It was perhaps an omen of the character of his tenure.
The academic chair had been established in 1859 due to the initiative of the Revs. Richard Gladeney and James A. Lyon, whose resolution to Tombigbee Presbytery in Mississippi had led the Synods of South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia to call upon the Seminary to establish “a chair, to be entitled the Perkins Professorship of Natural Science in connexion with Revelation; the design of which shall be to evince the harmony of science with the records of our faith, and to refute the objections of infidel naturalists.” Judge John Perkins Sr., a member of Lyon’s congregation, had been prevailed upon to support the chair. James Woodrow, an ordained Presbyterian minister then teaching natural science at Oglethorpe College, was selected as the first Perkins professor.
In his inaugural address in the fall of 1861 Woodrow sought to clarify his understanding of what it meant to fulfill the purposes of the Perkins professorship. He noted three possibilities. First, he could pursue classical natural theology, seeking evidence of God’s existence from nature. Second, by means of analogies from nature and Scripture he could seek to show that they were works of the same Author. Instead, he chose “to scrutinize the nature and the force of current and popular objections to the Scriptures, to meet them, and to set them aside, by proving that they spring either from science falsely so called, or from incorrect interpretations of the words of the Holy Bible.”
Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life had been published in 1859 and its scientific standing was still being discussed in the scientific community. Elsewhere Woodrow indicated that he thought Darwin’s theory was “probably false.”
Shortly after assuming the Perkins professorship, Woodrow began a running journalistic debate with Robert Lewis Dabney, professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va. In the summer of 1861 Dabney had written “Geology and the Bible,” a critique of geological findings that apparently undermined the traditional chronology of the Biblical account of creation. In 1863 Woodrow responded with an essay, “Geology and its Assailants.” For the next 23 years Dabney and Woodrow engaged in a literary debate on the implications of the sciences for theology. In 1884, writing to a friend, Dabney noted, “The positions taken by Dr. Woodrow … were rationalistic. The Church ought to have seen it then, and to have taken alarm. I did my duty and exposed those positions; but most seemed to think it but one of the ‘Dabney crochets’; nobody took the alarm.”
But alarm was taken. In 1884 the Board of Directors of Columbia Seminary asked Woodrow “to give fully his views … upon Evolution, as it regards the World, the lower Animals and Man.” Although he had remained silent in his public writings on the matter of biological evolution since he had assumed the Perkins professorship, he responded to the Board’s request in an address to the Seminary’s Alumni Association in the spring of that year.
By 1884 Woodrow had come to hold that evolutionary theory was “probably true.” In this address he argued that while science cannot address itself to matters of ultimate causation, neither does Scripture address proximate causes. Scripture declares “that” God created not “how” God created. He argued that while Adam’s body could have organic continuity with preceding creation, Adam’s soul was uniquely created and that Eve was miraculously created as given in the Genesis account. Overall, he affirmed that his task as scientist and theologian was not to demonstrate a harmony between the findings of science and Scripture but rather to show that they did not contradict one another. Interestingly, His position on human evolution was similar to that taken by Pope John Paul II in 1996.
As a consequence of these views, persons within the Presbyterian Church, U.S., began working to have Woodrow removed from the Perkins professorship. Multiple Synods and the PCUS General Assembly had the Woodrow case before them from 1884-1888. The Seminary was even closed the 1887-88 academic year due to the controversy. General Assemblies in 1886, 1888, 1889, and as late as 1924 were moved to affirm the historicity of the creation of Adam in language such as, “that Adam and Eve were created, body and soul, by immediate acts of Almighty power, thereby preserving a perfectly race unity; that Adam’s body was directly fashioned by Almighty God without any natural animal parentage of any kind, out of matter previously created from nothing; and that any doctrine at variance therewith is a dangerous error. …”
Woodrow ultimately was removed from the professorship. Augusta Presbytery tried him on heresy charges in 1886 and exonerated him but the Synod of Georgia overturned the ruling the next year. Nevertheless, he was elected as the moderator of Augusta Presbytery in 1888. Leaving Columbia Seminary he moved across the street to become the president of the College (later University) of South Carolina in 1891.
It was not until 1969 that the PCUS General Assembly reversed the anti-evolution actions of previous General Assemblies when it adopted the following:
If the Confession of Faith, or the Catechisms, appear in some manner to support the position of the General Assemblies of 1886, 1888, 1889 and 1924 this is not because of Scripture itself but rather because Scripture was interpreted with 17th Century perspectives and presuppositions. …
The real and only issue is whether there exists clear incompatibility between evolution and the Biblical doctrine of Creation. Unless it is clearly necessary to uphold a basic Biblical doctrine, the Church is not called upon and should carefully refrain from either affirming or denying the theory of evolution. We conclude that the true relation between the evolutionary theory and the Bible is that of non-contradiction and that the position stated by the General Assemblies of 1886, 1888, 1889 and 1924 was in error and no longer represents the mind of our Church.
We re-affirm our belief in the uniqueness of man as a creature whom God has made in His own image.
A further resolution by the reunited Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly in 2002 again cites “non-contradiction” as the standard for the relationship between science and Biblical theology.
In the end Woodrow’s views seem to have won out. Or have they? It is probably true that few Presbyterians are concerned about the evolutionary origins of bacteria, bees, or baboons. But when it comes to Homo sapiens, things are different. Not only Presbyterians, but most Christians, are much more uneasy with an evolutionary account of human origins. Simply affirming the standard of “non-contradiction” does little to assuage this unease.
The evolutionary sciences (including cosmology, astronomy, planetary science, geology, biology, and paleoanthropology) offer no support to the claim that humans are in any sense the pinnacle of creation, even given our exceptional capacities. It is the witness of the biological sciences that Homo sapiens are not stewards but kin, more particularly cousin, to all other living creatures on earth: bacteria, plants, and animals. Further, there is no evidence that the evolutionary processes through which humankind has emerged have ceased on earth or throughout the universe.
Theologically put, the evidence demonstrates that humans are not the final creation and God continues to call creatures into being. God’s book of works is still being written even if God’s book of words is not. Still, reflection on God’s book of words in light of the book of works can lead to fundamental new insights into the God in whose image we affirm in faith that humankind is being made.
The Woodrow case provides a witness to the ultimate inadequacy of seeking to resolve the tension between the two books by placing them in separate bookcases. Though committed to doing so, Woodrow’s critics rightly understood that he was in fact reforming theology by virtue of taking seriously the features of creation revealed through scientific inquiry. However, these same critics failed to acknowledge that there is no perennial confession of the faith, fixed for all time, and that every confession constructively assumes some understanding of what the world is like.
Nevertheless, the relative success of those who have shared Woodrow’s aspiration — that it was only necessary to show that theology was not contradicted by science — have fostered a theological view that is unresponsive to what is being learned about the creation and so has steadily been isolating the Christian faith from the mainstream of human life. The challenge contemporary Presbyterians and all Christians face has been poignantly expressed in these words of another scientist and Christian theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ, who wrote in 1947:
When we speak of a ‘theology of modern science’, it obviously does not mean that by itself science can determine an image of God and a religion. But what it does mean, if I am not mistaken, is that, given a certain development of science, certain representations of God and certain forms of worship are ruled out, as not being homogeneous with the dimensions of the universe known to our experience. This notion of homogeneity is without doubt of central importance in intellectual, moral, and mystical life. Even though the various stages of our interior life cannot be expressed strictly in terms of one another, on the other hand they must agree in scale, in nature, and tonality. Otherwise it would be impossible to develop a true spiritual unity in ourselves — and that is perhaps the most legitimate, the most imperative, and most definitive of the demands made by man (sic) of today and man (sic) of tomorrow.
James B. Miller is an honorably retired minister in the PC(USA) who serves as the General Missioner for the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith. He lives in Summerville, S.C., and is a member of Charleston-Atlantic Presbytery.