Edward Hitchcock.

The religion of geology and its connected sciences online

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very fearful that the discoveries of science will prove injurious to
Christianity. Why should the enlightened Christian, who has a correct idea
of the firm foundation on which the Bible rests, fear that any disclosures
of the arcana of nature should shake its authority or weaken its
influence? Is not the God of revelation the God of nature also? and must
not his varied works tend to sustain and elucidate, instead of weakening
and darkening, one another? Has Christianity suffered because the
Copernican system of astronomy has proved true, or because chemistry has
demonstrated that the earth is already for the most part oxidized, and
therefore cannot literally be burned hereafter? Just as much as gold
suffers by passing through the furnace. Yet how many fears agitated the
hearts of pious men when these scientific truths were first announced! The
very men who felt so strong a conviction of the truth of the Bible, that
they were ready to go to the stake in its defence, have trembled and
uttered loud notes of warning when the votaries of science have brought
out some new fact, that seemed perhaps at first, or when partially
understood, to contravene some statement of revelation. The effect has
been to make sceptical minds look with suspicion, and sometimes with
contempt, upon Christianity itself. It has built up a wall of separation
between science and religion, which is yet hardly broken down. For
notwithstanding the instructive history of the past on this subject,
although every supposed discrepancy between philosophy and religion has
vanished as soon as both were thoroughly understood, yet so soon as
geology began to develop her marvellous truths, the cry of danger to
religion became again the watchword, and the precursor of a more extended
and severe attack upon that science than any other has ever experienced,
and the prelude, I am sorry to say, of severe personal charges of
infidelity against many an honest friend of religion.

In contrast to the contracted views and groundless fears that have been
described, it is refreshing to meet with such sentiments as the following,
from men eminent for learning, and some of them veterans in theological
science. With these I close this lecture.

"Those rocks which stand forth in the order of their formation," says Dr.
Chalmers, "and are each imprinted with their own peculiar fossil remains,
have been termed the archives of nature, where she hath recorded the
changes that have taken place in the history of the globe. They are made
to serve the purpose of scrolls or inscriptions, on which we might read of
those great steps and successions by which the earth has been brought into
its present state; and should these archives of nature be but truly
deciphered, we are not afraid of their being openly confronted with the
archives of revelation. It is unmanly to blink the approach of light, from
whatever quarter of observation it may fall upon us; and those are not the
best friends of Christianity, who feel either dislike or alarm when the
torch of science, or the torch of history, is held up to the Bible. For
ourselves, we are not afraid when the eye of an intrepid, if it be only a
sound philosophy, scrutinizes, however jealously, all its pages. We have
no dread of any apprehended conflict between the doctrines of Scripture
and the discoveries of science, persuaded, as we are, that whatever story
the geologists of our day shall find engraven on the volume of nature, it
will only accredit that story which is graven on the volume of
revelation." - _Chalmers's Works_, vol. ii. p. 227.

"For our own part," says Rev. Henry Melville, "we have no fears that any
discoveries of science will really militate against the disclosures of
Scripture. We remember how, in darker days, ecclesiastics set themselves
against philosophers who were investigating the motions of the heavenly
bodies, apprehensive that the new theories were at variance with the
Bible, and therefore resolved to denounce them as heresies, and stop their
spread by persecution. But truth triumphed; bigotry and ignorance could
not long prevail to the hiding from the world the harmonious walkings of
stars and planets; and ever since, the philosophy which laid open the
wonders of the universe hath proved herself the handmaid of revelation,
which divulged secrets far beyond her gaze. And thus, we are persuaded,
shall it always be; science may scale new heights and explore new depths,
but she shall bring back nothing from her daring and successful excursions
which will not, when rightly understood, yield a fresh tribute of
testimony to the Bible. Infidelity may watch her progress with eagerness,
exulting in the thought that she is furnishing facts with which the
Christian system may be strongly assailed; but the champions of revelation
may confidently attend her in every march, assured that she will find
nothing which contradicts, if it do not actually confirm, the word which
they know to be divine." - _Sermons, 2d Am. edit._ vol. ii. p. 298.

"Shall it then any longer be said," says Dr. Buckland, "that a science,
which unfolds such abundant evidence of the being and attributes of God,
can reasonably be viewed in any other light than as the efficient
auxiliary and handmaid of religion? Some few there still may be, whom
timidity, or prejudice, or want of opportunity, allow not to examine its
evidence; who are alarmed by the novelty, or surprised by the extent and
magnitude, of the views which geology forces on their attention, and who
would rather have kept closed the volume of witness, which has been sealed
up for ages, beneath the surface of the earth, than impose upon the
student in natural theology the duty of studying its contents; - a duty in
which, for lack of experience, they may anticipate a hazardous or a
laborious task, but which, by those engaged in it, is found to afford a
rational, and righteous, and delightful exercise of their highest
faculties, in multiplying the evidences of the existence, and attributes,
and providence of God."

"It follows then," says Dr. J. Pye Smith, "as a universal truth, that the
Bible, faithfully interpreted, erects no bar against the most free and
extensive investigation, the most comprehensive and searching induction.
Let but the investigation be sufficient, and the induction honest; let
observation take its farthest flight; let experiment penetrate into all
the recesses of nature; let the veil of ages be lifted up from all that
has been hitherto unknown, - if such a course were possible, religion need
not fear; Christianity is secure, and true science will always pay homage
to the divine Creator and Sovereign, _of whom, and through whom, and to
whom are all things; and unto whom be glory forever_." - _Lectures on
Scripture and Geology, 4th London edit._ p. 223.



The Mosaic account of the creation of the universe has always been
celebrated for its sublime simplicity. Though the subject be one of
unparalleled grandeur, the writer makes not the slightest effort at
rhetorical embellishment, but employs language which a mere child cannot
misapprehend. How different, in this respect, is this inspired record from
all uninspired efforts that have been made to describe the origin of the

But notwithstanding the great simplicity and clearness of this
description, its precise meaning has occasioned as much discussion as
almost any passage of Scripture. This results chiefly from its great
brevity. Men with different views of inspiration, cosmogony, and
philosophy, engage in its examination, not so much to ascertain its
meaning, as to find out whether it teaches their favorite speculative
views; and because it says nothing about them, they attempt to fasten
those views upon it, and thus make it teach a great deal more than the
mind of the Spirit. My simple object, at this time, is to ascertain
whether the Bible fixes the time when the universe was created out of

The prevalent opinion, until recently, has been, that we are there taught
that the world began to exist on the first of the six days of creation, or
about six thousand years ago. Geologists, however, with one voice, declare
that their science indicates the earth to have been of far higher
antiquity. The question becomes, therefore, of deep interest, whether the
common interpretation of the Mosaic record is correct.

Let us, in the first place, examine carefully the terms of that record;
without reference to any of the conclusions of science.

A preliminary inquiry, however, will here demand attention, to which I
have already given some thoughts in the first lecture. The inquiry relates
to the mode in which the sacred writers describe natural phenomena.

Do they adapt their descriptions to the views and feelings of
philosophers, or even the common people, in the nineteenth century, or to
the state of knowledge and the prevalent opinions of a people but slightly
removed from barbarism?

Do they write as if they meant to correct the notions of men on natural
subjects, when they knew them to be wrong; or as if they did not mean to
decide whether the popular opinion were true or false? These points have
been examined with great skill and candor by a venerable clergyman of
England, whose praise is in all the American churches, and whose skill in
sacred philology, and profound acquaintance with the Bible, none will
question, any more than they will his deep-toned piety and enlarged and
liberal views of men and things. I refer to Dr. J. Pye Smith, lately at
the head of the Homerton Divinity College, near London.[6]

He first examines the style in which the Old Testament describes the
character and operations of Jehovah, and shows that it is done "in
language borrowed from the bodily and mental constitution of man, and from
those opinions concerning the works of God in the natural world, which
were generally received by the people to whom the blessings of revelation
were granted." Constant reference is made to material images, and to human
feelings and conduct, as if the people addressed were almost incapable of
spiritual and abstract ideas. This, of course, gives a notion of God
infinitely beneath the glories of his character; but to uncultivated minds
it was the only representation of his character that would give them any
idea of it. Nay, even in this enlightened age, such descriptions are far
more impressive than any other upon the mass of mankind; while those,
whose minds are more enlightened, find no difficulty in inculcating the
pure truth respecting God from these comparatively gross descriptions.

Now, if, upon a point of such vast importance as the divine character,
revelation, thus condescends to human weakness and ignorance, much more
might we expect it, in regard to the less important subject of natural
phenomena. We find, accordingly, that they are described as they appear to
the common eye, and not in their real nature; or, in the language of
Rosenmuller, the Scriptures speak "according to optical, and not physical
truth." They make no effort to correct even the grossest errors, on these
subjects, that then prevailed.

The earth, as we have seen on a former occasion, is described as
immovable, in the centre of the universe, and the heavenly bodies as
revolving round it diurnally. The firmament over us is represented as a
solid, extended substance, sustaining an ocean above it, with openings, or
windows, through which the waters may descend. In respect to the human
system, the Scriptures refer intellectual operations to the reins, or the
region of the kidneys, and pain to the bones. In short, the descriptions
of natural things are adapted to the very erroneous notions which
prevailed in the earliest ages of society and among the common people. But
it is as easy to interpret such descriptions in conformity to the present
state of physical science, as it is to divest the scriptural
representations of the Deity of their material dress, and make them
conform to the spiritual views that now prevail. No one regards it as any
objection to the Old Testament, that it gives a description of the divine
character so much less spiritual than the views adopted by the theologians
of the nineteenth century; why then should they regard it as derogatory to
inspiration to adopt the same method as to natural objects?

These considerations will afford us some assistance in rightly
interpreting the description of the creation, in the first chapter of
Genesis, to which we will now turn our attention.

_In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was
without form and void. And darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the
Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there
be light, and there was light. And God saw the light that it was good. And
God divided the light from the darkness, and the light he called day, and
the darkness he called night. And the evening and the morning were the
first day._

The first question that arises, on reading this passage, is, whether the
creation here described was a creation out of nothing, or out of
preëxisting materials. The latter opinion has been maintained by some
able, and generally judicious commentators and theologians, such as
Doederlin and Dathe in Germany, Milton in England, and Bush and Schmucker
in this country. They do not deny that the Bible, in other places, teaches
distinctly the creation of the universe out of nothing. But they contend
that the word translated _to create_, in the first verse of Genesis,
teaches only a renovation, or remodelling, of the universe from matter
already in existence.

That there is a degree of ambiguity in all languages, in the words that
signify to _create_, to _make_, to _form_, and the like, cannot be
doubted; that is, these words may be properly used to describe the
production of a substance out of matter already in existence, as well as
out of nothing; and, therefore, we must resort to the context, or the
nature of the subject, to ascertain in which of those senses such words
are used. The same word, for instance, (_bawraw_,) that is used in the
first verse of Genesis, to describe the creation of the universe, is
employed in the 27th verse of the same chapter, to describe the formation
of man out of the dust of the earth. There was, however, no peculiar
ambiguity in the use of the Hebrew words _bawraw_ and _awsaw_, which
correspond to our words _create_ and _make_; and, therefore, it is not
necessary to be an adept in Hebrew literature to judge of the question
under consideration. We have only to determine whether the translation of
the Mosaic account of the creation most reasonably teaches a production of
the matter of the universe from nothing, or only its renovation, and we
have decided what is taught in the original.

Now, there can hardly be a doubt but Moses intended to teach, in this
passage, that the universe owed its origin to Jehovah, and not to the
idols of the heathen; and since all acknowledge that other parts of
Scripture teach, that, when the world was made, it was produced out of
nothing, why should we not conclude that the same truth is taught in this
passage? The language certainly will bear that meaning; indeed, it is
almost as strong as language can be to express such a meaning; and does
not the passage look like a distinct avowal of this great truth, at the
very commencement of the inspired record, in order to refute the opinion,
so prevalent in early times, that the world is eternal?

The next inquiry concerning the passage relates to the phrase _the heavens
and the earth_. Does it comprehend the universe? So it must have been
understood by the Jews; for their language could not furnish a more
comprehensive phrase to designate the universe. True, these words, like
those already considered, are used sometimes in a limited sense. But in
this place their broadest signification is in perfect accordance with the
scope of the passage and with the whole tenor of the Scripture. We may,
therefore, conclude with much certainty, that God intended in this place
to declare the great truth, that there was a time in past eternity when
the whole material universe came into existence at his irresistible
fiat: - a truth eminently proper to stand at the head of a divine

But when did this stupendous event occur? Does the phrase _in the
beginning_ show us when? Surely not; for no language can be more
indefinite as to time. Whenever it is used in the Bible, it merely
designates the commencement of the series of events, or the periods of
time, that are described. _In the beginning was the word_; that is, at the
commencement of things the word was in existence; consequently was from
eternity. But in Genesis the act of creation is represented by this phrase
simply as the commencement of the material universe, at a certain point of
time in past eternity, which is not chronologically fixed. The first verse
merely informs us, that the first act of the Deity in relation to the
universe was the creation of the heavens and the earth out of nothing.

It is contended, however, that the first verse is so connected with the
six days' work of creation, related in the subsequent verse, that we must
understand the phrase _in the beginning_ as the commencement of the first
day. This is the main point to be examined in relation to the passage, and
therefore deserves a careful consideration.

If the first verse must be understood as a summary account of the six
days' work which follows in detail, then _the beginning_ was the
commencement of the first day, and of course only about six thousand years
ago. But if it may be understood as an announcement of the act of creation
at some indefinite point in past duration, then a period may have
intervened between that first creative act and the subsequent six days'
work. I contend that the passage admits of either interpretation, without
any violence to the language or the narration.

The first of these interpretations is the one usually received, and,
therefore, it will be hardly necessary to attempt to show that it is
admissible. The second has had fewer advocates, and will, therefore, need
to be examined.

The particle _and_, which is used in our translation of this passage to
connect the successive sentences, furnishes an argument to the English
reader against this second mode of interpretation, which has far less
force with one acquainted with the original Hebrew. The particle thus
translated is the general connecting particle of the Hebrew language, and
"may be copulative, or disjunctive, or adversative; or it may express a
mere annexation to a former topic of discourse, - the connection being only
that of the subject matter, or the continuation of the composition. This
continuative use forms one of the most marked peculiarities of the Hebrew
idiom, and it comprehends every variety of mode in which one train of
sentiment may be appended to another." - J. Pye Smith, _Scrip. and Geol._
p. 195, 4th edit.

In the English Bible this particle is usually rendered by the copulative
conjunction _and_; in the Septuagint, and in Josephus, however, it
sometimes has the sense of _but_. And some able commentators are of
opinion that it admits of a similar translation in the passage under
consideration. The elder Rosenmuller says we might read it thus: "_In the
beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Afterwards the earth was
desolate_," &c. Or the particle _afterwards_ may be placed at the
beginning of any of the succeeding verses. Thus, In the beginning God
created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was desolate, and
darkness was upon the face of the waters. _Afterwards_ the Spirit of God
moved upon the face of the waters. Dr. Dathe, who has been styled, by good
authority, (Dr. Smith,) "a cautious and judicious critic," renders the
first two verses in this manner: "In the beginning God created the heavens
and the earth; but afterwards the earth became waste and desolate." If
such translations as these be admissible, the passage not only allows, but
expressly teaches, that a period intervened between the first act of
creation and the six days' work. And if such an interval be allowed, it is
all that geology requires to reconcile its facts to revelation. For
during that time, all the changes of mineral constitution and organic
life, which that science teaches to have taken place on the globe,
previous to the existence of man, may have occurred.

It is a presumption in favor of such an interpretation that the second
verse describes the state of the globe after its creation and before the
creation of light. For if there were no interval between the fiat that
called matter into existence, and that which said, _Let there be light_,
why should such a description of the earth's waste and desolate condition
be given?

But if there had been such an intervening period, it is perfectly natural
that such a description should precede the history of successive creative
acts, by which the world was adorned with light and beauty, and filled
with inhabitants.

But, after all, would such an interpretation have ever been thought of,
had not the discoveries of geology seemed to demand it?

This can be answered by inquiring whether any of the writers on the Bible,
who lived before geology existed, or had laid claims for a longer period
previous to man's creation, whether any of these adopted such an
interpretation. We have abundant evidence that they did. Many of the early
fathers of the church were very explicit on this subject. Augustin,
Theodoret, and others, supposed that the first verse of Genesis describes
the creation of matter distinct from, and prior to, the work of six days.
Justin Martyr and Gregory Nazianzen believed in an indefinite period
between the creation of matter and the subsequent arrangement of all
things. Still more explicit are Basil, Cæsarius, and Origen. It would be
easy to quote similar opinions from more modern writers, who lived
previous to the developments of geology. But I will give a paragraph from
Bishop Patrick only, who wrote one hundred and fifty years ago.

"How long," says he, "all things continued in mere confusion after the
chaos was created, before light was extracted from it, we are not told. It
might have been, for any thing that is here revealed, a great while; and
all that time the mighty Spirit was making such motions in it, as
prepared, disposed, and ripened every part of it for such productions as
were to appear successively in such spaces of time as are here afterwards
mentioned by Moses, who informs us, that after things were digested and
made ready (by long fermentation perhaps) to be wrought into form, God
produced every day, for six days together, some creature or other, till
all was finished, of which light was the very first." - _Commentary, in

Such evidence as this is very satisfactory. For at the present day one
cannot but fear that the discoveries of geology may too much influence him
insensibly to put a meaning upon Scripture which would never have been
thought of, if not suggested by those discoveries, and which the language
cannot bear. But those fathers of the church cannot be supposed under the
influence of any such bias; and, therefore, we may suppose the passage in
itself to admit of the existence of a long period between the beginning
and the first demiurgic day.

Against these views philologists have urged several objections not to be
despised. One is, that light did not exist till the first day, and the sun
and other luminaries not till the fourth day; whereas the animals and
plants dug from the rocks could not have existed without light. They could
not, therefore, have lived in the supposed long period previous to the six

If it be indeed true, that light was not called into existence till the
first day, nor the sun till the fourth, this objection is probably
insuperable. But it would be easy to cite the opinions of many
distinguished and most judicious expounders of the Bible, showing that the
words of the Hebrew original do not signify a literal creation of the sun,
moon, and stars, on the fourth day, but only constituting or appointing
them, at that time, to be luminaries, and to furnish standards for the
division of time and other purposes.

The word used is not the same as that employed in the first verse to
describe the creation of the world; and the passage, rightly understood,
implies the previous existence of the heavenly bodies. "The words [Hebrew]
are not to be separated from the rest," says Rosenmuller, "or to be

Online LibraryEdward HitchcockThe religion of geology and its connected sciences → online text (page 4 of 39)