PCM

Tread Lightly Young-Earthers

written by Aaron Brakeoldearth

Is the universe billions of years old or thousands? Are the creation days of Genesis to be interpreted as 24-hour periods? How should science inform our interpretation of Scripture, and how should Scripture inform our interpretation of science?

Christians disagree on how to answer these questions and they have been cause of no small debate within the believing community. The two opposing sides are sometimes labeled “young-earth” and “old-earth” or “young-age” and “old-age.” One of the most central and disputed points is whether the creation days in Genesis are literal 24-hour periods.

Recently I read an article published in a young-earth creationist newsletter entitled “It’s an Attack on the Son.”[1] The title is quite provocative, though this isn’t the first writing of this kind I have come across. As you may have guessed from reading the title, a summary of the article could be as follows:

 

A rejection of the young-earth creationist interpretation of Genesis is in reality (though perhaps unwittingly) an attack on Jesus Christ.

Yikes!

How did the author arrive at this conclusion? Young-earth creationists typically place great emphasis on the idea that the creation days in Genesis are literal 24-hour periods. While the following argument is not laid out explicitly in the article, I have done my best to reconstruct the flow of thought and logic of the writer:

1.      If the Word of God teaches the creation days of Genesis are literal 24-hour periods, then rejecting the literal 24-hour view is tantamount to attacking the Word of God.

2.      The Word of God teaches the creation days of Genesis are literal 24-hour periods.

3.      Therefore (from 1 and 2), rejecting the literal 24-hour view is tantamount to attacking the Word of God.

4.      The Word of God is Jesus’ Word.

5.      Therefore (from 3 and 4), rejecting the literal 24-hour view is tantamount to attacking Jesus’ Word.

6.      Attacking Jesus’ Word is attacking Jesus Himself.

7.      Therefore (from 5 and 6), rejecting the literal 24-hour view is tantamount to attacking Jesus Himself.

Hence, the title of the article: “It’s an Attack on the Son.”

The argument hinges on premise two, which is obviously the premise that is under debate in the age-of-the-earth controversy. I’m not so concerned with the logic of the position above or even with defending a particular age-of-the earth view. What does cause me concern is the mindset reflected in this article which, regrettably, can sometimes accompany the young-earth perspective. What is this mindset? It is the mistaken approach to this debate which concludes,

 

Anyone who disagrees with young-earth creationism is not taking Scripture seriously but rather is elevating human reason and/or science above divinely inspired revelation.

I believe this conclusion is completely unwarranted and can unfortunately result in a hyper-critical and overly dogmatic position in the age-of-the-earth controversy.

Allow me to elaborate.

The writer of this particular article quotes both William Dembski and William Lane Craig as proponents of the old-age view, a view which has been influenced by “ideas outside the Bible, not the plain reading of Scripture.” Their position is one of “compromise” which is “sadly the norm in the majority of our Christian colleges and seminaries.” He goes on to state,

 

Many times in this newsletter, I have stated that such a compromise is really an attack on the authority of the Word, in spite of some scholars’ sincere intentions to the contrary. It is what I call “The Genesis 3” attack (i.e., creating doubt in regard to God’s Word and asking “Did God really say?”) and it ultimately undermines the authority of the Scripture.[2]

What does this compromise and undermining of biblical authority eventually lead to? The writer tells us:

 

Many young people in our churches are already doubting and disbelieving God’s Word. The result? At least two-thirds of children raised in theologically conservative churches now walk away from the church (or even the Christian faith together).[3]

In other words, the old-age view, in this writer’s opinion, is a source of compromise which can be directly linked to causing doubt and disbelief in the minds of churched youth, as well as the outright rejection of the Christian faith in some cases. The author gives us the bottom line:

 

When Christian leaders deliberately reinterpret God’s Word on the basis of man’s fallible ideas (taken from outside the Bible), not only are they undermining the Word of God, they are actually (though unwittingly) conducting an attack on the Son of God!

 

This is very serious. Yes, when you compromise the Word of God, it is also an attack on the Son of God, whose Word it is.[4]

Yikes again!

Not very long ago a professor of mine who is on staff with a very prominent Christian organization (which happens to argue for the old-age view) stated that they receive more criticism and hate mail from young-earth creationists than they do from non-Christians!

Triple Yikes!

I believe this is all very unfortunate. Of course, I realize that this mentality can work in reverse as well. Young-earth creationists may be referred to as “anti-science” or “fundamentalist flat-earthers.” Again, this is regrettable. The difference is that, in my experience, it is usually non-Christians who are using these pejorative terms toward the young-earth position.

My intention here is not to offer a critique of any particular age-of-the-earth view. Rather, I would like to offer some important reminders to my young-earth creationist friends and fellow believers when engaging in this debate.

#1: Don’t Confuse the Issue.

The interpretation of the days of Genesis is an issue of hermeneutics, not inerrancy. I have often heard something like the following question posed by young-earth creationists:

Well if Genesis one is mistaken, what else in Scripture isn’t true?

Notice this questions assumes the issue is a matter of inerrancy. In other words, if the Bible is errant in Genesis one you have to throw out inerrancy, which in turn weakens biblical authority. This can be seen in the article quoted above: “…it ultimately undermines the authority of Scripture.” The implication is that one cannot hold both to an old-age view and the inerrancy of Scripture.

However, most Christians I know who hold to the old-age view also hold to the inerrancy of Scripture! How can this be?? Again, it is because this issue is a matter of hermeneutics. Old-age proponents simply interpret Genesis one differently. They hold that Genesis one is without error when properly understood, taking into account things like literary genre. By attempting to make this issue into one of inerrancy, young-earth creationists are not only creating a false dichotomy (by implying that one must choose either between inerrancy and the young-earth position or errancy and the old-age position) but they are also begging the question in assuming their interpretation is correct, which leads to the second important reminder.

#2: Avoid Fallacious Reasoning.

First, be careful of circular reasoning. Often young-earth creationists refer to their position as the “literal interpretation.” This is a bit misleading and can amount to question-begging. What exactly is meant by “literal interpretation”?  Should things like genre, context, and literary devices be taken into account? For example, when Jesus said, “I am the true vine” (John 15:1) or “I am the door” (John 10:7) should we interpret these sayings “literally”?

All of this to say, before we can determine the literal sense we need to find out the original sense. In other words, what was the original intent of the writer and/or speaker? In Genesis one, was the original intent to communicate to readers that the universe is only thousands of years old? By assuming the young-earth perspective is the “literal interpretation” you are assuming the very thing that is in question. The writer of the article refers to his position as the “plain reading of Scripture.” But “plain reading” does not necessarily equate with “correct reading.”

Furthermore, it should be noted that Scripture simply does not give us the age of the universe. Sorry, it just doesn’t! When young-earth creationists insist their view is the literal and plain meaning they are assuming an answer to an issue the Genesis one passage is not even addressing. In other words, everyone agrees that Genesis tells us the “Who,” “Why,” and “What” of creation. This is because the text is primarily theological in nature. But the “When” of creation is simply not addressed and the burden of proof seems to lie with those who claim otherwise.

Second, be careful not to engage in special pleading, i.e., holding others to a principle while exempting oneself. This is a double standard and inconsistent. The writer of the article speaks of

 

…Christian leaders [who] deliberately reinterpret God’s Word on the basis of man’s fallible ideas (taken from outside the Bible).

This is obviously an uncharitable characterization of old-age proponents. But lurking behind this statement is also a case of special pleading. The reason I say this is because everyone must engage in biblical interpretation, including young-earth creationists. One should not be too quick to assume that everyone else is deliberately reinterpreting God’s Word by employing man’s fallible ideas, all the while holding one’s own interpretation to be the “plain reading of Scripture.” Everyone must interpret Scripture, and young-earth creationists are just as susceptible to fallible ideas and fallible interpretations which are “taken from outside the Bible.”

#3: Keep an Open Mind.

On issues such as the age of the universe and the interpretation of Genesis one, I would hope we would at least occasionally entertain the idea that “I could be wrong.” Realize that there are intelligent, Bible-believing Christians on both sides of the debate. Let’s continue to dialogue about this issue with mutual respect, courtesy, and a humble heart, remembering that we are ambassadors for Christ, lest by our in-house fighting and quarrelsome attitudes we give non-Christians an excuse for rejecting the Lord.

In addition, keeping an open mind will help prevent unnecessary dogmatism in areas where it is simply not warranted. For example, if you are as dogmatic about the age of the earth as you are on the deity of Christ, that’s a mistake. This brings us to our fourth important reminder.

#4: Major on the Majors.

The age of the universe has nothing to do with your salvation, nor does your interpretation of the days of Genesis. This is not an essential Christian doctrine nor is it part of the Gospel. In other words,

Not all doctrines are of equal importance!

This is crucial to remember. Failing to distinguish between primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrines ends up placing issues such as the age of the earth on equal ground with the sine qua non (without which not) of the Christian faith. This in turn can mistakenly communicate the idea that all doctrine is equally important and all doctrine must be either accepted or rejected as a system. In other words,

 

An individual may be placed in the precarious position where they feel if they do not accept the young-earth creationist position they must reject Christianity altogether.

Remember the quote above where the author states,

 

Many young people in our churches are already doubting and disbelieving God’s Word. The result? At least two-thirds of children raised in theologically conservative churches now walk away from the church (or even the Christian faith together).

The writer made this statement suggesting that the “compromise” of the old-age position is an attack on Scripture which leads to doubt, disbelief, and rejection of the Christian faith. It should be pointed out that this commits the fallacy of false cause, or minimally, an oversimplified cause. But more importantly, it could just as easily be argued that it is not the old-age view but rather a dogmatic young-earth position that leads to doubt, disbelief, and the eventual rejection of the Christian faith.

How so?

An excessively dogmatic position on the age of the earth combined with a failure to develop a sound doctrinal hierarchy forces people to choose either between a “young earth and Christian faith” or “an old earth and Christian rejection.” In other words, not only does this create another false dichotomy, but it could also just as easily explain the exodus of our churched youth.

Again, how so?

It could be that our children “are already doubting and disbelieving God’s Word” and walking away from the faith because they sincerely believe science shows the universe to be old. Yet they are also told an old universe is at odds with Scripture, or should I say, the young-earth interpretation of Scripture. They then feel forced to choose between science and faith.

In these situations it is important to communicate that one can be a Christian and believe the universe is old. The two are not mutually exclusive. Ironically then, though the writer of this article is concerned with keeping our youth in church, it may be a combination of unwarranted dogmatism and bad theology that is driving them away.

Moreover, it should be remembered that most old-age proponents are not denying a literal Adam and Eve nor are they denying the doctrine of original sin. There are some who do, regrettably, and those who do embrace positions which are theologically problematic and cause for alarm. However, it does not follow that a denial of 24-hour creation days necessarily leads to these troublesome positions, and implying so may be in danger of committing a slippery slope fallacy.

To sum up, we need to keep in mind this oft quoted maxim:

In essentials unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.




[1] Ken Ham, “It’s an Attack on the Son,” Answers Update 17, no. 11 (2010): 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 2.

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