Can Science and Scripture be Harmonized? The past history of a question often reveals it to be more complicated than we first imagined. So it is with the seemingly simple idea of fitting together, or “harmonizing,” the truths of science with the truths of scripture.

Three Options for Harmonizing

“All truth is God’s truth,” we rightly say, and so we affirm in principle that the things we discover about the natural world will mesh with the statements of scripture. If they don’t, there would seem to be three options.

Option #1: we have misinterpreted one or the other, God’s works (nature) or God’s word (scripture)—but when rightly interpreted, they will harmonize.

Option #2: scripture, being God’s word, is our ultimate authority, and science must bow to it. If scientific investigation suggests an old earth, but Genesis teaches a young earth, science must be wrong.

Option #3 is a mirror image of the second: science must be right and scripture wrong.  After all, the argument runs, the Bible is an ancient document from a pre-scientific time. This third option has several variants, among them: (a) that scripture is wrong about scientific and historical details, but still is God’s authoritative word to us about spiritual things, and (b) that scripture is just an ancient document from which we can pick and choose what we find inspiring or helpful, if anything.

St. Ignatius Defeating Heresy; Gesù, Rome

Both versions of option #3 lie behind what historians of science have called the “conflict thesis”—late nineteenth-century claims that religion has repeatedly stood in the way of scientific progress. There’s often been a noticeable anti-Catholic edge to that argument. The Roman Inquisition forced Galileo to renounce heliocentrism. Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, said that even if the Church told him that the white he saw with his own eyes was black, he would believe the Church. And so it went—two fundamentally different ways of knowing—empirical observation versus imposed authority; free inquiry versus censorship and excommunication; reason versus power.

Nineteenth-century Protestants did not at all like this stark posing of alternatives, as if one had to choose between following reason or following God’s word. For about three centuries they had enjoyed a sense of being champions of both science and the Bible. In their view, it was the Roman Catholic Church that stood for superstition and imposed authority; Protestants took their stand, as Luther did at Worms, on reason and scripture.In the early 1800s, though, first geology and then biology called into question the picture of earth history commonly derived from Genesis. Confronted with evidence of an old earth and Darwin’s (and others’) theory of the transmutation of species, Bible-believers faced the science/scripture question with compelling urgency. Could we believe the Bible anymore, when science—giving us such mastery over the world as the steam engine and the telegraph, proving itself a reliable and convincing path to knowledge—contradicted scripture?

Academic Attempts to Harmonize

Enter the distinctively nineteenth-century effort to “harmonize” the Bible and science, Genesis and geology. Numerous colleges and seminaries in America and Britain established professorships and special lecture series dedicated to the defense of Christianity from the “cavils” and “assaults” of scientists and philosophers (conflict language again). With martial language about besting the foe with his own weapons, they set out to use science to disprove naturalistic claims made in the name of science. They set out to demonstrate the harmony of science and scripture.

In 1859 James Woodrow, uncle of Woodrow Wilson, was appointed Perkins Professor of Natural Science in Connexion with Revelation at Columbia Theological Seminary (S.C.), the first such chair in a seminary. Edward Hitchcock served as Professor of Natural Theology and Geology at Amherst College in the 1860s. Could we believe the Bible anymore, when science—giving us such mastery over the world as the steam engine & the telegraph…—contradicted scripture?Charles Woodruff Shields occupied the Chair of the Harmony of Science and Religion at Princeton College beginning in 1865, having turned down an offer for a similar chair at Lafayette. Princeton Seminary created the Stuart Professorship of the Relations of Science and Philosophy to the Christian Religion expressly for Francis Landey Patton in 1881. George Frederick Wright served in the Chair of the Harmony of Science and Revelation at Oberlin College beginning in 1892. Similar chairs existed at Andover Theological Seminary and Bowdoin College.

These “harmony chairs” were not an unmixed success. Woodrow’s performance in the Perkins chair brought a disastrous heresy scandal on Columbia Seminary, making Woodrow America’s most famous martyr to the cause of academic freedom (and evolutionism). Wright’s chair at Oberlin endured no scandal or opprobrium, just a slow slide into perceived irrelevancy. Princeton College almost fired Shields in his first year of service, so inappropriate did it find his method of harmonizing. That task passed to a George Macloskie, a biologist and ordained minister. Only at Princeton Seminary, where Francis Landey Patton developed a deliberate alternative to Shields’s approach, did a harmony chair produce lasting fruit for the evangelical academic ideal—and even there the project morphed from fitting scientific and scriptural details together, to laying a common philosophical foundation for both.

Even this rough sketch suggests something of the difficulty Bible-believers encountered when they tried to carry out in practice the seemingly straightforward task of “harmonizing” science and scripture. A look at some of these stories—Woodrow’s at Columbia, Wright’s at Oberlin, Shields’s and Macloskie’s at Princeton College, and Patton’s at Princeton Seminary—may help us with the task of understanding rightly what scripture teaches about natural history, especially concerning method, expectations, and apologetical strategy.  I’ll begin by telling the story of the Woodrow affair in my next post.