Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A response to “Seven theses on the age of the earth”

[Editor's Note: this post was edited for clarity in the paragraph following the quote from Augustine.]

This post was inspired by a blog post published on March 7, 2014, by Douglas Wilson. I would encourage you read it at Blog and Mablog (which, by the way, is the greatest blog name ever) before you continue. My article begins by laying a foundation and then responds to his seven points.


The created world is as much the word of God as scripture, and they both have the same author. We call the created world “general revelation” and scripture “special revelation” (and usually forget Christ and the Holy Spirit in our simplistic dichotomy of revelation, but that is another story for another day). To dismiss nature as fallen, and therefore unreliable, is to deny its status as general revelation at all. If sin so marred nature as to make its lessons untrustworthy, then any revelation that it does provide cannot be trusted. The psalmist’s assertion that creation declares the glory of God (fallen creation, with its suffering?) or Paul’s belief that those who reject God are without excuse because creation itself declares God, must simply be wrong in a chaos-strewn fallen world. But these declarations are found in special revelation, the source of revelation that is generally considered unfallen and reliable – is there not a tension here?

I see some possibilities for resolution. (1) Creation is fallen, but teaches us general truths anyways. The general truths to be trusted are those found in special revelation (but does not this remove the need for general revelation at all? The whole point of general revelation is to speak to those who do not have scripture, but if scripture is needed to highlight those truths, general revelation fails. Furthermore, is not the very incarnation proof against the fallenness of matter?). (2) Scripture is as fallen as creation, and is just as untrustworthy (but certainly this uproots the very foundations of Christianity! One could discuss ad nauseum the reliability of the manuscripts, etc, etc). (3) Both general and special revelation speak truth, but it is humanity alone that is fallen, and this fallen nature makes the interpretation of both difficult. This is the perspective that I find more compelling, although I am sure that it too is flawed (how do we wade out of the quagmire of our own understanding? Is it not through Spirit-led community? Cannot the scientific community be a part of this?) This third perspective allows us to understand the verses pertaining to the groaning of creation (Romans 8 – although one must look up alternative interpretations of this text, such as the idea that “creation” actually pertains to the Gentile world) as being, not about fallen creation, but about a good creation subjected to the tyranny of sinful rulers (us), who have subverted the calling for environmental stewardship laid down in Genesis 1 and have turned it to one of despotic dominion. Creation then truly groans without being fallen – it longs for the time when we will be revealed as children of God, because only then will our ability to properly, lovingly, sacrificially steward, be restored.

My theses, then, are these: nature and scripture cannot be in contradiction, because they both come from the same source; our ability to interpret both is imperfect, and requires careful scholarship in Spirit-led community to get on the right track; general revelation cannot be dismissed as inferior to special revelation or less trustworthy, but must be humbly listened to; the scientific community has the best handle on the lessons from general revelation, and are ignored to the Church’s detriment; contradictions between general and special revelation must be reconciled, but this does not obviously or necessarily require rejecting general revelation in favour of special revelation, as our interpretation of scripture may be flawed.

For instance, one thinks of Bellarmine’s letter of 1615 in response to Galileo’s Copernican revolution:

“If Your Reverence would read not only the Fathers but also the commentaries of modern writers on Genesis, Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Josue, you would find that all agree in explaining literally (ad litteram) that the sun is in the heavens and moves swiftly around the earth, and that the earth is far from the heavens and stands immobile in the center of the universe.  Now consider whether in all prudence the Church could encourage giving to Scripture a sense contrary to the holy Fathers and all the Latin and Greek commentators… It would be just as heretical to deny that Abraham had two sons and Jacob twelve, as it would be to deny the virgin birth of Christ, for both are declared by the Holy Ghost through the mouths of the prophets and apostles…”

Or Saint Augustine’s assertion in City of God that, even if the earth were round, no humans could possibly live on the “underside”:

“As to the fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets on us, men who walk with their feet opposite ours, there is no reason for believing it. Those who affirm it do not claim to possess any actual information; they merely conjecture that, since the earth is suspended within the concavity of the heavens, and there is as much room on the one side of it as on the other, therefore the part which is beneath cannot be void of human inhabitants. They fail to notice that, even should it be believed or demonstrated that the world is round or spherical in form, it does not follow that the part of the earth opposite to us is not completely covered with water, or that any conjectured dry land there should be inhabited by men. For Scripture, which confirms the truth of its historical statements by the accomplishment of its prophecies, teaches not falsehood; and it is too absurd to say that some men might have set sail from this side and, traversing the immense expanse of ocean, have propagated there a race of human beings descended from that one first man.”

In both cases (although more so in the former), general revelation taught something that a literal interpretation of scripture seemed to deny. Yet Bellarmine and Augustine, for all of their biblical training and reverence for special revelation, were completely wrong in rejecting these general truths. No Christian today would say that it was the scripture that was wrong – our reading of those particular scriptures has changed such that the problems posed by Bellarmine or Augustine are not even raised in our minds as we read them. No, it was Bellarmine and Augustine who were reading scripture incorrectly. And so should we not exhibit great humility rather than insist that a certain passage is literal historical truth? Is the need for humility not especially strong when to hold to a literal reading is to deny the findings of God’s general revelation? And can't rejecting a literal reading only have the appearance of heresy without necessarily being heretical? Bellarmine could not conceive of a Christianity in which the sun did not move around an immovable earth – to believe Galileo would be to deny the virgin birth itself, as both rested on literal historical interpretations of scripture. Is it not a slippery slope, he in effect argued, to deny the plain sense in one passage but to keep it in another? Is this not the same argument employed by organizations like Answers in Genesis today, this time with respect to evolution? Should we not at least try to stretch our theological imaginations, to see if there is a way to accept the findings of general revelation while remaining orthodox in our scriptural interpretations?

That said, there is an important place for biblical interpretation/theology in speaking into the implications of scientific discovery, including our place in the cosmos, our uniqueness as the image of God, our moral responsibilities towards the natural world, etc., and may even speak into scientific models (such as an eternal universe versus a universe with a beginning). Even then, however, greater humility and caution is required on the part of the theologian or biblical scholar than on the part of the scientist, as much in science can be empirically confirmed by people from different cultural or religious backgrounds, whereas biblical interpretation carries a greater risk of being subdued by ideological agendas.

This then is the foundation from which my criticism rests. It is a foundation that takes this world as the word of God seriously, and which does not presume that a literal interpretation of scripture is always the true interpretation of scripture. It is, I believe, perfectly acceptable to adjust the interpretation of scripture when the science demands it, rather than hoping against hope that the science be overturned. Yes, the church should be cautious in doing so – this means there will often be a time lag between the scientific discovery and the church’s acceptance of it. But in the meantime the church should be open to the idea without condemning it as heretical (else becoming the next Bellarmine). Evolution, as a case in point, has been tried and tested for over 150 years. The scientific community’s understanding of evolution is ever in flux but (famous last words?) there is not going to be a paradigm shift that uproots evolution (just as quantum physics did not uproot Newtonian physics). The science is solid – the church needs to stretch its theological imaginations to figure out what it is going to do with this information, besides call out heresy. The Catholic church has begun this process, and more voices in the evangelical world are doing this too. But more fruitful discussion (rather than name-calling) in a Spirit-led community is required to determine the proper directions that our imaginations can go.


I can now address Pastor Wilson’s seven points.

1. Wilson writes: “So the issue is not age, or day, or young, or old, but rather the substance of what God actually said. Whatever He actually revealed should be what we use as the foundation for all our subsequent thought. After we have our foundation, we may incorporate truth from other sources – natural revelation included – but we must take care that we never privilege what we think we know over what God actually told us.”

I applaud the intention if not the words used by Pastor Wilson. Notice the hesitance to attribute the created world as true revelation – “Whatever He actually revealed” as opposed to what we learn from the natural world. Does this not deny Proverbs 8, in which Wisdom glories in God’s creation? I do not think privileging one form of revelation over the other is a valid (or even biblical) way of viewing the world. Furthermore, Pastor Wilson does not show how the foundation can be laid. Is it not true that the foundation sometimes requires knowledge from the created world in order to be laid? Prior to Copernicus/Galileo, multiple interpretations regarding the movement of the sun could have been generated with no way to arbitrate between them. Only with scientific discovery (read: general revelation) could the foundation for scriptural interpretation be laid. We privilege over truth what we think we know when we refuse to incorporate general revelation into our scriptural interpretation.

2. “Therefore, the debate…should be conducted primarily by Christians who accept the Scriptures as the absolute Word of God…” Absolute? As in total? As in “viewed or existing independently and not in relation to other things?” As in “not qualified or diminished in any way?” I shudder at this statement. Is not Christ the Word of God (John 1)? Is not creation (Genesis 1)? What about the community led by the Spirit? Scripture as the absolute Word of God is, I think, a pretty unscriptural thing to say.

I do agree that the conversation (I deplore debates – they never accomplish anything) about science and faith needs to be done by Christians, but Pastor Wilson would seem to restrict the debate to a subset of evangelicals who engage in bibliolatry rather than those with robust theological and/or scientific training. That is a conversation I would not want to see.

3. “Once we have limited the participants in this way, we have simplified things considerably. Everyone in the debate would be willing to affirm a flannel graph version of the Flood, giraffe and all, if that is what the Bible taught, and everyone in the debate would be willing to affirm a planet creaky with age, if that is what the Bible taught.”

From what I have said so far, you can see why I would have problems with this. “If that is what the Bible taught…” But Bellarmine was no slouch when it came to hermeneutics. The science was needed to correct him. To think that there is enough in scripture to favour an old or young age earth, or to favour a literal vs mythical flood, is hopelessly naïve. If it were not so, wouldn’t the church have effortlessly ended the need for this conversation two hundred years ago?

The truth is, science is desperately needed to arbitrate between different interpretations. For instance, carefully consider the fallout from a global flood on biogeography (the patterns of living things in relation to their geographic location). If, as Genesis seems to indicate, all living things were wiped out in the flood except for those on the ark, then there is a single “center of creation” – a center from which all living things dispersed. That center would be the mountain on which the ark came to rest. From there all living things spread out to fill the globe. This is a scientifically testable hypothesis. Even if you accept the notion of created kinds with limited but rapid microevolution and speciation, one would have to account for marsupials being heavily concentrated in Australia, with rich fossil diversity in Antarctica, and a few contemporary species in South and North America, but no marsupials in Asia, Europe (besides some wallabies that escaped from a zoo) or Africa. Or why are lemurs found only on Madagascar? Why is the flora and fauna of Africa so different from that in Russia? Why is there plenty of evidence for all sorts of animal migrations from other points of the earth, but no evidence for the movement of all things away from a central Middle Eastern point? When animals were brought back from Africa and North and South America and Australia several hundred years ago, Christians immediately recognized the difficulty this posed for a literal flood account. They posited a local flood and multiple centers of creation. We are no longer shocked by these creatures, and have forgotten their theological implications. But the implications remain: a literal flood account in which all living things dispersed from a single Middle Eastern location is no longer tenable. Certain interpretations of scripture must be rejected in light of the scientific evidence; if both are the works of God, both are needed for interpretation.

4. “The fossil record is a record of death. The fossil record is a graveyard. We have exegetical reasons for believing that this paleontological graveyard was planted after the fall of man.”

Death before Genesis 3 seems to be a big sticking point for Christians when it comes to accepting an old earth and evolution. This is where theological imagination must play a big role. How exciting it should be for theologians, to have a new problem to solve! How rare is that! Can pre-fall death be incorporated into a faithful reading of scripture? Christopher Southgate’s The Groaning of Creation is one attempt to do this very thing, and it is an important first step in what will hopefully be a fruitful discussion.

This is not the place for a full discussion on this matter, but there are a few small points that are fun to raise: First, the scientific record unapologetically and conclusively has demonstrated death prior to the appearance of humans. Christians can hem and haw about this all they want, but there you have it. It is, I think, time to move on to more interesting questions. Second, Adam was given a role in the garden – to literally serve it and protect it. The same word for “protect” is used of the angels’ guarding Eden after Adam and Eve are kicked out. So here is the question – what was Adam to protect the garden from? In a “very good” world, what would need protecting? Unless “very good” means something different from what we would like it to mean? Third, in God’s speech in Job, God brags about his creation, including the carnivores. He hunts with the lions and the scavenging birds (Job 38-39), and seems to delight in providing for them in this manner. According to the Psalmist, all creatures look to God for their food (Psalm 104). To say that death is not a part of the “very good” creation is to ignore the complexity of God’s relationship towards death in the animal world, and is to say that the creatures he brags about have the carnivorous behaviours he loves due to Adam’s sin. That, I think, is as problematic as the points raised by Pastor Wilson, and cannot be ignored in favour of one’s theological preference (and so back we come to the need for science to arbitrate between competing interpretations of scripture).

5. “But if we are found to be saying that suffering, pain, and anguish are an unfallen good, then this should tie us up in knots. It should also make us a little wary of looking forward to Heaven too much. I don’t want to go to Heaven just to fall into a tar pit.”

Pastor Wilson continues with the “very good” argument against death. My brief response: first, be careful what you attribute to sin, as you might be slapping the creator in the face; and second, if one holds to heaven as a restored and renewed creation, then there is no return to Eden; there is the wedding of Eden and heaven (see the end of Revelation) – something even better than the “very good” creation. So no fear for heaven is required.

6. “The Lord Jesus speaks of an historical Adam easily, and in the same way that He speaks of other historical characters from the Old Testament. There is no good textual reason for dividing Genesis 1-10 from the rest of Genesis.”

Pastor Wilson raises here what I find to be one of the more difficult criticisms of my perspective. My gut tells me that Jesus could speak conversationally of Adam in the same way I could speak conversationally of Jack Bauer – most people would know who I am referring to and get the point of my story, without needing to believe that Jack Bauer is a real person (for those who don’t know, he is Kiefer Sutherland’s character on 24). Perhaps the closest example we get from Jesus’ statements is his “sign of Jonah” – a reference to a book that many conservative Christian scholars read as a non-literal short story.

I am particularly troubled by the division of Genesis 1-10 from the rest of Genesis. My gut tells me there are good reasons for reading the creation account, the fall, the flood, and Babel as responses to myth rather than literal historical events. But I would like this to end before Abraham enters the scene. (An evolutionary account does not require that one reject the literalness of any of these stories, however – I reject them as literal because the evidence from Babylonian myth is too compelling, and I find certain verses to be problematic literally. As an example, the sun and moon are hung in the firmament on day two, with this same firmament later opening to bring down the flood waters – thereby passing the sun and moon on its journey down). But I am not enough of a scholar to know if there really are good grounds for separating Genesis 1-10 from the rest. Wishful thinking on my part, maybe?

7. “If God placed it all here at one fell swoop, it does not give me heartburn to thank Him for starlight from a particular star that has no more been to that star than I have. God created the star, the earth, and the entire rope of starlight in between. That should present no more of a problem than God creating both sides of a rock at the same time.”

Pastor Wilson might not object, but I would. If there was a hint in scripture that creation was unorderly and unattainable to our minds, then sure. But to bring order out of chaos (Genesis 1), to affirm Wisdom’s role in creation (Proverbs 8), to link this Wisdom with the Logos of Christ (John 1), to state that what we learn about creation brings glory to God (Psalm 19) and that those who reject God are without excuse because creation teaches about God (Romans 1), and then to state that God created the world in such a way that what it teaches us is a lie, that starlight only suggests that the world is old if you trust its messages, that God in fact created that starlight without it ever having touched a star, well, I feel I am on pretty strong grounds to reject that interpretation as being unbiblical, unscientific, untheological, and outside the character of God. I fervently hope. Otherwise, who is this God I believe in?

Pastor Wilson’s theses are, I think, a step in the right direction for getting an informed discussion going. He displays gentleness and care in his post that we would all be wise to emulate. We cannot be afraid to ask the tough questions, and to follow the rabbit trails wherever they may lead. The key is acknowledging that even the people we disagree with are beings loved by God and made in his image. With that as our starting point, maybe, just maybe, we can reclaim and learn from general revelation. 


Ian Perry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ian Perry said...

This proved an opportunity to look around and learn more of his position, I didn't realize he'd equated it with the Virgin birth and thought you were exaggerating--though after looking around I see he did, at the same time, make the statement (which I hazily recalled and thought contradicted your characterization a little) about needing to revisit the interpretation of the passages traditionally thought to be geocentric if heliocentrism was overwhelming proved. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1615bellarmine

Pr. Brian said...

Dr. Hugh Ross has some of the best stuff on how to take Genesis 1-10 literally while not dismissing the science. He believes in a local flood to accomplish this, and I've not heard him talk about Babel, but his interpretive work with Genesis 1 and 2 is the best I've seen/heard. Perhaps you already know about him, but if not, I highly recommend his work.

Matthew said...

Ian, thanks for the reminder that Bellarmine wasn't really a villain! The link you provided didn't work for me, but if what you say is accurate then he showed some humility that we would all be right to show. It is unfortunate that he coupled it with such dogmatic phrases.

Pr. Brian, thanks for the suggestion. I have seen the debate between Ross and Hovind. I find him bang on with astronomy(to be fair, an area I know little about) and curiously out to lunch with biology (an area I am well informed on), but I will have to read what he has to say on Genesis 1-10.

Anonymous said...

Well thought out Matthew. I am curious about your definition of sin. What exactly does sin do to a perfect creation? You made the implication that general revelation (science and the created world) was not effected by sin to the same extent (or at all? Did I miss that?) as man, yet God still curses the ground. Also He wipes out all ground creatures in the flood because of the sinful state of man. There seems to be a correlation. At the same time He leaves the oceans alone, probably why you became a marine biologist.
But my big question is still what do you do with Jesus? As far as I am concerned this is the show stopper question. All things were created by Him, in Him and for Him. (Col 1:15-16) He also tells the Jewish Elite that Before Abraham was, I am(John 8:58). Meaning He is God, the same God that presided over all of Genesis 1-10. It is not that he is making a pop culture reference (like Jack Bauer), but commanding their very theology. This means that His references to Adam, Noah etc are not simple analogies, but intimate insights into the story of God.
I constantly fence sit on what I think Gen 1-10 is literal or not, but I have to jump through serious hoops theologically to explain Jesus' comments if I believe him to be God and that those passages are not literally true.

Matthew said...

Hi Jim! What does sin do to creation? Blessedly little and an awful lot! Blessedly little: there is not an iota of scriptural or scientific support for the idea that the "curse of the ground" brought forward something biologically new (carnivores, parasites, cancer, etc). Even in the text, weeds are the only product of the curse, and even then the entire passage is describing how our relationship with the world is new, not how something biologically new now exists. The ground is "cursed" indeed - not by becoming "sinful" (and therefore hugely unreliable) - but "because of you" - that is, it is cursed because its stewards are cursed. We can recognize that a dog with an abusive owner is "cursed" indeed without there being something wrong with the dog! "An awful lot": we humans have huge impacts on the earth. Our relationship with it can bless it or curse it, and we tend to curse it. This goes beyond environmental degradation: our decisions cause extinctions and rapid adaptation, so in a real sense "sin" - greed and avarice and the like - can result in biological changes. The DNA of overharvested fish is stamped with the effects of sin, as they evolve in response to overharvesting!

In response to your other comment: I would argue that you are bringing a 21st century mindset to the text. I think you would be stunned by what the early church fathers had to say about these stories that we so desperately want to read as literal. What did the Jews really think of Adam? Reading the OT it seems blessedly little, seeing as how often they appeal to their identity through Abraham and the Exodus and how they almost never refer to Adam. Adam seems to weigh more heavily on our consciousness than he did in the past. That said, I really don't have a problem with theological importance being given to Adam, and Adam still being a mythological figure. (But also note as I stated above, many people who believe in evolution, including the evolution of man, still hold to a literal Adam or an historical Adam, and aren't as extreme as I am. Maybe I throw the baby out with the bathwater, but if I do I at least am comfortably in the camp of CS Lewis.)

Matthew said...

Jim: I would also point out that nowhere is creation affirmed as perfect - that is simply our interpretation of very good. Theologically speaking, there is a strong argument to be made that creation, being separate from God, could not be perfect by the very nature of its separation. The Colossians passage you quoted shows a larger picture to the story of history, one in which the incarnation (and resurrection?) were necessary even in a world without sin, so that God could be all in all with his creation. This is in part why I can affirm the goodness of the world while recognizing its problems, without blaming those problems on sin.