The Great Debate
One year ago today, Ken Ham turned heads and shook graves around the world by taking the stage with Bill Nye and attempting to defend a remarkable claim. Millions tuned in to watch the debate and support their respective celebrity voice. Of these, many had long followed the cultural clash fueled by the creation science movement, while others were getting their first taste of just how radical Young-Earth Creationism (YEC) had become. Why? Because according to Ham, the past 150 years of intensive, multidisciplinary and international research have been sorely misguided, as the Earth is, in fact, scarcely more than 6,000 years old, and the theory of evolution is a lie.
Of course, this young-Earth view has been dominant through much of history for the western world, so I need to clarify. Ken Ham doesn’t really think evolution is a lie; he just believes that it happened millions of times faster than ‘evolutionists’ propose. Otherwise, Noah’s ark would have been overloaded by representatives of the millions of modern terrestrial species. As for the age of the Earth, well, it differs from the age of the universe. Parts of our cosmos really are billions of years old, but God took advantage of relativistic time dilation to make sure that our Earth stayed young and healthy during its creation. Otherwise, we simply can’t explain how distant starlight could be visible to us today.
You see, whenever ‘compromisers’ suggest that the days of Genesis could have stood for eons and ages, Ham gets quite upset and accuses them of eisegesis and hermeneutical gymnastics. Not so when it serves the purposes of Answers in Genesis, because they alone are the arbiters of biblical truth, and they alone get to decide precisely which ligaments can be stretched and which anachronisms cannot be accommodated by the biblical text.
Ken Ham’s decision to take on Bill Nye publicly was both a major step forward and a major risk for Answers in Genesis. Though I am certain that Ham was sincerely trying to defend what he sincerely believes to be sacred truth, there was economic incentive to invite a celebrity figure over someone like me—a no-name scientist and blogger, who’s actually studied creationism meticulously from within and without. Prior to the engagement, Answers in Genesis had been struggling to procure enough funding to move forward with their new Ark Encounter project (or as I like to call it, “Pretending that Johan Huibers doesn’t exist”). But this event brought the financial boost needed, not least by giving supporters the impression that Answers in Genesis could win a debate with a real scientist.
On the other hand, by inviting Bill Nye, those same supporters were exposed to a very reasonable critique of their tightly held traditions by a rather amicable and trustworthy personality. And since it was such a dangerous move, Ken Ham committed to discrediting and marring that personality in anticipation of dissent among his ranks. Beyond his obsession with Bill Nye, Ham’s organization began a provocative billboard campaign, which ended up in Times Square, and is now planning to sue the state of Kentucky after losing access to a substantial tax incentive for non-compliance with Kentucky state law. Why the attachment to controversy? I think Greg Neyman hits the nail on the head:
Answers in Genesis is not actively trying to convert atheists to young earth creationism [because] the billboards are not an evangelism tool at all. The message of the billboards is not meant for atheists, but for people who are already young earth creationists (“Look! We are confronting those evil atheists!”). By actively trying to drive a clearly defined wedge between atheists and their own believers, the hope is that they will help their followers see themselves as distinct, set apart from worldly beliefs. In short, the campaign is meant to keep their own YEC followers from jumping ship. (emphasis mine)
In other words, beneath the skin of Ken Ham’s actions, both during and after the debate, lie two very important words for one whose livelihood thrives on spreading misinformation: damage control.
What is the motive for your crime?
The first rule in damage control is to secure the biggest leaks first. So when a prominent evangelical voice like Justin Taylor critiques Young-Earth approaches to Genesis in a conservative forum such as The Gospel Coalition, Ken Ham can’t afford to remain silent. In a recent blog post, Ham conjectured that the real motivation for rejecting a young Earth comes not from the Bible (as argued by Taylor), but from external influences under the guise of “science”. He begins:
What is the real motivation behind Christian leaders today when they attempt to justify rejecting a young earth and six literal days of creation? Are they really arguing from Scripture using a grammatical-historical interpretive method?
I find it fascinating that Ham appeals first to the grammatical-historical method as some sort of golden standard for biblical interpretation, since he obviously does not employ it himself. Young-Earth creationists, but especially those under Ham’s watch, rarely take into account how the text was historically received by its ancient audience, including the cosmology through which the text would have been viewed. Instead, he appeals to obscurities in theoretical physics (like time dilation and accelerated nuclear decay) to explain the timeline of creation, while appealing to the ‘plain meaning’ of the text over rigorous textual and literary analysis. In effect, Ken Ham utilizes a very postmodern approach to make the text say what he means it to say.
Or are they actually influenced by ideas outside of Scripture concerning the supposed old age of the universe/earth and the nature of what is deemed to be “science”?
On the surface, Ham appears to be innocent in his appeal to scripture over nature, but he relies on a false dichotomy. No text is read in a vacuum, and it is presumptuous to assert that we can escape the influence of our knowledge of the natural world, even when reading a deeply theological story. To prove this point, one need only ask Ken Ham (or any of his colleagues) to identify in nature the “fountains of the great deep”, the “firmament”, or the “windows of heaven”. In every case, they will describe phenomena wholly unknown both to the author(s) of Genesis and its audience for three millennia. So perhaps it is Ken Ham who is influenced by extrabiblical ideas and what is deemed to be “science”?
By using “scare quotes” in his reference to science, moreover, Ham presents the illusion that his organization alone understands what is and is not good science. But the fact of the matter is that for Ham, science is defined by what does and does not make him feel uncomfortable when he reads the Bible. Rather than engaging seriously what has proven to be solid knowledge, such as the multibillion-year age of the Earth, he clouds the issue with pseudoscientific studies that only end up falsifying his claims.
…every argument [Justin Taylor] attempts to use has already been answered by others, and I suggest that his real motivation is that outside influences have already lead him to postulate whatever reasons he can try to muster not to be adamant about six literal days of creation in Genesis 1.
For Ken Ham, the Answers in Genesis article database is as canonical as the book of Genesis itself. So when one rejects these articles as authoritative, an ulterior motive must be in play. It is inconceivable for Ham that we find his logic to be flawed, so he precludes all rational discussion in favor of an appeal to authority. Note how he scolds Taylor for citing the opinions of earlier Christian writers:
For instance, he begins the article by quoting fallible humans such as, Augustine, J. Gresham Machen, Edward J. Young, Carl F. H. Henry, and Gleason Archer.
Never mind that each of these men were accomplished scholars, whose opinion ought to be respected at the very least. The key word here is “fallible”. If these men were fallible, and if they diverge from the pronouncements of Answers in Genesis, then they must have been confused or deluded by dangerous falsehoods from outside of scripture. But the unvoiced axiom in Ham’s analysis is that he and his organization are themselves infallible. Of course, Ham would never articulate it this way, but he does quietly conflate divine infallibility with his own. Again, it is inconceivable to Ham that he could simply be wrong about the Bible. Therefore, he dismisses theologians and scientists alike, and seemingly on the same grounds.
As I have collected material from many Christian academics since the late 18th century (when the idea of millions of years was developed by geologists), I have found over and over again that because of the outside influence from the secular world in regard to an old earth/universe, so many of these Christians will try to reinterpret the days of creation, or somehow allow for long ages somewhere in Genesis 1 in their attempts to justify meshing Genesis with what is claimed to be “science.”
In other words, prior to discovering that Earth history spanned millions of years, few people suspected that the Earth was at least millions of years old. Likewise, prior to discovering that stars were trillions of miles away, nobody believed that stars were trillions of miles away, and prior to discovering that spatially separated objects could exert an attractive force on each other, nobody cited gravity to explain the motion of planets, comets, and stars. In effect, Ken Ham asks that we arbitrarily dismiss those discoveries that challenge our traditional views. He continues:
Of course, when the word science is used in relation to the age of the earth/universe, we are dealing with historical science (beliefs based on fallible assumptions) not observational science (the kind of science that builds technology).
In addition to repeating the well rebutted adage that “observational science” involves no fallible assumptions, Ken Ham overlooks the many ways in which he relies on historical science to build his case, which brings us round full circle. In the beginning of his post, Ham appealed to the grammatical-historical method of biblical interpretation, which foremost utilizes discoveries from historical science to elucidate the meaning of ancient texts. Without historical science, we cannot properly reconstruct the biblical text, let alone translate it into our own tongue and decipher its foreign grammatical constructions and vocabulary. Without historical science, you see, Ken Ham cannot even appeal to scripture to criticize our views of Earth history.
If you reject the six literal days of creation, try to step back and ask what your real motivation is.
While the actions and attitudes of Answers in Genesis provide ample motivation to reject their views on the days of creation, we ultimately reject them for two well established reasons:
- Young-Earth Creationism proposes a shallow and anachronistic reading of the text of Genesis, which belies literary analysis and the cultural lens through which it was written. As such, Ham’s view on the days of creation simply does not take the Bible seriously.
- Through our God-given wisdom and ability to know His creation, we have discovered that the universe is far greater in space and time than the biblical authors ever could have known. Ham’s persistent use of scare quotes to mock “science”, however, does not undermine its accuracy and credibility. So rather than forsake that knowledge, we prefer that it elucidate and inform special revelation (which inevitably it does for everyone) in a manner that retains biblically-rooted integrity and honesty.
By forcing a contradiction between text and nature that doesn’t exist, Ken Ham thus loses the basis for his appeal to both science and scripture. Mr. Ham doth protest too much, methinks.
Featured image from Wikipedia commons.