfield’s own persuasion – why else would he make such an unprecedented claim regarding the Reformer?

But there is more to the story. In this essay Warfield points out that Calvin held to literal six day creation week and a young earth of less than 6,000 years, so we must at least say that in his famous (notorious?) claim that Calvin’s doctrine of creation was “an evolutionary one” Warfield makes no connection to any evolutionary theory current in his own day. There is not enough time allowed.

More substantively, what Warfield refers to as “evolution” in this essay is nothing more than “second causes” which God employed in forming the world. (Of course, Calvin would have had no idea of Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was published nearly 300 years after Calvin’s death.) Warfield argues that for Calvin “creation” proper refers only to the original fiat of Genesis 1:1 (and to the origin of each human soul). God “created” the original world stuff (Gen. 1:1), and it is from this that the rest of the created order was brought forth and formed.[41] This is what Warfield refers to as Calvin’s “evolutionary” view. And he acknowledges that Calvin makes no indication as to just how the rest of the created order thus “evolved.” Clearly, Warfield uses the term “evolution” somewhat loosely here. He certainly does not refer to any particular theory of evolution. Indeed, he notes that Calvin held no such “theory” but simply that the Creator employed “second causes” in the development of the world in six days from the original world-stuff. Moreover, Warfield judges this “evolutionary” teaching of Calvin to be “inadequate.” All considered, whatever Warfield’s motivations were in describing Calvin’s teaching as evolutionary, there just is not enough evidence to attribute any evolutionary theory to Warfield himself.

Indeed, one year later Warfield insists that evolution necessarily entails teleology, purpose, mind, intelligence, and therefore a Designer. He argues that given the current rejection of natural selection evolution is left without explanation. Then he offers his latest (final) assessment of the various evolutionary theories.

The discrediting of his doctrine of natural selection as the sufficient cause of evolution leaves the idea of evolution without proof…. And there, speaking broadly, it remains until the present day…. Evolution is, then, if a fact, not a triumph of the scientist but one of his toughest problems.[42]

Finally, we must note that in a 1916 piece written for the college newspaper Warfield reminisces of his time as an undergraduate student in Princeton. Here Warfield affirms that he was a convinced (theistic) evolutionist in his teenage years when he entered the College of New Jersey (Princeton), but he also affirms that he had abandoned the theory by the time he was thirty years old (1881). That is, although theistic evolution was championed by his revered professor and college president, James McCosh, Warfield says that he had outgrown it himself early on, and the clear implication is that as he was writing now at age 67, just four years before his death, his evolutionary beliefs remained a thing of the past.[43]


D. Conclusion

The claim that Warfield held to theistic evolution goes beyond the evidence. Throughout the years of his writing on the subject Warfield spoke with marked openness and even allowance of evolution. Many of these statements were obviously made simply for the sake of argument, and many are not so obvious. But it must be recognized that all along, at the very same time and through to the end, Warfield spoke very critically of evolution, pointing out the obstacles to accepting it, characterizing it as mere speculation, and commending refutations of it (as Orr’s). He spoke with evidently genuine openness to the idea, and this is doubtless the source of the confusion on the question; in fact, it may be said that the confusion is Warfield’s own fault. But his openness to evolution is only half the picture, for all along he also spoke critically of its purely “speculative” character. And in fact he says late in life that he had left it in his youth.

Moreover, he very clearly held that Adam and Eve (created from Adam) were historical persons, that they were created perfect, that the entire human race is descended from them, that theirs was the first human sin, and that the human race and all creation with it is fallen in Adam. This would seem to rule out theistic evolution as we understand it today, and in fact it must be admitted that it would be impossible to identify any theory of evolution that Warfield himself held. Again, the claim that Warfield held to theistic evolution goes beyond the evidence. Indeed, the claim seems to go against the evidence.

We may say this in summary:

  • Warfield seemed very open to evolution and spoke allowingly of it.
  • Warfield at the same time was very critical of evolution, questioned its scientific grounding, mocked its speculative character and logical fallacies, and recognized the biblical obstacles to it. Indeed, his last assessment of evolutionary theories is sharply critical.
  • It would be impossible to identify any specific evolutionary theory that Warfield allegedly held.
  • Warfield did not hold to the essentials of any theistic evolutionary theory held today (as enumerated in Grudem’s twelve points above).
  • Warfield asserted in 1916 that he had left theistic evolution behind him years earlier.

There, it seems, we must leave it also.



[1] See especially “B. B. Warfield, the Theory of Evolution, and Early Fundamentalism,” Evangelical Quarterly LVIII:1 (January 1986):78. “B. B. Warfield (1851-1921): A Biblical Inerrantist as Evolutionist.” Journal of Presbyterian History 80:3 (Fall 2002):153-71. See also Evolution, Science, and Scripture: Selected Writings (hereafter ESS), B.B. Warfield; Mark A. Noll and David N. Livingstone, eds. (2000, Grand Rapids: Baker Books).

[2] 1897, ESS 177-178. See also 1895, ESS 153-154, where Warfield complains about the view that in “modern thinking  … it is to science that we must go for the final test of truth.” Also 1888, ESS 130 where Warfield insists that biblical pronouncement is “the test point” in the discussion and that an evolutionary theory that would “reverse” clear biblical teaching is unacceptable. (Note that I will include the year for each Warfield citation.)

[3] ESS 130-131 (italics original).

[4] E.g., 1899, ESS 189.

[5] 1901, ESS 202

[6] 1901, ESS 210; cf. p.100.

[7] 1897, ESS 177.

[8] 1901, ESS 196.

[9] 1907, ESS 244-245; cf. 1908; ESS 255-256.

[10] Cf. his 1888 review of McCosh’s The Religious Aspect of Evolution; ESS, 67.

[11] 1891, ESS, 143; 1898, ESS 184-7, etc.

[12] 1898, ESS, 184, 187.

[13] 1888, ESS 122-124.

[14] 1888, ESS 124.

[15] 1888, ESS 121-122.

[16] 1891, ESS 143.

[17] 1893, ESS 153.

[18] 1896, ESS 171.

[19] 1908, ESS 244-246.

[20] 1916, ESS 319-320.

[21] 1892, ESS 145-146.

[22] 1903, ESS 228-229.

[23] ESS 242-243.

[24] 1911, W9, 235-245.

[25] 1888, ESS, 124.

[26] 1895, ESS, 165.

[27] 1903, ESS, 214-216.

[28] ESS, 230-236.

[29] Note that Warfield can speak of creation and evolution as mutually exclusive at times and as not mutually exclusive at other times, but the contradiction is only apparent. His point is that creation speaks of origins and that evolution can only speak of modification. In this sense they are mutually exclusive: evolution cannot account for origins. But a modification (evolution) of previously created matter is possible, and in this sense the two are not mutually exclusive. This is the sense here.

[30] Unpublished class notes of N.W. Harkness, Jr., from Warfield’s Princeton Seminary course on Systematic Theology, 1898; pp.1-5; Princeton Theological Seminary Archives. For more reflections on the original perfection of man see also Warfield’s 1903 The Power of God unto Salvation, (Eerdmans, 1930), 1-9.

[31] ESS 128-130.

[32] 1906, ESS 236.

[33] 1906, ESS 236.

[34] The Bible Student Sept., 1902, p.177.

[35] The Biblical World 31:2 (Feb., 1908), 124. Cf. 1916; Faith and Life (Banner of Truth, 1974), 330-332.

[36] 1903, ESS 211-215. Cf. Harkness class notes.

[37] 1908, ESS 253.

[38] See pp. 000-000.

[39] 1915 “The Foundations of the Sabbath in the Word of God”; Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol.1, John E. Meeter, ed. (Philipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980), 309, 318.

[40] But see my “B.B. Warfield on Creation and Evolution” Themelios 35.2 (2010): 198–211. Also chapter 9 in my The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010).

[41] W5, 304-305.

[42] 1916; ESS, 319-320. For the larger quote see p. 00 above.

[43] “Personal Recollections of Princeton Undergraduate Life IV— The Coming of Dr. McCosh,” Princeton Alumni Weekly 16:28 (April 19, 1916): 652.

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THEISTIC EVOLUTION: A SCIENTIFIC, PHILOSOPHICAL, AND THEOLOGICAL CRITIQUE, by J. P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, Christopher Shaw, Ann K. Gauger, and Wayne Grudem, eds.

Crossway, 2017 | 1008 pages

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