Evangelical Christianity, broadly defined, has seen a number of science and faith battles over the past 50 years. For most of those years the debate has focused on the age of the earth and the closely – though not universally – associated debate about the extent of Noah’s Flood. Today, the age of the Earth test of orthodoxy has broken down in most denominations including even some reformed ones, with many prominent and respected leaders of conservative evangelical Christian churches, seminaries, organizations having identified themselves as accepting age-indeterminate positions. While the age of the Earth still remains a hotly debated topic in some circles, many evangelicals have turned their attention to the challenges of evolutionary theory. A number of approaches to understanding the origins of life and its diversity have been proposed including; Young Earth Creationism (Young Life Creationism), Progressive Creationism (Old Earth Creationism), Intelligent Design, Evolutionary Creation, and Theistic Evolution.
Below, I reflect on some of the recent trends in the church’s views of origins with an emphasis on those of the reformed tradition as the context for most of my comments.
A New Litmus Test of Orthodoxy?
If the age of the Earth is no longer the clear litmus test* of an orthodox reformed theology, then is there another litmus test that has taken its place? A case could now be made that for many scholars and pastors in conservative or confessional evangelical denominations the new test of orthodoxy has become the historical Adam.
Open conversation among conservative evangelical scholars about the historicity of Adam in the context of an ancient Earth would have been nearly impossible 20 years ago and maybe even as little as 5 years ago. As long as the young earth position maintained prominence and was not met with strong resistance the litmus test of orthodoxy was the age of the earth. Subjects involving explicit or implicit reference to great age of the earth such as death before the fall or origins of diversity of life via evolutionary processes, animal ancestry of Adam or even a historical Adam situation prior to 10,000 years before present, could not be discussed.
With a young Earth now moved partially to the sidelines, a new line in the sand must be drawn. Cross over this new line and risk the brand of heretic or at least heterodoxy. But just how clear is this line? If this is to be a real test of orthodoxy that line must be defined. Hence the heated discussion about the historicity of Adam that has erupted in the past three years including this year’s Evangelical Theological Society Meeting (see Part I for a review of the session related to origins questions).
That the historicity of Adam is the new litmus test of orthodoxy and that this is where the debate battle lines are drawn can be seen in the spate of new books on Adam that have been released in just the past couple of years. Reading Genesis 1 and 2, An Evangelical Conversation, The Evolution of Adam (Enns), Did Adam and Eve Really Exist (Collins); Four Views on the Historical Adam; Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical and Scientific Perspectives, and the soon-to-be released The Lost World of Adam and Eve (Walton) and The Quest for the Historical Adam: Genesis, Hermeneutics, and Human Origins (VanDoodawaard). Compare this to works published by the same publishers and sometimes the same authors 10 to 15 years ago. At that time conservative evangelical scholars were more concerned with Genesis 1 (eg. The Genesis Debate and innumerable books about the age of the earth).
The old earth is out of the bag. It has escaped containment and now appears to be a permanent resident within the church with varying degrees of acceptance in different denominations. In some cases denominations have taken a stance of having no position on the age of the earth (see links in Part I). Others have explicitly made room for age-indeterminate views. There still remain a few small reformed denominations that require adherence among their clergy to a strict young-earth interpretation of Genesis 1.
Some will see the rise of this age of the Earth ambivalence, if not hostility toward a young earth, as a virus in the church that is reaching epidemic levels in some denominations. In response some denominations have attempted to use tight containment controls to prevent its entry or at least to prevent it from spreading further. Rather than seeing old earth views as the infecting agent I would argue a better way to understand the creation debate is to see young earth creationism as the viral agent itself. It infected historical reformed denominations about 50 years ago spreading widely within the church. This virus gained entry into the body due to weaknesses in the church that had formed in the early 1900s. For a review of the conditions in the church that allowed the particular form of creation science to enter into the reformed church in particular please read The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll.
Reformed theologians of the 1800s who were not young earth creationists had paved the way for a fruitful and robust understanding of the relationship of science and scripture but much of that understanding was lost in the church early last century. In the last 30 years scholars have recaptured much of that rich theological understanding of God’s work in nature but much of the discussion in the church is still framed around talking points that creation scientists have instilled within the clergy and the members of congregations in particular.
I’ve written about this before (The Reformed Church and YEC) but I think it is worth repeating here. I think it is clear that young earth creationism, as a scientific and theological movement driven by parachurch organizations, is not a reformed-Calvinistic Christian movement at heart. Although YEC leaders espouse an orthodox understanding inerrancy, the movement is promoted and populated primarily by non-reformed spokespersons. They have made use of some elements of the reformed literature but for the most part they do not share the traditional reformed view of the sciences and their hermeneutical and epistemological arguments are frequently quite different.
Unfortunately, I would submit that the YEC movement has usurped traditional reformed theological approached to the scientific disciplines and their literature has, for the most part, become the default understanding of science for many in the reformed church. I find it very rather disconcerting that I can walk into many PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) and OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) churches and on their book table almost all the books on all topics will have been written by those from the reformed community but along-side those books will be ones by Ken Ham and Jonathan Sarfati. Many of these books are, for the most part, devoid of theological content which is interesting in itself. How many other books that don’t discuss the Bible directly but apply scripture to how we work out a Christian worldview do we allow on our tables that aren’t written by members of the reformed community? Other books such as “Darwin’s black box” and “Darwin’s Doubt” are written by Catholics and even non-Christians. I can list many books written by reformed Christians on the topic of science and faith but can only think of a couple of books written by overtly reformed Christians that ascribe to young earth creation science and the theology behind it. And yet, non-reformed YEC literature dominates the book shelves.
What concerns me is that it appears that in the arena of science many Calvinists are more apt to trust the analysis of non-reformed Christians on matters of scientific inquiry that their reformed brothers. Most members of the reformed community that have expertise in scientific disciplines have serious concerns about the exegesis and science of the creation science community but often times have trouble finding an audience in their own churches. In fact, such scientists in our own midst are attacked with the same arguments made from outside the reformed community claiming they are serving self-interests (eg. scared of losing their jobs, scared they won’t get tenure, don’t want to lose face in the scientific community) or worse yet are wolves in sheep’s clothing and are a danger to the church.
Undoubtedly, many will be disturbed and upset by the trend away from young earth creationism in the church and will disagree with my take on it. Many church leaders will interpret the very existence of an active discussion of the historicity of Adam as evidence of the effects of a slippery slope set into motion when 24-hour young earth creationism was cast aside as the sea wall against liberalism. The fact that BioLogos and other old-earth groups could be allowed and even encouraged to be part of a conversation will prompt new calls for a reformation and renewal.
The Young-Earth Response to the Growing Old-Earth Viewpoint
Creationist’s organizations aren’t sitting still in the face of increased opposition from almost all parts of the church. They have continually called-out ETS, which represent the intellectual arm of evangelical Christianity, referring to them as compromisers numerous times. In 2010 Answers in Genesis placed flyers on all the seats in the main hall before the plenary talk urging ETS members to return to young earth interpretation of Genesis.
Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis have been ceaselessly warning lay Christians to beware the pastor with theological and academic training at the wrong institutions as they are apt to be under the influence of corrupt and compromising views. As a movement, YECs have turned more and more insular preferring to fund only their own academies and only trusting those that work at them. They publish in-house publications and less so in academic journals.
Scholars debate as a means of sharpening iron with iron whereas popularizers typically promote a single view to the exclusion of all others. Ken Ham, certainly the leading apologist for young earth creationism, does not promote either in his own organization or in the broader evangelical community open discussion of his particular viewpoint. Answers in Genesis was present at the ETS meeting in November where Dr. Terry Mortenson represented them in a session about death before the fall of Adam (see Part I). It was very clear that Mortenson has no interest in scholarly debate because, in his mind, there is nothing to debate. Along with his colleague Ken Ham, they have Cartesian certainty that they are on the side of truth and they proclaim it and do not acknowledge there could be any other valid interpretation of Genesis.
Creation Science organizations employ very few traditionally trained theologians. Combining this with young-earth leaning theologians in Old Testament theology becoming more scarce in conservative evangelical seminaries** the defense of a young earth position akin to that espoused by leading popularizers is becoming much more scarce. Ken Ham does not want dialogue. For him dialogue is tantamount to admitting the possibility that the young earth interpretation is not the only interpretation.
I think that Ham’s fears are warranted. It is becoming clear that many, if not most, conservative evangelical scholars and seminarians are critical of the particular literalistic hermeneutic of Ken Ham and other creation science leaders. In addition, 30 years of intensive scrutiny of their scientific claims by fellow Christians has increased awareness of the problems of flood geology. This transformation among conservative evangelicals is well illustrated in the article, Confessions of a Disappointed Young-Earther. Written by Dr. Ken Keathley (Professor of Theology and Director of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina) and published in the Journal of Baptist Theology and Ministry, Dr. Keathley reflects on his path from Young Earth Creationism to an age-indeterminate viewpoint.
Young Earth Creationism in the Church Today
Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly some scholars and many pastors that are members of ETS that do contend for the young earth interpretation of Genesis. There is certainly a much more substantial portion of members of ETS-associated churches that would identify themselves as supporters of the young earth worldview. My sense though is that the tide has turned amongst the scholarly arm of conservative evangelical Christianity and young earth and adherence to an old earth or age-indeterminate position, as I prefer to call it, has become more acceptable if not preferred.
It might sound like I’ve painted a rather rosy or a very frightening image depending on your perspective on the age of the Earth. But you might be saying to yourself, isn’t young earth creationism still a very commonly held viewpoint among evangelical Christians. No doubt it is and I am troubled by it as any reader of my blog will know. However, what I am highlighting here is the disjunction between the typical member in the pew in orthodox evangelical churches and the pastor/scholars/ and even official positions of denominations. Creation science is a grass-roots apologetics approach that has influenced large numbers of Christians. They dominate the home-school curriculum, produce a popular vacation Bible school curriculum and produce thousands of books that are found on the book tables in foyers of thousands of churches.
Creation science is still the face of science to a large numbers of lay Christians. As a result young earth creationists shape the thinking of the masses in some case more than pastors of local congregations or even denominations do. The grass-roots strategy of influencing the church has been very effective. It will be a long time before the average congregant realizes they are being duped by bad science and theology of creation science even when many in church leadership positions have serious reservations about YEC materials.
Pastors often have been exposed to a number of interpretations of Genesis and many realize that the YEC view is theologically unsound. But they typically aren’t equipped to defend themselves in the face of the tremendous pressure applied by creation organizations like Answers in Genesis. Pastors fear for their jobs because of the tactics that Ham has employed. Answers in Genesis wants nothing more than to have Christians apply the litmus test of the age of the Earth as the determination factor of whether a pastor is a “Christian” or a “so-called” Christian. I am part of a group, Solid Rock Lectures, that in some small way is trying to bring science education to pastors to equip them with a better understanding of how science works and how it can be used to understand God’s creation.
Overall, I am encouraged with the dialogue that has continued amongst evangelical scholars, pastors and church leaders. I am convinced that the result of that dialogue is a fuller and richer understanding of Genesis and I look forward to continued scholarship and the practical application of that work in the years to come.
Coming up… Part III: Three views on the status of Neanderthals and what it tells us about the debate over Adam, evolution and the age of the Earth.
*When I say litmus test today I don’t mean to imply that there aren’t many in the church that still consider belief in a young earth as a litmus test. I am suggesting that for many churches and denominations this is no longer a very strongly held conviction.
**There are a few seminaries that have taken on the mantle of the young earth view as a test of orthodoxy and have made it one of their distinctive characteristics. Examples would include Mid-America Reformed Seminary, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and a number of Baptists seminaries. Some seminaries have made young earth creation a distinctive part of their mission. For example here is portion of the doctrinal statement from Mid-America Reformed Seminary:
“There is no one on the Faculty at Mid-America Reformed Seminary who teaches or subscribes to the framework hypothesis. Furthermore, the Seminary Board has not hired anyone to teach who does not hold to the above position on the creation days. We hold firmly to the special creation work of God, performed in the space of six consecutive, real days.”