Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/April 1886/Comments by Professor Henry Drummond


SCIENCE, Religion, Philology, and History have now unsheathed their most richly chased blades in this famous tournament. So goodly a fight has not been seen for many a day; and whether one regards the dignity of the combatants, or the gravity and delicacy of the cause, it is not possible to await the issue without the keenest interest. Meanwhile, a voice may be permitted on behalf of a group among the spectators who have not yet been heard in this controversy, but whose modest reluctance to interfere seems only equaled by their right. In arenas more obscure, but not less worthy, they too have fought this fight; and as a humble camp-follower, and from conviction that the thing must now be done, rather than as one possessing the right to do it, I would venture to state the case on their account.

Mr. Huxley interposes in this question because he is moved by the violence being done in high places to natural science. This third party is constrained to speak because of a similar violence done to theological science. Were the reconcilers of Geology and Genesis equal in insight to their last and most distinguished champion, and did Mr. Gladstone himself realize the full meaning of his own concessions, little further contribution to this controversy might perhaps be called for. And, were the opponents of this ancient fraternity as calm in spirit, as respectful to beliefs, and as discriminating as to the real question at issue as Mr. Huxley, no other word need be spoken. But with a phalanx of reconcilers on the one hand, who will continue to shelter untenable positions under the carefully qualified argument of Mr. Gladstone, and with quasi-scientific men on the other, who will exaggerate and misinterpret the triumph of Mr. Huxley, a further clearing of the ground is necessary. The breadth of view, the sagacity, and inimitable charity of Mr. Gladstone's second article certainly go far with many minds to remove the forebodings with which they received the first. Nevertheless, so powerful a championship of a position which many earnest students of modern religious questions have seen reason wholly to abandon can not but excite misgivings of a serious kind. And though these are now in part removed by the large concessions and ampler statement of the second paper, Mr. Gladstone still deliberately involves himself with the fortunes of the reconcilers. So far, however, is he in advance of most of them that much that may be reluctantly said here against the stand-point from which they work in no sense applies to him. This much fairness not less than courtesy makes it a pleasure to premise.

It will be recognized by every one that the true parties in this case are, as the title of Mr. Huxley's article suggests, "The Interpreters of Genesis and the Interpreters of Nature." Now, who are the interpreters of Genesis? We answer by asking. Who are the interpreters of Nature?

We respectfully point out to Mr. Huxley that his paper contains no single reference to the interpreters of Genesis in the sense in which he uses the term "the interpreters" in the case of science. Who are "the interpreters" of Nature? Mr. Huxley answers, and rightly, himself. And who are "the interpreters" of Genesis? Certainly Mr. Gladstone would be the last to claim this for himself. Does not the legitimate question lie between modern theology and modern science? And in perfect fairness should not the title of Mr. Huxley's paper have read, "Some interpreters of Genesis, and the scientific interpreters of Nature"? This may be a verbal matter, and we do not press it. But in view of the fact that many will see in Mr. Huxley's article, and in spite of all protestation, a direct and damaging assault upon the Biblical records, would it not have been right to point out the real terms of the antithesis? It may be replied, and justly, that Mr. Huxley is not responsible for the inferences of the uneducated. And in ordinary circumstances it would be gratuitous to define so carefully the real limitations of the question at issue. But the circumstances here are quite exceptional. For, although the widely general knowledge of science makes the aberrations of individual theorists in that department harmless, it is not so in the case of theology. Theology, in this relation, has long suffered under quite unusual treatment. Any visionary is taken, and that notoriously by men of science, as the representative of the system. And it is time for theology to be relieved of the irresponsible favors of a hundred sciolists, whose guerrilla warfare has so long alienated thinking men in all departments of knowledge. That there is a "science of theology" Mr. Huxley himself admits. It has exponents in Britain and Germany as well-equipped in learning, in sobriety, in balance of mind, and in the possession of the scientific spirit, as the best of the interpreters of Nature. When these men speak of science, it is with respectful reliance upon the best and most recent authorities. They complain that when science speaks of them it accepts positions and statements from any quarter, from books which have been for years or centuries outgrown; or from popular teachers whom scientific theology unweariedly repudiates. To theological science the whole underlying theory of the reconcilers is as exploded as Bathybius. And Mr. Huxley's interference, however much they welcome it in the interest of popular theology, is to them the amusing performance of a layman, the value of which to scientific theology is about the same as would be a refutation of the Ptolemaic astronomy to modern physics.[1]

This, however, to some minds may have to be made plain, and we may briefly devote ourselves to a statement of the case.

The progress of opinion on this whole subject is marked by three phases: First, until the present century the first chapter of Genesis was accepted as a veritable cosmogony. This, in the circumstances, was inevitable. The hypothesis of Laplace was not yet in the field; paleontology, Fracastoro notwithstanding, had produced nothing except what every one knew was the remains of the Noachian Deluge; and geology, even with Buffon behind it, had so little to say for itself that a hint from the Sorbonne was sufficient to quench what feeble light it had. The genesis of the world, therefore, was left to Moses, and the most mechanical theory of creation—a purely anthropomorphic thing and not really in the sacred page at all—was everywhere accepted.

Presently, as the sciences gathered volume and focused their rays on the past, a new version of creation was spelled out from earth and sea and stars. Accepted at first tentatively, even by men of science, it is not to be wondered at that theologians were for a time unwilling to give up the reading which had held the ground so long. They therefore adopted the policy which is always followed in similar circumstances—compromise and adjustment. Thus intervened the interregnum of the reconcilers, De Luc, Kurtz, Pye-Smith, Hugh Miller, Chalmers, and a hundred others whom we need not name. The man who speaks of the labors of these workers without respect has no acquaintance with the methods by which truth, or error, is ascertained. It was necessary that that mine should be worked, and worked out. Whatever fundamental error underlay it, it was done with reverence, with courage, often with learning and with eloquence, A whole literature sprang up around the reconstruction, and one good end was at least secured—science was ardently studied by the Church. But the failure of the new method was a foregone conclusion, and those who sailed on this shallow sea one by one ran aground. This was a moment of peril—one of those moments which always come when truth is in the making, and which, honestly accepted, lead to new departures in the direction where the true light is ultimately found. The wise among the harmonists accepted the situation, though some of them did not know where next to turn. But deliverance swiftly came, and from an unlooked-for quarter.

For meantime in Germany and England, in a wholly different department of theology, another science was at work. Apart from any questions of doctrinal detail, the young science of Biblical Criticism was beginning to inquire into the composition, meaning, method, and aims of the sacred books. It dealt with these books, in the first instance, simply as literature. Questions of age, authorship, and literary form were for the first time investigated by qualified experts. And the result of these labors—labors in the truest sense scientific—is that these sacred writings are now regarded by theology from a wholly changed stand-point. Now from this stand-point the problem of the reconciliation of Genesis with geology simply disappears. The probable scientific solution, the possibility or impossibility of a harmony—the very statement becomes an absurdity. The question, in fact, is as irrelevant as that of the senior wrangler who asked what Milton's "Paradise Lost" was meant to prove. This is of course the true method of dealing with old theories. Beaten in argument, they will surely rise again; outgrown, they are forever dead. And this is the hallmark of all true science, that it destroys by fulfilling.

However it may have escaped recognition, it is certain that theology has been at work for some time now with methods of inquiry similar to those employed by natural science. And it has already partially succeeded in working out a reconstruction of some important departments from the stand-point of development. If the student of science will now apply to theology for its Bible, two very different books will be laid before him.

The one is the Bible as it was accepted by our forefathers; the other is the Bible of modern theology. The books, the chapters, the verses, and the words are the same in each, yet in the meaning, the interpretation, and the way in which they are looked at, they are two entirely distinct Bibles. The distinction between them is one which science will appreciate the moment it is stated. In point of fact, the one is constructed like the world according to the old cosmogonies; the other is an evolution. The one represents revelation as having been produced on the creative hypothesis, the Divine-fiat hypothesis, the ready-made hypothesis; the other on the slow-growth or evolution theory. This last—the Bible of development—is the Bible of modern scientific theology. It is not less authoritative than the first, but it is differently authoritative; not less inspired, it is yet differently inspired.

From its stand-point the Bible has not been made in a day, any more than the earth; nor have its parts been introduced mechanically into the minds of certain men, any more than the cells of their brain. In uttering it they have not spoken as mere automata—the men, though inspired, were authors. This Bible has not been given independently of time, of place, or of circumstance. It is not to be read without the philosophic sense which distinguishes the provisional from the eternal; the historic sense, which separates the local from the universal; or the literary sense, which recognizes prose from poetry, imagery from science. The modern Bible is a book whose parts, though not of unequal value, are seen to be of different kinds of value; where the casual is distinguished from the essential, the subordinate from the primal end. This Bible is not an oracle which has been erected; it has grown. Hence it is no longer a mere word-book, nor a compendium of doctrines, but a nursery of growing truths. It is not an even plane of proof-texts without proportion or emphasis, or light and shade, but a revelation varied as Nature, with the divine in its hidden parts, in its spirit, its tendencies, its obscurities, and its omissions. Like Nature, it has successive strata, and valley and hilltop, and mist and atmosphere, and rivers which are flowing still, and hidden ores, and here and there a place which is desert, and fossils too, whose crude forms are the stepping-stones to higher things. In a word, this Bible is like the world in which it is found, natural, human, intelligible in form; mysterious, inscrutable, divine in origin and essence.

With so living a book, theology has again become living. A whole cloud of problems, perplexities, anomalies, and doubts fall before it. No formal indictment is drawn against older views; difficulties are not examined and answered in detail. Before the new stand-point they disappear of themselves. Men who are in revolt against many creeds breathe again in this larger atmosphere and believe afresh, satisfying their reason and keeping their self-respect. For scientific theology no more pledges itself to-day to the interpretations of the Bible of a thousand years ago than does science to the interpretations of Nature in the time of Pythagoras. Nature is the same to-day as in the time of Pythagoras, and the Bible is the same to-day as a thousand years ago. But the Pythagorean interpretation of Nature is not more impossible to the modern mind than are many ancient interpretations—those of Genesis among others—to the scientific theologian.

This is no forced attempt, observe, to evade a scientific difficulty by concessions so vital as to make the loss or gain of the position of no importance. This change is not the product of any destructive criticism, nor is this transformed book in any sense a mutilated Bible. It is the natural result of the application of ordinary critical methods to documents which, sooner or later, must have submitted to the process and from which they have never claimed exemption.

But to return to Genesis. Those modern critics, believing or unbelieving, who have studied the Biblical books as literature—studied them, for instance, as Professor Dowden has studied Shakespeare—concur in pronouncing the Bible absolutely free from natural science. They find there history, poetry, moral philosophy, theology, lives and letters, mystical, devotional, and didactic pieces; but science there is none. Natural objects are, of course, repeatedly referred to, and with unsurpassed sympathy and accuracy of observation; but neither in the intention of any of the innumerable authors nor in the execution of their work is there any direct trace of scientific teaching. Could any one with any historic imagination for a moment expect that there would have been? There was no science then. Scientific questions were not even asked then. To have given men science would not only have been an anachronism, but a source of mystification and confusion all along the line. The almost painful silence—indeed, the absolute sterility—of the Bible with regard to science is so marked as to have led men to question the very beneficence of God. Why was not the use of the stars explained to navigators, or chloroform to surgeons? Why is a man left to die on the hill-side when the medicinal plant which could save him, did he but know it, lies at his feet? What is it to early man to know how the moon was made? What he wants to know is how bread is made. How fish are to be caught, fowls snared, beasts trapped and their skins tanned—these are his problems. Doubtless there are valid reasons why the Bible does not contain a technological dictionary and a pharmacopoeia, or anticipate the "Encyclopædia Britannica." But that it does not inform us on these practical matters is surely a valid argument why we should not expect it to instruct the world in geology. Mr. Huxley is particular to point out to us that the bat and the Pterodactyl must be classified under the "winged fowl" of Genesis, while at a stretch he believes the cockroach might also be included. But we should not wonder if the narrator did not think of this.

Scientific men, apparently, need this warning, not less than those whom they punish for neglecting it. How ignorantly, often, the genius of the Bible is comprehended by those who are loudest in their denunciations of its positions otherwise, is typically illustrated in the following passage from Haeckel. Having in an earlier paragraph shown a general harmony between the Mosaic cosmogony and his own theory of creation, he proceeds to extract out of Genesis nothing less than the evolution theory, and that in its last and highest developments:

Two great and fundamental ideas, common also to the non-miraculous theory of development, meet us in this Mosaic hypothesis of creation with surprising clearness and simplicity—the idea of separation or differentiation, and the idea of progressive development or perfecting. Although Moses looks upon the results of the great laws of organic development. . . as the direct actions of a constructing Creator, yet in his theory there lies hidden the ruling idea of a progressive development and a differentiation of the originally simple matter.[2]

With the next breath this interpreter of Genesis exposes "two great fundamental errors" in the same chapter of the book in which he has just discovered the most scientific phases of the evolution hypothesis, and which lead him to express for Moses "just wonder and admiration." What can be the matter with this singular book? Why is it science to Haeckel one minute and error the next? Why are Haeckel and Mr. Huxley not agreed, if it is science? Why are Haeckel and Mr. Gladstone agreed, if it is religion? If Mr. Huxley does not agree with Haeckel why does he not agree with Mr. Gladstone?

George MacDonald has an exquisite little poem called "Baby's Catechism." It occurs among his children's pieces:

Where did you come from, baby dear?
Out of the everywhere into here.

Where did you get your eyes so blue?
Out of the sky as I came through.

Where did you get that little tear?
I found it waiting when I got here.

Where did you get that pearly ear?
God spoke, and it came out to hear.

Now did they nil just come to be you?
God thought about mo and so I grew.

For its purpose what could be a finer, or even a more true, account of the matter than this? Without a word of literal truth in it, it would convey to the child's mind exactly the right impression. Now conceive of the head nurse banishing it from the nursery as calculated to mislead the children as to the origin of blue eyes. Or imagine the nursery governess who has passed the South Kensington examination in Mr. Huxley's "Physiology" informing her pupils that ears never "came out" at all, and that hearing was really done inside, by the fibers of Corti and the epithelial arrangements of the maculæ acusticæ. Is it conceivable, on the other hand, that the parish clergyman could defend the record on the ground that "the everywhere" was a philosophical presentation of the Almighty, or that "God thought about me" contained the Hegelian Idea? And yet this is precisely what interpreters of Genesis and interpreters of science do with the Bible. Genesis is a presentation of one or two great elementary truths to the childhood of the world. It can only be read aright in the spirit in which it was written, with its original purpose in view, and its original audience. "What did it mean to them?" What would they understand by it? What did they need to know and not to know?

To expand the constructive answers to these questions in detail does not fall within our province here. What we have to note is, that a scientific theory of the universe formed no part of the original writer's intention. Dating from the childhood of the world, written for children, and for that child-spirit in man which remains unchanged by time, it takes color and shape accordingly. Its object is purely religious, the point being, not how certain things were made, but that God made them. It is not dedicated to science, but to the soul. It is a sublime theology, given in view of ignorance or idolatry or polytheism, telling the worshipful youth of the world that the heavens and the earth and every creeping and flying thing were made by God. What world-spirit teaches men to finger its fluid numbers like a science catalogue, and discuss its days in terms of geological formations? What blindness pursues them, that they mark the things he made only with their museum-labels, and think they have exhausted its contribution when they have never even been within sight of it? This is not even atheism. It is simple illiterateness.

The first principle which must rule our reading of this book is the elementary canon of all literary criticism, which decides that any interpretation of a part of a book or of a literature must be controlled by the dominant purpose or motif of the whole. And, when one investigates 'that dominant purpose in the case of the Bible, he finds it reducing itself to one thing—religion. No matter what view is taken of the composition or authorship of the several books, this feature secures immediate and universal recognition.

Mais s'il en est ainsi (says Lenormant), me demandera-t-on peut-être, Où done voyez-vous l'inspiration divine des écrivains qui ont fait cette archéologie, le secours surnaturel dont, comme chrétien, vous devez les croire guidés? Oh? Dans l'esprit absolument nouveau qui anime leur narration, bien que la forme en soit restée presque de tout point la même que chez les peuples voisins.[3] [Trans.—But if it is so, I may be asked, where, then, do you see the divine inspiration of the writers who made this archæology, the supernatural aid by which you, as a Christian, must believe they were guided? Where? In the absolutely new spirit that animates their narration, although the form of it may still be in almost every point the same as with the neighboring peoples.]

A second principle is expressed with such appositeness to the present purpose, by an English commentator, that his words may be given at length:

There is a principle frequently insisted on, scarcely denied by any, yet recognized with sufficient clearness by few of the advocates of revelation, which, if fully and practically recognized, would have saved themselves much perplexity and vexation, and the cause they have at heart the disgrace with which it has been covered by the futile attempts that have been made, through provisional and shifting interpretations, to reconcile the Mosaic Genesis with the rapidly advancing strides of physical science. The principle referred to is this: matters which are discoverable by human reason, and the means of investigation which God has put within the reach of man's faculties, are not the proper subjects of Divine revelation; and matters which do not concern morals, or bear on man's spiritual relations toward God, are not within the province of revealed religion.[4]

Here lies the whole matter. It is involved in the mere meaning of revelation, and proved by its whole expression, that its subject-matter is that which men could not find out for themselves. Men could find out the order in which the world was made. What they could not find out was, that God made it. To this day they have not found that out. Even some of the wisest of our contemporaries, after trying to find that out for half a lifetime, have been forced to give it up. Hence the true function of revelation. Nature in Genesis has no link with geology, seeks none and needs none: man has no link with biology, and misses none. What he really needs and really misses—for he can get it nowhere else—Genesis gives him; it links Nature and man with their Maker. And this is the one high sense in which Genesis can be said to be scientific. The scientific man must go there to complete his science, or it remains forever incomplete. Let him no longer resort thither to attack what is not really there. What is really there he can not attack, for he can not do without it. Nor let religion plant positions there which can only keep science out. Then only can the interpreters of Nature and the interpreters of Genesis understand each other.—Nineteenth Century.

  1. Of course, in commentaries written by experts for popular uses, the condemnatory evidence from natural science is sometimes formally cited in stating the case against the reconcilers generally. From one of the most recent, as well as most able, of these we quote the following passage, in which Mr. Huxley is anticipated in so many words. It is here seen, not only that theology "knew all this before," but how completely it has abandoned the position against which Mr. Huxley's counter-statements are directed: "This narrative is not careful to follow the actual order in which life appeared on the globe: it affirms, e. g., that fruit-trees existed before the sun was made; science can tell us of no such vegetation. It tells us that the birds were created in the fifth day, the reptiles in the sixth; Nature herself tells a different tale, and assures us that creeping things appeared before the flying fowl. But the most convincing proof of the regardlessness of scientific accuracy shown by this writer is found in the fact that in the second chapter he gives a different account from that which he has given in the first, and an account irreconcilable with physical facts. . . . He represents the creation of man as preceding the creation of the lower animals—an order which both the first chapter and physical science assure us was not the actual order observed. . . . It seems to me, therefore, a mistaken and dangerous attempt which is often made to reconcile the account of physical facts given here with that given in Nature herself. These accounts disagree in the date or distance from the present time to which the work of creation is assigned, in the length of time which the preparation of the world for man is said to have occupied, and in the order in which life is introduced into the world."—"Genesis," by Marcus Dods, D. D. Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1882.
  2. Haeckel, "History of Creation," vol. i, p. 38.
  3. "Les Origines de l'Histoire," Préf., xviii.
  4. Quarry, "Genesis," pp. 12, 13.