Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Baconian Compromise

When we hear the term compromise, we feel one side or the other loses something important. This may or may not be true. Compromise is often a gain for both sides. Francis Bacon (1561-1627), one of the earliest scientists to describe scripture and the natural world as two revelations from the same Creator (the “two books” doctrine), was also one of the first to propose a compromise between those who believe scripture interpretations dominate over the findings of science and those who propose the opposite.

Bacon viewed God’s works as “a key” to understanding God’s word. But he did not believe man's interpretations of the words of scripture should regulate our understanding of nature. Theologians of the time insisted the earth was at the center of the universe and that heavenly bodies revolved around it. The poetic imagery of Psalm 93:1 was interpreted to mean the earth was fixed and unmoveable. As the scientific revolution progressed, the relationship of science and religion changed. The findings of science provided clarity for the meaning of scripture.

The Baconian compromise was still in effect in the nascent days of the science of geology--the early part of the 19th century. Challenges to the compromise appeared with the recognition by many geologists that the earth and its fossil remains were of great age and that a recent globe-covering flood did not really happen. Mainstream geologists became autonomous in deciphering nature’s record.

“Scriptural geologists” felt competent to interpret earth history from the Book of Genesis alone. Their professional expertise and experience ranged from theology to linguistics, logic, and history. Their expertise did not include much science or, in particular, geology. As the influence of Darwin’s theory of evolution, the secularization of higher education, and other significant changes in the post-Civil War period developed, defenders of the centuries-past literal biblical interpretations feared negative social and spiritual consequences.

In the decades following the Civil War, concerns about evolution were more significant than either the age of the earth or flood geology. Belief in molecules to man evolution, after all, was seen as a more serious threat to a Christian belief system than disagreements about earth’s antiquity or the occurrence of a recent flood. In our last half-century, however, promotion of a singular view of Genesis interpretation, belief in a young earth, flood geology, and no death before the fall, have been totally woven together as a fabric by members of the young earth creationism community. An outcome of acceptance of old earth, they say, is a slide toward belief in evolution resulting in all manner of social and moral evil.

Compromise between creationist believers of different persuasions in our day is difficult to achieve. In spite of calm and reasoned appeals, some discussions result in suspicion and misunderstanding. One ongoing purpose of this blog is to understand the history of this topic and its dynamics in depth. Where have we been? How did we get here? How do we resolve our conflicting beliefs? Are mainstream science and scripture really at odds? Our young people and the secular world are listening to this discussion. They await a harmonious resolution.