The Integral Coherence of Theology and Science

Some recent studies of theology in the nineteenth century give scant attention to natural theology and its changing course, as if the arguments of Hume and Kant had declared it dead. In fact, natural theology and the argument from design prospered, especially in Britain and North America. And the natural theologians perceived a basic coherence between their theology and science. William Paley's Natural Theology (1802) did live on well into the latter decades of the nineteenth century, though repeatedly, and often radically, transformed. Darwin himself found it difficult to shake Paley's influence. And its legacy runs like a thread through the history of Anglo-American theology from the natural theologies of the Bridgewater Treatises (1833-1836) to Henry Drummond's Natural Law in the Spiritual World (1883). What is significant is that the defenders of natural theology accepted the premise that all truth is one and in harmony, their inference being that science is the friend and handmaiden and, in some cases, the rule and norm of revealed theology. We can look at three theologians who, in different ways, illustrate this type of response.

The German theologian David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) illustrates how the authority and sway of science compelled a theologian to disavow revealed theology, in his case Christianity. Strauss was the author of the provocative but influential work The Life of Jesus (1835). The book tested the historical portrayals of Jesus in the New Testament and proposed a thoroughly mythical interpretation of most of these accounts. However, in Strauss' estimation, this did not disturb the Christian's faith in the union of God and humanity, which, he believed (with Hegel), was independent of historical criticism. The protests against the young Strauss's offensive views provoked the government to cancel his appointment as Professor of Dogmatics at Zurich in 1839. Financially secure, Strauss was able to leave academic life and become an independent scholar, free to pursue his theological views. He moved ever closer to pantheism, then to materialism, rejecting belief in a personal God. In his later writings, he measured all theological beliefs by the methods of investigation and the current hypotheses of natural science. He especially seized on Darwin's doctrine as the true direction for the future, since it had replaced all notions of divine teleology and a superintending providence with the natural processes and laws comprehended by science itself.

In his last work, The Old Faith and the New (1872), Strauss declared that the "only choice is between the miracle - the divine hand of the Creator - and Darwin."6 He had embraced a thoroughly progressive, materialistic monism, that is, a new faith in the promise of science itself.

Two theologians also selected to represent this type of response remained within the Christian community. Both, however, thought that natural science should not only serve as theology's handmaiden but also serve to confirm Christian revelation.

William Buckland (1784-1856) was an Anglican clergyman, professor of mineralogy and geology at Oxford, author of the Bridgewater Treatise Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (2 vols., 1836), and after 1845 the Dean of Westminster in London. In his massive, richly illustrated Geology and Mineralogy, Buckland sought to prove that the discoveries of science ratify the power and wisdom, hence the goodness, of God as manifested in the Creation. In volume 1, he concludes,

The Earth from her deep foundations unites the celestial orbs that roll through boundless space, to declare the glory and show forth the praise of their common Author and Preserver; and the voice of Natural Theology accords harmoniously with the testimonies of Revelation, in ascribing the origin of the Universe to the will of One, eternal, dominant Intelligence ... the supreme first cause of all things.7

In his effort to confirm biblical revelation through science, Buckland appealed to some risky evidence, including the claim that geological data supported the Genesis account of a universal Flood, as well as the early appearance of the human race, which claim he later had to withdraw. Buckland saw geology as revealing and confirming God's providential plan and goodness by storing the earth with those things that later would be necessary for humanity and its needs. He offered the example of the fortunate coal deposits in the newly industrialized midlands of England. Arguments such as these allowed Buckland, and other Bridgewater authors, to defend a theodicy that buttressed a conservative socioeconomic status quo. Such were the often veiled implications of this type of theological response to science.8

The British scientist and popular evangelical theologian Henry Drummond (1851-1897) offers a later example of a theology that presumes the integral coherence of theology and science. Drummond's understanding of this unity is set out in two books: Natural Law in the Spiritual World (1884), which during the first twenty-five years of publication sold half a million copies; and The Ascent of Man (1894). In his preface to the earlier work, Drummond clarifies his task as demonstrating that the "Laws of the Spiritual World" are identical to the "Laws of the Natural World." He does this by specifying those natural laws operative in the religious domain. And the key to this exhibit of "Nature in Religion" is what he calls "the Law of Continuity":

The Natural Laws, as the Law of Continuity might well warn us, do not stop with the visible and then give place to a new set of Laws bearing a strong similitude to them. The Laws of the invisible are the same laws, projections of the natural not supernatural. Analogous Phenomena are not the fruit of parallel Laws, but the same Laws - Laws which at one end, as it were, may be dealing with Matter, at the other end with Spirit.9

To Drummond, the great laws of theology simply "are the Laws of Nature in disguise." Hence, it is the task of theology "to take off the mask and disclose to a waning skepticism the naturalness of the supernatural,"10 since "as the Supernatural becomes slowly Natural, will also the Natural become slowly Supernatural."11

Drummond's Christian evolutionary eschatology and theodicy are spelled out in The Ascent of Man, where Darwin is embraced only to be transmuted. Drummond sees all living things as exhibiting two functions: nutrition, the basis of the evolutionary "Struggle for Life"; and reproduction, which he associates with the "Struggle for the Life of Others." The struggle for life can be justified since its "vigorous mood" weeds out the imperfect, without which all progress would be impossible. In Drummond's theodicy the "Struggle for the Life of Others" is, he believes, winning out over the "Struggle for Life," and it will eventuate in the coming of the altruistic Kingdom of Love. Drummond does not appear to perceive that his uniting of Darwin's pure naturalism - a Nature "red in tooth and claw" - with his own quasi-Christian eschatology might, due to their dissonance, perplex his Christian readers.

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