Thomas Cole, The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge (1829), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. One of the greatest landscape painters of all time, Thomas Cole was a friend of Benjamin Silliman and a serious student of geology. This particular canvas, smaller than many of his better-known works and lost for more than a century, was painted in the same year in which Silliman’s lectures supporting the historicity of the flood were published for the first time. (Image source)
Benjamin Silliman on Noah’s Flood
As we saw previously, Benjamin Silliman described the creation as “progressive” in the first edition of his Yale geology lectures. As he said, “The creation of the vegetable and animal races appears to have gone on progressively with the deposition of the mineral strata and masses.” The “deposition” mentioned here occurred in the primeval seas, according to Wernerian theory (an idea I have already explained). Contrary to what one might otherwise think, Silliman wasn’t referring to the biblical flood and its aftermath. Indeed, he cautioned readers that “no one can reason, correctly and conclusively, upon geology, who does not separate the events connected with the great catastrophe which destroyed nearly the whole human family, and most of the animals, from those events which belong to the earlier periods of the planet and preceded the creation of man.” (“Outline of the Course of Geological Lectures Given in Yale College,” p. 50)
This is not to say that Silliman doubted the historicity of the flood–not in the least. In the first edition of his lectures he wrote extensively on it, noting that “geological evidence that supports the history of the flood is most abundant and altogether satisfactory,” although that evidence was often “blended with the facts belonging to the primitive watery abyss [long before the flood].” Stating his view more confidently, he wrote, “Respecting the deluge, there can be but one opinion, and that opinion has been already stated; geology fully confirms the scripture history of that event.” Indeed, “[w]e need not the [biblical] history, in order to prove the occurrence of an universal deluge,” which “is sufficiently proved, by the vestiges left upon the globe, and geologists are generally agreed in admitting the fact,” but we still needed the Bible to tell us precisely when it took place (pp. 50, 7, and 74).
Silliman never changed his mind about the reality of the flood, but in later editions of his lectures and other writings he toned down his comments significantly, putting even more emphasis on the ambiguity of the evidence bearing on the role of water in earth history. For example, in his introduction to the American edition of Gideon Mantell’s book, The Wonders of Geology (1839), he said only that “The Scriptures describe a universal deluge, and geology proves that every part of the earth is marked by the effect of such visitations, occurring at one time, or at many times;–a repetition of local deluges, or a general one, would produce similar results; and although it may be impossible to distinguish between the accumulated effects of local overflows, and a general diluvial devastation, the surface of the earth abounds with diluvial ruins.” (“Remarks Introductory to the First American Edition,” p. 32. For more information about Silliman’s evolving views see the dissertation by Rodney L. Stiling, cited below.)
The increasing ambivalence in Silliman’s position on evidence for the flood reflects the influence of a major English geologist, William Buckland. A few years before Silliman’s lectures were first published, Buckland had written a vigorous geological defense of a worldwide flood in an English book with a Latin title, Reliquiæ Diluvianæ (1823), a work that Silliman cited favorably. Over the next several years, however, Buckland backed slowly away from that conclusion, as critics persuaded him that several local floods rather than a single global flood gave a better account of the evidence. Ultimately he found that the brand new theory of glaciation offered the best explanation for such things as erratic boulders.
Despite growing uncertainty about the details, Silliman’s resounding affirmation that geology confirms Genesis came through loud and clear to his readers. We find a most striking example in his friend, the great landscape painter Thomas Cole, who saw the New England countryside through Silliman’s eyes. Erratic boulders, now understood to have been left behind by receding glaciers, were seen by Silliman and other American naturalists of the 1820s as remnants of the flood. They appear in many of Cole’s paintings, but especially in The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge (1829).
What about human antiquity, another scientific topic closely tied with the Bible? According to the Scottish geologist Robert Jameson, whose ideas Silliman borrowed freely, French paleontologist Georges Cuvier had shown that no human fossils were contemporaneous with those of the extinct mammals. Silliman took this as virtual proof that humans must be of recent origin. Here’s how he put it in his lectures: “Man no where Fossil—Man and his works [i.e., tools, dwellings, etc.] appear only in the last stages [of the fossil record], associated with just such beings as now exist, both in the animal and vegetable world” (1839 edition, p. 479).
The second (1833) and third (1839) editions of Silliman’s lectures include a detailed “Table of Coincidences between the Order of Events as described in Genesis, and that unfolded by Geological Investigation” that he copied from an article by Robert Jameson. This image of the latter part of that table comes from p. 563 in the third edition. Notice how Jameson linked specific passages in the geological literature with specific verses in Genesis, displaying visually the essence of concordism. Likewise, the absence of human fossils (according to Jameson’s understanding of the available evidence at that time) implied that humans were created only after the other animals, while the presence of human bones buried under mud in caves was consistent with the flood. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.
In fact Cuvier’s position was a bit more subtle than this, and the final English edition of his Essay on the Theory of the Earth (1827), heavily edited by Jameson, mentions a very specific “instance of a fossil human petrifaction [i.e., fossilization] in an alluvial formation” (p. 407). Nevertheless, Silliman told readers of Mantell’s book that “geology proves that our world existed for many ages before man was created, and that his creation was only the last act in the series,” and that “it perfectly concurs in the conclusion that the human race cannot have been on the earth more than a few thousand years. Where then is the discrepancy between geology and the sacred history, and what is the cause that this science fills many minds with alarm, and not a few with hostility?” Like astronomy, geology “is the ally, and not the enemy of revealed truth.” He concluded with a vigorous attack on his literalist critics: “The time has already come, when those who claim to judge of the consistency of the Scriptures with geology, must study this science, not superficially, but profoundly; for in no other way can they become qualified to form a just opinion in the case. It is, indeed, lamentable to observe the crude and absurd speculations of some, who speak and write in a manner adapted only to expose their own ignorance of the subject; and there are not wanting those, both at home and abroad, whose arrogance and censoriousness are exhibited in a manner equally uncandid and undignified; while their incredulity, manifested by a blind rejection of evidence without examination, (a real infidelity,) would imply, that the Author of nature has given a revelation inconsistent with the work of his own hands” (“Remarks,” pp. 33-34, his italics).
In other words, true fidelity calls for a careful reading of both of God’s books, not just the Bible.
The Situation Today: Charles Hodge’s “Slippery Slide to Unbelief”
Silliman’s concordist attitude has been reprised by many American evangelicals since his time, but none of higher stature than Charles Hodge, one of the most important American theologians of the nineteenth century. In an article on “The Bible in Science,” from the New York Observer, 26 March 1863, Hodge said, “The proposition that the Bible must be interpreted by science is all but self-evident. Nature is as truly a revelation of God as the Bible, and we only interpret the Word of God by the Word of God when we interpret the Bible by science” (Noll & Livingstone, cited below, p. 54). A stalwart Calvinist and an outspoken opponent of what he famously called “Darwinism,” Hodge cannot reasonably be seen as theologically heterodox. Nevertheless, because he interpreted Genesis in light of geological ages, he is included in an exhibit at Ken Ham’s Creation Museum devoted to the “slippery slide” of apostasy! Unfortunately, this tells us far more about the Creation Museum than it does about Hodge.
Next time, we explain Silliman’s approach to the creation “days,” further illustrating what he meant by “progressive creation.”