The Influence of Geology on Catholic Exegesis


The Influence of Geology on the Deviations of Catholic Exegesis
by Dr. Dominique Tassot

[This is an abstract of a paper given at the Rome Symposium in 2002 (Proceedings are available on web site). The paper shows the clear link between the general consensus of scientists and scholars about long ages, at the end of 19th century, and the dramatic loss of the true Catholic faith among exegetes, all of this resulting from the conflict of geology and Genesis since Buffon, Hutton, Voltaire, Lyell and many of their followers.]


In his Protogea (1692), Leibniz explained fossils and sedimentary layers as resulting from the biblical flood. The same explanation occurs in the work of the three first English geologists Burnet (1682), Woodward (1695) and Whiston (1696): all of them were “catastrophists.” For this school, ages of the Earth do not matter because rapid changes interrupt periods of stability: for them, time is not a cause by itself and changes in the landscape result from mechanical causes, either volcanism or “plutonism.” Such a biblical worldview was soon to be attacked by many “systems of the Earth” that appeared from the mid 18th century.

After Buffon (1749), Hutton was the founder of “uniformitarianism” or “actualism”: long ages became the necessary hypothesis for everyday phenomena (as erosion or river deposits) to cause large scale effects. For Hutton, Playfair or the French encyclopaedists (Voltaire, Diderot or d’Alembert, the latter being the Secretary of the Academy of Sciences), the Mosaïc Flood was not to be taken literally and Geology could and must rely exclusively on natural and actual explanations. Exceptionally, Jean-André Deluc (1727-1817), a Calvinist who taught geology at Göttingen, kept the former distinction between present phenomena still operating and observed, and past causes known only from their effects, these being realities that present causes cannot explain.1

Deluc considered two creative periods: the six Days of Creation and the Flood. Only these periods could explain the formation of rocks. Deluc understood perfectly the issue at stake. In His Elements of Geology published in London in 1809, he noted how the enemies of Religion had switched their attack to geology. Theologians should, therefore, study geology a they do ancient languages. Geology, said Deluc, is presented as a true science based on evidences and rigorous deductions. If people consider that geology is contrary to Genesis, they will necessarily conclude that Genesis is only a legend.

Deluc was a first rank scientist of the time. He taught geology to Cuvier, the French natural scientist who believed in the Great Flood. Emigrating to England in 1773, Duluc was immediately accepted as a member of the Royal Society and became lecturer to Queen Charlotte. One day, visiting Voltaire in Switzerland at his mansion in Ferney, he asked the philosopher his opinion about Moses. “Moses, said Voltaire, was a deceiver leading a stupid people.” “-But, answered Deluc, Moses is the historian of the Earth and of Man. If he told the truth on these points at a time when Geology was not even born, it is necessary to conclude that he wrote by Revelation.2 Confronted by Deluc, Voltaire was unable to argue for the long ages of the Earth and against the Flood.

Father Emery, the head of the Sulpicians (the Congregation which taught in the French seminaries), heard that Deluc had silenced Voltaire and understood immediately the importance of geology in apologetics. He asked Deluc for permission to translate his “Letters to Blumenbach” into French: for such an apologetic, the difference of creeds between Catholics and a Calvinist could be set aside. Moreover, after the political Revolution in Europe, minds were open to past geological “revolutions.” Somehow the Revolution proved that history admitted discontinuities. In 1812, Cuvier published his famous Discourse on the Revolutions of the Earth. Transformists, he wrote, were wrong because:

If the species did change by degree, we should find the traces of these gradual modifications, (…) we should discover some intermediary forms and, till now, this has not happened.3

Cuvier concluded that species were stable and that former species, now extinct, were destroyed by a catastrophe, which he situated approximately five to six thousand years ago. At that time naturalists had observed many mummified animals in the Egyptian temples and tombs: cats, ibis, dogs, monkeys and crocodiles. No difference was visible between them and contemporary animals. Cuvier wrote:

I know that some naturalist rely much on thousands of centuries, which they accumulate by a stroke of their pen; but in such matters we should estimate what a long period of time could produce, simply by multiplying in our head what a lesser period of time has produced.4

These quotations show the strength of the “catastrophist” school in the beginning of 19th century. Baron Georges de Cuvier, a Protestant, was not only the creator of compared anatomy and among the founders of palaeontology; he was also member of the French academy and a Peer of France. In England catastrophism, as presented by Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) and William Buckland (1782-1856), was also very popular. Buckland taught geology and palaeontology at Oxford in the thirties. He was later to become dean of Westminster. This social influence of catastrophists on both sides of the Channel has to be kept in mind when observing the subtle tactics of Charles Lyell (1797-1875) who, in 1830-1832, published his Principles of Geology.

After he graduated in Law, Lyell travelled around Europe. A passionate Whig, he met in Paris with Arago, a republican, and Alexander von Humboldt the great traveller, geologist and naturalist, who had been Director of mines in Franconia in 1792. For Liberals like Lyell, the monarchists had to be disarmed in order to increase the powers of Parliament. As Alex Marton tells it:

Traditional theological doctrine stood in the way. Paley’s Natural Theology claimed that sovereignty descended from God to the king…There was only one way to reform Parliament, and that was to destroy Paley’s Natural Theology, and the only way to do that was to discredit the catastrophist notions of its religious defenders who sought to reconcile the geological evidence with the story of Genesis… In his Principles of Geology, Charles Lyell argued against the catastrophists by saying that the Great Flood theory was, in effect, mythological, and that it stood in the way of progress in geology.5

But Lyell was cautious not to visibly attack the Bible nor the Genesis account. He debated as a “fluvialist” against the “diluvianists,” always presenting the question as strictly scientific. In this way his nomination at King’s College in London obtained the approval of the bishops. And in 1834, he became President of the Geological Society. Darwin wrote in an unpublished manuscript of 1873:

Lyell is most firmly convinced that he has shaken the faith in the Deluge far more efficiently by never having said a word against the Bible than if the had acted otherwise.6

The history of geology shows, at present, the apparent victory of the uniformitarianist school. The long geological chronology, based on stratigraphy, eventually gained acceptance among the catastrophists themselves. Cuvier, Buckland, or Sedgwick considered a series of global catastrophes, of which the Noachic Flood was only the most recent. At the end, what resulted was a completely natural explanation of the history of the earth, volcanoes and earthquakes becoming acceptable catastrophes of a local extent into an overall scenario of endless quiet ages. And the Bible could fit in the scheme with a simple shift of interpretation: the days of the Hexameron were not ordinary 24 hours days but long periods of undefined length.

This idea had been proposed by Deluc himself in 1798 and was later theorized by Marcel de Serres under the name of “periodism” (1841). In England, Chalmers and Buckland considered the Hexameron week as a new creation after the long geological ages had produced the fossils. The “restitutionists” (or gap theorists) accepted the Flood, but considered the fossils (no human fossil had been discovered at the time) as prior to the new creation mentioned by Moses. In mid-century, Cardinal Nicolas Wiseman, first Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, relied on Cuvier and Buckland and noted a general agreement between Genesis and the Gap theory: the Flood had limited its action to the superficial soft rocks containing the remains of existing animals. Under the name of “concordism,” the theory of the day-age periods soon became very popular: it reconciled uniformitatianist geology and the Bible. No conflict existed between science and religion. But science had become the rule for exegesis!

In 1882, Vigouroux, a Sulpician well known for the polyglot edition of the Bible and who became Secretary of the Biblical Commission in Rome, wrote in his Mosaic Cosmogony According to the Fathers of the Church:

Geology has established that Creation was not simultaneous” (p.34); and “It was reserved to our time to discover clearly the true meaning of the cosmogonic days” (p.71). And, alluding to saint Gregory the Thaumaturge who taught physics to his disciples before teaching them the Bible: “This principle of our Fathers in the Faith is also ours. If we disagree with them in the details, it is not that the principle changed; it is because science progressed. They accepted what was taught by the learned of those days; we accept what scholars teach today. There is therefore a change in interpretation, only because science changed, and this change is not ascribable to theology but to science itself which, by its proper nature, progresses.”

When Lyell entitled his book Principles of Geology, echoing Newton’s Principia he intended to let people think that geology could be as unarguable as mathematics. In this way, exegesis, “literary” discipline and “soft” science, received the hard imprint of the long ages.

On June 30, 1909, the Pontifical Biblical Commission granted liberty to Catholic exegetes to consider the word “yom” either in its proper meaning or in a broader meaning (sensu improprio) of indeterminate duration (DS 2128). In 1896, Fr Lagrange (who had founded Jerusalem’s Biblical College in 1893) rejected “concordism,” considering that the hexameron days and geological periods did not correspond.

The shaping of the Earth went on a long time after the appearance of life; plants and animals developed in parallel. But remains established the fact that the Earth took a considerable time to form. We renounced forever the historic precise duration of six 24 hours days.7

The further influence of Lagrange on Catholic exegesis is indisputable: he devised the three main ways to render the presence of scientific errors in the Bible acceptable. These were set out in five lectures given at the Catholic Institute of Toulouse a century ago, in November 1902, later published under the title The Historical Method. I will not dispute Lagrange’s dedication to the Church and the Bible. But we will touch here upon the direct influence of geology on the exegesis of the 20th century through Lagrange’s ideas.

When a schoolboy, Lagrange used to wander with his uncle, a geologist, in the foothills of the Alps, where he lived. Maybe this explains how readily and completely he accepted the long ages, not only for the earth but also for the history of Man. He wrote in the Biblical Review, which he founded:

Mankind is older than one believed when piously collecting the wrecks of remembrances assumed to be primitive. (…) Humanly speaking, oral transmission from the beginning of the world is supremely unbelievable. (…) To take the Genesis account as historical information, … its value is simply nil in informing us about what happened “in the night of times.”

So Lagrange invented a new and paradoxical concept: “Legendary primitive history.” The Fall, the Curse, the Flood are neither true history nor simple myth. Genesis gives an account based on a “generating fact” but inevitably distorted and downgraded by the transmission through thousands of generations. Another such concept is that of “historical appearances.” Here Lagrange tried to transpose to history what Leo XIIIth said in Providentissimus Deus about astronomy (the Galileo affair!), that the Bible speaks “according to appearances.”

From a Thomistic perspective, our senses give a true path to knowledge. But in the Kantian perspective of that time, “appearance” meant the opposite of reality. In 1919, Lagrange abandoned his theory of “historical appearances,” but the idea remained that the Bible had to be confined to the sphere of religion, and this was indeed the most secure way to prevent any conflict with science.

The third method proposed by Lagrange to explain supposed natural science errors in the Bible was the theory of “literary genres.” The idea underlying this explanation was that one does not deceive when simply asserting the false, but only when teaching it:

All that the sacred writers teach, God also teaches and this is true. But what do the sacred writers really teach? What they affirm categorically. But—it has been said for a long time—the Bible is not a collection of categorical theses or affirmations. There are such literary genres where nothing is taught concerning the reality of the facts. They only serve as basis for a moral teaching.”8 [And further:] “It is impossible that God teaches errors. Of course [there are places in] the Bible, where everybody is speaking errors; but it is impossible that an intelligent examination of the Bible compels us to conclude that God taught errors.”9

It is obvious that an intelligent use of these three methods is sufficient to get rid of any difficult passage of the Bible. But the authority of the Sacred Writings disappears at the same time, divine inspiration and inerrancy being inseparable!

Here, then, is the drama of modern exegesis where human science sets itself as a judge of divine words. This is not the place to venture further into this field. The aim of this paper is simply to make clear the link between the general consensus of scientists and scholars about long ages, at the end of 19th century, and the dramatic loss of the true Catholic faith among exegetes, all of this resulting from the conflict of geology and Genesis since Buffon, Hutton, Voltaire, Lyell and many of their followers.

We know here that the principles of stratigraphy, upon which geological chronology is based, have been invalidated. So the situation for Catholic exegesis has completely changed, but the link between science and Faith remains. With new appreciation, we can recall what Leo XIIIth wrote more than a century ago in Providentissimus Deus:

Many objections, coming from all sciences, have been presented for a very long time against Scripture. They are now forgotten. They were valueless… As time disproves false opinions, so does truth remain and strengthen eternally.

1 Deluc, Traité élémentaire de Géologie (London, 1809) Paris 1810, p.11.

2 Deluc, Lettres sur l’Histoire physique de la Terre, an VI, pp. CXVII.

3 Cuvier, Discours sur les Révolutions du Globe (1812), new ed. 1867, Paris, firmin-Didot, pp.77-78.

4 Ibid., p.82.

5 Alex Marton,  “What is Uniformitarianism?” Horus I, n°2 (1985): 12-13.

6 Gertrude Himmelfarb, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, London, Chatto Windus, 1959, p.320.

7 Lagrange, “Hexameron,” in Revue Biblique 1896 p.390.

8 Lagrange, La Méthode historique (1903), New ed. Paris, Cerf, 1966, p.85.

9 Ibid., p.84.