Chapter 6: What About Modern Science and the Bible?

Dear Mr. Brown: Letters to a Person Perplexed about Religion
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 6: What About Modern Science and the Bible?

Dear Mr. Brown:

In your recent letter you say that some of my references to the Bible in our correspondence have aroused your curiosity. Let me be frank with you: when referring to the Bible, in the instances which you quote, I positively hoped that what I said would be provocative. For I have wondered how much of your religious perplexity is due to the contrast between the world view of the Bible and the world view of modern science. Now you indicate that this problem is in the background of your thinking. You write that you recall your father’s amused comments on William Jennings Bryan’s famous saying, that he believed the whale swallowed Jonah because the Bible says so, and if the Bible said that Jonah swallowed the whale, he would believe that. "Obviously," you write, "you hold no such idea of the Bible’s inerrancy, but what do you think about it? How do you reconcile the Bible with modern science?"

My answer is: I do not reconcile the two. They are utterly irreconcilable. Take the Bible’s picture of the universe, for example. According to that the earth is flat with the "fountains of the great deep" underneath it; it is stationary, "established, it shall never be moved"; within the earth is a great pit, sheol, where all the dead go; the sky is a solid firmament, "hard as a molten mirror"; beyond it are "the waters which are above the firmament"; the rain comes from that supercelestial sea, down through "the windows of the heavens"; and the sun, moon, and stars move across the underside of the stationary firmament to illumine man. In common with their contemporaries the writers of the Bible held in their minds that picture of the world. From the Bible’s beginning to its end that cosmology is presupposed. In that kind of cosmos a poem about the sun’s standing still can come to be taken as literal fact; Elijah can be carried up from earth to heaven in a chariot of fire; Jesus can be pictured as ascending from the earth to the sky by physical levitation, and his second coming can be pictured as a physical return from the firmament to earth.

I am putting this bluntly, not to trouble you but, if possible, to set you free from needless shackles. You are a young man, going out into this new space age and, whatever else in the Bible you may believe, you cannot possibly believe its cosmology. Don’t even let it puzzle you. No intelligent Christian today feels under any constraint to thrust his mind back two thousand years into a prescientific world view.

That is to say, the Bible is not a book of science. It contains many literary types -- history, poetry, fiction, biography, drama, preaching, letters -- but it contains no book that can be called scientific. I take my hat off to the man who wrote that first chapter of Genesis. Of course, I do not believe that the world was made in six days, or that light was created on the first day and the sun on the fourth. But that is not what the first chapter of Genesis is chiefly affirming. Someday you may read the creation story as the Babylonian tablets contain it, which quite possibly the author of the story of Genesis knew. There you will find in the end the same general picture of the universe which the Hebrews held, but their fellow Semites in Babylonia got at it by having the god, Marduk, slit his enemy, Tiamat, in two, like a flat fish, and then use the upper half to make the sky and the lower half to make the earth. Turn from that to the stately opening of Genesis, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," and you move up to a loftier level, and sense what the author is really driving at in those first chapters: one God the Creator, and men and women his children.

The Bible is to me a priceless treasury of spiritual truth, and from it have come the basic ideas and ideals on which the best of our democratic culture is founded. It is inspired and inspiring, filled with divine deeds and teachings, but it is not a textbook on science. One of the most lamentable aspects of the Christian Church’s history is the way religious leaders have insisted on clinging to the outmoded world view of the Bible and have fought every new expansion of knowledge about the universe. If only they could have foreseen how ridiculous they would look in retrospect!

While I say this, however, I feel a certain sympathy with those misguided Christians who fought the idea of a round earth rotating about the sun, and I wonder, if I had been in their place, whether I too might not have been misguided. That old world of theirs had plenty of troubles but, religiously speaking, it was rather cozy. The flat earth, with the heavens a little way above, and the sun and stars shining for no other purpose than to illumine man -- that picture put man at the center of everything. And then came the idea that the earth is round, and that perhaps people live on the other side of it. How crazy that must have seemed at first! So Lactantius (?250-?317 A.D.) cried, "Is there anyone so senseless as to believe that there are men whose footsteps are higher than their heads? . . . that the crops and trees grow downward? . . . that the rains and snow and hail fall upward toward the earth?" If you and I, and our ancestors for thousands of years, had lived on a flat earth, wouldn’t we think the idea of a round earth insane?

Troublesome as the earth’s sphericity was to Christians, however, it was when Copernicus and Galileo started this stationary earth rotating around the sun that Christians felt their faith threatened with complete disaster. That idea spoiled everything. Man would not be the central concern of the universe any more, they cried; he would be on a planet with the sun central, and the whole sacred picture of the world according to Scripture would be destroyed. So in 1631 Father Melchior Inchofer exploded, "The opinion of the earth’s motion is of all heresies the most abominable, the most pernicious, the most scandalous; the immovability of the earth is thrice sacred; arguments against the immortality of the soul, the existence of God, and the incarnation, should be tolerated sooner than an argument to prove that the earth moves." If the Bible is scientifically authoritative, the good father was certainly right. No one in Biblical times ever dreamed that the earth moves.

It is a lamentable story -- this long record of the Bible’s misuse as a book of science. Sir Isaac Newton was a deeply religious man but, when he announced the law of gravitation, churchmen, in the name of Holy Scripture, fell upon him with tooth and claw. They said that he "took from God that direct action on his works so constantly ascribed to him in Scripture and transferred it to material mechanism," and that he "substituted gravitation for Providence." Even John Wesley said that ideas like gravitation "tend to infidelity." So the sorry tale has gone on, until in my generation I have seen evolution attacked because it is not in the Bible. Of course it is not in the Bible. No modern science -- not even the earth’s sphericity -- is in the Bible. But that does not in the least prevent me from singing gratefully,

We praise Thee for the radiance

That from the hallowed page,

A lantern to our footsteps,

Shines on from age to age.

I can see from your letter that, taking it for granted that I am scientifically modern-minded, you wonder what that does to my idea of the Bible’s being inspired. Consider, then, that there are two theories about inspiration. One represents God as dictating the Bible. Word for word he is pictured as dictating to various amanuenses across some ten or twelve centuries all the books of the Bible. That seems to me sheer nonsense. If God dictated the Bible he certainly changed his style again and again between Genesis and Revelation. And he certainly contradicted himself repeatedly, from the two stories about Noah’s ark, in one of which God orders Noah to take into the ark two of every sort of animal and bird, and in the other seven pairs of each, to the inscription on Jesus cross, which is reported in the four Gospels in four different ways. Did God dictate that he made the world in six days, each with an evening and a morning? Did God dictate to Paul that Jesus was going to return to earth before Paul’s generation was all dead? Did God dictate Psalm 137, "Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock," or did he dictate, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you"? Surely, he could not have dictated both. Did God dictate, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," and many another passage from which cruel consequences have come, so that as Shakespeare says in The Merchant of Venice,

In religion

What damned error, but some sober brow

Will bless it, and approve it with a text?

No! The dictation theory is incredible.

Inspiration means something else altogether. The Bible is rich in spiritual insight, vision, enlightenment, illumination. As another put it, "I know that the Bible is inspired because it inspires me." I turn to the Bible, not for scientific instruction, but for spiritual illumination, to share in the most influential development of religious ideas in man’s history, to watch divine deeds that have changed human destiny, to sit at the feet of great prophets, to learn from the insights of the seers, to find guidance in distinguishing right from wrong, and above all to come under the saving influence of Jesus Christ.

You are right, however, in feeling, as your letter reveals, that the prescientific world view which is the matrix in which the Bible’s treasures are set, does pose some difficult problems -- miracles, for example. A letter offers no adequate space for the treatment of that problem, but I venture some homely advice.

First, remember that the ancient world took what we would call miracles for granted. Not having even the idea of natural law in their heads, "signs and wonders," as the New Testament calls them, did not bother the ancients intellectually at all. Almost anything could happen. The records of Buddhism and Islam are full of miracle stories. A contemporary of Jesus, a man named Apollonius, had his biography written, and the miracles ascribed to him are so like those attributed to Jesus that some at first supposed the biography to be a deliberate attempt to discredit the Gospels. No! That whole ancient world thought in terms of miracles, and one often feels that they represent real events, looked at and thought about in a way utterly different from ours. Mohammed, for example, was credited with having made the sun stand still, with having obtained water from a flinty rock, with having fed thousands with a little food.

Second, consider the fact that some miracle stories in the Bible are more easy to believe now than they were a generation ago. This is especially true about miracles of healing. How many bodily ills, which in my youth were supposed to be physically caused, are now known to be caused or complicated by mental and emotional disorders! If you know anything about the development of psychosomatic medicine, you will understand this. When one considers that over half the beds in all the hospitals in the United States are filled with mental patients, and that many more are filled with patients whose physical ills are emotionally caused, so that cure must come rather from the spiritual than from the bodily end, Jesus’ healings become much more credible than they used to be.

Third, don’t suppose that a miracle means the breaking of natural law. I do not think that natural laws are ever broken. Ask nature the same question in the same way and it will always give you the same answer. But our knowledge of nature’s laws is limited. When I consider how many new regularities in nature have been discovered in my lifetime, I am sure that there are infinitely more yet to be discovered. Indeed, if we are tempted to look back two thousand years and condescend to the writers of the Bible because our science is so superior to theirs, we had better watch our step. Imagine the science of two thousand years ahead! How will men then think about us? They will be doing many things then that are absolutely incredible now. So a marvelous occurrence, then or now or in the ancient world, could conceivably be not a rupture of nature’s laws but a fulfillment of laws beyond our ken. Every time we learn a new law we get our hands on a new law-abiding force and can do a new thing. Cannot God do at least that?

Fourth, don’t suppose that you have to believe every miracle story just because it is in the Bible. Dr. W. E. Orchard was orthodox enough -- he ended in the Roman Catholic priesthood -- but he said once, "If I saw someone walking on the sea, I would not say, ‘This man is Divine’: I would say, ‘Excuse me, do you mind doing that again? I didn’t see how you did it.’" That is the typical modern-minded attitude, and you are in good Christian company if you feel the same way about some miracle stories in the Bible. Moses is said to have cast a stick on the ground and it became a snake, and to have seized the snake by its tail and it became a stick. Well, I wonder! Certainly my Christian faith does not depend on believing things like that.

Fifth, don’t complicate your problem by being a wooden headed literalist. The way many Western Christians think about the Book of Jonah, for example, is a tragedy. That book is one of the most magnificent affirmations of God’s universal care for all mankind, across all boundaries of race and nation, that ever was written in the ancient world. Some scholars call the book fiction with an ethical purpose, others call it a parable or an allegory, but no competent scholar that I know of thinks that the book was intended to be taken as historical fact. Of course it wasn’t. At the time the book was written -- probably somewhere around 300 B.C.-- there was developing in Israel an embittered hatred of the Gentiles. Israel was God’s chosen people, and he would destroy the others, who so often had mistreated Israel. Well, Jonah is Israel, refusing God’s commission to be a missionary to Nineveh, the Gentile city, and fleeing across the Mediterranean to escape. But God proves himself omnipresent: he sends a deadly storm; Jonah, spotted by lot as the guilty man, is thrown overboard; a great fish swallows him and three days later disgorges him. I wonder whether that is not an allegory of the exile in Babylon and the return. At any rate postexilic Israel still begrudged any help from God to Nineveh, and when, in response to Jonah’s reluctant preaching, the city repented, "it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry." Read the book and see how it ends, with God rebuking the surly Jonah and saying, "Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?" How utterly ridiculous to interpret this moving and prophetic affirmation of God’s universal care for all mankind as a literal miracle story about a whale swallowing a man!

Sixth, don’t be afraid to doubt certain miracles which some Christians consider essential to their faith. If, for example, you doubt the virgin birth of Jesus, you have plenty of good Christian company. I am not trying to tell you what you should think about the virgin birth; I am simply indicating that personally I cannot believe it. Paul apparently never heard of it; Mark, the earliest Gospel, does not mention it; John in his first chapter seems deliberately to bypass it. Only twice in the New Testament is it mentioned -- in Matthew and Luke -- and even there it seems to be a late addition, because the two genealogies of Jesus both come down to Joseph, not to Mary. In the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai I have myself seen a Syriac translation of Matthew --evidently from an earlier Greek version than the one we now have -- in which the genealogy of our Lord ends as it must logically have ended: "Joseph begat Jesus." Moreover, so many Christians seem to think that the story of the virgin birth confers uniqueness on Jesus, whereas the fact is that miraculous birth, without human fatherhood, was a familiar explanation of distinguished persons in all the ancient world. Such miraculous birth, in one form or another, was ascribed to Buddha, Zoroaster, Lao-tse, and Mahavira in the religious realm, and to personalities like Persius and Augustus Caesar in the secular realm. A familiar argument among early Christian apologists was that, if the Romans and Greeks believed that so many other people were born of a virgin, why could they not believe that Jesus was so born. Anyway, whatever conclusion you come to, don’t treat that kind of miracle story as basic to your Christian faith. Jesus’ divinity surely was not physical -- what could that mean? His divinity lay in his spiritual quality.

Finally, never forget that, despite modern science, this is still a miraculous world. As Walt Whitman said,

Why, who makes much of a miracle?

As to me I know of nothing else but miracles. . . .

To me every hour of light and dark is a miracle,

Every cubic inch of space is a miracle.

Imagine yourself back millions of years ago, when earthquakes and volcanoes ruled the uninhabited earth, and along the ocean’s edge the first microscopic forms of cellular life were emerging --on which would you have placed your bet, volcanoes or cells? How utterly unpredictable the future of life on earth then was! So modern science has not reduced this universe and us within it to dull, monotonous, predictable uniformity. Something marvelously creative and unforeseeable is going on here. And, as for the New Testament, think as honestly and intelligently as you can about miracles attributed to Christ, but don’t forget the major fact: he is the miracle. Who ever could have foreseen a life like that?

Very cordially yours,