History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom

Author: Andrew Dickson White

VI. Reconstructive Force of Scientific Criticism.

For all this dissolving away of traditional opinions regarding our sacred literature, there has been a cause far more general and powerful than any which has been given, for it is a cause surrounding and permeating all. This is simply the atmosphere of thought engendered by the development of all sciences during the last three centuries.

Vast masses of myth, legend, marvel, and dogmatic assertion, coming into this atmosphere, have been dissolved and are now dissolving quietly away like icebergs drifted into the Gulf Stream. In earlier days, when some critic in advance of his time insisted that Moses could not have written an account embracing the circumstances of his own death, it was sufficient to answer that Moses was a prophet; if attention was called to the fact that the great early prophets, by all which they did and did not do, showed that there could not have existed in their time any "Levitical code," a sufficient answer was "mystery"; and if the discrepancy was noted between the two accounts of creation in Genesis, or between the genealogies or the dates of the crucifixion in the Gospels, the cogent reply was "infidelity." But the thinking world has at last been borne by the general development of a scientific atmosphere beyond that kind of refutation.

If, in the atmosphere generated by the earlier developed sciences, the older growths of biblical interpretation have drooped and withered and are evidently perishing, new and better growths have arisen with roots running down into the newer sciences. Comparative Anthropology in general, by showing that various early stages of belief and observance, once supposed to be derived from direct revelation from heaven to the Hebrews, are still found as arrested developments among various savage and barbarous tribes; Comparative Mythology and Folklore, by showing that ideas and beliefs regarding the Supreme Power in the universe are progressive, and not less in Judea than in other parts of the world; Comparative Religion and Literature, by searching out and laying side by side those main facts in the upward struggle of humanity which show that the Israelites, like other gifted peoples, rose gradually, through ghost worship, fetichism, and polytheism, to higher theological levels; and that, as they thus rose, their conceptions and statements regarding the God they worshipped became nobler and better—all these sciences are giving a new solution to those problems which dogmatic theology has so long laboured in vain to solve. While researches in these sciences have established the fact that accounts formerly supposed to be special revelations to Jews and Christians are but repetitions of widespread legends dating from far earlier civilizations, and that beliefs formerly thought fundamental to Judaism and Christianity are simply based on ancient myths, they have also begun to impress upon the intellect and conscience of the thinking world the fact that the religious and moral truths thus disengaged from the old masses of myth and legend are all the more venerable and authoritative, and that all individual or national life of any value must be vitalized by them.[506]

[506] For plaintive lamentations over the influence of this atmosphere of scientific thought upon the most eminent contemporary Christian scholars, see the Christus Comprobator, by the Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, London, 1893, and the article in the Contemporary Review for May, 1892, by the Bishop of Colchester, passim. For some less known examples of sacred myths and legends inherited from ancient civilizations, see Lenormant, Les Origines de l’Histoire, passim, but especially chaps. ii, iv, v, vi; see also Goldziher.

If, then, modern science in general has acted powerfully to dissolve away the theories and dogmas of the older theologic interpretation, it has also been active in a reconstruction and recrystallization of truth; and very powerful in this reconstruction have been the evolution doctrines which have grown out of the thought and work of men like Darwin and Spencer.

In the light thus obtained the sacred text has been transformed: out of the old chaos has come order; out of the old welter of hopelessly conflicting statements in religion and morals has come, in obedience to this new conception of development, the idea of a sacred literature which mirrors the most striking evolution of morals and religion in the history of our race. Of all the sacred writings of the world, it shows us our own as the most beautiful and the most precious; exhibiting to us the most complete religious development to which humanity has attained, and holding before us the loftiest ideals which our race has known. Thus it is that, with the keys furnished by this new race of biblical scholars, the way has been opened to treasures of thought which have been inaccessible to theologians for two thousand years.

As to the Divine Power in the universe: these interpreters have shown how, beginning with the tribal god of the Hebrews—one among many jealous, fitful, unseen, local sovereigns of Asia Minor—the higher races have been borne on to the idea of the just Ruler of the whole earth, as revealed by the later and greater prophets of Israel, and finally to the belief in the Universal Father, as best revealed in the New Testament. As to man: beginning with men after Jehovah’s own heart—cruel, treacherous, revengeful—we are borne on to an ideal of men who do right for right’s sake; who search and speak the truth for truth’s sake; who love others as themselves. As to the world at large: the races dominant in religion and morals have been lifted from the idea of a "chosen people" stimulated and abetted by their tribal god in every sort of cruelty and injustice, to the conception of a vast community in which the fatherhood of God overarches all, and the brotherhood of man permeates all.

Thus, at last, out of the old conception of our Bible as a collection of oracles—a mass of entangling utterances, fruitful in wrangling interpretations, which have given to the world long and weary ages of "hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness"; of fetichism, subtlety, and pomp; of tyranny bloodshed, and solemnly constituted imposture; of everything which the Lord Jesus Christ most abhorred—has been gradually developed through the centuries, by the labours, sacrifices, and even the martyrdom of a long succession of men of God, the conception of it as a sacred literature—a growth only possible under that divine light which the various orbs of science have done so much to bring into the mind and heart and soul of man—a revelation, not of the Fall of Man, but of the Ascent of Man—an exposition, not of temporary dogmas and observances, but of the Eternal Law of Righteousness—the one upward path for individuals and for nations. No longer an oracle, good for the "lower orders" to accept, but to be quietly sneered at by "the enlightened"—no longer a fetich, whose defenders must be persecuters, or reconcilers, or "apologists"; but a most fruitful fact, which religion and science may accept as a source of strength to both.


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Chicago: Andrew Dickson White, "VI. Reconstructive Force of Scientific Criticism.," History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom, trans. Benson, Vincent in History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom Original Sources, accessed July 20, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DAHYP5UH4BRGHUY.

MLA: White, Andrew Dickson. "VI. Reconstructive Force of Scientific Criticism." History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom, translted by Benson, Vincent, in History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom, Original Sources. 20 Jul. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DAHYP5UH4BRGHUY.

Harvard: White, AD, 'VI. Reconstructive Force of Scientific Criticism.' in History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom, trans. . cited in , History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom. Original Sources, retrieved 20 July 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DAHYP5UH4BRGHUY.