Science in Christian Perspective



Rediscovering John Ray

John R. Armstrong

Bl, 4515 Varsity Drive, N.W.
Calgary, Alberta
Canada T3A OZ8

From: PSCF 91 (June 1989): 105-107.

Unemployment enhanced my study of the interaction between historical science and biblical interpretation, allowing my 1987 readings to range across three centuries. I may have been the first borrower of at least one classic book in the Gallagher Geological Library: John Ray's Three Physico Theological Discourses; a buried treasure.

John Ray (1627-1705) became a teaching fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge in 1649, an ordained Church of England minister in 1660. His Puritan sympathies, however, prevented him from signing an agreement with 1662 restrictions upon liturgy under the Act of Uniformity, so that his employment ended (Faul & Faul, 1983, p. 47). Turning to science, he produced the major botanical reference of his generation, met and corresponded with leading scientists across Western Europe. and tutored for a wealthy family. Honesty, thoroughness, humility, and gentleness pervade his writings: he repeatedly acknowledged incomplete understanding and demonstrated a willingness to revise his opinions whenever evidence warranted a different interpretation.

Theology and science, religion and politics, were intertwined during the seventeenth century. No one suggested any significantly longer historical timescale than that which John Lightfoot and Archbishop James Ussher had calculated from biblical genealogies as well as from ancient traditions. However, Steno (1669) had traced six stages in the geological history of Tuscany, while William Whiston, in A New Theory of the Earth (I 696). assumed that planetary rotation began at the Great Flood-so that previously days and years might have been synonymous terms.

Medieval synthesis applied astrology and Aristotelian ideas and regarded fossils as inorganic "sports of nature" imitating shapes of living things. Diluvial theories were starting to displace this interpretation. Thomas Burnet's Sacred Theory of the Earth (1681) relied upon natural processes divinely synchronized to foreknown history, rather than "the direct hand of God," and supposed that a few places were untouched by the Flood (Greene, 1959, pp. 48-52; Faul & Faul, 1983, pp. 48-50). This controversial work, together with critical replies, proved to be immensely popular. John Woodward responded stridently in An Essay Toward a Natural History of the Earth (1695, 282 pages), in which he held the Flood responsible for all major changes since Creation, rejected almost every concept leading toward modern science, but did recognize the organic origin of fossils. John Ray argued more rationalistically, showing the flaws in every available theory, and keeping his own views cautiously tentative, almost to indecision. He expanded a collection of sermons into The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation (1691), then used a second collection to produce Miscellaneous Discourses Concerning the Dissolution and Changes of the World (1692) which developed into Three Physico-Theological Discourses (Faul & Faul, 1983, p. 51). These discourses deal with: Chaos and Creation; the General Deluge; Dissolution of the World and Future Conflagration.

John Ray followed St. Augustine's tradition of progressive creation, saying:

For Moses, in the History and Description of the Creation, in the first Chapter of Genesis, saith, not that God created all Things in an instant in their full State and Perfection, but that He proceeded gradually and in Order, from more imperfect to more perfect Beings, first beginning with the Earth, that is, the Terraqueous Globe, which was made tohu vabohu, without Form, and void, the Waters covering the Face of the Land, which were afterwards separated from the Land, and gathered together in one place. Then He created out of the Land and Water, first Plants, and then Animals, Fishes, Birds, Beasts, in Order, and last of all formed the Body of Man from the Dust of the Earth. (1713, p. 5).

He considered species to be fixed, intransmutable, all created by the time of mankind's appearance (I 713, pp. 387, 388). Thus, this view of creation was not the same as theistic evolution, as some creationists in this century have asserted. Ray wondered whether the days were to be taken literally (p. 172), and cited several instances wherein "Figurative and Metaphorical Sense" should be applied (pp. 317, 394-396). In contrast to many modern creationists, he separated scriptural authority from literalism, and sought explanations requiring fewest miracles and most reliance upon natural laws. (For example, on page 120, referring to a concept that the deluge was caused by pressure upon the oceans, he preferred to postulate a shift in centre of gravity, declaring: "But because there must be another Miracle required, to suspend the Waters upon the Land, and to hinder them from running off again into the Sea; this is far more unlikely than the former account.") Today's literalists/inerrantists charge that any other view exalts humanity, but Ray's different interpretation did not: "It seems to me to be too great Presumption, and over-valuing ourselves, to think that all this World was so made for us, as to have no other End of its Creation or that God could not be glorified but by us" (p. 414).

He could not assume that extinction had ever occurred, considering the care taken to preserve two or more representatives of each species (Genesis 6-9), yet Ray admitted the possibility because ammonites were unknown apart from fossils. He hoped that living examples might be recovered from other regions, when the planet could be totally explored (I 713, p. 173).

Inorganic explanation of fossils "put a Weapon into the Atheist's Hands, affording him a strong Argument, to prove, that even Animals themselves are casual Productions, and not the Effects of Counsel or Design. For, to what End are these Bodies curiously figured and adorned? If for no other, but to exhibit such as Form, for the Ornament of the Universe, or to gratify the Curiosity of Man; these are but general Ends: Whereas the Parts of every Species of Body are formed and fitted to the particular Uses and Conveniences of that Body" (I 713, p. 168). This teleological reasoning would lead to Cuvier's correlation principle, basic to comparative anatomy and vertebrate paleontology (cf. Cuvier, 1817); a variation echoes in Charles Darwin's emphasis upon natural selection and adaptation to habitat (Darwin, 1859).

Burnet had stressed continuing change and decay, against the Aristotelian notion of an eternal universe. (Nathanael Carpenter had introduced this "entropy" argument early in the seventeenth century-what is now called an appeal to the Second Law of Thermodynamics-as Suzanne Kelly noted, in Schneer, 1969, pp. 223, 224.) Ray agreed, but thought that the rate of change was diminishing. The posthumous Third Edition added: "In this Conjecture I find myself mistaken. For since the Writing hereof there have happened as terrible and destructive Earthquakes as any we read of in History" (I 713, p. 29 1). Perceiving a balance between uplift, erosion, and deposition, he anticipated James Hutton's perspective (Hutton, 1785, 1788) and modern geology. Ray accepted reports that uplift by earthquakes occurred in the Andes (p. 13), as Woodward denied but Darwin would later observe (Darwin, 1962, p. 312).

Ray concurred with Burnet and Whiston that climate had changed from generally benign antediluvian conditions (Woodward rejected this, along with continuing change) but criticiszed their speculated causes, and considered that longevity had reduced as an effect (1713, p. 122). However, Burnet had also regarded the present world as "a dirty little planet" and a disorganized jumble, assuming that the primeval condition must have been a pristine sphere devoid of rough topography or seasonal variations. Ray protested that the world is admirably suited to its diverse inhabitants; that mountain ranges are more beautiful than uninterrupted smoothness, as well as useful to the water cycle (1713, pp. 34-37).

Woodward had denied the water cycle, assumed that springs, rivers and deluge were all supplied by a subterranean abyss. Ray dismissed the abyss on the basis of Genesis I (1713, p. 9): precipitation could explain the source of rivers.

Steno (1669) showed that strata normally occur in sequences from oldest at the bottom to youngest at the top of sections, while Woodward (1695) presumed that sequences were in the order of specific gravity, due to hydraulic sorting of suspended diluvial sediments (a concept adapted by Whitcomb and Morris, 1961, and other modern creationist literature). Ray observed that outcrops rarely matched the order implied by Woodward; rather, he supported Steno (Ray, 1713, p. 167).

Although Ray accepted a universal deluge, he ascribed most strata and their fossils to other causes. Marine sequences included fossils in growth position, indicating long-term deposition, so that he suggested origins in the millennium and a half (estimated) between Creation and Flood. On the other hand, logs from British peat bogs had most likely been cut down as recently as the Roman conquest (I 713, pp. 146, 147, 172, 24 1).

Thus, John Ray represents a middle ground, maintaining both scientific and theological mainstreams. He expressed remarkably modern perspectives for his time, steered between extreme speculation and dogmatism when both were particularly rife, and influenced future investigators. His open-minded willingness to follow evidence, remain flexible, admit and correct error, sets an example for biblical scholars and scientists alike. Beyond that, he set a standard for useful, creative unemployment, deeply appreciated by this unemployed geologist.




Burnet, Thomas, 1681. Sacred Theory of the Earth: Containing an Account of Its Original Creation, and of All the General Changes Which It Hath Undergone, Or is to Undergo, Until the Consumniation of All Things (Cited by Faul & Faul, and by Greene).

Cuvier, Georges, 1817. Essay on the Theory of the Earth (English translation with mineralogical notes by Robert Jameson) third edition. (Edinburgh: William Blackwood; Arno Press facsimile, 1978).

Darwin, Charles, 1859. On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (London: J. Murray).

Darwin, Charles, 1962. The Voyage of the Beagle, edited by Leonard Engel. (New York: Doubleday Anchor Book).

Faul, Henry, and Faul, Carol, 1983. It Began With a Stone (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Wiley-Interscience Books).

Greene, John C., 1959. The Death of Adam (New York: Mentor Paperback). 

Hutton, James, 1785, "System of the Earth," and 1788, "Theory of the Earth," in Contrbutions to the History of Geology, Vol. 5 (1973), edited by G.W. White.

Ray, John, 1713. Three Physico-Theological Discourses, third edition. (London: William Innys; 1978 Arno Press facsimile from best available copy). 

Schneer, Cecil J. (ed.), 1969. Toward a History of Geology (Cambridge, MA: M. IT. Press).

Steno, Nicolaus, 1669. "The Prodromus of Nicolaus Steno's Dissertation Concerning a Solid Bodv Enclosed by a Process of Nature Within a Solid," English translation with notes and introduction bv John Garrett Winter, 1916, University of Michigem Humanistic Studies, Vol. XI, Pt. 2; Facsimile, 1968, Hafner Publishing Co.

Whiston, William, 1696. A New Theory of the Earth, from Its Original, to the Consummation of AU Things. Wherein the Creation of the World in Six Days, the Universal Deluge. the Conflagration, as Laid Down in the Holy Scriptures, Are Shewn to be Perfectly Agreeable to Reason and Philosophy (Arno Press facsimile from best available copy).

Whitcomb, John C., Jr. and Morrism Henry M.. 1961. The Genesis Flood (Phillipsburg, NJ The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.).

Woodward, John, 1695. An Essey Toward a Natural History of the Earth: and Terrestrial Bodies, Especially Minerals: as also of the Sea, Rivers, and  Springs; With an account of the Universal Deluge and the Effects that it had upon the Earth (London: Wilkin; Arno Press facsimile from best available copy)