A Short Sequence of Thoughts on Creationism

I’ll admit first that I haven’t watched the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate, whose hype induced me to write this essay, and I probably won’t. I have also invested very little of the past five or six years into investigating the specifics of the creationism controversy, which I am aware still smolders in Evangelical circles.

Some autobiographical information may account for my present general apathy. Defending young earth creationism (YEC) was a major church-culture thing when I was a kid, and the typical centerpiece of apologetics ministry. I traveled to an Answers in Genesis conference with a church group when I was about eleven, and met Ken Ham there. Ham also taught adult Sunday School once in my little Baptist church. (My father, who has no particular leaning on YEC, personally found him evasive.)

My parents did their best to supply me with apologetics materials as my intellect budded. Some, for instance on the textual integrity of the Bible, were helpful; others seemed more contrived. Despite my father’s lack of investment in a young earth perspective, my mother purchased mostly YEC books when it came to science. I might have argued the YEC perspective for much of my teens, but around the time I entered college, I simply let it go. No new challenges made me rethink the validity of my position; I just realized that the issue was not so important and I was not so knowledgeable as to qualify me for an advocate of any position. Noting that I had only seen such arguments stir up discord, moreover, I seriously questioned the value and necessity of militant apologetics. Instead, I turned toward philosophy and theology, trying to understand my faith better before attempting to defend it. I still think this a fortunate shift.

My exposure did continue in low levels. While at Belhaven I read a book, written by scientists, that espoused intelligent design, and it seemed more reasonable to me than YEC. Later, as I started to realize where my assumptions about interpreting Genesis came from, and how novel they were in the history of Christian thought (YEC arose in the 1920s out of Seventh-day Adventism, a heterodox sect), any remaining commitment to YEC disintegrated, and my perception of evolutionary science as intrinsically a sinister, hostile force faded.

However much I enjoyed my six credits of biology in college—as I did, genuinely—science is still not a field in which I am particularly knowledgeable. I was deeply interested in geology and astronomy when younger, and though online chemistry classes dampened my regard, I could see reviving it at some point; nevertheless, the vast field of humanities has dominated my adult education and continuing interests.

So this is how I, a scientifically illiterate non-enthusiast, understand the meat of the question.

Ken Ham’s whole posture is based on the assertion that we cannot observe the past and subject it to empirical tests. Strictly speaking, this is true. Consequently, according to Ham, we cannot be sure physical laws worked the same way once-upon-a-time as they do now. The inability of scientists of themselves to interpret the evidence leaves room for a literal Genesis to provide the answers to the universe’s physical history, and, Ham argues, provide them it does, more persuasively than mainstream science.

The force of the argument is simple and subversive, making a sharp distinction between observational and historical science that renders virtually meaningless every possible scientific method of dating the earth. It challenges not only methodological naturalism but our very capacity to decipher nature; it ultimately shrouds all scientific inquiry in doubt. This extreme skepticism is paired with the fundamentalist assumption that Genesis is necessarily to be interpreted in a certain literal-historical way.

Of course there are many smaller postulates on which he rests his case. For instance, Ham explains fossil layers as the rapid work of the worldwide flood. He distinguishes in evolution between (observable) adaptation in species and (impossible) increase in genetic information. For more, one has only to look through the extensive Answers in Genesis website.

However much scientific or pseudoscientific theory used by AiG to support YEC, the position most fundamentally rests on an epistemological paradigm. Ham often speaks of the necessity for putting on “Biblical glasses,” as opposed to a secular materialist worldview, to make sense of the evidence, which may seem at first a reasonable expression of presuppositionalism. But what it does in practice is oppose, unnecessarily, a compelling organization of facts from nature (Evolution) to the textual body of revelation (Judeo-Christian Scripture).

This feeds a troubling dichotomy. Ham and his compatriots are certain Genesis teaches a cumulative creation in six literal days; mainstream scientists are certain science says something very different. The two are then essentially antithetical, and the wars of last century’s reductionist fundamentalism are perpetuated.

However, that Ham’s glasses are the Biblical ones is hardly a given. One has merely to point to the Church Fathers, let alone a majority of contemporary theologians, to evidence manifold variant, orthodox interpretations to a literal six-day creation. Classical Christian theology has been not much interested in the “six days” as physical events, but there are abundant “hexameron” works in the traditional corpus that address their spiritual and philosophical implications. Instead, Ham’s theology seems to dictate that we deny the witness of reasoned natural inquiry in order to adhere to the witness of Scripture. This flies in the face of centuries of standard Christian doctrine.

I decline to go so far as to call Ham a fraud; I am in no place to judge his integrity, and the AiG website and ministry does make some effort for intellectual respectability both theologically and scientifically. But it fails to lay legitimate claim to either. And that, for me, is where I let the matter rest, and leave it to the experts in their respective fields.

If I reject the science-scripture dichotomy by declining to advocate any particular literalist interpretation of the Genesis cosmogony, the problem seems much less of an issue. Some difficulties remain; evolution is new enough that there are not many established theological antecedents to addressing, for instance, the place of a literal Adam within its scientific framework, but that can be worked out in time, especially if evolutionary theory continues to hold for the next few centuries. But this does nothing to the essential traditional theology of Adam. This is not (or does not have to be) adapting the Bible to the passing trends of science, nor confining religion and science to totally separate spheres; rather, this is the acknowledgement that getting the full picture, whether by revelation or empirical knowledge, takes time and suffers fallibility, and we should embrace the technical work of science and the grace of studying revelation as complimentary endeavors. We should hope to welcome another generation of scientist-theologians, as the West has often had since Albertus Magnus.

Hence I freely accept that the field of science has natural dominion over the phenomenal world, and I, not a scientist, have little reason to doubt that scientists’ conclusions within their own field are generally accurate. I do not expect or wish Christian scientists to put off their Christianity when they step into the lab; they must wonder at the natural revelation of God and worship him in his creation. They cannot affirm an ideological evolutionism which destroys the image of God in man and subordinates him to a formless flux of pure physical matter. But to imagine the Bible was written to obviate study of natural mechanics is as bad as asserting pure, technical science is all that is necessary to form a complete understanding of reality.

Hence I do object likewise to some scientists’ attempts to hijack or dismiss other fields, whether that is Dawkins’s misguided attacks on religion or Hawking’s outrageous claim that “philosophy is dead.” Étienne Gilson wrote in God and Philosophy,

Why are there organized beings? Why is there something rather than nothing? Here again, I fully understand a scientist who refuses to ask it. He is welcome to tell me that the question does not make sense. Scientifically speaking, it does not. Metaphysically speaking, however, it does. Science can account for many things in the world; it may some day account for all that which the world of phenomena actually is. But why anything at all is, or exists, science knows not, precisely because it cannot even ask the question.

The only thing evolutionary theory has done with respect to religion is complicate and enrich our understanding of biological creation. In so doing, it has incidentally explained phenomena in which some had once assumed the direct operation of God. But this in no way diminishes the necessity for God. Any “God of the gaps” argument has virtually always been recognized as a desperate appeal rather than a legitimate reason to conclude God’s existence or immanence. One can readily see early Christian theologians as well as ancient Greeks and theistic “natural philosophers” assuming that the observable phenomena of the world follow from a natural and intelligible—but contingent—chain of causation. Why would they not, when the common and usual operation of God in the world is through natural secondary causes? To imagine that we can simply assign supernatural force to gaps in our knowledge of the physical realm is to misunderstand the depth of creation’s dependence on its Divine Creator and Sustainer.

St. Irenaeus

Far better is the “God of the mysteries” argument used by Irenaeus to demonstrate, inversely, that God is ultimately unknowable. Irenaeus pointed out that even in the natural world we are surrounded by mystery; we are incapable of totally understanding all physical phenomena, for there will always be more to stop us short and make us wonder. This is true even with modern science’s sophisticated description of cause and effect; some of the most fundamental properties of our universe are undefined and possibly indefinable. How much more so, Irenaeus argued, must we find ourselves baffled and humbled before an infinite, eternal God?

This is what is missed by the whole debate, among Christians not least. The God hidden in the material cosmos but not contained by it, from whom the whole creation at all times derives its existence, is glorified as we further our understanding of his work and encounter, again and again, our own finitude. He is not a being among beings to be tested and proven, or a nebulous agent hypothesized to make sense of the unknown; he is a transcendent mystery revealed generally in the architecture of the cosmos and most fully in Christ, not to be comprehended, but to be recognized and worshipped.

This conclusion leaves me more or less aloof from the creationist-evolutionist controversy, and especially YEC, which I regard as driven by fundamentalism and misplaced zeal. Though I affirm creation ex nihilo as an essential theological doctrine, I am willing to take the Genesis accounts as not necessarily intended to be literally descriptive of physical origins. I could not label myself a Theistic Evolutionist or any other particular shade of compatibilist. I would have to do more reading, and as I consider the issue extraneous to the most important issues of the faith, an accident of time and culture, I feel no particular urgency.

6 comments on “A Short Sequence of Thoughts on Creationism

  1. salvageroost says:

    I find this essay helpful. As a Belhaven transfer, I have had no serious science courses since the hodgepodge of half-skimmed textbooks and YEC video tapes in high school (six credits of community college biology does not count as “serious”). In high school, naturally, I believed in YEC, and since then I have not bothered to correct my position; I simply stood at a distance and watched it desiccate, Indiana Jones-style. The field of science overwhelms me, and instead of turning my mind to it directly, I find myself reading haphazardly in history and biography and light sociology for some description of what the world is really like.

    Unfortunately, I tend also in recent years to do the same thing with the Bible. If we are not supposed to read as strictly literal passages which my mommy and daddy taught me to read literally, then how are we meant by God to read them? I don’t know where to begin, and so I read everything else at hand, groping for some intuition of what revelation is really like.

    I will be particularly interested to see if you have some epiphanies on this subject in the near future. The solution laid forth at the end of Christian Smith’s “The Bible Made Impossible,” which we both read recently, feels slightly contortionist and grievously inadequate, as you then mentioned. (Maybe it’s just that he presented his “solution” clumsily, and the idea itself was unfamiliar to me and therefore hard to swallow. Since that first reading, I have suspected that his position is maybe not so historically novel?) So, short of spending the rest of my days wallowing in haphazard poetry and “light sociology,” ignoring the Bible as best as I can and clinging to the creeds, what ought I to do?


  2. Arthur says:

    Thanks for writing your thoughts out. I think more people really should do that. But most people in our culture don’t tend to think deeply enough to have many thoughts to write down. And thanks for your honesty. That’s not something that is very popular among people who do write stuff down. I agree that this whole debate is very complex and there are many opinions and much rhetoric. I do think it is worthwhile to study however, and try to sort at least some of it out though it may be a long hard process, that perhaps will continue for life. But as you have at least implied, there can be value in taking time out or to step back and have a rest for a while. There are so many hard questions for both sides of the debate and it can sometimes seem as though there no clear winners. It is important I think to realize that the conclusions even scientists (whether creationists or evolutionists) make are based on presuppositions. They may both use science to study and discover facts, but the conclusions that either make are an interpretation of those facts based on their presuppositions regarding reality. We should ask what are the motivations that drive these people and their conclusions. I find it interesting that even some Atheist scholars find the current theory of evolution bogus and can see through some evolutionists’ guise of being open minded when they are in fact doing the opposite. Not that they’re not sincere evolutionists. I am somewhat leery of mainstream science since they can be so staunch about their conclusions when “science” has a tendency to change. That is, the conclusions of science changes. There have been many scientific “laws” that are now proven to be false. Being somewhat of an “omniologist” what I have studied of science (though I do not pretend to know everything) I don’t think I could accept the theory of evolution as true, honestly. While I would probably call myself a young earth creationist, I almost hate to do that for a few reasons, namely because there are a number of misunderstandings regarding that term, and a lot of people that call themselves that (I believe) totally misrepresent the view. It is also frustrating the rhetoric that is used by both sides, that really shows a misunderstanding of both views. From the evolutionist side some people use the “Having-to-get-a-flu-shot-every-year-proves-evolution.” That’s a straw man argument as every creation scientist that I know of acknowledges the scientific fact of natural selection. But many non-scientist “creationists” may not acknowledge that and so confusion arises. I guess my point is there are scientists on both sides and one should look at their work as scientists in their field to determine if their views are, or could be, valid–creationist as well as evolutionist. Anyway, I hope I do not come across as trying to rebut your article–just trying to write out my thoughts as well. I do not think that the subject is totally moot. We are as Christians supposed to study nature and “take dominion” over it. However, I do acknowledge that not everyone will do it in the same way or in the same field as someone else. The debate is far from over and I think as science continues to make discoveries and uncover more facts things will change down the road–for both sides.

    • I appreciate your comments on the importance of presuppositions in interpreting evidence. I am under no illusions that science is a static or unidirectional entity; theories will change, and paradigms will be reworked. Additionally, there are a variety of interpretations and variations within the larger theories, and so “science” cannot be thought of as a monolithic unit to which we ascribe absolute truth. I have as little sympathy with those who try meticulously to square each point of the Genesis cosmogony with current, mainstream scientific theory as with those who insist YEC is the only possible interpretation of the evidence; in either case, I think there is a category error produced by our peculiarly modern preconceptions about the nature of the text. Science is dynamic and prone to false assumption where, according to traditional Christian dogma, the Scripture is in itself static and infallible.

      Nevertheless, scientific theories as important, widely-accepted,* and well-attested as evolution and the dating of the earth must be reckoned with. As I pointed out in my essay, Ken Ham’s arguments against mainstream science ultimately have the effect of calling into question the possibility for any truth to emerge from science. Ham does not explicitly do this, because he cleaves science into “observational” and “historical,” and then directs his demolition work to the latter in order to leave “gaps” in which to assert the active manipulation of God according to a peculiar interpretation of the Bible. This is bad theology if nothing else, arising mainly from “taking sides” in a perceived conflict between revelation and science. Does that conflict exist in reality? I don’t believe so.

      I do not know through what means exactly God was active in the emergence of biological life, whether God directly intervened in successive stages, or whether, up until the appearance of Adam, he acted through purely natural processes. I could stand to be convinced either way. I would encourage Christian scientists to address the question according to their own worldviews. But until I do take the time to study the issues and reach a personal conclusion, I feel it is unnecessary to assume YEC as the default Biblical position, and it has some serious problems that make me not a partisan. It certainly should not be the divisive issue it is, and in my opinion, apologetics would do better to put down roots elsewhere.

      * Creationist scientists comprise 3% or less of scientists, as compared with over 30% who are theists (and evidently find no conflict). This is not proof of anything in itself, but it is extremely suggestive and cannot be merely dismissed.

  3. paulrwaibel says:

    Very well said. I have heard Ham speak. I was not impressed. He tells jokes, ridicules individuals and ideas he does not agree with and, I suspect, does not understand. I do not think one should take him seriously. With respect to how Christians through the ages viewed the age of the earth, etc., I recommend THE BIBLE, ROCKS AND TIME: GEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE FOR THE AGE OF THE EARTH by Davis A. Young and Ralph F. Stearley (Intervarsity Press, 2008). One word of caution, however, if there was not a historical Adam, why was Jesus Christ?

    • I am aware there is a debate among accommodationists over whether Adam was a historical individual, or represents corporate early man (when humanity received the Divine spirit and the imprint of the Divine image, and subsequently rebelled against God). The Pauline theology of the First and Second Adam is obviously a relevant factor. C. S. Lewis, for instance, who did not believe in a literal Genesis cosmogony; believed there was still a historical Adam, but others argue that genetic evidence is conclusive that there could never be less than a certain population of humans at any given time. There is also the debate over whether we should consider “archaic humans” truly human. Etc.

      Again, since this is not something I have conducted serious study in, I do not feel qualified to offer an opinion. Meanwhile, I’ll assume there was an historical individual Adam until I hear a convincing argument otherwise.

  4. Marshall Bradshaw says:

    Well written article, though I have to admit I am not sure I agree or dissagree with some of your conclusions, I do appreciate the direct honesty and lack of pretense on your position. When contemplating the creation account, the older I get the more I lean toward a literary approach than a historical or a scientific one to understand creation. Some passages are clearly written as history, and others would seem to be presented with some scientific insight, however, the first couple chapters of Genisis are without a doubt poetry. When we understand the literature we are reading (whether a letter to someone, a song of praise, or an eyewitness account) that becomes the guiding principle behind how we understand and interpret the passage. We look through a very different lens when reading poetry and if we don’t, then our interpretations will be wooden and lifeless, and we will most likely miss both the beauty of the writting and the emphasis of the writer. I’m not convinced the poet of the creation account ever intended for his message to be predominated over by a debate about history or science. When one contemplates the original intended audience, the poetic structure and the lens through which the observer of creation saw things, our relationship to that passage will be so much more intimate and our understanding of God, his creation and his love for man will be all the more profound.

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