Wednesday, June 3, 2015

More than One Option: The Importance of Considering an Old Earth

The following partially satisfies the requirements for Dr. Benjamin Quinn's Christian Theology I class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

More than One Option: The Importance of Considering an Old Earth

Introduction

For many Christians, the idea that the earth may be 4.54 billion years old, or that the universe is about 13.73 billion years old is a frightening notion. Many Christians have been taught their entire lives that the Bible teaches that the earth is approximately 6,000 years old, and to believe otherwise is unbiblical. Many Christian leaders have taught that there are two options: a young earth or atheism.

What will follow is a survey of current popular theories of creation. It will be shown that the view of an old earth is a scripturally sound option for evangelicals. Some of the ways that advocates of a young earth explain what is learned from science will be investigated, and the importance of natural revelation in understanding creationism will be considered. Next, some of the hermeneutical approaches that advocates of an old earth use to interpret the Biblical account of creation will be reviewed. Finally, and most importantly, it will be shown why it is critical for leaders in the local churches and Christian schools to be informed and willing to discuss and teach views other than Young Earth Creationism, even if they do not adhere to those views themselves.

Four Major Approaches to Creationism

There are four major approaches to the Biblical creation account represented in the evangelical Christian community today. The first, and likely most well known, is Young Earth Creationism (YEC). YEC teaches a literal account of six, twenty-four hour days in which God created the universe, approximately 6000 years ago.[1] Next is Old Earth Creationism (OEC). Those who hold to OEC accept scientific evidence of an ancient universe, and the big bang theory, but do not accept Darwinian evolution. Proponents of OEC hold to the belief that God created the universe in stages over a period of billions of years. There are various subcategories of OEC, which vary primarily in the hermeneutical approach to the meaning of the days in the Genesis creation account, but all agree that God miraculously created Adam and Eve 60 to 100 thousand years ago.[2] Next, those who hold to Evolutionary Creationism adhere not only to scientific evidence of an ancient universe, but also accept Darwinian evolution, meaning they believe that all life, including humans descended from a common ancestor. As a result of this, most who adhere to EC do not believe Adam and Eve to be literal persons. There are, however some more conservative thinkers in the EC movement that would affirm a historical Adam and Eve, but argue they were hominids that were selected by God to let them be the federal headship of the human race.[3] The fourth, and final group is the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. According to Ken Keathley, “ID proponents argue that an objective examination of the scientific evidence alone (without an appeal to the Genesis account) will lead an unbiased inquirer to the conclusion that design by an Intelligent Being (i.e., God) makes an inference to the best explanation.”[4] Moreover, ID advocates feel that the arguments around the age of the earth distract from the bigger discussion, and as a result one can find both YEC and OEC advocates within the ID movement.[5]

Young Earth Creationism and Science

One of the biggest challenges for those who adhere to a young earth is how to reconcile science to the Biblical account of creation. In some cases, an all out dismissal of scientific orthodoxy may take place. One example of someone who has a background in science yet still holds to a YEC position is Paul Garner. One of the ways in which Garner explains how what is observed in science (specifically in geology) can be reconciled to the YEC view of Genesis 1 and 2, is through the effects of the global flood. Garner’s theory is that the flood came about as a result of extreme plate tectonics. He believes in an original single continent, and he feels that it is possible that a catastrophic event—such as a comet or asteroid hitting the earth—could have set the plates in motion. This extreme continental drift along with other intense geologic activities would have caused the global flood, and also would explain how aquatic fossil deposits and oceanic sediment have been found very far inland.[6]

On the other hand, some who adhere to a young earth may reject scientific orthodoxy and interpret what science understands through the lens of a 6000 year old creation. Some believe that although the earth and the universe have the appearance of being very old, it is in fact all an illusion. In their view, God created the universe with the appearance of age. The earth, they say, was created with fossil records, sediment deposits and fossil fuels already intact and ready to be discovered. There are heavenly bodies that are so far away it would take thousands or millions of years for light to reach earth. They really are far away, but according to the appearance of age theory, the light has been visible from earth since the very beginning as God created shafts of light to earth.

Yet another theory is that the speed of light has decayed over time, and there are others who interpret Einstein’s theory of relativity in such a way that in an “ordinary day as measured on earth, billions of years worth of physical processes take place in the distant cosmos.”[7] William Dembski feels that each of these approaches is problematic. In regards to the appearance of age theory, he commends the approach as not being a flat contradiction, as “God in his omnipotence could presumably have done things that way.”[8] However, a world created with a fictitious history lends itself to what could be interpreted as a divine hoax—trickery unworthy of a holy God. Dembski goes on to explain: “if human astronomers see what appears to be a supernova exploding in a galaxy millions of light-years away, [that] approach means that no supernova ever exploded.”[9] This would mean that astronomy is not about seeing real stars and real events but rather seeing an illusion created by God. On this topic Hugh Ross writes, “God’s character must be kept in mind when developing a view on creation’s timing…[for] created things to show a deceptive appearance of age would violate God’s own stated character and purpose.”[10] It is important to have a high view of Scripture, but at the same time it is equally important to consider how God has revealed himself in the natural world.

God uses both Scripture and natural revelation to reveal his character and other truths. As the psalmist writes, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork (Psalm 19:1 [ESV]).” One must not forget that both Luther and Calvin considered Copernicus to be a heretic. Not many within orthodox Christianity today would hold to a geocentric view of the universe, even though that is perhaps the most literal reading of some passages of Scripture.[11] It is right to believe, for example that the sun and moon stood still in Joshua 10, however it is not right to hold a geocentric view as a result. There are some things one has to accept as fact, through faith in God’s ultimate omnipotent power.

Old Earth Creationism and Scripture

If it can be said that those who adhere to YEC could have trouble reconciling science to the Biblical account of creation, it could also be said that those who adhere to OEC could have trouble explaining the Biblical account while still adhering to a doctrine of inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. There are five different theories within those who adhere to OEC, and each of these primarily differ based on hermeneutics: Gap Theory, Day-Age Theory, Framework Theory, Temple Inauguration Theory, and the Historical Creationism Theory.[12]

Old Testament scholar John Sailhamer presents a most unique interpretation: Historical Creationism. Sailhamer states that his goal is to “understand the meaning of Genesis 1 and 2 as its original author intended it.”[13] Sailhamer looks at the Hebrew word reshit which is commonly translated as “beginning” in English translations, and emphasizes that the word has a very specific sense in scripture and “always refers to an extended, yet indeterminate duration of time—not a specific moment.”[14] Like the gap theorists, Sailhamer feels that there is no reason why “the beginning” could not have contained billions of years. Sailhamer also explores the meaning behind the Hebrew word eretz, as the “usual meaning for eretz is simply ‘the land’ and not ‘the earth’ as in most English translations.”[15] Therefore, Sailhamer associates this term with the Promised Land rather than the planet earth. In sum, the lengths to which Sailhamer explores the underlying text is commendable as is his understanding of the significance of the Promised Land as a critical part of God’s covenant with Abraham.

Another interesting theory for an old earth is the Framework Theory. Mark Ross calls the framework hypothesis “a view of Genesis 1:1-2:3 which claims that the Bible’s use of the seven-day week in it’s narration of the creation is a literary (theological) framework and is not intended to indicate the chronology or duration of the acts of creation.”[16] Thus, the literary framework does not focus on presenting a chronological sequential representation of the days of creation, but rather focuses on presenting a non-sequential topical representation. According to Keathley, there is a possibility that this approach “enables the reader to appreciate the real theological message of the passage.”[17] The framework is organized like this: days one, two and three are days of forming, and days four, five and six are days of filling, therefore creating a parallel construction.[18] In the sense in which it is used in Genesis 2:2, the Hebrew verb shavath means that God ceased His creative activity on the seventh day. God did not simply rest for 24 hours; God rested from his creative activities and that rest remains.[19] Although there is symmetry exhibited in the framework presented, the most natural reading of the text is a literal, chronological understanding of the events Moses writes about.

These are summations of just two of the OEC views, but all of the old earth theories are based on the Bible being the inerrant word of God, and the scientific evidence in nature being an accurate revelation from God. They all show that both the Bible and nature can agree. There are many things not specifically revealed in the Bible such as dinosaurs, other planets, or other galaxies. The Bible is selective in its account of God’s creative activities, yet reveals with absolute certainty what is most important about creation; God spoke, and all that was not God came into being.

Young Earth, Old Earth and Apologetics: Why does this Matter?

It is imperative for the leaders of local congregations, and administrators of Christian schools to understand and be able to speak to each view of creationism. It is also important for these same leaders to emphasize that these debates and theories are secondary to the Gospel. Much confusion has come from prominent leaders, some who have even written books with inaccurate, incomplete information about views other than YEC. There are some who misrepresent OEC to their audience as though it goes against the Gospel.[20] There are four things that should always be non-negotiable: God as creator, The Fall, Christ as Redeemer, and Christ’s return to establish the new heaven and new earth. Any theory considered should agree with those four and be in agreement with Scripture.

Take for example a young Christian who goes off to college, and for the first time deeply studies geology, physics, and biology. They may now have a great internal schism between their knowledge of spiritual things and their newfound scientific understanding. Unless they have been prepared, they may find that the scientific evidence is too great and may now view the Bible as a flawed book. They may suddenly sense that they have been mislead about creation and begin to doubt their faith. Not only have they only been taught one side of the creation debate, they have not been trained on how to handle their faith being challenged.

Therefore, it is vitally important for views other than YEC to be taught as viable options in a non-biased, well-rounded manner—something that is not commonly done in churches or Christian schools today. By equipping people—young and old—with knowledge, they are better equipped to approach Scripture prayerfully and form their own conclusions. They will also be better able to defend their own beliefs when others challenge them. Even if one does not hold to an old earth view, it is helpful in apologetic discussions and even personal evangelism to be able to answer questions about God’s creation when talking to un-churched lost people. In a secondary matter such as this, it is important to be able to respectfully consider biblically sound positions other than what one holds to personally.

The OEC position is in harmony with both Scripture and God’s natural revelation. While there are many good arguments for YEC, and many people have developed scientific theories based on observing the world around us, the OEC view stands firm as being consistently aligned with all of God’s revelation. In closing, there are two statements that no one can deny no matter what position he or she holds: The universe appears to be very old, and the universe appears to be very well designed.


[1] The leading representative group for YEC is the organization Answers in Genesis and more info is available on their website: http://www.answersingenesis.org.
[2] The leading representative group for OEC is the organization Reasons to Believe, and more information is available on their website: http://www.reasons.org.
[3] The leading representative group for EC is the organization BioLogos, and more information is available on their website: http://www.biologos.org.
[4] Kenneth Keathley and Mark Rooker, 40 Questions and Answers about Creation and Evolution, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2014), 16-17.
[5] The leading representative group for ID is the Discovery Institute, and more info is available on their website: http://www.discovery.org.
[6] Much more information on this topic and other related topics is found in Paul Garner’s book, The New Creationism: Building Scientific Theories on a Biblical Foundation (Evangelical Press, 2009), specifically chapters 13-15. There is much more to his theories than extreme plate tectonics, but space limits discussion of these.
[7] D. Russell Humphreys, Starlight and Time: Solving the Puzzle of Distant Starlight in a Young Universe (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 1994), 37.
[8] William Dembski, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 66.
[9] Ibid., 67.
[10] Hugh Ross, A Matter of Days: Resolving a Creation Controversy, 1st Edition, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2004), 86
[11] See Joshua 10:12-14.
[12] There is not space to elaborate on each of these so only a couple will be highlighted, but chapters 11-15 in 40 Questions and Answers about Creation and Evolution by Keathley and Rooker cover each of these in great depth and detail.
[13] John Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account 2nd Edition (Colorado Springs: Dawson Media, 2011), Location 260 of 3348 Kindle.
[14] Ibid., Location 260.
[15] Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound, Location 505.
[16] Mark Ross, “The Framework Hypothesis: An Interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2:3,” in Did God Create in Six Days? Ed. Joseph A. Pipa, Jr. and David W. Hall (Taylors, S.C.: Southern Presbyterian Press, 1999), 113.
[17] Keathley, 40 Questions and Answers, 127
[18] See Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Raids: Zondervan, 1994), 300-304
[19] See Psalm 95 and Hebrews 4
[20] For example, see the discussion in Chapter 2 of John MacArthur, The Battle for Beginning, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005).

Bibliography

Brand, Chad Owen "The Work of God: Creation and Providence" in A Theology for the Church. Edited by Daniel L. Akin, 67-101 Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007.

Dembski, William. The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World. Nashville, Tenn. : Milton Keynes, U.K: B&H Academic, 2009.

DeYoung, Donald. Thousands Not Billions: Challenging the Icon of Evolution, Questioning the Age of the Earth. Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2005.

Garner, Paul, The New Creationism: Building Scientific Theory on a Biblical Foundation. Faverdale North, Darlington, England; Webster, N.Y.: Evangelical Press, 2009.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.

Humphreys, D. Russell. Starlight & Time. Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 1994.
Jordan, James B. Creation in Six Days: A Defense of the Traditional Reading of Genesis One. Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1999.

Keathley, Kenneth, and Mark Rooker. 40 Questions About Creation and Evolution. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2014.

Luther, Martin Luther’s Works. Vol 1. Lectures on Genesis. ed. Jaroslav Pelikan St. Louis: Concordia, 1958.

MacArthur, John F. The Battle for the Beginning. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005.

Morris, Henry M., and John D. Morris. Science, Scripture, and the Young Earth: An Answer to Current Arguments Against the Biblical Doctrine of Recent Creation. El Cajon, Calif: Institute for Creation Research, 1985.

Mortensen, Terry. 2007. "Jesus, evangelical scholars, and the age of the earth." Master's Seminary Journal 18, no. 1: 69-98. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 10, 2015).

Roberts, Michael. Evangelicals and Science. Annotated edition. Westport: Greenwood, 2008.

Ross, Mark “The Framework Hyphothesis: An Interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2:3,” in Did God Create in 6 Days? ed. Joseph A. Pipa, Jr and David W. Hall. Taylors, S.C.: Southern Presbyterian Press, 1999.

Ross, Hugh. A Matter of Days: Resolving a Creation Controversy. 1st edition. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2004.

Ross, Hugh. The Creator and the Cosmos: How the Greatest Scientific Discoveries of the Century Reveal God. Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1995.

Sailhamer, John H. Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account. 2nd edition. Colorado Springs: Dawson Media, 2011. Kindle

Schroeder, Gerald. Genesis and the Big Bang: The Discovery Of Harmony Between Modern Science And The Bible. Reprint edition. New York: Bantam, 1991.

Young, Davis A. Christianity and the Age of the Earth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982.

———. John Calvin and the Natural World Lanham, MD: University Press, 2007

Young, Davis A., and Ralph F. Stearley. The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008.

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