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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

The Bible and the Natural World

During the seventeenth century the understanding of the universe, of the nature of matter, and consequently of the manner in which the creative power of God had originated and continued to sustain the world had all been subjected to major reappraisal. The work of Isaac Newton had transformed the understanding of the physical universe in a fundamental way. This necessarily called for a serious rethinking of the way in which the teaching of the Bible could be harmonized with this new knowledge, if its position as the primary foundation document for intelligent religious discussion were to be maintained. Newtonian physics was establishing a coherent picture of an ordered universe in which reasoned observation could trace the interconnections and interactions of its varied parts. Heaven and earth formed one world in which a harmonious order prevailed. The ‘hand of God’ which maintained a providential control over all things visible and invisible was seen to be a ‘hand’ that conformed to recognizable laws. Human beings could observe, quantify, and define what these laws were.

As an expression of this belief in ‘the laws of nature’, the experimental methods of Robert Boyle (1627–91) had demonstrated ways in which the operation and effects of such laws could be examined. Such experiments in physics and chemistry were bringing about a transformation of human understanding of the natural world. Arguments for the existence of God, and evidence of the divine control over human life and destiny, could themselves now be constructed on the basis of recognition of this orderliness. Order, with its openness to scientific demonstration in natural laws, pointed to the controlling hand of a Divine Designer. It was arguable that the very foundations of science took their origin in the religious belief in this supreme Divine Architect.

In this context the traditional religious reports of miracles became puzzling witnesses to aberrations from the given order which demanded explanation. They represented a break in the coherence of all things which God had established at creation. So the concept of nature, and of a world order governed by natural laws, began to form the primary testimony to the divine origin and purpose of all things. Natural revelation appeared a surer guide to the reality of God than the special revelation contained in the Bible. What was needed was an interpretation of the latter which showed it to be in harmony with the former.

A series of lectures founded by Robert Boyle and delivered between 1692 and 1732 addressed these issues: A Defence of Natural and Revealed Religion. Their overall aim was symptomatic of the desire for a new path of biblical interpretation. William Whiston's eight sermons of 1707, The Accomplishment of Scripture Prophecies, and Thomas Burnett's sixteen sermons of 1724–5 reflected the new scientific cosmology that was emerging. Burnett's title was The Demonstration of True Religion in a Chain of Consequences from Certain and Undeniable Principles.

There was clearly need to show how the reported miracles of the Bible could be shown to be compatible with the laws of nature, or at least be regarded as necessary departures from them. Had there been an age when the natural order had not conformed to its present orderly patterns, or were the biblical accounts of miracles merely literary perceptions and enlargements of natural events, the reporting of which required to be understood differently in the modern era? The stories of miracles, instead of forming incontrovertible evidence of the special providential interventions of God, became problematic. Their presence in the Bible relegated them to the margins of historical truth, at the same time making the real history of the Bible a more prominent focus of research.

In no small measure the understanding of biblical prophecy also demanded a comparable change. If the physical universe is an objective reality which is subject to certain observable laws, is not the course of events which occur within it subject to comparable laws? So the causes and consequences of historical events required to be researched and interpreted in a more scientific way. The matter was of importance to the popular understanding of the Bible, since the foretellings and fulfilments of prophecy provided the primary point of connection between the Old and New Testaments. The issues here also soon became adapted to a study of the historical events which provided a background to the biblical literature.

It is not surprising therefore to find that Thomas Sherlock's lectures, The Use and Intent of Prophecy in the Several Ages of the Church (1724), introduced a significant measure of openness between prophecy and its later fulfilment. Prophecy was seen to have two meanings—a literal one confined to the prophet's own understanding of the original prophecy and a fuller, spiritual one belonging to its God-intentioned fulfilment. Thereby a deterministic view of history was avoided and space was provided for an enlargement of prophetic hope in line with the traditional interpretation of a divine plan of redemption, progressively disclosed through a chain of prophets. The issue was of considerable importance, since, besides seeking to resolve the questions raised concerning the application of Old Testament prophecies to Jesus, it also challenged the Puritan tendency to regard the course of church history as secretly foretold, in coded fashion, in the books of Daniel and Revelation.

Hulton Getty.

More immediately pressing for biblical interpretation was the emerging awareness that the biblical evidence regarding the chronology of the prehistoric period of earth's existence posed difficulties. Isaac Newton had wrestled with the mathematical data, and Archbishop Ussher's contention that the original date of earth's creation was 4004 BCE, with Jesus himself having been born in 4 BCE, was increasingly cast into a realm of uncertainty. The issue was important, for it reflected directly on the status of the biblical evidence for the prehistory of the earth, and had wide-ranging implications for the compatibility of the data of biblical texts with scientific learning. Although the books of Genesis and Revelation were most directly affected, the very status of revealed knowledge, embodied in biblical data, was at issue, and with it the whole question of the Bible's authority as a source of truth. With it, too, went a far-reaching shift in the understanding of time, since belief in a predetermined pattern of millenia, before and after the birth of the Messiah, provided a popular portrayal of the expected age of the universe.

Trustees of the British Museum.

The publication in 1830 of Sir Charles Lyell's The Principles of Geology marked a watershed in the attempts to maintain a reasoned compatibility between biblical interpretation and the natural sciences. In spite of his retention of belief in specific acts of divine creation for every species of animal life, Lyell's researches showed that the earth was, on geological evidence, of immensely greater antiquity than had previously been accepted. Even the most strained interpretative constructions placed upon the assertions of the book of Genesis, such as the claim that the biblical ‘days’ of creation could be understood as longer periods, could scarcely be adapted to the new perspective.

By permission of the British Library.

Accordingly, even before Charles Darwin's publication of The Origin of Species (1859), the presence of fossil remains in rock formations had shown that the age of the universe was greater than a simple biblical chronology could sustain. The order of the natural world which had appeared to William Paley (1743–1805) to speak so eloquently of their Great Designer, was now seen as an order that had undergone immense changes. The geology of the earth, including its puzzling evidence of the fossil remains of long-extinct species, revealed that the earth and its inhabitants do not form a static and uniform reality. Belief in the simultaneous creation of all species, and their providentially arranged interdependence, was increasingly seen as requiring substantial modification. Order and design, which held distinct forms of life in a measure of equilibrium, could now be seen as the result of a long process of interaction, accomplished through an extended period of time. Darwin's thesis regarding the evolutionary origin of species through a prolonged series of separations was the final bombshell that altered forever the traditional assumption that science and biblical testimony could sit comfortably side by side.

Yet much of the difficulty lay with the very confidence that had previously insisted that the perceptions of the natural world contained in the Bible, regarding its history and workings, were to be accorded the same status as were now given to the conclusions of scientific observation and experiment. Since it was already a commonplace recognition of theology that the biblical writers had conveyed their messages and ideas through senses like our own, based on modes of understanding current at the time, the sharpness of the conflict that arose over Charles Darwin's thesis might have been ameliorated.

Already by the middle of the eighteenth century the classical scholar C. G. Heyne (1729–1812) had introduced the term ‘myth’, drawn from its ancient Greek context, to describe the many Greek and Roman tales of visitations of gods among humankind and of fabulous beasts and journeyings. By the end of the century the German theologian J. S. Semler (1725–91) had applied the concept to some of the biblical material, and this was carried further by J. G. Eichhorn (1752–1827) in an effort to classify the categories and nature of the biblical writings. Eichhorn's major work on the subject consisted of three volumes entitled Die Urgeschichte, published in 1790–3.

By permission of the archives of Imperial College of Science, Technology & Medicine, London.

During the following century the term gained wide currency as a description of certain biblical stories, and Eichhorn's work was popularized and developed in England by S. T. Coleridge (1772–1834). In the theological writings of G. L. Baur (1755–1806) and J. S. Vater (1771–1826) it was employed as a classification for the entire world-view reflected in the earliest biblical books. For them the Bible's own central story bore an essentially mythological character. By the end of the century the mythological aspect of features in Genesis, Daniel, and Revelation was widely accepted.

Yet, in spite of its usefulness in classifying certain types of biblical story, the term ‘myth’ remained clouded and problematic for biblical interpretation throughout the nineteenth century. Most of the reason for this lies in the central attention during this period to issues of formal history and historical factuality. In such a perspective myth became widely and popularly used to refer to the unhistorical, or marginally historical, elements of the biblical literature. Therefore it was reflected in stories and narratives which were less amenable to the historian and, as such, was regarded with suspicion.

Consequently it was left to the twentieth century to attempt a less harsh, and less negatively conceived, contrast between myth and history, but by this time much confusion had arisen and it proved difficult to restore to the term any significant degree of clarity or usefulness. Nevertheless, it was in a desire to return to the claim that the entire world-view of the Bible must be regarded as pre-scientific, and incompatible with a modern understanding cognizant of contemporary scientific cosmology, that the term was revitalized, most notably by Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976). His programme of ‘demythologizing’ the New Testament narratives, publicized in the war-torn 1940s, represented a tour de force in attempting to discount the conflict between scientific knowledge and biblical perceptions of the natural world.

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