The Debate over the Age of the Earth
One of the recent “problem areas” for science and Christianity has been the age of the Earth. Some scientists and some Christians see this as an irreconcilable issue. Some Christians argue the Bible “teaches” the Earth is only a few thousand years old. Some scientists argue the observed facts of science“ prove the Earth is billions of years old. There seems to be a problem!
For instance, for some people, who interpret the Book of Genesis in specific ways, the geologic time scale in Chapter 12 is problematic.
Within the context of the authors’ assumptions – that uniform, consistent laws govern the processes of landscape formation over time without catastrophic divine intervention (uniformitarianism) – the timeline presented here is logical. The evidence for an old earth, including radiometric dating and seasonal layers in ice, and an even older universe (13.7 billion years) is overwhelming. The 4.5 billion year dating for the Earth is accepted by the vast majority of scientists, including the vast majority of Christian earth scientists. Christian geophysicist, Robert White, has a helpful paper on the Age of the Earth discussing a Christian old earth perspective. The Biologos Foundation also has a helpful article: How are the ages of the Earth and universe calculated? | BioLogos. These Christians are not “compromisers” – a pejorative term that is frankly, unhelpful, insulting, and sub-Christian – who do not believe the Bible! They simply interpret one particular biblical text (Genesis 1) differently from how other Christians interpret that same text. The issue is one of human interpretation of biblical text, not divine inspiration, biblical authority, or theological orthodoxy.
Of course, if a person believes that something – or Someone – other than natural processes can be involved in major ways, alternative timescales may be possible. While the vast majority of Christians in the sciences have no problem reconciling Scripture with scientific data supporting an old earth, some Christians believe the Earth is much younger than this. This could be possible if there were dramatic divine intervention (although there are many, many challenges this perspective has to overcome). This approach assumes something “catastrophic” (divine intervention) occurred resulting in an Earth (and universe) with the appearance of great age (thus it is termed catastophism as opposed to uniformitarianism). While this position is sometimes presented as scientific, there has been little peer-reviewed scientific evidence, outside of limited circles, published to support it. And it struggles to account for much of the uniform data within geology, astronomy, and biology, without assuming God is deliberately trying to confuse us with the appearance of great age.
Therefore the text authors are quite correct within their paradigm – the timeline they present is a logical position given their assumptions in uniform natural processes over time. Such a faith position IS of course a faith position (faith in consistent natural processes, which Christians believe were established by the Creator). As a faith statement, young earth creationism is possible – but it is a faith statement, too – not a scientifically verifiable hypothesis. Ultimately when we speak of the ancient past, we are always interpreting – either a text or the creation.
The issue of dating, for Christians, typically revolves around competing interpretations of Genesis 1 and 2. If a person interprets Genesis 1 and 2 believing their purpose is to give us a modern scientific account of Earth’s history (in terms of our modern scientific methods), then a recent date could make sense. If a person interprets Genesis 1 and 2 as theological accounts and religious texts teaching us about God and his creation either in poetic, metaphoric, or ancient literary form – and reflecting the ancient understanding of the cosmos – without intending to be modern scientific discourses, then an older date is completely reasonable.
Note this is an issue of interpretation – how we interpret a biblical text – not an issue of inspiration. Both old-Earth and young-Earth perspectives believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God. They differ on the human aspect of how we should interpret one specific text within it. Either is a reasonable Christian position depending on how you interpret those passages (if you are really interested in this, see the discussion at the end of the “Theological Issues” notes upcoming, talk to an Old Testament professor, or a scientist who is a Christian (they have had to work this through), or read several good Bible commentaries on Genesis 1 and 2. This is a hermeneutical challenge. And it is NOT a simple one! It is certainly not a test of Christian orthodoxy!
There are at least two major issues here …
- What does the Bible actually “teach” about the age of the Earth?
- What has science actually proven about the age of the Earth?
What does the Bible teach about the age of the Earth?
Within the Christian community there is not agreement about how old the Earth is.
- Some Christians argue the Earth is only several thousand years old.
- Other Christians argue the Earth is several billion years old.
The problem is, the Bible does not explicitly “teach” this as clearly as some people say it does! Scripture never intentionally says, “The Earth is ____ years old,” or “The Earth was created at this precise time: _________.” We only have the nebulous term, “In the beginning …” (Genesis 1:1). But even when that statement is made, matter already exists. Here are some quotes by well-respected evangelical Christian scientists:
- “The real facts of science … all point to the recent special creation of all things …” (Morris 1984, p.125-6)
- “The fundamentalist argument against the scientific assertion of the great age of our planet – to the effect that God created the earth only about 6000 years ago … – is unworthy of serious discussion …” (quoted in Ross 1994, p.13)
Christians who believe the world is several thousand years old interpret Genesis 1-2 as a passage intentionally speaking scientifically about the creation of the earth, specifically as that occurred over seven literal 24-hour periods. Then they add up the genealogies in the Bible and come up with a date a few thousand years B.C. These people believe in a young Earth. The primary mechanisms shaping the landscape (making mountains, shaping river valleys, etc.) would then be catastrophic events (huge earthquakes, etc.), because everything would have had to have been created in a short period of time. Catastrophism is a term that describes this theory of landscape formation. Note that this approach is based on a specific interpretation of only one passage of Scripture.
Other Christians believe (along with most non-Christian natural scientists) that the earth is actually several (4.3) billion years old. They assert that Genesis 1-2 may be primarily a theological statement emphasizing God’s sovereignty, creativity, establishing order from chaos, and the goodness of creation, with no pretense to be a scientific description (as we think of science since the Enlightenment). These people would suggest that in order to correctly interpret Genesis we have to take our place in the author’s audience and seek to understand what God was saying from his perspective. These interpreters would argue that Genesis 1-2 has lots to say about God, ourselves, and the function of creation, but cannot be accurately interpreted through a worldview shaped by the scientific revolution and modernism. After all, the original audience had no concept of “science” in the way we do. From this point of view – interpreting it first from the point of view of the original audience, first – the Bible says nothing about the age of the earth. Therefore a long time frame is possible. God created the universe, including the Earth, animals, plants, and people. But long term processes of tectonic activity, mountain building, erosion, weathering could shape the landscape. Uniformitarianism (the long term activity of uniform or normal physical processes) is a term that describes this theory of landscape formation.
Within these Christian scientists who accept evidence for an old earth are at least two broad groups:
- Old earth creationism – includes views that accept an old earth, but also believe God created species as they are (old earth, but not biological evolution). It includes perspectives such as day-age creationism, gap creationism and progressive creationism.
- Theistic evolution – evolutionary creationism, or God-guided evolution are views that regard religious teachings about God as compatible with modern scientific understanding about biological evolution. Theistic evolutionists accept the scientific consensus on the age of the Earth, the Big Bang and evolution. In this perspective, God created and continues to guide the process of evolution as a mechanism by which He is actively at work in the world.
“Evolution” is a dirty word in many Christian circles. But the word “evolution” is a NEUTRAL word: it simply means “change with respect to time.” All your life you have been “evolving” (changing with respect to time). Many Christians, however, have added another dimension of meaning to the word “evolution,” without being explicit about it. When they say the word they mean “change with respect to time without God’s miraculous intervention or guidance.” That gives the word loaded theological meaning. More specifically, “evolution” is often used to describe a theory of origins of living species developed from the writings of Charles Darwin.
Darwin did argue that within a species there is variation, that some variants may be more suited to their environment than others, that this will lead to greater reproductive success, that eventually the more successful variant will dominate, and that in isolated populations this may lead to become a new species. His work never intended to be a theory about Earth origins or the age of the Earth (or necessarily about the origin of all life on earth, either). “Darwinism,” for some people, has moved far beyond what Darwin originally wrote, to say more than he theorized. Darwin never did lose his faith in God, though — after the tragic death of his daughter — he struggled in his relationship with God..
It is important to note that many Christians do have no difficulty with evolution. They see God’s hand within the creation of the universe and in the establishment of the creation we see, through the mechanisms and processes of evolution (which are established by and still guided by God). God is very much still in control. Evolution is one mechanism He uses. God can work through evolution by guiding the process.
Many Christians, however, do find the theory of evolution as problematic. They would contend that God created species as they are and that biological mutation subsequently is minimal. Some of these scientists still believe in a 4.3 billion year old earth, others in a young earth.
This is a HUGE issue for debate. I’m not going there! Let me simply say that you need to read widely — and from all different perspectives. Don’t just look to reinforce your pre-existing ideas — whichever way you lean. Whichever approach you end up preferring, you need to deal with the biblical and scientific data in honest and credible ways.
Note: Evolution can be associated with a whole “package” — not just a scientific theory of genetic and morphologic change within species. Evolution can imply a whole atheistic worldview and ethical and moral implications of atheism (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc). This all-encompassing “evolution-ism” — really a branch of “scientism” is a philosophy that goes much further than what biologists commonly mean by evolution. It is good to distinguish between the two. Evolutionism (like scientism) claims far more than it can possibly begin to prove.
Evolutionism, like scientism, is a form of deterministic reductionism (for you philosophers out there) — ultimately everything is determined by our genes, which are determined by our atomic composition, with is determined by quantum mechanics, etc,, etc. From a theoretical point of view, Alister McGrath has written strong Christian rebuttals to this approach. A beautiful rebuttal from an agnostic biologist is Denis Noble, The Music of Life.
A great Christian organization wrestling with evolution is biologos.org.
How do we understand the Bible as it relates to this issue? American Baptist theologian, Millard Erickson, writes:
“Some believe that the Bible has a great deal to say about such scientific matters as the origin of the universe, life, and the human race, and says it in fairly technical fashion. Others, asserting that the Bible is not a science textbook, treat it as quite irrelevant to any scientific matters, maintaining that its message is purely religious. Both conceptions are wrong.
“The Bible must be understood in light of its purpose: to make it possible for humans to be savingly related to God. It was not given to, satisfy our curiosity, or to supply us with information which might be obtained by study of God’s creation, his general revelation to us. Scripture describes matters of nature, not in the technical language which scientists use, but in the language of ordinary conversation, which reflects how the world appears to the eye.
“On the other hand; the fact that a book is not a formal text on a particular subject (few books are) does not mean that it says nothing bearing upon that subject. In reality, the Bible makes assertions or affirmations about nature and God’s relationship to it which have implications for science. Its religious affirmations are in some cases so tied up with statements about nature that they cannot be separated. “We must take seriously both of God’s books: the book of his Word and the book of his works.” (Millard Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), pp.125-6).
An excellent reflection on this issue is this paper by R.J. Berry: “Creation and evolution, NOT creation or evolution” (The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, University of Cambridge)
– We need to look at the whole Bible …
No passage directly addresses the issue of the age of the Earth (or science, as we understand it, and modern scientific understandings), although Genesis 1-2 may, depending upon your interpretation of the text (see below). Because the issue is not a dominant theme in Scripture we may consider whether it is, really, a critical issue to God. Thus, is the age of Earth a critical issue for us? Is this a salvation issue? If God, in the Scriptures, does not emphasize the age of the Earth, it probably is not as important an issue as some Christians make it out to be!
– We need to pull all the relevant texts together
Let’s consider Genesis 1-2 (yes, those are the only relevant texts … that suggests this is not a dominant theme in Scripture). Jesus never came close to talking about it!
– We need to ask: What does it mean, in context?
What is the context? If, as I believe, Genesis is written by Moses, the context would be the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. What would God want to communicate to these people? Are the particulars of the when and how of creation important issues? Maybe. But I would suggest the bigger issues are that God is creator and sustainer (even of a mountainous, arid desert), and his creation is good! He can bring manna and quail from heaven and water from a rock! In context, I suggest Genesis 1 and 2 is about God and the fact that creation is His good handiwork, not really about the specifics of when and how. This is in dramatic contrast to Genesis 3-4 which highlight the horror or sin. Sin was something the wandering Israelites knew all about, too (remember the golden calf?).
Reading Genesis 1-2 in its context, it is helpful to remember that the ancient Israelites did not know about stars, the sun, and the moon as we do. For them they were simply “lights.” They did not know the stars and sun were balls of gas (in many cases millions of light years away), that the moon was rock, or that the earth revolved around the sun (how could they?). They thought the sky was a solid dome, with water above — which God let through from time to time as rain, Why wouldn’t they? They believed the earth was flat and may have actually had four corners or was a flat disc – why not? We assume they had all the knowledge we have! We need to remember that there “cosmology” was much different than ours, and Genesis was not written to correct that! There were were more immediate, more pressing issues — like survival! (The writings of John Walton are very helpful here, see the bibliography). And for them, the important thing was not the existence of things materially, but in terms of purpose. Things did not exist because they occupied space and time (the way we think of things). They believed things really exist when they have meaning or purpose. John Walton, Professor at Wheaton College, has written extensively on Genesis 1 in its Old Testament context.
See a video with John Walton here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fR82a-iueWw
– How have Godly people understood this?
In an excellent article (see references), former Regent College Old Testament professor, Dr. Bruce Waltke reviews much of this literature. He focuses on, “The Literary Genre of Genesis, Chapter One.” He tackles the issue of what TYPE of literature Genesis 1-2 really is:
- Is it history : a qualified yes and no. It is certainly not straightforward, sequential history like Samuel, Kings, or Chronicles (c.f. Gen. 1 vs. 2) and order of creation (v. 1:14 – v.5, 8, 13?)
- Is it science? a qualified yes, but finally no. The subject of Genesis 1-2 is the Creator, not the creation. The Bible deals with ultimate origins; science with proximate origins. Also note that the language in Genesis 1-2 is non-scientific (in post scientific revolution terms) and its context and purpose is non-scientific
The Belgic Confession (16th Century) states:
“We know Him by two means. First, by the creation, preservation and government of the universe, which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, as so many characters leading us to see clearly the invisible things of God, even his everlasting power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says (Romans 1:20). All which things are sufficient to convince men and leave them without excuse. “Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word, that is to say as far as in necessary for us to know in this life, to His glory and our salvation.”
“Now these two books about creation complement one another, but they cannot and should not be harmonized … Let each book (creation, the Bible) speak its own language and be appropriately exegeted and exposited, and let each in its own way bring praise to the Creator, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Waitke 1991, 9)
Augustine wrote of the Biblical authors: “The Spirit of God who spoke through them did not choose to teach about the heavens to men, as it was of no use for salvation.”
Galileo argued: “The intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how to go to Heaven, not how the heaven goes.”
Einstein (not a Christian, but a wise, spiritual person) observed: “The function of setting up goals (why?) and passing statements of value (“it was good”) transcends the domain of science.”
In order to do justice to the interpretation of Genesis 1-2 you MUST read several (I would suggest at least 6) commentaries by reputable scholars, and interpretations by people on both sides of the Catastrophism / Uniformitarianism debate. Reading only one side is NOT good enough! Do not believe what one side says the other side believes! Read both sides for yourself, then come to your own conclusion.
I have read over a dozen good biblical commentaries on Genesis — the majority conclude that Genesis 1-2 really do not INTEND to speak to this issue at all and should not be forced to say something they do not claim to speak about.
– What is the root principle God is teaching us in Genesis 1-2?
I suggest God is teaching:
- He is the sovereign, creator of the universe
- There is no other god like Himself
- The world He created is good, orderly, and purposeful
- We are completely dependent upon Him
- He will provide for us
- We are called to serve and care for His amazing creation
These are all huge themes picked up throughout Scripture. We would expect God to begin His Book with such major concepts. They are fundamental. The whole of the Bible expands ad expounds upon these. As we read other passages in Scripture we see these themes reiterated time and time again.
Is God teaching about the date of creation? Is this a theme picked up elsewhere in Scripture? Not clearly. Therefore we have to ask ourselves whether God considers this an important issue. Inevitably in the Bible, the big issues – salvation issues – are emphasized over and over again. The age of creation is not such an issue. It never recurs as a theme in Scripture.
– What does that root principle mean in our context?
In our technological, self-sufficient, materialistic age, we desperately need to know:
- God is the sovereign, creator of the universe
- There is no other god like Himself
- The world He created is good
- We are completely dependent upon Him
- He will provide for us
- We are called to serve and care for His amazing creation
Those are cornerstones of our faith. They are all key components of Jesus’ observation that the greatest command is “To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.” When we discover these key truths from Genesis 1-2 we are brought face-to-face with our need for a Saviour – Jesus.
Is the date of the earth a cornerstone of faith? Does it relate to Jesus’ command? Did Jesus ever say this was an important issue (or an issue at all)? No. It is significant that Jesus NEVER EVER speaks to the issue of the age of the earth! Therefore, while this may be an interesting issue to debate, we may assume this is not a critical aspect of our faith.
– In Conclusion
Genesis 1 and 2 are fantastic chapters. We need to read them, study them, and take them seriously as the true, inspired word of God. However, we need to be careful not read into them what is not plainly there, such as – I suggest – a specific date for creation. We need to be careful how we interpret them! The pirnciples of biblical exegesis and hermeneutics require us to understand what they meant to their original context FIRST, then wrestle with what those meanings hold for us. Too often we read these chapters imposing our cultural worldview (contemporary scientific modernism/postmodernism) on the text without wrestling through what they meant in context.
- When scientists try to build a “theology” from nature, they can’t do it. The book of natural revelation can point in a direction, but it does not give the details! What results is naturalism, pantheism or atheism.
- When theologians attempt to build scientific theory from the Bible, they can’t do it! The book points in certain directions, but its purpose was never to scientific details. The Bible tells us God created everything “in the beginning” – I believe that is a theological statement not a mathematical statement. Genesis does not attempt to answer all of our scientific questions. God encourages us to use our minds and explore and understand His creation! On the other hand science cannot attempt to address the theological issues of ultimate origins raised in Genesis. Science and religion offer different insights into the truths about the universe: the Bible teaches us God is the Creator and created it orderly and good — science helps us understand that God-ordained order.
- A literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2, then does not demand a young earth. That may be the logical conclusion if you assume these chapters are sequential history or scientific statements in modernistic terms. But that is your interpretation. It may not be the best reading of what the text actually meant ,,, and, therefore, what it means today. However, a person can read Genesis 1-2 seriously and believe the earth is older. This is a logical conclusion if you assume these chapters are theological statements. After you have wrestled through the hermeneutical issues, you have to decide if you think this is the best interpretation. One can be a strong Christian – who affirms biblical authority – and believe the earth is very old. Or, one can be a strong Christian – who affirms biblical authority – and believe the earth is very young. It is a matter if one’s interpretation. It is NOT accurate to say, “The Bible says the Earth is ___ years old. Your — human — interpretation of the Bible can say that. But the Bible doesn’t say it. Sometimes Bible study is really hard work!!!
- What is our primary task as God’s people? To glorify and worship God (Psalm 150). To fulfill the great commission (Matthew 28:19-20). We need to be careful not to be poor witnesses to our community or poor stewards of our time and resources by spending all our energies bickering within the Christian community, rather than getting on with sharing the good news and building disciples. The in-fighting and lack of love shown between Christians fighting these sorts of battles is a dreadful witness to the world!
Old Testament scholar, Gordon Wenham writes, “The Bible-versus-science debate has, most regrettably, sidetracked readers of Gen 1. Instead of reading the chapter as a triumphant affirmation of the power and wisdom of God and the wonder of His creation, we have been too often bogged down in attempting to squeeze Scripture into the mold of the latest scientific hypothesis or distorting scientific facts to fit a particular interpretation. When allowed to speak for itself, Gen 1 looks beyond such minutiae.” (Wenham 1987, 40)
Garry Poole and Judson Poling, working with non-Christians seeking to learn about Jesus, write: “Believers as well as critics agree that Genesis 1 and 2 have some poetic elements. For example, if God made sounds when He spoke, how was His voice heard without an atmosphere to carry the sound waves? Where did those sound waves originate (God doesn’t have a mouth), and what language did He use? How could there have been what we normally mean by ‘evening’ (the sun going down) and ‘morning’ (the sun coming up) when the sun wasn’t even created until the fourth day?
“Bible-believing Christians differ on the meaning of some details of Genesis 1 and 2. One issue is the length of the days of creation; another is the age of the earth. All believers agree that God is the Creator and that we should expect to see evidence of His handiwork in creation. We must not reduce disagreements to a matter of taking the Bible literally or not doing so. In every passage of Scripture, we must take the Bible for what it actually teaches, through whatever means of language the writer used (and the Bible contains many forms of literary devices). Surely, the author of Genesis knew God isn’t a physical being with a mouth, and that there is no sunrise without a sun! This passage does teach God literally created the universe and mankind, yet does so through an undeniably poetic passage requiring careful interpretation.
“A seeker sometimes worries that he will be forced to accept ridiculous things in the name of accepting the Bible. (‘If I become a Christian, will I have to believe that the Promised Land had milk and honey soaking into the ground everywhere because it says it was “flowing with milk and honey?”’) And believers are fearful that truth is being compromised because of a willingness to change Scripture to fit whatever theory is in vogue among atheistic scientists. Neither extreme is a problem if we keep coming back to the guiding question, What did the author really mean?
“So handle Genesis carefully, neither making it say what it doesn’t, nor setting aside what it does!”
(Poole and Poling, Do Science and the Bible Conflict?, p.42)
Theologian, J.I. Packer, suggests: “Genesis 1 and 2 tell us WHO without giving many answers about HOW … The message of these two chapters is this: ‘You have seen the sea? The sky? Sun, moon, and stars? You have watched the birds and the fish? You have observed the landscape, the vegetation, the animals, the insects, all the big and little things together? You have marveled at the wonderful complexity of human beings, with all their powers and skills … ? Fantastic, isn’t it! Well now, meet the one who is behind it all!’ … Genesis shows us the Creator rather than the creation and teaches us knowledge of God the Father than physical science … (J.I. Packer cited in The Case for Christianity)
Let’s keep the context of (all of) Genesis in mind – God was not inspiring Moses to write first of all to 21st century North American scientists, but to a homeless people, thousands of years ago, wandering in the wilderness, wondering if they would survive! While Genesis in no way contradicts modern scientific discoveries, I do not believe it is primarily intended to speak modern scientific language either. I read Genesis 1 and 2 as primarily statements about the power, goodness, glory, holiness, majesty, supremacy, sovereignty, and wonder of God. God – the Creator – is the real subject … the details of the universe – creation – are the object. So often we make creation the subject of these passages – spending all our time microscopically arguing over the details of creation — and forget all about God, the amazing Creator! So, rightly or wrongly, I don’t get too fussed about all the details of creation as described in these passages. Let’s focus on the Creator to whom they/we testify, and whom they/we are created to worship! And let’s bring the good news of God’s amazing grace and love to the world around us — not our philosophical debates!
Remember — Jesus never considers this an issue at all. Maybe it just isn’t worth it!
Afterward … If you still have questions …
If the “Age-of-the-Earth” is a critical faith issue for you, ask yourself these questions. Reflect on some possible answers …
- Does my understanding do justice to Scripture?
I believe a Christian can hold the Bible as the inspired, inerrant Word of God, read it seriously, and come to either conclusion. Those who interpret Genesis 1 and 2 differently do not debate that Genesis 1 and 2 are the inerrant, inspired Word of God. They do debate the interpretation of these chapters. Both sides take the creation account as the literal truth. Where they diverge is on the meaning of key words and phrases. The words are divine. The interpretations are not.
Some Christians would argue for a theory of biblical interpretation that assumes that if a plain meaning makes sense, we look no further. Thus, they would suggest, that if the text says “day,” we should read that as a 24 hour day. That is a good interpretation. But it is reading the text with a 21st Century sense of what a “plain reading” might be. Would ancient Israelites have understood the same “plain meaning”?
Other Christians assume that this passage is theology and metaphor. Metaphors are “pictures” of reality, whose theme is the important issue, not the picture itself (e.g. Psalm 98:8-9, rivers do not really “clap” or mountains “sing”). Thus the days are symbolic pictures, not necessarily literal 24 days. That is an acceptable interpretation.
Who takes the Bible more literally? Neither! Each believes the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God! Each interprets the text differently.
- both positions have assumptions!
- both positions would agree on the BIG issues – There is one creator God who created everything out of nothing, and created it good.
- they differ only on the age of the Earth. What difference does that make for a person’s relationship to Jesus as Saviour? Or to our daily living for Jesus as our Lord? I would suggest, absolutely none.
- Does either position weaken our view of Scripture as the inspired, inerrant Word of God?
I suggest not. There are different understandings of inspiration and inerrancy (see introductory systematic theology texts). One can believe in the verbal plenary inspiration of Scripture and full inerrancy and hold to either interpretation. You may wish to read more on theories of inspiration and inerrancy (see Millard Erickson’s, Christian Theology, for a good overview).
- Does either position detract from God’s power and glory?
I suggest not. The essential truth behind each position is that God created everything from nothing. Nothing is “above” God. I am not convinced God is any more awesome if He created everything in 6 – 24 hour days or if He created everything over a longer time span. Regardless of the time span, God is still the awesome Creator!
Uniformitarianism suggests God consistently acts in orderly ways — which He instituted and sustains — over time. That is a wonderful concept of God: He is dependable, trustworthy, and keeps His Word.
Catastrophism suggests God can dramatically intervene in His creation. This can give us valuable insights into God’s character, too.
- Does either position undermine Christian faith by questioning the major (essential) doctrines of Christianity?
I suggest not. The major doctrines of Christian faith are about God (as trinity of Father, Son, Holy Spirit), humanity (created in the image of God), biblical inspiration and inerrancy, sin, incarnation (the deity and humanity of Jesus), salvation (through the death and resurrection of Jesus), the church, and last things (eschatology). See one of the historic creeds of the Christian Church, e.g. the Nicene Creed or Apostle’s Creed (both 4th Century). None of these essential doctrines depends upon our interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2.
There is a real danger in suggesting that our use of Scripture to defend a position on natural science issues is a test of orthodox faith.
Historically, the Roman Catholic Church used such issues (for example, the Earth as center of the universe) as a test of true Christian faith centuries ago, based on their interpretation of Scripture and the scientific knowledge of their day. They believed the sun revolved around the Earth (after all the Bible says, “The sun rises …” — a plain reading means the sun is the one moving, not the Earth). They believed they were rightly interpreting Scripture. “It (the Roman Catholic Church) set up as a matter of faith a proposition of natural science. No more dangerous thing can be done, whether by Church or dictator, for demonstrable truths will demonstrate themselves, and in a few years the authority may find itself in a position from which there is no escape but retreat.” (F.S. Taylor, quoted in J. L. Bertelson Pond, “Catholic Frogs,” Faculty Dialogue 18 (1992), pp. 83-90).
We need to be careful not to repeat the errors of the past by setting up a particular interpretation of Genesis 1-2 as a test of faith!
- What is our motivation in the debate?
If we find ourselves passionate about this issue, on either side, we need to ask, “Why?”
- Is it a concern to defend the inspiration, authority, and integrity of Scripture? The difficulty is this: this particular issue is one of interpretation, not inspiration. Neither side is challenging the authority, or integrity of the Bible.
- Is it a concern to make the Bible “fit” scientific understandings? The difficulty is, the Bible says relatively little about the when or what of creation, and what it does say is vague. The Bible was all written in times when modern scientific methods, understandings, and worldviews did not yet exist.
This is not a good debate to “test” a person’s faith. Faith is really measured on the essential issues (see #4), and on our obedience to following Jesus commands:
- To love God with all our heart, soul, and mind
- To love your neighbour as yourself (including indicators such as the fruit of the Spirit)
Jesus adds a new command: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). These, I suggest, ought to be our motivation and focus in all we do. If our debate over the age of the Earth does not express love for God, love for neighbour, or love for one another, we are way off base! We need to repent. And we need to get back to what’s important in life!
If we find ourselves angry, irritated and battling with other Christians over an issue Jesus never bothered about, we need to repent! If our angst over “proper’ interpretation of Genesis 1 is pushing pople away from faith, we need to seriously think about the witness we are giving to the world …
FOR FURTHER READING
Coppes, L.J. (1980). Yom (“Day”). In R.L. Harris et al (eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Volume 1 (pp.370-1). Chicago: Moody.
Hamilton, V.P. (1990). The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Kidner, D. (1976). Genesis. Leicester: Inter Varsity.
Lucas, Ernest, Interpreting Genesis in the 21st Century (The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge University)
Morris, H.M. (1984). The Biblical Basis of Modern Science. Grand Rapids: Baker.
Morris, H.M. (1976). The Genesis Record. Creation-Life: San Diego.
Poole, G. and Poling, J. (1998). Do Science and the Bible Conflict? Grand Rapids: Zondervan (Willow Creek Tough Questions Series #6).
Ross, H. (2004). A Matter of Days: Resolving a Creation Controversy. Colorado Springs: NavPress.
Ross, H. (1994). Creation and Time. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
Thompson, J.A. (1982) Creation. In J.D. Douglas (ed.), New Bible Dictionary, 2nd edition (pp.245-248). Leicester: Inter Varsity.
Van Till, H.J. (1990). Portraits of Creation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Van Till, H.J. (1993). Is Special Creationism a Heresy? Christian Scholar’s Review 22 (4), 380-395.
Waltke, B.K. (1991). The Literary Genre of Genesis, Chapter One. Crux 27 (4), 2-10
Walton, J. (2001). Genesis (NIV Application Commentary). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Walton, J. (2011). Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns.
Walton, J. (2009). The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Grand Rapids: IVP.
Wenham, G.J. (1987). Genesis 1-15. Waco: Word.
White, Bob, The Age of the Earth (The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge University)
For more information on some Christian “old-earth” perspectives:
- Canadian Scientific and Christian Association
- American Scientific Affiliation
- Reasons to Believe
- The Biologos Foundation
For more information on some Christian “young-earth” perspectives:
- Institute for Creation Research
- Creation Research.net
- The Creation Research Society
- Answers in Genesis
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Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.