B. B. Warfield is commonly cited as a leading conservative Reformed theologian during the period leading up to the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy of the early 20th century. One of the issues of dispute was the origin of the earth – if Darwin's relatively new theory of evolution could be reconciled with the Genesis account of Creation.

Warfield's predecessor Charles Hodge had attacked Darwinism early on, but, according to Wikipedia, Warfield's views were different:

[B. B. Warfield] came to endorse the ideas now described as theistic evolution (source)

Because of the respect afforded Warfield in conservative circles, his views on this subject are frequently mentioned in the ongoing debate in denominations like the PCA over acceptable interpretations of Genesis 1–3. Thus, I'd like to better understand the basis for Wikipedia's statement. In Warfield's writings, did he endorse views often associated with theistic evolution, like:

  • Adam not a historic, individual person
  • Adam a historic individual, but a product of evolution from a lesser mammal
  • Death of mammals prior to the Fall
  • The Fall not a discrete historical event

What is the best case that can be made for calling Warfield a theistic evolutionist?

  • Actually the origin of the Earth was not one of the major issues in dispute. It became a hot button issue later on, but not on the Fundamentalist/Modernist dispute.
    – Leandro
    Feb 4, 2017 at 16:48
  • @lfd The debate over this was definitely going on during Warfield's life (William Jennings Bryan at least was arguing against evolution in 1905). But perhaps it's more accurate to say that the actual F/M controversy is a 1920s and 30s phenomenon. Updating. Feb 6, 2017 at 20:04
  • Agreed about them happening at the same time, and even among the same partisan lines, but not strictly a part of the wider one, nor the lines fell exactly on the same places. It would be perhaps more accurate to say that the creation-evolution debate was not a major issue in dispute in he fundamentalism-modernism debate, but it was an important secondary issue; and that even if probably most Modernists were Evolutionists, not all Fundamentalists were young-Earth Creationists.
    – Leandro
    Feb 7, 2017 at 11:12

3 Answers 3


Most who claim Warfield as a theistic evolutionist owe their position to the analysis of Mark Noll and David Livingstone, who together published a selection of Warfield's writings on the subject in a compendium called Evolution, Science, and Scripture. Noll wrote his analysis in a portion of his book Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, reprinted at BioLogos, and Livingstone did so within his book Darwin's Forgotten Defenders. So it would serve us well to examine the writings of Warfield that they themselves cite. Fred Zaspel, while critical of the "Livingstone-Noll thesis," nonetheless says in a Themelios article that the compendium "collects virtually all of [Warfield's] creation-evolution writings."

If you want to examine the evidence yourself, the best primary sources are those in Evolution, Science, and Scripture, and the best secondary sources would probably be Noll's and Livingstone's writings in favor of their thesis and Zaspel's against.

It's important to note that Noll and Livingstone claim development within Warfield's thought. The following appears both in the Noll link above and in their joint introduction to the compendium:

In the course of his career, both Warfield’s positions and his vocabulary did shift on the question of evolution. But they shifted only within a fairly narrow range. What remained constant was his adherence to a broad Calvinistic conception of the natural world — of a world that, even in its most physical aspects, reflected the wisdom and glory of God—and his commitment to the goal of harmonizing a sophisticated conservative theology and the most securely verified conclusions of modern science.

The nuance is best picked up on by reading their editorial comments throughout the compendium, but for our purposes the development is not extremely important, except to note the following. There is no documentation of Warfield's views before his first published work on the subject in 1888, other than his 1916 personal recollections on undergraduate life at Princeton, speaking of one of his teachers:

He did not make me a Darwinian, as it was his pride to believe he ordinarily made his pupils. But that was doubtless because I was already a Darwinian of the purest water before I came into his hands [in 1868], and knew my Origin of Species and Animals and Plants under Domestication, almost from A to Izard. In later years I fell away from this, his orthodoxy. He was a little nettled about it and used to inform me with some vigor—I am speaking of a time thirty years agone!—that all biologists under thirty years of age were Darwinians. I was never quite sure that he understood what I was driving at when I replied that I was the last man in the world to wonder at that, since I was about that old myself [early 1880s] before I outgrew it.

So it would seem that he accepted Darwin's theory for much of his young life, "outgrowing" his pure acceptance of it sometime around the early 1880s, but never fully rejecting its possibility in his published works post-1888. Phrased in this careful way, I don't think even Zaspel would disagree.

In an effort to present the strongest case for Warfield as a theistic evolutionist, I'll arrange this answer topically, using your bullet points as a guide, with two additions of my own:

  • Acceptance of the usefulness of the term "evolution"
  • Antiquity of the universe and/or of the human race
  • Adam not a historic, individual person
  • Adam a historic individual, but a product of evolution from a lesser mammal
  • Death of mammals prior to the Fall
  • The Fall not a discrete historical event

We'll examine one at a time whether he affirmed these ideas.

Warfield on "evolution"

Warfield's 1895 article "The Present-Day Conception of Evolution," a two-part essay which is largely a reworking of his 1888 lecture "Evolution or Development," says the following at the opening of part two:

There are three general positions which may be taken up with reference to the doctrine of evolution, which has so deeply affected modern thought as to the origin of the universe and all that it contains.

  1. We may look upon this doctrine as supplying an obviously true and adequate philosophy of being, and treat it as furnishing a complete account of the origin and present state of the universe. ...

  2. We may consider the doctrine of evolution as a discovery by science of the process through which this ordered world in which we live has, as a matter of fact, come into existence; we may treat evolution merely as an account of the manner in which the universe, considered as a cosmos, has been produced, and all the forms of being which constitute it have been brought into being. In this form, evolution ... is made a second cause and implies a first cause working by and through it. ...

  3. We may look upon the doctrine of evolution as a more or less probable, or more or less improbable, conjecture of scientific workers as to the method of creation; and thus we may treat it as only a working hypothesis suggested to account for the manner in which the universe has come into being, and seeking now to try itself by the facts. This has always been the attitude of the more cautious thinkers.

Warfield counts himself one of the "cautious thinkers" who consider evolution a "conjecture" and "working hypothesis." After describing the three possible positions, he first dismisses the first position, as he had already spent part one doing, as "the old problem of the atheistic philosophy" in "a new dress." Then he breezily says that, were evolution proven true, "the old faith will be able" to "assimilate to itself all facts," concluding thus:

The only living question with regard to evolution is whether it is true. And the only reasonable reply which can be given to this question today is that it is sub judice [before the court].

He similarly concludes his 1888 lecture by stating that one can be Biblically faithful and accept evolution:

I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either as given in Genesis 1 and 2 or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution. ... 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 which 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 the preceding conditions, we may hold to the modified theory of evolution and be Christians in the ordinary orthodox sense.

Note his caveats, that even if one accepts evolution, one must accept God's miraculous intervention in order to still accept the Genesis account. In his 1911 article "On the Antiquity and the Unity of the Human Race," he goes further and implies that, not only does a purely evolutionary (non-miraculous) account of human origins defy the Bible, it also defies common sense:

Men seemed to imagine that, if only time enough were given for it, effects, for which no adequate cause could be assigned, might be supposed to come gradually of themselves. Aimless movement was supposed, if time enough were allowed for it, to produce an ordered world. It might as well be supposed that if a box full of printers' types were stirred up long enough with a stick, they could be counted on to arrange themselves in the order in which they stand, say, in Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason." They will never do so, though they be stirred to eternity.

These threads come together in the conclusion to his 1901 essay "Creation, Evolution, and Mediate Creation":

What, then, is to be the attitude of the Christian man toward the modern doctrine of evolution? He is certainly to deny with all the energy given to him that the conception of evolution can take the place of creation as an account of the origin of the universe. Evolution offers no solution of the question of origins. For its operation it presupposes not only already existent material which can unroll into fresh forms, but material within which all that is subsequently evolved already potentially exists.

And he is to deny with equal strenuousness that the conception of evolution can take the place of that of mediate creation, as an account of the origination of new things in the course of the divine government of the world. Things have come into being since the first origin of the world which did not lie potentially within the primal world-stuff, needing only to be deduced from it. If nothing else, the God-Man has come into being; and that not as a product of the precedent conditions in the world, but as an intrusion from without and above. And with him, the whole series of events that constitute the supernatural order of the Kingdom of God. Nor is there any reason to doubt that the same intrusion of purely creative force, productive of something absolutely new, may have occurred also in the natural order of the first creation — say at the origin of self-conscious, immortal beings in the complex of nature.

On the other hand, the Christian man has as such no quarrel with evolution when confined to its own sphere as a suggested account of the method of the Divine Providence. What he needs to insist on is merely 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.

Age of the universe and humanity

Warfield, in his 1911 article "On the Antiquity and the Unity of the Human Race," says that the Ussher chronology and similar attempts to discern the age of creation or humanity are misguided. He argues at length that the genealogies are not meant to be any sort of clue about how much time elapsed between Adam and Abraham. He concludes that the Bible does not tell us the age of mankind, and says thus:

The question of the antiquity of man is accordingly a purely scientific one, in which the theologian as such has no concern. As an interested spectator, however, he looks on as the various schools of scientific speculation debate the question among themselves.

He goes on to state that there is considerable debate between the sciences of geology, biology, and physics over the age of the creation, while granting that for the age of the earth the question regards how many millions of years.

The same general argument is traced out in his 1903 article "The Manner and Time of Man's Origin."

Individuality of Adam

Warfield argues in "On the Antiquity and the Unity of the Human Race" that, contrary to the ideas of racists, Scripture and science are united in claiming a singular origin point for humanity rather than multiple origins for different races. In my reading, he heavily implies Adam as the single origin.

In his review of James Orr's book God's Image in Man, Warfield explains his view this way:

We partake in Adam's sin because he was our representative. ... He was constituted our representative because he was our father and as such was naturally indicated for that office.

Animal ancestry for humanity

Warfield seems to accept the theoretical possibility of pre-Adam "brutish" proto-humans without too much fuss. In his review of Orr's book, he invokes what we now call "punctuated equilibrium" to reject Orr's argument that the body and mind must have evolved together if evolution is true:

Body and mind must go together [argues Orr], and a great brain with a little mind is just as unthinkable as a little brain with a great mind. The argument does not seem to be available, however, as against a theory of evolution per saltum [by leaps]. If under the directing hand of God a human body is formed at a leap by propagation from brutish parents, it would be quite consonant with the fitness of things that it should be provided by his creative energy with a truly human soul.

Similarly, in his article "Creation, Evolution, and Mediate Creation," he admits the possibility that "Adam's body was formed (not created) from the lower animals," while insisting that each human being's soul, Adam's included, is a special creation of God.

Death before the Fall

Warfield speaks about pre-Fall death strangely little, but perhaps my wish for him to have addressed it more is anachronistic. The only mentions in the index of Evolution, Science, and Scripture of "death" occur in his review of Orr's book. All he says regarding the issue in question is this:

Perhaps also a query may be placed over against the strong statement to the effect that "there is not a word in Scripture to suggest that animals ... came under the law of death for man's sin." 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.

It's ironic that the only statement Warfield makes on this subject is a complaint that another author doesn't deal with it adequately.

The nature of the Fall

In both "Evolution or Development" and in his review of Orr's book, Warfield decries a common (even today) evolutionary depiction of the Fall as representing awareness of sin. He argues in both places that Scripture depicts the Fall as a fall from morality into immorality, and that the idea of the Fall as a development of a "moral sense" within humanity or of human beings from "nonmoral beings" into "moral beings" reverses the Scriptural picture. As far as I can tell, he never directly addresses allegorization of the Eden account, instead always treating it straightforwardly.


Warfield believed that the theory of evolution was neither proven nor disproven in his time and that it was permissible for Christians to believe a limited form of it. Like modern theistic evolutionists, he believed that the age of the universe was an open question and that it was possible that Adam had evolved from "lower animals," though he affirmed Adam's historicity and the special creation of his soul. His thoughts on the Fall and on death before the Fall are less clear, but he doesn't seem to give credence to views that make the Fall less than historical, and he's cautious about accepting pre-Fall animal death.


Mr. Bultitude's answer is superb and helpfully organized by topic. Thus I present the following as a supplemental answer, organizing quotations by time period, to help us see how Warfield's view changed (or didn't change) through his life. I've also been able to find free online versions of most of the works quoted; these are listed at the bottom, along with references to Warfield's 10-volume Works where possible.

The documents quoted here are largely the same as those used by David N. Livingstone and Mark A. Noll in "B. B. Warfield (1851–1921): A Biblical Inerrantist as Evolutionist" (2000).1 In this paper they argue that Warfield was an evolutionist despite his strong stance for biblical inerrancy, and attempt to demonstrate this from his writings.

Early life

Reflecting on his younger days, Warfield wrote that in college he "was a Darwinian of the purest water." This was so even before the coming of James McCosh to Princeton in 1868, a man Livingstone and Noll regard as "one of the foremost reconcilers of evolutionary science and Christian theism among Protestant theologians." Warfield called him "distinctly the most inspiring force which came into my life during my college days."2

Livingstone and Noll cite the influence of Warfield's father and their combined work on cattle breeding prior to B. B.'s entrance into seminary; William Warfield credits his son in his 1889 book on the subject, and within it endorses Darwinian natural selection.3


One of Warfield's earliest treatments of the topic of evolution is an 1888 lecture, "Evolution or Development." Livingstone and Noll summarize and quote the work:

"The whole upshot of the 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." If the constant supervision of the divine providence and the "occasional supernatural interference" of God were retained, then, he concluded, "we may hold to the modified theory of evolution & be [Christ]ians in the ordinary orthodox sense. I saw we may do this. Whether we ought to accept it, even in this modified sense is another matter, & I leave it purposely an open question." (296)

The same year Warfield's treatment of the religious life of Charles Darwin was published. Warfield blames "a peculiarity of constitution" or "an illogical train of reasoning" as the reason that Darwin gave up his Christian faith, not an inherent incompatibility between his faith and his new theory: "We raise no question as to the compatibility of the Darwinian form of the hypothesis of evolution with Christianity."4

Also in 1888, Warfield's approving review of James McCosh's The Religious Aspect of Evolution appeared:

Heartily accepting the evolutionary hypothesis as true science, [McCosh] has written this little book to show, for the benefit of his co-believers in that doctrine, and for the relief of the many who are prejudiced against it, that it is thoroughly consistent with Christian theism. In this he has been entirely successful [...] [his position] is not only consistent with but even presuppositive of theism.5

1890s and 1900s

In the 1890s, Warfield reviewed a number of works on the subject of evolution. His own views come out in his 1895 review of Jamse Iverach's Christianity and Evolution. Iverach argues that evolution is the process of creation of everything, except Christ, but Warfield sees more exceptions, and sees evolution as active but less than ultimate:

"Evolution" can in no case be accepted as the formula of all that is: we must in any case rise above it to the higher formula of "God"—who is more than evolution, and works, in evolution indeed, but also out of it.6

Warfield expresses his views more broadly in a 1901 essay, "Creation versus Evolution." In it he traces the major positions, including a middle way between evolution and creation ex nihilo, which he calls mediate creation. Evolution, he says, cannot explain origins, nor the coming of the God-man or the production of the "absolutely new," such as "the origination of self-conscious, immortal beings." For this, it's reasonable to expect a "purely creative force." "On the other hand," he writes:

the Christian man has as such no quarrel with "evolution" when confined to its own sphere as a suggested account of the method of the Divine Providence. What he needs to insist on is merely 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."7

In a 1906 review, while addressing James Orr's work, God's Image in Man, Warfield leaves open the possibility of the development of the human body by mediate creation, while apparently defending the individuality of Adam and Eve.8 And in a 1908 review of Vernon Kellogg's Darwinism Today, he argues that the "pure accidentalism" often associated with Darwinism could be replaced with a purpose-based, or teleological one:

Some lack of general philosophical acumen must be suspected when it is not fully understood that teleology is in no way inconsistent with—is rather necessarily involved in—a complete system of natural causation. Every teleological system implies a complete "causo-mechanical" explanation as its instrument.9


In 1916, Warfield's review of J. N. Shearman's work, The Natural Theology of Evolution, reveals his continuing stance that the question of evolution is secondary to the question of the intelligent source of all things:

Wherever order is produced, there mind has been at work. By whatever processes things may have come to be, if mind is seen in the result, mind must have been at work in their production. Thus the flank of the evolutionist is turned and his evolutionism is shown to be irrelevant to the issue.10

Perhaps his most interesting analysis of the decade, however, is that of Calvin's view of creation. Warfield argues that Calvin's high view of divine providence led him to reject the "mediate creation" view:

Calvin's doctrine of creation is, if we have understood it aright, for all except the souls of men, an evolutionary one. The "indigested mass," including the "promise and potency" of all that was yet to be, was called into being by the simple fiat of God. But all that has come into being since—except the souls of men alone—has arisen as a modification of this original world-stuff by means of the interaction of its intrinsic forces. Not these forces apart from God, of course: [...] all the modifications of the world-stuff have taken place under the directly upholding and governing hand of God, and find their account ultimately in His will. But they find their account proximately in "second causes"; and this is not only evolutionism but pure evolutionism. [...]

He ascribed the entire series of modifications by which the primal "indigested mass," called "heaven and earth," has passed into the form of the ordered world which we see, including the origination of all forms of life, vegetable and animal alike, inclusive doubtless of the bodily form of man, to second causes as their proximate account. And this, we say, is a very pure evolutionary scheme.11

Livingstone and Noll argue that it is "doubtless" (284) that Warfield also held the view that he here attributes to Calvin, and point out that other Reformed commentators have argued that Warfield's interpretation of Calvin goes too far (301). If they are right, then we have strong evidence for Warfield's acceptance of theistic evolution (and not merely mediate creation) near the end of his career.


Given Warfield's own testimony, it's difficult to argue that he was never an evolutionist. The more challenging question arises when we examine his published writings – how much did his views shift as his career unfolded? Livingstone and Noll admit that he was less dogmatic on the issue later in life, but attempt to demonstrate a continuing belief in the providential use of evolution as a tool used by God, largely without direct intervention, to bring about the natural diversity we see today.

This argument rests heavily on the claim of concurrence between Warfield's views and his interpretation of Calvin's, but Livingstone and Noll do more definitively demonstrate his long-standing acceptance of at least "mediate creation," in which God directly acts on existing material to develop it into something new. Even this view allowed for "evolution," as Livingstone and Noll argue:

In holding to the doctrine of mediate creation, Warfield certainly did not rule out species transformation or a developmental account of natural history. He simply reserved space for a variety of explanatory mechanisms to account for the history of the universe. Methodological pluralism was what Warfield sought to preserve; reductionism—whether of a naturalistic, anti-Christian sort or a supernaturalistic, antiscientific type—was what he wanted to prevent. (299)


  1. Livingstone and Noll, "B. B. Warfield (1851–1921): A Biblical Inerrantist as Evolutionist" (2000). Isis, 91:284–304.
  2. Princeton Alumni Weekly, Volume 16, Number 28, page 652.
  3. The Theory and Practice of Cattle-breeding, Preface; natural selection endorsed on 85–86.
  4. Presbyterian Review, Volume 9, Number 4, Page 575; also in Works, 9.549.
  5. Presbyterian Review, Volume 9, Number 35, Page 511.
  6. Presbyterian and Reformed Review, Volume 6, Number 22, Page 366.
  7. The Bible Student, Editorial Notes, Page 8.
  8. Princeton Theological Review, Volume 4, Number 4, Page 557; also in Works, 10.138.
  9. Princeton Theological Review, Volume 6, Number 4, page 649; also in Works, 10.189.
  10. Princeton Theological Review, Volume 14, Number 2, Page 323.
  11. Princeton Theological Review, Volume 13, Number 2, Page 208–9; also in Works, 5.304–5.

Here is a very interesting article on this issue, although clearly there is another point of view which the article is arguing against.

The argument here is that the best case that could be made is that Warfield believed that theistic evolution would be consistent with scripture, on the condition that evolution itself could be proven to be true - a premise which Warfield was not convinced by.

Having said that, he did believe in evolution early on in his life, but rejected it. So while it is true that he endorsed the view at some point in his life, the argument is that he didn't "come to endorse" the view in the sense that Wikipedia suggests.

The first and third paragraphs of the conclusion give a good summary of what is being argued:

That Warfield actually committed himself to a doctrine of evolution seems impossible to affirm simply because although there are some indications that he entertained the idea, he never admits to accepting it. More to the point, what he expressly claims is a critical agnosticism on the subject, and it would seem this is where the matter must rest.

This much is clear: although at times speaking with allowance of the possibility of evolution (carefully defined), Warfield never expressly affirmed it. Rather, he affirmed that he had rejected it sometime about age thirty and that he remained unconvinced. The Livingstone-Noll thesis does not reflect the evidence, and the prevailing understanding of Warfield as an evolutionist must be rejected.

  • Thanks danl. I've seen some arguments like this, but they are hard to evaluate because I don't know how strong the other side of the argument is. I'd really like to see an answer that gives the three or four strongest arguments for Warfield believing theistic evolution. Dec 1, 2016 at 14:37

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