Saturday, February 08, 2014

The Compelling Biblical Alternative to Young Earth Creationism

Watching the discussion that has taken place since the highly publicized debate between Ken Ham of the Creation Museum and Bill Nye, PBS's science guy, has proved frustrating for those of us not represented by either of those viewpoints. 

That is to say, there are some of us that reject naturalistic evolution and that are rather astonished at the philosophical naivety of those who think that they are engaged in a purely empirical investigation of scientific data. The specialization required of academics in the modern world often blinds really smart people to their level of ignorance in areas outside of their specialization, and many scientists put that on full display when their discussion of origins presses them into consideration of matters of epistemology and other philosophical issues for which they show very little understanding. 

Nonetheless, many of us also reject young earth creationism.  Believing that there is nothing in the Bible that requires one to hold that the earth is young, we are willing to leave the question to those who study such things. If scientists say that the universe is old, I have no problem with that.

To reiterate my own views:  I am a Christian who holds to the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture and to the historic teaching of the church as expounded in the Apostle's Creed, the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds, and the 5 sola's of the Reformation.  I subscribe to the Westminster standards.  And, I believe that the earth is likely very old.  Even billions of years old. No problem.

Some people seem astonished at that, but they shouldn't be.  The great Princeton theologian Charles Hodge, who along with B.B. Warfield provided the intellectual heft behind modern understandings of biblical inerrancy, wrote in the late 19th century while being well aware of what was at stake with the incipient theories of Darwin.  Hodge vigorously opposed naturalistic philosophy while acknowledging that the earth could be very old.

J. Gresham Machen was the most outstanding conservative Presbyterian theologian of the first half of the 20th century and the key leader in the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Westminister Theological Seminary.  Machen had no concerns about the earth being very old.  Historian Mark Noll, in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, argues that evangelicals did not become insistent about young earth creationism until the 1950's, when it began to be raised as a litmus test for orthodoxy initially by, of all things, a Seventh Day Adventist -- hardly the center of the evangelical universe.  Nonetheless, the writings of Henry Morris of the Creation Research Institute gained a significant sway among populist fundamentalists and evangelicals, who have extended it deep into the roots of the home school movement. 

This is an enormous mistake, both doctrinally and apologetically:  doctrinally, because nothing in the Bible requires belief in a young earth; and, apologetically, because it causes many evangelicals to stake their argument where their evidence is weakest.  That is to say, without dispute the universe has the appearance of being designed, and it has the appearance of being very old.  Why on earth do Christians want to focus their attention on the age? If I am going to argue about origins, I would much rather be talking about whether purely naturalistic random mutation and natural selection can account for complex cellular systems.  While I have friends who have advanced degrees and are very smart and who hold to the young earth view, I have to say, with regret, that I think that holding it up as a test of orthodoxy and as an apologetic imperative is destructive of the Christian mission.

But what about Genesis 1?  Does Genesis 1 require a believer to adhere to a young earth?

No.  The best reading of Genesis 1 understands it as having nothing to say about the age of the earth or the length of time of creation. I suspect I need to explain.

Genesis, written by Moses, was part of the Book of the Law provided to God's covenant people, Israel, who had been delivered from Egypt.  Now, neither the age of the earth nor the details as to how it had come about were paramount on the minds of the Israelites, who did, though, need to know about who God was and how he related to his people and his creation. The opening chapters of Genesis begin to provide that account.  The Israelites would have been familiar with the outlandish and chaotic understanding of creation held by the Egyptians.  In contrast, Genesis 1 presents the one true God creating and ultimately establishing his covenants in an orderly manner. 

Of course, Genesis uses the term "days" in the creation account, but there is no reason to believe that either the term "days" or the poetic "evening and morning" language are intended to refer to a 24 hour period.  The fact that the sun was not created until day 4, in fact, ought to provide a clue that periods of time predicated on the earth's rotation and relationship to the sun are not in mind at all.  It should additionally be noted that the creation account explicitly mentions natural processes with regard to God's creation activity.  Genesis 2:5 says, "When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up -- for the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the land."

See that:  natural process. There was no vegetation, because there as of yet had been no rain.

Further, a close examination of Genesis 1 shows that the account is not intended to be chronological.  Rather, it is topical.  Thus, in the first three "days," God creates what he fills in the second three days. Day 1, the heavens and the earth, corresponds with Day 4, when he fills the heavens with the sun and the moon.  Day 2 divides the firmament (sky and water) and Day 5 fills them with birds and fish.  Day 3 is the creation of land, filled with land animals and mankind on Day 6.  The passage is accurate without being chronological. It describes God's orderly and purposeful activity in creation, but does not do so in a blow by blow chronological account.  And it says nothing about the length of time.

Young earth creationists typically bring two objections to this approach when used to justify an old earth view (notably, this "framework interpretation" of Genesis is consistent with either old or young earth views).  First, it is objected that this conflicts with Sabbath teaching where the time of God's creative activity serves as the basis for man's Sabbath rest.  However, that objection is answered with the understanding that God performed and revealed his creative activity with this Sabbath principle providentially in view.

Second, some would object that allowing for an old earth results in the presence of death and decay on earth prior to the Fall.  However, it can be answered that the Bible does not require one to believe that no death or decay appeared on earth prior to the Fall.  It only requires us to understand that death and decay did not exist for man as judgement for sin prior to the Fall.

Thus, there is an insistence in the Bible on a first man and woman, the direct creation of God, who fell into sin and brought damnation into the human race.  On those issues, there is a clear boundary.  As to the age of the earth:  it may be very old.

I have provided a popular level description of this approach to the opening chapters of Genesis. For those who would like to dig deeper with a more technical article, see Meredith Kline.

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