To Be Or Not To Be
Everybody thinks I should be a young earth creationist. I’m not. Why?
by Michael Spencer
(NOTE: Well, I guess I need to say that is is entirely my personal, scientifically ignorant, highly subjective view. This is not a pronouncement on creationism, but a personal declaration of why I am not a young earther. Sort of like why I am a U of L fan. It will never make sense to the UK side.)
IM readers have traveled with me in my many journeys as a Calvinist among the Southern Baptist Arminian evangelical revivalists. I hope I’ve made it clear that despite my substantial differences with my fellow Christians over the sovereignty of God in salvation and how that should shape the life of the church, I still enjoy wonderful Christian fellowship with my fellow Christians. While my doctrinaire Calvinism is shocking to some, it rarely appears as an issue in my normal interactions with my fellow Christians. I am yielded my right to be odd and eccentric, and I take advantage of it.
The real shock these days is that I am not a young earth creationist. Among my evangelical friends, there is a solid majority of CRI types. Ken Ham and Kent Hovind videos are more popular than HBO. If Ken Ham builds his creationist museum in Northern Kentucky, there will be a full-time bus route created to accommodate the field trips from our school. Hugh Ross is accursed among my brethren. Young earth creationism is the majority report, and even my children are on the other team from dad.
When my fellow faculty members hear me say I am not a young earth creationist, they literally shake their heads in astonished disbelief. They know I am not a liberal, and that I am conservative and orthodox in my Christianity. How can I, they muse, not take the Bible literally on matters like the age of the earth? How can I not see that young earth creationism is the God-honoring, Bible believing position? How did I ever get duped into believing- as they wrongly assume I do- the lies of the evolutionists?
Students who take me for Bible have generally already been through the creationist curriculum in other classes. Their reactions range from curious to incredulous. They are surprised that I, the minister, preacher and Bible teacher, do not approach Genesis in the same way their science teachers do. I explain that Christians have never required agreement on these issues, and that reasonable interpretation of Genesis allows a variety of positions on the hermeneutics of the early chapters of Genesis. I am always saddened that they see this disagreement as inappropriate, and I work hard to say that the Creationist position, while it is not my position, is completely acceptable as a way of interpreting the Bible. (I hope my co-workers reading this essay will know that I have never demeaned creationism in any way, though I am willing to critique it as a method of interpreting Genesis.)
The Roots of My Problem
I have been reading creationist materials since high school. I bought The Genesis Flood when I was a very young Christian. I was converted in a fundamentalist church that contained very few college educated members, but they were aware of the challenge posed by the teaching of evolution. Darwin’s theories were skewered and preached against, in traditional fundamentalist fashion, by preachers who had never read Darwin or sat through a college biology course.
Evolution held a particular fear in my family because my half-brother had rejected Christianity as a result of embracing evolution. My parents were uneducated, but they warned me about the dangers I would face if I went to a school that taught evolution. When I took my college science classes, the professors were aware that many of us came from such backgrounds, and at least my teachers, took great care in separating their teaching of science from any critique of religion. My college biology professor was very cautious not to stir up controversy. In retrospect, I wish he had been more straightforward.
My views on the relationship of scripture and science were more affected by my college Bible classes than my science classes. I learned that scripture must be rightly interpreted. It must be understood within its world, and interpreted rightly in mine. If I came away with any suspicions that the young earth creationists might be wrong, it came from my developing an appreciation for Biblical interpretation, not from the Biology lab. Secular science didn’t turn my head. I learned that the people waving the Bible around weren’t necessarily treating it with the respect it deserved.
In seminary I continued my study of Biblical interpretation. I had been warned that liberal professors would teach me evolution and deny the historicity of miracles in the Bible. There were some professors out there that fit the stereotype, but they weren’t in the Bible department of my school. My Bible instructors taught me to respect the Biblical text by not imposing my interpretations and favorite hobby horses on the scriptures. What became clearer to me over my seminary career was that many of my evangelical and fundamentalist brethren were not willing to let the scriptures be what they were or to let them speak their own language.
Among the most valuable lessons I learned at seminary was to ask questions about the literary genre of the Biblical text. Literary criticism is among the most recent and helpful approaches to the Bible, and I don’t claim to be an expert. But I did come to appreciate that identifying a text as history, poetry, song, drama, parable or epistle was essential in allowing that text to “play by its own rules.” This had tremendous influence on my approach to the issues of young earth creationism, and continues to be the primary reason that I cannot accept their reading of Genesis.
The Ham Hermeneutic
One of the most well known creationist communicators is Ken Ham, an Australian school teacher whose humor and communication skills have served the cause of creationism well. His ministry “Answers in Genesis” is heard around the world. I’ve heard a lot of Ham’s stuff on tape and videos. I’ve read several of his books. In fact, I show my students an overview of Genesis 1 by Ham to demonstrate how creationists approach the Biblical text. Without being disrespectful, I have to say that I am always left uneasy by Ham’s approach to the Bible.
Ham loves the Bible and believes it is utterly truthful. He is unswervingly committed to the Bible as the Word of God and as divinely inspired. He is, however, primarily a scientist and an educator. Not a Biblical scholar. I do not believe he knows the Biblical languages. He shows little interest in Genesis as a literary text. His teaching is on Genesis as a scientific text.
One of Ham’s favorite laugh lines is suggesting students wait until a professor makes some claim about evolution or “millions of years” (a favorite Ham line) and then ask the killer question. “Sir, were you there?” (Add Aussie accent.) After the professor says “No, but….” then the follow up is something like this: “Then why do you believe the words of men, who weren’t there and don’t know everything, instead of believing the Word of God, who was there and does know everything?”
I don’t want to disparage Ham’s question or his belief that the Bible reveals to us unique information we could not know otherwise. But Ham has completely run past the really important questions about how we read and understand Genesis 1. He is asserting that Genesis 1 is to be believed because God inspired it. I don’t know of any real contention about that subject among those of us who are not young earth creationists. But Ham assumes that anyone who doesn’t interpret Genesis exactly as he does is rejecting the Bible as truthful.
And how does Ham interpret Genesis? He believes it is a scientific description of creation; a detailed scientific description that answers specific scientific questions and rules out any theories that cannot be based upon statements in Genesis. I am perfectly at ease with Ham making this presupposition, but I disagree with it. I do not believe Genesis is written as scientific description, but as a theological (and prescientific) one.
Let Us Do Your Speaking For You
Young earth creationists have not only not won me over with their approach to the Biblical text, and they have impressed me less with their attitude towards those interpretations that differ with them. Young earth creationists win the award for factionalism, and some of their achievements have to be noted.
For example, any approach that rejects a less than 10,000 year old earth or the flood as the explanation for all visible topography and geology is not on the team. So advocates of intelligent design, who have written and spoken powerfully on the evidence for God in microbiology and astrophysics, are written off because they tend to accept the current scientific dating of the universe and the earth. Phillip Johnson and Michael Behe, significant voices in the intelligent design movement, are no better than Stephen Jay Gould or Carl Sagan to the young earthers. In fact, the entire Intelligent Design movement is ignored by the creationists. This is foolish. There is much common ground between these groups.
Some of the contentions of the young earthers seem, to a layman like me, somewhat far-fetched, like denying the existence of black holes or questioning the constancy of the speed of light, and the evidence cited for these positions is, to say the least, fringe or below the fringe. Yet young earthers feel that because these views must be accepted to keep the age of the earth less than 10,000 years,anyone who does not embrace these strange and unproven theories is rejecting the truthfulness of the Bible, even though such ideas are in no way related to any text in Genesis. I find their rejection of the speed of light and the measurability of the universe to be particularly troubling.
I have noted on several occasions the open hostility towards Hugh Ross, the Canadian astronomer who has written a number of books on Genesis and Science for Navpress and has an apologetics ministry based on answering scientific questions. Ross interprets Genesis differently than the young earthers, and basically affirms the standard picture of big-bang and an old, expanding universe. Ross is somewhat unique in his interpretations, and takes the text very literally, but to the young earthers, he is out of the ball park, because he does not assume/conclude the earth/universe is young.
This is a method of Biblical interpretation where a few questions will quickly determine where one stands. How old is the earth? Was there death before Adam? Do you believe in a world wide flood? Were there dinosaurs on the ark? Any number of these questions draw lines in the sand for the young earthers. I am sorry to say that I cannot think of any division in Christianity- Calvinist/Arminan, Catholic/Protestant, Pentecostal/Cessationist, Seeker/Traditional- where one side is more completely unlikely to appreciate the other position than this one.
Two issues particularly have bothered me. One is the young earth contention that there cannot be such a thing as theistic evolution. For the young earth movement, the teams seems to be young earthers versus atheistic evolutionists. But this is too simplistic. There are many theistic evolutionists in the diverse traditions of Christianity. We may disagree deeply on the evidence for macroevolution, particularly as it applies to human beings, or on various claim about the nature of the Bible, but to say that there is no such possible Christian position as theistic evolution is criminally inaccurate. (For example, the controversial life and work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin should be noted as a significant advocate of such a position. I did extensive research on the life of Charles Darwin during seminary, and Darwin himself was not an atheist, but a Deistic evolutionist.) Theistic evolution may have its problems, but in the opinion of serious confessional theologians, it does not deny anything essential to the Christian faith.
The other issue is the rejection of the astronomical evidence for the “Big Bang.” Christians like Fred Hereen and Hugh Ross have taken the evidence of the “Big Bang” and produced powerful arguments for the existence of God. I personally find the evidence compelling and exciting, and very helpful to students in understanding why faith in a creator God is not irrational. Yet the young earthers, fully committed to rejecting any evidence that might challenge their age of the earth, routinely equate the “Big Bang” with atheism. When I refer to the “Big Bang” and what we know about it from the Hubble telescope, I can count on at least one student asking me how I can believe in the “Big Bang” since that is what atheists believe? (Even my own children had to be reeducated on this point.)
Good men, like R.C. Sproul and J. Gresham Machen, are outside of the young earther’s definition of orthodoxy on this issue. The Presbyterian Church in America has been painfully divided over this issue, an issue that no creed or confession in classical orthodox Christendom has ever taken sides on. Even if I were impressed with the Biblical or scientific claims of the young earth position, I would hesitate to identify with a movement this uncharitable towards other Christians.
Literally Missing the Point
The young earth creationists believe that Genesis 1 is “literally” a description of creation. I do not. It is this simple disagreement that is the cornerstone of my objection. I believe that Genesis 1 is a prescientific description of Creation intended to accent how Yahweh’s relationship with the world stands in stark contrast to the Gods of other cultures, most likely those of Babylon. Textual and linguistic evidence convinces me that this chapter was written to be used in a liturgical (worship) setting, with poetic rhythms and responses understood as part of the text. It tells who made the universe in a poetic and prescientific way. It is beautiful, inspired and true as God’s Word.
Does it match up with scientific evidence? Who cares? Here I differ with Hugh Ross and the CRI writers. I do not believe science, history or archaeology of any kind establishes the truthfulness of the scripture in any way. Scripture is true by virtue of God speaking it. If God spoke poetry, or parable, or fiction or a prescientific description of creation, it is true without any verification by any human measurement whatsoever. The freedom of God in inspiration is not restricted to texts that can be interpreted “literally” by historical or scientific judges of other ages and cultures beyond the time the scriptures were written.
In my view, both the scientific establishment’s claims to debunk Genesis and the creationists claims to have established Genesis by way of relating the text to science are worthless. Utterly and completely worthless and I will freely admit to being bored the more I hear about it. I react to this much the same I react to people who run in with the Bible and the newspaper showing me how 666 is really the bar code on my credit card. (A theory which, by the way, creationist and KJV-only advocate Kent Hovind gives considerable credibility to.)
Does the Bible need to be authorized by scientists or current events to be true? What view of inspiration is it that puts the Bible on trial before the current scientific and historical models? Has anyone noticed what this obsession with literality does to the Bible itself?
The compliment that is paid to the Bible by those who say it is “literally” and scientifically true comes at the expense of an authentic and accurate understanding of the text. A simple illustration will show what I mean.
ESV Revelation 6:12 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale.
I do not believe the stars will fall to the earth. I don’t. I don’t believe stars are in the sky. I don’t believe the writer understood what stars are or how they operate or the distances involved. I think this is prescientific language, and it is meant to tell us truth in its own way. A simple illustration, but it clearly shows that literary purpose must come before “literal” interpretation.
Now if I insist on a literal interpretation of this verse as a way of saying it is true and inspired, I am not treating the text with reverence and respect. I may be well motivated, but I am damaging the text. My point gets across, but at the expense of the real meaning of the text as it was written and inspired.
In the same way, Genesis describes creation prescientifically, in the language and idioms of the time, with a theological purpose in mind. It speaks clearly and powerfully. Making this into a literal and “scientific” description as a condition of inspiration is wrong.
Am I treating Genesis as a special case? Are Ham and others correct that this is straightforward description and there is no reason for putting a literary “spin” on how I read the text? My objection is to saying what a “straightforward description” means in a text several thousand years old; a text from a specific culture with a particular purpose. I am not claiming any special insight into Genesis. I am simply saying that, in my opinion, Genesis was not written with reference to the questions or methods of modern science, and making its truthfulness depend on that is a misuse of the text.
Many other examples could be brought forth. (Ask what a literal interpretation of the vision of Jesus in Revelation 1 turns into?) The literary nature of a text can’t be overlooked or taken for granted. In my opinion, this is typical of the creationist approach to the Bible. It becomes a piece of evidence in a scientific discussion, and the text of scripture- particularly its literary distinctiveness- is largely ignored.
Let’s bring this essay to an end with some of the most frequently asked questions in this discussion.
1. Do you believe in evolution? I don’t know anyone who doesn’t acknowledge some of the truth is Darwin’s theory, particularly as it describes the kind of “evolution” anyone can see in the breeding of animals. But evolution today is a religion more than a scientific theory. It is a massive, confused, chaotic, feuding, braggart of a system that has major problems. How does it relate to the Bible? I really don’t know. The Bible says God created all things by his word and design, and created human beings in his image. The language it uses to describe that is not literal, scientific language meant to answer scientific questions. Evolution is a theory that scientists use to explain things. That’s all it is to me. Compared to the truth of scripture, it is worthless.
2. Is Creationism bad? No, creationism has done some very good things. I believe creationists have put together a strong critique of evolutionary theory and pointed out many fallacies in evolutionary claims. They have strongly asserted that the world can’t be understood without God. They have made a strong witness for the truthfulness of the Bible, though I think they misunderstand how the truth of the Bible operates. I do feel that on the subjects of Biblical interpretation and scientific matters related to astronomy, creationism has some problems.
3. How old is the earth? The age of the earth is not something I believe the Biblical writers understood or cared about. The genealogical data in Genesis is not there to date the earth but to demonstrate important parts of God’s message to human beings, such as the universality of death. Personally, I accept the commonly stated age of the earth from the current astrophysical models.
4. Do you believe in a literal Adam and Eve? Yes, though I think the story we have in Genesis 1-3 is not primarily historical, but theological and is not there to be scientifically descriptive. But it is clear that the Bible’s story of our salvation begins with our first parents.
5. Do you believe in the flood? The flood story in Genesis 6-9 is about God’s judgment and grace, not about geology. I believe catastrophic events occurred in the past that are the background of this story, but I do not believe the story was written by modern scientific or historical standards.
6. Aren’t you just turning plain historical passages into symbols or allegories? Isn’t that damaging the text as you accuse creationists of doing? A good question, but not a careful one. I don’t believe Genesis is symbolic or allegorical. I believe it is prescientific. If I explain the birth of a baby to a three year old child, I speak differently than I would do a college senior. I am not lying, using symbols or allegories. I am using language appropriate for the setting. Genesis is written in language appropriate for the culture, the purpose and the setting. It wasn’t written to or by or for modern scientists.
Looking at the literary purpose of a passage does put some subjectivity on the interpreter. No doubt about it. That means even more care and caution in saying what a text is all about and how it should be read. I understand some people prefer the security of saying all texts are literal. I feel that blanket approach hurts the text and doesn’t help us understand it.
7. Why couldn’t the earth be 6,000 years old? What is the problem with 24 hour creation days? God is sovereign, right? Absolutely. My problem is simply that I don’t believe the Bible is commenting on the age of the earth, and I see no compelling reason to reject the age of the universe or the earth suggested by mainstream science, which, by the way, includes many Christians who look at the evidence and believe “the heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” I also wonder why God’s sovereignty can’t be just as grandly expressed by inspiring a prescientific text as a scientifically correct one?
8. What if God created things to look older than they really are, like creating Adam with the appearance of age? An interesting point, and possible, of course. But it seems a long way around to simply support the assumptions of the creationists. There is no reason to adopt this view unless you believe a young universe must be maintained at all costs.
9. Do you believe that the teaching of evolution in the public schools is the reason for the decline of our culture into violence and barbarism? I believe the problems of our world go much deeper than the teaching of any philosophy. I think creationists have made some excellent points about the connection of evolution with other philosophical and moral developments. But atheistic philosophies are simply a fruit of the general human rebellion against God described in Genesis 1-12 and Romans 1-2. You can’t lay so much at the feet of evolution. Humans were just as bad before the theory came along.
10. Doesn’t it bother you that so many people you think highly of are creationists and you are not? Doesn’t it make you wonder if you’re off track? I have a lot of friends with whom I disagree over important issues in scripture. I like to search out what I believe, and I appreciate all those God has used to help me understand his word. I hope my friends always know this isn’t an issue that will divide us as friends, but I hope it will be an issue we can discuss with open minds.
A website that has been helpful to me is http://www.bibleandscience.com.