“With the Bible in my hands, and the world before me, I think I perceive a perfect harmony between science and revealed religion… It cannot be doubted that there is a perfect harmony between the works and the word of God.”
This portrait of an aging Silliman by Daniel Huntington was painted in 1857, four years after his retirement from Yale College and seven years before his death on Thanksgiving morning, 1864. Image courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery.
These words, from a letter that Benjamin Silliman wrote to Presbyterian minister Gardiner Spring in 1854 (Fisher, Life, cited below, Vol. 2, p. 148), convey Silliman’s concordist perspective with near perfection, but leave many good questions unanswered. How, exactly, did he find “perfect harmony” between Genesis and geology? My previous column examined his views on human antiquity and the flood. Today I’ll explain his interpretation of the “days” of creation.
Benjamin Silliman and Robert Jameson on the “Days” of Creation
In the first version of his published lectures (1829), Silliman just didn’t talk about the creation “days.” Ironically, the textbook to which Silliman’s lectures were appended, Robert Bakewell’s Introduction to Geology, did offer a brief discussion. A Unitarian, Bakewell noted that “the six days in which Creative Energy renovated the globe and called into existence different classes of animals, will imply six successive epochs of indefinite duration” (p. 19). For his part, however, Silliman said only that “the creation of the vegetable and animal races [species] appears to have gone on progressively with the deposition of the mineral strata and masses.” Adding almost immediately, “The only point that admits of discussion is, as to the amount of time employed,” he skirted around the details, maintaining a studied vagueness throughout. Only at the very end did he come close to endorsing a particular scheme: “In the prefatory remarks I have expressed the opinion, that there is no real inconsistency between the Mosaic history, and the actual structure of the earth. As I understand the account there is not, but, on the present occasion, I shall not enter upon the discussion of that part of the subject; believing that the period is not distant, when Geology will be admitted into the train of her elder sister Astronomy, and that both, however regarded while they were imperfectly understood, will be eventually hailed, as friends and allies of revealed religion.” (Outline of the Course of Geological Lectures Given in Yale College, pp. 50 and 126)
Portrait of the Scottish mineralogist Robert Jameson, drawn and printed by Frederick Schenck, published by Maclachlan (M’Lachlan or M’Lauchlan), Stewart & Co, after W. Stewart, lithograph, mid-19th century. 15 1/4 in. x 12 1/4 in. (388 mm x 312 mm) paper size. Purchased with help from the Friends of the National Libraries and the Pilgrim Trust, 1966, NPG D13654. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London (Image source). Silliman borrowed freely from Jameson on both scientific and theological matters.
What brought him out of his dogmatic slumber, apparently, was a paper by the Scottish geologist Robert Jameson. Although Silliman had not actually studied geology with Jameson during his visit to Edinburgh many years earlier, he followed Jameson’s ideas with great interest from across the ocean and re-printed some of them in The American Journal of Science and Arts, which he founded and edited for many years. Jameson also edited a scientific journal, and in 1832 he published his own article, “Remarks on some of Baron Cuvier’s Lectures on the History of the Natural Sciences, in reference to … the source from whence Moses derived his Cosmogony, and the general agreement of that Cosmogony with Modern Geology.” Silliman was obviously impressed; not only did he publish long excerpts in his own journal, but he also wove them into the second and third editions of his appendix to Bakewell’s text—including the fascinating “Table of Coincidences between the Order of Events as described in Genesis, and that unfolded by Geological Investigation” that Jameson had prepared to summarize his interpretation of the hexameron.
“Table of Coincidences between the Order of Events as described in Genesis, and that unfolded by Geological Investigation,” copied Jameson and reproduced in Silliman’s appendix to the final American edition of Robert Bakewell’s Introduction to Geology (1839), p. 562. Here Jameson linked the opening verses in Genesis with George Cuvier’s conclusion that, the surface of the Earth has undergone dramatic changes for eons, stretching back even before the first appearance of life. The parallel goes even further, considering the appearance of dry land out of the waters in verse 9. According to the final English edition of Cuvier’s Essay on the Theory of the Earth (1827), heavily edited by Jameson, “the masses which now constitute our highest mountains, have been originally in a liquid state” (p. 20). Photograph by Edward B. Davis.
For our purposes, the crucial passage reads as follows: “The term, the meaning of which we shall first investigate, is ‘day’ (in the Hebrew, yom.) The interpretation of this in the sense ‘epoch’ or ‘period,’ has been a subject of animadversion, of unnecessary severity in some cases. A careful examination of the first chapter of Genesis itself, leads unavoidably to the conclusion, that our natural day of one revolution of the sun cannot be meant by it, for we find that no fewer than three of the six days had passed before the measure of our present day was established” (quoting Jameson, from p. 557 in the third edition of Silliman’s appendix). Jameson then examined the presence of the same Hebrew word in Genesis 2:4, Job 18:20, and Isaiah 30:8, to which Silliman added further examples (including the Greek equivalent) from Job 14:6, Proverbs 6:34, Ezekiel 21:25, Luke 17:24, John 8:56, and 2 Peter 3:8. You get the drift.
Silliman admitted “that Moses himself probably understood the word day according to the popular signification [i.e., as an ordinary day], and as regards the history in question, this sense is certainly the most obvious one to every mind not informed as to the [geological] structure of the globe; even those who are learned on other subjects, but ignorant of geology, always adopt, in this case, the literal and obvious meaning. This however proves nothing; for the truths of astronomy are in exactly the same situation. Until modern astronomy arose, no one, whether learned or unlearned, entertained a doubt that the earth is an extended plain; that it stands on a firm foundation, even on pillars, and that around it as a center, the sun and starry heavens and the azure canopy, as a solid palpable firmament, revolve, while the waters of the heavens descend through its windows” (pp. 568-69).
The implicit comparison to Galileo then became explicit. “No one in this age,” Silliman opined, “fears that he shall, like Galileo, be thrown into prison for declining (on this subject) to understand the Scriptures in their literal sense” (p. 569).
If Silliman accepted the reality of deep time before the creation of humans, this did not involve a lengthening of human antiquity—that inference was not widely drawn in his lifetime, coming mainly in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Indeed, in an address he delivered to a scientific audience in 1842, he said this: “It is already admitted by multitudes, that the chronology of the Scriptures is, in strictness, applied only to the history of our race, the sole moral beings whom God has placed in this world; while all that precedes man in the creation, is limited, in duration backwards, only by that beginning, whose is known to no being but the infinite Creator, and which certainly precedes, by many ages, the creation of man; how long, it is neither important nor possible to determine; long enough however to admit of the arrangement, consolidation and elevation by natural laws, of the crust of the earth and of all its wonderful, mineral, and organic contents.” (Address, cited below, p. 29)
For the most part, Silliman reprinted Jameson’s “Table of Coincidences” unchanged. In the final edition of his appendix (1839), however, Silliman inserted this lengthy footnote about death before the fall to the sixth day of creation, where Jameson mentioned the “Bones of mammiferous land quadrupeds…” Silliman identified himself as the author of this note by putting “ED[itor]” at the end.
The Situation Today
If I asked you to name the top American evangelical theologians of the past century, who would you think of first? Many might start with the famous Carl F. H. Henry. He was not only Billy Graham’s choice as first editor-in-chief for the leading evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, but he also helped start the National Association of Evangelicals and the Institute on Religion and Democracy. Whether or not he would be your first choice, it’s hard not to put him somewhere high on that list.
Who else would be there? In the opinion of Westminster-trained theologian Kevin Vanhoozer of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, the Baptist Bernard Ramm “must be considered one of the foremost American evangelical theologians of the twentieth century. Only Carl F. H. Henry’s works are comparable in quantity and quality” (cited below, p. 292). That’s very high praise indeed. Although many people probably associate Ramm with other subjects—he wrote twenty books—I doubt any of them was more influential than The Christian View of Science and Scripture (1954). In subsequent years, Ramm had such a strong following among members of the American Scientific Affiliation—the oldest organization of Christians in the sciences in North America—that they devoted an entire issue of their journal to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of his book. Luminaries such as chemist Walter Hearn, historian Edwin Yamauchi, theologian Clark Pinnock, and astronomer Owen Gingerich all sang his praises.
My own experience inside and outside ASA circles confirms what they said: whenever I bring up his name among evangelical scientists or scholars born before 1960, I almost invariably get a highly positive expression of appreciation for that book—which continues to garner praise from authors as diverse as John Ankerberg and John Jefferson (“Jack”) Davis. Davis’s book, The Frontiers of Science & Faith (2002), includes a thoughtful chapter based on a paper he published in the ASA journal, “Is Progressive Creation Still a Helpful Concept?” His conclusion is that “Bernard Ramm’s concept of ‘progressive creation’ is still a useful category for interpreting biblical and scientific data relating to origins.”
I first read Bernard Ramm’s book in 1977, when I was teaching high school in Philadelphia. The following January, I attended a lecture he gave at his alma mater, Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary (now called Palmer Theological Seminary), in which he reflected on the book he had written almost a quarter century earlier—the only time I ever heard him speak. There were two takeaway messages. First, since writing the book he had come to think that literary genre was even more important for biblical interpretation than he had realized. Second, to quote him directly, “The fundamentalist mentality is far more ingrained in American evangelicals than I would ever have imagined.” My chief memory of this event, however, is one of profound embarrassment. I arrived early, in order to have a quick meal before heading over to the lecture. Cafeteria tray in hand, I found a place with a few others who were also planning to hear the talk. Turning to the person next to me, an older man with an air of distinction, I asked his opinion of Ramm’s book, only then to discover that I had just addressed Bernard Ramm himself! I don’t remember exactly what he said, except that he handled it graciously. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.
Why have Ramm’s ideas been so attractive in so many quarters? It boils down to just three things: attitude, attitude, attitude. He represents a middle course between two unacceptable alternatives: the fundamentalist rejection of so much legitimate science and the modernist rejection of biblical authority. Embracing biblical authority without rejecting modern science, Ramm saw himself as continuing “a noble tradition in Bible and science” coming out of the nineteenth century, “the tradition of the great and learned evangelical Christians who have been patient, genuine, and kind and who have taken great care to learn the facts of science and Scripture.” He lamented that “the noble tradition … has not been the major tradition in evangelicalism in the twentieth century. Both a narrow evangelical Biblicism, and its narrow theology, buried the noble tradition” (quoting the unpaginated preface).
What did Ramm mean by “a noble tradition”? Basically, he meant the concordists. Thus, we find his affirmation that “the fundamental pattern of creation is progressive creation” (fourth printing, 1962, p. 113, his italics). Interestingly, Ramm credited the term “progressive creation” to geologist Edwin K. Gedney of Gordon College, who included a table not entirely unlike Silliman’s in the essay Ramm cited (see below for bibliographic information). Although Silliman is not even mentioned anywhere in Ramm’s book, he presented (as one of several options he did not hold himself) the view held by Silliman, “that the days of Genesis were periods of time representing in brief the geological and biological history of the earth.” Ramm went on to label that view “concordism because it seeks a harmony of the geologic record and the days of Genesis interpreted as long periods of time briefly summarizing geological history.” He also emphasized that progressive creation “is not theistic evolution which calls for creation from within with no acts de novo,” while at the same time he mentioned without condemnation “a sure but slender thread of theistic evolutionists” among evangelicals. Ultimately, Ramm endorsed a theory he called “Pictorial Day and Moderate Concordism,” according to which “creation was revealed in six days, not performed in six days. We believe that the six days are pictorial-revelatory days, not literal days nor age-days. The days are [a] means of communicating to man the great fact that God is Creator, and that He is Creator of all.” (Ramm 1954, 211, 227-28, 284, and 221-22)
I close with a salient fact. Despite its carefully measured analysis, Ramm’s book gave umbrage to a young theology student, John C. Whitcomb, Jr., who soon teamed up with engineer Henry M. Morris to write a famous reply to Ramm, The Genesis Flood (1961), effectively launching the modern creationist movement. Far more than most people realize, today’s creationists simply reject the concordist notion that the book of Scripture should be read in light of what we’ve learned from the book of nature.
When the series resumes in a few weeks, I’ll introduce you to Silliman’s distinguished pupil, Edward Hitchcock of Amherst College, arguably the leading American natural theologian before the Civil War. His views on what he himself called “death before the fall” are remarkable, and remarkably interesting. Indeed, they’ve been brought back into the modern conversation by none other than ID proponent William Dembski. In the meantime, look for a mini-series about Southern Presbyterians and science in the mid-19th century, based on a new book by historian and pastor Monte Hampton.