I am finding Arthur McCalla’s The Creationist Debate (Bloomsbury) to be an excellent summary of the difficult history of disputes within the Western public mind over the interpretation of Genesis and its reconciliation with the geological record, not the least because he puts the debate into a deep context, going back to the medieval mind and beyond. Quite aside from the debate itself, an understanding of the history of our interpretation of the geological, paleontological and archaeological evidence is vital, if we are to make any sense of where the sciences are at now and how they relate to the Church.
McCalla (above) takes time to explain the shift from viewing the world through typological and symbolic lenses in medieval times to that of viewing the world scientifically, and the discovery of ‘deep time’. The history of changes in the Western worldview never gets old (pardon the pun). McCalla’s book explains the growing debates over scripture, including how the higher criticism of Germany began to see scripture as myth, in the sense of a people constructing their history rather than reporting it, and the reaction of confessionalists in Germany who warned that original sin will always taint so-called rational interpretation. Never-the-less, theologians, particularly in Germany, did take a middle way, taking on board the idea that the social and political context of the writing of scripture must be taken into account, leading to the idea of “salvation history” – that writing about events reflects the theological understanding of those doing the writing. In England, that hotbed of scientific discovery, scholars were less progressive, and scandalised by the Germans, but there too, eventually, scriptures were re-interpreted, often elevating the moral assertions over the literalness of any supernatural reportings. And, as Terry Eagleton points out in his latest book, many of the philosophers championing this view thought the Bible was good for the masses even if the philosophers didn’t believe a word of it.
McCalla describes how it took a while for fossils to be recognised as long-extinct creatures and how scholars realised that non-literal did not mean inerrant, and that the six days of the Genesis creation could be interpreted as six ‘ages’. Darwin features, of course, but in the wider picture of evolutionary speculation. It is important to recognise that in the nineteenth century there were many strands of evolutionary thinking, and that Darwin’s hypothesis of natural selection was merely one strand, as was the theory that species changed but due to the direct intervention of God (rather than through the mutation of genes). McCalla also describes the gradual acceptance of human beings as part of the long history of the earth, rather than an exception, and the consequences of that acceptance, both in theological accommodation and righteous denial.
Eventually McCalla moves from Europe to the US, where there was a determined push against the implications of Darwinism, and a reclamation of biblical literalism. In a book full of intriguing facts, just one is that the notorious “fundamentals” pamphlets, from which fundamentalism takes its name, actually contained a defence of evolution, albeit a divinely powered version, rather than Darwinism’s blind chance version.