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Albert Mohler’s Open Letter to Karl Giberson

Al Mohler has written an interesting open letter to Karl Giberson, titled “On Darwin and Darwinism: A Letter to Professor Giberson“, which is a response to Giberson’s article at The Huffington Post, titled “How Darwin Sustains My Baptist Search for Truth“.

The disagreement between the two is ultimately about the compatibility of Darwinism and Christianity, but the specific context of Giberson’s complaint against Al Mohler pertains to what Giberson claims is a misrepresentation of Darwin by Mohler in a speech given at Ligonier Ministries:

The second great challenge was the emergence of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Coming at the midpoint of the 19th century, we need to be reminded that Darwin was not the first evolutionist. We need to be reminded that Darwin did not embark upon the Beagle having no preconceptions of what exactly he was looking for or having no theory of how life emerged in all of its diversity, fecundity, and specialization. Darwin left on his expedition to prove the theory of evolution. A theory that was based upon the fossil record and other inferences had already been able to take the hold of some in Western civilization. The dawn of the theory of evolution presents a direct challenge to the traditional interpretation of Genesis and, as we shall see, to much more.

Giberson’s complaint is this:

In this talk Mohler made false statements about Darwin. He apparently wanted to undermine evolution by suggesting that it was “invented” to prop up Darwin’s worldview, rather than developed to explain observations in the natural world. He said, “Darwin did not embark upon the Beagle having no preconceptions of what exactly he was looking for or having no theory of how life emerged in all of its diversity, fecundity, and specialization. Darwin left on his expedition to prove the theory of evolution.”

Watch the video of the speech here or read the transcript here. The speech was actually more concerned with the age of the Earth than Charles Darwin. Nevertheless, Mohler’s response to Giberson in the open letter:

You cannot possibly disagree with any sentence of this paragraph, save one. Darwin was certainly not the first evolutionist. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was a well-known evolutionist long before Charles Darwin set foot aboard the Beagle. One difficulty here, of course, is the word “evolution,” which was not even Charles Darwin’s preferred word. In any event, evolutionary ideas were already present within Victorian society in Britain, even if it would be left to Charles Darwin to develop the theory of natural selection. I do not deny the intellectual impact of Darwin’s own theory. Evolution is not often known as “Darwinism” by accident.

The one sentence central to your complaint is this: “Darwin left on his expedition to prove the theory of evolution.” Upon further reflection, I would accept that this statement appears to misrepresent to some degree Darwin’s intellectual shifts before and during his experience on the Beagle. At the same time, the intellectual context of Darwin’s times (and of his own family, in particular) leave no room to deny that some form of developmentalism had to be in the background of his own thinking, presumably consistent with his own acceptance of a natural theology and an argument from design. Long before Charles Darwin reached adulthood, his own grandfather had affirmed the “natural ascent” of all life. I am happy to correct any misrepresentation of Charles Darwin’s intellectual ambitions, but that sentence has no consequential bearing upon my larger argument or on my rejection of Darwinism.

It does seem like Giberson is being unduly harsh to Mohler, in taking that one particular and using it to claim that Mohler “does not seem to care about the truth and seems quite content to simply make stuff up when it serves his purpose.”

I think Mohler is right when he claims that Giberson is only interested in making Darwin palatable for Christians. And I think Mohler is right when he claims that Giberson slurs over the true religious historicity of Darwin and paints a rather misleading picture:

And if a misrepresentation of Charles Darwin is the central issue, I must insist that it is you who offers the truly dangerous misrepresentation. In Saving Darwin, you attempt at great lengths to present Charles Darwin as a rather conventional and orthodox Christian, prior to his later loss of faith. You state that he was “born to a well-to-do British family who, despite having some unorthodox characters listed in the family Bible, raised him in the Anglican Church, educated him in an Anglican school, and put him on the train to Edinburgh to study medicine.”

This hardly seems adequate or straightforward. The “some unorthodox characters listed in the family Bible” included both his father and his paternal grandfather. His mother’s family was Unitarian in belief, rejecting the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. Even as Charles Darwin was nominally involved in the Anglican Church, largely through the influence of his sister and brother-in-law after the death of his mother, his involvement and exposure appears to me largely incidental to his life. He later married a woman of Unitarian convictions as well.

It is certainly true that Charles Darwin was directed to become an Anglican clergyman by his unbelieving father, but this was a social tradition for second sons of the developing British middle class. As Randal Keynes, Darwin’s own great-great-grandson explains, “His idea was to become a country parson, caring for his parishioners but living for natural history.” And, as the authoritative biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore recount, “Dr. Darwin, a confirmed freethinker, was sensible and shrewd. He had only to look around him, recall the vicarages he had visited, [and] ponder the country parsons he entertained at home. One did not have to be a believer to see that an aimless son with a penchant for field sports would fit in nicely. Was the church not a haven for dullards and dawdlers, the last resort of spendthrifts? What calling but the highest for those whose sense of calling was nil?”

But even more telling is Giberson’s jettisoning of traditional Christian doctrine:

Of far greater concern is your tendency to appear to agree with some of Darwin’s complaints against biblical Christianity. You claim that he “boarded the Beagle with his childhood Christian faith intact,” but then add, “although he had begun to wonder about the historicity of the more fanciful Old Testament stories, like the Tower of Babel.” This is insignificant? Are we to understand that you, too, see that biblical account as “fanciful”? You explain that Darwin, “like most thoughtful believers,” began to distance himself from the doctrine of hell — a doctrine you describe as “a secondary doctrine that even many conservatives reject.”

If your intention in Saving Darwin is to show “how to be a Christian and believe in evolution,” what you have actually succeeded in doing is to show how much doctrine Christianity has to surrender in order to accommodate itself to evolution. In doing this, you and your colleagues at BioLogos are actually doing us all a great service. You are showing us what the acceptance of evolution actually costs, in terms of theological concessions.

Indeed, indeed.

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18 Responses to Albert Mohler’s Open Letter to Karl Giberson

  1. ~”In doing this, you and your colleagues at BioLogos are actually doing us all a great service. You are showing us what the acceptance of evolution actually costs, in terms of theological concessions.”~

    Simply amazing!!! A statement with so much of truth packed in it!!

  2. This last sentence, as quoted by T.lise, has puzzled me. It seems that I have been mistaken: I used to think that ID does not question evolution, only the mechanism proposed by Darwinists.
    On top, there is even a link to a TIMES article which says: “Dawkins mistaken about forced choice between God and evolution”.

  3. Kontinental,

    I think most ID proponents would put it as: ID does not require rejecting evolution. It also does not require accepting it.

    As someone who is sympathetic to ID but still not persuaded to dump a belief in evolution (though certainly a belief in “Darwinian” evolution), I certainly wish there was more of a focus on ID as applied to evolution. Mike Gene is a great example of that.

    I wish Mohler (who to my knowledge isn’t really an ID proponent) was clearer on whether the problem was accepting evolution, or accepting Darwinism. That aside, I think Mohler made some salient points here – the version of Darwin that Biologos in general, and Giberson in particular, seeks to offer up seems very flawed. But then, Darwin does seem to get treated almost with saint status in some quarters.

  4. Nullasalus et al:

    Just to be clear, I suppose you mean “evolution” in the sense of “common descent”. I prefer the second form, because the word “evolution” is in itself ambiguous, being used both for the process of common descent and for its supposed mechanisms (usually darwinian). That is often a cause of unnecessary confusion.

    As known, I believe in CD. An interesting issue where CD is IMO a great friend of ID is the analysis of the variation of protein sequences in a same protein family, maintaining the same fold and function.

    In brief, we can observe that the same protein changes in different species at the level of primary structure, but remains functionally
    more or less the same, and retains the same tertiary structure (fold).
    That is probably due to the accumulation of neutral mutations, while negative mutations are somewhat controlled by negative NS (the only form of NS which works). In this way, as “evolution” goes on, the same protein in a sense “traverses” more or less completely its island of functionality, without ever going out of it.

    The result is that proteins start at some point of “evolution” (often at the beginning of it) already inside a functional island, and then “explore” the island in the course of evolution because of neutral mutations. that model is called “the big bang model of proteins”.

    There are a few very interesting points in that:

    1) While we can track well enough the continuity of similar proteins during evolution, those proteins start in separated island of function, abruptly, and then remain inside them. The neutral evolution between species, to which darwinists attribute such a great meaning, in reality does not significantly modify both folding and function.

    2) On the contrary, different protein domains or protein superfamilies (thousands of them) show no similarity at the primary level, and no sign of derivation one from the other. They appear in separated functional islands, and remain in them throughout evolution.

    3) The existence of so many forms of the same protein family due to neutral mutations throughout evolution allows us to quantify indirectly the random, non functional component of those proteins, and therefore to measure their dFSCI with some precision. That’s exactly what Durston has done in his often cited paper.

    All of these points, IMO, are in perfect accord with ID theory.

  5. That’s exactly what Durston has done in his often cited paper.

    I note that Durston bases his work on a paper by Hazen, Griffin, Carothers, and Szostack.

    I wonder if they’ve reviewed and supported his interpretation.

  6. Although I am a keen advocate of freedom of opinion in all questions, it seems to me (rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and Theism hardly have any effect on the public; and that freedom of thought will best be promoted by that gradual enlightening of human understanding which follows the progress of science. I have therefore always avoided writing about religion and have confined myself to science. Possibly I have been too strongly influenced by the thought of the concern it might cause some members of my family, if in any way I lent my support to direct attacks on religion. ~ Charles Darwin

    I have lately read Morley’s Life of Voltaire and he insists strongly that direct attacks on Christianity (even when written with the wonderful force and vigor of Voltaire) produce little permanent effect: real good seems only to follow the slow and silent side attacks. ~ Charles Darwin

    Far from being created in God’s own image, Darwin suggested that human life had probably started out as something far more primitive — the story of Adam and Eve was a myth.

    No wonder that the Church was outraged. ~ ‘Controversy’ exhibit at Down House

  7. At the end of the Biologos column, Giberson wrote:

    “At BioLogos we have made our peace with evolution, and it has been liberating and even faith-affirming. We encourage conversations to further that agenda and make no excuses for that. We are not destroying Christianity. We are saving it.”

    I would like to re-write this in more expansive and precise form, in the following fictional quotation:

    ‘At Biologos, we have made our submission to evolution. We expected to find this liberating, leading to better professional relations with our infidel scientific colleagues in evolutionary biology, but oddly enough, despite our constant flattery of their scientific views, they still treat us with visible contempt. We do, however, find Darwin’s theory faith-affirming, because our theology of creation is vague enough that random mutations plus natural selection can serve as a stand-in for a philosophically clear doctrine of divine will and divine omnipotence.

    ‘We encourage frank and open exploratory conversations about evolution between all Christian parties, to be conducted in the spirit of Christlike love and humility, on the understanding that at the end of the day it is the YEC and ID people who will have to change their position, not the TE/EC people.

    ‘We are not destroying Christianity, except for those backward forms of Christianity which deserve to be destroyed. Rather, we are trying to save Christianity from being ridiculed by the educated suburban elite, by stripping it of everything which seems like foolishness to those Gentiles, such as direct divine involvement in the creation of the world, life, or man. And we expect that by adopting this new, science-friendly form of Christian faith, Biologos-sympathetic churches will witness membership surges like those which have been enjoyed by other progressive, mainstream, modernizing churches over the last few decades.’

    T.

  8. bevets #5

    would you please give reference for those quotations from Darwin that you have quoted above, I’ll be very grateful. Never heard of that. Thanks.

  9. would you please give reference for those quotations from Darwin that you have quoted above, I’ll be very grateful. Never heard of that. Thanks.

    That’s going to take a while, since those quotes don’t appear anywhere in darwin’s writings.

    A fact easily checked, since all his writings are online and searchable.

  10. Hi T.lise at 7:
    http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-9105
    It’s a letter, you have to search a bit.

  11. It’s a letter, you have to search a bit.

    Somehow one of my posts disappeared, but I acknowledged that your quotes are found in Darwin’s correspondence. In searching for them I see that some of the “Marx” correspondence is questioned. I don’t know what that’s about.

    Most of the correspondence is not available online.

  12. Petrushka,

    Darwin was a wiley guy, inconsistent, depending on who he was talking to; he told them what they wanted to hear, for the most part. He’s a strategic atheist intentionally trying to pursue a course of anti-religion, or he’s a helpless and hapless atheist who wishes he could’ve retained his faith, and finds faith very useful and helpful when talking to others. He spoke to his audience, no doubt about it. That’s partly why these discussions are kind of hopeless, one can find writings to fit whatever they want him to say, and folks like us are caught up in the web of inconsistencies arguing with each other as if we operated under the assumption that he was consistent.

  13. He’s a strategic atheist intentionally trying to pursue a course of anti-religion…

    Or he’s like any human being — including ID advocates — who find their own beliefs outsid the realm of what is acceptable in polite society.

    Isn’t there some mention here occasionally, of ID proponents who work in the mainstream, but privately don’t believe in “Darwinism”?

    I read a few more letters, and he seems to advise young researchers not to get themselves “expelled.”

    Oddly enough, he was criticised for not being an agressive atheist. He preferred to have people study the science and make their own conclusions.

    So not much has changed. Darwin didn’t invent the problems posed by an old earth.

  14. Petrushka,

    You quoted what I wrote only in part and then changed the subject. I wasn’t talking about polite society. I was talking about Darwin being inconsistent in what he advocated and believed, depending on who he was writing to, and here we are arguing over what he wrote as if we assume he wrote one way and wrongly assuming he was consistent. I’ve noticed you change the subject quite often.

  15. I don’t see the anti-religion crusade. Darwin became a non-believer, but he saw no utility in shoving atheism down other people’s throat. In fact he advised others that this would be counterproductive.

    He argued what he believed to be the findings of science, and he expected others to make of them whatever they could.

    As you well know, people have different temperaments, and people on both sides can be tolerant or intolerant.

  16. T. lise @ 8

    You need to click the link

  17. bevets #16 & Kontinental #10

    Thank you

  18. Sadly it appears to me that BioLogos accepts a very truncated form of Christianity that I for one find unacceptable.
    Dave W

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