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The controversies regarding the early chapters of Genesis and the geological discoveries and theories were part of a complex movement of thought which pulsed through the educated minds of Europeans.
The controversies in early 19th-century Britain regarding the relationship of the early chapters of Genesis to the geological discoveries and theories did not, of course, take place in a vacuum. They were part of a complex movement of thought with philosophical, theological, social, political, and ecclesiastical dimensions, which pulsed through the educated minds of Europeans in general and of Britons in particular. The following highlights some of the most important people, events, and currents of thought leading up to and contributing to a revolution in worldview, which profoundly affected the 19th century Genesis-geology debate.
Shortly before his death in 1543 and with some hesitation, Nicholas Copernicus (1473–1543), the Polish mathematician and astronomer, published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, in which he argued that the earth was not the center of the universe, as generally believed, but rotated on its axis and revolved with the other known planets around the stationary sun. Over the subsequent decades, opposition to his theory (as a description of physical reality, rather than merely as an alternative mathematical description) arose because it seemed contrary to common sense, was opposed to Aristotelian physics, lacked convincing astronomical evidence, and was contrary to a literal interpretation of various Scriptures. Approximately 150 years passed before his theory was generally accepted. But it was soon embraced by Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) and Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), though the latter was at first reluctant to publicize his views.
In 1613, Galileo finally came out in the open in his Letters on Sunspots. He argued that his observations of the heavens by means of the recently invented telescope were consistent with what Copernicus had proposed was the actual relationship and movement of the earth and heavenly bodies. Initially, the Roman Catholic authorities accepted Galileo’s assertions as compatible with the teachings of the Church. Eventually, however, Jesuit university professors (who were ultra-orthodox defenders of Catholic dogma and embraced the geocentric theory) were sufficiently provoked by Galileo’s further writings so that they pressured the pope in 1633 to force Galileo to recant the heliocentric theory on threat of excommunication. He did recant, but was still under house arrest for the remainder of his life.1
This incident gave considerable support to others at the same time and later, who insisted (following Galileo) on a complete bifurcation between the study of the creation and the study of Scripture.2 The Bible was written to teach people theology and morality, not a system of natural philosophy (i.e., science), it was argued. Or as Galileo said, the intention of Scripture is “to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.”3 Therefore, Galileo concluded that:
Nothing physical which sense experience sets before our eyes, or which necessary demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called in question (much less condemned) upon the testimony of biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words. . . . On the contrary, having arrived at any certainties in physics, we ought to utilize these as the most appropriate aids in the true exposition of the Bible.4
With frequent reference to Galileo, this approach to the relation of science to the interpretation of Scripture was demanded by all the opponents of the British scriptural geologists of the early 19th century. The old-earth proponents believed that, prior to the work of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, it was quite natural for Christians to take various verses in the Bible to imply an immovable earth surrounded by the revolving heavenly bodies because they had no philosophical or observational reasons to think otherwise. But once the new mathematical descriptions and telescopic observations had been made known, they were forced to reinterpret those verses so as to remove the apparent contradiction between the truth revealed by Scripture and that revealed by God’s creation. In exactly the same way, the old-earth proponents reasoned, geology has brought forward observational proof that the earth is much older than previously thought and so Christians must interpret Genesis 1 and 6–9 differently, so as to harmonize Scripture with this newly discovered teaching of creation.5
It should be noted now that the Galileo affair was focused exclusively on the present structure and operation of the universe, rather than on how it came into being and attained its present arrangement. By way of comparison, Galileo interpreted the account of the miracle of the long day of Joshua 10:12–15 as literal history, though he explained the stationary position of the sun in terms of Copernican theory and the language of appearance. He apparently also took the account of the creation of the sun on the fourth day of Genesis 1 to be literal history.6 At the end of this book I will return to this distinction between what are sometimes called “operation science” and “historical science.”
The famous English politician and philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626) also had an enormous influence on the subsequent development of science and on the views of later Christians regarding the relationship of Scripture to science. He too promoted the separation of Scripture from scientific study of the physical world. Bacon advocated the concept of the two books of God: the book of Scripture and the book of nature. In Advancement of Learning (1605) he made his well-known statement of the relationship of Scripture to nature:
For our Saviour saith, “You err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God;” laying before us two books or volumes to study, if we will be secured from error; first the Scriptures, revealing the will of God, and then the creatures expressing his power; whereof the latter is a key unto the former: not only opening our understanding to conceive the true sense of the Scriptures, by the general notions of reason and rules of speech; but chiefly opening our belief, in drawing us into a due meditation of the omnipotency [sic] of God, which is chiefly signed and engraven upon his works.7
Later in the same work he criticized the “school of Paracelsus”8 and others for pretending “to find the truth of all natural philosophy in the Scriptures; scandalizing and traducing all other philosophy as heathenish and profane.” He continued in general terms:
For to seek heaven and earth in the word of God, whereof it is said, “Heaven and earth shall pass, but my word shall not pass,” is to seek temporary things amongst eternal; and as to seek divinity in philosophy is to seek the living amongst the dead, so to seek philosophy in divinity is to seek the dead amongst the living. . . . And again, the scope or purpose of the spirit of God is not to express matters of nature in the Scriptures, otherwise than in passage, and for application to man’s capacity and to matters moral and divine.9
Fifteen years later, Bacon developed these ideas further in Novum Organum (1620). Here, in condemning the mixture of superstition and theology in the works of Greeks (such as Pythagoras and Plato), he argued that it was foolish to attempt to found “a system of natural philosophy” on the basis of the first chapter of Genesis, Job, or other sections of the Bible, because such an “unsound admixture of things divine and human” would produce not only an erroneous philosophy, but also a heretical religion.10 In particular, Bacon chastised the scholastic theologians of his day for this unwise mingling of “the disputations and thorny philosophy of Aristotle with the body of Religion in an inordinate degree.”11
Another key part of Bacon’s scientific methodology was that he insisted that accurate knowledge of the physical world could only expand on the basis of inductive reasoning from a wealth of data collected by observation and experimentation. Errors resulted from speculation based on too few facts.
These two ideas (i.e., the separation of the study of Scripture and science and the method of inductive reasoning from much observed data) were fundamental to the objectives of the Geological Society of London, founded in 1807, and many old-Earth geologists repeatedly highlighted their dependence on Bacon.12
But for this study, it will also become important to consider a little-noted passage relating to Bacon’s influence on geology. Just a few pages before the first quotation above from The Advancement of Learning, Bacon noted that the Levitical laws of leprosy teach:
A principle of nature, that putrefaction is more contagious before maturity than after. . . . So in this and very many other places in that law, there is to be found, besides the theological sense, much aspersion of philosophy. So likewise in that excellent Book of Job, if it be revolved with diligence, it will be found pregnant and swelling with natural philosophy; as for example cosmography and the roundness of the earth; [here he quoted the Latin of Job 26:7] wherein the pensileness of the earth, the pole of the north, and the finiteness or convexity of heaven are manifestly touched. So again matter of astronomy; [here he quoted the Latin of Job 38:31–32] where the fixing of the stars ever standing at equal distance is with great elegance noted. And in another place, [here he quoted the Latin of Job 9:9] where again he takes knowledge of the depression of the southern pole, calling it the secrets of the south, because the southern stars were in that climate unseen. Matter of generation [here he quoted the Latin of Job 10:10] etc. Matter of minerals [here was another partial quote of Job in Latin] and so forwards in that chapter. So likewise in the person of Salomon [sic] the King, we see the gift and endowment of wisdom and learning. . . . Salomon became enabled not only to write those excellent parables or aphorisms concerning divine and moral philosophy, but also to compile a natural history of all verdure, from the cedar upon the mountain to the moss upon the wall (which is but a rudiment between putrefaction and an herb), and also of all things that breathe and move.13
Earlier he had briefly expressed his apparent belief in a literal six-day creation, after which the creation was complete. He also believed that the Flood and the confusion of the languages at the Tower of Babel were judgments of God.14 Some of these beliefs were expressed in more detail in his Confession of Faith, first published posthumously in his Remains (1648), but written some unknown time before the summer of 1603.15 This eight-page confession16 reads like a detailed, orthodox creed.
Of particular relevance to this study is his statement that during the six days of creation God “made all things in their first estate good,” each day’s work being a “perfection,” but that “heaven and earth, which were made for man’s use, were subdued to corruption by his fall.” He believed that God ceased His creation work on the first sabbath and never resumed it. Since then He has continued His providential work of sustaining His creation and after the Fall He has been doing His redemptive work. According to Bacon, “the laws of nature, which now remain and govern inviolably till the end of the world, began to be in force when God first rested from his works, and ceased to create; but received a revocation, in part, by the curse, since which time they change not.”17 So clearly in Bacon’s mind, the laws of nature which scientists should endeavor to discover by observation and experimentation were not the means by which God created the fully functioning universe and earth with its various kinds of plants and animals, and man.
These various remarks by Bacon about creation, the commencement of the laws of nature, Scripture, and the study of nature might seem at first sight to be inconsistent or contradictory and we might surmise that his remarks about separation of science from Scripture in Novum Organum represent a recantation of earlier statements. But there is no clear evidence that this was so.18 All his remarks are important for understanding the 19th century Genesis-geology debate, in which old-earth geologists and many scriptural geologists disagreed over what it meant to be “Baconian” in one’s reasoning about the created world. It will be shown that one scriptural geologist, Granville Penn, argued (and some other scriptural geologists explicitly agreed with him) that Bacon’s beliefs, based on scriptural revelation, about the nature of the original creation and about when the present laws of nature came into operation, were as much a part of Bacon’s philosophic principles as his belief that the study of Scripture and the study of the natural world should not be unwisely mixed. In other words, the scriptural geologists believed that the former principles of Bacon qualified the meaning of his latter principle. Therefore, it was unBaconian to reconstruct earth history based solely on the present laws of nature. Scriptural geologists also contended that it was unBaconian to be dogmatic about an old-earth general theory of the earth, when so little of the earth’s surface had been geologically studied in the early 19th century. So while the old-earth geologists claimed to be Baconian in a one sense, the scriptural geologists considered that they too were following Bacon in important respects. We will return to this Baconian aspect of the debate at the end of the book, especially under the discussion of the problematic nature of geology.
The Enlightenment or “age of reason” in the 17th and 18th centuries was a time when reason was elevated to the place of supreme authority for determining truth. Some, such as René Descartes (1596–1650) and John Locke (1632–1704), sought to use reason to defend the Christian faith, but others used reason to discard all other forms of authority, especially tradition, religious experience, ecclesiastical leadership, and the revelation of Scripture. Ironically, they often relied heavily on the writings of Locke and Descartes to do so. Hazard observed:
Was there ever a more singular example of the way in which after a while a doctrine may develop ideas completely at variance with those with which it started? . . . To the cause of religion, the Cartesian philosophy came bringing what seemed a most valuable support, to begin with. But that same philosophy bore within it a germ of irreligion which time was to bring to light, and which acts and works and is made deliberate use of to sap and undermine the foundations of belief.19
Descartes used the tools of examination, free inquiry, and criticism to attempt to establish with certitude issues such as the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. Skeptics used those same tools to overthrow those beliefs.
One of those Cartesian skeptics was the Dutch apostate Jew, Benedict de Spinoza (1632–77), who in 1670 wrote a most damaging book called Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. It was opposed by Jews, Protestants, and Catholics, for it swept away key traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs. Spinoza rejected the Scriptures as the prophetic revelation of God, believing them to be crusted over with errors and ancient culture. Not surprisingly, Spinoza strongly rejected the miracles in the Bible as being contrary to the universal laws of nature. His primary concern in Tractatus was to establish a scientific method of hermeneutics. Spinoza attempted unsuccessfully to interpret the Bible impartially without any presuppositions.
Although Spinoza’s ideas were strongly opposed at the time, they made their impact on the early 19th century in two ways: through the teaching of the English deists and through the German and French biblical critics, many of whom were also deists.
Deists viewed the Creator as a great watchmaker, who, once He had wound up the world, allowed it to run without interference according to the laws of nature. As a result, miracles were denied along with fulfilled prophecy and divine revelation. Deism received a firm response from orthodox churchmen so that by the 1750s openly deistic writers had essentially died out in England. Nevertheless, deistic ideas took root and spread into the 19th century, often hidden in works on natural theology which were so prevalent in the early decades. (Natural theology considers the theological/moral truth about God that can be gleaned from the study of His creation, i.e., nature.) Brooke notes:
Without additional clarification, it is not always clear to the historian (and was not always clear to contemporaries) whether proponents of design were arguing a Christian or deistic thesis. The ambiguity itself could be useful. By cloaking potentially subversive discoveries in the language of natural theology, scientists could appear more orthodox than they were, but without the discomfort of duplicity if their inclinations were more in line with deism.20
One Anglican clergyman wrote in 1836 that as a result of the growing influence of natural theology and German neology “a large portion of what passes as Christianity is but deism in disguise!”21
In Germany and France deism flourished, especially in biblical scholarship, where the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and Spinoza had great influence. Reventlow concludes his thorough study by saying:
We cannot overestimate the influence exercised by Deistic thought, and by the principles of the Humanist world view which the Deists made the criterion of their biblical criticism, on the historical-critical exegesis of the 19th century; the consequences extend right down to the present. At that time a series of almost unshakeable presuppositions were decisively shifted in a different direction.22
As critical biblical scholarship gained the upper hand on the continent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, its penetration into the British (and North American) churches was hindered, no doubt partly because of lasting effects of the evangelical revival led by the Wesleys and Whitefield.
So a revolution in theological and philosophical worldview was in full bloom by the early 19th century. Its development can also be traced in the history of geology and cosmogony.
Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively. We focus on providing answers to questions about the Bible—particularly the book of Genesis—regarding key issues such as creation, evolution, science, and the age of the earth.