International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective

edited by David N. Livingstone , D.G. Hart , Mark A. Noll

Introductory Essay by Ernan McMullin

The most visible sign of tension today between science and religion (to use two dangerously imprecise terms) is assuredly the rejection of the broadly Darwinian account of evolution by substantial numbers of Christians and, to a growing extent, Muslims. In the U.S., up to one third of the adult population is reputed to find an evolutionary account of origins unacceptable to them as Christians, even though it is fundamental to a great part of contemporary science. As Christians, they are customarily said to belong to the “evangelical” side of contemporary Protestantism. So it might seem, then, that the evangelical tradition might be one of reserve, even of hostility, where the sciences are concerned. The essays in this book set out, however, to show just how far from straightforward the history of that issue has been for evangelicalism in the English-speaking world, how much dependent on contingencies of time and place and how much an extrinsic concern for the links between science and society rather than an intrinsic concern for specifically scientific doctrines.

Conventionally, evangelicalism itself is taken to date back to the Protestant revivalist movements of the eighteenth century associated with the Methodist and Baptist churches in particular. Later, however, it came to be identified as a (relatively) distinct orientation within Protestant denominations generally, one which favours an emphasis on the “Scripture alone” theme of the original Protestant cause, the necessity of personal conversion, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, evangelical outreach, etc.

On the whole, evangelical pioneers such as John Wesley in Britain, Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards in America, viewed the new sciences of their day favourably: the Creation is God’s world and investigating it can show the glory of God’s handiwork. Attitudes towards natural theology were mixed, sometimes strongly positive on apologetic grounds, sometimes dismissive as a slight to the superior authority of the Bible. But the evangelical emphasis on the inerrancy of Scripture was challenged by the growth of the historical natural sciences, in the first instance by geology. By 1800, geological developments had called into question both the traditional view, based on biblical accounts, of the age of the earth and the effects of world-wide Flood. Many evangelicals adjusted and some indeed later became leading geologists. But some were reluctant to reinterpret the biblical texts in the light of the new evidence and turned instead to a “Scriptural geology” or later a “Flood geology”.

Evangelical opposition to the theory of evolution was prompted by biblical concerns, of course, but more significantly by an ever-widening array of concerns, social, political, moral, and philosophical. The appeal to “creation science” in the U.S. owed as much to the constraints of American constitutional law and to troubled perceptions of secularization as it did to the Bible. The broadly scientific turn taken by biblical criticism in the nineteenth century made for an early challenge in the domain of hermeneutics: ought devotion to the Bible lead one to co-operate or to resist? In our own day, acceptance of the Bible as the word of God sits uneasily with the pursuit of “religious studies” in the modern university. The tensions continue as do the efforts to deal with them. A group of perceptive historians tells a fascinating story, celebrating diversity and tenacity.