Reflections on the 2013 PCA General Assembly and the Age of the Earth

Dr. Jason Lisle of the Institute of Creation Research (ICR) presented a seminar entitled “Astronomy Reveals Creation” at this year’s PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) General Assembly which took place  two weeks ago.  Some billed this as the young-earth follow-up to a seminar given at last year’s PCA GA by Dr. Greg Davidson who presented evidence supportive of an ancient earth.   I was able to attend last year’s seminar and shared some of my reactions (Reflections on the PCA GA and the Age of the Earth Seminar).  This year I was unable to attend but I did purchase a recording of Lisle’s presentation and wish to reflect on it here.  I will begin with some thoughts on the state of creationism in the PCA and then move on to summarize and reflect on Dr. Lisle’s seminar.

Reflection on the Age of the Earth Discussion in the PCA

Last year I noted that there was a large interest in the seminar given by geologist Dr. Greg Davidson, a member of the PCA, who spoke of the evidence in support of an old earth.   My sense, being there, was that the talk was generally well received and enjoyed the support of probably a majority of the audience. I was not at this year’s talk personally and so I don’t have a feel for how it was received but it is likely that there were probably a similar number in the audience and that the majority would be sympathetic to a young earth interpretation of Scripture.  The PCA is clearly divided on this issue.  As a member of the PCA myself, I have talked to pastors and elders in the PCA, attended talks and conferences on the age of the earth, and followed and participated in many discussions on blogs and newsgroups for many years.  My semi-educated guess is that there is a fairly even split between committed young earth and old earth proponents in the PCA.   Now that doesn’t mean the PCA is split 50-50 on the issue.  What I mean is that there is a strong core of committed young-earth-only proponents and a similar core of those convinced that the Bible does not speak to the age of the earth and accept the consensus of science supports an old earth.  But these core constituencies, collectively, may only represent 20 to 40% of the leadership of the PCA.  The remaining 60 to 80% are undecided, noncommittal or at least non-vocal on this issue for a variety of reasons and where they fall on the creationism landscape of positions is much harder to gauge.  To illustrate I have divided up possible creation positions among pastors in the PCA  into five very rough categories. 

1)      Committed to a young earth interpretation as the best and very likely the only interpretation of Scripture. They are vocal in their church on these issues and promote YEC materials.

2)      Committed to a young earth interpretation, support it in the church but are not vocal because they acknowledge there can be valid alternative views or they feel ill-equipped to enter the creation debate.

3)      Accept young earth creationism as their default position but have real doubts because they find that there is either, or both, physical and Scripture evidence to support an old earth view. They don’t push YEC in their church but neither would they speak actively against it.  If confronted on the topic they would say they lean young earth.

4)      Generally accept an old age of the earth and have serious reservations about the young earth interpretation but are not vocal either 1) because they struggle with some of the implications of an old earth on other doctrines and/or 2) they serve in a church with a strong creation science engrained congregation and find it easier/safer to simply not take sides.

5)      Accept the physical age of the earth is very old and are convinced of interpretations of the text that support this conclusion.  They generally believe that the creation science is detrimental to the church and actively support interpretations of the text and Scriptures that are not in conflict with evidence for an old earth.

These categories are very crude of course and many will not find themselves in any of them but I hope it captures some sense of where many pastors are right now.  Categories 1 and 5 are the vocal minorities that set the tenor of the debate in the PCA.  As I said before my best guess is that this represents only 20 to 40% of the PCA. The other 60 to 80% have mixed feelings and many pressures on them to support one position or the other. My semi-informed opinion is that there are a very large number of pastors, possibly a majority of the PCA, that find themselves in categories #3 and #4. They may not be able to fully articulate a Biblical theology that allows for an old earth but they also understand that the young earth position is untenable scientifically and is theologically unsound.  I expect that this majority will remain on the sidelines for some time as they are probably not strongly convicted of a position and for many the political and personal cost of becoming vocal is too great.

Reflections o Dr. Lisle’s seminar “Astronomy Reveals Creation”

Dr, Jason Lisle, researcher and speaker for the Institute of Creation Research

Dr, Jason Lisle, researcher and speaker for the Institute of Creation Research

After listening to Lisle I have to say he is a very polished young earth creationist (YEC) speaker. His presentation was easy to follow, I am sure it was full of spectacular images and I can certainly understand why he is so persuasive to so many people.  He isn’t as patronizing as Ken Ham can be and keeps things lively with witty comments.  In addition, his calm demeanor helps him come across as sincere and knowledgeable.  I was surprised that he presented what seems to be his standard creation-conference talk to an audience of nearly all elders and pastors of a conservative denomination.

Dr. Lisle’s talk consisted of four roughly equal parts (10-15 minutes each) which I will call:  1) the wonders of the universe, 2) the Bible got it right on cosmology, 3) the universe attests to its youth and 4) Lisle tries to solve the starlight problem.   I will provide a brief summary of each of the parts of his presentation with some observations.

Part I:  The wonders of the universe.  Dr. Lisle began his talk by taking his audience on a tour of the universe.  He showed them the amazing size and beauty of the universe. He said that all these things attest to the glory of God.  Although he implies that only Christians of a young earth persuasion can appreciate this point, I heard nothing here that any Christian, including myself, with any view of the age of the Earth could, and should, not readily affirm.  The universe is a magnificent testimony to the glory of God!

Part II:  The Bible got it right on cosmology.  Here Lisle developed one of his main points which was: where the Bible speaks about Astronomy it does so truthfully and accurately.  He contrasted this with those who believe that the Bible is inaccurate or wrong about many scientific facts.  He then proceeded to show that while many may have believed in the past the Bible was wrong we now know it was perfectly right. He presented several rather curious, though common among creation scientists, examples.

The earth is a sphere.  First, he claimed the Bible clearly claims that the Earth is a sphere.  Lisle pointed out that this would have seemed crazy in Biblical times because this wasn’t the current worldview but now modern science has proven the Bible is correct.  He pointed to Job 26:10 (“He has inscribed a circle on the face of the waters at the boundary between light and darkness” ESV) and Isaiah 40:22 as clear evidence that the Biblical authors knew the earth was a sphere well before we finally discovered it was a sphere for ourselves.

The Bible teaches the Earth is a globe unsupported in space.  His second example came from Job 26:7  (“He stretches out the north over the void and hangs the earth on nothing” ESV) to show that the Earth is hanging in outer space just as science has proven today But what about Job 9:6 “He shakes the earth from its place and makes its pillars tremble”?  Or what about I Samuel 2:8 “The pillars of the earth are the Lord’s and he hath set the world upon them”?  These verses appear to be the Biblical author’s attempts to understand the literal nature of earthquakes.  However, if we are to take the verse that speaks of hanging on nothing as a statement of scientific fact by what hermeneutic rules may we turn around and interpret these verses that speak of pillars holding up the earth  solely metaphorical?  And what does it mean that the world hangs on nothing anyway? If Lisle wants this verse to be literally true what are we to make of gravity that does hold the Earth in orbit about the Sun? Is gravity nothing? If we find that gravity is a something does this then disprove the Bible, I don’t think so but using Lisle’s hermaneutic it may.

The Bible teaches the expansion of the universe.  Thirdly, Lisle appealed to multiple verses such as Job 9:8; Psalm 104:2; Isaiah 40:22, 42:5, 44:24, that refer to God having stretched out the heavens like a garment or tent. Lisle again suggested that past people have scoffed at the Bible for claiming the heavens were being stretched out but astronomy now has proven that the universe is expanding thus proving the author of these verses was correct.

But doesn’t the fact that it is expanding suggest that at one time everything came from a single point and therefore support a big bang?   Lisle responds to this concern by saying that some in his audience are growing bigger today but that doesn’t mean they came from a big bang. I don’t know how that really addressed the problem since each of us came from a single cell and has grown to the point we are today.  Nonetheless, I think his point was that God could start from some starting universe and then stretch it out from there.   But is this really the meaning of these verses? Is the author’s original intent to speak to the nature of the physical creation of the fabric of the cosmos here? I think not and I can’t find any theologians (Dr. Henry Morris doesn’t count in my mind) who think so either.  It feels like Lisle has erected another false test of Biblical accuracy.

The Bible predicts billions of stars not seen before the telescope.  Lastly, Lisle appealed to Abraham being told his descendants would be as uncountable as the stars as further evidence of the Biblical author’s knowledge beyond his day. He suggests that the ancients might have found it hard to believe that Abraham’s descendants would be an uncountable number because the ancients would have only been able to see a few thousand stars thus they would have appeared to have been countable (Lisle states: “a big number, but countable”) at the time of Abraham.   Now that we have telescopes we find that even we can’t count them all.   He confirms  the usual interpretation that the sands of grain and the stars of the sky are a metaphor for some very large number but proceeds then to imply that Abraham and others of his time might have found it hard to get the message since the stars seemed countable at the time.  I had to listen to this part multiple times because I found this to be an astonishing claim giving that Lisle is an astronomer.  Only someone living in a modern city would claim that only thousands of stars are visible to the naked eye.  Any dark night like the people of Israel would have experienced all the time would have reveled hundreds of thousands of stars.  Clearly, the original audience to which the author is speaking would have understood this to mean uncountable and would have believed the night sky confirmed that understanding.  We don’t need modern astronomy to prove the Biblical author was right!  Modern astronomy can bring us a greater appreciation for just how immense God’s creation is but it does nothing to help us understand the meaning of this passage nor would it have made any difference to the original audience.

What all of Lisle’s observations have in common is that they presuppose the authors of the Bible were privy to scientific information not available or known to the immediate audience that the author was addressing. In effect, he is saying that there is a form of Bible code which we are just now beginning to unravel providing new evidence that the Bible was predicting future scientific discoveries.  I wonder if Lisle thinks that there might be more scientific mysteries embedded in the Bible that God does not intend man to discover for another hundred or thousand years?   Should we be searching the Bible for hidden new scientific discoveries yet to be made?

I would be surprised if the pastors and elders in the room did not find this particular part of the talk particularly persuasive as the hermeneutical methods applied here were very shaky.  All of the examples I listed above are rather novel interpretations of those texts, though not among YEC apologists.  There have been a few people in history that have interpreted some of these verses as literally as Lisle seems to want to, but the weight of historical interpretation has seen these verses as being phenomenological or metaphorical and therefore not something for which science should have ever been a challenge to Biblical accuracy.  In the interest of keeping this review from becoming too bloated I would just refer you to one of many possible articles that critique this idea that the Biblical authors were revealing special scientific knowledge that we are only now realizing was correct. The following looks at the example of the earth being hung on nothing and as a sphere for example. Does the Bible Teach a Spherical Earth?  2001 PSCF 53: 159-169.

Throughout his talk, Lisle repeats the refrain that we have not learned the lesson of history, the experts of the day are wrong and the Bible has always been right even when it may have sounded wrong to its original audience.  But did anyone really ever have to believe the Bible was wrong even when it was thought the universe was not expanding if the Bible was not making a scientific statement about the expansion of the fabric of space?  Likewise, I would say that the Bible is not making any claim about what physically holds up a spherical globe in space when it speaks of it being hung on nothing and so there never was a conflict with science no matter what science says yesterday, today or in the future about how the Earth is supported in space .

Part III. The universe attests to the youth of the earth.  In the third part of his seminar Lisle presented several evidences from cosmology that he stated strongly support a young earth and universe.  He began by pointing out that the Earth is older than most of the universe since the stars (including the planets, sun and moon) were created on the fourth day and thus are three days younger than the earth (some giggles from the audience to this point). There was nothing new here to anyone who has followed YEC literature for the past 20 years.  All of the evidences he lists are ones that have been raised and strongly criticized by both secular and Christian scientists for many years. These include: excess heat in large planets, earth’s waning magnetic field, short life-span comets, spiral galaxies should be more twisted up, and finally the perfect conditions for life on earth compared to all other places in the solar system and presumably the universe.

A quick search will yield numerous obvious problems with each of these evidences of a young solar system.  I don’t think it is worth spending time on a detailed response when there are hundreds of responses to these claims by more qualified Christian scientists than I, but I would just say that the first evidence he reviewed  really stunned me. Lisle stated that several planets are losing more energy than they are receiving from the Sun each day.  As a result, he argued that if the solar system were billions of years old these planets should be completely frozen and yet many still have warm interiors.  He gave the analogy of taking a hot potato out of the oven and setting it on the counter. Eventually it would radiate out the heat that was contained in its interior and while planets are larger they also would lose their heat within just a few million years not billions of years.  Lisle said this is a huge problem for secular science because they have no answers  but it is perfectly consistent with the Bible and so the solar system is young (well, at least younger than astronomers believe since this cooling process would take a maximum of 100 million years).  I expect this may have sounded like a very good argument to many in the audience but I would hope some were as flabbergasted as I am now.  How can a PhD astronomer possibly suggest that this is a strong argument for a young solar system?  I am sure that Lisle has heard of radioactive decay.  He also should know that chemicals under pressure at the center of large planets can do chemical reactions that release heat.  What about tidal motion or bombardment by asteroids which both produce heat which then would be lost from the system.   How about just the fact that planets like Jupiter are just plain massive (they are very very large hot potatoes) and would still be losing their initial heat from their formation even after billions of years without the aid of any other heat source.   These are just a few obvious hypotheses that would explain the excess heat release by these planets.  For Lisle to act as if there is no known cause and assume that the planets must ONLY be receiving energy from the sun and thus imply the energy balance should be neutral is just hard to believe is only honest ignorance. (NOTE: Originally I had written about radioactivity and the Earth here but a helpful response was made in the comment section which made me realize that the radioactivity isn’t as an important heat source for the gas planets as I had suggested. However, as the commenter notes, Lisle has just plain failed to do the simple calculations that would help him realize that the heat loss is neither a puzzle or a problem for old solar system but perfectly consistent with it.)

Part IV. Lisle attempts to explain the starlight problem.  Lisle wrapped up his talk with an 18 minute discussion of the starlight problem. If you don’t know, the starlight problem involves explaining how light could reach across 100s of millions of light years if it was created just 6000 years ago.  He admitted that there have been many hypotheses including it being created with appearance of age, time dilation and others but that none of them have really been very satisfactory.  He then launched into a long description of his own solution called the anisotropic synchrony convention. Although I get the general gist of it and I find the properties of light fascinating myself and so enjoyed this part of the talk, I am not sure that many in the audience will have appreciated what he was saying.  Really, I am a bit perplexed that he would use a full 1/3 of his allotted time getting so technical and not really providing anything but a far-fetched hypothesis that has been roundly criticized by Christians and secular scientists and that he himself admitted is not testable.  I got the feeling that he was using this time to be seen as a serious scientist so as to lend more credibility to the rest of his talk.  However, he would have been better served using that time addressing issues that the audience would have been more interested in.

Final Thoughts

Lisle is right that the Bible does get the Glory of God right, that all that it says about astronomy is correct, that what it says about the earth is correct. The problem is that Lisle seems to require the Bible to say more about the latter things than the Bible is actually saying.  He ends by stating that there are “people that are right now on the way to hell because they are convinced that the Bible has been disproved scientifically.”  Unfortunately, Lisle and other YECs present an interpretation of the Bible that requires it to speak precisely about science in many places where that was not the intent of the author. By doing so they have created a false test of the Bible’s faithfulness. Is it so surprising then that many believe that the Bible has been disproved? I readily confirm that the Bible is true and accurate about everything  which it speaks to and do not feel that the Bible has been scientifically dis-proven in any way but my views on the age of the Universe are very different from what Jason Lisle believes they must be.

Comments

  1. No doubt the young earth creationists within PCA believe int he separate creation of different kinds (and, while we are at it, whales a day before land mammals). Where do the rest of the PCA stand on this?

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    • Hi Paul, thanks for your question. That is a considerably more difficult thing to get a handle on. Certainly the PCA contains a mixture of nearly all forms of creationism from strict 6-day creation with limited diversification of kinds to 6-day creationists who accept vast amounts of super-fast evolution (I’ve even heard of some that will go as far as to say that whales could have diversified from a common animal that was on the ark). There are progressive creationists and/or ID proponents and a number of evolutionary creationists who would accept continuity between kinds although usually not humans from primates. I would expect that most of what I am calling the quiet majority in the PCA would lean toward some form of progressive creationism (Hugh Ross) and forms of intelligent design with the minority being evolutionary creationists and the man variations found therein. Among 6-day leaning creationists I think most are not aware of what is happening in creation science in the field of baraminology. They probably would support something like all dogs (wolves, coyotes, foxes etc..) all descending from a common ancestral pair on the ark but I doubt that many will have thought about the ramifications of this for genetics and their particular views of human origins. Joel

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      • Tony Jiang "Kyonsenkoku" says:

        “I’ve even heard of some that will go as far as to say that whales could have diversified from a common animal that was on the ark”
        but isnt that a type of super-duper evolution? i mean whats the point of believing in creation if you believe in things like that

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  2. Thanks, Joel. To anyone who accepts the standard scientific account, all of this will seem quite idiotic. And yet nothing is achieved by telling the people you need to convince that they are idiots.

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  3. Jeff D. says:

    I’m not so sure Dr. Lisle knew he was responding to last year’s presentation, as you suggest he was doing. I’m would assume they had Jason there to present an alternative, but not necessarily as a response. If you have any proof of this, I’d be interested in hearing it.

    Blessings,
    Jeff

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    • Hi Jeff, Good question, I think you could be right in saying that this wasn’t a formal response. I didn’t at all expect a rebuttal type talk to Davidsons but just a young earth perspective which is what was presented. I think I will change the first sentence of my post to reflect this. I would say that last year there were many commissioners that made it clear that they would be sure there was a creationists response (we could call it presence but that wasn’t the word they used) the next year and I assume (but don’t have direct knowledge of those invitations) that ICR and AIG were encouraged to send a representative this year. Over on the A Daughter of the Reformation blog this talk was promoted as the young earth perspective following last year’s old earth perspective. It could be that Lisle didn’t know about last years presentation but it would be unreasonable to think that he didn’t do any homework about the audience he was going to present to and there was much written about lasts years talk that he could have accessed including the talk itself. Joel

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  4. Those who are not vocal or who are undecided might not find either of these approaches convincing. These folks might consider an anthropological approach to Genesis. Until we understand the worldview of the people from whom this material was received, we will continue to stumble over it.

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  5. Thank you for this very helpful review. I am an RE in the PCA, and also a professional planetary astronomer. I was very concerned to see that Lisle was presenting at GA, and was very glad to get your perspective.

    For the sake of accuracy, your response to the “excess heat in planets” would have been correct if it were talking about the Earth. Earth is a rocky planet, and elements that produce significant radioactive heat are naturally concentrated in rock, and Earth’s measured heat flow is indeed largely due to radioactivity.

    However, in the case of Jupiter, that a PhD astronomer would repeat this claim is even more embarrassing than you think. Jupiter is 1000 times more massive than the Earth, and thus the heat left over from its formation is much greater. Given the rate at which it has been measured to be losing heat (which is slow because Jupiter is so large, and its outer layers act as a blanket), Jupiter’s heat budget is entirely consistent with an age of 4.5 Gyr.

    So if Lisle used Jupiter as an example (and I infer he did because you mentioned Jupiter), then he simply hasn’t done the calculation, and that’s just inexcusable.

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    • Hi Matthew, thank you so much for your comments. I am so glad you wrote to correct me on this. I went back and he did mention Jupiter and Neptune as at least two of the planets with a problem. Since I am unsure what other planets he might be referring to and because my comments clearly do not apply to Jupiter I have removed that portion of my comments and inserted a note about the change. Again, I really appreciate you taking the time to clarify this for us. Joel

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  6. Rodney Whitefield says:

    KJV Deuteronomy 1:10 The LORD your God hath multiplied you, and, behold, ye are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude.

    KJV Deuteronomy 10:22 Thy fathers went down into Egypt with threescore and ten persons; and now the LORD thy God hath made thee as the stars of heaven for multitude.

    KJV Deuteronomy 28:62 And ye shall be left few in number, whereas ye were as the stars of heaven for multitude; because thou wouldest not obey the voice of the LORD thy God.

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