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.

 

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Why Christians Don’t Need to Be Threatened by Evolution

A few months ago I posted briefly about my appointment as a theological fellow for BioLogos. In that post I explained a bit about the history of BioLogos and why they appointed three theology fellows this year (of which I am one).

My task as a theology fellow will be to write six or more blog posts on the topic of biblical faith and evolution—on topics ranging from cosmic creation and human distinctiveness to the origin of evil, divine providence, and eschatology.

The series is tentatively titled Biblical Faith and Evolution: Loving the Questions.

My first blog in the series, “Why Christians Don’t Need to Be Threatened by Evolution,”  appeared today on the BioLogos website.

You can read the whole post there and also post comments and questions in response.

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My next post in the series is called The Ancient Universe and the Cosmic Temple; it addresses the relationship of biblical creation accounts (especially Geneses 1) to what science tells us about the age and size of the universe.

My Ambiguous Relationship with Carl F. H. Henry (Heading to the Dabar Conference on Genesis and Science)

I’m about to head off to a four-day conference (June 8-11, 2016) that will address the topic of “Reading Genesis in an Age of Science.” This is the kick-off conference of a three-year “Creation Project,” sponsored by the Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in Deerfield, IL.

The Dabar Conference

The conference is known as the Dabar Conference (this is the Hebrew term for “word,” pronounced davar). The name evokes Scripture as God’s Word and the biblical theme that God creates by the word (Genesis 1; Psalm 33:6-9; Psalm 119:89-91; John 1:1-3).

Although the Creation Project involves more than the annual Dabar Conference (it involves research fellowships and smaller meetings throughout the year), the Conference is meant to gather “evangelicals together from different disciplines, denominations, and institutions with the goal of orienting evangelical theologians to the relevant recent work in the natural sciences and promote scholarship in the field of the doctrine of creation.”

The Creation Project’s topics for the next two years are “Affirming the Doctrine of Creation in an Age of Science” (2017) and “Reclaiming Theological Anthropology in an Age of Science” (2018).

This Year’s Conference Topic

This year’s emphasis on “Reading Genesis in an Age of Science” is meant to address a number of questions, the core of which is the following:

“How are the opening chapters of Genesis and other origin texts throughout the Christian Scriptures related to the claims of modern scientific advance?”

Although it is not stated explicitly, evolution (of the cosmos and of humanity) is an important aspect of the science that will be addressed.

You can see the full 2016 Dabar Conference schedule here.

My Contribution to the Conference

The Dabar Conference is billed as a “working” conference, where position papers are presented, followed by respondents (of which I am one), and then open discussion.

I was invited to participate likely because of my work in Old Testament (especially Genesis) and also because of my connection to BioLogos.

I’ve been asked to bring my philosophical and biblical studies backgrounds to bear as a respondent to C. John (“Jack”) Collins’s paper, entitled “Reading Genesis 1-11 in Biblical and Social Context.” Although I’m mostly on board with his reading, I’ll be exploring some of the implications of Collins’s framing of matters, wondering out loud about how we might better articulate some of his points in light of important issues in contemporary science.

Charitable Disagreement among Christians

There is no guarantee that everyone at the conference will agree (in fact, we are likely to disagree), but we are coming together as Christian sisters and brothers to explore the questions in an atmosphere of critical and charitable inquiry.

I’m glad that the stated intent for the conference is to cultivate “clarity, humility, and mere orthodoxy, all of which are important for developing innovative future research projects and in providing public guidance to the church.”

Carl F. H. Henry vis-a-vis Middleton and Walsh

I’m particularly glad for this stated intent since, paradoxically, my own work on postmodernity and biblical faith back in the mid-nineties was summarily dismissed by none other than Carl F. H. Henry (after whom the Henry Center is named).

Carl Henry heard a paper that Brian Walsh and I delivered at the Wheaton Theology Conference back in 1994 (based on our book, Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be, which was published by IVP the following year). He wrote a single-page scathing critique (in World magazine) of the conference and of our book, which he had not actually read. Instead, he based his critique on lines he quoted from a phone interview that IVP did with us about the book .

While there were undoubtedly legitimate differences of opinion between Henry’s point of view and our own position, the tragedy is that his critique (in the article) was based primarily on out-of-context quotations from the phone interview, which omitted important clarifications of what we meant.

For example, Henry quoted me as saying: “Even the truth of the gospel . . . is a human construction.” And he took this to mean that I denied the reality of revelation from God (something no-one who knows me would ever think).

Here it is important to note that something crucial was left out of the quote (signified by the ellipsis dots).

Brian had just commented about truth as both given from God (revelation) and our responsibility to formulate it in human language in order to communicate it.

Then comes the full sentence in which I followed up on Brian’s comment: “Yes, because even the truth of the gospel—which we constantly articulate in the church, in liturgy and proclamation and evangelism—is a human construction. I mean, the Four Spiritual Laws is a human construction in response to the truth of Jesus.”

I first read Carl Henry’s works when I was an undergraduate theology student in Jamaica and found that he was someone I could respect. So I was quite disappointed by this dismissive misreading.

Even though Carl Henry is no longer alive (he passed away in 2003), perhaps my participation in this conference (sponsored by the Henry Center) will serve to bring a certain reconciliation.