This book examines the way evangelicals handle science-theology conflicts and read Scripture in light thereof. It claims the “battle” between science and theology has been oversimplified and in some arenas misreported. By laying out the record, we get a fresh look at the age of the earth controversy. However, the work does more than this. It attempts to interpret the controversy in the context of its historical development.
The book introduces the “conservatism principle” as revealed historically in the way theologians carefully handle Scripture when faced with potentially conflicting scientific theories. Cabal contends that this conservatism principle has been evident in three phases which may take generations to develop: (1) A hesitation to accept a new theory that is not yet proven; (2) An eventual opening up to aspects of the theory as it gains credibility; (3) And perhaps eventually accepting the theory as compatible with a right reading of Scripture. The conservatism principle has been practiced by conservative theologians not because science has corrected the Bible, but because scientific truth has helped correct bad biblical interpretation. Interestingly, it was Galileo that first provided how to think through this approach. Two assumptions undergird Galileo’s proposal: (1) Assume biblical inerrancy, not inerrant interpretation; (2) Nature and the Bible cannot disagree. Two steps then follow: (1) if the science is unproven, retain traditional biblical interpretation; (2) If the scientific theory is proven, the traditional interpretation was wrong and must be abandoned. The difficulty has been in knowing how to apply this model.
Scripture, Naturalism, and Worldview
In the Copernican controversy and generally during the rise of modern geology, the participants shared a high view of Scripture. But by Darwin’s time in the nineteenth century the shared biblical worldview had disappeared. Though some had earlier assumed naturalism in their theories, Darwin placed it front and center. His theory, then, was considered problematic initially even by non-believers. For example, could natural selection, understood anti-teleologically account for human mental and moral capacity? Liberal theologians, on the other hand, having rejected a high view of Scripture in favor of human experience, quickly embraced evolution as a unifying theme. Conservative theologians staunchly resisted Darwin’s purposeless creation and liberal theology’s downgrade of the Bible.
The Scopes trial of 1925 stands as well-known “symbol of the mythical battle between regressive (and repressive) theology and progressive science” (p. 74). Reports of how people actually reacted at the time show a much more divided judgment about what had taken place and who had won. Only a series of literary and movie works extending from 1931 to 1960 solidified the victory narrative for Clarence Darrow. Meanwhile a closer look at the response at the time showed a variation of approaches to the debate among theologians. Evangelicals who tried to rebut the theory of evolution found themselves no longer able to buttress their position by appeals to complex design in creation; instead, they moved to defend the Bible and its truthfulness.
The founding of the American Scientific Affiliation represented a turning point for those seeking to oppose evolution and uphold inerrancy. But this evangelical organization soon widely embraced evolution while no longer necessarily affirming inerrancy. Conservatives reacted by forming the Creation Research Society to defend a young earth model inspired by publication of The Genesis Flood (1961). Over time, many young earth creationist leaders came to argue that a recent creation was the only orthodox way to understand Genesis.
Making matters complex for evangelicals today are the four popular but very different approaches to the question: young earth creationism (Answers in Genesis), old earth creationism (Reasons to Believe), evolutionary creationism (BioLogos), and Intelligent Design. This latter option, though opposed to evolutionary naturalism, does not invoke theology nor specify the designer.
The Present Debate
The rest of the book focuses on issues fueling the debate. For instance, leading young earth creationists today claim old earth creationists are evolutionists even though they reject Neo-Darwinism. Yet leading young earth creationists may accept more speciation than do their old earth counterparts. Cabal notes how conservative evangelicals have viewed the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy as the benchmark for understanding inspiration. Answers in Genesis, however, believes the Statement is part of the problem because it does not specify a recent creation as essential to inerrancy. On the other hand, BioLogos not only does not insist on inerrancy but even presents views on inspiration deeply disturbing to conservative evangelicals.
As the book winds down it takes a look at the issue of drawing theological boundaries. Cabal presents a variation of Al Mohler’s model of three levels of doctrine: essential doctrines (e.g., Trinity, the deity and humanity of Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture), secondary issues that create distinct denominations, and third level teaching where there is disagreement but close fellowship remains possible. Cabal then applies that model to this discussion. He regards BioLogos as too broad in how they handle Scripture. Their appeal to Benjamin Warfield as an evolutionist who held to inerrancy misses the mark: Warfield critiqued severely Darwinism’s anti-supernaturalism and anti-teleology, and Warfield affirmed the unity of the human race. On the other hand, Cabal sees Answers in Genesis as too narrowly and divisively drawing the line around the age of the earth. Historically these kinds of debates have typically taken generations to settle.And though Reasons to Believe affirms the Chicago Statement without alteration, Cabal critiques Hugh Ross for being less than helpful in the ways he has responded at times to young earther’s attacks.
A final point is that it takes time to sort through the complexity of scientific theories in their relation to theology. Cabal urges patience and kindness with others, even when we must draw lines. And he concludes with the reminder that historically these kinds of debates have typically taken generations to settle. Christians, therefore, should trust their Bibles and allow themselves to be at peace without having to decide their position on every complex issue.
So we have asked our experts to respond to this book and its argument. They are well qualified to do so, as you shall see. Let me introduce them to you.
Hugh Ross (PhD University of Toronto) is an astronomer, best-selling author, and founder of Reasons to Believe. Reasons to Believe (RTB), is dedicated to demonstrating, via a variety of resources and events, that science and biblical faith are allies, not enemies. Outside of RTB, Hugh teaches as an adjunct faculty member at both A. W. Tozer Seminary and Southern Evangelical Seminary, and he is a visiting professor at Regent University. His most recent publications include Improbable Planet: How Earth Became Humanity’s Home (Baker, 2016) Why the Universe Is the Way It Is (Baker, 2008).
Tim Morris (PhD University of Florida) is a Professor of Biology at Covenant College. After graduating from Covenant College in 1983, he did graduate work at the University of Florida (PhD in cellular and molecular biology) and post-doctoral research at the University of Georgia (molecular virology). He joined faculty at Covenant in 1995, and teaches a variety of courses in the Biology major program and in the college’s Core program as well. He is a coauthor of the book Science and Grace.
Paul Garner (MSc University College London) is a full-time Researcher and Lecturer for Biblical Creation Trust in the UK. He has an MSc in Geoscience from University College London, where he specialised in palaeobiology. He is a Fellow of the Geological Society of London and also holds memberships in the Geological Society of America, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and the Palaeontological Association. His first book, The New Creationism: Building Scientific Theories on a Biblical Foundation, was published by Evangelical Press in 2009.
Jim Stump (PhD Boston University) is the Senior Editor at BioLogos. He has an undergraduate degree in Science Education, and a masters and PhD in Philosophy. He is an editor for The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity (Blackwell, 2012), How I Changed My Mind about Evolution (IVP Academic, 2016), and Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Zondervan, 2017). He has authored Christian Thought: A Historical Introduction (Routledge, 2010) and Science and Christianity: An Introduction to the Issues (Wiley-Blackwell, 2017).
Welcome to our symposium on the age of the earth. I hope you find the discussion enlightening.