Foundations: No.71 Autumn 2016

The Age of the Earth: A Plea for Geo-Chronological Non-Dogmatism

This paper considers authorial intent in relation to Genesis 1, and suggests that it is not the primary objective of the author to fix the age of the earth. When Scripture is understood as God’s accommodated word to us, to remain non-dogmatic on something the author is not choosing to speak on, in no way undermines the doctrine of inerrancy. The paper then considers the history of biblical interpretation in relation to the author’s intention in Genesis 1. It is noted that the rise of modern geology did little to change the predominant non-dogmatism, and that the forceful insistence on six literal solar days is a relatively recent phenomenon in response to the atheistic outworking of Darwinian evolution. The overall aim of the paper is to show that a dogmatic adherence to any particular age is not necessary in order to defend a high view of Scripture and picks the wrong fight against scientific naturalism.

Introduction

If we don’t agree that the Bible teaches six literal days, if we allow ourselves to be influenced by the millions of years, and we don’t read the text as written… right there in Genesis 1, we’ve lost the battle. The battle is lost because the message to the people is, “We don’t have to take the Bible seriously here.” That compromise opens a door that leads to disaster.[1]

Ken Ham’s point is a compelling one.[2] If we read Genesis 1 and fail to affirm a young earth we will not be taking the Bible seriously, and that will ultimately lead to us failing to affirm the truth of the gospel. Ham, and the Answers In Genesis team, have given their lives to this conviction: apologetics that confirm a young earth interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis are key to us reaching the world for Christ.

This drives a desire to prove the credibility of a literal reading of Genesis 1-11. As a result, the recent opening of the Ark Encounter theme park, built at a cost of 102 million dollars, and with a life-size replica ark as its centrepiece, is for Ham, “a historic moment in Christendom”.[3] It is historic because he believes the theme park will be “one of the greatest Christian outreaches of our era”.[4] The organisation is now seeking a further 50 million dollars to add a Tower of Babel to the park. With a few million dollars, the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis can be proven conclusively, and global mission will be advanced.

On the other side, this is regarded as cause for considerable concern, amounting to an unnecessarily dogmatic approach to a particular reading of these chapters, supported by a pseudo-science that struggles under scrutiny. Davis Young and Ralph Stearley write,

Currently, in hundreds to thousands of pulpits, Sunday schools, Christian schools and homes where children are home-schooled, Christian young people are being indoctrinated by well-intended pastors, Sunday school teachers, Christian school teachers and parents – few of whom have any competence in geology – to accept young-Earth creationism and Flood geology as legitimate science. Frequently, students are taught that the traditional six twenty-four-hour days interpretation of Genesis 1 is the only interpretation of the text that is consistent with belief in an inerrant Bible.[5]

We may relate to this. We may have friends or family who have struggled to process the claims of modern geology, have lost confidence in the Bible, or rejected the gospel in part because of this apparent mismatch between science and Christianity. Perhaps we feel the pressure to adhere to six literal days, fearing what is at stake, but also recognising we are ill-equipped to evaluate the science, and knowing we are adopting a position we do not fully understand.

The complexity of the issue, and the heat it generates can cause us to keep our hands clean and somehow rise above the debate. Gerald Rau’s book, Mapping the Origins Debate encourages us to “see the world from a wider, and perhaps eventually different, perspective”.[6] However, in the end he falls short of offering a viable alternative. Or we simply retreat and bury our head in the sand like the puppet Buck Denver who, when asked whether the earth is 6,000 or four and a half billion years old, responds, “Wow, hey, wait, I’m not getting involved with that one”,[7] before quickly exiting the screen.

And yet, it is important that we equip ourselves, and our congregations, well. If Ham is right, then we have lost the battle if we assert anything other than a confident defence of a literal six day creation, but if Young and Stearley are right, then such an assertion mishandles the biblical text itself, is scientifically ignorant, and fails to equip our young people for either playground or campus.

With great trepidation then, this paper introduces two particular lines of investigation that suggest we should hold a non-dogmatic approach to the age of the earth as we seek to handle Scripture rightly. The first line of investigation is the author’s intention in the text of Genesis 1: Is it the writer’s intention to dogmatically assert an age for the earth at all? The second line of investigation is the history of biblical interpretation: To what extent has a specific age for the earth been asserted dogmatically, on the basis of Scripture, throughout the history of the church? My aim is to show that a dogmatic adherence to any particular age is not necessary in order to defend a high view of Scripture and actually ends up picking the wrong fight against scientific naturalism.

It is worth noting, before we begin, that the claim of this paper is relatively narrow, in a debate that is vast and multifaceted. It would be impossible for me to address all implications exhaustively, and it is therefore tempting to say nothing at all. The approach I am taking will leave many questions unanswered. For example, exegetical difficulties around the historicity of the rest of Genesis 1-11, the extent of the flood, the existence of death before the fall, or even the identity of the Nephilim, are not resolved even if a non-dogmatism in relation to the age of the earth can be established. However, even though the claim being made in this paper is a modest one, I believe it is worth making, and has important implications for the way we engage with both the Biblical text and the culture around us.

i. Genesis 1 and Authorial Intent

In one article Ham states,

Recently, one of our associates sat down with a highly respected world-class Hebrew scholar and asked him this question: “If you started with the Bible alone, without considering any outside influences whatsoever, could you ever come up with millions or billions of years of history for the earth and universe?” The answer from this scholar? “Absolutely not!”[8]

This, for Ham, is the killer argument with Genesis chapter 1. “Day” means “day”, and so a literal six days must be adhered to. Blogger Tim Challies makes a very similar point. He writes,

There have been endless debates about the meaning of the word we translate as “day” in Genesis 1 and so much of the debate stands or falls right here… In the end, I believe a natural reading of Scripture, and a natural reading of the author’s intent in the passage, leads to the most natural and obvious conclusion: God created all that exists, from nothing, in six literal days. This is what the author said because this is what the author meant to convey, because this is what the author believed, because this is exactly how God did it.[9]

In reality, none of us starts with the Bible alone, without considering any outside influences whatsoever. If a Hebrew scholar was to do that, they would approach the text without any linguistic skills whatsoever, and would be unable to decipher a single “yod”.

Hebrew is not a “divine” language. God has accommodated the information he wishes to communicate to us, into a language that could be understood at the time it was written. We, in turn, must now also accommodate ourselves to the text we have. This requires a degree of scholarship in order to provide an accurate translation and interpretation of the text, a scholarship that rests on a number of outside influences in order to function properly. The extent to which any individual reader can easily establish the “natural” reading of a text depends a lot on whether the reader has successfully accommodated themselves to the language and culture of the original author.

This in no way undermines the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture. The Westminster Confession of Faith states that we can attain a sufficient understanding of all we need for salvation “in a due use of the ordinary means”.[10] As Wayne Grudem argues, “Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood but not without ordinary means”, so that “information about the meanings of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words in the Bible does have to be obtained from the vast linguistic resources found in extra-biblical literature”.[11] If this is true in translation, it is no less true in interpretation.

This may seem an obvious point, but it does somewhat undermine the rhetorical power of Ham’s statement, Challies’ appeal to a “natural” reading, and the kind of argument of those who love to assert a “no creed but the Bible” approach to reading Scripture. We may give the impression that we are somehow faithful purists guarding the text against extra-biblical pollutants, but it is an impossible position to maintain, and actually undermines one of the key benefits of us having a text which has been accommodated by God to a particular time and place.

Mark Thompson argues, “the fragile creatureliness of human language… does not so much conceal the truth about God as reveal it in a powerful way”.[12] What this means is that to approach the biblical text as a divine word, without also recognising it is a human word, written in a time, place and language, is actually to fail to approach it as God’s accommodated word to us, and to fail to truly benefit from hearing rightly what God has to say to us. To refuse to “consider any outside influences whatsoever” sounds noble but may well actually result in a mishandling of God’s word.

Sometimes the language of accommodation has been used to deny the doctrine of inerrancy, but rightly understood it simply asserts that,

Scripture is written by humans in human language accommodated to us and to our capacity and needs, as well to the various time periods and cultures in which it was written, without in any way compromising its faithfulness to divine truth.[13]

Actually, accommodation is an essential consideration if inerrancy is going to be upheld rightly. A right consideration of the human author’s intended assertion is fundamental if one is then going to uphold that the said assertion is inerrant. As Timothy Ward notes, “all inerrantists… agree that whatever one decides that Scripture intends to assert, that content must be regarded as free from error”.[14]

The key question is not, “What would we come up with without any outside influences at all?” but rather, “What is Scripture intending to assert at this point? What is the author’s intention in writing?” It is not enough to state, “day means day and, if you will, QED”. We must translate the culture as well as the text. We must also consider why the author is choosing to speak in this way at this point, and establish as well as we possibly can what he is seeking to tell us. Often this is a straightforward task, but it really is not in Genesis 1.

My intention in this paper is not to seek to give some kind of definitive answer to that question. But I do want us to see that because in Genesis 1 the question is such a complex one, without any easy answers, it demands a non-dogmatism, that leaves us asserting the plain things as the main things, whilst remaining students of the rest.

Nearly everyone agrees that “day means day” in Genesis 1. As Alasdair Payne notes,

It cannot be avoided that, although the Hebrew word yom (day) can cover a whole period of time, as in Genesis 2:4, the word in chapter one has its usual meaning, emphasised by the formula “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night” (1:5).[15]

As a result, for many some kind of “concordist” approach to Genesis 1 is essential. This preserves the notion that God created the world in six successive days. Some suggest there may be a gap between the days, but the days are still intended to be read as real days that happened one after the other. For a young-earth creationist, they are literal solar days of twenty-four hours. Others will suggest that the successive nature of the days is the key idea communicated, and the length of each day may not be as obvious. Days may relate to ages, especially given the fact that the seventh day does not carry the “evening and morning” formula, and has no suggested ending in the text.

For others, just because “day means day” does not mean a “concordist” approach is necessary. Instead, there are many clues within the text of Scripture that suggest a “non-concordist” or “non-sequential” reading may be required. For example, many will note the way the days are carefully structured to indicate three days of forming and three days of filling.[16] The fact that light and darkness are created on day one, and yet the sun, moon and stars are not created until day four suggests that, whatever “day” means, it cannot be quite like our days, and perhaps the author is using this “framework” approach to tell us something about what it means for us as a humanity made in God’s image to undertake the creational mandate.  Within this non-concordist approach, others will suggest that the days are analogical, with six days of work and one of rest, instructing us to do likewise.[17] This appears to fit well with Exodus 20. Others will note the way the wording of Genesis 1 relates to the stories of the establishment of the temple in other ancient literature. This “cosmic temple” reading suggests Genesis 1 is much more concerned with the function of creation, than its form.[18] Others still will note the way that Genesis 1 seems to both echo and counter other Ancient Near Eastern creation stories.[19] For example, one amusing feature of Genesis 1 is the way the creation of the stars, so important in pagan religion, is mentioned as almost a throwaway comment in verse 16.[20]

The question of who is reading the text most “literally” is obsolete, because in each case a theory is being developed, by examining the text carefully in its context, and seeking to discern what the author “literally” intended to communicate. However, through it all, I agree with Young and Stearley that,

Genesis 1 is saturated with features that render is highly unlikely that the author was concerned with interacting with the scientific questions of our day or that he was even concerned about the specific question of the age of the earth.”[21]

So, what is the author concerned about? He is clearly concerned to portray a single creator God, creating in his infinite wisdom; that we might see God’s personal, and yet sovereign, ownership of his creation, and the terms of our relationship with him as his creatures. The author is communicating our dependence on God, and yet our distinction from him; the goodness and orderliness of all that he has made, in its original design. We are to view ourselves as an engendered humanity, created in God’s image to be fruitful and multiply, to rule over, subdue and care for our world, under God, but over the rest of creation. And we are to know our preciousness, or respectability and value, and our accountability to the one who made us.[22]

But is the author clearly intending to teach us that he did it in seven solar days? Without even considering the claims of modern geology, one has to say, on the basis of the text itself that this is not the author’s primary objective. Non-dogmatism concerning the age of the earth is not a requirement demanded by science, but a requirement demanded by Genesis 1.

ii. Genesis 1 and Church History

Having considered the question of authorial intent, we turn now to survey the way Genesis 1 has been handled throughout church history. I want us to consider in particular how the emergence of modern geology influenced the way Genesis 1 was interpreted.

In investigating the extent to which the church through history has taken something of an “agnostic” approach to the six days of creation I have been hugely helped by an article by Robert Letham, in which he summarises the approach of a number of the church fathers.

Origen (c. 185-254) firmly rejected a literalistic view of the days of Genesis 1, in part citing the order of the days as a reason why it could not be the case.[23] Basil the Great (330-379), and Ambrose (339-397) appear to take the days as solar days.[24] Augustine (354-430) notes that “day and night” must be interpreted differently to our day and night because of the ordering of the days, and that we should be careful not to rush forward with an ill-considered opinion.[25] He suggests that God created all things simultaneously, and that it is laid out as six days for our benefit. Letham reflects, “in other words, God accommodated himself to the capacity of weaker intellects and presented creation as if it were a process”.[26] Letham goes on to summarise the interpretations of Bede (673-735), Anselm (1033-1109), Robert Grossteste (c. 1168-1253), Aquinas (1225-1274), Martin Luther (1483-1546), Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575), John Calvin (1509-1564), Pietro Martire Vermigli (1500-1562), Richard Greenham (d. 1591), William Perkins (1558-1602), James Ussher (1581-1656), and William Ames (1576-1633), alongside the various confessions of the Reformation.

His conclusion is that interpretations of Genesis 1 are many and varied, with no suggestion that a reading of the timescale as solar days is the obvious interpretation.[27] To return to Ham’s world-class Hebrew scholar, if we walk back through history, when the outside influences are different to our own, what do we come up with? We find many contrasting interpretations – often offered tentatively. Kirsten Birkett, in a recent publication, makes a very similar point:

Long before modern geology, the issue of the time spans and genealogies in Genesis, and indeed the question of how to read different kinds of biblical literature, were thoroughly discussed.”[28]

In fact, it is precisely a plea for non-dogmatism that comes across at times. Calvin begins his commentary on Genesis with this statement:

Since the infinite wisdom of God is displayed in the admirable structure of heaven and earth, it is absolutely impossible to unfold the history of the creation of the world in terms equal to its dignity. For while the measure of our capacity is too contracted to comprehend things of such magnitude, our tongue is equally incapable of giving a full and substantial account of them.[29]

This is not to say that they did not believe that the earth was young. Calvin himself assumed that the world had not yet seen its six thousandth year.[30] But what is striking is that, though it would have been commonplace to believe the earth was young, there is not a requirement to interpret Genesis 1 accordingly, or a universal insistence that one interpret the six days as solar days. The point is simply this: regardless of the prevailing geo-chronology of the day, there is a widespread conviction that the author of Genesis 1 is not intending to tell us the age of the earth.

But there is a second historical point to observe here: A growing conviction that the earth was older than first thought emerged, not with the advent of Darwinian evolution, but before that, with the advent of modern geology. The significance of this will be stated in a moment.

It was really William Smith (1769-1839) who put in place the key foundations of geological science as we know them today. His geological mapping of the British Isles (published in 1815), and his increased awareness of the possibility of predicting rock types and fossils, began to support an understanding that the Earth’s surface material was ordered in stratigraphic layers populated by different collections of fossils. Smith himself was uninterested in harmonising the geological record with Genesis, but,

many students of the Earth began to realise that the strata could not have been produced in a one-year Deluge but had to form over a long period of time by deposition in a succession of ancient seas, rivers and floods.[31]

Around the same time, James Hutton (1726-1797) was the first obvious example of someone applying the principles of uniformitarianism to the geological record. This is slightly anachronistic, as the term was not coined until 1857. However, uniformitarianism is the simple conviction that “the present is the key to the past”. It makes the assumption that the laws of physics we observe in action today were at work in the past, creating the stratigraphic record we find. For example, where

rock strata are composed of mineral particles of exactly the same characteristics and constitution as are those found on beaches, sea floors or river beds [then] it must be, he said, that rock strata were formed on ancient sea beds from layers of loose unconsolidated gravel and sand that were eventually fused into rock and elevated by the internal heat of the Earth.[32]

He published his Theory of the Earth in 1795 including a suggestion that, because of the natural processes that are required for the observed stratigraphy, nature has no obvious beginning.

Hutton was accused of holding to the eternity of the Earth, but essentially he was acknowledging that Earth processes seemed to reach far back in time and that he was unable to see in the rocks a point at which these processes had not been operative.[33]

Charles Lyell (1797-1875) published his Principles of Geology between 1830 and 1833, with a uniformitarian approach that necessarily required great stretches of time to account for the observations found in the stratigraphic record. Increasingly, across the emerging geological science there was a growing conviction against “diluvial catastrophism” that struggled to explain the many and varied rock formations, and for a “long, slow-paced history better explained in terms of observable processes like glaciation, erosion and deposition.”[34]

These observations then provided a basis for biostratigraphy and faunal succession in which it is noted that each stratigraphic band has a distinctive set of related fossils, in successive bands throughout the geological record.[35] Key to our discussion is the point that, throughout the 1800s “hundreds of competent field geologists established the validity and practical utility of the law of faunal succession prior to the publication of Darwin’s and Wallace’s theory of organic evolution”.[36] The resulting emergent geochronology was already dealing with estimates of the age of the earth of an entirely different order than would fit with a solar-day reading of Genesis 1.

It is true that examples of “Scriptural geologists” exist at this time, espousing a literal six-day creation that specifically engages with the geological record. But the reality is that at the same time, a growing number of evangelical Christian writers

began to develop a variety of strategies purporting to show how the biblical data are consistent with the findings of geology. Having been encouraged to look afresh at the biblical creation accounts, experts in the original languages became persuaded that there is no conflict between the data of nature and the teaching of Scripture.[37]

Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), during a chemistry lecture in St Andrews in 1804, stated,

there is a prejudice against the speculations of the geologist which I am anxious to remove. It has been said that they nurture infidel propensities. By referring the origin of the globe to a higher antiquity than is assigned to it by the writings of Moses, it has been said that geology undermines our faith in the inspiration of the Bible, and in all the animating prospects of immortality which it unfolds. This is a false alarm. The writings of Moses do not fix the antiquity of the globe. It they fix anything at all, it is only the antiquity of the species.[38]

Chalmers later goes on to offer suggestions of precisely how Genesis may accommodate an old-earth reading.

Because of the history of “non-dogmatism” that existed within the tradition of Genesis interpretation, for many it was a non-issue to reconcile the assertions of modern geology with the biblical data. By the time Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 there was already a growing consensus amongst the scientific community that the earth was considerably older than previously thought, and a growing consensus that this was entirely uncontroversial for the church. To quote Birkett’s conclusion,

Long before modern geology or Darwin, church scholars were quite aware of claims to a long history of the earth and to various degrees were prepared to accept it. This puts into context Colin Gunton’s assertion that “belief in the doctrine of creation has never officially required belief in the literal truth of the book of Genesis”.[39]

However, it is as Darwinian evolution begins to make it intellectually acceptable to be an atheist that a young-earth creationist reaction also emerges. It is only as Darwinian evolution is employed to deliberately undermine the plain truth of Scripture that the debate becomes polemical, and the requirement for a more dogmatic adherence to a literal six days is asserted.

A key milestone is when the founder of the Seventh Day Adventists, Ellen Gould White (1827-1915), in 1864, “claimed to have visions from God about the creation of the world in six literal days as well as of a global Deluge that buried all life and produced the fossils”.[40] Another milestone came after the First World War: William Jennings Bryan, a politician, traced the source of the evil of the war to Darwinism, and launched a national crusade against evolution.[41]

At the start of the movement, the rise of creationism was spurred by the atheistic contention that the Bible and evolution could not both be true. Those who accepted this, repelled by evolutionist arrogance, took up creationism.[42]

More recently it has received its strongest impetus with the publication of The Genesis Flood in 1961, by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris, and then with organisations like Answers in Genesis being formed in the 1970s.

One of the driving forces for this movement is a desire to uphold biblical truth against all of the implications of Darwinian evolution. Ham explains, “standing near an ‘ape-man’ exhibit, [he] overheard a father telling his young son, ‘This was your ancestor.’ Ken said that “My heart ached… As a result, my cry to the Lord was: ‘Why can’t we have a creation museum that teaches the truth?’”[43] However, as Young and Stearley note,

Evolutionary materialism and the antiquity of the Earth are two distinct issues. If the vast antiquity of the Earth is amply demonstrated, one must still evaluate the data and theory of evolution on their own scientific merits.”[44]

The argument is made that, as a reaction to the advent of Darwinian evolution, people began to no longer approach the days of Genesis 1 as solar days. Actually, the testimony of church history is that the approach is mixed from the beginning. But after the rise of evolution, as a reaction, we began to see the rise of creationism, and a dogmatic requirement of adherence to a literal six days. One has to ask: Which approach, then, is driven more by the argument of the day, and which is driven by Scripture?

Conclusion

This paper has sought to establish two simple points. The first is that because authorial intent in relation to the days of creation is unclear, the text itself requires a non-dogmatic approach to geochronology. The second is that historically, non-dogmatism has been the dominant position of biblical scholars, and that this changed not with the old earth claims of modern geology, but with the later atheistic force of Darwinian evolution. The dogmatic claims of young-earth creationism, so forcefully expressed by Ken Ham, are a relatively recent phenomenon, driven not by the unequivocal clarity of Scripture on this matter, but by a desire to argue against the contemporary claims of scientific naturalism.

However, this is something of a Maginot Line in apologetics. In the 1930s France built a strong line of concrete fortifications in preparation for defence against German invasion, only to discover that they had built it in the wrong place and all the Germans had to do was go through Belgium. A ministry that seeks to prove categorically that there is a biblical requirement to read the creation days as solar days is building a Maginot Line, a useless defence, in the wrong place, against the real battle that is going on.

This is not to say that there should therefore be a dogmatic assertion of an old earth on the basis of the Genesis 1, simply in order to reconcile it with current scientific theory. Modern science rightly advances by rejecting what has gone before as new data continually comes to light. Kirsten Birkett helpfully comments,

Christianity, if it really is based on infallible revelation from God, does not need to attach itself to [modern empirical science] and does so at its own peril… In time the scientific theory will change.[45]

A ministry that seeks to prove as irrefutable something the Bible is not asserting one way or the other is picking a fight in entirely the wrong place. If we do battle here, the real battle is ignored completely. When one considers what the author of Genesis 1 is unequivocally asserting, there is a huge battle to engage in against the prevailing reductionistic naturalism so prominent in our culture. As has often been said, “In the beginning God…” is by far the most controversial statement in the Bible. My hope is that a geo-chronological non-dogmatism will provide the necessary space for this wonderful, life-changing truth to be heard rightly.

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