Edward Hitchcock.

The religion of geology and its connected sciences online

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conspicuous on the list, because I know of no other branch of physical
science so prolific in its religious applications.

In treating of this subject, I shall first exhibit the relations between
science and revealed religion, and afterwards between science and natural
religion; though in a few cases these two great branches cannot be kept
entirely distinct.

Geology is usually regarded as having only an unfavorable bearing upon
revealed religion; and writers are generally satisfied if they can
reconcile apparent discrepancies. But I regard this as an unfair
representation; for if geology, or any other science, proves to us that
we have not fairly understood the meaning of any passage of Scripture, it
merely illustrates, but does not oppose, revelation.

A fundamental principle of Protestant Christianity is, that the Scriptures
of the Old and New Testaments are the only infallible standard of
religious truth; and I desire to hold up this principle prominently at the
outset, as one to which I cordially subscribe. The mass of evidence in
favor of the divine inspiration of the Bible is too great to be set aside
by any thing short of scientific demonstration. Were the Scriptures to
teach that the whole is not equal to its parts, the mind could not,
indeed, believe it. But if it taught a truth which was only contrary to
the probable deductions of science, science, I say, must yield to
Scripture; for it would be more reasonable to doubt the probabilities of a
single science, than the various and most satisfactory evidence on which
revelation rests. I do not believe that even the probabilities of any
science are in collision with Scripture. But the supposition is made to
show how strong are my convictions of the evidence and paramount authority
of the Bible.

But does it follow, from these positions, that science can throw no light
upon the truths of Scripture? By no means; and it will be my leading
object, in this lecture, to show how this may be done by science in
general, and by geology in particular.

In discussing this subject, we ought to bear in mind the object of
science, and the object of revelation. And by the term science I refer
mainly to physical science. Its grand aim is, by an induction from facts,
to discover the laws by which the material universe is governed. Those
laws do, indeed, lead the mind almost necessarily to their divine Author.
But this is rather the incidental than the direct result of scientific
investigations, and belongs rather to natural theology than to natural

On the other hand, the exclusive object of revelation is of a moral
character. It is a development of the divine character and the divine
government; especially that part of it which discloses a plan for the
reconciliation of a lost and wicked world to the favor of God by the death
of his Son. Every other subject mentioned in Scripture is incidental, and
would not have been noticed had it not some connection with the plan of
salvation. The creation of the world and the Noachian deluge, for
instance, are intimately related to the divine character and government,
and therefore they are described; and the same is true of the various
phenomena of nature which are touched upon in the Bible.

If these positions be correct, it follows, that as we ought not to expect
to find the doctrines of religion in treatises on science, so it is
unreasonable to look for the principles of philosophy in the Bible. Nay,
we ought not to expect to find the terms used by the Sacred writers
employed in their strict scientific sense, but in their popular
acceptation. Indeed, as the Scriptures were generally addressed to men in
the earliest and most simple states of society, with very limited views of
the extent of creation, we ought to suppose that, in all cases where no
new fact is revealed, the language was adapted to the narrow ideas which
then prevailed. When, for instance, the sacred writers speak of the rising
and setting of the sun, we cannot suppose they used language with
astronomical correctness, but only according to appearances. Hence we
ought not to be very confident, that when they employ the term _earth_,
they meant that spherical, vast globe which astronomy proves the earth to
be, but rather that part of it which was inhabited, which was all the idea
that entered into the mind of a Jew. God might, indeed, have revealed new
scientific as well as religious truth. But there is no evidence that in
this way he has anticipated a single modern discovery. This would have
been turning aside from the much more important object he had in view,
viz., to teach the world religious truth. Such being the case, the
language employed to describe natural phenomena must have been adapted to
the state of knowledge among the people to whom the Scriptures were

Another inference from these premises is, that there may be an apparent
contradiction between the statements of science and revelation. Revelation
may describe phenomena according to apparent truth, as when it speaks of
the rising and setting of the sun, and the immobility of the earth; but
science describes the same according to the actual truth, as when it gives
a real motion to the earth, and only an apparent motion to the heavens.
Had the language of revelation been scientifically accurate, it would have
defeated the object for which the Scriptures were given; for it must have
anticipated scientific discovery, and therefore have been unintelligible
to those ignorant of such discoveries. Or if these had been explained by
inspiration, the Bible would have become a text-book in natural science,
rather than a guide to eternal life.

The final conclusion from these principles is, that since science and
revelation treat of the same subjects only incidentally, we ought only to
expect that the facts of science, rightly understood, should not
contradict the statements of revelation, correctly interpreted. Apparent
discrepancies there may be; and it would not be strange, if for a time
they should seem to be real; either because science has not fully and
accurately disclosed the facts, or the Bible is not correctly
interpreted; but if both records are from God, there can be no real
contradiction between them. But, on the other hand, we have no reason to
expect any remarkable coincidences, because the general subject and object
of the two records are so unlike. Should such coincidences occur, however,
they will render it less probable that any apparent disagreement is real.

If the positions taken in these preliminary remarks be correct, it will
follow, that in judging of the agreement or disagreement between
revelation and science, it is important, in the first place, that we
rightly understand the Bible; and, in the second place, that we carefully
ascertain what are the settled and demonstrated principles of science. An
examination of these points will constitute the remainder of this lecture.

The meaning of the Scriptures is to be determined in the same way as the
meaning of any other book written in similar circumstances. Its
inspiration puts no bar in the way of the most rigid application of the
rules of criticism, nor renders it unnecessary to seek for light in
whatever quarter it can be obtained. The rules of grammatical and
rhetorical construction, the study of contemporary writers, a knowledge of
the history, customs, opinions, and prejudices of the times, and other
circumstances that need not be mentioned, become important means of
attaining the true _usus loquendi_, or principle of interpretation. But I
pass by all these on the present occasion, because no one doubts their
importance in rightly understanding the Bible. I maintain that scientific
discoveries furnish us with another means of its correct interpretation,
where it describes natural phenomena. And in this position we shall not
probably find an entire unanimity of opinion. Let us, therefore, proceed
to examine its truth.

It will not be denied that modern science has corrected the opinions of
men in regard to very many natural phenomena. The same term that conveyed
one idea to an ancient reader, or hearer, of the Bible, often conveys an
opposite meaning to a modern ear. And yet that term may be very proper to
use in modern times, if understood to express only apparent, and not real
truth. The Jew understood it to mean the latter; and it would seem as if
we might employ modern scientific discovery to enable us to decide in
which sense the Bible did use the term. For if we admit the Jew to have
been correct in his interpretation, then we bring revelation into direct
collision with the demonstrations of physics.

But facts are vastly more satisfactory in deciding this question than
reasoning, and I shall now proceed to adduce some examples in which modern
scientific discovery has thrown light upon the meaning of the Bible.

For one or two examples I appeal to chemistry. In the book of Proverbs,
(chap. 25, v. 20,) we find it said, that _as vinegar upon nitre, so is he
that singeth songs to a heavy heart_. We should expect from this statement
that when we put vinegar upon what we call nitre, it would produce some
commotion analogous to the excitement of song-singing. But we should try
the experiment in vain; for no effect whatever would be produced. Again,
it is said by the prophet Jeremiah, (chap. 2, v. 22,) _Though thou wash
thee with nitre, and take thee much soap, yet thine iniquity is marked
before me, saith the Lord._ Here, too, we should expect that the use of
the nitre would increase the purifying power of the soap; but the
experiment would prove rather the reverse. The chemist, however, informs
us that there is a substance, viz., the _carbonate of soda_, which, if
substituted for the nitre, would effervesce with vinegar, and aid the
purifying power of soap, and thus strikingly illustrate the thought both
of Solomon and Jeremiah. And on recurring to the original, we find that
[Hebrew] (nether, _nitrum_, _natrum_) does not necessarily mean the salt
which we call nitre, but rather a fossil alkali, the _natron_ of the
ancients, and the carbonate of soda of the moderns.

It is probably the prevailing opinion among intelligent Christians at this
time, and has been the opinion of many commentators, that when Peter
describes the future destruction of the world, he means that its solid
substance, and indeed that of the whole material universe, will be utterly
consumed or annihilated by fire. This opinion rests upon the common belief
that such is the effect of combustion. But chemistry informs us, that no
case of combustion, how fiercely soever the fire may rage, annihilates the
least particle of matter; and that fire only changes the form of
substances. Nay, there is no reason whatever to suppose that one particle
of matter has been annihilated since the world began. The chemist moreover
asserts that all the solid parts of the globe have already undergone
combustion, and that although heat may melt them, it cannot burn them. Nor
is there any thing upon or within the earth capable of combustion, but
vegetables, and animals, and a few gases. Has Peter, then, made a mistake
because he did not understand modern chemistry? We have only to examine
his language carefully, as it seems to me, in order to be satisfied that
he means only, that whatsoever upon, or within, the earth, is combustible,
will be burned up at the final conflagration; and that the whole globe,
the _elements_, _will melt with fervent heat_. He nowhere asserts, or
implies, that one particle of matter will be annihilated by that
catastrophe. Thus science, instead of proving his statements to be
erroneous, only enables us more correctly to understand them.

Scarcely any truth seems more clearly taught in the Bible than the future
resurrection of the body. Yet this doctrine has always been met by a most
formidable objection. It is said that the body laid in the grave is ere
long decomposed into its elements, which are scattered over the face of
the earth, and enter into new combinations, even forming a part of other
human bodies. Hence not even Omnipotence can raise from the grave the
identical body laid there, because the particles may enter successively
into a multitude of other human bodies. I am not aware that any successful
reply has ever been given to this objection, until chemistry and natural
history taught us the true nature of bodily identity; and until recently
the objector has felt sure that he had triumphed. But these sciences teach
us that the identity of the body consists, not in a sameness of particles,
but in the same kinds of elementary matter, combined in the same
proportion, and having the same form and structure. Hence it is not
necessary that the resurrection body should contain a single particle of
the matter laid in the grave, in order to be the same body; which it will
be if it consist of the same kinds of matter combined in the same
proportions, and has the same form and structure. For the particles of our
bodies are often totally changed during our lives; yet no one imagines
that the old man has not the same body as in infancy.[2] What but the
principles of science could have thus vindicated a precious doctrine of

In the description which Paul gives of the spiritual body, a
naturalist, - and I fancy no one but a naturalist, - will discover its
specific identity. By this I mean that it will possess peculiarities that
distinguish it from every thing else, but which are so closely related to
the characteristics of the natural body in this world, from which it was
derived, that one acquainted with the latter would recognize the former.
Hence the Christian's friends in another world may be recognized by him
from their external characters, just as we identify the plants and animals
of spring with those that seemed to perish in the preceding autumn. There
is neither time nor room for the proof of this exegesis, which is founded
chiefly upon the principles of natural history; but for their elucidation,
I must refer to another place.[3]

I take my next example from meteorology. It was the opinion of the
ancients that the earth, at a certain height, was surrounded by a
transparent hollow sphere of solid matter, which they called the
firmament. When rain descended, they supposed it was through windows, or
holes, made in this crystalline curtain suspended in mid heaven. To these
notions the language of the Bible is frequently conformed. In the account
of the creation, in Genesis, we have a description of the formation of
this firmament, and how it divided the waters below it, viz., the ocean,
lakes, and rivers, from the waters above it, viz., the clouds. Again, in
the account of the deluge, the windows of heaven are said to have been
opened. But it is hardly necessary to say, that meteorology has shown
that no such solid firmament exists over our heads; that, in fact, nothing
but one homogeneous, transparent atmosphere encloses the earth, in which
the clouds float at different altitudes at different times. Are we, then,
to suppose that the sacred writers meant to teach as certain truth, the
fiction of a solid firmament; or that on this subject they conformed their
language to the prevailing belief, because it was not their object to
teach philosophy, meaning neither to assert nor to deny the existence of a
solid firmament, but using language that was optically, although not
physically, correct, and which, therefore, conformed to the general
belief? It is doubtful whether any thing but scientific discovery could
enable us to decide this question. But since it is certain that the solid
firmament does not exist, we must admit that the Bible did not intend to
teach its existence, or allow it to teach a falsehood; and since we know
that it does often speak, in natural things, according to apparent, and
not real truth, it is most reasonable to give such a construction to its
language in the present instance.

But the most decisive example I have to give on this subject is derived
from astronomy. Until the time of Copernicus, no opinion respecting
natural phenomena was thought more firmly established, than that the earth
is fixed immovably in the centre of the universe, and that the heavenly
bodies move diurnally around it. To sustain this view, the most decided
language of Scripture could be quoted. God is there said to have
_established the foundations of the earth, so that they could not be
removed forever_; and the sacred writers expressly declare that the sun
and other heavenly bodies _arise and set_, and nowhere allude to any
proper motion in the earth. And those statements corresponded exactly to
the testimony of the senses. Men felt the earth to be immovably firm
under their feet, and when they looked up, they saw the heavenly bodies
in motion. What bold impiety, therefore, did it seem, even to men of
liberal and enlightened minds, for any one to rise up and assert that all
this testimony of the Bible and of the senses was to be set aside! It is
easy to conceive with what strong jealousy the friends of the Bible would
look upon the new science which was thus arraying itself in bold defiance
of inspiration, and how its votaries would be branded as infidels in
disguise. We need not resort to Catholic intolerance to explain how it
was, that the new doctrine of the earth's motion should be denounced as
the most fatal heresy, as alike contrary to Scripture and sound
philosophy, and that even the venerable Galileo should be forced to recant
it upon his knees. What though the astronomer stood ready with his
diagrams and formulas to demonstrate the motion of the earth; who would
calmly and impartially examine the claims of a scientific discovery,
which, by its very announcement, threw discredit upon the Bible and the
senses, and contradicted the unanimous opinion of the wise and good, - of
all mankind, indeed, - through all past centuries? Rather would the
distinguished theologians of the day set their ingenuity at work to frame
an argument in opposition to the dangerous neology, that should fall upon
it like an avalanche, and grind it to powder. And to show you how firm and
irresistible such an argument would seem, we need no longer tax the
imagination; for Francis Turretin, a distinguished Protestant professor of
theology, whose writings have even to the present day sustained no mean
reputation, has left us an argument on the subject, compacted and arranged
according to the nicest rules of logic, and which he supposed would stand
unrefuted as long as the authority of the Bible should be regarded among
men. He propounds the inquiry, "Do the sun and moon move in the heavens
and revolve around the earth, while the earth remains at rest?" This he
affirms, "in opposition to certain philosophers," and sustains his
position by the following arguments: "First. The sun is said [in
Scripture] to move in the heavens, and to rise and set. (Ps. 19, v. 5.)
The sun is _as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a
strong man to run a race_. (Ps. 104, v. 19.) _The sun knoweth his going
down._ (Eccles. 1, v. 5.) _The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down._
Secondly. The sun, by a miracle, stood still in the time of Joshua.
(Joshua, ch. 10, v. 12, 13, 14,) and by a miracle it went back in the time
of Hezekiah. (Isa. ch. 38, v. 8.) Thirdly. The earth is said to be _fixed
immovably_. (Ps. 93, v. 1.) _The world also is established, that it cannot
be moved._ (Ps. 104, v. 5.) _Who laid the foundations of the earth, that
it should not be removed forever._ (Ps. 119, v. 90, 91.) _Thou hast
established the earth, and it abideth. They continue this day according to
thine ordinances._ Fourthly. Neither could birds, which often fly off
through an hour's circuit, be able to return to their nests; for in the
mean time the earth would move four hundred and fifty of our miles.
Fifthly. Whatever flies or is suspended in the air ought [by this theory]
to move from west to east; but this is proved not to be true from birds,
arrows shot forth, atoms made manifest in the sun, and down floating in
the atmosphere."

If it be replied to this reasoning that the Scripture, in natural things,
speaks according to the common opinion, Turretin answers, "First, that the
spirit of God best understands natural things; secondly, that, in giving
instruction in religion, he meant these things should be used, not abused;
thirdly, that he is not the author of any error; fourthly, neither is he
to be corrected on this pretence by our blind reason."

If it be replied that birds, the air, and all things are moved with the
earth, he answers, "First, that this is a mere fiction, since air is a
fluid body; and secondly, if so, by what force would birds be able to go
from east to west." - _Compendium Theologicæ Didactico-Elencticæ_,
(Amsterdam, 1695.)

In the present state of knowledge we may smile at some of these arguments;
but to men who had been taught to believe, as in a self-evident principle,
that the earth was immovable and the heavenly bodies in motion, the most
of them must have been entirely satisfactory; and especially must the
Scriptures have seemed in _point blank_ opposition to the astronomical
heresy. What, then, has so completely annihilated this argument, that now
the merest schoolboy would be ashamed to advocate it? The clear
demonstrations of science have done it. Not only has the motion of the
earth been established, but it has been made equally obvious that this
truth is in entire harmony with the language of Scripture; so that neither
the infidel nor the Christian ever suspect, on this ground, any collision
between the two records. So soon as the philologist perceived that there
was no escape from the astronomical demonstration, he was led to reexamine
his interpretation of Scripture, and found that the whole difficulty lay
in his assuming that the sacred writers intended to teach scientific
instead of popular truth. Only admitting that they spoke of astronomical
phenomena, according to appearances and in conformity to common opinion,
and their language became perfectly proper. It conveyed no error, and is
in fact as well adapted now as ever to the common intercourse of life.
Yet, in consequence of the scientific discovery, that language conveys
quite a different meaning to our minds from what it did to those who
supposed it to teach a scientific truth. Hence it strikingly illustrates
the value of scientific discovery in enabling us rightly to understand the

Is it necessary to quote any more examples to establish the principle that
scientific discovery is one of the means which the philologist should
employ in the interpretation of Scripture? And if the principle has been
found of service in chemistry, meteorology, and astronomy, why should it
be neglected in the case of geology? Why should not this science also,
which has probably more important religious bearings than any other, be
appealed to in illustration of the meaning of Scripture, when phenomena
are described of which geology takes cognizance? I know that some will
reply, that the principles of geology are yet too unsettled to be allowed
to modify the interpretation of the Bible. This brings me to the second
part of my subject, in which I am to inquire whether the principles of
physical science, and of geology in particular, are so far settled that we
can feel ourselves upon firm ground as we compare them with the principles
of revelation.

Before proceeding to this part of the subject, however, I must pause a
moment, in order to point out another mode, in which science may
contribute to elucidate Scripture. In the way just described, it may
enable the interpreter more correctly to understand the language, but it
may also give a fuller illustration to the sentiments of the Bible.
Revelation, for instance, represents God as benevolent. Now, if we can
derive from the records of geology striking and hitherto unthought-of
manifestations of this attribute, we shall make the doctrine of Scripture
more impressive; or, if we appeal to the numerous changes which the earth
has undergone, and the vast periods which they have occupied, we find that
the unsearchableness of divine wisdom, and the vastness of the divine
plans, are brought more vividly before the mind, and task its power of
comprehension more than illustrations from any other quarter. In short,
the principles of religion that derive important elucidation from science,
and especially from geology, are very numerous, as I hope to show in
subsequent lectures. But I now return to the inquiry, whether the

Online LibraryEdward HitchcockThe religion of geology and its connected sciences → online text (page 2 of 39)