This is most (not all) of an IM essay written during the early years of this web site (2001 I think.) My children were up to their ears in Ham/Hovind videos and I was feeling very alone in my own reading of Genesis. Things are better now, though the seeds of young earth creationism have borne their inevitable fruit. Hopefully, it will encourage some of you to continue thinking about these issues.
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 and church. 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.