I’ve read, with much interest, the recent debates over creation and the doctrine of Scripture on Reformation21 and The Aquila Report. The interest is threefold. First, this is becoming a central discussion/debate in evangelical circles. Second, my former college professor, Dr. William B. Evans, is involved, and I still regard him as the model for theological discourse with a focus on charity. Finally, for a couple of years I have been thinking through these very issues and wondered if a ‘third way’ is plausible.
I am stuck in the middle of this debate in siding with both groups. As a six day, young earth creationist I am in agreement with Carlton Wynne, G.I. Williamson, Matt Miller, William VanDoodewaard, and Peter VanDoodewaard regarding the interpretation of Genesis 1. Yet, I am in agreement with Evans in his analysis of Old Princeton, inerrancy, and the secondary importance of protology as compared to more central doctrines (e.g. penal substitution).
So, what is my proposal? I propose that six day, young earth creationists should not view their doctrinal stance as a ‘closed-handed’ doctrine or that a difference of opinion on the interpretation of Genesis 1 directly affects one’s view of Scripture’s authority (though certainly, some interpretations would have direct bearing on inerrancy). Yet, I contend Evans is wrong to assume that a young earth position is necessarily incoherent with general revelation as we know it. In this debate, there has been little attention paid to logical and philosophical precision to conclude whether a young earth position is truly incoherent with the evidence for an old earth.
This does not mean that both positions are correct, but I am claiming that in debating a doctrine of secondary importance that charity should rule the day and that those who have done extensive reading, exegesis, thinking, and prayer on the matter and who humbly come to either conclusion may respect their opponents and see the a priori plausibility of an opposing position.
Young Earthism and Speed of Light
The problem of light years has been noted by Evans as problematic for the young earth position. Indeed, I agree with Vern Poythress in his well-argued book, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach that traditional creationists have poorly handled this issue in trying to demonstrate the flawed metrics of measuring the speed of light. Poythress notes that some young earth creationists apply the ‘mature creation’ theory to many aspects of our cosmos but refrain from doing so when it comes to the speed of light and the distance of stars from our planet.
However, Evans has noted that the mature creation theory may not suffice since God is left being seen as a deceiver and overly concerned with modern presuppositions. I am very sympathetic to Evans and others on this point since young earth creationists have poorly handled this issue . Perspectives that try to question the metrics of measuring the speed of light or one that merely says “We don’t know” aren’t sufficient in a post-Christian culture that constantly questions the veracity of sacred Scripture. Christians who take a traditional interpretation of Genesis 1 and hold to a young earth need a more nuanced response.
I propose two considerations. First, there is coherence between the proposition stating a young earth and current factual evidence which speaks to the age of the earth. Second, a Christian may be warranted (or rational) to believe in a young earth. Concerning my first claim, it is important to distinguish coherence and correspondence. I am not claiming that the proposition of a young earth corresponds to the actual state of affairs of the cosmos (a notion of probability). All that is claimed is that it is ‘possible’ for the earth to be young in spite of evidence for an old earth.
This coherence theory is dependent, largely, upon a ‘mature creation’ model. Indeed, the young earth creationist has a reason for holding to some form of the theory. According to Genesis 2, if Adam was specially created, then God at one point fashioned part of his creation with the intent to have something look or seem older than it really is. There is no reason why God may or may not do this with more portions of his created work. (In the Incarnation there is the paradox of Jesus appearing younger than he really is!)
But, does this theory hold up concerning the speed of light and the appearance of stars that are millions of light years away from the earth? To uphold my claim for coherence, I only need to show that it is possible that God has a good reason to make stars appear older than they really are (as he did with Adam). Does Scripture give us any teaching on this matter? I contend that it does. God, may have wanted human creatures, or even animal creatures, to enjoy his handiwork in the sky/heavens. In addition, God may have wanted human creatures at later points in history to glorify his handiwork (Psalm 8:3). Stars were to serve a purpose in God’s good creation as signs to mark seasons as well as lights during the night (Gen 1:14-15). God may have had concern for those who navigate at night and designed stars to fulfill a good purpose to assist human agents made in his image.
The story of redemption also sees value in visible stars. God would appeal to stars and constellations as an apologetic for his sovereignty (Job 38:31-32). Stars are a sign/symbol of Abraham’s seed/offspring which is fulfilled in Christ (Gen 15:5; 22:17; Gal 3:16). Jesus himself is spoken of in prophetic forms of speech as a star (Num 24:17; Rev 22:16). God saw it good to use stars to assist the wise men in finding the promised Messiah (Matt 2:9-10) and to speak of the Second Coming (Matt 24:29; Mark 13:24-26; Luke 21:25-26).
Even a Christian who doesn’t hold to a young earth must admit the possibility of God creating stars with apparent maturity/age so as to accomplish various purposes. Given the magnitude and importance of stars in redemptive history, it is proper to think God could have made stars with maturity for his own glory. This notion of possibility/coherence doesn’t presume probability/correspondence. This claim only allows the young earth creationist to say in the manner of Lloyd Christmas, “So…you’re saying there is a chance!”
But, this notion of coherence goes further. Poythress, though himself an old earth analogical days proponent, makes a credible case for young earth theorists with his discussion of coherent maturity and ideal time. It is more than possible for a young earth creationist advocate to respect the integrity of dating techniques so long as they presuppose the notion of coherent maturity and measure the cosmos according to its ideal time, just as Adam might have done when he examined his one day old bride and deciphered her ideal age/maturity. A scientist, according to Poythress, would not waste his/her time studying rocks in ideal time since ideal time may reveal the wisdom and glory of God.
My second claim is that a young earth creationist may be warranted, or rational, to believe his position is true and corresponds to both special revelation and general revelation. Here, I am presupposing Alvin Plantinga’s fine work in religious epistemology and refinement of that work by James Anderson in his Paradox in Christian Theology. In assuming that a Christian theist is regenerate, has properly functioning cognitive faculties (which are purposed toward believing true propositions), and is indwelt by the Holy Spirit (and, to Evans’ liking, is united to Christ and possesses all his benefits) then we may have some confidence in this Christian theist that his/her reading of the Bible will attain true beliefs based on true propositions contained in Scripture. Now, concerning the interpretation of Genesis 1, we would not know at this point if the Christian theist is warranted in their particular interpretation of that text, especially concerning the age of the earth and the length of creation days. However, let us suppose this Christian theist has grown up in a sound, Bible-believing church, is reasonably educated (with at least a Bachelor’s degree from a respected institution), has read the essential literature on the subject, may read biblical Hebrew, has wrestled with various interpretations of the text (six day, analogical days, literary framework, day age, theistic evolution, etc.), studied church history in relation to the debate, has asked the Holy Spirit for illumination and guidance into truth, and has reread the passage many times over the course of several years. After all this, the Christian theist humbly accepts a six day, young earth position as the most sensible interpretation of the text. This individual also wrestles with evidence from science and the mainstream conclusions of science. This Christian, in balancing their interpretation of Scripture with the strong conclusions from modern scientists is trying to put Scripture in sync with general revelation. After a long time struggling with this issue, the Christian decides to remain steadfast in their interpretation of Genesis 1 and adopts a type of coherence theory partially outlined in previous paragraphs.
The question is, assuming the veracity of the Christian faith in its orthodox components, may one rightly claim that this Christian theist is warranted in their belief on the matter? I don’t see why not. Someone of a different persuasion may ask this Christian to reexamine the exegetical, hermeneutical, theological, and scientific aspects of the passage that they have considered previously. The Christian may oblige and do more competent studying and praying, but they still are persuaded in heart and mind that Genesis 1 teaches that God made the earth in six days and that the earth is relatively young according to ideal time.
If this Christian is humble in their conclusion and gladly accepts the fellowship of Christians who may embrace other interpretations within the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy (and there are several), I think the right response would be to claim that they are warranted to believe their interpretation and to believe it as a secondary doctrine compared to more gospel-centered doctrines such as penal substitutionary atonement.
The Possibility of Non-Literal Views
But, we could come up with similar scenarios for those who are not six day creationists! This story might be about one who comes to the conclusion of Meredith Kline (literary framework), Herman Bavinck (analogical days), or J. Gresham Machen (day age). Part of the exercise for these Christians would be to wrestle with the question of coherence regarding the possibility of God using the evolutionary process in creation. Indeed, in another possible world, God could have used something other than special creation with certain facets of creation. Even within a six day perspective, God, through his Word, creates out of nothing and also creates/forms out of pre-existing material (e.g. Adam and Eve from dirt and a Adam’s side). Also, in Genesis 2, God gives providential, creative care over a garden plants, which gives the possibility of process in creation. In another possible world, these means of ‘creating’ could vary and be different. Perhaps God creates Adam and Eve from nothing, or he gives a providential care for their process of coming into being. None of these possibilities violate God’s essential nature.
A Christian of a different perspective on the days of creation and age of the earth might wrestle with the exegesis of the biblical text and, similar to our previous Christian theist friend, come to a different conclusion. Indeed, while there are problematic issues with literary framework, analogical days, and day age perspectives, the six day perspective is not without initial difficulties. Six day proponents need to wrestle with issues such as the sun, moon, and stars created on day four after plants are created, the uniqueness of the seventh day (which doesn’t appear to be twenty-four hours), the ‘because it had not rained’ argument of Meredith Kline, the literary artistry of Genesis 1, and the polemical intent of Moses to counter ANE creation myths.
Yet, the non-literal views have difficulties to wrestle through. The fourth commandment suggests the simple historicity of Genesis 1 (Ex 20:11). The presence of vav consecutives in Genesis 1 is a marker for narrative prose in Hebrew. The refrain of ‘evening and morning’ suggests something strikingly close to the traditional view. Finally, the complexity of day age, analogical days, and literary framework views leads one to question whether the original reading audience would understand such complex exegesis.
This debate over biblical protology is similar to that of biblical eschatology wherein all millennial views have there difficulties and shouldn’t be viewed as a test of orthodoxy. Christians who hold to a particular millennial viewpoint may firmly believe their position but still understand why others take a different position and admit the difficulties involved with their own position.
I have a few thoughts for those who participate in this debate going forward.
1. Theological. There is a reason why six day creation is not regarded as an essential doctrine in the Great Tradition. In two thousand years there has been no monolithic stance on the days of Genesis. Even if a majority of Christian interpreters have taken the traditional view, we should take notice that the interpretation over the nature of the days has never been made a case for orthodoxy.
2. Exegetical. I’ve noticed that Christians who are six day creationists have more leniency and respect for proponents of literary framework, analogical days, etc. when they have read the major works by evangelical scholars. Indeed, one finds a great respect for the authority of Scripture and its inerrancy when one reads Meredith Kline’s “Because it Had Not Rained” in proposing his literary framework model. Both John C. Collins and Vern Poythress are very persuasive in their proposal of the Genesis days being analogical to God’s working days (and reconciling that view to Exodus 20:11). While I myself am not convinced of their conclusions, I cannot in good conscience say that these Christian brothers in their scholarship are drastically undermining the authority of Scripture. Reading their work shows their carefulness in handling the sacred text.
3. Hermeneutical. Much has been made of Evans’ insistence that the interpreter should see the background of ANE literature and concerns in framing the shape of the Genesis text. Indeed, Evans is correct and has good evangelical backing in claiming that the literary artistry of Genesis 1-11 is shaped by ANE creation stories and myths. Evans and others, though, would agree with Kenneth A. Kitchen that ANE writers didn’t historicize myth, but rather they mythologized actual history. This is the opposite of approach of Pete Enns found in his Inspiration and Incarnation. I think much more charity is needed on this issue as Evans and others seem to hold to a high view of Scripture that is equivalent to that of Old Princeton. The notion of ‘accomodation’ and phenomenological language, which Evans is indebted to in his interpretation, has the solid backing of John Calvin.
4. Historical. Evans is correct in his historical analysis of Old Princeton and the various views of inerrancy. Regarding inerrancy and its nuance in definition, one need only read works such as The Infallible World: A Symposium by the Members of the Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary (especially Paul Woolley’s chapter), Scripture & Truth, and Hermeneutics, Authority, & Canon (both edited by John D. Woodbridge and D.A. Carson). Even the edited work by Norman Geisler, Inerrancy, has helpful chapters which nuance the authority of Scripture in a helpful manner (especially the chapters by Greg Bahnsen and Paul Feinberg). Peter VanDoodewaard seems to accept Evans’ historical analysis, yet he still thinks Old Princeton should be thrown under the bus though it was Hodges, Warfield, and Machen that preserved inerrancy for future evangelicals. The argument from Evans and others is not that one need agree with the Old Princetonians on every doctrinal point (Evans certainly doesn’t as evidenced in his monumental Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology). Rather, Evans and others are contending that recent proposals by Williamson, Wynne, and others narrow the Reformed Tradition to such an extent that would have to remove Hodge, Warfield, and Machen from our presbytery rolls. Indeed, the irony here is that Machen’s Warrior Children would defrock Machen himself!
5. Science and Faith. Contrary to the claims of some, Evans has never claimed to place general revelation on equal footing with Scripture or that Scripture somehow submits to the power and politics of academia. Even if I disagree with Evans regarding the exegesis of Genesis 1, a charitable reading of Evans shows he stands within the tradition of Old Princeton and his education at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia under the tutelage of Richard Gaffin, Sinclair Ferguson, and others. What critics of Evans fail to realize is that the Westminster Confession of Faith does not present to us a hermeneutic for relating scientific inquiry and discovery to the teaching of Scripture. There are multiple models currently presented as seen in J.P. Moreland’s Christianity and the Nature of Science: A Philosophical Investigation. It seems that critics of Evans know of only two possible models for faith and science dialogue when the reality of the case is much more complex. The discussion going forward needs to have better awareness of the literature available.
6. Pastoral Ministry. The essential concern of Evans is also my own concern. Statistics show that our young people in our churches are leaving the faith. Ed Stetzer in his research has demonstrated that the younger unchurched are largely dissatisfied with the answers given by the church. While it is tempting to give the Calvinist answer, “Well, they aren’t regenerate,” I think a more caring response is needed. Conservative Reformed churches do not do a good job pastoring young people who have questions regarding faith and science. Some of these young people majored in the sciences in college or even have a career as an evolutionary biologist. They come into our church having many questions about whether they can be a Christian and do excellent work in a vocation that requires a certain scientific paradigm that may oppose our interpretation of Genesis 1-11. Traditional answers from Answers in Genesis or other young earth organizations are inadequate. Nor should we tell these young adults that they should erect “two kingdoms” that hardly intersect with one another. It is also insufficient to give no response. Our pastors need to be ‘generalists’ that interact with literature in theology, philosophy, the sciences, history, etc. At the very least, they should point to resources that will competently assist young adults. I again would recommend Poythress’ Redeeming Science as the most balanced product available.
Let us pray for charity, unity, and continued dialogue in our churches, presbyteries, and internet blogs on this important issue.