Old earth creationists differ from young earth creationists primarily on the age of the earth. There is good reason for this. The evidence that the earth is more than 6,000 years old is overwhelming. While there may be debates on speciation and on many details of biological evolution, lines of evidence from many different branches of science converge to demonstrate that the earth is old.
But the change in the age of the earth is not so simple. It has an impact on many other aspects of how the Genesis account is to be read.
First let me distinguish old earth creationism from another view, ruin and restoration, which also accepts the general evidence for the age of the earth. I’ll discuss ruin and restoration in a separate entry, but old earth creationism views the days of creation as long periods of time, culminating in the creation of human beings. Ruin and restoration, on the other hand, still takes Genesis 1-11 literally, but sees this as a recreation. The earth itself is much older, but the earth was restored, and and Adam and Eve were created only 6,000 years ago.
Further, it’s important to understand the difference between the “young” and “old” in terms of the age of the earth. Young earth creationists suggest 6-10 thousand years. Old earth creationists accept the age generally accepted in scientific circles, 4.5 billion years. Taking the most common time frame of 6,000 years, which is about 1/750,000th the time. Often young earth creationists point to errors in various dating method as evidence that the earth really could be young, but it is important to note that these errors are generally very small compared to the difference between the two time lines.
The key elements of the old earth creationist view are:
- Each day in Genesis 1 represents an indefinite period of time
- God was active in creation throughout that time
- Though there may be considerable variation, and thus evolution, within groups of creatures, major groups are products of creation
- As a corollary to this, physical death does occur before the fall, i.e. creatures created on the fifth and sixth days would die
- Humanity is a special creation of God
- The fall changed humanity’s spiritual nature, but was not responsible for introducing physical death into the environment
In my previous entry, Young Earth and the Bible, I mentioned three points regarding the Bible that are accepted by young earth creationists. If one accepts these three points, one must accept a young earth. Old earth creationists hold a modified view of the first and third of these points. They believe that one must determine whether something in the Bible is to be taken literally starting from a neutral position. Gleason Archer, for example, indicates that it is equally wrong to take something figurative literally as it would be to take something figuratively taht was intended literally. In his words, “We grievously err in our interpretation when we interpret figurative language literally; we likewise err when we interpret literal language figuratively.” (From The Witness of the Bible to its Own Inerrancy, quoted from http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_witness_archer.html.)
Archer is, of course, no liberal, and in fact is one of the major advocates of inerrancy. The issue here is not the authority or accuracy of the Bible, but rather about what the Bible is actually saying. Thus when young earth creationists criticize old earthers for abandoning the Bible, in fact the problem is that the old earthers have abandoned the young earthers’ view of the Bible.
This difference extends to the third point, in that old earth creationists don’t view the Genesis story as narrative history. They do, however, view it as containing and assuming certain history. They will provide explanations for the time taken when Adam names the creatures, and also look at how the earth existed under the conditions described in each of the creation days. In other words, while it is not a simple narrative, the Genesis narrative does describe natural history in figurative language.
Most importantly, old earth creationists generally accept the second point, that when the Bible speaks about science it does have priority. They would simply maintain that the Bible makes less statements, and less precise statements, about science.
While old earth creationists generally believe that physical death occurred prior to the fall, they do see the fall of humanity (Genesis 3) as an incident in historical time. Humanity chose to disobey and as a result was separated from God, and made subject to mortality.
Finally, old earth creationists generally hold that the flood (Genesis 6-9) was a local event, not a global one. With the geological record explained by an old earth, there would be little room in the evidence for a worldwide flood.
My next entry will be on the ruin and restoration theory.
(For more information at an outline level, see God the Creator, The Two Flood Stories, and Genesis Creation Stories – Form, Structure, and Relationship.)