God, History & Evolution in the Princeton Theology

Old Princeton
by Bradley J. Gundlach

“History in all its details, even the most minute, is but the evolution of the eternal purpose of God.”

This statement comes from a surprising source: Charles Hodge’s classic Systematic Theology (1872–73). Yes, Charles Hodge, that champion of biblical authority and Calvinist orthodoxy, systematizer of the Princeton theology that influenced the fundamentalist and neo-evangelical movements of the twentieth century. Charles Hodge, author of the most famous antievolutionist statement of all time: “What is Darwinism? It is Atheism.” This same man affirmed that all history is the evolution, the unrolling, of God’s eternal purpose.

Beyond the biological question of the transmutation of species, evolution (or, as nineteenth-century writers often called it, the “development hypothesis”) had much broader meanings. One could, with Hodge, reject the idea of transmutation and yet affirm growth over time in all sorts of areas: the progressive articulation of God’s promise of a Savior in scripture; the development of Christian doctrine over centuries of controversy and consideration; the refinement of apologetical strategies; the systematization of theology. The nineteenth century was fascinated by the notion of development, and that fascination highlighted an analogy found in scripture itself, as when Jesus likened the growth of the kingdom of God to a crop of grain: “first the blade, then the ear; after that the full corn in the ear” (Mark 4:28 KJV). The theologians of Princeton, dedicated defenders of the Bible and the gospel, found the idea of process or development by natural agency over time a very enlightening one. Some of them rejected the idea of animal evolution; none was willing to give up a historical Adam and Eve; but all of them found the idea of process—growth over time from inherent potentials—illuminating of God’s ways in this world, and even useful for grounding biblical belief.

Providence and Process

The key to this interest in process is the doctrine of providence. The Westminster Confession of Faith articulates that doctrine very carefully. Written in 1647, its statements on the real efficacy of “second causes” gave Calvinists in the following centuries strong theological reasons for welcoming the discovery of natural and historical processes. Chapter V, “Of Providence,” states:

  • Section II. Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely or contingently.
  • Section III. God in his ordinary providence maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure.

As A. A. Hodge explained in his Commentary on the Confession of Faith (1869), God “controls his creatures and their actions, and effects his purposes through them,” in a way that is “in every case perfectly consistent with the nature of the creature and of his action.” As that last personal pronoun suggests, this doctrine aimed to solve the old problem of divine sovereignty and human free agency: God works his sovereign will even by means of (not in violation of) the free choices people make. And this doctrine applies more broadly to any natural or historical causation. God ordinarily works his will not immediately, but mediately—using natural means. These means are not independent of God; he created them and he continues to govern them, bringing about his purposes even as they act according to their natures. Here is ground for confident exploration of the natural world, knowing not only that God created and governs it, but also that its properties and laws have real existence.

Section III of that chapter hastens to add, though, that God is not chained by the natural laws he made. At his pleasure God works “without, above, or against” that vast system of nature and history. The interpenetration of natural and supernatural causes in our lives is a great mystery, but it is also a cardinal truth of Christianity. Think of your own conversion. God used all sorts of natural means—a parent, perhaps, or a friend to share the gospel with you; a series of events and choices, some righteous and some not, that brought you to the recognition of your need of a savior—but he also drew you supernaturally by his Spirit and caused you to be born again, “not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:13).

God works his sovereign will even by means of (not in violation of) the free choices people make.

And so in the processes of nature and history, the Princetonians were predisposed by their Confession to think in terms of change over time, God sovereignly choosing to work through means, both in nature and in grace. The Christian life itself, they taught, involves time, effort, and process. God works in the process, and God works in addition to it. In kingdom service and in personal sanctification B. B. Warfield urged believers not to try to bypass time and demand quick fixes from God. “Men are unwilling that either the world or they themselves should be saved by God’s secular methods. . . . They ask to be made glorified saints in the twinkling of an eye. God’s ways are not their ways, and it is a great trial to them that God will not walk in their ways.” Warfield faulted such “hasty spirits” for overlooking God’s workings in the effort of everyday. “They love the storm and the earthquake and the fire,” and “cannot see the divine in ‘a sound of gentle stillness.’ . . . They look every day for the cataclysm in which alone they can recognize God’s salvation” (Works [Baker, 1991], 8:561).

Not to recognize God’s work in the everyday—what Warfield called “God’s secular methods”—results not only in our missing the blessing of perceiving God’s presence here and now; it also robs God of our worship. A. A. Hodge pointed out that “the chief end of God in his eternal purposes, and in their temporal execution in creation and providence, is the manifestation of his own glory.” The Darwinian substitution of chance for design in the origin of species is one form of such stealing from God—and if we find God only in the starkly miraculous, not appreciating his activity in nature and history, we do the same.

(from top left to bottom right): Archibald Alexander, Samuel Miller, Charles Hodge, Archibald Alexander Hodge, B.B. Warfield, Geerhardus Vos

But we can recognize God’s supernatural work in history, too, at the intersection of providence and miracle. The Princetonians were among the pioneer theologians to discern a kind of organic growth in the progress of revelation in the Bible. In his inaugural lecture at Princeton Seminary (now a classic in biblical theology), Geerhardus Vos said, “The self-revelation of God is a work covering ages, proceeding in a sequence of revealing words and acts, appearing in a long perspective of time. The truth comes in the form of growing truth, not truth at rest.” Higher criticism claimed to uncover a historical development that underlay the text of the Old Testament, as the Hebrew religion evolved from primitive polytheism to high ethical monotheism. Vos posited an alternative theory of scriptural development, one that retained the unchanging character of the biblical truth even as it observed its unfolding revelation in time. God communicated his word to us through divine actions and through human authors situated in time and place by his providence, miraculously inspired to reveal, more fully as time went on, the unchanging truths of the gospel.

Growth-analogy developmentalism cropped up in many interesting ways in the Princeton theology. Warfield celebrated the Westminster Confession itself as “the ripened fruit of Reformed creed-making,” rendering its composition at the end of the Reformation era a plus rather than a minus. J. Gresham Machen defended Paul’s religion as the legitimate growth of the perfect seed of Jesus’ teachings, countering Adolf Harnack’s claim that the Christ of the church was a departure from the Jesus of history. Warfield viewed the scientific articulation of systematic theology in his day as an advance upon earlier orthodox efforts, made possible by the conditions of the nineteenth century. In these ways and many more the Princetonians found growth-analogy developmentalism helpful both to elucidate Christian belief and to defend orthodoxy against the challenges of theological liberalism. God’s active rule over nature and history, through process and over time, was and is a thing to celebrate.

Bradley J. Gundlach (MA ’89) is professor of history at Trinity College, where he has been teaching since 1999. He currently serves as director of the Division of Humanities and as book review editor for Fides et Historia, the journal of the Conference on Faith and History. His latest book is Process and Providence: The Evolution Question at Princeton, 1845–1929, published in November 2013.

{This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Trinity Magazine, pp. 20–22.}

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