Creationism

 

Jeffrey Koperski

 

From Science, Religion, and Society: History, Culture, and Controversy, Gary Laderman and Arri Eisen, eds.  Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference, 2006.

 

 

            Creationism is usually paired these days with evolution, as in “The Creation vs. Evolution Debate.” Although there is something right about that, it is not the whole story. The controversy is older than Darwin and touches on far more than biological evolution. In this chapter, we consider broader questions about the origin of the universe and the relation between science and Scripture: How old is the universe? If God created it, how did he do so? How should we interpret the account of creation in the early chapters of Genesis? There are four main approaches to these questions. The first is naturalism: nothing exists beyond the realm of nature, material objects, and energy. Most naturalists consider religious beliefs to be purely matters of faith, making no contribution to history or science. Although naturalism and atheism are not synonymous, when it comes to matters of religion, they are essentially the same. The second view is young earth creationism (YEC), which takes a literal interpretation of Genesis and the six days of creation. The last two views, progressive creationism (PC) and theistic evolution (TE), reject this interpretation and agree with contemporary science about the age of the universe. The difference between PC and TE has to do with God’s activities after the initial creation of the cosmos. Although there are nonchristian theists in each camp, the debate is a much larger, defining issue among contemporary, Protestant Christians than it is in other religions. Let’s now consider the three theistic positions in more detail.

 

Young Earth Creationism

 

            The core of YEC is that the book of Genesis should be taken as a literal account of the pre- and early history of the earth. The creation week is taken at face value: consecutive 24-hour periods adding up to six calendar days. Allowing for gaps in Old Testament genealogies, this means that universe was created between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. YECs also hold that geological data, including the fossil record, should be understood in light of the worldwide flood depicted in the account of Noah and the ark.

 

History

 

            With some notable exceptions (see below), YEC was the majority view among Jews, Christians, and Muslims from ancient times until the nineteenth century. With little scientific evidence to contradict a recent creation, Scripture and tradition were the only sources available on the origin question. A dramatic change began around 1800. As geology matured into a distinct science, unexpected data began to emerge, including extinct volcanoes in central France and a consistent order among fossils in the geological strata. Geologists also wanted to appear more “scientific” and empirical in the age of Newtonian mechanics which in turn influenced the rules for theory formation. Unlike the older view that appealed to catastrophes such as the Noachian flood, early nineteenth century scientists argued that geological explanations should appeal only to observed processes (e.g., erosion) which they hypothesized to have been at work at the same rate and strength for millions of years. By the middle of the century, an old-earth view had taken hold. One American commentator writing in 1852 estimated that one-half of the Christian public had come to believe that Genesis did not need to be interpreted in a young-earth fashion.

            By the early twentieth century YEC had fallen into a minority position having few visible supporters among Christian leaders. The only denomination to take a young earth as established doctrine was the Seventh-Day Adventists, in which prophetess Ellen G. White claimed that God had shown her the creation days in a vision. The view was adopted by some fundamentalist groups by World War II, but was catapulted into the broader Christian community by seminary professor John Whitcomb Jr. and professor of civil engineering Henry Morris through the publication of The Genesis Flood (1961, more on this below). YEC has since become a popular view among evangelical Christians and has been incorporated into the doctrinal statements of a number of churches, seminaries, and independent ministries.

 

Scripture

 

            The YEC interpretation is straightforward: Genesis should be taken as a simple, historical record without metaphor or symbolism. The length of each day (yôm) is the same as the length of any other day found elsewhere in the Bible. YECs believe the flood in the account of Noah (Genesis 6-9) was a worldwide event. Moreover, there were no animal deaths before the Fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, contrary to the evolutionary view in which carnivores have existed for eons. This last point may seem minor, but YECs claim that it is central to the fall/redemption doctrines of Christianity. Allowing for a reinterpretation of Genesis with an old earth and animal deaths prior to the fall, they argue, undermines this framework of sin and salvation. A less-than-literal interpretation is thus taken to be a slippery slope toward a loss of biblical authority and capitulation to a naturalistic worldview.

 

Flood Geology

 

            Modern YEC is not merely a set of religious doctrines about the Old Testament. Most creationists believe that their views will be vindicated by science, or at least would be if science could be freed from its philosophical commitment to naturalism. In order to counter scientific claims that the earth is over 4 billion years old, most YECs advocate a biblical flood geology. Instead of the millions of years required to create fossil fuels such as coal, flood geologists claim that they were formed within a year under the tremendous pressure of the Noachian floodwaters. As for the consistency of fossils found at certain layers of the strata (rather than a given kind of fossil being found at all levels), flood geologists have three main answers: (i) if a creature lived on the ocean floor, it tended to be covered first, (ii) denser creatures tended to sink and be buried faster than lighter creatures, and (iii) larger, mobile creatures could escape the rising flood waters and were buried last.

            Surprisingly, Whitcomb and Morris originally considered neither the historical sciences (geology, paleontology, and biological evolution) nor biblical flood geology as truly scientific. Since each of these deal with the prehistoric past and are therefore not open to direct observation or repeatable experiments, they believed that such investigations were “by definition” not science. (Although as competing models, predictions could be derived from both that would in turn be tested scientifically.) One’s choice of model, they claimed, was determined not by empirical data but by worldview.

            Today many YECs see the debate as a strict dilemma: either one is a Christian upholding the truth of the Scriptures or one has fallen under the sway of atheistic naturalism. They believe that since this choice cannot be decided on purely scientific ground, unless one begins with the only reliable source of information for the origin of the universe—God’s special revelation—it is impossible to get the right answers. Since the Old and New Testaments are considered inerrant and teach that the earth is less than 20,000 years old, any evidence that science might present to the contrary must be wrong.

 

The Appearance of Age

 

            As we have seen, YECs argue that many scientific explanations requiring extreme age can be accounted for in terms of a recent creation. But what about, say, the starlight from distant galaxies? Such light would have taken millions of years to reach Earth, yet early civilizations saw the same constellations as we do. How could distant stars be seen if the universe is less than 20,000 years old? To answer this objection and a number of others like it, all YECs to some degree or other employ the notion that a recent creation must have “the appearance of age.” For example, Adam and Eve were created as fully grown adults. And since they needed food, many plants were likewise created whole. Thus, a recent creation requires that some things appear to have age at the instant they were brought into being. This provides a way to explain starlight: both the stars and the light en route from those stars were part of the initial creation. Scientists wrongly infer that the light has been traveling for millions of years since, again, they begin from naturalistic presuppositions rather than the truth of revelation.

            Appealing to the appearance of age becomes the final line of defense against any seemingly incontrovertible evidence for an old earth. If such data cannot be accounted for in terms of flood geology, changes in the laws of nature, etc., creationists then claim that things merely look extremely old from a naturalistic point of view. Stars, radioactive isotopes, continental plates, coral reefs, and the like merely have the appearance of age when in fact they were initially created much the way they are.

            Critics object that this makes God into a deceiver: he has created a universe that falsely implies an ancient origin. YECs reply that there can be no deception if God explicitly tells us that the earth is young, which he has done in Genesis.

 

Creation Science

 

            The most familiar form of YEC is known as “creation science” or “scientific creationism.” In the early 1970s, YECs wanted to promote flood geology in the public school system, which was still, of course, teaching standard earth science. The earlier view that the credibility of flood geology rested on a prior commitment to a literal six-day interpretation was abandoned. A new literature was produced in order to reach the same conclusions without direct references to the Bible.

            Creation research institutes also started to form at this time, including the Institute for Creation Research near San Diego. Despite the name, these institutes generally focused more on the promotion of creation science than actual research. In the early 1980s, Arkansas and Louisiana passed laws that required creation science to be taught alongside evolution; however, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 declared such laws to be unconstitutional.

            Although Morris and Whitcomb have been mentioned here because of their pivotal role in the movement, there is now a vast creationist literature with many permutations. Some, for example, believe that while Big Bang cosmology is approximately true, the earth and/or the Garden of Eden were miraculously created relatively recently. Others agree with mainstream science that flood geology is a failure, but still hold to YEC for theological reasons. In short, modern creationism is not the monolithic movement that is often portrayed by critics and the popular press.

 

Progressive Creationism

 

            Although today the word “creationism” connotes a literal reading of Genesis, this was not always the case. Progressive or “old earth” creationism holds that while God made the universe and continues to act within it, the days of Genesis 1 are not literal, consecutive 24-hour periods. The six days of creation instead are thought to refer to an unspecified length of time. Most PCs believe that God directly created life as well as human beings. But since no age of the universe can be inferred from the text, they accept the findings of modern cosmology and geology. Most hold that Noah’s flood was a local phenomenon.

 

History

 

            Although the term “progressive creation” was popularized in 1954 by philosopher/theologian Bernard Ramm, a nonliteral view of early Genesis can be found in ancient sources. Among these are Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BC-c.50) and historian Flavius Josephus (37-c.95), as well as Christian theologians Origen (c. 185-254) and Augustine of Hippo (354-430). By the early twentieth century, virtually all well-known Christian leaders believed in an old earth: leaders of the Fundamentals movement such as D.L. Moody, conservative theologians Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield, as well as William Jennings Bryan, who famously criticized Darwinism in the Scopes “Monkey Trial.” Although PC remains strong among theologically conservative scientists and intellectuals, it has declined somewhat in the broader Protestant culture in the wake of YEC’s reemergence in the 1960s. PCs and YECs continue to oppose strict Darwinian evolution, especially in the case of humans.

 

Scripture

 

            PCs believe that the creation account is one of many passages in the Bible that should be taken figuratively. Angels are said to stand at the four corners of the earth (Revelation 7:1), but no one today thinks the earth is flat or square. There are also references to the sun rising (Judges 9:33; Matthew 5:45) and standing still (Joshua 10:13). Taken literally, the sun is pictured as the body in motion within a geocentric universe. For centuries, the Bible was understood to teach that the earth was the center of the universe. Once the Copernican Revolution took hold, exegetes began to question whether the naïve interpretation of these texts was required or had simply been assumed all along. Rather than being a capitulation to science, theologians recognized these as new interpretive questions that no one had previously thought to ask. PCs take a similar approach today when is comes to the creation account and geology. They argue that the traditional interpretation was dominant for so long only because there had been little reason to question the simple reading of Genesis 1. Now there are such reasons, and again sound exegesis shows that the simple interpretation is not the only permissible one.

            How then should the creation passages be interpreted? There are several approaches. The first are so-called “gap theories.” One of the most popular views at the turn of the nineteenth century held that there is an unspecified gap of time between Gen 1:1 and Gen 1:2. In Gen 1:1, God is said to have “created the heavens and the earth.” One English translation of Gen 1:2 reads “it became without form and void,” implying some sort catastrophe—possibly divine judgment associated with the fall of Satan. On this “ruin-and-reconstruction” view, Gen 1:3-2:3 is actually a second creation. This view is no longer widely held. A more popular gap theory takes the days of creation as actual 24-hour periods separated by an unspecified length of time. On this “intermittent day” approach, God’s intervention on specific days in the course of cosmic history is summarized in Genesis.

            The most widely held PC interpretation appears to be the “day-age” theory. On this view, each “day” in Genesis 1 refers to an indistinct period of time, in some cases billions of years. In support of this interpretation, PCs point to instances in Scripture where the Hebrew word yôm refers to periods other than 24-hours, e.g. “on that day the Lord will extend his hand . . . ” (Isaiah 11:11) and “in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens . . .” (Gen 2:4). Taking the days as long ages resolves some of the tensions with modern science, but not all. In particular, the days in the Genesis account are out of sequence from a scientific point of view. Plants and trees appear on day three; the sun and moon were created on day four.

            A more recent approach is known as the “literary framework” view, which emphasizes that Genesis 1 is not a scientific or historical description of the timing and mechanisms of creation. The point of the text is that Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, is the Creator of heaven and earth, rather than the Canaanite god Baal. The sun, moon, land, and seas were brought into being by Yahweh. He, not they, should be worshiped. To make this point, the author arranged the six days topically, not chronologically. Events are grouped in two triads of days. The realms of creation are separated in days 1-3. The rulers over those respective realms are created in days 4-6.

 

Day
Separated
Day
Created
1
light from darkness
4
sun, moon, and stars
2
waters from sky
5
fish and birds
3
land from seas
6
animals and man

 

Critics complain that the parallel is not as neat as it might appear. For example, fish inhabit the seas (day 3), not merely the waters (day 2). Advocates of this view contend that even if this parallelism fails, the point remains that the purpose of early Genesis is not about strict history or science, but rather to prove Yahweh’s sovereign creation and reign.

            This list is not exhaustive and some interesting views have been omitted due to space (e.g., C. John Collins’s recent “analogical days” interpretation). One that should be mentioned is “intelligent design theory,” which cuts across the YEC/PC distinction. Design theorists believe that traces of purpose and intelligence have been discovered in nature, but they are officially neutral with respect to the old earth/young earth controversy. (In fact, they are officially neutral with respect to the identity of creator. Some design theorists are not even theists.) Critics charge that intelligent design is merely the newest version of creation science intended for promotion in the public schools. Ironically, many YECs reject design theory. They find its “official neutrality” on critical issues lacks sufficient respect for the authority of Scripture.

 

Theistic Evolution

 

            Theistic evolutionists believe that the age of the universe debate has been dominated by a false dilemma: either supernatural interventions were needed to create the earth and its creatures or purposeless, cosmic evolution produced everything purely by chance. When faced with this choice, conservative Christians naturally see one side as orthodox and the alternative as atheistic. TEs believe there is a middle ground and that their religious views are fully compatible with modern cosmology, geology, and biological evolution.

            Many TEs see YEC and PC as the naïve intrusion of religion into purely scientific matters. They contend that Scripture is not directly applicable to questions of geology and cosmology. Scientific concepts should refer only to properties of nature itself, a view in the philosophy of science known as “methodological naturalism.” On this approach, science must proceed as if naturalism were true. Since the acts of God are by definition supernatural, they cannot be used in scientific explanations. However, TEs emphasize that “non-scientific” is not equivalent to “not true.” Methodological naturalism as an approach to research is to be strongly distinguished from a naturalistic worldview, which TEs reject. They claim that theological truths are beyond the reach of science. While TEs often hold something like the literary framework view of Genesis (above), many simply consider it to be an ancient myth with nothing more than aesthetic interest for modern readers.

            The universe has evolved, according to TE, just as science has taught us. The Big Bang, gradual formation of stars and planets, down through the self-organization of complex life and natural selection were God’s chosen means for bringing about the present universe. It’s not as though God were caught off guard; he foresaw the outcome and set the initial conditions in place that were required for this world.

            Differences among TEs tend to hinge on the nature of God’s ongoing guidance of the universe. Most hold some form of noninterventionism, the view that God’s main (and perhaps only) action after the initial creation is a continuous sustaining of the physical universe, rather than episodic interruptions. In other words, God upholds the natural order and the lawlike regularities studied by science, but does not violate the laws of nature. Since God was able to foresee the outcome, there was never a need for direct intervention or special creation within the natural order. Everything required for the present cosmos to evolve with all of its complexity was frontloaded at the initial creation. This is contrary to both YEC and PC which hold that natural processes and ordinary providence are not adequate to explain many complex systems in the world. All the critics of TE, including naturalists, object that on this view God is a superfluous addition to natural laws. If everything is explainable using the laws of nature, why should one believe in the supernatural?

            Other TEs believe that God continues to directly act within nature, but only in ways that do not violate the laws of physics. For example, quantum mechanics seems to indicate that nature is fundamentally probabilistic rather than deterministic. That means that some events at the subatomic level are purely matters of chance; the laws of physics do not determine their outcome. If so, then different outcomes are physically possible. Such causal gaps allow God to influence the behavior of the material world without violating its laws. Some TEs believe that God influences the behavior of natural systems via such means—a view which comes very close to PC. The difference has to do our ability to detect such action. PCs believe that, at least in principle, the acts of God are empirically detectable by finding traces of design, purpose, intelligence. TEs generally reject this: specific acts of God within the causal gaps of nature cannot be detected.

 

Conclusion

 

            There is great variety among theists on questions of creation and divine action. Contrary to the way it is portrayed in the press and by critics such as Richard Dawkins, the debate is not primarily Science vs. Religion, although it comes close in the case of YEC. Even there, the key question has to do with trustworthiness of sources—inerrant Scripture or current scientific theory—rather than an inherent conflict.

            YECs believe they will eventually be vindicated by science. PCs respect YECs for their faithful devotion to Scripture, but they disagree about the interpretive rules one should bring to the creation texts. TEs agree with PCs on this, but then go on to reject divine intervention in nature after the Big Bang. YEC continues to be popular among conservative Christians, but has made little or no headway in the broader culture. PC, at least in the form of intelligent design theory, has a tenuous toehold in academia, but has yet to produce the scientific results needed to keep it there. TE has the most respect among intellectuals, but has the weakest theological content of the three. How will the debate shape up in the next fifty years? As the surprising reemergence of YEC in the twentieth century shows, it is truly anyone’s guess.


Bibliography

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