Bible Battles & The ‘Ascent of Man’: Nineteenth-Century Sceptics & Critics – Religion, Philosophy & Science.

British Prime Ministers of the mid-Victorian Age: Benjamin Disraeli (left) and William Gladstone (right).
Disraeli converted from Judaism and Gladstone was a keen Churchman.
Victorian Britain – An Age of Conformity?

For many people in the early twenty-first century, the title ‘mid-Victorian Britain’ conjures up an image of church-going, sabbath seriousness, packed pews and the head of the household, invariably the father, questioning his progeny on the points of the morning sermon. The very word ‘Victorian’ has passed into the English language as the epitome of grim, humourless authoritarianism, heavy-handed religion and ugliness. But there is another side to the picture. While the solemn Mr Gladstone (pictured above right) was observed to hang on the words of the rawest curate in the pulpit, and volumes of sermons found ready purchasers among the faithful, there were others who were less reverent. The Victorian age was one of authority and conformity for many, but it was also one of dissent, doubt and seething discontent. The seeds of doubt that had been sown by the rationalists of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were nurtured by sceptics and deists and came to fruition in the early nineteenth century. The whole fabric of Christianity was called into question as science, philosophy and history were all called upon to show that the Christian faith no longer had one leg to stand on, let alone two. It found itself challenged from all three directions at the same time. From science, in the shape of the theory of evolution, from philosophy in the form of alternative world-views intended to make belief in God obsolete, and from history in the guise of biblical criticism. If the truth of the Bible could be shown to be doubtful, then there would be nothing left on which Christian faith could stand, according to some of these critics.

A Continent Come of Age – God and the European Philosophers:

It is often the case with philosophers that what they hand out as a solution is only the old problem in another form. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Immanuel Kant had put his finger on many of the weaknesses in the traditional arguments for the existence of God and the old approach of philosophy to religion. But to reject the traditional proofs for God’s existence is simply to see the flaws in the logic of particular arguments. It still leaves unanswered the question of whether God can be known in some other way. To say that our minds work in terms of time and space is not the same as saying that we can have no insight into what lies behind our existence in that time and space. It is inevitable that our language uses a great deal of symbolism. Jesus himself used picture language to convey truths that could not be put in any other way but by symbols. We do not have direct access to God, not even through the Bible. We do not see God directly as he is in himself. Our knowledge of him is always mediated by events, experiences and words. Without the words of the Bible, there could be no revelation.

God as a ‘world-spirit’:

The attempt to ‘outflank’ Kant was a major pre-occupation of nineteenth-century thinkers. In theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) looked for a new approach that accepted Kant’s criticisms of the proofs for the existence of God and his strictures on the limitations of human thought. His solution lay in basing theology on religious experience. The ‘Absolute Idealism’ of G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) was also partly an attempt to provide an alternative understanding of God to that of orthodox Christianity. Instead of starting with the capital ‘I’ of individual faith, the Idealists began with the absolute ‘I’ in which all reality is the manifestation of the Absolute Spirit. God does not exist over and above the world, as in Christian orthodoxy, but is the ‘world-spirit’ that is to be found in the depths of the world-processes. Thus, the world is a manifestation of God. The end-product of this new understanding of God was a dynamic pantheism and these different philosophical approaches left their mark on the way in which Jesus Christ was understood. In the writings of Kant and in liberal Protestant theology, Jesus appears as an enlightened teacher of moral religion. In Schleiermacher and Hegel, Jesus appears as the supreme manifestation of the divine Spirit among men, and as the agent of the divine being in achieving the oneness of God and man.

When Hegel died in the cholera epidemic of 1831, his followers split into two camps. The ‘right wing’ was concerned to preserve the teachings of their master more or less as he had left them. The ‘left wing’ were revisionists and malcontents who ended up by ‘standing Hegel’s philosophy on its head.’ Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) had studied under Hegel. But whereas Hegel had regarded all reality as the outworking of the Absolute Spirit, Feuerbach argued that this ‘Spirit’ was equivalent to the whole of the natural world. He agreed with Schleiermacher that the essence of all religion is a sense of absolute dependence, but also argued that what man depends on is the whole of nature. For him, God is a projection of man’s own nature that has been freed from all limitations. Theology was simply anthropology, and the knowledge of God is nothing else but the knowledge of man. Feuerbach protested that he was not so much an atheist as an ‘antitheist’. This thought was, however, too subtle for masses, and his writings were only read by intellectual cliques.

Karl Marx, photographed in 1861.

The same could not be said of that other one-time devotee of Hegel, Karl Marx (1818-83). Born in the Rhineland to Jewish parents who became Lutherans, Marx became a student of philosophy who eventually reached the limits of that discipline: Philosophers only interpret the world; the point is to change it. After leaving university he became a journalist, but soon fell foul of the authorities on account of his radical political views. He was expelled from Germany at the age of thirty, during the ‘year of revolutions’ of 1848. Finding a ‘safe haven’ as a refugee in London among the expatriate German community, he met Friedrich Engels, who became his patron. Together, they wrote The Communist Manifesto (1848) in which they called upon the downtrodden ‘proletariat’ of Europe to unite in revolution to overthrow the existing order and usher in the new society:

Marx & Engels in the middle of their work (sketch by N. Zhukov)

In London, Marx divided his time between stirring up agitation and gathering evidence in the British Museum for what he intended to be a comprehensive critique of the capitalist system, Das Kapital (1867). By this time Marx had rejected not only Hegel but also Feuerbach as well. Neither the Absolute Spirit nor nature was the basis of reality. The basis of reality was to be found in matter. The history of mankind, then, is the history of how are related to material things. According to Marx, history is moving relentlessly forwards in the direction of the communist society. Up to that point, all history was the history of class struggle, but when communist society is reached, private property will be a thing of the past, and the state itself will manage everything until people have gradually learnt to manage these economic relations for themselves. Then it would whither away. The twentieth-century philosopher, Bertrand Russell, remarked that, although Marx claimed to be an atheist, he had an optimistic ‘outlook’ on the world and the eventual outcome of history which could only be justified by a believer in God. Political economy had its limits too.

Religion and Materialist Philosophy:

Two tendencies, one intellectual and one social, made for the collision in the 1860s, between scientific thought and religion. Religion of a fundamentalist sort was losing its utility as a social discipline it had possessed in the first critical period of the industrial revolution. The early performance of the industrial economy seemed to indicate the claims of individualism to provide a viable framework for social behaviour. Leslie Stephen wrote that his generation reared on John Stuart Mill,

… claimed with complete confidence to be in possession of a definite and scientific system of economical, political and ethical truth. They were calmly convinced that all objectors, from Carlyle downwards, were opposed to him {Mill} as dreamers to logicians; and the recent triumph of free trade {1846} had given special plausibility to their claims.

‘Some Early Impressions’, 1903, pp. 74-5.

The implication of this definite and scientific system was that codes of social behaviour were not affected by whether or not God existed. W. K. Clifford (1845-79), who at the age of twenty-six became Professor of Mathematics at University College, London, after a brilliant Cambridge career. In his lecture, ‘Body and Mind’, delivered to the Sunday Lecture Society in November 1874. Clifford put his position on the matter of ‘conscience’, which followed Kant’s view of the freedom of the will, politely but clearly:

The distinction of right and wrong grows up in the broad light of day out of natural causes wherever men live together; and the only right motive to act is to be found in the social instincts which have been bred into mankind by hundreds of generations of social life.Duty to one’s countrymen and fellow-citizens, which is the social instinct guided by reason … is in all healthy communities the one thing sacred and supreme. If the course of things is guided some unseen intelligent person (God), then this instinct is his highest and clearest voice, and because of it we may call him good. But if the course of things is not so guided, that voice loses nothing of its sacredness, nothing of its clearness, nothing of its obligation.

W. K. Clifford, ‘Body and Mind’, printed in Fortnightly Review, December 1874.

Clifford’s politeness masked a deep hostility to any notion of man’s ethical sense being derived from some innate, and presumably God-implanted, ‘conscience’. John Stuart Mill shared his position:

The notion that truths external to the mind may be known by intuition or consciousness, independently of observation and experience, is, I am persuaded, in these times the great intellectual support of false doctrines and bad institutions. By the aid of this theory, every inveterate belief and every intense feeling, of which the origin is not remembered, is enabled to dispense with the object of justifying itself by reason, and is erected into its own all-sufficient voucher and justification.

J S Mill, ‘Autobiography’, 1873, p. 191.

By appealing to ‘observation and experience’ the ‘materialist’ philosophers were able to marshal on their side the body of research in the sciences, which by the 1850s was undermining belief in the literal truth of the Scriptures and in any supernatural intervention in the physical world.

Was God Dead?

An atheist with a more individualist approach was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Whereas Marx was the prophet of communism, Nietzsche was adopted as a prophet of their new order by the Nazis in the 1930s. Nietzsche regarded himself as a prophet of the death of God, and a spokesman for liberated man. Since God was dead, man must go it alone. He must make up his own rules and values as he went along. Virtues that were prized by Christianity had to be discarded, as they tended to preserve the weak and the ailing. What was needed is a reassessment of all values and a will to impose new values on others, whether they wanted them or not.

A thinker who saw clearly the dangerous way in which political and even church systems were developing was the Danish writer Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55). In his lifetime he was little known beyond the borders of his native Denmark. It was only in the twentieth century, as his writings began to be translated, that his real significance came to be appreciated. Kierkegaard had a horror of systems. He was also acutely aware of the danger of trying to manipulate God. We must never forget that God is other. He exists outside of our time and space and it is, therefore, folly to try to prove his existence through rational argument. To be known directly is the mark of an idol, not the living God. God is only known as he makes himself known, in the human person of Jesus Christ, but incognito. We can know him, but only through a faith that is willing to put all at risk for God and to lead a life of personal discipleship. This was Kierkegaard’s repost to the totalitarian schemes of idealist philosophy and of church politics, but one which has had to be re-learned in each subsequent century, if not every generation.

The Biblical Critics – Strauss, Vatke, Wellhausen & Baur:

David Friedrich Strauss (1808-74) argued that the effect of such historical criticism of the Bible was positive rather than negative. In 1835-6 Strauss, then a junior lecturer in the Protestant seminary at Tübingen published his Life of Jesus, Critically Examined. The book, which cost him his post, is 1,400 pages long and examines all the alleged incidents and sayings in the life of Jesus from the same perspective as Remarius, asking rational and historical questions which make the assumption that miracles do not happen. Strauss dismissed all the supernatural and messianic elements in the Gospels as myth. Similarly, he dismissed the miracle stories with naturalistic explanations. But, entirely unlike Reimarus, he argued that this was ultimately a vindication of Christianity since it cleared the ground of false assumptions about a miraculous faith and made possible an attachment instead to eternal truths. Jesus was not divine in any unique sense, yet his story, rightly understood, disclosed the divine in all humanity:

Let an audatious criticism attempt to what it will, all which the Scriptures declare, and the Church believes of Christ, will still subsist as eternal truth, nor needs one iota of it to be renounced. Thus at the conclusion of the criticism of the history of Jesus, there presents itself this problem: to re-establish itself dogmatically that which has been destroyed critically.

‘Dogmatically’ here means ‘theologically’, at the level of faith. Strauss argued that what seemed to most readers a devastating attack on the Christian faith was actually a defence of it, but no one believed him anyway. In 1839 he was offered a chair in Zurich, but there was a popular rebellion against the very idea, which brought down the government, and he was pensioned off. Strauss’s work, however, had lasting effects and may be said to have initiated the modern quest for the historical Jesus. Critically, he distinguished between questions of history and questions of faith, much as Spinoza had done. A belief in the divine nature of inspiration does not answer, he argued, the question of whether this or that event is recorded in the Gospels actually happened: the two issues simply occupy different spaces on the map. It can be argued that this is a mistake: that it was only because of miraculous events that the disciples were brought to believe in Jesus in the first place, or that the divinity of Jesus makes it possible to believe in him actions that we could not believe of any other human. In this way, historical enquiry and theology went hand in hand, but for Strauss that was wishful thinking.

The kind of critical enquiry represented by Strauss has influenced biblical study down to the present day, even though many contemporary biblical critics are much nearer to traditional Christian orthodoxy than he was. As the nineteenth century progressed, the Old Testament came under increasing fire. It was widely assumed that the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were mythical figures, or perhaps titles of tribes associated with particular names. Many questioned whether Moses ever lived. Rational enquiry into the Old Testament followed similar lines to those applied to the Gospels.

In the same year as the first volume of Strauss’s Life of Jesus was published (1835), William Vatke (1806-82) published his Biblical Theology: The Religion of the Old Testament. The inspiration for this was the philosophy of Hegel but on the historical level, it was highly innovative in arguing that the order of the books in the Hebrew Bible was not a correct guide to the development of the theological thinking of ancient Israel. The religion of the prophets, Vatke proposed, was older than that enshrined in the Pentateuch. It stood at the beginning of the development of a system of thought that had been read back into the Pentateuch from later times. In essence, this anticipated the arguments of Julius Wellhausen (1844-1910), who was the most influential critic of all. He held that Hebrew religion had undergone a development from the primitive stories of nomadic times to the elaborate, institutionalised ritualism of the period of the centuries before the birth of Jesus. He claimed to have found various behind the Torah, which he dated to different stages in the history of Israel. These arguments could all be dismissed as merely an application of Hegelian ideas of spiritual development to material, the Old Testament, that they did not fit. Vatke largely disappeared from view until Wellhausen revived his theory, shorn of its Hegelianism, in 1878.

Vatke’s and Wellhausen’s theory owed much to Spinoza’s theory that it is to Ezra, writing as late as the fifth century BCE, that we owe the ‘books of Moses’. Scholars of this outlook saw the Old Testament as a patchwork of pieces that owed their shape and texture to outside influences. They also applied this approach to the New Testament. In Catholic France, J. E. Renan’s Life of Jesus (1863), and in Protestant England, J. R. Seeley’s Ecce Homo (1865), both took a more positive view of the historical contexts of the Gospel stories. But both tried to eliminate the supernatural, and reduce Jesus merely to a magnetic teacher.

Perhaps the most ‘notorious’ of the nineteenth-century critics was Strauss’s former teacher, F. C. Baur (1792-1860). Baur, like Strauss, taught at Tübingen where he enjoyed, by contrast, a long and distinguished career. He laid the foundations of the study of Gnosticism, and his work on the New Testament was also innovative. He dated much of it to the second century CE – much later than the modern consensus – and argued that it could be seen as a struggle between two versions of Christianity, one indebted ultimately to Paul, and the other to Peter. Baur worked on the assumption that there had been a great conflict in the early church between Peter (who stood for a strictly Judaistic attitude to the law) and Paul (who held to a more liberal Greek approach, which set little store by the law and Jewish ritual). The Pauline mission was to the Gentiles, whereas Petrine Christianity was concerned with the Hebraic roots of the faith, rooted in the Jerusalem community led by James. This argument referred directly to Paul’s report in Galatians:

But when Cephas {Peter} came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction.

Galations 2: 11-12

On this basis, Baur set about deciding which books of the New Testament were genuine. Those which did not seem to reflect this supposed division were dismissed as later productions. Thus, only four of Paul’s letters could be regarded as genuine: Romans, Galatians and Corinthians I and II. The rest, according to Baur, were all later. He saw Acts as completely ahistorical, an early second-century attempt to reconcile Pauline with Petrine Christianity.

Arguably even more radical was Baur’s insistence that each of the four Gospels had its own theme or ‘tendency’ (Tendenz). This is now a commonplace view in New Testament studies but at the time it caused alarm because it separated the Gospels from the accurate recording of history and saw them as deliberately composed to make a particular point – which called into question their historical veracity. It also meant that they did not conform to a uniform system of Christian doctrine, due to the diversity among them. This diversity can be seen as between John and the synoptic Gospels, operating at both the historical and theological levels. The Jesus of Mark, for example, does not seem much like the Jesus of John: the former is clearly a human figure who sharply distinguishes himself from God, while the latter is ‘one with the Father’ and is described as the ‘Word of God’ who came down from heaven. Once each Gospel is brought into focus in its own right, the difficulty of reconciling their different pictures of Jesus becomes apparent. At the historical level, the narrative frameworks of John and the Synoptics are not compatible: in the latter, Jesus makes only one trip to Jerusalem as an adult, whereas John implies that he was there on several occasions.

What all these critics made clear above all, was that the New Testament does not unequivocally support traditional Christian doctrines such as the doctrine of the Trinty or even the divinity of Christ, any more than the Old Testament, studied critically, supports a traditional picture of the Mosaic origins of Israel. If we apply their critical approach to this same issue of ‘Christology’ – the nature of Jesus Christ – then the New Testament as a whole presents a mixed message. No book in the New Testament explicitly states that Jesus is God, and some of his own words seem to deny it (recall his question, Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone, in Mark 10: 18). Even in John’s Gospel, with its ‘high Christology’, Jesus prays to God. In Paul’s letters, the risen Jesus clearly has an exalted status:

God … gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend.

Philippians 2: 9-10.

His status is even more exalted in Colossians, which may or may not be genuinely Pauline. But Paul also seems to see Jesus as lower in status than God himself:

When all things are subjected to him, then the Son of Man himself will also be subjected to the one who puts all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.

I Corinthians 15: 28

Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.

I Corinthians 11: 3

The New Testament, therefore, supports at best a subordinationist Christology, that is, one in which Jesus as the Son is of lower status than God the Father. This is at odds with the later doctrine of the Trinity, in which Father, Son and Holy Spirit are of equal status. Furthermore, the Trinity is referred to explicitly only once in the New Testament, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel:

Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Matthew 28: 19.

But this passage is widely suspected of being a later addition to the Gospel. All this has been well known to biblical scholars since at least the work of Strauss, Baur and other nineteenth-century writers, though it remains unfamiliar to most Christians. Though Parish clergy have continued to learn it in their training, they have usually chosen to ignore it when preaching and teaching in the church. It has remained possible to believe unchallenged in Christ’s divinity and in God as a Trinity. But in the wake of the nineteenth-century critics, it became impossible to say that the New Testament clearly teaches these doctrines in anything like their later, developed forms. If the Bible is read in its own terms, it presents a range of ideas about Jesus and about God that cannot be systematised. That plurality of ideas is the clear implication of nineteenth-century biblical criticism. Strauss and Baur were not interested in questions of Church order and the obviously untenable reading of Scripture and even ancient authors that, from the time of the Apostles, there have been successive orders of ministers in the Church in the form of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. But these questions do indicate the kind of implications that follow once the New Testament is approached in a historically critical spirit.

Not all nineteenth-century biblical scholarship was negative, either in its contemporary impact or its longer-term outcomes. Among the gains was the less spectacular work of reconstructing the text of the Bible from ancient manuscripts such as the Codex Sinaiticus, discovered in a monastery on Mount Sinai. The discovery of new texts and the development of the scientific study of manuscripts confirmed the essential accuracy of the texts on which the older translations of the Bible, such as the King James’ Version (1611) were based. Prominent in the New Testament research were the Cambridge scholars B. F. Westcott, F. J. A. Hort and J. B. Lightfoot. Westcott and Hort’s Greek text of the New Testament surpassed all earlier versions. In their minds, the historical study of the New Testament was not intended to have a negative effect. The exploration of the language and background history of the New Testament threw fresh light on what the Bible was actually saying. Lightfoot’s study of early Christian literature after the New Testament period disproved Baur’s late dating of the New Testament books, showing that all of them must have been written by the end of the first century.

Archaeology, too, has confirmed the accuracy of a great deal of the information contained in the Bible. This can readily be seen in the writings of the scholar William Ramsay. His study of the geography and archaeology of the Roman Empire supported the picture of general events and locations evident in Luke’s account of the Acts of the Apostles.

The conclusions of Strauss and Baur highlight the danger of building a lot on a little – especially when that little seems to be preconceived. But if Christianity is a historical religion based on actual events in history, these events must be open to investigation by historians and other academics. Of course, for Christians, these events contain more than history, and the enquirer must not lose sight of their significance to believers, but they are also significant because they have their own historical dimension or ‘mystery’ which is also worthy of investigation. The work of the historians and archaeologists mentioned has shown that Christianity has nothing to fear from balanced historical scrutiny.

In terms of theological understanding, we cannot use our shared beliefs, however well-established, to decide what the New Testament authors meant, because that would be to confuse questions of belief with those of meaning. The New Testament does not prescribe any predetermined system for ministry, for example, because it ‘speaks’ with the many different voices of so many different witnesses. That does not mean that we should abandon all church traditions in these respects, but we should adopt these on the basis of earthly pragmatism, not on the basis of them being God-given. These are the effects of biblical criticism. Since the nineteenth-century biblical critics and theologians have danced around each other, trying to establish how a critical spirit can be reconciled with a desire to develop doctrine in a way that is true to the Bible. There has been a tacit understanding that students of theology have to study Biblical criticism, but the two areas have never coalesced, nor is it clear how they could.

A Sophisticated Ape? Darwin’s Theory of Evolution & its ‘Reception’:

We must, however, take note of one of the issues encountered by students of the Bible since the nineteenth century: its apparent conflict with science. The debates on science and religion more broadly occupied the centre stage of mid-Victorian Britain while the philosophical debates on the existence of God were taking place in the continental universities. The idea of evolution was not exactly new, even if the Victorian ‘crisis of faith’ came to a head in 1859 with the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species. It had had its advocates from the Greek philosopher, Anaximander, right down to Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. In the 1830s, Charles Lyell had published The Principles of Geology, in which he argued that the present state of the earth’s surface had been brought about by a long and gradual development. The chalk cliffs of Dover were known to contain remains of sea creatures that had been deposited over many centuries. It was also claimed that the fossils found at places such as Whitby and Lyme Regis dated back an almost incalculable length of time. In 1844, the idea of evolution was extended from geology to the whole of plant and animal life in Robert Chambers’ The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.

Charles Darwin was attacked and ridiculed for his theory of evolution. This cartoon pictured him as an ape himself.

Charles Darwin (1809-92) had studied medicine at Edinburgh and theology at Cambridge, but in 1830 he sailed as a naturalist on HMS Beagle on a survey expedition to South America. For years, he pondered his theories but was finally stung into publishing them when he received a manuscript from A. R. Wallace outlining ideas similar to his own. They published a joint paper that paved the way for Darwin’s masterpiece. The creation story in Genesis 1 tells how God created in six days and rested on the seventh. The evolutionists were now saying that the world had evolved over millions of years, possibly from a single prototype being. To explain how life had developed, Darwin set out the principle of natural selection or, more bluntly, the survival of the fittest. In order to survive, he wrote, plants and animals have to prey upon each other. To cope with their environment they have to develop new capacities and capabilities. Where these become a permanent feature, new species evolve. This particular, the idea that plants and animals do not belong to fixed and unchanging species – but develop by a process whereby the mutant best adapted to the environment survives and transmits those characteristics that make it the fittest to survive – conflicted with the idea that God created each species as it is ‘now’ and set apart one species, human beings, with the gift of an immortal soul.

It is an understatement to record that Darwin’s work met with a mixed reception. Was Man really no more than a sophisticated ape? That is what the theory of evolution seemed to be saying. But more important was the reason why it was said. For ‘respectable’ Victorian middle-class church- and chapel-goers, it was bad enough to imply that man was ‘descended from the monkeys’. What made matters worse was that the reasoning behind it suggested that the world was not the work of a wise, loving Creator who had planned everything. Instead, the scientific claims being made seemed to many to be that all plant and animal life had just evolved naturally and that only the fittest had survived. In the new way of thinking, it also seemed that God was an unnecessary hypothesis. From the contemporary philosophical perspective, the reverse was also true. If the Creator could not be proved to exist, then there was no material ‘Creation’, only nature, ‘red in tooth and claw’. Philosophy and Science entered an almost ‘symbiotic’ relationship themselves, or to many an ‘unholy alliance’ in their advancement of rationality. The writer Charles Kingsley described the impact of Darwin’s theory:

Men find that now they have got rid of God – a master-magician as I call it – then they have to choose between the absolute empire of accident, and a living, immanent, ever-working God.

If man evolved from the lower primates through such a process of natural selection, then the same physical laws that governed their behaviour also governed those of mankind. Darwin himself was not free from nagging doubts about his theory. At the meeting of the British Association in Oxford in 1860, the Bishop of Oxford, ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce, treated his audience to a display of sarcastic wit, ridiculing the ‘new’ ideas. But the bishop found more than his match in Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-95), who took the stance of a humble scientist facing facts rather than indulging in fine-speaking and dogma, and he persuasively argued the case for evolution:

The consciousness of brutes would appear to be related to the mechanism of their body simply as a collateral product of its working, and to be as completely without any power of modifying that working … Their volition, if they have any, is an emotion indicative of physical changes, not a cause of such changes …

The theological, or rather anti-theological implication of this was that if consciousness were an effect produced by changes in the substance of the brain, and was only known in this context, then notions of intelligence or volition – the modes of consciousness – occurring apart from a physically existent brain were untenable. Arguments for the existence of God, therefore, were not susceptible to scientific proof. Against what they regarded as an ‘assault’, the defenders of the religious establishment could have adopted a logical argument for God’s existence but chose instead to use grounds of ‘social psychology’. Even before Darwin had published his theory, in his ‘Bampton lectures’ of 1858, Henry Longueville Mansel (1820-71) argued that:

… in the universal consciousness of innocence and guilt, of duty and disobedience, of an appeased and offended God, there is exhibited the instinctive confession of all mankind, that the moral nature of man, as subject to a law of obligation, reflects and represents, in some degree, the moral nature of a Deity by whom that obligation is imposed.

H. L. Mansel, Limits of Religious Thought: The Bampton Lectures of 1858, pp. 108-13.

Mansel was a fellow of St John’s College, Oxford, and later Dean of St Paul’s. He was notable in his time as a philosopher and theologian, and as a deft satirist. The following year, in the controversial scientific and theological context of 1859, he argued that scientists should…

… accept the traditional doctrines of the Church, because they have in practice endured and revealed a human need for them and… not attempt to question them by using methods of science.

At this point, the Establishment’s argument lapsed from the intellectual to the social and political. Mansel was a last-ditch defender of the prerogatives of the Church of England in the universities and an astute and active High Church Tory organiser; Clifford, Stephen and Huxley were all political radicals and secularists, campaigners for the removal of education from clerical domination. For them, the disestablishment of religious institutions that depended for their survival on prejudice or tradition was anomalous with advancing the values of rational investigation and discussion among the general public. Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), a critic, biographer and editor, became an Anglican clergyman after graduating from Cambridge. Subsequently, he lost his faith and became an advocate of free thought. He was the first editor of the ‘Dictionary of National Biographer’ and the father of the novelist Virginia Woolf. In 1873, he wrote an essay, Religion as a Fine Art, in which he argued:

If the Bible states that something is a fact which is not a fact, it makes no difference to call it a ‘scientific fact’. It can hardly be seriously urged, that an inspired book is at liberty to make erroneous statements on all matters which may become the subject of accurate investigation – the only sense which can be made of the words. A reconciliation is required, founded on some deeper principle. The sacred images must be once and for all carried fairly beyond the reach of the spreading conflagration, not moved back step by step, suffering fresh at every fresh operation. The radical remedy would be to convey them at once into the unassailable ground of the imagination.

Admit that the Bible has nothing to do with facts of any kind, that theology and science have no common basis, because one deals with poetry and the other with prose; the sceptic’s standing ground will be cut away from beneath his feet. … The prevalent conceptions of the day will somehow permeate its poetry – if it has any – in spite of all that can be done to keep the out.

L. Stephen, ‘Essays in Free Thinking and Plain Speaking’, 1873.
Ongoing Controversies & Consequences:

In the years following the initial fifteen-year ‘furoré’, it was Huxley, as much as anyone, who gave the evolutionary theory the stamp of scientific orthodoxy. He had begun his career as a naval surgeon, a post that enabled him to pursue his inclination towards biological studies. He had become Professor of Natural History at the Royal School of Mines in 1854, but his eminence really dates from the early 1860s, when he supported Darwin energetically and went on to become a leading consultant to the British Government on scientific research and education. Although he did not fail to draw conclusions from scientific advances that were hostile to accepted religious thought, he coined the terms ‘agnostic’ and ‘agnosticism’ to describe his own religious beliefs. There were many -isms that claimed definite knowledge of all kinds of things. Huxley wanted a word to express the state of not knowing. Rather than adopt the point-blank denial of God of the atheist, Huxley said that he just did not know, and was not in a position to know. Towards the end of his lecture on The Automatism of Animals, delivered to the British Association in Belfast in 1874, extending his argument made in London in 1860, Huxley said he felt he was running no risk of either Papal or Presbyterian condemnation for the scientific views he had put forward, but that there were…

… so very few interesting questions which one is, at present, allowed to think out scientifically – to go as far as reason leads, and stop where evidence comes to an end – without speedily being deafened by the tatoo of ‘the drum ecclesiastic’ – that I have luxuriated in my rare freedom, and would willingly bring this disquisition to an end if I could hope that other people would go no farther. Unfortunately, past experience debars me from entertaining any such hope… It will be said, that I mean that the conclusions deduced from the study of the brutes are applicable to man, and that the logical consequences of such an application are fatalism, materialism and atheism – whereupon the drums will beat up the ‘pas de charge’.

… I venture to offer a few remarks for the calm consideration of thoughtful persons, untrammelled by foregone conclusions, unpledged to shore-up tottering dogmas, and anxious only to know the true bearings of the case.

It is quite true that, to the best of my judgement, the argumentation that applies to brutes holds equally good of men; and, therefore, that all states of consciousness in us, as in them, are immediately caused by molecular changes of the brain substance. It seems to me that in men, as in brutes, there is no proof that any state of consciousness is the cause of change in the motion of the matter of the organism.

If these positions are well based, it follows that our mental conditions are simply the symbols in consciousness of the changes which take place automatically in the organism; and that, to take an extreme illustration, the feeling we call volition is not the cause of a voluntary act, but the symbol of that state of the brain which is the immediate cause of that act. We are conscious automata, endowed with free will in the only intelligible sense of that much-abused term – inasmuch as in many respects we are able to do as we like – but none the less parts of the great series of causes and effects which, in unbroken continuity, composes that which is, and has been, and shall be – the sum of existence.

As to the logical consequences of this conviction of mine … the only question which any wise man can ask himself is … whether a doctrine is true or false. … if the view I have taken did really and logically lead to fatalism, materialism, and atheism, I should profess myself a fatalist, materialist and atheist; and I should look upon those who … should raise a hue and cry against me, as people who … preferred lying to truth, and whose opinions … were unworthy of the smallest attention.

But as I have endeavoured to explain on other occasions, I really have no claim to rank myself among fatalistic, materialistic, or atheistic philosophers. Not among fatalists, for I take the conception of necessity to have a logical, and not a physical foundation; not among materialists, for I am utterly incapable of conceiving of the existence of matter if there is no mind in which to picture that existence; not among atheists, for the problem of the ultimate cause of existence is one which seems to me to be hopelessly out of reach of my poor powers. Of all the senseless babble I have ever had occasion to read, the demonstrations of these philosophers who undertake to tell us all about the nature of God would be the worst, if they were not surpassed by the still greater absurdities of the philosophers who try to prove that there is no God.

T. H. Huxley, On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata, and its History. A lecture delivered to the British Association, Belfast, 1874.

W. K. Clifford, addressing the Sunday Lecture Society in the same year, addressed the right of scientists like Darwin and Huxley to speak freely on matters of social instinct and conscience:

… it may be said that Science ought not to deal with these questions at all; that while scientific men are concerned with physical facts, … in treating of such subjects as these they are going out of their domain, and must do harm. … What is the domain of Science? It is all possible human knowledge which can rightly be used to guide human conduct. … It is idle to set bounds to the purifying and organising work of Science.

W. K. Clifford, ‘Body and Mind’, in Fortnightly Review, 1874.

In The Origin of the Species, Darwin had left room for belief in the Creator, but in its 1871 ‘sequel’, The Descent of Man, he was more openly agnostic. But in spite of all the controversy he faced, both internally and externally, when he died, Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey. Public reaction to the theory of evolution ranged from outright hostility to wild enthusiasm. Philosophers and political economists adopted and adapted Darwin’s theories to support their own wider social theories. Karl Marx declared that Darwin had provided the biological basis for communism. But, equally, capitalists such as Andrew Carnegie and J. D. Rockefeller appealed to ‘evolution’ to justify the growth of ‘big business.’ Among Christian leaders, C. H. Spurgeon pronounced the theory of evolution a monstrous error, which would be ridiculed before another twenty years. In his 1891 address to the Annual Conference of the Pastors’ College, the leading Baptist preacher used the military language of the first letter to Timothy, to defend the Biblical account of creation:

The sacred Word has endured more criticism than the best accepted form of philosophy or science, and it has survived every ordeal. As a living divine has said, “After the present assailants are all dead, their funeral sermons will be preached from this Book – not one verse omitted – from the first page of Genesis to the last page of Revelation.” …

… We, brethren, are willing to ascribe to the Word of God all the inspiration that can possibly be ascribed to it … We are willing to be tried and tested by it in every way, and we count those to be the noblest of our hearers who search the Scriptures daily to see whether these things be so; but to those who belittle inspiration we will give no place by subjection, no, not for an hour.

… Do I hear someone say, “But still you must submit to the conclusions of science”? No one is more willing than we are to accept the evident facts of science. But what do you mean by science? Is the thing called “science” infallible? Is it not science “falsely so-called”? The history of that human ignorance which calls itself “philosophy” is absolutely identical with the history of fools, except where it diverges into madness.

If another Erasmus were to arise and write the history of folly, he would have to give several chapters to philosophy and science … I should not myself dare to say that philosophers and scientists are generally fools; but … I would let the wise of each generation speak of the generation that went before it … for there is little of theory in science today that will survive in twenty years, and only a little more that will see the beginning of the twentieth century.

We travel now at so rapid a rate that we rush by sets of scientific hypotheses as quicly as we pass telegraph posts when riding an express train … I believe in science, but not what is called “science”. … The fanciful part of science, so dear to many, is what we do not accept. … that part which is a mere guess, for which the gassers fight tooth and nail.

The mythology of science is as false as the mythology of the heathen; but this is the thing that is made a god of. … as far as the facts are concerned, science is never in conflict with the the truths of Holy Scripture, but the hurried deductions drawn from those facts, and the inventions classed as facts, are opposed to Scripture…

C. H. Spurgeon (1891, edn. 1982, 1999), The Greatest Fight in the World: The Final Manifesto. Belfast: Ambassador Publications.

As a ‘free churchman’, Spurgeon was noticeably more nuanced in his approach to science than many of the original ‘Establishment’ critics of Darwin who feared the attack on their privileges and authority which his theory seemed to present. Spurgeon was primarily concerned with maintaining the authority of the Bible for believers. Neither did he argue that scientists should not encroach upon doctrinal matters. Instead, he went on to argue that there were two sorts of people who were disqualified from making judgements in matters of science and religion. The first was the ‘irreligious scientist’ because he knew nothing of religion and therefore could not answer the question, Does science agree with religion? Obviously, anyone who would try to answer this query, Spurgeon said, would need to know both sides of the question. The second was the ‘unscientific Christian’ who will try to reconcile the Bible with science, without the scientific ‘tools’ and knowledge to do the job. Spurgeon suggested that he had better leave it alone, and not begin his tinkering trade. The mistake made by both these men, he argued, was that in trying to solve the problem they had only succeeded in twisting the Bible or contorting science. The solution had then been quickly shown to be erroneous after one side or another had declared victory prematurely.

Other Christian leaders were cautiously in favour of accepting the new theories. Frederick Temple, who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury, was fairly typical of this attitude. He held that the concept of evolution left the argument for an intelligent Creator and Governor of the earth stronger than ever. The world was not simply a series of accidents and the old argument from design to belief in God could be restated in a different way. The Scottish free churchman, Henry Drummond, applied the concept of the survival of the fittest in a novel way. Even in the animal world, survival is not simply a matter of stealth and strength. Care and compassion play an important part; the gospel of Christ was, therefore, also crucial to human survival. This was a similar observation to that made later by the Russian scientist and political theorist, Peter Kropotkin, who advanced the complementary theory of ‘mutual aid’ in nature by observing cooperation between species of plants and animals.

Genesis, ‘Gondwanaland’ & ‘The Garden’ – Geologists & Zoologists:

At first sight, however, the idea of evolution seemed to flatly contradict the book of Genesis. For centuries Christians had read Genesis 1 as if it had been a newspaper account of ‘The creation’, step by step. On the surface of the texts, the Hebrew Bible implies that the world was created in the fifth millennium BC: Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) calculated, using the figures in various books of the Bible, that the creation occurred on 23 October 4004 BC. Many Bibles were printed with marginal notes stating that the world was created on this date. This is, in fact, still believed by so-called young-earth creationists, but in the nineteenth century, a scientific evaluation of the age of the universe became entirely obvious in the light of scientific discoveries. The same century saw the assertion that in Genesis 1 God is shown to have created each species of plant and animal separately challenged by evolutionary science, in particular through the work of Darwin. As the Church historian, Owen Chadwick put it:

The Christian church taught what was not true. It taught the world to be six thousand years old, a universal flood, and stories in the Old Testament like the speaking ass or the swallowing of Jonah by a whale which ordinary men (once they were asked to consider the question of truth or falsehood) instantly put into the category of legends.

Owen Chadwick (1972), The Victorian Church, Part Two: 1860-1901. London: SCM Press, p. 2.

More recently, Philip Kennedy has commented:

The consequences of Darwin’s work are very far from being appropriated by officially sanctioned Christian doctrines. For example, the current ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church’ solemnly teaches that the biblical story of Adam and Eve, or rather the third chapter of the Book of Genesis, ‘affirms a primaeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history.’ This teaching is solemnly declared. It is also false. Chapter 3 of Genesis is a myth. It does not provide any reliable information about the historical genesis of a human species. What it does say about human origins is false. To regard it as factually true is to violate its literary form as a myth.

Philip Kennedy (2006), A Modern Introduction to Theology: New Questions for Old Beliefs. London & New York: I. B. Tauris, p. 235.

The last sentence in this quote points to the practical effect of scientific knowledge on Biblical Studies: it made scholars and readers alike see that the Bible contained myths and legends, which might be full of wisdom and insight of many kinds but which did not provide any scientific information or historical account of human origins. The effect was not limited to claims made in the Old Testament. When Paul affirms that death entered the world because of sin (the sin of Adam: Romans 5: 12), this too is rendered clearly untrue through the observation that human beings, and their hominid predecessors, have always been mortal, as are all other organisms. This is important because it challenges a major element in the Christian story of the fall of man and his redemption, which John Barton (2019) calls ‘God’s rescue mission’, in which Adam’s sin plays a central role. This too, and not just Genesis, has to be understood in a non-literal way or relinquished as a complete fabrication, or ‘fairy tale’. On the whole, by the end of the nineteenth century, biblical scholars had made this transition, with varying degrees of enthusiasm; but ecclesiastical authorities, and Christians of a conservative disposition, have in many cases still not made it today. Biblical literalists continue to defend the historicity of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, Jonah’s big fish and Balaam’s talking donkey, to the delight of atheist critics of Christianity.

Map showing how ‘Mesopotamia’ and ‘Canaan’ came into being and helped to shape the history of Abraham and his descendants.

At the heart of the whole area sometimes called the ‘Near’ East, sometimes the ‘Middle East’ lies the plateau of Arabia. This was once part of a large block called ‘Gondwanaland’ by geologists. To the north and west of this lay the sea which they call ‘Tethys’ of which the present Mediterranean is a remnant. The coastline of this sea fluctuated, sometimes extending far into what is now the land east and south-east of the Dead Sea, and leaving behind on top of the sandstone layers a layer of limestone, which formed the hills around Jerusalem. Another layer of softer limestone was formed, which was worn away to leave some of the mountain passes of modern Israel. On top of this came a third, harder layer of limestone, now seen between Mount Carmel and Samaria, and in the mountains east of the Jordan. Further geological shifts led to Mesopotamia and Canaan being brought together as one geologically-related area. However, in the Tertiary period, the seabed of Tethys, based on less resistant rock than Gondwanaland, was forced up by pressure acting from the north and was pushed and folded into mountain chains against the unyielding edge of Gondwanaland. At the same time, the plateau shattered in several places, dividing roughly to create the ‘boundaries’ of Africa and Arabia, and producing the shape of ‘Canaan’. The Meditteranean coast of this area became famous as a bridge between Asia and Africa, and clearly helped the rise of its civilisations. As a result, ‘Mesopotamia’, the land between the two rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates, is composed of two geographical regions; the northern region is the ‘island’ between the two great rivers, and the Delta region of the south, comprising ancient Sumer and Akkad, Babylon, biblical Shinar with Elam away to the east.

Mesopotamia and Canaan in the time of Abraham

After Darwin, there were many who continued in their belief in the Bible, not just as the ‘inspired Word of God’, but as scientifically and historically accurate in every detail. A popular manual much used by potential clergy in mid-Victorian Britain, at a time when the Church had a virtual monopoly on education, gave a clear verdict that, in the Bible, every scientific statement is infallibly accurate, all its history and narrations of every kind are without any inaccuracy. Doubts might be stirring, particularly as science began to raise serious problems, but a similar view was held by the vast majority of Christians. For them, the Bible was nothing less than the inerrant word of God. To challenge this view publicly in Britain was to invite personal abuse, dismissal, even legal action. Essays and Reviews, a collection of essays by Oxford scholars, was condemned after a petition of eleven thousand clergymen and over 150,000 laypeople when its most provocative essay merely urged those that the Bible should be approached like any other book. But others did begin to ask whether their reading had been too rigidly literal. As they gained experience in dealing with such objections, scholars learnt to match their own questioning to the world they were investigating. They learnt that they had to do more than look at the Bible by itself; they had to recreate the world in which it was composed, whether that was Palestine in the tenth century BCE or Babylon in the sixth or Corinth in the first century CE (AD). Only when there was better knowledge of how people in these places and times lived and thought and spoke would the relevant parts of the Bible take their place in the new picture. A useful illustration of this development was given in the 1960s by Dr Leonard Hodgson:

… modern zoology began when, instead of relying on Aristotelian and heraldic representations of animals in traditional bestiaries, men based their research on the observation of the actual nature and behaviour of living creatures. … As a result of this last century’s biblical studies, we are at a similar turning point in the history of Christian theology. … A hundred years ago our forefathers looked to the Bible as in the same way that medieval zoologists looked to Aristotle… To their successors’ substituting of observation of actual animals corresponds our attention to the historical provenance of the biblical writings.

Quoted by John Bowden (1970), (see ref. below), The Biblical Scholar and his Tools, p. 6.

This meant cultivating a historical sense. That too was developed over the century since Darwin’s theory, so it affected almost any arts subject, from music to languages, and even some of the sciences. The way we begin to understand anything is by looking at its roots, its origins, and discovering how it came to be as we observe it now. Biblical criticism had been in progress for some time before this point became clear. When it began, it was in no position to reconstruct past ethnographies, geographies and ecologies because it did not have sufficient sources of evidence to do so. But this did not mean that useful and lasting research could not be done on more limited, though still valuable issues. Even before archaeology began to make its impressive contribution to our contemporary understanding of events, contexts and developments referred to in the ancient texts, a great deal had already been established about those texts of both the old and new Testament books from their literary characteristics.

The change to a more modest assessment of the Bible happened over the course of a little more than a century from the publication of Darwin’s theory, not a long time compared with the whole history of the Bible as a ‘library’ of various books. It came about because questions were asked quite unlike those of any other previous period. They were questions prompted by a scientific revolution that affected not only the Bible but the entire modern world. Most believers long ago accepted that Genesis 1, for example, is not true in the sense of being an accurate, scientific account of the creation of the world, so that scepticism about the details of the narrative books can also now coexist with continuing to respect the texts as religiously inspiring and informative. We can follow a critical path while at the same time retaining our connection with the traditional use of the Bible by understanding the value of its profound narratives. John Bowden, in his article for the (1970) publication A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers (see the reference above), concludes that the ‘tools’ required by the biblical scholar are the same as those employed by other studies, including history, philosophy, languages, even science, in which disagreements are not uncommon, together with an approach of genuine openness. So biblical scholarship does not stand entirely apart. Where it differs is in the importance attached to its conclusions.

Inspiration, Metaphorical Meanings and Rational Reality:

So much in the past had been based on the belief in the fundamental truth and infallibility of the Bible that changes in perceptions, understanding and interpretation were felt, and still are by many, to have very far-reaching significance. Neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament books themselves contain any claim by their authors to have been dictated or even directly inspired, by God. The chief passage relevant to the inspiration of texts (as opposed to people) is II Timothy 3: 16-17:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

In this passage, ‘Scripture’ must surely refer to the books of the Old Testament, though by the time II Timothy was written some of Paul’s letters seem already to have been regarded as such, as in II Peter 3: 16. However, both these letters were unlikely to have been written by Paul, and both seem to be among the last-written books of the Bible. It also seems unlikely, had Paul had a hand in these letters, that he would have claimed that ‘hand’ to have been directly ‘inspired’ or dictated to by God. ‘Inspired’ literally meant ‘God-breathed’ in the Greek of that time, which would imply that God was the author of the biblical books in a way not otherwise asserted within the books themselves. In Judaism, it has been customary to see the books of the Hebrew Bible as given by the spirit of God, though the exact mechanism is not much discussed. Despite the paucity of references within the Bible itself, Christians have often quoted II Timothy and described the Bible as the product of divine inspiration. Dictation theories are unusual today: even very conservative Christians allow that the biblical authors contributed much from their own minds. But accepting this makes it difficult to exclude the possibility of human error, inaccuracy or interpretation in the writing of the biblical texts, which conservatives are concerned at all costs to avoid admitting.

Some ‘conservative’ Christians do indeed continue to hold that since Genesis 1-2 says that the world was created in six days, it must have been so created – a literal interpretation. Others are more concerned with the Bible’s infallibility than with reading all of it literally, and will sometimes accept metaphorical readings if that will preserve the fundamental truth of the texts. Some will maintain that ‘day’ does not literally mean a period of twenty-four hours, but a vastly longer ‘period’. Since God inspired the writers, they cannot have been in error; and since we know that the world formed and life evolved over billions of years, that must be what Genesis really means. Some have also been heard to insist that there must have been six periods in the creation of the earth, and that even that this is supported by science, in an effort to avoid accepting that – in purely scientific and historical terms – Genesis is simply wrong. Darwin’s contemporaries also witnessed many similar attempts to reconcile biblical texts with scientific discoveries. In his ministerial Conference address of 1891, for instance, Spurgeon described a good brother who writes a tremendous book to prove that the six days of creation represent six great theological periods:

… he shows how the geological strata, and the organisms thereof, follow very much in the order of the Genesis story of creation. It may be so, or it may not be so; but if anybody should before long show that the strata do not lie in any such order, what would be my reply? I should say that the Bible never taught that they did. The Bible said, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” …There is nothing said about long ages of time…

… I do not here lay down any theory, but simply say that if our friend’s great book is all fudge, the Bible is not responsible for it. It is true that his theory has an appearance of support from the parallelism which he makes out between the organic life of the ages and that of the seven days; but this may be accounted for from the fact God usually follows a certain order whether he works in long periods or short ones. I do not know, and I do not care much about the question

… {but} if you smash up an explanation you must not imagine that you have damaged the Scriptural truth which seemed to require the explanation… Believe everything in science which is proved: it will not come to much. And then believe everything which is clearly in the Word of God…

C. H. Spurgeon, The Greatest Fight in the World, loc. cit. , pp. 41-42.

On the other hand, a purely historical-critical style of reading the Bible would see the stories as reports of alleged actual events, but then go on simply to deny that such events actually happened. After all, there were two creation narratives in Genesis, both giving very different slants. Could it be that we are not intended to take these stories as exact, literal and scientific descriptions of what happened? Do they not rather present profound insights into man’s relationship with the world and his God, in terms which could be understood by pre-scientific man? Could it not be that, in describing the origin of the world, Genesis had to use a certain amount of symbolism, just as the last book of the Bible uses symbolism to describe the cosmic events of the end of the world? It is commonplace in modern discussions of religion and science to argue that the story of creation in Genesis 1 was never meant to be taken literally, and this was picked up by the Catholic Pontifical Biblical Commission in their short book entitled The Inspiration and Truth of Sacred Scripture: The Word that Comes from God and Speaks of God for the Salvation of the World:

The first creation account (Gen. 1: 1 – 2: 4a), through its well-organised structure, describes not how the world came into being but why and for what purpose it is as it is. In poetic style, using the imagery of his era, the author of Gen. 1 … shows that God is the origin of the cosmos and of humankind.

Inspiration and Truth, p. 74.

It seems to John Barton highly likely, however, that the author of the first account was trying to describe how the world came into being, in other words, that the text is, or was, meant to be taken literally. The problem with this way of understanding it is that, unless you are a ‘fundamentalist’, you have to go on to admit that the author was mistaken, and this comes very hard to many conservative Christians, especially when they are dealing with what became ecclesiastical documents. The metaphorical reading of the creation story is a ‘forced’ or ‘strained’ reading, designed to ensure that the narrative can continue to be seen as true in some sense. And perhaps it is true in that sense – but it foists on the authors what some readers believe is the best way we have of extracting benefit from the passages. Such readings are not a modern undertaking, but reveal a dependence on the view that, because the text is ‘inspired’ it must be ‘true’ according to our understanding of how the world is and how it came to be. Nonetheless, there is an alternative, which is to read it at face value, and then recognise that it is not true. If we do that, then the idea that the text is inspired becomes harder to hold on to. Perhaps, as John Barton suggests, it is better not to make the high claim that it is inspired or, at least, to understand ‘inspiration’ differently. Perhaps, also, the use of the word ‘fundamentalist’ to describe ‘conservative Christians’ who read the Bible literally, is not an appropriate usage. A Christian must be able to hold to the ‘radical truth’ of the Creation myths and sagas without accepting them as historically or scientifically factual.

The Ancient of Days’ by William Blake (1757-1827), from Europe, a Prophecy, 1794.

At the time, since the habit of reading Genesis 1 literally (and often at the expense of Genesis 2 which tended to be ignored) was deeply ingrained it was consequential that the battle should rage over creation versus evolution. Another consequence was that many people exchanged an uncritical view of creation for an equally uncritical view of evolution. Today, we can take a more objective view. For most Christians, it is not so much a case of either/or, but of seeing God’s creative action in the processes of evolution. To do this requires an understanding of modern science, but not an extensive knowledge of it. It means relating Christian beliefs, not only to an evolutionary time-scale but also to relative values. In the past, people have thought of God as God-of-the-gaps. God and nature were quite separate. For most of the time nature functions quite adequately on its own. God comes into the picture only where there is a break in the processes of nature. The trouble with this view is that the more science is able to explain our life in terms of natural processes, the less room there is for God. In the end, God is squeezed out altogether. But God is not a term of scientific explanation. He is not one cause alongside other natural causes. Rather, he is there working in and through all that goes on in the world. The believer knows from the Bible and in his experience that this is so. It is the inherited task of twenty-first-century theology to show us more clearly how we can think of God against the background of a scientific view of the world.

‘Conclusions’ – Continuing Questions, Doubts and Assurances:

But if, as is so often the case, there is just not enough evidence to come to any definite conclusion, then living with questions and doubt would seem to be the only answer. As in other areas of life, perhaps we just have to get used to that as the modern condition of mankind. But then, the believer may ask, can we be sure of anything? It might be wrong, or misleading, to collect a set of ‘assured results’ and present them by saying of this much, at least, we may be certain. All results are only probable, though some may be more probable than others, and many assured results of the past have since been overturned. A good deal of the tension between doubt and assurance is evinced by the question of what can we be sure? This tension may slacken once the distinction between ‘proof’ and ‘understanding’ has been made. The Bible bears witness to God through the whole life of a particular people and the way in which it looked at the world. That life had many aspects, and when we acknowledge that, a great many of its patterns and processes will fall into place of their own accord. On the vexed question of Biblical authority, Robert C Walton has concluded:

The Bible is self-authenticating. Its authority cannot be imposed, its significance cannot be demonstrated by using time-honoured phrases like ‘Holy Scripture’ or ‘the word of God’. … Yet it has been the experience of millions in the past and today that the Bible has the power to transmit to men the mystery and majesty, the power and loving-kindness of God: and also the mystery, the majesty and loving-kindness of Jesus. It makes its own claims on upon men’s minds and imaginations and consciences, but this self-authentication… is often built up slowly; it may take years, decades, or perhaps a whole lifetime.

Robert C Walton, Has the Bible Authority? in his (1970) Source Book of the Bible for Teachers.

Philosophical approaches, biblical criticism and the theory of evolution threw the church onto the defensive in the late Victorian period. All three seemed to be saying that man was only a superior ape, that philosophy put things in a clear light and that there is nothing but the material on which to base belief. Included in these secular views was the ultimate critique of the Bible as ‘fancy’ or as ‘fairy tales.’ As so often in the past, however, the challenge of opposition brought out the best in the Church. What these intellectual movements did was pose problems and there were those within the Church who rose to the challenge and propose solutions. But each generation must provide fresh solutions, and the twentieth century was to present problems for the church of a different order entirely.


John Barton (2019), A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths. London: Allen Lane (Penguin Books).

Tim Dowley (ed.) (1977), A History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

Robert C Walton (ed.) (1970, 1982), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM Press Ltd.

C. Harvie, G. Martin & A. Scharf (eds.) (1975), Industrialisation and Culture, 1830-1914. Basingstoke: Macmillan (for The Open University).

C. H. Spurgeon (1891, 1999), The Greatest Fight in the World: Conference Address. Belfast: Ambassador Publications.

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