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J. H. Gladstone:

Points of Supposed Collision Between the Scriptures and Natural Science, 1872

Gladstone, a Fellow of the Royal Society, who styled himself "a student both of the Scriptures and of natural science," gave this lecture at the behest of the Christian Evidence Society, in support of Christianity against the assault of the New Science upon Biblical authority.

If a Scriptural statement is opposed by some crude hypothesis of science, the Christian may quietly await the issue; if, on the other hand, some established fact should run counter to a portion of that traditionary gloss which has in all ages accumulated round the Scriptures, the Christian may gratefully acknowledge the aid of science in sweeping it away. It may even happen that the strife is on both sides a battle of phantoms, an internecine combat between the crude deductions of the theologian and of the philosopher, for it must be remembered that while Holy Writ and nature are both unchangeable, man's interpretation of either is liable to error. The attack has come from the side of science. It may be thought that this was necessarily the case, because when the prophets and apostles wrote, science in the modern sense of the term was unborn.

Though man had for ages tilled the soil, dug for precious stones, and split the rocks for metallic ore, he never till of recent times studied the superposition of strata, or the structure of the solid earth, and he seems to have been scarcely aware even of the existence of fossils. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, however, shells in the limestone of Verona drew the attention of the thoughtful, and initiated some of the most important controversies we have to consider. The remains of marine animals, which were now found in almost every mountain range, were naturally enough attributed at first to the Noachian deluge, but it was gradually recognized that the generally received view was inadequate to account for all the phenomena, and that the majority of these fossiliferous strata must have been deposited slowly during the lapse of ages. The progress of discovery ran directly counter to a universal deluge. It was believed, for instance, that no diluvial wave could have swept over the volcanoes of Auvergne, or the slopes of Aetna, within four thousand years. Again, the improved knowledge of natural history showed that all the species of beasts and birds could not have found room in the ark; whiile the fresh-water or salt-water fishes, with the littoral molluscs and zoophytes, and the plants in genera1, for which no provision was made, must have perished utterly. Besides this, the geographer has helped the geologist and naturalist in showing that different animals such as the marsupials in Australia, or the sloths in America, have for ages kept to a limited region, and could scarcely be conceived as traveling across oceans or other obstacles to the ark in western Asia and back again. Then the question arose whether the Scripture really affirmed a universal deluge, and it was found that according to the ordinary use of Semitic terms a partial deluge destroying the whole race of man, or even perhaps only that race to which the survivors belonged, would meet every requirement. That such a flood was possible, even from natural causes in those parts of Asia where Noah probably lived, is shown by the fact that the whole of an enormous tract of land is far below the level of the Black Sea, and part of this region of the Caspian exhibits comparatively recent evidences of the action of water.....

The deluge is not the only point of contact between Genesis and geology. The progress of this science was impeded for a century or two, not only by the attempt to ascribe almost everything to the Noachian deluge, but by the common belief that the world had been created about six thousand years ago, in six natural days; and still more perhaps by the wild cosmogonies and strange perversions of Scripture which were put forth as sacred theories of the earth by a series of writers whose names we would willingly forget. At length, however, from the crude hypotheses of the young science, two conclusions came forth with such irresistible evidence that all geologists whatever be their conflicting views on other points hold them as fundamental truths: lst, that the surface of the earth has been subject to changes that necessitated for their production vastly more than six thousand years; and 2nd, that the introduction of fresh genera and species of plants and animals has been very gradual. Many of these pioneers of geology, like the early astronomers, were Christian men, and it needed no small moral courage on their part to oppose the religious opinions of the day. And, indeed, it was manifest that the answer which met the astronomical difficulties would scarcely apply here, for the account of the creation was either the teaching of God or the worthless guess of some ancient philosopher. No doubt it was written in the popular language of the time, and allowance might be made for figurative expressions; still, as it came forward with greater pretensions it had to abide a more rigid scrutiny....

The more general view of late has been that the six days represent six epochs of indefinite length, or rather six of the days of the Most High; and the advocates of this view generally contend, and with reason, that there is an agreement---or at any rate a general resemblance---between the order of creation as told in Genesis, and that revealed by the strata of the earth. It matters little in this argument whether the forces that have formed the lands and seas have been pretty uniform in their operation or have acted by cataclysms; or whether we accept the enormous drafts on the bank of time which some geologists demand, or the one hundred million years to which Sir William Thomson and other physicists would restrict them. The progress of physical and geological science, and of linguistic criticism, may be expected to give us in the future a more accurate knowledge of the two records of creation. Should it prove that they are contradictory, we shall have to put aside, not the Bible, nor even Genesis, but that ancient and sublime fragment which forms the first thirty-four verses of that book. Should, however, the substantial agreement between the two which now appears to exist be completely established, geology will furnish a very conclusive proof of the supernatural origin of the Scripture history....

Yet the science of biology has recently caused no small anxiety to some believers and afforded no small triumph to some unbelievers. I allude to the doctrine of the evolution of living things. How this question presents itself to my mind will be best explained by putting myself into the confessional. When Darwin's book on The Origen of Species made its appearance, I read it with great interest and pleasure. Previous theories of development had appeared very unsatisfactory to me, but but the additional arguments of that book, and the exposition of natural selection, made me entertain a different idea of the probabilities of the case. Though Darwin in that work treats only of the lower animals, it was perfectly plain that the argument must also include the genus Homo, as far as his bodily frame and instincts are concerned. Nevertheless, I felt no shock to my religious faith: indeed the progressive development of animated nature seemed to harmonize with that gradual unveiling of the divine plan which I had loved to trace in the Bible, while it offered a satisfactory explanation of those rudimentary or abortive organs which had puzzled me as a student of natural theology. But presently I heard around me many voices opposing the theory, not only as untrue but as irreligious, while some of the other voices were loud in its praise because it was reputed anti-Christian. On listening, I seemed to distinguish two principal rounds of supposed antagonism between the development theory and Scriptural theology: 1st. It cannot be true that God created all the different plants and animals if they only descended from other pre-existent forms. 2nd. This view removes God further from His universe, and only allows of His operation in the primitive forms or form at some incalculably remote epoch.

Now the first of these objections turns on the meaning of the Hebrew word Bara. I failed to discover any philological reason for supposing this word means necessarily "to make out of nothing," and I examined all the places---about fifty in number---in which it occurs in the Old Testament. In each case it refers to a Divine act, but in not one is there any suggestion that the Divine action was exerted upon nothing. While in Psalms 89:47 and 102:18, the men of the present and of a future generation are said to be created; in Isaiah 54:16 we read that God created the smith who forges the weapons of war and the devastator of countries; and in Ezekiel 21:30 the idea of creation by ordinary birth is distinctly expressed, where the Lord says of the nation of the Ammonites, "I will judge thee in the place where thou wast created, in the land of thy nativity." The Greek word ktizo and its derivatives seem to be used in the New Testament just as Bara in the Old, with only one exception, in which it bears the more classic meaning of a human institution.

As to the second objection, that of banishing the idea of God to an incalculable distance, that objection is strong or weak according to our conception of the Most High. If we believe in the God of Epicurus, who set the world a-spinning, and then retired into inactivity, we certainly lessen the little interest we can have in such a Being by widening the distance that separates us from the period when He handed over His creation to the guidance of physical laws. If, however, we believe in the God of St. Paul, in whom "we live and move and have our being," and "by whom all things consist," the sustainer as well as the giver of life, it becomes a matter of no theological importance in what way He created each species, and development or evolution, if established, becomes merely the gradual carrying out of His might scheme of creation....

The problem of the method of creation is a grand one, and modern science lures us on with the hope of a solution. At present we are in the early stage of crude guesses, or at best of partial glimpses; yet whatever further insight may be gained, we may rest assured that the Christian will continue to exclaim as the Psalmist did when reviewing the animate world, but with an everwidening intelligence, "O Lord, how manifold are Thy works; in wisdom hast Thou made them all!".


From: The Christian Evidence Society, Faith and Free Thought: A Second Course of Lectures Delivered at the Request of the Christian Evidence Society, (New York: Christian Evidence Society, 1872), pp. 136-160

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, November 1998

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