ABOVE: Columbia geophysicist J. Laurence Kulp (center) explains a rock sample to Wheaton zoologist Russell L. Mixter (left) and Oregon State engineer F. Alton Everest (right), at the 1950 meeting at Goshen College. A major research scientist who pioneered radiocarbon dating and helped start the Lamont Geophysical Laboratory, Kulp heavily influenced attitudes toward natural history among ASA members. Photograph courtesy of the ASA.
INTRO BY TED: Last week we published the first part of Terry Gray’s short history of the American Scientific Affiliation, the oldest North American organization of Christians in the sciences. Using original sources from the period, Dr. Gray showed how, from the beginning, the ASA was committed to finding truth in both science and Scripture, while individual members disagreed on exactly how this ought to be done. In this second installment, Dr. Gray emphasizes how an increasing respect for the findings of mainstream science led many ASA members to reject the idea that the Bible is a source of scientific information.
Gray’s account resumes after the next heading.
Embracing Mainstream Science
The ASA’s early embrace of mainstream science was influenced by J. Laurence Kulp, a Princeton-trained physical chemist/geochemist at Columbia whose research focused onradiometric dating. His critique of the young-earth creationist (YEC) view helped the ASA resist a push by some to become a YEC organization. At the 1948 annual meeting at Calvin College, Calvin biologist Edwin Y. Monsma presented a paper critiquing “Some Basic Presuppositions in Evolutionary Thinking” in which he questioned the great age of the earth. In the ensuing discussion, Kulp schooled the attendees in the latest geological views, including radiometric dating, saying,” one of the most probable facts in geology, I believe, is that the earth is close to two billion years old.”
Kulp had an even larger impact on the 1949 meeting at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University), yet he wasn’t even there, owing to his heavy schedule at Columbia. He wrote two papers anyway. Wheaton anthropologist Marie Fetzer read the famous one on “Deluge Geology,” which directly attacked the “flood geology” view of George McCready Price and was firmly anti-YEC. Although Price was present in the room the whole time, he remained quiet until the chair of the session, Goshen physicist Paul Bender, pointedly asked him to comment. Whatever he said, it was all too brief and apparently unmemorable, though his frustration came out six years later, when he told John C. Whitcomb, Jr., that Kulp had “omitted all mention of my fundamentals,” amounting to nothing more than “a tiresome rehash of the old familiar story of the geological ages” (quoted in Kalthoff’s dissertation, cited below, p. 476). Kulp’s viewpoint seems to have been generally well-received, since that same year he was elected to the ASA Executive Council. However, as soon as he saw it in print, YEC Henry Morris dashed off an eight-page letter to the ASA president, rebutting Kulp’s conclusions and defending Price, whose ideas he had embraced just a few years before.
When the ASA began to publish a journal in 1949, the pages were mimeographed from typed originals and stapled into light gray stiff paper covers. Kulp’s paper refuting flood geology appeared the following year in the second volume (shown here), which also included an article on “Behaviorism and Philosophical Psychology” by another scholar who strongly influenced the organization, the great evangelical theologian Bernard Ramm. Early issues of the Journal are rare, partly because a disastrous fire in the ASA office destroyed numerous items. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.
While YEC advocates were not unwelcome in the ASA, it was clear already in the early 1950s that the organization was not opposed to consensus science, including an old earth and universe. The later decision in 1963 by some ASA members to launch an alternative organization, the Creation Research Society, reflects the young-earth creationists’ dissatisfaction with this direction. YEC members continued to be involved in the ASA, but they had to share the stage with those who accepted the conclusions of mainstream science. Consequently, fewer YEC voices were heard. The critique of flood geology culminated in 1969 with a highly critical review of Whitcomb and Morris’s The Genesis Flood, entitled “Fundamentalism and the Fundamentals of Geology,” by geologist J. R. van de Fliert of the Free University of Amsterdam.
Promoting mainstream science in the ASA on the biological side was Wheaton zoologist Russell L. Mixter, with a PhD (1939) from the University of Illinois and a career that spanned over fifty years. He authored the ASA monograph “Creation and Evolution", first published in 1950 and revised in 1967, which was based on three papers given at ASA meetings: “The Kind of Genesis and the Kind of Geology” (1946), “The Extent of Change since the Origin of Species” (1947), and “The Mechanisms of Evolution” (1948). Mixter was influential in helping the ASA (and Evangelicals in general) stay informed about the latest developments in evolutionary theory and advocated the acceptance of evolutionary ideas as far as they were firmly established. He also edited the 1959 volume Evolution and Christian Thought Today, a collection of essays by ASA scientists presenting state of the art origins science and reflecting on it from a Christian perspective (1959 was the hundred-year anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species).
Photograph by Edward B. Davis.
Mixter was convinced that evolutionary processes explained some of the world’s biological diversity. But in his view, neither genetic mechanism nor the fossil record supported common ancestry of every living creature. He found this perceived empirical limitation consistent with the use of “kinds” in Genesis 1. Technically, this made Mixter and other like-minded ASA scientists progressive creationists, but it does not seem that they were in principle opposed to an entirely evolutionary understanding of creation (except perhaps in the case of the origin of Adam and Eve). They simply did not think that the current scientific evidence warranted the full embrace of evolutionary theory. Today’s proponents of YEC, OEC, and ID continue to advance many of the same arguments advanced by Mixter.
The angst felt by ASA members in the course of this early engagement with evolution is seen in a comment by founding member Irving A. Cowperthwaite about the 1957 ASA meeting. He noticed with much concern “a growing conviction that inexorable pressure of expanding knowledge is about to force us to accept some formulation of the theory of evolution, including the evolutionary origin of man, and that we must adjust our thinking in accordance with this eventuality.”
Really, the Bible Is Not a Textbook of Science
The second major development from the early decades of the ASA is the beginning of what critics believed to be a relaxation of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Others would say that the ASA was at last taking seriously the claim that the Bible was not a textbook of science. Perhaps more than anything else, Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm’s 1954 book, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, opened the door to the idea that the language of Scripture is neither technical nor scientific, but rather the language of the common person as they experience the world in an ordinary manner.
Although Kulp’s influence on the early ASA was considerable, in the long run no one was more influential than Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm, who presented papers at three of the first four meetings. At that point he was teaching a required course on science and the Bible at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles and doing doctoral work in the philosophy of science at USC. His wide-ranging, carefully written lectures were published by Eerdmans in 1954. So important was the book to ASA members that an issue of the ASA Journal was devoted to it twenty-five years later.
In 1963, JASA published an article by the distinguished Stanford physicist, Richard H. Bube, “A Perspective on Scriptural Inerrancy.” He distinguished between “arbitrary inerrancy,” where “the Scriptures are considered to be verbally inspired, inerrant, and infallible in an arbitrarily absolute sense as factual information,” and “revelational inerrancy,” where “the Scriptures are indeed verbally inspired, inerrant, and infallible as a revelation of God by Himself to men.” The key distinction is that the Bible may contain “errors,” namely, mistaken opinions about the natural world held by the original human authors and the original audience, as long as these are not central to the revelatory purpose of the Bible. However, as Bube was quick to say, “This by no means implies that there are ‘errors’ of fact in the Bible, but rather that the criteria for judging fact are often either uncertain or irrelevant to the revelational purpose of the Bible,” for example, the idea that the ancients, including the writers of the Bible, held to a three-storied universe.
For some inside and outside the ASA, Ramm offered a less strict position on the inspiration of the Bible, leading to accusations of modernism. Bube continued to promote the dialogue in the Journal after he succeeded Mixter as the editor in 1969. The ASA, its journal, and the key players were all featured in Harold Lindsell’s famous book, The Battle for the Bible (1976), as examples of evangelicals who had compromised scriptural inerrancy—a charge that Bube answered.
Not everyone in the ASA who accepted modern science thought that it came at the expense of the doctrine of inerrancy. For example, Arthur W. Kushke, a critic of Ramm’s view, nevertheless wrote, “It was good to note, among other things, the desire that Christian statements on science should be informed; the views on the chronology of the earth and of man and the elasticity of the creative ‘kind’; and the opposition to the flood view of the fossils.” Apparently, Kuschke thought that that the kind of inerrancy he advocated did not require views which would set the Christian scientist against much of modern science. Others have noted that the view of inerrancy upheld by the Old Princeton theologians (see the previous column) was perhaps a bit more nuanced than the view of Harold Lindsell.
After two decades the ASA seemed comfortable with a view of Scripture, or a way of interpreting Scripture that removed most of the earlier perceived conflicts between the Bible and science. Issues related to interpreting the Genesis “days” and the created “kinds,” a geologically young earth, and the extent (both geographically and anthropologically) of the Genesis flood were no longer seen to be problems. This dissolution of scriptural difficulties led many members to be more accepting of well-established scientific claims.
Join us again next week, when Dr. Gray tells how in the 1980s the ASA collectively became more sophisticated philosophically, theologically, and historically—especially (though not solely) through an extensive internal conversation about Intelligent Design.