The Shift to Young Earth Creationism in the Twentieth Century

There is today a great polarization among Christians in North America (and in cultures influenced by American Christian missions) about the validity of biological evolution.

Part of that polarization has to do with the age of the earth.

It turns out that most orthodox, evangelical Christians in the nineteenth century (and even in the first half of the twentieth century) accepted that Genesis was compatible with a very old earth (and universe).

This view that the earth was very old (millions of years) was a relatively new opinion, developed in response to recent understandings of the geological make-up of the earth. Prior to the rise of geological science, especially developments in the nineteenth century, no-one had any reason to think that the Bible was compatible with an old earth (just as prior to the Copernican Revolution in the sixteenth century, no one had any reason to think that the Bible was compatible with the earth revolving around the sun).

So in the nineteenth century, many quite orthodox Christians had come to accept the findings of geology and interpreted the Bible in ways consistent with an old earth (some even found ways of harmonizing the Bible with evolution; but that’s another story).

However, things changed significantly in the twentieth century. There was a retreat from science and a reversion to belief in a young earth (6,000-10,000 years old) among many American Christians.

Two of the main proponents of Young Earth Creationism (YEC) were Henry Morris and John C. Whitcomb Jr. They both tied their view of the age of the earth to what is known as Flood Geology (the idea that all the sedimentary strata in the earth, including all fossils, were laid down by the Noahic flood, and so were quite recent).

Both Morris and Whitcomb were influenced by George McCready Price, a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) layman who wrote a famous pamphlet on the subject in 1906, entitled Illogical Geology: The Weakest Point in The Evolution Theory. Price’s ideas were based on the teachings of Ellen G. White, the founder of the SDA (who had claimed that God had showed her a vision of the Flood, in which the Grand Canyon was formed).

This, of course, is not an argument against Flood Geology; you shouldn’t critique a point of view based on its origins or because of those who hold the view (known as the genetic fallacy in logic).

Nevertheless, the story of how YEC (which was common before the nineteenth century), along with Flood Geology, came to prominence among twentieth-century American Christians is fascinating.

You might want to read about it here.


No Need to Fear Evolution

An excellent blogger on science and religion issues, who goes by the handle RJS, has just posted an introduction to my first BioLogos blog (Why Christians Don’t Need to Be Threatened by Evolution) on the website Musings on Science and Theology. RJS’s posts are then re-posted on the Jesus Creed website, where comments are allowed (Jesus Creed is a blog run by New Testament scholar Scot McKnight; it is hosted by Patheos, which hosts a variety of religion blogs).

The post by RJS is called No Need to Fear and it goes beyond introducing my BioLogos blog. It goes on to explain (very well) my argument about Genesis 1 and what it means to be made in God’s image from my book The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1.

But then RJS has blogged about The Liberating Image before in no less than nine posts! And I did an invited follow-up post on how my thinking about the imago Dei has developed since the book. RJS also did a nine-part series on my more recent book A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology. (For anyone who doesn’t have time to read either book, these blogs give a pretty accurate portrayal of my argument).

Having done my introductory BioLogos post on my approach to evolution (Why Christians Don’t Need to Be Threatened by Evolution) and then a second post on cosmic creation (The Ancient Universe and the Cosmic Temple), my next post will be on what it means to be created in God’s image according to the Scriptures and how that might intersect with what science is telling us about human evolution.

Interestingly, the blog by RJS (No Need to Fear) introduces some of the themes I will touch on in my third BioLogos post. So you can check it out if you want an advance taste of what I might say on that topic.

The Ancient Universe and the Cosmic Temple

My first BioLogos post, Why Christians Don’t Need to Be Threatened by Evolution, laid out my assumptions concerning Scripture and science. This has generated a lot of discussion, especially on Facebook pages where the post was shared (one page has generated well over a hundred comments or responses, including responses to responses).

As promised, I will now begin to explore various issues at the intersection of biblical faith and contemporary science. The first such issue is how we think about the relationship of Genesis 1 (in the context of other references to creation in the Bible) to a very old and very large universe.

This post, called The Ancient Universe and the Cosmic Temple,  is now available.

It addresses cosmic creation, though not yet biological evolution (which is more controversial for many Christians). I’ll get to the Bible and evolution explicitly in the posts that follow.