How Liberal Protestants Bought White's Conflict Thesis and Lost Their Faith

How some liberal Protestants bought the Conflict Thesis between science and religion and rejected orthodox theology.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Questions and comments are, as always, cordially invited.

Hi Ted,

Fascinating post. Thanks very much for this article. For readers who are interested, here’s what Wikipedia says about White’s conflict thesis:

James Joseph Walsh, M.D., the historian of medicine, criticized White’s perspective as anti-historical in The Popes and Science; the History of the Papal Relations to Science During the Middle Ages and Down to Our Own Time (1908),[13] a book dedicated to Pope Pius X:

...[T]he story of the supposed opposition of the Church and the Popes and the ecclesiastical authorities to science in any of its branches, is founded entirely on mistaken notions. Most of it is quite imaginary. Much of it is due to the exaggeration of the significance of the Galileo incident. Only those who know nothing about the history of medicine and of science continue to harbor it. That Dr. White's book, contradicted as it is so directly by all serious histories of medicine and of science, should have been read by so many thousands in this country, and should have been taken seriously by educated men, physicians, teachers, and even professors of science who want to know the history of their own sciences, only shows how easily even supposedly educated men may be led to follow their prejudices rather than their mental faculties, and emphasizes the fact that the tradition that there is no good that can possibly come out of the Nazareth of the times before the reformation, still dominates the intellects of many educated people who think that they are far from prejudice and have minds perfectly open to conviction. (New York, NY: Fordam University Press, 1908, p. 19.)

End quote. I have seen many refutations in my time, but I have to say that Walsh’s refutation of White is simply devastating. What a pity that today’s New Atheists still take White seriously.

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A great quote to add here, VJ, many thanks for taking time to grab it.

Are liberal Protestants and Mainline Protestants the same people?

Sometimes, but not always. “Liberal Protestants,” in this usage, refers to Protestants who held onto the name “Christian” but let go of traditional Christian beliefs, as represented by the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed.

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For a truly liberal Protestant, you can do no better than John Shelby Spong, the former Episcopal bishop of New Jersey. He doesn’t believe any of the traditional doctrines. He has written books, which you can find on The titles are very revealing.

I think it is more than a little crooked for him to ditch every belief and continue to draw a paycheck from the church. I have more admiration for an honest atheist.

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Spong is a good example. We should also remember that Spong and most all others who preceded and succeeded him in the liberal Protestant tradition are trying to “save Christianity from itself,” so to speak. They retain the name “Christian” not out of dishonesty or to conceal their true beliefs, but because they still respect Jesus the man and his moral teachings, they just cannot intellectually acknowledge Jesus as Lord (his divine nature and resurrection from the dead). Their reaction was to reformulate Christianity in what they thought was a more intellectually satisfying way.

The lesson here, for all of us, is not to make the same error. In whatever ways we seek to understand, intellectually, the relationship between science and religion, we must not do it in a way that misrepresents God, Christ, or the Holy Spirit. That is the essence of blasphemy, as well as the opposite of our created purpose, which is to represent God here on earth (Gen 1:26-27).


It’s not just Christian doctrine that Spong rejects. He rejects theism itself.

These are his “Twelve Points for Reform”:

Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.

Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.

The Biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.

The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.

The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.

The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.

Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.

The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.

There is no external, objective, revealed standard written in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.

Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.

The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior

All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.

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Because Prof. Giberson mentioned White’s book quite frequently over the years, I wanted to make sure I read this article. I have been able to trace Giberson’s thinking for quite a number of years. There was his first book in which he too said: “there is no real conflict!”

This book was followed by others… until decades later, I have to wonder if my paraphrasing of his position might be correctly rendered:

“There will always be conflict!” (I’m wide open to correction, if anyone has a citation by him on the topic.)

It is my personal view that BioLogos will (and must) continue to emphasize a way of understanding the words of the Bible to make an evolutionary understanding of Earth and all Earth’s life a normal part of a good Christian’s faith and world view.

But does this compel one to also say there really is no conflict between Religion and Science? Isn’t this a word game or exercise of some particular exotic variety?

If we time-traveled back to Rome and asked a high priest if Science as Cicero understands it was in conflict with the religion of Jupiter, he might say “No, not at all!”

Next, let’s then take the Roman High Priest back to the present day! Let’s , tour him through the Physics Department of Columbia University. What would he say if we asked him if the NEW science conflicted with his religion of Jupiter, he might very well say “Yes, of course!”

But if the same question was asked of a Congregationalist physics professor he might say that the science of physics does not conflict at all with his Christian beliefs.

Given time, it is always possible, and even expected, that religious ideas change, re-focus, and find a way of embracing what appears to be the most undeniably real parts of the surrounding world. But what is changing? The denomination? The MIX of one denomination over another ?

AH HA! Now we may be getting somewhere!

If you review the books of Karl Giberson (listed at the bottom), we see this theme described over and over again - - that there is a way for Christians to embrace the science of Evolution. There is A way … there may even be A FEW WAYS. But, for sure, NOT ALL kinds of Christianity can do it!

What we are talking about, really, is for an established denomination … or the PEOPLE who are currently Baptists … to adopt a whole new paradigm … and become more like the Congregationalists say? Or perhaps to literally BECOME Congregationalists?

While most of America vaguely understands that the first British settlers of New World were Calvinists. But it was a theology that had penetrated into a great many denominations! There were Calvinistic Anglicans, Calvinistic Presbyterians, and Calvinistic Congregationalists!

John Motley’s “The United Netherlands” says: ""In England the seeds of liberty, wrapped up in Calvinism and hoarded through many trying years, were at last destined to float over land and sea, and to bear the largest harvests of temperate freedom for great commonwealths that were still unborn.5 “The Calvinists founded the commonwealths of England, of Holland, and America.” And again, “To Calvinists more than to any other class of men, the political liberties of England, Holland and America are due.”

But Calvinism could not resist the tides of thought yet to come!
John Atherton’s “Challenging Religious Studies” (p. 139, etc) discusses James Davenport’s conversion from Congregationalist to Baptist on 29 August 1741! He was the first of what was called Great Awakening, or the several Awakenings: "… that kind of ‘intensely personal relationship of God to the convert’ became a common feature across all the awakenings into the present . . . In particular, it spread across all the colonies, from the New England, to the Middle and Southern colonies.

The “Old Light” ways of doing and thinking were then increasingly challenged by these developments, leading to the construction of “New Light” ways of understanding and practicing. Jonathan Edwards, minister and theologian from the Congregational church in Northampton, Massachusetts, led the revival [awakening] in New England and beyond. He became the principle “New Light” theologian, strong Calvinist, yet then developing a modified Calvinism … holding out ‘hope that unregenerate sinners might yet be saved through conversion’ (Fogel 2000, p. 20)."

A few pages later, "Even more unsettling was the growing conflict between the Calvinist consensus of the First Awakening’s “New Light” thinking and a powerful emerging Enlightenment rationalism. . . . . The ‘willingness-to-be-damned’ for God’s glory did not fit at all well with the emerging world of daily life following the successful Revolution . . . . . the Second Great Awakening forefronted the response. Its first phase from about 1800 to about 1840 was pioneered not so much by the itinerate preachers of the First Awakening as by great organized camp meetings. "

Then America was virtually invaded by a new theology! "the Methodist Episcopal Church, organized from 1784… its evangelical growth was astonishing, surging to 1,250,000 members by 1850 and becoming thereby the largest Protestant denomination in America … Its influence, theologically and therefore practically, was to erode the dominance of Calvinism and confirmed its major transformation. The latter’s New England theologians therefore developed a modified Calvinism, the New Divinity, which recognized the ability of sinners ‘to realize salvation through personal struggle against inner and outer corruption’.

On page 142, we read: “. . . the New England New Divinity was more sedate, less emotional, certainly stressing conversion but linking it to a ‘rationalistic Scottish philosophy’ that recognized, so importantly, ‘the human capacity to (thus) act virtuously’. This reformed New Light Calvinism was therefore to become engaged in fighting inner corruption by engaging in movements for ‘moral reform and social benevolence’… Taylor and Beecher’s leadership in New England of this theological reshaping of tradition as revivalism and perfectionism was confirmed and elaborated in the Midwest states by Finney. The difference was that he repudiated Calvinism for a ‘new scientific theory of revivalism’, which shaped his mass evangelism adapted from the rural camp meetings…”

CONCLUSION: It would seem that rather than to think the leaders(preachers, administrators and the great many who are currently invested in the Evangelical Status Quo) will allow the status quo to change… we actually need to EVANGELIZE a new system of churches! A new paradigm!A NEW kind of “New Light” in America !!!

We need a movement for a ‘new scientific theory of revivalism’ - - A new ‘methodist’ Evolutionary Method (!) - - - a way of Faith that is more sedate, less emotional, certainly stressing conversion but linking it to a ‘rationalistic Scottish philosophy’ - - a philosophy of Evolutionary growth in our genotype, of evolutionary growth in our minds, and of evolutionary growth in our Hearts … a NEW Adam for America and for the world.

@TedDavis, maybe it’s time to think of a new kind of Evangelicalism… a Church of Evolution … that can sweep aside the Old Light … with New Awakenings… and a New Light!

Hi, George,

I sympathize with your skepticism and puzzlement–both of which are common responses to the message being sent by historians of science & religion to everyone else.

If you read the column by Snobelen from last week you will see that neither he, nor other historians (I include myself here), are claiming that there are never any actual conflicts between science & religion. Please note especially my caption to the photo of David Lindberg and the article linked there.

The basic claim we historians are making might be put this way (as I did elsewhere ): Conflicts Do Not Equal CONFLICT.

If one looks open-mindedly at the whole history of science & Christianity (let me just say Christianity instead of the generic term religion), one finds many different kinds of interaction, each with its own specific context. One does NOT find ongoing, inevitable conflict, in which there is a single conceptual box (conflict) that is assumed to contain all historical interactions. Indeed, nearly all such interactions simply don’t fit into that box without apply the axe of Procrustes to them–that is, without chopping them down to size. For White, that axe was very liberally applied. Basically, he ignored every historical fact or episode that did not conform to his pre-concieved notion of ongoing, inevitable conflict. And, his book contains alleged “facts” that aren’t true, in addition to outrageous conclusions that aren’t supported by a less biased collection of information.

I agree with your instinct that some types of religion are in conflict with some claims of science. No doubt about that, IMO. Indeed, Ham’s creationists must deny many conclusions of the historical sciences–the historical sciences in general aren’t legitimate, in their view. By thereby declaring them “false” sciences, they can artificially claim that “true” science and Christianity harmonize. IMO, their version of natural history is manifestly false, and the genuine historical knowledge we get from the historical sciences is in conflict with their view of natural history.

I hope this helps.


Well, I think having the whole thread is a help.

And now I wonder if, in fact, the best thing to do is NOT to expect the Keepers of the Gates of the Evangelical denominations to be so uninterested that they will not keep the gates securely and more or less perpetually secured!

I do not think we have an idea that is so compelling that it will breach their gates.


But I do think it is time to create a new Evangelical movement … a sedate but impassioned movement of Evolutionary Theology … one that will build a following … town by town … buy churches… have rallies … write articles… all about how Evolution and Faith make their lives and their Faith ELECTRIC!

It is time for a new Methodist Revival with a wholly different kind of Methodist … the method of Evolutionary Faith!

But no one’s faith is in evolution. Evolution doesn’t save anyone. To say something has no conflict with Christian theology doesn’t entail that it must be integrated into Christian theology and somehow form the basis of faith claims. I would not want to hear my pastor preach about evolution in any kind of theological sense. I want him to spur me on to love and good deeds by reminding me of who Jesus is and what he has done for us. I don’t really see how adding evolution to anyone’s belief system makes their life more meaningful or Christ-like. I would be happy if Evangelicals would simply acknowledge that evolutionary science doesn’t have to rock their world any more than nuclear physics or plate tectonics and they can go on loving God and neighbor just fine even if what the scientists say is true.


But plate tectonics really can literally rock your world!


Not as much as the Rock of Ages :slight_smile:

Talking of evolution, there seems to be a certain theological fittingness in it. The material scale is a very grand one, and if one accepts the Incarnation as a fact, and accepts biological evolution as a fact, the latter can be seen as part of the preparation for the former. Seen in this way, I think acceptance of evolution deepens appreciation of the Incarnation; for then, God Incarnate is as truly “of one flesh” with cats and voles and mosquitos and snakes and bats as with men. If historical processes do not undermine the finality of Christ, the “End of the Law”, and of all creation - why should the process called evolution undermine it ? Seeing things on an evolutionary scale may deepen St Paul’s words in Romans 8 about how all creation is groaning until now.

If the Big Bang is a fact, then the Incarnation is, in some ways, as really a result of it as the Milky Way, the dinosaurs, or the atoms that make up “our” bodies are.

If any of this has been aired or refuted already, please ignore it.

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Yes… I know what you mean and what you are saying.

But based on my research of how American calvinistic denominations were re-engineered and/or replaced by growth in other denominations… the parallel seems more than just a little applicable.

It is only after a “fringe-y” denomination becomes isolated by the main currents of Christianity around it that they ultimately reform themselves. We are not quite there yet in regards to Science/Evolution and a still intact critical mass of Evangelical denominations!

As any researcher for movements might tell you… to be part of something NEW … something MORE RIGHTEOUS … these are very attractive aspects of the “new”.

So… if somehow someone (preferably someone NOT formally in BioLogos) were to craft a spiritual message about God helping one with self-growth … which also incorporated a theme of Evolution within it … something that resonated with with a message of spiritual evolution … this could become an important growth center within the UNAFFILIATED congregations of the Evangelical community.

i want to be clear about something … I am not talking about a “church of evolution” or a “denomination of evolutionary science” … I mean some sort of valid religious message and theme about spiritual growth that accepts modern psychological science … and is comfortable discussing science as part of God’s world!

IMPORTANTLY: Since I would be very skeptical about someone trying to intentionally make a MAN-MADE religion along these lines… a more useful approach would be to look for a church or two that ALREADY exist in America … out of the thousands of independent and autonomous congregations … where science, God’s book of Nature" is a normal part of the Church’s “world view”.


Wow… @James_MC, I really like the way you think !!!

I doubt it. Self-growth+evolution leaves out the gospel. You can’t be an Evangelical without the evangel.

But there is an important distinction between being part of God’s world and being part of God’s message for the world. The gospel is complete and powerful without evolution or modern science or psychology. To claim anything else is to claim a kind of historical superiority.

I think there already are plenty of churches where acceptance of science/psychology and acceptance of God’s revelation in Scripture is normal. I don’t think you are going to see major denominations incorporate “acceptance of mainstream science” into their doctrinal positions any more than you are going to see them incorporate support for the ID movement or environmentalism. These are peripheral issues. Evolution as fact is not part of the “Christian worldview” and I personally don’t think we should push to make it so. I think we should push to get people to acknowledge that plenty of Christians whose worldviews have been shaped by the Bible also accept evolution because they also have a 21st century worldview. Accepting modern scientific facts is not a part of one’s cultural worldview that needs to be challenged and changed by an encounter with the gospel.


Naturally … you may well be perfectly correct … but honestly … in my 60 years of living… I am constantly amazed by how often merely “thinking about a unique combination” is frequently found CORRESPONDING to an existing denomination that actually holds to such views.

Who would have ever thought that there was a denomination where God has a wife, and physically lives on a specific planet, in a specific solar system, in a a secific galaxy!!! And yet there IS such a denomination … and it’s a HUGE denomination!

Who would have ever thought yet another denomination would have been based on a science fiction book? And yet… here we go again!!! … there is a very successful and large denomination that is literally based on a science fiction book.

Who would have ever thought that a modern church is based on the belief in Odin and Thor? And yet, even today we have active and sincere churches built on such lines.

Naturally, the proof is in the DISCOVERY. So I’ll be sifting through the independent congregations… seeing which established religious views might have already DISCOVERED a working nexus of synergy between an appreciation of God’s Book of Nature… and the human need for atonement!

Those aren’t denominations of Christianity. They are religions.

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