Monday, June 21, 2010

Some thoughts on the age of the earth

The 2010 Ligonier National Conference just recently wrapped up and Ligonier Ministries has helpfully posted summaries of the different sessions (links provided below). Al Mohler gave a talk titled, “Why Does the Universe Look So Old?” In it he surveyed four major Christian views on the age of the earth: the 24-hour calendar day theory, the day-age theory, the framework theory, and the literary theory.


Mohler concludes that the literary theory ultimately rejects inerrancy and ought not to be accepted. He also argues that the framework theory does not properly take the sequential nature of Genesis 1:1-2:3 into account and also ought to be discarded. Mohler also discards the day-age view because he does not think it can account for the exegetical and theological issues related to the historicity of Adam and the Fall. This leads Mohler to take a 24-hour calendar day theory because of the exegetical and theological issues at stake in this debate.


This has been a heated topic in Christian circles for many years. I recently attended a conference on science and faith where during one panel several of the scientists and theologians involved confessed that a large part their time was usually spent answering questions about the age of the earth and those discussions almost always became confrontational. Views on creation have led to Old Testament Professors leaving both Westminster Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary in recent years.


A few years ago the PCA General Assembly commissioned a committee to study this issue and report back. This report was later adopted by the PCA as a guideline that Presbyteries may use if they wished for evaluating candidates for ordination. The committee looked at the following positions:
  1. Calendar-Day – Argues that “day” in Genesis 1:1-2:3 refers to six literal 24-hour calendar days. 
  2. Day-Age – “Day” refers to a period of indefinite time and the focus of the passage is on God’s creative activity but not a literal description of the time that creation took. 
  3. Framework – Notes that there is a correlation between the spheres of nature created on days 1-3 and the inhabitants in days 4-6 (for example, seas on day 2 and the fish on day 5) and so this is a literary tool that Moses used to teach Israel about the Creator and to give them the divine pattern for work and rest but “day” is figurative in the passage. 
  4. Analogical Days – Argues that the “days” are God’s work days and these are analogous but not identical to our calendar days so they refer to consecutive divine activity but not to a definite period of time. 
  5. Other interpretations – The biggest one included here is theistic evolution.

The study committee concluded that all of the four major views could be harmonized with Scripture without compromising the essentials of our faith (notably theistic evolution is excluded here). They held that ministers must believe the following truths in order to be orthodox:
  1. that Scripture is in the inerrant Word of God and is self-interpreting;
  2. that Genesis 1-3 are fully historical;
  3. that Adam and Eve were uniquely created as the first parents of the human race;
  4. that Adam was the covenant head of the human race;
  5. that the curse and resultant discord in the universe is a result of Adam’s first sin;
  6. that the incomprehensible God has clearly revealed himself in nature;
  7. and, that he revealed exactly what he intended.
I think that the above points are an excellent summary of an orthodox view of creation regardless of what position an individual takes on the age of the earth. I would highly recommend that everyone read the whole report because it is well written and covers these views pretty nicely.

Personally, while wanting to insist that we be careful not to major on the minors on debates within Christian circles, I take the calendar day position for epistemological reasons. Our fundamental premise is that we live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. So divine authority and corresponding revelation is our first presupposition in every area of human activity. I think the reason that this issue in particular becomes so controversial and difficult is because it seems to us that general revelation (the apparent age of the universe) and special revelation (that the universe was created in a week) seem to conflict with each other. I’ve had several good exchanges on this topic with a seminary friend of mine who takes a position somewhere between framework and analogical day. At one point he made the observation, “Natural and special revelation speak with one voice. YEC’s [young earth creationists] tend to suppress natural for special and OEC’s [old earth creationists] tend to suppress special for natural.”

This is a very helpful point even though he was intentionally making a generalization. The most important statement is that natural revelation and special revelation speak with one voice. Our God is not double-minded; saying one thing through the things that he has made and another in his inscripturated Word (see Psalm 19). Those who hold to a calendar-day view do tend to focus on God’s infallible and inerrant revelation in Scripture and so take the position that whenever there is an apparent (though not real) conflict between special and natural revelation that it means special revelation must carry the day. While this is certainly an understandable assumption these same arguments were used against Galileo when he dared to argue against a geocentric model for the universe. So we need to be careful in recognizing that while Scripture is infallible and inerrant our interpretations are not.

OEC’s do tend to elevate natural revelation above special revelation by taking the conclusions from scientific (and/or literary) observation and using them as hermeneutical tools for interpreting Genesis 1-3. Rightly this observes that, while Scripture has much to say that applies to scientific endeavors, the Bible is not a science textbook and Genesis 1-3 is not intended to be an exact scientific description of God’s creative activity. The sad consequence here has been that the edge between trying to harmonize what God reveals in nature and Scripture and falling into doubting or rejecting the inerrancy of Scripture can be very thin and we’ve seen a number of Old Testament scholars in Reformed circles who have crossed that line in recent years.

Ultimately I think what we need to do is take into account the presuppositions that scientists are forced to work with when we evaluate their conclusions. Science cannot speak to history but only to the present and probabilities for the future. When a scientist concludes that the universe appears to be millions or even billions of years old we have to recognize that they make that conclusion upon the assumption that the things have been relatively constant for that whole period. Yet this is an unfounded and unprovable assumption (if nothing else the flood alone is a disruption to the constant order of the universe or the points in the Old Testament where God caused the sun to hold still or go backwards). This is simply the oft-repeated objection that science cannot prove the past and ultimately we should doubt what science tries to tell us about history. Speaking to what happened in the past goes far beyond the bounds of the scientific endeavor.

Where I believe this leaves us is searching for a reliable account of how the world came to be. The only place we can find this is in Scripture as God is necessarily the only witness to creation. This means that our interpretation of the age of the earth needs to be an exegetical exercise. The burden of proof is upon OEC’s to show, not that Genesis 1-3 allows for a creation period of longer than a calendar week, but that it requires a creation period of longer than a calendar week. This is why our epistemological standpoint is so important on this issue. It is not that we doubt God’s revelation in nature but we have to recognize our own limitations in interpreting nature scientifically. I’m perfectly willing to grant that Genesis 1-3 may allow for the earth to be millions or billions of years old. However I don’t see anything in Genesis 1-3 that forces that conclusion and the only reason I can see to make it is on the basis of scientific observation about the age of the universe, which we have already shown to be unreliable.

For this reason I think it best to accept the natural reading of “day” in this passage. Now insisting upon this point does not make us, as one Old Testament scholar suggested in a moment of weakness, cultish in refusing to deal honestly with scientific inquiry. It is not that we hold to special revelation and then shut out eyes and plug our ears when faced with the appearance of age from natural revelation. Instead we ought to question the unbelieving presuppositions that are brought to the scientific endeavor and used to reach conclusions about the age of the universe apart from Scripture. This is an opening for the gospel, in testifying to the coherence of special revelation and natural revelation and in insisting that God’s revelation as a whole is only properly understood when we have a mindset and worldview that bows to his authority as the Creator and Lord.

Other seminars from the 2010 Ligonier Conference:
Ed Stetzer - "The Brave New World of New Media"
Burk Parsons - "Taking Captive New Media for the Church"
Al Mohler - "The Hyper-Socialized Generation"
John MacArthur - "Why Did Jesus Have to Die?"
Michael Horton - "Is the Doctrine of Inerrancy Defensible?"
John MacArthur - "Does the Doctrine of the Divine Decrees Eliminate Human Will?"
R.C. Sproul - "What is Evil and What is its Origin?"
R.C. Sproul Jr. - "Why Do Christians Still Sin?"
Derek Thomas - "How Do We Know Which Interpretation Is Right?"
Steven Lawson - "Is the Bible Just Another Book?"
Alistair Begg - "Is the Exclusivity of Christ Unjust?"
Q&A Session
Burk Parsons - "Is Calvinism Good for the Church?"
Derek Thomas - "If God is Good How Could He Command Holy War?"
R.C. Sproul - "Can We Enjoy Heaven Knowing of Loved Ones in Hell?"


1 comment:

richard said...

Nice post! I like the PCA report. It is one of the most thorough pieces on the subject I've ever seen. In this discussion, it's ironic to note that many of those who adopt the most literal view of Genesis 1-3 also favor a metaphorical view of Revelation. When does 7 really mean 7?