What role should tradition play when it comes to theology and biblical interpretation?
This is a significant question, and one that comes up quite often in discussions of the relationship between science (or other areas of study) and Christian faith. It isn’t a new question of course, but one that has played a role in Christian thinking for centuries. Is a new perspective wrong (whether on Paul or Genesis or something else) simply because it requires a change in thinking and biblical interpretation? What weight should we give to the various confessions, creeds, and statements of faith?
The answer isn’t to toss them all in the trash. Personally I find a great deal of value in the Apostle’s Creed. The scientific “fact” that the dead don’t rise has no impact on this creed and those who claim it does are missing the point. No one claims that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a natural event. And as a one-off that happened to a specific individual, the evidence for and against lies in its impact on others. It left no other residue in the record.
Other questions are not as easily resolved. Many feel threatened when new ideas challenge traditional positions and traditional interpretations. As we try to move forward today, it is useful to reflect on the past and to learn from mistakes and successes. David Livingstone, Professor of Geography and Intellectual History at Queen’s University, Belfast takes the opportunity in his new book Dealing With Darwin to explore the way place, politics and rhetoric influenced the reception of Darwin’s ideas in the late nineteenth century.
A “Heresy” Trial. One event Livingstone digs into is the rather sensational ouster of James Woodrow from his position at the Southern Presbyterian Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina in the 1880’s. “It was a grand spectacle, which at the time, made headline news. The New York Times, under the banner “Woodrow’s Heresy Trial”, reported that the “largest congregation so far of the General Assembly” gathered for the hearing.” (p. 117) . James Woodrow, uncle of Woodrow Wilson, held the Perkins Chair at the seminary. This was a professorship established to unite science and theology, to combat the threats that science could pose through “cool-headed, knowledgeable reflection, not the knee-jerk dismissal of the “religious zealot” who “denounced as Infidels and Atheists” the advocates of every new scientific advance.” (p. 135) A cool-headed, knowledgeable reflection on science and theology ultimately led to his dismissal. (Although not every response to his critics was cool-headed, and his rhetoric at times fanned the flames.)
Woodrow was not a particularly “liberal” thinker (theologically liberal or politically liberal).
Woodrow was a firm believer in the “divine inspiration of every word” in the Bible, and a self-proclaimed advocate of its”absolute inerrancy.” (p. 117)
(He was also, like most of his fellow Southerners, a confirmed racist, and felt that the Bible did not condemn slavery.)
He warned of two destructive attitudes in the science-faith arena (p. 137):
1. A dogmatic adherence to opinions which may not be well founded, and the denunciation as infidel what ever differs from our own.
2. A facile acceptance of every novel and attractive hypothesis which may spring up in the field of science.
He held that there are questions that are addressed by scripture and questions that are not. Evolution was not theistic or atheistic, but merely descriptive. This was true in of animals in general, and of humans as well.
His aim was to defend the proposal that the body of Adam may have been produced by evolutionary processes from pre-human life forms, though he insisted repeatedly … that the soul was the product of immediate divine creation. (p. 120)
Because to him evolution was another term for “mediate creation” – the view that God’s creative activity in the world was mediated through secondary agencies – he could not see “how anyone could hesitate to prefer the hypothesis of mediate creation to the hypothesis of immediate creation.” As for the objection that evolution degraded the human race by tracing it to animal forbears, Woodrow was far from convinced that “dirt is nobler than the highest organization which God had up to that time created on the earth.” (p. 120)
Woodrow was also disturbed that his adversaries focused on the impact that his views had on their preferred interpretations of Scripture. He felt that this drove a wedge between local and universal Christianity. No one should be obliged to teach only received interpretations. The church universal is larger and more varied than the church local.
His chief antagonist in the case was John Girardeau who occupied the chair of didactic and polemic theology at the Seminary. Girardeau didn’t accuse Woodrow of heresy, at least not at first. According to Livingstone
In large part Girardeau’s disquiet centered on what he saw as a church’s right to determine precisely what its own seminary should teach. The question was not about orthodoxy in any absolute sense; it was simply about the need to ban the teaching of anything “contrary to our church’s interpretation of the Bible.” To him what was at stake was the heritage of an entire culture. … For any church to “surrender” to “unverified hypotheses” was an altogether “wretched” business. But even “a proved truth of science,” Girardeau declared, “ought not to be inculcated in a theological seminary when it contradicts our Standards.” The Woodrow case was plainly about a lot more than evolution: it was about the very survival of the entire edifice of Southern Presbyterian culture. Any professor failing to accede to the strictures of traditionalism was guilty of intolerable rebelliousness. (p. 125)
In 1884 Woodrow was asked to resign, he declined, was fired, and appealed. The process involved a spiral into increasingly vitriolic rhetoric. Some from both sides, but especially from Woodrow’s opponents.
The story ends there – and not all that badly. James Woodrow became a professor at and later the president of South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) an institution he guided through a particularly troubled time. He remained a minister in good standing and (according to wikipedia) served as moderator of the Augusta Presbytery in 1888 and as moderator of the Synod of Georgia in 1901 (or moderator of the Synod of South Carolina in another source). Not exactly deemed a heretic, we see.
The issue was not really science or evolution. This is not a unique incident in the history of US Christianity. Whenever such an event occurs there is generally a deep history. The time and place are important. After relating the specific events, Livingstone digs deeper into the context of this particular event. Despite the claims of many, including Andrew Dickson White who includes the story in his History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, there was much more to this than a simple story of warfare between science and Christian faith. Woodrow was a devout Christian, and he was not accused of heresy. For many of Woodrow’s antagonists the primary factor at play appears to have been the preservation of Southern civilization.
The South’s social and hierarchical social structure was grounded in Christianity. More than this, it was grounded in a particular favored reading of scripture including the early chapters of Genesis. Theirs was a reading that supported the unity of the human race, but also supported rigid racial divisions and the institution of slavery. According to Livingstone Woodrow challenged the received interpretation of scripture and this was a serious threat to the very foundation of the southern way of life. Woodrow was a threat despite the fact that he was racist and was not an abolitionist. This comes to light in the form that the many varied arguments take. They are not really grounded in theology, but in the effect that a change in interpretation might have on southern culture. Given this background it probably didn’t help that Woodrow was born in England and grew up in Chilicothe, Ohio before moving South.
Occupying a prominent position in the culture of the Old South, antebellum Presbyterians had come to regard biblical orthodoxy as the foundation stone of southern social order. … A crucial component in the ideological apologetics of southern Presbyterians was their conviction that an honest-to-goodness, unadulterated reading of the Bible provided ample warrant for the institution of slavery and, later, for racial segregation. Abolitionist attacks on the South were seen as rationalistic assaults on the integrity of scripture and the Christian character of southern culture. The Bible was thus appealed to as a means of resisting a host of perceived Yankee evils – radical democracy, emancipation, higher criticism, and modern science. These were seen as subversive of what was taken to be a biblically sanctioned southern culture and as promoting godless notions of human equality. (p. 155-156)
Darwinian evolution was simple the newest garb under which treacherous science masqueraded in its ongoing plot to demolish the foundations of southern civilization. (p. 156)
Most of us today see little support for slavery in scripture, and certainly no grounds for support of racial separation and race based slavery. We have other pet ideas though, grounded in an interpretation of scripture. Some of these may be as troublesome to the next generation as slavery is to ours.
How do we know when we are confronted with a genuine threat to Christian orthodox faith?
What should we do when the reasons given are adherence to a preferred local interpretation, or clearly grounded in fear?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at].