I was reading a Young Earth Creationist’s critique of Theistic Evolution last week. He made the (usual) case that because of accepting as authoritative the human findings of science over the word of God in the Bible, mainstream TEs have denied virtually every major doctrine of orthodox Christianity.
Now after eight years within the Evolutionary Creation world, I have to admit that, of the common Christian origins positions – Young Earth Creationism, Old Earth Creationism, Progressive Creationism, Intelligent Design and Theistic Evolution – the last is, sadly, by far the most prone to heterodoxy.
It’s such a broad church that one can’t generalize, and even BioLogos is vague about its “official” attitude to some key questions. But both in books and online I have witnessed some leading TE figures deny, either overtly or implicitly, doctrines that include the sovereignty of God, his sole Creatorhood, his providential government, the nature of sin, the Fall, the atonement, Chalcedonian teaching on the Incarnation, the reliability of Scripture, biblical ethics… what did I miss out? That revisionism of doctrine doesn’t seem a temptation in the other origins positions. You can find many articles on The Hump documenting these things: a couple of summaries here and here. So I won’t reiterate them now.
Instead, I want to come back at the rest of what my YEC – a proper, academic theologian, rather than a combox combatant – said. For in his quite justified criticism of those who, in practice if not in stated creed, put the authority of science above that of Scripture, he effectively denies that science, and other academic disciplines like ANE studies, ancient history and so on, have any real contribution to make to our understanding of the faith, being “merely human.” Which, in other words, is to deny general revelation – paradoxical, because that is a scripturally-grounded doctrine.
The principle on which he bases this is the old Reformation premise of the “perspicacity of Scripture” – that is, that the Bible’s meaning is clear to all who come to it in faith, without the intervention of priests and prelates with esoteric “expert” knowledge. In the context of Luther or Calvin’s conflict with early modern Catholic priestcraft the reason for that precept is obvious.
But it’s actually, as the Magisterial Reformers all knew, of rather limited application. There is a reason, they said, why God has appointed and gifted preachers and teachers in the Church, and despite William Tyndale’s famous remark about the ploughman and the Pope they railed against the sectaries’ habit of appointing unschooled “mechanicks” as teachers. They knew the original tongues and drew on both Christian and secular scholarship in developing the Protestant faith – as indeed had the Church before them in formulating its core doctrine, usually rightly and sometimes not.
Scripture, the Reformers said, is indeed clear enough to bring true salvation and knowledge of God to all who read it; but that does not mean its full meaning can be found without external knowledge. I affirm the first part of that from my having known an evangelist who was converted in prison by the page of a Gideon’s Bible he had torn out in order to roll his cigarette. I affirm the second from the sure knowledge that it’s impossible to make good sense (and hence legitimate use) of the Book of Revelation without some insight into the conventions of Jewish apocalyptic. Likewise for Daniel’s visions, but also in that case, without some extra-biblical knowledge of inter-testamental Jewish history, you will misinterpret them. And the recent discoveries (partly from the Dead Sea Scrolls) of what Messianic expectations the Jews of Jesus’s day had gained from Daniel will greatly enhance your understanding of his mission… if you study them.
My critic, for example, disapproves of John H Walton for his use of ANE materials to inform his understanding of Genesis. How he uses them may well, of course, be open to question – that he uses them ought to be received with thanksgiving. For the early part of Genesis, of all the biblical books, is far from fully clear as to genre, and even meaning, partly because it is extremely ancient in origin – how many of us would claim the meaning of the episode of the sons of God and daughters of men in Gen 6 is plain and unmistakeable to everyone? And which of the common interpretations of that passage really clarifies what it is intended to teach us? The more light we can gain from other ancient materials the better. And all scholars know that, when they’re not in invective mode.
The problem with such a “Bible only” stance (held, unfortunately, by too many of the young earth persuasion), is that it sets biblical truth against the whole of the rest of human knowledge, representing it as a vast conspiracy: “What are you going to believe about the age of the earth? Merely human ancient history, archaeology, geology, palaeontology, genetics, physics, astronomy, philosophy, linguistics, philology, glaciology, vulcanology, speleology and dendrology – or the inspired word of God?”
Yet that is not the spirit in which the Bible was actually written: its overall truth was considered uncontroversial at the time, and the main issue requiring faith was that Yahweh, and not some other deity or mere human strength, had done all these well-attested things. Even the first message of the resurrection, through Peter, was eye-witness testimony preached to people who had heard the words of Jesus, and seen his miraculous works, for themselves. The degree of cognitive dissonance that is demanded by insisting on a 6,000 year old earth in our times is the equivalent of the apostles teaching the resurrection whilst standing over the dead body of the Lord. “Isn’t God’s word enough for you, that you need an empty tomb as well?”
Such teachers seem to me like the scribes and Pharisees who “bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger.” You must, they say, believe in a six day creation and an earth 6,000 years old to avoid rank heresy (into which category godless renegades like John Stott, Tim Keller or Billy Graham have sunk), but as to everything else you have learned from life, “What is that to us? See to it yourselves.”
Woe to that reprobate who counts up the tree-rings back to 13,000 BC and places Adam at that biblically unsanctioned time! Scripture clearly teaches the ages of the antediluvians, and the number of their generations, and the trees must therefore have been put there by Satan to deceive the gullible… though come to think of it such reasoning is not much different from those TEs who say that if God created Adam de novo, he is guilty of deceiving geneticists (uniquely!) by making it look to them as though random mutations were responsible.
As an aside, let me confess a personal interest here – I started my serious research into origins partly as a reaction to having a ten-part series shelved by a Christian magazine on whose editorial board I had served for fifteen years or so… on the grounds that the first article on creation hadn’t rejected evolution out of hand or waved a flag for a young earth. That was in tolerant Britain – I get the impression I’d have been excommunicated or divorced in some parts of America. Naturally that’s why I’m so bitter and twisted about Creationism that I question the plain meaning of the KJV!
I believe it is true – as you know if you read my posts – that scientism has elevated the authority of science far beyond what is warranted, as well as excluding divine creative acts a priori from realms in which Scripture, in my view, implies that they truly operate, and I regret that many TEs have succumbed to the soft form of that (ie that, in practice, all theological claims are subject to the censorship of current naturalistic science). But throughout history there has always been, as indeed there must be, a fruitful exchange between human knowledge and Scriptural understanding. After all, as Thomas Huxley (I think) said, science is only a particularly disciplined form of exploring the world around us – God’s world – intelligently.
And so John Calvin, knowing from the astronomers that Saturn is far larger than the moon, used that knowledge to say that Moses was condescending to the common man’s understanding in describing it as the ruler of the night in Gen 1. Isaac Newton said much the same about the heavenly bodies in his private writings:
Moses here sets down their creation as if he had then lived, and were not describing what he saw. Omit them he could not, without rendering his description of the creation imperfect in the judgment of the vulgar. To describe them distinctly as they were in themselves, would have made the narration tedious and confused, amused the vulgar, and become a philosopher more than a prophet.
In the light of modern knowledge of the ancient world (and perhaps of epistemology), I would demur from attributing modern astronomical knowledge to Moses. But I would say that he spoke phenomenologically, not scientifically, and that actually opens a whole new world of understanding concerning what Genesis is really about in its context.
Calvin was not new in his approach – one can read passages in the Church Fathers where, perceiving (rightly or wrongly) that the Bible cut across scientific, philosophical or other best practice of the time, they had recourse to the Bible’s intention to address the common man, not the wise of this world. In many cases, they simply lacked knowledge of its cultural background. One famous example is Origen’s self-mutilation as a result of failing to appreciate Jesus’s Judaean use of hyperbole (“if your hand offends you…”) from only 150 years before his own time. How much more will readers now still stumble over Old Testament numbers where only cultural parallels from archaeology tell us that hyperbole was the norm for that particular genre.
The origins question, as I have indicated, is contentious because, if we conclude that the Bible does necessarily teach a young earth (but it doesn’t – though it may well teach a recent Adam), one must either put all one’s eggs in one authority, and completely ignore the others (such as the Young Earther’s insistence that a traditional literal interpretation of the Bible trumps all else, or some Theistic Evolutionists’ insistence that science trumps Scripture). Or else one must compartmentalize one’s mind (as, I find, many TEs let science rule one half of their brain, whilst personal faith and the Bible rule the other, the corpus callosum linking them being apparently more or less completely severed). Or, thirdly, one must try to reach some accommodation between the Bible and, not only science, but all useful sources of knowledge.
Such an accommodation is neither one of the Bible to science, nor vice versa, but a mutual informing of ones understanding of each by the other. That understanding of both is bound to end up different from either that of the culturally conditioned Biblical Fundamentalist or that of the equally culturally conditioned Methodological Naturalist. But how much give and take is permissible on either side?
Here is where what I’ve been saying about science for a long time is seen to apply also to theology. There simply is no absolute certainty to be found, either in scientific theory or biblical interpretation or anything else. It is simply not available to the fallen human mind – the corruption of human reason is another Scriptural doctrine. There is, indeed, the Holy Spirit, who leads us into all truth as well as giving us firm assurance – but he does not work by dissolving all our intellectual doubts when we receive him, or there would be no disagreements amongst those who love the Lord. Peter and Paul would never have quarreled over table fellowship with gentiles, nor Wesley with Whitefield over predestination.
That’s why it matters that we should not gloss over the uncertainty of science, nor even act as if we now have the final truth once scientific models have made a judgement. At least that should be the case whilst there is apparent disagreement with another authority, Scripture, of which our knowledge is no less, or more, uncertain. We have scientific projections from data, and we have the eye-witness testimony of the Spirit (though not necessarily as literal history – that is a matter for spiritual and scholarly judgement), and our conclusions from both are equally prone to error. We must weigh both sources of truth, make our judgement, and pray “Lord have mercy.”
What, in fact, the Holy Spirit enables is our growth in the wisdom of God – a long process of discipleship, and not (as Adam and Eve found to their loss) a quick fix or an easy flow-chart. In other words, we need to steep ourselves in the Scriptures, and their former interpreters, to increase our sense of what they are teaching us, and how, and use God-given discernment in integrating that with natural knowledge (the famous two books).
And a lot of the time we will be wrong, but we will be increasingly unlikely either to spurn the established doctrines of Christ’s Church, or shut our ears to his speech to us through nature.