The original paper appeared in the August and September 2000 issues of The Presbyterian Banner.
Last updated here December 2007.
In the last paragraph of the Church and Nation Report (Synod 2000) I wrote:
As a church we have not yet come to grips with relating our theology to the working of the present world. We need a good, open discussion to help understand the Biblical view of creation and science compared to those of the medieval and modern periods. Are we mature enough as Christian leaders to do this? We have the most important message anyone can hear. Are we in danger of drifting into a mere evangelicalism which to some extent represents a truncated understanding of the Reformed Faith?
One brother (Mr Alex Steel) asked what I meant by the reference to creation and science, whereupon I launched into a wide-ranging, perhaps rambling, response. Neither he nor I mentioned the Genesis ‘days’ but I don’t suppose they were far from people’s minds. But rather different was my interest. I’m more concerned with the integrity of science and keeping it from a wrong domination by theology just as I want to keep science from dominating theology. Every age has interpreted the Bible using the ideas of that age. It seems inevitable that such should be the case, but it is important that we realise it.
(1) Scripture and Nature
In early Christian thought Jerusalem had nothing to do with Athens. By this was meant that the knowledge philosophers gained by their own thinking was not to be compared with the understanding given in the Christian revelation. To Christians the world of nature was created by God but was designed to serve spiritual interests. Using more of Greek thought than they realised, the Christian thinkers of the second and third centuries argued that nature’s real value was to point beyond itself to spiritual realities. They saw the world as ‘a school for souls.’
Just as they tended to interpret Scripture in a way that moved beyond the sense intended by the author’s words to mystical and allegorical meanings, so the interpretation of nature moved beyond the literal level to be preoccupied with the spiritual. If difficult Scripture texts could be spiritualised into useful meanings in this way, so could the existence of living things that seemed of no worth, such as mosquitoes or bedbugs. Nature too was to serve redemption. This kind of approach was typical of Christian thought in Western Europe for centuries during the period we call the Dark Ages.
But as life improved with the revival of trade, the growth of towns, and the rebirth of learning, including the founding of the first universities in the 11th century, there was a new appreciation of the physical world, and of the importance of the incarnation. Physicality was now in vogue. The idea that the real meaning of the physical was as an allegory of the spiritual, that wild beasts provide allegories of human passions and such like, began to be given up. It is no coincidence that the dogma of transubstantiation was decreed in AD 1215.
The rediscovery of nature that is associated with what we call the Renaissance (the rebirth of learning) was at first largely a matter of appeal to Scripture and to approved authorities who represented the pre-Christian learning. These included the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC), who had based his work on human reason. Such authorities were extremely powerful and it was Galileo’s tactless criticism of Aristotle as much as his apparent conflict with Scripture that caused him trouble with the Roman Church in 1616.
The questioning of traditional texts led to the provision of more accurate editions and then to experimental work in anatomy, botany and chemistry right through to zoology. Voyages of discovery enlarged understanding of geography. New plants and animals were classified.
Christianity itself experienced a mighty reformation as the original meaning and intent of Scripture was rediscovered and allegorical methods rejected except where the evident intention. Scripture and not churchly tradition took the place of honour again, and the Scriptures were translated into the common language from the ancient Hebrew and Greek texts.
Rome had real problems because of the way she had taken on board Aristotelian ideas. Jerusalem had come to have a great deal to do with Athens. The synthesis of Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) is a still influential example. Protestants, with a renewed sense of history, had no such blind faith in human authorities. Their interest in the intended meaning of the Biblical text went hand in hand with a renewed interest in the world of nature on its own terms, and stimulated the advance of scientific thought in the various disciplines.
This does not mean that the sins of science must be laid at the Protestant door any more than Calvinism is to be blamed for capitalism. However, the big shift in approach to nature coincided with and was related to a shift in the attitude to the text of Scripture.
Consistent Calvinism did not accept the autonomy of human thought (Aristotle) nor a nature-grace dualism (Aquinas). Rather, its aim was to integrate all knowledge for the glory of God. Intention is one thing, execution another. Christianity and the sciences were friends, yet many great scientists, including the greatest (Isaac Newton), were tainted by rationalism, with defective views on the Trinity and other subjects. However, it is with the Principia of Newton, published 1687, that the modern age may be said to begin. It is an age in which the competing claims of reason and revelation have sought to find a stable place in right relationship.
(2) Noah’s Flood and World History
In 1667 Thomas Sprat wrote in his History of the Royal Society:
‘…the Church of England will not only be safe amidst the consequences of a Rational Age, but amidst all the improvements of Knowledge, and the subversion of old Opinions about Nature, and introduction of new ways of Reasoning thereon. This will be evident, when we behold the agreement that is between the present design of the Royal Society, and that of our Church in its beginning. They both may lay equal claim to the word Reformation, the one having compassed it in Religion, the other having purposed it in Philosophy. They both have taken a like course to bring this about; each of them passing by the corrupt Copies, and referring themselves to the perfect Originals for their instruction; the one to the Scripture, the other to the large volume of the Creatures.’
In fact life has not been so easy as Sprat might have led men to expect. First there were the practical problems of agreement between Scripture and the observations of nature. Then there was the problem of the pre-suppositional framework of those involved.
But take the first point. How did Scripture relate to the world of nature? Of course a measure of accommodation of Scripture language to human capacity was always recognised by the best interpreters from Augustine through Aquinas to Calvin. The Reformation emphasis on Scripture as being for the common person reinforced this belief. Still, in the 16th and 17th centuries the tendency was to regard the surface meaning of Scripture references to the world of nature as the intended meaning. In short, observational descriptions of nature in what we would call a pre-scientific context were generally taken as strict descriptions of reality.
The Genevan Calvinist Lambert Daneau, wrote a book in which he attempted to establish natural science solely from Scripture (The Wonderful Workmanship of the World, London 1578). But the more general view was that Scripture and nature could help each other. Both were books of God.
But what about those points, other than the supernatural, at which Scripture seemed to contradict the book of nature? When a friendly Cardinal Baronius stated to Galileo that the Bible was intended ‘to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go’, he spoke truth. Still, the Church, both Roman and Protestant, took a long time to accept that the earth moved around the sun. Nor has she always had an easy time in other areas of natural science.
Take the Flood. Different opinions on its extent existed from early times. A number of the Jewish Talmudic writers hold the view that the Flood did not extend over all the earth (B. Shabbat 113b/B.Zebahim 113a-b). [Rashi (1040-1105), the later significant Jewish scholar, even regarded Og, king of Bashan, as one who survived the Flood by holding onto the Ark (on Braishit 14:13).]. However, the mainstream opinion among Christians seems to have been that it was geographically universal.
The role of fossils in the discussion was not central since not everyone regarded them as the remains of once-living things. The great Aristotle had the theory that they were formed by some kind of precipitation from mineral formation. Avicenna, the influential 11th century Islamic scholar, supposed a mysterious action, including by the heavenly bodies, on seeds of plants and other creatures trapped in cracks in rocks so that the growth imitated living things.
Of course the discovery of the New World raised questions about the Flood’s extent. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) held that it could not have been universal because there would be nowhere for the water to go. In any case, said he, the fossils were no proof since why were they buried in the rocks instead of lying on the surface? Calvinist thinkers like Conrad Gesner (1516-65) and Bernard Palissy (1510-90) also doubted, or in Palissy’s case, rejected the Flood origin of fossils. On the other hand, Sir Walter Raleigh’s modestly titled The History of the World in Five Books (London 1614) argued for a global but calm Flood.
Thomas Burnet (1635-1715) issued a book in 1681 with the rather less modest title, The Theory of the Earth Containing an Account of the Original of the Earth, and all the General Changes Which it Hath Already Undergone, or Is to Undergo Till the Consummation of All Things. It propounded a theory of ‘flood geology’ that stimulated debate and on-site research that ultimately undermined Burnet’s speculative theorising.
There was no way the fossils could have been laid down by a global Flood about 2,400 BC in the ordered way we find them, researchers claimed. Instead of a churned up mass of all kinds of creatures higgledy piggledy, throughout the world we find layers with single celled creatures in some, invertebrates in another, with fish, dinosaurs and large mammals in others. This rather neat sorting could hardly be explained by a year-long global flood. Moreover, modern kinds are found together and there are few human fossils, suggesting that humans appeared last on the scene after a lengthy period had elapsed.
How then did this conclusion relate to Scripture? Only if the days of Genesis were taken as ordinary days in which creation was accomplished was there any conflict, was the response. The Flood itself may have been total as regards humans; or it may have been extensive but local to provide an illustration of sin’s ultimate judgment, and of God’s salvation through a righteous man, Noah. Presbyterians of the 19th century saw no great problem of adjustment. [Macro-evolution was a different and distinct question.]
Flood geology lost dominance by the 1760s and died a natural death by the 1850s, except among Seventh-day Adventists. In 1961 it was revived in the conservative religious community by the publication of Whitcomb and Morris’s book The Genesis Flood. In its distinctive feature (recent creation in six 24 hour days) it is not quite a simple reversion to the views of a pre-scientific age. As ‘creation science’ its exposition of Scripture seems to owe more to the scientific age than many realise as also to the self-taught SDA geologist, George Macready Price.
Rome came to insist that the surface meaning of ‘this is my body’ was the necessary meaning which preserved Christ’s intention, but Protestants denied this for good reason. In ‘scientific creationism’ do we perhaps have a genuine concern to safeguard the dogma of creation by an over-reaction against secularism that makes a doubtful/wrong interpretation part of the dogma? Can the surface and intended meanings of ‘day’ be equated? That’s the question.
For myself I’m very happy to stand in the tradition of the Scottish Free Church and the theologians of Old Princeton, the Hodges, BB Warfield and the like, even though I didn’t have to study natural sciences as part of my theological course, as was once the norm, and even though my explanation of the creation days as simply God’s days is nearer Herman Bavinck than Hugh Miller’s day-age theory.
It is a strange thing to see how Christianity and the sciences – friends in the time of the 17th century Westminster Assembly – have become regarded by many Christians in the late 20th century as enemies. There are a number of reasons for the change.
1. The impact of Darwinism
In the Part I gave a review of attitudes to the Flood and noted the quite easy adjustment by Christians in the 19th century to the idea that the earth was much more than 6000 years old and that the Flood was not global in the absolute sense. Half a century after the basic picture of the geological ages had been established, along came Charles Darwin with his Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871). The full title of the first book reveals his position: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Lamarck (1809) and Chambers (1844) had suggested evolution before but offered no mechanism that appeared credible. Darwin offered that mechanism, descent with modification by natural selection, although he did not at first apply it to humans. Chance and necessity, more popularly, ‘the survival of the fittest’: it was an idea whose time had come.
Initially the opposition to Darwin was not so much theological as scientific. Even Charles Lyell, the uniformitarian geologist, was a great opponent at first. The most capable theological opponent was probably Charles Hodge of Princeton Presbyterian Seminary. In his book What is Darwinism? (1874) Hodge considered that Darwin’s theory denied design in nature and was therefore atheistic, although he allowed other Christians might disagree. His son, A.A.Hodge (1886), a professor at the same institution, thought evolution atheistic too, if in a form which denied design, providence, grace or miracles, or pretended to explain origins, causes and final ends, but otherwise it was not essentially irreligious and could be a valuable tool. His colleague, Dr B.B.Warfield, the great defender of Biblical inerrancy, accepted the probability of God-directed evolution, including of the human body, although again, not with Darwin’s denial of design. Of course he affirmed the historicity of Adam and Eve and the special creation of the soul. [See B.B.Warfield, Evolution, Science, and Scripture: Selected Writings (ed. Mark A. Noll & David N. Livingstone) Baker, 2000]
The Fundamentals, twelve small books issued by orthodox Christians between 1910/15 to counter liberal teaching, included articles open to a certain amount of theistic evolution. William Jennings Bryan, who appeared for the prosecution in the Scopes’ ‘Monkey’ trial in 1925, was a believer in the day-age view of Genesis 1, and was open to evolution of forms of life lower than human.
2. Antagonism to Christianity
In the latter part of the 19th century there was a strong tide of liberal thinking which extolled human ability and made reason the measure of all. A Deistic conception of God as an absentee landlord who occasionally intervened by miracle was influential as a seedbed for a more radical scientific religion (naturalism) as well as an atheistic social/economic order (Marxism) and an anti-supernatural view of the Bible. God had only been needed to explain the gaps in our knowledge, but we were able to work things out ourselves now. God could be dispensed with as an irrelevant hypothesis. Such was the attitude.
Darwinism was seen as an ideal vehicle to achieve the casting off of the ‘vestiges of superstition’, as influential men called Christian supernaturalism. Thomas Huxley (1825-95) was one of the most effective propagandists of this new scientific religion of naturalism. He was determined to secularise society through science. He pitted his reading of Scripture over against the scientific and proclaimed they were irreconcilable, but he did not recognise the limitations of science nor did he necessarily understand Scripture correctly. His propaganda victory in 1860 in his exchange with Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, is well known.
A.D.White published an influential book A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom in 1896. It was one of a number which perpetuated the myth that Christianity was antagonistic to science and progress. If history is the politics of the victors, liberalism and scientific naturalism won. Their view of history and their creation myth became dominant.
3. Antagonism to science
With the collapse of liberal optimism after the disastrous First World War, many conservative Christians lashed back. They often did not distinguish the various views that can be covered by the term ‘evolution’. To them they were all of a piece with atheism. Thin-end-of-the-wedgeism was in vogue. They adopted an anti-intellectual stance and a very literalistic approach to Scripture. Interestingly, they still tended to accept an old earth position, but they did not have too much time for higher education. Their reaction only made the establishment view more entrenched. The Scopes’ trial was a PR disaster for conservative Christians because it identified opposition to evolution with the attitudes of ignorant back-country yokels.
But in the 1960s and 70s, the religious conservatives thought it was time to take on the scientific establishment using its own weapons. Consequently we have seen the rise of creation science in which an earth a few thousand years old and a global deluge about 4,500 years ago are key elements in construction of the early history of the world.
The historic co-operation between Christianity and science breaks down here, and constructive dialogue is virtually impossible, since there is such a comprehensive rejection of scientific explanations. Indeed, Christians like myself, who don’t advocate evolution but reject the 6/24 theory of the creation days, are also vilified by groups like Answers in Genesis as ‘dangerously heterodox’.
While most orthodox Christians have not endorsed the creation science movement it is very influential among younger believers, particularly in the USA. Its attraction is its simplicity as a direct appeal to what is regarded as the surface meaning of Scripture, and its strength the undeniable reality of atheism being propagated by popular apologists for evolution such as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Ernst Mayr, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. These men are high-priests of a cult all the more dangerous because it cloaks itself in the guise of neutral unbiased science.
As we enter the 21st century the intellectual horizon is beginning to look a bit better. Post-modernism means God is at least back on the agenda even if everything is regarded as relative. Physics is now almost entirely accepting of a beginning for the universe and is impressed by the way in which the world seems to have been designed for humans (the anthropic principle). Darwinian evolution theory is looking as if it will disappear in its traditional form before too long. I imagine that the science of genetics, whose founder, Gregor Mendel (1822-84), was a Roman Catholic priest, will continue to throw up evidence that will challenge our present understanding of various matters. Revision of current scientific theories in this and other areas is certain. This is not surprising since it is the nature of science as a human endeavour that it is never final.And A.D.White’s argument for the essential antagonism of Christianity and science is seen as fundamentally flawed, at least in the scholarly community.
4. Some Christian views on origins
A number of positions can be distinguished and lots of people would not like to be classified precisely. I mention three kinds of approach.
The creation science approach is well known. There are various forms all presuming a recent creation a few thousand years ago and a geographically universal Flood about 2,400 BC or a little earlier. Some hold to a young earth created with appearance of age, others young earth with appearance of age due to the effects of the sin of Satan or humans. In its common current form it is young earth with appearance of age due to its instantaneous creation in maturity. There was no death of living things before the Fall and the diet of creatures was vegetarian until the Fall or perhaps the Flood. All present animal life is descended from those spared on the Ark, implying significant curse-caused variation in a short period (? a kind of rapid ‘evolution’) to account for the diversity of life at present.
There is the intelligent design school, including Phillip Johnson (Darwin on Trial etc) and Michael Behe (Darwin’s Black Box). This school of thought does not commit itself to creation science but addresses the presuppositions inherent in many scientific statements with a view to exposing the naturalistic religion so often mixed in with them. Faced with the immense complexity of even the simplest cell, proponents appeal to the evidence for design for those matters we cannot explain and which appear to have an irreducible complexity. In general they are not happy with full-blown macro-evolution, including for such obvious reasons as the lack of significant fossil evidence and the problem of imagining gradual evolution of structures such as the eye. They might be thought nearer the view that creation is to be understood in terms of a number of creative acts subsequent to the initial creation of the raw stuff, the view of so called progressive creationists. Not literalists in their reading of Genesis 1, their influence is increasing. A hearing for theism in secular institutions of learning is growing as a result.
There is the functional integrity school often associated with Howard van Till of Calvin College, but which seems to be much like B.B.Warfield’s view (except he held to the special creation of the soul) or some aspects of Augustine’s (although a much longer time scale is envisaged). This school embraces theistic evolution, that is, common biological ancestry. Its thought is that what God called into being ‘in the beginning’ is such that everything in the subsequent complexity of life unfolds in the time God appointed. It is regarded as a more elegant view of creation, more consistent with God’s character, since it does not require subsequent direct invasions of divine power, intrusions to correct some inherent inadequacy in the original stuff. It could also be termed a fully-gifted view, in which miracles are not needed to bridge gaps but all unfolds according to the amazingly rich capabilities with which God has endowed it. Miracles are then not intrusions to correct inadequacy but voluntary acts which have revelatory or redemptive value.
All views (and of course there are others likely to be of less interest to readers) have pluses and minuses. Any view open to a common biological ancestry tends to be regarded with repugnance by Christians – although seeing Scripture stresses our origin from the dust it’s obvious that we are not made of any better stuff than a worm. The intelligent design position has been accused of believing that what can be explained by us is not designed. In other words, it’s a variation of the ‘god of the gaps’ position, like scientific creationism.
5. What are we to make of all this?
One does not need to take a very explicit position since the Scriptures do not elaborate on the mechanics of creation in this way. The important point is that scientific explanation does not make God redundant. ‘By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God.’ Everything is made by God. We must distinguish primary and secondary causes. We know the physical causes of rain, but that does not rule out the sovereign God who is the one who rules over all. Similarly we know why men crucified Jesus, but that does out rule out God’s redemptive purpose in it. Now we don’t have a precise description of the mechanics of creation but even if we did it would not make God superfluous.
What is clear is that God created all things and sustains them still. We must hold to a real Adam and Eve, a real fall and death as its penalty. For the rest, need we be concerned to endorse any theory? But as to meaning, purpose and goal there is much the Scripture tells us which everyone needs to know. Let’s make sure that they do.