Marsden on Darwin and Evangelicalism

Prominent historian George Marsden put it insightfully in Fundamentalism and American Culture : When Darwinism brought about the second scientific revolution, evangelicals who had adopted this method of reconciling science and religion were faced with a dilemma. … Religion would no longer be seen as dependent on historical or scientific fact susceptible of objective inquiry; religion had to do with the spiritual, with the heart, with religious experience, and with moral sense or moral action-areas not open to scientific investigation.

Before the latter part of the 19th century, evangelicalism could have great confidence in man’s ability to discover through the scientific method the order inherent in God’s creation. But when Darwin hit, evangelicalism was tested. Would it continue to accept the validity of what science was saying, finding some compromise with Gen 1? Or would it reject science in favor of the Bible? Evolution, then, cut evangelicalism into two.

Prominent historian George Marsden describes it well in Fundamentalism and American Culture:

When Darwinism brought about the second scientific revolution, evangelicals who had adopted this method of reconciling science and religion were faced with a dilemma. If they kept their commitment to autonomous scientific inquiry now, the very foundations of theistic and Christian belief seemed to be threatened. Moderates…attempted to steer a middle course. For most educated American evangelicals, however, the commitment both to objective science and to religion was so strong, and the conflict so severe that they were forced into one of two extreme positions. They could choose to say with Hodge that Darwinism was irreconcilable with Christianity—a new form of infidelity—and that it was speculative and hypothetical rather than truly scientific. The alternative solution as a redefinition of the relationship between science and religion. The basis for this redefinition was already well developed in the philosophical tradition of Kant and German Idealism and in the theological work of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl. Religion would no longer be seen as dependent on historical or scientific fact susceptible of objective inquiry; religion had to do with the spiritual, with the heart, with religious experience, and with moral sense or moral action-areas not open to scientific investigation. Thus science could have its autonomy, and religion would be beyond its reach. Since mid-century some American evangelical theologians, especially in New England, had been moving in this direction under the influence of romanticism and Idealism. This solution also appealed to the strong sentiment and moralism of American Protestantism. (pp. 20-21)

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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