Moving Beyond Debating the Age of the Earth to Debating Scientific Naturalism

How old is the earth? The question has sparked intense debates among Christians in recent years. The issue is whether the opening chapters of Genesis teach that the earth was created a few thousand years ago (the Young-earth creation) or a few billion years ago (Ancient-earth creation). The debate can become acrimonious when there is no definite answer acceptable to both sides of the debate.

Perhaps the acrimony would be toned down if Christian apologists who are caught up in the debate acknowledge that the issue is actually of secondary significance as Christianity is faced with more serious challenges posed by influential atheistic scientists and philosophers like Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Stephen Hawkings and Daniel Dennett who  assert that God is an illusion (Re: Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion & Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell). Surely, it is more urgent for Christian apologists to move beyond their in-house debate on the age of the earth and develop cogent answers to defend the objective reality of God against the atheists’ strident criticisms? The defence of the objective reality of God should be supported by demonstration of reliable knowledge of God based on scientific investigation and philosophical reflection on the natural world around us (Romans 1).  Christian apologists need to give utmost priority to the task of demonstrating the plausibility and coherence of the Christian theistic worldview against scientific naturalism, a materialistic worldview which considers only scientific knowledge is reliable and that science can, in principle, explain everything.

In recent years, Christian scientists were so preoccupied with their internal “Young-earth vs Ancient-earth” debates that they neglect the more important task of countering the criticisms of atheistic scientists. As a result, atheistic scientists were given a free pass to promote scientific naturalism which has influenced many college students who have come to regard Christianity as a belief system that has been discredited by new discoveries of modern science. Such a mistaken perception of Christianity has resulted in loss of faith among Christian students and will surely get worse unless Christian apologists move beyond debating the age of the earth and focus their expertise to address the more pressing challenge of scientific naturalism. Perhaps they should heed the balance counsel found in the Report of the Creation Study Committee of the Presbyterian Church of America (1999).

Excerpts from the Report of the Creation Study Committee of the PCA (1999)

I. Introduction
We have found a profound unity among ourselves on the issues of vital importance to our Reformed testimony. We believe that the Scriptures, and hence Genesis 1-3, are the inerrant word of God. We affirm that Genesis 1-3 is a coherent account from the hand of Moses. We believe that history, not myth, is the proper category for describing these chapters; and furthermore that their history is true. In these chapters we find the record of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth ex nihilo; of the special creation of Adam and Eve as actual human beings, the parents of all humanity (hence they are not the products of evolution from lower forms of life). We further find the account of an historical fall, that brought all humanity into an estate of sin and misery, and of God’s sure promise of a Redeemer. Because the Bible is the word of the Creator and Governor of all there is, it is right for us to find it speaking authoritatively to matters studied by historical and scientific research. We also believe that acceptance of, say, non-geocentric astronomy is consistent with full submission to Biblical authority. We recognize that a naturalistic worldview and true Christian faith are impossible to reconcile, and gladly take our stand with Biblical supernaturalism.

The Committee has been unable to come to unanimity over the nature and duration of the creation days. Nevertheless, our goal has been to enhance the unity, integrity, faithfulness and proclamation of the Church. Therefore we are presenting a unanimous report with the understanding that the members hold to different exegetical viewpoints. As to the rest we are at one. It is our hope and prayer that the Church at large can join us in a principled, Biblical recognition of both the unity and diversity we have regarding this doctrine, and that all are seeking properly to understand biblical revelation. It is our earnest desire not to see our beloved church divide over this issue…

II. Background to the Current Discussion of the Creation Days
The debate over the nature of the creation days is, theologically speaking, a humble one. It cannot rank with the significant theological debates of our time (within Protestant and evangelical circles) such as whether there can be such a thing as legitimate, biblical Systematic Theology, whether human language is capable of conveying absolute truth, whether truth is propositional, what ought to be the church’s doctrine of scripture, can the church’s traditional doctrine of divine impassibility be biblically sustained, is it time to jettison the historic Christian formulation of the doctrine of God, does the church need to modify its commitment to the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith, and more.

Nevertheless, behind this matter of the Genesis days, and connected with it, are issues of some significance to the Bible-believing Christian community. Most obviously, the discussion of the nature of the creation days is a part of what has been one of the most important sustained theological issues in the Western world over the last century or so: the resolution of the conflicting truth claims of historic Christianity and modern secularism which uses a naturalistic view of evolution as its prop. The doctrine of creation undergirds all truth. Creation and providence are a constant revelation of God, rendering all men inexcusable before him. The issues among us are more specific than the doctrine of creation as such. Among the vast number of biblical texts about creation, we are primarily discussing the exegesis of Genesis 1. For these reasons a sane and restrained discussion of the creation days is warranted, and may prove to be helpful to the whole Christian community as we seek to “take every thought captive” and make ourselves ready to “give an apologia for the hope that is in us.”

[The Report than gives accurate and fair summaries of the main interpretations of Genesis 1-3 and the Creation Days: 1) The Calendar Day Interpretation, 2) The Day-Age Interpretation, 3) The Framework Interpretation, D) The Analogical Days Interpretation and E) Other Interpretations.]

Creation Roots
This brings us to the third component of general revelation, its creation roots. It is at this point, the “how” and “when” of creation, that we feel the greatest tension.

First, it is important to reaffirm that special revelation teaches there was a creation event and/or events. There was a genesis of space and time. Although the precise interpretation of Genesis 1 & 2 may be debated, there is no debate that God created the universe, and that creation includes the covenant head of the human family, Adam and Eve.

In the case of general revelation the story is not so straightforward. Scientific theories and philosophies have waxed and waned all the way from an eternally existing “steady state” universe to the latest cosmological theory known as the Big Bang, which states that the entire universe—including matter, energy, space and time—all came into being from an infinitesimal point in a gigantic explosion about 15 billion years ago. It is tempting for scientists, even Christian scientists, working in a field to adopt the latest theory presumably because the accumulation of data strongly supports it. Yet, as J. P. Moreland points out, the history of science can be interpreted as showing a pattern of replacing one set of theories by an entirely different set. By this reasoning today’s current theory (e.g., the Big Bang) may eventually be replaced by another theory that better explains new discoveries. It is important to note that the scientific discovery, or the “data” with which scientists work (i.e., the things that God has graciously revealed to mankind) have not changed, although more data may become available. It is the interpretation of the data which changes and which will eventually be seen to be totally in accord with special revelation in the Bible. Prior to that eventuality, there is even now a pattern of positive progression in the history of the discoveries themselves. A century ago astronomers had only a vague notion of the size of the universe. Today we have measured its vastness through numerous observations in all regions of the electromagnetic spectrum…

In theology, there are gradations of loyalty; the trinity is a core belief, without which a “church” is no church of Christ…When it comes to the church’s position on scientific explanations, there is again a gradation of loyalty. There are some that are simply outside the pale: polygenetic origin of humanity is one, for example; neo-Darwinism (at least in its full metaphysical implication, as discussed in our longer Definitions Appendix) should also be. There are some scientific positions on which the church must take its stand: for example, monogenetic (and special) origin of mankind. On the other hand, there are scientific positions on which the church can say it has no objection to them: for example, non-geocentric cosmology, DNA as the basis of the genetic code. Hence for those theories within the pale, the Christian in science has the privilege of expanding our appreciation for what God has done by explaining how. But further, for those theories that are crucial to Christianity’s truth claims (such as monogenetic origin of mankind), the scientific Christian has the additional task of commending the evidence for them and refuting the speculations that set themselves against them. The class of theories to which the church need have no objection is not a stable one: once, for example, scientists (including Christian ones) subscribed to the phlogiston theory of Chemistry. It would be a mistake to tie the truth of Christianity to the endurance of theories in this class: instead we are happy to let the evidence take us where it seems to lead. It is not always easy to tell whether a given theory is in the class of essentials or of the non-objectionables: at one time some put geocentric cosmology among the essentials.

We know where to put some biological theories of origins. We know this because they take as their starting point a metaphysic that is irreconcilable with Scripture. Precisely the question, then, is where do we put cosmological and geological theories regarding the age of the cosmos and the earth? We have at least two options: (1) to say that our exegesis of Scripture demands that the earth and universe are “young,” so any theories that contradict that must be wrong; (2) to say that our exegesis of Scripture allows a latitude of belief on the age question, so long as the core metaphysics of our faith (such as the idea that the universe has a beginning; God is free to perform miracles according to his purposes; and that the first humans were specially created, and all other humans descend from them) are respected. Those who take the second option should be careful not to identify their exegesis too closely with specific scientific theories such as the Big Bang.

Clearly there are committed, Reformed believers who are scientists that are on either side of the issue regarding the age of the cosmos. Just as in the days following the Reformation, when the church could not decide between the geocentric and heliocentric views of the solar system, so today there is not unanimity regarding the age question. Ultimately, the heliocentric view won out over the geocentric view because of a vast preponderance of facts favoring it based on increasingly sophisticated observations through ever improving telescopes used by thousands of astronomers over hundreds of years. Likewise, in the present controversy, a large number of observations over a long period of time will likely be the telling factor. John Mark Reynolds, a young earth creationist, puts it well:

Presently, we can admit that as recent creationists we are defending a very natural biblical account, at the cost of abandoning a very plausible scientific picture of an “old” cosmos. But over the long term, this is not a tenable position. In our opinion, old earth creationism combines a less natural textual reading with a much more plausible scientific version. They have fewer “problems of science.” At the moment, this would seem to be the more rational position to adopt.

Recent creationism must develop better scientific accounts if it is to remain viable against old earth creationism. On the other hand, the reading of Scripture (e.g., a real Flood, meaningful genealogies, and actual dividing of languages) is so natural that it seems worth saving. Since we believe recent creation cosmologies are improving, we are encouraged to continue the effort.

As Reynolds notes, it is a continuing effort, not a completed one that we face. Ultimately, the church is not the authoritative source for determining what is or is not scientific truth. Traditionally, this has been left to the scientific community to decide. However, in our generation that scientific community has become progressively more hostile to the truths of special revelation. Thus, the church must be prepared to address the claimed “scientific truths” of the science communities and be prepared to “manage by fact” as the data from the science pours forth. The present day intelligent design movement would appear to be a good example of how the church in the broader evangelical context can be effective in this manner.

Summary and Conclusions
The goal of general revelation along with special revelation is to know God, and thus “enjoy Him forever.” He has given us rational minds that are capable of thinking His thoughts after Him, particularly as concerns His creation. Just as the Holy Spirit illuminates our minds as we read His special revelation, so His providence directs the church of Jesus Christ to know the truth of His general revelation. In the knowing, that truth will indeed set us free. Until we know, Christ’s Church must not be divided over what we do not yet know.

Related Post: Science Uprising and Beyond

For Beginners
John Lennox. God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?
Heidi Campbell & Heather Looy. A Science & Religion Primer.

For Advanced Readers
Denis Alexander. Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? [Supportive of theistic evolution]
J. P. Moreland & Stephen Meyers. Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique. [Critical of theistic evolution]

J.P. Moreland. The Creation Hypothesis: Scientific Evidence for an Intelligent Designer.
William Dembski. Mere Creation: Science, Faith & Intelligent Design.

Robert Spitzer. New Proofs for the Existence of God: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique.
Stephen Barr. Modern Physics and Ancient Faith.