Science in Christian Perspective


A Rejoinder to Paul H. Seely
Journal of Am. Sci. Atfil. March 1966)

From: JASA 18 (December 1966): 117-120.

Any scientist who is an evangelical Christian takes some care about the theological implications of his scientific position. He also more or less consistently identifies himself with one theological frame of reference or another when treating materials which are related to Biblical pages or which impinge upon their interpretation. Thus anthropologists of evangelical persuasion have found that some of the stalwarts of the Faith have come quite independently, from the study of theology and hermeneutics of the Old Testament, to conclusions on the antiquity of the creation of man which are readily compatable with human palaeontology.

Upon identifying themselves with such widely accepted orthodox scholarship, they have experienced two rather consistent voices of criticism. On the one hand is the theologically liberal voice which insists that we do not need to hold so closely to a conservative view of Old Testament material, critizing us for failure to embrace a frank position of theistic evolution. On the other hand is the ultra-conservative voice which insists even more strenuously that our science is in question because it conflicts with their interpretation of Scripture and our theology is in question because we dare to take pieces out of their pattern or system of Christian Truth and re-interpret them in the light of science. Thus we find ourselves in the eyes of the ultra-conservatives to be possessing the paradoxical image of "conservatives" in certain aspects of doctrine, and "liberals" in some areas of interpretation. The fact that the very system of doctrinal orthodoxy which they hold dear was molded and is now held by theologians with the same "paradoxical" viewpoints is completely overlooked.

In most cases the voices of the liberal critics have been limited to the exchange on the convention floor, the conference room, or in private conversation or correspondence. The charges of the ultra-conservative on the other hand have been heard and seen in every medium. They usually center on the incompatability of the accepted scientific position with their traditional interpretation of "what the Bible plainly says." Never to my knowledge have they entered into a thorough examination of our theological frame of reference embodied in the literature of the conservative theologicans, who agree with our scientific position and whose writings champion their evangelical heritage without compromise.

Thus it was with some initial gratification that we saw the publication of "The Antiquity of Warfield's Paper on the Antiquity of Man," ("Letters to the Editor," J. A. S. A. Vol. 18, No. 1, March, 1966, pp. 28-31) later attributed to Paul H. Seely, in which he transferred the debate from "conservative Christian vs. Christian anthropologist" to "conservative Christian vs. theologian whose premises are adopted by Christian anthropologist." It appeared that finally a step had been taken in the right direction. The initial gratification was short-lived, however, as it became evident that Seely's analysis was only addressed to the task of destroying the integration of Warfield's theology with his position on man by attempting to show that the latter was contradictory and out of date. Actually this is about all the conservative critics can do with writings like Warfield's. For to attack his theology would be damaging to their own stand. The only thing left to do is to claim the basic incompatability of his position on ancient man, not with his own theological position, but with the particular interpretation of the critic. It appears that we are back where we started, after all.

This reply then is an attempt to analyze the issues presented by Seely, and at the same time to indicate the true role of Warfield's contribution in the thinking of Christian anthropolgists of today.


Some misunderstanding is precipitated by the premise "that Warfield's paper is intrinsically bound up with the science of his day and that since science has changed, there is a need for a change in the conclusions of the paper." (p. 28).* The fact is that Warfield's thesis did not depend upon contemporary science at all. Its conclusions were not based upon scientific opinions that have changed, nor upon scientific opinions that have not changed. In evidence of this we need only examine Warfield's own words. After making his important statement about the theological insignificance of the question of the antiquity of man, (p. 235) he continued:

It is only because of the contrast which has been drawn between the short period which seems to be allotted to human history in the Biblical narrative, and the tremendously long period which certain schools of scientific speculation have assigned to the duration of human life on earth, that theology has become interested in the topic at all. There was thus created the appearance at a conflict between the Biblical statements and the findings of scientific investigations, and it became the duty of theologians to investigate the matter. Ile asserted conflict proves, however, to be entirely factitious. The Bible does not assign a brief span to human history: this is done only by a particular mode of interpreting the Biblical data, which is found on examination to rest on no solid base. (pp. 235-236. Emphasis added.)

It was thus Warfield's intention to show the lack of Biblical support for this "paricular mode of interpreting the Biblical data" and to resolve the "asserted conflict." To accomplish this, he proceeded to do two things: (a) to observe that the "tremendously long period" earlier held by science was, in the opinion of scientists of his day, diminishing, and that some held that it was only from 10 to 20 thousand years (p. 245); and (b.) to show that "The Bible does not assign a brief span to human history" and that as far as Biblical data itself is concerned, it could sustain an antiquity of man of almost any magnitude, even up to two hundred thousand years. (p. 244).

Seely, however, in attempting to support his premise makes the puzzling assertion that

Had Warfield been confronted with modem means of dating the past . . . he might have looked a little longer at the Biblical data. Had he met with . . . geologists and anthropologists asking for a period of time in excess of 500,000 years for the existence of man on earth, he might have looked a little harder at the Biblical data. (pp. 28-29).

We may ask why, if Warfield took the stand he did on what Scripture would allow when science had "no solid data," he would alter that stand when confronted by the modem techniques which corroborate each other by so many different overlapping methods, as Seely, himself points out (p. 28). 1 don't believe it is a matter of quibbling over the difference between 200,000 and 500,000 or more years. If Scripture will sustain the one it will sustain the other. But is the "hundreds of thousands of years" of antiquity estimated today for, say, the unquestionably authentic Swanscombe skull from England, or the early neanderthaloid skull from Steinheim, Germany to precipitate any change in Warfield's interpretation of Scripture?

Warfield was presenting a paper on Biblical exegesis, not on human palaeontology. The principles of his exegesis have not changed, and the changes in science since his day have only served to substantiate their general accuracy.

Thus, whether Warfield saw the then conservative swing of scientific opinion to a more recent date for human origins allowing him to make the appropriate contrast with the much higher antiquity which Genesis would allow, or whether he were to witness the present consensus of scientific opinion in terms of many more hundreds of thousands of years, any "longer" or "harder" look at the Biblical data would not be likely to change his conclusion that 

the Scriptural data leave us wholly without guidance in estimating the time which elapsed between the creation of the world and the deluge, and between the deluge and the call of Abraham (p. 244).

The claim by Seely and others that there are indeed Scriptural guides and indications for ascertaining the age of man is a point which may be argued, in complete detachment from the scientific opinions of any day, with any number of conservative, evangelical scholars purely on the basis of Biblical hermeneutics. It does not constitute a legitimate argument for the claim that Warfield's paper is out of date. His stand on this point is just as staunchly defended today as it was then.


The other area in which Seely attempts to show the inadequacy of Warfield's paper centers on his views on the unity of mankind. Two lines of argument are pursued: one chiefly archaeological, the the other chiefly a matter of culture theory.

First of all it is claimed that Warfield did not see "that the question of the unity of the human race was integrally related to the question of the antiquity of man." Let us follow Seely's argument step by step.

1. "It is plain," he says, "that Cain and Abel lived a settled existence with domesticated animals and the sowing and reaping of settled farming (Genesis 4:2, 12)," (P. 29). There follows the standard association of this with the archaeological Neolithic of about 9000 B. C.

2. From this, Adam is dated at approximately 9000 years and

3. "Since Abraham is dated at c. 2000 B. C., the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 can only cover a span of time of c. 7000 years." (P. 29).

4. The oldest "men" accepted by the "professional Christian anthropologists" are half a million years old.

5. So, Seely concludes, if Adam is only 9000 years old but mankind lived thousands of years before that, "the unity of the descent of the human race falls." (P. 30).

Now we must call attention to the fact that this charge depends completely upon a premise introduced by Seely which Warfield does not hold, namely, the position of Adam not as the head of the race, the progenitor of all mankind, the earliest man, but rather as a recent, Neolithic figure with whole populations and races of humanity before him! This introduces an artifical discontinuity of the greatest doctrinal consequence based wholly upon one interpretation of cultural clues whose archaeological indentity is far less certain and far less significant for the Biblical doctrine of man.

The fallacy here, as well as the fallacy of many other statements of similar nature, is that one body of scientific data is ignored because it conflicts with the pre-conceived interpretation of another body of scientific data. Here we have on the one band fossil man unquestionably dating back hundreds of thousands of years; and on the other hand the archaeological Neolithic dating back only about 10,000 years, The problem is where to put the creation of man. But if Adam is placed in either position, "something's got to give." Neither body of data should be ignored or suppressed. Therefore we come to the place where we must say, some interpretation of one body of data or the other has to "give." Now if we put Adam at the beginning of mankind and consider all of the fossil representatives as his progeny the interpretation of the cultural indicators and successive generations after Adam of Genesis 3 and 4 must be drastically rethought. However, if Adam is placed at the beginning of the Neolithic, many more drastic reinterpretations are necessary, requiring some completely hypothetical account to be made of human pre-Adamic races and their cultures.

Warfield's thesis was simply that (a) the antiquity of Adam was not revealed and human origin could be as early or as recent as scientific evidence indicated; and (b) that the important thing, with which science also concurs, is the unity of the human race, both in descent and in quality. The antiquity was of "no theological significance", but the unity of the race is "of indubitable theological importance." On human unity Warfield continued,

It is not merely that the Bible certainly teaches it, while, as we have sought to show, it has no teaching upon the antiquity of the race. It is also the postulate of the entire body of the Bible's teaching - of its doctrine of Sin and Redemption alike: so that the whole structure of the Bible's teaching, including all that we know as its doctrine of salvation, rests on it and implicates it. . . . the unity of the race, in the sense of its common origin, is no longer a matter of debate. (P. 252. Emphasis added.)

He also refers to "The absolute restriction of the human race within the descendants of this single pair" (p. 256). From this it seems adequately clear that Warfield was fully aware of the relationship which exists between the antiquity and the unity of mankind, and that the belief in the unity of the race is in no jeopardy by reason of holding that Adam could have been created 200,000 years ago. Alternatively as Seely points out, the belief in the unity of the human race is in serious J . eopardy if Adam is placed in the Neolithic. To do so necessitates the disposing, somehow, of the entire population of Palaeolithic races and their descendants. And the more we learn about them, the less they can be ignored.


The second line of argument employed by Seely against Warfield's view of racial unity rests on a single false equation in culture theory, namely, that

"traditions" as Warfield here uses the word is plainly interchangeable with "cultural characteristics" or "cultural artifacts" (p. 30).

This, however, is strictly Seely's equation and not Warfield's. Warfield mentions the word "traditions" only once, speaking of the unity indicated by "the possession of common traditions by numerous widely separated peoples . . ." (p . 256). Seely attempts to show that Warfield's observation is false. To do so he makes "tradition" equal "cultural charateristics" and then argues that cultural dissimilarities are preponderant among human societies. In so doing he misses the very point Warfield was making, namely that, granted cultural dissimilarities, there are nevertheless "common traditions" held by peoples widely separated in space and time. Anthropological literature on both written and oral tradition is full of such examples.

Warfield's reference at this point to Herman Bavinck's lecture "Revelation and Christianity", one of the Stone Lectures for 1908-1909 delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary, (page references are to this lecture in The Philosophy of Revelation by Herman Bavinck, Eerdmans, 1953), further reinforces the fact that "tradition" is not being used to indicate general "cultural characteristics" or "artif acts".

Bavinck, evidently arguing for a pan-Babylonian origin of civilization, does employ a strained assemblage of common cultural characteristics referred to as "tradition" which would not stand up today. But, like Father Wilhelm Schmidt's case for primeaval monotheism, the data cited in support of the thesis are not in themselves false but they fail to furnish the intended proof when interpreted with additioi;al data in light of up-to-date theory.

It is a common core of "tradition" in the sense of the universals of human culture, e.g., those traits and institutions which all people have in common, which is largely the basis of both Bavinck's and Warfield's argument at this point for the unity of mankind. ". . . a common tradition in the widest sense bound together all lands and peoples." (Bavinck, p. 181). "The unity of the human race, which forms the basis of the unity of human nature, necessarily includes in it an original adherance to the unity of man, both in terms of a unity of kind" as well as in "line of descent" (Seely,  p. 30) thus cannot be criticized from his appeal to the existence of "common traditions".

In conclusion, it should not be necessary to deny that the Christian or creationist anthropologist today is "trying to hide behind" Warfield and William Henry Green, or to deny that his case for the antiquity of man "rests mainly" upon the writings of these scholars as Seely claims. To quote them serves chiefly to identify our common views on man with the orthodox doctrinal position on revelation, inspiration, sin, redemption, and the historicity of the Bible which they as theologians championed so effectively against extreme liberalism and unbelief. If quoting them as representatives of our theological base lines integrated with our interpretations of Genesis is hiding, then Christians who believe that the Earth revolves around the sun are "hiding behind" Galileo; Christians who believe the World is round are "hiding behind" Columbus; or, at another level, those who believe that the Bible teaches the urgency of foreign missions are "hiding behind" William Carey. Be it remembered that there were conscientious, Christian scholars who believed that the Bible taught that the Sun moves around the Earth, that the world is flat, and that "when God intends to save the heathen, He'll do it without your help or mine."



1. Warfield's paper "On the Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race" is a study in exigesis and as such, though it refers to scientific opinions of his day, is not tied to them nor does his position depend upon any particular scientific interpretation of prehistory. His main point is simply that the Bible is silent on the age of man, which thesis may be argued either in light of today's science or that of 1911.

2. The allegation that Warfield's position on the unity of mankind is in conflict with his view of the antiquity of mankind rests, in this case on, (a) a particular premise, and (b) a semantic equation, both held and introduced into the argument by his critic, and neither held by Warfield nor strictly applicable to the content or structure of his paper.

3. The view of the antiquity of man held by Christian anthropolgists today no more rests upon the particular contribution of Warfied than his argument rested upon the science of his day. As one of the most conspicuous and able defenders of Biblical inerrancy, he is simply quoted because he could at the same time hold a position on the age of man which is completely compatable simultaneously with Genesis and with the best interpretations of prehistoric evidence.


References are either to Seeley's letter, or, unless otherwise noted, to Warfield B.B., "On the Antiquity and Unity of the  Human Race," The Princeton Theological Review Vol. IX, (
1911)  pp. 1-25, as reprinted in his Studies in Theology,
Oxford University Press, 1932, pp. 235-258.