In the debate about “beginnings” where we start is important.
In several areas, my starting point seems to differ from that of Cabal and Rasor in Controversy of the Ages. For example, I sense that I’m commenting on their book as something of a cultural outsider. Here in Britain, BioLogos has its counterpart in the Faraday Institute of Science and Religion; Answers in Genesis, Creation Ministries International, and smaller ministries like my own represent young-earthI prefer the term “young-age” to “young-earth”, because the former encompasses those creationists (including many Seventh-day Adventists) who hold that the physical universe and earth are ancient, but that the creation of life on earth took place in six days only a few thousands of years ago, followed by a global flood responsible for much of the fossil record. We might call this the old earth/young life view. However, in this essay I will use Cabal and Rasor’s terminology. creationism (YEC). But it’s hard to think of a British equivalent of Reasons to Believe (RTB), suggesting that the cultural landscape of the origins debate is rather different here to the one in America that provides the backdrop to Cabal and Rasor’s book. However, there are other even more important differences in our starting points and I’m grateful for this opportunity to explain them.
Starting with the Cross
Theologically, I believe we should start to evaluate competing models of origins with a doctrine that is central to the Christian faith: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.For the following theological arguments I am deeply indebted to my colleague Stephen Lloyd, and especially for his papers cited in references 3 and 4. This may seem a strange place to begin, but it’s vital our focus remains on core evangelical beliefs and not on the fuzzier edges. Central to the redemptive plotline of the Bible is Jesus’ death on the cross. The physical sufferings and death of Christ are clearly connected in the New Testament to payment of the penalty for sin (e.g., Col. 1:22, 2 Pet. 2:24, Heb. 10:10, 1 Cor. 15:3). The apostle Paul explains that just as death came through one man (Adam) so the resurrection of the dead comes through one man (Jesus Christ) (1 Cor. 15:21). In Gen. 1:31, God had looked at his finished creation and declared it “very good.” But death entered the world as a curse upon Adam’s sin, with Adam eventually returning to the dust from which he had been taken (Gen. 3:19). Reasoning from “solution” to “problem,” it seems logically inescapable that Adam’s sin must have brought about physical death, since Jesus’ resurrection clearly brought about new physical life. Indeed, the assumption that physical death is a consequence of sin permeates the scriptures (e.g., 1 Sam. 12:19, Ezek. 18:4, 20). Moreover, the atoning death of Christ is linked to the healing of disease (e.g., Matt. 8:17 citing Isa. 53:4) and Paul plainly states that our physical bodies require redemption (Rom. 8:23), indicating that they too are affected by the curse on sin.
But it is here that we encounter a problem. This biblical teaching about physical death is in conflict with the conventional old-age chronology, in which physical death has always been present and is a natural part of life. From both evolutionary creationist (EC) and old-earth creationist (OEC) perspectives, God’s creation was replete with agony, bloodshed and death from the beginning. Not only is this inconsistent with the emphasis on the goodness of creation in Gen. 1:31, but if physical death pre-dated Adam’s sin we have a massive problem in understanding the cross. If physical death is a normal part of life, causally unconnected to sin, then Jesus’ physical death can have nothing to do with sin. Indeed, if physical death has been around from the beginning and is simply an intrinsic part of what it means to be human, we would have to rewrite our communion service! The bread symbolizing Jesus’ broken body and the wineIf physical death has been around for hundreds of millions of years, we would be forced to conclude that in his resurrection Jesus was triumphing over an enemy that he himself made at the beginning. This is not a coherent story! his shed blood would have to be seen as symbols of Jesus’ incarnation, not his atonement. And what of the New Testament claim that the resurrection of Christ was a victory over physical death, which is even described as an “enemy” in 1 Cor. 15:26? If physical death has been around for hundreds of millions of years, we would be forced to conclude that in his resurrection Jesus was triumphing over an enemy that he himself made at the beginning. This is not a coherent story!
It is tempting to say that these theological problems apply only to EC and not to OEC, given that OECs agree that human physical death post-dates Adam’s sin. But in the old-earth model championed by RTB, Adam co-existed with other hominins (e.g., Neanderthals) with similar physical, emotional, and intellectual capabilities. Why should we regard Adam’s agony and death as a terrible monstrosity caused by sin, while the agony and death of his near-identical contemporaries is of no moral significance? Besides, numerous biblical passages link animal death to human sin. This is brought out most clearly in the narrative of the flood, in which the destruction of “all flesh” includes the animals as well as the humans (Gen. 7:15-16, 21). The text even explains that this was because the animals as well as the humans were corrupt and violent (Gen. 6:11-13). Similar connections can be seen in the Passover account (Exod. 12:12, 29) and other passages. Clearly, our understanding of the history of death matters because it affects the whole storyline of the Bible, even our understanding of the atonement. And this doctrine has far-reaching implications for how we interpret the scientific data. If death and suffering came after Adam’s sin, then the fossil-bearing rocks, with their evidence of agony, disease and death, must be younger than Adam. For more on this, and other arguments based on the biblical storyline, Stephen Lloyd’s chapter in Debating DarwinStephen Lloyd, “Christian theology and Neo-Darwinism are incompatible: an argument from the resurrection,” in Graeme Finlay, Stephen Lloyd, Stephen Pattemore and David Swift, Debating Darwin. Two Debates: is Darwinism True & does it Matter? (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2009), 1-29. and his recent paper in the Foundations theological journalStephen Lloyd, “Chronological creationism,” Foundations 72 (2017): 76-99. Lloyd’s arguments about the chronological implications of the biblical storyline repay careful study and demonstrate that the conventional old-age chronology messes with the Bible’s relative chronology in a way that renders the gospel incoherent. are highly recommended.
Another area in which my starting point differs from that of Cabal and Rasor concerns the implicit assumption running through their book that our thinking about origins should be shaped primarily by our response to the theory of evolution. Opposition to evolution is not where I begin in evaluating the scientific evidence. Cabal and Rasor point out that YECs are willing to entertain certain “evolutionary” ideas (such as speciation and plate tectonics) while taking OECs to task for accepting an old universe and earth (p. 170). The charge seems to be one of inconsistency, but the two cases are not equivalent. The important question is not how “evolutionary” we perceive an idea to be, but whether it is compatible with the biblical storyline that death entered the world as a consequence of Adam’s sin. YEC is compatible with that storyline; OEC and EC run counter to it. Nevertheless, within the constraints provided by the Bible’s storyline, there is considerable freedom to assess competing scientific models on how well they fit the evidence. The Bible provides a broad historical framework but only rarely will it help us to decide between competing scientific models. That’s why some YECs accept plate tectonics and others reject it, some embrace large amounts of speciation and others think there were narrower limits on species variability. All these ideas are compatible with the Bible’s storyline, at least in principle, and so debate rightly focuses on which (if any) is well supported scientifically. And I would want to do this work of building scientific models consistent with the biblical storyline whether or not there was a theory of evolution! My primary interest in studying the natural world is not to provide apologetic arguments against evolution but to learn about God and his creation, much as we can learn about an artist by studying his paintings or an author by reading his books.
Not a Hermeneutical Ratchet
One final area where my starting point differs from that of Cabal and Rasor concerns their apparent endorsement of the Galileo approach as a model for handling science-faith conflicts (pp.44-46). They even suggest that most conservative Christians (including YECs) practice this methodology whether they recognize it or not. They summarize the Galileo approach in two assumptions and two interpretive steps. First, they say, there is the assumption of biblical inerrancy though not the inerrancy of biblical interpretations; second, there is the assumption that nature and scripture will be in agreement when each is rightly interpreted. So far, so good. But then there are two interpretive steps. In the first, traditional biblical interpretations are given priority over “unproven” scientific theories; but in the second, “proven” scientific theories require the Bible to be reinterpreted. Cabal and Rasor evidently favour this methodology for settling contemporary science-faith conflicts, such as over the age of the earth. However, I want to suggest that this approach is misconceived or at best incomplete.
Leaving aside the naïvety of the language of “proven” and “unproven”Proof belongs to the realm of logic and mathematics, not to the natural sciences. and who makes that determination, there is a more serious problem. The Galileo approach amounts, in effect, to a hermeneutical ratchet. The direction of travel is in only one direction: towards ever-increasing acceptance of the scientific consensus. The principle of theological conservatism may slow the ratchet down (p. 40), but the sense of movement is one way only. Entirely missing from this methodology is allowance for a historic biblical interpretation to cause us to re-evaluate a seemingly well-established (“proven”) scientific idea.Cabal and Rasor suggest that the approach to science-faith debates adopted in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics (CSBH) mirrors that of Galileo (pp. 174-175). However, Article XX of the CSBH explicitly allows for scripture to motivate us to reassess “what the extra-biblical facts really are”, something the Galileo methodology does not. But scripture must be allowed to push back against consensus science. After all, as Cabal and Rasor themselves acknowledge in their discussion of Warfield’s views, science is a human interpretation of the facts and not the facts themselves (p. 196). And if the history of science teaches us anything, it is that even seemingly well-established theories can be wrong. If we only allow consensus science to push the ratchet along in the direction of challenging historic biblical interpretations, and never the reverse to happen, we will find historic biblical interpretations constantly retreating before the relentlessly advancing scientific consensus. We might call this a “hermeneutic of the gaps”!
The great irony is that this hermeneutical ratchet, consistently applied, will eventually lead Cabal and Rasor to cross the boundary that they themselves have erected, and embrace biological evolution. This seems inevitable given that universal common descent is the settled scientific consensus and the evidence for it seems, qualitatively speaking, no better and no worse than the evidence for an old earth.At least that’s my assessment as someone trained in both the earth and biological sciences. In this respect, EC and YEC have the virtue of consistency, EC embracing both evolution and an old earth and YEC rejecting them. But OEC, at least in its RTB incarnation, is an odd hybrid, in which speciation is rejected (despite it having been observed within modern human lifetimes) and an old earth embraced (despite being based on questionable inferences about past processes quite beyond human observation).
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