Science in Christian Perspective


Table of Contents
SCIENCE AND RELIGION IN SEVENTEENTHCENTURY ENGLAND by R. S. Westfall Yale University Press, 1958 i + 235 pp., $4.50 hardbound
GENESIS by E. A. Speiser Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1964

SCIENCE AND RELIGION IN SEVENTEENTH CENTURY ENGLAND by R. S. Westfall Yale University Press, 1958 i + 235 pp., $4.50 hardbound

Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England constitutes an antidote to the common and erroneous opinion that the two endeavors were generally at odds in that era. This volume in the history of science clearly shows that outright conflict was the exception rather than the rule. Science was indeed hailed as the defender of religion. This is not to say that religion was unaffected by science. Because of scientific developments religion underwent significant modification. However, the blows which mistakenly fell on religion were intended for its enemies.

The natural philosophy developed in the seventeenth century posed two problems for religion. First, it could promote an intellectual arrogance which would lead a man to prefer his own notions to the inspired Word of God. Second, it could easily lead (as it did a century later) to a purely materialistic philosophy. Seventeenth-century scientists were well aware of these two possible dangers and rose to the occasion. Their response was thoroughly reverent. They sought no open confrontation of science and religion, but instead strove for a reconciliation of the two. The study of nature was for them a positive religious experience. Wherever their investigations led, they found themselves following God's footprints. They were certain that the revelations of nature could not contradict the written Word. Their enterprise was not one of overthrowing but of updating Christianity.

The most valuable contribution of Professor Westfall's book is its documentation of the abortive maner in which the virtuosi pursued their reconciliatory end. Being Christians before they were scientists, they easily saw themselves as having demonstrated that nature reveals the Creator. Today's historian, however, sees them as showing how anyone bent on worshipping God can force the creation to reveal Him. For example, their conviction that nature was lawgoverned was less a conclusion from science than a premise from Christianity. Christianity also led them often to impose a pattern of fatherly benevolence on nature to the exclusion of any evidence, of squalor and suffering. From this rosy conception came circularly the conclusion that divine beneficence created the world. Over and again the virtuosi proved the existence of God from assumptions in which it was already implicit. To see this is not to condemn these scientists but to understand them. No wonder that they saw God's glory in His works; they were looking into a mirror which reflected their own religious minds.

In spite of their pious intentions, scientists in the seventeenth century nonetheless elaborated a natural philosophy which posed problems for traditional doctrines; for if nature were governed by the mechanical laws of motion, there was then no room for a full doctrine of divine particular providence. The idea of particular providence had to be limited only to salvation and spiritual welfare and in fact had to cede to a weaker conception of divine general providence in which the Creator merely preserved the system and its laws indirectly. Such a reformation of the doctrine of providence tells much about the religious attitudes of seventeenth-century scientists. Rather than dismiss the idea of providence, they sought (albeit with costly concessions) to preserve it by a re-interpretation. They did not come to religion with the yardstick of science, nor did they regard the two as contradictory. Instead they would show the two both as aspects of one body of truth. Did they injure religion? No, for in challenging those who found the hand of God in every unusual physical event they cut away the tumors of enthusiasm and superstition. In their modification of the idea of providence they truly reconciled science and religion.

Where the virtuosi in their well-doing inadvertently harmed Christianity most was in their avid attempts to suppport it by natural religion. Their excesses in this respect sapped Christianity of almost all its spirituality, for rather than supporting Christianity by natural religion they went so far as to equate the two. Pushing aside cardinal spiritual elements of Christianity, denying that anything important transcended their reason, they made Christianity a reasonable religion for reasonable men. Doctrines above reason were dismissed as inconsequential, all in the effort to support Christianity, to adapt it to the times. Christianity was preserved only by emasculating it. Nonetheless there is a subtle but important distinction between rejecting Christianity in favor of natural religion and equating the two. There is a great difference between the seventeenth-century virtuosi and the eighteenth-century philosophes. Uncertainty characterized the former, open doubt the latter. The virtuosi proved God's existence and showed His evidences repeatedly but so repeatedly as to disclose insecurity. What was to be thought of miracles? Could religion stand the test of reason? Did it need purgation? Scientists of the age fervently sought for certainty which was not to be found. Following the birth of modern science, the age of unshaken faith was lost forever to Western man.

One's very reasons for membership in the American Scientific Affiliation are also reasons which compel him to read this provocative book. In it an accomplished historian of science carefully presents the views of a past century (which was of signal importance in shaping our present world-view) on issues which still concern us today.-Reviewed by Peter Anton Pav, Mathematician, U.S., Dept. of Defense.

GENESIS by E. A. Speiser Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1964

This is the first of an important series of translations with commentaries of the books of the Bible by a group of interfaith scholars under the editorship of W. F. Albright and David N. Freedman. Professor Speiser was the chief translator of Genesis in the new version of the Torah published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1962. He is one of the leading authorities on Akkadian-the language used by the Babylonians and Assyrians. He adduces some interesting insights into patriarchal customs from the practices of the Hurrians (biblical Horites), who flourished in northern Mesopotamia in the 15th-14th centuries B.C.

He suggests that Abraham's statement that Sarah was his sister may have been based on Hurrian practice. It was customary for a husband to adopt his bride as his sister as this gave her higher status. Jacob's purchase of Esau's birthright finds its parallel in Hurrian society. Rachel's theft of the teraphim. or idols can be explained as an attempt to insure the legitimacy of inheritance according to Hurrian custom. (Cf. Cyrus Gordon, "Biblical Customs and the Nuzu Tablets," in The Biblical Archaeologist Reader, 2, Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1964, pp. 21-33.)

The most striking departure from traditional renderings is Speiser's translation of the first two verses of Genesis, which he renders as follows: "When God set about to create heaven and earth-the world being then a formless waste, with darkness over the seas and only an awesome wind sweeping over the waterGod said, 'Let there be light'." The rendering of the first verse as a dependent rather than as an independent clause would mean that instead of a statement of ex nihilo creation we would have simply an expression describing the circumstances at the time of the action of the main verb, in this case, "God said." Although the construction may be argued on grammatical grounds, Speiser sets forth as his strongest argument the resemblance between the Genesis story and the Babylonian Creation Myth. "Perhaps more important still, the related, and probably normative arrangement at the beginning of Enuma elish (the Babylonian Creation Myth) exhibits exactly the same kind of structure . . ." (p. 12) The text in question reads: "When God set about to create heaven and earth-When on high, heaven had not been named, firm ground below had not been called by name .

The parallelism between the creation account in Genesis and in the Babylonian myth is by no means obvious. In the latter account Marduk succeeds in slaying the goddess Tiamat, and then splits her carease to form the heavens and the earth. J. V. Kinnier Wilson comments: "As to the only other serious proposition that has been made in favor of a relationship between the two accounts, namely, that both works follow a common sequence for the acts of creation or other events which they describe, we believe the comparison to be partly artificial, partly explainable in terms of coincidence. Thus it seems very probable that the epic has no connections of any kind or at any point with Genesis, and that each is sui generis." ("The Epic of Creation," in Documents from Old Testament Times, ed. D. Winton Thomas, New York: Harper Torchbook, 1961, P. 14.)

To support his case for his rendering Speiser cites Alexander Heidel's The Babylonian Genesis (Chicago: Univ. Of Chicago Press, 1954). But Heidel himself argued for the traditional rendering of the opening verses, as does E. J. Young in The Westminster Theological Journal, XXI (1959), 133-46 and XXIII (1961), 151-78.

Although the parallels between the biblical and the Babylonian accounts of creation are dubious, the parallels between the stories of the Flood in Genesis and in the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic are undeniable. A recent article by an archaeologist, M.E.L. Mallowan, "Noah's. Flood Reconsidered," Iraq, XXVI UVA), 6282, maintains that both accounts are traditions about a flood which occurred during the time of Gilgamesh, whom we now know as a real king who lived c. 2700 B.C. For a judicious comparison of the numerous parallels see Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1954). The resemblances make the difference between the two accounts in moral outlook more strikingly profound. The Atrahasis Myth tells us that the Babylonian gods sent the Flood because mankind had become too noisy for them to sleep. When the Flood came the gods cowered in fear. When the Babylonian hero offered sacrifice after the Flood, the gods, who had been famished, "gathered like flies

The commentary on the Joseph narrative is less rewarding since Speiser is not an Egyptologist. For a work which supplements Speiser's in this respect, see J. Vergote, Joseph en Egypt (Louvains: Publications Universitaires, 1959). What may be dismaying to the layman for whom the series is intended is to find that nearly half of the exposition is taken up with the assigning of verses to the hypothetical J, E, D and P documents.-Reviewed by Edwin Yamauchi, Rutgers University, New, Brunswick, N.J.