I think this post at BioLogos makes some important points. Besides, Dennis Venema does some excellent writing (not in this post, it’s about him).
Occasionally when I mention “geocentricity” people will roll their eyes and let me know that nobody is believes that any more, nobody is that stupid, and comparing the rejection of overwhelming amounts of modern science in favor of young earth creationism with similar rejection of science by geocentrists is silly, because there aren’t any such people.
I’ve previously linked to the Geocentricity web site to show that there really are such people. Yes, they do exist, and they really are just that far out.
Today in the mail, however, I got further proof. Not only are they capable of producing web sites (using modern science to attempt to destroy it), but they are capable of producing and mailing brochures as well. I received a brochure titled “Have Scientists Been Wrong? For 400 years?” In the pamphlet they argue that “the mobility of the earth is the only place where science and the Bible have come into real conflict, and is the starting point for all churches that have compromised the authority of scripture.”
Gotta love all that rejection of compromise! Can’t allow even one iota of fact to pervert our doctrinal systems!
They even advertise a free book (one doubts very many people would pay for such drivel, but there it is–The Geocentric Bible–freely available to all with time to waste and a brain to fry.
Here is your brain; here is your brain after reading the book through.
(Imagine the pictures!)
Question: Is this much more brain frying than Kurt Wise’s claim that he believes in young age creationism even though the evidence is against it because of his beliefs as to the literal understanding of Genesis? (See my notes on his book Faith, Form, and Time.) I’d like to think not, but it seems to me that with the young age view, he is flying pretty vigorously into the face of reams of scientific evidence.
This isn’t a summary of previous posts, but rather an attempt to focus on the issue I’m trying to address with this series before I continue. The problem with a series like this is that the examples begin to take over the topic. Since I have used complementarianism and theistic evolution as examples, and brought inerrancy into the discussion in order to demonstrate that it is not the key issue involved, it is easy for a reader to decide that I’m trying to debate any one of those issues, or perhaps to prefer that I debate them and try to redirect the topic.
Since the posts to which I responded brought up two more issues, homosexuality and violent passages in the Bible, which are again controversial issues, I want to focus back on the point I’m trying to make: It’s both difficult and inappropriate to tell your opponent what his or her position ought to be. In this case I’m responding to the charge that a Christian who accepts the theory of evolution is less Biblical because the “obvious exegesis” of Genesis favors a young earth creationist position.
Also, though I believe that theistic evolution is the best position to take at the moment, I am not attempting to demonstrate that. Rather, I’m attempting to show that it, along with a number of other positions on Genesis, can be held plausibly as interpretations of the Biblical text. The particular position one adopts depends on other factors, including the particular approach one takes to Biblical interpretation. After this mid-course focus I’m going to look at other issues and ask whether the exegesis is so obvious that an opponent of some particular brand of theology can easily dismiss it as “not real Christianity.” Within some limits, Christianity allows, and has always allowed, some flexibility.
The problem often starts with a charge that goes something like this:
1) The Bible clearly teaches X
2) X is unthinkable or false
3) So Christianity must be false
Now there are numerous and huge gaps in the logic as I have written it, but I think those gaps generally exist in the argument as presented by critics of Christianity. (Note to my philosophically inclined friends: To avoid general implosion with possible damage to the space-time continuum, do not try to critique that as a syllogism. Did I say it was a syllogism? I did not!) Let me apply this to a couple of relevant issues:
1) The Bible clearly teaches that the earth was created in seven literal days 6,000 years ago
2) That teaching is false
3) Christianity must be false
One obviously missing element here is “Christianity actually teaches X” but that is generally assumed, as is the direct connection between “The Bible clearly teaches X” and “Christianity accepts X as true.”
For example, one could say that the Bible teaches that an animal must be brought as a sacrifice if one sins, but Christianity does not teach this, for reasons that seem good and proper to pretty much all Christians. Here we have a teaching that is fairly clear, but that Christians believe applied to a particular set of times and places, not including the present. You can try to use this to demonstrate that Christians don’t really follow the Bible, but it’s not going to help as an argument against Christianity because it teaches animal sacrifice. (PETA beware!)
That would fit more with another form of the argument:
1) The Bible teaches that God condones and even commands violence
2) Condoning violence is unthinkable (but where is the demonstration that it is wrong?)
3) Therefore Christianity is false
Now supposing this argument is used against a Christian who is a pacifist. Clearly the conclusion is false with reference to that person’s belief.
The point I am trying to make here is not primarily whether the Bible teaches any of these things, or whether they are true or false, but whether a Christian can believe or disbelieve them and still be a Christian. Is it proper to dismiss theistic evolutionists and even old earth creationists as “not real Christians,” rather than to respond to their actual position?
Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, clearly wants to argue with fundamentalists and then dismiss all Christians based on his arguments against fundamentalists. I blogged about that starting in From the Land of the Deluded, where I make some similar points.
I have two suggestions here. First, that Christianity is not defined by American fundamentalism. I have supported that partially and will continue to do so as the series progresses. Second, that it is better to respond to an opponent based on what that opponent actually believes rather than what you imagine them to believe or what you think they ought to believe.
It is inevitable that this will sometimes fail, but it is an admirable goal in any case, and trying to define your opponent out of existence as the first step to a debate is probably not going to get you very far.
Christians do this to atheists from time to time as well, in particular by concluding that an atheist actually hates God or does not desire to be under authority. This suggests that an atheist isn’t really an atheist, but is rather a rebellious theist. Perhaps it would be a good idea to stretch our Christian imaginations a little bit, and allow that someone might just not find the idea of God convincing, or might not see sufficient evidence to believe. Imagine, in other words, that the atheist is honestly stating his or her beliefs.
Further, we need to realize that what seems to us a certain result of a particular belief might not be so certain for someone else. In talking about grief, I am likely to mention that my relationship with Jesus Christ and spiritual disciplines including prayer and fasting have been critical to me in facing loss. Do I mean that someone without those particular beliefs will not be able to handle what I have handled? Not at all! From personal experience I know persons from other faith traditions who have found their beliefs and spiritual practices critical, and I know non-believers who have also endured and come out of such trials successfully. I mention this particular case because it is very common for Christians to believe that atheists will be unable to endure hardship and loss.
One last illustration might help. I speak frequently to Methodist groups, as I’m a member of a United Methodist congregation. Every Methodist group with whom I have discussed Calvinism has come to the conclusion that Calvinists will not engage in evangelism. Why? If Calvinists believe in predestination–that God has determined who will be saved or lost–what purpose is their for evangelism? The result is already determined!
Now I have always pointed out that Calvinists do, in fact, practice evangelism, and thus attacking them for a failure in outreach would be inappropriate. A few years ago, however, I had the experience of hearing John Blanchard, a Calvinist evangelist (something many Methodists would regard as an oxymoron), who was asked this very question: Why, if you believe in predestination, are you an evangelist?
His answer, as I remember it, was this: Predestination is a doctrine, and I believe it; evangelism is a command, and I obey it.
Hmmm. A bit different logic than we Methodists were assuming he would use, but here we have him believing both things. He is not the person we assumed he would be.
Neither is the theistic evolutionist the person you assumed him to be. He is not necessarily a scientist whose religion is loosely pasted on. He might be a devout believer and a scientist. On the other hand, his training might be in Biblical studies, like mine is, and the church and faith might be the stuff of his daily life. In any case, he (or she) not likely to be impressed when you claim he’s not who he says he is.
As I move forward I’m going to discuss views on homosexuality and the church. It may surprise some to know that many advocates of acceptance of gays and lesbians in the full fellowship of the church are actually quite conservative in their understanding of exegesis. One can fault their results in a number of passages, in my view, but one can hardly say that they lack the intent or a conservative approach, even as one charges them with special pleading in particular cases.
And so as not to disappoint, let me note right now that my intention will not be to argue one side or another here, but rather to look at the types of Biblical interpretation involved.
Previous posts in this series were:
I’m starting a short (I hope) series on interpreting the Bible. This is in response to a series of posts I read recently. The first two were from EvolutionBlog, OEC vs. YEC and The “Terrible Texts” of the Bible. I then encountered A question for Christians on Positive Liberty, which discusses some poor (in the both mine and the post author’s opinion) exegesis used with regard to homosexuality. Though I do read Positive Liberty, I actually went to that post via Dispatches from the Culture War, who agreed with and commented further on the post here.
I have two more kind points of meta-posting. First, what interests me in these posts in particular is that all of the authors involved are people I read regularly and respect, though obviously I disagree with them on some issues. I’m not talking here about stupid approaches to the Bible, but rather, misunderstanding of Biblical studies as an academic enterprise and also of the role of the Bible in Christianity. Second, I’m posting this here on my Threads blog, rather than on my Participatory Bible Study blog, because I’m most interested in commenting on the social aspects.
Now for those who were not too bored by the introduction . . .
What distresses me here is that while those involved in scientific endeavors quite rightly expect others to note technical nuances in their fields, or at least to admit those nuances are inaccessible to them, they often don’t grant similar respect to another field. I’m going to get to material on the Bible and homosexuality in later posts, but right now let me just illustrate from the creation vs. evolution debate.
It’s quite common for a scientist, let’s say an evolutionary biologist, to comment on how some creationist fails to comprehend details of an issue because that person is a non-specialist. This is very important and quite appropriate, because people who don’t understand certain issues precisely can make wildly silly remarks about it. An engineer may not be well equipped to understand cell development. I’m not really all that well equipped to understand any of the above, which is why I stick my nose in a book when posting on science and/or get someone more expert to check what I write. (On a blog, I can count on correction in the comments, but those usually come from people who know even less than I do.)
Similar courtesy is often not extended to experts in Biblical studies, however. Scientific experts are quite quick to comment on just how people in Biblical times understood the world, and what their statements on such topics actually mean. One example is the common statement that the Bible “clearly” supports young earth creationism, so that anyone who is a Christian but doesn’t support a young earth is “going against the Bible.” It’s one of the few things on which non-theistic evolutionists and young earth creationists can agree!
But stating that the Bible “clearly” supports young earth creationism is an example of “obvious exegesis.” I use that particular collocation of words in my title because it makes my hair stand on end. I hope I can make some of my readers feel similarly about it as I write.
In discussing this I’m going to look at two aspects of Biblical interpretation. First, exegesis. I’m going to simplify by restricting the word “exegesis” as I use it here to mean “getting to understand what the original author meant to the people to whom he originally spoke or wrote.” (We’ll find, however, that even such an apparently simple label as “original author” is somewhat complex.) Second, we have application, or the way in which people who use the Bible in their lives in some way take Biblical statements and apply them. This one isn’t so simple either, and not just because modern Christians try to accommodate the Bible to modern science.
For this introductory post, let me simply take a look at one statement from Jason Rosenhouse:
But for all of that, I do still have quite a bit of sympathy for their interpretation of Genesis. It sure looks to me like twenty-four hour days and a young-Earth were what the Biblical authors intended. The text itself describes the days as being bracketed by an evening and a morning, which is a very odd way of speaking if something other than twenty-four hour days were intended. . . .
Now oddly enough, Rosenhouse gets around in the paragraphs following this one to a couple of the key points of exegesis that do not fit into a young earth model, but he misses significant details, and also some of the key ways in which an expert in appropriate areas in Biblical studies would look at the text. Note here, of course, that I am not an “expert” in the “doctoral degree and academic involvement” sense. I’m a popularizer. That’s important, because an expert in any one of the areas I’ll touch on would make this more complex than I do, not less.
So is it so obvious that Genesis describes creation in seven literal 24 hour days? That all depends. In what context are we studying what part of Genesis? Rosenhouse does not that Genesis 2 is different from Genesis 1, but he only notes the length of time involved, not the key point, which is that Genesis 2 is itself a creation story that differs from Genesis 1, that it does not have any days of creation at all, and that it is chronologically incompatible with Genesis 1. If I step beyond Genesis I should point out that Psalm 104 is also a creation story that skips that part.
So when we do exegesis, we have several levels at which we can look:
- The textual pre-history, in this case Genesis 1:1-2:4a vs Genesis 2:4b-24. We will get a different answer to our questions in looking at the original intent of each author. (Note that I have a breakdown of these stories according to the sources here.)
- We can look at the redactor who somehow combined the two stories. The interesting thing here is that he is unlikely to have been unaware that the two stories do not share a time framework, and are not actually chronologically compatible. In interpreting the combined text, we have to take that into consideration. Did he mean Genesis 1 to be taken as the chronological framework, which should then be imposed on Genesis 2, or did he see them as compatible in another sense? (If, as I argue below, Genesis 1 is liturgy, while Genesis 2 is a narrative sharing many, but not all, characteristics with myth, then it is quite possible that he intended the reverse–that Genesis 2 is closer to the history, while Genesis 1 is the way in which it is celebrated liturgically, and the time framework is entirely liturgical.)
- We can look at their canonical position as part of the Torah. This involves adding the Sinai experience and the 10 commandments, which pushes us back in the direction of a literal creation week.
- We can look at them in the broader canon of scripture, in which case we must not only add those points at which a literal creation week is described, but those texts, such as Psalm 104 or Proverbs 8 that describe creation differently.
- Finally, we get to the point of application, as in what is the community that uses the Bible as scripture expected to believe about this material. This is where those who are not part of the community, and especially those who once were but no longer are tend to be very dogmatic. The “true” Christian way is to figure out what the original author said and then to believe that. I’m going to deal with this in a later post, but I will simply note for now that this has never been the actual approach, even when people most vigorously claimed it was.
So what would the “obvious” exegesis of Genesis 1-2 be, actually? I hope I’m giving you the sense that this is not quite so simple. Rosenhouse is certainly right on one point, in my view. Genesis 1-2 was not intended to describe the process of evolution. As he says:
Ultimately, it is very hard to believe (to put it kindly) that a writer setting out to communicate a lengthy creation process over billions of years would have written anything like what Genesis records. . . .
Just so. It’s hard to believe, and you shouldn’t believe it.
But then he says:
Or you can take the most sensible approach. That’s where you recognize that the Bible (more specifically the Torah) is not inerrant, and it is not the word of God. . . .
While I certainly agree that the Bible is not inerrant, the rest simply does not follow. A simplistic idea of how one gets from scriptural text to doctrinal belief is posited and then discarded. An idea of the word of God that may or may not be correct (or more importantly held or not held by a community) is assumed and then dismissed.
If I believe that errancy is incompatible with the phrase “word of God” then obviously I must discard it if I discover error–or, perhaps, alter my view. But having discovered that Genesis does not describe evolution does not remove the option of allegory, or any number of other points. (I’m going to discuss the meaning of “word of God” in a later post in this series.)
So let’s go back to the initial point of “obvious exegesis.” Just what did the Biblical writers think they were writing in this case. Was it chronology? Was it narrative history? Allegory? Myth? Here is where I find myself most annoyed with superficial looks at what the Bible might mean, whichever end of the spectrum they come from. Allegory is a particular type of literature. Myth is a particular type of literature, as is narrative history, theology, liturgy, and so forth. All of these occur in the Bible, and all of these are written to answer different questions or to serve different roles.
Those liberal Christians who call Genesis “myth” are doing as much or more disservice to the Bible as those Christian fundamentalists who treat it as science or history. It is none of the above. In fact “it” cannot be so classified, because “it” combines different types of literature into one text.
The redactor of Genesis had before him (or in his head) genealogies, stories from various sources, poetic elements, liturgy and theology, which he wove into a new text we call Genesis. I would argue that Genesis 1 is liturgy, and that is a fairly common view amongst experts. Now liturgy is not myth and it’s not allegory, though it may partake of aspects of both. For example, when the minister on Easter Sunday morning announces “He is risen!” as part of the liturgy, nobody supposes that he is claiming that Jesus just rose from the dead, nor does one suppose that the liturgy means that this rising occurs annually. Nobody who understands the liturgical calendar supposes that this statement is made precisely (even to the day or week) of the anniversary of what it celebrates.
Neither does Genesis 1 necessarily mean that the writer or those who used it in their liturgy actually believed that the earth was created in six literal days followed by a literal day of rest. In fact, allegorical interpretations of the seventh day come much before modern times, as, for example, in the book of Hebrews. But even earlier you get sabbatical years and cycles of seven years, all based on this same concept.
Were you to ask the Israelites just what they believed at the time when Genesis took on its current form, I would personally guess that they would believe something like a literal week “a long time ago.” (I would note that Daniel seems confused on some chronology that occurs over only a few centuries. We’re talking millenia. That probably means “ancient times.”) I also think they would be surprised at the question, simply because it didn’t occur that much in their world. My guess as to their answer is not obvious, however, it’s just my guess. They might have just looked at the questioner oddly and had him locked up as nuts!
Genesis does not answer the kind of questions we seem to want answered regarding origins, because those were not the questions that the authors wanted answered, and they wouldn’t have had a clue as to the answers even if they had asked them.
Note that I have not excluded Jason Rosenhouse’s view. Much of what he says the Biblical text doesn’t mean is quite likely correct. But looking at what it does mean is substantially more complex. Understood in its historical context I would say that the Bible provides very little comfort for any of the groups. The Biblical authors would, I think, be equally surprised by efforts of young earth creationists to lock their days and their chronology into stone, by the day-age efforts of old earth creationists, and by efforts of some Christian evolutionists to suggest that the Bible really teaches their view. It simply doesn’t tell any of these stories, or answer the questions these stories intend to answer.
I intend to continue with posts on the meaning of the phrase “word of God,” on how scriptural application is determined, and how this relates to the issue of the Bible and homosexuality as I continue.
Mark responded to my post Dealing with the Theological Implications of Evolution, and in turn poses a question to me, well summarized in the last sentence of his last paragraph:
What is the particular problem that is raised that Stegosaurus had a million or so years in the sun but now is no longer?
Which reminds me that I get in the most trouble for the things I don’t say in a post. That question needs to be put into the context of the point I was trying to address in the post. Some Christians respond to evolution by saying that it doesn’t really make any difference. Genesis tells us that God created; evolution tells us how God created.
Depending on your audience, that will mean substantially different things. In some ways I regret growing up and essentially completing my formal education as a young earth creationist. There are so many lines of inquiry I would have pursued. I don’t mean things that would have advanced knowledge generally, but that could have advanced my knowledge.
At the same time, I understand how young earth creationists think, and telling them that evolution doesn’t make any difference is quite futile. You see a substantial part of the young earth creationist background involves an understanding of the fall. I’m not saying that every young earth creationist feels this way, but I personally haven’t encountered one who doesn’t.
The fall of humanity happened at a specific historical point. There was no sin in the world before that, and there was sin afterward. The physical world suffered as a result of sin, and was, in fact, dramatically altered because physical death was introduced at that point. (Never mind how an ecology would function without death.) In the particular form in which I learned it, the deteriorating ages of the patriarchs in Genesis 5 & 11 indicates the deterioration of the very fabric of the universe, or at least of life, so that people became less and less long-lived as they separated from God.
In that context, to say that evolution makes no difference theologically is nonsense. Evolution makes all the difference in the world. If God used evolution as his tool to create the world, not only is the chronology different, but the connection between sin and physical death is broken. There might be some deterioration of the world after sin, though no evidence of this is available, but the direct connection cannot exist.
For people who hold the young earth creationist viewpoint, at least in the form I grew up with, evolution is a devastating blow to all they hold dear. If the fall did not cause deterioration, then how can redemption cause recreation? Remember here that they believe this does involve the physical world, all of creation (Romans 8:22). Everything from God’s personal care of everyone, to redemption, and finally to the life hereafter and the new creation falls under their system if evolution is true. The theological impact is massive.
I would add a side note on the “gap theory” or “ruin and restoration creationism” which holds that the earth is very old, the same age as that held by mainstream science and by old earth creationists, yet that sin was brought to earth before the creation that occurred in Genesis 1. In their view sin caused death, but did so before Adam was created. Adam then participated in that death at the fall. For them successive extinction events can become successive acts of destruction by God intended to wipe out or punish evil. Evolution is still devastating to their theology and they would reject it vigorously.
One other odd view is Bill Dembski’s view that death was introduced prospectively, i.e. God knew that evil would occur and dealt with it before the fact. Adam was thus responsible, even though he sinned much later. I blogged about it a bit here, and Dembski’s article can be found here. (Note that he has revised this several times, so quotes from it in any earlier articles may be wrong. I’ve tried to note the date, but I think I forgot a few times. I always used the version that was online as of the date I posted.)
Old earth creationists and theistic evolutionists are in essentially the same place on this. Death must be seen as a natural part of the way the universe is designed, and death becomes God’s tool. I would say that the issue is even harder for old earth creationists. Let me digress for a moment to explain why.
I’m not much impressed with the common argument that God didn’t create evil; God created Satan, who then rebelled. In other words, I don’t feel the separation between God taking action directly, God creating someone who has the option to take an action, or God creating a process that has that same effect. If God created Satan knowing he would do evil (a requirement if one accepts foreknowledge, which in the traditional sense I do not), then God is equally responsible. If God creates a world in which the holocaust can occur, he can’t evade responsibility. In scripture, I don’t see any great effort to avoid God’s responsibility for whatever happened. That seems to be mostly a later effort.
Let me illustrate. Supposing I have responsibility for a group of children, and I let them loose in a room full of valuable but fragile items. I don’t set any parameters, but simply tell them to play and then I run off. I don’t come back, observe, and most importantly intervene when their play gets lively and the valuable items are broken.
If the owner of the valuables comes to me and charges me with responsible, will he except the excuse that the children did it? I suspect not. I put the children there. I didn’t instruct them properly. I didn’t monitor them, and I didn’t intervene to stop them. I think most people would regard me as responsible for the breakage.
In the same way I regard God as responsible for the universe. I think I have warrant to believe that God regards God as responsible for the universe.
But the fact is that in my experience most people do not agree with me with regard to God. They do find “the devil did it” to exonerate God in some sense. In that context, I think the old earth creationists have a bit of a problem. As a theistic evolutionist I believe that God so ordered the universe that there would be processes that would bring about life and allow it to diversify. I must accept that God is thereby responsible for such things as scarcity of resources; no diversification would occur if there was no selective survival.
The old earth creationist, it seems to me, must see God as creating an incomplete process. Variation and natural selections works some, but appears to be defective. Thus God allows the process to work and then steps in and creates greater variations from time to time. So God is not merely using a tool that is part of the fabric of the universe; he is also getting involved on a day to day (or more likely age to age or period to period basis. I think if they were consistent the same people who accept a devil based theodicy should regard this as God with dirty hands.
I must restate, however, that I think theistic evolutions and old earth creationists are in the same boat on this one, and that evolution does not make a theological difference on this one point. But that is only true between old earth creationists and theistic evolutionists. Young earth creationists or ruin and restoration creationists would see it somewhat differently.
I found these 10 ways rather amusing (part 1, part 2, part 3. Perhaps we should all take advice from the opposition and say just the things they’d like us to say. Here’s my response, briefer than my usual!
- Well, if ID advocates would just define an actual theory and quit trying to disguise the religious intent, perhaps people’s perception of your work would match yours. I’m not required to be deceived, however, and thus I represent it as I see it rather than as you would like me to see it.
- It is stealth creationism. It’s religiously driven. ID advocates must be delusional if they think their activities would be driven by scientific concerns. It’s that large body of creationists out there that keep ID going. Just look at the efforts to market “Expelled!” to churchgoers–an open admission of the religious nature of the controversy if I ever saw one.
- “Science in the gaps” is almost cute, but unfortunately completely lacks validity. You see, the “God of the gaps” is constantly receding, while science keeps advancing. The fact that we find ever more complex stuff and then come to understand it is a positive thing about the power of scientific investigation. You’ll have a parallel when you find science retreating and God filling in the space. It’s not going to happen. In reality God is never retreating. He’s unthreatened by natural explanations and science will continue to grow. There’s always going to be something more, at least “always” from a limited human perspective.
- Produce some science and scientists will publish it. Until then, quit complaining! Oh, and by the way, it’s not science because–wait for it–it’s not science–not because it isn’t published in peer-reviewed science journals.
- Sexual selection is a topic of controversy in evolution. Why not provide some scientific discussion if you think that helps ID. The reason ID advocates won’t do that is that if you adjust the factors a bit you’ll still have evolution.
- Learn how words are defined and used in different contexts. In other words, instead of trying to plug your idea of design into a scientific discussion, use the author’s definition.
- I’m not an atheist. But I neither want to regulate who gets to be vocal, nor do I want to. If you’re not sufficiently perceptive to hear the many religious voices in favor of the theory of evolution, such as Francis Collins, John Haught, Richard Colling, Kenneth Miller, and many others, perhaps you have a discernment problem.
- Where you divide the questions is an interesting point. Richard Colling, in his book Random Designer, deals quite directly with origin of life issues, but the fact is that they are logically somewhat different. Common descent, an old earth, and the mechanism of variation+natural selection are not dependent on explaining the origin of life. The reason creationists want to combine them is that common descent has been largely explained in broad terms, while the origin of life has not. Combining them makes a better target. Scientists, on the other hand, have to investigate the topics, and the different states of the science suggest they need to be looked at separately.
- Pot, kettle, black. Oh, and many creationists are liars, especially young earth creationists. That’s not an argument against creationism, but it sure does complicate things. It’s annoying having to hunt for the honest creationist so you can argue with him.
- You started by accusing us of attacking a strawman, then you end with a strawman yourself.
My suggestion to other defenders of evolutionary theory: Don’t take Joe Carter’s advice.
. . . or not, as the case may be.
Almost two years ago I wrote about my difficulties with the term theistic evolutionist. (I dealt with these definitions more recently here.) My problem was, and is, that the theory of evolution I accept is not different from that accepted by non-theistic evolutionists. The theory of evolution explains a variety of natural processes and brings them together in a theoretical framework. My theism doesn’t alter anything there.
Today Ed Brayton has elevated a discussion between himself and commenter King of Ireland about this issue to a full post. In his case it’s kind of the opposing sphere, and the question is whether it’s right to lump together a large group of people from intelligent design (ID) advocates to young earth creationists and call them all “creationists.” Would it be useful to add those who believe in guided evolution into the same crowd?
Let’s look at this just a bit. Evolution involves a group of concepts. I’m going to list them in the order of how thoroughly established they are. Understand that I regard all of these elements as well established; I require them in an order to deal with division of the creationists below.
- The earth is old, about 4.5 billion years old, in fact
- All life on earth is related (common descent)
- The relatedness of all life can be substantially explained by variation and natural selection
I call anyone who accepts all these points an evolutionist. I don’t like the “ist,” but “someone who accepts the theory of evolution” gets clumsy after a few repetitions. There are a couple of variants that should be mentioned.
First, there is the notion of guided evolution. There is an important divide here between those who think guidance can be detected, and those who do not. The latter are still generally evolutionists, and could carry out research within the theory. Guided evolution in that sense is a philosophical view, not a scientific one as I see it. Those who believe that the guided evolution is detectable, on the other hand, step outside the theory of evolution, and should be expected to provide hypotheses and test them.
Second, there is that group of people who expect natural causes to explain everything, but don’t think the current explanations are sufficient. They might, for example, assume that life came here from outer space, but believe it formed elsewhere under unknown conditions. Aside from noting that the actual origin of life is not part of the theory of evolution, while this is a bit perverse, it is nonetheless a natural type of explanation. Lacking evidence for or against, it is simply speculation. Again, the proponents need to get down to the hard science.
Now for creationists. There are several key breaking points, which I list below in less logical order:
- The Bible provides accurate scientific information
- The earth is young, 6,000 to 10,000 years old (young earth creationists who deny the great age of the earth)
- There is a substantial barrier to variation so that new “kinds” cannot be produced (generally old earth creationists, though the point is applicable to all)
- God has intervened repeatedly in the history of life to produce new kinds, and this interference can be detected, or at least the need for it can be demonstrated. (I regard “it might be a space alien” as just a silly attempt to distract us from the religious nature of the claim.)
Are there substantial differences between these views? Absolutely. The fourth option does not require one to accept that the Bible conveys accurate scientific information, nor does it expect one to deny the overwhelming evidence of the age of the earth. One might argue that it doesn’t even require one to deny common descent, as claimed by Michael Behe.
So is it fair to group these people together as “creationists” and to exclude the people I described as evolutionists from the camp, even though they might believe in God as ultimate creator?
There is, in fact, one huge common denominator between all of the groups of creationists: They believe that God has intervenes in the world on an ongoing basis in a way that can be detected. Generally this takes the form of claiming that certain levels of changes in organisms cannot be explained through natural means, thus requiring intervention of the intelligent designer. I’d be unsurprised if someone came by to tell me yet again that this designer need not be God, but I find that explanation so contrived that it’s hard to imagine it is being seriously presented.
The ID proponents themselves, however, have contributed to this lumping, even though they regularly complain about it. In creating a big tent, they have brought young earth creationists, old earth creationists, and guided evolutionists into the same big tent. Then they complain if they are all called by the same label. The odd thing is that ID is a proposition that can sound good to people with such a wide variety of viewpoints. The sneaky part of it is that it manages this by failing to propose anything very substantial.
Consider the vast differences there would be in nature if there had been a world wide flood. I can’t see how you get believers in a world wide flood under the same tent as those who propose a more local event. Actually covering the entire planet with water would leave such an indelible mark that it would be unmistakable, and no explanation of the geological record that didn’t take it into account would get anywhere. Yet supposedly both work together under ID.
Someone might say that I have been terribly unfair, because ID says nothing related to a global flood. ID could be true, whether or not such a thing happened. And certainly ID would be true in all cases. That’s how in combines Michael Behe on the one hand and someone like Paul Nelson on the other. It doesn’t say very much.
But what it does say is very, very powerful–to the creationist mind. It provides the one single thing that all these views have in common: God intervened repeatedly in the history of life in the world.
All varieties of creationist agree that natural processes, whether or not one postulates they were created by God, are insufficient to explain the diversification of life on earth. ID is not merely creationism; it is distilled, bottled, and aged creationism.
Based on this I believe it is entirely fair to refer to this entire group as creationists. They may distance themselves from one another, and it is also good to distinguish them from one another when that is signification, young earth, old earth, believer in a universal flood, and so forth.
ID is the essence of creationism. It is creationism. It’s proponents have been careful to gather the widest variety of creationists possible under their umbrella. All we are doing in calling them creationists is going with what they, themselves have done. They’d prefer we didn’t, and that should tell us something as well. What sort of people like to disguise their identities?
According to an e-mail received by the Rev. John Shuck, he is. And what is the great sin for which he may already be damned? He has signed the Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science. Thus, according to the letter, he is teaching a “damning doctrine,” and may actually be reprobate. On the off-chance he’s not, the writer does pray that God will grant him repentance.
Now I have to just take a short side trip through the joys of soteriology, particularly views of the atonement and justification. Apparently, according to some, while you are justified by faith, apart from works, and you cannot earn your salvation through any good works, you can quite easily be damned by misunderstanding obscure points of doctrine. Apparently God’s grace is sufficient to cover murder, for example, but balks at failure to comprehend the true nature of the fall. This “salvation by correct doctrine” seems to me to me a new and damnable (gotta love that word!) form of salvation by works, only now the works are intellectual rather than spiritual. Pity the poor person who simply can’t work his mind around the precise doctrinal definitions required before one can receive God’s grace.
In any case, there is one other thing on which I wanted to comment. Rev. Shuck sees here an indication of the reason some people are so fiercely determined to make us accept Genesis literally as some kind of literal history of the cosmos. It’s because death, according to this view, must result from sin, so how could you have evolution before human sin? After all, it’s survival of the fittest, meaning some die, and that’s anathema (another word I can’t resist after reading the letter) to some Christians.
But here is where many Christians need to pay close attention. There is, in fact, only one of the many interpretations of Genesis that has a perfect world, into which physical death of all types is introduced by sin–young earth creationism. Other very common Christian interpretations, even among evangelicals, allow physical death before the fall. They have to. Where, for example, could an old earth creationist imagine fossils to come from? Old earth creationists aren’t that stupid–they believe that living creatures died before the fall. Many of them, by the simple expedient of thinking “spiritual/eternal” when they read of the death that followed sin, don’t have any problem with the fall at all.
Unfortunately many Christians who hold these various views other than young earth creationism are not aware of the various interpretations, and aren’t aware that young earth creationists aren’t arguing their view–that God is simply the creator, however he worked–but rather are arguing for a 6,000 year old earth, and some incomprehensible variety of ecology in which no living thing died. There’s a mental experiment for you. Design an ecology in which every living creature continues to live forever, and yet reproduces.
I suspect that the problem of the atonement does drive a great deal of creationism, and the entire debate would probably become a bit less contentious if the young earth crowd was not involved. Nonetheless it is interesting to see such obscure points of doctrine create such heat.
I’m not generally presuppositionalist myself, but this post in an interesting discussion on young earth creationism is part of an interesting discussion. Check it out.
The debate about labels is one of the most interesting aspects of the creation-evolution controversy to me, and at the same time one of the most frustrating. Since my primary training is in Biblical languages, and by my own efforts in linguistics, the way words are used simply fascinates me.
There is plenty of influence of the PR efforts, particularly those made on the intelligent design side, but also by those of folks in mainstream science. I’m not writing to complain about this. I think it is a natural thing for those who think they are advocating a true or valid position to try to label themselves and the issues in the most favorable fashion. Often this will seem to them as the most accurate labeling as well. After all, they are presenting a “true” position!
My attention was brought back to this topic a couple of days ago when I read this entry on the Panda’s Thumb which shows that [tag]Bill Dembski[/tag] rejects common descent. I then looked around for some evidence, because I thought I remembered that [tag]Michael Behe[/tag] accepts common descent. And sure enough I found it on Telic Thoughts in an article complaining about the use of terminology:
In reality, it is more accurate to label Behe a theistic evolutionist, as this label would accurately communicate that a) Behe is an evolutionist and b) believes God was involved in the process of evolution. And in fact, this is how most people interpret theistic evolution, as some sort of God-guided process. How most people interpret a label is the most important point.