Protestant modernism and theology of nature
Fri, 28 Feb 97 09:35:00 -0500

Here's a brief critique of Protestant modernist
theology of nature. I should say, of one particular
example, which I find representative of many
Protestant modernists from the 1920s. It would
be easy to find other examples.

My example comes from a pamphlet, paid for mostly
by John D Rockefeller and published by an arm of
the Univ of Chicago divinity school in 1926, at the
height of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy.
The author was Samuel Christian Schmucker, grandson
of the founder of the Lutheran Seminary at Gettysburg
(though an Episcopalian himself). Schmucker had a
doctorate in chemistry from Penn, but had established
himself as an authority in evolutionary biology,
especially on sexual selection. He was a nationally
prominent populizer of evolution and a leading
figure in the "nature-study" movement, an early
environmentalist group, serving as president at
one point. His pamphlet is entitled, "Through Science
to God: The Hummingbird's Story."

I won't detail the contents of the whole pamphlet here.
Readers are invited to read my article, "Fundamentalism
and Folk Science between the Wars," published in the
Summer 1995 issue of Religion and American Culture, for
such details. I'll cut to the chase and quote a passage
that makes my main point well.

The laws of nature were "not the fiat of almighty God," but
"the manifestation in nature of the presence of the
indwelling God." Thus, they were "eternal even as God
is eternal." Gravitation, for example, "is inherent in
the nature of the bodies. [EBD: Newton would have choked on
this.] It was not `put there' by a higher power."

I have looked in vain in Schmucker for a clear statement
of God's sovereignty over the laws of nature, for any
evidence of divine freedom relative to nature, for even
the faintest idea that God actually made nature. I can
find ONLY an immanent God in his voluminous writings.

My problem with this type of stuff is not the emphasis
on divine immanence, but the wholesale inability to articulate
a doctrine of transcendence. This is absolutely characteristic
of the stuff being put out by Chicago at the time, and (IMO)
characteristic also of much modern Protestant writing on
theology of nature. Many modern theologians, IMO, want
to affirm a voluntarist view of God (that the world was
a free product of creative activity), yet they deny IN EFFECT
that this is so by denying God genuine transcendence over
the laws of nature.

That's enough for now.


Ted Davis
Professor of the History of Science
Messiah College
Grantham, PA 17027
717-766-2511, ext 6840