Chapter 1 - From Creation to Evolution
The Visible Universe
Among those masses of cathedral sculpture
which preserve so much of medieval theology, one frequently recurring group is
noteworthy for its presentment of a time-honoured doctrine regarding the origin
of the universe.
The Almighty, in human form, sits benignly, making the sun, moon, and stars,
and hanging them from the solid firmament which supports the "heaven
above" and overarches the "earth beneath."
The furrows of thought on the Creator's brow show that in this work he is
obliged to contrive; the knotted muscles upon his arms show that he is obliged
to toil; naturally, then, the sculptors and painters of the medieval and early
modern period frequently represented him as the writers whose conceptions they
embodied had done - as, on the seventh day, weary after thought and toil,
enjoying well-earned repose and the plaudits of the hosts of heaven.
In these thought-fossils of the cathedrals, and in other revelations of the
same idea through sculpture, painting, glass-staining, mosaic work, and
engraving, during the Middle Ages and the two centuries following, culminated a
belief which had been developed through thousands of years, and which has
determined the world's thought until our own time.
Its beginnings lie far back in human history; we find them among the early
records of nearly all the great civilizations, and they hold a most prominent
place in the various sacred books of the world. In nearly all of them is
revealed the conception of a Creator of whom man is an imperfect image, and who
literally and directly created the visible universe with his hands and fingers.
Among these theories, of especial interest to us are those which controlled
theological thought in Chaldea. The Assyrian inscriptions which have been
recently recovered and given to the English-speaking peoples by Layard, George
Smith, Sayce, and others, show that in the ancient religions of Chaldea and
Babylonia there was elaborated a narrative of the creation which, in its most
important features, must have been the source of that in our own sacred books.
It has now become perfectly clear that from the same sources which inspired the
accounts of the creation of the universe among the Chaldeo-Babylonian, the
Assyrian, the Phoenician, and other ancient civilizations came the ideas which
hold so prominent a place in the sacred books of the Hebrews. In the two
accounts imperfectly fused together in Genesis, and also in the account of
which we have indications in the book of Job and in the Proverbs, there, is
presented, often with the greatest sublimity, the same early conception of the
Creator and of the creation - the conception, so natural in the childhood of
civilization, of a Creator who is an enlarged human being working literally
with his own hands, and of a creation which is "the work of his
fingers." To supplement this view there was developed the belief in this
Creator as one who, having
"from his ample palm
Launched forth the rolling planets into space."
sits on high, enthroned "upon the circle of the heavens," perpetually
controlling and directing them.
From this idea of creation was evolved in time a somewhat nobler view. Ancient
thinkers, and especially, as is now found, in Egypt, suggested that the main
agency in creation was not the hands and fingers of the Creator, but his
voice. Hence was mingled with the earlier, cruder belief regarding the
origin of the earth and heavenly bodies by the Almighty the more impressive
idea that "he spake and they were made" - that they were brought into
existence by his word.
Among the early fathers of the Church this general view of creation became
fundamental; they impressed upon Christendom more and more strongly the belief
that the universe was created in a perfectly literal sense by the hands or
voice of God. Here and there sundry theologians of larger mind attempted to
give a more spiritual view regarding some parts of the creative work, and of
these were St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Augustine. Ready as they were to accept
the literal text of Scripture, they revolted against the conception of an
actual creation of the universe by the hands and fingers of a Supreme Being,
and in this they were followed by Bede and a few others; but the more material
conceptions prevailed, and we find these taking shape not only in the
sculptures and mosaics and stained glass of cathedrals, and in the
illuminations of missals and psalters, but later, at the close of the Middle
Ages, in the pictured Bibles and in general literature.
Into the Anglo-Saxon mind this ancient material conception of the creation was
riveted by two poets whose works appealed especially to the deeper religious
feelings. In the seventh century Caedmon paraphrased the account given in
Genesis, bringing out this material conception in the most literal form; and a
thousand years later Milton developed out of the various statements in the Old
Testament, mingled with a theology regarding "the creative Word"
which had been drawn from the New, his description of the creation by the
second person in the Trinity, than which nothing could be more literal and
"He took the golden compasses, prepared
In God's eternal store, to circumscribe
This universe and all created things.
One foot he centred, and the other turned
Round through the vast profundity obscure,
And said, `Thus far extend, thus far thy bounds:
This be thy just circumference, O world!' "
So much for the orthodox view of the manner of creation.
The next point developed in this theologic evolution had reference to the
matter of which the universe was made, and it was decided by an
overwhelming majority that no material substance existed before the creation of
the material universe - that "God created everything out of nothing."
Some venturesome thinkers, basing their reasoning upon the first verses of
Genesis, hinted at a different view - namely, that the mass, "without form
and void," existed before the universe; but this doctrine was soon swept
out of sight. The vast majority of the fathers were explicit on this point.
Tertullian especially was very severe against those who took any other view
than that generally accepted as orthodox: he declared that, if there had been
any pre-existing matter out of which the world was formed, Scripture would have
mentioned it; that by not mentioning it God has given us a clear proof that
there was no such thing; and, after a manner not unknown in other theological
controversies, he threatens Hermogenes, who takes the opposite view, with the
woe which impends on all who add to or take away from the written word."
St. Augustine, who showed signs of a belief in a pre-existence of matter, made
his peace with the prevailing belief by the simple reasoning that,
"although the world has been made of some material, that very same
material must have been made out of nothing."
In the wake of these great men the universal Church steadily followed. The
Fourth Lateran Council declared that God created everything out of nothing; and
at the present hour the vast majority of the faithful - whether Catholic or
Protestant - are taught the same doctrine; on this point the syllabus of Pius
IX and the Westminster Catechism fully agree.
Having thus disposed of the manner and matter of creation, the next subject
taken up by theologians was the time required for the great work.
Here came a difficulty. The first of the two accounts given in Genesis extended
the creative operation through six days, each of an evening and a morning, with
much explicit detail regarding the progress made in each. But the second
account spoke of "the day" in which "the Lord God made
the earth and the heavens." The explicitness of the first account and its
naturalness to the minds of the great mass of early theologians gave it at
first a decided advantage; but Jewish thinkers, like Philo, and Christian
thinkers, like Origen, forming higher conceptions of the Creator and his work,
were not content with this, and by them was launched upon the troubled sea of
Christian theology the idea that the creation was instantaneous, this idea
being strengthened not only by the second of the Genesis legends, but by the
great text, "He spake, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood
fast" - or, as it appears in the Vulgate and in most translations,
"He spake, and they were made; he commanded, and they were created."
As a result, it began to be held that the safe and proper course was to believe
literally both statements; that in some mysterious manner God created
the universe in six days, and yet brought it all into existence in a moment. In
spite of the outcries of sundry great theologians, like Ephrem Syrus, that the
universe was created in exactly six days of twenty-four hours each, this
compromise was promoted by St. Athanasius and St. Basil in the East, and by St.
Augustine and St. Hilary in the West.
Serious difficulties were found in reconciling these two views, which to the
natural mind seem absolutely contradictory; but by ingenious manipulation of
texts, by dexterous play upon phrases, and by the abundant use of metaphysics
to dissolve away facts, a reconciliation was effected, and men came at least to
believe that they believed in a creation of the universe instantaneous and at
the same time extended through six days.
Some of the efforts to reconcile these two accounts were so fruitful as to
deserve especial record. The fathers, Eastern and Western, developed out of the
double account in Genesis, and the indications in the Psalms, the Proverbs, and
the book of Job, a vast mass of sacred science bearing upon this point. As
regards the whole work of creation, stress was laid upon certain occult powers
in numerals. Philo Judaeus, while believing in an instantaneous creation, had
also declared that the world was created in six days because "of all
numbers six is the most productive"; he had explained the creation of the
heavenly bodies on the fourth day by "the harmony of the number
four"; of the animals on the fifth day by the five senses; of man on the
sixth day by the same virtues in the number six which had caused it to be set
as a limit to the creative work; and, greatest of all, the rest on the seventh
day by the vast mass of mysterious virtues in the number seven.
St. Jerome held that the reason why God did not pronounce the work of the
second day "good" is to be found in the fact that there is something
essentially evil in the number two, and this was echoed centuries afterward,
afar off in Britain, by Bede.
St. Augustine brought this view to bear upon the Church in the following
statement: "There are three classes of numbers - the more than perfect,
the perfect, and the less than perfect, according as the sum of them is greater
than, equal to, or less than the original number. Six is the first perfect
number: wherefore we must not say that six is a perfect number because God
finished all his works in six days, but that God finished all his works in six
days because six is a perfect number."
Reasoning of this sort echoed along through the mediaeval Church until a year
after the discovery of America, when the Nuremberg Chronicle re-echoed
it as follows: "The creation of things is explained by the number six, the
parts of which, one, two, and three, assume the form of a triangle."
This view of the creation of the universe as instantaneous and also as in six
days, each made up of an evening and a morning, became virtually universal.
Peter Lombard and Hugo of St. Victor, authorities of Vast weight, gave it their
sanction in the twelfth century, and impressed it for ages upon the mind of the
Both these lines of speculation - as to the creation of everything out of
nothing, and the reconciling of the instantaneous creation of the universe with
its creation in six days - were still further developed by other great thinkers
of the Middle Ages.
St. Hilary of Poictiers reconciled the two conceptions as follows: "For,
although according to Moses there is an appearance of regular order in the
fixing of the firmament, the laying bare of the dry land, the gathering
together of the waters, the formation of the heavenly bodies, and the arising
of living things from land and water, yet the creation of the heavens, earth,
and other elements is seen to be the work of a single moment."
St. Thomas Aquinas drew from St. Augustine a subtle distinction which for ages
eased the difficulties in the case: he taught in effect that God created the
substance of things in a moment, but gave to the work of separating, shaping,
and adorning this creation, six days.
The early reformers accepted and developed the same view, and Luther especially
showed himself equal to the occasion. With his usual boldness he declared,
first, that Moses "spoke properly and plainly, and neither allegorically
nor figuratively," and that therefore "the world with all creatures
was created in six days." And he then goes on to show how, by a great
miracle, the whole creation was also instantaneous.
Melanchthon also insisted that the universe was created out of nothing and in a
mysterious way, both in an instant and in six days, citing the text: "He
spake, and they were made."
Calvin opposed the idea of an instantaneous creation, and laid especial stress
on the creation in six days: having called attention to the fact that the
biblical chronology shows the world to be not quite six thousand years old and
that it is now near its end, he says that "creation was extended through
six days that it might not be tedious for us to occupy the whole of life in the
consideration of it."
Peter Martyr clinched the matter by declaring: "So important is it to
comprehend the work of creation that we see the creed of the Church take this
as its starting point. Were this article taken away there would be no original
sin, the promise of Christ would become void, and all the vital force of our
religion would be destroyed." The Westminster divines in drawing up their
Confession of Faith specially laid it down as necessary to believe that all
things visible and invisible were created not only out of nothing but in
exactly six days.
Nor were the Roman divines less strenuous than the Protestant reformers
regarding the necessity of holding closely to the so-called Mosaic account of
creation. As late as the middle of the eighteenth century, when Buffon
attempted to state simple geological truths, the theological faculty of the
Sorbonne forced him to make and to publish a most ignominious recantation which
ended with these words: "I abandon everything in my book respecting the
formation of the earth, and generally all which may be Contrary to the
narrative of Moses."
Theologians, having thus settled the manner of the creation, the matter used in
it, and the time required for it, now exerted themselves to fix its
The long series of efforts by the greatest minds in the Church, from Eusebius
to Archbishop Usher, to settle this point are presented in another chapter.
Suffice it here that the general conclusion arrived at by an overwhelming
majority of the most competent students of the biblical accounts was that the
date of creation was, in round numbers, four thousand years before our era; and
in the seventeenth century, in his great work, Dr. John Lightfoot,
Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, and one of the most eminent
Hebrew scholars of his time, declared, as the result of his most profound and
exhaustive study of the Scriptures, that "heaven and earth, centre and
circumference, were created all together, in the same instant, and clouds full
of water," and that "this work took place and man was created by the
Trinity on October 23, 4004 B. C., at nine o'clock in the morning."
Here was, indeed, a triumph of Lactantius's method, the result of hundreds of
years of biblical study and theological thought since Bede in the eighth
century, and Vincent of Beauvais in the thirteenth, had declared that creation
must have taken place in the spring. Yet, alas! within two centuries after
Lightfoot's great biblical demonstration as to the exact hour of creation, it
was discovered that at that hour an exceedingly cultivated people, enjoying all
the fruits of a highly developed civilization, had long been swarming in the
great cities of Egypt, and that other nations hardly less advanced had at that
time reached a high development in Asia.
But, strange as it may seem, even after theologians had thus settled the manner
of creation, the matter employed in it, the time required for it, and the exact
date of it, there remained virtually unsettled the first and greatest question
of all; and this was nothing less than the question, WHO actually created the
Various theories more or less nebulous, but all centred in texts of Scripture,
had swept through the mind of the Church. By some theologians it was held
virtually that the actual creative agent was the third person of the Trinity,
who, in the opening words of our sublime creation poem, "moved upon the
face of the waters." By others it was held that the actual Creator was the
second person of the Trinity, in behalf of whose agency many texts were cited
from the New Testament. Others held that the actual Creator was the first
person, and this view was embodied in the two great formulas known as the
Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, which explicitly assigned the work to "God
the Father Almighty" Maker of heaven and earth." Others, finding a
deep meaning in the words "Let us make," ascribed in Genesis
to the Creator, held that the entire Trinity directly created all things; and
still others, by curious metaphysical processes, seemed to arrive at the idea
that peculiar combinations of two persons of the Trinity achieved the creation.
In all this there would seem to be considerable courage in view of the fearful
condemnations launched in the Athanasian Creed against all who should
"confound the persons" or "divide the substance of the
These various stages in the evolution of scholastic theology were also embodied
in sacred art, and especially in cathedral sculpture, in glass-staining, in
mosaic working, and in missal painting.
The creative Being is thus represented sometimes as the third person of the
Trinity, in the form of a dove brooding over chaos; sometimes as the second
person, and therefore a youth; sometimes as the first person, and therefore
fatherly and venerable; sometimes as the first and second persons, one being
venerable and the other youthful; and sometimes as three persons, one venerable
and one youthful, both wearing papal crowns, and each holding in his lips a tip
of the wing of the dove, which thus seems to proceed from both and to be
suspended between them.
Nor was this the most complete development of the medieval idea. The Creator
was sometimes represented with a single body, but with three faces, thus
showing that Christian belief had in some pious minds gone through
substantially the same cycle which an earlier form of belief had made ages
before in India, when the Supreme Being was represented with one body but with
the three faces of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva.
But at the beginning of the modern period the older view in its primitive
Jewish form was impressed upon Christians by the most mighty genius in art the
world has known; for in 1512, after four years of Titanic labour, Michael
Angelo uncovered his frescoes within the vault of the Sistine Chapel.
They had been executed by the command and under the sanction of the ruling
Pope, Julius II, to represent the conception of Christian theology then
dominant, and they remain to-day in all their majesty to show the highest point
ever attained by the older thought upon the origin of the visible universe.
In the midst of the expanse of heaven the Almighty Father - the first person of
the Trinity - in human form, august and venerable, attended by angels and
upborne by mighty winds, sweeps over the abyss, and, moving through successive
compartments of the great vault, accomplishes the work of the creative days.
With a simple gesture he divides the light from the darkness, rears on high the
solid firmament, gathers together beneath it the seas, or summons into
existence the sun, moon, and planets, and sets them circling about the earth.
In this sublime work culminated the thought of thousands of years; the
strongest minds accepted it or pretended to accept it, and nearly two centuries
later this conception, in accordance with the first of the two accounts given
in Genesis, was especially enforced by Bossuet, and received a new lease of
life in the Church, both Catholic and Protestant.
But to these discussions was added yet another, which, beginning in the early
days of the Church, was handed down the ages until it had died out among the
theologians of our own time.
In the first of the biblical accounts light is created and the distinction
between day and night thereby made on the first day, while the sun and moon are
not created until the fourth day. Masses of profound theological and
pseudo-scientific reasoning have been developed to account for this - masses so
great that for ages they have obscured the simple fact that the original text
is a precious revelation to us of one of the most ancient of recorded beliefs -
the belief that light and darkness are entities independent of the heavenly
bodies, and that the sun, moon, and stars exist not merely to increase light
but to "divide the day from the night, to be for signs and for seasons,
and for days and for years," and "to rule the day and the
Of this belief we find survivals among the early fathers, and especially in St.
Ambrose. In his work on creation he tells us: "We must remember that the
light of day is one thing and the light of the sun, moon, and stars another -
the sun by his rays appearing to add lustre to the daylight. For before sunrise
the day dawns, but is not in full refulgence, for the sun adds still further to
its splendour." This idea became one of the "treasures of sacred
knowledge committed to the Church," and was faithfully received by the
Middle Ages. The medieval mysteries and miracle plays give curious evidences of
this: In a performance of the creation, when God separates light from darkness,
the stage direction is, "Now a painted cloth is to be exhibited, one half
black and the other half white." It was also given more permanent form. In
the mosaics of San Marco at Venice, in the frescoes of the Baptistery at
Florence and of the Church of St. Francis at Assisi, and in the altar carving
at Salerno, we find a striking realization of it - the Creator placing in the
heavens two disks or living figures of equal size, each suitably coloured or
inscribed to show that one represents light and the other darkness. This
conception was without doubt that of the person or persons who compiled from
the Chaldean and other earlier statements the accounts of the creation in the
first of our sacred books.
Thus, down to a period almost within living memory, it was held, virtually
"always, everywhere, and by all," that the
universe, as we now see it, was created literally and directly by the voice or
hands of the Almighty, or by both - out of nothing - in an instant or in six
days, or in both - about four thousand years before the Christian era - and for
the convenience of the dwellers upon the earth, which was at the base and
foundation of the whole structure.
But there had been implanted along through the ages germs of another growth in
human thinking, some of them even as early as the Babylonian period. In the
Assyrian inscriptions we find recorded the Chaldeo-Babylonian idea of an
evolution of the universe out of the primeval flood or "great
deep," and of the animal creation out of the earth and sea. This idea,
recast, partially at least, into monotheistic form, passed naturally into the
sacred books of the neighbours and pupils of the Chaldeans - the Hebrews; but
its growth in Christendom afterward was checked, as we shall hereafter find, by
the more powerful influence of other inherited statements which appealed more
intelligibly to the mind of the Church.
Striking, also, was the effect of this idea as rewrought by the early Ionian
philosophers, to whom it was probably transmitted from the Chaldeans through
the Phoenicians. In the minds of Ionians like Anaximander and Anaximenes it was
most clearly developed: the first of these conceiving of the visible universe
as the result of processes of evolution, and the latter pressing further the
same mode of reasoning, and dwelling on agencies in cosmic development
recognised in modern science.
This general idea of evolution in Nature thus took strong hold upon Greek
thought and was developed in many ways, some ingenious, some perverse. Plato,
indeed, withstood it; but Aristotle sometimes developed it in a manner which
reminds us of modern views.
Among the Romans Lucretius caught much from it, extending the evolutionary
process virtually to all things.
In the early Church, as we have seen, the idea of a creation direct, material,
and by means like those used by man, was all-powerful for the exclusion of
conceptions based on evolution. From the more simple and crude of the views of
creation given in the Babylonian legends, and thence incorporated into Genesis,
rose the stream of orthodox thought on the subject, which grew into a flood and
swept on through the Middle Ages and into modern times. Yet here and there in
the midst of this flood were high grounds of thought held by strong men. Scotus
Erigena and Duns Scotus, among the schoolmen, bewildered though they were, had
caught some rays of this ancient light, and passed on to their successors, in
modified form, doctrines of an evolutionary process in the universe.
In the latter half of the sixteenth century these evolutionary theories seemed
to take more definite form in the mind of Giordano Bruno, who evidently divined
the fundamental idea of what is now known as the "nebular
hypothesis"; but with his murder by the Inquisition at Rome this idea
seemed utterly to disappear - dissipated by the flames which in 1600 consumed
his body on the Campo dei Fiori.
Yet within the two centuries divided by Bruno's death the world was led into a
new realm of thought in which an evolution theory of the visible universe was
sure to be rapidly developed. For there came, one after the other, five of the
greatest men our race has produced - Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes,
and Newton - and when their work was done the old theological conception of the
universe was gone. "The spacious firmament on high" - "the
crystalline spheres" - the Almighty enthroned upon "the circle of the
heavens," and with his own lands, or with angels as his agents, keeping
sun, moon, and planets in motion for the benefit of the earth, opening and
closing the "windows of heaven," letting down upon the earth the
"waters above the firmament," "setting his bow in the
cloud," hanging out "signs and wonders," hurling comets,
"casting forth lightnings" to scare the wicked, and "shaking the
earth" in his wrath: all this had disappeared.
These five men had given a new divine revelation to the world; and through the
last, Newton, had come a vast new conception, destined to be fatal to the old
theory of creation, for he had shown throughout the universe, in place of
almighty caprice, all-pervading law. The bitter opposition of theology to the
first four of these men is well known; but the fact is not so widely known that
Newton, in spite of his deeply religious spirit, was also strongly opposed. It
was vigorously urged against him that by his statement of the law of
gravitation he "took from God that direct action on his works so
constantly ascribed to him in Scripture and transferred it to material
mechanism," and that he "substituted gravitation for
Providence." But, more than this, these men gave a new basis for the
theory of evolution as distinguished from the theory of creation.
Especially worthy of note is it that the great work of Descartes, erroneous as
many of its deductions were, and, in view of the lack of physical knowledge in
his time, must be, had done much to weaken the old conception. His theory of a
universe brought out of all-pervading matter, wrought into orderly arrangement
by movements in accordance with physical laws - though it was but a provisional
hypothesis - had done much to draw men's minds from the old theological view of
creation; it was an example of intellectual honesty arriving at errors, but
thereby aiding the advent of truths. Crippled though Descartes was by his
almost morbid fear of the Church, this part of his work was no small factor in
bringing in that attitude of mind which led to a reception of the thoughts of
more unfettered thinkers.
Thirty years later came, in England, an effort of a different sort, but with a
similar result. In 1678 Ralph Cudworth published his Intellectual System
of the Universe. To this day he remains, in breadth of scholarship, in
strength of thought, in tolerance, and in honesty, one of the greatest glories
of the English Church, and his work was worthy of him. He purposed to build a
fortress which should protect Christianity against all dangerous theories of
the universe, ancient or modern. The foundations of the structure were laid
with old thoughts thrown often into new and striking forms; but, as the
superstructure arose more and more into view, while genius marked every part of
it, features appeared which gave the rigidly orthodox serious misgivings. From
the old theories of direct personal action on the universe by the Almighty he
broke utterly. He dwelt on the action of law, rejected the continuous exercise
of miraculous intervention, pointed out the fact that in the natural world
there are "errors" and "bungles," and argued vigorously in
favour of the origin and maintenance of the universe as a slow and gradual
development of Nature in obedience to an inward principle. The Balaks of
seventeenth-century orthodoxy might well condemn this honest Balaam.
Toward the end of the next century a still more profound genius, Immanuel Kant,
presented the nebular theory, giving it, in the light of Newton's great
utterances, a consistency which it never before had; and about the same time
Laplace gave it yet greater strength by mathematical reasonings of wonderful
power and extent, thus implanting firmly in modern thought the idea that our
own solar system and others - suns, planets, satellites, and their various
movements, distances, and magnitudes - necessarily result from the obedience of
nebulous masses to natural laws.
Throughout the theological world there was an outcry at once against
"atheism," and war raged fiercely. Herschel and others pointed out
many nebulous patches apparently gaseous. They showed by physical and
mathematical demonstrations that the hypothesis accounted for the great body of
facts, and, despite clamour, were gaining ground, when the improved telescopes
resolved some of the patches of nebulous matter into multitudes of stars. The
opponents of the nebular hypothesis were overjoyed; they now sang paans to
astronomy, because, as they said, it had proved the truth of Scripture. They
had jumped to the conclusion that all nebula must be alike; that, if
some are made up of systems of stars, all must be so made up;
that none can be masses of attenuated gaseous matter, because some are not.
Science halted for a time. The accepted doctrine became this: that the only
reason why all the nebula are not resolved into distinct stars is that our
telescopes are not sufficiently powerful. But in time came the discovery of the
spectroscope and spectrum analysis, and thence Fraunhofer's discovery that the
spectrum of an ignited gaseous body is non-continuous, with interrupting lines;
and Draper's discovery that the spectrum of an ignited solid is continuous,
with no interrupting lines. And now the spectroscope was turned upon the
nebula, and many of them were found to be gaseous. Here, then, was ground for
the inference that in these nebulous masses at different stages of condensation
- some apparently mere pitches of mist, some with luminous centres - we have
the process of development actually going on, and observations like those of
Lord Rosse and Arrest gave yet further confirmation to this view. Then came the
great contribution of the nineteenth century to physics, aiding to explain
important parts of the vast process by the mechanical theory of heat.
Again the nebular hypothesis came forth stronger than ever, and about 1850 the
beautiful experiment of Plateau on the rotation of a fluid globe came in
apparently to illustrate if not to confirm it. Even so determined a defender of
orthodoxy as Mr. Gladstone at last acknowledged some form of a nebular
hypothesis as probably true.
Here, too, was exhibited that form of surrendering theological views to science
under the claim that science concurs with theology, which we have seen in so
many other fields; and, as typical, an example may be given, which, however
restricted in its scope, throws light on the process by which such surrenders
are obtained. A few years since one of the most noted professors of chemistry
in the city of New York, under the auspices of one of its most fashionable
churches, gave a lecture which, as was claimed in the public prints and in
placards posted in the streets, was to show that science supports the theory of
creation given in the sacred books ascribed to Moses. A large audience
assembled, and a brilliant series of elementary experiments with oxygen,
hydrogen, and carbonic acid was concluded by the Plateau demonstration. It was
beautifully made. As the coloured globule of oil, representing the earth, was
revolved in a transparent medium of equal density, as it became flattened at
the poles, as rings then broke forth from it and revolved about it, and,
finally, as some of these rings broke into satellites, which for a moment
continued to circle about the central mass, the audience, as well they might,
rose and burst into rapturous applause.
Thereupon a well-to-do citizen arose and moved the thanks of the audience to
the eminent professor for "this perfect demonstration of the exact and
literal conformity of the statements given in Holy Scripture with the latest
results of science." The motion was carried unanimously and with applause,
and the audience dispersed, feeling that a great service had been rendered to
orthodoxy. Sancta simplicitas!
What this incident exhibited on a small scale has been seen elsewhere with more
distinguished actors and on a broader stage. Scores of theologians, chief among
whom of late, in zeal if not in knowledge, has been Mr. Gladstone, have
endeavoured to "reconcile" the two accounts in Genesis with each
other and with the truths regarding the origin of the universe gained by
astronomy, geology, geography, physics, and chemistry. The result has been
recently stated by an eminent theologian, the Hulsean Professor of Divinity at
the University of Cambridge. He declares, "No attempt at reconciling
genesis with the exacting requirements of modern sciences has ever been known
to succeed without entailing a degree of special pleading or forced
interpretation to which, in such a question, we should be wise to have no
The revelations of another group of sciences, though sometimes bitterly opposed
and sometimes "reconciled" by theologians, have finally set the whole
question at rest. First, there have come the biblical critics - earnest
Christian scholars, working for the sake of truth - and these have revealed
beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt the existence of at least two distinct
accounts of creation in our book of Genesis, which can sometimes be forced to
agree, but which are generally absolutely at variance with each other. These
scholars have further shown the two accounts to be not the cunningly devised
fables of priestcraft, but evidently fragments of earlier legends, myths, and
theologies, accepted in good faith and brought together for the noblest of
purposes by those who put in order the first of our sacred books.
Next have come the archaeologists and philologists, the devoted students of
ancient monuments and records; of these are such as Rawlinson, George Smith,
Sayce, Oppert, Jensen, Schrader, Delitzsch, and a phalanx of similarly devoted
scholars, who have deciphered a multitude of ancient texts, especially the
inscriptions found in the great library of Assurbanipal at Nineveh, and have
discovered therein an account of the origin of the world identical in its most
important features with the later accounts in our own book of Genesis.
These men have had the courage to point out these facts and to connect them
with the truth that these Chaldean and Babylonian myths, legends, and theories
were far earlier than those of the Hebrews, which so strikingly resemble them,
and which we have in our sacred books; and they have also shown us how natural
it was that the Jewish accounts of the creation should have been obtained at
that remote period when the earliest Hebrews were among the Chaldeans, and how
the great Hebrew poetic accounts of creation were drawn either from the sacred
traditions of these earlier peoples or from antecedent sources common to
various ancient nations.
In a summary which for profound thought and fearless integrity does honour not
only to himself but to the great position which he holds, the Rev. Dr. Driver,
Professor of Hebrew and Canon of Christ Church at Oxford, has recently stated
the case fully and fairly. Having pointed out the fact that the Hebrews were
one people out of many who thought upon the origin of the universe, he says
that they "framed theories to account for the beginnings of the earth and
man"; that "they either did this for themselves or borrowed those of
their neighbours"; that "of the theories current in Assyria and
Phoenicia fragments have been preserved, and these exhibit points of
resemblance with the biblical narrative sufficient to warrant the inference
that both are derived from the same cycle of tradition."
After giving some extracts from the Chaldean creation tablets he says: "In
the light of these facts it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the
biblical narrative is drawn from the same source as these other records. The
biblical historians, it is plain, derived their materials from the best human
sources available.... The materials which with other nations were combined into
the crudest physical theories or associated with a grotesque polytheism were
vivified and transformed by the inspired genius of the Hebrew historians, and
adapted to become the vehicle of profound religious truth."
Not less honourable to the sister university and to himself is the statement
recently made by the Rev. Dr. Ryle, Hulsean Professor of Divinity at Cambridge.
He says that to suppose that a Christian "must either renounce his
confidence in the achievements of scientific research or abandon his faith in
Scripture is a monstrous perversion of Christian freedom." He declares:
"The old position is no longer tenable; a new position has to be taken up
at once, prayerfully chosen, and hopefully held." He then goes on to
compare the Hebrew story of creation with the earlier stories developed among
kindred peoples, and especially with the pre-existing Assyro-Babylonian
cosmogony, and shows that they are from the same source. He points out that any
attempt to explain particular features of the story into harmony with the
modern scientific ideas necessitates "a non-natural" interpretation;
but he says that, if we adopt a natural interpretation, "we shall consider
that the Hebrew description of the visible universe is unscientific as judged
by modern standards, and that it shares the limitations of the imperfect
knowledge of the age at which it was committed to writing." Regarding the
account in Genesis of man's physical origin, he says that it "is expressed
in the simple terms of prehistoric legend, of unscientific pictorial
In these statements and in a multitude of others made by eminent Christian
investigators in other countries is indicated what the victory is which has now
been fully won over the older theology.
Thus, from the Assyrian researches as well as from other sources, it has come
to be acknowledged by the most eminent scholars at the leading seats of
Christian learning that the accounts of creation with which for nearly two
thousand years all scientific discoveries have had to be "reconciled"
- the accounts which blocked the way of Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton,
and Laplace - were simply transcribed or evolved from a mass of myths and
legends largely derived by the Hebrews from their ancient relations with
Chaldea, rewrought in a monotheistic sense, imperfectly welded together, and
then thrown into poetic forms in the sacred books which we have inherited.
On one hand, then, we have the various groups of men devoted to the physical
sciences all converging toward the proofs that the universe, as we at present
know it, is the result of an evolutionary process - that is, of the gradual
working of physical laws upon an early condition of matter; on the other hand,
we have other great groups of men devoted to historical, philological, and
archaeological science whose researches all converge toward the conclusion that
our sacred accounts of creation were the result of an evolution from an early
chaos of rude opinion.
The great body of theologians who have so long resisted the conclusions of the
men of science have claimed to be fighting especially for "the truth of
Scripture," and their final answer to the simple conclusions of science
regarding the evolution of the material universe has been the cry, "The
Bible is true." And they are right - though in a sense nobler than they
have dreamed. Science, while conquering them, has found in our Scriptures a far
nobler truth than that literal historical exactness for which theologians have
so long and so vainly contended. More and more as we consider the results of
the long struggle in this field we are brought to the conclusion that the
inestimable value of the great sacred books of the world is found in their
revelation of the steady striving of our race after higher conceptions,
beliefs, and aspirations, both in morals and religion. Unfolding and exhibiting
this long-continued effort, each of the great sacred books of the world is
precious, and all, in the highest sense, are true. Not one of them, indeed,
conforms to the measure of what mankind has now reached in historical and
scientific truth; to make a claim to such conformity is folly, for it simply
exposes those who make it and the books for which it is made to loss of their
That to which the great sacred books of the world conform, and our own most of
all, is the evolution of the highest conceptions, beliefs, and aspirations of
our race from its childhood through the great turning-points in its history.
Herein lies the truth of all bibles, and especially of our own. Of vast value
they indeed often are as a record of historical outward fact; recent researches
in the East are constantly increasing this value; but it is not for this that
we prize them most: they are eminently precious, not as a record of outward
fact, but as a mirror of the evolving heart, mind, and soul of man. They are
true because they have been developed in accordance with the laws governing the
evolution of truth in human history, and because in poem, chronicle, code,
legend, myth, apologue, or parable they reflect this development of what is
best in the onward march of humanity. To say that they are not true is as if
one should say that a flower or a tree or a planet is not true; to scoff at
them is to scoff at the law of the universe. In welding together into noble
form, whether in the book of Genesis, or in the Psalms, or in the book of Job,
or elsewhere, the great conceptions of men acting under earlier inspiration,
whether in Egypt, or Chaldea, or India, or Persia, the compilers of our sacred
books have given to humanity a possession ever becoming more and more precious;
and modern science, in substituting a new heaven and a new earth for the old -
the reign of law for the reign of caprice, and the idea of evolution for that
of creation - has added and is steadily adding a new revelation divinely
In the light of these two evolutions, then - one of the visible universe, the
other of a sacred creation-legend - science and theology, if the master minds
in both are wise, may at last be reconciled. A great step in this
reconciliation was recently seen at the main centre of theological thought
among English-speaking people, when, in the collection of essays entitled
Lux Mundi, emanating from the college established in these latter
days as a fortress of orthodoxy at Oxford, the legendary character of the
creation accounts in our sacred books was acknowledged, and when the Archbishop
of Canterbury asked, "May not the Holy Spirit at times have made use of
myth and legend?"