Beringer's stones, and preamble discussing competing views of fossils (approx. 6 pages), excerpted from:



First published in 1896. Digitized by Cardinalis Etext Press, C.E.K. Posted to Wiretap in July 1993, as wartheo.txt.



AMONG the philosophers of Greece we find, even at an early period, germs of geological truth, and, what is of vast importance, an atmosphere in which such germs could grow. These germs were transmitted to Roman thought; an atmosphere of tolerance continued; there was nothing which forbade unfettered reasoning regarding either the earth's strata or the remains of former life found in them, and under the Roman Empire a period of fruitful observation seemed sure to begin.

But, as Christianity took control of the world, there came a great change. The earliest attitude of the Church toward geology and its kindred sciences was indifferent, and even contemptuous. According to the prevailing belief, the earth was a "fallen world," and was soon to be destroyed. Why, then, should it be studied? Why, indeed, give a thought to it? The scorn which Lactantius and St. Augustine had cast upon the study of astronomy was extended largely to other sciences.[209]

But the germs of scientific knowledge and thought developed in the ancient world could be entirely smothered neither by eloquence nor by logic; some little scientific observation must be allowed, though all close reasoning upon it was fettered by theology. Thus it was that St. Jerome insisted that the broken and twisted crust of the earth exhibits the wrath of God against sin, and Tertullian asserted that fossils resulted from the flood of Noah.

To keep all such observation and reasoning within orthodox limits, St. Augustine, about the beginning of the fifth century, began an effort to develop from these germs a growth in science which should be sacred and safe. With this intent he prepared his great commentary on the work of creation, as depicted in Genesis, besides dwelling upon the subject in other writings. Once engaged in this work, he gave himself to it more earnestly than any other of the earlier fathers ever did; but his vast powers of research and thought were not directed to actual observation or reasoning upon observation. The keynote of his whole method is seen in his famous phrase, "Nothing is to be accepted save on the authority of Scripture, since greater is that authority than all the powers of the human mind." All his thought was given to studying the letter of the sacred text, and to making it explain natural phenomena by methods purely theological.[210]

Among the many questions he then raised and discussed may be mentioned such as these: "What caused the creation of the stars on the fourth day?" "Were beasts of prey and venomous animals created before, or after, the fall of Adam? If before, how can their creation be reconciled with God's goodness; if afterward, how can their creation be reconciled to the letter of God's Word?" "Why were only beasts and birds brought before Adam to be named, and not fishes and marine animals?" "Why did the Creator not say, `Be fruitful and multiply,' to plants as well as to animals?"[210b]

Sundry answers to these and similar questions formed the main contributions of the greatest of the Latin fathers to the scientific knowledge of the world, after a most thorough study of the biblical text and a most profound application of theological reasoning. The results of these contributions were most important. In this, as in so many other fields, Augustine gave direction to the main current of thought in western Europe, Catholic and Protestant, for nearly thirteen centuries.

In the ages that succeeded, the vast majority of prominent scholars followed him implicitly. Even so strong a man as Pope Gregory the Great yielded to his influence, and such leaders of thought as St. Isidore, in the seventh century, and the Venerable Bede, in the eighth, planting themselves upon Augustine's premises, only ventured timidly to extend their conclusions upon lines he had laid down.

In his great work on Etymologies, Isidore took up Augustine's attempt to bring the creation into satisfactory relations with the book of Genesis, and, as to fossil remains, he, like Tertullian, thought that they resulted from the Flood of Noah. In the following century Bede developed the same orthodox traditions.[211]

The best guess, in a geological sense, among the followers of St. Augustine was made by an Irish monkish scholar, who, in order to diminish the difficulty arising from the distribution of animals, especially in view of the fact that the same animals are found in Ireland as in England, held that various lands now separated were once connected. But, alas! the exigencies of theology forced him to place their separation later than the Flood. Happily for him, such facts were not yet known as that the kangaroo is found only on an island in the South Pacific, and must therefore, according to his theory, have migrated thither with all his progeny, and along a causeway so curiously constructed that none of the beasts of prey, who were his fellow-voyagers in the ark, could follow him.

These general lines of thought upon geology and its kindred science of zoology were followed by St. Thomas Aquinas and by the whole body of medieval theologians, so far as they gave any attention to such subjects.

The next development of geology, mainly under Church guidance, was by means of the scholastic theology. Phrase-making was substituted for investigation. Without the Church and within it wonderful contributions were thus made. In the eleventh century Avicenna accounted for the fossils by suggesting a "stone-making force";[212] in the thirteenth, Albert the Great attributed them to a "formative quality;"[212b] in the following centuries some philosophers ventured the idea that they grew from seed; and the Aristotelian doctrine of spontaneous generation was constantly used to prove that these stony fossils possessed powers of reproduction like plants and animals.[212c]

Still, at various times and places, germs implanted by Greek and Roman thought were warmed into life. The Arabian schools seem to have been less fettered by the letter of the Koran than the contemporary Christian scholars by the letter of the Bible; and to Avicenna belongs the credit of first announcing substantially the modern geological theory of changes in the earth's surface.[212d]

The direct influence of the Reformation was at first unfavourable to scientific progress, for nothing could be more at variance with any scientific theory of the development of the universe than the ideas of the Protestant leaders. That strict adherence to the text of Scripture which made Luther and Melanchthon denounce the idea that the planets revolve about the sun, was naturally extended to every other scientific statement at variance with the sacred text. There is much reason to believe that the fetters upon scientific thought were closer under the strict interpretation of Scripture by the early Protestants than they had been under the older Church. The dominant spirit among the Reformers is shown by the declaration of Peter Martyr to the effect that, if a wrong opinion should obtain regarding the creation as described in Genesis, "all the promises of Christ fall into nothing, and all the life of our religion would be lost."[213]

In the times immediately succeeding the Reformation matters went from bad to worse. Under Luther and Melanchthon there was some little freedom of speculation, but under their successors there was none; to question any interpretation of Luther came to be thought almost as wicked as to question the literal interpretation of the Scriptures themselves. Examples of this are seen in the struggles between those who held that birds were created entirely from water and those who held that they were created out of water and mud. In the city of Lubeck, the ancient centre of the Hanseatic League, close at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Pfeiffer, "General Superintendent" or bishop in those parts, published his Pansophia Mosaica, calculated, as he believed, to beat back science forever. In a long series of declamations he insisted that in the strict text of Genesis alone is safety, that it contains all wisdom and knowledge, human and divine. This being the case, who could care to waste time on the study of material things and give thought to the structure of the world? Above all, who, after such a proclamation by such a ruler in the Lutheran Israel, would dare to talk of the "days" mentioned in Genesis as "periods of time"; or of the "firmament" as not meaning a solid vault over the universe; or of the "waters above the heavens" as not contained in a vast cistern supported by the heavenly vault; or of the "windows of heaven" as a figure of speech?[213b]

In England the same spirit was shown even as late as the time of Sir Matthew Hale. We find in his book on the Origination of Mankind, published in 1685, the strictest devotion to a theory of creation based upon the mere letter of Scripture, and a complete inability to draw knowledge regarding the earth's origin and structure from any other source.

While the Lutheran, Calvinistic, and Anglican Reformers clung to literal interpretations of the sacred books, and turned their faces away from scientific investigation, it was among their contemporaries at the revival of learning that there began to arise fruitful thought in this field. Then it was, about the beginning of the sixteenth century, that Leonardo da Vinci, as great a genius in science as in art, broached the true idea as to the origin of fossil remains; and his compatriot, Fracastoro, developed this on the modern lines of thought. Others in other parts of Europe took up the idea, and, while mixing with it many crudities, drew from it more and more truth. Toward the end of the sixteenth century Bernard Palissy, in France, took hold of it with the same genius which he showed in artistic creation; but, remarkable as were his assertions of scientific realities, they could gain little hearing. Theologians, philosophers, and even some scientific men of value, under the sway of scholastic phrases, continued to insist upon such explanations as that fossils were the product of "fatty matter set into a fermentation by heat"; or of a "lapidific juice";[214] or of a "seminal air";[214b] or of a "tumultuous movement of terrestrial exhalations"; and there was a prevailing belief that fossil remains, in general, might be brought under the head of "sports of Nature," a pious turn being given to this phrase by the suggestion that these "sports" indicated some inscrutable purpose of the Almighty.

This remained a leading orthodox mode of explanation in the Church, Catholic and Protestant, for centuries.


But the scientific method could not be entirely hidden; and, near the beginning of the seventeenth century, De Clave, Bitaud, and De Villon revived it in France. Straightway the theological faculty of Paris protested against the scientific doctrine as unscriptural, destroyed the offending treatises, banished their authors from Paris, and forbade them to live in towns or enter places of public resort.[214c]

The champions of science, though depressed for a time, quietly laboured on, especially in Italy. Half a century later, Steno, a Dane, and Scilla, an Italian, went still further in the right direction; and, though they and their disciples took great pains to throw a tub to the whale, in the shape of sundry vague concessions to the Genesis legends, they developed geological truth more and more.

In France, the old theological spirit remained exceedingly powerful. About the middle of the eighteenth century Buffon made another attempt to state simple geological truths; but the theological faculty of the Sorbonne dragged him at once from his high position, forced him to recant ignominiously, and to print his recantation. It runs as follows: "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." This humiliating document reminds us painfully of that forced upon Galileo a hundred years before.

It has been well observed by one of the greatest of modern authorities that the doctrine which Buffon thus "abandoned" is as firmly established as that of the earth's rotation upon its axis.[215] Yet one hundred and fifty years were required to secure for it even a fair hearing; the prevailing doctrine of the Church continued to be that "all things were made at the beginning of the world," and that to say that stones and fossils were made before or since "the beginning" is contrary to Scripture. Again we find theological substitutes for scientific explanation ripening into phrases more and more hollow--making fossils "sports of Nature," or "mineral concretions," or "creations of plastic force," or "models" made by the Creator before he had fully decided upon the best manner of creating various beings.

Of this period, when theological substitutes for science were carrying all before them, there still exists a monument commemorating at the same time a farce and a tragedy. This is the work of Johann Beringer, professor in the University of Wurzburg and private physician to the Prince-Bishop—the treatise bearing the title Lithographiae Wirceburgensis Specimen Primum, "illustrated with the marvellous likenesses of two hundred figured or rather insectiform stones." Beringer, for the greater glory of God, had previously committed himself so completely to the theory that fossils are simply "stones of a peculiar sort, hidden by the Author of Nature for his own pleasure,"[216] that some of his students determined to give his faith in that pious doctrine a thorough trial. They therefore prepared a collection of sham fossils in baked clay, imitating not only plants, reptiles, and fishes of every sort that their knowledge or imagination could suggest, but even Hebrew and Syriac inscriptions, one of them the name of the Almighty; and these they buried in a place where the professor was wont to search for specimens. The joy of Beringer on unearthing these proofs of the immediate agency of the finger of God in creating fossils knew no bounds. At great cost he prepared this book, whose twenty-two elaborate plates of facsimiles were forever to settle the question in favour of theology and against science, and prefixed to the work an allegorical title page, wherein not only the glory of his own sovereign, but that of heaven itself, was pictured as based upon a pyramid of these miraculous fossils. So robust was his faith that not even a premature exposure of the fraud could dissuade him from the publication of his book. Dismissing in one contemptuous chapter this exposure as a slander by his rivals, he appealed to the learned world. But the shout of laughter that welcomed the work soon convinced even its author. In vain did he try to suppress it; and, according to tradition, having wasted his fortune in vain attempts to buy up all the copies of it, and being taunted by the rivals whom he had thought to overwhelm, he died of chagrin. Even death did not end his misfortunes. The copies of the first edition having been sold by a graceless descendant to a Leipsic bookseller, a second edition was brought out under a new title, and this, too, is now much sought as a precious memorial of human credulity.[217]

But even this discomfiture did not end the idea which had caused it, for, although some latitude was allowed among the various theologico-scientific explanations, it was still held meritorious to believe that all fossils were placed in the strata on one of the creative days by the hand of the Almighty, and that this was done for some mysterious purpose, probably for the trial of human faith.

[End of excerpt.]

The entire e-text is available on the net. Search for the string: "Andrew Dickson White".

Footnotes, not in the e-text are added here:

[215] See citation and remark in Lyell's Principles of Geology, chap. iii, p. 57; also Huxley, Essays on Controverted Questions, p. 62.

[216] See Beringer's Lithographiae, etc, p. 91.

[217] See Carus, Geschicte der Zoologie, Munich, 1872, p. 467, note, and Reusch, Bibel und Natur, p. 197. A list of the authorities upon this episode, with the text of one of the epigrams circulated at poor Beringer's expense, is given by Dr. Reuss in the Serapeum for 1852, p. 203. The book itself (the original imnpression) is in the White Library at Cornell University. For Beringer himself, see especially the encyclopaedia of Ersch and Gruber, and the Allgemeine deutsche Biographie.

[End of Beringer document.]