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ON THE RELATION BETWEEN THE SCRIPTURES AND THE NATURAL SCIENCES, ESPECIALLY GEOLOGY AND ASTRONOMY.
THE modern researches in the natural sciences are as gigantic in their extent, as they are incontrovertible in their main results. The investigation of the laws of the materia! world, and their application to practical purposes, form the characteristic pursuits of our age. But the Bible also alludes, in many important passages, to physical laws and to natural phenomena. It became, therefore, an indispensable task for the Biblical student, and especially the theologian, to compare those recent results with the respective Scriptural statements. The conclusions at which these men arrived, though vastly differing in detail, may be reduced to two chief classes. Not a few divines and scholars — whose zeal, unfortunately, overruled their reason - flatly denied the correctness, and even possibility, of such facts: every one knows that Galileo was compelled to abjure and to curse the Copernican system of the earth's motion as fallacious and heretical; Voetius described it as a neologian fabrication; and the learned Francis Turrettin, not much more than one hundred and fifty years since, endeavoured to overthrow it by Scriptural and physical arguments. But the opposition to that great astronomical truth has gradually vanished away before the colossal labours of Kepler, Newton, and their illustrious followers; nor will anybody at present, as once the learned doctors of Salamanca did, decry the views of Columbus as an impious heresy; and if objections are still raised by some tenacious straggler, they are received as a curiosity, causing hilarity rather than provoking controversy. But more vehement were the denouncements hurled, up to a very recent date, against the results of geology, itself a comparatively recent science; it was declared an unholy and atheistic pursuit, a dark art, a "horrid blasphemy," a study which has the evil one for its author; and its votaries were designated as arch-enemies of religion and virtue, infidels standing in the service of the infernal powers.
The other class of scholars, more sober and less sceptical, acknowledges, either wholly or partially, the exactness of the natural sciences, but denies emphatically that there exists the remotest discrepancy between these results and the Biblical records. This is at present by far the most prevalent opinion among theologians; they posi
tively assert, that if there is an apparent contradiction, the fault is not in the Scriptural text, but in its erroneous exposition. They have, therefore, proposed a vast number of explanations intended to prove that harmony; and they have endeavoured to show that the present notions of astronomy and geology, though not clearly expressed in the Bible, are certainly implied in the words, or may easily be deduced from their
We believe the time has arrived for pronouncing a final and well-considered opinion on these momentous points; the materials necessary for this decision exist in abundance; they are all but complete; and we propose to submit to the reader an analysis which will enable him to judge and to decide for himself, and to form an opinion founded, not upon indefinite conceptions, but upon indisputable facts.
There is, indeed, a third and very large class of scholars, who attempt to evade these questions altogether, by simply asserting that the Bible does not at all intend to give information on physical subjects—that it is exclusively a religious book, and regards the physical world only in so far as it stands in relation to the moral conduct of men. But this is a bold fallacy. With the same justice it might be affirmed, that the Bible, in describing the rivers of Paradise, does not speak of geography at all; or in inserting the grand list and genealogy of nations (in the tenth chapter), is far from touching on the science of ethnography. Taken in this manner, nothing would be easier, but nothing more arbitrary, than Biblical interpretation. It is simply untrue that the Bible entirely avoids these questions; it has, in fact, treated the history of creation in a most comprehensive and magnificent manner; it has in these portions, as well as in the moral precepts and the theological doctrines, evidently not withheld any information which it was in its power to impart. Therefore, dismissing this opinion without further notice, we shall first compare, under different heads, the distinct statements of the first chapters of Genesis with the uncontroverted researches of the natural sciences; we shall then, secondly, draw from these facts the unavoidable conclusions as regards the possibility of a conciliation; and shall, lastly, review the various attempts which have hitherto been made to effect that agreement.
We shall, in this sketch, particularly, study the utmost simplicity compatible with accuracy.
L. THE ANTIQUITY OF THE EARTH.
ACCORDING to chronological computations based on the Old Testament, the earth, as a part of the universe, was created B.C. 4160, or about six thousand years hence. Even the larger chronologies of the Septuagint, Hales, and others, fix this date not further back than between seven and eight thousand years.
But the researches of the natural sciences, especially geology, lead to widely different conclusions; they prove an antiquity of the earth of such vastness, that our imagination fails to conceive, and our numbers are almost unable to express it. The task of defining the geological chronology by exact, and even approximate numbers, has been shunned by the ablest scholars, and has hitherto defied their zealous efforts. Let us survey the principal arguments:
The crust of the earth, which is supposed to be about 50,000 feet, or two and a half geographical miles, in thickness, and which has been examined to about half that depth, consists of a number of different layers or strata, which, although seldom occurring in a complete series, invariably succeed each other in the same order, or have generally, at least, correspondents or equivalents upon other areas. These various beds represent as many creations, or progressive revolutions of the earth. They were produced by volcanic influence, the agency of the water, and chemical processes, in a manner which we shall be enabled to describe more fully in a later part of this treatise. But those strata have, for the sake of convenient arrangement, been classified in
three great groups; of which the oldest series, or that most remote from our surface, is called the Primary, the next upwards the Secondary, and the last, or uppermost, the Tertiary System.
1. The lowest stratification to which human knowledge has been able to penetrate is that of Gneiss, consisting of the component parts of the granite rocks, which spread beneath it in a crystalline form, and constitute the material of the principal mountains of Europe: the gneiss is, therefore, probably the product of the granite, worn, arranged, and acted upon by water and by the heat which fills the interior of the earth. This process of diffusion and wearing off, of depositing and permanent disposition, is excessively slow; the lapse of a century would scarcely produce a few inches of this substance. Now the gneiss-rocks in Scotland, Ireland, and other countries, exceed "many thousand yards," as, in fact, the lower strata are generally by far the deepest in thickness. What an immense period of time was required to form them?
2. The Slates and Mica Schist, which follow above the gneiss, have a thickness of three to four miles; they occur in overwhelming masses in Scotland, Cumberland, and Wales; their formation is "a work infinitely slow," and overpowers the mind again with the idea of enormous epochs.
3. The Silurian strata, consisting of slate-rocks, with dark limestones, sandstones, and flagstones, have a united thickness of about a mile and a half. They are the results of the alternate play and repose of volcanic action; and it is obvious, that "myriads of ages must have been occupied in the production of these formations, before the creation of man, and the adaptation of the earth's surface for his abode." Biblical age of the world, if compared with these vast periods of time, sinks into absolute insignificance.
4. The group of the Secondary beds begins with the Old Red Sandstone, which, on account of its most frequent occurrence in Devonshire - sometimes to a thickness of 10,000 feet and more—is now called the Devonian. Who can calculate the immensity of time required to form these masses, which in Scotland also are found in astounding quantities?
5. One of the most interesting systems is the Carboniferous group, which consists partly of mountain limestone, composed almost entirely of the shells and coralline productions of sea animals, partly of millstone grit, and partly of coal, composed of compressed vegetable matter, shale, and sandstone, in alternate layers. The aggregate thickness of this group amounts nearly to 5,000 feet; whilst in South Wales the coallayers have a depth of 13,500, and in New Scotland of 14,500 fect; and we are again compelled to strain our imagination with a notion of time almost beyond its capacity.
6. The next thousand or two thousand feet in the crust of our planet are occupied with the New Red Sandstone, composed of Magnesian limestone, variegated marl, clay, conglomerates, rock-salt, and other strata, pre-supposing long and repeated changes to effect their production.
7. The Oolitic System, of the thickness of about half a mile, is evidently composed of depositions from sea-water, the mingled waters from river-mouths, and even fresh water of rivers and lakes. It indicates a certain change in the volcanic activity of the internal heat of the earth; and millenniums were necessarily required to pile up these huge rocks.
8. One of the most universal and extensive groups are the Cretaceous layers. Chalk masses, to the thickness of more than a thousand feet, mixed with flint, green sand, and bluish clay, have not only been discovered in almost all the countries of Europe, but also in different parts of Asia, Africa, and America; so that this formation has often, though erroneously, been considered to mark the commencement of a totally different order of things. But it is certain, that the whole lapse of time neces
sary to produce this part of the entire stratification "is astonishing; to our faculties, in the present state, it is immense," whether chalk be considered to consist of myriads of infusoria, or to have arisen from the decomposition of corals.
9. The name of the Tertiary System, lastly, has been given to the beds which follow immediately above the chalk strata, and form the layers nearest to the present surface of the earth. They are very variously composed of clays, sands, and limes, intermixed with coral rocks, peat, marls, and travertins, with drift, erratic blocks, and gravel, with bone-caves, mud-deposits, and almost mountain-high masses of insects. All these strata together form a thickness of at least six or eight hundred feet. And the greater part of even these formations must reach back to a far higher antiquity than that which the Biblical computations allow to the creation of the whole earth, with all its infinite and prodigious stratifications, by the extremely slow and gradual operation of deposition and consolidation, frequently interrupted by the tremendous upheavings from the bowels of the fiery earth. The formation of even those strata which are nearest the surface must have occupied vast periods, "probably millions of years," before they assumed their actual state. And these processes of the active elements have not ceased; they are constantly working, and produce new formations before our eyes, as in bygone ages. Islands have, mostly in consequence of volcanic upheavings, appeared even in recent times; and modern works on the development of our planet contain abundant and interesting instances; they keep alive within us the conviction, that the present aspect of the earth's surface will in due time be subjected to vast and essential changes; and that, however imperceptible the alteration, and however enormous the period required to complete it, our present continents will be scenes of revolutions which must alter both their form and condition.
In order to give some idea of the immensity of geological epochs, we introduce a few examples:
1. The great tract of peat near Stirling, in Scotland, forming but one single bed of coal, has required nearly two thousand years; for the Roman works are preserved below it; and, in general, a century forms a layer of coal not thicker than seven lines. It is, therefore, a moderate estimate to put down the production of the coal series of Newcastle at 200,000 years.
2. The period during which the strata of coal, shale, sandstone, and limestone were deposited over the site of the basaltic hill called Arthur's Seat, at Edinburgh, is estimated at 500,000 years.
3. The old sandstone occurs in Scotland to a vertical depth of more than 3,000 feet; and as a Scotch lake scarcely deposits mud or marl at the rate of half a foot in a century, at least 600,000 years were required for the production of this series alone.
4. By far the larger part of the dry land has been raised out of the bed of the sea, by a process which has been calculated (from certain parts of Sweden) to produce about three feet in a century. Now, in several of the glens of Scotland occur seabeaches, or beaches of ancient lakes, twelve hundred feet and more above the present sea-level; their formation must, therefore, have required at least 40,000 years. The eastern coast of Scandinavia rises about forty inches every century; it has, during the historical time, become about 200, and in general apparently 300 feet higher; this involves a period of at least 8,000 years; and yet was this elevation not regularly progressing, but was interrupted by considerable depressions; for sixty feet below the present level, near Stockholm, a fisherman's cottage has been discovered, which once stood at the margin of the sea.
5. The coral-rocks of the Red Sea, and of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, many fathoms in depth, and many hundred miles in extent, are formed by little insects, which secrete small particles of carbonate of lime, and thus gradually produce those majestic masses. Who will calculate the boundless ages exhausted by that process?
6. The volcanic regions in the centre of France contain rocks of silicious deposits, one of which is sixty feet thick, and required at least eighteen thousand years for its formation.
7. The river Niagara wears away the edge of the precipice over which it falls, between lake Erie and lake Ontario, about one foot annually. It has hitherto thus worn away a space of seven miles in the direction of lake Erie; and this process has, therefore, required at least 35,000 years; and will require about 70,000 years more to reach with its falls that lake. -- There are many other denudations and erosions on the present surface of the earth; they are the effect of the slow action of the ocean, which has in some regions worn away the rocks more than two miles in depth; and this process, occurring in the present geological epoch, required in itself a vast space of time. The following instance may serve as an illustration:
8. Terraces and beaches, 400 to 1,000 feet high, composed of gravel, sand, and clay, comminuted and deposited by water chiefly, were, after the drift epoch, obviously formed when the continents were drained of the waters of the ocean, and the rivers were cutting down their beds. The same process is still going on; but within the whole historical time, terraces and beaches of scarcely the height of a few feet have been formed. It is difficult to conceive the vastness of time which was required for these elevated terraces. Those who attribute almost all the changes, and especially the formation of the terraces, to the influence of the deluge, are obliged to take refuge in an assumption which is in direct opposition to the Biblical narrative, namely, that the water remained in many places for a long period on the surface of the earth, forming large inland seas or lakes.
9. Around the present coast of Great Britain runs an escarpment, of various height and character, which marks the former, or "old coast line." But as far as historical records recede, the present line has existed as the girdle of the seas. Now, in both of them are caves, hollowed out by the attrition of the surf, more than a hundred feet in depth; those of the old coast line are considerably deeper; and it must have required many centuries to excavate by so slow a process the tough trap or hard gneiss to such great depth; the lowest estimate fixes that period at six thousand years. And yet the epoch of the old coast line forms a “mere beginning,” a “mere starting point," in geologic history; for no species of shell seems to have become extinct during that epoch, and even those which no longer occur on the shores of Britain are abundantly found in the higher northern latitudes, in Iceland, Spitzbergen, and Greenland; a circumstance which in itself points to a time when a large portion of Great Britain was submerged in a sub-arctic sea, and when this country existed "as but a scattered archipelago of wintry islands."
10. The Mississippi carries down to its mouth one cubic mile of earth in about five and a quarter years; but the whole delta contains 2,720 cubic miles; it required, therefore, more than 14,000 years to be formed by such deposits; and though that river may not always have flowed on regularly in the same manner, the possible fluctuations were not so great as materially to affect that calculation.
11. The valley of the Nile is covered with a bed of slime, deposited by the river, which annually carries down to the sea above 3,000 millions of cubic feet of detritus, or "as much as would build forty pyramids of the largest dimensions." That bed, like that of the adjacent desert, rests on a foundation of sand. Its average thickness was found by the French scholars who accompanied Napoleon on his Egyptian expedition, in the year 1800, to be six and a half metres, or about twenty feet; and as the deposition of slime amounts in a century to about four inches and a half, the whole bed had required about 5,650 years. But this is only a very inconsiderable portion of the earth's crust in that country. For that foundation of sand rests, for nearly three hundred miles, upon a thick bed of the marine or Nummulitic limestone, which is of