In respect to faith and morals, the failure of the medieval church was contemporaneously evident. It was a vast corporation ruled by the pope and the Holy Congregation through coercion, force, fear and theological formulas. From the days of Constantine it had been acquiring property and, since it rarely parted with its wealth, this had by the sixteenth century grown to enormous proportions. It held two fifths of the land in Sweden and as much or more in England, while Germany, Hungary and other central European countries were checkered with great fiefs. This wealth was so unequally divided between a few favored persons and the vast number of half-starved priests as to afford endless grounds for jealousy and intrigue. The papacy itself was extremely rich: gold had proved to be as useful to God as it was to Satan and every pope worthy of the name had sought to wrest as much as possible of it from the devil's hand. Simony had become a general rule, Rome offering for sale bishoprics, divorces, illegal marriages, pardons, relics, privileges of every sort -- only heresy could not be bought because the transaction would destroy the prerogative to forgive sins and to sell exculpation, which would be to destroy the bank itself. Men could speak of Rome as a 'foul fish pond filled with verminous reptiles,' Dante could make St. Peter bitterly complain, "He who usurped on earth my place ... Hath made my burial ground a conduit for that blood and filth." The ecclesiastic system had despoiled the country economically by drawing countless men and women out of useful service, to harbor them at public expense in thousands of monasteries each holding besides its monks at least an equal number of men and women who served a menial role. The preposterous multiplication of church festivals had made a large fraction of the year useless for trade or agriculture, for no work was allowed on a holy day itself or after the noon of the day before it. The priests and friars, and frequently the monks and bishops were at best poor examples of labor, honesty or thrift; concubinage and its implied hypocrisy were the accepted rule, and indolence, mendicancy and extortion were characteristic of the clergy generally. Having inherited the elements of witchcraft from the pagans, the church found the demonic powers so agreeable to its own pagan-sacred theory that it fostered the development of superstition into a devastating creed of evil. By ancient tradition it deprecated intellectual innovation, restricting investigation to its sacred pneumatology and fantastic metaphysics and discouraging the instruction of the young in any course other than that established by ecclesiastic precedent.
All such antisocial features might fairly be discounted as worldly faults inevitable in any medieval system which must operate through human agents; and to challenge on these grounds the church's claim to a special insight into faith and morals would be historically penurious. It is therefore significant that it was specifically in the realm of faith and morals, and not in sociology, that there was engendered the revolution which ultimately broke the church into many fragments, each still presuming to enjoy the revelation which in the nineteenth century Pius IX formally arrogated to his person.
The Reformation, which by sectarian Christians is conceived to have been productive, immediately or ultimately, of the most signal contributions to faith and morals of any event since the founding of the parent church, was characterized by Nietzsche as an attack, on the part of Christianity, of hemiplegia. That part of the body religious which was separated from the controlling brain was left to a chaotic, disintegrating autonomy. The metaphor, if rude in that it suggests senility, and incomplete in that it neglects certain practical gains, as for example, the resulting increase in personal liberty, is inexact in that it implies a sudden accident to a normally co-ordinated system; for the Christian church was never co-ordinated and had been in the process of disintegration for a period of centuries. Its disintegration began with the first heresy: to kill the heretic only removed the adversary without destroying his argument, and not a single heresy threatened the early faith but survived to grow strong and threaten it again. It was, moreover, not the heresies of pagans and infidels that fed the Reformation's fires, but the apostasies of monks or priests who were, without a notable exception, above suspicion in respect to piety.
The monasteries, which the church esteemed for their asceticism, proved in the end to be the breeding ground of fatal disbelief. Orthodox as he might be, the monk fled into seclusion to escape an evil world which the church despised and, by her own admission, could not discipline. The monk was a godly man (if sometimes foolish) and he found God without the mediation of any bishop, presbyter, or priest. The monk was at heart an individualist and selfishly sought a retreat where his individualism could enjoy the maximum of liberty. And for several centuries the monk was the only man who was even literate. It was inevitable that when asceticism was discredited by the Renaissance, he should emerge from the cloisters as the most intelligent and powerful critic of the faith, and therefore its most dangerous heretic.
It was a Franciscan, Roger Bacon (ca. 1214-ca. 1294), following in the path of Canon Abelard, who opposed the mystical doctrines of Anselm and Bernard and accelerated the disintegration of Scholastic absolutism by upholding the rights of reason, and by defining error as of four major sources: authority, custom, the opinion of the ignorant masses and the concealment of ignorance by the pretense of knowledge. It was another Franciscan, William of Ockham (1270-1343), who rehabilitated the doctrine condemned by Canon Roscellinus, that only individual things exist and should be studied for their own sake, and not because they imperfectly reveal speculative universals; that the so-called universals are but mental concepts which have no corresponding existents in reality, as words may be combined into propositions and syllogisms which have no corresponding existents. It followed from this proposition that since no man has perceived God directly, the mind forms the idea of God only by the artifice of synthetic fabrication, and therefore can have no certain knowledge of him, or hope to prove or disprove his existence. It also follows that the authority of the pope rests on permissions of a human order. It was only because Ockham was supported by a strong king and opposed by a weak pope that he was never charged with heresy. Bacon did not fare so well, and before he came to enjoy the favor of Pope Clement IV he had for ten years been strictly prohibited from writing, while after Clement's death he was thrown in prison by Pope Nicholas IV and kept there for fourteen years.
Bacon and Ockham, and more remotely, Abelard and the countless unnamed monks and priests who esteemed their way of thinking, were the heretics who undermined the medieval church, Luther and his followers but the ones who pushed it over. Between Ockham in the thirteenth century and Luther in the fifteenth were the clerics John Wycliffe and John Huss, both trained in orthodoxy and both duly beneficed. Wycliffe's (1320-1384) heresy began with the modest contention that the frequently unrighteous clergy should be held subject to the civil law, like other people, but the argument soon spread to the rights of the church to receive and hold rich temporal endowments, thence to the denunciation of the morals of the monks and friars, and finally to the outright condemnation of the corrupt Clement VII, to calling the pope, qua pope, the Anti-christ. It ended by translating the Bible into English, with the unavoidable consequences entailed in putting this book into vulgar hands at a time when in more orthodox countries the laity were forbidden to read it in the Latin. Wycliffe died in his bed because England at the moment lay beyond the reach of Rome, but by order of the Council of Constance, meeting thirty-one years later, his remains were disinterred and ignominiously burned for his heretical denial of the doctrine of transubstantiation, that the teeth and tongue macerate the actual flesh and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.
Dean of the philosophical faculty at Prague and rector of a local chapel, Huss was commissioned to examine certain reputed miracles, the audacious forgery of which led him to declaim vigorously not only against the forgery of miracles but against ecclesiastic chicanery in general. Leaning strongly toward the teaching of Wycliffe, he condemned indulgences as simony, denied the doctrine of transubstantiation and asserted that Christ, not Peter, was the head of the church. After a notorious betrayal by the king, who promised him safe-conduct only to imprison him, he was convicted of heresy and burned, and his ashes and the soil on which they fell were carefully collected and thrown into the Rhine.
Before they were heretical these men were all as orthodox as friar Luther, the Augustinian, whose denunciation of the degraded indulgence precipitated the revolution that ended by impugning the basic article of faith and morals on which the church was founded, the power to cleanse its communicants of sin.
The essence of Paul's religion, catharsis by faith, had been instilled by the early church into the pagan sacraments of baptism, the Eucharist, and public or private confession before a priest, to form, with the purificatory rite of penance, the indispensables of salvation by which the medieval church was now held together. Authority to traffic with absolution from sin was based on Christ's permission to Peter 'to loose or bind': baptism washed away past sins, but if a man sinned after baptism (as he always did) he had to be purified by good works and penances, or else be purified in purgatory where accurate accounts were kept of sins and carefully balanced with respect to punishments. Since no judge could loose or bind without a detailed knowledge of the sin, sinning demanded confession before absolution, hence the progression, sinning-confession-penance, and its repetition constituted the dynamic bond between church and people. That guilt as well as penance was remitted was implied in the phrase a poena et a culpa occurring in indulgences from the twelfth century onward; and so the laity construed the practice, believing that even apart from repentance and confession, the indulgence per se absolved them from the pains of purgatory. Scholastic genius explained that a great excess of good works had been accomplished by Christ and the saints, and that these had been deposited in a supernal Treasury of Good Works upon which the church was authorized to issue drafts, in the nature of indulgences, in favor of the errant living. The logical application of this concept of the church as the Bank of Heaven laid the foundations for the dispensation of 'indulgences' on a grand scale, in the manner of a moral holiday, and as a reward for the contributions of the faithful to the welfare of the church, whether given in the form of money or services.
Remission of penance might be either partial or complete, the first plenary indulgence being that granted by Urban II in 1095 to secure the First Crusade, and for four hundred years the crusading effort, as well as other good works ranging from the construction of churches and cathedrals down to the filling of the alms box with pennies, had been encouraged by transcendental finance. In a short time the right to sell indulgences had been farmed out to archbishops, who paid well in one manner or another for the profitable concession; and they were dispensed by underlings until friars were peddling them like cakes in every marketplace. It was on the occasion of an indulgence proclaimed by Pope Leo X, farmed by the Archbishop of Mainz and sold by the Dominican monk John Tetzel, that Luther was moved to nail his ninety-five theses condemning the despised Papal Tickets on to the church door at Wittenberg (1517). Luther aimed only to put his condemnatory essay where his fellow theologians could read it; the subject, however, excited so much interest that the university press could not stamp out copies fast enough, and Luther's essay was translated into German and broadcast throughout Germany in a fortnight; within a month it had become known all over western and southern Europe, and within a year Luther was summoned to Rome -- a mark that his malfeasance had, as it were, achieved official success. The dire summons was only narrowly averted, and Luther saved for Protestantism, by the political interposition of the elector of Saxony and the Emperor Maximilian.
It was soon evident that to attack the principle of the indulgence was to impugn the authority of the pope, and inquiry into this authority, as set forth in the canons, soon revealed that the decretals upon which the papal claims to authority were based were outright forgeries. Discussion of forgiveness of sins entailed debate on simony, auricular confession, and the morals of the ecclesiarchs themselves, while criticism of concubinage carried in its wake a searching inquiry into the very principles of continence and asceticism upon which the faith reposed. To examine the theocratic system at any point brought into the open the hated inquisition, and loosed the flood of animosities that tribunal had engendered. Lastly, when the Protestant leaders, abandoning the papacy, put the Bible into the people's hands as the supreme authority, they simultaneously gave unto vulgar minds the license to interpret it and to disagree, if not with the text itself at least with the priests who were frequently incapable of reading it themselves.
Consequently that which started as a remonstrance against a single if fundamental article of faith, the right of the papacy to purge of sin, and which was intended only to be a reformation, became a theological revolution which turned old heresies into new creeds. It was not, however, the virtues of the new beliefs that established the eighty varieties of Protestantism that appeared within a century. Jealousy, ambition and the hope of gain swept as many away from Rome as did religious fervor, and since it now became the duty of subjects to think on theological matters as did their rulers, the kings of England and Sweden, the princes of Germany, the nobles of France, Bohemia and Poland, the mayors of cities and the masters of burgs utilized the opportunity to the utmost to further political or personal ambitions.
By the nature of the forces that supported it, the Reformation properly belongs to political history. As the familiar story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn illustrates the change of faith in England, so elsewhere the foundations of sectarianism were precarious. In Scotland, Denmark, Holland, Sweden as well, the progress of Protestantism was determined in greater measure by political and economic forces than by intellectual appeal. For the masses and many of the leaders, one religion was just as good as another so long as it offered personal advantage, reasonable safety, and the assurance of its priests or preachers that it conveyed salvation. As regards specific doctrines the choice would have been difficult to make, for only theologians trained in hair-splitting could distinguish Catholic from Protestant pronouncements on the Trinity, incarnation, and original sin, or properly evaluate the change in emphasis on predestination, redemption, and grace; love of God had ostensibly replaced the admiration of the Virgin and the saints, the veneration of images and relics, and the mystery of miracles, but hell remained as hot as ever, the only marked change being that in the opinion of the masses it was now exclusively populated with either Catholics or Protestants.
The absolute inspiration of the Bible remained for both parties an article of faith, and both subscribed to the Augustinian doctrine of predestination which, as it is set forth by the English church in the Nine Lambeth Articles of 1595, reads:
i. God from eternity had predestined some to life, and hath reprobated some to death.
ii. The moving or efficient cause of predestination unto life is not prevision of faith or perseverance, or of good works, or of anything that is in the predestinate, but solely the will of God's good pleasure ...
To deny predestination would be to degrade God's omniscience and omnipotence to a position inferior to man's own will -- an intolerable proposition under the basal tenets of Christian monotheism. Consequently, for both Catholics and Protestants, a man's fate was sealed at birth, the illusion which he enjoyed of electing his own salvation being but a specious deception imposed upon him by divinity -- not of meager necessity, for divinity knows no meager necessity, but of that greater necessity which, in Augustine's terms, is God himself.
The Catholic reaction to the Reformation culminated in the Council of Trent which, with several interruptions, sat from 1545 to 1563 with the implied intent of 'reforming' the true faith in respect to both principles and practice. Trent has been characterized as a long and anxious tissue of ecclesiastic and theological maneuvering productive in the main of a series of decrees approving the status quo. These decrees, which dealt with the Nicaean Creed, the authority of scripture, original sin, grace and justification, the sacraments, the mass, purgatory, relics and sacred images and other doctrinal matters, were prepared in advance by a few theologians selected by the pope and formulated under the proviso that henceforth the pope was to be the sole exponent of decrees, and that no one, on pain of anathema, was to impeach the accepted usages and order of the church, thus protecting the true faith against another 'reformation.' They but crystallized the ancient dogmas into a state of theological absolutism. On the question of indulgences, over which the church had been rent asunder, it was merely urged that moderation be observed, 'lest by excessive facility ecclesiastical discipline be enervated,' and 'all evil gains for the obtaining thereof -- whence a most prolific cause of abuses amongst the Christian people has been derived,' are to be 'wholly abolished.' That was all. A rigid catechism in brief if not wholly intelligible formulas was prepared to guide the catechumen, and there was devised the Index, a list of books designed to guard the faithful from writings which might be dangerous to their faith. The Council of Trent, faced with the greatest crisis in Christian history, responded with an almost unprecedented exhibition of conservatism by making force the guarantee of Catholic faith, and complete immobility its supreme ideal.
At the other extreme, the reformed 'church' proceeded to break into factions over the outward forms of worship, the schisms engendered by the doctrine of predestination, the significance of the Eucharist, the conditions of grace, the use of candle and liturgy and endless minor points of privilege and ritual, leading by the end of the sixteenth century to at least eighty sects each holding to the true belief, and each prepared to defend itself by force against its antagonists. Having abandoned traditional authority, the Protestants based all their arguments on the scriptural text, to which was attributed an inerrancy undreamed of by any pope. Chapter I of the Westminster Confession of the Church of England (1646-7), which presented those propositions of faith that were acceptable at the time to all moderate Episcopalians, Independents, Presbyterians, etc. -- ostensibly to 'all the churches of his majesty's dominions' -- and that were based on the Thirty Nine Articles of 1563, asserted:
'The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God .... The whole counsel of God, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.'
So stretched the hand of Augustine across the centuries.
Among those whose opinions weighed heavily in the formulation of the Westminster Confession were the Reverend James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, and Doctor John Lightfoot, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Within a few years of the formal definition of the articles of faith upon which the Protestant Christianity of England and her dominions was to rest, Archbishop Ussher published an authoritative and scholarly work, the Annals of the Ancient and New Testaments (1650), in which he calculated from the careful study of the scriptures that the world had been created just four thousand and four years before the beginning of the Christian Era. His verdict was received as final and his dates were inserted in the margins of the Authorized Version of the Bible by Bishop Lloyd in 1701, and soon came to be held as inspired as the text itself. To this computation Dr. Lightfoot shortly added the demonstration that 'heaven and earth, center and circumference, were created together, in the same instant, and clouds full of water,' and that 'this work took place and man was created by the Trinity on the twenty-third of October, 4004 B.C., at nine o'clock in the morning.' It was after a period variously estimated in the older literature as a few hours to seven days, that Eve said to Adam, 'Do thou, too, eat a little'; and on the next morning, God, walking in his garden in the cool of the day, discovered their sin, and expelled them from Paradise. Thus, within a week of the world's beginning, death came forth, and evil; and his work which on the first day God had looked upon and pronounced good, was desecrated.
The sixth chapter of Genesis tells of God's wrath and of his warning to Noah: 'And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the Lord said, I will destroy man which I have created from the face of the earth; both man and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them ... And God said unto Noah ... Make thee an ark of gopher wood; ...'
By Archbishop Ussher's calculation God gave this warning to Noah in 2348 B.C., just before the storm descended. Some three hundred years after the archbishop died, the legend of the deluge was discovered to be an ancient Babylonian story, part of the Epic of Gilgamesh which goes back to a date perhaps fully as remote as Ussher's calculated date of Paradise.
As related in the twelve tablets from Ashurbanipal's library in Nineveh, the hero of this tale has been hunting with his great chief friend, Engidu, when Engidu is taken ill and, after twelve days of terrible suffering, dies. The death of Engidu brings home to Gilgamesh that he, too, must some day descend into the land of darkness where the miserable spirits of the departed live upon dust and clay, and the dreadful thought fills him with the determination to search out Uta-Napishtim, the only man who had ever gone to live among the gods, and beg from him the secret of immortality.
Gilgamesh finds Uta-Napishtim and hears from him the story of the flood, which occupies the whole of the eleventh tablet of the epic. The similarity of the story to the Judaic version may be represented by one example:
' "Six days and nights," said Very Wise, "the wind continued, the deluge and the tempest raged. The seventh day at daybreak the storm abated; the deluge, which had carried on warfare like an army, ceased, the sea became calm and the hurricane disappeared. I surveyed the sea with my eyes, raising my voice; but all mankind had returned to clay, mountains and fields were no longer distinguishable one from another. I opened the hatchway and the light fell upon my face; I sank down, I cowered, I wept, and my tears ran down my cheeks when I beheld the world all terror and all sea. At the end of twelve days, a point of land stood up from the waters, the ship touched the land of Nisir: the mountain of Nisir stopped the ship and permitted it to float no longer. The seventh day, at dawn, I took out a dove and let it go: the dove went, turned about, and as there was no place to alight upon, came back. I took out a swallow and let it go: the swallow went, turned about, and as there was no place to alight upon, came back. I took out a raven and let it go: the raven went, and saw that the water had abated, and came near the ship flapping its wings, croaking, and returned no more." '
At the end of his colloquy with Gilgamesh Uta-Napishtim declares: ' "I am about to reveal to thee, Gilgamesh, a secret, and the judgment of the gods I am about to tell it thee. There is a plant similar to the hawthorn in its flower, and whose thorns prick like the viper. If thy hand can lay hold of that plant without being torn, break it from a branch, and bear it with thee; it will secure for thee an eternal youth." '
So Gilgamesh leaves for home, finds the plant, gathers it, and is elated. He names the plant 'the-old-man-becomes-young-again.' His heart fills with joy, he starts across the steppes for Uruk, planning what he will do with his eternal youth, how he will share his gift with the great warriors. But all the while he reckons without the gods, the jealous gods who will not let mortals share their privileges. At night he stops by a pool of cool water and, as he bathes, a serpent comes forth from the pool, snatches the plant and escapes with it, leaving him only a malediction.
From the legend of Gilgamesh the authors of the J and P threads in Genesis shaped their respective stories of the flood, which differed only in such details as could easily be modified between the period of the prophets and the return from the captivity. J, the author of the older recension, has the deluge last the mystical sixty-one days, instead of the three hundred and sixty-five assigned to it by P to conform with the solar year. J fails to record where the ark landed, while P grounds it on Ararat. P adds the dimensions of the ark, the breaking up of the fountains of the deep, the rainbow and the covenant which it signifies and some statistical references to Noah's age, and he substitutes one pair of clean animals for the seven pairs of clean and one of unclean named by J, while he omits the sacrifices at the close of the disaster possibly because his theory of religious history precluded a reference to any kind of altar before the exodus. In copying the genealogy which precedes the story, the name of the master of the ark was apparently misplaced in both accounts, Noah having been substituted for Enoch, for it was Enoch who 'walked with God' (i.e., became Very Wise) and who 'disappeared, for God had taken him,' and who lived three hundred and sixty-five years, as P assigns three hundred and sixty-five days to the duration of the flood.
In adding 'the fountains of the deep' to the sources of the flood, P was merely filling an obvious omission in J's account, which had all the water fall as rain. The existence of 'waters beneath the earth' was axiomatic in Babylonia, the cosmology of which had its origin in the port of Eridu on the Persian Gulf where the land was constantly growing by the deposition of silt; from this accretion, which was perceptible almost day by day, had come the notion that the whole earth had been formed in the same manner, separated as silt from 'the great deep' of which the Persian Gulf was a narrow arm.
Numerous allusions in the Old Testament indicate that the original Hebraic story of creation opened with an episode parallel to that in which Marduk cut Tiamat in half: 'In the beginning Yahweh filled the dragon with air, and slew him, and divided him into two parts.' J, who lived perhaps in the time of Solomon, was not familiar with this early portion of the legend and, his imagination unable to encompass the outright creation of heaven and earth, in beginning his narrative takes the earth as already formed.
In the later narrative of P, Yahweh has so increased in power and importance that he can now create the world itself. Even so he is still unable to create it from nothing, ex nihilo, but starts with tehom (Tiamat), a great sea or abyss shrouded in darkness; and the first creative act, 'The wind of God was rushing upon the face of the waters,' recalls how Marduk inflated Tiamat with a great wind before he cut her in twain to create heaven and earth. In seven days (corresponding to the seven tablets upon which the Babylonian legend was inscribed) Yahweh creates first, light; second, the firmament (sky) in the midst of the waters, to divide the waters beneath from the waters above, even as Marduk divided Tiamat; third, the dry land and its trees and herbs; fourth, the sun, moon and stars, which he set in the firmament both to give additional light and to rule the day and the night; fifth, the creatures of the sea and the birds of the air (both of which are created out of water); sixth, the creatures created out of earth, and man. Yahweh looked upon his creation and saw that it was good and, on the seventh day, the unlucky day of the moon god Sin, he was tired and rested.
The 'great deep,' in which the earth floated like a mountainous island, remained a cardinal tenet in Jewish and Christian cosmology. Overhead was spread the solid dome of the firmament which came down to the horizon on all sides to rest upon foundations laid in the great waters, bearing in its east and west sides doors through which the sun entered in the morning and departed at night. Above the firmament was another ocean which followed the domed ceiling down to the horizon where it met the ocean surrounding the earth, and over the waters which were above the firmament was heaven. The sun, moon, stars and planets were supported as by cables from the interior of the firmament, and were moved by angels who also opened windows in the firmament to let the waters from above fall as rain to refresh the earth.
The Pythagoreans, and after them Plato and Aristotle, might argue that the earth was a sphere, but before such heresies became fraught with serious danger it was enough for the Christians to refute them with contempt: Eusebius, having in mind the coming end of the world when the faithful would be transported to the kingdom of God, framed an answer to all such speculators: 'It is not through ignorance of the things admired by them [the geographers] but through contempt of their useless labor that we think little of these matters, turning our souls to better things.' And thus Basil of Caesarea: 'It is a matter of no interest to us whether the earth is a sphere or a cylinder or a disk, or concave in the middle like a fan'; and Augustine: 'What concerns is it to me whether the heavens as a sphere enclose the earth in the middle of the world or overhang it on either side?' In the sixth century Cosmas Indicopleustes, drawing upon scriptural texts, described the earth as a flat parallelogram four hundred days' journey long and two hundred broad, surrounded by four seas from which arise the massive walls supporting the firmament, the whole making up a box containing the heavenly bodies and serving as a floor for heaven. Cosmas's arguments were drawn from the words of Moses, the prophets and the apostles, and his world was built most scripturally; it worked by means of angels who pushed the planets to and fro. Its four corners corresponded to the four seasons, its twelve months to the twelve loaves of bread; its boxlike structure agreed with venerable Egyptian lore. But despite all these virtues, which should have recommended it to Christians, it failed to be dogmatized and the notion of a spherical earth, perhaps because it had been supported by Clement of Alexandria and Origen, survived to be argued again by Isidore of Seville and the Venerable Bede and to be accepted without remonstrance by medieval cosmologists.
It was wholly different with the question whether men lived on the other side of the earth. 'Is there anyone so senseless,' queried Lactantius, 'as to believe that there are men whose footsteps are higher than their heads? ... That the crops and trees grow downward? ... that the rains and snow and hail fall upward toward the earth ? ... I am at a loss what to say of those who, when they have once erred, steadily persevere in their folly and defend one vain thing by another.' Basil and Ambrose allowed that a man might be saved who thought the opposite side of the earth inhabited, but Augustine, willing enough to consider a spherical earth, vigorously condemned the idea of antipodes: Scripture did not speak of any such inverted descendants of Adam, and God would not allow men to live on the far side of the world since if they did they could not see Christ, at his second coming, descending through the air. Augustine's most cogent argument was based on the Pauline statement: 'Their line is gone through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world'; since no Christian apostles had gone to the antipodes to preach the word of God, no antipodes existed, and those who contended otherwise were giving the 'lie direct to King David and to St. Paul, and therefore to the Holy Ghost.' In the fifteenth century the Spanish theologian Tostatus gave Augustine's argument the dignity of a formal syllogism: 'The apostles were commanded to go into all the world and to preach the gospel to every creature; they did not go to any such part of the world as the antipodes; they did not preach to any creatures there: ergo, no antipodes exist.' It was for holding the contrary view, as much as for other heretical opinions, that the physician Peter of Abano was sought out by the inquisition in 1316, and that the astronomer Cecco d'Ascobi was burned at Florence in 1327.
Let the shape of the earth be what it may, man was its lord and master. It was equally inconceivable that he should make himself ridiculous by walking upside down or that he should by geographical accident be excluded from the gospel. Faith in the anthropocentric doctrine of Genesis was subordinate only to the belief in Mosaic authority. Said Peter Lombard: 'Just as man is made for the sake of God -- that is, that he may serve Him -- so the universe is made for the sake of man -- that is, that it may serve him; therefore is man placed at the middle point of the universe, that he may both serve and be served.' And the Christian geographers so drew their maps that Jerusalem was the center of the earth, and the Holy Sepulcher was shown as at the center of Jerusalem, as the world was the center of the cosmos.
The doctrine of the original perfection of the earth was required by the Mosaic account of creation -- itself not to be impugned -- and by Christian philosophy. Why should God in his infinite power and wisdom create a universe marred by imperfections, unbalanced in its proportions, irregular in its processes? A supreme excellence in no way differing from absolute impeccability and indefectibility must distinguish the divine labor as well as the divine person. Such had been the Scholastic view as regards the heavens, and such was to be the continuing view of astronomers and geographers after Newton. Where Galileo's vision had threatened to besmirch God's world by putting mountains on the moon and relegating the earth to the role of a satellite, Newton's vision had restored the balance; indeed it had afforded Christianity its most signal victory by apparently demonstrating on a scale proportional to stellar distances that Law Supreme was enthroned throughout the heavens -- and where was Law, was God. It was a lonely voice which frightenedly declaimed that Newton 'took from God that direct action on his works so constantly ascribed to him in scripture, and transferred it to material mechanism'; for the majority, as for Newton himself, the Principia left the divine emanation operative by merely substituting for the direct action of God's hand a perpetual Order imposed upon the planets by his voice.
Why God had singularly chosen that the force of gravity should vary inversely as the square of the distance, and that the earth should move in an elliptical rather than a circular orbit about the sun, unless it be to furnish man with the seasonal extremes of summer and winter, remained part of his inscrutable mystery. It was enough that the new 'force' of gravity had replaced the ancient angelic 'powers,' that the shattering of the celestial spheres had, perhaps not paradoxically, permitted more light to enter. A 'natural law' operating world-without-end and without defection was indefectibility itself. When the 'living garment of Deity' was discovered to be fabricated throughout by a multitude of such edicts or natural laws, most of which were readily translatable into the numbers convenient for the description of time and space, it but bore out the belief of Plato, and before him Pythagoras, that 'God ever geometrizes.' For certain minds of a Neo-Scholastic type, Natural Law had become almost synonymous with God.
The distinction between a universe of uniform and continuous process and one of unchanging and eternal durability was not possible in Newton's time, nor yet, for pious minds, long after. The theologian-physicist, Sir David Brewster, in 1855 pronounced the nebular hypothesis of the origin of the solar system a 'dull and dangerous heresy,' and asserted that 'an omnipotent arm was required to give the planets their position and motion in space, and a presiding intelligence to assign to them the different functions they had to perform.' Which was dividing the dynamic fairly between God and Law. No such division was entertained by the Marquis de Laplace, who, when Napoleon remarked on the absence of God from his Mécanique céleste, is reputed to have answered, "But Sire, I find no need of that hypothesis." Such atheism might amuse the French libertins, but it could only horrify the orthodox to whom the omnipotence of Law was one of the surest evidences of the essential goodness of creation.
Perfection, then, was still an attribute of God and all his works, including the natural laws which he had created to run the universe -- except, of course, the earth itself which had been corrupted by the sins of Adam and Eve and their descendants. As the offense in Eden had brought forth death and labor, so it had brought disfigurement upon Paradise. Almost simultaneously with Newton's traditional cogitations on the falling apple, Thomas Burnet in his Sacred Theory of the Earth (1681) described that body as a hollow shell filled with water like an egg; before sin brought on the deluge it was a perfect sphere, smooth and indescribably beautiful, with neither seas nor islands nor valleys nor rocks, with not a wrinkle, scar or fracture. In keeping with its immaculate condition it enjoyed a perpetual spring interrupted by no meteorological disturbance more severe than the falling of the evening dew. It had been the 'breaking up of the fountains of the deep' which had reduced the earth to what it is today, practically a ruin.
The argument of the original perfection of the earth was, in the nature of the case, a difficult one to answer. One of the charges by which Calvin brought Servetus to the stake was that in an edition of Ptolemy's Geography which he had prepared, he had spoken of Judea, not as 'a land flowing with milk and honey,' but as, in the main, meager, barren and inhospitable. In vain did Servetus declare that there were ample proofs for his statement; he was informed that such language 'necessarily inculpated Moses, and grievously outraged the Holy Ghost.' Two hundred years later when Buffon, in attempting to popularize geology, took some liberties with Genesis, the theological faculty of the Sorbonne forced him to print a recantation: 'I declare that I had no intention to contradict the text of scripture; that I believe most firmly all therein related about the creation, both as to order of time and matter of fact. I abandon everything in my book respecting the formation of the earth, and generally all which may be contrary to the narrative of Moses.'
Yet within the same decade, Severinus -- one who, either from neglect or contempt of scripture, let himself wander into error -- admonished his students: "Go my sons, buy stout shoes, climb the mountains, search the valleys, the deserts, the sea shores, and the deep recesses of the earth. Look for the various kinds of minerals, note their characters and mark their origin. Lastly, buy coal, build furnaces, observe and experiment without ceasing, for in this way and in no other will you arrive at a knowledge of the nature and properties of things." Of such were to be the heretics of the nineteenth century.
The structure of the earth had never greatly puzzled the ancients except as practical knowledge of it aided them in the search for gems, silver, gold, or base metals. The Christians too had avoided going far in subterranean exploration, first, because the subject was too intimately akin to hell-fire, and secondly, because all questions about the earth were already answered by the Flood. Such was the explanation offered by Tertullian and Jerome to account for fossil fishes, while a big tooth found in North Africa was assigned by Augustine to one of the giants mentioned in Genesis. This simple, confident answer would have long sufficed were fossils confined to the surface of the earth, but when it was seen that they were sometimes abundant in the deepest quarries, or in mountainous sections of rock where they were buried to tremendous depths, an alternative theory, and one favored throughout the Scholastic period, conceived them to have developed in situ. Avicenna held that they were the freakish products of the 'stone-making force,' while Albertus Magnus attributed them to the 'formative quality of the rocks,' and other Schoolmen spoke of 'lapidific juice' and 'semiair.' Some held that they had their origin in 'irradiations' from the heavenly bodies, the occult forces of the stars and planets being focused by the crystalline spheres upon the earth and tending to reproduce their likenesses. Or it was held that they were generated by vapors and fermentations in the rocks, such 'tumultuous movements of terrestrial exhalations' being thought responsible even for the formation of 'fossil' Etruscan vases and earthenware vessels; or that they had grown from seeds which had fallen into crevices; or that they reproduced themselves like living animals or plants. It was even propounded that they had been created to serve as 'ornaments for the interior and secret parts of the earth,' as tulips, roses and other flowers adorn its surface.
Then it was argued by Leonardo da Vinci and others in the sixteenth century, by Hook and Vallisnieri in the seventeenth, and by Scheuchzer and Guettard in the eighteenth, that fossils were the actual remains of living organisms which had become embedded in the rocks of the earth's crust; since the earth's crust had been completed by the Creator before he made the fishes and other animals, the conclusion was almost unavoidable that the organic remains had been brought into their present position by the flood. So great was the violence of the wind and waters on that occasion that the oceans were stirred to their very depths and piled upon the highest summits of the mountains, depositing there shells of all sorts and fish, to be buried in the sediment which was left when the water receded.
The Genesis explanation, however, presented difficulties. Shells were found at great altitudes in the mountains, in the Andes at 15,000 feet, and though to some this merely proved the universal nature of the deluge, to others it raised the serious question of whence came the enormous quantity of water to cover the whole earth to such a depth, and where did it go when the flood receded? Some who on these grounds found the diluvian theory untenable proposed that fossils were imperfect animals and plants, models which had been made by the Creator before he had fully decided upon the best manner of designing living things; or alternatively, that they were sports of nature, the fanciful product of God's inscrutable whimsy.
It was the whimsy view that brought the geologist Johann Beringer to grief. So definitely had this professor in the University of Würzburg committed himself to the theory that fossils are 'stones of a peculiar sort, hidden by the Author of Nature for his own pleasure,' that some of his skeptical students determined to give his faith a thorough trial. They prepared and baked a number of sham fossils from clay, depicting reptiles and fish, birds in their nests, and imaginary creatures, and these they buried where Beringer was sure to find them. The Professor was so enthusiastic over his discovery that his tempters elaborated other fossils figuring the sun and moon, as well as Syrian or Babylonian script. With each successive find Beringer was increasingly convinced that he had come upon irrefutable evidence of the hand of God, and he published (1726) his discoveries in a treatise illustrated by twenty-one folio plates, devoting a chapter to the refutation of those among his skeptical colleagues who asserted that the fossils were fakes. Only later, when one of them turned up bearing his own name, was his faith in the divine origin of fossils, and in human nature, shattered.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century the evidence against the Mosaic account of creation, and particularly against the story of the flood, had grown to alarming proportions. The geologist Werner (1749-1817) and his students had advanced the theory that in the beginning the earth had existed as a globular nucleus already wrinkled into steep mountains and deep valleys, the whole submerged beneath the waters of a primeval ocean covering the highest mountain tops; this ocean, they thought, was not clear but turbid with dissolved or suspended materials which were slowly deposited in successive layers, adhering to the mountainsides as well as settling in the valleys, thus giving rise to the succession of rocks of various types which are apparent in the superficial crust. The Wernerian theory supposed that the interior of the earth was cold and hollow, and that after the rocks had been deposited the waters of the primeval ocean had somehow drained away into the interior. Volcanoes, which seemed to contradict a cold earth filled with water, were dismissed by Werner as isolated burning masses of subterranean coal or oil which had come into existence only in the latest period of earth history.
The school of Neptunists, as the Wernerians were called, was viewed with alarm since a primeval ocean was not the same as the deluge, nor did this history in any way conform with the seven days of creation: 'Our earth is a child of time and has been built up gradually.' Earth history did not begin at 4004 B.C., but many thousands of years before that date. The orthodox scarcely had had time to become alarmed at this heresy, however, when the Neptunists' position was undermined by the Plutonists, led by Hutton (1726-1797), who established that the interior of the earth was hot; that if extinct as well as active volcanoes were included, these were to be found in nearly all parts of the world and were in no way connected with beds of coal or oil; and that the molten lava which in some localities still issued from their vents was but a cooler sample of the earth's veritably incandescent core. The Plutonists further showed that in many places lower and older beds of rock had been turned on end -- such indeed was the general structure of great mountains -- and in places wholly covered after inversion by formations of later date. Viewed from top to bottom, the geologic column revealed the alternation of periods of quiet deposition and violent upheaval -- 'revolution' was Hutton's term -- on an unbelievable time scale. There was not just one world the history of which had to be unraveled, but a succession of worlds which had suffered such tiltings and foldings of great land masses, such earthquakes and divisions, such floods of molten lava and wind-blown sand, as to defy the imagination. Revolution had succeeded revolution, with 'no traces of a beginning, no prospect of an end.'
It remained for Lyell to show that the geologic processes of the past were but the extension on a vast time scale of the decay and amalgamation, transportation and deposition, elevation and subsidence, which on a calendar of months or years could be observed to be in continuous if microscopic operation in every part of the world. Earth history was not a matter of some thousands of years, but of millions upon millions.
Small wonder that geology was quickly branded as 'a dark art,' as 'dangerous and disreputable,' as 'a forbidden province,' as 'infernal artillery,' as 'an awful evasion of the testimony of revelation'; that against geologists were hurled the familiar epithets of 'infidel,' 'atheist,' 'impugner of the sacred record,' 'assailant of the volume of God'; that men were called upon to oppose vigorously those doctrines of the earth's origin 'which are calculated to tear up in the public mind every remaining attachment to Christianity.' As though it were not enough that Moses should be called a liar, Cowper would have had it that the geologists impugned the veracity of the Deity:
Some drill and bore
If geologists were innocent of the charge, not so some of the orthodox who quickly resorted to the familiar argument of divine deception to account for the geologic appearances. Chateaubriand, in his Genius of Christianity, argued that 'in the beginning' everything was created as related in Genesis, and by sudden fiat, but with the appearance of preexistence: 'It was part of the perfection and harmony of the nature which was displayed before men's eyes that the deserted nests of last year's birds should be seen on the trees, and that the seashore should be covered with shells which had been the abode of fish, and yet the world was quite new, and nests and shells had never been inhabited.' Why God should have chosen to make it appear that he had created the earth by a long and very tedious process and by the agency of terrifying terrestrial convulsions, floods and droughts, why he should have made volcanoes to suggest a core of molten lava when in truth the interior was water, why in consequence of Adam's sin he should have reduced earth's perfection to a corrugated wreck, was left in that divine treasury of inscrutable mystery where were deposited also his reasons for decorating the deepest rocks with shells and fishes.
The first large draft against the divine treasury of mystery to the account of fossils was drawn when William Smith (1769-1839) surveyed nearly the whole of the British Isles and demonstrated that the relations of the different strata were everywhere consonant with the supposition that the strata had been laid down successively from bottom to top, only subsequently to be folded, slipped and sometimes overturned. Smith showed that different geologic formations were not whimsically populated with a variety of animal and vegetable decorations, but contained distinctive species ranging progressively from the most lowly shells in the lower beds to the higher fish in the upper strata. Under Smith's cataloguing, fossils became a geologic calendar by which any stratum could be placed in its proper epoch of earth's history. The genius of Cuvier (1769-1832) reconstructed, often from a few bones, the great vertebrates of the past and demonstrated that the fossil bones were not those of living species but of allied forms which were now extinct, each epoch having a different population on land and sea. Though Smith accepted a vast time scale, Cuvier adhered to Archbishop Ussher's calculation and the Mosaic account. Genesis said that on the sixth day God created all the animals and plants, and nothing was said about the creation of new species at any subsequent date, either before or after the flood; hence the only acceptable interpretation was that some had been wiped out owing to Noah's failure to take them into the ark, while others had been destroyed since the flood by some catastrophe, or a succession of catastrophes, and their dead bodies buried in a soft dirt which had subsequently turned to rock. This opinion, coming from one of the most eminent Christian biologists of the day, was welcomed by the church as wholly refuting the geologists' claim for great antiquity of the earth, and the even more heretical assertion that new species had come into existence since the one and only creative act.