Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/September 1899/Correspondence



Editor Popular Science Monthly;

Sir: I have read with great interest an article in the July number of your Monthly entitled Scientific Method and its Application to the Bible. So far as I am able to understand the writer's views, I must certainly decline to accept some of his conclusions. The vital teaching of his paper appears to me to be this: it is proper to apply scientific methods to the study of the Bible so far as to inquire into its structure, the date of its composition, its composite authorship and the sources from which it was compiled, and the names of its authors; but certain truths are distinctly taught in it of a supernatural character which must be accepted because they are a revelation of God's will, and not because they are found to be true by intellectual apprehension and logical reasoning. Indeed, to think of understanding them by intellectual processes is "unscientific beyond hope of pardon."

It is conceded that "the stifling of thought and of investigation into what might lead men away from the truth and the faith once delivered to the saints" was instrumental in causing the barrenness in scientific work for twelve hundred years of the middle ages, between Hipparchus and Copernicus, and that "the same causes are more or less at work at all times to hinder the growth of science and the extension of scientific method." He still, however, insists that there is limitation to human inquiry and ecclesiastical bounds beyond which thought must not go. There are still revelations of truths which the intellect can not perceive, and which can only be understood by "an exercise of faith." It is no longer the Mosaic line which scientists are forbidden to cross, but the "spiritual verities" must not be questioned. There are some revelations which, in the language of Huxley, "they are to hold for the certainest of truths, to be doubted only at the peril of their salvation."

Was it not Martin Luther who called Copernicus a "fool" for trying "to reverse the entire science of astronomy" in the face of revealed truths? "To accept the truth as revealed by God and to acquiesce in it is the part of a good mind," said Melanchthon in condemning Copernicus. "Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?" said Calvin. Verily, his unpardonable sin was "investigating the truths which are distinctly taught in the Bible," which required an "exercise of faith" and were not to be "apprehended intellectually."

The question seems a reasonable one to ask. To what authority shall we look for knowledge and interpretation of these spiritual truths which are not accessible by scientific study? How shall we know that they are truths at all? I am aware that here the testimony of Christian conscientiousness is sometimes held to be the court of last resort, which I interpret to mean that if one intuitively reaches the conclusion that something is true it is true, the most positive evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Certainly, no other fact is better established in all human history than the truth of witchcraft, if we admit the potency of this authority. If we reject this, must we not then fall back upon ecclesiastical infallibility as the final interpreter of truth? And this the essayist, in his paper, declines to argue.

Now, can there be any such thing as scientific investigation within such prescribed limitations? Or scientific study of the Bible itself which excludes from its province the so-called spiritual revelations which it contains? One might naturally think that the primary purpose of all the critical study of the books, authors, and structure of the Bible was to learn just what these distinct truths it teaches are. But what bearing can this study have upon the question, being but an intellectual process with which the essential truths are disconnected, which only come by revelation?

Higher criticism can not hold permanently such an untenable position. It must either go backward to an infallible book, or an infallible interpretation of it by authority, or it must go forward to the consideration of the Bible as a collection of books of ancient literature, to be examined without restrictions. The truths which it contains are to be ascertained by "apprehending intellectually" and "reasoning logically," in the same manner as with other books written by religious leaders in ancient times. Any halting between these two positions is only for temporary rest. No permanent foothold can ever be gained on such a foundation of quicksand. An impassable dead line in biblical study is indicative of the theological and not the scientific method.

Lewis Dayton Burdick.
McDonough, N.Y.


Editor Popular Science Monthly:

Sir: A correspondent, Mr. C. Wood Davis, of Peotone, Kansas, appears to think it his duty to prove that we can not produce wheat enough in this country to meet our own future demands, and apparently regards it as a personal matter when any one contests this position. He also thinks he has found a small error in long division in the last article which you printed from me on this question which I can not find, but which if found and corrected would have no influence on the general argument.

He also rebukes me in a most earnest manner for the alleged misuse of the chemical term "phosphate of potash," which crept into my article in connection with the right use of the term "phosphate of lime," when I referred to the mineral phosphates of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida. Technically he is apparently right. There is no permanent form or no natural mineral form of phosphate of potash which can be removed from place to place. Yet my article was revised by an experienced geologist, thoroughly familiar with the chemistry of the soil, before I sent it to you, and he failed to correct this technical error. My own knowledge of chemistry is very limited.

It might be inferred, as my irascible correspondent points out, from the manner in which I have called attention to the deposits of mineral phosphates in Kentucky and Tennessee, that I thought these deposits would yield phosphates of lime and phosphates of potash each in a separate movable form, which could not be a fact. Yet my critic will doubtless admit that the soils of many parts of this country are stocked with potash sufficient for a very long period.

Many years ago, when I began the study of the cotton plant and its growth, under the leadership of the late Prof. William B. Rogers, I made reference to the existence of the vast supplies of phosphate of lime and potash, which are necessary to the growth of the cotton plant, in the Southern soils. I derived my conception of their origin in the lowlands and plateaus in marine formations from Professor Rogers, and also from the works of Professor Shaler, One may also impute the large amount of potash that is found in the valleys and mountain lands to the disintegration of the gneiss and other rocks of the Appalachian chain, which have never been washed out by glacial action or by glacial streams. If any one has been misled by this slight misuse of chemical terms it may be well to state that phosphate of potash does not exist, and I am told that it can not exist, in a separate removable form.

We have not as yet discovered any large deposit or mine like that of Stassfurt, in Prussia, yielding potash in a commercial form in which it can be widely distributed. We import annually thousands of tons of potash from Stassfurt. This deposit was discovered, as I am informed, by accident, and it may be hoped that a similar accident may occur in this country. These mines were originally opened for the production of salt. In boring for salt the product of a stratum above or below the salt, I know not which, was brought up, which was thrown aside as worthless until an inquisitive visiting chemist examined it and thus discovered this great source of potash. We possess enormous beds of salt, of soda, and of alkalies, scattered throughout the area of this country, in connection with which it may be hoped that we may hereafter discover a deposit of mineral potash, or of the mineral from which potash may be derived cheaply and in large quantities.

These two exceptions which have been taken to my article have no real connection with the substance of the argument, which stands independently either of the undiscoverable error in long division or of the technical fault in the use of the term "phosphate of potash." Yours very truly,

Edward Atkinson.
Boston, June 7, 1899.