Old-Time Religion and the New Physics

Creation Evolution Journal
Title: 
Old-Time Religion and the New Physics
Author(s): 
Robert M. Price
Volume: 
3
Number: 
3
Year: 
1982
Quarter: 
Summer
Page(s): 
23–31
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

For 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. 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

For fundamentalist 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 biblical literalist 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)

- page 24 -

Writing before the current creation-evolution debate, Niebuhr nevertheless described with deadly accuracy the dubious stance of fundamentalists vis-�-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 not.

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, and so forth, 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 proved 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. 1, 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 by admitting that science not the literal sense of the Bible tells us about the world. Exegesis must await scientific results, which, nonetheless, 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 people 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, that is, on different sides of the globe.

- page 25 -

Yet, obviously, they are merely two illustrations of what may happen, since "no one knows the day nor the hour" (Mark 13:32). 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, if the Bible had predicted it all along, why did we hear of it from Walter Cronkite before Hal Lindsey? But an even more striking parallel is to the claim of Erich von Daniken, 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 spacesuits, and, of course, Moses' radio-receiver (Von Daniken, Chariots of the Gods?, p. 40) and Ezekiel's space vehicles (Blumrich, The Spaceships of Ezekiel; Von Daniken, Chariots of the Gods?, pp. 35-39). Only the UFO cultists see something that the fundamentalists do not: that 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 1 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 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, p. 1, 752-753).

- page 26 -

It is important to indicate at this juncture that the wild implausibilities we have considered here are not entailed by the espousal of "theistic evolution" by evangelical Christians such as 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 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 1 as a blow-by-blow description of the origin of the earth. So far as they are concerned, the "how" of God's creation is a question to be settled by scientific research, not by exegesis. The evidence in favor 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 nonteleological, whereas "theistic" evolution implies just such teleology. Yet this is no new problem. There are still various nonreligious 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 (for example, Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil)—that is, how are the apparent chaos and carnage in the world reconcilable with the "teleology" of God's loving providence? It should be clear that evangelical evolutionists are not guilty, either of any inherent contradiction in their position or of the intellectual dishonesty of the fundamentalist "scientific creationists."

Subatomic Apologetics

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 1:17. (Big Daddy? n.p.).

- page 27 -

It might seem unfair to cite a cartoon by Jack Chick 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 (1973). 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. (p. 38)

Chesnut sees the evidence of a divine planner in what seems to him the incomprehensible complexity of nuclear physics:

We have seen 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" position. 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.

- page 28 -

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, pp. 20-21)

Finally, Werner Schaafs 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"—that is, 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 Creed).

Third and final, 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)

- page 29 -

John Warwick Montgomery takes similar delight in what he takes to be the death-knell of deterministic cause-and-effect:

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 nonmiraculous! 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 uncaused events are actually divinely caused, that natural causes alone cannot account for, for example, 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 (for example, 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, then, 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 fundamentalist, these men intentionally rejected explanations involving the intervention of divine causation, yet were concerned to "save the appearances" in the resurrection narratives.

- page 30 -

Yes, Jesus was crucified and buried, and he did appear after three days to his disciples—yet 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 back 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 that 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 the discussions of the fundamentalist tendency unwittingly to evacuate the text of the miraculous in order to "defend" its accuracy found in chapter three of Van Harvey's The Historian and the Believer and chapter eight of James Barr's Fundamentalism.)

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

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 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. 17)

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 (cf. 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 I know in part" (I Corinthians 13:12).

- page 31 -

Bibliography

Barr, James. 1978. Fundamentalism. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Blumrich, Josef F. 1974. The Spaceships of Ezekiel. New York: Bantam Books.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1968. Letters and Papers from Prison. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Campbell, Robert (ed.) 1968. Spectrum of Protestant Beliefs. Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company.

Chesnut, D. Lee. 1973. The Atom Speaks. San Diego: The Creation-Science Research Center.

Chick, Jack T. 1972. Big Daddy? Chino, CA: Check Publications.

Harvey, Van A. 1972. The Historian and the Believer. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Hodge, Charles. 1872. Systematic Theology, Vol. 1. New York: Scribner, Armstrong, and Company.

LaHaye, Tim and Beverly. 1976. The Act of Marriage. Grand Rapids: The Zondervan Publishing House.

Montgomery, John Warwick. 1974. History & Christianity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
——. 1972. Where Is History Going? Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, Inc.

New Scofield Reference Bible. 1967. New York: Oxford University Press.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. 1970. Radical Monotheism and Western Culture. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Plantinga, Alvin. 1974. God, Freedom, and Evil. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Ramm, Bernard. 1974. The Christian View of Science and Scripture. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Rimmer, Henry. 1973. The Harmony of Science and Scripture. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Schaaffs, Werner. 1974. Theology, Physics, and Miracles. Washington, DC: Canon Press.

Schaeffer, Francis A. 1972. He Is There and He Is Not Silent. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

Simpson, George Gaylord. 1958. The Meaning of Evolution. New York: New American Library.

Thieme, R. B. 1973. Creation, Chaos, and Restoration. Houston: Berachah Church.

Von Daniken, Erich. 1972. Chariots of the Gods? New York: Bantam Books.

White, Andrew D. 1955. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology. New York: George Braziller.

About the Author(s): 

Robert Price teaches ethics and philosophy at Bergen Community College, has a Ph.D. in theological and religious studies from Drew University, and has authored a number of articles on religious and philosophical issues.

Copyright 1982 by Robert M. Price