Warfare of Science with Theology   Chapter V: From Genesis to Geology

Efforts to Suppress the Scientific View

But the scientific method could not be entirely hidden; and, near the beginning of the seventeenth century, De Clave, Bitaud, and De Villon revived it in France. Straightway the theological faculty of Paris protested against the scientific doctrine as unscriptural, destroyed the offending treatises, banished their authors from Paris, and forbade them to live in towns or enter places of public resort.[214c]

The champions of science, though depressed for a time, quietly laboured on, especially in Italy. Half a century later, Steno, a Dane, and Scilla, an Italian, went still further in the right direction; and, though they and their disciples took great pains to throw a tub to the whale, in the shape of sundry vague concessions to the Genesis legends, they developed geological truth more and more.

In France, the old theological spirit remained exceedingly powerful. About the middle of the eighteenth century Buffon made another attempt to state simple geological truths; but the theological faculty of the Sorbonne dragged him at once from his high position, forced him to recant ignominiously, and to print his recantation. It runs as follows: ``I declare that I had no intention to contradict the text of Scripture; that I believe most firmly all therein related about the creation, both as to order of time and matter of fact. I abandon everything in my book respecting the formation of the earth, and generally all which may be contrary to the narrative of Moses.'' This humiliating document reminds us painfully of that forced upon Galileo a hundred years before.

It has been well observed by one of the greatest of modern authorities that the doctrine which Buffon thus ``abandoned'' is as firmly established as that of the earth's rotation upon its axis.[215] Yet one hundred and fifty years were required to secure for it even a fair hearing; the prevailing doctrine of the Church continued to be that ``all things were made at the beginning of the world,'' and that to say that stones and fossils were made before or since ``the beginning'' is contrary to Scripture. Again we find theological substitutes for scientific explanation ripening into phrases more and more hollow - making fossils ``sports of Nature,'' or ``mineral concretions,'' or ``creations of plastic force,'' or ``models'' made by the Creator before he had fully decided upon the best manner of creating various beings.

Of this period, when theological substitutes for science were carrying all before them, there still exists a monument commemorating at the same time a farce and a tragedy. This is the work of Johann Beringer, professor in the University of Wurzburg and private physician to the Prince-Bishop - the treatise bearing the title Lithographiae Wirceburgensis Specimen Primum, ``illustrated with the marvellous likenesses of two hundred figured or rather insectiform stones.'' Beringer, for the greater glory of God, had previously committed himself so completely to the theory that fossils are simply ``stones of a peculiar sort, hidden by the Author of Nature for his own pleasure,''[216] that some of his students determined to give his faith in that pious doctrine a thorough trial. They therefore prepared a collection of sham fossils in baked clay, imitating not only plants, reptiles, and fishes of every sort that their knowledge or imagination could suggest, but even Hebrew and Syriac inscriptions, one of them the name of the Almighty; and these they buried in a place where the professor was wont to search for specimens. The joy of Beringer on unearthing these proofs of the immediate agency of the finger of God in creating fossils knew no bounds. At great cost he prepared this book, whose twenty-two elaborate plates of facsimiles were forever to settle the question in favour of theology and against science, and prefixed to the work an allegorical title page, wherein not only the glory of his own sovereign, but that of heaven itself, was pictured as based upon a pyramid of these miraculous fossils. So robust was his faith that not even a premature exposure of the fraud could dissuade him from the publication of his book. Dismissing in one contemptuous chapter this exposure as a slander by his rivals, he appealed to the learned world. But the shout of laughter that welcomed the work soon convinced even its author. In vain did he try to suppress it; and, according to tradition, having wasted his fortune in vain attempts to buy up all the copies of it, and being taunted by the rivals whom he had thought to overwhelm, he died of chagrin. Even death did not end his misfortunes. The copies of the first edition having been sold by a graceless descendant to a Leipsic bookseller, a second edition was brought out under a new title, and this, too, is now much sought as a precious memorial of human credulity.[217]

But even this discomfiture did not end the idea which had caused it, for, although some latitude was allowed among the various theologico-scientific explanations, it was still held meritorious to believe that all fossils were placed in the strata on one of the creative days by the hand of the Almighty, and that this was done for some mysterious purpose, probably for the trial of human faith.

Strange as it may at first seem, the theological war against a scientific method in geology was waged more fiercely in Protestant countries than in Catholic. The older Church had learned by her costly mistakes, especially in the cases of Copernicus and Galileo, what dangers to her claim of infallibility lay in meddling with a growing science. In Italy, therefore, comparatively little opposition was made, while England furnished the most bitter opponents to geology so long as the controversy could be maintained, and the most active negotiators in patching up a truce on the basis of a sham science afterward. The Church of England did, indeed, produce some noble men, like Bishop Clayton and John Mitchell, who stood firmly by the scientific method; but these appear generally to have been overwhelmed by a chorus of churchmen and dissenters, whose mixtures of theology and science, sometimes tragic in their results and sometimes comic, are among the most instructive things in modern history.[217b]

We have already noted that there are generally three periods or phases in a theological attack upon any science. The first of these is marked by the general use of scriptural texts and statements against the new scientific doctrine; the third by attempts at compromise by means of far-fetched reconciliations of textual statements with ascertained fact; but the second or intermediate period between these two is frequently marked by the pitting against science of some great doctrine in theology. We saw this in astronomy, when Bellarmin and his followers insisted that the scientific doctrine of the earth revolving about the sun is contrary to the theological doctrine of the incarnation. So now against geology it was urged that the scientific doctrine that fossils represent animals which died before Adam contradicts the theological doctrine of Adam's fall and the statement that ``death entered the world by sin.''

In this second stage of the theological struggle with geology, England was especially fruitful in champions of orthodoxy, first among whom may be named Thomas Burnet. In the last quarter of the seventeenth century, just at the time when Newton's great discovery was given to the world, Burnet issued his Sacred Theory of the Earth. His position was commanding; he was a royal chaplain and a cabinet officer. Planting himself upon the famous text in the second epistle of Peter,[218] he declares that the flood had destroyed the old and created a new world. The Newtonian theory he refuses to accept. In his theory of the deluge he lays less stress upon the ``opening of the windows of heaven'' than upon the ``breaking up of the fountains of the great deep.'' On this latter point he comes forth with great strength. His theory is that the earth is hollow, and filled with fluid like an egg. Mixing together sundry texts from Genesis and from the second epistle of Peter, the theological doctrine of the ``Fall,'' an astronomical theory regarding the ecliptic, and various notions adapted from Descartes, he insisted that, before sin brought on the Deluge, the earth was of perfect mathematical form, smooth and beautiful, ``like an egg,'' with neither seas nor islands nor valleys nor rocks, ``with not a wrinkle, scar, or fracture,'' and that all creation was equally perfect.

In the second book of his great work Burnet went still further. As in his first book he had mixed his texts of Genesis and St. Peter with Descartes, he now mixed the account of the Garden of Eden in Genesis with heathen legends of the golden age, and concluded that before the flood there was over the whole earth perpetual spring, disturbed by no rain more severe than the falling of the dew.

In addition to his other grounds for denying the earlier existence of the sea, he assigned the reason that, if there had been a sea before the Deluge, sinners would have learned to build ships, and so, when the Deluge set in, could have saved themselves.

The work was written with much power, and attracted universal attention. It was translated into various languages, and called forth a multitude of supporters and opponents in all parts of Europe. Strong men rose against it, especially in England, and among them a few dignitaries of the Church; but the Church generally hailed the work with joy. Addison praised it in a Latin ode, and for nearly a century it exercised a strong influence upon European feeling, and aided to plant more deeply than ever the theological opinion that the earth as now existing is merely a ruin; whereas, before sin brought on the Flood, it was beautiful in its ``egg-shaped form,'' and free from every imperfection.

A few years later came another writer of the highest standing - William Whiston, professor at Cambridge, who in 1696 published his New Theory of the Earth. Unlike Burnet, he endeavoured to avail himself of the Newtonian idea, and brought in, to aid the geological catastrophe caused by human sin, a comet, which broke open ``the fountains of the great deep.''

But, far more important than either of these champions, there arose in the eighteenth century, to aid in the subjection of science to theology, three men of extraordinary power - John Wesley, Adam Clarke, and Richard Watson. All three were men of striking intellectual gifts, lofty character, and noble purpose, and the first-named one of the greatest men in English history; yet we find them in geology hopelessly fettered by the mere letter of Scripture, and by a temporary phase in theology. As in regard to witchcraft and the doctrine of comets, so in regard to geology, this theological view drew Wesley into enormous error.[220] The great doctrine which Wesley, Watson, Clarke, and their compeers, following St. Augustine, Bede, Peter Lombard, and a long line of the greatest minds in the universal Church, thought it especially necessary to uphold against geologists was, that death entered the world by sin - by the first transgression of Adam and Eve. The extent to which the supposed necessity of upholding this doctrine carried Wesley seems now almost beyond belief. Basing his theology on the declaration that the Almighty after creation found the earth and all created things ``very good,'' he declares, in his sermon on the Cause and Cure of Earthquakes, that no one who believes the Scriptures can deny that ``sin is the moral cause of earthquakes, whatever their natural cause may be.'' Again, he declares that earthquakes are the ``effect of that curse which was brought upon the earth by the original transgression.'' Bringing into connection with Genesis the declaration of St. Paul that ``the whole creation groaneth and travaileth together in pain until now,'' he finds additional scriptural proof that the earthquakes were the result of Adam's fall. He declares, in his sermon on God's Approbation of His Works, that ``before the sin of Adam there were no agitations within the bowels of the earth, no violent convulsions, no concussions of the earth, no earthquakes, but all was unmoved as the pillars of heaven. There were then no such things as eruptions of fires; no volcanoes or burning mountains.'' Of course, a science which showed that earthquakes had been in operation for ages before the appearance of man on the planet, and which showed, also, that those very earthquakes which he considered as curses resultant upon the Fall were really blessings, producing the fissures in which we find today those mineral veins so essential to modern civilization, was entirely beyond his comprehension. He insists that earthquakes are ``God's strange works of judgment, the proper effect and punishment of sin.''

So, too, as to death and pain. In his sermon on the Fall of Man he took the ground that death and pain entered the world by Adam's transgression, insisting that the carnage now going on among animals is the result of Adam's sin. Speaking of the birds, beasts, and insects, he says that, before sin entered the world by Adam's fall, ``none of these attempted to devour or in any way hurt one another''; that ``the spider was then as harmless as the fly and did not then lie in wait for blood.'' Here, again, Wesley arrayed his early followers against geology, which reveals, in the fossil remains of carnivorous animals, pain and death countless ages before the appearance of man. The half-digested fragments of weaker animals within the fossilized bodies of the stronger have destroyed all Wesley's arguments in behalf of his great theory.[221]

Dr. Adam Clarke held similar views. He insisted that thorns and thistles were given as a curse to human labour, on account of Adam's sin, and appeared upon the earth for the first time after Adam's fall. So, too, Richard Watson, the most prolific writer of the great evangelical reform period, and the author of the Institutes, the standard theological treatise on the evangelical side, says, in a chapter treating of the Fall, and especially of the serpent which tempted Eve: ``We have no reason at all to believe that the animal had a serpentine form in any mode or degree until his transformation. That he was then degraded to a reptile, to go upon his belly, imports, on the contrary, an entire alteration and loss of the original form.'' All that admirable adjustment of the serpent to its environment which delights naturalists was to the Wesleyan divine simply an evil result of the sin of Adam and Eve. Yet here again geology was obliged to confront theology in revealing the python in the Eocene, ages before man appeared.[222]

The immediate results of such teaching by such men was to throw many who would otherwise have resorted to observation and investigation back upon scholastic methods. Again reappears the old system of solving the riddle by phrases. In 1733, Dr. Theodore Arnold urged the theory of ``models,'' and insisted that fossils result from ``infinitesimal particles brought together in the creation to form the outline of all the creatures and objects upon and within the earth''; and Arnold's work gained wide acceptance.[222]

Such was the influence of this succession of great men that toward the close of the last century the English opponents of geology on biblical grounds seemed likely to sweep all before them. Cramping our whole inheritance of sacred literature within the rules of a historical compend, they showed the terrible dangers arising from the revelations of geology, which make the earth older than the six thousand years required by Archbishop Usher's interpretation of the Old Testament. Nor was this feeling confined to ecclesiastics. Williams, a thoughtful layman, declared that such researches led to infidelity and atheism, and are ``nothing less than to depose the Almighty Creator of the universe from his office.'' The poet Cowper, one of the mildest of men, was also roused by these dangers, and in his most elaborate poem wrote:

``Some drill and bore The solid earth, and from the strata there Extract a register, by which we learn That He who made it, and revealed its date To Moses, was mistaken in its age!''

John Howard summoned England to oppose ``those scientific systems which are calculated to tear up in the public mind every remaining attachment to Christianity.''

With this special attack upon geological science by means of the dogma of Adam's fall, the more general attack by the literal interpretation of the text was continued. The legendary husks and rinds of our sacred books were insisted upon as equally precious and nutritious with the great moral and religious truths which they envelop. Especially precious were the six days - each ``the evening and the morning'' - and the exact statements as to the time when each part of creation came into being. To save these, the struggle became more and more desperate.

Difficult as it is to realize it now, within the memory of many now living the battle was still raging most fiercely in England, and both kinds of artillery usually brought against a new science were in full play, and filling the civilized world with their roar.

About half a century since, the Rev. J. Mellor Brown, the Rev. Henry Cole, and others were hurling at all geologists alike, and especially at such Christian scholars as Dr. Buckland and Dean Conybeare and Pye Smith and Prof. Sedgwick, the epithets of ``infidel,'' ``impugner of the sacred record,'' and ``assailant of the volume of God.''[223]

The favourite weapon of the orthodox party was the charge that the geologists were ``attacking the truth of God.'' They declared geology ``not a subject of lawful inquiry,'' denouncing it as ``a dark art,'' as ``dangerous and disreputable,'' as ``a forbidden province,'' as ``infernal artillery,'' and as ``an awful evasion of the testimony of revelation.''[223b]

This attempt to scare men from the science having failed, various other means were taken. To say nothing about England, it is humiliating to human nature to remember the annoyances, and even trials, to which the pettiest and narrowest of men subjected such Christian scholars in our own country as Benjamin Silliman and Edward Hitchcock and Louis Agassiz.

But it is a duty and a pleasure to state here that one great Christian scholar did honour to religion and to himself by quietly accepting the claims of science and making the best of them, despite all these clamours. This man was Nicholas Wiseman, better known afterward as Cardinal Wiseman. The conduct of this pillar of the Roman Catholic Church contrasts admirably with that of timid Protestants, who were filling England with shrieks and denunciations.[224]

And here let it be noted that one of the most interesting skirmishes in this war occurred in New England. Prof. Stuart, of Andover, justly honoured as a Hebrew scholar, declared that to speak of six periods of time for the creation was flying in the face of Scripture; that Genesis expressly speaks of six days, each made up of ``the evening and the morning,'' and not six periods of time.

To him replied a professor in Yale College, James Kingsley. In an article admirable for keen wit and kindly temper, he showed that Genesis speaks just as clearly of a solid firmament as of six ordinary days, and that, if Prof. Stuart had surmounted one difficulty and accepted the Copernican theory, he might as well get over another and accept the revelations of geology. The encounter was quick and decisive, and the victory was with science and the broader scholarship of Yale.[224b]

Perhaps the most singular attempt against geology was made by a fine survival of the eighteenth century Don-Dean Cockburn, of York - to scold its champions off the field. Having no adequate knowledge of the new science, he opened a battery of abuse, giving it to the world at large from the pulpit and through the press, and even through private letters. From his pulpit in York Minster he denounced Mary Somerville by name for those studies in physical geography which have made her name honoured throughout the world.

But the special object of his antipathy was the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He issued a pamphlet against it which went through five editions in two years, sent solemn warnings to its president, and in various ways made life a burden to Sedgwick, Buckland, and other eminent investigators who ventured to state geological facts as they found them.

These weapons were soon seen to be ineffective; they were like Chinese gongs and dragon lanterns against rifled cannon; the work of science went steadily on.