Science in Christian Perspective
An Interview with Bernard Ramm and Alta Ramm
San Francisco CA
From: JASA 31 (September 1979): 179-186.
Early in 1979 Walter Hearn, editor of the Newsletter of the American Scientific Affiliation, interviewed Dr. Ramm and his wife Alta in their home in Modesto, California. The following are slightly edited excerpts from that conversation. The year 1979 marks the 25th anniversary of publication of The Christian View of Science and Scripture; on the Asian calendar it is also designated "The Year of the Ram."
Walter Hearn: Dr. Ramm, it's been 25 years now since your book on science and Scripture was published. I'd like to ask you some questions about it since younger members of the American Scientific Affiliation may not know you or understand why many of us regard your book as so significant. First of all, could you tell us something about how you happened to write it?
Bernard Ramm: The beginning of the book was a course at Biola [Bible Institute of Los Angeles, now Biola College] on Christianity and science. The professor took a job at another school and the course ended up in my lap. I taught it three or four years before I moved to another school. By then I had all that material and didn't want it to go to waste. So I put a lot of hard work into the material and polished it off as a book. I had to do an awful lot of tracking down of certain kinds of information. I found out after I left Biola that one of the best sources of historical books in biology was back at USC in a special library of the biology department.
Hearn: Had you been a student at USC?
Ramm: My undergraduate work was at the University of Washington in Seattle. At Southern Cal I did graduate work in philosophy. I can't remember whether it was marine biology or some other specialized department, but they had a very important collection of books, especially from the 19th century. Tracing down the report of the Scopes trial, I mean the actual stenographic record, was a real problem. I went to about five cities before I found it. Evidently it's something people steal for its historical value.
Hearn: Your book was dedicated to F. Alton Everest, the first president of ASA. Where did you meet Alton?
Ramm: The ASA had a very active chapter in southern California and Alton had come to work for Moody Institute of Science when I was in Santa Monica. We got together a number of times with the local ASA group and then one year there was a national convention. Our family got to know his family, so there were also social relationships.
Hearn: You were no longer at Biola when the book came out but were teaching at Baylor University in Waco. I remember that when I was teaching at Baylor Medical School in Houston in 1954 or '55, you came over and spoke there. The book hadn't been out very long then but you already had a whole file of correspondence from people who didn't like it. Can you tell us a bit about the reaction to it?
Ramm: The book was a problem to those who had a very literal approach to the book of Genesis or who thought that any kind of positive word about evolution was a betrayal of the cause. It was that kind of person I got the most static from. But over the years, for every letter of protest, there've been something like 20 of approval. I realize that the real service of the book was not an attempt to straighten everybody out. Yet a large number of people who were at a very critical point in their college career have told me that was the book that helped straighten them out. That's been the most rewarding thing about the book.
Hearn: I remember your telling me back then that you got into a lot of trouble over the title. You had called it A Christian View or even something else, but the publisher changed it and it came out The Christian View of Science and Scripture.
Ramm: The original was 'The Evangelical Faith and Modern Science' but the publishers wanted a title similar to
Professor Orr's book of a previous generation, The Christian View of God and the World. One day I walked through library stacks looking at titles and it's embarrassing how many books start out with the word The. Eventually I found out that many titles of books are determined by the publicity or sales department of a publishing house.
Hearn: In addition to expressing "the" Christian view, you acknowledged that some of your best friends were theistic evolutionists. That also got you in trouble. But I suspect that what got you in the most trouble was that famous bibliography in which you classified books-including some "of limited worth." Have you ever made friends with any of the people whose books were in that category?
Ramm: The more I have taught, the more I have seen the value of classified bibliographies. Students really have no way of sorting out books as to what's valuable and what isn't, what's mediocre. So I think classified bibliographies can be very educational.
Hearn: Another thing that most of us valued about your book when we first read it was that you actually discussed
the history of the controversy. You took seriously even the works you disagreed with, as well as those you tended to agree with. Most people writing about the creationist controversy, at least in those days, acted as though they had invented the whole thing. They never seemed to refer back to other writers who'd had similar ideas.
Ramm: Well, that's just a spinoff of the way I teach. I teach the options and then I give my own opinion. I've felt gratified through the years that students appreciate being told what the options are before they're given the dogma.
Hearn: I remember being impressed by a particular page in the book. It was a page on which you summed up the battle as it had been fought between evangelicals and scientists. There was a memorable line in which you said the theologians had fought the wrong battle with the wrong weapons at the wrong time-and had lost. That was an honest admission of a view that a lot of us in ASA had come to already, and it was good to see it in print.
Ramm: I found out later that Bishop Wilberforce, who debated Huxley on evolution at the famous meeting at Oxford, was called "Soapy Sam" because of the way he could use words. A "Soapy Sam" is not somebody you want to argue science with.
Hearn: Another point you made was that the proper grounds for the debate were really philosophical. The debate had been approached before by people who knew some science or some theology but generally didn't speak the other language very well, and didn't realize that the meeting ground had to do with the philosophy of science. Wasn't philosophy always a special interest of yours?
Ramm: Yes, and I had been interested in the philosopy of science, so that my Master's thesis had been on the philosophy of science of James Jeans and Arthur S. Eddington. They were hot copy then, but have rather lost out in the last few years. My doctoral dissertation was on whether there were any philosophical implications in the socalled "new physics" or Einsteinian physics. To do that I had to get very deeply into the philosophy of science as well as modern scientific theory.
Hearn: One factor that made your book important to many of us was that you were willing to state your own view-but you did it with caution. You were very cautious about making a synthesis. Do you still feel that way?
Ramm: Yes, you have to sell your case by the quality of your exposition. I get bothered reading some books that are coming out now, when I run into the "pious come-off." When some Christians get trapped in a corner and science seems headed in another way, they can just say, "Well, they're unbelievers, so we can expect that of them." That's how they handle a tough issue. I'm not anxious to solve problems by that kind of pious come-off.
Hearn: Maybe the most important factor in your book was the fact that it was actually read by the people who needed to read it. What about its publishing history? I know it soon came out in an English edition, which must have been cheaper. Everybody seemed to be buying the edition put out by Paternoster Press.
Ramm: I've never put all my royalty statements together to figure out the total, but it has continued to sell through
these 25 years. What they're selling over here now is the English edition in paperback. The English have different spellings and a slightly different numerical system when you get above the millions, so an Englishman had to translate my Americanisms and the American way of counting into the equivalent Britishisms. What has happened over this 25-year period, and still happens, is that I'll bump into some person in some city where I happen to be, and he'll say, "At a particular time in my career I read your book, and it's the thing that kept me in the evangelical camp." That has been surprising. The most unusual experience I've had is when I went with World Vision to Indonesia. We went to the very last island, the island of Timor. They didn't have hotels there so we were farmed out into homes. I was in the home of one of the few Dutch physicians left in Indonesia, and as I walked into his house there on the coffeetable in the center of the living room was my book. He didn't know I was coming, so it wasn't a "plant." That's sort of funny, to be at the end of the world and the one book in the place is your book. Then sometime in the late 'SOs or early '60s, the Evangelical Press Association presented something like 1,000 books to the White House library and The Christian View of Science and Scripture was included in that. So whenever I see the White House on TV, I can say, "Well, I've got a book in there."
Hearn: Has it been translated?
Ramm: No, I think because there are very few schools overseas that would teach that topic. Textbooks, or else something terribly famous, are what get translated.
Hearn: Do some schools in North America use it as a text?
Ramm: I don't know. Once in a while I get a good report that it still covers the territory better than anything that's come out since-at least as far as the range of topics it covers.
Hearn: In the best evangelical books on the science-faith issue, I see your book usually still listed as the place to begin. What kinds of review did the book get in evangelical publications?
Ramm: It got both rave reviews and lament reviews. It did bring a couple of things to the surface: how few evangelicals had ever interacted with the philosophy of science, which as a kind of articulate subject is rather new in universities; and how few knew anything about anthropology or linguistics. I think that's still true of evangelicals today when it comes to interpretation of Scripture.
Hearn: When it was published, did the fact that you said some kind words about evolution-even though you didn't take an evolutionary position yourself-give you any trouble with Eerdmans, the publisher?
Ramm: No, I had full cooperation from them. Wilbur Smith read the typescript, though. I had the word "fundamentalist" in there a great number of times, and he said, "You'd better get that out, or it'll sink like a piece of lead." So I put in "hyperorthodox" in its place. I don't think I fooled anybody, but I did force them to take the next step-to see who these "hyperorthodox" people were.
Hearn: That was a good choice, because "fundamentalist" had a negative ring to it, whereas "orthodox" was positive and "hyperorthodox" was even more positive. Looking back now over the things that you wrote, are there things you would say differently? Or that you feel you should have said differently even then?
Ramm: Whenever I have seen anything on archaeology and creation accounts of the ancient world, I've read it. If! were to rewrite the book, I would try to show how Genesis was the same kind of genre of writing as those ancient creation accounts and yet how, expecially in its pure monotheism, it's different from them. Now I think I have a much better idea of how the people of biblical times understood Genesis. Something missing from the book is a theology of creation. I've worked on that more. I think that theistic evolution as some kind of operational faith, as one of the options, isn't around much any more. People say "Well, this is the way I look at the development of life through the geological periods," but it isn't a functional operational concept.
Hearn: Do you still like the term "progressive creationism," which you said was your own position then?
Ramm: Here I'm an amateur among amateurs, but the more I know of DNA and so forth, and the more complicated life becomes, the more I'm puzzled that it could ever happen on its own in such an intricate, complicated chemical way. Something of the order of 100 sets of Encyclopaedia Britannica is coded into those molecules. I'm sure that people like Darwin had no idea of how incredibly complex the germ plasm is.
Hearn: So you're very much at home calling yourself a creationist, even though some people now take that term to mean something very specific about the age of the earth?
Ramm: Yes, with some people the word "creationist" has come to mean a special way of looking at science and looking at Scripture.
Hearn: Do you have much dialogue with people who believe the earth is very recent? With the "recent creationist," "special creationists," or "young-earth" advocates?
Ramm: No, we haven't bumped into each other-or if we have, I haven't known it.
Hearn: Maybe you're on their classified bibliography under "Books of Limited Worth Due to Improper Spirit"! What do you think of the course the creationist-evolutionist controversy has taken since your book was published?
Ramm: What disturbs me the most about the most rigid creationist views is that they drive Christians and scientists millions of miles apart. Some of them amount to a total denial of anything significant in geology. There's a unity to the sciences and the borders of the sciences overlap. You can't just pick out geology and say, "Science is all wrong there, but it's right in all these other territories." Take the use of atomic materials, high-speed atomic particles, X rays and so on; going to the doctor to get an X ray is one piece of the science, but it spills over into geology. It's odd if you have to say that almost 100% of the world's geologists are wrong, but once you get away from geology the scientists are pretty right. That seems to me to be something creationists have to come to terms with.
Hearn: The most energetic special creationists would argue that essentially all of science has to be restructured. Do you think there's any possibility of doing that? "I was in the home of one of the few Dutch physicians left in Indonesia, and as I walked into his house there on the coffee table in the center of the living room was my book."
Ramm: There's a certain pragmatism to science. If you have to restructure science, you have to deny an enormous amount of success up to this point. Take the sophistication of going to the moon and back. However right or wrong one thinks science is, it did do that. Think of the number of successful surgeries that go on in hospitals every day. And technology in industry. So there is enormous pragmatic weight in favor of a lot of scientific theory. Even if you could restructure, that wouldn't mean you're going to totally overturn. Maybe you're going to suggest some new basic principles.
Hearn: I imagine you've heard about astrophysicist Robert Jastrow and his admission that the structure of the whole universe is so remarkable that people who look at that structure have to acknowledge that they face mystery. I've seen a quote of his to the effect that when the astronomers have learned all they can, "when they have crossed over the hill they find that the theologians were there ahead of them thinking about these things."
Ramm: Yes, and the "Big Bang" theory has picked up new prestige. But I've talked to scientists who don't believe anything, and I find that they are not impressed with that kind of reasoning. Their basic response is, "Yes, there's a crook in the road, and it appears that yes, there's a God who is doing this, but we're going to do some more experiments and ten years from now we won't look at it that way. So we'll just sweat this one out until we find out the answer later on." And when it comes to the "argument from design," I heard a scientist make an absurd statement that at least showed his mentality. He said that if something appeared to be designed with a probability of a billion to one, he still wouldn't believe it was designed. So you have that kind of tough attitude in a lot of scientists. They won't believe anything but what they empirically know, and if there's a puzzle they just say, "Well, we'll sweat it out and we'll eventually solve the puzzle."
Hearn: Isn't that why the conflict is really a philosophical one? I mean, there's a scientific way of looking at the data and a religious way of looking at the data. There are two ways to do it, and you have to decide which way to look at it.
Ramm: What! had in mind is this: sometimes Christians think that if you come to the place where we are now, with the Big Bang theory picking up what I gather is experimental verification, with discovering the "hisses of the original electrons"-or whatever the new findings amount to-they think all scientists should capitulate, that they are forced to believe in God. But scientists can be tough characters. They don't capitulate that easily.
Hearn: Philosophically, can't you say that that's a basic difference between the scientific outlook and the religious
outlook? In science there's nothing that can force you to believe. If there were, you wouldn't need a religious outlook, because you'd get it all out of science.
By the way, what sort of people are you in contact with now? Do you interact with non-Christians? With people trained in science? Where do you see your ministry now, and has your book on science been a part of that? You've written a lot of other books, I know.
Ramm: One reason I wrote a book on science and Scripture was that I knew there wasn't any academic career in teaching something like that. My basic orientation is in theology. In my reading and writing, I've spent about 903/4 of my time on theology. But thanks to the ASA and other groups, every once in awhile you pull me out of my shell to lecture on something-so I get back with it for a period. And of course when I see books here and there that are relevant to the subject, I buy them and read them.
Hearn: What are your interests now? What branch of theology?
Ramm: I've had about three central interests in theology. One is historical theology, because we can't understand where we are until we know where we came from. I've spent a lot of time in contemporary theology, because theological students need an orientation of the jungle they're going into. And then I've always worked on what I think is evangelical theology, or the best evangelical theology.
Hearn: Would you care to make a rebuttal to James Barr's rather scathing remarks about you in his recent book, Fundamentalism? [Westminster, 1977]
Ramm: When people read Barr's statement that I have no sense of humor, they die laughing. If you have his presuppositions, there has to be something wrong with everybody not in line with him. And if you read the reviews, especially the British reviews, that works in reverse. Barr is out of line with evangelical views and they mow him down. I think the important point of his book is the question, "Are you evangelicals really people of integrity?" So whatever mistakes he makes in interpreting different evangelicals are partly due to his severe limitation in reading the full round of them. What comes through to me is that here's a guy who's blowing the whistle. We ought to hear those things that he has to say.
Hearn: It occurred to me that if you took one of his books written 25 years ago, you might also find some things to chuckle about. One point he made about conservative theologians was that their interest is often in technical matters-like scientific matters of archaeology or linguistics and so forth-not in what he would call "pure theology." He intended it as a criticism, but as a scientist I thought of it as sort of a compliment. At least he was giving evangelicals credit for taking science seriously. In fact, I've wondered if Barr's crack about your sense of humor isn't also a kind of backhanded compliment. After all, you reviewed a lot of fundamentalist works even though you later classified some of them as of little value. You tried to take them seriously without mocking them or putting them down. Maybe he thought you should have ridiculed them. Ridicule seems to be something that he's good at. Barr said that evangelical theological scholarship, what he would call fundamentalist scholarship, didn't seem to understand historical criticism or literary style. He said those things were largely a matter of taste. I think he was saying that evangelicals should be embarrassed over their lack of taste. But when you come to such matters as Christ's resurrection, that's always going to be a scandal, it seems to me. It's probably very poor taste to believe in the resurrection!
Ramm: There's a split right down biblical scholarship all over the place. The evangelicals want to study critical materials to know their text better, to know how the word of God comes through that ancient document to us today. The other guys are studying the Scripture as just so many technical problems in Semitic history or Palestinian geography, as issues just for the sake of issues. Somebody like Barr sees all those technical studies of Old Testament matters where he's a specialist, but he's just looking through a different knothole. Others want to be just as academic about Scripture as he is but they have a different motivation. So you always come out with different conclusions when you have such very different starting points. "It's odd if you have to say that almost 100% of the world's geologists are wrong, but once you get away from geology the scientists are pretty right."
Hearn: With the kinds of hard-headed scientists you were describing, who aren't made believers by discovering that the world must have been created, belief in Christ is always going to seem "embarrassing," it seems to me. There comes a point at which, if you take a religious view, if you believe, you risk a certain amount of embarrassment. You have to go beyond what the facts require you to acknowledge. Now that we're on the subject of the Bible and theology, let's talk about the question of how one regards the Scripture. What do you think of the current controversy on inerrancy?
Ramm: I mentioned before that evangelicals, apart from the missionary camp, do not know much about linguistics or anthropology. Many of the discussions are about how one produces a perfect book, instead of about how, as a matter of fact, God's word does come to us in ancient languages and in ancient cultures. Just from the standpoint of linguistics we know that languages are put together differently. Hebrew is what we call an analytic language, and Greek a synthetic language. We translate them both into English, which is an analytic language, and such nuances of linguistic theory give the impression that language is the same as mathematics. No matter whether you're Russian, American, or Japanese-mathematics is the same. That might be true in math-but not in language. Language gets skewed as it gets translated. You get these questions of whether statements about women in Scripture, or homosexuals in Scripture, are cultural things or not. They're just two issues about a more basic issue: how much is a cultural cul-de-sac and how much is necessary and transcultural. I think that's where the discussion ought to be and to the degree that it isn't, it's artificial.
Hearn: In other words, even if you took a stand for inerrancy, say, you'd still have all those problems of the Scriptures as we have them now and the way to interpret them.
Ramm: Philosophers have tackled the question, "What are the attributes of an inerrant sentence?" "How do you know when you've got one?" Of course, one could solve that theologically: "Only when God says it." But we have a Hebrew prophet writing in a Hebrew language in a Hebrew context, so it isn't quite that simple. At least the logical problem is there, and I would like to see that logical problem discussed. I've lectured on what I call degrees of precision in Scripture. For instance, sometimes New Testament writers quote Old Testament writers rather freely. But sometimes when they want to prove a point, they get very precise. So degrees of precision vary a great deal in Scripture; I can live with that and handle it. I think that people with certain concepts of inerrancy don't know how to handle the wavering and fluctuating degrees of precision you get in Scripture itself.
Hearn: In the inerraney question as well as in the age-o fthe-earth question, many of us see that those issues tend to divide Christians who might better be working together to thrash out those questions. Does that disturb you?
Ramm: Basically I think that our internal divisions are misplaced battles with the external gang. In other words, I think we feel threatened. Psychologists talk of a "kick-the dog" mechanism, where you're really mad at the boss, but he's too big and too important to kick-so you come home and kick what is available and won't retaliate. Seriously, I think many of these internal debates really are reflections of how much pressure we feel we're under from a non-Christian world. The helpful thing to do is to look at the threat and see that it's the thing we're afraid of. Then we should respond to the real threat, not to some pseudo-threat. Take this matter of the inerrancy debate. I think the real fear-I have to play psychologist here-is the enormous amount of critical material ground out by the Old and New Testament scholars. What do we do with it? How do we handle it? You can take a certain view of the Bible which makes it all irrelevant. You get the lizard off your back that way. "When people read Barr's statement that I have no sense of humor, they die laughing."
Hearn: Do you feel that in general young theologians are being trained well now in evangelical seminaries?
Ramm: I haven't been around them enough to have anything more than just an opinion. I am concerned about the enormous pressure we're under now to discuss particular issues like world hunger, the world population, the terrible things in South America and so on. That tends to take up so much time in the program that historical theology and so on gets neglected. Students come out very aware of what's happening right now, but not of what happened before. Yet you can really assess the present only if you have some kind of leverage from the past. That's the greatest concern I have with evangelical education, and the problem would vary a great deal from school to school. A very fundamentalist reactionary school would perhaps never even talk about those issues. So it's no problem with them. They have a different kind of problem.
Hearn: What do you think the ASA can best address itself to in the future?
Ramm: I've just mentioned some contemporary issues. Ecology is a big issue. It was discussed in a recent Journal
ASA, and that was good. I think what has happened since I wrote the book is that "the Bible and science" is no longer such a big issue across the whole evangelical camp. New things have emerged. Medical ethics is an issue about which I have done a great deal of reading and lecturing related to science in the past ten years. I've mentioned just a sample of the issues. So the ASA has plenty to be doing now. And then I think, again with one foot in history, that there's a certain value in going back and reviewing previous debates to give us perspective. Perspective is the hardest thing to have in the midst of things-to see how big or how small an issue is.
Hearn: I am delighted that you have come to Berkeley to teach theology at American Baptist Seminary of the West (and maybe help us out at New College). What was your previous position?
Ramm: The First Baptist Church of Modesto, with over 3,000 members, has a large intern program at both the college and seminary level in which I taught. We had our own classroom building and a library of about 10,000 books. The college and seminary classes are accredited through Fresno Pacific College and the Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Once a week I went down to teach in Fresno.
Hearn: So you were teaching theology to theological students?
Ramm: Oh, it was more than theology. I usually taught an expository course on some book of the Bible, and I also taught Reformation theology and a course in Christian apologetics.
Hearn: Did you come here from Eastern Baptist? I seem to remember you went to California Baptist Seminary at Covina from Baylor.
Ramm: Yes, I was at Covina for 16 years, then at Eastern for three years. My wife has had a lot of back surgery and Philadelphia was really a dangerous climate for her. We were worried she might slip on the ice.
Hearn: To get back to The Christian View of Science and Scripture, in the 25 years since then, have you seen any encouraging changes?
Ramn: I've been glad to see the emergence of different kinds of groups, like the Christian sociologists, to tackle some of the issues. One thing I've been sort of surprised at, though, is how much the fundamentalist mentality has stuck with us. Perhaps I identified it with small separatist denominational groups, which I thought were going to have a tough time growing much in the 20th century. I was right about that, but wrong on how strong the fundamentalist mentality is, apart from the movement-that is, as a way of thinking. I find that the average church member in the evangelical churches is a little closer to fundamentalism than-to use another word of the 20th century-to neoevangelicalism. I have been surprised at that.
Hearn: Do you think that ASA or other organizations like it can help to overcome that?
Ramm: No, I think it's due to a failure of the theological seminaries. They don't tell students how what they learn in seminary carries over into their preaching, teaching, and general relationship to their local church. On a great number of issues the congregation is therefore kept ignorant-they know the issues as of the year 1750. They take this simple position: "The Bible is as it is, or else it's destroyed by the higher critics." Any evangelical approach to biblical criticism just isn't known or understood. And I guess I'm surprised at so much continued hostility to evolution. I realize that in my research for the book I missed something that I've found out subsequently. From an academic standpoint Freudianism or Watson's behaviorism is perhaps more devastating to Christian faith than evolution. But those who set the pace for fundamentalism in the late 19th century looked at evolution as man's supreme sinful rebellion in science, and to them that made it different from any other anti-Christian scientific viewpoint. I didn't understand that until 10 or 15 years later, but if it's true then I can understand why there's not just disbelief in evolution but stout resistance to it. Consciously or unconsciously we take evolution to mean the secular world's view of Genesis. This takes the place of the Christian doctrine of creation, and therefore we run into each other at the first verse of the Bible.
Hearn: Do you mean where "evolutionism" has been made into a religion that competes with the Christian faith?
Ramm: No, I just meant the scientific theory as taught in a good sense and spirit in a college class. The very concept of evolution, even without being refined into a total philosophy of science, is aggravating to many Christians. As I go around, and in conversation I pick up, I'm automatically supposed to be against "higher criticism" and "evolution." It's just a standard fundamentalist position.
Hearn: Do you ever have opportunity to explain why those aren't the proper categories? Do you find it possible to educate ordinary church people about such matters?
Ramm: In the right situation, and where we have about an hour to talk back and forth, I'd endeavor to do that. If it's just on-the-spot conversation, then the odds are against you. I've done a certain amount of teaching to laity and in extended classes, and I've found in reading student papers that many feel there are six modernists in every book they read. I try to tell them that the ticket to criticism is that one must first understand. Understand the writer; then criticize him. If you start deciding on the first page whether he's fundamentalist, liberal or modernist, you'll never learn anything.
Hearn: What sort of things have you been learning, yourself, lately?
Ramm: The book that's had the biggest impact on me is a book on the philosopy of science by Errol E. Harris, The
Foundations of Metaphysics in Science. [Allen & Unwin, 1965] It's a kind of oddity because it's a process-philosophy view of science. I have no appetite for "process theology" built on process philosophy, but I do have an appreciation for process philosophy in science. It looks like a wholistic view of science as the other side of the so-called analytic or dissecting view of science. Bergson once said you must never confuse the dissected frog with the living, jumping frog. Well, Harris concentrates on the living frog. He shows the dynamic systems in nature and living things, that we are a positive creation-that is, a human being is a total living organism, not just a collection of parts, like you might make one VW out of ten junked ones.
"Many of the discussions are about how one produces a perfect book, instead of about how, as a matter of fact, God's word does come to us in ancient languages and in ancient cultures."
Hearn: Could you say a bit more about process theology?
Ramm: To begin with, any really close alliance of theology with philosophy has always proved detrimental to theology, whether the philosophy was Kantianism, Hegelianism or Aristotelianism. So I'm allergic to a close affiliation of philosophy with theology. I don't know what the statistics are, but maybe 95% of the process theologians come out of a liberal theological background-so right to begin with, you have to deny the whole evangelical program in theology to get started. That strong disposition toward the historical liberal tradition has made me rather skeptical of process theology.
Hearn: Are you working on a new book now?
Ramm: Yes, I'm doing an evangelical Christology. I'm on the last draft of that one. I've been thinking that somebody ought to do for biblical criticism something like what I did on Christianity and science. There are efforts in that direction, but I don't know of a wholesale effort to show the positive theological work of biblical criticism that is part of the human and historical side of revelation. Unless we explore that, we don't have the full view of Scripture in hand. It's like the ancient controversies about Christ, where you had a docetic Christology that ignored his humanity. Well, we have a docetic Bible; we don't actually relate to how it was generated-in a given culture, and a given language, how it was written down, their concept of authorship and citations, and so on. But that would be a very difficult one.
Hearn: Looking back over all the books you've written, where would you place The Christian View of Science and Scripture in your "corpus" of work?
Ramm: The book that has sold the most has been a textbook, Protestant Biblical Interpretations. It sold mainly because so far it hasn't had much competition. The book I like the best is called The Evangelical Heritage. I tried to show that we evangelicals of the 20th century weren't created here, that we want our roots to go back to the Reformation, back through to the New Testament. But I've gotten great satisfaction out of my book on science because so many people that I never even knew existed have said that "this book pulled me across the line" or "kept me straight," and two or three have said it led to their conversion. That's an ample reward to make up for the bad press I got the first three or four years the book was out.
Hearn: Throughout your career you seem to have been interested in both "pure" and "applied" theology.
Ramm: In an ordinary school year I get around to at least three or four Christian colleges, and I see the particular problems the professors are facing. I think the most critical problem for the Christian professor, or for any thinking Christian for that matter, is the problem of alternative explanations. Take the doctrine of sin, for example. Does the psychiatrist or psychologist tell us totally why there's deviant behavior or antisocial behavior? The sociologist shows how the place where somebody is brought up or lived has such an impact on them. When the psychologist and sociologist are through talking about deviant human behavior, is there anything left to say about a human being as a sinner? We may have a theological explanation, but there's also an alternative explanation. Obviously psychology and sociology have a lot to say, but at what point does the Christian interpretation take over? The same thing is true of history. We have an explanation of things in the ancient world or the New Testament period from the historian's standpoint. At what point can we say "Here's the Christian additive?" It's a problem for the Christian psychologist, the Christian sociologist, the Christian historian, in particular. They have to know where their specialty ends and where the Christian faith has something to say. I've seen instances where somebody buys the whole secular explanation; their Christianity is just something they believe when they go to chapel.
"I think many of these internal debates really are reflections of how much pressure we feel we're under from a non-Christian world."
Hearn: You talk about alternatives in a relatively positive way, as though it's healthy to have two views, whereas people in the Reformed tradition seem to feel there should be only one view and it should be the Christian view.
Ramm: I don't think they're off the hook on this. I've read some of the materials coming out of the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. For example, when Seerveld writes on aesthetics he has to know all about secular art theory in order to come along with strength in his Christian interpretation. He can't give a totally Christian interpretation, meaning that there's nothing included in that interpretation that he has learned from secular criticism of art. I've read another of their writers on philosophy and he had to know an awful lot of philosophy before he started to give the Christian interpretation. That's what I mean. You have to have a thorough grounding in the secular subjects as your professional ticket.
Hearn: As I understand it, the Reformed concern is always that the underlying metaphysics or presuppositional structure is so wrapped up in the subject that to become actively involved in the subject means to subscribe to that metaphysics also.
Ramm: A Christian teaching sociology certainly has to learn what all the sociologists say, and he has to depend on a lot of secular sociological research, so-called laws of sociology-and the Christian element comes in primarily where he ties all that together. I'm thinking particularly of the Christian professors because this is something they face every week. With the rest of us it comes and goes, depending on what we read or who we talk to.
One thing I've gotten tremendously interested in is literature and theology. I've always had an interest in literature, and I've been reading the unusual British products of Williams, Tolkien, Sayers, Lewis, and the American transplant T. S. Eliot. In theology now there's emerging a realization that the best way to understand Scripture is through literature, not through linguistic expertise in Hebrew and Greek. For example, the book of Job is going to be best understood by somebody in literature rather than by an expert in Semitic languages. I've taught a number of seminars on theology and literature. Right now I'm reading Agatha Christie's autobiography.
Hearn: I've often thought that the Psalms, for example, are lost on someone who has no sense of what constitutes good poetry in English, let alone Hebrew.
Ramm: Yes, I have an Old Testament friend who spends endless hours checking the Hebrew text to be sure every letter is in the right place-and I sometimes wonder if he knows what that Psalm is about. Maybe a person who doesn't know even a word of Hebrew, but knows a lot of literature, is going to give the best interpretation of a Psalm. That movement in theology is still quite small, partly because it has to buck 400 years of emphasis on the philological approach to Scripture, which started with the Reformation and the recovery of Hebrew and Greek. But I think the protest is going to get louder and louder.
Hearn: Now I'd like to ask your wife a question or two. Mrs. Ramm, what has it been like to be married to a theologian who gets into controversial questions all the time? What was it like in 1954 when he was getting a lot of criticism after his book on science came out?
Alta Ramm: Well, believe it or not, he was totally surprised that the book was controversial! We had gone to college together and in university days he started to develop his strong interest in science. He had become a Christian just two months before he started university, so one of the big burning issues of his life was putting his Christian faith together with science. He started out wanting to be a chemist, but then he decided he wanted to go into the Christian ministry, so he transferred from science into philosophy. But he kept on reading. Unlike his other books, that one came from the accumulation of articles, thinking and notes from college days. Through all those years he had been putting away little nuggets of thought
'I'm surprised at so much continued hostility to evolution. From an academic standpoint Freudian ism or Watson 's behaviorism is perhaps more devastating to Christian faith than evolution."
what he'd picked up as he read, and it became very familiar to him. Before he sent it to the publisher in its finished form, each chapter had been sent to a Christian whom he knew as a specialist in that area. He had their high regard and their kind suggestions, so he had worked in a circle of approval among fellow Christians with a scientific interest. That may have isolated him from the rest of the world, and how most Christians were really thinking about science. He had lived in that little sphere of his own for so long that when the criticism poured in, it was such a surprise. He didn't realize he was out of step with so many Christians.
It was interesting to see who criticized the book and what they criticized. It was unbelievable that some of the most famous names of that time in Christian circles-popular speakers and ministers and leaders-read the book and their blood pressure rose so rapidly. They put their reactions down on paper so fast that they fired over like a bullet to us. Some of the things they said we read and reread and could not believe it. The criticism was so sharp, and often it was totally biased and unfair. But just as reviewers reveal themselves more than the book they review, those letters showed us a different side of many personalities that we had known in the Christian faith as fellow ministers. One man, very well known nationally,. wrote a three-page, single-spaced, typewritten letter of sharp criticism. Then he went on to give his own views, which were so fantastic that even a science fictionist wouldn't have accepted them-what he believed existed before the world was created, and all sorts of wild things. Then he ended up by saying that "of course no one but myself knows I believe these things." If he had ever put them in print, it would definitely have been the end of his career! So we got a lot of shocks.
The first 50 letters that poured in were almost vicious and dogmatic, coming through like bullets with hostility. Then later, after a month or so, we began getting very thoughtful and very fine letters from educated people. Many started in by saying, "I have never written to an author before, but I want to now." Many physicians said, "Until I read this book I had my science in one compartment of my mind and my Christian faith in another. I had to live with that polarity or dualism because I could never bring them together in harmony." And many Christian teachers of science, either in high school or particularly in college, and those who had Ph.D.'s and were in research, said they had the same problem. They had lived with that dualism and had never been able to merge them or build a bridge between them, until this book, which had helped them a great deal. I had an uncle, now with the Lord, a physician who specialized in obstetrics. When we sent him a copy he was so excited he wrote to say he had just ordered enough copies to give to every doctor he worked with or knew in the city. He said that since his medical school days-I suppose he was in his 50s or 60s then-he had no answers at all. He was a devout Christian and very active in the church, but he said, "I finally have something to grasp and a way to communicate with my fellow physicians in telling them about Christ. This has given me the greatest peace I've had in many, many years."
Hearn: Did you lose any friends over the book? Did it sort of "type" your husband in the sense that there were certain places where he was no longer welcome as a speaker?
Alta Ramm: Yes, undoubtedly it moved him out of a certain circle. There were certain places once enthusiastic about his ministry who never asked him back after the book came out. They just dropped him. We have a lot of good friends from college days, but with some we find it wise to stay away from the area of science so that we can retain our fellowship. Only twice has a close friend locked horns with us. It isn't my husband's nature to be argumentative. He's an evennatured person. If anyone gets hot, he gracefully changes the subject. But it was very interesting to us that the negative letters poured in at first, and then the positive ones began to come in. It's been many years now since he's gotten a negative one.
Hearn: When I came over to do this interview I was thinking primarily of how much The Christian View of
Science and Scripture has meant to members of the American Scientific Affiliation. But maybe it has worked the other way, too. Maybe a lot of those positive letters were from people in the ASA, so that we were able to be of some help at a time when encouragement was badly needed. Thank you both very much.