October 19, 2017

iMonk Classic: To Be or Not To Be, or Why I’m Not A Young Earth Creationist

Written by Michael Spencer

MOD NOTE: Comments are closed.

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.

Comments

  1. Wow. I haven’t gone through the whole essay yet, but thanks for posting it. I don’t think I ever saw this one before. Thanks Mike!

  2. “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.”

    Yes! This! Most of the pagan creation myths had some version of chaos and then the gods arose out of it; Genesis has God pre-existing and creating and imposing order on the formless chaos.

    The important thing here is that God is the creator and not the result of the cosmic egg arising out of the waters of chaos or the like. Getting from that to “six days of twenty four hours each” creation is stretching things.

  3. Question: Mike are you an old earth creationist?

    – Thanks!

  4. I apologise in advance for the length of this post:

    Genesis is history, not poetry, parable, prophetic vision, or mythology. T

    his is seen in the Hebrew verbs used in Genesis 1 (Boyd 2008), the fact that Genesis 1–11 has the same characteristics of historical narrative as in Genesis 12–50, most of Exodus, much of Numbers, Joshua, 1 and 2 Kings, etc. (which are discernibly distinct from the characteristics of Hebrew poetry, parable, or prophetic vision), and the way the other biblical authors and Jesus treat Genesis 1–11 (as literal history) (Kaiser 2001, pp. 53–83).

    The very dominant meaning of yôm in the Old Testament is a literal day, and the context of Genesis 1 confirms that meaning there (Hasel 1994; McCabe 2000; Steinmann 2002). Yôm is defined in its two literal senses in verse 5. It is repeatedly modified by a number (one day, second day, etc.) and with evening and morning, which elsewhere in the Old Testament always means a literal day. It is defined again literally in verse 14 in relation to the movement of the heavenly bodies.

    God created the first animate and inanimate things supernaturally and instantly. They were fully formed and fully functioning. For example, plants, animals, and people were mature adults ready to reproduce naturally “after their kinds.” When God said “let there be . . .” He did not have to wait millions of years for things to come into existence. He spoke, and things happened (Psalm 33:6–9).
    The order of creation in Genesis 1 contradicts the order of events in the evolution story in at least 30 points. For example, the Bible says the earth was created before the sun and stars, which is just the opposite of the big bang theory’s order. The Bible says that fruit trees were created before any sea creatures and that birds were created before dinosaurs (which were made on Day 6, since they are land animals), exactly the opposite of the evolution story. The Bible says the earth was covered completely with water before dry land appeared, and then it was covered again at the Flood. Evolution theory says the earth has never been covered with a global ocean, and dry land appeared before the first seas (Mortenson 2006).

    Exodus 20:8–11 resists all attempts to add millions of years anywhere in Genesis 1 because it says that God created everything in six days. The day-age view is ruled out because “day” (yôm) is used in both parts of the commandment. The days of the Jewish work-week are the same as the days of Creation Week. God could have used several other words or phrases if He meant to say “work six days because I created in six long, indefinite periods” (Stambaugh 1991a). But He didn’t. These verses also rule out the gap theory or any attempt to add millions of years before verse 1 because God says He created the heavens, the earth, the sea, and all that is in them during the six days. He made nothing before the six days. It should also be noted that the fourth commandment is one of only a few of the Ten Commandments that contains a reason for the commandment. If God created over millions of years, He could have not given a reason for Sabbath-keeping or He could have given a theological or redemptive reason as He did elsewhere.

    In Jesus’ comments about Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc., He clearly took the events recorded in Genesis as literal history, as did all the New Testament writers. Several passages show that Jesus believed that man was created at the beginning of creation, not billions of years after the beginning (as all old-earth views imply), which confirms the young-earth creationist view (Mark 10:6 and 13:19 and Luke 11:50–51) (Mortenson 2004a, 2008a). His miracles also confirm the young-earth view. From His first miracle of turning water into wine (which revealed His glory as the Creator, cf. John 2:11 and 1:1–5) to all His other miracles, His spoken word brought an immediate, instantaneous result, just as God’s word did in Creation Week.

    The Bible teaches that there was no animal or human death before the Fall of Adam and Eve. So the geological record of rock layers and fossils could not have been millions of years before the Fall. The nature of God as revealed in Scripture rules out the idea that He created over millions of years.

    The global catastrophic Flood of Noah was responsible for producing most (but not all) of the geological record of rock layers and fossils (Barrick 2008). Careful exegesis has shown that this was not a local flood in Mesopotamia (Sarfati 2004, pp. 241–286; Whitcomb and Morris pp. 1–88).

    It is most unreasonable to believe in a global, year-long Flood that left no geological evidence (or that it only left evidence in the low lands of the Fertile Crescent, as some suppose) (Hallo and Simpson 1998, pp. 32–33). The global evidence of sedimentary rock layers filled with land and marine fossils is exactly the kind of evidence we would expect from Noah’s Flood. If most of the rock record is the evidence of the Flood, then there really is no geological evidence for millions of years. But the secular geologists deny the global Flood of Noah’s day because they deny that there is any geological evidence for such a flood. So, the fossiliferous rock record is either the evidence of Noah’s Flood or the evidence of millions of years of geological change. It cannot be evidence of both. If we do not accept the geological establishment’s view of Noah’s Flood, then we cannot accept their view of the age of the earth. So, it is logically inconsistent to believe in both a global Noachian Flood and millions of years.

    The genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 give us the years from Adam to Abraham, who virtually all scholars agree lived about 2000 BC. This sets the date of creation at approximately 6,000 years ago. Some young-earth creationists say the creation may be 10,000–12,000 years old, but the arguments for gaps of any length of time in the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies are not compelling to this writer and many others. Freeman, Jones, and Pierce present strong arguments for accepting these genealogies as tight chronologies with no gaps (Freeman, 1998, 2008; Jones, 2005; Pierce, 2006).
    For eighteen centuries the almost universal belief of the Church was that the creation began 4,000–5,000 years before Christ (Mortenson 2004b, pp. 40–45).14 So, young-earth creationism is historic Christian orthodoxy. It was also Jewish orthodoxy at least up to the end of the first century of church history (Whiston 1987, pp. 29–33). In light of this fact, it seems inconsistent with the truth-loving nature of God revealed in Scripture to think that for about 3,000 years God let faithful Jews and Christians (especially the writers of Scripture) believe that Genesis teaches a literal six-day creation about 6,000 years ago but that in the early nineteenth century He used godless men (who rejected the Bible as God’s Word) to correct the Church’s understanding of Genesis. – Terry Mortenson

    • The Bible informs us as much about geology as it does cheese burritos.

      • right……?……

        • Matthew, if you read my post, you know that I disagree with almost everything you said. Not with regard to the science, but with regard to the interpretation of Genesis. You are reading Genesis through modern eyes with all kinds of conscious and subconscious understandings that you have now from developments over the course of history (including scientific ones). These would have never been in the minds of its first readers. You are therefore making a category error of massive proportions.

          And despite your claims, young earth creationism is not historic orthodoxy. Historic orthodoxy says, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” This is the doctrinal standard and basis of unity in Christ’s church.

        • If I am hearing you right, the scientific record of geologic time as is commonly understood today has been conconcted by godless men. Are you saying that Bishop Ussher is a more reliable source on the subject?

  5. Tim Snow says:

    Thanks for the classic iMonk. It would be helpful to let us know when these were first posted. I, for one, am interested in the evolution of the iMonk’s thought.

    Peace be with you,

    Tim

  6. Goodness…

    I can’t keep up with all of the posts lately. They’ve all been rich and through-provoking, keeping up with the excellent standards set by Michael.

    I sense a lot of momentum since Michael’s passing, but it’s like taking a drink from a fire-hydrant lately. Just a humble thought.

  7. Louis Winthrop says:

    Multiple choice:

    A. The Genesis creation story (or one of them, anyway) is literally true. Everything scientists think they know is wrong. God is not only subtle but malicious as well.

    B. The Genesis creation story is “true” in some abstract, poetic way which has little to do with the actual origins of earth, the universe, life, and humanity. (And the same could be said of the Beatles song, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”)

    C. The Genesis creation story accurately describes the origins of the universe, earth, life, and humanity. However, it was written in a kind of code whereby (for example) one “day” does not mean what we would normally think of as a day. Properly interpreted, it is both literally true and consistent with science. (A subset of this answer leads to a discussion of ancient astronauts.)

    D. The authors of Genesis were ignorant of the actual origins of the universe, earth, etc., and their text reflects this. There may still be a God who created the universe (though in a different way), and who may have even lent his imprimatur to the biblical text for some reason (its overarching message and spiritual depth, no doubt, though these are murky enough to attract endless interpretation). In effect, we “concur” with Genesis without agreeing.

    E. Same as (D), except that Genesis is admitted to be no better than the analogous myths of other religions. To the extent that we prefer it to the Hindu version (or vice versa), it is because of historical, genealogical, and cultural accident.

    F. “Genesis”–isn’t that the name of a band?

    • Louis Winthrop says:

      One more! (for Jungians)

      G. Everything in Genesis is “true” but in some mystical or archetypal domain.

  8. The thing is, Mike, Genesis does not flow at all like poetry or symbolism…it uses very simple, but specific terms to describe a sequence of events.

    “And evening and morning were the first day”.
    This seems to very plainly indicate a literal day…what person would ever consider it otherwise? To think anything more of this, would it not be reading into the text? Consider the rest of Genesis, does it seem to tell poetic stories and allegories or does not simply imply a list of events that happened in a chronological order?

    Also, consider this text
    Exodus 20:11 (New International Version)

    11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

    Again…the context of the Exodus passage, unlike the passage you referred to in Revelation, is not poetic or filled with symbolism, yet it refers to what a normal face-value interpretation would see as a literal day.

    I would be very interested in seeing clear poetic or symbolic context in Genesis, as I see in the Psalms, or other books which clearly contain & explain their contents as poetic or symbolic.

    • Actually, I would not call it “poetry” but “exalted prose.” It is narrative, but narrative of a special kind, certainly much different than a journalistic reporting of events.

      I commend the observations of John Collins in his book on Gen 1-4:

      All of this leads us to conclude that the genre of this pericope is what we might call exalted prose narrative. This name for the genre will serve us in several ways. First, it acknowledges that we are dealing with prose narrative, and thus its purposes will be related to other uses of prose narrative—which will include the making of truth claims about the world in which we live. Second, by calling it exalted, we are recognizing that when we come to examine the author’s truth claims, we must not impose a ‘literalistic’ hermeneutic on the text. Further, to call it exalted points us away from ordinary narration and leads us to suppose that its proper function extends well beyond its information to the attitudes that it fosters….

      …We may conclude from this high level of patterning that the order of events and even lengths of time are not part of the author’s focus; this is at the basis of what is often called the literary framework scheme of interpretation. In this understanding, the six workdays are a literary device to display the creation week as a careful and artful effort.

  9. @LW,

    “E”

  10. Where I run aground is the need for Genesis to be a scientific document. I don’t understand faith that requires the Bible be 100% facts or it all means nothing. My faith in Christ would be as just strong if the Bible did not exist and He were revealed in some other manner. For my faith to hinge on Genesis being a scientific record is just something I don’t get.

  11. Hmmmm…….

    I am very suspect on Old Earth advocates –

    The best I have read on it is Wayne Grudem , in his Systematic Theology. [one of my all time favourites!]

    Wayne at the time of print, was an Old Earth advocate but I believe in latter years has come to his senses and embraced the biblical account; that God created the world ex nihilo in literal days.

  12. One More Mike says:

    The comment streams on the last 2 posts have reminded me why I don’t go to church anymore. This sounds like the last “business meeting” I attended. Thanks for showing me that it’s still not safe for those who could care less about going down this theological rabbit hole.

    Really, is this a hill worth dying on, whichever side you’re trying to take?

    Good luck with your arguments. Hope you win.

    God bless Michael Spencer.

    • Mike, I’m tired of it too. This will be the last post on this subject for a very long time, unless some new development requires comment. This is one of those issues that moved me into the post-evangelical wilderness as well, and many of the comments show exactly why. People do not listen and respond to what is being said. They have their own hobby horses to ride and that’s all that matters.

      Fortunately, no one has ruined my love for Genesis and its Gospel message by all this nonsense.

  13. Christiane says:

    I am an ‘Old Earth’ ‘creationist’.
    This does not ‘conflct’ with my reverence for the Creator, but enhances it.
    In the words of Thomas Aquinas,

    “God has no other reason for creating than His love and goodness:
    “Creatures came into existence when the key of love opened His Hand.”