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A Doubter's Doubts About Science and Religion 7: The Cosmogeny of Genesis

By Robert Anderson


      I AVOW myself a believer in the Scriptures, and if a personal reference may be pardoned, I would say that my faith is not to be accounted for either by want of thought, or by ignorance of the objections and difficulties which have been urged by scientists and sceptics. But just as the studies which charm the naturalist are an unknown world to those who are ignorant of the book of nature, so also the elements which make the Bible a fascinating volume to the believer do not exist for those who fail to possess the clew to its mysteries. " Truth brings out the hidden harmony, where unbelief can only with a dull dogmatism deny."

      These words are Pusey's. And in the same connection he says in effect that the Bible is its own defence, the part of the apologist being merely to beat off attacks.

      And it is in the spirit of these words that I would deal with the present question. Nor will it be difficult to show that while among scientists generally the cosmogony of Genesis is "a principal subject of ridicule," their laughter may not, after all, be the outcome of superior wisdom.

      It would be interesting and instructive to recapitulate the controversy on this subject, and to mark the various positions which have been successively occupied or abandoned by the disputants, as one or another of the fluctuating theories of science has gained prominence, or newly found fossils have added to "the testimony of the rocks." But I will content myself with recalling the main incidents of the last great tournament upon "the proem to Genesis." I allude to the discussion between Mr. Gladstone and Professor Huxley in the pages of the Nineteenth Century some twenty years ago.

      In The Dawn of Creation and Worship Mr. Gladstone sought to establish the claims of the Book of Genesis to be a Divine revelation, by showing that the order of creation as there recorded has been "so affirmed in our time by natural science that it may be taken as a demonstrated conclusion and established fact." Mr. Huxley's main assault upon this position was apparently successful. His main assault, I say, because his collateral arguments were not always worthy of him. His contention, for example, that the creation of the "air population" was contemporaneous with that of the "water population" depends upon the quibble that both took place within four and twenty hours.

      Mr. Gladstone proclaimed that science and Genesis were perfectly in accord as regards the order in which life appeared upon our globe. To which Mr. Huxley replied as follows:

      "It is agreed on all hands that terrestrial lizards and other reptiles allied to lizards occur in the Permian strata. It is further agreed that the Triassic strata were deposited after these. Moreover, it is well known that, even if certain footprints are to be taken as unquestionable evidence of the existence of birds, they are not known to occur in rocks earlier than the Trias, while indubitable remains of birds are to be met with only much later. Hence it follows that natural science does not 'affirm ' the statement that birds were made on the fifth day, and 'everything that creepeth on the ground' on the sixth, on which Mr. Gladstone rests his order; for, as is shown by Leviticus, the 'Mosaic writer' includes lizards among his 'creeping things.'"

      The following is the quotation from Leviticus above referred to :-

      "And these are they which are unclean unto you among the creeping things that creep upon the earth; the weasel, and the mouse, and the great lizard after its kind, and the gecko, and the land-crocodile, and the lizard, and the sand-lizard, and the chameleon. These are they which are unclean unto you among all that creep."

      "The merest Sunday-school exegesis, therefore" (Mr. Huxley urged) "suffices to prove that when the Mosaic writer in Gen. 1: 24 speaks of creeping things he means to include lizards among them."

      A charming specimen this certainly is of "the merest Sunday-school exegesis." The argument, which so completely satisfied its author and embarrassed his opponent is nothing but an ad capiandum appeal to the chance rendering of our English Bible. If the disputants had referred the question to some more erudite authority than the Sunday-school, they would have discovered that the word translated "creeping thing" in the eleventh chapter of Leviticus has no affinity whatever with the word so rendered in the twenty-fourth verse of the first chapter of Genesis, whereas it is the identical word which our translators have rendered "moving creature" in the twentieth verse which records the first appearance of animal life.'

      Science proclaims the seniority of land reptiles in the genesis of life on earth, and the despised Book of Genesis records that "creeping things," which, as Huxley insisted, must include land reptiles, were the first "moving creatures" which the Creator's fiat called into existence. "Hoist with his own petard" may therefore tersely describe the result of Huxley's attack.

      With his old-world courtesy Mr. Gladstone proposed a reference to a distinguished American scientist. "There is no one," Mr. Huxley replied, "to whose authority I am more readily disposed to bow than that of my eminent friend Professor Dana." And Professor Dana's decision, in the following words, was published in the Nineteenth Century for August, 1886 " I agree in all essential points with Mr. Gladstone, and I believe that the first chapter of Genesis and science are in accord."

      But this is not all. Six years later I challenged Mr. Huxley on this subject in the columns of the Times newspaper. He sought to evade the issue by pleading that the real question involved was that of the supernatural versus evolution. This evoked a powerful letter from the late Duke of Argyll, denouncing the reference to the supernatural as savouring of "bad science and worse philosophy," and warning Mr. Huxley that in the new position in which he sought to take refuge "he would not have the support of the most eminent men of science in the United Kingdom." In a final letter I restated the question, and again challenged Mr. Huxley either to establish or to abandon his contention that Genesis and science were in antagonism. His only reply was a letter suggesting, in his grandest style, that the public were tired of the controversy. But it was not the public that were tired of it.

      The fact remains that Mr. Gladstone's position stands unshaken. The fact remains that one who has had no equal in this age as a scientific controversialist entered the lists to attack it, and retired discomfited and discredited. Mr. Gladstone's thesis, therefore, holds the field. "The order of creation as recorded in Genesis has been so affirmed in our time by natural science that it may be taken as a demonstrated conclusion and established fact." Are we then to conclude that when Genesis was written biological science was as enlightened and as far advanced as it is to-day? Or shall we adopt the more reasonable alternative, that "the Mosaic narrative" is a Divine revelation? (I cannot refrain from adding the following extract from a letter I received from Mr. Gladstone after the Times correspondence closed "As to the chapter itself" (Gen. i.), "I do not regard it merely as a defensible point in a circle of fortifications, but as a grand foundation of the entire fabric of the Holy Scriptures.")

      All this of course will weigh nothing with men who have prejudged the question. First, there are the religious teachers of that school whose role it appears to be to import the raw material of German rationalism and to retail it with a veneer of British piety to suit the British market. And, secondly, there are the scientists of the materialistic school, to whom the very name of God is intolerable.

      A few years since, Lord Kelvin's dictum, already quoted,' gave these men an opportunity of "glorying in their shame"; and they eagerly availed themselves of it. His assertion that "scientific thought" compelled belief in God set the whole pack in full cry. The acknowledgment even of "a directive force," they declared, "in effect wipes out the whole position won for us by Darwin." This clearly indicates that the only value they put upon their hypothesis is that it enables them to get rid of God; and if it fails of this it is, in their estimation, worthless. What must be the moral, or indeed the intellectual condition of men who regard the negation of God as "a position won for them"!'

      But, it may be asked, what about evolution? The materialistic evolution of Herbert Spencer is as dead as its author. And even Darwin's more enlightened biological scheme is now discredited. For it is recognised that something more than Darwinism offers is needed to account for the phenomena of life. The evolution hypothesis is thoroughly philosophical; and that is all that can be said for it, for it is unproved and seemingly incapable of proof. That "creative power" may have worked in this way may be conceded. But if so, the process must have been divinely controlled and strictly limited. This much is made clear both by the facts of Nature and the statements of Scripture; but beyond this we cannot go.

      "Evolution is an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion, during which the matter passes from an indefinite incoherent homogeneity to a definite coherent heterogeneity, and during which the retained motion undergoes a parallel transformation." If this cacophonous sentence be translated into English, it will be found to contain some element of truth. Herbert Spencer does not here pretend, as the careless reader of his philosophy might suppose, that matter itself is capable of producing any such results. Every change is due to motion, and behind motion is the power which causes it. What and where that power is, Herbert Spencer cannot tell. He calls it Force, but he might just as well term it Jupiter or Baal. Were he to assert that it is unknown, no one could object, however much he differed from him. But with the aggressive insolence of unbelief he declares it to be "unknowable," thus shutting the door for ever against all religion. The Christian recognises the force, and the effects it has produced, and he refers all to God. He allows a pristine condition of matter described by the philosopher as "an indefinite incoherent homogeneity"; but as an alternative formula for expressing this he confidently offers both to the simple and the learned the well-known words, "The earth was waste and void." As he goes on to consider the" integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion," "And God said" is his method of accounting for the phenomena. The philosopher admits that not even the slightest change can have taken place save as a result of some new impulse imparted by Inscrutable Force. The Christian, in a spirit of still higher philosophy, accounts for every change by Divine intervention. It is thus that he explains the " coherent heterogeneity" -or, to translate these words into the vernacular, the exquisite order and variety of nature.

      Here I turn to the narrative. The earth existed, but it was "desolate and empty," a mere waste of waters, wrapped in impenetrable darkness. The changes recorded are, first, the dawn of light, and then the formation of an atmosphere, followed by the retreat of the waters to their ocean bed; then "the dry land" became clothed with verdure, and sun and moon and stars appeared. The laughter formerly excited by the idea of light apart from the sun has died away with increasing knowledge; and, in our ignorance of the characteristics of that primeval light, it is idle to discuss the third-day vegetation. It may possibly have been the "rank and luxuriant herbage" of which our coal-beds have been formed; for one statement in the narrative seems strongly to favour the suggestion that our present vegetation dates only from the fifth or sixth day.'

      But this brings up the question, What was the creation day? No problem connected with the cosmogony has greater interest and importance; none is beset with greater difficulties. The passage itself seems clearly to indicate that the word is used in a symbolic sense. When dealing with a period before man existed to mark the shadow on the dial, and before the sun could have cast that shadow, it is not easy to appreciate the reason, or indeed the meaning, of such a division of time as our natural day.

      "Days and years and seasons" seem plainly to belong to our present solar system, and this is the express teaching of the fourteenth verse.'

      The problem may be stated thus: As man is to God, so his day of four and twenty hours is to the Divine day of creation. Possibly indeed the "evening and morning" represent the interval of cessation from work, which succeeds and completes the day. The words are, "And there was evening, and there was morning, one day." The symbolism is maintained throughout. As man's working day is brought to a close by evening, which ushers in a period of repose, lasting till morning calls him back to his daily toil, so the great Artificer is represented as turning aside from His work at the end of each "day" of creation and again resuming it when another morning dawned.

      Is not this entirely in keeping with the mode in which Scripture speaks of God? It tells us of his mouth and eyes and nostrils, His hand and arm. It speaks of His sitting in the heavens, and bowing Himself to hear the prayer ascending from the earth. It talks of His repenting and being angry. And if any one cavils at this he may fairly be asked, In what other language could God speak to men?

      Nor let any one fall back on the figment that a Divine day is a period of a thousand years. With God, we are told, a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. In a word, the seeming paradox of the tran-scendental philosophy is endorsed by the express teaching of Scripture that time is a law of human thought. When, therefore, God speaks of working for six days and resting on the seventh, we must understand the words in the same symbolic sense as when He declares that His hand has made all these things.'

      But the mention of the creation sabbath is the crowning proof of the symbolic character of the creation "day." God "rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made." Are we, then, to suppose that He resumed the work when four and twenty hours had passed? Here, at least, revelation and science are at one: the creation sabbath has continued during all the ages of historic time. God is active in His universe, pace the atheist and the infidel, but the CREATOR rests. Having regard then to the admitted fact that the creation sabbath is a vast period of time, surely the working days of creation must be estimated on the same system.

      My object here, however, is not to frame a system of interpretation, but rather to enter a protest against confounding the express teaching of Scripture with any system of interpretation whatever. Nor am I attempting to prove the inspiration, or even the truth of Scripture. My aim is merely to "beat off attacks." I hold myself clear of the sin of Uzzah. I am not putting my hand upon the ark: as Dante pleaded, I am dealing with the oxen that are shaking the ark- unintelligent creatures who have no sense of its sanctity, or even of its worth.

      And here I am reminded of Huxley's words, "that it is vain to discuss a supposed coincidence between Genesis and science unless we have first settled, on the one hand, what Genesis says and, on the other, what science says." This is admirable. Let us distinguish, therefore, between "what Genesis says" and what men say about Genesis. And let us not be either misled or alarmed by attacks upon the Mosaie cosmogony, based on "the merest Sunday-school exegesis" on the one hand, or on the theories of science on the other. The facts of science in no way clash with Scripture. And as the prince of living scientists declares- I quote Lord Kelvin's words again-" scientific thought is compelled to accept the idea of creative power."

      Of the origin of our world the first chapter of Genesis tells us nothing save that "in the beginning," whenever that was, God" created" it. It may be, as Tyndall said in his Belfast address, that "for eons embracing untold millions of years, this earth has been the theatre of life and death." But as to this the "Mosaic narrative" is silent. It deals merely with the renewing and refurnishing of our planet as a home for man. And this, moreover, to prepare the foundation for the supreme revelation of redemption. Let the authority of Scripture be undermined, and the whole fabric of the Christian system is destroyed. But in these easy-going days the majority of "those who profess and call themselves Christians," being wholly destitute of the enthusiasm of faith, are helpless when confronted by the dogmatism of unbelief. It is a day of opinions, not of faith, and widespread apostasy is the natural result.

      (Footnote - While correcting the proofs of these pages I have received a newspaper report of a sermon preached by the Bishop of Manchester in his Cathedral, in which he justifies the rejection of Gen. i., because "it seems to be an intellectual impossibility that God should reveal to man an exact account of the creation of the universe." But there is not a word in Gen. i. about "the creation of the universe," save in the opening sentence. The word " create" is not used again till we come to the work of the fifth and sixth " days" (verses 21 and 27). And when it is said that God " made" the two great lights and the stars, the word is the same as that used elsewhere of "making" a feast. And when it is said that He "set" them in the heavens, it is the same word as is used of "appointing" cities of refuge. (See Appendix, Note I.) The inference to be drawn from this I cannot discuss here. But it shows that Huxley was right: "What Genesis says" is but little understood.

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