A. D. White’s “Warfare Between Science and Theology,” Pt. 3
This is the last of a three-part series taken from Mark Noll’s Scholarly Essay, which was originally presented as the 2009 Frederick C. Wood Lecture at Cornell University. A video of the presentation can be found here. All references and citations have been removed for the blog series but can be found in the full paper.
In Part 1 , Noll described how Andrew Dickson White relentlessly advocated a view of history in which Science and Dogmatic Theology have always been at war with one another. In Part 2 , he outlined eight of 16 reasons why White’s notion of warfare is mistaken. Below are the remaining eight reasons and some concluding remarks.
Problems with White’s “Warfare” Perspective (Continued)
9. Huxley and Wilberforce
A. D. White wrote several pages on the momentous significance of an exchange in 1860 between Thomas Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog,” and the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, which showed Wilberforce twisting scientific evidence to deny the force of evolution and Huxley defending the high truths of unfettered scientific investigation. The problem with this account is that, though some kind of exchange doubtless took place in Oxford before the British Association on June 30, 1860, no one at the time ascribed much significance to it at all. The conclusion that the Huxley-Wilberforce exchange was one of the turning points in the battle between Science over Theology turns out itself to be a myth.
10. Promoting Darwinism
A. D. White included brief mention of the Harvard botanist, Asa Gray, in his Warfare book, but Gray deserved more attention as the first, strongest, and most effective American promoter of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Gray, a renowned botanist at Harvard, did this work on behalf of Darwinism while maintaining in frank correspondence with Darwin that Gray saw no difficulty in understanding the theory of natural selection as fully compatible with traditional Christian doctrines of divine Providence, the deity of Christ, and the traditional Christian account of human sinfulness and divine salvation in Christ.
Perhaps even more notable as someone who promoted major aspects of Darwin’s science in the United States was a theologian from Princeton Seminary, Benjamin B. Warfield, who was alive and active when White published his big book. Warfield’s support for evolution is especially noteworthy since Warfield was, in his day, the nation’s strongest supporter for the theological concept of biblical inerrancy, the belief that the Bible makes no mistakes whatever. Warfield wrote carefully about evolution and with several qualifications, but he also articulated his conviction on many occasions that natural selection did not in principle contradict historic Christian faith nor did it undermine a very high conception of the Christian Scriptures.
11. The Importance of Place
Notable historical studies have also demonstrated how important local religious contexts have been for attitudes toward scientific proposals like evolution. When evaluating Darwinism, for example, it made a great difference whether debates took place in Belfast, with a history that had pitted modern science against traditional theology, or in Edinburgh, where the local culture had encouraged traditional theology and modern science together. Skirmishes, shots across the bow, much sound and fury—all certainly did attend the introduction of Darwinism in European religious life. But it was hardly a general state of warfare.
12. Testimony of the popes
The last two popes have made nuanced statements about what balanced Christian teaching should say about scientific investigations of human kind. In 1996, John Paul II gave an address to the Pontifical Academy of Science on “The Question of Evolution” in which he affirmed traditional Catholic teaching that humankind was created in the image of God. Yet the address also explained why the church could and did accept modern evolutionary theory so long as that theory did not lead to “materialist” or “reductionist” metaphysical conclusions about the nature of humanity. Joseph Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, said much the same thing in a series of lectures defining “a Catholic understanding of the story of creation and the fall.”
13. Recent scientists as traditional Christians
The recent past also reveals many instances where anything but warfare has characterized science and theology. Particle physicist John Polkinghorne and physician-geneticist Francis Collins are only two of many contemporary scientists respected for their leadership in research who have written eloquently about how their practice of science fits easily within a framework of traditional Christian belief.
14. Recent scientists as peacemakers
Even better known are modern scientists who have labored to defuse tensions between religion as such and science as such. The late Stephen Jay Gould is the most prominent of these figures; Gould’s principle of NOMA—“Non-Overlapping Magisteria”—certainly has not resolved all possible tensions involving science and theology, but it represented a major effort to differentiate proper goals of scientific and religious inquiry, and by differentiating them to ease artificial tensions.
15. Christian support for modern natural science
From the seventeenth century to the present, many traditional Christians who are also scientists have given their wholehearted support to the study of nature limited to what can be observed empirically. In other words, with eyes wide open, they have advocated “naturalism” as defined by historian Ronald Numbers: a “purely methodological commitment to explaining the workings of nature without recourse to the supernatural, largely devoid of metaphysical implications about God” At the same time, such scientist Christians reject “naturalism” defined as “a philosophical embracement of materialism tantamount to atheism.” To follow Numbers again, the former definition of naturalism has always enjoyed “much support from devout Christians, who often eagerly embraced it as the method of choice for understanding nature.”
16. Conservative Christianity and literal interpretation of Genesis
From the time of Augustine to the present, a large number of theologically traditional Christians have interpreted the early chapters of the Book of Genesis in ways that welcome scientific investigation. To be sure, traditional Christian believers who stress literal interpretation of the days of creation and of Noah’s flood have received much attention, whether Phillip Gosse in the nineteenth century, who felt that God had created the world with only the appearance of great age, or flood geologists in the present, who ascribe the appearance of great geological age to the workings of Noah’s flood. But even more common among traditional Christian believers who have become expert in ancient texts and mid-eastern cosmology is a long line of scholars who do not read early Genesis as a guide to modern science. This group included the nineteenth-century conservative, William Henry Green, of Princeton Theological Seminary, who showed how to read the genealogies of Genesis as allowing for vast eons of time, and many modern biblical commentators—including Derek Kidner, Bruce Waltke, John Sailhammer, Ronald Youngblood, and John Walton—who interpret early Genesis as directed against the gods of Egypt and Babylon rather than toward the questions of contemporary science.
In sum, a plethora of well-established historical conclusions, along with observations from the present day, demonstrate beyond cavil that no simple formula can adequately describe the rich, thickly textured, and complex history linking Christianity and science.
Throughout most of the last 1700 years, Christian believers have simply shared the intellectual conventions of their day; sometimes they acted to retard the empirical investigation of nature; sometimes they promoted it. In the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, when modern science emerged as a distinct field of human inquiry, Christian beliefs played a prominent role in almost every move resisting science, and they played a prominent role in almost every move promoting science.
Since the eighteenth century, religious controversies over science have been driven by dogmatic theology, by secular belief, by factors having nothing directly to do with science or religion, and by much else. Since that time religious cooperation with science has been driven by dogmatic theology, by secular belief, by factors having nothing directly to do with science or religion, and by much else.
The historical picture is complex, and Western history has certainly witnessed much argument that involves science and religion. But warfare is simply not the best metaphor to capture that history. Rather, negotiation, dialogue, competition, workaday hiccups, and isolated thunderstorms are all better metaphors to describe what has actually occurred.
Mark Noll is a historian, essayist and professor specializing in the history of American Christianity. Since 2006 he has been the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. His books include America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln; God and Race in American Politics: A Short History and The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which has been widely recognized for making a strong appeal for a better approach to intellectual life among American evangelicals.