In case you haven’t noticed, I recently published a list of 100 reasons to accept that the Earth is not less than 10,000 years old. The list has received comparably more attention than anything else I’ve posted here, so I’m thankful to all of you for reading and sharing it. By and large, the feedback has been positive, along the lines of: “If anything, the list could be longer!” For those who can appreciate the many ways in which science has revealed the immensity of our cosmos—both in space and time—the examples I cited only magnify the wonder with which we listen to its story.
What I did not expect, however, is the complete lack of scientific objection to the list. Of course, I didn’t expect everyone would welcome my proposal with open arms, but to date, nobody has contacted me with a counter example from geology or even a critique of any geological evidences I used. Instead, disagreement has been expressed solely through an ostensibly biblical objection: “the Bible says the Earth is only 6,000 years old; why don’t you just accept what we already know to be true?”
Thus the dilemma is reduced to a simple choice between “man’s fallible opinion” and “God’s perfect word”, as though Christians who accept that the Earth is ancient have never actually read the Bible. The choice is presented as so obvious, in fact, that even most atheists would be inclined to side with God’s word—I mean, why trust the frail opinions of men if you have access to a perfect source of knowledge?
And so for this reason, many non-Christians will never take the Bible seriously. For them, unfortunately, it is no longer possible to distinguish between the biblical narrative and the young-Earth paradigm, which means that those who trumpet young-Earth readings as inerrant truth have inadvertently silenced scripture by hiding it beneath a basket (Matt. 5:15). But this reductionistic approach lacks both historical and theological perspective for several reasons:
- It assumes falsely that the young-Earth reading has been the only plain and obvious interpretation of Genesis throughout history. On the contrary, many prominent theologians rejected that the narrative structure of Genesis was a concrete reference to the passage of time on Earth, as Dr. John Millam (2011) notes in his helpful introduction to this discussion in the early church. Attempts to limit the age of the Earth through literal interpretations of Genesis are thus unique to recent centuries, being written in response to extrabiblical evidence (e.g. geology) that challenged certain preconceptions. Interestingly, these apparent conflicts became more prominent in western European traditions, where the Reformation strongly influenced views on biblical hermeneutics (often preferring ‘literal’ or ‘historical’ interpretations to allegorical or mystical ones). Therefore, even today, the young-Earth movement seems foreign to many Catholic and nearly all Orthodox Christians. Modern Protestant theologians who reject young-Earth creationism are thus closer in line with more traditional, orthodox views on Genesis and creation. So given that the debate over how to interpret Genesis—which began with its initial publication—continues today in many theological circles, it would be dishonest to draw a line between those who take the Bible at its word (“young-Earth”) and those who are willing to ‘compromise’ (“old-Earth”).
- The Bible never implies explicitly that the Earth is only ~6,000 years old. As early as the 2nd temple period in Israel, both Jewish and eventually Christian scholars attempted to compile the famous genealogies that extend throughout the Hebrew Bible. In doing so, they arrived not at the date of creation itself, but at a minimum age of the Earth. Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that their estimates consistently took them to a scene in Mesopotamia between 3–4,000 B.C., around the beginnings of human civilization and written history as we know it. The famous chronology of James Ussher, therefore, is neither meaningless nor useless. Using rigorous and quantitative techniques, he extended Earth history as far back as the evidence allowed him at the time, and that’s precisely what geologists do today. But to accomplish this task, he admittedly made some very conservative assumptions about how to interpret the Bible, which were already perceived as false or unlikely. So it is important in this debate to recognize…
- We already know “what the Bible says”; we want to know what it means! It is fruitless and condescending to try and counter any claim with “but the Bible says”. It implies that your dialogue partner has not read the Scripture, when in fact he/she may have been wrestling with its meaning for a very long time. It also implies that the correct interpretation is more obvious than is the case. But unless you are a textual critic, or an archaeologist searching for new manuscript copies of the Bible in Egyptian caves, you are not primarily interested in what the Bible actually says. Moreover, when it comes to the meaning of the text, we still have to differentiate between what it means to us, the modern reader, versus to the original author or any previous generation of the church in history. So for the sake of all, it is vital to clarify the object of debate.
- We gain nothing by appealing to the plain meaning or even the unique authority of Scripture. Those who profess sola scriptura should especially be wary of falling into the trap of solo scriptura, which I like to call “me-and-my-Bible-ism”. The latter isolates oneself from wider communion with the church and its history, particularly the ways in which the church has historically received and understood Scripture. It leads the reader, therefore, to interpret scripture through a very limited personal experience by professing only what is “plain and obvious” to them. Rather than uphold the authority of Scripture, as the reader intends, this process actually capitulates God’s word to postmodern relativism.
Man’s fallible opinion vs. God’s perfect word
In a battle between man’s opinion and God’s word, who wins? Though having the appearance of reverence for Scripture, this dichotomy blatantly misrepresents our task as Christians in understanding the world that God has made. In Christian (and Jewish) theology, God has revealed himself in many ways—not solely through Scripture. He reveals himself also in the life, history, and even the suffering and persecution of the church, its saints, its prophets and apostles, and of Christ himself, because all alike are guided by His providence (e.g. Acts 4:27–28). But He also reveals himself in that which is made (Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:20), and so Scripture frequently utilizes the characteristics of nature to exemplify who God is (e.g. Ps. 104).
Science, which has only been defined well in recent centuries, is a very focused method by which we can explain and describe the natural world. Though it rests in metaphysical principles about order, uniformity, and predictability of behavior in the material world, it excludes metaphysics from its methodology and, therefore, its conclusions. By limiting science in this way, however, we gain unrivaled precision and efficiency in accomplishing our main task: to describe and explain nature—past and present.
The accuracy of scientific discovery is limited, therefore, by the competence of those who carry out its research, as well as limits on our access to the data. Scientific knowledge is never perfect (hence the name research), thus it is never considered to be Truth with a capital T. But it is a steady progression toward the truth, built on the very cognitive abilities that make the world intelligible to us as humans in the first place, and so it cannot be lightly discarded. Its discoveries must be confronted and incorporated into any comprehensive view of the cosmos; otherwise, we have forsaken one of the most important ways in which God has revealed Himself to us.
Pronouncements in science may be contingent on our ability to interpret the evidence properly, but so are pronouncements from Scripture. We gain access to God’s word only through reading, which is a hermeneutic endeavor. To pretend that we can reduce the ‘origins’ debate to a choice between man’s opinion and God’s word presumes falsely that we can speak for God Himself, which is a grave sin. Furthermore, it denies our own fallibility when it comes to interpreting ancient texts like the Hebrew Bible. This principal weakness, apparently intrinsic to modern humans, is celebrated annually in high school literature classes across the country.
The question before us, therefore, is not a simple dichotomy. It may better be phrased: who among us has listened to the whole counsel of God? The answer, to be sure, is none of us, so let us all be humble in our dialogue. But it is an ideal to which all should aspire through lifelong meditation, study, and analysis of the many ways in which God has revealed Himself to mankind (Ps. 1:2).