Old-Time Religion and the New Physics
many who had not previously been interested in the fundamentalist
movement, the current Creation-Evolution conflict has served as an
introduction to the polemical tactics of the extreme right wing of
born-again Christianity. And such late-in-the-day acquaintance with
fundamentalist apologetics is rather unfortunate, since in the long
“history of the warfare of science with theology" chronicled by Andrew
D. White, some of the most interesting campaigns have been waged by the
fundamentalists. Now secular scientists and other evolutionists
including, significantly, large numbers of evangelical Christians about
whom more will be said presently, find themselves on the defensive
against these same zealots. The wise strategist better equips himself
for the struggle by familiarizing himself with other battles his enemy
has fought. The present article will attempt to meet this need by
drawing attention to another current attempt by fundamentalists to bend
scientific research to their own purposes. In the process, the general
outlines of their "scientific" propaganda program will become clear, as
will the role in the whole picture of the Creationist offensive.
Creationism' s twin is the endeavor to vindicate fundamentalist
supernaturalism by appealing to the new physics.
A Sliding Scale
apologists to appeal to modern physics to substantiate their faith
implies that they accept modern physics. This may seem odd to
outsiders who have followed the debate over evolution. Why does the
biblicist reject modern biology but embrace modern physics, when the
former would seem to be as well founded evidentially and
methodologically as the latter? H. Richard Niebuhr supplies our answer:
As a churchman the question
about the value of science becomes for him the question about its value
in relation to the church. . . . How are scientific beliefs related to
the creed? . . . If science is out of harmony with the creed it may
still be regarded as an errant child that will eventually mend its ways.
When its theories can be used for the support of the creed and the
church it may be valued not as sinner but as saint. (Radical
Monotheism and Western Culture, p. 83)
Writing before the current
Creation-Evolution debate, Niebuhr nevertheless described with deadly
accuracy the dubious stance of fundamentalists vis-a-vis science.
The criterion for a given hypothesis’s acceptability is not its inherent
cogency but rather its positive or negative value for the evangelistic
arsenal. The biblicist is already convinced of the truth of his
inherited faith, so the truest scientific theory must be the one which
comports best with it. And physics seems to fit, whereas evolution does
Yet an even more
interesting explanation of the seemingly inconsistent attitude of
fundamentalist apologists toward science lies in what might be called
“the sliding scale of biblical inerrancy.” On issue after issue,
biblicists have maintained the literal "scientific" truth of biblical
statements on cosmology, chronology, etc., until the massive
preponderance of evidence (and, one suspects, public opinion) made it
impossible any longer to dismiss the results of scientific research.
Then, with a sudden about-face, apologists claim that the Bible has not
been shown to be in error, but that science has merely corrected our
exegesis of what the literal sense of the Bible was trying to tell us
all along! Charles Hodge, one of the framers of the modern doctrine of
biblical inerrancy wrote:
If geologists finally prove
that it [the earth] has existed for myriads of ages, it will be found
that the first chapter of Genesis is in full accord with the facts, and
that the last results of science are embodied on the first page of the
Bible. (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 171)
The clear implication is
that the Bible, like an obedient ventriloquist dummy, would be made to
parrot any inevitably conclusive scientific results. In other
words, the apologists begin affirming that the Bible, not upstart
science, tells us about the world. But, maintaining the pretense, they
finish up tacitly admitting that science, not the literal sense
of the Bible, tells us about the world. Exegesis must await scientific
results which, however, it will never acknowledge. What we have here is
a kind of hermeneutical ventriloquism.
Even more ironic than this
"if you can't beat 'em join 'em but pretend you beat 'em” attitude, is
the chutzpah that even dares to read scientific results into the
text and then use this alleged "anticipation of modern science” as a
proof for the divine inspiration of the Bible. Among countless examples
of this effrontery one might consult the chapter "Modern Science in an
Ancient Book" in Harry Rimmer's The Harmony of Science and Scripture.
For instance, apologists have claimed that wireless telegraphy is
predicted in Job 38:35, "Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go,
and say unto thee, ‘Here we are’?"
Jesus is imagined to have
implied the sphericity of the earth in his reference to the end of the
world: "On that night two men will be in one bed; one will be taken and
the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together, one will be
taken and the other left" (Luke 17:34-35). This is supposed to mean that
it will be night and day simultaneously, on different sides of the
globe. Yet obviously they are merely two illustrations of what may
happen, since "no one knows the day nor the hour" (Mark l3:32).
One of the most recent, and
most humorous, instances of this sort of thing is the claim of Tim
LaHaye of the Moral Majority that Proverbs 5:18-19 anticipated the
results of Masters and Johnson's research on the importance of sexual
foreplay (The Act of Marriage, p. 17).
To those familiar with
other aspects of fundamentalist propaganda, all this may seem oddly
reminiscent of the claims of Hal Lindsey and other Dispensationalist
seers who, hearing the latest news on Iran or Israel, run to the book
of, say, Habakkuk to dredge up quickie "prophetic predictions" of the
events. One must ask why, if the Bible had predicted it all along, did
we hear of it from Walter Cronkite before Hal Lindsey?
But an even more striking
parallel is to the claim of Erich von Däniken, Josef Blumrich and others
that "God drives a flying saucer." These eccentrics scour the Bible (as
well as other ancient materials) for "anticipations of modern science"
such as iron pillars that never rust, crystal skulls, hieroglyphic
space-suits, and of course Moses' radio-receiver (Von Däniken,
Chariots of the Gods? p. 40) and Ezekiel's space vehicles (Blumrich,
The Spaceships of Ezekiel; Von Däniken, pp. 35-39). Only the UFO
cultists see something that the fundamentalists do not: real evidence of
advanced science in ancient sources would be evidence not for
divine inspiration but for surprisingly advanced technology, whether
possessed by ancient cultures in their own right, or by visitors from
the Starship Enterprise.
So much for the efforts to
co-opt modern science. We must ask why fundamentalists are not content
similarly to accept the theory of evolution, and then to make
opportunistic use of it. Instead they fight this battle on
debating platforms and in legislative halls. The reason for this
discrepancy is that fundamentalists do wish to defend the plain
literal reading of the text and will give it up only as a last resort.
Those fighting under the banner of "Scientific Creationism" do not yet
realize that the battle for the Six Days and the fixity of species has
been lost. As a result they are free to see the conflict between Darwin
and Genesis literally read, whereas the long-lostness of other battles
actually prevents them from even seeing the disparity between Copernicus
or Columbus and the literal sense of the Bible. They would react
defensively if anyone pointed out that Genesis One literally describes a
flat earth floating on an ocean below a solid dome.
Those who can see which way
the present battle is going have suddenly "realized" that Genesis really
meant to teach "punctuated" or "progressive" creationism. Though species
are still fixed, either the Six Days were very long ones or there were
ages between each day, sort of a milder version of the "Gap Theory" of
C. I. Scofield and, later, R. B. Thieme, whereby dinosaurs are consigned
to a preliminary creation read in between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2,
and destroyed at the time of Satan’s revolt! (Thieme, Creation, Chaos
and Restoration; New Scofield Reference Bible, pp. 1,
It is important to indicate
at this juncture that the wild implausibilities we have considered here
are not entailed by the espousal of "theistic evolutionism" by
evangelical Christians such as the members of the American Scientific
Affiliation. Many of these people have distanced themselves from strict
fundamentalism (what Bernard Ramm calls "hyper-orthodoxy"). They believe
in biblical authority in theology, but they are at liberty to recognize
in the biblical text the presence of various genres of ancient
literature. They are not compelled by a wooden biblicism to read Genesis
One as a blow-by-blow description of the origin of the earth. So far as
they are concerned, the "how" of God 1 s creation is a question to be
settled by scientific research, not by exegesis. The evidence in favor
of the theory of evolution leads them to conclude that evolution was
the" secondary cause" employed by God.
Of course there is still
the problem that evolution's process of chance mutation and
environmental selection is inherently non-teleological, whereas
"theistic" evolution implies just such teleology. Yet this is no new
problem. There are still various non-religious proponents of "vitalism,”
"finalism," or teleological evolution (see George Gaylord Simpson,
The Meaning of Evolution, pp. 107-113). Besides, the apparently
random process of evolution might be seen by evangelicals as simply one
more aspect of the "theodicy" problem recognized by all honest
Christians (e.g., Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil), i.e.,
how are the apparent chaos and carnage in the world reconcilable with
the "teleology" of God’s loving providence?
At any rate, it should be
clear that evangelical evolutionists are guilty neither of any inherent
contradiction in their position, nor of the intellectual dishonesty of
the fundamentalist "Scientific Creationists."
Having outlined the
rationale whereby some aspects of modern science are opportunistically
affirmed while others are stubbornly denied, we will, as promised, move
on to detail some of the ironies implicit in the latest attempt to
co-opt modern science, in this case subatomic physics, for
fundamentalist apologetics. This appeal has taken three principal
forms. First, certain apologists have tried to identify the strong
nuclear force binding protons together in the nucleus by reference to
Colossians 1:17. In one of his earlier cartoon pamphlets, polemicist
Jack Chick writes,
The protons have positive
charges. One law of electricity is that-like charges repel each
other! Being that all of the protons in the nucleus are positively
charged - they should repel each other and scatter into space. What
holds them together? . . . It says that Christ, the Creator, "was
before all things, and by him all things are held together"
Colossians 1:1 (Big Daddy? n.p.)
It might seem unfair to
adduce a cartoon by extremist Jack Check in order to represent
fundamentalist opinion, but the same line of thought also occurs in D.
Lee Chesnut's The Atom Speaks, published by none other than the
Creation-Science Research Center in San Diego .
After a statement of the
problem similar to Chick's, Chesnut concludes:
And so the Scriptures
themselves, here in Colossians 1:17, recognize and tell us that the Son
of God is administering the law or laws required to hold all things
together, a condition that we now find accentuated by discovery of the
colossal binding force now known to be within the nucleus of the atom.
Chesnut sees the evidence
of a divine planner in what seems to him the incomprehensible
complexity of nuclear physics:
We have seen that the laws
underlying nuclear science defy all attempts at rationalization; they
can be interpreted only as evidence of a great predetermination that
this was the way all things were to be made. (p. 144)
We have already discussed
sufficiently the hoax, displayed again here, that modern science is
miraculously intimated in the Bible. But there is an even more striking
feature of this particular example. The argument of Chick and Chesnut
reveals not only a woefully poor grasp of science, but also a
surprisingly lame theology. Several years ago, martyred theologian
Dietrich Bonhoeffer had warned of the dangers of such a Deus ex
Machina concept of God as one more link in the chain of this-worldly
cause-and-effect. He remarked on
how wrong it is to use God
as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. For the frontiers
of knowledge are inevitably being pushed back further and further, which
means that you only think of God as a stop-gap. He also is being pushed
back further and further, and is in more or less continuous retreat. (Letters
and Papers from Prison, p. 190)
In such a schema, God
sooner or later finds himself losing his job to automation, as Robert
F. Streetman has imaginatively put it. Of course by and large most
theologians of whatever stripe now repudiate this "god-of-the-gaps"
Anyone familiar with
theological discussion is amazed to find such a view still alive and
well in "Scientific Creationist" literature. A second use to which
contemporary subatomic physics is put by fundamentalist apologists
concerns the vindication of the doctrine of the Trinity. In this regard,
Chesnut finds helpful the analogy between God as "three persons, yet one
essence" on the one hand, and "the three basic particles of matter:
an electron, a neutron, and
a proton.... With respect to their electrical condition, they exhibit a
family relationship, yet each is different.... These three entities are,
nevertheless, actually different forms of the same substance - energy.
Furthermore, brought together in the right relationship, these three
particles while still retaining their individual identities, form a new
identity, an atom of a chemical element." (p. 119)
John Warwick Montgomery
takes a slightly different approach:
A close analogy to the
theologian's procedure here lies in the work of the theoretical
physicist: Subatomic entities are found, on examination, to possess
wave properties (W), particle properties (P), and quantum properties
(h). Though these characteristics are in many respects incompatible
(particles don't diffract, while waves do, etc.), physicists "explain"
or "model" an electron as PWh. They have to do this in order to give
proper weight to all the relevant data. Likewise the theologian who
speaks of God as "Three in One." (Spectrum of Protestant Beliefs,
Finally, Werner Schaaffs
echoes the belief that "The Trinity 'God, Jesus, Holy Spirit' appears to
be reflected in the triad ‘energy, corpuscle, wave.’" (Theology,
Physics, and Miracles, p. 82) The trouble with such analogies (which
incidentally seem reminiscent of the efforts of medieval Catholic
apologists to demonstrate the Trinity from various instances of "three-ness"
in nature) is that they tend logically to argue for views which from the
apologists' own viewpoints must seem heretical! For instance, Chesnut's
analogies seem to vacillate between "modalism" (the doctrine that
Father, Son, and Spirit are merely three "forms" or "modes" in which the
divinity is externally expressed, rather than being three distinct
personal centers) and a denial of the full divinity of any of the three
persons (since only together do Father, Son, and Spirit constitute the
implied "new identity" of "God"). Likewise, Montgomery would seem to be
arguing (though not intentionally) for a form of "economic
trinitarianism,” i.e., God only appears to be three, but is inherently
either unitarian or unknowable. Real trinitarianism, by contrast,
affirms that "We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity,
neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance" (Athanasian
Third and finally, we come
to the most remarkable irony of all, the attempt to vindicate
supernaturalism by appealing to the indeterminacy principle of
Heisenberg. Schaaffs suggests that:
The new causality
principle, manifested most clearly in the uncertainty relation, endows
the statistical picture of physics... with significance far surpassing
the bounds of physics and is helpful to theology. As we indicated, it
is possible through statistics to interpret rare events, deemed
miraculous, as being fully consistent with natural law.... Physics
cannot rule out, and must in fact accept, the possibility that a good
force (God) or an evil force (the Devil) intervenes to provoke an atomic
reaction without in any sense doing violence to natural law. (Theology,
Physics, and Miracles, pp. 65-66)
John Warwick Montgomery
takes similar delight in what he takes to be the death-knell of
For us, unlike people of
the Newtonian epoch, the universe is no longer a tight, safe,
predictable playing field in which we know all the rules. Since
Einstein, no modern has had the right to rule out the possibility of
events because of prior knowledge of “natural law.” ... No historian
has a right to [believe in] a closed system of natural causation, for as
the Cornell logician Max Black has shown . . . the very concept of cause
is “a peculiar, unsystematic, and erratic notion,” and therefore “any
attempt to state a 'universal law of causation’ must prove futile.” (Where
is History Going? p. 71)
So, the apologists contend,
no one need feel ashamed to recognize the occurrence of paranormal and
extraordinary events, as if they implied some superstitious belief in
magic, for now “miracles" can be rendered plausible since anything is as
possible as anything else! The fundamentalists Schaaffs and Montgomery
have sold their birthright for a mess of naturalistic pottage. Biblical
“miracles” are rendered "believable" or "probable" precisely by being
rendered non-miraculous! By discarding the notion of calculable
causality they have suggested in effect that odd events may “pop up”
randomly, on their own. The apologist needs the very system of causation
he has discarded in order to show that apparently caused events are
actually divinely caused, that natural causes alone cannot
account for, e. g., the empty tomb of Christ. Instead, to make sense of
the evidence of Easter Morning, one must posit divine intervention,
divine causation--God raised Jesus from the dead. Basically then, any
argument from miracles assumes the validity of causality but argues that
some important causes (divine ones) being ignored by naturalists, are
necessary for an adequate explanation of reality. Actually, this latter
is precisely the way in which Montgomery and company argue for
the resurrection elsewhere (e.g., History & Christianity, pp.
72-78). They just do not see that the argument from physics against
causality subverts such arguments completely.
In fact if one were to
approach the issue of Jesus' resurrection on the grounds provided by the
appeal to the new physics, one would end up arguing that it is quite
probable (at least plausible) that Jesus came back to life, but that
this must have been a freak accident, proving absolutely nothing about
Jesus' divine mission or his relation to God. The strategy is that of
getting the unbeliever to accept the narrative at face value at any
cost, even if the whole point of the gospel writers (God's miraculous
intervention) is rendered superfluous. And, ironically, exactly the same
logic was the genesis of the “swoon Theory” of the resurrection
advocated by naturalistic rationalists like Paulus
And Venturini. Unlike the
fundamentalists, these men intentionally rejected explanations involving
the intervention of divine causation, yet were concerned to "save the
appearances" in the resurrection narratives. Yes, Jesus was
crucified and buried, and he did appear after three days to his
miracles are out of the question, so he must have merely swooned on the
cross, revived in the tomb's cool air, and staggered back into Jerusalem
to meet his followers, back from the tomb, but not from the dead.
Fundamentalists universally reject the swoon theory, yet the argument
from physics against causality would logically tend to result in the
same kind of reasoning.
Schaaffs and Montgomery
show their real concern is with the inerrant accuracy of the biblical
text, not with the beliefs and values taught therein. (The interested
reader may find very helpful discussions of the fundamentalist tendency
unwittingly to evacuate the text of the miraculous in order to “defend"
its accuracy, in chapter 3 of Van A. Harvey's The Historian and the
Believer, and chapter 8 of James Barr’s Fundamentalism.)
In closing, we may ask what
can possibly motivate the kind of blatant axe-grinding and special
pleading we have observed here, as well as in the Creationist assault on
evolution. Fundamentalists say they love the truth, yet they seem to be
guilty of the worst kind of intellectual dishonesty. The trouble arises
from the fact that fundamentalists see the truth as something already
possessed (a “faith delivered once-and-for-all to the saints” (Jude 3),
rather than something to be pursued. Apologist Francis Schaeffer issues
this challenge to his followers:
The truth of
Christianity is that it is true to what is there.
You can go to the end of
the world and you need never be afraid, like the ancients, that you will
fall off the end and the dragons will eat you up. You can carry out your
intellectual discussion to the end of the game, because Christianity is
not only true to the dogma, it is not only true to what God has said in
the Bible, but it is also true to what is there, and you will never fall
off the end of the world! (He is There and He is Not Silent, p.
With this striking
metaphor, Schaeffer means to assure his readers in advance that all the
evidence will be found to agree with the evangelical, biblicist view of
things. The fundamentalist can count on never having to change his mind.
What wonder that this assurance becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as
the biblicist runs up against evidence that does not easily comport
with his view. It will be made to do so, or to seem to do so. Either it
will be denied in the name of the biblical text (d. the Creationist
attack on evolution), or it will be ventriloquistically co-opted (as in
the case of the new physics). Not only is such a doctrinaire stance out
of the question for scientists but it is also surely alien to the
sentiments of the Apostle Paul who was humble and honest enough to admit
that "now we see through a glass darkly... now 1 know in part" (1
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Robert M. Price