SermonIndex Audio Sermons
Promoting Genuine Biblical Revival.
Looking for free sermon messages?
Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : The Contribution of Science to Christianity

New Evangelism And Other Papers by Louis Berkhof

The Contribution of Science to Christianity

THERE is nothing more inspiring just now to the religious mind than the expansion of the intellectual area of Christianity. Christianity seemed for a time to have ceased to adapt itself to the widening range of secular knowledge, and the thinking world had almost left its side. But the expansion of Christianity can never be altogether contemporaneous with the growth of knowledge. For new truth must be solidified by time before it can be built into the eternal truth of the Christian system. Yet, sooner or later, the conquest comes; sooner or later, whether it be art or music, history or philosophy, Christianity utilises the best that the world finds, and gives it a niche in the temple of God.

To the student of God's ways, who reverently marks His progressive revelation and scans the horizon for each new fulfilment, the field of science presents just now a spectacle of bewildering interest. To say that he regards it with expectation is feebly to realize the dignity and import of the time. He looks at science with awe. It is the thing that is moving, unfolding. It is the breaking of a fresh seal. It is the new chapter of the world's history. What it contains for Christianity, or against it, he knows not. What it will do, or undo -- for in the fulfilling it may undo -- he cannot tell. The plot is just at its thickest as he opens the page; the problems are more in number and more intricate than they have ever been before, and he waits almost with excitement for the next development.

And yet this attitude of Christianity towards science is as free from false hope as it is from false fear. It has no false fear, for it knows the strange fact that this plot is always at its thickest; and its hope of a quick solution is without extravagance, for it has learned the slowness of God's unfolding and His patient tempering of revelation to the young world which has to bear the strain. But, for all this, we cannot open this new and closely written page as if it had little to give us. With nature as God's work; with man, God's finest instrument, as its investigator; with a multitude of the finest of these finest instruments, in laboratory, field, and study, hourly engaged upon this book, exploring, deciphering, sifting, and verifying -- it is impossible that there should not be a solid, original, and ever-increasing gain. Add to this man's known wish to know more, and God's wish that he should know more -- for nature is fuller of nothing than of invitations to learn -- and we shall see how true it is that nature has but to be asked, to give her best.

The one thing to be careful about in approaching nature is, that we really come to be taught; and the same attitude is honourably due to its interpreter, science. Religion is probably only learning for the first time how to approach science. Their former intercourse, from faults on both sides, and these mainly due to juvenility, is not a thing to remember. After the first quarrel -- for they began the centuries hand in hand -- the question of religion to science was simply, |How dare you speak at all?| Then as science held to its right to speak just a little, the question became, |What new menace to our creed does your latest discovery portend?| By-and-by both became wiser, and the coarser conflict ceased. Then we find religion suggesting a compromise, and asking simply what particular adjustment to its last hypothesis science would demand. But we do not speak now of the right to be heard, or of menaces to our faith, or even of compromises. Our question is a much maturer one -- we ask what contribution science has to bestow, what good gift the wise men are bringing now to lay at the feet of our Christ. This question marks an immense advance in the relation between science and Christianity, and we should be careful to sustain it. Nothing is more easily thrown out of working order than the balance between different spheres of thought. The least assumption of superiority on the part of one, the least hint of a challenge, even a suggestion of independence, may provoke a quarrel. In one sense religion is independent of science, but in another it is not. For science is not independent of religion, and religion dare not leave it. One notices sometimes a disposition in religious writers, not only to make light of the claims of science, to smile at its attempts to help them, to despise its patronage, but even to taunt it with its impotence to touch the higher problems of life and being at all. Now science has feelings. This impotence is a fact, but it is the limitation simply of its function in the scheme of thought; and to taunt it with its insufficiency to perform other functions is a vulgar way to make it jealous of that which does perform them. We live in an intellectual commune, and owe too much to each other to reflect on a neighbour's poverty, even when it puts on appearances.

The result of the modern systematic study of nature has been to raise up in our midst a body of truth with almost unique claims to acceptance. The grounds of this acceptance are laid bare to all the world. There is nothing esoteric about science. It has no secrets. Its facts can be seen and handled: they are facts; they are nature itself. Apart therefore from their attractiveness or utility, men feel that here at last they have something to believe in, something independent of opinion, prejudice, self-interest, or tradition. This feeling is a splendid testimony to man as well as to nature. And we do not grudge to science the vigour and devotion of its students, for, like all true devotion, it is founded on an intense faith. Now the mere presence of this body of truth, so solid, so transparent, so verifiable, immediately affects all else that lies in the field of knowledge. And it affects it in different ways. Some things it scatters to the winds at once. They have been the birthright of mankind for ages, it may be; their venerableness matters not, they must go. And the power of the new-comer is so self-evident that they require no telling, but disappear of themselves. In this way the modern world has been rid of a hundred superstitions.

Among other things which have been brought to this bar is Christianity. It knows it can approve itself to science; but it is taken by surprise, and therefore begs time. It will honestly look up its credentials and adjust itself, if necessary, to the new relation. Now this is the position of theology at the present moment. The purification of religion, Herbert Spencer tells us, has always come from science. In this case it is largely true. And theology proceeds by asking science what it demands, and then borrows its instruments to carry out the improvements. This loan of the instruments constitutes the first great contribution of science to religion.

What are these instruments? We shall name two -- the Scientific Method and the Doctrine of Evolution. The first is the instrument for the interpretation of Nature; the second is given us as the method of Nature itself. With the first of these we shall deal formally; the second will present itself in various shapes as we proceed.

In emphasizing the scientific method as a contribution from science to Christianity, it is not to be understood that science has an exclusive, or even a prior claim, either to its discovery or possession. Along with the germs of all great things, it is found in the Bible; and theologians all along have fallen into its vein at times, though they have seldom pursued it long or with entire abandonment. There are examples of work done in modern theology, German and English, by the use of this method, which for the purity, consistency, and reverence with which it is applied are not surpassed by anything that physical science has produced. At the same time, this is par excellence the method of science. The perfecting of the instrument, the most lucid exhibition of its powers, the education in its use, above all the intellectual revolution which has compelled its application in every field of knowledge, we owe to natural science. Theology has had its share in this great movement, how much we need not ask, or seek to prove. The day is past for quarrelling over rights of discovery; and whether we owe the scientific method to Job and Paul, or to Bacon and Darwin, is just the kind of question which the possession of this instrument would warn us not to touch.

To see what the scientific method has done for Christianity, we have only to ask ourselves what it is. The things which it insists upon are mainly two -- the value of facts, and the value of laws. From the first of these comes the integrity of science; from the second its beauty and force. On bare facts science from first to last is based. Bacon's contribution to science was simply that he vindicated the place and power, the eternal worth, of facts; Darwin's, that he supplied it with facts. Now if Christianity possesses anything it possesses facts. So long as the facts were presented to the world Christianity spread with marvellous rapidity. But there came a time when the facts were less exhibited to men than the evidence for the facts. Theology, that is to say, began to rest on authority. Men or manuscripts were quoted as authorities for these facts, always with a loss of impressiveness, a loss increasing rapidly as time distanced the facts themselves. Then as the facts became more and more remote the Churches became the authorities rather than individual witnesses, and this was accompanied by a still further loss of power. And the surest proof of the waning influence of the facts themselves, and the extent of the loss incurred by the transfer of their credential to authority, is found in the appeal, which quickly followed, to the secular arm. The facts, ceasing to be their own warrant, had to be enforced by the establishment of judicial relations between Church and State. It is these intermediaries between the facts and the modern observer that stumble science. Its method is not to deal with persons however exalted, nor with creeds however admirable, nor with Churches however venerable. It will look at facts and at facts alone. The dangers, the weakness, the unpracticableness in some cases of this method, are well known. Nevertheless it is a right method. It is the method of all reformation; it was the method of the Reformation. The Reformation was largely a revolt against intermediaries, an appeal to facts. Now Christianity is learning from science to go back to its facts, and it is going back to facts. Critics in every tongue are engaged upon the facts; travellers in every land are unveiling facts; exegetes are at work upon the words, scholars upon the manuscripts; sceptics, believing and unbelieving, are eliminating the not-facts; and the whole field is alive with workers. And the point to mark is that these men are not manipulating, but verifying, facts.

There is one portion of this field of facts, however, which is still strangely neglected, and to which a scientific theology may turn its next attention. The evidence for Christianity is not the Evidences. The evidence for Christianity is a Christian. The unit of physics is the atom, of biology the cell, of philosophy the man, of theology the Christian. The natural man, his regeneration by the Holy Spirit, the spiritual man and his relations to the world and to God, these are the modern facts for a scientific theology. We may indeed talk with science on its own terms about the creation of the world, and the spirituality of nature, and the force behind nature, and the unseen universe; but our language is not less scientific, not less justified by fact, when we speak of the work of the risen Christ, and the contemporary activities of the Holy Ghost, and the facts of regeneration, and the powers which are freeing men from sin. There is a great experiment which is repeated every day, the evidence for which is as accessible as for any fact of science; its phenomena are as palpable as any in nature; its processes are as explicable, or as inexplicable; its purpose is as clear; and yet science has never been seriously asked to reckon with it, nor has theology ever granted it the place its impressive reality commands. One aim of a scientific theology will be to study conversion, and restore to Christianity its most powerful witness. When men, by mere absorption in the present, refuse to consider history, or from traditional prejudice take refuge in the untrustworthiness of the records, it is unwise to refer, in the first place at least, to phenomena which are centuries old, when we have the same among us now.

But not less essential, in the scientific method, than the examination of facts is the arrangement of them under laws. And the work of modern science in this direction has resulted in its grandest achievement -- the demonstration of the uniformity of nature. This doctrine must have an immediate effect upon the entire system of theology. For one thing, the contribution of the spiritual world to the uniformity of nature has yet to be made. Not that the natural world is to include the spiritual, but that a higher natural will be seen to include both. It cannot be said that Christianity as arranged by theology at present is highly natural, nor can it be said to be unnatural. In that relation it is simply neutral. The question of naturalness or the reverse is one which has not hitherto at all concerned it. There was no call upon theology to make its presentation of itself with a view to nature, and therefore, if that is an advisable thing, or a feasible thing, it has yet, on the large scale at least, to be attempted. In the natural world, the truth of the uniformity of nature took a long time to grow. No one in the first instance set himself to establish it. Innumerable workers in innumerable fields, engaged upon different classes of facts, found a mysterious brotherhood of common laws. Again and again, and everywhere again and again, the same familiar lines confronted them, few, simple, and unchangeable, yet each with a vanishing trend towards an upward point, hidden as yet in mystery. These workers did not formally consult together about these laws, or seek to follow them beyond the line of sight. Nor did they try to find a name for the hidden point to which all converged. But there grew up amongst them a sense of symmetry in the whole which found expression in the formula, which is now the postulate of science -- the |uniformity of nature.| In the same way probably shall we one day see disclosed the uniformity of the spiritual world. The earlier work had to be accomplished first, the scaffolding for the inner temple; but when the whole is finished there will be nothing in the spiritual world to put the mind of science to confusion. The laws of both as they radiate upwards will meet in a common cupola, and between the outer and the inner courts the priests of nature and the priests of God will go in and out together.

There may be laws, or actings, in the spiritual world, which it may seem to some impossible to include in such a scheme. God is not, in theology, a Creator merely, but a Father; and according to the counsel of His own will He may act in different cases in different ways. To which the reply is that this also is law. It is the law of the Father, the law of the paternal relation, the law of the free-will; yet not an exceptional law, it is the law of all fathers of all free-wills. Besides, if in the private Christian life the child of God finds dealings which are not reducible to law, grant even their lawlessness if that be possible, that is a family matter, a relation of parent and child, similar to the earthly relation, and scarcely the kind of case to be referred to science. Into ordinary family relations science rarely feels called to intrude; and it is obvious that in dealing with this class of cases in the spiritual world, science is attempting a thing which in the natural world it leaves alone. If ethics chooses to take up these questions, it has more right to do so; but that there should be a reserve in the spiritual world for God acting towards His children in a way past finding out is what would be expected from the mere analogies of the family. It is a pity this distinction between the paternal and the governmental relation of God is not more apprehended by science; for there is an indelicacy about all these questions which arises from ignorance of it -- questions concerning prayer and natural law, |special providences,| and others -- which is painful to devout people. It is not by any means that religion cannot afford to have these things talked of, but they are to be approached in privacy, with the sympathy and respect due to family affairs.

The relations of the spiritual man, however, are not all, or nearly all, in this department. There are whole classes of facts in the outer provinces which have yet to be examined and arranged under appropriate laws. The intellectual gain to Christianity of such a process will be obvious. But there is also a practical gain to the religious experience of not less moment. Science is nothing if not practical, and the scientific method has little for Christianity after all if it is not to exalt and enrich the lives of its followers. It is worth while, therefore, taking a single example of its practical value.

The sense of lawlessness which pervades the spiritual world at present re-acts in many subtle and injurious ways upon the personal experience of Christians. They gather the idea that things are managed differently there from anywhere else -- less strictly, less consistently; that blessings or punishments are dispensed arbitrarily, and that everything is ordered rather by a Divine discretion than by a system of fixed principle. In this higher atmosphere ordinary sequences are not to be looked for -- cause and effect are suspended or superseded. Accordingly, to descend to the particular, men pray for things which they are quite unable to receive, or altogether unwilling to pay the price for. They expect effects without touching the preliminary causes, and causes without calculating the tremendous nature of the effects. There is nothing more appalling than the wholesale way in which unthinking people plead to the Almighty the richest and most spiritual of His promises, and claim their immediate fulfilment, without themselves fulfilling one of the conditions either on which they are promised or can possibly be given. If the Bible is closely looked into, it will probably be found that very many of the promises have attached to them a condition -- itself not unfrequently the best part of the promise. True prayer for any promise is to plead for power to fulfil the condition on which it is offered, and which, being fulfilled, is in that act given. We have need, certainly in this sense, to know more of prayer and natural law. And science could make no truer contribution to modern Christianity than to enforce upon us all, as unweariedly as in nature, the law of causation in the spiritual life. The reason why so many people get nothing from prayer is that they expect effects without causes; and this also is the reason why they give it up. It is not irreligion that makes men give up prayer, but the uselessness of their prayers.

There is one other gain to Christianity to be expected from the wider use of the scientific method which may be mentioned in passing. Besides transforming it outwardly and reforming it inwardly, it must attract an ever-increasing band of workers to theology. There is a charm in working with a true method, which, once felt, becomes for ever irresistible. The activity in theology at the present time is almost limited, and the enthusiasm almost wholly limited, to those who are working with the scientific method. Round the islands of coral skeletons in the Pacific Ocean there is a belt of living coral. Each tiny polyp on this outermost fringe, and here only, secretes a solid substance from the invisible storehouse of the sea, and lays down its life in adding it to the advancing reef. So science and so theology grow. Through these workers on the fringing reef -- behind, in contact with the great solid, essential, formulated past; before, the profound sea of unknown truth -- through these workers, and through these alone, can knowledge grow. The phalanx of able, busy, and joyful spirits crowding the growing belt of each modern science -- electricity, for example -- may well excite the envy of theology. And it is the method that attracts them. And every day theology too, as it knows this method, gets busier -- not undermining the old reef, nor abandoning it to make a new one, but adding the living work of living men to this essential, formulated past.

We are warned sometimes that this method has dangers, and told not to carry it too far. It is then it becomes dangerous. The danger arises, not from the use of the scientific method, but from its use apart from the scientific spirit. For these two are not quite the same. Some men use the scientific method, but not in the scientific spirit. And as science can help Christianity with the former, Christianity may perhaps do something for science as regards the latter. Christianity is certainly wonderfully tolerant of all this upturning in theology, wonderfully generous and patient and hopeful upon the whole. And so just is the remark of |Natural Religion,| that the true scientific spirit and the Christian spirit are one, that the Christian world is probably prepared to accept almost anything the most advanced theology brings, provided it be a joint product of the scientific spirit -- the fearlessness and originality of the one, tempered by the modesty, caution, and reverence of the other.

To preserve this confidence, and to keep this spirit pure, is a sacred duty. There is an intellectual covetousness abroad just now which is neither the fruit nor the friend of a scientific age -- a haste to be wise, which, like the haste to be rich, leads men into speculation upon indifferent securities, and can only end in fallen fortunes. Theology must not be bound up with such speculation. |If| -- to recall one of the fine outbursts of Bacon -- |if there be any humility towards the Creator, any reverence for or disposition to magnify His works, any charity for man and anxiety to relieve his sorrows and necessities, any love of truth in nature, any hatred of darkness, any desire for the purification of the understanding, we must entreat men again and again to discard, or at least set apart for the while, these volatile and preposterous philosophies which have preferred these to hypotheses, led experience captive, and triumphed over the works of God; and to approach with humility and veneration to unroll the volume of creation, to linger and meditate therein, and with minds washed clean from opinions to study it in purity and integrity. For this is that sound and language which went forth into all lands' and did not incur the confusion of Babel; this should men study to be perfect in, and becoming again as little children, condescend to take the alphabet of it into their hands, and spare no pains to search and unravel the interpretation thereof, but pursue it strenuously and persevere even unto death.| The one safeguard is to use the intellectual method in sympathetic association with the moral spirit. The scientific method may bring to light many fresh and revolutionary ideas; the scientific spirit will see that they are not given a place as dogmas in their first exuberance, that they are held with caution, and abandoned with generosity on sufficient evidence. The scientific method may secure many new and unique possessions; the scientific spirit will wear its honours humbly, knowing that after all new truth is less the product of genius than the daughter of time. And in its splendid progress the scientific method will find some old lights dim, some cherished doctrines old-fashioned, venerable authorities superseded; the scientific spirit will be respectful to the past, checking that mockery at the old which those who lack it make unthinkingly, and remembering that the day will come for its work also to pass away.

So much for the scientific method. Let us now consider for a moment one or two of its achievements. Apart from the usual reservations, which it is hoped are always implied -- that science is only in its infancy, that the scientific method is almost still a novelty, that therefore we are not to expect too much nor to be absolutely sure of what we get -- there is a special reason in this case for remembering that science is new. For this will prepare us to expect its contribution to theology -- its contribution, that is, where the actual subject-matter of laws and discoveries of science are involved, its method -- in one direction rather than in another, and in certain departments rather than others. Itself at an elementary stage, we should be wrong to look for any very pronounced contribution as yet to the higher truths of religion We should expect the first effect among the elements of religion. We should expect science to be fairly decided in its utterances about them, to become more and more hesitating as it runs up the range of Christian doctrine, and gradually to lapse into silence. Proceeding upon this principle we should go back at once to Genesis. We should begin with the beginnings, and expect the first serious contribution to theology on the doctrine of creation.

And what do we find? We find that upon this subject of all others science has most to offer us. It comes to us freighted with vast treasures of newly noticed facts, but with a theory which by many thoughtful minds has been accepted as the method of creation. And, more than this, it tells us candidly it has failed -- and the failures of science are among its richest contributions to Christianity -- it has failed to discover any clue to the ultimate mystery of origins, any clue which can compete for a moment with the view of theology.

Consider first this impressive silence of science on the question of origins. Who creates, or evolves? whether do the atoms come, or go? These questions remain as before. Science has not found a substitute for God. And yet, in another sense, these questions are very different from before. Science has put them through its crucible. It took them from theology, and deliberately proclaimed that it would try to answer them. They are now handed back, tried, unanswered, but with a new place in theology and a new power with science. Science has attained, after this ordeal, to a new respect for theology. If there are answers to these questions, and there ought to be, theology holds them And theology likewise has learned a new respect for science. In its investigations of these questions science has made a discovery. It has seen plainly that atheism is unscientific. It is a remarkable thing that after trailing its black length for centuries across European thought, atheism should have had its doom pronounced by science. With its most penetrating gaze science has now looked at the back of phenomena. It says: |The atheist tells us there is nothing there. We cannot believe him. We cannot tell what it is, but there is certainly something. Agnostics we may be, we can no longer be atheists.|

This permission to theism to go on, this invitation to Christianity to bring forward its theory to supplement science here, and give this something a name, is a great advance. And science has not left here a mere vague void for Christianity to fill, but a carefully defined niche with suggestions of the most striking kind as to how it is to be filled. It has never been sufficiently noticed how complete is the scientific account of a creative process, and how here biology and theology have actually touched. Watch a careful worker in science for a moment, and see how nearly a man by searching has found out God. The observer is Mr. Huxley. He stands looking down the tube of a powerful microscope. Almost touching the lens, he has placed a tiny speck of matter, which he tells us is the egg of a little water-animal, the common salamander or water-newt. He is trying to describe what he sees; it is the creation or development of a life. |It is a minute spheroid,| he says, |in which the best microscope will reveal nothing but a structureless sac, enclosing a glairy fluid, holding granules in suspension. But strange possibilities lie dormant in that semi-fluid globe. Let a moderate supply of warmth reach its watery cradle, and the plastic matter undergoes changes so rapid and yet so steady and purposelike in their succession, that one can only compare them to those operated by a skilled modeller upon a formless lump of clay. As with an invisible trowel the mass is divided and sub-divided into smaller and smaller portions, until it is reduced to an aggregation of granules not too large to build withal the finest fabrics of the nascent organism. And then it is as if a delicate finger traced out the line to be occupied by the spinal column, and moulded the contour of the body; pinching up the head at one end, and the tail at the other, and fashioning flank and limb into due salamandrine proportions in so artistic a way, that, after watching the process hour by hour, one is almost involuntarily possessed by the notion that some more subtle aid to vision than an achromatic would show the hidden artist with his plan before him, striving with skilful manipulation to perfect his work.| So near has this observer come to a creator from the purely scientific side, that he can only describe what he sees in terms of creation. From the natural side he has come within a hair's-breadth of the spiritual. Science and theology are here simply touching each other. There is not room really for another link between. And it will be apparent, on a moment's reflection, that we have much more in this than the final completion of a religious doctrine. What we really have is the joining of the natural and spiritual worlds themselves. It seems such a long way, to some men, from the natural to the spiritual, that it is a relief to witness at last their actual contact even at a point. And this is also a presumption that they are in unseen contact all along the line; that as we push all other truths to the last resort they will be met at the point where they disappear, that the complementary relations of religion and science will more and more be manifest; and that the unity, though never the fusion of the natural and the spiritual will be finally disclosed.

When we turn now to the larger question of the creation of the world itself, we find much more than silence, or a permission to go on. We find science has a definite theory on that subject. It offers, in short, to theology, a doctrine of the method of creation, in its hypothesis of evolution. That this doctrine is proved yet, no one will assert. That in some of its forms it is never likely to be proved, many are convinced. It will be time for theology to be unanimous about it when science is unanimous about it. Yet it would be idle to deny that in a general form it has received the widest assent from theology. But if science is satisfied, even in a general way, with its theory of the method of creation, |assent| is a cold word for theology to welcome it with. It is needless at this time of day to point out the surpassing grandeur of the new conception. How it has filled the Christian imagination and kindled to enthusiasm the soberest scientific minds is known to all. For that splendid hypothesis we cannot be too grateful to science, and that theology can only enrich itself which gives it even temporary place. There is a sublimity about the old doctrine of creation -- we are speaking of its scientific aspects -- which, if one could compare sublimities, is not surpassed by the new; but there is also a baldness. Fulfilments in this direction were sure to come with time, and they have come almost before the riper mind had felt its need of them. The doctrine of evolution fills a gap at the very beginning of our religion, and no one who looks now at the transcendent spectacle of the world's past, as disclosed by science, will deny that it has filled it worthily. Yet, after all, its beauty is not the only part of its contribution to Christianity. Scientific theology required a new view, though it did not require it to come in so magnificent a form. What it wanted was a credible presentation, in view especially of astronomy, geology, and biology. These had made the former theory simply untenable. And science has supplied theology with a theory which the intellect can accept and which for the devout mind leaves everything more worthy of worship than before.

From the contemplation of the flood of light poured by science over the doctrine of Creation, we might pass on to mark the effect upon many other theological truths which rays from the same source are beginning to illuminate. Nothing could be more interesting than to trace up the doctrines one by one in order, and watch the light gradually stealing over all. This must always be a beautiful sight; for this is the light of nature, and even its dawn is lovely. We should like to mark where the last ray gilded the last hill-top, and see how many higher peaks lay still beyond in shadow. And then we should like to prophesy that another light will rise, when physical science is dim, to illuminate what remains. We do not mean an inspired word, but a further contribution from nature itself. To many men of science, judging by the small esteem in which they hold philosophy, the day of mental science apparently is past. To an enlightened theology it is the science of the future. It were strange indeed, and a contradiction of evolution, if the science of atoms and cells were a later or further development than the science of man. Theology sees the point at which physical science must cease to help it; but encouraged by that help, it will expect a science to arise to carry it through the darkness that remains. The analogies of biology may be looked to to elucidate the mysterious phenomena of regeneration. When theology has received its full contribution from natural science it will be able to present to the world a scientific account of its greatest fact. The ultimate mystery of life, whether natural or spiritual, may still remain: but the laws, if not the processes, of the second birth will take their place in that great circle of the known which science is slowly redeeming from the surrounding darkness. We shall then have an embryology, a morphology, and a physiology of the new man; and a scientific theology will add to its departments a higher biology. But this cannot exhaust theology any more than biology exhausts the accounts of the natural man. Further contributions must come in from higher sciences, and different classes of facts must be arrayed under other laws. Theology, therefore, predicates a science of man which is yet to come. There is nothing external to theology; it must collate the different revelations in mind and matter, as science gathers them, one by one. The sciences are but so many natural history collectors, busy over all the world of nature and of thought in gathering material for the final classification by the final science. Without theology, the sciences are incomplete, and theology can only complete itself by completing the sciences.

But we have only space at present to note one or two other examples of the contribution of physical science, and these of a somewhat general kind. One shall be the doctrine of revelation itself. That science shows the necessity for a revelation in a new way, and even hints at subtle analogies for the mode in which it is conveyed to human minds, are points well worth developing. But we can only deal now with the more familiar question of subject-matter and see how that has been affected by evolution.

According to science, as we have already seen, evolution is the method of creation. Now, creation is a form of revelation; it is the oldest form of revelation, the most accessible, the most universal, and still an ever-increasing source of theological truth. It is with this revelation that science begins. If then science, familiar with this revelation, and knowing it to be an evolution, were to be told of the existence of another revelation -- an inspired word -- it would expect that this other revelation would also be an evolution. Such an anticipation might or might not be justified; but from the law of the uniformity of nature, there would be, to a man of science, a very strong presumption in favour of any revelation which bore this scientific hall-mark, which indicated, that is to say, that God's word had unfolded itself to men like His works.

Now, if science searches the field of theology for an additional revelation, it will find a Bible awaiting it -- a Bible in two forms. The one is the Bible as it was presented to 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 form they are two entirely different Bibles. To science the difference is immediately palpable. Judging of each of them from its own standpoint, science perceives after a brief examination that the distinction between them is one with which it has been long familiar. In point of fact, the one is constructed like the world according to the old cosmogonies, while 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. It is at once obvious which of them science would prefer -- it could no more accept the first than it could accept the ready-made theory of the universe.

Nothing could be more important than to assure science that the same difficulty has for some time been felt, and with quite equal keenness, by theology. The scientific method in its hand, scientific theology has been laboriously working at a reconstruction of biblical truth from this very view-point of development. And it 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 less objectionable to the modern mind than are many ancient interpretations of the Scriptures to the scientific theologian.

The supreme contribution of Evolution to Religion is that it has given it a clearer Bible. One great function of science is, not, as many seem to suppose, to make things difficult, but to make things plain. Science is the great explainer, the great expositor, not only of nature, but of everything it touches. Its function is to arrange things, and make them reasonable. And it has arranged the Bible in a new way, and made it as different as science has made the world. It is not going too far to say that there are many things in the Bible which are hard to reconcile with our ideas of a just and good God. This is only expressing what even the most devout and simple minds constantly feel, and feel to be sorely perplexing, in reading especially the Old Testament. But these difficulties arise simply from an old-fashioned or unscientific view of what the Bible is, and are similar to the difficulties found in nature when interpreted either without the aid of science, or with the science of many centuries ago. We see now that the mind of man has been slowly developing, that the race has been gradually educated, and that revelation has been adapted from the first to the various and successive stages through which that development passed. Instead, therefore, of reading all our theology into Genesis, we see only the alphabet there. In the later books we see primers -- first, second, and third: the truths stated provisionally as for children, but gaining volume and clearness as the world gets older. Centuries and centuries pass, and the mind of the disciplined race is at last deemed ripe enough to receive New Testament truth, and the revelation culminates in the person of Christ.

The moral difficulties of the Old Testament are admittedly great. But when approached from the new standpoint, when they are seen to be rudiments spoken and acted in strange ways to attract and teach children, they vanish one by one. For instance, we are told that the iniquities of the father are to be visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. The impression upon the early mind undoubtedly must have been that this was a solemn threat which God would carry out in anger in individual cases. We now know, however, that this is simply the doctrine of heredity. A child inherits its parents' nature not as a special punishment, but by natural law. In those days that could not be explained. Natural law was a word unknown; and the truth had to be put provisionally in a form that all could understand. And even many of the miracles may have explanations in fact or in principle, which, without destroying the idea of the miraculous, may show the naturalness of the supernatural.

The theory of the Bible, which makes belief in revelation possible to the man of science, Christianity owes to the scientific method. It is not suggested that the evolution theory in theology was introduced to satisfy the mind of the scientific thinker, any more than that his appreciation of it is the test of its truth. As regards the latter, it is to be weighed on its own evidence and judged by its fruits; and as regards the question of origin, its ancestry is much more reputable, for it was not a concession to any theory, but rose out of the facts themselves. Indeed, long before evolution was formulated in science, discerning minds had seen, with an enthusiasm which few could at that time share, the slow, steady, upward growth of theological truth to ever higher and nobler forms. |Wonderful it is to see with what effort, hesitation, suspense, interruption -- with how many swayings to the right and to the left -- with how many reverses, yet with what certainty of advance, with what precision in its march, and with what ultimate completeness, it has been evolved; till the whole truth, self-balanced on its centre hung,' part answering to part, one, absolute, integral, indissoluble, while the whole lasts! Wonderful to see how heresy has but thrown this idea into fresh forms, and drawn out from it further developments, with an exuberance which exceeded all questionings, and a harmony which baffled all criticism.| These are not the words of modern science. They were written forty years ago by John Henry Newman. Since then the central idea of this passage, which though it does not refer to the Bible is equally applicable to it, has been carried into departments of theology, in ways which were then undreamed of; and however physical science may have contributed to this result, it is certain that the method is not the creation of science.

Evolution is the ever-recurring theme in theology as in nature. We might indeed almost have grouped the entire contribution of science to Christianity around this point. The mere presence of the doctrine of Evolution in science has reacted as by an electric induction on every surrounding circle of thought. Whether we like it or not, whether we shun the charge, or court it, or dread it, it has come, and we must set ourselves to understand it. No truth now can remain unaffected by evolution. We can no longer take out a doctrine in this century or in that, bottle it like a vintage, and store it in our creeds. We see truth now as a profound ocean still, but with a slow and ever rising tide. Theology must reckon with this tide. We can store this truth in our vessels, for the formulation of doctrine must never, never stop, but the vessels, with their mouths open, must remain in the ocean. If we take them out the tide cannot rise in them, and we shall only have stagnant doctrines rotting in a dead theology. But theology, surely, with its great age, its eternal foundation, and its countless mysteries, has the least to lose and the most to gain from every advance of knowledge And the development theory has done more for theology perhaps than for any other science. Evolution has given to theology some wholly new departments. It has raised it to a new rank among the sciences. It has given it a vastly more reasonable body of truth, about God and man, about sin and salvation. It has lent it a firmer base, an enlarged horizon, and a richer faith. But its general contribution, on which all these depend, is to the doctrine of revelation.

What then does this mean for revelation? It means in plain language that Evolution has given Christianity a new Bible. Its peculiarity is, that in its form it is like the world in which it is found. It is a word, but its root is now known, and we have other words from the same root. Its substance is still the unchanged language of heaven, yet it is written in a familiar tongue. The new 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 local from the universal, the subordinate from the primal end. This Bible is not a book which has been made; it has grown. Hence it is no longer a mere wordbook, nor a compendium of doctrines, but a nursery of growing truths. It is not an even plane of proof text 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 here and there a place which is desert, and fossils too, whose crude forms are the stepping-stones to higher things. It is a record of inspired deeds as well as of inspired words, an ascending series of inspired facts in a matrix of human history.

Now it is to be marked that this is not the product of any destructive movement, nor is this transformed book in any sense a mutilated Bible. All this has taken place, it may be, without the elimination of a book or the loss of an important word. It is simply the transformation by a method whose main warrant is that the book lends itself to it.

It may be said, and for a time it will continue to be said, that the Christian does not need a transformed Bible; and fortunately, or in some cases unfortunately, this is the case. For years yet the old Bible will continue to nourish the soul of the Church, as it has nourished it in the past; and the needy heart will in all time manage to feed itself apart from any forms. But there is a class, and an ever-increasing class, to whom the form is much. Theology is only beginning to realize how radical is the change in mental attitude of those who have learned to think from science. Intercourse with the ways of nature breeds a mental attitude of its own. It is an attitude worthy of its master. In this presence the student is face to face with what is real. He is looking with his own eyes at facts -- at what God did. He finds things in nature just as its Maker left them; and from ceaseless contact with phenomena which will not change for man, and with laws which he has never known to swerve, he fears to trust his mind to anything less. Now this Bible which has been described is the presentation to this age of men who have learned this habit. They have studied the facts, they have looked with their own eyes at what God did; and they are giving us a book which is more than the devout man's Bible, though it is as much as ever the devout man's Bible. It is the apologist's Bible. It is long since the apologist has had a Bible. The Bible of our infancy was not an apologist's Bible. There are things in the Old Testament cast in his teeth by sceptics, to which he has simply no answer. These are the things, the miserable things, the masses have laid hold of. They are the stock-in-trade to-day of the free-thought platform, and the secularist pamphleteer. And, surprising as it is, there are not a few honest seekers who are made timid and suspicious, not a few on the outskirts of Christianity who are kept from coming further in, by the half-truths which a new exegesis, a re-consideration of the historic setting, and a clearer view of the moral purposes of God, would change from barriers into bulwarks of the faith. Such a Bible scientific theology is giving us, and it cannot be proclaimed to the mass of the people too soon. It is no more fair to raise and brandish objections to the Bible without first studying carefully what scientific theologians have to say on the subject, than it would be fair for one who derived his views of the natural world from Pythagoras to condemn all science. It is expected in criticisms of science that the critic's knowledge should at least be up to date, that he is attacking what science really holds; and the same justice is to be awarded to the science of theology. When science makes its next attack upon theology, if indeed that shall ever be again, it will find an armament, largely furnished by itself, which has made the Bible as impregnable as nature.

One question, finally, will determine the ultimate worth of this contribution to Christianity. Does it help it practically? Does it impoverish or enrich the soul? Does it lower or exalt God? These questions with regard to one or two of the elementary truths of religion have been partially answered already. But a closing illustration from the highest of all will show that here also science is not silent.

Science has nothing finer to offer Christianity than the exaltation of its supreme conception -- God. Is it too much to say that in a practical age like the present, when the idea and practice of worship tend to be forgotten, God should wish to reveal Himself afresh in ever more striking ways? Is it too much to say, that at this distance from creation, with the eye of theology resting largely upon the incarnation and work of the man Christ Jesus, the Almighty should design with more and more impressiveness to utter Himself as the Wonderful, the Counsellor, the Great and Mighty God? Whether this be so or not, it is certain that every step of science discloses the attributes of the Almighty with a growing magnificence. The author of Natural Religion tells us that |the average scientific man worships just at present a more awful, and as it were a greater Deity than the average Christian.| Certain it is that the Christian view and the scientific view together frame a conception of the object of worship, such as the world in its highest inspiration has never reached before. The old student of natural theology rose from his contemplation of design in nature with heightened feeling of the wisdom, goodness, and power, of the Almighty. But never before had the attributes of eternity, and immensity, and infinity, clothed themselves with language so majestic in its sublimity. It is a language for the mind alone. Yet in the presence of the slow toiling of geology, millennium after millennium, at the unfinished earth; before the unthinkable past of palaeontology, both but moments and lightning-flashes to the immenser standards of astronomy: before these even the imagination reels and leaves an experience only for religion.

<<  Contents  >>

Promoting Genuine Biblical Revival.
Privacy Policy