Note from CM: From where I sit, the best response I’ve read to the Ham vs. Nye debate earlier this week was at Biologos: Ham on Nye: Our Take. Various BioLogos contributors give their reflections, but the one I appreciate most is that of OT scholar John Walton. I appreciate his perspective because for me, like him, the scientific issues involved are secondary to the biblical ones. My primary objection to Young Earth Creationism is its misreading of scripture, and Walton addresses that cogently.
Here’s what he had to say:
In general I appreciated the cordial and respectful tone that both debaters evidenced. Most of the debate was about scientific evidence, which I am not the one to address. The only comment that I want to make in that regard is that it was evident that Ken Ham believed that all evolutionists were naturalists—an identification that those associated with BioLogos would strongly contest.
But both speakers also showed assumptions about the Bible that provide opportunity for analysis. Bill Nye repeatedly returned to the idea that the Bible was a book translated over and over again over thousands of years. In his opinion this results in a product that could be no more trusted than the end result in the game of telephone. In this opinion he shows his lack of clear understanding of the whole process of the transmission of texts and the textual basis for today’s translations. The point he should have been making is that any translation is an interpretation. That is the point on which to contest Ken Ham’s “natural” readings of Scripture. We cannot base the details of our interpretations on translated (and therefore interpreted) text. We have to interact with a Hebrew text, not an English one. Nye also tried to drive a wedge between Old Testament and New Testament—a non-productive direction. The point he was trying to get at, but never fully exploited was how dependent Ham’s position was on interpretation.
I commend Ken Ham’s frequent assertion of the gospel message. His testimony to his faith was admirable and of course, I agree with it. I also share his beliefs about the nature of the Bible, but I do not share his interpretation of the Bible on numerous key points. From the opening remarks Ham proclaimed that his position was based on the biblical account of origins. But he is intent on reading that account as if it were addressing science (he truly believes it is). I counter by saying that we cannot have a confident understanding of what the Bible claims until we read it as an ancient document. I believe as he does that the Bible was given by God, but it was given through human instruments into an ancient culture and language. We can only encounter the Bible’s claims by taking account of that context.
One place where this distinction was obvious was that Ham tried to make the statement in Genesis that God created each animal “after its kind” as a technical statement that matched our modern scientific categories. We cannot assume that the same categories were used in the ancient world as are used today (genus, family, species, etc.). Such anachronism does not take the Bible seriously as what it “naturally” says. In the Bible this only means that when a grain of wheat drops, a grain of wheat grows (not a flower); when a horse gives birth, it gives birth to a horse, not a coyote.
The fact is that Ken Ham rejects scientific findings because he believes the Bible offers claims that contradict science. He believes that he can add up the genealogies to arrive at the need for a young earth. He never stops to ask whether it is “natural” to read ancient genealogies in that way. In the ancient world genealogies serve a very different function than they do today, and numbers may well have rhetorical rather than strictly numerical value. He believes that there could be no death before the fall because he has interpreted the word “good” as if it meant “perfect.” That is not what the Hebrew term means. Furthermore, if there was no death before the fall, people would have little use for a tree of life. What is a “natural” interpretation—our sense of what it means or the sense that an ancient reader would have had? Ham actually made the statement that we have to read the Bible “according to the type of literature” that it is. Yet it was clear that he has done no research on ancient genres and how parts of the Bible should be identified by the standards of ancient genres (after all, our genre categories are bound to carry some anachronism and therefore cannot be applied directly). Reading the Bible “naturally” cannot be approached as casually as Ham suggests.
When Ham was asked what it would take to change his mind, he was lost for words because he said that he could never stop believing in the truth of the Bible. I would echo that sentiment, but it never seemed to occur to him that there might be equally valid interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis, or maybe even ones that could garner stronger support. He stated that no one can prove the age of the earth, but he believes that the Bible tells us the age of the earth. Nevertheless, it is only his highly debatable interpretation of the Bible that tells him the age of the earth. What if the Bible makes no such claim? There are biblical scholars who take the Bible every bit as seriously as he does, who disagree that the Bible makes a claim about the age of the earth.
In the end, then, while Ham kept challenging Nye about whether he was there to see this history that he claimed, Nye should have been challenging Ham about what makes him so certain that the Bible is making the claims that he thinks it is. What appears to Ham as a “natural” reading, is extremely debatable if one attempts to read the text of Genesis as the (God-inspired) ancient document that it is.